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
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* * * * *
It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under the hills,
And empty halls it fills.
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.20
First thing you see, first thing you feel,
It opens your eyes, makes everything real,
It comes from the stars and sneaks through the cracks,
Fills palaces, huts, and shacks.
It comes first and goes last,
Wakes you up, flies fast.
* * * * *
I glanced into the endless depth of the stone shaft. The well was at least twenty paces in diameter. It looked like the monstrous claws once scraped, dug, and tore at the rough gray surface, leaving behind terrifying scars. A strange putrid smell was coming out of the hole mixing with the bouquet of the sodden rot from the dead forest. It gave it a new acrid note, like the stench of rotten eggs.
Something snapped under the heel of my knee-high boot. I bent over to have a look at it. The black suede shoe was soft and comfortable. Nalia had sneaked the pair into my luggage after discovering that we wore about the same size. These were the most comfortable and elegant shoes I ever owned. I sighed, thinking of what the long marches through the wilderness would do to my newly acquired property, and of the vice of wealth. After all, I walked out of the Irenicus’s dungeon barefoot and never gave it a second thought. The sturdy second-hand sandals were good enough for me all the way from Athkatla.
Something was stuck in the sole of my left shoe. It was a long, needle-sharp piece of bone or chitin. I could not make it out for sure. I pulled it out - it was ice cold. It was like holding a black icicle or perhaps, a concentrated essence of darkness. It melted in my hand leaving behind a puff of black smoke.
The rabbit streaked out of the shadow and put the front paws on my knee, standing on his hind legs. His pose was speaking for itself. I picked him up from the cracked stone pavement and deposited in the hood of my mantle. Later he would go into his usual hideout inside my backpack.
"You know," Anomen said hesitantly behind my back, "you are the first person, besides my sister Moira, who does not laugh at my every mishap and does not try to lecture me at every step."
I remembered the little interlude that Nalia and I had had on his behalf guiltily, and coughed.
"It must be a difficult life to be the squire of the most Noble Order of Radiant Heart. You’ve mentioned that your father was not particularly happy with your chosen path." As soon as I said that, I wished I did not for Anomen blushed fiercely and looked extremely uncomfortable.
"It was almost impossible for me to get squired at the Order without my father’s approval and sponsorship, but lord Cor refused to support me," he said after a while. "My mother was the follower of the Watcher God, and she had connections within the Order." His voice quivered awkwardly. "So, I was allowed to enter as a novitiate to Helm and followed his path as a cleric. I was also trained as a fighter by the guardians at the temple ... That is why I am not at my best element with a sword." He shrugged.
"There was that centuries old superstition that a priest should never spill blood. As if the spiked club would not tear and rip the flesh of the enemy! Bah, the war hammer can crack even the thick skull of an orc and this thing," he patted the golden handle of his ancient flail, "is more lethal than the toy that Minsc is carrying."
I always suspected that our young cleric had a hidden inferiority complex about the big swords, though his skill with flails and maces was superb. Minsc’s talking sword was a menace, for it held the spirit of a teenage bully trapped inside it that deemed himself an intellectual. Unfortunately, it found Anomen an easy target, as almost everybody else in the party.
My companion looked at me hesitantly and continued. "When I was allowed to square they hold the ceremony for me, like they do for every new initiate…" He sounded stranded.
I looked at him briefly – his pretty face was now blotted with dark red spots of anger.
"I was so proud at the time ... not for long, though. My father showed up at the ceremony…" he flinched. "The old bastard was drunk like a fish. He started yelling at me, at the knights, at Sir Ryan, saying that the Order has no rights to rob him of his son … they had to drag him out by force at the end!" He exhaled and glared at me defiantly.
"It did not do much good to your self-esteem, I bet." I nodded. "But did you ever try to think of it from a different prospective?"
He looked frustrated and confused.
"At least he was not totally indifferent," I laughed humorlessly. "He showed some interest in your well-being. Of course as many a parent he thought that his plans for your future were much more important than your personal freedom, but nevertheless, he thought he cared."
"I wish he’d stuffed his interest where it truly belonged!" His breath was heavy and his stance as arrogant as he could master. "Forgive me, my lady, but you do not know lord Cor as close as I do. If he had ever had any interest in my life it was only when he was thinking of how to ruin it most efficiently!"
I never thought he can use such language, especially in front of a lady. Well, I tried my best to make sure I was not counted as one, did not I?
"Now you are being childish." I shook my head trying to stay serious, but his whole stance was such a strange mixture of petty arrogance and naïveté that it was hard to keep my face straight. I understood Jan Jansen all too well. Anomen was a dream-came-true target for any practical joker.
"You truly must think me a fool, my lady," he mumbled suspiciously, looking for any sign of hidden mirth on my face.
But I remained calm and composed though, Gods, it did require significant self-control. I could just visualize a bunch of the Order high officials, dressed in their parade uniforms and red-faced from the effort, trying to subdue a flamboyant drunk, who in my mental picture, was a split image of Anomen, but just a bit older.
"That must have been a treat," I murmured.
"No, Anomen, I don’t think you a fool, not at all." I said aloud.
"Now, that’s a lie, if I ever heard one!" said the bunny in my head. "I always though you hated hypocrites. Now just because the boy is so darn good-lookin…"
"Be quiet – you cotton-tailed prig!" I commanded mentally. "I can remind you of a number of energetic encounters in the bushes that you have had over the last week. I am going to have you neutered if you will continue to intrude on my mental process like this! Ever tried to memorize a spell with all that puffing going on in the background of your consciousness? And no, his looks have nothing to do with it. It is hard to find a decent fighter in the middle of nowhere."
"Now I am deeply hurt." The rabbit emanated contempt mixed with sarcasm. "You are violating my animal rights and stomping on my freedom of speech!"
"I will violate more than that, my long-eared friend, if you won’t shut up!"
I was not entirely honest, but that was a little weakness, that I preferred to keep to myself. Memories of Khalid still haunted my dreams, when they were not pushed back by the nightmares with Irenicus starring. Anomen’s awkward advances were nothing to me at that point, but he provided some sort of a distraction. That was entirely selfish of me, and a little bit cruel, but I was not the one who started it, and it was amusing to see him throwing dark, jealous glances at Yoshimo.
The thief was an entirely different story. My ‘charms’ had no effect on him, I was sure of that. Still, he showed persistent interest in my humble persona and on numerous occasions tried to turn the conversation to my ominous heritage and my childhood memories. That was annoying, not to mention dangerous. I started wondering if my initial assessment of him as an agent of Shadow Thieves was wrong, and he really was working for Irenicus.
"You never told me anything about your mother," that sudden phrase in the middle of Anomen’s long speech snapped me out of my reverie.
"What about her?" I was distraught. "She and Gorion were the long-time sweethearts. Their relationship started long before the Bhaal’s little romp over the Realms. She died giving birth to me, and then Gorion adopted me officially, and gave me his own family name."
I sighed. "The only thing that I have of my mother’s is my given name, for that was her idea. Gorion told me that much. You know, my full name is Dorotheas, which means ‘the Gift of God’ in Chessen, though I never understood why would she welcome such a gift." I bit my tongue. This piece of information was rather private and not many people in Candlekeep knew it. To think of it, Sarevok’s doppelgangers took care of the most of the ones who did.
The awkward silence followed.
"I am sorry that I asked." Anomen muttered. "I shouldn’t have. Your situation is much worse than mine. At least, I still have my sister Moira. You know, you remind me of her. She is very headstrong."
There was a sudden movement in the darkness on the other side of the pit. I never would have noticed it, but the bunny at my back stirred and pricked his ears.
"Danger, you nincompoop! Stop making the cow eyes at the young fool here and pay attention to your surroundings!"
The best course of action was to retreat as quickly as possible. Which we did right away. The whole company was gathered around the glowing crystal altar and the fire cracked merrily on the stone floor, with the cook pot bubbling and steaming. Jaheira gave us an ironic look, Jan cackled and Minsk winked.
Yoshimo was very quiet, and looked pleased with himself. His dark, bird-like eyes shifted when they met mine, but that was the only indication of an unease that I could discern.
* * * * *
We had entered the Amaunator Temple in the morning, when the gray autumn light was seeping slowly but steadily into the clinging darkness. It was cold and wet in the ruins, and the air coming from the dark, yawning maw of the dungeon was warmer and drier than that of the outside.
The temple was built of the slabs of dark gray basalt, which was the most common local mineral. The insides were decorated with polished marble, and the fancy mosaics depicting the lives of the elder days Amaunator saints covered the floors. Some lingering powers of the sun god, although corrupted and twisted, were at work there. We discovered later, that the entire subterranean level of the temple was veined with lava pits and streams, heated by the sun god’s lingering powers.
For that matter, the underground tunnel was not entirely dark. The strange flickering light filled the space as we descended the crumpling staircase, as if the never ceasing struggle between light and darkness was still going on at the elemental level.
But then, what are shadows if not the fringe effect, the transient state between light and darkness? There will be no shadows if the darkness would prevail, same as if the light would take over. A shadow existence is a purely borderline, in-between-the-two states affair. Amazingly, shadow creatures do not comprehend that simple truth, and cling to darkness as if it is their only primal element.
There were more shadowed wolves, poor bastards, at the bottom of the stairs. We had to dispose of them. Afterward the narrow corridor simply ended, consumed by the ever-shifting mass of shadows, which served as an effective barrier against all our attempts to penetrate it. There was a door leading further into the depth of the temple, just before the shadow wall.
Jan volunteered to investigate that passage, and performed his disappearing trick with ease that caused a nervous chuckle from Yoshi. The two of them always competed against each other, and the gnome’s ability to use concealment magic if needed annoyed the human thief to no end.
Jan returned soon with a shaken expression, for he was able to peek inside, without revealing himself and what he found there was not pretty. The chamber beyond was guarded by the undead. And not just the shadows for he had caught a glimpse of enormous armored skeletons.
Who is forewarned is also armed, as the ancients used to say. The moment seemed appropriate and I decided to test a new spell, which I recently acquired.
The old wizard from Imnesvale was so upset after his disaster with the homicidal golem, that he let his daughter leave with her boyfriend. After that he went for a weeklong drinking spree at the local tavern, giving me the keys from his house and, most importantly, from the cupboard with artifacts of his magical research.
There have been several interesting spells in his collection, including some elemental incantations. I practiced them secretly for a few days and now felt confident enough to try for an earth elemental, alas a minor one. I also had an ace up my sleeve, for among the junk that we had picked up in Athkatla there was a ring, which Jan claimed, was enchanted with an earth magic and could be used to control the earth elementals.
I did it! It came in a flash of light and for several minutes sweat trickled down my spine and palms as I struggled to control the beastie. It was wonderfully bulk, terracotta-red as a fresh pile of mud, smelling strongly of clay and hot rocks, with stalagmite spikes protruding out of its huge, muscular arms. In short – it was the most fetching earth elemental you can imagine, and it was all mine to command!
Minsc grinned approvingly at my success, but Jaheira looked with apprehension. I knew the druids were attuned to the elemental magic, though I had never seen her using it.
After that, summoning few minor creatures was a matter of minutes. This created a little troop of monsters in front of the door. Now, we were ready for a small sortie into the enemy territory.
The door exploded inwards as the elemental busted it with one hit. Two giant skeletons in steel plate stepped forward. I remembered those too well from Sarevok’s hiding place in the temple of Bhaal. My late half-brother was fond of the undead guardians, though that did not stop us from ending his sorry existence.
The fight was vicious and short, for Anomen’s chant kept the lesser undead away and Minsc and Yoshi were able to pick them one by one with arrows. Jan’s crossbow spitted bolts with amazing speed. The summoned creatures took the edge off the skeletal warriors attack. Soon the remains of the wailing shadows retreated into the darkness below the next door.
I looked around. The shadow wolves have chosen that dilapidated, empty hall as their new lair. A row of crumbling columns covered with hieroglyphs supported the low ceiling. A low bench of gray marble at the right wall was broken into many pieces, which now were scattered around, and partially grounded into dust.
Inside that pile of rubble, we found a mummy of a small child, no more than seven years of age. Its wrappings were disturbed and partially shredded. The hands of the mummy were unwrapped and moved from their original position. Now they stuck out in front, as if protecting the face of the little girl (for it was a girl judging by the length of her hair). The soft tissue was torn from the upper arms, and the bones looked as if they have being gnawed at. The little face was mutilated and half eaten. It was so disturbing and cruel that I almost vomited at the sight of it.
"So much for your cool attitude," Jaheira said with a shrug. "Nothing we can do here. This child has been dead for at least a hundred years. The desecration was performed only recently. Look how fresh these marks are."
"Butt kicking for goodness!" Minsc boomed angrily. "Whoever did that, will be mighty served with the nailed side of my boot!"
"This is strange," I said after looking at the remains closely. Why would a wolf gnaw upon a hundred year old bones? There is no sustenance for them here."
"The beasts who did that had not looked for food," Jaheira answered. "I daresay - these were the wolves from the shadowed pack."
"We can give it a proper burial, at least," I suggested. "A grave under the open sky would be better than that. These wolves will return, you know."
"What would stop them from digging up the grave?" Jaheira asked tiredly. "But do as you wish, if it makes you feel any better."
"I will carry the child," Minsc said defiantly. "She is so tiny - she would be no burden at all. We cannot leave her here. Boo told me so, and I trust my hamster."
It was no use arguing with him, so he packed the mummy carefully and strapped it at his back. Somehow, it felt the right thing to do.
I inspected what was left of my little army of creatures. My precious elemental was gone, but a one-eyed ogre was still lumping around. I sent it forward into the dark passage ahead.
We traversed the corridors behind the empty hall, fending off the shadows of wolves and humanoids alike. It was dark, dusty, and desolate. We located another stone altar with the glowing stone, albeit a smaller one than the one above the ground. The shadows would not come into that place. The stone was easily removable and I decided to take it with us, which later proved to be a smart idea.
The place was depressing. The late god had been a power to reckon with in his days of glory. The unknown artisans who decorated his temple invested a lot of time and talent into the ornate floor mosaics and wall carvings. All that work was now ruined. The shadows left their mark everywhere.
I felt a strange pity for the deceased deity and its worshippers mixed with a great deal of irritation, for the never ending maze of dark corridors filled with crumbling statuary did not provide any clue to the location of the supposed evil culprit – the Shadow Lord. Why would the Sun god be fond of all these dark and cramped nooks?
Being a student of the Craft, I have heard of the shadow magic and the shadow weave, which was supposedly intermixed invisibly with the regular magical field. It was only available to the few outcasts - dedicated shadow mages. Unlike normal magic, which was the domain of goddess Mystra, the shadow weave was rumored to be controlled by Shar - the deity of dark suffering and creeping vengeance. (I never understood Viconia’s affection to her, before we were taken by Irenicus.)
Thinking of the Shadow Plane creature escaping into our Realm was, to say the least, discomforting. I knew I would not be able to detect it magically, but I hoped that once revealed, it would be vulnerable to the normal magic.
One of the corridors suddenly opened into a chamber with a huge human head carved from the finest quality golden alabaster. The sculpture depicted a male cleric in a ceremonial headdress of rather old-fashioned design, and was not what you would call a piece of exceptional beauty. The statue’s eyes were closed, with heavy eyelids bulging on the cold and arrogant face, and narrow lips puckered tightly in a kind of a scowl.
"Definitely not my type," I chuckled nervously.
Anomen grimaced and his rather plump mouth tightened in a hard line, not unlike the statue’s.
"This guy was certainly not a top-runner in a beauty contest," Jaheira nodded in agreement.
"This reminds me of my late third-cousin Cheery," Jan started happily.
Anomen moaned, Minsc smirked and Yoshimo’s eyes sparkled with anticipated delight.
"You see, Cheery Jansen had inherited a funeral business from his grandfather on the mother’s side, but with the name like his and a face, pink like newborn baby’s, his clients could not believe he would do the job properly." Jan shook his head sadly.
It always surprised me how thoroughly he was pulled into fabrication each of his stories. Suddenly, his eyes flashed with a surge of creative energy.
"First he changed his name to Gloomy, and then started working on developing a permanent frown. Spent hours before the mirror, poor chap! Did not work. So, he started adding vinegar to his turnip tea. Ended up with an ulcer and his wife running away with a neighbor - all to promote the family business. Tis’ a wonder, what some people do to get the right contortion!" Jan shot a side-glance at our cleric, but Anomen remained stone-faced.
I giggled. "This time you surely made it up, Jan. Everybody knows that women are attracted to dark and moody, romantic characters. So his wife surely would have liked his new looks!"
"But your worship, he did not turn out dark. Just yellow and sour like lemon!" Jan winked and nodded in our square’s direction.
"I am not going to be the butt of your jokes forever, gnome!" His victim finally exploded.
"You are playing with fire and …" His last words trailed off as he noticed everybody’s smirks.
"Oh this young generation. Always full of themselves, they are. Why would he think my cousin Gloomy had anything to do with him is beyond me," the gnome shook his head sadly.
"Ah, why should I waste my breath on talking to the likes of you? You have no concept of honor and nobility!"
"Nobility, ah. That’s these characters who go out chasing after women and foxes alike, and do not pay their tailor?"
"Enough of that nonsense," Jaheira interrupted suddenly. "Leave him be, Jan. You are getting annoying now. Let’s apply ourselves to the task at hand and solve this riddle once and forever!"
I nodded in agreement and walked to the statue to examine it closely. As my fingers traversed the smooth surface of the beautiful yellow-pink stone a sudden shock run through my hand. The floor trembled and a bright rosé glow lit the statue from inside. Next the ear-splitting, monstrous sound of the stone grating on stone filled the chamber and the statue spoke.
For Oghma’s sake, talking to the gods is not my favorite recreational activity. In fact, I refuse to socialize with extra-planar beings and deities as a matter of principle. THEY like to talk to me, not the other way around. It runs in the family. The talking statue of Amaunator was an unpleasant surprise.
At that time, the Sun god was not entirely dead and was able to channel some of his remaining powers into the stupid stone head. What pissed me most in that first exchange though, was the fact that even on his deathbed (literally speaking - that is how I visualized his immortal soul hanging on the drifts of ether somewhere in the outer Planes, it gives you simpler mortal perspective) Amaunator insisted on testing my knowledge of the tenets of his faith!
The statue sprouted a jet of pure fire every time I tried to reason with it. I did not like that. I was tired of being spat at, especially with fire. I did not care about the order in which his morning ritual have had to be performed. I had to use protection spells and some concoction that granted fire resistance to solve his annoying riddles and the whole experience was very unpleasant.
Thank gods Jaheira was always carrying potions in her backpack (like the pack rat she is). She knows a lot about herbal remedies and tonics, I will grant her that.
I can start speculating on the effect that immortality has on one’s sense of humor and overall personality, but I do not wish to do it. The old records in the Candlekeep library stated that Amaunator had been the god of Administration and Bureaucracy, on top of being the Sun god. By what means had he acquired that portfolio is a mystery, but it probably suited him right at the first place.
As the later events proved, that was also his undoing. May, whoever takes care of the immortals, have mercy on his soul. I do not want to jump ahead of myself here, so I would say no more. I have made my peace with the Amaunator faith at the end.
What we got from the statue after the initial ordeal with the ceremonies was over was a fragment of the holy seal of Amaunator. It was used to protect the main altar from any physical harm. The seal was broken and the fragments hidden by the last faithful priests somewhere inside the temple. Being an ethereal being, as he was, the seal did not stop the Shadow Lord from getting access to the altar. But it efficiently prevented us from entering the area and dealing with him.
The statue was not able to pinpoint the direct locations of the seal pieces, but gave us enough vague directions to be able to figure it out. It also insisted that I carry the crystal from the smaller altar with me. The gem allowed us to pass through the shifting shadow barriers, which the Shadow fiend had placed around his headquarters.
Somewhat satisfied with that information we prepared to storm the heart of the temple when an unexpected, but pleasant development threw us off track again. We found the missing damsel in distress!
If Mazzy will ever read these lines, I would get a lump on my head the size of an orange. Nobody would ever dare to insult that fierce little lady by calling her a ‘damsel’ in her face. But having warm and fuzzy feelings towards our would-be-paladin gal, I am taking some liberties here. I hope she would not find out.
While I was conversing with the statue of Amaunator, Yoshimo was poking inside numerous narrow passages behind the hall and found a closet that was locked. The big rusty key that we found on one of the undead fitted into the stone keyhole.
By then, I gave up on finding anybody from the first expedition alive. I honestly could not believe that they could survive in that place for more than two weeks without water or food.
Hearing Yoshi’s surprised exclamation, I peeked inside the stone closet holding the glowing gem from the sun altar in my outstretched hand as an improvised lantern. When I first saw the halfling’s little pale face in the aureole of red curls, I thought it was an exquisitely crafted doll.
She stood still as a statue with her fists clenched to her breast and her pink rosebud of a mouth set in a defiant scowl. She was still wearing her fighting gear with a big sword in its scabbard strapped behind her back, and was in a deep stasis induced by the touch of the shadows. A long red bow and a quiver full of arrows lied at her feet. It was fascinating. I never had dolls like that (not that I cared much about dolls as a child). I patted her on the cheek gently and amazingly, she came alive at once!
Her bright blue eyes snapped open and a color of rightful indignation filled her face. However, she was a quick one and realizing at once that we were no shadow fiends, she smiled at me most affectionately.
"Noble friends! Did you come to rescue me from this evil trap?"
"We did, indeed," I answered in a mildly amused tone. "What would a halfling lass like you be doing in a scary place like this?"
This was a mistake for her face immediately flashed with anger and her voice trembled.
"You are most impolite, lady! I am not sure what kin do you claim as your own, but whatever it is, you do your family no honor by mocking me! I am a warrior. My business is to make this place less dangerous by flashing out the evil that infests it!"
Coming from a young woman who barely reached up to my waist, it still sounded impressive. Mazzy had this effect on people.
"Most noble sentiment!" Boomed a familiar voice from behind.
I turned around to see Minsc’s smiling face peering over Jaheira’s shoulder.
"She is the halfling paladin they have been talking about in Imnesvale! Boo says – he likes her!"
"I am Mazzy Fenton," the halfling girl nodded seriously, "I am a fighter and a valiant servant of justice and righteousness. I assume you came here to destroy the Shadow Lord, who slaughtered my companions and imprisoned me. He is a dangerous and treacherous foe. Would you let me join you in your quest?"
"A paladin indeed," Anomen frowned. "She could be an agent of the shadows, my lady. Best to leave her here until we have dealt with the evil that had tainted this temple!"
"I recon the size of your frame does not exactly match the size of your brains, young man," Mazzy answered. "My companions were most foully slain by the dragon, which serves the creature of the Shadow Plane, and is of the shadowed breed itself! How dare you disgrace their memory by suggesting that I am in league with the shadows?"
Anomen was shaken a little at the mention of the dragon, but stood his ground.
"How do we know that is not another bunch of lies that you spin to deceive us, halfling? Your breed is known for trickery and deceit!"
"Bah, the young lad here does not like the competition on the field of glory!" Minsc’s comment added fuel to the already ignited fire of vanity.
"Oh, our samurai must be afraid that the little lady here would get all the giants," Yoshimo chuckled.
"This reminds me of that time, long way back when I was just a wee gnome, and the circus came into the city," Jan started tentatively.
Anomen growled but the little wizard did not even flinch.
"You know, they had that lobotomized half-orc wrestler with them by the name Ano. He was quite a famous figure in his field and had a sweet tooth, especially for peach preserves. Could not have any, poor chap. You see, his head was too big, would never fit inside the jam jar. And they say size is not everything," Jan sighed most compassionately.
This drove Anomen to the shade of red I had never seen before. Two rival knight wannabes were on their hunches now, watching each other like two fighting cocks in a pit. Considering their respective sizes, they looked like Bantam versus Cochin. (I am still not sure who would have won.)
This gallinaceous21 allegory amused me to no end, and I clapped my hands theatrically.
"Bravo, bravo. What a performance! No disrespect meant my noble friends. But in my humble opinion we may better spend our time fighting our enemy, not each other. Mazzy, we did take over your commission from the Mayor when your group disappeared. If you want to help us destroy the Shadow Lord - we would greatly appreciate your help. If not, you are free to go. We will gladly share our supplies and even provide you with an escort to Imnesvale if you cannot travel on your own. Anomen, please subdue your temper. I am pretty sure that Mazzy here is not in league with the shadows."
Indeed, she was not. Poor Mazzy had lost all her party and her beau in that doomed expedition. She was steadfast, and good-tempered. Her knowledge of the place and its minions was invaluable. That provoked a bitter jealousy from Anomen, and made him discourteous and reckless in his attempts to beat her in that ridiculous competition.
Using the sun gem as a lantern we succeeded in crossing the first of the shadow barriers, and now entered the area where the streams of lava crisscrossed the dusty floor and descended into a rectangular pool, steaming with heat. We had to cut our way through more shadows, and more undead. Some of these were very dangerous. I worried a lot about the morale of the group and the dreaded moment when we would have to face the Shadow Dragon. That was the ultimate challenge that had destroyed Mazzy’s companions and cost her the life of Patric – her beloved champion.
When we first heard her story nobody wanted to believe her. Now the whole atmosphere of the place was wearing down our spirits, and everything seemed possible. I had never seen a dragon. Some part of me did not want to accept that they existed. I thought of the dreadful claw marks on the walls of the pit in the forest. They made more sense now, and the size of the beast that left them scared me.
Amazingly, between the continuous threat of shadows and a need to check the area for traps Jan still had found time for some scavenger hunt. The temple had many hidden nooks and crannies and he made a nice collection of rubbish, which would have tempted many an archeologist to trade his immortal soul. A pearl among his finds was a simple white colored pebble, which looked rather like a stone egg to me, but he claimed it was enchanted with an ancient magic, and had a troll spirit trapped inside. I only shook my head at that, but he was very proud of his find and kept it in his pouch.
Jan and Mazzy had got together rather well. I thought the gnome felt sympathy for the little warrior, who was as brave as she was courteous. Her height made it easier for them to communicate, although I had never met a person who was less intimidated by his size than Jan Jansen. Normally he would hang around with Minsc and his hamster. Now Mazzy’s presence inspired a new sideline of stories from our little wizard. Some of them I had never heard before. By then, I understood that any excessively righteous statement was working as a bait for Jan’s overdeveloped sense of humor. Her diminutive size and sharp wits spared Mazzy the worst, but she was still a valid target for Jan’s anecdotes, albeit rather mild ones.
The area around the lava pool was a dangerous place, but the dry heat and the warm glow of the fire basin made me feel better somehow. There was a small room with colorful floor mosaic and a little ornate sarcophagus next to it. We stopped there for a rest.
There was a lingering presence in my mind and whereas it felt alien, it was not threatening or sinister. While Jan and Yoshi went scouting in the nearby corridors, and others unpacked our rations and blankets I sat down for a moment. My eyelids felt heavy, my head spun, and as a strange dizziness overcame my senses I fell asleep at once.
* * * * *
I was in the same room but now numerous torches and oil lamps lighted it. A quiet, sorrowful melody of the requiem filled my ears. The room was filled with weeping mourners dressed in old-fashioned robes in predominantly white, red, and yellow gamma. Strangely, every one of them was wearing an ornate symbol of the Sun god at their breast. I looked closely at the old man closest to me. His body shimmered and became transparent for a moment, then solidified again and the unseen tears continued to flow from his ghostly eye sockets. One of the apparitions, tall and regal specter in gilded plate mail drifted to the sarcophagus and bent over it as if hoping to find something inside.
"The Lady of the light is still lost to us!" He proclaimed after a short inspection and raised his limbs in a gesture of ultimate despair.
"She is lost ... the Child of the Sun Rays ... the Lady of the Raising Dawn..." came the ghostly whisper across the room.
The weeping and wailing became louder and the lights of the torches flickered as the shadows started to creep from the corners of the room. A drift of icy-cold, acidulous wind sniffed off half of the lamps. The ghosts flocked at the center of the little tomb in despair.
"Stop it!" I yelled in sudden anger at their timidity. "What is going on here? Can you explain yourself?"
"Amauna is lost!" answered the armored ghost.
"The prophetess of the Light!" wailed his comrade, another cleric in full plate.
"The Child of Light who was born to us to fight the forces of darkness. She was slain by the shadows and now even her body was stolen from us and defiled by the shadow wolves!"
"I think we found her mummy," I said uncertainly. "What would you want me to do with it?"
The weeping stopped. The ghosts gathered around me with a sudden expression of puzzlement on their faces.
"You found our child?" The first cleric asked bewilderedly.
At that moment the air in the center of the room shimmered and a figure of a small serious girl with the long black hair, dressed entirely in white appeared nigh to me.
"You can stop your wailing now, Badon," The child said sternly. "It was rather getting on my nerves. You all can cross over and join me in the light. If you had not insisted on staying behind and guarding over my body for a hundred years, you would have been with me all that time. Why should you care about my mortal shell which I shed like a butterfly sheds a cocoon? Come now. We should pray that our Lord would join us soon. He is still stuck on this Plane guarding the Rift device."
She turned to me. "Search in my tomb, lady. You will find a ward stone to protect you against the Shadow dragon."
She nodded to me and beckoned the joyful crowd of ghosts to follow her.
"Wait!" I exclaimed worriedly. "Can you tell me more about that Shadow dragon, and what should I do with your body?"
The air was filled with her silver laughter.
"If you are careful, the shadow beast would not see you, and you could pass him unmolested. But if the worst comes to worst you have two in your party who can lower the barrier, and two who can make him forget. As for my body, it does not matter to me, dear lady. If it makes you feel any better – give me the fire burial. Amaunator will take me!"
* * * * *
I woke up with a scream as Jaheira shook me awake.
"For goodness sake, Thea, you scared me." She shook her head. "You’ve been talking in your sleep. It was most unnatural. Are you so tired that you cannot even unpack your bedroll?"
"I was not just sleeping," I mumbled. "I had the weirdest dream, Jaheira. A ghost child whose bones Minsc is carrying, told me to look inside her tomb for the ward stone."
"Interesting," she said slowly. "I do believe Jan checked the tomb here, while you have been sleeping. Look what he found. He claims that when he had looked there first the tomb was empty. But then something nudged him to look again."
I looked at the object in the gnome’s little hand. It was a grayish oval stone, polished to a shiny gloss, with a strange white rune embedded in its depth. The rune depicted a skeletal dragon’s head.
"Now we can pass the Shadow Beast safely!" rejoiced Mazzy. "I did not want to dwell on the matter, but it would be a great danger and I do not wish to lose any more friends."
"Admit that you are scared out of your skin, little twerp, and stop pretending being a paladin! When the time comes, I will deal with the dragon myself!" Anomen sniggered.
"It does not suit you being rude," I shook my head.
"If all of you are so shortsighted as to take this pathetic halfling for a knight – so be it! But when the Order sees my worth, I'll no longer need to mingle with a lowly folk such as her." he finished haughtily.
"One more word about size and I will have to challenge you to a duel - you overgrown moron!" Mazzy exploded.
"You know, Anomen," I said thoughtfully, "Sometimes you show as much sense as that awful sword that Minsc carries around."
"How many orc hordes would the Order turn, if the ordered nerd gets turned on?" Lilarcor suddenly issued. "Sharp and witty is my trademark, buah-hah-ha!"
That remark left everybody mute for a moment. Mazzy was the only one who looked lost and Anomen’s cheeks acquired the dangerous hue of beetroot.
"Well, that about does it," I said wiping away tears of uncontrollable mirth, "I have to apologize to Lilarcor. Unlike Anomen it actually has some sense of humor." I turned to our speechless cleric. "Anomen, I am not going to tolerate that kind of conduct within the group. Do not push your luck with me."
He suddenly went pale and swallowed whatever remark he was going to make. I wondered what kind of instructions was he given by his superiors at the Order. Was he required to stick with us no matter what, or was his reaction something more personal?
Little later we lowered the child-priestesses mummy into the flaming pool of lava, as she had asked me to do. The old bones and wrappings ignited, and burst into flame, white as starlight. For a moment I though I saw her smiling face in the blaze. Then it was all over.
"Two of us can lower the barrier and two of us can make it forget," I muttered. "Why is it all the prophets had to speak in riddles?"
Refreshed by my brief catnap, I took the first watch.
When everybody was asleep I awakened Yoshimo to give him his instructions. His dark, almond-shaped eyes looked as bright and intelligent as ever. Yoshi was to go back to Imnesvale and report our find to the mayor, so that if we perish in our quest, the information about the Shadow Lord’s presence in the temple can be spread around. There he should stay to keep an eye on our ponies and equipment. If we survive, we shall meet him there.
He stared at me blankly.
"So, you don’t trust me enough to let me die with you."
I pretended to be shocked by that undue accusation, though it was hard to play games with him.
"Confound it, Yoshimo! I have no desire to follow on the steps of the first expedition. Imagine what effect would it have on people in that cursed valley, if we shall perish without a trace the way Mazzy and her party did. Not to mention that that is exactly what the Shadow Creature wants. To have enough time on its hands to kill as many as it can, ere it is discovered. Remember that everybody who is killed by the shadows becomes a shadow himself. All these unfortunates would join his shadow army."
I shivered. All other considerations aside, sending somebody to Imnesvale was the right thing to do.
"But why are you sending me? Am I any less capable to fight at your side than the little trickster, or the priest-boy? Oh well, I guess he has other qualifications."
I have never seen Yoshimo so angry. I honestly did not understand it until later. He had his own set of rules based on the ancient samurai codex. Some things were acceptable by his standards, and some were not. Hunting down a runaway, chocking him half to death and bringing him back to his master in chains was one thing, but leaving your associates just ere the major battle was quite another. His other dilemma was even more bizarre. But I did not know it yet. I looked him straight in the eye. He was pale and angry, his usual rigid self-control totally abandoned. I decided to ignore his last gibe.
"Look at it this way," I sighed, "the two people best qualified to make it quickly and quietly back, without being intercepted by the shadows are you and Jan Jansen. However, the gnome is not nearly as strong and resourceful as you are. I would not bet on him making it back alive. And I may need his spell-casting abilities. You know, I cannot perform the simplest divination on my own."
He nodded slowly. His posture was a little bit more relaxed now.
"I did not want to ask more of you than you can manage," I paused. "But if you feel that I belittle you, by assigning you a task too easy for a man of your abilities, here is another chore for you." I looked at him briefly, but his face was unreadable again. "We need to find the Corthala guy. That was our main purpose of coming to Imnesvale and it is still unresolved."
"I was meaning to ask you, why are we wasting our time here trying to beat the Shadow Master and his dragon, while your mission was only to discover the reason behind these disappearances and locate the halfling girl?"
He shook his head in puzzlement.
"Your duty is now completed. You did not promise anybody to destroy that thing, only to find out what it is. And on the mean time your friend is in the hands of your enemy and you are doing nothing to recover her." His voice sounded expressionless, but the shadow in his eyes became deeper.
It was my turn to become angry now, for he was right, though I did not want to admit it to myself. I enjoyed the chase too much. The excitement of solving the puzzle, the joy of winning the battle, the exquisite narcotic of mortal risk quickening my blood.
I acquired a habit of getting my highs from danger, and no Black Lotus22can ever come nigh to almost sensual pleasure I was finding in beating the odds of certain death. Oh, the ecstasy of living on the edge of sanity! Since Khalid was taken from me, the only night I slept like a baby was in Nalia’s castle, right after the Tor Gal almost disemboweled me on a spot. I craved that kind of release ever since.
But that was not something I was going to share. Not with Yoshimo, not with anybody else. Although strangely, it was easier for me to confide in him, despite my suspicions of his hidden motives, than say in Jaheira or Anomen. Definitely not Anomen! I almost smiled at that thought. I felt strange affinity to Yoshi, ever since we met him. There was something in common between the two of us, if only it was a deep distrust of everybody and everything.
I grinned wickedly at him. "Think of all the gold we can earn in this expedition, Yoshimo. I have no intention of dieing. I am only sending you because I want to be careful. Plus, I hope that you can win the trust of the locals by delivering these news, and find Valygar Corthala for me. This is not a minor task. I am counting on you."
He nodded silently and quickly collected his belongings. Strangely, he did not express any more objections to my plan. On the contrary, he seemed relieved. When he left, I started to wonder if I made a major mistake in judging his intentions, and he was indeed what he pretended to be - a bystander whose interest in my affairs was purely pragmatic.
I chuckled. The gold indeed! I could not care less, although if I ever decide to approach the Shadow Thieves, we would need the money. I would pretend to work for them, perhaps, to unearth their secrets, and destroy them. The thoughts of vengeance were sweet, but no sweeter then the shiver of excitement of how dangerous that would be.
When it was time to wake up Jaheira for her turn of the night watch I was exhausted to the point of collapse. Her features were ashen and haggard. She had noticed Yoshimo’s absence but did not ask any questions. I was grateful for that.
"Did you have a bad dream?" I asked and was immediately sorry.
"I had seen Khalid again," was her answer. "I thought myself stronger than that. Every day that passes I feel his absence." She hugged her knees hiding her tormented, pale face away from me. "Don’t you dare speak with me about him," she muttered." I have no need of your pity."
"There is no weakness in sorrow," I answered choking on my own words. "Only in depression."
"That’s Alaundo's words, is not it?" She looked at me sharply. "You should know his prophecies by heart." She nodded to herself. "Let’s just hope that your destiny is worth all these deaths."
"I ...I did not wish him to die," I croaked looking desperately at my trembling hands. "You cannot blame that on me. I wish I died in his place, you know this very well."
"I wish you could," she looked at me grimly, "but the stakes are too high, Thea. And you are diminishing him, by refusing to accept his sacrifice."
I retreated to my blanket and had another nightmare. Khalid’s dead face floated in the whirlwind of living shadows. I was ashamed, for I did not think of him ever since we entered the Amaunator’s temple.
"Jaheira can lower the barrier," he smiled, "and you can control the beast the way you bewitched me. Yes, you can do it. I loved you both. Is not it wise for the two of you to work together?" he winked and laughed at me.
He was shaking with laughter and the dark blood was oozing from his gaping wounds. His ribcage flapped open, and I could see that he had no heart. I begged him to stop but he would not listen ere I cried in terror and woke up.
Jaheira was holding me tight by the shoulders. Her limpid eyes, the shade of polished beryl, were grim and determined.
"Are you all right?" She asked sternly.
"Yes, Jaheira," I whispered in terror. My only hope was that I did not speak his name aloud, but one look at her face assured me that that was in vain.
"What did you see?" she looked straight into my eyes still holding me firmly." And don’t you dare lie to me, I know all your little tricks!"
"Khalid ... he said that you can lower the barrier and I can enchant the dragon, if the worst comes to worst. I...I don’t understand what barrier he was speaking about. I swear that was all!" I was almost crying now.
I have no idea how did I realize that he was talking about the dragon, but now I was positive that that was it. She relaxed visibly, and then nodded in understanding.
"He was always a clever one. I guess you have been thinking about the dragon all that time and then I told you about my dream. No wonder you have seen him giving you the answer. The dragons are heavily resistant to magic. Of course, I can lower the magic resistance of the beast, if I can come close enough. Let’s just hope we would not need that."
"Uh-huh, you better be careful with her if you don’t want your hide to be used for a tambourine by some Harper’s band!" My familiar squeaked in the background noise of my frantic thoughts.
"Believe me, when she is done with me, I would wish she simply skinned me alive," I thought grimly.
I recited my mind control spells that night. Just in case.
* * * * *
It is hard to say how long did we stay in the Amauna’s tomb for there was no way to count the passing hours. Later I discovered that we only spent three full days in the temple. It felt like eternity. When everybody was awake I explained Yoshimo’s absence as best as I could. They agreed that sending a messenger was a good idea, but Anomen was grouchy. I guessed he missed his everyday challenge. We did not linger at our campsite, and soon moved further down, into the depth of the temple grounds.
And so we came upon the corridor, which led into the chamber with the floor puzzle. The colonnaded hall was lit with blazing lanterns, which were fed by the Amaunator’s magic, for I could not fathom anybody replenishing them for a century or more. The light reflected jolly off the intricate golden letters that decorated every floor tile in the room. Strangely, some of the letters seemed bright and shiny, while the others were worn out and dim.
I have been wary of the undead that haunted the corridors and used my old trick of sending the summoned creatures ahead.
Forward came a horde of goblins. As soon as the first of them hit the tile with the golden lettering, it burst into flames with an awful shriek. A little pile of black soot crumbling on the floor was all that was left of it. I am not particularly fond of goblins, but neither am I prone to needless cruelty. So I pulled the beasts back immediately.
"Yippee-do..." Jan whistled.
"That was most unusual," Jaheira grumbled.
"That’s to put it mildly, " I answered. " You know, that whole section looked mighty suspicious to me."
She stared at me considerately. "I am glad it was not me on that tile," was all she said.
"I bet you, our friend Amaunator is responsible," I muttered, "he is fond of smiting the unbelievers and such."
"How are we supposed to cross it, your worship?" Jan asked.
"Well, I will be damned if our almighty friend is not playing some sort of a game again," I mused. "You know, the immortals never think in terms of limited time capacity, like everybody else can spent eternity on solving their extravagant riddles."
"If it is a riddle indeed, our time will be better spent on solving it, not on blasphemy!" Anomen exploded.
"The boy shows some spirit after all. Are you sure you don’t care, Thea?" Jaheira raised an eyebrow.
"I have no idea, what are you talking about," I answered mildly. "But if you are interested, feel free to act upon it."
That made her loose her cool, but I was immediately sorry, for she sagged and went absolutely still for a moment. I cursed my tongue, and pretended that nothing happened. Our matches in witticism were over with Khalid’s death, as well as our friendship.
I considered the floor mosaic again. The fact that some letters were worn out more than the others seemed important somehow. I looked at the first row of the tiles – the character for the letter ‘A’ in the most right position was in deplorable condition. All the other letters in the first row were clear and splendid, shining in a perfect golden line. In the second row the letter ‘M’ was shabby and worn, and it was right next to the ‘A’ in the first row.
"Hell and damnation, " I muttered to myself.
It was that simple. The letters of the Amaunator’s name formed a safe corridor through the maze. My second goblin was able to traverse the puzzle and reached the other side unmolested, which produced cheers and congratulations from my companions. I had to admit I am not totally immune to praise and public appreciation. (I don’t think anybody is.) So, my vanity caused me to relax somewhat, and loose my concentration.
The goblin that crossed on the other side had run unattended, whilst we were treading carefully through the golden pattern, spelling ‘AMAUNATOR’ with our feet. As I lost my grip on its mind, it sneaked out of sight and disappeared behind the low door in the wall. I did not realize where it went ere it burst out of there with an awful shriek. What it brought on its heels was a monstrosity that a sane mind could not fathom.
The passage beyond was guarded by the skeletal golem, which was built like a giant praying mantis, toppled with human skull, and armed with sharp serrated bone blades. I was trapped between the Amaunator’s puzzle and the towering skeleton, with bone scythes in place of hands.
I would have perished for sure if not for Minsc, who swore in Rashemi, took three long leaps across the remaining tiles, and rushed between the monster and me. All I could think of at that moment was what is going to be less painful – to be fried alive or cut in half by these blades.
Whilst I was still contemplating that pleasant prospective Anomen, who was next to Minsc inside the puzzle, pushed me away rudely (praise his bad manners) and jumped to Minsc’s aid. That woke me up sufficiently to be able to help them with a couple of strategically placed spells, which slowed the thing down and made it more vulnerable to their weapons.
It took our combined efforts to defeat that monstrosity. We prevailed, though Minsc was badly wounded in that fight. He collapsed after delivering the fatal blow to the construct, which crumbled in the heap of the fractured bones. As he lied at my feet, Minsc’s face was white as a chalk, for he lost a lot of blood from the bone-deep wound on his arm, where the serrated blade cut into his flesh between his breastplate and the vambrace. I grabbed his hands, frantically trying to channel my puny healing power into him and praying that I was not too late.
Afterwards, I held Minsc’s head on my knees as Jaheira and Anomen bent over him reciting the healing spells. I caught a glimpse of Boo, as he looked worriedly at his master’s bloodstained, pale face from his hiding place inside Minsc’s cuirass. They stabilized Minsc quickly to my utter relief and I forgave Anomen his idiotic squabble with Mazzy, for that one moment of quiet efficiency.
The pocket space behind the floor puzzle consisted of few tiny rooms, and it was a dead end. However, it held a solution to our current predicament, for there we found the last piece of the holy seal of Amaunator. It was hidden in the darkest corner of the smaller chamber, under a pile of rubbish.
It was concealed there by the stray shadow that got himself trapped behind the golden letters, by Amaunator knows what means. That clever little fellow tried to trick me into taking him over to the other side by allowing him to hide in my own shadow. I realized what was going to happen, but agreed to help him anyway. Somehow, I hoped that his sense would prevail over his hatred of the living things. It did not, and he attacked me as soon as we got to the other side. Jaheira followed us of course, and her scimitar finished what was left after I threw a jet of magic flame at him.
Later she scolded me badly for taking unnecessary risks, but how could I explain to her that this was exactly what I needed to numb the pain ever eating at my heart?
By that time, I got used to the opulent and pompous style of the Amaunator’s temple. Every column in that place was densely carved with hieroglyphs until it was almost falling apart. Every broken pot had a thick layer of golden paint on it. Every figure on the wall frescoes and floor mosaics was draped in heavy, carefully arranged robes with lots of massive jewelry dangling from every appendage. It was a sturdy cult, with well-established finance and power base in the local government. It was reliable and boring.
So, when I entered a small chamber behind the room with the piece of the holy seal, I was quite taken aback. The room was empty of all the usual religious junk. Its walls had no paintings or other ornaments. It held a single statue. It was a figure of a woman carved of white marble, and it took my breath away.
Unlike most of the statuary in the Amaunator’s domain in was plain, with no gilt or paint disfiguring the pristine surface of the stone. It was stunningly beautiful. The woman was kneeling with her hands cupped in front of her, as if awaiting a gift or beloved child to be placed into her welcoming hands. The room had no windows, but a hazy, white aura surrounded the statue itself for it was emanating light.
Her eyes were lowered, and her lips held a beginning of a smile, as if she knew the secret of greatest importance, and was waiting for the moment when that sacred truth can be shared with the rest of the world.
I almost thought for a moment that this was a trophy of some sort from a religious war between the Amaunator’s cult and say, the followers of Sune23. But no, there was no eroticism or gaiety in her posture, only the secret hope of salvation.
Why was she hidden behind the deadly trap, which can only be disarmed with Amaunator’s name? What was the secret that she was willing to share? I wished later that I had never found out.
With the seal of Amaunator securely in our possession, it was time for a major move. The seal would let us pass the ancient wards and access the main altar, where the shadow creature has made its dwelling. But the only open path to the heart of the temple was through the Shadow Dragon’s lair. The Dragon would do its master’s bidding, and if we were slain our souls would be forfeit to the Shadow Lord.
From what little Mazzy was able to recall I discerned that it was an ethereal being, and therefore it had to invade a mortal body to touch our Plane. The thing dominated and enslaved its victims by feeding on their souls. The thought of that kind of existence, entrapped in your own body and forced to obey every command of an alien intellect while your very essence was slowly destroyed, was nauseating. I have heard of an insect, some species of wasps, which laid eggs in the living body of its paralyzed prey. Its larvae would eat the victim from inside, whilst it was alive and in full consciousness. The Shadow Lord was an ethereal parasite; I could not find a better word for that.
Mazzy was going to be its next host but at the moment, it possessed the missing ranger, Merella. I wondered if it favored female bodies, or that was just a coincidence. It was creepy either way. Those of us that it would not like to keep for its future consorts, would be slain, and turned into the undead shadows.
While pondering over these grim possibilities, I decided that I myself was in no danger of being taken over by the Shade Lord in any form. I will try to explain why, though it would take some time and will carry me away from the major topic of this recital.
The popular belief was that children of Bhaal, of which I was but one, were supernaturally powerful because every one of them carried some fraction of their father's divine essence. However, that was also the source of our weakness. It was not clear how the divine essence was anchored in the child, and where did it go after her death. If it indeed resided in our souls, then why would our bodies disintegrate and fall to ashes immediately after our death?
I still shivered remembering Sarevok’s demise. Whilst he choked his last curse at me, his flesh crumbled before my very eyes, as if he was made of the frailest china and had fallen all the way from the topmost spire of the Iron Forge tower. (The rumors had it that he threw one of our rival siblings from there, on one particularly stormy night.) As I watched in fascination, the eerie, luminescent mist oozed out of that pile of dust and leached into the cracks between the stones. I could swear it has been the most evil and poisonous thing I’d ever sensed. I am fairly sure that my own essence is inundated with the same vileness; for every time I have one of my snake visions, it has similar psychic taste.
Afterwards, I’ve tried to develop a theory explaining that peculiar effect, and that caused me to read everything I could find on the matter of connection between our body and soul. I had spent the lion's share of my time before I fled the Ducal palace on reading Sarevok’s diaries and tracking down the books that he had studied. I had planned to return to Candlekeep and continue my research there. I blush at the thought of what had prevented me from following that plan.
While reading blindly everything I could find on the subject of connection between body and spirit of an individual, I have came upon some odd religious philosophy of ancient Mulhorandi. The church of Osiris24 insists that each sentient living entity is composed not of two, but three major parts. The first one is the corporeal body. The other two are the intertwined yet separate components of the soul Ka and Ba. Now that was interesting.
According to the Mulhorandians, Ba was the part that carried our related experience, short term memories, and intellectual quirks. It was responsible for the logical thinking, and the everyday survival of the body. Upon death, it lingered with the body and dissolved into nothingness, as the body disintegrated for it was inseparable from the body. Ka (or the spiritual twin) was the immortal part, which carried emotions, passions, and the overall personality of an individual. Ka was the soul in our northern sense. It was Ka that was drawn into the Fugue Plane after one’s death to be collected by Gods and judged accordingly.
The dead could be raised by calling their Ka back, if both the body and its Ba were still relatively intact. But Ka would refuse to reenter a damaged or decaying body for it could not be reunited with its Ba if it was violated. If Ka was destroyed or repelled and the corpse was reanimated without it, it would turn into a zombie, or other type of undead. Because Ba stayed within the dead body and decayed with it, freshly created undead retained some memories, but the longer they stayed in that condition the worse it got. When the individual willingly achieved lichdom, he imprisoned his own Ka in the phylactery. In other cases, when the Ka of the undead was not consumed or bound upon its creation, it would linger in the Fugue Plane until the animated corpse was destroyed. It was also believed that in some cases Ba could be forcefully distilled from the flesh and that resulted in ethereal undead, such as specters and shadows. Not that I’ve seriously believed in that rather obscure and alien religious dogma, but it made some sense to me that our soul had such a tiered structure.
It was appalling to think that all my accumulated knowledge, and intellectual finesse that was my sharpest weapon, was nothing but the disposable part of my soul, my Ba. While the tormented and twisted part of me that loved and betrayed, suffered and dispensed suffering to others was Ka, the immortal part. Then I got the irony of it. The Gods did not really care How you arrived at your final destination. All they needed to see is What you have become. Still, I was not looking forward to my afterlife. But seriously, who does?
Going back to where we started, I suspected that the essence of our father altered both parts of the Bhaalspawn’s soul deeply, but unequally. Our immortal Ka was enhanced by the divine influence, while Ba that is inseparable from the body and its bestial instincts was deeply poisoned by the taint and wretchedness of the Lord of Murder. When Bhaalspawn died and her spirit was split, the divine essence of our father was released and went wherever it was supposed to go. Ka was leaving the body for the Fugue Plane, but Bhaalspawn’s Ba simply collapsed without the divine essence, being already weakened by the taint. The body and its Ba are intertwined deeply, and decay together. That is why Bhaalspawn could not be resurrected or turned into undead - their Ba is tainted, and the body is simply falling apart within seconds.
Therefore, if the Shadow Lord imprisoned or consumed the immortal parts of its victim’s souls turning them into the walking dead, I had nothing to fear. My body would simply disintegrate if stripped of its Ka.25 Not that I was much cheered up by these considerations, but it served as a mental gymnastics to distract me from being scared out of my shoes by the thoughts of the Shadow Dragon. Although, the terrible excitement of staring death in the eye was bringing color to my cheeks and making my eyes shine brighter than any promise of never-dying love from a passionate admirer.
* * * * *
Before entering the abode of the Dragon, we had another Council of War. Ilaid out our options in defeating the beast, and was met with more than controversial responses from my party members. To put it bluntly – nobody wanted to enter the battle, which was almost impossible to win. Even Anomen was less than enthusiastic now that it came to the real deed.
The wicked girl that I am, I sheepishly reminded him of his promise to slay the Dragon single-handedly, which brought another flash of color to his face and a harsh promise to prove himself in my eyes at any cost.I looked him straight in the eye trying to display as much amatory interest as possible.
"Now that is a stupid and dangerous game that you are playing!" Jaheira snapped at me harshly. "I don’t know exactly what are you trying to achieve, Thea. But having the boy kill himself for the sake of his stupid pride will not bring us any closer to our goal, which is to clear the path to the Shadow Lord. Are you sure you want to force this battle on us?"
"The evil butt should be thoroughly kicked whenever the possibility arises!"This not entirely unexpected support came from Minsc
Now I had two of them on my side against Jan, Mazzy and Jaheira. And Mazzy could not stand to look like a coward under Anomen’s contemptuous sneer. Therefore I won that vote, although Jaheira looked at me like I was something that just crawled from under the rock. (That was my other reason for sending Yoshimo back to Imnesvale. I knew I could not play on his hormones, and he was way too levelheaded to fall for the vanity trap.)
"What is your problem with this?" I turned to Jaheira. "We need money to pay for Imoen’s rescue, and dragons usually collect a Hoard. We also need to find Corthala’s hiding place. I am almost sure that the good citizens of Imnesvale are harboring him. If we bring them the dragon’s head as a trophy – They will give us Valygar on a plate with a golden rim!"
"You are overly excited about this whole dragon business," she shook her head. "Which usually means that you are up to no good. Why, for heaven’s sake, do we have to risk our lives for your oversized ego? If we can pass it safely and deal with its master right away!"
"Remember my dream?" I murmured enticingly. "Khalid told me that we could take it down if we work together, Jaheira. He knows that you are strong, stronger than me. I cannot do it without you and you know it."
She went white as a snow. For a second I thought she was going to hit me on the mouth. But her self-control was very good.
"You… you can be a cruel bitch sometimes," she whispered. "I am starting to suspect that I misjudged you badly. The time will show. Let’s do it your way this time."
"Far over the misty mountains cold..." Jan hummed suddenly.
"To dungeons deep and caverns old!" I finished, looking at him intently. "So, you know this one, huh? I gather you are with me then?"
"Yes, your Worship," he laughed. "There is no way anybody can stop you now. And I know better than to try to lie in front of the herd of running buffalo. Which reminds me of that time when my uncle Scratchy was a young lad and …"
"Enough is enough!" Jaheira interrupted him roughly. "If we are going on this suicide mission, we better lay our plans carefully to give ourselves some minimal chance to survive. Now listen carefully…"
* * * * *
As Yoshimo left the temple ruins, the sky was beginning to glow at the dark edge of the tree line, which encircled the clearing. He watched with fascination as the line of amethyst grew and became a washed out band of pearl pink. He had been brought up in a culture, which delighted in a subtle beauty of nuances. His face was washed with cold, wet air of the forest, and he realized just how tense and thirsty he was after dry and cramped space of the dungeon. He could see the dark and cloudy stream, looping through the overgrowth at the outskirts of the forest. They’d had to cross it several times on their way to the temple.
Yoshi sniffed at the wind and smiled to himself approvingly. The things were going well for a change. His luck was finally turning. But he knew better than to trust this fickle, and whimsical female. Tymora had betrayed him fatally, and turned around to show the grinning scowl of her sister, Besheba. He was not taking any more chances. Although he felt that turning to the Faerunian deity was a bad idea at the first place. The Shichifukujin26 have been generous to him hitherto, so he promised in his heart to return to the Gods of his childhood, and seek their guidance out of the mess he got himself into.
He sat at the base of the glowing stone altar in his favorite meditation pose, and prepared for a long wait. He was not entering the woods until the full daylight; and watching the sun raise over the tops of the furry, old pines would cleanse his spirit from the effects of his shameful outburst of anger.
The shadows creeping along the muddy bank of the little river cringed in disappointment. The living thing was so close, yet unreachable in the blazing circle of the cruel light from the Sun altar. And soon, the daytime would drive them away into the deeper corners of the forest, and under the rocks.
* * * * *
The central basilica that the Shadow Dragon had chosen for its lair was once the heart of the temple grounds, and the main prayer hall. It was a spacious, aerial building with tall, colonnaded windows gracing its many side aisles. In the times past, the windows were bedecked with beautiful, multicolored glass works. The high, central dome was also pierced with circular apertures.
The entire chamber must have been a spectacular sight during the ceremonies, flooded with brilliant light coming from every direction, which was in turn reflected in the shimmering pool at the central nave. Even so, the main altar was located in the colonnaded portico outside of the building for the mysteries of the Sun god required that direct sunlight fall unhindered upon it.
However, when we entered the sanctuary, it was shrouded in darkness and marred with decay. Many years of neglect caused the temple to be overgrown with vegetation, and tree branches and crawler vines now almost blocked the light from coming through the mutilated and broken windows. The walls were soiled with mold; ugly fissures run through the painted frescoes, and piles of crumbled plaster covered the dirty floor.
Furthermore, when the Shadow Lord broke from his imprisonment, it cast a spell upon the area, which cloaked the basilica in darkness and sealed the outer entrances, and the main altar. The Dragon came and went through the old dried out well at the front courtyard, which was linked with an underground water cistern. The ancient builders were skilled in the arts of engineering and hydraulics. That cistern once fed the divination pool in the apex of the temple. Now it was dry and broken, and an enormous fissure in the floor of the central nave showed the way by which the Shadow Dragon ascended. The only other way inside the basilica was the one that we have followed, through the network of the subterranean tunnels, and up the staircase leading from the hall with the golden letters puzzle.
Unlike the shadowed beasts, the Shadow dragons are creatures of flesh and blood, but with a strong connection to the Shadow Plane. All species of dragons are highly intelligent and have inborn magical abilities. But only the Shadow breed can use the shadow walk, and shift themselves to the Plane of Shadows, albeit temporarily. That is how they blend with the shadows and disappear from view at their will. There are rumors that they have access to the shadow weave - the magic that cannot be detected by the means of our spells, and would not be hindered in the dead magic zones. And their breath is deadly, for they have a link with the Negative Energy Plane. At our last council Jaheira threw all that information at me, in the last attempt to stop the insane attack, though in vain for my mind was blinded by the terrible excitement of the coming battle.
The Dragon slumbered under the central dome, its bulk almost invisible to the unprepared eye, like a dark cloud covered with multitude of near transparent, shimmering scales. Its huge, horned head was resting precariously on the neat pile of tarnished coins and broken armor. It did not have much time to gather a big horde upon being summoned from the bleak pits of the Underdark, but it did its best to have a good start.
Its enormous dark wings were folded neatly on its back, like that of a sleeping moth, and its spiky tail coiled intricately around and around the blurred outline of its body. Its breath filled the huge hall with the rankness of the cold acid.
"That’s her," Mazzy shivered in terror. "Thaxll’ssillyia!"
"So, it is a female," Jaheira breathed heavily. "These are even more deadly than the males when protecting their lair."
"The Evil comes in different shapes and sizes, but Boo says - it’s not a menu in a fancy Sembian restaurant," Minsc grumbled. "You can’t pick and choose what you fight, just gobble up what comes your way and try to chew on it!"
"I am afraid, this juicy piece may try to bite a chunk from your behind, Minscy!" Jan squeaked in some trepidation at the size of the Dragon.
"Calm yourself, gnome, and strive not to get under my feet in battle! I cannot keep my eyes on the ground all the time, whilst trying to hit the Dragon," snapped our favorite cleric, unable to stop himself from taking that petty revenge.
"Ah, his holy nastiness is still with us," the gnome answered unabashedly. "And as feisty as ever! For the last few hours I was wondering if he had swallowed his tongue or something."
As for me, I stood there in an awe of mixed fascination and excitement. That was my first Dragon to behold, and it surpassed all my expectations. When I started on my long and bloody journey from Candlekeep, accompanied by Gorion, I had dreamed of seeing dragons - the wise, magical, rainbow-colored creatures from the hand-painted miniatures on the pages of the ‘Pandemonium Apercu’ and ‘The Encyclopedia of Magical Beasts’. These were the exuberant, innocent fantasies of a pampered child.
It had not been that long, but the young woman that I have became had no dreams left other than the blood-soaked nightmares, and my first meeting with a real Dragon had to became another entry in my long list of slain enemies. At that moment I grieved in my heart for my lost innocence, though at the same time the sardonic voice of my ever-present, evil twin whispered to look out for the weak spots in the hide of the gigantic lizard.
We waited for a short time, although it felt like an eternity. The Dragon did not stir. That proved that the ward stone was working. I raised my hand giving the signal and the murmur of protective spells disturbed the silence of the hall. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my part – summoning and controlling all the elementals that I could manage.
Our archers took their positions around the shifting mass of shadows and Jaheira, white-faced but steady, crossed the distance to the sleeping Dragon.
It did not go the way we had planned. Things rarely do, but the deadly intensity of that battle, unraveling like an overworked clock-spring, stripped me of any confident poise I may have developed, and left me hurt and breathless on the cold, dirty floor in a matter of minutes.
As soon as Jaheira finished her spell, the arrows from Minsc’ and Mazzy’s bows whizzed into the air, hitting the Dragon from two sides at the same time. That gave Jaheira the time she needed to drop on the floor and fold into a tight ball, rolling away from the uncoiling bulk of the enraged lizard. The enchantment that she used on the Dragon was a clever one, for it dropped its magic resistance to the level of an average human. The intricate weaving of that clerical spell made it universal and nasty weapon.
The Dragon streaked up like a bolt of dark fire, like a dazzling whirlwind of shadows, like a cloud of living smoke imbued with deadly poison. If you had never seen an enraged Shadow Dragon from a close distance, it is hopeless for me to describe it, and I am afraid no metaphorical intricacies would do the trick.
"You will pay for this, little flies, as I will feast on your innards!" Came a deadly roar from the swirling shadows.
It was impossible to see the Dragon herself, for she blended with the darkness of the great Hall like a ripple in the water blends with an ocean. Her breath came in an icy cloud and sniffed the life force from the two of my elementals. The third one was badly damaged, but survived her first attack and was coming at the Dragon persistent and mindless like a rock he was made of. I myself was swept off my feet, and rolled on the floor, colliding with all sort of junk that accumulated there over the last century.
The archers were still standing though, sending shaft after shaft into the shifting mass of shadows. But it was unfeasible to see if they dealt any damage. I jumped to my feet and walked forward, fighting against the acidulous wind of the dragon’s breath. My spells failed again and again. If only she would turn her attention off me, so I can concentrate on my casting! But she would not. She picked me up as a master of the elementals, and the most aggravating foe and was intent on finishing me first. A slap of her great tail slammed at me with the force of a gigantic hammer, spiked with steel nails. The blood came in streams from my crushed abdomen, as I clutched at my midsection, hovering on my knees at the mercy of the enraged Dragon. My fingers gripped at the dark, cold needles, which embedded themselves into my flesh. The spikes melted under my hands, but my life force was leaking away with that dark smoke.
I could hear the screams of my companions coming as if through the thick layer of cotton. Somebody grabbed me from behind and pushed me on the floor, so I rolled over and hit he wall. Then I heard the familiar Rashemaar battle cry, as Minsc whirled Lilarcor like the battleaxe above his head and threw it into the bulk of the advancing shadows. Thaxll’ssillyia screamed in rage as the magic sword found its target. But she was not dead yet, not even seriously wounded and Minsc was on the floor again rolling haplessly like a rag doll.
Another voice, young and quivering with rage, was yelling the bloodiest curses in a perfectly accentuated, cultured tongue of Amnish nobility. I laughed at that, through the red fog clouding my brain, coughing and hurting myself, but clinging to the last shreds of consciousness. He actually managed to hit her a couple of times, before she shrugged him off like an annoying insect with a flicker of her mighty wing.
Suddenly it all stopped. The Dragon froze in the middle of a turn, and her shiny hide seemed to loose its luster, and its blurring effect. She sat on her hunches, looking utterly bizarre, like a big hen in the middle of the chicken coup, with her eyes glazed over and the tip of her enormous tail twitching ridiculously from side to side.
I could not stop myself from another fit of insane laughter, and the dark blood poured out of my mouth, bubbling and foaming. I would have died there from that irrational exuberance, if Jaheira did not take a grip of me with her strong, cold hands. The dizziness of her healing spell overcame my resistance and for a moment I blacked out, giving myself up to the recuperating force of her palms.
When I regained consciousness, briefly afterwards, the Dragon still sat there as if frozen in time, and my companions gaped at her in total amazement.
"Feeblemind spell," I croaked. "Jan, please remind me to order a statue of yourself, preferably in gold, that is when I would have the resources."
"Yes, your Worship," he whispered still unable to believe in his own greatness.
"It would not take that much gold for this one, lassie." Minsc smiled. "Even if you make it in his real size. But he is worth every ounce of it."
"Oh, thanks, Minscy." Jan squeaked. "I bet nobody is rich enough to make one in your real size!"
Upon which remark, he grinned at Minsc like a little toad and winked most reassuringly.
"On the mean time, I suggest we finish her, before the spell wears off," I offered staggering to my feet with Jaheira’s help.
The hilt of the Lilarcor was still sticking out of the Dragon’s shoulder.
"Have you seen it?" The sword yelled in a frenzied falsetto. "Have you seen me jump? I got that Dragon fair and square! Right through her heart I went! Yeah! The REAL Dragon! Now they will never laugh at me again…" It hesitated realizing that it had said too much. "You know, not that I was never used against the dragons before…" The sword giggled. "But still she is a real Dragon, not a darn beetle!"
"Oh, please shut up," I pleaded breathlessly. My lungs still hurt. "Minsc, can you pull it out? We need to finish the job. Do it quickly!"
"You… you mean it is not dead yet? Oh, Rats!" The sword growled.
Indeed, she was not. Blessed with incredible power and stamina of her kin, Thaxll’ssillyia was very much alive, if temporarily disabled by the spell. Although Anomen’s flail dealt a significant damage to her right foreleg, and some of the arrows that Minsc and Mazzy showered at her had found their target. The ones that had pierced her hide were sticking out like the needles of the porcupine. The sword itself blockaded the wound it caused, so she did not suffer much from the external bleeding.
Minsc is a very tall entity, even by Rashemi standards, but he could not retrieve Lilarcor without climbing up the Dragon’s spine. (Later he told me that that was the weirdest thing he ever did; I did not believe him.) He had to pull himself up the Dragon’s hip, then find a grip at the joint of her monstrous wings with her body, and then heave himself further up.
Finally, he was standing at Thaxll’ssillyia’s shoulders shrouded by the immense shadow of her wings. He took a good grip on the Lilarcor’s hilt and pulled it out of the Dragon’s flesh. Dark dragon blood gushed out of the gaping wound. The Dragon moaned in pain and a shudder went through her immense body.
I heard the short intake of breath from Anomen.
"I had to do something like this once," he said excitedly. "But that was just a wyvern, not a Dragon. If anybody had told me two weeks past, that in no time I would be fighting dragons in the deepest dungeons of Faerun, wielding one of the mightiest weapons of all times, I would have laughed in their faces!" He gripped the golden handle of the Flail of Ages and continued feverishly. "And to think that once I had suspected you of being the Conduit of the Enemy! Thank you, my lady, for bestowing upon me this opportunity to prove myself worthy! I shall not fail you." And with these words, he rushed to Minsc’s aid.
"You are welcome, Anomen." I answered weakly.
The thrill of the battle had left me, being replaced with a gut-wrenching dread at the cruel scene that I was witnessing. I just wanted it all over with, as soon as possible. But how could I even try to explain that to him?
As Minsc started to carve deeper into the Dragon’s neck, Mazzy had pulled her great longsword. They whacked and slashed at her, and still she was holding to life with all the terrible vitality of the Dragon kin.
Tears were rolling down Mazzy’s cheeks, as she hacked at the claws on the dragon’s enormous paws. These were the instruments, that had killed her beloved, I realized with a shudder. Still, I could not join that carnage, let alone enjoy it. Jaheira did not suffer from such weakness of spirit. She did not want to be the part of it, but now faced with the necessity – she was calm and efficient as ever.
Thaxll’ssillyia gave off a great roar and felt onto all four legs. She tried desperately to punish her foes, as her tail lashed in the last frenzied attack and her great jaws snapped vainly around. Alas, the crossbow bolts, delivered by small but steady gnomish hand have blinded her eyes, and she lost too much blood to recover.
"Wait!" A terrible shriek came from the dying Dragon. "You have killed me with your trickery, little insects, but before I leave this Plane forever and join my ancestors in the Dragon Eyrie, I want to know the name of the one who defeated me. Tell me the name of your leader!"
As her unseen eyes searched for me in the shadows, leaking blood and ichor, a frightful feeling came over me. I knew I should not answer, but a terrible force of her blind, dying gaze held me paralyzed, and my mouth opened on its own accord.
"I am Dorotheas of Candlekeep, daughter of Phoebe and Gorion," I answered trembling from head to toe.
The Dragon laughed. The sound of that laughter filled the silence like the water flux fiouldthe empty bed of the desert river in Spring, and it flushed all remains of courage from my quivering heart.
"I curse you with my last breath, Bhaalspawn." She boomed. "You have lost much, but you will lose even more as the curse of the Dragon is a powerful one. Let your life essence be drawn from you the way your stole mine, let everything you will learn to love be taken from you, and destroyed forever! You will pay and pay for what you’ve done to me until you crawl back to my bleached bones to beg forgiveness, but even then it will not be granted." And with these last words, she drew a deep, hissing breath and died.
I stood there still as a stone, though in a short while the irrational fear that filled me weakened, and the sharp pain in my chest ceased. Since the Dragon has spoken her curse, I had struggled for air like fish taken out of the water but that had passed, and I was able to think more rationally.
Of course I have heard that dragons could have this effect on a lesser mind, but I fancied myself strong enough to resist such an attack. I was wrong.
Anomen was first at my side, pale and disturbed. "Forgive me, my lady, but are you all right? Surely you don’t believe that the Evil Beast such as this can have power over your destiny?"
Unfortunately for him, his chivalry was getting on my nerves. I was shaken enough as it was, but being presented to the world as a Gentle Flower, who needed a strong masculine shoulder to rest her weary petals on, was pushing it too far.
"Holy smokes, Anomen! I am perfectly fine." I snapped. "I don’t believe in curses either. Rest assured that you are in no danger of me falling accidentally in love with you, and thus bringing you to your doom. Though speaking of curses, I would love to ask you to make me a list of these most colorful profanities that you used on the Dragon!" I turned to him and glared with what I though was an ironic expression.
Anomen flinched and slowly turned red. I noticed that he was prone to blushing like a fair maiden.
"That’s the spirit!" Minsc boomed happily and slapped him on the back, so that the young man stumbled at his feet. "Don’t worry, lad. Boo tells me - she would be just fine. No dead Dragon can take that sting out of her tongue!"
Then I heard a cough from Jaheira’s direction and was surprised to see her shaking silently with laughter. "You... you are unique," she was finally able to convey. " I thought I would need to put you to sleep, so you can recover. But now I think you will be fine, and I already took care of the flesh wounds. It sure would take more than the old Thaxl’s curse to discourage you. I would suggest, though, that you change your clothes. Why is it you always end up half naked and covered in blood?"
I looked at myself and blushed. The front of my dress was torn and shredded into ribbons, and a fair amount of my bloodstained bosom was exposed in these gaping holes. Jaheira’s healing spells took care of my wounds, and I suspected I would not have lived long without her. For when the Dragon’s tail whipped across my chest I have heard the cracking of breaking ribs, which in turn had pierced my lungs. The sharp, heavy spikes on the tail had slashed at my belly, and what was more aggravating, destroyed my clothes!
"Oh well, another dress ruined," I sighed. "I should adopt these leathers that you guys favor. Fortunately, I think I have a spare tunic somewhere in my backpack."
They all surrounded me now, smiling happily with relief. Jan chuckled and Mazzy hugged me briefly, but I noticed that her eyes were still red.
"We need to rest briefly and gather ourselves, for the final challenge that still lays before us." I said seriously to her. "I am surprised that the Shadow Lord did not pay us a visit yet. But I have a feeling that very soon this would change. It will start wondering why is it taking so long for the Dragon to finish us. I suggest we act quickly and preempt him."
"This most foul sorcerer will soon find out the fate of his Watchdog!" Mazzy responded. "We need to move fast!"
I retreated further into darkness and changed into a fresh tunic and leggings, discarding the old ones on the floor of the dungeon. All my spare clothing was black, for I swore to myself that until I tear Irenicus’ heart out of his dead body, no other color would shroud my shoulders. I was not worried too much about the dead dragon’s curse for my blood had already cursed me into the life of ruthless misery, but I was wondering if she had foreseen something of my future, for the Dragon kin have being known to be able to pierce the veils of time like that.
Then I donned my mantle, for although it was torn, it was still wearable. Puck peaked out of my backpack to make sure that I was all right. I have felt the bunny’s distress and fear through the battle with the Shadow Dragon somewhere on the background of my awareness. I had scratched him behind the ears briefly and bid him to go back into hiding. I was not sure what would happen to him if I die, but suspected it was nothing pleasant.
* * * * *
Yoshimo reached the outskirts of the Imnesvale village by noontime. He had seen no shadows or shadowed creatures in all the time in the forest, though the sun had been hidden beneath the swirl of murky, gray clouds and the air was saturated with moisture. It was one of these damp and gloomy days, when it is not exactly raining, but the suspension of fine droplets of water is hanging in midair like mist. He could almost see the blur of many small rainbows out of the corner of his eye, when the sunbeam occasionally escaped the clouds.
Although his black leathers protected him from most of the drizzle, by the end of the journey, Yoshimo’s underclothes were wet and he cussed softly as he entered the village. Still, his spirits were high, and the thoughts of his first success in puzzling out the identity of his elusive prey were warming him up on that otherwise cold and miserable trip.
He actually started to feel sorry for the girl. Not that that would stop him from performing his task, but still he was feeling less and less comfortable with it. "The trick is to never let yourself feel any sympathy for your quarry," he though sternly. "I am letting myself to develop personal ties." He hoped they would be smart enough to avoid the Shadow Dragon, if there was indeed such a beast in that accursed place. Blessed be the gnome and his nimble fingers for finding that ward stone.
Though compared to what awaited her when his own task would be completed, being slain by the Dragon was not such a bad thing. It was dignified and glorious way to end one’s life. Deep inside he knew he would have preferred that to dying slowly for months and months in one of these iron cages that his new master was so fond of. "And this is exactly what is going to happen to me, if she dies and I live to tell him about it," he thought absentmindedly. But the thought was not terrifying anymore, for he dwelt on it for so long that it became a mere abstract idea. "Lets’ hope that the druid would keep her alive for the time being." He though. "She also seems to have a personal stake in the girl’s survival, though obviously she hates her guts. I would never understand women, even if I live for a hundred years, which is most unlikely."
He shrugged and knocked at the door of the Mayor’s house, for that was his final destination. His thoughtful state did not prevent him from marking the existence of the back door, and checking for all possible ways of hasty retreat. Everything seemed quiet. And he was discreet enough to approach the house by the means of the back alley, and not to be seen by many. Still, the street kids had spotted him, and he recognized a few of them from the encounter in the Mimic’s cave. He winked at the tall and lanky blond boy, and the lad gaped back at him as if he just seen a living dead. Technically, he was not that far from truth, Yoshimo though grimly. "But I would be damned if I give up before trying to do my best to return in the land of the living."
Minister Lloyd Wainwright looked stunned by the news of the shadows return into the temple of Amaunator. Yoshimo was taught from his cradle to show respect to elders, so he waited patiently while the old man vented his anxiety. Nevertheless, he got the impression that the Mayor was not exactly unprepared to that turn of events, for he did flinch at the name ‘Shade Lord’.
Yoshimo remembered the appropriate haiku:
Beware of the shade of the Dragon,
While watching the dance of petals of the wild cherry flowers,
At the raise of dawn.
The old legends die hard, and the Mayor knew them by heart. The grandsir of his grandsir had probably fought the Shade Lord on his first coming into the valley, and had sung prayers to the Sun God. His ancestors have long abandoned the old faith, but the dreaded name of their ancient enemy still lived in their memories.
"I will inform the Council of Six in Athkatla," Minister Lloyd mumbled. "But I doubt they will be able to send help in time. Normally, I would have petitioned the local seniors and the Merchants of the city of Trademeet, but they are overwhelmed with their own problems. The bottom is falling out of the world with Bhaalspawn armies devastating the country, and the Shadow minions stalking the land again! So, if your friends would not return by the fortnight, I shall advise everybody to flee the area. We would only add to the growing army of the undead that that abomination commands by staying here. If we travel light and in small groups, we may be able to put enough distance between us and the temple grounds by nightfall to break free of the shadows."
"More likely, you will be slaughtered like sheep," Yoshimo though.
"What about the sick and the elderly?" He asked in dismay. This cowardice was disturbing, because it reminded him of his own downfall, but he could also see how he can take advantage of the situation and complete his other errand. "What about the rangers and woodcutters in remote areas? Would you leave all these people to their fate?"
"I have to save as many as I can." The Mayor said gravely. "But I don’t think I can find anybody willing to risk their lives trying to reach all the settlements scattered across the Umar Hills. Anyway, most of these people are probably dead by now."
"I see." Yoshimo nodded.
When the Sun raises
High above the frozen Earth on a cold winter morning,
The living Dog is better off than the dead Lion.
He recited the famous lines from the "Conversations under the Cherry Tree" by Kowagati Iru Hito in his own translation, for he was not entirely devoid of the sense of humor and greatly enjoyed the subtle irony of that ancient collection of anecdotes. The Mayor however, was in no mood to enjoy the Kozakuran poetry, though he was sharp enough to catch the meaning of Yoshi’s jibe. Which was exactly the effect Yoshimo was aiming for.
"If you are so inclined, why don’t you take this mission upon yourself?" The old man growled. "I can provide you with the maps of our district, which will have all the ranger’s cabins and the coal-burner’s shacks listed!"
"I would try to assist the village in this task as best as I can, Master Wainwright. May the Shichifukujin help me! I still have hopes that my companions will return victorious." Yoshimo bowed keeping his head low. He was not sure he could keep the gleam of triumph from his eyes.
* * * * *
I was sitting at the base of the stairs giving myself to the simple pleasure of rest under the open autumn sky. The stray beams of sunlight made their way through the patchy clouds to mark the end of the reign of the shadows. They fell upon the sun altar and reflected off the chipped golden coating at the nose of the statue. This one was not as impressive as the one in the catacombs. Just a weary old man in antiquated clothing and spiky crown, painted in gold coat. His face looked wrinkled and tired, for the gold had worn off in many places, but his eyes were still the eyes of an immortal.
He was holding one hand up in a blessing; the other one was outstretched with a strange ornate scepter in it. Some hundred years ago there were jewels embedded in that rod. The dry yellow leaves of alder trees already covered the parapet, slowly drifting to the base of the altar. It had only been an hour, since the spell holding that place in a cocoon of interwoven shadows had been removed. But already life was coming back. I could see a blackbird pecking at something on the stone floor. Its quick, round eyes reminded me of Yoshimo, and I smiled to myself.
It was all over. The monstrosity that called itself the Shadow Lord was gone, destroyed beyond return and so were his shadow slaves. I hoped that their end was indeed a release, and not another imprisonment in the Plane of Shadows. We had buried the tormented body of the ranger Merella in the shallow grave under the trees. She was free at last. The forest was her home and its damp soil gave her the final rest.
"My little pet-knight has returned with more souls to feed upon!" I remembered the Shadow Lord's taunt with a shudder. For a fleeting second, I had doubted our halfling lady, but one look at her ashen face had convinced me that Mazzy was true to her word.
So, it fed upon the souls of his victims, before they could be converted into the twisted creatures of the Shadow Plane. What was it that it craved? I thought I knew, and the answer made me shiver. It was devouring the immortal Ka of its victims – the living essence of life, love, and excitement. Something that it was lacking hitherto. I wondered if it could hold onto the stolen Ka for a while, or was it like trying to fill a bottomless cup?
I looked at Mazzy, who was polishing the golden surface of the altar with her sleeve, as if in a dream. She had scratched the names of her fallen friends on the soft golden surface with her dagger. The golden-red curls framed the pale, little face that was blank and expressionless, as if that effort took the last remainder of her strength. I had no heart to tell her that that would not last long. Though, who knows? The gold would not rust and the statue itself may still be here in a hundred years.
She was badly hurt in that battle, for she could not believe that the shadow of her beloved would harm her, and even as he attacked, she could not fight back for a while. The worst thing about fighting shadows in the dark place is that you cannot see them. Unless you lit the place really well with fire spells. Then you can see the bottomless hole of the extra-planar portal, pouring out the living darkness. That is when you really get scared.
Strangely, I could sense it as a rip in a fabric of the magic weave. Something that should not be there and could be removed, burned out like a festering wound on the body of the space-continuum. A bolt of lightning sprang up from my hands and the thick cord of silver, forked, and fizzling with energy hit the black vortex.
The elemental forces that the magic user can unleash are dangerous not only to her enemies, but to herself. The physical pleasure of letting loose the streams of raw energy from your bare palms cannot be compared with anything! Not even the tender caress of my lover ever came close to that. I can understand why some of the wizards stay celibate – there is nothing there that can surprise you much.
That is also why most of us (including yours truly) are real nutcases. You have to have your sense of danger disabled or turned inside out, like it had happened with me. Otherwise, you would never try any of your spells even once.
The sizzling, silver lightning continued to stream from my hands, and as the portal started to close, for a fleeing second I saw a vision of a strange, nightmarish Land under the starless sky, full of shifting and wavering things, things crooked and twisted but seductive beyond measure. I had fought the desire to give up my soul and let it be drawn inside the portal to become one of the graceful, silvery entities sliding gently inside sweet, velvet darkness. As I pulled away the Shadow Lord screamed in rage, and its power dwindled. The portal collapsed.
I could hear the wind wailing outside the black cocoon of shadows mixing with loud, monotonous druidic incantations. The Nature itself was rebelling against the aberrant rule of the shadows. A buzzing, gray cloud suddenly sprayed from Jaheira’s hands and enveloped the crippled figure of the Shadow sorcerer. "The plague of insects," I thought shivering. I knew that spell. It is a death warrant to any magic user for one cannot concentrate on her incantations whilst surrounded by a biting cloud of angry wasps! This time the Shadow creature made a fatal mistake by binding itself too firmly in the mortal body.
I wondered why did it do it? The bonds of flesh? The hunger for corporeal existence? Nevertheless, when its mortal shell was badly damaged, its essence fled the body but could not escape back to its home Plane, and so perished. The broken form of the dying ranger sagged to the stone pavement, her blue lips twisted in the terrible grimace of death, but still whispering gratitude for her final freedom. I wondered if the soul stripped of its immortal essence still can find peace? May be the Shadow Lord did not devour all of it, and some part of her Ka was still alive.
I woke up from my half-dream in the sunbeam with a sudden feeling of being watched. The angry blue spark in the young man’s eyes was intense enough to light fires. If stares could burn, that one would have turned me to ashes. I smiled calmly at him, and looked back with my own yellow, cat-like orbs. He flushed red and turned away. Throughout the latest confrontation, Anomen fought the shadow creatures with the grim determination that I had not seen in him before. He seemed totally oblivious to personal danger and angry as a bear, with a thorn in his paw.
"Good for you," I though amusedly. "May be you will learn some good manners after all."
"When pigs will fly!" came a vague response from Puck, who was munching on something in the underbrush.
"Not you, silly," I thought affectionately. "The other hormone-driven specimen."
"Ah, him," the rabbit answered gaily. "That one definitely needs to be laid. I bet, if you drop this puritan attitude and give him a good roll in the bushes, he would be much easier to manage!"
"No thanks. I think I would pass," I answered trying to keep my face straight.
"Your loss." Came the last faint response and the bunny moved off my mental landscape.
I watched the young cleric for a while. He was sitting all by himself, carefully inspecting his flail, although its enchanted metal never needed any cleaning.
"How seriously are you interested in the boy?" Jaheira asked suddenly.
She'd sneaked up on me quietly, and I blinked at that sudden question. I could hear Minsc grumbling in the forest in search of Boo, who sudenly showed an interest in taking a walk under the hazelnut tree, and Jan’s squeaky voice suggesting to lure the energetic rodent back with promizes of fancier treats. My pesky familiar was out there, no doubt in search of more interesting company then mine. Even Lilarcor was snoozing, or doing whatever enchanted swords do on holidays, in the spot of sunlight on the pavement. Nobody could hear us.
"Not very much," I cringed. "Why do you ask? You forced him on me, you know."
"Then why do you keep playing with him like a cat with a mouse?" She muttered. "You have these long, one-on-one conversations, than mock him in public, but keep watching him with these yellow eyes of yours. It is rather peculiar."
"Yellow, ah?" I chuckled in amusement. "Men usually call them amber or gold, depending on the light. Seriously, I am dirty, weary, and tired. I look like a black scarecrow with dirty nails, and I have absolutely no interest in romancing anybody. I think you are imagining things."
"I was wondering why did you take to wearing black all of a sudden," Jaheira said thoughtfully. "I though it was another one of your quirks that would pass soon."
I froze inside and was waiting for her to speak aloud the name that we both dreaded to mention. She never did. Instead, she changed the topic of the conversation altogether, and asked me what are we going to do next. I was not sure myself, but it seemed appropriate, to suggest escorting Mazzy back to her house in Trademeet before returning to Imnesvale.
* * * * *
Think it no more...
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest maid is prodigal enough
If she unmask her beauty to the moon.
Virtue itself scopes not calumnious strokes.
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclos'd,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.
Be wary then; best safety lies in fear.
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.
I shall th' effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.
O, fear me not!
"As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active power of the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of a woman comes from defect in the active power...." 28
EXCERPT FROM THE LAST LETTER FROM Anomen to Moira.
My dearest sister!
First, I want to assure you that I am well and in good health. The wounds from which I suffer are of different nature, for they have been dealt to my pride rather than my body. The events that ensued since I sent my previous letter to you are overwhelming, and there is no way I can fully account for what had transpired. Sufficient to say, that I am a new person now. I had looked death in the eye and emerged from that experience with a change of heart that sometimes scares me, but I cannot deny it. I am much harder and wiser man now, though I cannot say that it makes me happier. We had fought and won a terrible battle; it surpassed my wildest expectations from the days when I first embarked on that remarkable Adventure.
In our search for the secret of the hidden terror of the Umar Hills we’ve encountered and destroyed one of the worst Evils that had ever stalked this Land, namely, the shadowed Sorcerer who had called himself the Shadow Lord. Not only that creature preyed upon the innocent souls, it also commanded the vilest of horrors of the Underdark - the Shadow Dragon. Yes, that was the ultimate challenge that nearly brought us all to our end.
Remember all these stories we used to tell each other, hidden in the laundry closet while Father yelled and raged in his drunken stupor till he would tire himself into an uneasy sleep? I can recall all the villains we’d slain, all the fair ladies we’d rescued from the clutches of evil dragons as Sir Galeod and his Companions romped through the land, seeking to dispense justice on their wake. You have actually written down most of these stories, have not you? On one of my latest homecomings, I found your old journal and spent the whole night reading them and smiling to myself. Sadly, these romantic tales have nothing to do with reality.
The truth about fighting the real Dragon is ugly and cruel and I don't have the heart to discuss that battle here in all details. The dragons are stunning to behold, but they imbue one's heart with fear, for they are highly intelligent and use the vilest of magicks to pray on the minds of their foes. The Shadow variety can also hide from view in the shadows, and is almost impossible to hit.
Still, we prevailed, albeit that victory left a taste of ashes in my mouth for it also showed me the true nature of my companions, and the heart of the one I dared to call friend proved to be weak and wicked, as many of the woman's hearts. I am sorry my dear, I do not wish to offend you, but you must admit that your sex is weak and you use your weaknesses to pray on men's souls like succubae.
I can understand the reason under that deficiency, for I truly believe that in this way the Nature provided you with an effective weapon to defend yourselves against cruelty of the world of Men. Men pray on women as a wild lion would pray upon the weary deer, and if women cannot not protect themselves by taking to arms (for they are weak and their muscles are no match to men's), or turning to magic (for their minds are mostly limited to the aspects of life mundane), they have to have a weapon to fight back, which is why you are so efficient in hurting one's soul when it is at its most vulnerable.
You know I love you, so I am not afraid to beg you to quench that desire of exercising your power over men while you still can master it, for it is also most dangerous. Every men looks upon woman with lust in his heart, and even as he tells you the sweetest lies and fills your ears with the most romantic tales, he still covets you in his thoughts. For as he watches the sway of your hips as your walk by, or the raising of your chest as your breathe, he can only think of how much he desires your body, and thus condemns himself to the mindless slavery of lust.
I worry about you, my dear for you are an apple of my eye, the only person in my life who truly cares about me, and I would not allow any harm to come to you. Your innocence is your greatest treasure, which should not be spent to satisfy carnal desires of some undeserving fool. Your future husband should pay tribute to your virtue and beauty by setting you on a pedestal of his love, and surrounding you with most tender care. I regret deeply having to leave you under our Father’s roof, for not only he can hurt you in his drunken outrage, he is also putting you in danger by succumbing to your every whim whilst he is sober, to pay you back for the abuse you have to tolerate. And I am afraid that you are enjoying this, for that is how you are getting the first sweet taste of your power over men. It is not safe for you to get so involved in his business affairs - he has many enemies, and they will hurt you to get back at him.
I mostly worry about that whole business with Saerak the Calimshite. Do you know why I had to move out of the house at the end? Three years ago, when Father tried to mend fences with that monster and offered him your hand in marriage, I nearly murdered him! It may shock you to hear this, but when I’ve heard of that vile plan, I had the insane desire to wring his scrawny neck and be done with all the years of negligence and humiliation we had to suffer from him! Saerak is twice your age and already he had buried two younger wives. There are rumors that he retains a seraglio29 in that grim castle of his. But you know the gossip all too well. Father had backed out of that arrangement later, for you have made his life a living Hell, but the damage was already done. Saerak is extremely dangerous, and he knows that you are the brains behind all Father’s latest business operations. He would never allow him to recover. You are in serious danger.
Why cannot you be content with what is appropriate to the young lady of your status? You should strive for a happy marriage, and a life of leisure and love. Instead, you spend your time in the dusty office, checking Father’s ledgers and writing to his agents, the life he had intended for me, and the one that I had luckily escaped by joining the Order. You, who are so sweet and romantic, find interest in the power struggle of the old fools? I can’t understand this, and will never approve of this.
True, there are women in the Council of Six, and some of them are the Heads of the important merchant families but it takes generations of wise and careful management by men, to achieve such status. The old Fool wasted our family fortune on his idiotic projects, and then drowned his mind in a bottle. Mother’s death was only the last excuse for him to completely loose himself in wanton drinking. How can you hope to restore our name and wealth with your delicate little hands, I cannot comprehend.
But enough of this. I wish to return to the topic of my story and tell you how we had overwhelmed the Evil Shadow Lord after disposing of his pet Dragon …
* * * * *
Yoshimo was walking on the forest path for the second time that day. The rain had stopped, and a strange calmness felt upon the land, as if its spirit was recovering from the terrible sickness and needed all the rest it can get. The sun was peeking through the wispy strands of clouds occasionally, and sparkled on the droplets that hang precariously from the wet blades of tired, autumn grass. Yoshimo observed that bleak beauty with calm, resolute smile. He felt sudden joy in his heart and wondered if that had anything to do with the fate of his companions. Yoshi was almost sure now, that they were doing well. At present it was up to him to succeed in his task.
He browsed mentally through various options that were available to him. The matter was complicated by the fact that the man knew somebody was coming after him. "But then, almost all of them do," he thought wearily. This continuous awareness of their doom, following on their steps, weakens their spirits and makes his task easier. There are some that fight like cornered rats at the end, be they never get away from him.
Back at the house, the Mayor provided Yoshimo with handy set of maps. He marked the hidden settlements and ranger cabins in red ink and added a few comments on the general layout of the area. Yoshimo was pleasantly surprised to find out that the old man’s memory was a treasure trove of useful information. He had spotted a genuine regret in his little pig-eyes, and guessed that the Mayor hadn’t always looked like the sack of lard that he was now. There probably had been days in his past, when he was as young and hungry for adventure as his lanky and freckled son Dirbert. Yoshimo chuckled, remembering the business with Lilarcor and the cask of ale.
When he exited the Mayor’s house, the gang was waiting for him outside- all three of them, sober and hangdog, but fervent with curiosity.
"Uh, hullo Mister," the Mayor’s son was finally able to utter. "I’m Dirbert Wainwright. Remember me? You killed the m…monster in that cave with an arrow, when it jumped us. We were worried ‘bout you, you know… the big guy, the gnome, and the ladies," he flushed hotly. "Peoples say, the wolves had got you all, you know. It’s like, you know, we need to find out… Can you please tell us?" He finished pleadingly. "I know we acted like total losers in that cave. But I liked the green-eyed lady, and the big guy … Are they all really dead?"
"As far as I know they are alive – at least they were, as of this morning," Yoshimo sighed. "But things may have changed since then. They sent me to warn Imnesvale of the danger that is hiding in the ruins of the old temple. They were going to confront the Shadow Sorcerer that had made his home in there, and thus save your village. I cannot tell you how it went, although I think they have had a good chance at success."
"Oh yeah!" That came from a short and plump lad, the youngest of the three. "Neler," Yoshimo remembered. He had a perfect memory for names – a must in his profession. "They are all wizzards and heroes and such! I love magikks!"
"Or just shut up, Nel." Dirbert frowned at his younger companion. "You don’t understand a thing do you? Is there really a dragon there, Mister?"
His eyes shone with genuine ardor, and somehow that reminded Yoshimo of the glint he had seen in Thea’s eyes when she was talking about the Shadow Dragon. A sudden chilling thought ran through his mind.
"She is about as mature as this boy when it comes to dragons," he thought bleakly. "I shouldn’t have left!"
Nevertheless, his face stayed perfectly calm, and he answered in a most friendly fashion. "Personally, I’ve never seen one down there. What gave you such an idea?"
"Uh… they say a big cloud of smoke has been coming from the skies at night, and when it comes the cattle goes mad… I used to laugh at that, but after that sword thing talked to me I started thinking and… Val’s Da," he nodded at the third boy, "had said there was that cow, chopped in half that had the teeth marks the size of a sword on it, you know…"
"Sharp lad," Yoshimo thought approvingly. "He would make a passable adventurer one day, if he lives that long."
"You shouldn’t worry about such things," he said soothingly. "If there was a dragon in the Umar Hills, such a beast could not have stayed hidden for long, and my friends will take care of the evil sorcerer. In the meantime I would appreciate some help."
The tall boy frowned suspiciously at first but upon hearing this request grinned most enthusiastically.
"You…you mean we can really help you to beat the Evil Sorcerer? But how? See, guys, I knew we can be adventurers! Ask away! We’ll do whatever you say!"
"Err, Dir, you sure you want to mess with that adventuring stuff again?" the one called Valsben suddenly mumbled. "My Da gave me such a trashing after that last time…I could barely sit."
Dirbert squirmed. The welts on his behind started to heal, but the Mayor’s belt still loomed over his head, more menacing than a dragon. Still he was determined to get another taste of the adventure even if it will cost him a few more inches of skin.
"If you want to chicken out, now’s your time, Val," he said stubbornly. "But I am in it, whatever it is!"
"I am with you!" Neler squeaked, and licked his dry lips nervously. "I wanna be an adventurer too!"
"You can’t be serious about that guys," Valsben wailed. "My Da’s gonna kill me this time. And Ma told me, she’ll finish whatever is left after Da’s done and hang it up to dry!"
"Then go and hide under your Ma’s apron," Dirbert sneered. "Yeah, we shall go forth at your command!" (That’s what the guy in shiny breastplate said to the lady with the eyes like cat’s.) Dir spoiled the effect by sniffling vociferously at the end of that tirade, otherwise he sounded almost as good as the young man in the tabard embroidered with a shiny golden heart.
For some reason that made Yoshimo bend over in a fit of silent laughter.
"Excuse me Dirbert-san," he said after a while, taking an iron grip on himself. "I did not wish to upset you, or hurt your feelings. It’s just you reminded me of somebody, most vividly."
Dir’s eyes popped out. He had never been treated that way before. Nobody had ever stopped to think that his feelings might be hurt, let alone apologize to him. His opinion of Yoshimo rose considerably, although it had been pretty high to begin with, for he still could remember that arrow slamming into the yellow-fanged, nightmarish creature. This guy dressed in tight-fitting black leathers could probably take on a dozen dragons, with one hand bound behind his back, and he was apologizing to Dir? That was astounding!
"Uh… no offence taken, sir. How can we be of service?"
"If we are going to work together you shall call me ‘sensei’," Yoshimo looked at the youngsters making sure their whole attention was on him. He needn’t have worried - they were ready to swallow his every word.
"I need you to have a good look at that map your father gave me, and tell me as much as you can about these locations," he pointed out the marked ranger cabins. "I am looking for a dangerous criminal, who is hiding in the area. As far as I know he is in league with the Shadow Sorcerer, and may be responsible for your people’s disappearances," Yoshi improvised. "Your knowledge of the local terrain may be invaluable to me. But you mustn’t tell anybody, especially your parents, for we do not want to spread panic. If you can help me find him, I would take care of the matter myself."
Now all three of them were excited as a pack of young pups, their tails literally twitching and their eyes shiny with desire to please him. They crowded around Yoshimo, pointing their fingers at the map and chattering like magpies, trying to outdo each other.
"Calm down, young ones." He said raising one finger. "You are making so much noise - I am surprised the whole village has not come out to see what is going on. Meet me at the cave in two hours. Go quietly, one at a time and, most importantly, stay away from ale and swords! Last time I was able to track you down by the smell you’ve left." Yoshimo looked at them his eyes twinkling with amusement, then continued more soberly.
"Try to remember every new face you have seen in the area lately. Of course, with all the refugees it is not going to be an easy task. We also need to know if anybody in the village has been seen sneaking into the Umar Hills with supplies. It would be rather unusual, since most of the folk from the remote settlements must have fled into the village, when the shadows came."
"Yes … uh sensei," Dirbert mumbled, filled with eagerness you can only find in the faces of new acolytes of the most prominent religious orders. "We’ll be there."
The boys quieted, overwhelmed with seriousness of their errand, and bursting with pride.
"They will not be able to stay silent for long," Yoshimo thought briefly. "But hopefully, by the time the gossip starts spreading, my task will be complete, and I will be long gone."
Later, Yoshimo had a lunch at Vince’s, at the innkeeper’s expense. He managed to say as little as possible while consuming the hearty stew of beef, potatoes, peas and carrots, and washing it down with a pint of amber ale, but still, the inn was buzzing with rumors by the time he was done.
He pretended to be extremely tired and retreated into the tiny guestroom on the first floor, that had been formerly used for storage, and was the only room, that Vince was able offer. Yoshimo did not care. What was really important for him was the fact, that it had a window facing into the backyard. He peeked out carefully. The lot was empty of intelligent life and overgrown with lavish nettles and burdocks. A few emaciated chickens scratched at the dusty ground amidst the weeds with horny, yellow legs. These were probably the ones, which Minsc and Jan had liberated at their last visit to Imnesvale. Yoshimo lifted the cracked window frame, making sure to oil the rusty hinges first. In a few quick, fluid motions he was out of the room and out of sight. The chickens observed that action without much interest, and returned to their futile search for food.
* * * * *
On the eve of the day after the fall of the Shade Lord, our small company walked down the forest path, moving deeper and deeper into the heart of the swamp. As I threaded carefully along the trail, the rusty brown water oozed out of my footsteps, and strange, creepy vegetation threatened to overtake the narrow path every now and then. More than once the trail led into an impenetrable wall of dry, thorny bush that we had to cut our way through. The month of Marpenoth was almost over, but here in southern provinces of Amn, the weather stayed mild and sunny, and the marshy landscape was a splatter of green with randomly ingrained specks of red, gold, and brown. On the whole, it looked like a palette of some mad artist, who was maniacally fond of verditer30 and sepia.
Sometimes the trail would enter the sickly forest, where huge pale mushrooms thrived on decaying tree trunks overgrown with emerald green mosses, and pale, razor-sharp grass covered the glades. To my substantial relief there were almost no insects in the air, but that was the only sign of the impending cold season.
There were only five of us now, for when we had reached the city of Trademeet earlier in the day, I had insisted that Mazzy remain with her family. She was in no shape for more adventures. Her folk were delirious with joy to get her back, and her mother begged her to stay with them, at least until she is fit to travel. Mazzy’s younger sister Pala looked at me with her velvet brown eyes - a distinctive feature of the Fenton family, and I could not ignore that silent plea. I asked Mazzy to stay home.
She bid me goodbye, looking very sad and vulnerable, and I left their house with the lump in my throat and the memory of her warm, bright gaze. Afterwards, I tried to convince myself that that was the right thing to do, but my heart was not in it. I guess that was why I did not feel like arguing with Jaheira about what to do next. Normally, I would have shown more sense.
The affair that followed was caused by a combination of bad luck and druidic recalcitrance. We should have been on our way back to Imnesvale right away! But when Jaheira had seen the piles of rotting animal carcasses at the city gate in Trademeet, she had gone ballistic. I did not blame her then, since my own curiosity was pricked, so after having seen Mazzy safely to her home, we went to visit the local authorities.
Mazzy’s hometown of Trademeet is a small but prosperous merchant city sitting contentedly in the fertile valley between the last outcroppings of the Small Teeth Mountains, and the edge of the Great Forest of Tethyr. While many consider that area rustic and forlorn, the Small Teeth region is actually an agricultural heaven and its olive oil and wine exports are among the best products to come out of Amn. The valley is abundant with olive groves and vineyards, and the lower mountain slopes of Small Teeth sustain numerous herds of goats and sheep, while the green hillsides around Imnesvale are used as pastures for larger domestic cattle such as rothe, and cows.
The wealth of Trademeet is largely based upon the city’s convenient location at the crossing of such major trade routes as the Tethyr Road, connecting the Sword Coast with Vilhon Reach, and the famous Trade Way, which runs along the western coast of Faerun all the way from Waterdeep to Calimport. And until recent trouble with the missing Tablets of Fate, the locals had enjoyed the sponsorship of the Goddess Waukeen, the deity of wealth and prosperity 31.
The Trademeet City Hall, which also served as the Mayor’s residence when he was in town, was a compact but magnificent affair in yellow sandstone, with colonnaded porticos and an ornate windmill on its roof in a shape of a belligerent cockatrice32. The mechanical beast was made of thin sheets of metal, and even when viewing it from the ground one could guess at the amount work that went into the making of that elaborate toy. As a gust of wind blew from the east, the gilded creature tinkled and spread its metal wings, pointing its shiny beak towards the distant forest. I smiled at that display of wealth, as we went inside to meet with the merchants’ Mayor.
The High Merchant Logan Coprith was not half as bad as I expected. He was polite and well educated, which is always a big plus in my personal book, though the story that he told us was hardly believable. He claimed that over the last few months the natural environment around the city had started to show definite signs of hostility towards its people. It was rather small signs at first, like an invasion of caterpillars in the orchards and vegetable gardens of the local farmers, or the potent weeds overtaking the city’s squares and parks, which were removed only to re-grow overnight. Then wolves and wild lynxes had been spotted on the outskirts of the city, attacking dogs and livestock – something, which had not happened for over a hundred years. It intensified over time to the point where the owners of some smaller farms had to abandon their land and move inside the city walls. The waves of animal attacks had become intolerable, disrupting the trade, which was already suffering from some strange interference. At that point, I stopped listening for the intrigues of local merchants were not of much interest to me.
What worried me was the frequency of these local disasters. The political situation in southern Amn was unstable and the decades of civil war in the neighboring Tethyr provided fertile grounds for all sorts of public unrest. Still, I wondered if all these misfortunate events had anything to do with me being the child of Bhaal. May be the evil that infected my soul had the strange effect of bending the general Matrix of Probability? Then again, I was not the only Bhaalspawn wandering the face of the Realms. Perhaps it was time for Alaundo’s Prophecies to be fulfilled and the land was plunged into the bloodbath, which would result in the return of the Lord of Murder.
Naturally, the response of the local residents to the aforesaid events was to start looking for a scapegoat. And the badly needed ruminant33 was found in the humble persona of a druid from the far North, who had come into the city unbidden some few weeks ago asking disturbing questions. The druid later claimed that he was only trying to investigate the reason under the attacks on the city, but who would listen to a guy with a feather in his hair and grass stains on his feet?
Fortunately, the Mayor was a bit more sophisticated than his electorate, and he had stopped the lynching procedure just as it had started to become interesting. The druid, whose name was simply Cernd, was being held in the basement of the City Hall, which had been used as a makeshift prison on many previous occasions. That was where the Mayor took us after Jaheira expressed a persistent interest in the matter of the animal attacks. By that time, I was feeling the currents of fate picking us up again, and rolling us like freehand bits of wood from the shallow tributary into the mainstream of the River Trouble.
And sure enough, two hours later we had found ourselves on a marshy forest road, leading into nowhere in search of an elusive druid grove, which that Cernd character described as the epicenter of a problem. Jaheira had adamantly refused to trust him, even though he begged to accompany us. We’d finally agreed to meet him at our destination. The images of hot bath, and a night’s sleep in a real bed plagued my tired brain, but our time was running short, so I had agreed to take a ‘shortcut’ through the swamp on our way back to Imnesvale, and our pack animals. I was venting my frustration on the innocent mushrooms and ferns on both sides of the road with my wooden staff when Minsc, who was scouting ahead, raised an alarm. The trouble we were looking for, had found us, all right.
The nervous, little character in a dirty, leather tunic was waiting for us at a turn of the trail. He did not look dangerous at all, although as we had soon discovered, he was the first agent of the mysterious forces behind the animal attacks on Trademeet. It was clear that the man did not like his mission, and would have preferred not to come within a hundred miles from us, but since it was his task to deliver a message, he was determined to do his best.
"Leave this place before it is too late, or else face the wrath of Nature," was the essence of it.
His eyes shone with fanatical glare of a religious martyr as he mumbled his warning. I thought he half expected to be decapitated on a spot, or subjected to some sort of exquisite torture. That made me think that the man knew we were not a simple band of travelers.
Since it was I who was the object of that unwarranted fear, I decided to have some fun and looked at the poor bugger menacingly, trying to use all the intimidating powers of my ‘dazzling’, metallic stare. He sagged like a punctured water skin. After that it was a matter of technicalities to find out who sent him and what they knew of us.
"You did not have to do that, you know," Jaheira grumbled after we finally let the poor fellow go.
I raised an eyebrow. "Would you rather have me use mind control spells on him? Or poke him with my penknife? We need to know what we’ve gotten ourselves into!"
"I suspected from the start," she admitted reluctantly. "I’ve heard rumors from my Harper contact in Athkatla of your girlfriend’s activities in Tethyr."
"So, you knew it was Faldorn all along, and you did not tell me!" I stared at her angrily.
"My dear ladies, before you start pulling each other’s hair out, may I suggest something?" Jan interfered. We both turned to look at him. "It would be a good idea for the rest of the company to learn who is that Faldorn, and what she has to do with anything." He smirked. "And may I add that I like your golden-brown," he bowed at Jaheira, "and sable," he nodded at me, "locks the way they are."
"Boo says – he likes you both. He does not want any fur flying, no sir!" Minsc boomed.
I glared at Jan – he smiled gently and returned my gaze unabashedly. It was no use trying to intimidate him, so I gave up.
"Faldorn is an old acquaintance of ours, Jan. I would not exactly call her my ‘girlfriend’," I looked at Jaheira defiantly, "but I understood her better than many others. She helped us to flush out Sarevok’s goons out of Cloakwood."
"She is a Shadow Druid," Jaheira growled.
"They are trying to stop an onslaught of civilization on your beloved forests! A noble cause if you ask me, but a lost one," I smiled crookedly. "The human race will always choose well-stuffed coffers over the lure of Mother Nature!"
"A compromise can be always found. I believe that civilization can be balanced with the Way of Nature if handled carefully. You have seen the dead animals and burned glades all around Trademeet! In their blind hatred of technological progress the Shadow Druids do more harm to the forest they are sworn to protect, than the host of hungry termites!"
"You were much more forgiving when we first met her!"
"I did not have any choice!" she exploded. "It was a matter of life and death back then, and your destiny was at stake, if you may remember!"
"Is not it always my destiny that tips the scale for you?" I asked acerbically. "You are supposed to maintain the balance, remember?"
She went white. "Don’t try my patience child! You owe me this one, if only for the lunacy with the Dragon, back at the temple!"
"Fine," I hissed through my teeth. "If you want to claim that debt now - Faldorn is yours. But promise me, that you’ll let me talk to her before you beat her into a bloody pulp!"
"The Shadow Druids sow discord and harvest violence," Jaheira said in a hollow voice. "And Faldorn is not exactly the helpless innocent you make her. I have to stop them now or this madness will continue to spread over the lands. It is but a small token, but I owe it to my Gods. This region borders the Great Forest of Tethyr, which is venerated by both elves and men, and protected by the Oakfather34 himself. If the Shadowed Ones are allowed to establish a foothold here the Great Balance would be threatened!"
"You cannot compromise on matters of faith," Anomen said suddenly.
He had been glum and silent the whole day and even had avoided picking fights with Jan. When we had taken a short rest on our way to Trademeet, he’d sat alone and wrote an extremely long dispatch, frowning all through it. I’ve seen him scribbling letters before, and assumed these were his reports to his superiors at the Order. I could not but wonder- what was in that last one?
He stared at me unflinchingly with his bright blue eyes and for once, he did not look ridiculous, although every inch of him was screaming bloody arrogance. His face was gaunt and suntanned after all the time he’d spent under the open sky, and deep shadows lay under his eyes from sleepless nights and troubled thoughts.
I cringed under his accusing stare, but held my grounds. "There is that slight matter of personal friendship and loyalty, Anomen. Faldorn happens to be a former associate of mine. Sorry, I may not be the best authority on religious beliefs, since I have none." He scowled at me but said nothing. "I also do not have many principles, but among the few that I do possess, the first is – you are responsible for the ones you claim as your own! As you’ve probably noticed, I never leave my dead and wounded behind and I would fight tooth and nail for every one of you, if only because I expect the same in return!"
"Imoen! When was it the last time that I remembered her?" The though came unbidden, washing away all my worked up anger and exaltation. I shuddered in a sudden spasm of gut-wrenching guilt.
"Oh dear," I exhaled in distress, "we have to get to Imnesvale quick, and Gods help Valygar Corthala, for his days of running amok are over! I need him badly, because he is our key to Imoen."
They all felt silent. Then Minsc stepped forward and caught me in his bearish embrace; I sniffed into his shoulder.
"Now, now," he said soothingly, "I will let you hold Boo, if you wish. He will make you feel better."
"Rats!" Jan chirped from somewhere down below. "How did you manage to pull that one? It never works for me!"
* * * * *
"You have to look at the ground before you put your foot down, not after," Yoshimo repeated patiently for about a hundredth time, "otherwise you are going to be dead in no time. Now, Neler, do the stance of the prancing cat then go into the dancing heron."
Nel tried to imitate the graceful forms that Yoshimo was flowing through with deceiving ease, and ended flat on his stomach.
"That looks more like downward dog," Val giggled.
"Valsben-san, please show your friend how to do the forms properly," Yoshimo said bowing his head politely.
"Yes, sensei," the prankster squeaked guiltily, and tried his best.
Which of course resulted in him joining Nel on the ground. They both giggled as Neler poked Valsben in the ribs and rolled away, leading to a mock fight and a variety of other horseplay. Dirbert frowned at them, as he tried to go through the exercise himself. He was more successful, since he had listened to Yoshi’s every word as if the Kozakuran thief was a holy oracle.
The morning of the day after Yoshimo arrived in Imnesvale was bright and sunny. Yesterday, they had spent a few hours going over the Mayor’s map. But the boys could not say much about any of the locations on it. Yoshimo had sent them home when the shadow of a nearby cypress tree crept to his feet, and the crimson ball of the evening sun slid toward the horizon.
This morning the boys had asked him to show how to fight without a weapon, as he had mentioned that the true warrior could do more with his bare hands than an untrained lummox with a magic sword. Yoshimo had given everyone a thick wooden stick, and when they tried to move on him at his sign, had disarmed them in a matter of seconds causing a few casual bruises and a lot of excitement. It had turned out they needed to be taught how to walk before considering even few of the simpler forms of the ninjutsu. They had spent all morning learning how to control their unruly limbs and studying the beginner’s kata.
Yoshimo was strangely pleased with all that nonsense. He had found he actually enjoyed pretending to be a sensei though, certainly, he could not really claim that honorable title. He remembered his own dark and desperate childhood and the years of virtual slavery as a bound apprentice in the yakuza35 family, and shrugged. These boys were lucky, though they could not appreciate it without being through his kind of experience.
"Enough of this foolishness young ones," he said quietly and they subsided immediately, and gathered around him like the wolf-pups would gather around the pack leader. "Now that your heads are clear of any troublesome thoughts, and your muscles are warm lets sit and remember our task. Did you ask around about recent newcomers? Did anybody notice anything unusual going on, other than the general upheaval about the shadows?"
"Uh, old Nelleck says these loose chickens attacked his cat yesterday," Neler offered. "And farmer Groos’ cow had born a calf with two heads, peoples say it’s a bad omen!"
"Shimatta 36!" Yoshimo swore silently. That was not the information he hoped for.
"Mm… sensei," Dirbert mumbled. "Yesterday, when I came home there was that ranger, Tomdel Merry, from Mushroom Hollow. It’s not like he is new in town or something… it’s just that they stopped talking when I’d walked in and he left right afterwards. It was getting dark outside but he went through the backyard and straight into the forest. I thought it a bit odd. Nobody travels in the forest after dark these days… But it’s not like my Da to help hide the criminal, you know…"
Yoshimo’s ears pricked, but his face stayed unnaturally calm.
"Probably nothing serious, Dirbert-san," he muttered, "I don’t think your honorable father would harbor a murderer and a shadow-friend, either. Which way did you say the ranger went?"
"Oh, he actually headed west, as if he was making for that place," Dir nodded at the dark maw of the cave, that was right behind them. "I cannot think of anything else in that direction for miles and miles. Except the haunted house, of course, but that place has been empty for over twenty years now!"
"The haunted house?" Yoshimo raised an eyebrow. He looked at his map. There was nothing on it to the west from Imnesvale.
"Oh, that’s how we call the Corthala’s house around here," Dirbert looked embarrassed. "Children’s tales, really. They say the whole family has been cursed and turned into the bloodsucking undead! I’ve never seen any of them. They were city-dwellers anyway and only kept the place as a summer retreat. The house is empty. We used to play rangers up there until the roof started to cave in and my Da ordered the entrances to be nailed down."
"Interesting," Yoshimo said carefully, straining to contain his triumph. "May be we should take a walk down there just to make sure it is indeed empty. Your father may have been deceived, or maybe that ranger had found something there and was reporting his find."
Dirbert’s eyes brightened. "Do you really think so, sensei? Wow, that’s exciting! What if he is really hiding in there? Can you take him on your own, or should we call for help? I can run back to the village and…"
Yoshimo just looked at him, and that stare made Dir’s tongue freeze in his mouth.
"This is not a game anymore," Dirbert realized with a shock, and suddenly he was not that sure that they were entirely safe in this desolate place, one on one with a man who had just shown them how you can kill a well-armed opponent with your bare hands.
But then, Yoshimo winked good-naturedly and the feeling passed. Once again, he was simply a slender, foreign-looking man, with black hair caught in a ponytail, and a silver-incrusted sword at his back. The cold-blooded murderer that had looked through his eyes was gone and probably was just a figment of Dir’s imagination.
When the black viper slithers
Under your bare feet in the grass, there is no time
To count the prayer beads.
The thief recited the haiku37 dreamily, tilting his head to the side, in a bird-like fashion. "So we shall follow the wisdom of the ancients and strike at once, ere the snake would learn of our coming."
Dir thought he resembled a large raven that he once seen killing a snake with one hit of its sharp beak.
"I need to move quickly," Yoshimo thought. "She may come back anytime now, for the shadows are gone. As old Vince has been telling everybody, there have been no new disappearances for two nights in a row."
* * * * *
The cave stunk of trolls. There were at least twenty of the smelly, half-burnt corpses in there. I lost count after the first ten. The last stinky, greenish horror writhed at my feet as a jet of pure flame from my palms finished it off. The bastards regenerated quickly unless their wounds were scorched with fire. I could hear the hissing coming from the heap of smoldering coals that once was a fire elemental. It had taken three of these plus all of our fire enchanted arrows and my fire spells to withstand the wave after wave, of enraged trolls.
Jaheira was vomiting noisily in the far corner of the cavern. She was the first to find a pile of half-eaten human bodies, and that broke her normally perfect composure. Most of the dead wore the remnants of rough leather tunics, and had druidic symbols tattooed on their skin. Judging by the proximity of the troll’s lair to the sacred grove, the Shadow Druids were fighting for their very survival. That gave me hope for reconciliation. If we help them to eliminate the menace of trolls, may be I can convince Faldorn to stop the attacks on Trademeet.
We had stumbled upon that lair by accident. At first, a small troll whelp tried to attack Jan from the bushes, taking him for an easy target. It had been severely disappointed to find out that its intended lunch could fight back. A huge female came in answer to its screams since Jan had burned it badly with a flame arrow spell. We barely had time to beat her down ere the rest of the family descended on us. That was when I realized the situation was serious. We managed to finish the giant male and its subordinates, but my fighters were badly wounded and it became obvious that we could not continue without some careful preparations.
As Anomen and Jaheira murmured their medicinal prayers, I pondered on the situation. We needed a detailed map of the area. All we had hitherto was a hasty sketch drawn by the unsteady hand of the batty druid from Lord Coprith’s cellar.
I pulled my surveillance center and part-time python38 aside. "Jan, dear fellow, looks like I need your help again."
The ‘clairvoyance’ spell is one of the many interesting cantrips that are entirely out of my reach for I restrict myself from using spells from the School of Divination. They give me a terrible headache. Gorion used to joke that my brain lacked an organ that empowered the ‘divining’ process but I think my mind is just too well organized for this fuzzy type of magic.
Nevertheless, I asked Jan to perform the trick for me. Easier said than done. And of course, he happened to lack the components we needed! We had to spend a considerable amount of time hunting for frogs among the shallow pools of mud while the others observed that circus with annoying smirks on their faces. (We needed a few small glands from the base of the brain of any vertebrae, but I’ll leave these unappetizing details out of this journal.)
"Yippee! This is going to be a perfect entrée!" Jan squeaked with enthusiasm, when we got our first intended victim.
"Do you actually know how to cook these?" I asked with amusement for I knew that frog legs were considered a delicacy in southern cuisine.
"You ask Jan Jansen if he can cook? I spent a whole year as the chef of the finest dining establishment on the Coast! Oh, ‘Jansen’s Turnip Delicatessen’ was famous in Athkatla. The dinner parties we used to have! People would come all the way from Waterdeep just to have a taste of my famous turnip-cakes," he clucked his tongue, "we had Turnip Strawberry Surprise, Honey glazed Turnips, Red-herring stuffed Turnips, Spicy Turnip Delight sautéed in Bearhuggers’ Smelly Stout (uncle Scratchy’s personal favorite), and certainly the Tethyrian style Turnips with chocolate, whipped cream, and all that fancy elven fluff. Ah, all the glitter and elegance of those days! All gone," he shook his had sadly, "destroyed by the jealousy of my competitors. You see, someone started spreading rumors that the whole business was just a cover-up for a major smuggling operation. They accused me of sneaking untaxed vegetables into the Underdark, and thus undermining our economic blockade of the enemy! And they dare speak of the trade liberalization and freedom of expression! We’d been acting strictly within the guidelines of the fish-oil-for-veggies program!"
"You tell me," I muttered, " a free enterprise strangulated by the vile tentacles of Amnian bureaucracy. Was it an operation of the same scale as the one you’d been forced to quit before joining our little company?"
"The oddest decision I’ve ever made, I have to admit," the gnome grinned at me, ignoring the implication. "I have a feeling the repercussions are going to haunt me through the years to come!"
"Let’s first make sure that you’ll have these long years in your future," I chuckled, "and then you can use them to curse your hasty choice, or to rejoice in it! But if we want that to become a reality we need to finish this frog-catching task."
After a time we’ve managed to capture a few nice specimens of the local fauna, and Jan’s belt pouch now held a collection of yummy frog legs. I was musing over whether anyone else in our group would have a stomach for these, when a finding a different kind of a swamp critter stopped our happy hunt. In our pursuit of an especially fetching amphibian we had moved away from the rest of the company, and discovered the mouth of a large cave. Luckily, the trolls standing guard at the entrance did not see us, before we’ve seen them first. Glancing at each other and getting the hell out took us less time than it takes to read this line.
After we returned to our companions, slightly shaken but undamaged, our first priority was to move to a safe area and complete the divination. Jan performed the spellcasting with as much arcane jest and theatrical mumbo-jumbo as possible. I had always known that he was fond of special effects, but the flashes of orange light, and acrid brown smoke pouring out of his ears, as he chanted an old children’s rhyme in Chulthean, was overkill. (I asked him later, "What was the point?" He grinned and confessed that that was the only piece of Chulthean that he knew. He did not know, that Gorion had made me study about ten different languages. Although, my proficiency in nearly all of them was pitiful.) Upon finishing the spell, which took quite a bit of time because of all of the above, we put together a fine map of the area. But the sky was getting dark above the tree line when we were finally done.
I was torn between a strong desire to get out of there and seek the path back to Imnesvale, and the danger of stumbling upon more surprises in the coming night. The trolls, a plague upon their whole smelly kin, have perfect night vision! And so the decision was out of my hands again and after much quiet cussing and finger pointing, we had put together a half-decent plan of attack on the cave. Fortunately for us, it had worked.
We dragged all the cadavers deeper inside the cave, nevertheless, the smell of them was so terrible that we had to camp outside. No wonder Jaheira had lost her lunch. I was willing to risk an attack on the open rather than share the space with two dozens of dead trolls and their many victims. At least they were avenged now.
After helping with collecting kindling for the campfire, Minsc and Jan went back inside the cave to search the heap of humanoid skulls and bones for clues to their identity and any usable items. I could not stand it, though I understood it had to be done. When they returned Minsc was carrying a cartload of things that looked like a rusty, grimy junk to me. He and Jan occupied themselves with sorting through it, while Anomen tended to the fire silently, and I observed Jaheira cooking and brewing the herbal tonic for herself.
One thing I have never involved myself with was preparing food. My party members were smart enough to recognize what a disaster I was with a cook-pot and gently, but firmly insist on me being absolved from that particular chore. Smart move! The only time I had tried to cook something while camping on my own, I ended up with a salty, brownish blob that even cockroaches would have refused to taste! Ever since, I tended to summon an unseen servant, or any other useful creature from another dimension even for something simple, like making myself a cup of tea. I have always marveled at Jaheira’s household skills and her extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and their applications.
"Why such a sour face, your Worship?" Jan’s voice finally broke the prolonged silence. "We are all alive and in one piece again, thanks to his Holy Nastiness over here, and our tree-hugging Amazon," he nodded at Anomen and Jaheira. "This is a great deal more than these poor buggers in the cave have got, and tomorrow we will meet that Faldorn gal and tell her to take a hike in the woods. Everything is going to be hunky-dory, you can trust old Jan on this!"
"I wonder if that was supposed to be a compliment," Anomen snapped. "You have no respect of the holy power that grants my healing spells, gnome, and I would not tolerate you disturbing the spirits of the dead with your foul tongue!"
"If there is a foul-mouthed moron in this company," Jan snickered, "that would not be me. And I did not mean any disrespect to the deceased. I think they are much happier now that the place is purged of the filthy troll vermin. There is no need to be angry and boorish to show respect. Your deeds speak louder than your mouth."
Anomen snorted, and turned away. I was tired of his attitude, which somehow had gotten worse since the battle with the Shadow Dragon. Though deep inside I knew I was partially to blame.
"Leave him alone, Jan," I sighed. "He will come to his senses eventually."
"You think so?" Jan looked at me amusedly. "Well, who is a better judge of a man’s character than a young, pretty woman! Albeit, I can’t see what a girl like you can find in a lad like him. He can practically curdle milk into cheese with his stare. Speaking of which, did I ever tell you the story about my former employer, wizard Galadon, and a head of aged Gorgonzola cheese in his underpants?"
"No," I said trying to stifle an involuntary giggle, "this one was not among many of your culinary jokes today."
"It sure had stunk worse than the troll dung!" Jan snickered.
"I hope I can be excused from hearing that particular one!" Jaheira exploded. "You may have missed it altogether, but I have a problem with this line of jokes right now. My stomach still hurts. And I am trying to cook our dinner here!"
"Ah, the good old porridge again," Jan sniffed at the bubbling pot. "No disrespect meant, but ain’t everybody tired of it by now?"
"Boo says, there is nothing better than the healthy load of oats," Minsc rumbled happily joining the ruckus at the campfire. I noticed that he was carrying a pair of carefully cleaned, ornate bracers. "Look what we’ve found in that pile of ol’ bones," he continued, showing these to Anomen. "Jansen claims - these bracers have a spell on ‘em to improve one’s archery skill. I am going to try them, and you can have my old enchanted vambraces that I had got from our old buddy, Irenicus. What do your say?"
Anomen looked surprised at this sudden offer and his spirits improved significantly as he joined Minsc in a long and boring discussion of relative advantages of magical armor. Boo, perched on Minsc’ left shoulder, wagged his whiskers in approval. I guessed he was an expert on Minsc’ armor in situ.
"At least these two found something to talk about," I thought in some relief opening my spell book and concentrating on my work. It looked like the company was settling for a relatively peaceful night.
"Watch this, Minscy!" Jan untied his belt pouch with a flourish and emptied it on the ground before us, showing his afternoon’s trophies. "I am going to make you the best frog-leg julienne this side of the Small Teeth!"
This time, Jaheira had barely made it to the bushes.
* * * * *
Yoshimo stopped briefly to catch his breath and do a quick scan of the area. Everything was quiet so far.
"What are you going to do now?" Dirbert asked frantically. "You ain’t gonna hurt anybody, will you?"
The bounty hunter frowned - the boy was making too much noise already. For a second he almost reconsidered his plan then decided that stealth is not going to be important for Dir anyway. In fact the more attention the boy can attract the better. Yoshimo was sure the house would be closely guarded. He made a quick gesture with his hand indicating that Dirbert should come closer and keep as quiet as possible.
They have been climbing up the rocky slopes of the Small Teeth outcrops for about an hour now. The narrow trail went steadily up looping amongst the gray, scaly boulders, resting precariously on the mountainside, and cutting through the thickets of burly mountain pine. The Corthala residence was perched at the edge of the high stone ridge overlooking the Imnesvale. The house was built against a vertical cliff wall on one side, and was almost entirely hidden by the trees. They caught only a glimpse of it from one of the sharp turns on the trail.
But Yoshimo was positive that anybody approaching the house from below would be seen by the sentinels well before they would be able to reach any hiding places. His quarry (who was no stranger to the area) would slip quietly into the woods the moment he sees anything suspicious, and thus would be able to get away. Therefore, Yoshimo’s only chance was to create a diversion. He prayed silently to the Shichifukujin that the boys would do their part properly.
"Sit," Yoshimo said calmly to Dir, "and ease your breath. You have to learn to control yourself. I told you I would not harm anybody but the shadow-friend, who is hiding in the house. Now let us sit and wait until we see the signal from our friends. Then we shall act."
They sat there for a while breathing steadily and looking at the magnificent view of the valley spread before them. The thief could see the silver band of the river Imen running merrily between the green hills below, and the tall spire of the rustic temple of Lathander, that replaced Amaunator as the local deity. Suddenly a thick, gray cloud puffed from the valley, and soon the column of a black smoke was billowing steadily into the blue autumn skies from the approximate location of the Umar Cave.
"Look, sensei! They did it!" Dirbert jumped to his feet excitedly.
"Calm down, young one," Yoshimo muttered. "Now we act swiftly. Do you remember your part well?"
Yoshimo moved forward hiding behind the rocks, and sliding like a shadow under the scarce cover of the crooked pine trees. He stopped and peered ahead, making sure he could not be seen from above. Having left the trail below, he was climbing steadily up the mountain slope through the thin brushwood. From here he could see a hunched figure of a boy, going slowly up the path without any care of being discovered from the house. If Yoshimo’s reasoning had been correct the conspirators would not hurt the Mayor’s son for his father was their main ally. Hopefully, they would at least listen to the boy before turning him away.
Here it was! The tall figure of a ranger cloaked in green stepped from the bushes in front of Dir. Yoshimo could see the boy waving frantically, pointing at the column of smoke down below. The man put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and led him down the trail. That was more than Yoshimo had hoped for!
Before they left Neler and Valsben at the cave, he had made sure they understood that the fire had to be started at the mouth of the cave, on the narrow, rocky beach of the Imen where it would be stopped from spreading by the river, but the green, wet vegetation would provide for a lot of smoke. Not that Yoshimo cared much about the forest, but there was no need to alienate the locals beyond a certain point. He nodded to himself and resumed his cautious ascent to the house.
In less than half an hour the Kozakuran was able to reach the back of Corthala summer residence unhindered. There was nobody left to start the alarm, he made sure of that. The house itself was no more than a glorified ranger cabin, though it had two stores and a wide wooden terrace supported the upper level with creaky wooden staircase leading up from the ground. Yoshimo peered between the cracks of the broad shield, on one of the lower floor windows. Everything inside was dark and empty; the spider webs covered every corner of the small kitchen and the remains of the ruined furniture were piled at the corners. He shrugged. The wood was too dry, despite the recent rains. He could not force his entry into the house without been heard. But there was another way to deal with the fugitive ranger, though it was risky.
Yoshimo unbuckled his belt and dropped it on the ground, carefully laid down his silver-wrought katana in its ornate sheath, then put his short bow and the quiver full of arrows on top of the neat pile. His weapons should be safe here for now. He pulled the knives from his sleeves and inner pockets, and the one inside the top of his soft leather boot and dropped them on the ground as well. Finally, he opened the small leather pouch nested at his breast and smiled.
The bare palm of your hand
Will touch the rainbow of butterfly wings,
To soothe the heart of fury
When a few moments later Yoshimo put his foot on the first creaky step of the wooden staircase it made so much noise that his cheek twitched, even though he was ready for that. He ascended another step, and another. Nothing happened.
He was half the way up when the door at the second floor opened with a crash and a lithe, dark figure of a man shot out of the shadowed entrance onto the terrace. Yoshimo raised his head carefully, making sure to move very slowly, and keeping his hands in full sight. He allowed himself a good look at Valygar Corthala – the alleged murderer and renegade ranger.
The first thing Yoshi had noticed about the man in front of him was a loaded crossbow pointed at his chest. The second fact made the bounty hunter swear, for he realized that his opponent was not the right man. This character was obviously a foreigner, like himself. Yoshimo expected Corthala to be a light-skinned Amnian like most of the villagers, or at least to have a bronze complexion of a Calimshani. (He knew his quarry was a human.) The man in front of him had a skin the color of a burnt caramel, dark brown eyes and a mane of raven-black, wavy hair partially pleated into small braids. He was dressed in well-cut, soft leathers; though his clothes looked like he was sleeping in them for at least a week. His big, well-shaped hands had a perfect grip on that crossbow, loaded with a steel bolt.
"If you make another step, this bolt will go through your gullet without a warning," a low, pleasant voice said with a well-recognized accent of Amnish upper classes. Yoshimo have heard enough of that speech to identify it right away. He quickly changed his mind about the stranger’s identity.
"Ah, good day to you too, sir," the Kozakuran nodded pleasantly. "You are Mr. Corthala, I suppose?"
"I take it as an admission of your motive for being here," the man frowned without answering Yoshimo’s question directly. "So, you’ve been hired by the Cowled Wizards to track me down like an animal and bring me back to Athkatla?"
"I admit nothing of that kind, "Yoshimo said carefully, "and before you make a hole in my stomach may be we should discuss the situation? There may be others to follow on my steps, you know."
"What did you do with my friends?" the ranger exploded. "I don’t believe they would have let you come that close to the house without a fight!"
"The forest fire in the valley may have distracted them," Yoshimo lowered his eyelids, "but I have nothing to do with it, I swear. I have come to you bearing no weapon in hope of finding a peaceful solution to this riddle. Would you hear what I have to say, Valygar Corthala?"
Valygar, for it was he, flinched at the repeated sound of his name. He had obviously failed to protect his identity. "Remove your boots," he commanded after weighting Yoshimo in his mind, "and take off your jacket! Then you may come up to the porch."
"Who would have thought a man of your stature would be interested," Yoshimo smirked. "I assure you, I am no different from any other man."
Valygar laughed shortly and humorlessly without taking his eyes from Yoshi. "Talking smart to me is not going to help your case," he said firmly, "I am not interested in seeing your body parts, but you may still have hidden weapons. Your boots and coat are the most obvious places. Take these off please."
Seeing his opponent’s finger tighten on the crossbow’s trigger, Yoshimo complied. So far, everything was going according to his plan. The thief wriggled out of his black leather jacket and dropped it on the stairs. His shirt, also black, was of the finest silk. Yoshimo enjoyed fine clothes and took good care of himself. He pulled off his black leather boots and looked back at Valygar. The man nodded and backed off still keeping his eyes on Yoshimo, but visibly relaxed. The hand with the crossbow was lowered and the ranger turned away from Yoshi, pointing to the bench on his right.
These few seconds of distraction were enough for Yoshimo. He raised his hand as if adjusting his hair. The blowgun with tiny darts imbued with strong narcotic was hidden in his ponytail, and masqueraded as a pin. Valygar swore as two sharp thin needles, one after another, struck at his bare neck. He raised his crossbow trying to aim at the thief but Yoshimo was too fast for him – he was already over the rail and on his way to the ground. He landed on all fours as a cat, and dived for cover. The crossbow bolt hit the ground when he was already behind the corner. He could hear the angry shouts of the wounded man turning into slow, hopeless groans. Then everything went quiet. Yoshimo counted until hundred and slowly ascended the wooden staircase. Valygar was lying unconscious at the door where he had collapsed in his drug-induced sleep while trying desperately to lock himself inside the house.
* * * * *
We continued our maddeningly slow journey through the swamp next morning in the gray chilly light of the pre-dawn. Everybody was acting with an extraordinary politeness towards Jaheira, which was not surprising considering the severity of the scene that she had made yesterday over Jan’s ‘unsanitary’ habits and my ‘excessive buoyancy’ at his stupid jokes. I suspected that the roots of her anger with me lay deeper than that, but decided to let the skeletons stay in their respective closets.
Rising before down and consuming the cold remains of yesterday’s meal for breakfast did not improve anybody’s disposition either, though the difficulty of our situation kept most of the tempers at bay. Even Anomen restrained from his usual remarks. I had to give it to him – the one thing he had never complained about was his food and sleeping accommodations. The man seemed totally oblivious to the lack of life’s little comforts, which was surprising in a one of his class and upbringing. He could spend the night on the hard stone floor of a dungeon wrapped in nothing but his flimsy tabard and still look rested in the morning. I guessed that a few years in the Order’s barracks and training camps could do that to the most foppish individual. It puzzled me how that Spartan attitude coexisted with a soppy romanticism and a bundle of aggravating prejudices.
Amid Anomen’s angry stares, and the war of wills that was continuing between Jaheira and me the last few days have been a trial. By then, I had come to realize how much I missed Yoshimo’s quiet support. Minsc was nothing but a big child who grew extremely uneasy and fidgety when Jaheira and I had a catfight, and Jan’s humor has been a good distraction, but the Kozakuran thief managed to throw Jaheira off balance just by raising an eyebrow sardonically at her outbursts.
At the moment I was deprived even of the small comfort of gnomish humor, for the little wizard was creeping ahead of the group under an invisibility spell, following the map that we had put together yesterday. We had decided to investigate an abandoned house that was looming on the rocky hill to the east of the swamp. It was likely that the forest road used to go in that direction before it was completely overgrown with vegetation.
From time to time Jan would return to report his findings and give us our next landmark. Since it was easier for him to maintain the spell permanently than to cast it every time, he stayed invisible through these quick intermissions. Hearing his squeaky little voice coming from the empty air was amusing, but I could not stop myself from thinking of Imoen and remembering how much she had loved those shadow games.
We had been moving in this fashion for about an hour and the warm, golden syrup of sunlight started to pour over the land from the eastern side of the sky, when our progress was interrupted by the discovery of local inhabitants. Jan had walked straight into an on-going battle between the company of the nature-loving extremists and their would-be consumers in the local food pyramid, the trolls.
The trolls were superior in strength but they were only after their daily input of calories while the druids were fighting for their very lives. So the odds were well balanced. The gnome had the presence of mind to observe the fight without showing himself, and to return immediately. I wondered if these were the last trolls that had fled from our yesterday’s assault and turned on an easier human prey.
I was thoroughly disturbed by the situation. I did not dare to rely on the humans’ good will, for the warning delivered by the messenger was quite clear – stay out of their affairs or prepare to fight. The courier had had the disposition of a total lunatic and his comrades, whom we have been able to observe from the cover, had the same look of feverish, half-starved fanaticism. Still, I could not leave these characters entirely to their fate facing the hungry trolls. They were taking quite a beating and I had learned well what was the main dish on the local troll’s menu. So, I conjured a fire elemental under the cover of a huge boulder and set it loose in the middle of the fray.
The result was spectacular! The howls of the burned trolls, and familiar revolting smell of singed troll-skin brought a quiet satisfaction to my heart. The monsters lost interest in the humans and concentrated on fighting off my fiery servant. The humans re-grouped and launched a counter-attack. Yet I suspected that the moment our tree-hugging friends would finish the last troll they would start looking for the source of their sudden luck. I hoped that by then the elemental would extinguish itself in the wet environment of the swamp. Nevertheless, I was sure they are going to be pretty mad at me for setting it loose in the forest. The fact that it had saved their hides probably would not even enter their minds.
I had known Faldorn as one who would strike first and think about it later, and I did not have the benefit of an established relationship with these fellows. The only way out of that sticky situation, short of wiping out the very humans we were trying to save, was to leave quietly. And so we left the shadow druids to their troll bashing under the cover of a mass invisibility spell, provided by Jan. I started to feel a lot of respect to my little colleague after the Shadow Dragon incident. By now, I felt just how lucky we were to have him in the party.
We have reached the eastern edge of the swamp when the sun’s golden disc climbed high into the bright autumn sky. Hidden under the spell we had avoided any further confrontations with the shadow druids, for their forces were sparse and most of their patrols were drawn into the battle with trolls.
The air was cool and fresh and the pleasure of walking under the open sky, breathing in the bittersweet aromas of the dried grass and pale autumn flowers, filled my heart with strange lounging. I smelled the acrid stench of smoke coming from the west, but all the sounds of the battle died away and one of the last sunny days of a fleeing fall season lay before us in all its shining glory.
Where the path dived under the sparse canopy of oak trees it was littered with dried brown leaves and acorns; some of them cracked under our feet with distinctive popping sound, causing the bushes to rustle as invisible mice rushed away in panic. Strange fleshy plants, whose thick leaves were covered in soft, silver fuzz, shoot their tall, juicy stalks loaded with small yellow flowers up into the sky. Weird brown creepers, intertwined with the thorny bush, dangled their sickle-shaped seedpods, dried and split at the seams. Where these bizarre fruit had already burst open they were filling the air with a multitude of fluffy white umbrellas bearing their seeds. A blast of wind blew these away, and brought to me the familiar pungent smell of belladonna. Here it was, a small bright-green shrub loaded with clusters of venomous, purplish-blue berries.
It was insane to think of death and destruction in this forest bursting with life, but I knew that half of the various plants and herbs under my feet were deadlier than the rat poison, and the caves in the rocky hillside hosted nests of trolls and goblins. The mysteries of that place were dark and the consequences of ignoring the danger were deadly. At length, the trail led us to the old stone bridge arcing over the deep ravine. From there we could see the ruined mansion on the hilltop. There we stopped for a short rest.
I leaned against a huge gray boulder, overgrown with clasping ivy. The stone was tepid at the first touch, but its core stored the deep cold of the night and I shuddered as it chilled my sweaty back.
"I would be very careful, if I were you," Jaheira’s voice interrupted my uneasy thoughts, "this creeper is poisonous. One touch, and your fingers will look like Rashemi sausages for days, if not weeks. Considering that your spells rely heavily on the physical component, it could be a serious problem." She shook her head. "The red foxtail poultice will cure it of course, but I would have to look for it and then prepare it, and we don’t have much time."
"Well, thank you," I answered in some alarm, looking closely at the bright-red trifoliate leaves of the ivy in question. It looked almost festive with its white-green berries dangling like clumps of merry-bells and its bright foliage, the color of fresh blood. I lifted my body from the stone carefully, trying to avoid touching the suspicious plant.
"Looks like the very essence of this place is hostile to invaders," I said wiping my palms on the hem of my skirt. "May be it is a folly to try to pursue this quest any further. Why are you so stubborn Jaheira? I would rather leave these fanatics to their miserable fate. If they found a way to co-exist with the trolls - let them claim this land and forget about it. So, the wolves and bears have attacked a few merchants, and the weeds are taking over the turnip fields. Bah! I can ‘t see great harm in that. There are already too many humans and too many turnip fields in this world. If the Nature is claiming back some of its own - so be it."
"Now, that’s a frightful idea, your Worship," Jan interrupted me. "I don’t mind you bad-mouthing the gods, mind you, but don’t you dare talk in this way about turnips! Turnips are the lifeblood of the civilized society. There never can be too many of them. Take away the turnips and bards will stop weaving new tales, for they need turnips to replenish their golden thread of poetry; the sword will fall out of the weary hand of a hungry warrior, and the trade will come to a halt for there is nothing worse than a hungry accountant!"
"You are serious about it, aren’t you?" Jaheira dismissed Jan’s little speech impatiently, "or is it another one of your childish plots to annoy me?"
"I am as serious as one can be, Jaheira," I answered in irritation. "These people are fighting for what they see as their ideals. They have chosen strange methods, but is there any other way to make the Trademeet’s merchants listen to their case? I don’t think so. The town lands will continue to expand, cutting deeper into the heart of the Tethyr, as more of the nouveau-rich will build their mansions and plant their orchards, taking over the forest and the swamp. These people seem to have an insatiable appetite for land and every one of them deems himself the Lord of the Realms as soon as they can put their hands on the few hectares of wilderness!" I nodded in the direction of the desolated house on the hilltop. "One wonders, who in his sane mind would build a house in the center of the swamp, swarming with trolls, and expect to live happily ever after?"
"So, you think those vicious attacks on the local farmers are justified because the shadow druids are fighting for their ‘ideals’? Now you speak like the true Daughter of Murder!"
"Don’t try to push my buttons, Jaheira. You know I hate needless violence, but neither I am a pacifist. In this case it is you who favors brutal force over negotiations!"
"I though I made myself clear – these people should be stopped because they are dangerous extremists and their attacks provoke a violent response from the locals, which is threatening the Great Balance!" she said in anger. "Enough of this useless chatter, child, you’ve promised me I can do my duty without your meddling and you had better stick to your word!"
"You know I will," I answered in a low, quiet voice, "But by Oghma’s inkwell, this is going to be the last time you forced me to act against my best judgment!"
Everybody felt silent, for the male contingent of our little company knew better than to try to interfere in the arguments between Jaheira and me. The undercurrents of our love-hate relationship run deep. I knew it was long past time for us to go separate ways, withal she was the last thread that still connected me to Khalid and I was not ready to let it go, not yet.
20. Note from sister Omphalla: First poem is from an ancient text called ‘The Hobbit’, which relates the origin of the race of halflings. Second poem is original, and I believe the first one inspired whoever composed the second. The two make a matching pair.
21. Note from sister Omphalla: Bantam is a breed of very small domestic fowl. Cochin is a breed of large fowl, originated from Kara-Tur, with dense plumage and feathered legs. Gallinaceous - Relating to or resembling the domestic fowl.
22. Note from sister Omphalla: A hallucinogenic plant exported from Calimshan. Used by addicts as a narcotic.
23. Note from sister Omphalla: Goddess of beauty and sensual love Sune is of chaotic good alignment. Still I see no reason for her to quarrel with Amaunator, albeit he was a lawful good deity. Although one of her tenets of faith is to stir a delight in those who look upon you, and judging by the author’s description, Amaunator’s taste in clothing and jewelry was questionable.
24. One of the Gods of Mulhorandi pantheon. Also called the Judge of the Dead.
25. Note from sister Omphalla: Nice theory, which proved to be totally wrong.
26. Note from sister Omphalla: The Shichifukujin – or The Seven Gods of Luck and Fortune are the local deities of the Kazakuran isles.
27. Note from sister Omphalla: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, By William Shakespeare, Earth Sphere, Kingdom of Britain, 1604 Earth reckoning.
28. Note from sister Omphalla: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,Q92, art. 1, Reply Obj.1
29. Note from sister Omphalla: A harem; a place for keeping one’s wives or concubines; sometimes, loosely, a place of licentious pleasure; a house of debauchery.
30. Note from sister Omphalla: Verditer - a bright green pigment; sepia - a yellow or brown one
31. Note from sister Omphalla: A reference to the Legend of Waukeen and the Merchant's Peace, for more information I recommend the reader to seek the scriptures of the Waukeen religion.
32. Note from sister Omphalla: Cockatrice a legendary monster with the head, wings, and legs of a bird, and tail of a serpent.
33. Note from sister Omphalla: Ruminant - any of various hoofed, even-toed, usually horned mammals of the suborder Ruminantia, such as cattle, sheep, goats, deer, and giraffes, characteristically having a stomach divided into four compartments and chewing a cud consisting of regurgitated, partially digested food.
34. Note from sister Omphalla: Sylvanus the Oakfather
35. Note from sister Omphalla: Yakuza (kazakur.) Thugs and extortionists, but they are also peacekeepers and guardians of the common man. Structured bands of Yakuza collect tribute from their local merchants in exchange for protection. Unlike western thieves, Yakuza are much more organized and less apt to be independent. Yakuaza groups (kumi) follow a family head (oyabun); family honor is observed.
36. Note from sister Omphalla: Shimatta - Damn it! (kazakur.)
37. Note from sister Omphalla: Haiku - Kozakuran lyric verse form having three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables, traditionally invoking an aspect of nature or the seasons
38. Note from sister Omphalla: Python a. A person possessed by a soothsaying spirit, a male version of a Sybil. b. Any species of very large snakes of the genus Python.
Continue to the next Chapter of Part Two
Last modified on October 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Janetta Bogatchenko. All rights reserved.