Baldur's Gate II -
Welcome to my online fiction site! On this site you can read my online novel inspired by the game "Baldur's Gate II - The Shadows of Amn". This is unofficial site and it is not associated by any means with Interplay, Bioware or TSR inc. No material from this site can be reproduced for any commercial use and any noncommercial use must be authorized by me.
THE STORY OF A GIRL WITHOUT A NAME
by Janetta Bogatchenko
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Yoshimo dragged the paralyzed man inside and latched the door. By his reckoning, he had about three hours ere his captive would start showing any signs of life, and even then, he would be groggy and disoriented. Still, better safe then sorry. Yoshimo removed the ranger’s belt and tied his hands securely behind his back. He would have to replace this with a more reliable and comfortable pair of shackles later.
Then he checked the sleeper’s pulse and lifted his eyelids. Valygar’s stare was blank but strangely disturbing. The ranger’s eyes were dark and shiny, for his pupils were fully dilated from the drug in his bloodstream39. Yoshimo knew that the man was absolutely conscious in his paralysis and could feel and hear everything that was happening. That was the scary part.
The bounty hunter patted his unmoving prisoner on the cheek and made some soothing noises. There was no need to frighten the man any further. Yoshimo was a professional, not some crazy amateur. He had always tried to minimize mental and physical damage he had to dole out to his ‘clients’, though some degree of suffering was unavoidable. Yoshimo was philosophical about it. Life was a cruel, dangerous game and if one risked crossing the law (be it civil, marital or criminal), he or she better be prepared to pay the price of failure.
Next, the Kozakuran collected his gear and moved it upstairs. He felt much better with his katana strapped behind his back, and his daggers back in their hiding places. Yoshimo’s backpack contained two pairs of manacles and a chained collar. After securing his prisoner’s ankles and wrists with appropriate trappings, Yoshimo searched the house grounds. To his great relief, he found a stable with a riding horse. This made his task of moving Valygar so much easier! Yoshimo suspected that Valygar’s friends, though temporarily distracted by his scheme, would return eventually. If Dir’s father was involved in the conspiracy of hiding the man, the whole village may come to ranger’s defense. His best course of action was to move his captive from the house quickly and hide him until the group would return from the ordeal with the Shade Lord.
Yoshimo considered his options. He dared not to wait until dark. The ranger must be removed before anyone came to check on him. He saddled the horse swiftly and efficiently. The chestnut mare was jumpy at first, but subsided quickly under his firm, steady hand. Yoshimo was good with horses. The party’s ponies adored him, for the thief always had treats for them. At present, Vince’s stable was crammed with a multitude of hungry beasts whose masters had abandoned their farms to flee from the shadows, but Yoshi checked on their timid pack animals regularly and made sure they were treated fairly. As he led the horse outside and tied its reins to the rail of the wooden staircase, he wondered if the innkeeper would keep his end of the bargain while he would be forced to stay in hiding.
Back in the living room, Yoshimo straightened the bed spread and made sure that the room did not bear any signs of struggle. His best bet was to create an impression that Valygar had left on his own account. While upstairs, he checked the place for any valuables and collected all Valygar’s belongings into the saddlebags he had found under the bed. After a second thought, he pulled the shoes off the ranger’s feet. He was going to wear them outside the house, so that the only set of footprints leaving the house would be Valygar’s own.
Next, Yoshimo bundled the ranger’s lifeless form into a blanket and secured the wrap with a rope. Carrying the heavy, paralyzed man down the creaking staircase was not an easy task, but Yoshimo was much stronger than his thin, wiry frame suggested at a first glance. Many a barbarian adventurer from the North or sturdy mountain dwarf, staying in the Copper Coronet in the Slums of Athkatla, had discovered it as their arms were slammed down on the wine-stained table in the iron grip of a slender-looking Kozakuran.
Yoshimo had considered these arm-wrestling contests a legitimate source of extra cash, and the owner of the establishment, Lehtinan, used to joke that Yoshi could probably break the arm of his best gladiator, Hendak. Lehtinan was now dead, and Hendak had taken over the Coronet after a successful slave rebellion started by Minsc in the fighting pit. The bounty hunter chuckled, remembering how the crazy Rashemi leaped over the rail of the arena between the mountain troll and the dwarf gladiator.
Yoshimo did not mind the ordeal. In fact, he had helped to bring down Lehtinan’s guards. His newly found loyalties have been more important than the fate of a brainless slave dealer, though he had to admit - Lehtinan used to be one of his best clients when it came to paying the bounty. Hendak of course was an entirely different game piece. But Yoshimo has hoped that the former slave would soon figure out that running the seedy tavern like the Coronet required relaxing his moral principles a bit.
Talking softly to the horse to keep it from bolting, the bounty hunter heaved the unwieldy bundle with his prisoner across the saddle, and secured it with another piece of rope from his bottomless pack, then strapped on the saddlebags. Less then an hour had passed since he had entered the house, and already his business here was over. He has led the horse down the trail into the valley whistling softly under his breath.
* * * * *
“Pretty young lord in shiny armor. Pretty, pretty knight,” the old woman cackled. “Why don’t you come into the house, golden boy? Old Adrie can read your future if you cross her palm with silver!”
The crone was standing on the bridge with her mane of gray hair whipped by the wind into a tangled mass. Her frail body was shaking with laughter. I did not see her coming. Nobody did. We have been too involved into another one of our pointless arguments with Jaheira.
Suddenly, I felt the rabbit in by backpack stir and tremble with fear, as if feeling a powerful predator close by.
“Oh yes, pretty boy,” the old woman pointed her dry, crooked finger at Anomen. “I am speaking to you. Do you want your lady to love you the way she never did before? To beg you for another touch of your hand, another kiss?” She bent over in a new fit of laughter. “I can brew a love potion for you, my precious, so powerful that she can’t resist,” the crone winked. “Come to the house, deary. I live with my two grandsons. Yes, just the old woman and two little boys, nothing to be afraid of! Bring your friends and your pretty lady if your want. The house is just over there. The town folk used to come here all the time to buy my potions and love charms. But not anymore,” she sighed, “the wild beasties scared everybody away. I’ll be waiting for yer, deary.”
At this, the old woman turned around and walked in a surprisingly quick pace back into the white fog that suddenly swathed the old stone bridge. For a while, we could hear her laughter and clacking of her staff on the pavement. Then all went still again.
“By Helms beard!” Anomen’s color has changed from bright red of embarrassment to the pallor of anger. “Who was that… that woman?” He was deeply shaken by this sudden encounter. And angry as Nine Hells.
He looked at me defiantly, as if daring me to make any comments on the matter. His gloved hand gripped the handle of his favorite weapon and the multicolored heads of the Flail of Ages chimed mysteriously under the gust of cold wind.
“That was most intriguing,” I muttered trying to peer through the strange fog, obscuring the bridge. “I never saw her coming.”
“I’ll be damned,” Jan said suddenly. “Why would an old lady have a tiger head on her shoulders?”
“What did you just say?” I asked incredulously. “She was rather weird, I agree. But I did not see any tiger head. Just an old witch cackling like mad!”
“Oh, I am sorry.” The gnome answered with an expression of genuine surprise. “I thought it was, hmm, very obvious. She had a feline head with red and black stripes. Though initially it looked like a normal human head, indeed. The first thing I noticed - was her eyes. They were yellow, like cat’s,” he glanced briefly at me and chuckled. “No offense meant, your Worship, and anyway, your orbs are more amber than yellow! Then I looked closer and saw that her head was, ahem, like that of a tiger. That gray hair, the wrinkles - it was all illusion, you see. I am very good at seeing through illusions, been an illusionist by trade and such.”
“Oakfather protect us!” Jaheira paled under her suntan. “There is only one creature I can think of that would have a tiger head and can weave such masterful illusions! Quickly! Did you see its hands?”
“They were backwards,” the little wizard nodded gravely. “The palms were on top where the backs of the hands supposed to be.”
“Rakshasa40,” Jaheira muttered fearfully. “ But why here? In the heart of the sacred grove!”
“I bet I know the answer!” I exclaimed as my mind was struck with a sudden revelation. “And I know why she was so hot on Anomen. It is the Flail.”
They all looked at me without understanding.
“The Flail of Ages,” I said simply, “do you remember that Nalia had told me it was forged by Rakshasas and thrown into the world to serve as a bait for the strongest of heroes? Well, they can smell it. I thought I could see the old crone sniff at the air the whole time. I believed it was just my imagination. Now I can see what this was all about!”
“Hey, Boo is thrilled! Looks like we gonna kick some evil kitty’s butt this time around!” Minsc yelled happily.
Jan only shook his head and remained silent.
I turned to Anomen, who was in a much better mood now that his predicament was explained in a rather heroic way.
“I don’t recommend storming into the blasted house alone, Anomen, even if she did hurt your feelings. The poor dear was trying her best to get your attention. She only wanted to tear your throat out and devour your flesh, not to make fun of you!”
Was I mistaken or did a faint curve of a smile actually touch his lips at this remark? I might never know, but he looked content.
“I would not dream of it, my lady, without your consent!” the young man blinked and, unexpectedly, a genuine humor sparkled in his eyes. “I would never turn to magic as means of seeking a lady’s favor. But tell me, do you really think she can brew a potion like that or was it just a jest to make me interested?”
I choked though there was nothing in my throat to cause such a reaction, and while I was coughing furiously, trying to clear my pharynx, Jaheira answered for me.
“If you are asking is there a way to make a real ‘love’ potion, the answer is ‘no’. There is no way you can artificially put somebody into a state where they would feel an everlasting need to hear your voice, long for your presence day and night, or cry themselves to sleep, knowing that your hand would never again touch their cheek in fleeting intimacy of a simple greeting. But if you ask whether the potion can be made to induce a physical desire and make someone feel insatiable animal passion for anything that moves,” she chuckled dryly, “then the answer is ‘yes’, these are called ‘aphrodisiacs’41. I have the knowledge necessary to make this kind of potion although I’ve had no practical need or use for it. The passion between my husband and me was flowing naturally. And trust me, you will rue the day you try to use one of these concoctions on someone to please yourself!”
It was my turn to go white. I took a tight grip on myself, and tried to control my face by all means possible, though I am sure it was a contorted mask of shame and anguish. I quickly turned away from them, and pretended to study the trail ahead.
“She cannot possibly know… by what means I seduced Khalid,” a frantic thought burned in my mind.
“What is the matter with you humans?” a curious voice in my head brought a stop to my mental self-flagellation. “You both enjoyed mating with that male, but now he is dead. Why does this memory cause you to feel so guilty? It is not like you would have refused to take your chances with him again, if he was still alive. The dreams you still have of that affair are most entertaining.”
“You don’t understand,” I lamented, “he did not want me at first. I used a charm spell to get him in my bed. He felt guilty and miserable about betraying his wife’s trust.”
“So?” the rabbit responded quickly. “Did not he enjoy it in the end? I bet he savored his guilt as a most exquisite pleasure. Hey, he was the prize in a contest between two smart and beautiful females! It is practically every male’s dream.”
“An adolescent one, perhaps,” I chuckled. In fact, Puck’s frivolous speculations made me feel somewhat better. “Maybe you are right,” I thought back to him. “It is time to put all this behind me. Thank you.”
“You are welcome silly. We rabbits have to take care of our pets, after all.”
I shook my head, dismissing the sudden weakness of will and concentrating on the task at hand. The wind blew from the east wailing with fury, scattering the brittle, brown leaves and wiping away the remains of the white fog. The path was clear now, leading across the bridge and up the hill to the abandoned house. But the road was empty, though the old crone could not have possibly made it all the way up in the few minutes that had passed.
“We cannot ignore this visit,” I said then. “The Rakshasa will follow our trail, if we don’t take care of her. I have a feeling that even leaving her the Flail is not going to be enough. She will go for blood.”
“I would not dream of surrendering such a fine weapon as the Flail of Ages to that vile abomination!” Anomen scowled. “I am surprised they had the skill and intelligence enough to craft it,” he touched the Flail’s heads one by one reverently, almost tenderly. “I only wield it at your will, of course,” he looked at me petulantly, “I will surrender it at first request.”
Right then, our young square looked like a small boy, who had been loaned a fine wooden saber by his playmate, and now was reminded that he had to hand it back. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes unnaturally bright. I guess I will always be a sucker for an underdog. I realized I could not deprive him of his favorite toy, not at the moment; perhaps not ever - he would be too miserable.
I sighed. “Well, let me put it this way. Nalia was more than happy to get rid of the cursed thing because she feared that Rakshasas would come after it. And we’ve just discovered that her fears were not unfounded. If you don’t mind looking over your shoulder all your life - you can keep it as your own, Anomen. I certainly don’t need it. My expertise lies in a different field. Consider it your part of the spoils.”
Anomen’s eyes shone. He smiled wholeheartedly for the first time since the battle with the Shadow Dragon, and I decided that having him in such a good mood for a change was worth whatever price I could have received for the Flail from some unlucky trader. I hoped all other tensions within the group could be relieved that easily.
“I shall cleanse my weapon from the Rakshasas’ touch in their own blood!” he proclaimed immediately.
There is a little devil sitting on my shoulder, which will never quit pulling at my tongue, even though I try my best to keep my mouth shut in situations like that. It never works.
“Certainly, Anomen,” I chuckled, “though it may be a little bit unsanitary. Don’t you think a tad of vinegar in water will work better?”
“This reminds me of that time way back…” Jan started tentatively.
“When our old Granny resolved to remove that ugly stain from her turnip-coffee table,” The gnome continued oblivious to this sign of distress. “She could not figure out what it was and how it got there, though I always suspected cousin Thunderplop had her hand in it. Ploppy was an alchemist, you see, and excessively fond of chocolates. I have always said, one should not fill truffles with volatile substances, but would she listen?” Jan shrugged. “ She used to leave samples of her latest work all over the place, without a warning. Perhaps that was because people generally dislike exploding Confectionery and getting a blast of chocolate cream in your face is not such a nice surprise after all! I’ve used some of her ideas when developing the Jansen’s Chocolate Firebomb, but that’s another story,” he winked. “Anyway, when Granny first found that stain she went ballistic! She had tried apple cider and vinegar first, then Rashemi firewine. Next, she went for more powerful stuff, like Bearhugger’s Smelly Stout and Captain’s Blondbeard Blue Zombie. Then it was naphtha42 mixed with dwarven Usquebaugh43 and Untherean rock oil. When she switched to fuming sulphuric acid and combustive quicksilver I knew the place was becoming too noisy for my taste. You know, this passion for mixing explosives runs in the family. Naturally, the stain was gone at the end, but so were all the living room furniture and half of the house!”
“Verily, gnome, your tongue runs faster than a Shaaryan horse!” Anomen exclaimed in dismay, “Should not we turn our attention back to the problem at hand? Although your household tales are pleasant enough for the ears of the ladies, they will hardly help us against the Rakshasa unless, of course, you would talk her to death ere she can defend herself!”
“Huh?” Jan cocked his head in bewilderment. “Am I dreaming or did he actually try to utter a witticism? Somebody pinch me, the Stonefaced Preacher tried to joke! Ouch, Jaheira, there was no need to actually DO it, it was just a figure of speech!”
“Serves you right, Jansen,” Minsc laughed heartily, “you should know better than to say such a thing around her when she is grouchy as an old badger. Boo says, she is still slightly green around the mouth. Those frog legs of yours … Ai, Jaheira! That was uncalled for! No need to kick me in the shins, there is plenty of evil butt out there for this sort of thing!”
“If I may have a word,” I raised my hand, requesting their full attention, “I hate to interrupt your joyful frolicking, but for once Anomen is right - we do need to discuss our present course of action. There is a Rakshasa to be dealt with!”
They all became quiet and Anomen looked at me in surprise. He was not used to my support I realized with a pang of guilt. It was not like everything he said was total rubbish; it was just that the way he presented it usually irked me. I sighed. Maybe he will learn something about working with a group of companions who do not always share his beliefs and prejudices. Maybe he would even learn to judge individuals by their deeds, not by their appearances or racial peculiarities. If our uneasy alliance could result in such a change of heart I would be proud to be the cause of it.
“Faldorn and her gang of fools should be our first priority,” Jaheira said uncertainly, “but you are right - the Rakshasa would not leave us alone now that she had seen the Flail of Ages. I have no desire to see her stalk us and attack when we are at our weakest. The Rakshasas are all magic users, fast as a quicksilver. How do you propose we handle this?”
“Well, you just answered your own question, Jaheira,” I smiled. “Imagine, you have to attack ME, but you cannot use your favorite ‘bug’ spell, for I am covered in thick fur from head to toe and highly resistant to insect bites.”
“That is a truly disturbing image, your Worship!” Jan yelped in mock terror. “To think of it, your eyes are about the right color,” he squirmed at me making a tube out of his fingers. “Nuh, you have a lovely chin and a pair of pink lips. I can’t see any whiskers, though I cannot say anything about the tail.”
“Jan! I only meant my spellcasting!”
“Ah, you mean, they may be excessively fond of poison clouds, fireballs and bolts of lightning?”
“Exactly. And what is the best way to stop the caster from using these?”
“It is to silence her,” Jaheira nodded gravely. “I figured what you meant, Thea. They used silence spells when they captured us. Dynaheir resisted somehow and that was the death of her, for there were dozens of them and only three of us. But she had taken many of them before they slain her.”
There was a growl of sorrow from Minsc. I ground my teeth but refrained from mentioning my capture by Irenicus’ goons. I remembered vividly the forked flashes of lightening coming from the little grove.
That memory was terrifying - it scared the hell out of me. Never before in my short life did I feel so helpless. Even when I crashed through the thick bushes getting away from Sarevok and his handymen, with Gorion’s last words ringing in my ears, I felt not fear but rage and indignation at the wrongness of it all. They had attacked us practically in our backyard. Imoen and I used to go berry picking on a daylong expeditions not far from that spot, accompanied by the jolly crowd of Candlekeep monks and novices.
The whole business of fleeing secretly from the guarded compound into the woods sounded like sheer madness at first. Later I’ve come to realize that it was a smart thing to do in the circumstances, and would have probably worked, except that someone from within had betrayed Gorion. It was too much of a coincidence that Sarevok knew exactly where to look for us. Sarevok’s wizards were able to magically divine our location using some personal item of Gorion’s that had been stolen from him. Tamoko, my brother’s pet priestess and lover, confessed that much on her death bed - but she had never told me who was their source. My only hope was that the traitor perished in the doppelganger attack, though it was too much to hope for.
Strangely, I had never felt any remorse at killing the pair of the ‘star-crossed lovers’. Neither Tamoko’s, nor Sarevok’s death stirred any emotion in my heart. My one regret was that I could only do it once, albeit Imoen had always nurtured some silly, romantic notions on their behalf. A pair of tragic lovers indeed! A pair of butchers was a better fitting name. I could never forget or forgive that last desperate look in my father’s eyes begging me to flee; his voice, always quiet and scholarly, raised to a high pitch in his last plea for me to run and let him make his last stand against Sarevok… And later his dear face ashen and drained of life, his beautiful hands clutched at his breast, all cut and bloody. The ant crawling along his dead cheek…
In my vengeance I was always the Bhaal’s child – ruthless and cold, as Sarevok was when he had struck down my father. As for Tamoko - Gorion’s blood was on her hands as well, for she was there when he died. I laughed in her face when she asked me to spare Sarevok’s life, and I did not hesitate to help her put an end to her miserable existence. Whatever was the reason under Sarevok’s brutal attacks on me, I never begrudged him that. I could not care less weather I would live or die after I had discovered the truth about my parentage. But Gorion’s death was like a nail of ice stuck in my heart, and it never melted away, only numbed.
At that dreary day I was in possession of my wits and my magic, puny as it was, and that had been enough to prevent panic from entering my heart even when I was looking straight into the narrow slits of my mad brother’s ugly helm. My mind was working like clockwork and when Gorion yelled – “run” - run I did, but in clear conciseness, and with a plan to bring back help.
I run and my main thought was to get back to Candlekeep, to find someone – anyone - who can help. But when I reached the main gates they won’t let me in. The guardsmen, whom I knew all my life, would not let the terrified youngling that I was through the gates in the deep of night. They promised to send a team to collect Gorion’s body later on. And I was not even sure that he was dead at the moment. Ulraunt, the Keeper, would not come out to see me. I had had a distinctive feeling they were relieved at the news of Gorion’s misfortune, as if with it some dreary curse had been lifted from the place and its inhabitants. Of course later on it all became clear to me but through that night my anger prevented me from being scared.
The experience that I had endured in the hands of Irenicus was much more frightening and humiliating if only because his assassins cut me off from my magic. I was silenced, stunned, and bundled like a sack. Fortunately for me, my inner Bhaal’s powers took over and I had put myself into a stasis, with all sensory stimuli efficiently blocked from my brain. Thus Irenicus could not torture me for information while I was in his power.
I wondered at the strange symmetry of my life’s major disasters - Irenicus had taken from me the other man I had dared to love, and thus signed his death warrant. But this second lesson in pain and misery was going to be my last one - I swore that much. There was no safe heaven for the likes of me, and no mortal could survive the ‘tender’ attentions of the Daughter of Murder. A lover of the Bhaalspawn would be a natural magnet for calamities, which her destiny would bring on his head to create a cause for vengeance and final catharsis in Murder. It was a deadlock, a lethal trap built of emotions, probably set up in the souls of the Children by the dead god himself.
I shrugged off these unwanted speculations. There was no time for it now.
“Can you cast a silence spell, Jaheira?”
“No,” she admitted reluctantly, “Silvanus does not grant me this power. Useful though it is, it is not among the druidic spells.”
“But the Vigilant One does,” Anomen said quietly.
He looked a bit hesitant to jump in with his offer of help this time. I realized that the two weeks of being a butt of all the jokes in the party were having effect on him. He had no need to worry this time - I was more than happy to cultivate the newly established truce.
“Excellent, my friend!” I said most enthusiastically. “I guess Helm would never leave his valiant servant without defense against the likes of me!”
This time he did smile genuinely. His features softened and for a moment he lost his mulish, holier-than-thou expression that was the main reason under all the jokes and jibes that plagued him. I noticed that his lips were rather plump under all that awful facial hair, and that he sported a pair of nice dimples.
“By Oghma’s inkwell,” I grinned. “You should exercise these facial muscles more often. Life is too short to spend it grieving over the injustices of this world. And trust me, the universe is much friendlier place for one who smiles at its imperfections and laughs in the face of danger.”
I looked at a massive door hanging precariously on the rusted hinges. The building was bedecked in poison ivy, its crimson leaves standing against scabrous, gray walls brightly as festive decorations. The three-store mansion once had had two side towers connected to the central structure with lower wings. These parts of the building now laid in ruins. The crumbling stone steps led to the main entrance where the ancient door was hidden under a low archway. It was brilliant, sunny, and windy day outside. I loathed abandoning the luminous airy glory of the autumn fields and marshes to enter the grimy ruins, but the decision was made and there was no way around it.
I touched the door and a psychic shock run from my fingertips into my brain. The giant golden cup overflowing with fine-grained yellow sand filled my inner vision. It tilted, spilling the sand over in a thin golden stream; as the first grain hit the ground a hot wind blew from the east, scattering the sand and dusting my eyes. I squinted. When I opened my eyes wide again, the sand stream shifted into a familiar shape of a serpent.
“You are little late this time!” I snapped at the snake. “I am well aware of what is waiting inside. There is no need to come in person and send me into another one of these lovely blackouts!”
The reptile chortled, or at least produced a sound as close to a chortle as possible, and rose on its tail to a full height. Its hood expanded showing an intricate design of golden sandglass on its back. Its body began to swing energetically from side to side in the ritual dance. The serpent shifted, and I blinked – there were two of them now braided together in a knot. Another shift, and a third snake joined the other two. They tangled and waived their heads not unlike the tails of a three-leashed flail.
Finally, the three snake heads launched into my face as one molding into a single creature again in their flight. I swore and slipped into the welcoming darkness.
Fortunately for me this time the seizure did not last long, and I found myself still on my feet clutching at the doorknob. Jaheira gave me a contemplating look but I shrugged off her concern and pushed at the handle. The door screeched under my hand and opened inwards.
The area inside was in a terrible mess, with hanging roof beams and crumbling remains of the upper floor ceilings filling the sight of the rare visitor. Some small space in the middle of the huge entrance hall was cleared of debris and used as living quarters and herb shop by the old witch, who moved in some time ago. However, since the attacks on the Tradesmeet began, no brave customer had entered the old witch’s house.
The air of the hall was infused with smells of dried herbs and poultices, mildew and dust. But other, more sinister note could be felt in the stuffy atmosphere. It stank with rotten meat. It was awfully quiet, only some strange rhythmical sound disturbed the dusty silence of the ruined building.
“Screak, screak,” and again after a small pause, “screak, screeak …”
As my eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness inside I was able to see the house’s inhabitant. The shrunken old woman, cocooned in gray rugs, was grinning at me from the old creaky recliner. I could not see the upper half of her face for it was covered by the cowl, only her toothless mouth, and hairy, withered chin. But I did not doubt her identity. It was the woman from the bridge, old ‘Adrie’, who had invited us to come and see her in the house on the hill.
“Screeak,” the lounger screeched even louder as she leaned forward.
“So, you’ve come at last,” her voice was strangely resonant for an old, frail lady and her phrases ended with an undertone, not unlike the purr of a cat. “Lovely young druid, pretty boy, barbarian oaf, pesky gnome, and a Bhaalspawn for dessert!”
She sprang to her feet with agility of a young girl, but Anomen was already mouthing his prayer. The Rakshasa’s full attention was on him - as the wielder of the Flail. That allowed me a quick retreat. Remembering my part, I darted into the dark passage on the left, trying to get as far away from the spot as possible. Jan and Jaheira followed on my steps escaping the zone of silence. The corridor ended in a dead end. Nonetheless, the few yards that we had gained were far enough for my purpose. I turned around to watch the scene behind and started the summoning.
As Anomen finished his divine incantation, Minsc swung Lilarcor aiming at the crone’s head. The old witch was too fast for him and eluded his sword jumping out of range at once. She seemed to grow in size instantly, straightening up and throwing away her rugged shawl. Her mouth opened in a silent scream of rage but not a single sound escaped, blocked by the deadly silence aura. At that instance, I saw her face transform into the red-furred bestial visage.
In her natural form the Rakshasa was a magnificent creature, tall and majestic, her ivory canines glistening wetly in the red furnace of her tiger maw. Gone were the gray rags and filthy tangled mane. She was dressed in purple velvets, adorned richly with golden cord and bespangled with jewels. The robes were cut smartly to show her muscular furry legs, shoed in Calimshani style golden slippers with curved peaks.
The earth elemental stepped through the portal, called forward by my summoning spell. I struggled to control it, watching the battle from the corner of my eye. Anomen swung the Flail of Ages but the beast was not at the spot she occupied just a moment ago. The Rakshasa eluded all the strikes directed at her moving fast as a ballet dancer between her three opponents. The elemental that I had summoned finally succumbed to my will and I was able to direct it into battle, though it was obviously too slow to be of much use against the lightening-swift opponent. As it stumbled forward, I started the acceleration spell.
Jaheira was back in action with her twin scimitars raised high above her head. The Rakshasa turned swiftly and a curved blade flashed in her unnaturally inverted paw. It was a weapon worth of her royal guise - the long graceful blade covered with intricate runes, hilt bejeweled with sparkling ruby. The ornate weapon clashed with Jaheira’s plain blades deflecting them once, twice, but on the third stroke the druid’s scimitar connected and drew blood. As the dark spot started to spread on the priceless velvet robes the Rakshasa snarled in anger.
Minsc managed to score another hit, though his sword only maimed her ear, failing to cleave the Rakshasa’s head. The whole scene had an eerie underwater look to it for the combatants’ battle cries and yelps of pain were silenced by the divine magic that Anomen had invoked, and only the clashes of weapons and stamping of feet could be heard.
Even so, they had made enough noise to draw somebody else’s attention. The door on the side of the hall opposite from mine opened a crack, and I saw two small blond heads peaking out. The front boy was about six or seven years old, his brother about ten or so. I winced. The smaller kid smiled wickedly and made an intricate gesture with his hands. At that moment, a crossbow bolt whizzed past my ear and struck at the boy’s shoulder, I whirled around.
Jan blinked, puzzled at my enraged expression.
“There is no way she could have left the real children alive, your Worship! These are Rakshasa spawns. Can’t you see through it?”
“By Bhaal’s swanky knickers! There were THREE snake heads!” I thought frantically.
I turned back. The small shapes of the children suddenly blurred and stretched in all directions. In their place there were two creatures covered in red fur and dressed ostentatiously in silk trousers. The one at front hissed in pain and bared his fangs.
The spray of magic missiles burst from my fingers hitting the second creature that also started to cast a spell.
“Minsk! Watch out behind you!” I yelled my warning at the same time as the second spawn finished his incantation. The lightening bolt struck at the ranger’s back, sending flash of blue sparks into the air. Minsc stumbled. His clothes were smoking under his breastplate. Anomen rushed past the wounded Rashemi aiming at the grinning Rakshasa. I tightened my grip on the mind of the earth elemental and directed it against the other whelp. The elemental was easier to manage now that it was magically hastened, since I did not have to struggle against its slow wit.
Jaheira was doing her best against the Rakshasa Dame but her speed was no match to that of the beast. I guessed that without Anomen’s silence spell, we would have been dead by now. I looked at Jan - he continued his barrage of crossbow bolts at both of the whelps.
“Jan! Can you slow down the darned thing? I am going to use the ‘haste’ spell on both Minsc and Jaheira, but even this may not be enough!”
The gnome nodded, without stopping his hand.
“That’s a nasty little spell, lass,” he wrinkled his nose in concentration and loosened another bolt, “I will do it and add something of my own as well.”
One good thing about working with Jan was the quickness of his mind and the fact that we always understood each other without words.
I saw Anomen exchanging blow to blow with the Rakshasa’s whelp and my elemental was pushing the other young one hard enough to prevent it from casting spells but Jaheira was severely outmatched. Her opponent was much quicker, and Minsc was not much of a help in his condition. The nick on Rakshasa’s shoulder was minor but Jaheira’s both hands were covered in bleeding cuts and another gash was opened on her cheek. I had an impression that the darned cat was toying with her opponent, enjoying the druid’s desperation.
Yet Rakshasa’s gloating was not going to last. Two magical fields spread over the battlefield at once. The dull glow of the slowing curse enveloped the Rakshasa, as the shiny cloud of acceleration descended on Jaheira. The balance of power was tilted the other way now. I mouthed my approval at Jan but he only grinned back muttering some other cantrip. I repeated my acceleration spell on Minsc, and followed it with ‘Protection from Electricity’ spell, for all the good it will do him now.
At that moment, the Rakshasa Dame stumbled and howled, producing a sound not unlike that of the domestic cat when you step on its tail. I realized with terror that the silence spell had ended. Jan giggled and sent a string of magical missiles setting her whiskers on fire. She yelped and abandoned Jaheira rushing towards our hiding spot in a blind rage. Two streams of liquid fire met her half the way. The ‘Agannazar’s Scorcher’ is a terrible spell, and it is bloody dangerous to your own allies, but this time it had worked miraculously well. Jan, I, and Rakshasa formed a perfect triangle and our fighters had enough sense to stay out of the way of the fire jets as we kept the howling, smoldering creature in the epicenter of our little hell.
The Rakshasa’s fur and clothes were aflame but she still had enough energy to reach Jan with her scimitar. The gnome squeaked like a rabbit as the blade cut into his midsection. I grabbed my dagger and plunged it into the charred flesh of her side driving it with all my might and clawing at the creature’s slanted eyes with my free hand. My robes caught fire. She howled and we felt on the floor in a tangle of smoking fur and flailing limbs. She was still too strong, and they could not strike at her in fear of damaging me. Her iron claws dug into my flesh, I felt her fetid breath on my face. I twisted the dagger, driving it deeper between her ribs. The red fog of glorious madness was on me again, as it was through the battle with the Shadow Dragon. I screamed like a banshee, feeling the sweet release of the violent assault rushing through my tainted blood, the desire to kill overwhelming all my natural instincts. I felt whole and alive as never before.
The rat squinted at me suspiciously and returned to grooming its whiskers. It had a haggard, worn-out look of a mature animal that had seen much in its life, and learned never to take things at their face value. Its left ear was shredded, and its tail was missing a few vertebras but a look in its beady eyes was that of defiance and challenge to any sinister powers that may want to make it their next lunch.
I commiserated with the valiant rodent and cautiously touched my own face. The thing that wanted to dine on me left marks on my hide as well. Gosh, it hurt! I flinched and swore using some of more colorful expressions that I had picked up in the Baldur’s Gate Thieves’ Guild.
My four-legged acquaintance jumped almost vertically and darted across the floor disappearing under the pile of rubbish in the corner.
A coughing sound from behind made me turn and moan as another sharp twinge of pain shoot through my damaged shoulder. Anomen, pink from embarrassment (no doubt at my unladylike language), managed to subdue his coughing fit and was carefully inspecting the floor tiles at his feet, though the dirty wooden boards were bereft of anything worth his interest.
“Verily, my lady, you should not put yourself in harm’s way so audaciously,” he said mildly and dared a quick look at my face. His expression said it all - the claw marks that the Rakshasa Dame had left on my cheek were not pretty! If it looked anywhere close to what it felt, I was going to be scarred for life. Jaheira exhausted her healing spells on Jan and Minsc. I could not complain for their wounds were life threatening while mine was purely cosmetic.
“It was either that or let Jan die,” I shrugged, “When I told you I would fight tooth and nail to protect the ones in my charge I was not joking.”
“I can appreciate that now,” Anomen nodded, “though I wish the signs were not so … obvious. But was it really necessary for you to attack the ruhk44 with your puny knife?”
He sighed, and after a short pause realizing I am not going to answer continued in a more practical tone. “Would you let me try healing your cheek? It had to be done now, before the body begins the restoration process of its own if you want to prevent scarring.”
“Would you actually care?” I asked looking at him innocently. It felt somewhat invigorating to toy with him, for the excitement that I had experienced at the end of the battle with Rakshasas was still coursing in my blood.
The young cleric’s face darkened, as if he was going to fly into another fit of anger. You could physically feel the tension grow. Amazingly, he kept his temper under control, and his clenched fists relaxed slowly as he took a deep breath.
“I do, my lady,” he answered simply, “but Helm is my witness, you are doing everything in your powers to make me stop! I suspect you were sent by the forces unknown to try the limits of my patience, and so far you have been doing exceptionally good job at it. Would you rather have scars than let me touch your face?”
“Mm … no,” I ventured after a tiny pause. “This would be extremely stupid, as it would actually imply that I value my principles more than my personal benefits, which is your way of dealing with troubles, not mine!”
“Ah, thank you!” He responded sarcastically. “I daresay, that was a compliment, though hardly deserved one. I just had a chance to observe how you display that famous un-principled-ness of yours on practice, by putting yourself in mortal danger to protect that annoying little twerp. Now, if you would kindly sit still for a while?”
I complied. His healing touch was different from Jaheira’s. By now I was so used to her magic - I could almost visualize the flow of divine energies from her fingers into my flesh. Hers were cool green and blue streams, pouring like water over the angry inflamed red of my wounds.
His magic could be best described as 'golden-orange'. It felt like a tidal wave of light washing over my injuries and bringing with it the flow of energies, urging the skin and muscle to regenerate, to heal from inside. It felt invigorating and strangely comforting, as if the unseen Watcher took over my body and was using my own resources in the most wholesome and efficient way.
“That was most … interesting,” I managed after the last magical vortex subsided and the tingling sensations seized in my injured cheek. “You know, it feels like Helm in person is getting under your skin with every word.”
“You are the first patient of mine to report such a sensation,” Anomen grinned. “I suspect it has more to do with your imagination than with His divine reason. Though who knows, the Watcher may have personal interest in you! I never saw these minor healing spells work so well. Your wound is gone.”
I rose to my feet and pulled out a small pocket mirror – one of the few personal items that I possessed, forced on me by Nalia’s gracious hand. He was correct. My injured cheek was smooth and tawny as butterscotch again, exactly like its unscathed counterpart. I made a face at my reflection and pocketed the mirror.
Regrettably, I felt very pleased with his work. Vanity is going to be the death of me! It is easy for a hundred-year-old geezer like Elminster to look impressive in his pointy hat and robe. Nobody will ever take me for an accomplished Archmage if I continue to look like a pretty gypsy fortuneteller, on the run from her caravan.
On the other hand, I could not say that Anomen’s silly attempts at wooing me were unpleasant. I have to admit that even a bluestocking like me could not but enjoy that little spectacle. There is nothing more entertaining than a man making a fool of himself for the sake of a woman. Especially if that woman is you, and the boy is young and handsome.
* * * * *
Where the swampy flatlands met the outcrops of Small Teeth a crystal-clear stream exited the narrow dell and looped crazily through the rocky Hills, until slowed and muddied by cutting through gray dolomite banks it disappeared in the troll-infested moors, sharing the fate of many unlucky travelers. On its way out of the Hills the stream (now turned into a little river) ducked under the low stone bridge, and splashed over the rocky beach covered with the outgrowth of ash, willow, and dogwood, before passing the grimy ruin of a house.
I crouched at the riverbank to wash my hands in the cold water. Dark red leaves of dogwood circled in the river, and were washed away like tiny sparks of fire in the oily pillar of smoke that was still rising from the ashes. We had torched the house after discovering the decomposing corpses of the old herbalist and her two grandsons in the side room. The bodies bore the signs of horrific death and later desecration - all the blood was drained from them and much of the soft tissue was missing.
Minsc and Anomen dug the shallow graves in the small garden. There were several ancient headstones under the dead apple trees. Some of them were overturned and the graves showed signs of later digging. Was it archeological research or robbery? The most recent one was over hundred years old, judging by the date inscribed on the crumbling gray slab. At first, I thought that these were the graves of the family that lived in the house and later fled the area escaping from trolls. However, the house did not look as old as those gravestones. Besides, the slabs bore different family names that sounded non-human. The ruins of the very old shed nearby contained rusted remains of pickaxes, and what I judged to be various mining tools. What were the dwarven miners doing in that god-forsaken place was a mystery, which I decided to leave to a mind less preoccupied with basic survival than mine.
We buried the little ones and their grandmother under the gnarled old tree, using the loose floorboards for makeshift caskets. Anomen performed a simple ceremony, consecrating the graves and blessing the spirits of the unjustly murdered to prevent them from rising as vengeful undead.
As for the Rakshasas – the course of action was clear to me. I did not want their kin to find the bodies and seek vengeance against us. Therefore, their corpses were to be eliminated. The building had to be burned to the ground together with the carrion inside. Otherwise whoever moved into that house would inherit the blood curse, and sooner or later would see the tiger-headed nightmares knocking at her door.
I was tired and cold but not from the weather, which remained mild (albeit by my calculations it was one of the last days ere the winter season would be upon us). The sight of terrible cruelty in which most innocent victims were slaughtered dampened my spirits. I am not a saint, and my path had been marked with blood more often than I wished but there are limits to my tolerance and sadistic murder is not something I can take easy.
The remembrance of an ecstasy that I had experienced in the final fight with Rakshasa ruhk brought doubt and confusion. What kind of monster was I if a vicious attack (albeit on most deserving adversary) provoked sensation akin to physical pleasure in me? Was it what Sarevok experienced when he plunged his sword into his next victim? Were the sweet relief and joy flowing in his heart when he murdered Gorion? If so - how far away I was from becoming his true sister, in spirit as much as in blood?
I trailed my fingers in the river water trying to catch one of the elusive red autumn leaves, and contemplating my situation.
“As a leopard always shows her spots, so the Child of Bhaal can be followed in the woods by the trail of blood and fire she leaves behind. Sad, but accurate,” a soft, intelligent voice addressed me out of the blue, interrupting yet again my uneasy speculations about my destiny.
I turned around, rising slowly to my feet and asserting my accuser. A man of medium height and built looked at me sadly with kind, myopic eyes. He was dressed in a worn and heavily stained leather tunic, and his clothes and heavy wooden staff were decorated with many strange amulets of woven grass and animal teeth. As a final touch an eagle feather was struck defiantly in his oily and mottled, shoulder-long hair.
“And good day to you too, Cernd,” I answered with a light bow, “I see you’ve finally arrived.”
After that matter-of-fact statement I paused deliberately trying to put him on the defensive, though I could hardly blame him for being late as he had found us before we reached our chosen meeting spot.
“I can assure you that your signal put every creature in fifty miles radius from here on the alert,” he blinked unhappily shaking his head, “I am surprised I am the first one to pay you a visit.”
“In this you are deeply mistaken, my friend.” I answered strolling a few steps along the beach and turning around to face him again. “We have seen few local inhabitants already. Our last visitor was a jovial old woman, who sadly turned out to be a Rakshasa ruhk in disguise. After we killed her and her two spawns we had to burn the house to destroy all the evidence of Rakshasa’s presence in the area. Otherwise you could have bet on her relations coming to avenge her!” I glanced at him over my shoulder while continuing my paces across the uneven rocky riverside.
“What?” the druid looked alerted. “A Rakshasa? By Silvanus, lady, you must be joking.” His voice sounded troubled but not overly so for it was obvious that other matters occupied his mind.
Cernd knocked a small red stone back and forth with his staff. “I could smell the alien presence but attributed it to our current problem with Trademeet.”
The stone went into the river; I followed it with my gaze then turned back to my proponent.
“You say ‘our’,” I raised an eyebrow. “Does it mean that you represent the druids of the local Grove after all? You have told me before that you were sent by the Druid Circle of the North to investigate the Trademeet situation.”
My vis-à-vis smiled. The smile was the best feature of his plain weatherworn face. His teeth were strong and white, giving him slightly wolfish look.
“By all means, I could have meant just that,” he answered after a short pause, leaning forward and firmly placing both of his hands upon his staff. “The Circle’s problem with the Trademeet.” The druid looked at me sharply and sighed, “I have no idea why am I inclined to trust a Bhaalspawn. Thea – is that how you call yourself?” He nodded to himself. “You are right, I am not entirely stranger to the area. The last time I had traveled to these parts was about a year ago, as an emissary from the Snakewood’s Druid Circle to the Grand Druid Gragus. They had a serious problem with local merchants, which was supposedly resolved by the time I had arrived.” At that Cernd stopped and watched me calculatingly.
We hold an eye contact for a moment. In my travels I met few people who could endure my gaze for long, and used it shamelessly to take advantage of my opponents. Cernd was one of the few on whom it had no effect. His eyes were almost the same color as mine – deep yellow, but with a hint of green.
“The eyes of a wolf,” I thought suddenly. “I bet that behind his slightly crazy and disheveled façade, he is as tough as an old oak.”
“I am glad you’ve noticed that at last,” my bunny familiar grumbled mentally, stirring in the hood of my cloak that was his favorite place to take a nap. “He has a mind of a wolf, even though he wears a human disguise.”
“Duh,” I replied sarcastically “a druid shapeshifter, what a novelty! Jaheira does this little trick every week. You should be used to it by now.”
“It is not exactly like her,” Puck snorted, “he is different, but he does not smell evil… just wild and dangerous. I think he may be a werewolf.”
That put me out of my playful mood immediately.
“Great,” I answered. “A lycanthrope druid… Just what I need right now. It does not sound though that he is of the Black Blood…45”
Cernd’s eyes sparkled as he continued to look at me with an expression of greatest amusement. I got a disturbing feeling that he was ‘eavesdropping’ on our mental exchange in some way.
“Woof!” he said softly as the long-eared head poked from my hood. The rabbit quivered tickling me with his furry ear-tips, and dived back into his hiding place.
“I refuse to communicate at this level!” I ‘heard’ his last frantic thought before he went absolutely quiet.
That caused a fit of mirth from the suspected werewolf, and put to rest some of my fears. In my observation a lycanthrope with a sense of humor is rarer than a white crow.
“I am sorry I did not get here in time to help you with that cat-infestation problem,” Cernd offered, wiping away tears of laughter. “I assure you – I could have been of assistance. I do have a special dislike for cats, as your familiar shrewdly noticed.”
“Then you are a … lycanthrope?” I asked with some curiosity. “And you can eavesdrop on the empathic link between the wizard and her familiar.”
“Only when the animal radiates fear and concern so strongly!” was a vague 'response'. “I am not a threat to you or your little friend.”
“I was infected,” Cernd said aloud. “But dedicating myself to the service of the Forest Father turned intended curse into a blessing. Silvanus granted me mental powers to control myself while in a werewolf form,” he continued reverently. “Thus, I am not prone to bloodlust and have all the benefits of a lycanthrope, but without her throwbacks.”
“That is most remarkable,” I responded looking him over with some new respect. “I once traveled to an island populated entirely with werewolves. The most incredible fact about that place was that these were the descendants of a mutinous crew from the last expedition of Balduran – the legendary hero and founder of the city of Baldurs Gate. The expedition picked up lycanthrope recruits at some remote port, who later revolted and crushed the ship on the rocks of a small island, eliminating all non-infected sailors. The tribe eventually split into two feuding groups: the ones who embraced their blood but tried to preserve the trappings of civilized society fought against the others, who relinquished all control to the bestial side and turned into a bloodthirsty pack of monsters. Unfortunately, even their civilized brethren could not restrain themselves for long when facing outsiders, that were yours truly and her companions. I used to have dreams about that place every now and then. Not any more.”
“I am amazed you’ve escaped alive and unchanged!” The druid looked at me in surprise. “The whole island was populated with lycanthropes you say?”
“We did not,” I answered. “I was infected, as well as my friends. We were granted a miracle of cure by virtue of killing the Bloodmaster of the pack and consuming his heart. Nasty business that was. Honestly, I always had doubts on the matter. He was the oldest and strongest of them but he could not have been the first carrier of the disease, for they have lived there generation after generation. We had also ate all the belladonna plants on the isle, and that was pretty potent stuff. Which one had actually worked – I have no idea. But the seizures stopped eventually, and all of us went back to normal.”
“A miracle indeed,” Cernd nodded. “It is a common superstition that killing the Bloodmaster removes the curse. Rest assured, there is no cure for lycanthropy at its latest stages, save the divine intervention. Your patron deity, whoever it is, must be very potent to grant you the cure and yet conceal her true workings!”
I shrugged in irritation. Divine interventions were not on my list of favorite subjects. At that time I proudly flaunted my agnosticism into the face of religious devotees. Fortunately, Cernd was too smart to indulge me, and the topic was closed after a few sharp remarks. That gave me an opportunity to switch back to the subject that interested me most – the local Grove and its current crisis.
The story that I had managed to pull out of Cernd piece-by-piece was a non-trivial one, and can be best summarized as follows. About a year ago, a certain young lordling from prominent Trademeet family by the name of Khellon Menold set up to build an alternative Caravan route through the nearby forest. The fellow was ambitious enough to consider building a shortcut running parallel to the famous Tethyr Road 46, which connects the Sword Coast with the cities of Vilhon Reach.
Menold pulled together a company of eager fools to join him in his enterprise and borrowed enough money from them to hire a crew of workmen, and a band of soldiers. The idea was to straighten the forest path that we had followed through the moors, and use the old Tombethen’s mansion (that was the name of the house on the Hills that we put to the fire) as a base for the whole operation. They had managed to clear the first few miles of the path despite being continually plagued by the yellow fever and harassed by trolls. Then the druids came.
The local Druid Grove, as Cernd explained to me was the focal point of Nature’s powers. There flowed the Sacred Font – a fresh water spring that sustained the vitality of the region’s woods and meadows. A beautiful nymph, the Spirit Guardian of the Grove, protected the Font. I was not much surprised to hear that for I knew how druids choose their sanctuaries.
The first Grand Druid of the Silver Mire (that was the original name of that part of the valley), who was the first to discover the Spirit and the Font fought a long and fierce battle to drive the human settlers away from the Grove. I wanted to ask Cernd about the dwarven gravestones and their mining tools, but something stopped me. Perhaps it was a look in his eyes.
When Menold and his crew started cutting trees in the forest surrounding the Silver Mire, the silent alarm had spread through the land for every plant had an empathic link with the Spirit of the Grove as its roots were nourished by the clean waters of the Sacred Font. The Spirit alerted the druids and they came to negotiate with the intruders. Menold would not budge and the debate ended in violence. A few men were killed on both sides as the soldiers assaulted the druids.
The situation could have spun out of control if not for the interference of the Trademeet’s Mayor, Lord Logain Corpith. I liked the man after our first meeting but upon hearing Cernd’s story I felt even more respect for him. Logain realized at once that a feud with the druids would be a disaster to the community whose welfare was based on agriculture and trade. So, not only he forbade Menold and company to enter the Grove, he actually taxed the perpetrators and compensated the druids for the loss of life of their comrades.
As far as Cernd knew that was where the things stood a year ago, when he arrived at the Silver Mire summoned by the Great Druid Gragus. He stayed there for a month or so and then went back to Snakewood as everything seemed quiet.
After news of the animal attacks on Trademeet reached the High Circle, Cernd’s first thought was of Menold and his goons. But when he hiked all the way back to Silver Mire he felt such an enormous flow of harmful and destructive energies coming from the direction of the city, that he decided to have a look for himself before approaching the Grove. He was dazed with sorrow upon seeing animal carcasses and burnt trees. That was when the city’s self-proclaimed militia led by none else but Khellon Menold had captured him. They would have hanged him on a spot if not for Lord Corpith.
We’ve been standing by the river for quite some time as I listened intently, stopping Cernd only to clarify the details. The quiet gurgling of the stream served as a background for the druid’s story. The river was the core of the valley’s magic, as it started its endless run from the Druid Grove’s Sacred Font in the heart of the Silver Mire. It looked like that was going to be our next destination.
“Now that you know my side of the story little better,” Cernd continued, “you may wish to share your part in it with me. Our destinies are intertwined for the time being, as we have to join our efforts to resolve the mystery of animal’s attacks on the city. I have to insist on accompanying you from here with or without your content. The matter is too important for me to let you proceed on your own.”
“So you won’t trust the Daughter of Bhaal to take care of your little problem? Very wise of you!” responded the familiar voice, forever tinted with sorrow. Jaheira was standing in the shadow of the weeping willow, her slim hands crossed over her chest and her thick wavy hair, for once free of the helmet, spread loose over her shoulders.
The willow branches with narrow yellow leaves waved over her head mixing with her long tresses. Her emerald eyes watched me with mockery, and I realised that they were of the same bright color and shape that the willow leaves would be in the middle of the summer. For a moment I saw her as being one of the willow trees - strong and full of grace, yet leaning forever over an endless stream of tears washing over her roots. An ice-cold needle pierced my heart. Will Khalid’s death forever haunt both of us?
“I now have a personal interest in the case,” Jaheira continued unperturbed by our silence. “I saw the slaughtered animals. I know who is responsible and this time I am not letting her get away!”
I cringed but stayed silent.
“I take it – you know something of substance that you did not share with me yet,” Cernd asked, turning to me again. “Would you care to elaborate or should your friend clarify the facts?”
“Of course she knows who is behind this!” Jaheira exploded. “You shall cover Faldorn’s crimes no more, Thea!”
“Aren’t you being carried away just a little?” I responded carefully. “Firstly, Jaheira, you have no evidence of me ‘covering up’ anything. I only asked you to allow me to negotiate, rather than show outright hostility. Secondly, Cernd provided me with information that indicates that the good citizens of Trademeet may have provoked the druids. Some moron started building a new road right through the heart of their sacred grounds last year. May be you would like to hear the details before jumping to conclusions?”
“Even if the attacks were provoked, it does not change the fact of her being the Shadow Druid!” Jaheira answered vehemently.
“If the Shadow Druids are involved that changes everything,” Cernd’s countenance clouded. “We cannot allow the Shadow Ones to extend their influence into these lands. Before you know it the whole region will be dragged into the bloody, useless war between the city dwellers and the servants of Nature. We cannot let this happen.”
“So, it is a matter of political struggle between two druidic factions, not of justice,” I shrugged my shoulders. “I cannot support you in this. I was willing to sacrifice Faldorn for the sake of impartiality if she was proven guilty. However, you cannot force me to take sides in your petty political struggle for influence!”
“Then you will have to choose between me and her,” Jaheira answered hotly. “You’ve always insisted that personal loyalties mean more than anything else to you! You would have to decide if my loyalty and the sacrifices I have made to your ambitions are worth anything!”
She turned around and walked away from us, trim and elegant in her simple leather garb, and the afternoon sun set golden highlights in her chestnut-brown mane.
“I hope, I will never have to do this,” I muttered. “Cernd, I cannot see how I can possibly forbid you to follow us and I cannot walk away from it without loosing Jaheira. Therefore, I suggest you join us and try to work with me, not against me in resolving this crisis. Fair enough?”
He chuckled. “At the moment you need me almost as bad as I need you, my dear Bhaalspawn. You are obviously caught between the anvil and the hammer, as you cannot decide in favor of either one of your friends. I can only say that the Shadow Druid would hardly appreciate your loyalty. They can ally themselves with outsiders occasionally but she shall spurn you the moment your mutual business is over. Trust me on this one, for I had a personal experience that had almost cost me my life. You will always be an outsider to her, a city dweller, and therefore – a potential enemy. Whereas your friend Jaheira seems deeply hurt by your refusal to take her side, but is sticking with you to the bitter end. You should think about it.”
I nodded in response but stayed silent.
The next day downed on us, gray and miserable. The mist was curdling in the dells between the rounded slopes of the low hills, obscuring our vision and making our goal of reaching the epicenter of the tragic events more elusive. The Hills were covered with abundant and healthy vegetation. Tall and dark pines at northern sides gave way to small clusters of firs and yew trees. Ancient oaks loomed over our heads, mixed with abundant maples, ashes, and clumps of witch hazel on the southern slopes.
The magnificent colors of ripe autumn mostly gave way to hush auburns and browns, and the smell of moldering, wet leaves permeated the air. The narrow trail would follow the stream bank overgrown with dry yellow grass; then, when the terrain become impassable, it will jump up the slope or make a detour around the hill, becoming increasingly unclear with every turn. I wondered yet again, what was the logic in building an alternative trade route through these obscure, endless miles of wilderness?
I doubted we would have made it without Cernd, who was walking tirelessly at the front in Jaheira's company without ever slowing to check the landmarks. They talked sparsely between themselves, settling for a sort of guarded truce.
I had another long talk with our newly acquired companion yesterday, after I pulled him away from others and the crackling campfire. Strangely, after discovering that we once shared common infliction of lycanthropy I was inclined to trust him more. He reminded me of the past, which now seemed almost happy and full of hope by comparison. I told him parts of my story related to our association with Faldorn in the Cloakwood, and her helping us to shut down the Iron Throne mining operations. He asked me about Jaheira.
All through that conversation with Cernd, Anomen was throwing dark looks at me from his place at the fire, which unexpectedly put me in a playful mood. I grinned at him and winked, touching my newly healed face, which brought a flash of color to the young cleric’s cheeks and a reluctant shrug. Now he was trudging silently ahead answering with nods and a single-vowel exclamations to Minsc’ cheerful blabber.
I followed behind, half-listening to the endless flow of anecdotes from Jan, who had fully recovered from his injuries and was making up for his yesterday’s misfortune.
At the second hour of our journey the mist ahead parted and we had entered the valley between two nameless hills covered with pines, tall and majestic, of the kind that some call the 'Mast Trees'. Thence we had reached the final point of our adventure – the Druid Grove of the Silver Mire. From there we followed the stream, climbing along its rocky shores and slowly making our way among the big gray boulders, and bizarre pieces of driftwood polished to glossy shine by the running river.
You could hear the song of the falling water well before approaching the site where two streams of white mist crushed into gray basalt stone cup. The stream tumbled from dark mouth of a cave, and upon meeting the gigantic spear-shaped rock split into two, flowing angrily down in clouds of foam and multitude of tiny rainbows, until meeting the emerald-green surface of the basin it burst violently in a rush of sparkling bubbles and subsided, running along the rocky riverbed into the shadow of the pine trees below.
I breathed the moist, clean air permeated with pine fragrance and a foolish grin spread upon my face. The place felt ultimately right, like a sip of clean water or a mouthful of fresh apple when you are dying from thirst in a desert. Even the low canopy of gray clouds could not spoil the effect. Alas, I could only dream of how the waterfall would look on a bright and sunny morning!
We stopped at the edge of the stone basin under the cover of the hanging rock. The roar of the water was very loud here but after a while one’s hearing adjusted to ignore the noise, though it was always present at the background of one’s consciousness, slowly but steadily working its hypnotic spell on your mind.
“This is the place that can inspire you to start worshipping Nature,” I smiled dreamily, “now I can understand why the druids are fighting so fiercely to protect it.”
“If they will not learn to strive for peace and harmony, they will loose it,” Cernd answered. “Do you understand that dissent brings hatred and hatred brings death and destruction? The very fabric of this place opposes needless violence. Nature can be a harsh mistress but it is always rational. A wolf only kills to feed himself and her pups, not to prove its superiority over deer.”
“A wolf would fight to protect her hunting territory,” I responded. “So does human.”
“Let’s make a deal, Bhaal’s Child,” Cernd offered suddenly. “You shall stay out of this. Let the Nature herself be our arbitrator. I will challenge the Shadow One alone, with a simple wooden staff as my only weapon. She will not refuse me as this is an ancient ritual that cannot be ignored without dire consequences. Even if she were bound to the land, the Spirit of the Grove would not let her harm you after the duel, should I loose. The Forest Father will grant the victory to the one who best suited to protect his domain.”
“Damn you and your diplomacy!” Jaheira cried. “This was supposed to be my fight. I can challenge Faldorn myself, as I am a full initiate and my life is sworn to the Great Balance!”
Cernd looked at her mildly tilting his head to one side, as if he was contemplating a piece of a jigsaw puzzle which refused to fit into its place.
“You life is forfeit to the task much greater than this trivial matter,” he said finally. “You, who already sacrificed so much, should not let this squabble between the power-hungry maniac and the band of greedy vandals distract you from you purpose. Which you know all too well but refuse to acknowledge, because your heart is still bleeding.”
Jaheira’s face became a mask of anguish. She was ready to answer him but at that moment something whizzed through the air and a wooden spear with a sharp bronze tip struck the rock under her feet. I looked up – the druids were there, standing at the edge of the stone rim from where the clear waters of the Sacred Font rushed down into the swirling pool.
There were about dozen of them, all dressed in leather and brown woolens, their faces painted with blue and white stripes, and my heart sank at the sight of the tall brunette at the front. Until that moment I still hoped that there had been a mistake and she was not the one. Now that I could see her heavily built, almost masculine figure, the long mane of dark hair, and the necklace of bear claws at her neck - there was no doubt about the matter. Faldorn, my one-time companion, was leading the militant druid enclave!
Knowing her character, I could not hope for the peaceful resolution and that grieved me deeply. I raised my hand in greeting and let it drop limply at my side as they began to climb down the trail leading to our level.
“Look, who is here,” Faldorn said mockingly halting two paces away from me and making a sign to her followers to stay away. “So, you’ve fallen so low as to accept the blood money from these tree-killers? I thought better of you once, Bhaal’s daughter!”
I looked at her fierce, painted features and noticed how stretched her skin was over the high cheekbones and how deep were the two creases running from close-sitting eyes to strong, square chin. There was a band of silver in her sable hair. She aged significantly over the course of last year.
I remembered the last time that I saw Faldorn before we had started on our way to Baldurs Gate, to meet with danger, betrayal, and ultimate victory that turned into disaster. She had been standing at the end of the forest trail leading deep into the heart of the Cloakwood, her hands crossed over her chest and sarcastic smile playing on her face.
It had been a hard journey for both of us. For me it included travels over the endless depths of the sea, and warped paths of other dimensions, fights with hordes of lycanthropes and demons, and a death match with my twisted half-brother. For her … I will never know what trails had brought her to the Grove of the Silver Mire in the foothills of the Small Teeth and, ultimately, to her death.
“I have no quarrel with you, Faldorn,” I answered with a sigh. “Why do you and your people attack the city? Is there no other way to resolve the conflict?”
“The Spirit of the Grove came to me in my dreams begging for protection!” Faldorn exclaimed fiercely. “The foulness of these merchants goes beyond words. They have to be exterminated!”
“But why?” I asked again, trying to stay calm though my patience was severely tempted. I knew I did not have time for arguments, for any moment now one of my druid companions would jump in to challenge her. “I know you as a loyal protector of the forest. However, the city of Trademeet had been founded on these Planes few centuries ago and all that time her people lived their lives without causing much harm to Nature. With all respect, you are virtually a stranger here, much as I am. Tell me why are you set so adamantly against the city?”
“A stranger, am I?” Faldorn hissed through clenched teeth. “I am bound to the Grove’s lifeforce through its Spirit and I cannot be harmed while under her protection! Such things are frowned upon among our brotherhood but I had to do it to fulfill my mission. You cannot hurt me here and I will protect my Grove until I am dead. Now go back to these civilized criminals, and tell them that they have to face the Spirit herself in order to get what hey want!”
Faldorn spat her last words with such venom that it puzzled me. Unfortunately, that was also the last drop for Jaheira, who was standing there with her fists clenched and eyes blazing with green fire. She stepped forward, and I saw a small rivulet of blood trailing down her chin from bitten through lower lip.
But when Jaheira finally spoke her voice sounded calm, almost demure. “You have told me more than once, Faldorn, that one day we shall settle our differences. I think that day has come. Woman, you shall face me in a duel arranged according to our rituals! The Spirit will not protect you against such a contester.”
“You are challenging me?” Faldorn laughed, showing two rows of strong teeth.“You, a miserable weakling, want to be the new protector of the Grove? As you know, a victory would establish you as a Great Druid and guardian! Will you abandon your precious Bhaaalspawn for the sake of settling that long term score?” She shook her head in amusement. “Not that you will ever succeed in such a deed, Jaheira, even if your spineless husband will join you in the dueling circle to fight me!”
Faldorn looked over our small group bemusedly.
“Although I cannot see him among your cohorts. Have you finally come to your senses and chosen a new mate, who would not turn white at the first sound of a battle?”
“That’s quite enough, Faldorn,” I said firmly. “You shall not defile the valor of the dead with your loud mouth, for you know nothing of the courage that runs deep without thunderous vows and ostentatious proclamations!”
From the corner of my eye I saw Anomen suddenly going pale under his tan, although my remark was not aimed at him at all.
“Faldorn, you have two options,” I offered, “either you except Jaheira’s challenge or you negotiate with us towards the peaceful resolution of your conflict with Trademeet. By Bhaal’s horns and the Bleak Eternity of Gehenna! I want to know, why are you set so vehemently against the city? Lord Corpith sounded like a man who can keep his word once he gave it, and the alternative Caravan route project had been scrapped, as far as I know.”
“You know nothing!” Faldorn exploded. “These vile people will not stop until the Spirit is dead, and the Grove is turned into garbage dump! They are criminals of the worst sort and cannot be reasoned with!”
“There is a third option,” Cernd said suddenly. “I was sent by the Druid Circle of Snakewood to help restore peace in these woods. The Great Balance was threatened, and your reckless drainage of the Grove’s energies in the act of binding yourself to its Spirit is punishable by death. I cannot allow this to continue. Therefore, I challenge you for the position of the guardian and my claim is superior to that of Jaheira’s, for I was born and raised in this land and I understand its needs better.”
Now I had all three of them at each other’s throats and no chance of stopping the upcoming fight, short of challenging Faldorn myself. What was I to do? If Jaheira got her wish and won, she would either have to stay in the Silver Mire and protect the Grove or violate her druidic oaths to follow me. Perhaps, it was the best outcome for the two of us, but I knew she would not be at peace for Khalid’s death was still unavenged.
“It is precious to see you fight for the honor of killing me,” Faldorn purred, “but maybe you should settle this between yourselves first? I wonder when did you become so lame, Bhaal’s Child? The she-wolf that cannot keep order within her faithful pack of dogs!”
“Enough,” I said sharply, stepping forward and raising my hand to stop her from saying something we will all regret. Unfortunately, that simple act had the strangest effect on Faldorn. She snarled and jumped between me and the edge of the water basin. Her dark eyes flashed, and her body began to melt before my very eyes acquiring the familiar reddish glow of druidic shapeshift. Her hands and feet thickened and grew claws, her spine arched, her face twisted into the snarling visage of a black panther. I had never seen Faldorn use that form before, and sure enough, I was impressed.
The cat-creature growled deeply and bared her fangs at me. The memory of the fight with Rakshasa was still fresh and a wave of hot anger rushed through my blood at the sight of that transformation. It took all my strength of will to stop my fingers from going through the sequence of arcane spell. Instead, I gripped my iron-shod staff with both hands and clashed it on the stone, causing a spray of sparks. I had no alternative now.
“Cernd!” I yelled backing away from the panther, “I endorse your challenge!”
Cernd’s voice sounded hollow, almost indifferent as he went through the long and flowery lines of the ritual of Contest. I could not see him, for my eyes were on the advancing cat. Faldorn crept forward, her tail swishing back and forth. Then something huge and hairy flashed past, kicking me off my feet and causing me to roll away.
Two strong hands grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged away from the whirling, howling ball of fur and claws at the water’s edge. I looked in dreary fascination at the enormous gray werewolf tearing at the panther’s throat, as the cat was slashing at his belly with her iron-clawed paws. Their howls raised above the noise of the falling water, as their blood run in rivulets staining the clean gray stones.
“I don’t think you would make any difference,” Anomen’s voice said into my ear as I tried to free myself from his iron grip. “Besides, I will not be able to put together whatever will be left of you if you jump in!”
“You did a pretty good job of it last time, “ I mumbled, touching my cheek instinctively.
“I would rather not make a habit of it,” he retorted, “cats and women – I was never any good in handling either.”
“Ah, this is quiet obvious, my lad,” Jan responded from the region of the young cleric’s left knee. “You should not clutch at the girl as if she was a sack of turnips!”
Anomen flushed and let go off me hastily. As I jumped to my feet the intertwined bodies of the rivals rolled over to the edge of the basin and went down into the sacred waters with a big splash. Momentarily, there was a universal intake of breath, then all of us including Faldorn’s druids rushed to the edge of the pool.
The basin under the waterfall was not very deep, but the agitated water lost its limpid, turquoise splendor and turned angry red so we could not see the combatants. At the sight of the desecrated Font the druids felt on their knees crying and howling. For a few seconds I looked in horror at the boiling red whirlpool, then a dark body broke the surface sending the crimson waves over the edge, and Cernd emerged in his human shape streaming water and carrying his dead rival’s body in his hands. Faldorn did not look threatening in her death, with her long dark hair plastering around her pale face and covering the terrible wound at her throat. Her blue lips were squinted in a bitter half-smile. Cernd lowered her to the ground slowly and carefully. I noticed that the bloody gashes on his skin already began to regenerate. His werewolf powers were amazing.
At that moment the world shifted and the silence fell over the land, as the waterfall stopped its endless run. That silence was louder than a scream, and suddenly every sob and whimper coming from the stricken mob of druids resonated in my ears. The bloody waters parted again, and a semitransparent female figure levitated out of the pool on invisible streams of air. Her skin sparkled with the bright, rainbow shine of the gem known as opal, and her hair was the dark blue of the deep waters.
“The Spirit of the Grove,” Jaheira muttered half-chokingly. I looked at her – tears were rolling down her face, making her green eyes shine brighter.
The apparition was a nymph 47 of course, one of the incredibly beautiful supernatural beings who often inhabit the sites of Nature’s power in Faerun, both to protect these places and to sustain themselves, for their lifeforce becomes one and the same with the lifeforce of the Nature’s focal point. The nymph’s lovely face was a mask of grief and despair. She hanged in the air above the silent pool, covered only with her long mane of indigo hair. As we watched, mesmerized by her beauty, she raised her hand pointing a long delicate finger at Cernd.
“Wolf Brother, you have tainted my waters with blood and defeated my guardian. Now that she is dead are you ready to take her place?” Her voice was a hoarse whisper but the question ringed in the empty silence. “Will you bind with me as Faldorn did to became one with the land?”
Cernd stepped forward, bowing low before the Spirit. “I will take the place of your guardian, O Sacred One, but I do not wish to be bound to your lifeforce. It is a sacrilege which should not be repeated.”
“You do not understand, do you?” the Spirit answered in anguish, “I insisted on that union because I was afraid, and she was the only one who was willing to sacrifice her freedom and be bound to this place forever as I am. I lack the physical powers to fight so many potent enemies, and she was … so strong.”
“No, I don’t understand.” Cernd looked genuinely confused. “Why are you so afraid, O Sacred One? Humans have always lived in this land and while not all of us strive to exist in harmony with Nature, the druidic brotherhood of the Silver Mire is strong and has full support of the High Circle of the North. We had negotiated the truce with burghers of Trademeet every time that there was a misunderstanding! They are trustworthy, if we keep to our side of the bargain.”
“I thought so myself,” the nymph moaned, “until…until they tried to poison the Font! These evil men - they wanted to pour the sulfur acid into my waters! That would have killed me and all the creatures and plants of the land, which are sustained by these waters! High Druid Gragus had stopped them but paid the ultimate price for his bravery. After that I asked Faldorn to come and bind with me, so that she can never be killed while protecting the Grove. I knew they will never stop until they have it all!”
“So that was why Faldorn blocked my path when I raised my hand!” a thought flashed through my mind.
“It does sound a bit excessive as means of vengeance,” I ventured to say. “I know men can be vicious in their hatred but to poison the waters of entire region just to get back at the druids… Are you sure there is nothing else behind this?”
Cernd made a sign as if to stop the Spirit from answering, but the nymph only waved her hand at him.
“I think it is well past time for secrets, Bhaalchild, for you have already guessed much of it. They look for the old mithral mine – the legendary treasure of the Silver Mire, for which the Grove was named. Their eyes are blinded with greed! That man Tombethen …the one who had built the accursed house, he was the worst! His people defiled the land and polluted the river, and all he ever found was a nugget the size of a walnut that was in the grave of the old dwarven chief! And they keep coming, they always keep coming… generation after generation of diggers. It is no use to tell them that the vein was exhausted centuries ago, and the the last of the dwarven miners left after that!”
“Mithral, hmm,” Jan clucked his tongue at the idea. “Did I ever tell you the story about my second-grand-uncle Matey Jansen, who was married to a dwarven maiden from the StoneCrunchers Clan? Nuh? Mat generally liked his kinsmen on the wife’s side, except for that little fixation of theirs. These fellas were always so hot on mithral - they were digging for it everywhere! So when a brother or a cousin from the mountains would come to visit Cherrypip (that’s was his wife’s name), and get loaded on ale (and you know dwarves, they would have ale for breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper when they come to town), they would go a-mithral-huntin in his favorite turnip patch! Sufficient to say, his turnips never grew big but they always had that strange booze quality to them. You know what happens when you pour ale into a dwarf – eventually you’ll get someuld it back from the other side. And when you are diggin on the open you are usually not much inclined to stop and go look for a bathroom when Nature calls… Speaking of Nature, this reminds me of that other story waay back…”
“Jan,” I said gently, “I do appreciate your effort to lighten the mood, but the matter is rather serious.”
“Oh,” the little wizard squinted an eye at me, “ is this a polite way to say ‘shut up Jansen’? Your Worship, if you are sure you want to continue with this crazy affair – make my day, go for it! But don’t tell me I did not warn you afterwards!”
“Jan, I am grateful for your concern.”
I patted the little wizard on the hand and turned back to the apparition. Thanks to Jan the detrimental atmosphere of the conversation was broken, and the nymph looked a bit sulky for her hysterical performance. (Assuming that the immortal incarnate of Nature’s beauty can look embarrassed - she was, just a little!) I bowed deeply to emphasize my respectful admiration, and to hide an involuntary smile.
“Thank you for your trust, Sacred One. Now I can see the chain of events that led to the conflict between the Trademeet and the druids of the Silver Mire. Correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the story unfolded as follows. First, Menold acquired the information about the mithral from some third party, and lucking money for the project came up with the idea of a pretend ‘Caravan route’. He had managed to borrow funds and start clearing the forest, while at the same time searching for the mine site. The druids came to stop him and realizing that they would always quench his efforts, he tried to resolve his problem by poisoning the Font, and thus killing the entire forest in the area! In the following attack the poisoner killed the High Druid Gragus but was prevented from reaching the Font. You responded by binding with Faldrn.”
I looked at the Spirit and she nodded. Faldorn’s druids were still deeply stunned, though some of them started to recover, and offered shy confirmations of my story.
“I suggest to use human institutions to fight humans,” I offered. “There are things that work better than violence. Rather than suffocating the city with climbing vines and parasites, or killing her inhabitants by sending bears and wolves, why don’t you try to pledge your case before the Magistrate? If you can produce evidence of the attempted poisoning I am sure Lord Corpith will arrest Menold. The city’s second largest source of wealth is agriculture. If Menold succeeded in poisoning the spring the vineyards and pastures of the valley would also be destroyed, and many people would die.”
“With Faldorn’s death there is nobody left to direct the attacks on the city,” the Spirit sighed, and her hair which cloaked her in luxurious blue cascades, stirred like water streams around her translucent body. “I always grieved for the animals that were sacrificed to keep the city-dwellers at bay. I don’t trust these merchants, but if you enter a plea on my behalf, Bhaalchild, and the treasure hunters will stop coming - you will have my eternal gratitude!”
“It may be worth a try,” Cernd nodded. “I apologize on behalf of all humans, O Sacred One! Should I knew the reason under your anguish the events may have turned differently. I deeply regret killing your guardian. Faldorn had succumbed to the temptation of power, but she only did it on your behalf. The immortals should not tempt us with such might. Though, if she was allowed to live she would have fallen deeper and deeper into the embrace of darkness, and may have turned worse than Khellon Menold at the end.”
“It is not for you to know, Wolf Brother,” the Spirit answered haughtily. “How can you foresee the future? I realize now that I cannot make you my full guardian, and bind with you as I did with Faldorn. For you are timid of spirit and afraid to accept my gift even as I offer it! But I will be lounging for such a bond because I am used to it now. I feel alone and vulnerable without a mortal companion. There is one, an innocent spirit, who is worthy of me. He is a descendant of Marek of Haalrua – the first Great Druid of the Silver Mire, who had found the Grove centuries ago and realized the Sacred Nature of this Font. Marek’s strength awakened the soul of the Grove, and I am its voice. Thus I appeared and had always been here in the Grove as a token of people’s union with Nature.”
I noticed that the nymph blushed after mentioning her first Druid’s name, and the hue of her cheeks changed from transparent opal to beautiful rose quartz.
“The boy must be about ten years old now, and he is somewhere close for I can feel him. Find him and bring him here, Wolf Brother! Only then will the waterfall run again. For now the servants of the Grove will protect me,” she pointed at the kneeling druids. “But do hurry. If the Bhaal’s Child would not stop this man Menold, the boy is my only hope. Without him my waters will never run again and the Grove will wither, that I promise!”
Finishing her speech the nymph nodded regally to all, and disappeared leaving behind a small cloud of fragrant, sparkly fog. The pool under the waterfall was empty now, for the remains of the polluted water trickled out as she spoke. The place looked empty and soulless.
“That’s a women to you, laddie!” Minsc boomed clapping unhappy Cernd on the shoulder, and virtually sending the skinny druid into a spin. “She did not like you killing her kitty! Is it just me, or we always run into lasses loosing their cats in the waterfalls?” He turned to Jan. “Never mind this, Jansen! That was way before you put together your first Flasher Bruiser Mate! I used to like Faldorn; she was a fine body of woman before she turned into the bloody cat. Boo says he would not trust a cat to come within fifty feet of him, and I agree. I would rather butt-kick a pack of bloodthirsty gnolls every morning than have my face scratched! Then again, it depends on who is going to do the stitching afterwards.” He winked at me. “Let’s get out of this cat-infested place, lass. Minsc likes the forest and pretty spirits but he misses the ale in Imnesvale, and he does not trust Yoshimo not to run away with the ponies!”
In the interim, Yoshimo was stuck in the late ranger Merella’s cabin with his captive; and he was not a happy camper. In fact, he was a rather unhappy one. At first delivering Valygar Corthala there sounded like a strike of genius. No one had dared to approach the cabin ever since Merella’s disappearance. Since no word of the fate of the second expedition into the Temple ruins was received, the Imnesvale was paralyzed with fear. Even the ubiquitous trio of Dirbert, Neler and Valsben was confined to their respective homes by their parents and so Yoshimo was left entirely to his own devices. He decided against contacting the boys after his plan of abducting Valygar was completed successfully, for he had enough provisions stored in his hideout and there was always the risk of the Mayor putting two and two together and forcing Dir to confess. (Yoshimo didn’t need to worry though. The honorable Mr. Wainwright was preoccupied solely with his own safety and attributed Valygar’s disappearance to the shadows.)
The Kozakuran knew that periods of self-imposed idleness were unavoidable in his profession but it did not make him feel any better about his situation. Being confined in close quarters with one of his regular ‘clients’ was bad enough (although he did not mind sharing a room with a pretty girl when one came along as a quarry), but being locked in a small cabin with angry Valygar Corthala was pushing it too far. The man was too big, and not merely in physical sense. The ranger had a personality that fit the state of imprisonment about as well as an elephant would fit into antiques’ store.
When one is forced to tolerate the little idiosyncrasies of his friends, relatives, or lovers at least one can find consolation in the fact that their positive qualities (or at least their money) are worth it. Not so with one’s enemies. The few days that Yoshimo had to spend in Valygar’s company were nearly the most challenging in his entire career as a bounty hunter. Not only Valygar was relentless in his attempts to break free – he was proactively inventive in it. Yoshimo fitted the ranger into leather-padded hand- and feet-cuffs of the best Kozakuran steel, which granted the prisoner some degree of freedom so he can use latrine and put food in his mouth, and yet incapacitated him to the point when he could not make more than two steps without falling down. That combined with sedative in his drink should have been enough to keep things under control. Yet, on the first night Valygar had managed to attack his captor almost strangling Yoshimo with his tied hands. Two accurate strikes into the pain centers, and a dagger blade to his throat stopped that nonsense but since then Yoshimo had to tie the ranger to the pallet before risking few furtive hours of sleep.
Valygar rattled at his bonds, made poisonous remarks (that were actually funny), and snored loudly in his sleep. But what was the worst – he hummed! Unfortunately for Yoshimo, the thief’s musical ‘ear’ was uncannily good and his tolerance for false notes very low. Valygar had discovered that by accident when Yoshi made a mistake of grimacing after the prisoner, tired of boredom and mad at his shackles, first started to hum something. That gave the captive a new weapon in his war of wills with his abductor. He hummed Amnish and Tethyrian folk songs, rustic ballads, and even religious hymns that he remembered from childhood (which was actually the most hilarious part, because according to his own admission Valygar was agnostic).
Valygar’s sense of rhythm and musical perception was negative to put it mildly, and he used this to his full advantage. As the ranger went for eleventh time through the “Our Lord of Morning Glory in His Wondrous Golden Grace” Yoshimo could swear the singer counted the number of ticks passing through Yoshi’s stone-rigid face.
The thief sat close to the only window in the living room (which also served as kitchen and saloon) with his feet on the windowsill, and tried to relax looking at the magnificent sunset that was waning over the river Imen outside the window. It was still warm in daytime, though the nights were chilly and Yoshimo was careful not to lit fire in the brick fireplace. The Kozakuran was in his shirtsleeves and leather breeches; that left him with only four or five concealed daggers. The sixth one was in his hands, and he used it to clean his already immaculate fingernails.
An especially horrendous roulade came from the corner, where the prisoner positioned himself on the floor by the wall. Yoshi winced and swore quietly without turning his head. He could see Valygar’s position perfectly in the small mirror at his right. That was precisely why he had chosen this spot.
Yoshimo’s disposition was gloomy. Three days had passed since he experienced the acute sense of relief and the shadow was lifted from the land. He could swear that whatever was the curse that haunted Amanautor’s Temple – it was gone now. Nobody reported any fresh killings or disappearances through the last week. And yet, she did not come back. Yoshimo left a letter with Dirbert with instructions to seek him in the ‘place where we found the Fenton map’. He hoped it would be clear enough to her, and yet obscure to anybody else.
“If she is dead I may as well start running now,” Yoshimo thought dully, “Perhaps, they will forget about me if I simply disappear? Though, what’s the sense in running if you carry your death with you…”
when the shadow runs…
sunray shines on iris petals,
slides off my face
a passing leper -
I am just a waking dead
“No, I will not surrender that easy! I shall fight. I shall find the way to get myself out of this. Damn it, girl, why do you have to throw yourself at every passing danger like a moth drawn to a burning candle? Maybe this is in the nature of the Bhaalspawn…”
“What are you waiting for?” Valygar’s voice sounded puzzled, rather than angry. Now Yoshimo noticed that the humming had stopped. “I thought we would be on our way to Athkatla long time ago. Or the Cowled Ones are coming to collect me in person?”
Yoshimo stayed silent; there was no need to give his prisoner any information that he could use to his advantage.
“Come on, Creeps, talk to me! Are you afraid of these children’s tales of the shadow wolves ? How long are you going to keep me here? Sooner or later a new ranger will be chosen, and will come to claim the cabin.”
“Why do you call me ‘Creeps’?” Yoshimo tucked his knife back into its sheath and braced himself for another round of jibes.
“Because you give me the creeps when you sit like this for hours looking into an empty space! At first I though you are going to sell me to the Cowled Wizards right away. But you know, I think now I would rather surrender myself to the Cowlies and face Lavok, than sit here till you loose your screws altogether and start carving me with these knifes, that you are packed with like a porcupine!”
“My name is Yoshimo and I find no pleasure in causing pain.”
There was no response.
“Who is Lavok?”
“My great-great-grandfather, Lavok Corthala. Actually, I am not sure how many generations had passed since he plagued these Realms in person.” Valygar sounded hesitant now.
Yoshimo’s interest was peaked. “Why would the Cowled Ones want you to face your long dead relative?”
There was a short bark of laughter.
“He is not dead. Neither he is undead. He is a cannibal that eats his own young. It happens among rats, in times of severe famine and draught but only a human can reach such an incredible finesse in malevolence. Sometimes I wonder if the sapient races that use magic are an aberration of Nature that should be eliminated.”
“An interesting concept. Pray do continue.”
“You did not answer my question, Creeps. I will tell you the whole story but only if you tell me what is it that you are planning to do with me.”
Now it was Yoshi’s turn to chortle.
“You are a persistent one, Valygar Corthala! I am planning to hand you over to my Employer. Rest assured, I have no personal interest in your fate.”
“If your Employer is not Lavok he must be one of the Cowled Wizards. Am I right, Creeps?”
“If you want to continue this conversation you will call me Yoshimo.”
“All right, Cree… er Yoshimo. So, you admit you are serving a Cowled Wizard?”
“I admit nothing and I serve nobody. She is not paying me for this job.”
“Ah, a ‘she’, is not it? You are her lover then – accept my commiserations.”
“I wish it was that simple!” Yoshimo’s laughter was longer and more bitter this time. He rose to his feet and lit the hooded oil lamp on the table. The light was fading quickly. It was time to close the shutters
“She is not somebody you would wish for a lover, my inquisitive friend.”
“So, she is ugly?”
“I did not say that!”
“An interesting concept, as you had said, Yoshimo. You work for a pretty, though somewhat sinister female wizard, who is not your lover and is not paying you for your services. Does it mean you are desperately in love, Creeps?”
“I am tired of this game, Corthala. If you don’t stop bugging me I will have to resort to sleeping darts. I still have some of those.”
Yoshimo paced across the floor in irritation. It was getting cold already. In the bright circle of lamplight, Valygar’s dark eyes sparkled with amused interest. The ranger was sitting on the floor, hugging his knees with shackled hands. His multitude of dark braids was mottled and shaggy after few days of imprisonment and his walnut-brown skin bore visible bruises from that last fight. Yoshimo wandered yet again what currents of fate had brought this smart and noticeably talented man into an obscure backwater province of Amn and made him a wanted criminal.
“My mother was beautiful and highly intelligent woman, a heiress from Tashalar48 merchant family,” the ranger said calmly returning Yoshimo’s inquiring gaze. “When she had first entered the society, half of Athkatla’s noble bachelors were after her hand because of her dark, exotic looks and a sizeable dowry. Unfortunately, she was also a mage who meddled in necromancy. She had chosen my father partly because of our sinister family history. I suppose she truly wanted the Lavok’s heir, not the kind and quiet family man that he was. She was obsessed with knowledge and totally neglected her husband and her child. However, after my father died of broken heart, she suddenly discovered her love for him. She could not let go, and reanimated his corpse turning him into a zombie. Later she joined my father in his undead state out of some twisted sense of solidarity. At the end, I had to put them both to rest with my own hands. Thence, I know firsthand what it means to have a wizard for a wife.”
“You have a remarkable family,” Yoshimo responded after a short period of silence. “I can see how a tragedy like this can turn one’s dislike of magic into obsession.”
Valygar shrugged and stretched his chained hands, graceful as a cat even in his shackles.
“I would not call it an obsession,” he stated mildly. “I don’t care much about magic or the Cowled Wizards if only they leave me alone.”
“According to their story you’ve stalked them and killed two of their numbers before fleeing the city.”
“That’s not exactly accurate. I was forced to kill in self-defense. They are obsessed with me, or should I say with Lavok’s Planar Sphere.”
Yoshimo gave him a vacant stare.
“You did not hear about it? Hmm, I thought Athkatla was positively bursting with rumors and speculations at the time. The big silver Sphere had appeared in the middle of the Slums district, let me think… ah two weeks before the famous carnage at the Promenade, when two dozen Cowled wizards perished in the battle with some foreigner. I fled the city right after that.”
Yoshomo’s face went blank. He did not want to remember what have been done to him in those two weeks before the battle at the Promenade. But Valygar lost in his reminiscences did not notice this sudden change of attitude.
“Lavok Corthala was a famous mage and inventor of his times, which was about five hundred years ago. He was particularly interested in Planar travel 49. At the peak of his career as a mage Lavok built this travel device, which looks like gigantic silvery orb, entered it, and disappeared. The Sphere just melted into a thin air and he was no more. Good riddance you’d say? I agree. Unfortunately for the Corthalas he did come back in a hundred years - to steal his own grandson. After that first time every hundred years or so a young man of Corthala family would disappear. Rumor has it that Lavok returns in his Sphere and takes them to replace his own ageing body, for he can only possess one of his own bloodline. I gather that was why my mother was interested in marrying into Corthala’s line. Well, what else can I add to this? I am the last of the Corthalas- after me there is no one; and the Cowled wizards want to get inside the Sphere to learn its secrets.”
“I recall now, I have heard of this Sphere. Sounded like a load of bull to me.” In fact Yoshimo had seen it in the Slums, and have heard some of the buzz while searching for Valygar in the Bridge District, but he was not about to share this part.
“The Cowled Ones say – my blood is the key to the Sphere. That’s why they want me. When I refused to cooperate they attacked and I fled. You’ve been told to drag me back to Athkatla dead or alive I presume?”
“Presume nothing. I cannot discuss my instructions with you. She is the one who will decide, and that is as much as I can tell.”
“The mystery lady, eh Creeps?”
“If I was you Corthala, I would start praying now.”
This time Valygar laughed heartily, with abandon bounding in hysteria, which Yoshimo did not understand at all. The rest of the evening dragged on, quiet and desperate. Yoshi now felt strange affinity to the man who was like himself doomed by magic, and was hopelessly trying to escape his fate. Listening to the ranger’s fast and heavy breathing the thief wished his prisoner would start taunting him again, but that did not happen.
* * * * *
The company traveled fast as all three of them were accustomed to the elusive forest trails. Back in the Grove, at the edge of the dead waterfall the girl insisted that the urgency of finding Valygar Corthala outweighed everything else. Reluctantly, Jaheira had to agree with that. They decided to split their forces there and then, with Minsc escorting Jaheira and Cernd back to Trademeet, and the rest of the group following on their way to Imnesvale.
Jaheira smiled ironically, remembering the relief in the young cleric’s eyes when he was chosen to follow the object of his desires rather than sent to accompany her into town. Minsc grumbled a little not willing to miss another shot at wrecking havoc through Imnesvale with Jan, no doubt. But one glance from Jaheira and a quiet reminder of Lilarcor’s epic adventure put him back into cooperative mood.
They decided to split again at the very edge of the forest, where the tall roofs of Trademeet could be seen in a distant haze. Cernd argued that it was still too risky for him to go into the city, and his search for the Spirit’s chosen boy could be better conducted with the help of local rangers and farmers who dwelled outside Trademeet. While Minsc scouted the trail ahead, the two druids had their leave-taking.
“I am confident you will do a much better job in persuading Lord Corpith without me, Jaheira.”
Cernd’s smile was always half-apologetic, and his myopic stare did not improve the overall impression. If Jaheira had not seen for herself what he could do in his werewolf form, she may have believed in this illusion of vulnerability.
“As you wish, wolf brother, though your testimony could have been of greatest importance.”
“You have the letter from Bhaal’s Child and the jar of poison with you, I presume?” Cernd asked timidly.
“O yes, the druids kept the poison, for there was no way they could have disposed of it safely, and the letter is here.”
She patted herself on the chest, where the leather pouch with Thea’s letter was hidden under her tunic. It was a long though rather dry epistle that described the sequence of events, which led to the death of the former High Druid and ascendance of Faldorn. Jaheira had read it several times in the draft and helped to formalize the details.
“Then if he won’t see it our way – nothing will convince him. Believe me, nothing makes man feel his own significance stronger than a petition from a beautiful woman. You eyes will speak louder then my words.”
Jaheira chuckled dryly. “Who would have suspected a lady’s man in such a humble disguise? Have you ever been married, wolf brother?”
Cernd’s face clouded. “I was, not for long though. She could not accept the fact that Nature was always going to be my first mistress. We parted peacefully and there were no children.”
“You did not regret it then? My husband and I … we had always been too busy for a child. It was ever one adventure or another. Somebody always needed our help, or the Harpers had another crisis going on in some remote location. And then it became too late. He is gone and I have nothing left of him, not even the child of his blood.”
He looked at her and touched her hand soothingly. “You are still young…”
“Not in my heart, wolf brother. All that is left there is ashes. And dust is not a fertile ground for affection, but it can sustain your hatred almost forever.” Her face was hard as a stone again, with little white lines forming around her mouth.
“Forever is a very long time, sister. Nobody can live that long, unless they are already dead.”
“Maybe, I wish I was.”
Cernd shook his head sadly. There was no use in talking to her at this time. Hopefully, the time will heal. He changed the subject quickly.
“Maybe I should go and see my former wife after I find the boy. If I can convince her to come with me and settle in the Grove, she can take care of the child. I am not very good with children myself.”
“Do you think she still loves you?”
“Perhaps we can have another chance. If there was a child who needs care, she may come. She always wanted children.”
“She wanted your children. There is a difference.”
He blinked unhappily. “I need to find the boy for the sake of survival. Both mine and the Grove’s. When I am successful, I can start thinking about my personal affairs. Maybe I will travel to Athkatla to see my wife again. If you and your companions will return there our paths may cross again.”
“Fare thee well, wolf brother. If we ever meet again I wish it will be under luckier stars.”
* * * * *
As we marched along the trail in smaller numbers, I felt a sudden overflow of joy and relief, almost like a schoolgirl being let out of the stuffy classroom on vacation. Sadly, I had to attribute this cheerful disposition to the absence of Jaheira’s scornful remarks. Jan grinned at me like a toad from under his hooded cloak. Anomen looked content and the dimples on his cheeks were back, although his beard and mustache covered the rest of the landscape.
I wondered if all that abundant facial hair was there to prevent the observer from detecting that he was acting like a human, or merely to cover the fact that he was still so young? He rebuked the questions about his age with anxiety of an ageing coquette, but by my calculations he was no more then four and twenty (which was still four years older then me except by my estimates I aged a century over the course of last year).
The trail was clear, and sunlight was shining brightly through the bare branches of leafless trees. It was the first day of a winter season, yet even as I shivered under my black woolens listening to the howling of the wind in treetops my spirits stayed high. Faldorn had died a hero’s death, protecting what she though was her principles. That was sad but strangely comforting for at least her name was cleared of some of the worst accusations, and her spirit should be at rest now. I had all the confidence that Cernd would find the boy and bring him to the Grove to restore the natural balance of things. And if not – I hoped that the Spirit’s anger would cool down, and eventually she would make her peace with humans. The waterfall will thunder again through the valley between the Hills, of that I was sure.
The remaining druids of the Silver Mire were shabby but friendly gang, and they were deeply relieved at the notion of making peace with the burghers of the city, rather than continuing the confrontation. I hoped that my letter would be enough to convince Lord Logain to arrest Khellon Menold. In any case, I planned to stop at Trademeet as soon as my business in Imnesvale was finished.
“You don’t expect any trouble ahead, my lady? As the Watcher bestowed the honor of guarding you solely upon me today I would not dream of failing in this noble task!” Anomen proclaimed suddenly.
“Don’t worry, my boy,” Jan chuckled. “You have mages with you, surely we shall be able to take care of anything that comes our way! In fact, you may rely on us rather than the other way around. Two wizards will be sufficient protection for the young lad in his prime.”
“Considering that tale you’ve told us about your Master Galadon, who forgot to put his pants on whilst faring outside his Tower, I will be weary to rely on mages for security.” The young man snorted in response then blushed and looked at me guiltily. “My lady, is there anything that troubles you at the moment? You seem to be lost in thought.”
“Sorry, Anomen. I was merely going over the recent events at the Grove. I hope our interference will bring some good, both to the druids and to the people of Trademeet.”
“So, you agree that the timely intervention of the Forces of Good in that situation was Just and Noble? Now, imagine if the Order platoons were positioned in every remote Amnian city like Trademeet! The perpetrators would have been arrested right away, and the conflict would never started! Many lives could been saved in this way.”
“More likely the druids would have been slaughtered and the font destroyed, and with it all the meadows and orchards in the valley.” Jan responded. “There is no menace like a troop of heavily armed men on a mission of Saving the World from Evil! The power corrupts, my boy. That whole thing started over the lost mithral mine. In my observation, scratch the surface of every conflict - and you will uncover economic roots of the problem! Think how rich these merchants are. What is the average salary of the officer in the Order? Judging by your attire, you are not exactly wallowing in gold.”
“My financial situation is absolutely not of your concern, gnome!” Anomen’s cheeks flashed red. “Watch yourself, or one day a person less tolerant than I will shorten that quick tongue of yours!”
“Here we go again,” Jan responded with a hearty chuckle. “And I almost thought you’d lost your nerve lad. Thank ol’ Jan for keeping you in shape. There is nothing better than a healthy burr in the hide of a purebred stallion before a steeplechase. Incidentally, that remands me of that time, waay back, when uncle Scratchy bought that cheap racehorse from a halfling who claimed it to be a purebred Shaaryan. It was very fast, but had a habit of knocking the jockey off before every race by rolling on the grass several times. At the end the animal turned out to be a zebra from Chult with its stripes painted over with black. And the morale is, your Worship, always to check your horse’s teeth before deciding to take a ride on him!”
“Who would have thought that the teeth would give away the zebra,” I responded thoughtfully, “unless of course there is a deeper allegory hidden in this little anecdote. Jan, you are outsmarting yourself in your tender care about me. Rest assured, I will never set my foot in a stirrup without consulting you first. Not that I care much about riding anyway.”
The object of our discussion blinked his bright blue orbs in complete confusion.“I never thought you ride, my lady. No offense of course, but you always preferred walking.”
“Exactly my point,” I sighed, “lets’ get going. Imnesvale – here we come.”
There was a chortle from Jan, and we continued down the trail in this slightly frivolous mood.
When we finally reached the village it looked deserted. The last time I have set my foot on Imnesvale’s soil it was not exactly a bustling metropolis. Now it looked like a ghost town.
The only living creatures that I’ve spotted roaming the empty streets were Jan’s emancipated chickens, gone completely feral over the course of last week. The leader of the flock, thin and bald cockerel, squinted his mad, orange eye at me and after a short thought produced a lousy cock-a-doodle-doo! Somewhere at the distance the window shutter closed with a slam.
“It is not very friendly in here,” I complained loudly. “Where are all the people? The shadows are gone. So, what is going on?”
“I think we better go and talk with the Mayor, lass,” the little wizard said urgently. “I suspect they have decided that we have all perished, the way Mazzy’s expedition did. We should have come here right away.”
“Good citizens of Imnesvale! The Shadows are gone – there is nothing left to be afraid of!” Anomen’s battle-trained voice boomed through the empty street like a temple bell. “Come now, everybody go to the Mayor’s house! The Shadow Lord had perished, as well as his minions and his guardian Dragon! Nothing will haunt your fields at night, you are all safe to go back to your farms!”
His voice rolled splendidly over the empty street, and there was such a joy and convincing warmth in it that I cannot stop myself from laughing aloud.
The windows started to creek along the street, as few careful men risked a quick peek outside. Then the first door opened and a small child burst outside with a loud yelp. His mother run after him to stop the boy, and suddenly the whole street came alive.
The people were pouring out of every door, cheering and crying with joy, children yelling and dogs barking. In minutes the crowd of villagers gathered around us out of nowhere. There were pretty girls with late autumn apples and their mothers with kegs of beer and ale. (Most of the girls were making cow eyes at Anomen, of course, while their Moms were watching me disapprovingly.) The heads of the household, white-headed and long-mustached, tried to squeeze our hands and slapped our young hero on the back loudly. There was chatter, and laughter, and cheering, and many questions were asked and answered. We were surrounded and taken prisoners by the joyous crowd and led to the Mayor’s house in a tight ring of fans.
Minister Lloyd looked dazed and confused with all the noise, though he quickly recovered his posture after the last overenthusiastic citizen was politely kicked out of his house. After we have finished our tale of horrors and suspense there was a brief silence. I showed him the ornate circle of the Temple seal, and the sun gem from the lower altar, finishing with a handful of Shadow Dragon scales, and Merella’s rugged cloak.
“I know this cape,” the old man’s features tensed at the sight of the garment, and to my surprise I saw him wiping away a quick tear. “She was a dear friend and true guardian of the village. We will miss her. I am glad you put her spirit to rest. My grandfather used to tell stories about the shadows that creep out of their tombs at night and feeds on people’s minds. I never thought I would live to see the end of this horror. I cannot pay you much, but may be you will accept something of mine as a payment?”
“Look,” I said tensely, “there is no need, I know Imnesvale is not exactly rich. The Dragon horde was payment enough in itself. By the way, there is plenty more left in the temple. Just be careful to warn the people of the hidden traps.”
“Nobody here would dare to steal from the holy place of Amaunator!” The Mayor exclaimed in astonishment. “We have forgotten Him and turned to worship the Lord of the Morning 50 but we still respect our roots. Nobody would dare to lay a finger on any artifact from the Temple.”
“Yeah,” Jan muttered under his nose, “and I am a sweet fifteen-year-old maiden. The village gift shop is bursting with stolen artifacts.”
“A remarkable sentiment,” I said loudly, jumping in to prevent the unnecessary argument. “Now if you will excuse us we need to check on our friend, whom I asked to deliver the message of warning to the village before we entered the Shadow Lord’s lair. I hope he was successful?”
The Mayor’s countenance clouded.
“You are speaking of that foreign friend of yours, I gather? Yes, he had arrived a few days ago.”
“Excellent!” I exclaimed enthusiastically. “We shall find him immediately and continue on our journey. We still have much to do in the area.”
“There may be a slight problem, my lady. Nobody had seen your friend for a couple of days. Even my son, Dirbert, whom he befriended claims not to know of his present location.”
His tone went sour at the mention of his son, which puzzled me slightly. I would not have entrusted Jan or Minsc to deal with youngsters recalling the Lilarcor experience, but Yoshimo? The Kozakuran was an enigma. I could not have imagined what was it that he wanted from the teenager. Plus there was an issue of Valygar Corthala who was still at large. When we had arrived at Imnesvale for the first time all our inquiries were turned off by good citizens. Now something in the Mayor’s shifty behavior stopped me from asking these questions again. Therefore, my first priority became finding Dirbert.
Nothing was easier. ‘The troubled youth’ was the first person that I run into as we exited. There was still a problem with the crowd that gathered outside. The only solution I could think of was sending Jan and Anomen ahead to Vince’s tavern, and hoping that they can generate enough hubbubs to distract attention from me. Anomen’s shiny breastplate and Jan’s squeaky voice were the factors in my favor.
As I turned around the corner of the house into a small palisade I was relieved to discover that my plan had actually worked. The only person who had followed me was the Mayor’s son.
“Hello, Dirbert. I take it there is something you want to tell me?”
“Er… hullo, my lady. I have a letter for you from Sensei!”
Thanks to Gorion’s persistence I new a few words of Kozakuran, and the term ‘sensei’ – the teacher, was among them. However, the reverent tone in which the boy spoke, and the feverish shine in his eyes puzzled me completely. What was Yoshimo up to?
I slowly opened the sealed envelope, briefly noticing that the seal - a smudged imprint of strange signet ring - was still intact. As I raised my eyes from the letter the expression on boy’s face that was a mixture of hope, anxiety, and silent plea, softened me enough to simply hand the note over to him.
“The Fenton map! But, my lady, what is that place he is talking about? I simply need to know what had happened to Sensei! Do you think he is all right?”
“I think we need to talk, Dirbert. Yes, I have an idea what is this place that he mentions, and I am headed there right now. I may be convinced to take you with me, if your story rings right. Do we have a deal?”
“A deal? I would have told your everything anyway! I…I simply need to know where he is and if he is well! Of course I will tell you everything!”
And so I was told the story that was a bit bizarre, a bit humorous and, strangely, showed the side of Yoshimo that I had never suspected even existed. 51 It was a rather elegantly planned operation and I wandered if the part with the boys was merely a diversion or a true desire to develop a bond with the outside world? Looking back at the whole affair I conclude that it was probably both in equal measure.
They have been sitting in the cold gloom with closed shutters all morning. Their conversation was now reduced to the occasional expression of mutual enmity. Valygar had fallen under the dark spell of melancholy after his emotional outburst yesterday. He even stopped taunting Yoshimo with his awful singing.
The thief’s mood was almost as bad. Always in his life there was a clear objective and understanding of what to do next. Now he was at a loss. His whole life was hanging on the outcome of a battle that was not even his. On top of it, he had in his care a man who was obviously slighted by the group, to whom Yoshimo had no respect, and held no obligation outside his original commitment to his Bhaalspawn. He realized that he was thinking of her as ‘his’ Bhaalspawn, and that made him smile uneasily.
It was not in Yoshimo’s character to cause unnecessary suffering and he usually shrunk away from the commissions that were outright foul, like abducting children or selling freemen into slavery. He felt genuine sympathy for Valygar, because ranger’s personal circumstances resembled Yoshi’s own. That however made him uneasy, for it was a violation of his personal rule number one – never to develop any personal feeling towards his ‘clients’. Therefore, Yoshimo withdrew into his shell and deliberately cut down communication with his prisoner.
That was the atmosphere into which I barged ‘like a shooting star’, as Valygar has later described my entrance. I was flashed from the brisk walk on the cold air outside, and my uncertainty about the whole affair transpired into a blast of nervous energy. Dir’s incessant stream of stories and praises to ‘sensei’ along the way put me into a good mood, which was somewhat dampened by the first look at Merella’s house.
The cabin looked deserted. There was no smoke coming from the chimney, and the windows were barred from inside. But one look at the door that we had left hanging on one hinge, and that was now firmly reset into place and locked, gave me some hope. My level of agitation was high and my patience was at its limit. I raised my hands, dimly aware that this was not a good example to set to the younger generation, but unable to stop myself from taking action.
The spell went off. The door exploded and the lock fell out with a loud ‘clang’. Dirbert dived for cover.
“Yoshimo!” I cried loudly enough to wake up the dead. “Get out of your den! I am back.”
“I see,” came a calm response in a familiar, slightly amused voice. “Please do come in. I gather, there is no point in asking you what was wrong with my door?”
“Yoshimo the magnificent,” I grinned happily as I walked inside. “It is simply good to see you again. Believe it or not – but I’ve missed you!”
Yoshimo was standing there in his usual attire and pose, though I immediately noticed dark circles around his eyes and sardonic curve to his lips. He gave me a sharp bow, touching his chest lightly with the palm of his right hand.
“I would rather call myself Yoshimo the lost, Yoshimo the forsaken - but you would not care, would you?” There was a genuine chagrin in his eyes.
“Why Yoshi,” I answered in surprise. “Would you actually think I have forgotten about you?” I reached out and took his hand in mine in a sudden impulse. That was a mistake. I knew he did not like the western familiarity, and was always very formal in his ways. His face stiffened, though I could not judge was it anger or some other emotion.
“O, I did not think you could forget me that easily,” Yoshimo’s white teeth flashed in a quick smile as
he carefully extricated his hand from mine. “Remember when we met for the first time and you asked me who I was?”
“I am no fiend! I am Yoshimo! You know, Yoshimo?” I answered trying to imitate his brisk, self-assured manner as best as I could. “Everybody knows me! You cannot possibly say that you never heard about Yoshimo!”
“Yes, once you have met me there is no way you can forget,” he shook in silent laughter, then went suddenly serious. “I was afraid something bad had happened.”
“Like me being killed by the Sinister Winged Reptile or the Sinister Shadow Fiend, eh?”
“I bet you have a much longer list now… Thea. Tell me all about it.” I noticed that he hesitated slightly before using my name. You get strangely attuned to the minute details like this.
“Well, I would be damned if it is not the infamous femme fatale! Congratulations, Creeps, she is really worth selling my sorry ass to the Cowlies many times over.” The croaking voice came from the darkest corner of the room, followed by the clank of metal. “Sorry to interrupt the happy reunion but I am sick of this place and I don’t give a damn about your feelings. Lady, would you care to deliver me into the hands of my vampire grandfather as quick as possible? This cold floor gives me boils on my butt, and Creeps here is the worst cook I ever tried!”
Yoshomo’s face went blank but not before I spotted a flash of alarm in his eyes. I looked at him questioningly.
“Let me introduce you,” the thief said calmly, “to the man you’ve being so anxious to meet. Thea – meet Valygar Corthala.”
He walked briskly to the window and opened the shutter, letting in the white afternoon light. I looked in fascination at the man whom I was chasing through half of the Amnian provinces, and who did not look anything close to what I had imagined.
Valygar was sitting on the floor, blinking his eyes at the unexpected flood of sunlight. I noticed his exotic appearance and the dark hair pleated in many small brides in the foreign fashion. His clothes were soiled and crinkled, his eyes bloodshot, his cheeks sported the three-days bristle. He was also collared and chained, on both hands and feet. Still, there was an unexpected dignity about the man. Something in his eyes perhaps, or in his manner to keep his head up.
“Please do sit down,” the prisoner pointed at the three-legged stool with his chained hands, and smiled crookedly. “I hope you will excuse me for not standing up before the lady.”
I grabbed the seat and plopped on it right in front of him, resting my chin on my folded hands. For a moment or so we just sat there looking into each other’s eyes. To my utter satisfaction, Valygar turned away first. He looked tired and worn out at this close distance. Still, there was enough fire left in his dark stare to make me feel how dangerous he could be.
“Are you an apprentice or a full member?” The ranger asked casually. “You must be new to Athkatla. I don’t recognize your face, though I know many of them through my late mother.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“He thinks you are of the Order of the Cowled Wizards,” Yoshimo explained calmly. “I did not wish to reassure him.”
“Ah, a freelancer,” Valygar nodded to himself. “Not that it makes any difference in the long run, but maybe you would like to hear my part of the story before bundling and shipping me to the Cowled Ones?”
“I suggest you consider this man’s story,” Yoshimo interfered again. “I cannot advise you one way or another, but at least some parts of his tale are true. Indeed, a strange artifact had appeared in the Slums district few weeks ago. And the rumor mill links it to the Corthala family. As for the rest of it – judge for yourself.”
“I am properly intrigued, Mr.Corthala” I answered carefully. “I will listen to your side of the story before making any decision.”
As Valygar went through his macabre tale of ancient necromancer lurking inside the magical Sphere, and the power-greedy wizards my mind worked to accommodate this new information. After Yoshi’s comments I had no reason to doubt the Sphere’s existence, and the official wizard’s words about delivering Valygar ‘dead of alive’ were very suggestive. It could only meant that his blood was indeed the key to the magical artifact they craved.
Imagine my predicament and state of mind at that time. My major objective was Imoen’s release, and the only way to get the information about her location out of the Cowled Wizards was through delivering Valygar into their hands. It was already almost a month since she was taken, and I was feeling incredibly guilty over my procrastination. The other option was to pay the Shadow Thieves’ ransom.
The romp through the Amanautor’s temple (especially the aforementioned Dragon horde) left me with a hefty sum in gold. But I was still short of what the Thieves had asked for their cooperation. And I had my own reservations about dealing with the gang of blackmailing kidnappers, who were obviously paid for our abduction, and now wanted to squeeze more gold out of me. I swore I would get to them for Khalid’s death. Pretending to pay their blackmail was one of the ways to achieve my goal.
I looked at Yoshimo. He wore his poker face again. I was weary of him because to my distress, I discovered that I started to like him too much. I was positive he was going to use my weakness to his advantage. I thought that he was working for the Shadow Thieves at first. While sending him to Imnesvale and then failing to come back in time, I half wished he would give up his mission and go back to Athkatla. Instead, he presented me with a solution to my problem with Valygar Corthala. Who was this man after all - a free agent fishing for profit in the murky waters of Bhaalspawn’s personal affairs or a true friend and more, whom fate had thrown onto my path by pure accident?
“So, what do you say, lady. Are you still resolute on selling me off to the Cowled Wizards, or we can make some sort of a deal?”
Valygar’s question caught me unaware. I realized to my embarrassment that instead of contemplating his case I was thinking about my mixed feeling towards Yoshimo. But perhaps that was because I already made up my mind.
“Yoshimo, do you think we can trust this man?”
“I specifically told you that I cannot advise you on the matter,” he answered hotly. I looked at him – the thief’s lean, intelligent face had lost some of the calm that was his usual trademark.
“I am not asking you what to do. I am asking if in your opinion he is telling the truth!”
Yoshimo felt silent. I could hear Valygar’s chains clanking; then he went quiet as a mouse.
“Yes, he is.” The bounty hunter responded finally. “I have delivered more murderers into the hands of justice than you have fingers on your both hands, Thea. And every one of them tried to convince me of his innocence. I know my trade. This man is not lying, or at least he thinks he is telling the truth.”
“Good Gad Creeps! Who would have though you actually have a brain in that thick skull of yours?”
“I’ve told you – my name is Yoshimo.”
“Mr. Corthala,” I said in a grave voice, though it cost me some effort not to giggle at Yoshimo’s new nick. “Would you care to listen to my proposition?”
“I am all ears,” the prisoner lowered his head politely.
“If we release you now, it will only result in Cowled Wizards putting more bounty on your head. You will be hunted down and eventually captured by a man or a woman less conscious about you being guilty or not. And I will loose my chance of getting my sister out of the Cowled Wizards’ hands. I suggest you go with me to Athkatla as a free man, and help me to enter the Sphere. Then I will have a bargaining chip in my dealings with the Cowled Ones, and you will be free to go where you wish.”
“So, they have your sister in their hands, my little lady. That’s too bad!”
“I have heard she was sentenced to Spellhold.” I nodded.
“That’s even worse,” Valygar shook his head sadly. “I had never heard of anybody coming back from there.” He raised his head and looked me in the eye. “You know, they would not have kept to their end of the bargain anyway. Even if you delivered me to them they would never let her go.”
“I suspect you are right,” I answered. “That is why I need something more ample to offer than your sore ass, excuse my Sembian 52.”
“Be my guest,” Valygar tried to make a wide sweep with his hand but his shackles stopped him abruptly.
“O, yes,” I said after a short pause. “Yoshimo, would you please free this man from his chains? I suppose sooner or later we will have to take this risk, and I feel like doing it right now.”
Yoshimo bowed and dropped on one knee beside Valygar. After a few seconds the hand chains and the collar dropped to the floor with a loud clang, followed by the foot shackles. The prisoner sat still massaging his feet. Then he sprang up only to moan and grab for the nearest support, which happened to be Yoshimo’s shoulder. They stood there for a moment with their fists clenched, looking into each other’s eyes. Then the bounty hunter nodded and helped his captive to reach the nearest bench.
“Listen,” Valygar said finally, “if you want my good will and cooperation, why don’t we talk about it in a more … relaxing atmosphere. I know I should stop running and go challenge my gruesome ancestor myself! When my father was alive, he made me swear I would try to stop Lavok if I had a chance. There is nothing left to loose – I am the last of the Corthalas. Running away from my destiny is not going to do me any good. I should go back and confront him like a man.”
“Running away is never a good idea,” Yoshimo said suddenly.
“I don’t think you would do much good against the necromancer of his caliper on your own, Valygar,” I responded. “I may not be your best choice of an ally but it is better then nothing, and I have a few good friends.”
“You mean , besides Creeps?” The ranger chuckled. “He alone is worth a little army, I believe.”
Yoshimo smiled. I looked at him affectionately like a mother hen, and turned back to Valygar.
“Yes, there are more. You will meet them all in due time. I guess I have to mention one little thing before continuing our conversation. If you are going to travel with us you need to know something about me.”
“What is it? Are you undead or a member of some weird underground cult?”
“Use your imagination.”
“A lich? No, you smell too good. Zhentarim, or Cyric worshipper? A Purple Dragon Cultist? A Bhaalspawn?”
“Now you’ve got it.” I looked at his widely opened eyes. “Look, I did not want you to find out on your own. It is not like I have a tail, or two horns. I just happen to have an immortal creep for a father.”
This caused a fit of mirth in Valygar. Yoshimo looked at him with pity.
“Forget it,” the ranger uttered after he finally stopped laughing. “Who am I to judge?”
“This is settled then,” I exclaimed enthusiastically. “I am glad you are on board, Valygar! Let’s go and meet the rest of the company. Yoshimo, I will tell you more later on, but right now Anomen and Jan are waiting for us in Vince’s place. Jaheira and Minsc are away on an errand.”
A hint of humor flashed in Yoshi’s dark eyes. “Then we better hurry. I am afraid that either the priest’s eyes will pop out from too much ire or he will hammer the gnome up to the ears into the ground, after another tale of the half-orc Ano!”
“Looks like I am going to meet some interesting people,” Valygar stated. “Lead on, fair lady. Yoshimo, there is one thing I will never forgive you. That is if you mistreated my horse. Were is Ginger?”
“I had to stable her in the chicken coup, Smarty. But she should be fine – I found some fodder among the late ranger’s supplies.”
“Yes, I do believe she kept it there for her deer in case of harsh winter,” Valygar said sadly.
When we stepped outside I suddenly realized that our little drama had a spectator, whom we all totally forgot.
“Dirbert!” I exclaimed spotting the cold and lonely figure of a youth, who was waiting outside all that time. But his eyes were only for his precious idol.
“Sensei, are you all right?” The boys eyes grew to the size of the tea saucers when he spotted Valygar. “Is this the shadow-friend? How come you are letting him go? Are you going to stay in Imnesvale for a few more days? Can I go with you when you leave?”
“A shadow-friend?” Valygar’s eyebrows popped up. “What a bunch of lies have you been feeding to the boy, Creeps?”
“Calm down, Smarty.” Yoshimo answered coolly. “Would you rather be known as a common murderer? I had to tell them something. At least now you pose as a romantic and sinister villain!”
“I guess it depends on your prospective,” Valygar grumbled. “But I want everybody to know that I am innocent of all these crimes.”
“Is he really, sensei?” Dirbert was almost jumping up and down with excitement. “Then I better go and tell Dad, and Val, and Nel too!”
“This man is indeed Valygar Corthala,” the bounty hunter acknowledged. “And I was wrong about him. He is innocent. You can tell your honorable father that I apologize for my mistake.”
“I bet Dad still has no clue about what had happened!” Dirbert giggled. “Where are you going to be, Sensei? I have to run and tell everybody but I will be back in a flash!”
“We are going to Vince’s presently,” I answered sourly. “And Dir, there is no need to ‘tell everybody’. You can simply tell your Dad that Mr. Corthala is alive and well, and is going to travel with me and my party.”
When we finally reached the Vince’s tavern, leading Valygar’s good-natured mare loaded with his and Yoshimo’s belongings, it was dark. But the celebration of the Shadow Lord’s demise was still in full swing. The village looked festive with bright torches lit along the busy main street. The first person to greet us at the door was Anomen. But Yoshimo was wrong to worry about his or Jan’s health. (At least he was wrong about the cause of possible bodily harm!) Our chaste cleric was drunk as a fish.
His habitual abstinence made things worse for him, as a few tankards of raspberry ale that Jan convinced him to sample ‘to loosen up a bit’ worked wonders on his tired head. Anomen was in his tunic, bereft of his priestly garments and cuirass for once. His face was unnaturally pink, and he was mumbling something incomprehensible to one of the three pretty village maidens that hanged from his elbows. (I later discovered that they convinced him that ‘some fresh air would do him good’, and that the only reason he did not wake up in someone’s barn next morning was that they kept fighting between themselves as to who is going to get him first.) He did look cute with his dark hair in disarray, and blue eyes bright from alcohol. (That is if you like bearded men, which I don’t!)
As Anomen’s inamoratas squawked and run in panic, the young cleric was left alone swaying gently on his wobbly legs. At the sight of me he waved cheerfully and declared in somewhat unsteady voice.
“Jansen , you old liar… She is back … and as always escorted by at least two of them!
Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet lady, make me immortal with a kiss! 53
Not bad for a drunk, eh? Sorry, that was not mine. May be next time, though Moira says my own poetry sucks, on which I agree. Still, can I have that kiss? No? Please, lady, stop being so cruel. Your eyes are like two burning holes in my soul … I can feel everything good and noble leaking through them, leaving me to rot in my wretchedness.”
“Anomen, you are drunk.” I stated the obvious. “You need to go to your bed right now!”
“Only if you take me,” he chuckled. “She is the bright star in the darkness of my endless nights. Her body glows and her eyes are the shining topazes stolen from … frights, knights … give me a break ... I can’t get it!”
“This is a truly awful one, my friend,” I giggled catching him as he started to fall. “Guys! Give me a hand over here, he is heavy as hell!”
“Ah, another victim. Creeps, you did not tell me you had a rival!”
“Shut up, Corthala, and get his other hand. If she stumbles, we all will end up on the ground!”
After we dragged the half-conscious cleric into the guestroom upstairs and tucked him into his bed safely, I went to find Jan. The gnome was still in the common room, fresh as a newly-plucked radish and weaving yet another tale of his heroic dragon slaying.
I pulled him aside. “Jan, why did you let him get into his cups? You knew he never drinks.”
“Your Worship, how should I know that the lad would go off his tracks from a cup of ale?”
“I strongly suspect that it was much more then one. His father is an alcoholic, you smart-head! These kind of problems usually run in the family.”
“He is? Hmm, I just wanted to help the boy to ease up a bit,” Jan winked at me. “If not for your untimely intervention, he would have finally lost his virginity. Well, if you want to keep him for yourself - that’s another matter, though I strongly warn you against it! The lad is dangerous. He is like the time bomb waiting to explode. Too much tension, and he keeps it all inside him.”
“Jan, you are drunk too! Go to sleep. And I though I could get some sense out of you!” I turned around and marched out of the common room in distress. There was some truth in Jan’s blatant words, I just did not want to admit it.
It started to snow next morning. The temperatures dropped to a freezing point, and a small but steady supply of snowflakes sprinkled from gray heavens. I sat in the coziest corner of Vince’s kitchen with a jug of warm milk and a bunny in my lap, and thought about the endless swamps of Silver Mire being slowly covered with white powdery stuff. The pool under the waterfall will be filled with snow instead of the running water for the first time in hundreds years. The thought of camping under the open skies again made me shiver.
“You are getting soft,” Puck remarked sleepily. “But I like it. There is no place like in front of the stove when it is cold outside.”
“Hey, you are supposed to like the wilderness and such. Call of the woods, you know.”
“Not in winter! Still, have you noticed that I shed my coat lately? I am almost white now.”
“Oh yeah,” I responded laughingly. “Only a blind man could have missed all that fuzz in my backpack!”
The kitchen door creaked. I raised my head and my smile faded. Anomen was standing at the entrance, white and rigid as a statue in his embarrassment. His face said it all – I though that if I dare to laugh he would probably run out this very moment never to return.
“Great,” I thought frantically. “Now, how shall I handle this?”
“Wisely,” the rabbit responded with a sly chuckle, “you are the female of the species, therefore biologically you are in charge now.”
I looked at Anomen again - his clenched fists were white, while his cheeks and ears red as a morning sun. This was too much for me. I carefully placed my jug of milk on the floor. My lips trembled and I burst into alleviating, uncontrollable laughter. When I recovered, wiping away tears and stifling the last giggle, Anomen was still there. I nodded and rose from my seat.
“Come here,” I said. “We surely need to talk.”
He came closer, hesitatingly. I noticed that his hair was wet and that he was wearing his best tunic.
“Then, you are not totally mad at me?” he asked in a faltering voice.
“For the ‘face that launch’d a thousand ships’? No, I am actually quite flattered. It is not like I am compared to Eleenor of Ilium 54 every day, you know. My mother was Chessen, as I have probably told you already.”
“I made a fool of myself in front of all that crowd,” Anomen stomped his foot and looked at me like a child who was about to throw a tantrum.
“You should not have drunk.” I waved a finger at him. “But you know this already. As for these people, well, we are leaving today and I am positive we are never going to see Imnesvale again.”
“I am sorry,” he hesitated for a second then decided to continue, “that I made my feelings known to you in such an atrocious way. But what’s done is done. Would you allow me to court you in a proper manner?”
“It was not exactly a secret,” I mumbled. “I mean… I suspected that you were, ahem, interested. I am sorry I cannot return your feelings.” I noticed that he was trying to say something and quickly finished. “It is not your fault. I cannot allow myself to get involved with anybody for the sake of that person’s safety. Being a daughter of the dead god of Murder has its disadvantages. The man I once loved…he was murdered most foully, as was my real father, Gorion … I swore to myself, I will never allow this to happen again.”
“And that is all?” Anomen’s face brightened visibly. “I though you were… never mind. If you are free of attachment than there is still hope for me. I will try my best to win you over, that is if you allow me to try!”
“Well,” I shrugged my shoulders, “if you want to waste your time, sure, give it a try. It’s just, can you do it in a somewhat discreet fashion?” I looked at him and blushed. “I like the things the way they are! Can’t we just stay friends?”
“My lady,” Anomen bowed his head deeply. “I will abide by your wishes. I will follow you as a guardian and a friend until the time will come and you change your mind. Until then, I will keep my feelings for myself. I apologize again for my yesterday’s performance, and swear this will never happen again. Can I ask you one question though?”
“What is it, Anomen?” I raised my eyebrows.
“My lady, that man that you once loved, the one who had died. Was he… your lover?”
“Yes,” I answered after a short pause. “His death is on my consciousness, and his murderer is my ultimate target. And that is all that I am going to tell you.” I looked at him defiantly. “Any more questions?”
“No,” he whispered. “I will help you in this, if I can. And the Watcher will guide my steps.”
“Please, go now,” I said dismissing him with a curt nod. “I need to be alone. Make acquaintance with Valygar Corthala. Yoshimo will fill you on the details. We are leaving in a few hours.”
He bowed politely and left, tiptoeing out of the kitchen. For a moment I could hear the merry voices and laughter of Vince’s morning customers coming from the common room. Yoshimo’s voice broke over the hubbub, calling for breakfast. My heart skipped a beat. Then Anomen closed the door behind him and everything went quiet again.
39. Note from sister Omphalla: Many substances occurring ready formed in the tissues of plants and the bodies of animals are known for their poisonous or medicinal attributes. For example a toxic resin found in certain tropical trees is a powerful relaxant for striated muscles.
40. Note from sister Omphalla: In their natural form Rakshasa resemble an exceptionally strong and quick tiger, garbed in human clothes. Their hands are positioned backwards, with a palm where the back of a hand supposed to be on a human. Some say that they are the very embodiment of evil, for they crave for the blood and flesh of intelligent beings, and revel in suffering of their victims. Many argue that Rakshasa is kind of a demon, though most scholars refer to them just as generic outsiders. They are definitely not creatures of this Plane, though whence they come from - remains a mystery.
41. Note from sister Omphalla: Aphrodisiac - a drug or other agent that stimulates sexual desire.
42. Note from sister Omphalla: Naphtha - this term is applied by the alchemists to a number of volatile, strong smelling, inflammable liquids, chiefly belonging to the ethers.
43. Note from sister Omphalla: Usquebaugh - an intoxicating liquor distilled from grain, potatoes, etc. Especially appreciated by dwarven populace.
44. Note from sister Omphalla: Ruhk – possibly a title of a noble in the Rakshasa and Jinn quasi-oriental societies. An equivalent of a knight.
45. Note from sister Omphalla: 'People of the Black Blood' – a loosely organized society of lycanthropes, worshippers of Malar ( the Beast Lord), some of them are druids or even rangers, these are the most dangerous ones for they can use majority of druidic and ranger’s spells. A leader of the individual group of 'People' is called the Bloodmaster.
46. Note from sister Omphalla: The Great Tethyr Road – a famous trade route that runs from the coastal city of Murann to Brost, Riatavin and further east through the Snowflake Mountains, into the Shining Planes across the bridge over the Deepwash.
47. Note from sister Omphalla: Nymphs are Nature’s embodiments of physical beauty. These fey spirits inhabit most secluded and sacred places of wilderness and usually dwell near the body of pure water (preferably spring or lake). They are supposed to be unbelievably lovely, so that the view of them can blind or even kill the intruder. There are no reports of the male spirits of this sort.
48. Note from sister Omphalla: Tashalar is a land of exotic spicy food, beautiful dark skinned people, and great wealth. Located at the very base of Chultan peninsula Tashalar is warm but breezy country covered in gardens and vineyards. The mountains produce gold and iron, but most of the people live at the fertile stripe of land between the Shining Sea and the Black Jungle. Remnants of old Yauan-tee empire still live in the isolated pockets in the jungle.
49. Note from sister Omphalla: Planar Travel – the most common method of travel between Planes of existence is through spells and magic items. Many such items use Planar energies and nature of the Planes themselves. I will refer the reader to the famous ‘Manual of the Planes’, by unknown magician for further reading.
50. Note from sister Omphalla: Lord of the Morning – one of the titles of Lathander, the Sun God.
51. The reader had a chance to learn this tale already in excerpts that I included in previous text.(O.O.)
52. Note from sister Omphalla: In this context - a vulgar expression. Sembia, a rich nation of experienced merchants and fashionable art, is known for its exotic food and lack of principles.
53. Note from sister Omphalla: From ‘Doctor Faustus’ by Christopher Marlowe, Kingdom of Britain, Earth, 1564-1593 Earth Reconing.
54. Note from sister Omphalla: Eleenor of Ilium (Troy), ancient Queen of the Chessen city of Cimbar, who was kidnapped by the Ilium.s prince Parees, on which occasion the city of Ilium was destroyed by the invading army of Cimbarians.
Last modified on January 27, 2002
Copyright © 2001 by Janetta Bogatchenko. All rights reserved.