According to the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle, chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. It always defeats order because it is better organized.

Terry Pratchett

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Baldur's Gate II -
The Shadows of Amn

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.


by Janetta Bogatchenko






The road to Hell is  paved with Good Intentions.

“My sister is dead!” the young cleric’s voice quivered as if saying these words aloud made him an accomplice; and by accepting the ugly truth of her death, he somehow made it more real. “I am leaving the company. I beg you, Jaheira, wake her up, we need to talk.”

“I am awake,” I murmured foggily, starting to pull myself out of the now tepid water of my bath, and then realizing from a sudden panic in Jaheira’s voice that something was not quite right. The fact of my nudity did not reach my brain at once, but when it slowly made its way up there I ducked back into the Vyatri’s best copper tub with a splash. Jaheira had arranged it brought in here and filled with blissfully hot water for my bath. Verily, Anomen was at such a state that a platoon of naked virgins could have marched right through the room without his notice. Being a highly practical girl, I did not find a better solution than to quickly cast a blurring spell upon my humble persona, and thus protect his virtue from further corruption by the sight of my dripping charms.

“Anomen?” I offered awkwardly from my hazy cover. “I am sorry. I offer my condolences. Is there anything that we can do? ”

He suddenly staggered, hiding face in his hands. It is always embarrassing to a see men cry. To see his broad shoulders shake from violent sobs was near heartbreaking.

“Can you take him into the sitting room and stay with him for a while?” I hissed at Jaheira. “I will be there in a moment!”

She wanted to say something, but swallowed her remark and gently led him out of the bedroom that was solely hers before tonight, in where he barged unexpectedly a few minutes ago. I grabbed a woolen robe, draping it hastily over my still wet body, and gathered my clean but wet mane into a towel, wrapping it around my head. Thus ready, I sighed and cancelled the blurring spell. My head was still fuzzy from the strange dream I had experienced, and I was at a complete loss of how to deal with Anomen’s tragedy. From what he had told me in few amiable conversations before our budding comradeship spun out of control into the gray area of mutual distrust, jealousy, and petty reprisals, his sister meant everything to him.

I had had my share of heartbreaking losses this year, starting with Gorion’s violent death and ending with abduction of Imoen. I was afraid it had taught me nothing but the art of suppressing my emotions and skillfully terminating relationships before they threatened to grow into serious attachments. My flight from Baldur’s Gate was a perfect example of where it had led me at the end. Still, Anomen deserved better than tepid ‘sincere condolences’, so I braced myself and marched into the anteroom of Vyatri’s best suite, generously paid for by Trademeet’s Mayor Logan Corpith. It was the usual mixture of plush furniture and virulently bright carpets, which was the Amnish upper classes idea of luxury accommodations.

Anomen was standing at the exit door, evidently trapped in indecision, while Jaheira was murmuring something to him soothingly. His eyes were red and swollen but his face was now full of sullen rage that so often followed what he considered his ‘moments of weakness’. I instantly recognized were we were headed, and braced myself for another tantrum.

“I apologize for disturbing you in such an oafish manner,” he said icily, “my personal grievances surely aren’t worth interrupting you at your bath. Still, I felt obliged to notify you of my immediate departure.”

Up to this day, I have no idea what came over me. I guess my physical condition of extreme tiredness played its role, as well as emotional exhaustion. I felt such an intense flood of feelings overwhelming me: a mixture of anger, irritation, but most strongly – pity that I could not control myself. I walked straight to the spot where he was rooted, glaring mulishly at his feet, and slapped him twice with as much force as I could master, once on the left cheek and once on the right.

“That is for your sister’s death being ‘not worthy of my attention’,” I said grimly, “and that one for doubting that I would offer my help in dealing with the matter.”

Anomen blanched, which made the two red prints on his cheeks stand out even brighter. For a moment or so, I was afraid he was going to hit me back, but his bred-in chivalry and closet romanticism overwhelmed the basic instincts of enraged Amnian noble. His lips trembled with unspoken words of reproof. There was only one way out of this situation now. I cursed myself for not keeping my hands to myself, and grabbed his head firmly. I had never kissed a man with a beard before. It tickled a great deal. His lips tasted of salt and bitter anger.

“Don’t get any ideas, that was an apology for slapping you,” I offered breathlessly, “though by Helm’s beard - I would have done it again given a chance! Will you please stop being intolerable now and tell me what had happened?”

His color slowly returned to normal, albeit he did look like he was hit on the head with a heavy object. Jaheira murmured something incomprehensible and retreated into the bedroom proper.

“Terl was waiting for me in the common room,” the young man muttered. Then seeing my perplexed look explained hastily. “He has been with the family for more then two decades as a stablemaster, and sometimes Moira’s personal bodyguard. He is probably the last of our men who had stayed with us, despite father’s frequent negligence to pay his salary. He is … was very attached to my sister.” He swallowed to dislodge a lump in his throat, and continued. “It looks like Lord Cor was out of the city heading for Murann, when disaster struck. Terl was able to overtake him on his way and then went after me, without my father’s permission. She has been dead for almost two weeks now, and I kept writing to her!” His lips began to tremble again, but he took a deep breath and managed to control himself. “I need to return to Athkatla immediately, my lady. I am sorry for not being able to continue traveling with you but this matter is of utmost importance.”

“We are all headed back to Athkatla,” I offered. “There is no need to part ways just now. And I seriously doubt that on your own you would make it any faster than if you stay with us. I was thinking of the ways of increasing our speed of travel. Can you wait until morning? We will depart at first light. Besides, your horse won’t make it unless you let it rest.”

“I was planning to borrow Terl’s,” Anomen answered uncertainly, “and then switch mounts at every mail post along the Great Trade Way. I could make it in two days if I go without rest.”

“More likely you will fall down in a ditch somewhere between here and Athkatla, and break your neck,” I sneered. “It is over two hundred miles, and some of it will be through the rough mountain terrain. You are traveling with two accomplished wizards, and you cannot trust us to do better then this? Please let us show you what we can do. I cannot open the portal for a crowd of seven people and their horses. I have to confess - this is beyond my reach just yet. But I promise you we will be at the front gates of your distinguished capital by tomorrow’s nightfall, or you can call me a harebrained female who does not know her spells from her cookie recipes!”

“Cookie recipes, ah?” He sighed. “Somehow you strike me as a type who does not know the difference between meringue and marquee.”

“There is any?” I raised an eyebrow, “well, if there is – you can tell me about it on our way. Do we have a deal then? You shall travel with us to the city gates, and if later you need additional help, you can always count on me. I do not abandon my friends and companions in their time of need, as I have already told you.”

“I was not sure if I was included in the category, “Anomen stated.

“You’ve made it,” I nodded, “though verily, I had to give you some cheat points to make it through the finals. Oops, sorry, it was not me speaking, it was somebody else!”

He had managed a weak smile, albeit it probably cost him some effort.

“I am sorry, Anomen,” I added sincerely. “I do count you as a friend, despite what you may think of me and my ways. I will do my best to deliver you safely to Athkatla and then help you to deal with your sister’s death, if there is any matter in which you may need my help”

“It may be so,” he offered reluctantly. “I did not want to tell you at once – but it was murder. She was found in her own bedroom, apparently killed during the robbery attempt.”

I had sent him to bed, although I was sure he would not close his eyes even for a moment. He had a lot on his mind right then. My next step was to go find Jan. The ubiquitous gnome was still in the main room, having a turnip beer or two with Minsc and Boo over their happy reunion. Unexpectedly, Valygar was there as well, albeit I could not spot Yoshimo anywhere. They all assured me he had retired for the night already. They were not surprised at the news. It turned out – they were all there when Anomen received the message.

“It is fortunate indeed that we are all aware of the situation,” I said. “Valygar, I need you to purchase two additional horses for Minsc and Jaheira, and I need it done soon. Preferably – tonight. Don’t give me that look! I know it is past midnight already. I would not have asked if I did not think you can do it. Go ask Vyatri, and I don’t care about the price or their speed – only the stamina. It looks like we will need to leave the pack animals behind, and travel light. So think about what is it that you absolutely have to carry with you. The rest of it we can purchase in Athkatla.”

They were all disappointed of course. Why is it that over the course of travels you always tend to accumulate packloads of various junk and get attached to it?

“Jan, can I please have a moment of your time in private? And Minsc, don’t count on him coming back to continue your celebration. If you have any unfinished business in Trademeet, go do it now, because we are leaving first thing in the morning.”

“Minsc is always ready to re-join the ranks of brave heroes for more fun butt-kicking!” He grinned. “Besides, Busy is getting overprotective and Boo is getting fat. We all need to hit the road again.”

“His merchant goddess started to get some funny ideas,” Jan grinned. “I bet all this Lurraxol-Alibakkar business is getting in her head. That reminds me of something that had happened to my second great aunt Calliope Jansen, the one that everybody used to call Loopie. She was so hot to get married that she did not even notice that her groom had feathers on his feet and was ten feet taller that it is becoming in a grown up gnome! It turned out he was a griffin in disguise, so poor Loopie never came back from her honeymoon. Still, the wedding cake was a rhapsody in turnips, whipped cream and sugar plums, and I never tasted anything like that again!”

“I bet, that was a great consolation to her, “ I muttered, “Jan dearie, as Yoshimo says - I need your skill and expertise in a certain field. Would you be so kind as to grab your spellbook and follow me into my private quarters for a quiet conversation?”

“Your Worship!” The old clown covered his eyes with his hand, peeping through the half-spread fingers. “I am honored but I have to confess – my heart is already given to another. Why don’t you pick up on one of the younger lads, who as I may point it out to you, are also a bit taller and don’t have a bald patch?”

“No more ale for you tonight!” I growled, “and mind it, that also includes Evermead and Bearhugger’s Stinky Stout. If I ever need to hear your opinion on my choice of dates, I shall ask. Since neither of these younger characters has any experience in the School of Illusion and Phantasm, shut up your big mouth and follow me!”

“Is it wise?” Jan asked suddenly in a more serious tone. “Why don’t you let the lad go to deal with it by himself? He is a grown up, and you cannot always shelter him from the reality of life.”

“It is rather complicated,” I sighed, “besides, we need to return to Athkatla anyway, now that we had found Mr. Corthala and discovered the depth of our Cowled employer’s deception. Not that I ever had any doubts about them playing with the rigged dice!”

“You know an awful lot about these things for a girl of your age,” the gnome looked at me with concern. “I suppose it is not surprising in the daughter of Bhaal, but it is a pity you not nearly as wise in the matters of your own heart. Still, it is your call. I shall help you in any way I can.”

We had spent few hours in intense discussion and preparation, and I let him go to catch some sleep for the few hours that were left of the night. When I finally made it to my bed I fell into it and was sleeping before my face even touched the pillow. It seemed like only a single moment had passed before Jaheira shook me back into awareness. In the gray light of an early predawn I noticed that she was dressed in her custom green wool, but that instead of the enchanted chainmail she was wearing an old leather pants and jerkin, crisscrossed with various harnesses and straps, bearing her field gear and even a small water flask. Both of her precious scimitars were missing.

“It is time,” she said simply. “I did not want to bother you last night, but now I must confess. I cannot follow you to Athkatla. There is a duty that I owe to someone, and I believe its time has come.”

“What is it this time, Jaheira?” I was puzzled, and my sleep deprivation did not improve my already grouchy mood.

“The tree spirits and their seeds,” she answered simply. “I forgot about it for a time, but when I saw the Spirit of the Silver Mire, I remembered them; and then while I was sitting here waiting for you these last few days, I could not shake off the sound of their voices. They were counting on me and I still carry the seed pouch in my backpack. But what if I would be slain tomorrow, and nobody will bother to deliver these to their Forest Queen? I had to go now and do it while it is not too late. The Windspear Hills are only two days march from Trademeet. I would follow you back to Athkatla as soon as I can.”

“You must be kidding!” I exclaimed in distress. “How can you travel through the wilderness alone, in the middle of a winter season? I do appreciate your feelings, but this is suicidal!”

“Child,” Jaheira scowled at me, “you forgot I am much older than you, and my heart is that of a druid. A single human female may be lost in the winter forest, but not a single she-wolf!”

My eyes popped open. “Are you telling me that you are planning to travel in your wolf form for four days or more? Is not it … dangerous?”

“For the weak in spirit, it may be,” she agreed calmly, “there is always a temptation to simply give up your human side and turn to a simpler, cleaner life of a wolf. Remember nothing but the last hunt in the snow-covered hills and the salty taste of hot blood filling your mouth after a long chase and that one final leap. But don’t worry. I have too many threads tying me to my humanity yet. My oath to Gorion, Khalid’s unavenged death, Imoen’s fate and your final plight. I am curious to see how all this will end, and you still need me by your side to pull you out of the fire in the last possible moment. I shall return.”

“If you say so,” I consented weakly.

At that moment, I realized just how much I was going to miss her. Over the last year, she became an integral part of my life, stepping in for Gorion and filling that emptiness in my wretched Bhaalspawn’s soul that would always be yapping for a parent figure with all the grace and dignity of a lost pup. I suspected now that all the miserable melodrama of my heartless affair with her husband was caused more by my desire to be closer to her than by any genuine passion. It is always amazing to discover the inner motives of your actions long after the time when you can actually fix the consequences is gone.

“Would you be careful?” I asked stupidly, trying to sound graceful and mature but managing only something close to a pathetic wail. “I … I am sure we will be fine, but I shall worry about you.”

“I will take care of myself,” Jaheira smiled royally, “Your new companion, Valygar Corthala, seems to be dependable. He had purchased two very fine horses from the innkeeper and one of these is staying here for me. I am leaving most of my heavier gear behind, because as you know I can only integrate a few natural items into my wolf body, and they have to be in close contact with my skin. When I come back, I shall pick up my more expensive belongings, and hire one of the locals to escort me back to Athkatla with all our pack animals and the luggage you will leave behind. It was all arranged while you were sleeping.”

I had followed her into the cold and snowy courtyard where Valygar had already saddled our horses, and we rode through the silent city, and out into the calm winter field outside. There she dismounted giving him the reins, and smiled at me briefly with a quick node and one last wave of her strong hand. Her transformation was as quick and flawless as almost everything she did. Honey whinnied nervously, and tried to shy away at the sight of her new shape but quickly calmed down as Valygar patted him on the neck. Valygar’s horse stayed as calm and controlled as her rider. In a few moments, the dark gray shadow slinked into the blackthorn bushes, surrounding the empty field, and we were headed back into the city to prepare for our charge to Athkatla.  

* * * * *

The first hour of our journey from Trademeet passed uneventfully. We left the city gates behind and were now riding through the endless procession of small farms and lone hamlets, surrounded by naked winter orchards and shorn corn fields. The weather favored us, for after yesterday’s onslaught of wet snow and rain a light drop in temperature hardened the brown mud of the road, and a few sunrays peeked shyly through the low curtain of gray clouds. We were now traveling along the Coast Trade Way – the second great caravan route that passed through that peculiar little city. As I already mentioned elsewhere, the Trade Way runs all the way through the mountains of Small Teeth, then along the fertile valleys of northern Amn and through the foothills of Cloud Peaks, eventually crossing these great snow-covered mountains, and venturing into the familiar lands of the northern Sword Coast. Alas, we were not going that way! When we reach the city of Crimmor, almost two hundred miles north from here, we shall take the southern turn leading to the very gates of Athkatla.

The horses were restless, snorting and jolting sporadically, as if in anticipation of my questionable scheme. Their riders were feeling little better, albeit every one of them except Jan, who was in the conspiracy, periodically gave me a dubious look. Anomen was riding behind me, pale and silent, staring lifelessly into the empty space before him. His eyelids were still red, and deep dark circles were visible around his eyes this morning. Yoshimo scowled darkly, muttering to himself. Despite his general cheery urban attitude, he was not happy about going back to Athkatla. I was rather curious about it, and decided to cozy up to him later to find out why he was so nervous. Valygar was calm and composed, radiating silent content as if the idea of finally confronting his worst nightmare pleased him, and gave him an extra energy. Minsc was as loud and noisy as ever. A large wicker basket full of fancy foods was strapped behind his saddle – I guessed it was the gift from his latest girlfriend. Obviously they had parted on best terms.

I thought of the lonely she-wolf that was even now covering the long miles between Trademeet and Windspear Hills to the east from here. This morning I had a long conversation with old stablemaster Terl - a man who had brought Anomen the dire news. He did not wish to return to his master’s service at once but agreed to watch over our pack animals and then escort Jaheira back to the capital. Maybe by that time I would have news of Imoen’s whereabouts, and we can set off to rescue her together.

Until now I had never thought about the inconvenience of traveling in an entirely male company. Every one of them was quite a character by himself. The need to keep them all concentrated on our goal, rather than dissenting into petty rivalries and challenging my authority was never so obvious before Jaheira’s departure. She was like a good first mate, who could always keep the mutinous crew at bay by the sheer strength of her personality. I preferred more subtle methods. The problem was - I could not continue these little mental games without the cover of her grouchy dictatorship. It was like in that old storybook that I read once. First a ‘bad’ guardsman threatens the thief, and than a softer ‘good’ one would have a much easier time with him. I would have to be triple careful from now on, or my ability to influence them would melt like yesterday’s snow under the heat of today’s sun. Of course there was always that last reserve of threatening to polymorph the perpetrator into a squirrel, but they knew I was too soft to actually do it.

I sighed. It was time to set our plans in motion. I pulled at Honey’s reins and raised my hand requesting their full attention. As I went into explanations, amidst curious glances and cheerful encouragements from Minsc, my backpack jerked.

 “Are you absolutely sure this is gonna work?” the rabbit asked sourly.

“It better, I had given him my word.”

Jan winked at me, mouthing a silent “go on lassie.”

Improved haste is not a particularly difficult spell. The trick was timing and synchronization. As I made a round of the horses, slapping each of the mounts on the flank or backside with lump of grease, and following with a little spark from my flint stone and a quick vocal component, the animal’s ears perked, their feet began to tremble, and a mad glitter flickered in their dark eyes. I mounted Honey, and with some help from Valygar, strapped my feet to the stirrups, then pulled a rope and fastened it around my waist, effectively tying myself to the saddle. They all stared at me with not a small degree of curiosity and amusement.

“Here goes my dignity and self-esteem,” I thought gruffly. My old pensioner of a horse felt strangely vigorous and jittery under me. I touched my mount’s warm sides with my knees, and he jumped forward with a sudden vigor of a two-year-old stallion.

“Now we ride!” I grinned, “and gods help anything and anybody that will fall under these hooves! We have about two hours of this accelerated pace. Should be enough to cover the fifty miles from here to the  passage through the Small Teeth, and maybe even make it to Imnescar all the way through the mountains!”

I will never forget that journey. Later on I became a much better rider, and the fear of angry earth rushing into my face under the ever raising and falling hooves was replaced with pure joy of companionship with strong and gentle animal that allows a puny human ride him. But that travel from Trademeet to Athkatla was forever etched in my memory as one Hellride. We had thundered through the plane between Umar and Ommlur Hills, and passed the dark vale flanked by the Twin towers of Eternal Eclipse 65, never knowing that the tall structures of the hidden Temple of Cyric were looming in the shadows on both sides of us. We climbed up the narrow roads, looping widely among the steep slopes of the old mountains. The Small Teeth are not particularly tall, but they are inhabited by hordes of goblinoids and mountain trolls. On our way here from Athkatla, we had traveled with well-protected caravan. That morning we just went through the craggy terrain without stopping to look for trouble. I doubt any creature could have followed us anyway, even though by that time the first echelons of Sythillisian 66 imperial troops were probably gathering among the shadowy canyons.

By the time that the sun had climbed up above our heads, we had left Imnescar behind, crossing the shallow river above that small town, and exiting the region of the Small Teeth on the other side of the ridge. My spell wore off. The horses were exhausted by their speed jolt, and the riders were in even worse condition for they had to match their slow human reflexes to the increased agility of their mounts. We all stopped at the gentle slope of a green hill facing north. Minsc helped me to untie myself and I collapsed into his hands, unable to stand straight. That second day in the saddle was turning out to be worse than the first one.

“We cannot continue at this pace,” Valygar looked at me with concern. “If you want to kill yourself – fine, but I will not allow you to ruin the horses. They will need at least a half a day’s rest, before we can go on.”

“Had to be careful around that one,” I thought briefly.

“Jan, do it now!” I nodded to the little wizard. The gnome rose in his stirrups and opened his palms.

Perhaps only a true student of the Craft may fully appreciate the excitement that comes with mastering the weave. Every time I encounter a new, previously un-experienced enchantment, my every nerve trembles with anticipation. There is no pleasure greater than that of a discovery of a new spell, and since the School of Illusion remains a closed book to me, I was particularly thrilled to observe its practical application.

Nothing seemed to change around us, except a sudden quietness that fell over the land. I looked up. High above us a crow was stuck in mid-flight, its wings raising in a slow motion and falling down at the same snail speed. I laughed pointing my hand at it.

“The Tempus Fugit dweomer will last until we are rested,” Jan grinned with satisfaction. “Take your time lads. For every hour that you spend snoozing now, only ten minutes of the real time shall pass.”

“Yes,” I nodded. “And I am going to take a full advantage of it. I will need to cast those haste spells again. But after eight or so hours of sleep that I intend to take, it should not be much of a problem!”

“You may yet convince me that magic can be used to bring something more into this world, but death and misery,” Valygar stated. “But I don’t think it is going to be easy.”

“We’ll take our turns working on you, lad,” the gnome winked. “Magic is a wondrous thing and it is really quite safe! Did I ever tell you the story about my uncle Scratchy and his magical Shoe of Speed? Mind it, he always told everybody that he had lost the other shoe while trying to pull his heel out of the ditch in Calimshan while his second foot was already in Tethyr. Nobody would believe him of course, although I always wondered if it was indeed a freak accident with the griffin that had left him with only one leg!”

* * * * *

We had made it to Athkatla by late afternoon, that same day. The last twenty miles through the rapidly falling dusk were the most challenging, albeit this time when the time came I had managed to dismount on my own. My legs were trembling but the quiet satisfaction of the job well done filled my heart, as we led our horses through the gates of the great city in the descending darkness of that mild winter evening.

Through all the endless miles of our journey Anomen stayed silent and remote, locked deep in his grief. Now, as Yoshimo negotiated with the city watchmen over the exact content of our saddlebags, the young Helmite pulled me aside with the same ghostly expression on his pale face.

“I maybe crossing the borderlines again,” he said gravely, “but I have to ask. And if you do not feel like doing me this favor – just say so. I promise I will not hold it against you.”

“What is it, Anomen?” I asked softly. I have to admit at being a little bit surprised, for I fully expected him to ride off into the night upon reaching the city gates.

“I know how tired you are right now,” he blinked, “and after all that you and Jan had done to bring me here tonight I should not press my luck and push you for more favors. But I cannot make myself go and face the old bastard alone! In the past Moira had always been there to stop me, to prevent the worst from happening.” His voice quivered at the sound of her name. “Now that my sister is dead I would not trust myself to be in the same room with my father. If I find out that her death was caused by his reckless negligence and abuse of his position as her guardian … I beg you, my lady, come with me, and stop me from spilling the blood of my own father! You are the only person in this world right now on whom I can rely. I know if the worst comes to worst - I would listen to you!”

“Don’t do it cricket, or you will regret it badly!” the rabbit hissed frantically in my mind.

“All right,” I sighed. “I will go with you. You have mentioned some time ago that your ancestral home is somewhere in the Government District?”

“It is on the other side of the river, in the so-called golden triangle, wedged between the Gems District, the Trades Quarter and the Temple Grounds,” he blurted with obvious relief. “I promise, it would not take long! And later on I will escort you back to your lodgings, wherever that may be. I would have offered you and our friends my hospitality - but I can’t. I have not slept in that house ever since I turned nineteen and joined the Order as Helm’s initiate. It has been … six years I think.”

“Fancy you finally telling me your real age,” I smiled. “You are four years senior than me, my friend. I always thought you were younger.”

He blushed slightly and tugged at his beard. “Prithee my lady,  I do look somewhat … youthful. That is what they always tell me. Still, I am almost ready to pass my Test and enter the Knighthood. I hope they will consider it soon.”

“And you want it badly,” I nodded, “I hope you shall pass with flying colors. After all that we’ve accomplished I think you most definitely deserve it. It is not like they have a candidate who almost single-handedly slain a big scary Shadow Dragon every week!”

But Anomen missed my gentle teasing and wanton flattery. “I wish I was here watching over Moira instead,” he muttered suddenly, lowering his eyes. His cheeks flashed red. “I feel I had failed her. I run off for my petty adventure like a small child who is drawn by the bright new toy, and left her unprotected! If  I only knew … But it is too late now. It has always been too late. I am a selfish, egoistic bastard who had left her in the mercy of the wretched alcoholic, when it was me whom he really wanted to torment all along!”

“He is her father,” I objected, “how should you know?”

“I knew!” he snapped back at me, “Helm forgive me, but I did. I had always known that Cor was a miserable wretch, who could not tell his left hand from his right when he is in his cups! And he is prone to violence…” his lips whitened. “I don’t believe he could have actually hurt her, physically. Moira always managed to handle him. Much better than I ever did anyway. But how could I rely on him to protect her?”

“Calm down,” I patted his mailed arm soothingly. “I am sure you did what you’ve thought was best for her. You could not make her leave her home, and even if you did convince her – where would she go?”

“I should have stayed myself!” Anomen cried out. “I knew I would have been miserable, trying to adjust to the position I always loathed, and take over the trade that never suited me, but she may have been alive now if I did!”

“And what if ruining your life together with hers was not enough to save her?” I asked quietly, “you may never know what may have happened. Do you think she would have been happier if the tension between you and your father grew up into something really ugly? You should stop mulling over what is lost and focus on the future. Let’s get going - we need to hurry if we want to reach your father’s house before they lock the front doors for the night.”

“Knowing Lord Cor, they are probably always open,” the young man snapped angrily, “despite the recent crime explosion in the city! But your are right, my lady. I apologize for my bad manners. We must go now.”

“Would you mind taking Minsc with us?” I asked casually. “It is getting late, and with all these restrictions on magic use in your fair city I would feel safer with two of you around. He can wait at the front doors. And he can be really handy if things go wrong between the two Delryns!”

“Fair enough, that you don’t trust me with the matter of your safety,” he responded bitterly, “how can I object if my own heedless deeds speak for me?”

“Come on, you being too hard on yourself.” I turned towards the rest of the team who have finished their negotiations and waited politely for us to conclude our conversation. “I suggest we keep a low profile and go back to the Slums.” I proclaimed. They all nodded. “Yoshimo, I would rely on you to lead everybody safely to the ‘Coronet’.”

 The thief bowed his head silently. On our way to Athkatla I tried to talk to him several times, but he rebuffed all of my carefully aimed questions, and stayed gloomy and thoughtful  through the entire journey. In fact, I got a distinctive feeling that he was avoiding me fastidiously. Gone were his frequent flashes of mirth and polite compliments, followed by soft touches of my hand by his quick fingers. Now Yoshimo was locked in his strange, depressive mood.

“Minsc, I would like you to go with us. I may need your help along the way. I  have an errand in another part of the city, but we will be back at the Coronet soon enough.” I felt strangely reluctant to tell them where we were headed. “I wish I knew why I am doing this,” I muttered to myself but gnome’s ears were sharp enough to intercept my remark.

“Be careful what you ask for,” he said with a little shake of his head, “or you may very well get your wish, and then what are you going to do?”

It was strange to be back in this city teaming with life even in the darker hours, after more than a month spent among the quiet planes and silent forests of the country. We passed the ostentatiously rich mansions of the nouveau-riche commoners in the Bridge district, crossed the famous Alandor bridge lighted by many bright torches and filled with carriages going to and fro, and entered the northern part of Athkatla, the home of its ‘blue blood’ nobility and organized religion. Delryn’s residence was only a few blocks away when a strange commotion in the courtyard of the old jailhouse across the street had caught my eye.

The people who buzzed around the huge pile of wood, dousing it with buckets of oil, surely looked strange. In the uneven light of their torches I could see the crimson and black vestments, marked with upturned black triangle bearing the sign of white antlers. This mark proclaimed their affiliation as surely as it was branded upon their brow with hot iron.

“By Helm’s stinky feet!” I exclaimed in certain agitation, paying no heed to the young Helmite’s displeasure at my profanity. “What are these damnable creeps doing in here? I thought the church of the Maid of Misfortune 67 was banned from most of the civilized places?!”

A tall, powerfully built figure wearing a long white cloak of soft wool, over the gleaming platemail was exiting the front gate of a nearby mansion. An emblem of a shiny golden heart emblazoned on the left side of his white garment caught my eye immediately. At my words the gray-haired veteran suddenly stopped in his tracks. His face, crisscrossed with a multitude of half-healed scars and roughened by prolonged exposure to sun, creased and piercing dark eyes under the bushy eyebrows looked at me in displeasure. “Watch your tongue young woman! If I was your father I would have made you wash your mouth with soap this very moment!” His voice was deep and harsh, more used to giving out orders on the battlefield than to a light conversation.

I shrugged and made a wry face at him, trying to sidestep his imposing figure and have a better look at the priests of Beshaba across the street. The old man looked me over, assessing a ragged black mantle, a tangled mane of sable hair, and my men’s riding boots and breaches - all in dull black wool and leather without a single colored tassel or any other ornament. I suppose I did look weird, maybe even ominous. If you add to that I am almost as tall as any human man, and my eyes gleam in the dark with uncanny golden light of their own…well, you’ll get the idea of the first impression I had made on the man. He cursed and made a sign to avert evil, then his stare switched to my companions.

“Young Anomen!” He exclaimed in a puzzled voice. “What are you doing here in the dark of the night in such a strange company?”

Anomen’s jaw dropped, and I have to confess that I almost giggled at his completely stunned expression.

“Aren’t you supposed to be riding south, keeping your eye on the … Ah!” The old man’s gaze shifted back to me.

“Sir…Sir Keldorn,” Anomen finally managed to find his tongue. “Let me introduce you to lady Thea of Candlekeep. I have been traveling with her and her companions as of late,” He nodded at Minsc who grinned at our new acquaintance in a most unabashed manner, deliberately petting Boo who was perched on his shoulder. “I left with Prelate’s full approval of course!” Anomen continued, “We have just returned to Athkatla because of the news that I received,” he swallowed. “My sister Moira was found dead, Sir Keldorn. Murdered most foully. I am on my way to my father’s house.”

“Aye,” the old knight’s attitude shifted from outright hostility to grudging acknowledgment. “I have heard the dire news. My condolences to you and your … family,” Keldorn (I assumed that was his name) cringed as if he swallowed something rotten. “Lord Cor is already spreading rumors that that commoner is responsible. I suggest you be careful in taking that at face value, young squire. The Calimshite is a vile man, but your father’s history with him speaks for itself. As far as I know he does not have any proof to support his accusations. Your position at the Order is precarious enough as it is, and with your Test coming any week now you don’t want to get yourself in trouble!”

Anomen’s face darkened. “Old fool!” he muttered then reddened at Keldorn’s angry look. “I meant my father of course, Lord Firecam! Everybody in the city is well aware of his feud with Saerk, albeit commoner or not he is probably one of richest man in the city. But to think that Cor would use my sister’s death to come back at the man… It is disgusting!”

“Good attitude, young squire,” the knight nodded smiling. Now run along and take good care of your …companion.”

I looked at him sharply. I generally don’t jump for paladins but neither do I feel resentment towards any religious order, which does not engage in human sacrifices, torture and other theologically proscribed forms of cruelty. Something about Sir Keldorn Firecam however, irked me to no end. It was hard to explain, but the way he looked at me gave me the creeps, and his general stance towards Anomen and his loss was somewhat… heartless. Later on I discovered that he was one of the Inquisitors. That’s an order inside many religious orders that specializes on eliminating spellcasters. Truly told, the Order of the Most Radiant Heart deemed itself the force of good, and their primary targets were supposedly ‘evil’ wizards and clerics of opposing religions. But when the focus of your career is hunting down and eliminating magic users in the city, which condemns any use of the weave unauthorized by the powers that be (sic Order of the Cowled Wizards), your attitude towards any spellcaster tends to shift towards severe distrust. And if you add to this that the creature in question was the daughter of the long dead evil God … I think my discomfort around Sir Keldorn was understandable.

It was getting late and I had absolutely no desire to disturb the hornet’s nest by getting into the confrontation with stiff old prig. So I nodded politely muttering something to the matter of  “pleasure to meet you, Sir …er…Keldorn” and was ready to escape when the sharp cries from the direction of old jailhouse made me turn around and freeze in astonishment.

The Beshabans were done with their preparations, and were now engaged in heated struggle. The whole bunch of them (about five or six men in dark red robes over chainmail) surrounded a small figure in a rough sack-cloth garment with a low hood covering the face, whom they dragged forward from the prison cell behind now opened heavy iron door. The face of the person under the hood was invisible, but he was giving the clerics of the Maid of Misfortune a very hard time. One of the priests suddenly doubled, falling to his knees and clutching at his crotch, the other sat down heavily with hand over his bleeding nose.

I swore, rather more colorfully than the first time, and run across the street, pushing through the small crowd that was quickly gathering in the courtyard, always eager to participate in any creative display of human suffering. From the corner of my eye I noticed Minsc, who was following at my heels, and Anomen, who was somewhat slower to react but was now pushing through the onlookers to get to me. Strangely enough, the old Inquisitor had also followed us and was now standing there surrounded by the empty space that everybody gave to his magnificent white cloak and shiny platemail. My companions looked somewhat less resplendent, for Minsc had donned his old studded leathers for the convenience of the long ride to Athkatla, and Anomen was only wearing his steel vambraces and shoulder plates, for the same reason.

The priests of Beshaba finally managed to subdue their victim and drag him up the steep ramp that led to the thick wooden pole, surrounded by stacks of wood and kindling that they generously soaked in oil. A sick feeling settled in my stomach. I had never seen anything so barbaric but some of the older books in Candlekeep libraries had mentioned the tradition of ritualistic ‘cleansing’ by fire that the Church of Beshaba used on their enemies and those enemies’ prized possessions. That was one of the reasons for which Beshaba worshippers were banned from most of the human cities. To see something like that happening on the street of the capital city of Amn was unthinkable! I could not believe my eyes. I was certain that somebody would interfere, and step forward to stop this madness. Whoever that criminal was – he surely did not deserve an awful death by being burned alive in front of the gleeful crowd. In Baldur’s Gate even the vilest of murderers were simply beheaded or hanged by the neck. I turned to the Inquisitor, who was standing still as a marble statue, both hands on the pommel of his ornate sword.

“Sir, is it lawful in Athkatla for the priests of Beshaba to dispense their own justice?”

He grimaced. “These are vultures indeed, but we let them feed on the refuse that will otherwise poison the lifestream of the city.”

“Simply speaking, the authorities allow this kind of self-styled executions if the perpetrator is not anybody important?”

“Don’t try to bend my words, Bhaalspawn! Whoever this wretched creature is, their execution was surely approved by the city Council. We will find out soon enough what crime was committed to deserve such a fate.”

I noted for myself that the old spook did not deem it necessary to conceal his knowledge of my identity. His first words to Anomen were enlightening enough. Verily, I knew that our young squire’s mission was to track my progress through Amn for his beloved Order. But I expected them to be somewhat more cautious on the matter. Now it looked like they were so sure of themselves – they dropped the last pretense of discretion.

The Beshabans finished tying their prisoner to the stake and were now all gathered at the front of the pyre, ready to proceed with their ceremony. I stared in bewilderment. The hood had fallen off their victim’s head in the struggle, revealing the unkempt mane of snow-white hair. Were these the signs of advanced age or endured torture?

One of the red-robed acolytes stepped forward, raising his hand. His dark oily hair swung back uncovering the ugly tattoo of Beshaba’s antlers on his cheek.

“My brethren! Behold this foul drow elf that we bound here before yer! This she-spider, this black-skinned whelp of darkness that we apprehended yesterday on the market! She had tried to sneak upon us, no doubt to spy for her kin, deeming us lax of vigilance and laughing in her evil heart at the weakness of humankind!”

The figure at the stake raised her head in defiance. The white locks had fallen away, and I could see now that her skin was the color of ebony under the unnatural lightness of her thick, wavy hair. Her eyes burnt like two red embers above the stripe of thick cloth that covered her mouth, and her jaws moved vigorously, trying to chew her way through the rough cloth.

The crowd went wild. The cries “Burn her! Burn her! Burn the drow!” were coming from every direction now.

I pushed forward, making my way to the front and stopped facing the leader of the fanatics. My options were few but I had to try to talk sense into them before turning to violence.

“Pray brother, what were her crimes, besides just being a dark elf?” I asked acerbically. “Tell us the full extent of her vileness!”

“Why are you interested, sister?” the priest glared at me through his wild tresses, giggling like crazy. The stench of his unwashed body was unbearable at this close distance. Too late I remembered that the male priests of the Maid of Misrule were rumored to be maniacs, turned to insanity by the red-rimmed gaze of their Goddess. “Her crime is plain simple,” he scratched himself and looked at me drooling from the corner of his mouth. “She is a drow - therefore she must burn! Let’s see how her dirty magics will protect her from the cleansing fire!”

“How can you punish somebody just for being what she is?” I cried loudly turning back to the crowd. Sir Keldorn was standing in the front row now, staring at me harshly, his white cloak gleaming with ghostly brightness in the light of many torches.

“One must wonder what plot the drow are hatching,” he said with deepest scorn in his deep and pleasant voice. “It appears justice is about to be served ... Move aside woman, and don’t try to interfere. May its black and evil heart char into powder!”

“Such a fate is no less than the fiend deserves,” Anomen muttered uncertainly from behind his back, “though truly told, I had never thought that the drow can be so … stunning.”

My eyes caught the sight of Minsc who was pushing closer to me. His soft brown eyes opened wide at the sight of the Ilythiirid woman at the stake.

“I won’t let them burn the pretty elf!” The rage in the big ranger’s voice was unmistakable. “It is not right to hurt her just because she is different!” I prayed silently that one of his berserker fits won’t come upon him now.

“Jabressd Thea! Usstan uil wun ant del xxizz! Orn dos xxizz ussa?d” The familiar husky voice speaking in the harsh syllables of Ilythiiriand cried suddenly.

I whirled around. The elven woman managed to push the cloth holding her gag away from her mouth. Her lovely chin and plump lips were now visible, as the disgusting rag slipped down around her neck. It was Viconia DeVir, my lost companion.

“Tlu honglathd, Vicky,” I hissed in total astonishment. I have not seen her for almost a year, and did not recognize her at first in her prison garb and with the lower part of her face covered by the dirty rag. “Khal ussa. Usstan uil wun quarth!d

“You speak her language witch!” the mad priest wailed in terror. “Seize her brethren! She is in league with the drow!”

If he wanted to enrage the crowd he made a mistake, for his words had just the opposite effect on the rich passersby who had gathered around the pyre in hope of an easy entertainment. Not one of them was ready to risk their hide for the sake of mad Beshabans’ revenge on the dark elf. The crowd surged back in instinctive fear, and I noticed with some satisfaction that Sir Keldorn was trapped in the tight knot of frightened burghers and their wives and was forced to retreat from the scene, albeit temporarily.

I ran to the pyre ascending it in few strides, and started to cut Viconia’s bonds with my dagger, the same one that found its way into Rakshasa’s guts only a week before. Her limbs were cruelly wrought behind her back and tightly tied to the pole with a rope. They did not want to risk her working herself free when she would be overcome by her final death throws in the middle of the raging fire. It took me some time to cut through the bonds on both her hands and feet. I could hear the clash of metal below but did not dare to look. How many of them will we have to face? Would the old paladin join the Beshabans to drag their victim back to the pyre, perhaps tying me on the other side of the stake for company? Whose side would Anomen take?

When I finally finished with the ropes she sagged unable to keep herself upright for the first few minutes. The ropes were so tight that the circulation stopped in her bound hands and feet. I caught her in my hands. At that moment one of the Beshabans threw his torch on the pyre. The oiled wood caught up immediately.

I heard an enraged cry but could not see anything through the black cloud of smoke and orange flickers of fire. My hands were full of Viconia, who was coughing furiously unable to stand on her numbed feet. Strangely, the only thought in my head was of my poor rabbit whom I left in Jan’s care, and who will most certainly suffer if I never make it out of this mess. Then two strong hands seized me in an embrace, and I was dragged down from the burning pile of wood, still clutching the dark elf to my heaving bosom.

Anomen was angry as two hundred Baatezu but at least the forlorn look of a hurt child that he was wearing for the last two days was gone from his face. He turned without saying a word and caught the blow of a mace from an enraged Beshaban priest on his bracer.  His other hand was already swinging the Flail of Ages. I heard Minsc’ battle cry from the center of a swirl, that contained at least four of the Beshabans. Alas! I could do nothing to help them, for any spell cast on the street of Athkatla right now would bring more trouble from the Cowled Ones than it would be worth. I had no desire to be taken into custody for casting without a license.

Viconia stirred, pushing herself away from me and started her chant. Her breath was harsh and ragged and the motions of her hands were painfully slow at first. Suddenly my head was full of buzzing noise and when it passed I felt a surge of strength and vitality carousing through my body. She had prayed to her dark Goddess of pain, and her plea did not go unanswered  - my body now felt as strong and efficient as that of the young warrior-priest who just finished his opponent and quickly run to Minsc’ help, engaging another Beshaban fanatic. The crossbow bolt whizzed in the air, hitting the stack of burning wood behind our backs with a loud thud. I grabbed my knife and looked at Viconia, who was smiling menacingly at the long blade of dark fire in her own hand. We charged.

It was over in a few moments filled with red fog of madness. I stopped, pulling my dagger out of the limp body of a red-clad priest wrapped around his useless crossbow. My hands were shaking. Viconia was chanting the healing spell, holding Minsc’ torn and damaged shoulder, while he was smiling at her like crazy. In the bright light of the raging fire that was supposed to become Viconia’s funeral pyre, I could see the dark square littered with broken corpses of the priests and empty of any life except the four of us. A strong warm hand touched my elbow. I turned slowly. The young Helmite frowned, carefully checking me for injuries, then relaxed at finding nothing worth of his attention. His own face was bloody from the long oozing gash across his cheek but he dismissed my timid inquiry.

“I advise you against sheltering this creature in your shadow Bhaalspawn!” a sudden harsh request came from the tall, white figure carefully making his way between the sprawled corpses and scattered litter. “Your own plea is desperate enough. Do not make things worse for yourself by protecting the demon-whelp from justice!”

“Olot dosd!” Viconia spat suddenly turning to face him. “You rivvin are all mad! I have done nothing to you old colnbluthd. I was only seeking to buy supplies before leaving your cursed city when they seized me yesterday on the market!”

“Silence, drow!” Keldorn roared at her, his handsome face suddenly turning livid red. “Before I cut you into a thousand small pieces and feed you to the dogs starting with your vile tongue, the way your brethren murdered my friend and his whole family when I served near Eshpurta!”

“L'alurl rivvil zhah elghinyrr rivvild!” the ilythiiryd priestess laughed in his face “Dos inbal bau bel’la, iblithd! Would you attack an injured female wearing a turnip sack, with nay but air in her hands?”

I have to confess that I had the strongest desire to smack her on her shapely round bottom for this.

I was grateful enough for the old fool not to interfere with her rescue. To his honor, he had stayed away from our fight with Beshabans. Still, I had no desire to test the limits of his temper and fighting skills, and seeing his both hands jump to the hilt of his great sword I did something desperate. The implications of this act affected lives of more than one person but I am still not sure if I would not do it again under the similar circumstances. I grabbed my purse quickly selecting a small hemisphere of roughly cut diamond and matching piece of gum Arabic, and raised my hands in a casting stance. (Needless to say that I keep all my spell components segregated into the individual smaller pouches, with color-coded strings and painstaking markings.)

Seeing my lips move Keldorn roared raising the magically charged two-handed sword and taking a swing at me. In a flash of a second Minsc’ hands grabbed Lilarcor’s hilt, and the damned weapon was screaming and cussing, freed again of its scabbard. I saw Anomen rushing between his old comrade and myself with a look of horror on his face but at that moment my casting was complete, and a small greenish orb popped from my hands jumping at the old man and expanding rapidly into a dim, all-enveloping, semi-transparent sphere of what looked like a green glass. Sir Keldorn made a jest as if trying to avert my casting but it was too late. He was trapped inside the Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere as surely as a careless horsefly inside a piece of amber. Unlike the unfortunate insect, he would be free of in about an hour without any injury to anything more than his pride. The sphere was transparent to air, however it would surely stop any physical attack directed from inside or outside. He was now balancing precariously on the balls of his feet inside the sphere, hammering his mailed fists at its smooth green surface. His bejeweled great sword dropped from his hands and was laying harmlessly at his feet.

I could not stop myself from laughing at the look of angry puzzlement on his face. At seeing me laugh, it changed to the cold murderous rage. Viconia clapped her hands, grinning openly. Minsc chuckled but Anomen was looking at me with expression of deepest chagrin.

“What in the Realms did possess you to do this?” he complained loudly. “Please, Thea let him go! I am sure I can still resolve the quarrel between you two.”

“No harm will come to him from catching a few snores inside the Otiluke’s sphere,” I shrugged. “If he won’t try to roll it around like this, and get himself into the fire!” Hearing me say this the enraged knight stopped his hammering. “It will dissolve in an hour, or more likely, he will be free of it in a matter of minutes as the Cowled enforcers will surely be here soon. The amount of resonance from this spell is relatively small as it is only a forth circle enchantment. Still better safe than sorry. Let’s get out of here and talk about it in a safer place!” I turned to Viconia. “I assume you are coming with us, abbil d . Although knowing your damned pride I won’t be surprised if you just walked into the night, letting them capture you after all the effort I wasted on rescuing you yet again!”

“We cannot let Vicky go!” Minsc grinned. “Boo says, we are responsible for her now that we’ve got her out of the clutches of evil!”

“I will be fine, addled one,” Viconia grunted at him. “I survived on my own among the rivvind for almost two years now. But I would gladly join you again, Thea. Traveling with you always provides opportunities to test one’s merit – that I will grant you!”

Anomen shrugged. “It is no use arguing with you over the drow I suppose. You have already made your decision. If you swear to me that no harm will come to Sir Keldorn – let’s move out. I feel no remorse at ending the sorry lives of the few Beshaban lunatics, but confronting the Cowled Wizards patrol may be the end of us.”

“I swear to you this spell is absolutely harmless.” I bent over, picking a dull gray cloak left on the ground by one of the fleeing onlookers and offering it to Viconia. “Quickly wrap yourself, we would buy you something more appropriate later.” And throwing one last glance at the old paladin, who was now standing still inside his shiny prison with his arms crossed upon his heaving chest, we escaped the area.

* * * * *

“How long have you been in Athkatla and why did you get yourself into this mess?” I asked Viconia, after we got couple of blocks away from the place of her would-be execution.

“It is hardly a good time to get into details, Dalhar d’Elggind.” She chuckled. “Sufficient enough to say that both of these things were not of my choosing.”

“Be this way if you like, jalild!” I scowled grouchily. But don’t ask me how I spent the last six months either. And by the way, you know how I hate this moniker you gave me!”

“How shall I call you then, jabress d?” Viconia asked amusedly ignoring my other comments. “The last time I saw you, you had been absolutely paranoid about giving out any name to anybody.”

“Just call me Thea,” I sighed. “Imoen made sure that half of Amn knows me under that ridiculous nick she gave me.”

“The little thief is still with you then,” the dark elf frowned. “As I assume is the rest of your circus - the druid elg’caressd and her idiot of a husband, and the Rashemi faernd?”

“Khalid is dead,” I said after a short pause, “as well as Dynaheir. I would rather not talk about it.”

“I lost my witch,” Minsc’ face went dark. “And the Evil One, who had her slaughtered still walks the Realms! Heavens scream of his wickedness and Minsc is helpless to avenge her. The gray wizards took away the evil mage but they snatched our fair Imoen as well.”

“I have heard rumors,” Viconia’s immaculate white brows creased in speculation, “of the great disaster at the Promenade. But that had been … over a month ago. You must have encountered a formidable opponent if he is still ‘walking the Realms’, abbil d .”

“He is a mage of immense powers,” I answered calmly. “But I am working on it. My first priority is Imoen’s recovery of course, then I will go after the mage Irenicus.”

“I can care less for the weakling’s fate but vengeance is the sweetest draft that our throat can endure,” Viconia nodded. “Shar guides me! I owe you my life twice over, jabressd. I shall be one of the tools of your revenge if you wish. I always knew you had an eye for the elg’caress’sd mate, although forgive me if I say you have most ridiculous taste! Did you ever get him for yourself and is this why she had left your company?”

I did not see that one coming. It took a tremendous amount of self-restraint to keep my lips from trembling and stay silent, while trying to compose myself. Through all this exchange, we were walking down the bridge over one of the many smaller streams and gutters that crisscrossed the city. Anomen was leading us, carefully ignoring our conversation. At this remark however he stumbled, and turned around to stare at me wildly. Well, at least he was easy enough to deal with!

“Anything wrong?” I asked raising an eyebrow. He blushed but did not dare to answer and shook his head in denial, then continued his lead. Minsc followed him discreetly, so that I and Viconia trailed ten steps behind them now. I turned to the dark elf.

“You’ve just refused to discuss your own adventures, jalild. I shall allow myself the same liberty.”

We walked in silence for a while then I sighed, “Jaheira is not gone. She is merely on a quest of her own running east even as we speak. I hope she is going to be fine and we will see her back one day.”

“Pity, “ Viconia shrugged, “I shall never understand the reservations your surfacers have while discussing these matters. You’ve told me yourself that the tu’rilthiird is dead now. I was merely trying to understand the degree of your infuriation with your enemy. The young rivvild is your new mrann d’ssinssd then?” She nodded at the young Helmite at the front.

“No.” I said simply.

“I thought it was unlikely,” Viconia continued unabashedly. “Although he is not that bad looking as rivvind go.”

“Be my guest,” I muttered. “But don’t tell me later I did not warn you. His temper is worse than that of a horse with a burr under his saddle.”

“I love a male with a spirit,” she purred, “a ssin’urnd young stallion, maybe just what I need to forget that messy affair! These Beshaban rivvind were truly disgusting.”

I looked at her appreciatively. I had always considered Viconia one of the loveliest creatures I ever saw. Her face was a perfection of ebony, with lush red lips smiling like ripe cherries over two rows of perfect white teeth. She was not tall but shaped rather seductively in all the right places. Her dark skin was shining with healthy luster, under the disgusting burlap sack with holes she was wearing for clothes below her new cloak, and a significant amount of her flesh could be seen through the many tears in it.

At that moment however we had reached our destination, and so the rest of Viconia’s musings were lost for me. I have to admit that somehow that conversation made me uncomfortable. Not that I really minded her trying her formidable charms on our young cleric! Knowing his attitude towards anybody not of his race and social standing it was really hard to imagine she may succeed. But I did not like the idea. Yet the Nine Hells were going to freeze over before I was going to tell her that.

The Delryn Estate was only a few blocks away from the pretty square with a fountain in front of the opulent Council Building that I fondly named a ‘Bughouse’ for myself. It was located at the very end of the street, with one of its walls looming precariously over a deep rocky cleft.

As many big cities, Athkatla was originally built on few closely positioned Hills, albeit it has been expanding rapidly over the last few centuries, first spilling over to the other side of the river, and then taking over its own growing suburbs. The land inside the so-called ‘golden triangle’ - a narrow patch of ground at the geographical center of the old city - was so expensive, that any minor inconvenience such as a deep ravine or a fast flowing spring running through the property was simply incorporated into the building plans.

The house was originally built as an impressive four-stored affair, with many turrets and ornate knick-knacks. Now it was rapidly deteriorating into a ruin, shedding paint and old plaster. The front gate was open despite the late hour.

“I have to say I am impressed,” I noted to Anomen. “What is it – a late Empire style or something even older?”

“The house was built only three hundred years ago,” Anomen answered absently, “half of it is uninhabitable anyway, the whole east wing is closed except for the ground level, and the basements are flooded with water.”

As we ascended the dusty stairs to the faintly lit veranda, I quickly looked over my companions. Minsc was no problem, even though he looked like a second-rate unemployed mercenary. I myself was no better but there were many fortune seekers from war-torn Tethyr that were flooding the busy streets of Amnian capital these days. I decided I would pass for what I was – a half-legitimate spellcaster seeking employment. (I made a promise to myself that the first thing I do tomorrow would be purchasing a license from the Cowled Creeps Guild.) Viconia however, presented a serious problem. After all the racket that we had made freeing her the last thing I wanted was another scandal over my dark-skinned elf started by a doorkeeper! She grinned at me and hid herself deeper in the voluminous gray garment of soft wool that I picked for her from the street. It was too big but that was even better, for it covered her from head to black naked toes. I just hoped nobody would pay attention to her bare heels.

It went better than I hoped, for the bedraggled, middle aged man, who had answered at the doors was half asleep and genuinely relieved to see Anomen. It turned out – he was the only living soul in the house besides Lord Cor, and stuck with the services of his personal valet, butler, and bodyguard.

The sleepy fellow waved us into the dark lobby, and locked the doors. From the few words that he exchanged with Anomen I figured they knew each other well, and that Delryn senior was in the kitchen engaged in his customary evening activity of trying to drink himself to death. We walked from barely lit, cold lobby into the long gallery partially opened into the inner courtyard. It was a mild evening, albeit the air was cooling rapidly. This close to the coast the weather never drops to harsh winter temperatures of high mountains peaks. Still, seeing the bare branches of ornamental trees and bushed hanging desolately over the small marble pool filled with dead leaves, made me feel cold.

Anomen’s face that once again acquired a sullen expression of a small boy, who was barely keeping himself from crying. I waved to Minsc and Viconia, “you shall wait here. It is a family business that he wants to discuss in private.”

She smiled lazily at me, and pulled Minsc by the sleeve, indicating that they are going to wait for us in the gallery. Amazingly, Minsc allowed himself to be led like a lamb for the slaughter.

“Thank you for coming with me, my lady,” Anomen muttered shakily. “I am not a child I once was but facing him alone still makes my blood chill. ‘Tis not of him I am afraid!” he exclaimed suddenly raising his clenched fist to the ceiling. “It is of the beast within me that roars at the sight of his depravity!”

The kitchen door was wide open. A fire lit in the old-fashioned fireplace, the first one that I’ve seen so far, made the big clattered room an isle warmth and light in the cold vastness of the desolate house. The old man was sitting at the table with his head dropped upon his hands, and his overturned tankard was laying empty in the puddle of what smelled like a cheap Sembian red.

At the sound of our footsteps he suddenly stirred and raised his gray, disheveled head. The face that looked at me with bleak, bloodshot eyes showing a row of bad yellow teeth in a sickly smile was Anomen’s. Afterwards I noticed that the nose was a bit too long, the chin weak, and that the deep dark pouches hung under the eyes of murky gray, not sapphirine blue. But that was later. At a first glance their family resemblance was uncanny.

“It is not a pleasant feeling when your possible future is looking at you with eyes like these,” I thought wretchedly. I understood now the implications of a blood link, wondering briefly if my own features resembled in any way Bhaal’s former mortal shell, or any of his later avatars. I sincerely hoped not.

“The prodigal son returns to his forgiving parent!” with an unsteady jerk of his whole body Lord Cor managed to rise from his seat and made a great gesture of mocking acknowledgement. “Tell me son, is this a new custom you’ve picked at the Order to come home only for the funerals, like some sort of a buzzard? I am afraid ‘tis no more womenfolk left in this family to bury! So, next time you’ll grace this roof with your precious self ‘tis going to be when your old man kicks the bucket. Don’t worry lad, I am making a good job of it as you can see for yourself,” he gestured at the row of empty bottles at the kitchen wall. These were large, full gallon or more vessels of the cheapest kind you can buy for a few silvers, more known among their unhappy consumers as a ‘cat’s piss’.

Anomen’s face quivered. I realized that the old bugger was an adept in his craft of intimidation, for he had managed to get what he wanted in one easy shot – the young man was now filled with remorse and self loathing. And he was more then ready for this when he walked into the kitchen! As for me, being totally ignored by the master of the house suited my purposes just fine. I decided not to interfere unless it was absolutely crucial and slipped quietly closer to the wall, hiding myself in the shadows.

“Father, where is your daughter Moira,” Anomen asked almost gently. “What happened to her?”

“Are you mocking me, boy?” Cor actually tried to laugh with the shallow, croaking sound of an old crow. “Har, har,” that sound was so awful that even my diehard skepticism started to melt around the edges. His eyes were that of a dieing man. “She is dead, foolish boy, dead for more than a fortnight!” The old man’s whole body shook and he had fallen back in his chair as a half-empty sack.

For a moment I thought he was going to break but he recovered his posture quickly, and the cruel little smile was back on his lips. I gathered this malicious game was now more important to him than a moment of shared grief with his only remaining child.

“Murdered most violently!” Cor shrieked like a madman. “In her own bedroom in the middle of the night, while you have been away playing in your little knight games!”

“How could this happen,” the young man asked quietly. “Where were your retainers, father, why did not they protect her?”

“Don’t you know the answer?” the old jester replied mockingly, “or you are taking me for a fool? They all left many months ago, as I was unable to pay their wages! I am broke, son. All because of you! Because you left, and Moira had to do men’s job, the one that was truly yours! Verily, at the end she was a better son to me than your ever managed!”

“Another neat trick,” I noted calmly for myself. “Always try to transfer a lion’s share of your own guilt on the ones you are tormenting. Works like a magic word most of the time.”

“You should never have allowed this!” Anomen’s face reddened in anger. “She was putting herself in danger by mingling in men’s business! It did not matter at the end however,” his voice broke suddenly. “Tell me father was there an inquiry? Did they ever find her killer?”

‘They never will, Anomen,” Cor’s laughter was now of a bitter kind, but there was a strange note of conviction in it, “the one who did it is well protected by his wealth. He has all the guards in this city firmly in his pocket. Why, I think he personally pays Chief Inspector Brega the second half of his salary! Do you think justice would ever reach the likes of him?” The old man’s eyes were burrowing into his son’s face like gimlets.

“If this is about your long term enmity with the Calimshite…” Anomen started meekly but Cor never let him finish the sentence.

“I know it was Saerk as good as I know my face in the mirror!” Cor exploded in a violent rage. For a few minutes, all we could hear was a stream of vile curses and wailing complaints. Then he cowed. “He took everything from me, everything! My wealth, my trade, the love of my wife and children, your mother’s health; and finally when there was nothing left he took my daughter from me as well!”

“You’ve lost it all by yourself, father,” Anomen said shaking his head. They had obviously been over this argument many times before. “And why would Saerk risk his precious hide sneaking into our house in the middle of the night to kill my sister?” He continued in the lines that we discussed on our way here. “The Calimshite has this grudge against you but he is no fool. I may have believed you, if you’ve claimed that he had hired killers, albeit such an accusation would require proof if brought before the High Council. But to claim that he actually did it all by himself is ridiculous. Nobody would ever believe such a tale!”

“I have proof, foolish boy!” Cor’s eyes flashed. “I have this,” he rose shakily and opened his shabby green surcoat, digging inside some hidden seam with his trembling fingers. I was so surprised I actually made a few steps forward to see better. What he finally brought to the light before our eyes was a small dagger, a kind that a young man of noble stature would carry at his belt without thinking much of it, and that in my opinion better suited for peeling fruit or sharpening pencils than for serious fighting.

It was a lovely little weapon, with elegant narrow blade and ornate guard, gilded, and sprinkled with diamond dust. The hilt was crafted with supreme skill, and there was no mistake – between the golden leaves and sinuous curves was hidden a stylized letter F.

“What is the meaning of this, father?” Anomen’s voice trailed in confusion, “it is pretty enough thing but surely you cannot mean…”

“This little knife cut the throat of your sister, fool!” the elder man shrieked angrily. “Derkin had found it in her bedroom, under the writing desk! She was found lying at the doorstep, as if trying to flee her murderers,” his voice shook slightly at these last words but he quickly gathered himself and continued in his usual harsh and intimidating manner. “As it is entirely your fault that she was left unprotected it is now up to you to avenge her death! You must kill Saerk Farrahd and his son! Harsh price to pay for the innocence lost but pay it you shall. Or would you leave this last desperate task to my unsteady hands? Our honor would be lost - your honor would be lost knightling! I realize you can care less for the disgrace to your family name but your own position would be more than shameful if you refuse, for I will make your cowardice the talk of the city!”

“But this would be murder! I cannot possibly do it without violating the tenets of my Order!” Anomen’s knuckles went white. I could hear his rugged breath and see the look of desperation in his haunted eyes.

“That is about enough Sir Delryn, “ I said quietly, stepping forward and putting my hand on his son’s trembling hand, “We have heard your arguments. I applaud your mastery in presenting the facts in the way that best suits your objective but believe you me - I have seen better performances in my days. If your daughter was murdered with this very weapon, and you claim that you found it on the site of the crime – that is a solid clue that can be forwarded to the magistrate, so that the weapon could be tracked back to its original owner. It was fairly stupid of him to use the dagger with his family device, and doubly so to leave it behind after the deed was done.”

“Who are you, woman?!” Cor shrunk away from me as if finally noticing my presence.

I smiled in a way that made the hardened warriors sweat, and looked him straight in the eye with my glowing cat-orbs. I knew the effect my golden eyes had on most of my opponents, and used it shamelessly. It that particular case I had no remorse whatsoever. He looked away after a few seconds, pretending to search for his spilled drink.

“A witch, no doubt that the young fool picked up in the gutter! Ain’t they teaching you anything at the Order about staying clear of women such as her, son?” he asked Anomen refilling his glass with a shaky hand.

“Phew, I would be very careful using this kind of expressions around me sir,” I said purring, “or you may finish your life feeding on worms and flies in that same gutter. I think that a shape of a spotted toad or a yellow-bellied newt would fit you better that the one you are currently wearing. And then I may just forget to turn you back!”

I saw Anomen’s lips curve up a little. A sparkle of humor glittered in the depth of his eyes. I rejoiced at this, for humor is the best weapon you can use against the bullying swine like Cor. There is nothing worse to their miserable souls than to see their victims laugh at them. Hatred on the other hand, is a nutritious soil on which they grow and prosper. Hate them – and thus feed their need to continue tormenting you. Laugh at them and ignore their need to be recognized – and they will wither like pale algae under the harsh cleansing heat of a sunlight.

“I think I may need to borrow this from you,” I reached out and plucked the dagger out of his limp fingers. “Too bad you had removed the blood stains from the blade. Or were there ever any?”

“Get her away from me!” the old cur shrieked suddenly, spilling his wine and flailing his hands at me as if I was a stinging wasp. “Can’t you see – I am just an old man, grieving over my late daughter? I need some rest! My nerves are shattered! Disobedient son, if you want to talk to me come back alone but never bring her back into my presence. Go now, I will not say another word to you!”

“I shall look into this case, that much I can promise, “ I said calmly, “I treasure Anomen’s friendship and share his grief. As for you Lord Delryn, I sincerely hope I will never have to put my eyes on your sorry face again. I pity your son for having you for a father but this also makes me feel deeper respect for him. Unlike you, he is trying to make something of his life despite all the effort you put into ruining it!”

We walked into the dark and empty gallery together, leaving behind the suffocating warmth of the kitchen, reeking of spilled vine and old vomit. I sneaked a glance at my companion – in the semi-darkness his face looked calm and composed.

“Can you really do something like this?” he asked suddenly.

“What? Turn him into a frog? I sure can,” I grinned relieved at his countenance. “Don’t worry though, I am not a stiff-necked righteous prig like Elminster. I would not dare to pass my own judgment in a case like this. Mayhap there are some scraps of decency left in him under all that bitterness, although I doubt it!”

“Actually, ‘tis a shame you are not,” Anomen stated. Then continued as I swallowed my surprise, “I had never seen him so afraid. I have to thank you for showing me that I can deal with my father without resorting to violence. Honestly, I was so scared coming here I almost wept. These blind rages that sometimes come over me… I don’t wish to talk about it but some time ago I became certain that one day I would damn my soul by committing patricide!”

“That is how he wants you feel,” I nodded solemnly, “I had seen enough raging bullies and quiet ‘intelligent’ tyrants in my lifetime. What both of these kinds absolutely cannot stand, is a sense of humor in their victims. Laughter makes them feel uneasy and lets you see the things the way they are – not the way they want you see them! I am glad I was of help,” I added timidly. “Not that you really need any, you were doing pretty well by yourself.”

“I did?” he raised an eyebrow, “I thought I was cowering like a beaten pup under his heavy boot yet again! But if you say so, I would gladly believe you. ‘Tis does not change the fact that my sister was murdered vilely,” his face flashed in anger and a shadow of doubt showed in his eyes again. “Do you think there is possibly some truth in his accusations? This dagger,” the young man nodded at the ornate toy in my hand, “surely looks authentic. I had seen Saerk’s lackeys wearing uniform with letters like this!”

“It is a good question,” I nodded gravely. “I can promise you that much – I will not stop looking until there is still a chance of finding out what had actually happened. In the mean time, we better present this evidence before the magistrate. I want to hit myself for leaving your stablemaster Terl behind at Trademeet! He was the one who discovered the body. Or was it actually more than one? Were there any witnesses?”

“I don’t know, “ Anomen shook his head in disdain, “Helm’s beard! I don’t even know where she is buried! The old bastard was so intent on coaxing me to kill the Calimshite for him, he did not even care to tell us that much! Ah, forgive me, my lady, I forgot my manners again.”

“If you start apologizing for every time you have lost your temper, we won’t be done until tomorrow,” I stated sardonically, causing him to turn pink again, “I suggest you go and find the servant that answered at the doors.”

It turned out – Cor had ordered his daughter’s body to be cremated. No doubt he could not afford to pay for a decent funeral! Her ashes were deposited in a cinerary urn, and placed inside the little shrine near the round marble pool in the courtyard.

We went there with him. It must have been a lovely place in midsummer. Now the black tangle of uncut rosebushes surrounded dark and silent waters. It was cold. The little pool was full of rotting leaves; and in the blue light of the bleak moon I thought that a grim statue of Helm in the little shrine looked urgently upset. It must have been a trick of light, for when I had a closer look the stern deity’s face bore its canonical expression of utmost patience.

Anomen must have knelt there for almost half an hour. I grew cold and tired. Minsc sighs would have been more appropriate coming from a medium size whale. Viconia was shifting restlessly from feet to feet, and I noticed that she was now wearing a pair of big woolen socks, reaching almost above her knees. I wondered where did they come from but decided against asking. Minsc was ever resourceful, and carried numerous small items in his seemingly small belt pouch. I finally ordered them to retreat into the equally cold gallery, were they at least were covered from the slow drizzle of fine mist that started to sprinkle from the low winter sky.

“Anomen,” I put the tips of my fingers on his shoulder, careful of startling him out of his reverie. “It is time to go. We need to get back to the Coronet. It is a long and dangerous journey.”

“Yes, yes. Forgive me,” the young man muttered as if waking up from a deep sleep. His eyes were red again but his face was resolute. “I want to ask for one more favor,” he mumbled. “I need to see her room. I don’t think my father will bother us tonight. I may never have another chance to touch her things.”

“You are right again and I am being a fool!” I exclaimed in a fervent whisper. “Of course I need to look at the house tonight! It is absolutely imperative. Can you call for your father’s man, Derkin, to accompany us? I may need to ask him some more questions.”

Moira’s bedroom was on the third floor in the more habitable part of the house. We had followed the slumping figure carrying a lantern up the stairs, and then to the left through the long, hollow corridors. Her door was closed and locked. Derkin assured us that nobody had been inside since the official investigation was closed about a week ago. The body was prepared for the funeral services next day after Cor’s arrival, and the women who had washed and dressed it for the pyre were allowed to take the dirty bed linens, and some of the clothes. The bed was bare of everything but the mattress, and the walk-in dresser was virtually empty of anything but few old garments. The room was basically stripped to the bone. Somebody even washed the floors. Almost three days had passed from Terl’s grim discovery to Lord Cor’s arrival. All that time the house was empty, and although the magistrate sealed the doors and placed a guard at the entrance, there was always a chance that somebody may have sneaked in to tamper with the evidence. It was a rare strike of luck that Derkin had found that dagger under the writing desk.

I lowered to my knees to inspect the floor tiles at the spot were the butler indicated the body was found, before he left us his lamp and retreated into the corridor. To my utter astonishment, I could not find a faintest trace of blood. Terl found her dead in the early morning, after he unsuccessfully tried to raise the cook Sara, the only other person in the house, and found her room empty and splattered with blood. That much I had remembered from his heartbreaking tale.  If Moira had her throat cut before she was left on the floor of her bedroom I expected to find a large pool of blood that should have soaked the floor tiles. No amount of scrubbing could have removed such a stain. But there was absolutely no trace of it left on the floor.  There were two possibilities to account for this – either Terl had lied to me about the manner of her wound, and I dismissed that immediately, or her body was moved after it was already cold and the blood stopped flowing. The only other place in the house that bore traces of violence was the room of the missing serving woman, who had vanished without a trace.

Derkin admitted that there were a lot of rumors about this circulating among the servants. The official version was that she was killed and then dumped into the ravine, where her body was hauled by the rapid stream and carried away into Alandor. The grooms had their own version according to which Sara was the traitor, who had let the burglars in, and then eloped faking her own death by killing a chicken in her room. I regretted once again my total ineptitude in the School of Divination. A little clairvoyance session may have cleared the matters, although too much time had already passed. I closed my eyes tightly and tried to concentrate on picking the emphatic vibes in the room. I was not particularly sensitive but any trained wizard should be able to at least hear the paranormal ‘noise’ that was left behind by the act of violence, especially murder. I expected vague and disturbing sense of wrongness. What I got instead was something so horrific that my mind rebuked violently and shut itself entirely from the weave.

As I sat on the floor struggling for breath the young Helmite turned from his sister’s writing desk and run to my side with a frightened cry. I waived him away but he insisted on helping me to my feet and bringing me over to the only chair in the room, assisting me tenderly as if I was made of porcelain. I looked at the book that he had picked up from the shelf above the fireplace and was leafing through while I was going on with my investigation. It was “The Most Incredible Adventures of Sir Galeod and His Illustrious Companions” by Gremlio the ‘Honeytongue’ of Waterdeep, one of the soppiest romance novels I could recall from my childhood, dealing with dragons, knights, fair ladies and other such accoutrement. Since I was as guilty as he in reading it and its twenty four companion tomes in a single reading binge, I ignored the implication. To clear myself  I have to mention that I was fourteen at the time when that particular sin was committed, and that I shared it with Imoen, who was extremely upset when Galeod’s sweetheart Lady Delaila was abducted for eleventh time by some particularly vile specimen of a villain, and was about to be ravished in his underground dungeon. “If only she knew,” I thought bitterly. But perhaps it was a blessing that she did not.

Thinking of Imoen brought me back to reality. I quickly sorted trough the desk and its drawers. Nothing. The magistrate officials had already seen all of this, and Cor most likely had ordered the most important of her papers burnt. Then again, she probably did not carry her business letters home, and Anomen mentioned that to his greatest chagrin Moira used to work in the small office they rented at the Docks. Terl was escorting her back and forth when needed. One little detail however caught my imagination. In the topmost drawer on the right I found a small ribbon of white silk, creased at the ends as if it was used to tie a stack of letters. There was nothing more of importance. I sighed, and pocketed the ribbon.

“Anomen, did she ever tell you anything about her personal life?” I asked tentatively. “Like if she had a friend or romantic interest?”

The young cleric was shocked. “Why would you ask such a thing? Moira was as virtuous as she was beautiful! Pure in heart and soul. I am sure she would have let me know immediately if a young man approached her with an offer of courtship! There was something between her and Marcus, one of my fellow squires. But that was almost three years ago, and he was immediately transferred to Murann. He had written me later that it was of his mother’s doing, and how sorry he was to leave her behind.”

I snorted. Something told me that Anomen would have been the last one to know if his sister indeed had a romantic relationship. “I am done here, my friend,” I said gently, “if you wish to pick up a token in her memory, please do it quickly. I still need to check out the servant’s quarters downstairs.”

“But why, Thea?” He looked a bit  sheepish at daring to call me by my personal name once upon a time, rather than his customary ‘my lady’. “If you are looking for traces of Calimshite’s presence in the house why do you need to search the servants rooms? Moira was killed in this bedroom!”

I was not about to go into details with him. “There was another person in the house at the time of the murder,” I explained simply. “The missing cook. She had disappeared and her room was later found empty and covered with blood.”

“Ah,” Anomen mumbled and pocketed the book. “I am ready,” he said sulkily as if daring me to object at his choice of a memento. But I only nodded and knocked at the door letting Derkin know that we were  ready to depart.

The room of the missing servant looked truly horrible. After having a brief look I was sure that no chicken could have produced the amount of blood that was sprinkled over the walls and covered the floor in a huge dried puddle. The puddle also had an imprint - that of a human body. But there was no trace of a corpse being dragged in or out of the room. Whoever spirited it away must have been extremely powerful being. “Or used a levitation spell,” I added to myself. There were no further clues to be gathered tonight. So, I assembled my companions, and we started on our long track back to the ‘Copper Coronet’ on the other side of the great river.



Yusef’s limbs were still trembling from terrible pain of a seizure caused by an entrapment spell that was augmented by Lagole’s punishment. He crouched on the cold stone floor in a fetal position until Deril brought him back to awareness. The boy almost welcomed the sharp jolts of pain from kicks in the ribs and face, for at least that made him feel alive. His eyebrow was bleeding from a deep cut but he paid it no heed. The lich was gone, taking Moira away, and he felt his life was over; except that he could not yet lay down and die because then she would be trapped in the stone for eternity for certain. Then he had opened his eyes and looked at the scowling wizard. Deril’s nose was definitely crooked to the left now, and it looked like the damage was permanent. Yusef wondered absentmindedly why did not the renegade pay the healer to fix it.

As if hearing his thoughts, Deril touched his broken appendage and hissed. “Wondering why didn’t I fix it, rat-boy? I had promised myself to keep it as a reminder of the debt that you owe me! When Lagole is done with you, I may still have my revenge,” He looked Yusef over appreciatively.

Yusef realized he was still stark naked. Hastily he started to gather his clothes strewn all over the place. He felt nauseous under Deril’s persistent stare but there was nothing he could do.

“At the end I always have no choice,” Yusef thought bitterly. His whole life was spent cowering under the thumb of a man who was an obsessive control freak. Now he was forced by fate into even worse form of slavery – he was bound both by his drug addiction and by  his bid to free Moira from her imprisonment. It did not occur to him to abandon her in her plight. Their lives were tied together now - that much he knew for sure; everything else was lost in a gray fog of despair and uncertainty.

He finished dressing himself and looked around in sick disgust. This room had seen his greatest moment of happiness, now it had also seen him sink indo the depths of misery from which he was not sure he would ever return.

“Take the girl’s things too, and put them into a dresser!” Deril commanded. “Now make up the bed – it is revolting to see what you have made out of it! Don’t forget to collect every shred of your belongings. You don’t want ol’ cur to find out what you did to his daughter before she croaked,” he made an obscene gesture but Yusef could not care less for his foul words. What they really did to Moira was much worse than what the mage implied.

All the time he kept his eyes carefully averted, so that not to look at the corpse. The resemblance to Moira was absolute. If he had not seen the spell take shape before his eyes, he would have believed it himself. Now he had to step over her to pass through the door. Deril was waiting for him in the corridor with a conjured sphere of magical light in his hand.

“Make haste rat-boy!” The wizard’s expression was anxious. Despite his bravado, he did not feel comfortable about lingering in this place, and a rather messy way in which he was forced to slaughter the old woman grinded on his nerves.

Yusef stopped in mid-stride. He knew it was not really her but his heart was breaking nonetheless. He bent over and tried to close the stubborn gray eyes. The illusion was complete. He could sense the marble cold smoothness of her cheek. He dropped to his knees and planted a kiss on her cold brow, wondering if this was going to be the last time that he would see her face.

“Get it over with, Farrahd!” The wizard barked in irritation, “unless you want to add necrophilia to the list of your vices! She is just an ugly old witch under all this glamour, anyway!”

Anger flashed in his head, hot and searing like a strike of lightning. In one step Yusef was at Deril’s side, his hand fast as a snake gripping at the wizard’s collar. He grabbed more of the heavy embroidered cloth, wrapping it around his fingers and tightening it around the flabby neck, finally making the mage choke.

 “I told you once, Deril - do not push me into a corner,” he said in a deadly cold voice, “the cornered rat can be most dangerous. You may have me trapped but I still have enough muscle to strangle you with my bare hands, and you are not your master!”

Yusef looked at the suddenly pale and flaccid cheeks of his enemy with satisfaction. This close he could see the extent of the damage done by his punch in the nose, and the ugly red scar on the wizard’s neck. Somehow the lich’s spell did not heal the wound completely. He knew it was folly to bait Deril so when his own position was so weak but could not stop himself after what he had to endure under the damned pervert’s scrutiny. He hated being ogled. Too late he remembered his own cruel words to the little boy killed by the lich’s spell.

Deril’s face quivered in panic. “Cool down, boy,” the renegade croaked, “let me go! You want your girl back, don’t you? I can help you to convince Lagole to be reasonable! Say in ten years of service he can let you both go, if you bring him enough souls to satisfy his fancy! And you will need more of your weed, won’t you?” His fingers started to pull something out of the pocket of his brocade robe.

“Hold it back asshole!” Yusef snarled grabbing the wizard’s fist with his free hand. But it was only a silken pouch with the herbal mix. Suddenly the young man felt such an intense craving for the weed his whole body shuddered. His lotus-induced exaltation was long over, spent on the sexual drive and desperate struggle against the lich’s spell, and up to this moment only his emotional agony kept him on his feet. Now Yusef felt the terrible weakness settling on his limbs, as a steel ring of headache tightened around his skull once again. He jerked the lotus bag out of Deril’s fingers and pushed the mage away.

“This is better,” Deril smiled sickly rubbing his throat, “you see, we can still find some understanding! You need me boy. Lagole needs you. I need Lagole. We better settle our differences and work together.” His voice sounded soothing, almost kind, but a deep and dangerous fire of hatred and lust smoldered under the heavy lids of his bleak eyes.

Yusef could not remember how he made it to the Bridge District that night. It was rather like sleepwalking. At the crossroad outside the Delryn Estate he stopped and pulled out his pipe. The first deep inhalation of pungent smoke numbed some of his pain, bringing instead vague and insincere hopes of resolution. The young man continued his journey, not paying any attention to the curious looks and muttered curses of the late passersby and occasional streetwalkers, who were becoming more abundant as he left the fashionable Gem’s District and get closer to the river. Yusef assumed he looked truly horrible to induce such gazes. His clothes were in disarray, and with a few precise strikes Deril had made a mess of his face while he was hovering on the floor. It was only an hour or so after midnight, he realized with a shrug. It seemed more like an eon had passed between his two trips over the Alandor bridge

“You cannot cross the same river twice,” he recalled an old saying. Suddenly his head was giddy with a surge of hysterical laughter. Yusef bent over unable to restrain himself. His whole body shook in the unstoppable throes of hysteria. His arms and legs trembled forcefully, and the violent sobs, mixed with choking giggles bubbled on his lips. He grabbed at the bridge rails, feeling an inexorable urge to throw himself over and be done with it this very moment.

“Are you all right, kiddo?” the hoarse woman’s voice inquired gently. “Are you having a fit or something? Be careful over there. My old pal Lily liked this spot. That was before some drunken sailor pushed her over the rail into the Alandor cause she won’t go with him without coin! They never even found her body. You are shaking like mad, you poor thing. Let me hold your hand. Get away from the railing and I will walk you off the bridge.” He raised his head.

She was profoundly, violently redheaded. In fact this was not sufficient to describe the color of her tresses, for it was more like a flaming torch than a hair. This flame-colored haystack was whipped into a semblance of a coiffure and decorated with red ribbons. Her dress was red too and incredibly revealing, Yusef realized with a shrug. She was obviously one of the cheapest sort. The ones who dared to walk the streets in the deep of the night in the most dangerous parts of the city.

“Hello handsome,” she grinned at him revealing a dark gap in place of the left incisor. “I am Rose Bouquet but you can call me aunt Rosie. Are you feeling better now?”

Yusef realized she was still holding his hand. His shakes subsided. It was strangely reassuring to feel her hot, living hand holding his icy fingers. “Thank you miss,” he muttered and suddenly smiled back at her. “I am better now. You are too kind.”

“It’s ok buddy,” she patted him on the arm gently. “If somebody mistreated you, you should tell the watch. Lieutenant Aegis isn’t as bad as half of them. He is not terribly good at his line of work, mind it, but at least he will listen to you!” She looked at him closely. “Hey you dress too posh for this line of work! Are you one of them noble kids, who think themselves brave to sneak around the Docks in this time of a night then? What happened to you? You sure look like Hell. I thought a client had roughed you up at first!”

With a sudden surge of understanding Yusef realized that she had taken him for one of the male prostitutes, who were working the streets of Athkatla together with their female counterparts. His clothes were dark, and of a simple cut, and the quality of the material could only be seen at a close distance. Somehow it made him feel better. At least she had tried to comfort him out of sheer compassion, not because of the professional interest.

“I am no noble Rosie,” Yusef nodded at her, stifling his unsteady hands. “I will be fine. I live just over there on the other side of the river,” he waived in the general direction of Farrahd mansion. Somehow it felt wrong to offer her coin for her kindness but he got another idea. He did not wear any rings, so with his shaking hands he unfastened a single gold earring with a tiny ruby that had dangled from his left earlobe and pushed it into her hand against her protestations. “It’s a gift,” he muttered, “but if you are hungry or sick you can always sell it for a few gold.” In fact he had no idea how much it could cost. The ruby was a genuine one and of good quality. He left her standing at the center of the bridge, looking at his unsteady gait as he crossed the river.

When Yusef finally reached the house he was stone tired. The only desire left in him was to rest. But as the Gods would have it, he was nowhere near the end of his troubles that night. As he entered the lobby he was notified that his father wanted to see him right away. Yusef wondered briefly which one of the servants was on a special assignment to spot him at the gates and run straight to his father. It did not matter really. They were all crawling on their bellies before Saerk, like small rodents under the stare of a desert cobra.

Saerk was waiting for him in the library and one look at his dour face made Yusef aware that his father was not in one of his better moods. Even though, he was not ready for what had followed next. Saerk waited just long enough for the servant to close the door. His fist connected with the boy’s abdomen at that precise moment, and when Yusef doubled over gasping for breath a series of quick, painful strikes rained at his head and protectively raised hands. Unlike Deril, Saerk avoided his face aiming more for the pain than actual damage.

“He wants me to look presentable afterwards,” Yusef thought half-coherently, covering his ringing head, “too bad somebody else did a better job on my face already!”

The most frightening was the fact that all of this proceeded in a deadly silence, interrupted only by rugged breathing and sounds of heavy blows falling on his head.

“Give me the weed,” Saerk said suddenly as if the spring inside him had finally unwound itself. His voice was cold and controlled. There was no trace of rage in it, and that was the scary part. As far as Yusef could remember his father was always in perfect control of his emotions. If he hit somebody he always new the exact amount of pain and damage he wanted to deliver. “I said give me the weed,” that was followed by another strike, this time a boot planted in his side. Yusef dropped to his knees. The world went black before his eyes, but before he could descend into the welcoming darkness his head was violently jerked up by the hand grappling at his hair. The young man wondered if his father would finally succeed in cracking one of his ribs, the task at which Deril failed miserably. “I can fight back and make him kill me,” he thought cynically. “Nah, he would not do me this favor, he would probably just call up the servants to hold me for him!”

Saerk’s rough fingers searched the pockets of his coat, and last his belt pouch.  With a satisfied grunt he pulled out the silk pouch and Yusef’s clay pipe. The thought of smashing it on the floor at once reflected on his face, then he thought better of it, and pocketed it instead. “I promised Thumb that I shall personally replace his other hand with a metal hook, if he as much as gives you another sniff of the stuff,” his father said gruffly. “Although by looking at you somebody already tried to teach you that same lesson. Where have you been all day? They told me you had left the Sea Bounty in the morning.”

Yusef unfastened his lips, still sticky with blood, and dragged his tongue over his teeth. Amazingly, they were all there. Painfully aware of how pathetic he must look, he remembered Rose Bouquet and her smile. But he did about enough of groveling for one day. So, Yusef looked Saerk straight in the eye and grinned.

 “And why should I tell you, father? If you are so well informed – go find out for yourself!” he spat right at Saerk’s shiny boot, pleased at his own precise aim.

The last thing that he saw was Saerk’s foot descending on his head.


* * * * *


The next day after our interview with Lord Cor it was raining in Athkatla. A massive herd of low, lead-gray clouds ascended from the Sea of Swords drowning the city in the chilly embrace of drizzling winter rain. I peeked out of the Coronet’s doors and shrugged. It was unpleasant enough to traverse the Slums in the mild days of Leafall. Now in the middle of the Rotting it was simply disgusting. The usual gusty smell of decaying refuse was not as pronounced, being sufficiently diluted by the falling rain, but all the contents of the sewer, normally contained below the street level were now overflowing the gutters and joyfully running along the narrow, muddy alleys. Besides, it was awfully cold and windy, not in a fresh, chilly way of the winter in the highlands but in a wet and miserable style that only a coastal city can deliver to her long-suffering inhabitants.

I groaned and went back inside the smoke-saturated, noisy warmth of the tavern. It was less packed now than in the older days of Lehtinan’s iron rule. And the crowd looked cleaner and more sober. Still, there were enough of the half-drunken dwarf types in their usual corner, mingling cheerfully with humans and even some rare elven and half-eleven populace of the more casual attitude. The ladies of negotiable affection were at least working for themselves (or for the pimps of their own choice), and there were considerably lesser amount of flies over the slabs of unsavory looking meat in the kitchen. I negotiated my usual mug of warm milk with cinnamon, making sure it was properly boiled first, and grabbing chunks of stale bread and moldy cheese, retreated into the room upstairs that I now shared with my audaciously rescued dark elf. She was still sleeping, curled leisurely under a warm baby-blue blanket - a strange choice of color for the establishment of Coronet’s type, albeit I suppose Hendak was introducing his own house rules now and aiming for a classier clientele.

As I entered the chamber, Viconia stirred and opened one ruby-red eye, peeping carefully from under her wooly cover.

“ ‘Tis only you, abbil,” she grumbled at seeing me and turned on her other side.

“Whom did you expect, jalil d?” I asked sarcastically sitting at the window, “a troop of personal attendants bringing garlands of fresh flowers and a lavish breakfast?”

“You could have had all of this and more,” the dark elf responded grudgingly, “I wonder what happens with all the coin that gets into your hands? I heard you have been offered a position of power in the city of Baldur’s Gate, that they almost wanted to elevate you to a ducal status!”

“Almost does not count.” I said after a short pause, biting off a piece of bread and following it with a sip of warm milk. “That’s a long story, and one I would rather keep to myself. Sufficient to say that all my money were drained from my account by a certain individual, or rather a group of individuals, who had kidnapped and sold me to a madman, who in turn almost killed me with various tortures, trying to drive me out of stasis that I put myself into. These were the same men who slayed Khalid,” I raised my hand in warning stopping her from asking the question that was obviously on the tip of her tongue, “and were responsible in the long run for the abduction of Imoen. Unfortunately they are also the ones who are now demanding a king’s ransom for the information on her whereabouts.”

“That must have been exciting, “Viconia yawned and gave me a big grin. “What did you do to these people, faern? Are they all frozen or deep-fried yet?”

“I was just collecting the money they specified, like the dutiful girl I am,” I answered grinning in the same dangerous way.

“But you have no intention of paying them, I gather?”

“Why Vicky? Do you think I am capable of taking the entire Shadow Thieves organization of Athkatla on my own?” I took another sip of milk.

“You would consider this, oh yes,” she nodded unabashedly, “but if I know you well, you want to make sure your plans are well laid before you strike.”

“If you know me so well, guess what am I thinking of right now,” I asked finishing my meager breakfast.

“Let me guess, jabress d,” she sighed, “I gather you have a plan and this plan involves dragging this particular ilythiiri d out of her cozy bed and into the rivvin-infested city again?”

“Correct,” I nodded cheerfully. “I will let you pick clothes from my saddlebags for now, albeit I am afraid all my leggings will be too long, and my tunics tight around the bosom.”

She looked at me cynically through the curtain of snow-white hair. “When you gave me this yesterday night, I had a chance to look at dosst belaern d, jabress!” she pulled at the sleeve of my plain nightgown she was presently wearing. “The stuff that you call clothes I would not consider fit for my lowliest scullery slave!”

“Pity,” I sighed. “Then you will have to spend your day in bed, abbil. I will ask Hendak to send you a tray with food and ale.”

“No, nope, nau d!” Viconia sat up with amazing alacrity. “You are not leaving me here, Thea. I would rather wear your scratchy black cassock than stay in this pit for the whole day! You rivvin have strange way to express your sorrow,” she muttered. “As if torturing your flesh brings joy to your lost ones.”

“We will have a shopping spree tonight,” I assured her. “But now you will have to hurry. We are going to visit the City Council this morning. I intend to launch a complain on your behalf, concerning the Beshabans.”

Viconia looked at me with an expression of pure horror. “I may consider staying in bed after all,” she muttered, “I do remember that place. I tried to get some sort of a residence permit once. If you are a dark elf they charge a fee for every day you stay in this Gods-forsaken city!”

“In that case we will have to bribe somebody to issue you a certificate of being a particularly dark-skinned darthiir d,” I chuckled, “And color your hair blue or something.”

“You will do this to my dead cold body, jabress!” She almost spat at me. “And by the way, I still have some of my own belongings stored in one of the tombs in the city graveyard. I should be able to sneak in and retrieve these after nightfall.”

I went downstairs leaving her to pick what she wanted out of my meager possessions. The first two people I run into were Yoshimo and Valygar. The pair looked exceedingly cheerful and mysterious. They also were sufficiently wet, so I concluded they had spent some time outside.

“Where have you been?” I asked suspiciously.

“She always mistrusts us, eh Creeps?” Valygar offered with a mocking chagrin, “we just went outside to check on the Sphere, your worship.”

I glanced at Yoshimo. He looked somewhat better today. As if whatever was bothering him on our way here failed to materialize. “Yes, Smarty and me went to see his ancestral retreat in the Slums, “Yoshimo nodded with a smile. “Beats his Imnesvale cabin many times over if you ask me, albeit he does not want to admit it.”

“There is a fellow over there who offered to sell it to me for two hundred gold,” Valygar chuckled mirthlessly. “Talk about being enterprising! I am afraid I had to decline, tempting though it was.”

“So you actually saw the Sphere?” I asked excitedly. I have to admit that despite Valygar’s assurances I still was somewhat unwilling to believe in its existence.

“Oh we sure did, Thea,” Yoshimo nodded. “It is big and silver, all right, and it does respond to his touch,” he looked at Valygar in commiseration. “It is not my call, but I would not touch it with a ten feet pole, if I were him!”

“Can you take me there?” I asked in a fit of sudden yearning. “We cannot get inside yet, Valygar. I am sorry but I promised Anomen that we go to see the magistrate first. But I want to have a look for myself”

They looked at each other. “I cannot see why not,” Valygar muttered, “What do you think Creeps?”

“I agree, Smarty,” the thief-taker nodded cheerfully. “Before she goes into the snake pit they call the City Hall, she can have a look at a simple and innocent stuff like a hundred feet in diameter silver trap, built by an undead necromancer!”

And so we visited the spot. I stood there under the drizzling rain, caught in awe. It was majestic. I could not find a better word for it. Shiny and silvery, towering like a giant hill of mithral over the wretched poverty of the Slums poorest quarters. Valygar showed me a slim outline of the door that appeared under his hand, when he touched the bright surface, and faded back into nothingness when he withdrew. It was completely out of place and out of time, and I craved to get inside it!

But there were many other things to consider before embarking on this particular adventure. There were intrigues hidden inside intrigues, and until I unraveled at least some of the motives behind seemingly innocent coincidences, I did not dare to act upon my desires. Now that I knew the sphere was real, it sure looked like something that would draw my attention, once I discovered the true motive of the Cowled Ones’ manhunt for Valygar. I was positive the sphere was under surveillance. (At least that was what I would have done if I were Tolgerias!) It was amazing nobody apprehended the ranger the moment he showed his face near the place. I wondered if he himself realized what a perfect target he made by just standing there.

The Cowled Ones knew I wanted Imoen back, yet at first they were unwilling to negotiate. From what the various suspicious characters hanging around were willing to tell, I gathered they made numerous attempts to open the sphere, over the last few weeks that we spent hunting for Valygar among the glades and forests of Imnesvale. Perhaps they will be a bit more flexible to trade the secret of the sphere for her release now!

In addition to this, the dragon horde gave me funds sufficient to bribe the thieves. The saddlebag that I did not show Vicky was stuffed with gold coin and gems. Even after I doled their respective shares to my companions, (Minsc and Jaheira refused to take their parts, Anomen mumbled that his honor prevented him from taking his share of the loot but agreed to accept the Flail of Ages, Yoshimo and Jan showed no remorse in taking the gold), I still had enough to pay the Shadow Thieves’ ransom. So, I had two paths opened to me were there were none before. Still I hesitated.

“Let’s get out of here lads,” I said after one of the street idlers started to show too much interest in our humble personas. We turned around a few corners, and managed to loose him in the maze of crooked alleys behind the Promenade. A small shop selling hats, scarves and various other accoutrements caught my eye. I nodded to my companions and we ducked inside. It was gloomy and dusty, and the old halfling lady, who owned the establishment pretended to be asleep at her counter at this relatively early hour. I busied myself in sorting through her selection of gloves and nodded my companions to do the same. After a while we heard the hurried steps of a runner pass the little shop in  a mad dash. So, our pursuer missed our hiding hole.

“Yoshimo,” I said selecting a pair of small azure gloves of soft kidskin, “How much do they pay you to stay with me?” He blinked. I looked at him sharply. “I am deadly serious, my friend,” I said coldly. “For I think that the time for your little games is long past. What is your real connection to the Shadow Thieves?”

A deep relief suddenly spread across his rigid face. He chuckled and shook in a fit of his so-familiar silent laughter. To my greatest surprise I felt the same way.

Valygar looked at both of us in turn and shook his head. “I suppose I am not trusted enough by any of you to be enlightened on the meaning of this,” he grumbled. “Yet it is sadly obvious that nether one of you has faith in the other.”

“Perhaps you are right,” I grinned widely, “and perhaps it is time to put these suspicions aside.”

“I agree,” Yoshimo nodded simply. “As to your direct question, Thea, I will give you a direct answer. I used to do an occasional work for them. Nothing serious. Tracking down a client who picked up his shipment of goods and refused to pay for his fancies, and stuff like this.”

“I assume by ‘goods’ you mean drugs and contraband?” I asked innocently

The rogue simply shrugged, dismissing my question as irrelevant. “I have not heard from Renal for a long time,” he continued musingly, “although I have heard rumors they were having… difficulties. Ever since I was kidnapped by your favorite mad wizard,” his face darkened at this recollection, “and made my choice to stick with you for my own safety as well as profit,” he clinked his full purse to demonstrate this point, “I had no communications with them.”

“You never mentioned that first motive,” I chuckled. “I suppose it makes sense to me now. If Irenicus was after you for whatever reason, and by the way, I still did not figure out what was it that he wanted from me, it was indeed safer for you to stick with us and get out of Athkatla. Forgive me for overlooking the obvious!”

Yoshimo reddened a little bit. “I am not proud of my initial motives, madam,” he said stiffly. “You are a powerful wizard, young though that you are. And you have a personal reason to hate Irenicus. Was there any better choice that I could have made than allying myself to you? You can only fight magic with magic.”

“I agree,” Valygar looked at Yoshimo with renewed interest. “You never told me somebody managed to kidnap you, Creeps! I would love to hear the story. You know I have a personal interest in learning the details.” The ranger grinned at Yoshi’s obvious distress.

“Some other time perhaps, Smarty,” the thief looked really vexed now.

“I bet you, your arch-mage-ness, there was a woman involved!” Valygar continued his teasing. “When Creeps sees a skirt with a pretty face above it, he absolutely looses it!”

At this remark Yoshimo froze, as his eyes normally opaque like obsidian pebbles, became two pools of liquid darkness. It was strange to see his well-composed face go rigid white at this simple joke. Valygar obviously touched some painful memory with his jibe. I decided to let the issue drop.

“I trust you, Yoshimo.” I said with a light bow of my head, “and it is not something that I say easily. Valygar is right, we cannot afford not to trust each other.”

If anything, the Kozakuran’s reaction to this was even stronger, for his paleness took the bluish tint and sweat started trickle down his brow. “When it comes to either-or, there is only the quick choice of death,” he said after a brief pause. “I am grateful, Thea-san. Your honor is my honor.”

I decided it was one of his extravagant oriental formulas, and was rather touched that he took my words so seriously for I became very fond of him myself. The Imnesvale adventure unexpectedly showed me the side of him I never thought existed. Our relationship was always a mixture of intellectual charades, and vague yearnings of more romantic nature. I knew nothing would ever come of it, and it saddened me but also made me feel secure. I would hate to get involved with a man who could understand me without words, simply by reading the expression of my face. It would have been lethally dangerous for both of us.

“Now that this is settled, “ I continued with faked enthusiasm, “I would like to make you a proposition.”

They both looked at me in expectation. I glanced around - the halfling lady was busily dusting her wares in the corner, keeping her sharp eyes on the stock in our direct vicinity. I decided we had tried her patience for long enough, and adding a blue velvet hat with a white feather and a veil to my choice of wares, I paid her off and waited for her to wrap my purchases in a neat little bundle tied with colored ribbon.

“I never seen you wear this color,” Valygar commented, “in fact I had never seen your wear any colors at all!”

“This is a gift,” I chuckled softly, “for my favorite priestess. So she can run around without us having to pull her out of the fire all the time. At least this should do for today! Too bad I cannot convince her wear tinted glasses, as her red eyes are a dead giveaway.”

“Ah, the drow elf, ” Valygar nodded when we walked outside. “I’ve seen her yesterday. You have most interesting acquaintances, your worship.”

“You really think so?” I asked looking him up and down, “I suppose you two are fascinating specimens of adventuring type!”

Valygar chuckled. Yoshimo laughed silently in his usual manner. I rejoiced at this obvious return of his good spirits. We walked away from the little store, and stopped under the low arch of the passage between two narrow streets.

“As I started to say,” I addressed the industrious duo carefully, “I have a plan.” They acknowledged their attention with some grumbling noises. “Before I make any final decision about paying the ransom I need insider information on the Shadow Thieves guild,” I stopped Yoshimo’s next remark with a curt gesture of my hand. “Yes, I know it is dangerous. That is why I am not going to approach them on my own. You two are going to join their ranks.”

“What?” The look on Valygar’s bronze face was anger mixed with puzzlement, “I thought we were going to enter the Sphere and finish my long-undead grandfather Lavok!”

“And we will,” I said soothingly. “In due time. However I do not dare to rush it. I need more information on the Cowled Ones’ plans. As far as I know, it all may be an elaborate trap on their part. Including me finding you and believing in your story. And as the thieves offered me their assistance in recovering Imoen from the Cowled Wizards, I assume they have some connections there as well.” I smiled soothingly at the scowling ranger. “Valygar, you need to keep a low profile, and you have a perfect cover story – you have been wrongfully accused of murder and forced to flee the city! Yoshimo found you but you had convinced him to drop his pursuit, and help you seek the retribution on the wizards instead. Knowing Yoshimo’s history with mages and magic it may be plausible enough!”

“I doubt Bloodscalp would ever believe I choose decency over wizards’ gold,” Yoshimo shook his head.

“Ah! But you see, it was not gold per say, it was only a promise of it. And Valygar persuaded you they would more likely eliminate you as a witness of their deception than pay you your promised fees. Makes sense to you?”

“Perhaps,” he nodded carefully. “Although I am puzzled as to what is it you want us to do?”

“I want you to approach your connection and relay to him that since your kidnap, and the unfortunate affair with Valygar you’ve decided it is too dangerous to continue as a freelancer. I also want you to introduce Valygar as a potential new recruit. If you two are excepted, and given access to the guild’s resources, after some time I want you to dig out anything you can on my kidnapping, their connection with Irenicus, and their proposal to rescue Imoen for me! Galean Bale seemed to know you pretty well. You will need to convince him that your association with me was brief and did not work out. ‘Tis fortunate we parted at the city gates yesterday, and you checked into the Coronet without me!”

“Now this is something I never heard before!” Yoshimo frowned. “Where did you get the idea that the Shadow Thieves were responsible for your kidnapping?”

“Believe me, I know,” I shuddered remembering the blue-eyed assassin who had slain Khalid before my very eyes, and his own gruesome death in the tunnels under the Promenade. “I recognized one of them,” I said firmly.

“This is a very serious business,” the rogue looked distressed. “I am not sure you even realize what is it that you are asking!”

“Nobody crosses Shadow Thieves and lives,” I nodded, “I know Yoshi. And if you feel it is too dangerous for you, well…”

“I did not say I refuse to try!” Anger flashed in his dark eyes. “Merely that it may not be possible in the short time that we shall have.”

“I do not need proof,” I shrugged, “only rumors, speculations, and any insider information. In the mean time I will approach Tolgerias again, and try to pry him for the information on the Sphere, complaining that Valygar had escaped my clutches. There is also Anomen’s sister murder business,” I frowned. “It may take a few days to resolve that particular crisis. Hopefully by then we will know enough to make the right choices. I only wish I trusted you enough to pursue this course earlier!”

“I wish you did,” Yoshimo nodded solemnly, “yet something tells me that whatever were their original intentions, the Shadow Thieves later regretted their involvement with the madman Irenicus. The sheer amount of the losses they were willing to sustain to finish him was astounding.”

“It maybe so,” I agreed. “That is why it is imperative that I know the truth. I only want to know who was responsible for making the original decision.”

“I guess I have no choice on the matter,” Valygar interrupted our exchange. “If I want you to help me settle my score with my grandfather, I better help you resolve your differences with the Shadow Thieves. The chances of us living through it all are about zero to thousand but then again – it may just work!”

“You are always such an optimist, Valygar,” I scowled. “I promise you a bonus of your life back, and you are thinking about taking chances! Do not return to the Coronet with me. It is bad enough we left together this morning. If you need me, leave a note with Ribald Barterman in the Adventurer’s Mart. That place is so busy no one can track everything that passes through his hands. Come back to the Coronet for your gear tomorrow. By that time I will be out with the whole gang. Ribald would know were to look for us.”


Anomen was sulking when I returned. He had to endure both Viconia casual flirting, and Jan’s humor for more than an hour. The dark elf looked glowing and content. She just finished a hearty breakfast of sausages drowned in pork fat and flour sauce, followed by the pile of buttered toast and a bowl of livermush. Minsc was watching her with tears of joy in his eyes, helping himself to the much of the same dishes. I wondered at the numbers my bill was going to run into, and the amount of food a hungry dark elf can consume in one go. Then again, if the poor thing had to sustain herself on occasional graveyard rat and a packet of crackers for the last few months, I would not dare to deny her a few extra sausages!

What surprised me more was the stuff she was wearing. Not the scratchy black wool that I had offered her but a midnight-blue silk with sliver trim around the cuffs and hem, and a matching pair of velvet leggings. A bright chain-mail vest, shimmering with powerful enchantment covered her slender torso, and at her waist hanged an elegantly crafted mace, her most favored type of a weapon. She had obviously discovered the other saddlebag, and made good use of it!

“I can see that you did not waste any time,” I grumbled slamming the packet with my purchases on the table. “At least I got the colors right, abbil. Albeit I bet you will find this not up to your lofty standards!”

Viconia untied the ribbon amusedly, and chuckled at the contents. “Why, jabress, who would have believed you actually have taste! This is really pretty!” She put the hat on and cocked her head to see herself better in Anomen’s shiny breastplate. “Would you mind standing up, jaluk d? Thanks, this is better. Judging by what you are wearing yourself, faern, I would have expected it to resemble a pile of black rothe-manure! Now this has style.”

She pulled on the gloves that fitted her nicely, and lowered her veil, tucking her multitude of snow-white hair under the soft blue brim. What we saw before us was an elegant and mysterious noblewoman of elven origin. Her face was invisible under the violet haze of the veil, all you could see was a faint glow of her eyes that looked purple rather than red through the fine mesh.

“Excellent!” I nodded my acceptance. “Now you can go with us anywhere, and  the worst kind of attention you’ll get will be catcalls and whistles. I would rather not waste my time on fighting off another crowd of angry fanatics.”

“She is very … stunning,” Anomen muttered suddenly. “I did not expect a drow to look like this.”

“Why, did you expect me to look like a mountain troll, ssin'urn d ?” Viconia purred. “I have neither claws, no tail. Do you want to check for yourself? Perhaps I can arrange it.”

I chortled. The look on the young man’s face was priceless, and his color was quickly changing from red to deep purple, almost matching Vicky’s attire. Still, it made me feel just a little bit uncomfortable, and judging by the dark elf’s mocking stare she was perfectly aware of it.

As it turned out she was not the only one who had noticed my discomfort, as my favorite wizard chose that moment to treat us to another saga of his family relations.

“Your Worship, did I ever tell you the story about my aunt Petunia’s dog Patty and  the chickens, no? Well Patty was a scrawny little thing, the kind that ladies like to put on their lap and carry to their neighbor’s tea parties. Her only weakness was chicken food. Not that she liked to eat it, mind it! She only liked to sleep on it. Oh she had her little basket with a pillow and everything but her real passion was the corn! Whenever auntie would go out to feed her poultry Patty would trail her like a good bloodhound and immediately lay at the center of their feeder, right on top of their sustenance! Auntie had to put out the decoys, so the chicks can get their feed, but Patty always managed to intercept them. At the end it was the choice between having  eggs for breakfast and her favorite lapdog. Auntie was a tough cookie, so she thought of a compromise - she got herself ducks next year! Sadly enough that was the end of the poor cur, for she won’t give up and had drowned herself whilst trying to have a snooze in the middle of a little pond the ducks favored!”

“Very funny,” I scowled at the little rascal, who was happily feeding my familiar a piece of celery. “Jan, I think you may need a vacation. For one thing, I have heard this one before but there were oxen involved, not chickens! And please hand over my rabbit, it is bad enough Boo looks like a stuffed cushion!”

“He has a point,” Puck noted thoughtfully settling in the inner pocket of my mantle, “and you are loosing your cool, cricket. The Helmite is a bad influence. Instead of developing sense of humor under your dutiful tutelage, he is making you jealous and grouchy, like himself! When I got you as my personal pet, I did not expect you to turn this way.” 

“You know I am not jealous. I just feel sorry for the boy, that’s all. And Viconia can be so…down-to-earth.”

“Beats your ‘dog in the manger’ approach.”

“Oh, just shut up!”

“Jan,” I said trying to keep the irritation out of my voice, “Vicky,” The dark elf grinned at me through her veil. “Guys,” I nodded to Minsc and Anomen in their turns, “we are leaving now. And we are not coming back to the Coronet. Yoshimo and Valygar are going to operate on their own for a while, and they will need some breathing space.”

“Where are we going to drop an anchor than?” Jan seemed concerned. “Why can’t we stay here, your worship? I may have a family business to attend to. Coronet is practically next door to my old crib, but if you are going to drag us over to the other side of the city…”

“What is it, Jan?” I asked in mild surprise. He never seemed particularly anxious to share his personal problems. I assumed he was more than happy to travel to the other side of the Realms at first notice.

“It’s nothing, really,” the gnome shook his head stubbornly. “But I may need to take a half a day off every now and then.”

“Then you will have it,” I nodded. “Just tell me about it in advance. Actually I don’t think I need to drag you over to the City Hall today if you can perform this little service for me.”

“What is it?” he asked suspiciously.

“Can you cast a Read Object? And how long will it take you to prepare?”

“Trust you to ask for something simple for a change,” he snorted. “I can do it, yes. But this will cost you a hefty sum. The components for this spell are quite rare.”

“How much?” I asked. His answer made me flinch. “Still, I think we will be better off to pay it and do the trick. Go to Ribald and buy all that you need. But we need to arrange for a meeting place first. Is there any decent tavern on the other side of the river?”

“I will meet you at the Adamantine Mug,” he grinned. “They have the best beer in town. Take your time with the magistrate if you like, your worship!”

The last thing I wanted was to follow this advice. My memories of the trials that awaited the unwary inside Athkatlan City Hall were the most unpleasant ones, and although this time I had a full night’s sleep and a good breakfast before venturing into the land of Amnian bureaucracy this did not prevent me from getting into a state of deadly rage in a matter of mere two hours. I am not the most patient of women but normally I keep my temper in check, Albeit sometimes an occasional lapse results in unfortunate accidents. (I still remember a certain noble in Baldur’s Gate, who was dropping live mice out of her mouth for about a week, with a shame. Jaheira was right, calling me a ‘Bhaalspawn bitch’ in my face still did not grant me the right to retaliate in that manner!) I do not consider myself a violent person, merely a rational one. So, if I see a rule or regulation especially designed to deny reason and make life miserable for countless members of the society, my common sense revolts. At the end it took Viconia’s dry sense of humor to stop me from dropping a couple of fireballs in the middle of their front lobby.


It all started so good. First thing that morning I went to the Cowlies’ bureau, and purchased a casting permit. Verily, it did not improve my spirits to pay five thousand gold for the privilege of using something that was rightfully mine. They told me Tolgerias was out of his quarters at the moment but would be back by afternoon. Sending Viconia and Minsc on a quest for a certificate of lawful residence for her, I led Anomen to the office of Bylanna Lanulin.

The magistrate agreed to meet us within few minutes. She was smart and comely middle-aged woman, very sympathetic to Anomen’s loss. I wondered briefly if my first impression of Athkatla’s bureaucrats was a wrong one. Alas, her understanding lasted until he mentioned Saerk Farrahd! That name was the magic word that turned her motherly face into an impenetrable mask of displeasure. She tried half-heartedly to convince him to drop the case. When he refused she graced us with a fifteen minutes speech on the folly of taking revenge.

“Who is talking about revenge, lady?” I asked acerbically. “We are merely asking for the magistrate to re-open the case and interrogate the members of Saerk household on the basis of new evidence!”

That was the stumbling point with her. She refused to accept the dagger as evidence, on the grounds that there was no proof that Lord Cor did not plant it himself. Reluctantly, I had to agree with her. Still her obvious discomfort to discuss the matter bothered me. Her eyes would not meet mine even for a moment, as if she knew she won’t be able to hide the truth under my yellow godchild gaze. Wise of her, I suppose, but it did not help her case for then I became certain she was hiding something.

I inquired politely, why cannot they ask Master Farrahd to undergo a Test of Truth? It is a simple enough spell, and its results are widely accepted in courts as evidence. She cringed and muttered that the case did not grant such a serious measure. I thought Anomen was going to have a fit after this.

When we refused to drop the matter she frowned, but agreed to write me a note to Chief Inspector Brega, who was personally overlooking the investigation. After tracking him down over two different levels and a number of endless corridors, we located him hiding in the office of his subordinate, where he stopped by for a snack of sugar-glazed, ring-shaped friedcakes 68 and a mug of coffee. I hate it when people talk to me with their mouth full! Between the two sips of his afternoon beverage, and a bite of sweetmeat Inspector Brega read Bylanna’s note and looked at me with an expression of pure disgust.

“I am not going to discuss the matter with you, nor will I show you any of my notes related to the case,” was his final reply. “It is a government’s business, and we have a policy of keeping these documents closed to the public for twenty five years. Sent me your lawyer if you wish, but I am acting within my powers and there is nothing you can do about it. New evidence! What new evidence? My people have been over that room on their hands and knees, and they found nothing. Take my advice lady, go back to your stitching, or whatever you do with your time and leave the police business to the professionals!”

 I believe that was when Anomen grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the room. He explained later that watching my face frightened him to the point of forgetting his own wrath. They were lucky it did.

It took both him and Viconia to cool me down to the point when I was no longer a danger to the society. But I swore to him and myself that no smug-looking, fat detective was going to stop me from learning the truth! If I knew what it would cost me in the long run I may have reconsidered.

It was well past afternoon by then, and I decided to make one final attempt to reach Tolgerias. I was still fuming from my interview with Chief Inspector Brega, and my concentration was not what it should have been. The Cowled Wizard’s Offices were in a separate wing. The little plaque at the entrance stated simply that it was a Bureau of Magical Instructions, Authorizations and Superficial Manifestations of Athkatla (or MIASMA), albeit most of the public referred to the place as simply ‘the Cowlies’. Presumably, MIASMA was creation of the Council of Six, yet over the century of its existence not only the Council Members lost any influence over it, but the Council itself was heavily under control of the order of spellcasters that was formed around the bureau, and informally named the ‘Cowled Wizards’ to reflect their official gray uniforms. All the attempts by Pommarch 69 Tyrda O’Helvor (who was a powerful wizard on her own), to penetrate the order and gain influence among its members so far have been carefully diverted by Tolgerias and his cronies.

As I stood there looking at the polished brass plate, something unexpected had happened. I heard the familiar sizzle, and then the giant hourglass filled my vision, streaming the river of sand from the hot-white skies to the barren floor of the desert. The sand swirled and turned into a golden serpent, standing on its tail. The snake hurtled itself into my face in total silence, and vanished as soon as I was sure that this time its fangs would pierce my eyes. I shook my head and tried to recover my wits. These visions became a source of continuous irritation. I knew they meant something important but for the life of me I still could not figure it out.

Tolgerias’ status, as I discovered later, was a vice-chairman of the Superficial Manifestations Committee. This included regulation of almost all of the aspects of non-divine magic in the city. And since the chairman himself was over two hundred years old and grievously ill, the ambitious fifty-year-old mage run that department more or less by himself. There were very few people in Athkatla, who hold any influence over him, and nobody in the Order itself who dared to oppose him. Suffice to say that I had no idea of his status at the time of these events.

Luckily for me this time Tolgerias was in. He was a tallish, dark-haired man with non-descript features of clean-shaven face. He was not wearing the official gray uniform - I guessed these were reserved for street patrols and emergency teams. His robes were of that ‘festive’ green color that can be best described as a middle ground between rotten swamp vegetation, and a troll hide. I wondered mildly why young and predatory administrators always picked up these hushed colors over lavishly rich reds and royal blues of the older wizards generation. “Something to do with their need for protective coloration,” I guessed. My familiar agreed.

“I am so glad you are back!” The wizard smiled upon seeing me enter his office. Yet something about his stance made me uneasy. He looked at me with a strange expression of amusement mixed with curiosity. The room smelled funny, as if somebody burned a potent aromatic essence in there. I looked around and spotted a small brazier, still trailing the perfumed smoke.

Tolgerias hissed at seeing me close the door, leaving my companions behind. “No Valygar Corthala in tow, I see.” Still his lean face displayed only a mild displeasure and willingness to be patient over my failure. “My dear!” he exclaimed in chiding, fatherly tone, “If you want me to be of any help to you in finding your friend, you should work harder! I cannot accept failure in this matter. If they feel they can get away with Cowled Wizard murder, next thing you know we will have a bloody revolution on our hands! The Council Members agrees with us on the matter.”

“He was nearly in my hands,” I complained to him, “if it was not for the treachery of that rogue, Yoshimo, I would have had him! Now we would have to start over again, for I’ve heard he fled back to Athkatla.”

“Most unfortunate for you my dear! I hoped our business relationship would be more...productive. How can you expect me to gain information on your behalf if I cannot placate you as a diligent citizen and true friend of the Cowled Wizards?”

“Tolgerias, please,” I made eyes at him, trying my best to look as an impulsive, silly sorceress, who was sure her good looks can sway am man in his position into her favor (I had no such illusions but hopefully he would believe me being stupid enough to try playing this card.) “Can’t you tell me anything at all about Imoen? I really did my best. It just was not enough. I am going after him in a few days, I swear! But I am so tired of trampling over these endless miles of wilderness! I need few days of rest. I did track Corthala down to his family cabin in Imnesvale. Did he have any other property in Amn?”

“You may say so,” he grinned menacingly, “but I doubt this information will be of any use in your quest. I have my men watching over that ‘other’ property. I hope you can deliver me the criminal or his body soon. As a gesture of goodwill I can tell you that your friend is alive, and her case is still pending. That was all I was able to find out!”

“How is she doing?” I asked anxiously. “Gods, I hope she did not loose faith in me yet! If I only could let her know that I care. That I am looking for her and trying to have her released!”

Tolgerias’ eyes narrowed into two dark slits. I could physically feel the pressure in the small room grow. “It is entirely up to you to earn my good will and help your friend,” the mage laughed in a strange hissing way. “That is all I am going to tell you now. And I want to warn you, my dear lady, that any treachery on your part will have most dire consequences!”

I left his office with a strange feeling that I was missing something very important. Something that was there all the time, and yet out of my grasp. Imoen’s fate weighted heavily upon my heart, and yet I was not ready to betray our new friend into the hands of the Cowled Wizards, or risk another treachery from the Shadow Thieves. My promise to Anomen to help him deal with his sister’s murder was still uncompleted, and now not only was my interest picked – my pride demanded that I should finish this investigation.

It was still raining outside, yet this time I had a satisfaction of calling a minor air elemental and having him hover over my head all the way to the Adamantine Mug tavern. It did not save me from puddles of muddy water, that were no less wet on the cobblestoned walks of the downtown, than they were in the seedier parts of the town but at least my robes stayed dry from my knees up.

“My lady,” Anomen caught up with my fervent strides, glancing somewhat uneasily at the semi-transparent mass hovering over my head. “I have to confess my heart is not at ease over the matter of my sister death. I think magistrate have not done nearly enough to punish the fiends.”

“I would use stronger words myself,” I growled. “They did bloody nothing to find out who was responsible! That is why I am resolved to take it upon myself.”

“But, Thea,” he asked breathlessly, “what can you possibly do about it if the official investigation is closed?”

“Then I will open my own, “I answered simply. “And my first step is going to be finding out who owned that flaming dagger!”

The little private room that I rented in the ‘Mug’ upon locating Jan and extricating him from the crowd of fervent listeners was still chilly and damp, despite the newly-lit fire in the fireplace. Whitewashed walls with a few yellowing lithographs, an oval table of dark polished wood, and a few rickety chairs – a strange place to start a new crusade but I had known worse!

I had ordered a meal of bread, roast, and stew that was delivered into our room, and consumed over the lightweight conversation. Nobody wanted to bring up the topic that worried us all. When servant cleaned up the table, I pulled out my journal an opened a new page, carefully listing all the facts that I knew about the murder on the left side, and all the rumors and speculations on the right side. When I finished, my right side severely outweighed my left.

The little mage was hovering over his implements in the corner, carefully shaving cedar wood on his portable coal-pan, and mixing all the heavy-incensed components. Viconia’s dripping cloak and hat made puddles of water on the bare wooden floor, as she threw her belongings recklessly in the corner upon entering. Now she positioned herself closer to the fire with a mug of ale. I frowned at Minsc’ loud voice as his loud ramblings made me loose track of my thoughts. He was cheerfully recalling our last month’s adventures to the lazily smiling dark elf.

Viconia listened to him inattentively but her garnet eyes, gleaming with humor and curiosity, were fully on the hulking figure of the young Helmite, who was pacing back and forth before the fire with a dark scowl on his handsome bearded face. He had caught her staring unabashedly, and blushed like a small boy, receiving a lazy chuckle and a wink of one bright red eye under the white brow. I scowled and turned back to my notes.

“I am ready, you worship,” Jan called from his side of the long table. “You nincompoops! Seize your incessant chatter and behold the one and only artistic performance of Jan Jansen, the Ineffable Diviner of Naked Truths, the Shrewd and Unfaultable Piercer of Veils and Remover of Crusts, presumably from hidden facts but I don’t mind an occasional pie if it stays firmly in its dish, and does not come flying in my face! Did I ever tell you the story about my time as a Chosen of Mystra, when I invented my first patented turnip-peeler? Well, the Goddess really needed a good mousetrap, because Cyric kept teleporting these really huge rats into her Pocket Plane in retaliation for her role in stripping him off his Death portfolio. This character is always so involved with his vengeance plots, I am afraid he sometimes forgets to put on his pants to protect his godly loins from the harsh climate of the Gehenna! Anyway, that’s why Mystra picked me up at the first place, but I got carried away, and first added a cheese grater and then the turnip peeler simply became a must!”

“Jan,” I moaned in exasperation, “the spell please.”

“Oh, the spell. Yes.” He went serious at once, but the slight curve of his lips made me ready for what followed next. As he opened his mouth the puff of blue smoke escaped his lips with a roar, forming a small blue apparition of a jinn the size of a cat that made a double loop in the air and giggled, stopping still. The features of the jinn strongly resembled that of its creator, as it smiled at us stroking its beard, and winking small beady eyes at me. 

“Open Sesame!” the jinn peeped clicking tiny fingers. Two buttons on Vicky’s tunic collar suddenly popped open, exposing somewhat more of her heaving, dark bosom that was in my opinion appropriate. 

Viconia clapped her hands theatrically, as Minsc laughter made the glass in a small window tremble with zinging echo. Anomen’s color became dangerously hot, but I noticed that the glance that he stole at the giggling priestess was somewhat appreciating.

“Clown,” I commented flatly waiving my hand and breaking the apparition into a score of small blue smoke rings. Jan pointed a finger and the rings formed an elaborate chain, floating leisurely in and out of the pattern and finally forming a big ‘Oh!’ at the center of the room. I glowered and dismissed the letters making them puff away in smoke. “Spell?” I asked again in a more serious tone.

“If you insist,” he nodded at me sincerely. “I want to warn you though, that the results can be somewhat unpredictable and perchance distressing. It is really something I would prefer to do alone with the lad,” he nodded at Anomen.

“We need to witness it,” I shook my head sadly. “It may be our only chance at finding out what had really happened that night!”

Jan sighed and gathered his components. He first lit a small fire in a metal pan, feeding it the small amounts of cedar shavings and occasionally sprinkling some aromatic incense. As the white smoke started to raise from the brazier the gnome uttered the first syllable of his spell. As the words followed in a fluid chant, his chirpy voice became deeper and harsher, taking an intonation of a bargain, then a threat, and finally a plea. Suddenly his face went rigid and he seized an object, wrapped in plain dark cloth, that was until now hidden among his accessories. It was the gilded dagger that I handed over to him as soon as we entered the room. The wizard unwrapped it, and the diamonds on the guard sparkled like a small rainbow. “Ask me about it,” he requested in a harsh, brittle voice, “and I shall answer freely.”

“Can you see the owner of the knife?” I asked carefully.

“Of course I can, silly girl! Don’t waste my time ask about him!”

“Tell me who he is!” Anomen cried out in anger, “I want to know the bastard’s name!”

“I cannot tell you his name,” the gnome answered gravely, “I see a young human man, of about twenty or so, dark, grim and very sad. He is not what you would call a nice guy - there is something very disturbing about him. And he was weeping when he lost the knife, I know that much.”

“Describe his face, quickly!” I said in distress. “Maybe Anomen can recognize him.”

“He has black, curly hair falling down to his shoulders, but he usually wears them in a ponytail,” Jan answered slowly, “his coloration is that of an old parchment, yellow and unhealthy, Albeit I think he naturally has a tawny complexion. He has black eyes and brows. I gather women find him attractive. He has nice, clean features, strong nose, firm lips and a small scar under his left eye. He is clean-shaven. Ah! There is a small erring in one of his earlobes. A golden hoop with a ruby. That is about it.”

Anomen’s face looked blank. “Describe his clothes!” I asked urgently.

“I can’t,” the little wizard chuckled even in his trance. I noticed that his eyes stayed firmly shut throughout the whole episode. “He is not wearing anything.”

“What does this suppose to mean?” I asked in puzzlement.

“Only that he was stark naked when he was separated from his dagger, and in a lot of pain! I cannot see any further than this. I cannot even say if he is still alive.” Jan’s eyes suddenly snapped open. “Sorry, your worship,” he said apologetically. “That’s it for today. I don’t think I would be able to read anything more, even if we try it again!”

I looked at Anomen. The young cleric looked angry and confused. I could understand this. Our divination brought more questions than answers. And whoever that young man was, what was he doing in his sister’s bedroom without any clothes on?


* * * * *


Yusef woke up in his own room, laying face down on his bed. Somebody had pulled off his boots but other than that he was still wearing the same clothes, smeared in his own blood and dirt. He could remember falling down few times on his agonizing crawl through the night Athkatla. It was amazing he had made it at all.

Slowly, deliberately the young man started to sort through his senses, trying to estimate the amount of damage that was done to his body. His skull felt like it was split apart and filled with wet wool. The swollen cut at his temple was a definitely inflicted by that last kick. The first pangs of lotus craving lurked at the back of his mind but he tried to ignore them stoically. His hands and feet felt like they were not his own, yet at least there were no new pains from that direction. He flexed his fist experimentally. His fingers were moving fine. Yusef moaned and turned on his back. A legion of hidden aches assaulted him immediately. He may have had a pulled muscle or two, and any number of new bruises all over his body, but that felt like the extent of his injuries. He took a deep breath. No broken ribs, thanks gods! Yusef’s father was a master in the art of punishment. Yet his face was entirely different matter, as it hurt and throbbed most pathetically. Yusef raised his hand to touch the burning scrape at his cheek and flinched – that was Deril’s work. Well, he had a reason to skip shaving today.

He rolled over to his side and tried to sit up. His head swam. Immediately he had to fight back a fit of nausea. A sudden memory of Saerk pulling out his precious pipe and a bag of lotus filled Yusef’s mind with cold dread. He almost cried in panic. He knew what was coming next. With one last effort he pulled himself upright and walked to the door in a slow, jerking step. It was locked from the outside, and he could hear the heavy steps of a guard on the other side!

Yusef spent the next three days in a half-delirium of withdrawal. Somebody brought him water and bread but he could not even think of food without having another painful fit of dry retching, and since his stomach was empty of anything but its own acids it was very unpleasant. He was filthy and half-starved. His hands were shaking so badly that any attempt to bring water to his mouth failed miserably, spilling the contents of the carafe all over his clothes. At the end, Yusef resorted to lapping it from the paddle on the floor, before it would dry out completely. Then he would loose consciousness again. 

On the fourth day of this agony he came to his senses, lying on the floor, shaking like a sick dog in his wet and filthy clothes. He was so weak he could not move a finger. His hair had stuck to the floor in a dried pool of his own vomit. Yusef could not understand why he was still alive. His only desire was to end this misery in any way possible. Death seemed like a gift, a long overdue promise of rest and peaceful slumber, an absence of pain!

The mere possibility of state of existence not filled with deep, throbbing headache that was splitting his skull into a thousand small fragments grating against each other was a bright and cherished dream that he nurtured in his few brief moments of sanity. He had thought of the ways to finish it, and cried when he discovered that his small belt knife (Saerk’s present for his eighteenth birthday) was missing. So much for cutting his own throat with it. Yusef knew he was too weak to open the window. And a fall from the high second floor would not kill him but will make him a joke for the servants. His eyes searched in vain for a hook of any sort, or a sturdy bracket on the ceiling of his chamber – anything to tie a rope to! Then he blacked out again.

He had had a dream. He was walking along the long empty corridor made of blue ice. The walls curved and spiraled in endless designs, running further and further into the eternal azure depths of the maze. Every tunnel eventually split into two or more, each leading into a sparkling cavern, where shiny blue stalactites hung from the high ceiling meeting clusters of blue stalagmite-like shards sticking from the floor. He would pass among this beauty cold and indifferent, and enter another labyrinth full of sapphire-bright silence and despair. It was ultimately peaceful and beautiful. He wanted to sit down and howl at the cold treacherous beauty that would hold him here for eternity, to lash at the sparkling walls and split his skull making everything stop! He knew he could not. This place was him. It held him in its depths but it also in some perverse fashion became a container for his essence, a vessel holding his body and soul, a guardian angel that would not let him hurt himself or end his existence in any fashion. “Moira!” he called desperately, “where are you?” Somewhere at the distance the echo repeated his words, mirroring them again and again, a thousand times and sending a vibrating sound of her name down into the blue abyss of the labyrinth. “Yusef?” a dieing whisper of an answering echo came back to him from far and beyond.

The young man cried in sorrow, and woke up. He was laying on the floor. Somebody was washing the crusted filth from his face with a warm, wet towel. He tried to open his eyes. When he finally managed to finish this uneasy task he saw a beautiful young face - a reflection of his own - that was looking down at him with pity and grave concern.

“Surayah,” he whispered in amazement, “what are you doing here?”

“I was at your door every day,” she sighed, “by it was only today that Father allowed them to let me in,” she turned her head and talked to somebody standing behind her. “Ninya is going to make you a bath!” she said with a bright smile, “and then we will wash you and change your clothes. You really stink Yusef!”

The mere thought of her doing it with her own hands made him flinch, “I don’t think I like the idea,” he whispered through his cracked and dried lips.

“Men!” his sister frowned, shaking her head reproachfully, and squeezed the bloodied water out of the towel she was using on his face into a ceramic bowl that she placed on the floor near him. The golden hoops in her ears swayed gently. Today her hair was dressed in a more western fashion – pleated into two long braids, and pinned carefully in two coils at the sided of her head. This made her look older and sadder than her fourteen years. He also noticed with surprise that she was wearing a tight-fitting corselet under her flower-patterned frock - a costume straight out of the latest fashion almanac for Athkatlan young ladies.

Surayah noticed his surprised gaze. “Father would only let me care for you in exchange for a promise to always wear this,” she explained guiltily and touched her sleeve with an expression of distress. She had always hated western clothes, he remembered with a pang of guilt.

“I am sorry, little one,” he managed to utter but the wave of nausea overwhelmed him again, and he gently slid into oblivion.

Next time Yusef woke up in his own bed, cleaned up and dressed into a fresh nightshirt. Somebody placed a water carafe next to his head and he could vaguely remember being fed a bowl of chicken broth, before being tucked into bed. The pain in his head subsided to a bearable level. Albeit the pounding was still there, just below the surface. He knew it would come back. The horror stories that he had heard about the lotus withdrawal claimed weeks of agony, followed by months if not years of continuous craving.

When a door of his bedroom opened with a loud crash Yusef tried to raise his head, and failed miserably. He did not need to look to know who had entered – he would have recognized these heavy steps in his delirium, or through the haze of lotus smoke.

“You look like shit,” Saerk’s rough voice sounded disgusted. “I want you to admit that you have nobody else to blame for this but yourself!”

“Yes, father,” he said listlessly.

“However considering the great service you did to this family, I decided to forget your indiscretions and give you another chance at being a dutiful son and a heir to my name!” This was so unexpected that Yusef can only blink at the expression of deep satisfaction that played on his father’s face. Saerk nodded at him, and bent over bringing his heavyset, handsome face closer to his son’s emaciated visage.

“I know you’ve killed the Delryn bitch,” he whispered with a wicked grin. “Don’t ask me how - I have my sources! It is all taken care of, son. The magistrate was paid off. The old Cur would never recover - I have him by the balls now!” There was a quiet excitement in his voice that made Yusef feel sick again. He gulped, trying to keep the acidic wave of bile coming into his mouth down. It probably had reflected on his face, for his father suddenly looked concerned.

“I don’t want you to die from this foolishness you’ve brought upon yourself!” Saerk said harshly and swore. “Now that I know you have been loyal to me, I want you to recover and take your rightful place at my side.” He pulled something out of his pocket. Yusef looked at it not believing his eyes – it was his old pipe!

“I consulted with medici and priests,” Saerk continued musingly, “they all agreed that in cases like yours there is no quick fix, short of a divine miracle. You will need this,” the elder man pushed the pipe into his son’s limp fingers, “to be able to function properly. But from now on I am going to be in control of how much will you get, and when will you get it! And you better get used to it, Yusef. I had wasted enough time on you! I am not going to repeat myself – you shall do what you are told boy, or face the consequences! Is this understood?” Yusef stared at him in muted disbelief. “I don’t want to repeat myself! Do you understand what I just said, boy?” Saerk growled.

“Yes, father,” Yusef’s voice was a rustle of a dead leaf that was swept away from its tree into a dark and chilly night by a harsh northern wind. “I understood you well.”

“Good boy!” the silk pouch with lotus dropped at his head followed by the smaller bag with his flints. “The servant will bring you food after you are done. Try to be discreet. There is no need to advertise your vices,” his father’s voice was now dripping with sarcasm. “I will see you later, Yusef.”

He had left. Yusef laid there for a few minutes unmoving, dead to all his other senses but the fragrant smell coming from the little pouch. Tears started to stream down his face. Finally, his hand jerked and he took hold of it. It was pitifully small by his late standards. But it was life, and strength, and a capability to channel his thoughts to something else besides his craving for a few hours. He knew he had lost again, and he did not care. Whatever form of slavery his father intended for him, it could not be worse than what he had put himself into by his own hands. Saerk was right – he had nobody else to blame but himself! But he was not letting Moira wander in the ice caves of despair forever! Whatever would it cost him - he had to extricate himself, and then bring her back.



I stared blankly at the little wizard. The new facts that he unveiled by casting the Read Object spell on the dagger were most disturbing. I had no doubt that his vision was genuine. That belt knife looked like a very personal item - something made on special order, and probably cherished by its original owner. Such objects tend to retain images and emotions in their substance. It meant that I had to take for granted that there was a naked, dark-haired human youth in that room, who had left behind his stiletto. There was no proof however, that he was there the night of the murder (albeit if not then - how did the dagger get there at any other time?), was connected with the crime, or that the little toy of a weapon was indeed used to perform the grizzly task. Jan assured me that he would have sensed that kind of an aura, and that the dagger did not show any traces of being used as a killing weapon.

“There is no hint of death on it,” he shrugged apologetically, “albeit I did pick up some violence. But it was far too vague, and not lethal.”

“Thank you, Jan,” I nodded thoughtfully. “I think we better concentrate on finding out all we can about the young man in question.” I turned back to the crestfallen Helmite. “Anomen, did your father mention that Saerk had a son?”

“I don’t remember,” he muttered confusedly, “if you are implying that she was … that he… no!” he gulped, struggling with his breath. A slow, steady light of devastating revelation was coming into his eyes. His color, so easily affected by his slightest emotion, was turning deadly pale. “Bastard! Whoever did this to her I will have his black heart!”

“Calm yourself, Anomen,” I gently put my hand on his trembling one, “there was no evidence of violation of any kind on the body. At least your stablemaster did not mention it, and I think your father would have jumped at the opportunity to accuse Saerk of such a calamity!”

“Father would have protected her honor!” Anomen cried in horror. “Maybe that’s why he ordered the body to be cremated! Saerk sought Moira’s hand in marriage a few years back, but she refused him adamantly. He hated her ever since and his feud with father had intensified. But to think that he would sent his whelp to violate and murder my sister in retaliation for her rejection of his suit makes me sick!”

“He has bloody vivid imagination,” I thought briefly.

“Is it a good or a bad thing?” my familiar inquired sarcastically.

“Anomen, you are jumping to conclusion that is so far-fetched, I don’t even want to talk about it!” I said aloud. “We need facts, and when we have these, we can speculate. Now about Saerk’s son…”

“This seems very obvious to me, Thea,” Viconia said suddenly from her place at the fire. “You yourself told me that nothing of value was taken from the house. That rules out burglary. I don’t know how you rivvin deal with these things but any self-respecting drow would not have slept until the last scion of Saerk’s blood was sent screaming into the Abyss!”

I glowered at her. She gave me back a flat stare of bright red eyes. Anomen paled even more, muttering something violent under his breath.

“Ah! The choice between one’s honor and morals!” Minsc’ voice boomed deafeningly in the little room. “Boo says - be careful boy, for evil has more subtle ways to trap you than a house cat to get milk out of a corked and sealed bottle! Minsc wishes to assist but thinks his help will be better served on a battlefield, as a mighty kick into the bottom of evil!”

“I cannot give you any advice lad, except - be careful if you decide to take the matter into your own hands,” Jan muttered.

“I am not taking part in any half-baked revenge scheme based on lots of rumors and one misunderstood divination!” I cried angrily. “If you don’t stop it right now I refuse to continue this conversation!” I looked around staring each one of them down; then realized I was using my gaze on them. Somehow it bothered me, never before I had to resort to such means at getting my point through!

“I really wish Jaheira was here,” I thought melancholically.

“Then you should not have tried to drive her away so relentlessly,” my rabbit complained, “it was you fault that she had left. Pray she would reconsider, and come back to pull you out of this mess!”

“I don’t think I have time to wait for her,” I answered timidly, “this particular crisis have to be resolved without her. It is just you and me, fluffy-brain.”

“I told you to leave him alone! But would you listen?”

“Puck, I could not. I don’t know why… it is hard to understand and even harder to explain. But I could not!”

“Why don’t you just bed the boy? Do him a favor, get some steam out of your system, and then kick him out of the group!”

“This would create more problems than answers.”

I observed my silent companions. “There is not much of a choice,  really,” I said flatly. “Since both Yoshimo and Valygar are engaged in a different enterprise, that leaves the five of us. We need to find out if a young man answering that description was seen at any time around Anomen’s family home. At the same time, somebody has to check if it was indeed Saerk’s son that Jan saw in his vision.” I turned to Anomen, “do you know his name?” he only shook his head in denial.

“I can do the Government District job,” Jan grinned at me, “I still have plenty of contacts in the ‘golden triangle’. A turnip-selling operation requires discretion and cooperation of the street level authorities. But I would rather do it alone, your worship. My friends won’t appreciate a gang of five well-armed people barging in to ask questions!”

“Good,” I nodded in agreement, “that gives me an idea. I want to approach this ‘lower level authority’ directly. Where does Master Farrahd dwell these days? I assume he did not earn himself a questionable privilege of the house on the right side of the river yet? I want to chat with the officer of his local watch.”

“Bridge District,” Anomen almost spat these two words. “You should see these houses, Thea! They look more like palaces of the old empire!”

“Ah! The ‘little Zazesspur’, Jan smirked in understanding. “These are rich mansions, even though they’ve been built in the middle of the old Calimshite quarter. That’s quite a neighborhood! I would be weary to ask questions in that area unless you speak Alzhedo 70without an accent!”

“I do,” I nodded firmly. “Well, I do have an accent,” I admitted under their questioning stares, “but there was a Calimshite monk at Candlekeep, and Gorion insisted I studied with him.”

“How many languages do you speak, abbil?” Viconia asked curiously.

“About twenty five,” I admitted, “but I am really good in only five or so, including illithiri and basic elven. Gorion used to say it comes with the blood. Well, it was one of the ‘gifts’; and the only one that I truly appreciated. I like people and their history. It was one of the few outlets besides magic, where I could prove I was no worse if not better than the other students.”

“I keep forgetting what you are, your worship,” the gnome muttered thoughtfully. “You look too much like an ordinary young woman.”

“Oh, thanks for the compliment,” I chuckled. “Now, Viconia, I promised you a walk at the Promenade tonight. Do you still feel like going shopping?”

“I think I will stick with you, jabress,” she laughed shortly. “We can do it together some other day!”

“Then it is decided.” I nodded. “Jan does the Delryn Estate and surroundings, and we are going to have a look around the Calimshite quarter.”

“If we need a discreet place as our base of operation I recommend the Five Flagons inn,” Jan offered suddenly. “It is right in the middle of the Bridge District, and clean enough for my tastes. I don’t like it here in the Mug. The clientele is a wee too respectable, and they tend to pay attention to the new faces.”

“We will meet there after we are done.”

It was still raining outside but by then I was resolved to ignore it. A permit to use magic on the street was a great bonus. At least now I could protect myself from the elements again. However after some consideration I decided against using any flamboyantly obvious enchantments, as it attracted an unwanted attention to our already colorful group. I tried to imagine an impact that a sight of two warrior types in bright mail, bristling with weapons, and a mysterious blue-veiled cleric can have on an average xenophobic inhabitant of the ‘little Zazesspur’. Hopefully as Athkatlan citizens they would be cosmopolitan enough to accept us without much interest. My own appearance was not nearly as impressive. A black silk scarf with fringed edge covered my head under the hood of my mantle, dimming the golden shine of my bright eyes, and covering my slightly pointed ears. I knew I would look less out of place than the others, for in many southern cultures a woman mourning a close relative would wear black for many months, and sometimes years after her loss.

The streets became narrower and dirtier as we approached the Alandor Bridge. The great river was close to its estuary, and its slow brown waters flowed lazily under the wide stone overpass on their endless run to meet the turquoise depths of the Sea of Swords. Despite the late afternoon hour and miserable weather, many small shops and stalls positioned strategically on the sidewalks of the bridge were still open.

“Fish, fresh fish for you m’lady! I swear it was still flapping just an hour ago!”

“Quit it Reedle!” a sturdy housewife in a speckled kerchief, who was poking among the fishmonger’s wares scowled at his cheerful countenance. “If anything is flapping around here it is your tongue! Your fish is as dead as the poor buggers floating in the Alandor.” She grabbed one of the scaly things by the tail and looked it in the eye thoughtfully, “By Waukeen’s tits, man! This is not a sea bass you are selling, ‘tis a river fish! Only a madwoman would by anything coming from these waters! They all get fat on human flesh!”

“Why are you offending me, Leila-hanum? What’s so bad about the river fish? We have got only a few corpses this week!”

Despite Jan’s warning to the opposite they were both speaking common if softly accentuated, so I decided there was no need to try my rusty Alzhedo. I waved to my companions to stay out of the exchange, and edged closer to the stall, feigning a sudden interest in its nasty-smelling contents.

“Excuse me, good trader,” I ventured into their conversation, “I could not but overhear. Corpses in the Alandor - what was this all about? One wonders how safe it is to walk the streets of your fine city?” I tried to sound like a rich girl, traveling under protection of hired mercenaries. But there was no need for such subtleties - they both seemed happy enough to share their knowledge of local calamities, albeit Leila looked me over suspiciously before joining in the conversation. My black clothes and a headscarf made her content enough and let me learn some nasty details.

It turned out - not only there was still a full-scale war flaring between the two rival thieves’ guilds that resulted in fresh casualties floating belly up in the Alandor every day, there was some nastier business going on as well. Somebody was killing street beggars that made their home in the narrow alleys of ‘little Zazesspur’, and under the massive structures of the Alandor Bridge. In general, there was nothing unusual about it. In every big city there is always a significant number of unnatural deaths occurring among the street paupers. But the way these recent murders were committed made my skin crawl! I have heard many horror stories and witnessed many cruel things in my short life but the particular viciousness of these killings was uncanny, for many of the victims were tied, gagged, and flayed alive, leaving the dirty streets run with blood and gore. The anonymous killer earned the name of  ‘Hob the Skinner’, and the sparse contingent of the local Watch was running off their collective feet to get him, yet in vain.

“If you want more details speak with lieutenant Aegis, my dear lady,” Reedle suggested, “and do not go out at night, or at least not alone, for Hob is always stalking the neighborhood after midnight!”

“I would not dare so much as to peek my nose outside after darkness!” I exclaimed with a proper horror expression on my face, “now, would you kindly point me in the direction of my uncle’s house? I have not met him since I was a child, but my late mother assured me I could count on his hospitality if I ever find myself in Athkatla. He was a husband to my mother’s sister,” I said innocently, “and his name is Farrahd, Saerk Farrahd.”

Leila jolted, and looked at me piercingly, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like a curse. Then softened re-evaluating my black attire and youthful face. (The amazing thing is that despite my dreadful heritage, and all the violent experiences I had been through, I still look my twenty years of age. With my toffee-colored skin and sable tresses, if you don’t look me in the eye I may pass for a pretty gypsy, or a Calimshite girl.)

“Whatever you are child,” she said gruffly. “If you can stay away from this ‘uncle’ of yours – do so! A madman who treats his own flesh and blood worse than I would treat a dog! Phew, I never heard Master Farrahd mention any relatives outside Calimshan, and you certainly do not sound the part, although you may look it! Take my advice – stay away from him and his business, and you may yet leave to see your children’s children.” She gathered her basket and walked away briskly.

“Leila used to work for the man,” Reedle explained to me. “She quit last week. But she is right, if you mess with Saerk Farrahd - this is going to be the last anybody would ever hear of you!”

“Can’t you tell me more about my… uncle and his family?” I asked with a little smile. But Reedle only shook his head in a bright skullcap, and refused to continue the conversation. Yet, he was happy enough to give me directions to lieutenant Aegis’ office and waived us a cheerful ‘goodbye’ afterwards.

That conversation left me thoughtful. A phrase about ‘abusing his own flesh and blood’, that Leila let slip before she caught herself was very significant. It may turn the entire investigation onto a very different path. My companions were puzzled by my persistent silence when I rejoined them, and Viconia gave me a particularly sulky look. I only smiled at this. Being left out of my confidence distressed her more than a benefit of having Anomen and Minsc all to herself for almost half an hour pleased her. She obviously needed audience to enjoy her little performances.

Lieutenant Aegisfield was a pudgy young man with baby blue eyes, and overly serious expression of a soft pink face. He was strawberry blond, and wore a pair of metal-rimmed spectacles – a rare and expensive item that must have cost him a fortune and was a hell of a job to keep intact in his line of work. His face radiated that rare mix of energetic enthusiasm and somewhat mulish stubbornness that made me immediately classify him as one of the honest, if not overly bright, young functionaries, who so often lag behind in their careers simply because they believed that hard and honest work is enough to prove their virtues in the eyes of their superiors. (In my observation sycophants usually do better but this is not the place to discuss such things.)

“Can I help you in any way, citizen?” the officer raised from his desk in a tiny office that was his only distinction from his fellow watchmen, who all shared the spacious if rudimentary furnished guardroom in a woebegone wooden barrack. None of them were present at the moment. Since there were so very few of them, none could be spared to do the office work. Aegis hated the paperwork, as he told to me later. Yet Chief Inspector Brega required daily reports on his progress in catching the ‘Skinner’, and so the young detective was locked within four walls, writing tedious memoirs on his plans of rotating the night watchmen’s routes (not a bad idea actually), and the leaflets that he was giving out to the beggars and prostitutes (most of them were illiterate anyway).

He looked over my shoulder giving an appreciative look to my two armed fighters, and a slightly more puzzled expression to the blue-veiled, eerie gracious Viconia. “I trust you will be keeping your weapons at your sides, travelers! We have enough trouble in this area already.”

“Good day to you too, Captain,” I lowered my eyes giving him the sweetest of my smiles and a shiny look of my half-closed golden eyes. (I knew he was only Lieutenant but giving him a ‘promotion’ seemed like a good idea.) “We are not going to bring you any trouble. I believe our acquaintance can be mutually beneficial.”

“If you came here to offer me a bribe of any sort …” he flashed red at this, and I thought amusedly that he looked a little bit like Anomen, although not nearly as handsome.

“Oh no, Captain,” I continued in my most charming voice, “I actually came to offer you help. My friends and I have heard about the recent string of killings.”

Viconia glared at me from under her veil, Anomen looked genuinely puzzled but stayed silent. Minsc grumbled something inaudible, but thankfully did not rush into the conversation with his usual enthusiastic remarks.

“I cannot see how can you offer me any assistance, madam.” Aegis was genuinely puzzled.

“I am a competent mage with a valid license,” I offered demurely, “and my friends have experience in this line of work. We are mercenaries, you see.”

“My cashbox is empty,” he grumbled, visibly loosing interest. “You may try offering your services to the magistrate. But I want to warn you, with war brewing up in the south, and Riatavin revolt you may better seek private employment.”

“I am not asking for money, Captain, “ I shook my head, “merely a chance to work with you and earn your good faith and some share of fame that surely is awaiting the hero that would catch the ‘Skinner’! I need a reputation in Athkatla, you see, if I want to succeed in my line of work as a free agent and private investigator. I have a fancy of eventually opening a small business with an office. But for this dream to become reality I will need to start somewhere. I think the ‘Skinner’ case offers me this opportunity.”

“Boo says,” Minsc started tentatively but switched gears under my hot golden stare, “It is an excellent idea, lass! We shall hunt the evil down, and track it to its lair, to deliver the mighty kick right into its soft buttocks! Right Boo?”

The conversation that ensued was rather lengthy, and mostly dealt with the degree of our involvement in the case. I insisted on our complete independence and at the end was granted a grudging confirmation. There was nothing much that Aegisfield could do to stop me, and he was bright enough to see that we were his only chance to ever make any progress in his case. He provided us with a detailed map of the district, where the killing spots were marked in red ink, and a list of possible witnesses, most of whom had refused to talk to him. The technical details of the murders were so gruesome - I do not wish to go into the details here. Most of the corpses were not recognizable as human beings.

To my own benefit I wormed out the list of names of the most prominent citizens of the district, as well as their family members, under pretense that they will be most willing to cooperate with the authorities and may have some useful information. Aegis snorted, and advised me to stick to interrogating street kids and prostitutes, as these would know much more about the murder business. He was definitely smarter than he looked!

Number one in his list was Seark Farrahd, number two his son Yusef Farrahd, number three his daughter Surayah. Bah! There were easier ways to achieve that same goal, I agree. But what I really needed from Aegisfield was his trust, however limited, and an ability to ask questions about various people without causing too much of a disturbance.

“I think I know Yusef,” I chuckled as if remembering something very funny. “He is a plump, blond character with freckles all over his face and a stutter? Likes to wear corsets under all these tight leather garments?” I made a vague gesture. The image that I drew must have been truly disturbing, for Aegis blinked and shook his head in distress.

“No, I am afraid you’ve got a completely wrong person,” he mumbled after a while. “Farrahd junior is a dark, handsome  fellow, much like his father. And he is anything but plump, I tell you! He is lean and yellow like a lemon. Smoking lotus has this strange effect on the flesh. In fact, he was on my list of suspects for some time. Quick, agile young man, and a well known drug addict!”

“Really?” I raised an eyebrow. “These rich kids… But what made you change your mind about him?”

“Oh,” Aegis blushed and gulped like a fish. “It was nothing really! Master Saerk is a very distinguished citizen. He donates a lot of money to charitable organizations, and supports the local authorities.” He was clearly very uncomfortable talking about it. I made a pleasant face and nodded as if accepting his explanations. “Besides,” he continued hurriedly, “there were a few fresh murders recently, and the lad could not have done it under his present circumstances!”

I decided that asking him about these ‘circumstances’ would be taking it too far and dropped the subject. There was nothing more to discuss, and so I left, loaded with maps and notes, and slightly puzzled about that latest development.

The gray shadows lurked outside his office door. It was already late afternoon when we had entered Aegis’ headquarters. Now the dusk was quickly descending upon us, cloaking the wet and chilly streets into impenetrable curtain of mist. We had an hour at the most before dark.

“We better split up,” I stated firmly. “Minsc and Vicky - you shall track down the little boy who had found the last corpse. Here is the address,” I leafed through my journal.

 Viconia gave me a wide, lazy smile, looking first at me and then at the young Helmite at my side but I chose to ignore her mocking stare. “I shall take Anomen with me, “ I continued unabashedly. “We will try to locate the street woman named Rose. She was nearly killed a few days ago. Perhaps, she will be able to give us some more details.”

“What about Saerk’s whelp, Thea?” Anomen asked grimly as we walked down the dirty lane away from the watch’s barrack. “I thought our first task would be to find that son of a bitch! If he is a lotus addict, then he did not need much of a motive to murder my sister. One wonders, why Gods don’t smite men down for their sins! If not for a few good souls in the Order this world would surely be worth cleansing!” that last tirade was uttered quietly but with true feeling, that reminded me of his attitude during the first few weeks of our partnership. It took some effort to stop myself from responding with a sarcastic remark.

“All in due time, my friend,” I answered soothingly. “If we wrap up the murder business quickly, the lieutenant will trust me enough to share some information. He is not overly bright but he had been a copper in this district for few years. He is bound to know something about that family. You cannot expect me to storm Farrahd mansion to ask this Yusef fellow if he had seen your sister at the night of the murder! But he will come out of the house eventually. Aegis should know something of his habits and usual hangouts. Then we shall have him.”

“It would be faster to knock at the front gate and demand an answer!” the young cleric bristled.

“Perhaps,” I answered, “although I am afraid without an order from the magistrate they will laugh at us. And I would rather not go for the open confrontation, for something tells me that Master Saerk is a very dangerous man. You did not convince yourself that your honor demands vengeance, did you?” I asked suspiciously. He shook his head reluctantly. “Swear to me that you won’t go there on your own, Anomen!” I continued grimly, “or I will relinquish all responsibility for solving this case!”

He blushed but muttered his agreement. “All right then,” I nodded wrapping myself tighter in my soggy black wool and giving him a reassuring smile.

We traversed dim and muddy streets around the Alandor Bridge back and forth for almost an hour. Aegis mentioned that that was Rose’s ‘personal quarter’. The rain had stopped but it was getting dark. We have had met few pathetic-looking beggars of both sexes, and a couple of elderly women with hungry thin faces, but no trace of Rose.

I was ready to give up when we heard a stifled cry, followed by the sound of running feet and a loud cursing coming from the narrow passage between the bunch of shabby, old shacks and the bridge. I stopped abruptly making Anomen stumble into me. Whilst he muttered trying to disentangle himself from my skirts I swore and threw my hands up, making a globe of magic light pop into existence and float over our heads like a lantern. In its soft white glow I saw a redheaded woman in crimson skirts running straight onto us from the darkness of an alley, followed by a sturdy fellow in tight leather pants and dirty silk shirt.

 There was a fresh bruise under her left eye, and her red dress was somewhat torn and disheveled. Emboldened by our presence, the woman stopped, turned to her pursuer and delivered a fresh row of vilest curses upon his head, scowling fiercely. “You are not getting it Carbos! It was a gift, not a payment and I am not giving it to you!” she cried in indignation, holding one of her hands over her bleeding ear. Under my magic light I noticed a red spark in the golden earring, that shone too bright to be a cheap piece of glass. Something stirred in my memory but I could not quite place it.

“Excuse me, miss,” I asked firmly, making the sphere of light float into my opened hand, and dim to a tolerable level. “We are looking for a girl that goes by the name of Rose Bouquet. Maybe you can help us find her?”

The redheaded woman looked at me, visibly distressed by the magic and yet more scared to be left alone in the dark with her pimp. “I am her,” she suddenly decided in my favor, then turned to her pursuer. “Go away, Carbos! Maybe Bubbles can get you a trinket like this if you ask her good enough!” The man scowled at her but wisely decided against pushing his luck with an armed man and a mage, and retreated. I congratulated myself on wisely taking Anomen with me. I could have handled the rogue easily but a presence of a well- muscled young man in heavy armor worked wonders on the minds of would-be attackers, and saved me a lot of energy.

She called herself a Rose Bouquet, and I thought her energetic flamboyancy, and astonishing under her circumstances optimism, deserved every petal of it! When we parted later that night, I had a load of new information to digest. Rosie was indeed lucky to live through the encounter with the ‘Skinner’, although she was not herself the intended victim. She simply happened to run into him when he was finishing some poor soul. All she saw was a ‘dark man with his face hidden under the hood’, and blood, a lot of blood. Then she fainted. The one thing she did remember about him was his smell. She thought he smelled of guril berries 71.

Human memory is the most interesting thing. The more I think about it the harder it is to explain, yet I suspect that when it comes to our senses, we share a lot in common with animals. Our model of the world is constructed from our sensory inputs: warm touch of the sunlight, sound of wind in the trees, play of morning light on the shifting pattern of leaves, smell of pine resin. That is how the animal feels the world too. But then our human brain begins its deceptive work as it superimposes more complex images over the array of  plain basic sensations. Yet when we are in shock, or numbed by pain and hunger, our mind shuts itself off from these conscious images, as they become harmful to it. Everything that remains, are sensations on purely animalistic level. For example, the best thing that I remembered about Irenicus’ dungeon was the smell that was coming from his hands, a mixture of embalming fluids and decaying flesh. I gather that was because he was always playing with his marinated cadavers. And since I strongly rely on these kind of associations I believed Rosie when she had said the killer smelled like berries. But my chances of finding one man smelling funny among the crowds populating the ‘Little Zazesspur’ were far less than that of finding a needle in a haystack!

We had escorted her to the place she called ‘home’ – a dirty little shack that she shared with a few other women. She waived at me happily clutching her twenty gold and went inside. I wished that this money would keep her away from the streets for a few days.

“How can you associate with her kind so eagerly?” Anomen’s voice dripping with disdain caught me unaware. He stayed silent during my whole exchange with Rosie, and later on our way to her humble house.

“Her kind?” I looked at him without understanding, as my head was too preoccupied with plans of catching the ‘Skinner’.

“She is a harlot, isn’t she? How can a woman of your taste and sensibilities find her company so enthralling? I understand that you needed to speak with her, since she was a murder witness! But to enjoy such a conversation… You talked to her almost as if she was your equal, or dare I say, your friend!”

I turned on my heel and looked at his tense, pale face trying to find hints of sarcasm or mockery. The frightening thing was – he was deadly serious! He genuinely believed in what he just said. The anger suddenly flashed into my head, the same hot, enthralling sensation that I had experienced earlier this morning at the City Hall. I just spent the whole day running like a hound around that accursed city on his behalf, in a dismal weather, with wet feet, and he was treating me to another one of his idiotic fallacies!

“I am a Daughter of Bhaal, my lovely knightling!” I hissed right into his suddenly rigid face, “therefore by your standards I am a creature of darkness, entitled to thrill in depravities and revel in indignities! If you find my ways not up to your liking, go back to your precious Order and ask Sir Keldorn to teach you a few mantras against corruption of your noble soul! Rosie is just a poor fool forced to sell her body to feed herself. It is not her you should be despising, but the men like you who despoiled her body and sullied her mind!”

The young cleric was visibly shaken by my sudden outburst. The last few days after he received the dire news had changed our relationship, allowing us to find some understanding, and drop most of the animosity and tension that was building up between us for weeks. Now this newly found friendship was threatened by his blunder. “But, Thea,” he mumbled suddenly going red up to his ears, “You cannot accuse me of anything so foul! I swear I never had anything to do with the likes of her … that is I never …”

I suddenly grasped the idea. The whole notion of him paying attention only to that inadvertent accusation was so funny, and my need for a emotional relief so great, that I could not hold it. I swear to Gods, I did not mean to make fun of him or of his awkward admission! But I doubled over and laughed like a lunatic, shaking helplessly as tears of mirth streamed down my face. Anomen went red, then white, and I knew it was cruel and most unladylike to treat him in this manner. Still, he brought it upon himself, and I could not help myself. Unfortunately my flashes of mirth are sometimes as quick and uncontrollable as fits of anger. When my convulsions subsided the young man was quiet and gloomy.

“You are right of course to laugh at my inadequacies,” he said stiffly, “I apologize for bringing this topic into our conversation, or for considering you a friend and more, who can benefit from my humble advice. You can have my assurances that this will never happen again!”

“By Oghma’s quill, Anomen! You know you are intolerable?! I thought so. I am falling off my feet. Let’s get out of here and find that cursed Inn that Jan had mentioned!”

We found our companions in the main room of the Five Flagons inn. Jan was there already, as cheerful and talkative as ever. Upon seeing our unhappy faces he figured out we had had another quarrel. He scowled at sulking Anomen and gave me a cheerful smile. At the same time, Viconia waved at the sour cleric and pointed to the chair next to her. I was gently led to the table, placed between Minsc’ imposing hulk and gnome’s small persona, and fed an adequately hot meal, followed by a mug of very decent ale. Puck received his share of veggies and scratching behind the ears. Before long I was feeling human again (or should I say half-elven). Minsc and Vicky arrived not long before us. While we ate, and compared notes on our adventures, I looked around to get the first impression of the inn. The place was crowded to the point of bursting. But the general atmosphere inside was very different from either Coronet or the Adamantine Mug. It was a merry tavern, run by a halfling, who took great pride in the contents of his liquor cabinet and his entertainment. The place was clean, bright, and warm - a feature that was most important for me in my present state.

There where some unusual types mingling with the crowd of Athkatla’s usual merry mélange of races and professions. A blue-haired character dressed in outrageously clashing colors passed our table looking me over with a sly grin. I lowered my yellow eyes upon meeting his gaze, but he already noted me and gave me a sharp nod and a mocking bow. I did not like the expression on his face one bit, for it was a strange mixture of curiosity and contempt. I shrugged and wondered if ‘the infamous Bhaalspawn’ was written upon my brow with big glowing letters. I discovered later that his interest was of an entirely different nature, but that is another story, that needs to be told separately.

“Actors!” Jan nodded at the merry blue-haired fellow. “Looks like old Sam Thunderburp got himself a bunch of troublemakers in his inn. A theater! Phew! I personally prefer the circus! There is nothing better than the smell of elephant dung to cure melancholy! Did I ever tell you the story about my cousin Beeloo and his elephant? No? Well Beeloo worked at the circus until old Quayle threw him out for corrupting their elephant! How can you corrupt an animal by feeding her a few turnips, I ask you? But they said she refused to play her trombone unless they gave her a turnip for every note! In any case, the elephant liked Beeloo better than the cage, so my cousin convinced her to elope. Too bad you cannot really hide something that big. They were on the run for three weeks but were finally stopped and returned to the circus, when the local farmers run out of cabbages, and decided Letty was too big for a greyhound!”

“Hmm, that was not even funny,” I noted, “are you loosing your touch old chap?”

“That’s because it was a true one,” the gnome shook his head, suddenly becoming serious. “Life can be a cruel thing, your worship! I had found your boy,” he said quietly tapping his fingers on the tabletop. “He had been seen around the Delryn’s house for months.”

“This is becoming more and more intriguing, “ I noted keeping my voice low. Anomen was sitting on the other side of the table carefully avoiding my gaze and feigning interest in what Viconia was telling him. Well, maybe he was not feigning it but I was not sure that he was not eavesdropping on us as well, so I pretended to laugh at Jan’s supposedly funny narrative. 

“It sure does,” the little wizard chuckled. “I don’t want our young friend to shoot through the roof, so I am only telling this to you. They have seen the dark and handsome youth coming and going almost every week for the last three months before the murder. Typical story, you know. Boy meets the girl and then the usual stuff happens!”

“Not so usual obviously. I had asked around - Saerk’s son Yusef matches your description perfectly. Lieutenant Aegis thinks he is a lotus junkie.”

“That reminds me of something I have heard from my uncle Gerhard,” He noticed my irate stare and blinked, “’tis nothing really, your worship. Perhaps some other time!”

“Don’t tell anybody about your latest discovery,” I said out of the corner of my mouth. “It may be better to keep Anomen from finding out.” He nodded and I continue in more audible tone. “Now, let’s play a little association game! I want you to tell me the first thing that pops into your mind when I give you the clue, ready? Guril berries!”

“Why, your worship!” he grinned like a jovial toad, giggling involuntarily as if at some hilarious joke, and sneaked a quick look at Anomen, “why would you of all people be interested in these?”

I learned about guril berries and their use, all right. That did not bring me any closer to the solution of the riddle. Minsc and Vicky talked with the boy Faraji, who had found one of the latest bodies. But the child was too young and too frightened to tell them anything useful, even though Minsc won his trust with the hamster trick. All that the youngster said was that the old lady living across the street from him was a witch, and therefore the murders must be her doing. It turned out she was indeed a local hedgewizard, practicing her craft without a license. But there was nothing wrong with her fundamentally, and after purchasing few cheap potions Viconia dismissed her as a suspect.

“She would not have had the nerve for it, jabress,” the elf grinned at me languidly showing the row of pearly-white teeth. “I looked her in the eye - she is just an old faern, scared half to death that somebody would betray her to the magistrate. Your surface females rarely have any spine in them.”

“Most likely you are right, Viconia, “ I said tiredly dismissing her jibe, “I may be prejudiced, but something tells me this is a man’s work.”

“Yet we found something interesting for you, jabress!” the priestess said triumphantly pulling her backpack from under the table.

What she extricated out of it was a square piece of rough hide, the size of a standard folio and at least two fingers thick. It looked weird - hairless and dull gray but wrinkled. It was well processed, and flexible enough to be worked into a shield cover or a piece of armor. I got an impression that this was a sample to be presented to a customer or at a trade show. One of its corners was marred with rusty brown substance that soaked into the leather and dried inside it. From the moment I saw it I had no doubt about the nature of that stain.

“Where did you get it?” I asked curiously, “it is not a…”

“No, jabress.” Viconia answered quickly. “This is not a rivvin hide, if that’s what you meant,” she scowled at my dark glance. “And to stop your next question – yes, I have seen worked humanoid skin, although I had never had a taste for those kind of ‘souvenirs’! Neither it looks like an orc pelt or a piece of dragon hide. I have no idea what beast was flayed to produce this bit. We got it from an old rivvil, who had found it on the site of the latest murder.”

“Let me see it Vicky, “ the gnome interfered suddenly. “I think I can tell you what it is! Speak of the devil, your worship! It is a piece of elephant hide, or I am hairless halfling!”

“Are you sure?” I inquired simply, trying to keep excitement out of my voice.

“Well, I never saw it prepared like this but yes, I am pretty positive that’s what it is, since I have seen Beeloo’s favorite pet often enough when he brought her out of her pen for cleaning.” He took sniff at the leather. “Eek! It reeks of blood, but still there is a smell of an oak bark about it. It was processed not so long ago!”

“Blast the fiend who had slaughtered an innocent elephant on top of his other crimes!” Minsc said sincerely. “Err, even little Boo is shaking with anger at such an outrage, right?”

I gave him a blank stare for his trouble and he shifted uncomfortably. Viconia giggled.

“A processed piece of an exotic hide, and a smell of guril,” I said after a short pause. “Any interesting ideas, citizens?”

“A piece of hide would surely point to an armorer or a cobbler,“ Anomen said suddenly, turning hot pink.

I gave him an appreciating stare. Whatever were his shortcomings, at least he could use his head for something other than wearing a helmet, (on rare occasions, anyway).

“All right, friends. I am calling it a night,” I suggested tiredly. “Tomorrow we will continue the investigation.”

Tomorrow morning came bright and sunny, which was unusual to put it mild for the Athkatlan winter. After days of ice-cold drizzle, that alone was enough to put me in a better mood. The first thing I noticed when I descended for breakfast was Anomen, who was lingering by the kitchen door with suspiciously determined expression.

“I asked the cook to prepare some warm milk with spices,” he offered timidly. “Would you care to share your meal with me, my lady? I want to offer my apologies.”

My eyebrows went up. It was the first time in my life that somebody remembered what I liked for my morning drink. He picked up a table that could only sit the two of us, and was unconditionally polite and chivalrous through the whole breakfast, thus securing my forgiveness of yesterday’s episode. I nearly choked when he admitted to rising with the sun, and going to the local Helm’s shrine in penitence for his rudeness. Knowing how seriously he took his religion, I was rather touched. Something fundamental was changing in him in the wake of his sister’s death. I could never have imagined him doing that mere two weeks ago. Still, he did not understand that I was only mad at him because of the way he disparaged Rosie.

Viconia gave us an amused stare when she finally conceded to wake up and join the company. I felt irritated. This ridiculous game between the three of us started to chafe on my nerves. I wondered briefly, what Yoshimo and Valygar were doing this fine morning, and blushed catching myself at being rather unconcerned about it. Therefore, I immediately asked for the writing utensils, and arranged for the innkeeper’s nephew to be sent to the Adventurer’s Mart with a ciphered epistle.

“Minsc, would you care to go down to the Aegisfield’s office, deliver my note to him and bring back an answer?” I asked after finishing my second letter. “Viconia, since you already know the hedgewitch, I want you to go back and discreetly ask her about guril. Watch her reaction. It is rather important to find out if she uses it in her potions.”

The priestess scowled at me, but accepted an errand, muttering something to the extent of  ‘Xun izil dos phuul quarthen, lueth dro.’d

“Oh, just drop it, abbil. I am not trying to humiliate you. This whole business stinks of dark magic. And we had already met one elderly lady selling potions, who turned out to be a shapeshifter!”

“Jan, I want you to find the local herb merchant and obtain a sample of this peculiar plant. I want Rosie to have a sniff at it. Anomen, can you please find her, and convince her to come to the Five Flagons with you?” He blinked. “Oh, come on, use your charm. I need to talk to her again, and have her examine Jan’s samples.” I turned back to the gnome. “By the way, old chap, can you ask the herb man to give you some similar smelling substances? We need a clean test. I will see you all back here at about noon time.”

“And what is it that you are going to do this fine morning, your worship? “ Jan inquired with a smile.

“Oh, I am going down to the temple of Ilmater’s morgue.” I said. They stared at me without understanding. “I need to see the bodies,” I explained simply. “I cannot continue from this point without seeing the main evidence”

“Are you sure you up to the task, lass?” the little wizard asked carefully.

“Oh, I’ll survive,“ I shrugged, “I saw Rakshasa’s handiwork, remember?”

“I am going with you,” the young Helmite said suddenly, “please,” he gave me a pleading stare, “since you are doing it to find the murderer of my sister the least I can do is to share this experience!”

I looked at him in silence for a moment, then nodded in compliance and turned to the little wizard. “Jan, would you mind finding a young woman named Rose Bouquet after you are done with your purchases?”

The Ilmateri priest led us across the temple grounds into a smaller stone structure covered in flaking yellow paint. It was gravely cold inside, and the moment I stepped in a familiar stench of formalin 72 and decaying flesh assaulted my nostrils. I stumbled as the memories of Irenicus’ prison invaded my mind.

Flicker… a gloved hand is caressing my face leaving behind the familiar stench…flicker… and  the hot-red blade is searing the soles of my feet filling the chamber with nauseating smell of burned meat…flicker… Khalid’s dissected body is sprawled on the stone slab…flicker… I think I fainted for a second. Embarrassing, but the sense of smell is indeed the strongest catalyst of memories that I know.

Anomen caught me in his arms and for once I was grateful for his fussy chivalry that made him insist on staying two steps ahead of me, and offering me his hand. Falling head first on these slimy steps would not have been fun. Yet I dismissed his suggestion to turn back, and we followed the silent Ilmateri all the way down the spiraling stone stairway, into the spacious, bitter cold chamber, lighted only by the blue flames of a single brazier.

There were too many of them in that ‘special’ corner. Almost half a dozen. The quiet priest assured us these were the victims of the ‘Skinner’ from the last ten days. They had already buried as many over the previous month.

“He is getting greedy, “ I uttered looking at the expanse of purple-blue muscle tissue, and terrible blackened faces frozen in eternal grimaces of pain.

Strangely enough, I did not feel scared or disgusted; the only feelings that filled my heart were pity and anger at whoever did this. His work was meticulous, as every one of the corpses was missing big squares of skin and underlying corium 73 on their backs and bellies. The patches of flesh were peeled off with accurate precision of a professional, who could continue his job with steady hand on the still conscious, bound and gagged  victim, trashing under his sharp knife.  There were no stabbing wounds or cut throats, and the Ilmateri confirmed impassively that all of them had died of shock and blood loss.

 It reeked of some dark ritual, yet lacked the signs of exalted intemperance that is so often a sign of the religious zeal. I thought of the evil religions that required human sacrifice – Loviatarans, Banites, even Bhaalists. All of them would prefer to do a job like this in the confines of their temples, following the murder with a lot of fussy rituals and a ceremonial disposal of the corpse. This was too … workmanlike. Almost as if whoever was doing it was taking quiet pride in the precision of his strokes, and geometrical accuracy of the wounds.

“I’ve seen enough,” I said abruptly, waking up from my trance. “We need to hurry. I want to see the answer from Aegis.”

By the time we got back to the Five Flagons I recovered my wits. Anomen was grim and silent, his face contorted in a grimace of cold anger. I don’t think I looked any better. We found our companions gathered in the main room around the fire. It felt like our visit to the Ilmater’s temple only lasted a few minutes but in reality, the whole morning had passed, and the sun was traveling down from its zenith point.

Jan was pacing impatiently in front of the fireplace. Upon seeing us enter he gave a cry and waved at me energetically. “We’ve got news for you!” he squeaked in a high pitch that marked his speech when he was greatly excited. “It was an oak bark, not guril! The girl had recognized it clearly!”

I noticed Rosie, who was hiding shyly behind Minsc’ great bulk. Viconia was sprawled on a soft chair with her feet close to the fire. “The Cragmoon witch gave me a clue as well,” she nodded firmly. “Guril is rich in tannin.”

“Minsc,” I asked laconically, “the answer from lieutenant Aegis?”

“That lieutenant is a weird fellow!” Minsc boomed unhappily. “Boo says he is a stinker! First he is not there, then he makes us wait for an hour. I gave him your note but he wont read it until I answer his questions. He wanted to know what you’ve been up to, lassie. I told him it was nothing, except somebody had murdered an elephant under his very nose! But when he read your letter he jumped up like there was a wasp in his pants and run out!”

“Where did he go?” I asked urgently. “Did he tell you where exactly was he going?”

“Ah,” Minsc shrugged, “not really, but he yelled something like ‘hidesman’ before he run out. Beats me if I know what he meant!”

“Rosie,” I asked the redheaded woman urgently, “does this ring a bell to you?”

“Did he mean Rejiek the Hidesman ?” she said warily. “That’s the local tanner 74, he has a shop right at the waterfront.”

"No one should throw or cause to be thrown into the River Alandor, or into its streams, narrows, banks, or into any sewers any remains (either of animal or other origin) during the day but during the night only, is it permitted to throw this material into the running water. Also, in the city of Athkatla tanners, their apprentices, and equipment are permanently banned from the streets near the Council Hall, Temple District and other prominent public places that are to be determined on the case to case basis."

A statute in the Athkatlan Book of the Code approved by the Council of Six.

 There are six main steps in the process of making leather. Firstly, the skins have to be properly washed and soaked in water, for removal of blood and tissue. After this, the skins are immersed in a potent concoction of lime, animal dung, and urine. The goal of this procedure, which can take months, is to loosen the hair. The smell that this operation produces is unbelievably vile. Then it is the fleshing, during which fat from the underside of the skin is scraped away with sharp knives. The second washing removes the traces of the smelly substance. Finally, the actual tanning process begins with laying of the skins in a vat containing tannin solutions of varying strength. At the end, the skins are removed from the tanning vat, coated in oil, and hung to dry slowly. Every tannery has to be equipped with  its own drainage system of  pipes and gullies leading to the running water, since there is no other way to dispose of the loads of smelly and poisonous waste.

Since tanners and their apprentices carry about their persona a constant reminder of their profession (or to put it simply – they stink worse than the Slime Pits of the Abyss!), such a profession profitable as it is can cause strange aberrations in a character of the craftsman. Rejiek the Hidesman was an eccentric man. He lived alone, and his apprentices were few and lately nonexistent. Hardly any of his neighbors could remember his face as he almost never left the house; and all his necessities were delivered right to his doors. But his shop had prospered over the years that he owned it, and almost every week a small barge loaded with crates and boxes of excellent leathers left the private dock constructed at the river side of the tannery, and delivered the goods to many happy customers.

The tannery itself was a spacious many-tiered structure, where the upper level was dedicated to the ‘cleaner’ steps of the process, such as cutting and oiling of the leather, and a huge courtyard was hung with drying animal skins. The lower levels of the shop were inaccessible to the public. However, who would complain on being denied the pleasure of having a closer look at the stinking tanning vats?

At the tannery doors I sent Rose away, bidding her to run back to the Watch barrack, and tell whoever was in charge of my disposition. I doubted they’d believe her but it was better then follow Aegis’ reckless example. Seeing her turn around the corner, I checked my protection spells and pulled at the doorbell. Far away, in the depths of the grimy building I heard a resonating sound of a gong. Boom! Nothing happened for more than ten minutes, and I pulled at the rope with more vigor. Finally, when I was ready to knock the door down with well-aimed spell, I picked up a sound of slow steps on the creaking floorboards.

The door handle had turned, and I came face to face with a gaunt, stooping man of undeterminable age. He was an epitome of dullness and common place: hair the color of dead mice, bleak features of clean-shaven face that you’ll never give a second look if you run into him on the street, and eyes - two pools of slimy ooze, that left you with desire to go and wash yourself after meeting his stare. He reeked of tannin and other, ‘sharper’ scents that made my hackles raise, and my Bhaal essence respond as a well-tuned violin to the touch of a bow. I grinned at him showing all my teeth.

“I have told you I am closed,” the man repeated in irritation, and I realized that the heavy pulsing sound in my ears that prevented me from hearing him at once was my own heartbeat. “Come back when I replenish my stock!”

I nodded, raising my head and giving him an unblinking stare of my wide-open yellow orbs. There is something about my eyes that makes them squirm. He blinked, and started to slam the door on me but at that moment Minsc put a heavy steel-studded shoe into the closing gap.

“I have a reason to believe that inspector Aegis had entered your house about an hour ago with intent to accuse you of committing the series of recent crimes,“ I said languidly, giving him another smile, “and I am not leaving until I either see him alive and well, or search every room in this house.”

“Ah, so you are the one who collected all that ‘evidence’!” his eyes shone with mad delight. “Finally, an appreciating audience!” the tanner backed away grinning and signaling me to follow him into the house.

I stepped inside the spacious workshop, nodding for the others to follow my suit. Reijek was still smiling, dancing away from us, and beckoning for me to come closer.

“Come in, come in, my good woman! I have a secret to share, you see,” he whispered with a giggle. “The lieutenant maybe disinclined to see you at the moment!”

His hand flicked with a frightening speed, but the throwing knife was stopped two inches away from my face by the invisible shield that sprang between me and the weapon, triggered by his throw. A rainbow-colored orb erupted from my hands knocking him off his feet, and throwing him away from the doorway. In most cases it would have also paralyzed him for a few minutes. But such was my rotten luck that day that he yelped in pain and run away, ducking into the dark corner and disappearing from my eyes. As we followed in a mad rush, I saw a pit in the floor, and a wooden ladder leading down into the ground.

“Give it up Rejiek!” I yelled into the stinking darkness, “there are too many of us and the house is surrounded!”

“You are assaulting an innocent man in his own home,” the hissing came from below. “I am going to issue a complain to the magistrate! Go away, and maybe I will forget about the whole business!”

His monologue was followed by a sudden pitiful moan in a different voice. I realized he was trying to delay us, and chanted in high tone sending a garland of small magical lights floating down the stairs. They descended slowly, illuminating the long narrow staircase with a guardrail winding into the darkness below. The terrible stench of the rotting flesh and excrement was coming from there in waves.

“You should have turned tail and run,” came the tanners mad voice bubbling with laughter, “now I will have to kill you! My craft is what’s important, you ignorant fools!”

A crossbow bolt whizzed from the pit, and hit the wood near my head. This was becoming dangerous. Anomen pushed me out of the way, and started to descend the stairs, weapon at hand. An outline of a lonely ship sailing into the disc of the raising sun glinted on the polished surface of his shield.

“You stinking skin thief!” Minsc roared rushing on the young cleric’s steps. “Boo says – you should be stopped, or all creatures big and small would always sleep in fear!” Their heavy feet boomed down the rickety ladder, and I heard the tanner’s laugh, and a yelp of pain. I took the first step down but a slim dark hand grabbed my shoulder.

“Fools rush in,” came a hiss from Viconia, as she muttered a brief prayer. “Jabress, stop the addled men! That place is surely trapped better than a Matron Mother’s vault!”

“Anomen, Minsc!” I cried in alarm. “Stay where you are and wait!”

“Helm protect us!” Anomen’s muffled voice came from the faintly glowing pit. “I can feel the aura around this place that is worse than its stench! The beast had fled into the depth of the labyrinth but the place reeks of his evil deeds!”

“Let me go first, your worship,” the gnome muttered sneaking past me down the stairs. “With these lights you've pretty much made us into the sitting ducks for anybody down there! Let’s move. I just hope the lads are smart enough to stay put.”

As we descended onto the next level I noticed that my magic lights were drifting away and waning. I pulled a pinch of ruby dust and sprinkled it on the plain polished wood of the staff that I carried in my hands. It was a luxury but it saved me the trouble of loosing our light source when we most needed it. The staff blazed with cold white flame, and I carried it downstairs like a torch.

I think I can fairly compare the view that had opened to our eyes with the lowliest levels of the Abyss. Truly told, the demonic creatures have more posh, and almost unlimited time on their hands. But what Rejiek had achieved with his limited resources rivaled the cruel efficiency of Hell, if on a smaller scale. His basement was built inside the natural cavern that was divided into smaller sections by brick walls, forming a sort of a maze. Most of the floor space was occupied by huge vats, dug into the pits in the ground, and filled with stinking, rotting solutions. The smell that was coming from the vats was abhorrent, and the things that floated there were indescribable, albeit I understood that at least some of these must have been animal hides.

There were wooden walkways and narrow bridges between the clay pits, and in the bright circle of my steadily glowing light I saw piles of skeletons and rotting animal and humanoid carcasses arranged on the platforms at the walls. There were more bodies and skeletal remains by the vat with congealed blood at the bottom of the staircase. Some of these were too obviously human. I puked right were I was standing, bending over the handrail. It took me some time to recover and notice that one of the bodies at the feet of the stairs was still trashing. I run down and moved towards the bound man but was stopped by a sudden exclamation from a small figure kneeling next to him.

“Hold back, your worship!” Jan’s voice sounded tired and strained. He and Viconia were carefully examining the area next to the bound and gagged victim. I realized that the priestess was continually muttering a prayer to Shar, asking for the power to detect traps, no doubt. Further down, at the edge of the light circle, I saw both Minsc and Anomen standing guard over them.

With immense relief I noted the man’s bulging gray eyes and short blond hair. His spectacles were gone, and his face was contorted in terror under his gag but there was no doubt that we got here in time to stop the Hidesman from performing his ritual upon the inspector Aegis.

“The bastard dropped a magic trap next to him,” Jan stated crankily. “See that thing?” He indicated a small object next to the Aegis that looked like a black pebble, covered in spider-web-thin, delicate runes. “Don’t’ move, you poor bugger! Or you will blow yourself and all of us into pieces, if not worse!”

The prisoner stopped his violent thrusts and laid still, rolling his eyes up in silent horror. “It’s a spell trigger, or I am a griffin snack! Let’s hope I will be able to disarm it, or we all end up belly up in one of this pits.”

“Your attitude is scary today, old friend,“ I muttered. “How do you go about disarming this? It’s not like you can pick it with your fingers.”

The gnome grinned and bent over the pebble, sprinkling some invisible substance over it. In the bright light from my magic torch I saw the runes starting to melt, shifting and changing pattern. Jan chuckled and pocketed the runestone with a satisfied grunt. “Its another Jansen family recipe,” he gave me an amused stare. “Sawdust from the Haalruan ship mixed with dried and powdered Umberhulk feces.”

“Really?” I shook my finger at him, “and pray how does this work? Keep your trade secrets if you wish. We don’t have time for jokes, as I am sure the tanner is getting away right now!”

“Or trying to lure us deeper into his trap, and bring reinforcements,” Anomen’s voice said from the darkness. “I can sense the undead close by.”

“I am sure he is not running this operation on his own,” I said cutting the bonds on the inspector’s hands and feet and divesting him of his gag. As Aegisfield gasped for air between his fits of feverish gratitude, I checked him for damages. He was mostly intact, but the scalp on the back of his head was crusted with blood, and his erratic speech showed that he had received a severe blow on the head.

“We have to leave him here,” I stated grimly. “Though I hate the idea, as he is still half-conscious,” I looked at the dark elf, who was standing by my side. Viconia grabbed the man’s head with a shrug, and muttered a healing prayer.

“He should be able to stand on his own now,” she said after a while. “I hate to bother the goddess with such nonsense, jabress! The rivvil brought it upon himself by rushing blindly into danger, and trying to steal your victory!”

“I never regretted anything more in my life,” Aegis mumbled raising his head and taking in her beautiful dark-skinned face and a mane of white hair. His eyes went wide and I realized that he had only seen her under her veil before that. He gulped like a beached fish but steadied himself. “I have paid for it dearly, and I have to express you my most profound thanks for saving my life, yet again! Be careful, friends. Rejiek is not acting alone, for somebody hit me on the head while I was confronting him!”

“Thoughtless move, “ I shook my head dismissing his apologies, “I advise you to wait for us upstairs, or better go back to the barracks and bring your men while we continue the chase!”

As he ascended the stairs to the upper level, we moved forward cautiously, checking for traps at every step of our precautious walk through the gruesome maze of bridges and sidewalks around the tanning pits. There were few torches burning in the wall brackets but my staff blazing with white light was still our main source of illumination. Both of my clerics were chanting the trap detection prayers, and I shrugged at the thought of my strange fate that brought Helm’s poster boy into the same company with the disciple of Shar. Maybe they had a lot more in common than both of them realized, I thought with sadness. Perhaps there was something besides physical attraction that made Viconia interested in the young Helmite. Same dark and violent family history, and the air of lingering tragedy.

I knew little of Viconia’s past, but that little included the story of her escape from her home city in the Underdark after loosing her beloved younger brother, and bringing the wrath of Lloth upon herself while trying to avenge him. She had stalked the vastness of the empty caverns for decades, surviving on her own as a scavenger, before finally ascending to the surface and joining the clergy of Shar. But how did she come under the wing of the priesthood of the goddess of vengeance and despair, remained a mystery to me.

After we crossed the final bridge, and took a sharp turn around the corner we had entered another section of the labyrinth. I saw a strange construction of weights and pulleys next to the wall, and an outline of the heavy door. The white daylight was coming from under it, and I could hear a steady rhythmic noise of the running water. We had come to the waterfront exit from the tannery.

Anomen gave me a puzzled stare, as Minsc raised his hand in the same silent question. I nodded, sorting quickly through my belt pouch and pulling out a few handy components.

The door swung outwards and we burst outside gulping moist, cold air, and blinking at the gray light of the winter afternoon. The small group of people was hastily loading a barge at the modest private dock. Upon seeing us, they dropped their tasks and moved forward to intercept us.

“Look who is here, if not our pesky intruders!” A tall young man wearing gray mage’s robes drawled in a nasty, slurring voice. “What do you have against our friend Rejiek, fools? He is an artist of his craft, his work must go on!”

I saw no reason to negotiate with the man who was involved in running that nightmarish business, and sent a flame arrow into his face as my only answer. He dodged and cursed me, promising slow and painful death to all of us. Seeing the gray faces and mottled, decaying flesh of his companions, I realized that they were not humans after all, or at least not anymore. Judging by their coal-red eyes and deadly stink, these were ghouls, one of the most disgusting, flesh-hungry kind of undead. The mage waved his hands, and the bloated forms rushed forward meeting the steel of Minsc’s sword and the stinging bites of Anomen’s magic flail.

“Siffat Neccasalmor’d,” Viconia growled behind my back and started the familiar throaty chant of Rebuke Undead, calling on her goddess again. The first ghoul stopped and turned around in fear and confusion. A crossbow bolt sent by a steady gnomish hand embedded itself in its head, doing little damage but causing it to retreat further.

I had no time to watch, as a sudden motion behind my back warned me of immediate danger. I ducked, and an almost invisible man in assassin’s black leathers, run into me knocking me down. I leaped to my feet at once but my flaming staff rolled away to the other side of the deck. It was of little use in this battle but I suppose it looked scary enough. Immediately Minsc was on the attacker, swinging Lilarcor and screaming at the top of his lungs. The rogue shifted and disappeared from our view just as a jolt of pure magic fire hit him between the shoulder blades.

I grabbed at my belt pouch and pulled out a small golden tube and a handful of sulphur - the components for a spell trickier than simple Magic Missile. (I only tried Melf’s Minute Meteors once before, and was very impressed with the result. Jaheira pointed out reasonably that a hole in the wall, and the bill that we got afterwards from the innkeeper, were not exactly the results I should be aiming for in the future. But she always had that grumpy attitude when I tried new magic.)

“Where the hell did he come from?” I cried sorting through the sulphur beads, and throwing one at the feet of the second rouge, who suddenly materialized right in front of us. The small globe of fire formed in my hand and exploded upon landing. The attacker’s clothes ignited, and he howled in pain shifting away from my sight.

A ghoul’s head exploded under Anomen’s flail but then the cleric jerked painfully and turned, to see the shadowy figure slipping away from his reach. Blood was gushing from his neck down the breastplate, and he stumbled dropping his shield and clamping his gloved hand over the wound. I blinked, but he caught me staring and glowered, dismissing my worried look and pushing himself up with obvious effort.

I slammed a blazing meteor into the back of his attacker, setting him on fire and driving him away from his target. As the assassin yelped in pain rolling away from me, I dared another look at the wounded Helmite. The cleric was coughing blood, and for a second I thought we were going to loose him. A strange dark mood came over me as I pondered at this possibility. I quickly turned to Viconia but she was on the other side of the deck, struggling to take control of the growling ghoul and direct it against its master. When I twirled back, Anomen’s lips were moving in a prayer, and in seconds his color started to improve, and the blood stopped flowing.

“They are using invisibility potions!” Jan snapped at me, “what is it with you girl - you are white as paper! Wake up! We better finish them quick, before they finish us!”

Always resourceful, the gnome pulled out a small bottle of green glass. A cloud of purple smoke exploded forward when he pulled out the cork, forming into a vague outline of a tall bronze figure wielding a scimitar. “Hope this fellow will fix them, all right!” he said with a wicked grin.

The freed efreeti laughed and howled, shifting into a stable form, and setting upon one of the two assassins. I continued to hurtle my meteor missiles with grim determination, drawing the other fellow under the swing of Minsc’ sword.

From the corner of my eye I saw Viconia deliver a lethal blow of her mace to the necromancer’s head, and chase the last survivor of the battle to the water edge, where the small barge was still rolling in the slow river currents. To my disgust I recognized the skinny figure of the tanner.

“Stop him!” I yelled running with all the speed I could master and hurtling the last of my meteors at him. The fire globe exploded on the impact. With a terrible howl the Hidesman clawed at his burning clothes and tumbled back, falling into the river. As the brown, polluted waters of Alandor closed over him, I saw him no more.

* * * * *

Rejiek was laying face down on the rocky shore of Alandor, coughing and spitting water. He had made it! This was the only thought in his dizzied mind. That awful, unnatural creature tried to burn him alive but he made it! He always was a decent swimmer, and though the dip in the Alandor in the middle of the Rotting was no fun adventure, the water just was not cold enough that far south to cause a seizure. The tanner had stayed underwater long enough to get away from the yellow-eyed woman spewing out fireballs. The river water put down the flames and cooled his burnt flesh. When he broke the surface the slow but powerful river currents had already carried him away from his tannery and under the bridge. Rejiek had fought the river aiming for the narrow stripe of the stony beach between the giant supports of the Alandor Bridge. It was not easy but somebody was watching over him as always, and he had made it. He always made it at the end! The world was his oyster and all he had to do was pry its hard shell open with a sharp knife, and rip his reward from its soft flesh bleeding under his touch.

They had always hated him, because he was different. Even when he was a small boy his grandmother, who was taking care of him since he never knew his parents, used to tell him that if he would go on torturing small animals and squashing bugs he would end up on the gallows. Then she would beat him up till he was blue. Well, she had got her just ‘reward’! One hot and sweaty night far south from here, he had stabbed her with a kitchen knife and run away, leaving her to bleed her life out on the dirty floor. That was a very long time ago.

When the old tanner took him as an apprentice, he thought he hit the jackpot. Tanners were rich and respected in Calimshan. Never mind that the job itself was a nightmare from the pits of Hell. The first year apprentices were assigned to mixing the dog’s urine and excrement with pigeon guano in a big, stinking vat. The job was done by half-naked boys with their bare feet. After the first week, he got sick, and was covered head to toe with itchy rashes and welts. His whole body stunk and the other boys explained to him that the smell is going to stay with him for life. That much was true. People crossed to the other side of the street when the tanner’s boys passed by. When he grew up even the most deplorable whores refused to take his gold, even though by then he was moved from guano vats to the tanning ones, and the smell became less vile, if not less potent. That stench became his curse, his obsession. He knew in his heart that whenever people looked at him they always laughed in their hearts because he stunk!

He was a hateful and lonely miser, who took to stalking the streets of Zazesspur at night and taking his frustration on the weakest and oldest of beggars. Somehow it felt good to hurt them, as if by doing it he was hurting his grandmother again and again. A few bodies of derelicts beaten to death with utmost cruelty were found in the gutters. Nobody ever cared to investigate. But his deeds attracted somebody else’s attention, and that somebody thought that a person of his mindset and talent could be useful in a very important enterprise.

Rejiek moved to Athkatla and bought the old tannery in the Calimshite quarter with the coin that he got from his benefactor. He was a shrewd businessman and a natural in the delicate craft of skinning. His shop had prospered. His craftsmanship was honed to the ultimate precision and became an art in itself, and the most important project of his life, one that would surely bring him ultimate fame in the years to come was moving ahead in a slow but steady pace. Now all that he achieved during these most successful years of his life lied in ruins! All because of the pesky inspector, and the yellow-eyed aberration of a sorceress, who meddled in the affairs of her betters!

He spat the last mouthful of water, and decided it was time to move out. He had few options left now that his direct superior was killed in such unsavory manner. The necromancer was wrong! They should have ambushed the intruders while they were still inside the shop. He knew every nook and cranny of his basement, and the stupid undead could see in the dark like cats. Vellin Dahn was an arrogant fool to rely on the assassins, and he had paid with his life for his stubbornness. Rejiek shuddered at the thought of relaying the news of the disaster to the Master. He had seen him once in his life, and he still remembered the cold dread that had come over him at the sight of his new patron. He suspected that his Master was one of the most powerful beings to stalk Toril.

The tanner made it into the Gems District under the cover of darkness. His clothes had dried somewhat, and he tried his best to make himself presentable. He had never been in that house and had to stop and ask directions, noting with concern that his wild looks and a faint stench of tannin, still lingering about his person even after his involuntary bath in the Alandor, caused few dark scowls and concerned mutters. Still, he had no choice. His only hope of escaping Athkatla lay with his masters, and the only contact he had in Athkatla besides Dahn was Deril Zoar, an amateur mage, and a scion of one of the most prominent families of Athkatla.

The house looked dark and empty, and Rejiek squirmed in frantic disappointment. If Deril was out of town, he would be on his own. He could not stay in Athkatla, after his botched attempt on the life of the inspector he was a wanted man. The coppers were corrupt to the marrow of the bones, but they would want revenge for the attack on one of them. Aegis was nothing more than a pawn, yet he would make a big stink if only to pay back for the horrors he had to live through. The tanner did not appreciate the idea of running away from his well-established ‘business’, and trying to make it all the way back to Calimshan to start from scratch. His livelihood was in that tannery. Besides, the Master needed to be informed of the disaster as soon as possible, and better before he finds out on his own.

He managed to sneak inside the house grounds unnoticed using the servant’s gate. The back door was locked, but to his great relief there was a dim yellow glow in one of the barred windows. When he knocked several times the door opened a crack, and in the gloom behind Rejiek saw a giant clay construct, with fists the size of watermelons looking at him impassively. He was impressed with the security. That thing was surely worth dozen of Dahn’s pet ghouls.

Yet when he finally was admitted into the house, Rejiek noticed gleefully that the golem did not protect the mage from a violent attack that had broken his nose and shattered his front teeth. Deril definitely looked worse for wear since they last met.

“What are you doing here, you stinking reprobate?” the crooked mage snapped angrily at the sight of the tanner. “You have your own chain of command, and under no circumstances are you allowed to seek me out!”

“Dahn and his boys got themselves killed by some local vigilantes,” Rejiek hissed in response. “The Master has to be informed before it is too late.”

“What?” Deril’s eyes became round as the implications of tanner’s words sunk in. “Are you telling me that you’ve been discovered and your workshop raided by some local watchmen? I can’t believe Dahn was not able to stop that nonsense! What about your latest shipment? These spell components are awaited eagerly. Wait! What about your project? You surely could not have left ‘that’ behind!”

The tanner went white. “It all happened so fast, “ he mumbled. “We were loading the cargo when they barged in. I had no time to go back inside the house and get the bundle! Besides it could have been damaged by fire or water if I had it with me. Surely master would understand!”

“I would not be so sure if I were you,” Deril said coldly. “I shall inform him immediately.”

The golem took Rejiek to the kitchen where few leathery brown creatures were busily preparing wizard’s next repast. He was given some scraps and showed to the pallet in the empty servants’ quarters. So far he had not seen a single human servant in that strange house, although he thought he could hear the muffled weeping of a small child somewhere at the distance.

He was awakened roughly in the middle of the night by the mage himself. Rejiek though the wizard was scared out of his wits but also strangely excited. A gleam of interest lighted in Deril’s colorless eyes when he looked the tanner over, as if estimating his worth. They crossed the silent courtyard entering the wizard’s private suite of rooms. In the boudoir behind the lavish bedroom with a huge canopied bed, Deril pushed the hidden trigger and lit the brass lantern sitting by the wall. Part of the wall moved away revealing narrow, spiral staircase leading downstairs. Rejiek was not impressed. His own arrangements were much more practical.

What they found down there was partly a dungeon and partly a laboratory where the wizard conducted his studies. There were long wooden shelves and tables with various magical instruments and cages for laboratory animals. Rejiek jerked when he saw rusty chains fitted to the iron rings in the brick wall and so familiar gully for collecting blood and excrement that run down the floor into the round pit. So, the wizard had used human subjects for some of his ‘experiments’!

“I won’t need thesse to hold you, my friend, “ a rusty whisper from one of the darker corners made all the hair on tanner’s body stand up in awe. A deadly smell of the open grave whiffed from the darkness and then he could see the tall spider-like shape surrounded by the greenish glow of enchanted jewels stepping forward into the feeble circle of light from the Deril’s lantern.

“Master!” Rejiek cried dropping to his knees and crawling to kiss the edge of the lich’s robes.

The glow in Lagole’s eyes stopped him dead, and a terrible pain shot through his body making his every muscle contract; he was instantly paralyzed. “You will speak only when you are assked and not out of your turn,” the lich rasped impassively. Rejiek fell into a stupor answering every question he was asked with eagerness.

When he finished Lagole nodded thoughtfully. “It is as I thought,” he hissed angrily, looking at Deril and making his assistant back away in a sudden jolt of panic. “The living cannot be trussted even with the simplest of tasks. This worm has ruined everything with hiss insatiable desire for exposure! He could not sstop himself from flaying the humans right on the streets! As if doing it discreetly inside his workshop wass not good enough. After so many years of hard work, when the Sskin Armor was almost ready, he got himself caught and the whole operation exposed. If Shandalar ever learns about this I will be the laughing sstock of the Rune!” Lagole turned back to Rejiek. “As for you my friend, you need to be taught a lesson in humility. The one you will never forget even if you wanted to!”

The tanner wanted to scream but could not open his mouth or move his tongue.

“I was planning to ‘reward’ you for your services, Rejiek.” The lich chuckled. “But the time never seemed right. Now I think it has come!” 75

Lagole lifted his skeletal limbs and walked forward. His hands were briefly surrounded with reddish glow and Rejiek saw the small vial with greenish liquid in one of them, and a small piece of tan-colored rug in the other. The lich’s bejeweled necklace swung right in front of tanner’s eyes, as Lagole gripped his shoulder in his bony fingers. Every jewel in it was weeping brightly colored light that cloaked Lagole’s dreadful figure into a sort of rainbow mantle. That was the last coherent thought in Rejiek’s head, for at that moment the undead emptied the vial over his head. The sting of acid brought agony on a scale he never thought existed.

Deril watched in fascination as the tanner’s leathers dissolved into a pile of useless rags, and few metal buttons hissed bubbling in the greenish puddle. The Skinner became a lobster-red creature that was writhing in pain, emanating some strange sounds, close to the mewls of a newborn kitten. Then it was lifted into the air, and suspended few feet above the floor as if held by levitation spell. Its skin began to peel away, forming a transparent bubble around the thrashing body. Then a seam appeared on the creature’s back, and its skin was forcefully jerked up and removed from the body in a single semi-transparent sheet that slowly settled on the ground. What was left of Rejiek was still alive, trashing wildly in the air and howling terribly.

Lagole cackled and began to cast again, making a series of jerky, angular motions with his bony hands. The tanner’s bloody shape glowed and stopped bleeding. Deril saw the skinless creature’s eyes rotate widely in their sockets, and its tongue, that suddenly became too big for the lipless mouth, fell out.

“Take the sskin, Deril, and wash it in the vat with the cleansing ssolution,” the lich commanded sharply. “He cannot wear it unless it is treated properly!”

Deril slinked closer, almost wetting himself in fear, and grabbed the soft, silky sheet that not so long ago was a human skin. It felt wet.


Drow mini-dictionary for this part.

(Use backward arrow on your browser to go back)

ilythiiri  drow

jabress  female in charge of an important task, a female leader

Usstan uil wun ant del xxizz! I am in a need of help!

Orn dos xxizz ussa? Will you help me?

Tlu honglath Stay calm

Khal ussa. I am in command.

Usstan uil wun quarth! I will help!

Olot dos! Darkness take you!

rivvil, rivvin  human, humans

colnbluth outsider, non-drow

L'alurl rivvil zhah elghinyrr rivvil! Best human is a dead human!

Dos inbal bau bel’la, iblith. You have no honor. This is followed by an untranslatably vile expression reserved for carrion and excrement.

abbil  friend

Dalhar d’Elggin Child of Murder

jalil  female, woman

tu’rilthiir  half-elf

elg’caress  bitch

faern  mage

mrann d’ssinss  lover (male)

ssin’urn  sexy, hot, attractive

dosst belaern your wealth

nau no

darthiir surface elf

jaluk male

Xun izil dos phuul quarthen, lueth dro.   Do what you are ordered and live.

Siffat Neccasalmor’  Stinking Necromancer



65. Note from sister Omphalla: In the Small Teeth, the mountains that define the southern border of Amn, loom a pair of fortified towers along the path of the trade route into Tethyr. Originally constructed as Temples of Bane, they were overtaken by followers of Cyric in 1362 DR, who tore down all the evidence of Bane's worship and reconsecrated them in the name of the Dark Sun.


66. Note from sister Omphalla: A year after these chronicle is dated two ogre mages named Sythillis and Cyrvisnea gathered an army of goblins, kobolds, ogeres, and hill giants to attack the southern cities of our beloved Amn. As this recent history is only too painful in our memory I shall not go into the details here, but refer you to more specific sources on this military campain.


67. Note from sister Omphalla: Beshaba ( the Maid of Misfortune, Maid of Misrule, Black Bess, Lady Doom) is a deity rightfully feared and placated through our Lands, much more than she is venerated. She is represented as a lovely maiden with snow white hair and yellow, red-rimmed eyes; her features twisted with maniacal laughter. It is a deity which is hard to understand; her being the 'other' part of the former goddess of luck Tyche, split into two parts, Beshaba rules over random misfortune, bad luck and various malicious accidents. It is rumored that men seem to loose their senses either being overwhelmed with lust of driven to pure madness on the spot upon meeting her gaze. In women Maid of Misrule causes violent mania similar to her own inner turmoil or raving insanity.


68. Note from sister Omphalla: Sugar or chocolate-frosted, ring-shaped friedcakes (also known amond the lower classes as doughnuts) made of rich, light dough that is fried in deep fat became especially popular among Amnian guards, watchmen, and low level officials. These easily obtainable snacks rich in sugar serve as a great on-the-go food substitute to the overworked and underpayed functionaries.


69. Note from sister Omphalla: The mysterious, crepe-shrouded faces of the Council of Six inspire respect and fear in those who manage to gain an audience with this body. The anonymity of the six leaders was paramount to establish peace 30 years ago, but the Council, like the Lords of Waterdeep, soon found that order was best maintained when people don't know who they can kill, bribe, or manipulate (especially in Amn, where a handshake deal without a palmed coin is tantamount to an insult). The deception is now law, and to write or speak the name or reveal the identity of a Council member results in slow torture and death, usually before the eyes of the Council.

The members of the Council of Six from highest to lowest rank are the Meisarch, the Tessarch, the Namarch, the Iltarch, the Pommarch, and the Dahaunarch. Each rank's heir is the following rank, so the death of the Meisarch moves everyone up one rank, and a new Dahaunarch is elected to join the Council from the ranks of the powerful houses of Amn (though a new Dahaunarch is not always from Athkatla, which would surprise many an Amnian who believe this city to be the pinnacle of success). The Meisarch is the primary speaker for the Council and his seat is subtly perceived as the senior, leader's position. Still, despite the deference to the experience and crafti- ness of the Meisarch, each of the six has important roles to perform within the government, as noted below.


70. Note from sister Omphalla: Alzhedo - language often used in Calimshan. Seems to be derived from the language spoken by the inhabitants of the elemental plane of air. Soft, lilting language. Very easy on the ears.


71. Note from sister Omphalla: Guril berries - a plant of guril, and especially its fruit is used in folk medicine as a base for a salve which supposedly can cure some intimate afflictions, caused by untidy love life.


72. Note from sister Omphalla: Formalin - a water solution of formaldehyde, the simplest aldehyde. Often used for manufacturing of embalming fluids and  as a preservative and disinfectant.


73. Note from sister Omphalla: Corium -  in humanoids, and the vertebrates generally, the skin consist of two layers, an outer nonsensitive and nonvascular epidermis, cuticle, or skarfskin, composed of cells which are constantly growing and multiplying in the deeper, and being thrown off in the superficial, layers; and an inner sensitive, and vascular dermis, cutis, corium, or true skin, composed mostly of connective tissue.


74. Note from sister Omphalla: Tannin (or tannic acid) - An acid obtained from nutgalls as a yellow amorphous substance, having an astringent taste, and forming with ferric salts a bluish-black compound, which is the basis of common ink. Called also tannin, and gallotannic acid. By extension, any one of a series of astringent substances resembling tannin proper, widely diffused through the vegetable kingdom, as in oak bark, willow, guril, tea, coffee, etc. Tanning - converting (the skin of an animal) into leather, as by usual process of steeping it in an infusion of oak or some other bark, whereby it is impregnated with tannin, or tannic acid (which exists in several species of bark), and is thus rendered firm, durable, and in some degree impervious to water.


75. Note from sister Omphalla: Create Skindancer spell description – I tried to recreate the description of this terrible spell using the author’s notes, but have to confess that her journal was the only place that ever mentions it, even though our library contains one of the most praised collection of magical grimoires, including the famous Wizard’s Spell Compendium in 54 volumes and 5 tomes of Errata.

Create Skindancer Aberration (Alteration, Necromancy)

Level: 9

Range: Touch

Casting time: 1 hour

Components: V, S, M

Duration: Special

Area of Effect: 1 being

Saving Throw: Neg.

This gruesome spell had to be cast in conjunction with Change Form (level 8 Alteration spell) for a purpose of creating a “skindancer” (an aberration that had its skin removed and treated in a special solution; it gains ability to switch skins with other humanoids of appropriate size that it had recently flayed). The subject of the spell must be a human or a demi-human.

The creature is first surrounded by acid mist cloud that spreads over a circle of 3 feet in diameter, and dissolves its clothes and removes skin hair. Every item in creature’s possession must make a saving throw vs. acid at -2 or be destroyed. The target suffers 6d4 hit points damage with no saving throw allowed.

If the target survives the acid attack it is lifted by invisible force, immobilized, and suspended in the air 2 feet above the ground. The creature’s skin starts peeling off, forming semitransparent bubble around it, until it splits open on the back and is forcefully removed in a single piece. The being stays alive and conscious through the whole process, although it suffers additional 2d4 of damage caused by pain from this transformation. The pain that this process causes is unbearable, but the creature is kept alive by magical means. During this time, if the Greater Restoration spell used on the skinless creature it can be restored to its original form.

At that time, the Change Form spell should be cast on the skinless hulk, or it will die within few hours. When the change form starts to take effect, the creature can make a saving throw vs. polymorph to negate the effect, but if this is failed, only a wish followed by greater restoration can stop the transformation, which takes place over several next weeks. (See the details for the reversal process and transformation effects in the Change Form spell description.)

The removed skin should be than treated with vinegar or formaldehyde solution, so that it can be fitted back on the creature. When the skin is properly treated, it can be handed back to the creature, which can now use it as it befits its new nature of a skindancer, i.e. put it back on itself or store it. 

SKINDANCERThe skindancer is a medium-size aberration virtually unknown in the Realms and rare even in other distant Planes. It is unknown what gave Lagole Gon the idea but perhaps he had come across one in his Planar travels and decided to make the Skinner into one, as his perverted sense of humor found it incredibly amusing. His powers as a necromancer were sufficient to transform Rejiek into this new shape, and imbue him with powers suitable for this new species. A skindancer ‘skinless’ appearance very much resembles that of a flayed human body. Long retractable razor-sharp claws extend from their fingers and their tongues are coarse and suitable for licking off blood. They don’t like to be seen in their natural shape and prefer to wear skins of humanoids that they forcefully remove from their victims. When the skindancer wears his new skin it can shapeshift to fit into it properly, and assume the appearance of its former owner. The new skin can be used indefinitely if treated daily with formaldehyde or vinegar, or stored for a few month in one of these solutions.

The material components of the spell are a vial of potent acid (see Change Form spell), in which at least 10, 000 gp worth of powdered black diamond has been dissolved during a night of new moon, and a skin-doll (a small human-shaped silhouette cut from a piece of skin).

Notes: Very rare in Forgotten Realms setting. Probably unknown to anybody but the ancient lich Lagole Gon of Athkatla.



Last modified on May 18, 2002
Copyright © 2001 by Janetta Bogatchenko. All rights reserved.