Author Topic: Alyonna's Story  (Read 6219 times)

Offline Kulyok

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Alyonna's Story
« on: March 01, 2009, 01:00:06 PM »
It is a very old serial of mine(think 2003, think Attic). It has moments I am fond of, and I don't want it to get lost, but don't comment if you can help it(read: I don't want to read comments). Enjoy!

Prologue

Two elven women were running in a damp, gloomy forest, stumbling and tripping over the tree roots...
"Not again! Get up! They'll be all over us in a moment!"
"Must perform t-the sacrifice first-"
"Here? Draw the pentagram on the rotten leaves, perhaps? I thought you didn't want to sacrifice your only child in a hurry!"
"I must!" The woman, no, a young girl sprung back from her companion and sharply drew a dagger from the folds of her robe.
"Alianna, you are raving mad! They have sacrificed most of the Children, yes, but some got away! Your dear lover Bhaal won't come back even five minutes earlier if you kill your daughter, besides, well likely get slaughtered in a few minutes. Now let's get out of here!"
Her yelling seemed to make sense to Alianna: the girl's rapid breathing subsided, she threw the dagger aside, adjusted a bundle on her shoulders and followed her companion. In a few minutes, however, they came to a halt. Through the dense of a forest, they could see a strong, clear light ahead. Not a single fire, no. That was a sign of large camp.
Or a small army, most likely, the older woman thought wryly. Funny how they loathe us. Come to think of it, these days I don't like myself much either. Me, protecting the Deathstalker, the Lord of Murder's High Priestess!
How has it happened? To Alianna, beautiful maiden of Suldanessellar, pride of her House and joy of her friends? What have they done to you? What has Bhaal done to you after you have succumbed to his charms, became his priestess and bore his child, a Bhaalspawn you carry on your back? No, not 'you'. She. Even if we survive, Alianna would be a 'she'. A stranger.
But no matter. I have known her since the day she was born, and I shall defend her to the last, against Elminster himself, if need be.
"They are everywhere! We can't escape! Stai, what do we do?" Alianna was shifting her gaze from side to side, completely lost all of a sudden. It was difficult to believe that only an hour ago the very same girl was standing at the altar ready to slay a baby, fierce determination on her face.
Stai wearily leaned against the wet tree trunk, concentrating. Then her face lit up. "Look, there's a path here! We still can get away!"
"Are you sure they won't follow?"
"Not if we can help it. Do you have any illusion spells left?"
"No, but I have another idea!" Alianna suddenly smiled, grasped Stai's hand and dragged her past a pair of pines. Her voice grew both softer and stronger as she chanted a spell. The air in front of them throbbed.
"What was it?" Stai whispered hoarsely.
"A Physical Mirror. The most powerful spell I had. Now anyone who steps on the path will turn back and not notice it." A proud smile appeared on Alianna's lips. "I was my Lord Bhaal's favored, and I know He favors me, still. Shall we continue?"
The women went down the path with new spring in their step, and soon they came to a clearing. A small glade, peaceful and quiet, if not for several cloaked figures on the other side.
One of them stepped forward. Old, but far from harmless. A gnarled quarterstaff was in his hands, and his mage robes shimmered slightly with the enchantments placed upon his body.
"We could run back into the forest", Alianna whispered, tugging her companion's sleeve.
"Where to?" Stai snapped, losing her patience. "The way back is closed by your spell. To the left from this place are the Harpers, desperate for our blood, to the right the forest is swarming with mercenaries. How many of them will you kill before you die? Does it make a difference to you, girl? It's these ones, or nothing. At least, here we've got a chance. Prepare for an ambush, the hero types never attack all of a sudden. You've got time for a spell or two."
The man came close enough for them to see his face. Oddly enough, there were no emotions there. No triumph, no gloating, no hatred, just calm concentration. "Halt. Go no further. I wish to speak with you." He was looking at Alianna only.
Stai stepped forward. "We are but two weary travelers, who need to get to the nearest tavern. We do not have a quarrel with you and we have no valuables. Please, let us pass."
The mage paid no heed to her, his eyes locked on her companion. He was silent for a few seconds, and then he spoke again, his voice heavy. "I have no use for Deathstalkers. Neither do I want more deaths. Hand over your child and no one will be hurt."
So it has come to this. "Alianna, duck!" she screamed, releasing a last-resort sequencer. Three fireballs landed on the field, leaving three charred corpses behind. But the man himself seemed to be intact. He made a swift gesture, and next moment she found herself stunned and unable to move. Stai toppled over and hit the ground with a splat.
Alianna hissed, shielding her companion from another attack, and started a chanting of her own. Her voice rose triumphantly, finishing the complex spell, and Stai's eyes widened in anticipation.
Nothing happened. The mage nodded and raised his hands again, but Alianna pounced at him from the sitting position, spitting. He grasped her hands, but she kicked him in the groin with her bare foot, which was glowing red. The spell... Harm... She has enchanted her feet, not her hands! Stai wanted to laugh, but she couldn't. Even breathing was difficult.
The man was screaming, screaming on the top of his lungs. He kicked Alianna aside and was rolling on the ground, clutching his belly with both hands. It didn't last long. In a few seconds he was still and silent, looking quite dead.
"Stai? Stai, can you hear me? I have no dispelling at the moment, it was all wasted at the Harpers. You will have to wait until it wears off."
I've heard you, she wanted to say; now everything is going to be fine. And I'll probably talk you out of the stupid idea to kill your own daughter, you freak. You. No, never 'she'. You. Bhaal is dead, and you will return to normal again, my friend and near sister. With time, you will, I promise you that.
They did not have any time.
As Stai finally climbed to her feet and took the first unsteady step, dazzling white light surrounded prone body of their former assailant, and a portal appeared in the air. The women were far too familiar with the figure that stepped out.
A chosen of Mystra. The mightiest mage in the Realms. Elminster.
Before they could react, a silver bolt shot out of a hand of the newcomer, pining Alianna down. Grimly, Stai started to chant a killing curse.
"What hast thou done to Gorion?" the dry voice said, releasing yet another spell in the air.
Domina...
"She used Harm on him," Stai answered, eager to help her new friend. "He wanted to take her child away."
The man waited.
"We were at the temple of Bhaal, ready to sacrifice the Children. The Harpers attacked. We scarpered, but they were many, and most of us were killed. Alianna and I managed to escape." A small part of her mind sensed that something was wrong, so she did not tell him all of it.
The man kneeled over Gorion, muttering a spell. The human mage opened his eyes. "Rise, my friend," his savior said gently. "I mourn for thine comrades, but these are grave times and sacrifices must be made. Take the Child and flee, the road is clear. Fare thee well."
Another flash of white light, and he disappeared. Gorion stood still for a while, but then apparently reached a decision. He approached the women, unwrapped the bundle from Alianna's back and picked it up. His feet rustled against the tall grass, and he was gone.
For a few minutes, everything was silent. Then the enchantment upon Stai's mind was gone, she blinked, catching with past events, and rushed to the girl. Alianna! This abomination made me stand still as a mindless doll, while you needed my help! Wait, you... are not dying, are you? No!
"Alianna?" she said aloud. Her companion's eyes were closed, but her lips were moving. A trickle of blood was flowing from the corner of her mouth. Stai leaned closer. "Alianna?"
"Alyonna. Don't interrupt. Her name is Alyonna. Find her. Tell her that."
"All... all right. Anything else?" Her lips were trembling. Blood pounded in her ears, and Stai was barely hearing Alianna's words. So stupid, so very stupid, to die like this...
"Tell... I'm not... I'm not sorry." There was a gurgling sound in her throat, and that was it.
The next day Stai reached a small town. In a few days, a caravan would make it to Calimshan, she was told. She knew a man from Calimshan, a Harper. Khalid was his name. He would talk. He would help her find the Bhaalspawn. Or he will be made to. I believe the last man who did not give me proper information is still stuttering...

Chapter 1. Imoen and Other Bad News

Ten years later...
A girl was running across the field, smearing tears all over her face.
Gorion doesn't think I'm good enough for him, does he? What was he thinking of, bringing another girl to Candlekeep like that? He said he loved me, always and forever! Me, not her! Well, I don't care for him anymore, all right? He can damn well stay with that Imoen or whatever her name is, I don't care! I am out of here, and he can search for me as long as he lives! Serves him right!
So she thought, running. She had already made a considerable distance from the Candlekeep gates. From this side of the wall, her former home looked small and shabby. For a moment, the girl imagined Gorion, her foster father, coming to the gates every evening, looking for her in the dark, calling her name...
No! He's got Imoen! In the evenings, he would be with her. She would sit in my favorite place, close to the fire, and listen to his stories, while I'd be freezing to death in the forest!
Ala stopped, catching her breath. The thought of being alone, cold and hungry cooled her head somewhat. Sneaking past the guards was easy, but now the adrenaline wore off, and it became clear to her that running away without a map, warm clothes, food, water and most importantly, a purpose would not solve anything. Even at the moment, she started to feel hungry. Besides, there were wolves and goblins in the forest, and though she was not a cry-baby anymore, Ala could secretly admit to herself that she was afraid. Not very afraid, but still. And I bet this Imoen is even more scared of them, so there!
But the girl could not bring herself to return just yet. The Keeper of the Tomes, old and grouchy Ulraunt, would scold her, Imoen would laugh, and Gorion... Gorion... He would not even understand how he loved and missed her if she would return right now!
She was exhausted from crying, hiding and running. The grass was tall enough to hide her small form from view, so she curled herself into the ball, resting her cheek against a bunch of sweet-smelling flowers. The sun was pleasantly warming her back, there was a low buzz in the air, and Ala had fallen asleep in a few minutes.
Her body felt... different. She no longer was a scrawny girl with elven features. Instead her hands looked dark, muscular and oddly familiar. The setting, however, was not. Ala was standing in the middle of a street, bent over a body of a man. Judging by the look of him, he was a wealthy merchant, and a dead one at that. The smell that was coming from the corpse was nauseating; she barely restrained herself from throwing up. A heavy purse in her right hand, and... there was a dead hush around. Slowly, oh so slowly, she raised her head.
There were eyes. Hungry, unblinking, watchful eyes. There were six people or so, one of them a girl younger than her, a knife at each hand. Almost all of them were armed. And their stares were fixed straight at her.
There was no time to think. She pounced at the nearest opponent, snarling, and planted her foot at his knee, grasping his shoulder with the free hand. The pouch went to the gutter. Two smaller beasts dived for it, but she toppled over in mid-air and landed straight at their heads with a nasty crunching sound.
She raised his head again, this time as a predator, ready to kill. And the others felt it. Slowly, cautiously, they crept back into the shadows.
There were loud voices approaching...
"Child? Child, wake up!"
"Wuzzup?"
"What in the name of Silvanus were you doing alone in the forest? Wake up, girl! You were lucky I spotted you, there are wolves around!"
Ala sat down, rubbing her eyes. Moments before, she had a strange dream, but it wasn't important now. What was important was that there was a pair of legs right in front of her clad in green and brown, and an impatient female voice from above.
She slowly raised her head. A mane of golden-brown hair was partly obscuring the most beautiful female face Ala had ever seen, though currently its fine, regular features were set into a deep scowl. The woman had the same slightly pointed ears and slanted eyes, which meant she, too, was a part elf. However, a slight smell of sweat and dog suggested that the elvish-looking lady had a long journey.
"Well, what are you gaping at?" The woman asked, softening her voice. "What is your name? Can you speak at all?"
"Yes," Ala nodded. "I am Ala, daughter of Gorion, from Candlekeep."
"Gorion's-" she stopped abruptly. "I shall walk you home, child. Now." Seizing the girl's hand, the newcomer practically dragged her along, never letting go until they approached Candlekeep gates.
She probably knows Gorion, Ala thought. But why would she hurry so to get me home? Who would wish to harm me? Granted, Ulraunt doesn't like me a lot, and some of these snotty guests don't, either, but they wouldn't ambush me with a two-handed sword, would they?
"I don't care what you need from me! I am here to speak with my friend Gorion, and this is urgent! Get away from my path, or you will take a knock or two to the head, do you understand me?"
"First, you'll have to donate a valuable tome to enter Candlekeep fortress and library!"
"Do you wish me to show you what I have to do when I meet such a thick-skulled man as you?" The woman tapped her quarterstaff warningly. The guards slowly retreated, and after a short discussion, one of them had gone off to fetch Ulraunt. He returned with Gorion on his heels.
"Jaheira! My friend, I am glad you have found me," the sage exclaimed, approaching. "Ala, child, where have you been? I was worried sick about you, and so was Imoen."
"Oh, was she?" Ala started acidly, but Jaheira clasped a hand over the girl's mouth.
"Somebody broke into Harpers' Hold in Baldur's Gate, Gorion," she said grimly. "Now they know about the remaining Children's locations. You can expect guests at any moment."

Chapter 2. Big Brother and Little Sister

Dinner that night was a subdued affair. Gorion was pensive and often glanced at Ala. The girl had explained herself before the dinner and forced her face into a smile later, when Gorion introduced Imoen to her, but he did not seem satisfied.
Ala sighed. Shall it always be like that? Him, me and her. We had such a great time together, Gorion and me, and she had to come and spoil everything. When I become a famous rogue, I'll get her for this! Stealing my father from me! He is mine, and mine alone!
After the table was cleared, Imoen tugged Jaheira by the sleeve, and they disappeared in the girls' new room. But Gorion remained sitting. His eyes felt on Ala once again.
"Child, do you like it in Candlekeep?" he suddenly asked.
"I..." There was much she wanted to say to him, but she couldn't. An invisible wall was erected between them, and it was growing thicker as they spoke.
"We are in danger, do you understand me? There are some people who wish us harm, and who now know where you are. We are safe here for the time being, but I see you do not enjoy the place."
"Well, I-"
"I would do everything for you. But if we leave, it can happen that I'm no longer able to protect you. And I do not want to let you go."
Anger and disappointment, all these feelings that had been welling up in her all day, finally burst out, and Ala almost shouted, "What about Imoen? Why do you need me now? You've got her!"
"Child..." Gorion stood up, swiftly crossed the table and kneeled beside her. "I'd never abandon you, never trade you for another person. Imoen is an orphan, same as you. She's got nobody in the world to care for her. I feel you are lonely, here. There are no other children to keep you company. Imoen could become your friend."
He loves me, he does! Me! Ala rejoiced. But she... could she be my friend? Hmm. I'll see about that. But if Gorion loves me, not her, then I might give her a chance. A small one.
They sat there for a while, Ala cuddled in Gorion's arms, and when she went to bed later, she had fallen asleep immediately, a relaxed and happy smile on her face.
Next morning Jaheira was leaving.
"Are you sure it is safe for you to travel alone?" Gorion asked her, as they stood at the gates.
"I travel in my wolf form, as you should know. You'd better take care of yourself and Ala, as it is not the first time somebody takes interest in your ward. Now that they have access to old archives, anybody can find out the truth about her: Black Network, Red Wizards, former Deathstalkers -- anyone! Do you even understand how dangerously risky it is?"
"But last time somebody tried to pry the information about Ala was years ago, and they still had not shown themselves," Gorion placed his hand on Jaheira's shoulder. "You worry too much."
Jaheira took a step back, her eyes blazing with sudden fire. "How can you say such things? When I saw Khalid back then, cold as a corpse, I nearly died! His head was lolling like a helpless child's, and he kept saying your name! My husband was brave to the point of reckless, and now he's afraid to sleep in the dark." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "What had they done to him?"
He sighed. "We shoulder great responsibility, and thus we have to make sacrifices. Jaheira, I am glad you have come and told me about the break-in, but Candlekeep is safe. You alarm yourself needlessly."
The woman looked into his eyes sadly. "Goodbye, then. You have buried yourself here and distanced yourself from us, I see. But I'll miss you, and I still hope to see you amongst us again."
"Goodbye."

Elsewhere...
Stai was gazing intently into the scrying ball, a light frown on her smooth face. A lock of hair and the map of the Sword Coast were lying next to the ball.
"A good guardian for the girl," she mused. "Yes, she stays there. Candlekeep seems a safe place, for now. But your friend was right, Gorion. Many people are aware about your ward, and once she leaves Candlekeep, my task would be difficult indeed."
"Difficult? She is doomed, Stai," a male elf bent to the crystal next to her. "Sooner or later, she will leave Candlekeep, and the first party of bounty hunters will wipe her out."
"They could. But that's when we come in, Xan, to protect her for our benefit and hers, and when time comes... but she really doesn't need to know our other plans, does she?"
"No, she does not," Xan answered sourly. "'Suicidal' is quite an eloquent description."

Several years later...
"No, no, no, no! Being a daring rogue is good, but there's a line between daring and suicidal! A master thief would not climb the rooftops with a knife between her teeth!" Ala was practically radiating annoyance, but there was a hint of a worry in her voice.
"Heya, relax! You sound just like Gorion sometimes. Anyway, it was a blunt knife!" Imoen was sitting on the window-sill in her room, whistling merrily. Ala was facing her, hands on her hips.
"A blunt knife? What were you going to do with it, help Puffguts with buttering pancakes? Besides, we were practicing stealth! What kind of stealthy approach is it, if half the Candlekeep can see you?"
Immy suddenly looked sheepish. "Well, you see, there's that guy who came yesterday with his tutor. A really grumpy mage. He is so gorgeous!"
"Who, the mage?"
"No, him, silly! Come, he's in the library now, I'll show him to you. Bet he had seen me making this nifty move when I jumped off the cliff!"
The girls ran downstairs. Their rooms were in the same building as the library itself, which Ala found very convenient. Most of the sections were closed during the night, but she managed to grab a book now and then.
"It's him!" Imoen went pink as they approached the bookshelves, "It's the guy I told you of!"
"Im, you're drooling," Ala said absently, regarding the man. He was rather good-looking, with an impressive muscular figure and the mane of short black hair. Tall, dark and handsome. Probably rich, too. Figures. Just the boy for little Imoen.
Ala snickered, but her snicker turned to a cough. She brought her hand to the mouth and saw a few drops of blood on the back of her hand. Her head began to spin.
"Ala, have you seen-" Imoen was saying something, but the sound was muffled, eerie, as if it was coming from the other side of the room.
The other side of the room...
She frowned at this distraction, glanced briefly at the girls and turned back to her book. The familiar words were dancing around her, and she could see the writings, flowing as a large banner over the world drowning in blood...
THE LORD OF MURDER SHALL PERISH
He was standing in front of a mighty statue that bore a resemblance to him, and as creaks appeared on it, he smiled, for the time has come for the rebirth
BUT IN HIS DOOM HE SHALL SPAWN A SCORE OF MORTAL PROGENY
The woman was whimpering pathetically, and as he was done she began to scream, the sound was so piercing he wanted to throttle her, to squeeze the life of her with his bare hands, for he was Murder, but she was now his vessel, one of the many, so he
CHAOS WILL BE SOWN FROM THEIR PASSAGE
Chaos, yes, her head was spinning, what was that she just heard? Murder... the Child of Murder... who?
So sayeth the wise Alaundo...
The voices died, and Ala noticed with some surprise that she was still standing. The vision or whatever it was lasted only seconds. Imoen was asking her something, but Ala couldn't make out the words. She didn't want to.
"I have a toothache, Im," she forced a smile. "I'd better go find Gorion." She backed out into the shadows.

Chapter 3. The Hunt Begins

Several more years later...
Imoen opened her eyes. The bedroom was dark and quiet, except for the night chirr of the grasshoppers and the occasional cry of a passing seagull. Yet there was a sound, or, rather, an absence of a sound, coming from the corner next to the door.
"Ala? Stop pretending, I know you're there. Who are you hiding from this time?"
"Not hiding. I was considering whether I should wake you up or perform the greatest robbery of all times on my own. Then the glory will be all mine. Well, and the gem, of course." Ala stepped out of the shadows, grinning.
"The gem?" Imoen sat on her bad, her eyes sparkling mischievously in the moonlight.
"Yes, the beautiful, mysterious and above all valuable Star Sapphire. The stupid noble was flaunting it to everybody down in the common room yesterday evening, so it's possible he's being robbed even now. But the lock is intricate, we still have time. Are you coming? I came for your lock-picks, actually. But I can take you, instead." There was an amused edge to her voice.
"No way! You're not nearly as good as I am at picking locks, so I'm coming with you, yes sir!" Imoen threw the cloak over the nightgown, picked up a slim dagger, pushed past her friend and pulled the door open.
In the flickering light of the corridor lamp Imoen noticed dark shadows under her friend's eyes. True, Ala probably hadn't slept all night, watching that noble, but there was something else. Imoen spent lots of time in the library, which was natural at Candlekeep, but her friend practically lived there. Several weeks ago, she even heard Ala and Gorion having a shouting match about it, though normally both of them were calm and composed. Obviously the sage thought that meddling in old prophecies wasn't good for his daughter. There was something going on, and Imoen couldn't quite put a finger to it.
Ala turned down the corner and slipped past the door into one of the side rooms. Imoen scanned the corridor and followed suit. The robbery itself was easy, as she was handy with her lock-picks, something she was very proud of, and soon the beautiful gem the size of a chicken egg was within their reach.
Imoen stretched her hand--and thick spider webs sprang out of the chest, blocking the exit. Several strands broke away from the source and were growing, extending, trying to reach for the girls. Both fast and agile, Imoen and Ala avoided the webs, jumping up the table.
"Can it get any worse than this?" Imoen thought in panic.
Next moment there was a loud hiss from the alcove. The noble they had completely forgotten about had woken up.

Gorion read the letter one more time. It said:
"My friend Gorion,
Please forgive the abruptness with which I now write, but time is short and there is much to be done. What we have long feared may soon come to pass, though not in the manner foretold, and certainly not in the proper time frame. As we both know, forecasting these events has proved increasingly difficult, leaving little option other than a leap of faith. We have done what we can for those in thy care, but the time nears when we must step back and let matters take what course they will. We have, perhaps, been a touch too sheltering to this point.
Despite my desire to remain neutral in this matter, I could not, in good conscience, let events proceed without some measure of warning. The other side will move very soon, and I urge thee to leave Candlekeep this very night, if possible. The darkness may seem equally threatening, but a moving target is much harder to hit, regardless of how sparse the cover. A fighting chance is all that can be asked for at this point.
Should anything go awry, do not hesitate to seek aid from travelers along the way. I do not need to remind thee that it is a dangerous land, even without our current concerns, and a party is stronger than an individual in all respects. Should additional assistance be required, I understand that Jaheira and Khalid are currently at the Friendly Arm Inn. They know little of what has passed, but they are ever thy friends and will no doubt help however they can.
Luck be with us all. I'm getting too old for this.
        E"
Gorion sighed and began to rise from the desk. The sage did not have many treasured possessions, so he was ready in no time. There was a matter of telling Ulraunt about Imoen, however. The girl's heritage was yet unknown, so he supposed the monks would let her stay for his sake. Then he would have to go and wake up Ala.
Ala. The girl was restless and adventurous, she would be glad to leave this place at last. But would he be able to protect her? He almost failed to retrieve her from her mother's hands, what if he failed again? But then, Elminster saved his life many times, and Ala owned her life to him, as well.
He sighed again. I must trust in my chances, he thought. We shall flee tonight.

Chapter 4. Kill or Be Killed

The man who rose from the bed, tearing up the curtains, looked like a terrible parody on a human being. His body was far too large and bulky, and though he had two arms and legs, his skin were dull grey, glistening with slime in places. Judging by his angry hisses, he wasn't happy to see the girls, either.
"A doppelganger!" Imoen breathed. "We can't kill him, run!"
"Where to, the ceiling?" Ala snapped. "Or does the spider web hold any interesting possibilities for you?"
The thing began to advance at the table where the girls were, crushing small pieces of furniture in its way. "Flesshlingss... Deathss awaitssss..."
"The web exists to capture the thief", Imoen said in a small voice, "what if we use it on him?"
"Right," Ala screamed, "Let's do it now!"
Both girls jumped at the same time. The table shattered, and furious doppelganger found himself sandwiched between the remains of the said table and the chest.
There was a brief clunking sound, and next moment he was struggling with his own trap, as the whole mass of the webs came alive and turned on its creator. Soon he was wrapped inside a rather large cocoon. The loose strands twitched, and everything was silent again.
"This was some very quick thinking, Im," Ala breathed, wiping her brow.
"Yeah," Imoen preened proudly. "Say, are we mighty rogues yet?"
"Well, considering that you've completely forgotten to check for traps and we both could have died, no."
"Aw, it was fun anyway! Don't be a spoilsport," the girl bent over a creature to check if it was still breathing. It was not.
"Seems like he flaunted the gem on purpose," Ala mused. "He must have known somebody would try to steal it, and then he would move for the kill. Could he know I'm a rogue?"
"Sometimes you speak as if the whole world would stop turning if you wouldn't bother to get up!" Imoen flushed. "I was there, too, you remember?"
"Sorry, little one. But that's really important. I must speak to Gorion of this," Ala nodded to Imoen and disappeared, taking the gem with her.

Gorion had crossed the corridor that led to the girls' bedrooms, and was halfway to Ala's door when she came running from the other side, straight into his arms.
"Child, what has happened?"
"We must talk. Now. Follow me." She looked agitated, and her eyes glittered strangely.
Puzzled, he followed young rogue into her room, and sat at her bed as she fumbled with the lock.
"Why the secrecy, child? What is it you wish to tell me?" he said gently.
"I wish... I wissssh to eat your meatsss and chew your bonesssss..."
Gorion had experience with doppelgangers, but still the shock ran deep. He raised his hand, but choked back the words of the spell, the face of his target remaining achingly familiar. Ala, what happened to her? Did this thing hurt her? Kill her? A snarl burst from his chest, and a small fireball followed. His robes were smoking, but it made no difference. A second fireball, and an enormous black shape was jerking on the floor, trying to reach him with a scorched limb. Gorion planted a dagger in its throat, not desiring to waste any more spells.
Several minutes later, it was over. Gorion sat back on the bed, his head in his hands. It was time to go and find his ward, but he did not move, scared that there was nobody left to find.
"Father?" There was a sound of a key turning in the door, a muffled curse, and Ala kneeled next to him. "Father, what is going on? Imoen and I found a doppelganger at the tavern. Who was he looking for?"
You. If you leave, Candlekeep and its denizens will be safe. But the words did not escape his lips. He couldn't bring himself to tell her, though he suspected it was too late for that. If Sarevok had, she must have guessed the part of it, too.
Instead, he said: "I will explain as soon as there is time. Now we must flee. I will meet you at the gates within an hour. Take these, you might want to buy yourself some equipment. Do not tarry." He shoved some coins into her palm and left.

Imoen also was busy. The innkeeper told her Gorion and Ala were going away, so she decided to say goodbyes, at the very least. Much to her dismay, she found out that Gorion had packed his things already. She peeked into his room (no, his former room, because he wasn't coming back, was he?) and a glimpse of something small and yellow got her attention. Slowly, carefully, she crept into the room to retrieve it; a roll of parchment. The girl had picked it up. As she read it, her eyes went very wide. Then the door had opened, and, before she could finish it, somebody grasped her by the ear and pulled.
"Naughty girl! A thief and stealing from your benefactor, no less! Well, we will not tolerate your presence here. You can spend the night at the Keep, but this time tomorrow you'll be gone." Ulraunt gave her a cold look before releasing her. "And don't try to steal anything else, young woman. The guards will escort you out in the morning." He left.
Imoen slumped to the floor. She felt so lonely and miserable she wanted to weep. Her friend and her father figure were leaving, and she didn't know whether she'd see them ever again. She had no home, and nobody needed her. Nobody at all...
She got up abruptly. It was not easy to gain entrance to the Candlekeep, but it was quite easy to escape. And maybe this way she'd help Ala and Gorion, if she'd be able to find them. Half an hour later, the girl was making her way to the gates, several healing potions and a wand tucked safely into her belt, her self-made bow in her hands. The weapon made her feel... secure.
Ala approached the gates earlier. Gorion was already there, terse, his face dark with worry. "Listen carefully," he began, "in case we ever get separated, it is imperative that you make your way to the Friendly Arm Inn. There you'll meet Khalid and Jaheira. They have long been my friends, and you can trust them."
She opened her mouth to speak, but he was already moving past, and there was no other choice but to follow. There was a nagging suspicion in her mind that something was horribly wrong, and as the forest around them slowly darkened, the feeling intensified. They abandoned the paved path and were steadily moving to the heart of the woods. Ala had never been there. Though she could still occasionally glimpse the walls of Candlekeep, it felt like an alien land entirely. She'd be lost here long ago, if not for the Gorion. Briefly she recollected the first encounter with Imoen and her attempt to flee, and shuddered. If she ran away back then, she'd be dead for certain.
The old mage was pushing forward, his expression tense and grim. She admired his stamina, but soon grew worried about his condition. Neither of them slept last night, and while her puny skills were of little use in the forest, Gorion was seriously weakened, for his most powerful spells were spent on the doppelganger earlier. Ala knew he used to have an emergency supply of spell scrolls, but she guessed most of them went to Ulraunt as a payment for allowing them to stay.
Her suspicions were confirmed soon enough. Gorion stopped and raised a hand. And she could see a reason, too: two doppelgangers, a woman, armed to the teeth, and a man in a most hideous armor she'd ever seen. As the man spoke, a heavy sense of dread engulfed her mind...
That's it. I can't kill them. We're all dead.

Chapter 5. The Messengers

Several weeks before the memorable fight at the Candlekeep different messengers were being prepared by their superiors...
"You will be speaking on the behalf of Wychlaran. That is a great honor for one so young. Do not disappoint the sisters," the Othlor instructed, "the punishment would be far more terrible than anything you can imagine."
"Yes, Othlor," the young woman answered. "I shall be your eyes and ears during this mission, as I am now."
"The fortress is situated on the Sword Coast. It lost most of it's former glory, and now it is almost abandoned. You will find it, regardless." The voice of the older woman was suggesting that other options would not be welcome.
Dynaheir gulped. "Yes, Othlor."
"Good," Othlor's face softened. "Order and obedience, child, order and obedience. These are the virtues you should put your trust in. Now go."

A young wizard in bright red robes was listening to his superior, tapping his foot impatiently...
"...The witch will not be alone. Wychlaran are being accompanied by warriors of no small ability. They, ah, prove their manhood this way." Degardan sneered. "You'd want to watch out for a Rashemi berserker, unless you want to become a possible supply of spell ingredients yourself."
"Rest assured, I will find this lowly Bhaalspawn and make certain that the witch is to be disposed of. (This simian would doubt my godly abilities! No doubt he is sending me because his backside is stuck to the desk. The amount of ale he spills! The stains are everywhere and the smell is beginning to grind on my nerves.)"
"Eh? What are you babbling about, Odesseiron?"
"Nothing, Master Degardan, I merely commented on the... the ridiculous ease of my task. (Yes, that would convince him. I am a master of deception, after all.)"
Degardan glared at Edwin suspiciously, but said nothing.
"Well, where do I start the search for the Bhaalspawn?"
"You need not have to look for her, boy," the wizard leaned forth and said conspiratorially, "I was confirmed by the resident Seer that she will find you. Nashkel. Your ways will meet there."

And elsewhere, a mad necromancer and his strange halfling companion...
"...Monty! Stop touching me!" Xzar screamed.
"Oh, screw ye, wizard! Your bat droppings and mole-beaten rugs ain't what I need for a livin'. And if I were to kill ya, you'd be the last one to notice. Now, what was the lass's name again?"
"Nobody knows," Xzar let out a high giggle and touched one of his tattoos fondly. There was a strange symbol engraved there, resembling a skull with a snake coming out of its mouth. "See, Monty, if the Dragons know your true name, you're dead, but if the Rabbits do, you're doomed!" He stopped. "I just had to say 'doomed', hadn't I? Normally I don't say that..."
"True name? What sort of rubbish is it?"
"Ah, c'mon, Montaron, lighten up. Must you be so moody all the time? You haven't told anyone your true name, have you?"
"Wizard, do ye truly want yer last words to be so stupid? I'll kill ya if you don't spill the beans."
"All right, all right. A true name is the way for Rabbits to control you! They will suck out your soul, they will devour your body and put a fabulous Netherese curse on you, so you'll have to wear a leather mask or a spiky armor for the rest of your miserable life!"
"Why'd they be cursin' ye if ye're already dead?"
"Because they can! What is the point of learning the true name, if you kill the victim and be done? Ah, Monty, you'll never become a true member of the Black Network."
"Shut your gap, wizard! I'm a better Zhentarim than ye, if that be saying somethin' at all. Now will ye cease yer prattle?!"
They came to a halt in a mile from the Candlekeep walls, unpacked their rations and set up camp.

Jaheira was pacing back and forth the common room, startling the customers of the Friendly Arm Inn.
"Darling, please calm down, t-they'll arrive any moment now."
She angrily brushed his hand off. "The storm is approaching! Gorion is in no condition to travel, he... he is old. What if they get separated? The child would never find the inn on her own! Reckless, both of them!"
"Oh, J-Jaheira, it will be easy to find the tallest building in the storm. It's just the building may not survive it. Which is d-disturbing." Khalid glanced at the windows anxiously.
"Nonsense! The builders knew their craft well. It was a temple of Bhaal, after all."
Oh, my husband, I shouldn't have said that, she thought. The god is dead and still his followers roam the land freely and haunt your dreams. But I shall hunt them to the last, I swear. For what they had done to you, for friends lost, for balance disturbed, they will fall and feed the earth.

But there was another one. A slender morose elf...
"...Is threatening to undermine the entire city's economy. You will investigate the events of the iron shortage, determine who or what are the causes, and ascertain whether there is a greater threat to the region as a whole. Is that clear enough?"
Normally he would approach such a task with a great deal of dread, but now he saw a brilliant opportunity to reach two goals simultaneously, one of the goals he made sure his superiors were not aware of.
"Yes," Xan said aloud, inclining his head to hide the triumphant gleam in his eyes. "I accept."

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #1 on: March 01, 2009, 01:00:38 PM »
Chapter 6. Leaving Evereska

Stai's chambers were empty, so Xan took a walk, making sure to pass by all her favourite places. Eventually he found her standing on the cliff over the silent panorama of Anarouch, staring into the ever shifting waves of the reddish-brown sand, her wand hand raised. The moonlight was creating a disturbing contrast, as if the slight figure of a woman before him was scribing colossal runes on the quicksand with a flicker of her wrist, deleting and scribing again.
He froze by, enchanted. There was no music in the air, the night city was silent, but he heard it in every line of her body, in every curve of the sands, flowing freely in the night, in the very light of Selune herself. She was his music, from the very day they met. Stai Sil'lana. His soulmate.
Beautiful... I have come.
Only to leave again. Her mental touch was soft and sad.
"What do you see for us in the nearest future?" Xan asked aloud.
"Nothing distinctly favorable," she turned to him, letting her arm fall. "There are shadows all around the girl. Some of the others have already set out to their task. They may seek to kill her, or control her--I do not know. But either way, you must find her first. Are you still planning to leave tomorrow?"
"It is settled, yes," Xan sighed as she stepped into his arms. Despite her usual mask of detached arrogance, there was a longing in her eyes he could not miss. "I am leaving and may not return. Almost assuredly, I would say. Stai, my only joyous thought is that my heart stays here, where it is safe."
"It is, for now," she nodded grimly. "But after the Bhaalspawn wars start, there'll be no refuge anywhere. I shall not linger here, in any case. A few more weeks, and my work in the city is complete. The major holders of the essence will be located."
"You have no reservations left, then?"
"No. There can be no reservations for unlimited power and unbounded possibilities. Besides," her lips quirked into a quizzical smile, "I follow my ambition, much as you follow your duty. You'd have never departed for the Sword Coast, if not for the mission you've been assigned."
"And I have a feeling it is going to be my last one," Xan muttered, listlessly tracing her face with his fingers. "I would do everything to investigate the iron crisis, and nearly everything to help you guard the girl, but together these might prove a mortal burden."
"You say this every time you depart," Stai's features softened under his caresses, and she gave him a slight smile. "But one of the best mages in the city simply cannot fail. And once all the possible threats are determined, and I need Everaskan archives no longer, you will have a powerful sorceress at your side. Me."
I would die for you, Xan heard her mental whisper, lost in the night wind.
Live for me, he answered.
"I would wish for nothing else but you, Stai," he briefly touched her lips. "From Evereska to Arvandor, to the grave and beyond, in the Dreamscape and in the Prime. If you intend to become a goddess, so be it. If you intend to locate, hunt and kill the remaining Bhaalspawn, aid Alianna's daughter in her ascension and force her to give up her sire's essence in the last moment, so be it. If your interests demand your presence at the Sword Coast, with me, it makes me all the happier. Who knows, perhaps my considerable magic talents and my blade will save me, and I'll live to witness your triumph. Though, of course," he sighed, "it is highly unlikely."
Stai's eyes blazed momentarily, as her gaze traveled to a sword at his hip. "Once it is over, we'll rid of this... thing, I swear."
This thing. Yes, my moonblade, my pride and my curse, Xan thought. Once I die, I shall not travel to the Blessed Realm of Arvandor, as all elves do. My spirit would be confined within the blade for millennia, until it becomes dormant of its own volition, and this fate is unavoidable. Centuries of imprisonment... centuries away from her. Though we part at times, as my Greycloak duties call me, this parting I shall not bear.
Yes, this affair is doomed to fail, but what... what if we succeed? Alianna's daughter would be able to live a long, natural life, no longer a pawn of Bhaal's prophecy. Isn't it what any normal person would desire? Meanwhile, Stai would have divine essence at her disposal, and I... I suppose I am more than an innocent bystander, now. Xan sighed.
"You are," the sorceress said, half-reading, half-guessing his thoughts. "We are together in this, it seems, as in everything else. Tomorrow you will leave, and later, I shall join you. But tonight... you are here, now. That's all that matters."
And the Bhaalspawn affair was forgotten for the night, as the black and chestnut hair mingled in the winds of Evereska, and their breath became one.

Chapter 7. Of Being Ready

"...Trust your benevolence. Step aside, and you and your lackeys will be unhurt."
The fight was to be upon her in moments, and she wasn't ready!
Ala gripped her dagger tightly, aware that it was impossible to inflict a grave wound with such a pitiful weapon. Nevertheless, she stepped back, allowing the shadows to swallow her. Gorion's plea, imploring her to run, was for naught. She would not flee, she would not desert her father.
White flashes of lightning struck both doppelgangers dead at once. Bright sparks came off their bodies, but the giant and the woman were unscathed. The man nodded and began to advance on Gorion, sword raised in both arms. The sage was sending wave after wave of magic missiles towards the assailant, but it only impeded him, for he hissed with pain, but kept moving.
The woman was scanning the battlefield for Ala, but her search was futile. The girl crouched behind her, silent as a statue, though cold sweat covered her body.
Where is the heart? What spot should I strike at?
She was perfectly aware of the human anatomy, but fear and alarm overwhelmed her. Unable of a single coherent thought, Ala stood numb and motionless, staring at the woman's back.
Gorion's last spell dissolved in the night, and the giant drove the sword home, chuckling.
The world hadn't changed. Nothing changed, but for Ala the figure on the ground meant the end of the world. No longer able to control herself, the girl seized the woman's shoulders and plunged the dagger into the base of her neck. The woman crumpled on the ground, moaning. She is still alive, is she? Well, we'll make it even.
Ala raised her dagger to strike one last time, but a bloodthirsty roar stopped her hand. The giant in the armor was coming for her.
This time, she was not afraid: there was nobody to be afraid for. Instead, Ala's mind had become miraculously clear. She could see every detail of his armor, she was aware of every sound of the night, from the woman's muffled whimpers to the distant sound of the waves, and she also became aware of the change in herself. There was a power she wielded, the power she used twice already, and she focused it at the giant, willing for her mind to enter his head, wishing for it so strongly it hurt. She stared...
...Into her own blank eyes. The body felt unwonted and unruly, but she concentrated harder and made it run, run towards the cliff as fast as possible. Her control slipped in a few seconds, but it was enough. Ala quickly crossed the battlefield, ran downhill and concealed herself in a mass of shrubbery. Then she collapsed and heard no more.

"Tamoko?" Sarevok breathed.
The woman muttered something in Shou, not opening her eyes. He called again, but she didn't seem to hear. I will pay my younger sibling for her impudence, Sarevok thought. How did she do this? I was coming for her, ready to rip her head off, and then... I found myself running towards the cliff, and by the time I returned, she had disappeared. How?
His head was still spinning, but his body was intact. I'll get you yet, sister. Gritting his teeth, he bent, picked up Tamoko's prone form and began to walk in the direction of Larswood.

Ala stirred. The lower part of her face was covered with blood and saliva, her tangled hair partially obscured the view, the taste in her mouth was unbearable. The girl felt as drained and exhausted as if she aged ten years since the previous night, and her head was splitting.
Something else was wrong... The girl rubbed her eyes and was halfway through smoothing her hair when she noticed what it was. Her hair. Her hair was entirely gray.
Panicking, she hastily felt her face and examined her hands. They didn't become wrinkled overnight, but there was a definite change. The skin's texture felt coarse, and while it wasn't exactly wreathed, it didn't feel as pleasant as it was before. She could only connect it to the events of previous night, but the reason why it happened was a mystery.
Wincing, Ala got up, covering her eyes from the sun with the back of her hand, and staggered to the main road. Friendly Arm Inn...
"Ala! Ala!"
The cry was coming from the site they were ambushed last night. She recognized the voice. Imoen. What shall I do?
For a moment, she was tempted to walk away. She was fully aware it wasn't a trap, but the thought itself of going there again made her stomach lurch.
But my friend is there, she thought. She's there on her own, meaning she left Candlekeep. She's got nowhere to go, and she's just found Gorion's body. Oh, Immy, I'm coming.
Imoen saw her and broke into a run. The girls hugged one another and stood still, both afraid to let go.
Ala recovered first. "We must run. The man who had done this may return. He is powerful, Im, so powerful. We must run. Now."
Imoen stole the last glance at Gorion's body and reluctantly followed.
They walked in the silence for a minute or so, then Imoen burst out: "We didn't even bury him!" She threw herself on the ground and broke into sobs.
Ala sighed. But if they were to get out alive, she would sit down and be sympathetic, for hours, if need be. She shuddered inwardly. Gods, we don't have that kind of time.
"Im, he protected us. That's the best way to leave, defending the thing most precious to you. Let go, Imoen. If we don't move now, his death would be meaningless. Come. The Friendly Arm Inn, Gorion's friends await us there. They can help us find this man, and find the cause of Gorion's death, as well."
Imoen looked at her strangely. "Ala, but you already know that. And now I know, too."
"What do you mean?"
"The letter. He crumpled it and left on the floor in his room, and I picked it. Not the letter on his body, the other one. The letter I was thrown out of Candlekeep for."
Ala reached out, and a crumpled piece of parchment fell into her hand. It read:
"Hello, Ala,
If you are reading this, it means I have met an untimely death. I would tell you not to grieve for me, but I feel much better thinking that you would. There are things I must tell you in this letter that I might have told you before. However, if my death came too soon then I would have never been given the chance. First off, I am not your biological father, for that distinction lies with an entity known as Bhaal. The Bhaal that I speak of is the one you know of as a divinity. In the crisis known as the Time of Troubles, when the Gods walked Faerun, Bhaal was also forced into a mortal shell. He was somehow forewarned of the death that awaited him during this time. For reasons unknown to me, he sought out women of every race and forced himself upon them. Your mother was one of those women, and as you know, she died in childbirth. I had been her friend and on occasion, lover. I felt obligated to raise you as my own. I have always thought of you as my child and I hope you still think of me as your father. You are a special child. The blood of the Gods runs through your veins. If you make use of our extensive library you will find that our founder, Alaundo, has many prophecies concerning the coming of the spawn of Bhaal. There are many who will want to use you for their own purposes. One, a man who calls himself Sarevok, is the worst danger. He has studied here at Candlekeep and thus knows a great deal about your history and who you are.
Gorion."
Ala closed her eyes. She almost felt the cool air of the library again...
"...During the days of the Avatars, the Lord of Murder will spawn a score of mortal progeny. These offspring will be aligned good and evil, but chaos will flow through them all. When the Beast's bastard children come of age, they will bring havoc to the lands of the Sword Coast. One of these children must rise above the rest and claim their father's legacy. This inheritor will shape the history of the Sword Coast for centuries to come..."
"...The spawn of the Lord of Murder are fated to come into their inheritance through bloodshed and misery. It is the hope of their father that only one shall remain alive to inherit his legacy. I foresee that the children of Bhaal shall kill each other in a bloody massacre..."
I didn't want to believe it, but it was me. All these years, it was me. And Gorion was killed, because of me. She looked down on Imoen. And my best friend would think so, too.
"Come, Im," she said. "Abomination or not, I will deliver you to Khalid and Jaheira before nightfall. It's not safe to wander the land when there are monsters like me on the loose."

Chapter 8. First Impressions

"Ala, look! Two guys ahead on the road!"
A halfling and a mage. Dirty leathers, plain green robes. Armed, too. On a road to Candlekeep. Not moving.
"Im, step carefully. It can be another ambush. Weapons at the ready, and attack when I say."
Imoen blanched, but shifted the grip on her bow just the same.
"Ho there, wanderers!" The mage coughed uncomfortably. "I mean... hello there. Why are you wandering the wilderness? Surely you must be none too bright to be traveling these roads."
"Really." Ala's voice was even, but there was a slight tremble to it. "And why do you travel this particular road?"
He flushed. "My compatriot and I go to Nashkel. Our business is not your concern. Suffice it to say that some acquaintances of mine wish us to look into this iron shortage."
"Nashkel, is it? Why then do you stand on the road that leads to Candlekeep, and Candlekeep alone?" Ala lazily raised her bow, ignoring Imoen's frightened glance.
"You do not trust us?"
"Xzar, I donnae know why you waste your time on this whelp," the halfling intervened. "I say we kill them, and be done."
"Now, Montaron, had I just been attacked, I might be leery, as well." He looked over Ala's bruised face and her tattered clothes. "And attacked you were, it seems. Nowhere to go, probably? Tsk tsk. I am sure we can think of something. Yes, yes, I have a solution, it seems. If you follow us to Nashkel, I'm sure we'll find a use for you. You may even get some of the reward."
Ala relaxed. So, they are not rogues, sent by Mr Spiky. Nashkel...
The girl looked at the duo thoughtfully, trying to form a diplomatic response. "We can not follow you," she said at last, "because we still have some business in the north. But it seems like an interesting cause. Will you meet me at Nashkel in three days?"
Xzar looked both pleased and surprised. "Goody good! We should make haste to Nashkel then, just a short ways south of here. Meet you there, our intrepid friends."
Montaron snorted. "And you'd better come, kid, for know this: if my blade does not work for ye, you'll likely end up with it against ye."
"We shall see," Ala calmly responded. "For now, farewell."
"Are you out of your mind?" Imoen clutched Ala's hand as soon as they were out of anybody's earshot. "They are obviously dangerous!"
"Im, everybody's dangerous. You were very dangerous, when you killed the doppelganger with his own trap. I am dangerous--well, eventually I will be, for that person who killed my father. They are a danger, but we can do nothing on our own. And if we do not increase our skills and get some good equipment, we just can't survive!"
"But they don't seem like, well, nice people. I'm scared we'll wind up killing innocent people, especially-"
"Yes?"
"After you found out who you are," Imoen finished in a small voice.
A child of Bhaal. Destined to bring murder wherever I go.
Ala gave a dry chuckle. "Us monsters like to roam the wild and kill innocent travellers, 'tis true. But as long as it depends on me, I won't start biting heads off, unless made to. Friends?"
Imoen raised her bloodshot eyes on her and weakly smiled. "Friends... sis."
They made it to Friendly Arm Inn before sunset. The sky was spectacular, but Ala never noticed it.
Imoen. She is scared, I can tell. What shall I do? She will be safe with Gorion's friends. Is it not the most obvious solution? Leave her at the inn with the new guardians and leave, probably never to return. My friend will be safe, and nobody else would suffer because of me.
And then Gorion's face surfaced from the depths of her tired mind. He would never want this. It would be running away, like I almost had done when I was a girl. Running away from my responsibility, running away from myself.
No. I shall protect us both, with his friends' help or without it.
Besides, I would miss her if I had to go. Though she is annoying sometimes, she is the only family I got. The only person who cares whether I live or die.
"Hey! You! Where are you from?" Ala was shaken out of her reverie by a rather rough male voice. It belonged to a middle-aged man, who was standing at the top of the stairs, leaning on a mage staff. There were strands of gray in his hair and his robes were tattered, but the look in his eyes was heavy and penetrating.
Another mage. And this one doesn't look harmless at all.
Ala prepared to answer, but Imoen pushed her behind and shot a disarming smile at the man.
"We're just passin' through, sir. Don't wanna trouble with no one."
"Just answer my questions, girl, and you'll have none. There are two of you, so you are probably not who I'm looking for. What is your name and where are you from?"
"Oh, I'm Mary from Potterville, sir, and that's my sister Hermy. We're to see my brother Sarry in Baldur's Gate. I am to marry him, you see." The girl fluttered her eyelashes. Ala was doing her best to keep her lips tightly closed. "Please, sir, we're hungry and tired, can we go?"
The mage looked over Imoen, who gave him another charming smile, and at Ala, who was barely suppressing a giggle, and nodded.
The girls hurried inside.

Jaheira was worried. It was normal for her to be in a state of ferment, but these days she found herself agitated more and more often. In her experience, every delay meant that something bad happened, and Gorion had never shown up tardy.
Her husband tried to distract her, but it didn't work. She spent hours, staring intently at the entrance, torn with desire to go for Gorion and the girl, to ensure they're safe, to ensure they are alive. Only Khalid's phrase "Jaheira, she could come here on her own, and what will s-she do?" stopped her.
The door slammed again. Probably some more travellers decided to spend the night under the roof after the last night's storm.
Her eyes hurt. Despite Khalid's protests, Jaheira spent the night in the common room, and the dull hubbub of the inn's patrons was getting on her nerves. I should probably rest for an hour or so. Just one hour.
She began to rise, wincing at the stitch in her leg for being still for so long. Khalid rushed to her side at once and offered his arm, steadying her. I'm not some doddering old crone, she almost snapped. And then she saw the girls.
Jaheira was struck by how exhausted they seemed. Granted, the journey in the woods is a tough one for inexperienced traveler, but the half-elven girl--Ala, her name was--looked as if she had spent at least a month there. There were twigs and leaves in her clothing, mud on her face and her hair looked no better than some wild beast's.
The other child, Imoen, looked slightly better. From what the druid remembered of her, she had always been pretty as a toy, and their recent journey had not changed it. The girl recognized Jaheira, too, and ran up to her, pulling her companion along. She almost collapsed next to Khalid's chair, looking truly relieved.
Jaheira bent over the girl, drawing her close. "It's all right now," she murmured into her hair. "You are home."
Ala mutely stared at her.

Chapter 9.  A Strange Bounty Hunter

Tarnesh had slammed his fist into the table, knocking off an empty jug. Tricked by a mere girl! He double-checked the description he got yesterday morn, and found out, much to his dismay, that the slobby girl he met was in fact Ala of Candlekeep. How many half-elves do you meet around here? He wasn't aware of her not traveling alone, that much was true. But to fall for such a primitive ruse! The thought itself was unbearable.
No, I must kill them there and now, otherwise there'll be no end of that. Snide remarks first, and some day an arrow from a rival. Bah! What do these young fools know about killing, anyway?
Lost in reminiscence, Tarnesh almost missed the moment his quarry came back into the common room. It was early morning, the breakfast hadn't been served yet, so the hall was half-empty. The girl probably decided to leave as quiet as possible, he mused.
But today she was not looking as desperate and helpless as she was when he first saw her. She moved with a dignified grace, jauntily holding the short bow in the left hand, her clothes and face clean now. Another girl was on her side, smiling and talking with a pair of people he hadn't seen before. He caught a word "Nashkel". These two looked as experienced adventurers. Both wore light mail, a sword hung at the man's hip, and a woman was gripping a tough-looking quarterstaff, tapping it against her palm impatiently.
She glared at him as they went past. Better not cross that one, he thought. Come to think of it, better not cross their group at all. But what to do with the bounty notice?
Then an idea came into his head, and everything became crystal clear. Larswood. I've been given the task only yesterday, so that man must still be there. I guess he'd want some information.

Larswood, bandit camp, several hours later...
"So she does not travel alone any longer? Sarevok, we'd better send Slythe and Krystin for them. This sibling of yours may resist simpler measures of extermination."
"Nonsense, Winski. I have plans for Slythe and his wife here. The girl is a mere distraction. I think Mulahey can deal with her."
His teacher raised an eyebrow.
"All right, you will help him, if you are so concerned. Teleport her into Mulahey's chamber at the mines, alone. Then he could deal with her at his leisure." The warrior's deep chuckle was disconcerting.

Beregost was the first town Ala had ever visited. In other circumstances she would be happy, ecstatic, practically bursting with excitement at the opportunities awaiting her there. In other words, she would be looking just like Imoen: laughing, skipping, turning her head all the time, pointing at every little thing.
Gorion. The word stood out in the wave of bleak images that were emerging in her mind again and again. Why didn't your magic work? You almost killed a Red Dragon once, Khelben "Blackstaff" himself talked to you like an equal, you could solve everything and now you're gone. How can this town be so quiet, bright and pretty? And the damn weather isn't helping. It would be better if it kept raining. Preferably ending up in a flood, too.
She glanced at Imoen reproachfully. She just can't help it, I guess. It's stupid to blame her, anyway. I'm the Child of Murder, it happened because Gorion wanted to shield me! Who's going to be the next one to die or disappear? Khalid? Imoen?
Or Jaheira? She was troubled about the woman. The half-elf seemed likable enough, that much was true. She took care of the girls at the inn immediately, tended to their bruises and scratches, and even sat with Imoen until the girl had fallen asleep. Ala, who never had anyone but Gorion, couldn't help enjoying it, but still she was worried. So far, they did not argue, and they were all going to Nashkel to investigate the iron shortage, mainly due to the absence of other opportunities, and Jaheira and Khalid were going there anyway, but...
But I want to make decisions, Ala thought. Candlekeep was a beautiful place, but it was a prison, nevertheless, a prison I could not leave, a prison where everyone could boss me around. Never again.
"Ala?" Khalid touched her wrist. "You've just lost your father, I understand. Maybe if you talk about it with someone, you'd feel b-better?"
"No." The remark seemed snappy, and she softened her voice. "No, Khalid. You were a friend of Gorion, I know. But now I want to be on my own for a while."
"Of c-course. Just know that we miss him, too. If you ever need it, we'll be there."
"Sure," Ala nodded and moved away.
Meanwhile, Jaheira led them to the local smithy. The idea to renew their equipment had merit, Ala grudgingly admitted, but they had no funds to accomplish it. A single enchanted bow or a decent full plate mail cost well beyond their current buying ability. Of course, Khalid and Jaheira had money of their own. The gem Ala sold at Friendly Arm Inn fetched a nice sum, too. But still it was not enough.
"Well, you could expect that, child," Jaheira scowled. "After you refused to kill the spiders for that woman, and bring her the wine and boots she asked for-"
"Yes, yes, and kill the local hobgoblins, and iron the golden pantaloons for some foppish noble, and fetch all the missing knick-knacks in ten mile radius," Ala snorted. "I've heard it already, and I'm not interested in delivering someone's garbage. Now, how to get this equipment? Perhaps a burglary?"
"No. You will not do this, girl. I promised Gorion to ensure your safety, and an armed robbery is not the way to keep you whole!"
"Aw, Jaheira," Imoen had caught up with the argument, "It'll be fun, you'll see. 'Sides, we attempted a burglary once, and it went smooth as anything, too!" Ala cast a sidelong look at her, but said nothing.
"It is not a v-very good idea..." Khalid began.
"We'll be killed without good armor and weapons," Ala said simply. "We'll be dead."
"If you're caught, I-" Jaheira faltered. "On your own head be it!" Khalid looked horrified, but nodded, too.
"Right, so that's settled. We'll go in there later and see how it can be done." Ala took Imoen's hand. "Now we need to find an inn."
The Red Sheaf seemed to be a pleasant enough place. Right up to the point when a surly-looking dwarf emerged from the side corridor, blocking the way.
"You're at the end of your rope, I'll wager", Ala heard. "Not that it's anything personal."
The dwarf abruptly stopped and almost chopped her head off with a fierce blow. Next moment Ala was roughly pushed aside as Khalid and Jaheira charged at her assailant. She briefly marveled at how different Khalid looked. Stammering and timidity forgotten, he parried the dwarf's mighty strokes, cold fury in his face. But the dwarf finally managed to get through Khalid's defenses, and the situation could have become grave, if not for another dwarf entering the inn.
"Karlat, old chap! What are ye doing here?"
"Gathering the bounties, as usual. Wanna lend a hand, Kagain?"
"Ye moron! Yon mother said to ye a thousand times already, don't shit where you live! The Flaming Fist would deal with ye soon, and serves you right!" The second dwarf headed straight for Ala and helped her up.
"Ye got to excuse him, lass. This one is me nephew, Karlat. He's a bit funny in the head, I'd better call for his Ma, she knows how to handle him. I am Kagain, and I own a good shop in this wretched town. Lately, though, the trade began to go downhill." He sighed. "They say the bandits attack the caravans."
"The bandits?" Ala's bewilderment gave place to curiosity. "Say, can we talk about it?"

Chapter 10.  A Risky Venture in Beregost

"So, let me get this straight: the caravans are being raided more and more often? And there's nothing Flaming Fist could do?"
"Not all caravans, lass," Kagain inhaled his pipe deeply. "Nowdays the caravans carry everythin' ye can think of, 'tis true. But still they mostly raid iron caravans."
"Iron?"
"Aye. Weapons, mail, instruments. Furniture, even. From Amn and Tethyr they come, but only a few made it to Beregost this year, and fewer still made it to Baldur's Gate."
"That might be connected to the iron crisis Khalid and I must investigate," Jaheira said in a low voice, leaning to the girl. "Perhaps it is a worthy cause."
The dwarf puffed a smoke ring and continued, "I meself run an escort business. I hire mercenaries to escort caravans on route from Amn to Baldur's Gate. Right now I'm lookin' for some strong sword arms, and I'm willing to pay high. It seems that one of the caravans under my protection never arrived at Baldur's Gate, and I need to know what happened. Ye look like a strong group of warriors; interested in a job?"
"Sure," Ala smiled slowly, "as soon as you tell us how much we'll be paid."
"Ehhh... I don't have much to spare, with the iron crisis and all... tell ya what. The lass who disappeared, her father's Entar Silvershield, and in this part of the world, his word is law. Normally I wouldn't give one damn about some stupid whiner, anyway."
"So?"
"So work yon stupid head, dammit! The man is a Grand Duke, how much d'ya think his only daughter is worth to him?"
And if we don't find her, you'll put the blame on our heads. Figures, Ala thought.
"All right," she said aloud. "We are interested in iron crisis, after all. But first we need to investigate the recent events in Nashkel. Can your client wait a week or two?"
"How can he not wait, lass?" Kagain grinned. "It's his only daughter we are talking about, aye? Come to my shop when you return, friends. It's north of Feldepost Inn." With these words, he left.
"How can you be so selfish!" Imoen immediately swept down upon Ala. "You would leave a helpless girl in bandits' hands? Nashkel mines won't explode because of a day's delay!"
The girl shrugged. "It's too risky for us now. If these bandits pillage armed caravans easily, they'll make mincemeat of our group. Or worse. I'd rather not leave you in their hands, much as it galls me to admit it. You don't want us to be abducted by bandits, do you?"
Imoen sighed. Jaheira raised an eyebrow, but eventually gave Ala a reluctant smile in return and nodded.
My first firm decision. Ala felt both joy and a slight chill as she realized what it meant. Jaheira actually listens to me, meaning that I am a leader in her eyes. From now on, the responsibility would rest on me, and me alone. And I will shoulder it, as I should.
The girl frowned, looking at the druid. It's funny how quickly I got close in with her. Probably... probably because she cares, under this grouchy exterior of hers. She cares about me and Imoen. Just like... Gorion.
The evening approached, and as the shadows lengthened, the tension in the room increased.
"Where is that girl?" Jaheira exclaimed for what seemed like the tenth time.
"I've sent her to chat with the owner of the smithy and to gather some information," Ala answered patiently.
"And what will you do when he meets her again? The man is not a fool, he'd know who robbed him blind." She scowled. "Even if we succeed, we'd better not return to the town again."
"When we succeed," Ala put the stress on the first word, "we'll go to the mines. After the mines are cleansed, nobody's likely to blame the heroes of Nashkel. The Flaming Fist would not believe him without proof, either."
The door burst open and Imoen had flown in, beaming. "Guess what? We can do it tonight!"
Khalid let out a squeal.
"Aw, Khalid, you worry too much. It's all easy as pie. The owner, Taerom Fuiruim, leaves at dusk. His helpmates leave earlier, so he spends some time alone in there. Khalid," the warrior jumped, "could go inside as a late customer, wrangle about the prices a bit-"
"Create a distraction, in other words," Ala cut in. "Great plan, Im. Is it possible to climb through the window?"
"Yeah," Imoen nodded. "There're lots of places to hide, and Fuiruim would be too busy with Khalid, anyway."
"Why m-me?" Khalid protested.
"You'd do just fine, Khalid," Ala touched his arm soothingly. "You're Calimshite, you are experienced in bargaining, and Jaheira's presence would only make the things worse."
"Are you sure that is safe, child?" Jaheira looked apprehensive. "The man may start to suspect something, he can easily hold Khalid back and call the guards!"
Ala frowned. "No, no, Khalid looks completely harmless, Fuiruim shouldn't get any funny ideas." She turned to Imoen. "By the way, Im, what about the guards?"
"They circulate along the main street, passing the smithy every ten minutes. We'll have enough time."
"Good." Ala stood up abruptly. "Let's go. Khalid, try to distract him for half an hour or so, 'till he gets really tired, and then we come in. Jaheira, wait for us near the palisade."
They left.
The night's smells and sounds were exquisite. Or maybe it's the feeling of danger that sharpens the senses, Ala thought. But can I really do it? Burglary is a part of my profession, but to rob the best smithy on the Sword Coast! Don't we set our standards a little too high?
The girls approached the smithy's back window. It was closed, of course, but one of Imoen's slim tools had taken care of it nicely. Ala went first, quiet as a mouse. Imoen followed, and Ala winced at the racket the girl made. Nobody else seemed to notice them, however, and they silently crawled along the wall, stopping in a suitable corner.
"...Is incredible! And what about t-that one?"
"My dear sir, we are closed! Please come tomorrow, and I'll be glad to show you all of these."
"B-but I have not examined it yet. Perhaps-"
"No!" The man sounded truly desperate. "I am sorry, but the laws of Beregost strictly state there's no trade after dusk. Goodbye, sir, goodbye, please come tomorrow!" The voices were cut short as the front door was being closed and bolted. The girls took a deep breath.
"Im, take two bows and all the magical arrows you can carry, then check out the counter for traps. I'll take the armor," Ala's fingers were shaking, but she was resolute, and in a few seconds two heavy sets of full plate mail were packed and ready.
"Gee, arrows of dispelling! Elminster beware!" Imoen giggled.
"Please, just get on with plundering, we can chat later."
"Oooookay. Close the door, it's draughty."
"Sure," Ala murmured vaguely and moved to close the door. Wait a minute, close the door? Oh no... But the door has four locks at the very least! It's impossible to open it quietly, unless it is...
"A 'Knock' spell. Highly useful, as is one called 'Invisibility'." The mournful tone did not match the obvious sarcasm of the words. "I suppose I'll have to join your party and show how to cast and use these spells. Your whole mission has been a dismal failure from the very start."
Ala gaped at the man that said these words. An elf! And a mage, no less. He was sitting on the counter, banging his legs against it, and apparently felt at ease.
"I'm so glad you approve," she gave him an ironic bow. "Now would you please let us finish what we have started? Unless you're determined to call the guards, but I do not think that is your intent."
"It is not. I shall do my best to get you out of here safely, though I am sure we both know that the worst is inevitable."
Bemused, Ala and Imoen gathered the loot and followed the stranger through the now open door.
Jaheira rushed to meet them. "Why in the name of Mother Earth did you delay? The guards could fall on us any moment!" She stopped abruptly as she noticed the stranger in their group. "Who are you? Speak quickly!"
"I thought the formal introductions could wait," the elf inclined his head, "but if you're interested, I am Xan, a Greycloak from Evereska in the North. Now we must away from this place, if you do not wish our acquaintance to be this brief."
Judging by Jaheira's face, she wished for just that, but she suppressed the biting remark and followed them into the night.

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #2 on: March 01, 2009, 01:00:57 PM »
Chapter 11. Visions

When the group had finally left Beregost, Ala led them away to a relatively secluded setting and motioned them to stop. "Now, I believe, is the time for some explanations," she gave their new party member a pointed look.
"Do you trust your companions?" the elf asked suddenly.
The girl raised an eyebrow. "I do not trust you yet, that much is certain."
He sighed. "You have attempted to rob the best-known smithy on the Sword Coast. Your endeavor was doomed. Surely you or your companion noticed that it was impossible to pull the window open from the inside?"
Ala remembered the strange noise she heard after Imoen climbed in. "Do you mean that any intruder is sealed there with no means of escape?"
"Except magical, yes. They do not bother to protect themselves from the simplest of spells."
"Why?" Ala was honestly bewildered. She had met many mages at Candlekeep, and naturally, the magical wards were maintained at the most precious sections of the library.
"Beregost is hostile to mages, being close to the magic-fearing Amn," Xan explained. "Besides, who wields magic there? A local mage, Thalantyr? A stray wizard? A spell to unlock the door is difficult to acquire." He brushed a loose strand of hair from his face. "The guards or Thunderhammer himself would have found you in the morning. Your fate would have been grave, indeed."
Then he saved our lives, after all. How very curious.
"I see," Ala said, "it was very noble of you to help fellow adventurers in need." Imoen sprinkled with laughter at this words, Khalid chuckled, and even Jaheira was forced to smile. "So what do you need from me? I won't ask again, mind you."
"But I have to. Do you trust your companions, Child of Murder?"
Jaheira visibly stiffened at these words. So she knows, Ala thought. Was she too scared to tell me? Imoen and Khalid reached for their weapons, looking wary.
"There are some who are aware of your true heritage," Xan proceeded in the same mournful tone, appearing not to be aware of their reaction. "The progeny of Bhaal are many, and while some are doomed from their birth and exist only to fuel their Father, others have more specific purpose."
"Like bringing havoc to the lands of the Sword Coast?" Ala trusted in her self-control, but her voice shook a little just the same.
He looked at her with something like respect. "Then I suppose I do not have to tell you that you are one of these Children. Of course, you're doomed just the same, but I'll try to postpone your gruesome death for as long as I'm able to."
"And why would you do this?" Jaheira's voice was deathly quiet.
"Because the wheels of Alaundo's prophecy had already been set in motion," he looked straight into her eyes. "The iron shortage is just the tip of the iceberg. And when the finger gets cut off, the whole body bleeds. The conflict in the Sword Coast may affect the whole Faerun for many years to come."
"And the Greycloaks would not allow it," Jaheira sneered.
"Neither, it seems, would Harpers," Ala intervened. "Don't stare at me like that, Jaheira, Gorion had told me much when I was a child. He had no secrets from me..." she paused, "well, almost. Unlike you, Xan told me about my heritage, so don't nag. He stays."

The girl dreamed of Candlekeep that night. The library itself was empty, and no sound from the outside reached her ears. The only person she could see was her own reflection in the large, full-length mirror. It was situated across the entrance, and as she approached it, she noticed something small and round lying underneath it. A bottle-green mask, the size of her face. Slowly, not fully realizing what she was doing, Ala bent to pick it up and sprang back with a sudden yelp as the mask came alive.
"This is a gift."
Startled, Ala turned around. There was a girl standing in the doorframe. She had the same pointed chin, high cheekbones and long gray hair that Ala had. A perfect double, in other words.
"You could use the mask to your benefit. Do you wish to be beautiful? Admirers at your feet, a crowd cheering you on, the looks of the most desirable woman on Toril?"
Briefly Ala had a vision of herself dancing with a blonde man wearing a very short golden tunic. She snorted and shook her head. That other 'Ala' made her feel uneasy.
"Ah, but you are a thief. You take the unnecessary risks each day, struggling for survival, while you can have it all in but an hour!" This time Ala was shown an image of herself exiting a castle with a careless stride, an enormous bag of gold in her hands.
She couldn't help giggling. "What's the point of adventure, then? And," the feeling of unease intensified, "who are you that proposes this?"
"I? I wear your face because you would not accept advice from anybody but yourself." Her double smiled. "As for who I am... you know me very well." She gave her a piercing stare that matched Ala's own. "Or you soon will. You have accepted one of my gifts..."
The girl jumped away. "Not a chance! I've read the prophecies, I know exactly why you need me and my siblings, and you won't get it," Ala's lips twisted in a snarl. "You're one lying, cheating bastard, 'Father', and I'll have none of your 'gifts'."
"But you have one already. Each time you use it, each time you accept it, you move a little closer to the evil within. And if you deny me, a god..." She laughed mirthlessly. "Your brother's minions will make you understand."
The double raised a hand, and the mirror shattered. One of the pieces hit Ala square in the face, and last thing the girl saw was her own reflection in that piece... wearing the mask.

Chapter 12. The Hobgoblins' Lair

They were concerned that news of the robbery had already reached the Flaming Fist, and thus, they used forest paths. In a few hours, however, Ala wished they hadn't. It seemed that all sorts of monsters took arms against the party. Before the shadows had even started to lengthen, it became apparent that the everybody was tired. Xan's magical energies were nearly spent, Imoen stumbled against every pebble, and even Jaheira began to use her quarterstaff as the means of support. Finally they called a halt. Wiping her sweaty forehead for what seemed like a hundredth time, Ala sat down under a fir tree next to Khalid.
"So," she said, looking over her companions, "shall we rest here or walk some more?"
"It's very d-dangerous to travel in the night," Khalid suggested. "We'd better find some place to rest. Even with infravision, I prefer the daylight."
"We are all doomed," Xan shrugged. "There's no difference when it happens."
"You're really helping with this relaxing attitude," Ala snorted. "Unlike you, I do not look forward to my doom."
"Beregost is not far," Imoen suggested. "I don't think they'll accuse us of anything. We're not mages, anyway. And Xan could be made invisible."
"I don't have any invisibility spells memorized," Xan answered in a melancholic voice. "You'll have to desert me here in the heart of the forest, waiting to be torn to pieces by beasts and monsters."
There was a collective groan. We'd be better off locked in the smithy, Ala thought. "Right. Let's find something that seems safe, and rest there."
Eventually they stumbled across a small cave. It was warm and dry, and Imoen discovered a small stream, coming from the back part of the grotto. It was difficult to wish for better. Jaheira was exhausted to the point of dropping, so Khalid helped her out of her armor and tenderly cradled her in his arms as she had lain her head on his lap. Imoen blushed as she noticed this, and made a point to unpack her bedroll as far from the couple as possible. Xan sat close by the entrance, absorbed in his book of spells. The elf did not have to sleep, like the others, so they asked him to do the watch. As the party finished their supper, Ala got up.
"I'm going to do some scouting," she informed, "and I'll be back shortly." She unsheathed her dagger and slipped out of the cavern.
The young rogue silently crept along the river flowing next to the cave. The forest around their hiding place was free of monsters, she could tell that much. But as she moved further, the night erupted with hundreds of vicious little voices, flaring up next to her with constellations of hostile eyes.
Ala silently passed what looked as a group of hobgoblins, then at least two dozen of gibberlings, then a lone ghoul, then another group of hobgoblins, no, the entire camp!
She was used to soldiers mounting tents and practicing weapon mastery while they were staying at Candlekeep on the way to Baldur's Gate, but to see malicious creatures doing the very same thing, looking so normal, so at home, was odd, to say the least.
Ala was not aware of how long she had been standing there, but a sound of broken twig right behind her had shaken the girl out of her dreaminess. She turned around and inhaled sharply.
Two large hobgoblins stood in front of her, weapons at the ready. There was a considerable distance between them, and the hobgoblin camp was far downhill, so she could try to run away. But in precisely the same moment Ala felt the air pushing out of her lungs as the earth was yanked out from under her. The third hobgoblin was obviously as good at sneaking as herself, and now the girl felt utterly helpless as he was holding her in the air by the waist.
"A good catch," he grunted. "She's not alone. Hazok, Cattack, go and find the others. The Chill will have a feast today!"
Are they going to eat us? Ala wondered.
The remaining hobgoblins turned and fled. Oh, no, she thought. Imoen, Jaheira... no.

Chapter 13. Timely Rescue

The hobgoblin dropped Ala on the grass and drew his short sword. "See that, pipsqueak?" he grunted. "You move, I kill."
"A-all right," she stammered, staring at his knees. The monster was wearing a very nice set of boots made of some silver cloth. Probably that's why I haven't heard him. Well, two can play that game.
"You're evil, w-wicked p-p-person!" she exclaimed in shrill, unpleasant voice. "Some hero would certainly c-come and rescue me!"
"Eh?"
"A m-monster! You deserve no less, than death, and more!" If I carry on like that, Jaheira would certainly hear me. She's a druid with sensitive ears, after all. Ala shuddered. I just hope the sound won't carry down to hobgoblins' camp.
The hobgoblin seemed to figure out what she said, and his face puffed with anger.
"You dare mock me?! Rrraaagh!!!"
He charged, and Ala barely had time to draw her own dagger. Using her natural agility, she had flown over him, turned around and stiffened in half-crouch, ready to strike. They warily circled around each other.
I must run! I can parry his blows for a while, but in the open combat... he'll get me in the end. Ala's face was composed, but her lower lip trembled as she measured him up.
The blades clashed. Ala managed to leave a dent on her assailant's armor, and the dark blood spilled forth. Her dagger was poisoned, but no poison, even the most violent one, had an immediate effect. She needed time, but she had none. Her movements were becoming slower, clumsier, and twice the blade almost sliced her up. Someone... anyone...
A low hiss ran through the air. The hobgoblin faltered. A stain appeared on his leather armor, and his clothes began to smoke. He growled in pain and began to flap himself, trying to get the substance off, but corrosion spread across his body faster, and he fell, acrid stench lingering in the air.
Xan materialized out of thin air next to Ala, a blade in his hands. "That was a close call," she breathed. "How?.."
"I'm sure I don't need to repeat the passage about postponing your gruesome death, do I?" Ala could swear he almost smiled.
"There were two others," the girl remembered. "Wait!" She hauled the body up and began to take off the boots.
"I assume you don't want me to step in his still-warm boots," Xan remarked.
"No way!" she chuckled, "these are for stealth, and you have your invisibility spells... wait a minute. You said you had none of those!"
The elf shook his head. "I shall help you however I can, but-"
"...You're going to choose your spells and tell me which ones you have yourself," Ala's voice was shaking. "I am sorry, but no. You are, of course, entitled to your opinions about which spells are best, but you are traveling in a party now." She folded her arms. "So, either you consult with me, or we go separate ways."
Xan's lips broke into a faint smile. "I would appreciate your insight, of course. I am sure the fact that you are several times younger than me only speaks on your behalf."
"Good," the rogue said, letting the sarcasm pass. "By the way, are you alone? Where are the others?"
"Sleeping, apparently. I didn't have the time to wake them up."
"You--what? The hobgoblins are out there, we are all going to be slaughtered, and you left them defenseless? You said you wanted to postpone my death, but do you even care about theirs?" Not waiting for his response, she ran to the cave.

Imoen opened her eyes. She had difficulty identifying where she was. It was dark and quiet, she was lying on soft covers, she was warm and comfortable. For a second, she had a fleeting feeling it was her old bedroom in Candlekeep.
There was a muffled sound from another side of the cave, and Imoen craned her neck to get a better picture. She regretted it immediately. Khalid and Jaheira... oh, gods, what is he doing... c'mon, they can't do it with everyone watching! She blushed. Or can they? By the way, where's everyone? Ala went scouting long ago, and where's Xan? He was supposed to guard us!
Then she heard something that made her blood freeze. A loud curse, and a growl in return. The voices sounded close, too close to their hiding place.
Ala tore through the forest at full speed, never minding the twigs and branches that got in her way. The stealthy approach was out of the question since she needed to arrive before hobgoblins did. Out of breath, she stopped on the edge of the forest area. The hobgoblins were exploring the source of a river, and Ala's heart sank to her stomach when she realized that they were to find their hideout any moment.
Not pausing to think, she flexed the bowstring with the poison arrow ready to fly, pointed the tip at the direction of the nearest creature and released the arrow with a tinkling sound. An instant later, the hobgoblin fell over. Yes!
She reached for another arrow, but a figure leaped out of the cave, there was a swishing sound and a large thud, and the second corpse fell into the river.
"Where have you been, girl?" a heavily accented voice asked her as she approached. "Khalid and I were very worried about you, with these unnatural creatures around. We were lucky that Imoen woke us up." For some unfathomable reason, Jaheira didn't quite meet her eyes when she said this, and her cheeks were distinctly pinker than normal.
Xan appeared on the other side of the clearing. "The monsters' camp is on the right side of the path. If we spend the rest of the night here and move out in the morn, following the main road, we could be in Nashkel by nightfall."
Imoen looked over her companions. Ala hid herself in a distant corner of the cave, probably mad at herself for whatever happened near hobgoblins' camp. Jaheira and Khalid were sitting hand in hand, looking guilty, though they exchanged happy looks from time to time.
Xan's face was impassive, though Imoen privately suspected he couldn't help feeling guilty, as well. Leaving us alone and helpless! Granted, he heard that Ala was in danger, but he could at least wake us up! Though she reddened at the prospect of Xan waking up Jaheira when she and Khalid were... well... sleeping.
She was really annoyed with Xan, but she was more annoyed with herself. Her best friend and sister had to go out alone and to put her life at risk, and she, Imoen, couldn't help her!
"What is it, Imoen?" Ala appeared next to her, looking worried. "You look bad. Don't you want to sleep awhile? We have some time yet."
"I'm fine, sis," Imoen smiled sadly. "I just wish I could be of more help to you."
"But you are of help to me. Best friends, always, remember? Besides, oh mighty Imoen, what am I to do in the dungeon without you? How shall I plan the greatest burglary on Faerun without you? It won't be fun!"
"Thanks, but... I don't know," Imoen sighed wistfully, "it seems fine, but I need more than that. Gorion, he promised to teach me magic. Real magic, so some day I could become like Khelben or Elminster, or... Gorion himself. And now he'd never see me in the robes of an archmage, conjuring up demons and defeating dragons! Even if I become a mage, for him, I'd always stay just plain Imoen." Her voice shook and died.
"But you can become a mage, if you want!" Her friend hugged her. "Well, it's not as good as being a dashing rogue, but these robes have a sort of charm. And don't you think Gorion wouldn't be proud of you! You are strong, and you've saved our lives more than once with your quick thinking and, er, careful planning."
"I'll think about it, sis," Imoen smiled. "Thank you."

Chapter 14. Journey in the Light

When dawn approached, they entered the path from Beregost to Nashkel once again, leaving the hobgoblin camp behind. Imoen and Khalid brightened up, as the road proved to be quite empty, and even Jaheira looked somewhat relaxed.
"Say, Jaheira, what are we going to do once we come to Nashkel?" Imoen asked.
"We must see the mayor of the town, Berrum Ghastkill," the druid answered. "And we'd better see him as soon as we enter the town."
"Why?" Imoen raised her eyebrows incredulously. "Can't he wait?"
"He can, Imoen, but the problem is the hostility of local townsfolk," Jaheira explained. "If we stay in town for long, there can be trouble."
"But we're going to save them, aren't we? Why would they attack the heroes?" Imoen frowned.
"The tension between Amn and Baldur's Gate increases, child. Nashkel is on the border of Amn, and during the last year its garrison doubled. The representatives of Cowled Wizards have been sighted there, and now the regulations on using magic in Nashkel are as strict as they are in Athkatla. They expect a war, if you ask me. We shall do what needs to be done, but the roots of this iron shortage plunge deeper than a small boorish town."
"So we are to jump from frying pan into the fire?" Ala said, frowning. "Nice. Hope the Amnish soldiers won't insist on having us for dinner, though, otherwise I'd prefer hobgoblins."
Their path was blocked by a small river. The bridge had been washed away, and though the stream was shallow, nobody expressed any desire to enter the icy cold water. In the end, they decided to journey through the woods once again.
The forest thickened, and it had become harder for the party to squeeze their way through the dense trees, as well. Imoen had the hardest time. Her normally alluring hair became greasy and disheveled, and her pinkish costume was torn in several places.
"I always wondered how heroes and knights were able to be clean and elegant all the time," she sighed.
"It's all stories, Im," Ala shrugged. "We've never actually seen Elminster in a snow-white shirt and a beard falling in curled tresses, have we?"
"Maybe you're right, sis, but can you really, really imagine Drizzt with yellow teeth and unwashed armpits? Ew!"
"It is perfectly natural," Jaheira noted. "I don't see why you're so disgusted, child. It's not as we would look better after a week in the wilderness."
Imoen snorted indignantly. "Whatever ya say, Jae, but I'd rather think of Drizzt as a Great Hero, not as a pig on a hot day."
Luckily, the thicket was over soon, and they found themselves on a pleasant-looking glade. The gentle murmur of a brook nearby, soft, almost tender brushes of wind and sharp aroma of forest flowers were overwhelming the senses. For an hour or so, they rested.
Xan sat next to Ala.
"What are you going to do when this is done?" he asked quietly.
"What do you mean, done? There's Nashkel... adventures..."
"Yes, but what then?"
"When I'm stronger?" Ala bit her lip. "There is a man who killed Gorion. I'd like to look into his eyes. And... and I am a Child of Bhaal. I won't be left alone, ever, right? So there's no need to think about the future."
Xan sighed.
"Correct. You know what awaits you, Ala. It is reassuring."
The road turned south again as the sun finally set down. In the flickering purple light the figure of approaching Flaming Fist soldier seemed small and insignificant. But his voice carried over at least a mile, and Ala winced as her sensitive ears caught what seemed to be a blunt "friend or foe" question.
"Hold! I am a member of the Flaming Fist, and require that you identify yourselves."
"We're adventures," Ala answered curtly.
"Adventurers, huh? Well, you should keep a look out, there's been quite a few reports about bandits causing trouble round these parts."
"Bandits?" Jaheira asked. "This is not the first time we hear about bandits in these parts."
"Yeah... a real plague, if you ask me. Well, follow the road, if you intend to arrive to Nashkel by nightfall."
"Thank you," Ala nodded.
Jaheira looked thoughtful.
"What is it, d-dearest?" Khalid touched her shoulder.
"Bandits and iron shortage," Xan said thoughtfully. "They are connected."
"But how?"
"We shall see," Xan sighed. "I only hope we shall live to see."

Chapter 15. The Wrong Person

It was midnight when the adventurers finally reached Nashkel. Both girls were disappointed to see a mere village with farms here and there instead of a proper town. There was only one street, and the largest building reconciled temple of Helm, mayor's headquarters and the local court, as Jaheira hurriedly explained before going inside.
The building was empty, and half of the lights were extinguished, but the mayor was still at his desk. "Hello there!" he announced with a warm smile. "I recognize Khalid and Jaheira in your group, so you must be the adventurers I was expecting. I am Berrum Ghastkill, mayor of Nashkel, and I am happy to welcome you. I am sorry we had to meet under these circumstances."
"What exactly is the trouble here?" Ala inquired carefully.
"I can't believe you haven't guessed." He clasped his hands. "Have you heard of the iron shortage? Well, Nashkel is in the thick of it. Our mine is all but shut down because the workers continually go missing, and what ore we do get is tainted somehow. I would send in the town guards, but we need them to protect our citizens from the bandits that raid our caravans. We need you to find out what is wrong in the mines southeast of town."
"Very well," Jaheira said, "We'll help as best we can."
"Wait, Jaheira," Ala angrily interrupted her, "I'll need an appropriate reward for my time."
"Is being the toast of the town not enough?" The mayor looked surprised. Imoen snickered. "Well, if the gratitude of an entire town is not enough, don't worry. You will be rewarded in gold, if that is all you desire. Go now and do what you can. Oh, and there was another group of adventurers. They left for mines yesterday afternoon. Xzar and Montaron, their names were."
"I should have expected as much," Jaheira muttered as they exited the building. "The Zhentarim are always meddling in other people's affairs."
"Do you know them, then?" Ala asked.
"Not as such, child, but Khalid and I had to keep tabs on the members of the Black Network visiting the Sword Coast. These two were among them."
"I see," the girl said thoughtfully. "What do you think of working together with them?"
"What? Are you completely out of your mind, girl? They will betray you in a blink!"
"I do not expect any treachery on their part, Jaheira," Ala responded calmly. "I have already agreed to help them, after all. They wanted assistance, so why would they betray me until our task is done? So I want it to be understood: if we catch up with them, we'll work on this task together."
"I hoped Gorion drummed some sense into your head," Jaheira sighed. "Obviously, I was wrong. Khalid and I will follow you, for now. But working with Zhentarim... I do not know if I can stand it for long."
"Not for long, no. But we need any help we can get. And I'd rather have them help us, instead of fighting them as well as monsters."
The night was half-gone when the adventurers entered Nashkel Inn. It was surprisingly clean and well-lit. There were some late customers in the bar, and some of the tables were occupied, too.
Jaheira proceeded to the owner to rent some rooms, leaving the rest of the party at the doors. Not desiring to be in full view of other clients, they found a table in the corner and ordered some drinks. Even Khalid looked relaxed, regarding a pretty barmaid's cleavage absent-mindedly as he sipped his ale. Ala was pretty sure Jaheira would give the girl a good beating if she saw that.
"Just fancy my luck seeing you stroll in here," a woman's voice purred next to Ala's ear. "Tarnesh, they have arrived!"
Not pausing to think, the girl kicked aside her chair and drew her weapon, seeing others do the same. Xan raised his hands, but Ala stopped him with a gesture. If a member of her party would openly use magic on Amnish citizens, the punishment would be severe indeed.
The next moment, all thoughts went right out of the girl's mind, replaced with numb fear, as a spell hit her. She ran blindly, but the second spell stopped her in her tracks, unable to move, and fear gave way to panic. Ala was scared out of her senses, and the heavy black haze of madness was very close.
Next to her, Jaheira and Khalid stood still as statues. Imoen was nowhere to be seen. Xan drew out his sword and was attacking the mage, who looked vaguely familiar. I've seen him at the Friendly Arm, she remembered. He's here to get me! THEY ARE ALL HERE TO GET ME!! The panic was overwhelming, Ala wanted to scream, but her mouth was dry, it was impossible even to move her lips.
A mage stepped out of the shadows, a large bright-coloured gem in his hands. She heard rhythmic chanting, and white mist started to flow from his hands, streaming to her body.
The mage disappeared in the substance. In moments, Ala was cloaked in it, too, and she felt strong tugging at her feet as her insides churned inside out. A teleport spell? No!
Then the girl heard a strangled cry, a scream, and something heavy dropped on the floor. She felt being roughly pushed aside, and Xan took her place. A second later the tugging disappeared and the mist cleared... together with Xan. Ala forced her body to move and surveyed the room. What the hell happened?
Khalid was pulling Jaheira up, both of them seemingly unscathed. The woman who chanted the holding spell was lying on the floor, too, but she was dead. The mage she'd met at the Friendly Arm Inn was sitting next to her, clutching at the gaping wound in his belly.
Imoen... Imoen was nowhere to be seen. Where is she? They haven't taken her with them, have they? Just at the moment the door creaked, and Imoen entered, looking sheepish. She must have gotten a blast of Fear spell, too, Ala realized.
Jaheira said something to Khalid, and both of them approached the table. Ala beckoned Imoen and joined them. "Where's Xan?" she asked in a low voice. "He hasn't been hit with a spell, has he?"
"The elf's... dead," the mage spoke, coughing up blood. "Mulahey won't let his victims out alive. He'll have revenge for me and Neira."
"Mulahey?" Ala jumped to Tarnesh and shook him by the shoulders. "Where is he?"
"Mines..." he exhaled.
Jaheira walked up to him and checked his pulse. "He is dead," she said grimly. "I saw Xan pushing you away and taking your place, child, so the mage spoke the truth. We'd better hurry to the mines. It does not bode well, not at all."

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #3 on: March 01, 2009, 01:01:14 PM »
Chapter 16. Water

Tick... tick...
The sound of footsteps, growing softer... Footsteps? No. There's no one here. I'm not sure if I'm even here.
He had no body. He was flowing in the empty space, in total darkness. Circles of light were exploding behind his eyes. He had a vague idea he should know where the circles were coming from, but the brain refused to think.
Tick, tick, tick...
Eons of time had passed... or were it minutes? He was certain he couldn't endure it any longer, but in the same time he felt it could continue for all eternity and still he would have to go on.
Before there were... yes, there were emotions. Fear. Compassion. Pain. The desire to live. Boredom? Now there was nothing. He began to doubt whether there was anything at all, whether there was any 'earlier'.
Tick...
The water. I remember the word. It was...

It was full moon, and the crystal light filled the waters of Shining Falls, making every strand flow with its own unique shade. An occasional cloud emphasized the beauty even more, as waters shifted their color, becoming light grey instead of slivery white.
Stai wistfully regarded the moon path. "It is leading to the Tower. The Tower of Dreams, a humble abode of Corellon Larethian himself, the place mortals cannot enter."
"And this is the river of Singing Waters that outsiders cannot enter," Xan answered. "There are always places you may enter, and places you may not. It is in our nature to erect barriers."
"But every barrier can be broken. The desire to reach immortality aside, there is love, and revenge, and the will to live. I know I would reach everywhere, if anything happens to you."
"Sometimes even that is not enough. There's time and space, and time waits for no man. We're all doomed, you know."
She laughed. "Well, if we are doomed anyway, would you go to the Tower with me now? I don't mind stepping up a little closer to Arborea, in a way."
"Whatever." Stai grasped his hand and they ran towards the moonlit stream of the waterfall.
The sparkling drops of water sprinkled their clothes as they approached it, and within moments the gentle rain turned into an impenetrable wall that cut them off from both the Tower and the waterfall. Panting, they stopped.
"Well, you should have known there was a barrier," Xan shrugged. "Not everything is possible."
"Ah, there's always the chance," Stai smiled mischievously. "Let's try again!"
This time they used magical shields to protect themselves from the water barrier. It helped for a while, and they ran forward, encouraged, but when they were halfway up, fierce and erratic wind gusted at them. Their magical barriers were swept off within moments, and the next outburst of wind pushed them down. Twisting in the air, they went headlong into the lake. In the last moment, Xan deftly conjured an air lens out of thin air, thus softening the fall.
"And I almost felt we have a chance," he noted with something remarkably like regret in his voice. Then the whole weight of Shining Falls came down on his forehead.

Water on his forehead. Tick... Tick... Tick...
He tried to open his eyes again, but it hurt too much. The rest of the body he didn't even feel. His consciousness was slipping, and his thoughts blended into a tired blur. If he died, there would be nobody to protect the girl. And she's not ready. Not yet.
The barriers of time and space... Ala, can you overcome this particular barrier?
Tick...

Chapter 17. Entering the Mines

After a previous long journey in the woods the adventurers were on their last legs. There was no argument about resting. Jaheira and Khalid chose a small room next to the inn's entrance, and both girls slept in the only other room available.
Nobody talked much during breakfast. It was mutely agreed that they would go to the mines straight away. Before dawn, the party crossed Nashkel's main street and made their way to the south. Berrum Ghastkill provided them with an excellent map, and they reached the location in several hours.
"It was all trees and flowers only an hour ago, and now it's all empty..." Imoen looked dismayed.
"Barren and desolate," Ala gloomily commented. "Also completely impassable. These stone piles are driving me mad. If no one breaks a leg here, it'll be a miracle."
"Children, it is a natural state of the earth," Jaheira tried to sound reassuring, though it showed that she wasn't enjoying the landscape, either. "The iron does not improve the land, and its fertility decreases. It's akin to the land's natural state."
"Yeah, right," Ala replied, clearly unconvinced. "Now, where are these mines?"
"Probably that s-soldier might know," Khalid suggested timidly.
Indeed, there was a tall fellow in shiny armor approaching them. "You there, stop! Sorry to bother you, but you should be aware of the danger you're in right now. There are kobolds about. I'd advise that you return to Nashkel, where it's safe."
"I've never heard of kobolds in these lands, though there are plenty to the east," Jaheira said. "We must find out where they come from, or the mines will remain tainted. Nature would not allow these creatures to exist here, they disrupt the balance."
Ala turned to the soldier. "Actually, we're adventurers. We're here to help you out. Perhaps you could tell us about what's been going on in the region and where the mines are?"
"Of course. We could sure use some more fighting men. If you want to know where to go, just go to the northwest. Up there is the mines. Emerson might tell you that he don't need any adventurers, but you don't listen to him--we need as many men as we can get. Now I must go. I need to tell the mayor we need more guards," his face was somber. "Good day to you."
"The man has a sense of humor," Ala sighed. "'Good day', indeed... I hope this day won't be our last, in any case."
They proceeded cautiously. The area around the mines was swarming with kobolds, but Imoen and Ala found a safe way between the monsters' groups by sneaking between their lines.
Then something happened that made them all halt. There was a small figure in the middle of a glade, a gnome. He just stood there, not moving, not doing anything at all. As they came closer, he seemed to come out from his trance and ran up to them.
Imoen whimpered and fainted, Khalid barely had time to pick her up. Confused, Ala shifted her gaze from her friend and almost fainted herself. The gnome who was approaching them lacked both his eyes and ears, and these were torn out in most brutal fashion. She saw Jaheira nearby gripping her quarterstaff very tightly, her knuckles white.
"Hey, wait, please, wait. You've gotta help me, they're after me. They'll be here soon," Ala heard.
"W-what happened to you, g-good gnome?" Khalid asked.
"They're kobolds, dozens of them. They captured me and stripped me down. I was brought to Mulahey's chambers, he tortured me for no other reason other than to hear me scream. Then he said I was no more fun, and if I escape, he grants me freedom. Then he put out my eyes and set kobolds after me. But...I am at home underground, I helped build some of this tunnels, so I got away. They'll be here soon...we have to run...get out of here."
Ala's face had gone very pale. "We'll escort you to the mines. The miners would take you to Nashkel, maybe the temple of Helm can help you."
Before they came down to the mines, they destroyed every single kobold in the area.
Emerson, a short, red-faced man in charge, melted under Jaheira's gaze. "Well, I see no harm. Indeed, we could be using the help. There be problems in the lower level, where we lost some workers. The men talk of things a-movin' below, but who's to say. The earth, she hides many things from sight." He leaned closer, and Jaheira winced at his sour breath. "I can tell you this: there's a bunch a mean dog like creatures killin' me men in the mine. Ya gotta stop 'em!"
A soldier at the entrance was quite friendly, too. "I wish you guys luck in there. Whatever's been causing all the trouble isn't something I'd wanna run into."
The mine looked perfectly ordinary. There were carts, empty and full ones, the air was a bit colder than on the outside, and all workers wore a permanently frightened look, but otherwise nothing indicated a massive kobold invasion.
And then Ala heard an unpleasantly familiar voice. "You have come! Look, Monty, our good friend returns! Now we're ready to deal a fatal blow to the Rabbits! 'Tis true, I swear!"
She sighed inwardly. Insane. Looks like I'm in hell already. And that man wished us 'good day'...

Chapter 18. Friends Nilly-Willy

"We have no time to do these puny errands, Im! Put the ring back to where it belongs. And let go of the dagger. There're dozens of miners there, do you think this Kylee has his name written down on his loincloth or whatever they wear?"
"But sis, they really, really need these things! And delivering them is what heroes do!"
"Sometimes I think they lose their junk on purpose," Ala crossed her arms. "If you lag because of them, don't blame anyone. We aren't going to wait for you to teach this poor sod 'the Stance of the Coyote' with the dagger, alright?"
"Listen to the good advice," Montaron sneered. "Honestly, don't ye have any sense? The fine makings of adventurer are two: ye kill and ye take the loot. "
"Enough," Jaheira cut him off, "let's get moving. Ala, take him and check for traps."
"I'd not be ordered by ye," the halfling growled but followed the girl. The rest of the party waited near the entrance to the level.
"Do you t-think they'll both make it back?" Khalid asked uncertainly.
"I know I'd give the halfling a beating if he tries something stupid," Jaheira snorted. "But for his own sake I hope he won't."
"Oh, Monty's a real treat!" Xzar said dreamily. "He helps me with taming dragons, you see."
Khalid looked startled. "W-what dragons?"
"The dragons with feet like rabbits!" The necromancer opened his eyes wide. "But never fear, my friend, they soar high in the clouds! Here we are safe. Ahhhh, I'm never quite so comfortable as when I'm at least six feet under."
Jaheira groaned. "I wish we were here alone here."
"Here?" Her husband's shoulders sank. "T-there are s-so many places I would rather be. B-but definitely not here," he glanced at Xzar, who was serenely painting runes on his nails. "In fact, anywhere b-but here."

As the two rogues proceeded down the narrow, dark tunnel, Ala briefly regretted that they didn't have Xan with them, Xan and his magical light. There were several nasty traps in the walls, and though Ala spotted one or two, and Montaron disarmed the most dangerous ones, they still moved painfully slow. It was impossible to see clearly in the scarce illumination, and their infravision helped only so far. In the end, Ala managed to get a spike in her shoulder. My first scar, she thought.
"Ouch!" Montaron yelled. "Don't ye stare at me! The kobolds are coming!"
In the dim light, Ala could see about half a dozen of the dog-headed creatures approaching, clasping short bows in their tiny hands, eyes glistening in the darkness. The monsters gathered on the edge of an underground lake. A long, crude bridge separating them from Ala and Montaron, though the girl could tell it wasn't a reliable barrier.
The halfling finished disarming the last trap, and they backed into the shadows, ready to return to the party. The kobolds stayed in place.
"What d'ya say about taking on this bunch?" Montaron suddenly asked in a hoarse whisper.
"Are you mad? They'll tear us apart in no time!"
The halfling went silent at that. However, as they turned to flee, he unsheathed his short sword and made a step backwards.
"What?.."
"Arrrr, go suck yer blade! If'n I'm not allowed to step in, our next assailants may just live!" With these words, he rushed into the fray.
Mad... But she couldn't leave him alone. Cautiously moving towards the bridge, Ala drew her dagger. At least I have a proper weapon. Hope Thunderhammer doesn't miss it very much.
Backstabbing these creatures proved to be surprisingly easy, much easier than simply shooting them down. Distracted by Montaron's yells, kobolds twirled their little heads this way and that, and Ala cut two of them down swiftly.
Montaron kicked three of the monsters into the lake and was butchering the rest, his eyes shining madly. "And the rivers run read!" After beheading the last monster, he turned to Ala, and for the moment the girl thought she'd be the next victim. But then Montaron's face relaxed, and he winked. "Effective. I may not kill ye after all."
But I'll make sure to dump you at the first opportunity, she thought. Forget the idea of more traveling companions, killing for the sake of killing is really mad. Not to mention not following orders.
"Montaron, who are you?" she asked. "You and Xzar are not simple adventurers, aren't you?"
"'Tis a wonder you've lived as long as you have," the halfling snorted. "Asking such won't get ye anywhere but to a shallow grave. Now leave me be, lest your head leave yer neck."
"Montaron, you really need to clear the mines, don't you?" Ala pressed, unabashed. "Why? I have the same goal, yes, but you and Xzar don't seem the type to help people in need, not even if money is involved."
"Ye could be Harper, the way ye irritate me so!" the halfling put his hand on the sword hilt.
The girl sighed in exasperation. "Believe me, I'm not. But my friend..." She paused. I can't possibly tell him Jaheira is a Harper, can I? "My friend knows some of the Harpers. And she has been told to expect Zhentarim here." Ala made a significant pause again. "A halfling and a mage."
"Ah well," Montaron growled in defeat, "the mad wizard has probably forgotten who we are, anyway. I'm part of an order known as the Zhentarim. We've been sent to learn why the Zhentish name has been slandered along the Coast. It would seem that someone has been trying to make our order look bad. Now get off me!"
So he admits it. Ala rubbed her temples wearily, trying to concentrate. For some reason, the tinkling sound of water drops nearby annoyed her to no end. Now, there's tension between Amn and Baldur's Gate, Amn blames Baldur's Gate for tainting Nashkel iron, and Baldur's Gate--do they blame Amn as well? And what do Zhents have to do with it?
Ala reluctantly followed Montaron, still deep in thought. At least I know what these two are up now. From what Ala had learned at Candlekeep, the Zhentarim order concentrated on monopolizing trade, controlling small towns and cities, and conspiring against an ever-growing list of enemies. Thus the duo's interest to Nashkel mines' infestation could be explained. They were trying to prove it was 'other evil guys, not us'. Ala snorted. From the point of the outsider, it looked funny indeed.
After both rogues returned, covered in blood and got a much dreaded scolding from Jaheira, the party moved forward together.
This place has a sort of beauty, Ala thought. The lakes, the streams, the meandering tunnels, the elaborate caverns--it was depressing, but fascinating at the same time. I wonder if the fabled Underdark is like that. Hope some day I'll see for myself.
"Wait!" Jaheira stopped, listening to something. "Some animals ahead."
"So?" Montaron was looking impatient. "Ye need them dead?"
"No," she looked doubtful. "We need allies for the upcoming battle with this Mulahey."
"Ewww," Imoen wrinkled her nose. "I really don't want to think about it much."
"Can you handle it, Jaheira?" Ala reached older woman's arm. "Because it's risky, and I don't want you to get hurt."
"Shush, child. Now stay aside!" Jaheira pushed her quarterstaff in Imoen's hands and walked forward, her face set. There was a sound of quiet chanting, a spread of soft light, and then she walked out, three giant spiders following in her wake.
"The spiders will show us a hidden way beneath the mines, but we don't have much time," Jaheira said. "The mental link can break any moment." The druid's voice was strained. Controlling three creatures at once must be difficult, Ala realised. I hope we'll find Mulahey soon. And Xan. The girl clenched her teeth. "Lead the way, Jae."

Chapter 19. Visions of Warning

Stai woke up with a start. It was early morning, and she was lying on a familiar stone platform that faced the desert, her favorite place for the divination attempts. The sun was slowly rising, tincturing both the desert below and the green vastness of the city above in different shades of pale gold.
Morning already, Stai thought. What took me so long? And what did I see the previous night? I do not remember...
Stai buried her face in her hands, trying to bring back the results of the previous night's attempts, calling forth the uneasy, vague state of Seeing. At last, the woman slipped to the verge of consciousness, and the tangled rush of images flooded her mind...
She found herself in an old cavern deep underground, sketches of old, long forgotten gods painted on its walls. Blue and orange; her sense of taste cringed at the sight of these gaudy colors. Stai was moving along the narrow corridor, delving deeper into the labyrinth, and she knew that there was a real possibility of not returning back. She did not want to. In her dream, there was no 'back'.
There were traps around the entrance, and the sorceress' fingers automatically took care of them, firing spell after spell at the floor. She was gliding along a short, roughly carved tunnel now, passing ghasts and other undead on her way. The dream version of Stai knew that they presented no danger. There was someone else, the puppet master...
A set of heavy double doors prevented her passing. Another swish of a hand, and they crumbled to dust, together with a large part of the wall. The dome began to shake, and cracks formed along the newly established doorway, but a single snap of her finger stopped the process. Erecting a magical shield, she entered the inner rooms.
Undead, kobolds, skeletons. Bats at the ceiling, skeletal fighters and archers along the walls, rotting figures, standing as mock guards at the entrance. Their leader was standing on the other side of the room, half-hidden in shadows. The sorceress raised her hands once again, ready to blast her opponent to smithereens.
At precisely that moment, the figure laughed with a carnal, triumphant laugh of a sated predator, and its arm pointed to the floor. And then Stai saw it: a body in the farthest corner of the room, chained, crumpled in a heap like a pile of garbage. He... it's him. Xan. No! Then the room went black.
Stai snapped her eyes open and couldn't help screaming. During her brief reverie, her body had rolled off the cliff and now was falling towards the sands of Anauroch like a meteor.
Still drowsy after the vision, she tried to slow the descent. Sand filled her eyes, mixing with tears, and the dust of the desert entered her lungs, choking her. At last, a silvery form escaped her lips, and the sorceress was slowly borne to the ground under the effects of a feather fall.
Xan... She caught her breath as her feet touched the sand, and staggered back to the city.
It was almost midday when the exhausted and battered sorceress finally stumbled into her chambers, her clothes full of sand. After shedding them off and placing a simple ward on the door, Stai proceeded to the huge marble basin, leaving the red sandy footprints on the floor, and plunged into cool, fragrant water.
It can't be true, she thought. But all my earlier visions were. The Sight shows the things that will happen, sooner or later, this way or another. Not nightmares, not visions of warning. The truth.
She had been receiving visions ever since she was a little girl. And every single one of them, from her becoming a mage, to her last vision of Xan being sent to the Sword Coast, came to fruition or was about to. She never considered this gift a curse, it was too powerful a tool. Stai had learned much of the Planes and their inhabitants, something that even her teacher wasn't able to provide. She was aware of current political affairs, and most importantly, she got wind about Children of Bhaal. But now...
Xan's death was to happen, there was no point denying the obvious. As it had happened to Alianna, to sweet, lively, light Alianna, who loved nothing better than coquetting and trying on the magic jewelry, and who had been devoured by the dead god's shadow before she, her best friend, could even notice. Worse than that, Stai could not even prevent her friend's death, despite staying with her until the end. Although there wasn't much to save, except for the physical shell.
Damn my ambition, she thought in a fit of anger. When power flows in your veins, and you do not have to dedicate your life to attaining it, you should be grateful for it, not wish for more. But instead of spending the time in reminiscence and contemplation of Nature, I looked for other ways to increase it. And what have I come to? Death to everyone close to me?
But no, regret is a foolish feeling. Stai bit her lip. If I could start again, I would have done the same. Besides, what I have seen may come to pass in hundreds of years. I may at least find out if he is well, now.
Heartened by this thought, Stai quickly sat up, sprang out from the basin and came to a standstill in the middle of the hall. Xan, she called to him. Wherever you are, hear me.
For minutes, nothing happened. Then she felt a light touch, more like a tender brush of wind than a lover's caress, but one that she could never miss nor confuse with anything else. A faint smile appeared on her face, and her legs shook as an old, happy memory of their journey to the Tower of Dreams took her away. Oh yes, I remember it well, too...
A stab of pain sent her mind spinning. The elf's delicate ears started to ring. Instinctively slipping out of the Dreamscape, Stai clutched her head in both arms, trying to soothe the splitting headache.
After some time, it diminished. Blinking, the sorceress got up and staggered to the terrace. Her house, which was once so beautiful and prominent, now was unattended to, and the overgrown garden concealed it completely. But that only suited Stai, for this way nobody could spy on her affairs from the outside. She stepped into a circle of the sun and tried to re-establish the link.
It didn't work. There was an empty, dead space where her lover used to be, and when the sun began to set, Stai gave up. A through, wasting divination session only brought the sorceress another round of pain.
A portal. A single portal between Evereska and Baldur's Gate, is it too much to ask for? No, probably nobody but Elminster and Dyllant'ya could accomplish that. But there are other means.
Stai reached for the case where she kept Ala's lock of hair. The box was empty. I have given it to Xan, to locate the girl, she remembered--and now I have no means to locate them both! She almost smashed the chest at the wall, but stopped her hand in the last moment.
It's no use. Making a hysteria in a abandoned pantheon would not change anything. I shall go there myself, if only to attend at the burial. And if he is dead by the time I arrive, it will be a mass burial.

Chapter 20. Battle without Honor or Humanity

"Look, such a lovely zombie!" Xzar cooed. The party stood next to a small cave that was concealed between the curves of the underground river. A dilapidated ghast loomed nearby. "We must take him to face the Harpers! Or the Rabbits! Or-"
"Actually," Ala said in a deadpan voice, "we are about to fight Mulahey, in case you've forgotten. And taking a zombie with us to face a powerful cleric is not a wise move." She raised her hand, pointing at the partly obliterated, but still visible holy symbol of Cyric over the entrance.
"It was really stupid of him to announce his presence like that," Imoen said. She tilted her head to one side, studying the symbol. "Maybe he wanted to be discovered?"
"I don't think so," Jaheira shook her head. "Somebody cut this symbol into the rock years ago. Probably the place was used as a hideout for the followers of Cyric during the Time of Troubles. If not for the spiders, we wouldn't have found it."
"We'll have to find where kobolds come from, though," Ala mused. "But Mulahey first. Now, we must kill him and everybody else as fast as possible, but there's a companion of ours here, an elf. Xzar, Montaron, don't make the mistake of killing him, or I could make a mistake, too." Ignoring their glares, she turned to Jaheira. "Jaheira, do you have any healing spells left?"
"Only potions, child."
"Let us hope it'll be enough. I'll check the cave and call for you." The girl darted forward and vanished in the gaping hole of the cavern's mouth.
The room Ala had found herself in was once richly decorated, but because of the damp it looked gloomy and forsaken. The carpet was ragged and covered with ugly green stains, the furniture was falling to pieces, and the large, throne-like seat on the opposite side of the room had long lost its former glory. A man was occupying the seat. It was difficult to tell whether he was Mulahey or not, and Ala hesitated, but then she noticed silver bracelets on his wrists. Cyric's priesthood wear these. That's him, all right.
As she silently turned to leave and alert the party, the man spoke. "Well, hello there. Scared you, did I? Or perhaps not. I have been waiting for you, Bhaalspawn."
The girl gave a start. Should I call for help? No, not yet. Something was wrong with the man. She stepped up to Mulahey, forgetting the stealthy approach for a minute, and stared at him intently.
The man was blind. No, he wasn't, but his gaze was fixed somewhere above her head and she could only see the whites of his eyes that were gleaming with unnatural golden color.
I've heard about it. He is possessed by a divine entity! Who? Bhaal? Cyric?
"I am forbidden to interfere," Mulahey continued with a mad smile, "but I think you deserve a lesson. Funnily enough, Mulahey's employers think so as well. My minions will take care of that." He raised his hand, and a ring of kobolds and skeletons surrounded the girl. As the golden light in his eyes grew dim, Ala heard a mental whisper: "And you thought it would be that easy?"
"Why, for a minute, yes," Ala breathed in sharply. "Help!!!"
In seconds, the party was at her side. She was able to see or hear them all: Xzar's desperate chanting, Montaron's intense swearing, swishing of Imoen's arrows. But it was no use. Mulahey kept summoning more and more undead, and the impenetrable wall they formed made the girl's head spin. The Cyricist's minions were threatening to overwhelm them by sheer mass.
A distraction... we need a distraction!
"Immy, shoot the cleric!" the half-elf shouted frantically, dodging another blow.
"Will do, sis!" Imoen's eyes were glittering, and her face was pink with excitement. Gods, Immy loves it as much as I do. "Gotcha!" The arrow hit Mulahey in the chest, and though his armor protected him, his casting was disrupted. The skeletons stumbled, momentarily confused.
"For the fallen!" Jaheira charged. Within seconds, Ala was at her side. Snarling, she grasped Mulahey's head by the hair, readying herself for the strike.
"I yield, I yield to thee!" The man screamed. "Accept my surrender?" His voice was breathless, pleading, his eyes very wide. Almost like a human being... but that eyeless gnome... no. Mulahey will never do it again. She raised the blade.
"You would not accept my surrender? Your heart is of the deepest black!"
The blade came down.
They found Xan in the next cavern. Jaheira swore as she saw him, and rushed to untie his bonds at once. "He's still breathing," she announced, "but we'll have to rest here, he can't be transported in such a state."
Imoen and Khalid looked relieved. Montaron shrugged and spat.
Ala bent over Xan and checked his pulse, too. "Right. Im, look through Mulahey's papers and things, check out if there's something we'll need."
"Sure, sis." Imoen turned to go and nearly fell as she slipped on a skeleton bone. "Yukes, these bones are everywhere!" Her voice grew distant, and Ala heard a sound of a chest being opened.
"Here, I found some!" Imoen exclaimed. "This one is about Tazok, his employer, who is unsatisfied with Mulahey's work! And this one is about Tranzig, who is now in Beregost!"
Ala walked up to Imoen and looked over the girl's shoulder. She read:
"My servant Mulahey,
I have sent you the kobolds and mineral poison that you require. Your task is to poison any iron ore that leaves this mine. Don't reveal your presence to the miners or you will find yourself swamped by soldiers from the local Amnish garrison. My superiors have recently hired on the services of the Black talon mercenaries and the Chill. With these soldiers at my disposal, I should be able to destroy any iron caravans entering the region from the south and east. I don't want to deal with iron coming from the Nashkel mines so don't fail in your duty.
Tazok"
And another one:
"My servant Mulahey,
Your progress in disrupting the flow of iron ore does not go as well as it should. How stupid can you be to allow your kobolds to murder the miners?! With your presence revealed you should be wary of enemies sent to stop your operation. Your task is a very simple one; if you continue to show that you can't do the job, you will be replaced. I will not send the kobolds you have requested as I need all the troops I possess to stop the flow of iron into this region. With this message I have sent more of the mineral poison that you require. If you have any problems then send a message to my new contact in Beregost. His name is Tranzig, and he'll be staying at Feldpost's inn.
Tazok"
"Bandits," Ala whispered. "This Tazok, whoever he is, doesn't want iron caravans to enter the region at all! Is he behind all this?"
"Yeah, he is an Evil Mastermind behind the scheme," Imoen grinned. "The right hand of an Evil Overlord, living in a Dark Tower with a red eye on top, somewhere far, far away."
"Eh, being evil is not that bad," Xzar put in hopefully. "You can wear very scanty outfits, kill everybody you don't like and betray everybody you like! Come to the Dark Side! We have cookies!" He clapped his hands. "Now, my little friends, now that we have dealt with Mulahey, it's time to tell the world that Zhenta... oh. What I wanted to say is that is time to get out of that rabbit-hole! Go back to frolicking naked under the sun and picking daisies!"
"Now you've gone and set him off," Montaron grumbled. "Blasted mage will blither for hours! So are we going or what?"
"Sure," Ala nodded. "We'll rest here and go back. Tazok is who we need, and this Tranzig person can tell us about him. Bandits... Judging by the boasts in the letters, their number is far from small."
"I think you have forgotten something, child." Jaheira crossed her arms. "We have dealt with Mulahey, but there is still the matter of kobolds. We do want this mine to work, don't we?"
Ala only groaned.

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #4 on: March 01, 2009, 01:02:41 PM »
Chapter 21. The Matter of Trust

After Jaheira's second healing spell Xan opened his eyes. "Ah, perhaps I'll survive longer than I have originally thought."
"You can count on it," Ala grinned. "Nice to see you again in the land of the living."
"Now I shall not rest until I have made payment to you." He groaned. "If you have searched through Mulahey's treasure, as I don't doubt you have, you may have come across a certain sword among his documents. The sword is a moonblade and it is my most valued possession."
"Your former valued possession, treehugger," Montaron sneered. "The madman didn't have no elven trinkets in that chest."
"If I'd wanted your opinion I would have asked for it." Xan stared at the halfling coldly. "Mulahey would not find any use for the blade of Myth Drannor."
"Sorry, Xan, but the blade wasn't here. Only some papers and this pretty-pretty," Imoen idly twisted a ring around her fingers. "Might make a nice engagement ring."
"No, child, this magical ring is probably too valuable to use as a mere bauble," Jaheira stated, taking the ring from Imoen. "We'll identify it later and see what it does."
"It's my bad luck, then," Imoen sighed. "The second ring I'm trying on is being brutally taken from me. I guess I'm going to wind up a lonely, abandoned bluestocking." At these words Xzar cleared his throat importantly and looked as if he was about to disagree, but said nothing.
"Immy, it seems Xan's demeanor is contagious," Ala laughed. "Don't worry, we'll find both your handsome stranger and Xan's blade. But now we must return to the mines and seek the source of infestation. Mulahey's place is killing me."
The large cave outside of Mulahey's former lair was large and circular. An underground river engirdled the central part of the cave; its dark, murky waters were purling unpleasantly. As the party followed its course, they discovered another exit. It was definitely of an artificial origin, though its creator had desperately tried to make it look different, smoothing the edges and heaving up a pile of rocks onto its surroundings. A malicious yapping reached their ears from the other side.
"Here we are," Ala stared into the entrance, trying to make out the details, but the darkness was unfathomable. "Everyone ready?"
"Can you not just let us mind our own enterprise?" Xzar whined. "We killed this cleric, we have the proof that it wasn't us--er, that it was some bandit, so why do we continue? The miners will manage somehow, I'm sure."
"But it is our enterprise, Xzar," Jaheira said quietly. "If we do not eliminate these creatures, many workers would die, the mines would eventually stop producing iron, and people would starve without work. We have started this mission, and we shall complete it."
"Must we be so insufferably charitable, woman?" Montaron grumbled. "Well, if the pay be good... Aye, we'll go wit ye. Ye owe us fer our time though."
Ala raised an eyebrow. He speaks about gold, but they are not mercenary type, I can see that. Gorion said Zhentarim work for nobody but their masters. They have probably been given specific orders, and if they follow me still, they want to stick with me at all costs, but why? They... they know who I am, don't they? They really do. Damn. Damn!
Montaron entered the tunnel first, cursing. "Dungeons! The dark is nice, but blast this damp!" Xzar followed, gallantly offering his hand to Imoen. She looked surprised, but accepted it with a courtly bow.
The adventurers moved inside.

Xan toiled himself along in the rear of the group. Other than a couple of scars, he was physically fine, but the dull pain in his head was preventing him from using magic, which was very unsettling. Magic was his life, a wave of energy that kept him going, and being bereft of it was painful in itself. The elf still had problems with hearing, as well, so he didn't pay much attention to Imoen and Xzar, who were chirping nearby. Na´ve, he thought. The wizard is obviously deranged. She's no better than Ala.
The elf wistfully regarded the dark tunnel they were in. So different from the Vale of Evereska, with its terraced gardens and elegantly arched bridges... When he was leaving, the vale was wreathed in royal blue foliage, and the forest became one with the sky. Now there was only darkness, cold, pressing darkness that slowly impeded breath, numbed his senses and made the memories he so desperately tried to cling to seem bleak and immaterial. What hurt the most was that his link with Stai had been broken during Mulahey's treatment, weakened with distance as it was. What must she be thinking now? That I'm dead, no doubt.
"Do you need rest?" Ala appeared noiselessly at his side.
"I am certainly not going to collapse from exhaustion anytime soon," the elf shrugged. "But there are other things that concern me. Our new companions, for one."
"They are Zhentarim. Montaron claimed they're here to investigate iron crisis, but," she gave Xan a pointed look, "I think many political groups use the iron shortage as an excuse to relocate their members to the Sword Coast. They might know who I am, Xan. And they won't say what they want, not openly."
"Choose your path as you wish. I have no love for Zhentarim, but you may think otherwise." He paused and looked into her eyes. "Try to endeavor not to get all of us killed in the process of choosing, though."
"You don't want them to stay," Ala said affirmatively.
The elf nodded. "You may leave them in the party out of curiosity, to find out what they want, but that's too high a gamble."
"But can I trust you as well?" the girl suddenly asked. "I don't know your goals either."
"Oh, you can always abandon me here," he shrugged. "It's not as you need traveling companions who care about your well-being. Zhentarim are quite enough, I presume."
"I am not going to do anything of the sort! But you do have secrets, don't you?
"As do you, and nearly everybody who surrounds you. I would not be surprised if even your younger friend, Imoen, had one."
The girl was saying something else, but he no longer paid attention, absorbed in his own thoughts.
I had power to protect her from most dangers, he thought. Charm her enemies, make them forget she exists, blast every obstacle on her way--but of all things, we had to be ambushed in Nashkel, a single place where I could not use my magic! I should have expected the worst, of course, but that was too much even for me.
Xan momentarily closed his eyes, counting his recent miseries once again. My blade is stolen, my magic is lost, the link is broken, and I myself am a little more than a cripple. He sighed. Our goals are worth it ten times over, but shall I come alive to the end of the way?

Chapter 22. Just Wow

"Will this tunnel never end?" Imoen pouted. "I feel so cold and tired... wish we could stop for a bit." She stopped and leaned against the wall.
"We can't be in the mines now," Jaheira took out her map and squinted at it, but eventually folded it again. "Berrum never told us about this tunnel, and it is not on the map, either. I think Mulahey made these abominations cut it through from their nest."
"Their nest?" Khalid looked horrified. "We're going t-to their nest?"
"Cold feet, eh, treehugger?" Montaron snorted. "Ye'd better go back to prancing at the forest and leave killing to real adventurers." Jaheira looked murderous at these words.
"There's a light ahead, we could make it there and rest," Ala suggested hastily. "I don't think it's good to rest here, it's too easy to get ambushed in the dark. Are you that tired, Im?"
"I'm tired, but I'd rather not rest right here, too," Imoen sighed. "This place stinks."
"Then I'll go ahead and see what's there," Ala moved forward, but halted as a hand landed firmly on her shoulder.
"It's past time you became more careful with your escapades, child," Jaheira's voice was soft, but pressing. "Of course, it is not your fault that you run up against impossible odds every time you scout ahead, but please, do not let it happen this time."
Ala stared at the woman speechlessly, then nodded. "I'll be careful," she said. "Well, more careful than usual." With these words, she turned to leave. Jaheira followed the girl's slim figure with her eyes, and then nearly jumped as part of the wall sprang aside and an arrow flew out of there with a clang, nearly missing Ala's head.
"Stop!" Jaheira yelled. Xan and Imoen looked as if they were going to run to the girl, but Jaheira seized both of them by the collar. If any of them is killed here, that'll be the last straw. Ala saw her face, made a soothing gesture and descended to her knees, checking out possible traps.
"I don't understand," her voice boomed across the corridor, "there have been no traps during our journey, and now the whole corridor is unsafe! We are in another dungeon!"
"And we are not the only ones who have heard you," Xan absently commented as a dozen of dog-headed creatures blocked the light and began to move in Ala's direction.
"Imoen, help her disarm the traps from this side, or she'll be cut off!" Jaheira snapped. "And quickly, child, for Silvanus' sake!"
Imoen nodded and dropped on her belly, too. Within moments, both girls took care of the traps, as other party members were readying themselves for the fight. Montaron, Khalid and Jaheira stepped forward, shielding Imoen, and Ala quickly retreated under their cover, drawing out her bow as she ran.
Dispatching the kobolds was not difficult, but nasty fire arrows that monsters used created quite a bit of trouble. Imoen's clothes were smoking, Xzar and Khalid bore deep gashes on their faces, and almost all party members were wounded.
"We'll rest here," Ala breathed as they reached a small empty room. It looked as if it was a part of some old dungeon or a castle, but now there was no furniture, and the lamp in the corner had long been broken.
They unpacked their bedrolls and sat down. "Now, what are your plans, oh omnipresent authority figure?" Jaheira asked.
"I hope we can eliminate the monsters in here," Ala answered tiredly, "but if we find that we're not able to, I think blocking the tunnel we have come from would be a good idea. But we must find some other exit first."
"Yes, I really d-don't want to walk all the way up again," Khalid added. "B-but how are we going to seal it?"
"I... don't know." For a moment Ala looked like a little girl, alone and lost. Just like she looked like on the day they arrived at Friendly Arm Inn, Jaheira thought. The next moment, the girl smiled, and her previous diffidence vanished without a trace. "Oh, we'll think of something. By the way, where is Imoen?"

Imoen never thought she could have the time of her life in a dirty dungeon swarming with kobolds, in a company of a mad necromancer, but nevertheless, the girl was enjoying herself. She was studying magic! And real magic, something even Xan, a full mage, would never be able to produce: the school of Evocation! While they still lived in Candlekeep, Imoen had seen many mages' experiments and tricks, and the use of Fireball spell astounded her most of all.
"It is very easy," Xzar was saying. "You need to turn off all voices in your head", (that'll be easy, Imoen thought), "then you must use these the way it's written on the page".
Imoen took the page and began to pronounce the incantation until she got it right. "And now, I... can I use it?" Her throat went dry. Can I really cast a spell?
Xzar was watching her practicing with a glassy-eyed look. "Ah, her voice is ambrosia... Yes, yes, go ahead, but don't kill anyone yet!" He giggled.
"I won't!" Imoen concentrated on the wall in front of her, reached out for the spell components with one hand and extended another towards an old lamp. All set, she uttered the incantation. Nothing happened.
"Oh, no! I feel so empty, I don't have any magic in me!" the girl burst into tears angrily after she had tried the spell for the tenth time and failed.
"Don't say that, Imoen!" Xzar protested. "You simply don't know how it feels to be a mage! Take this." He thrust a wand into her hands.
"A wand of Magic Missiles?" A grin slowly crept back to Imoen's face. "I can use it, all right. But what about the spell? I've used the wand already and it doesn't seem nearly so much fun!"
"Just release it, say aloud the incantation, and remember the feeling well. Savor it as you would a rabbit stew. Mmm..." the necromancer smacked his lips.
"Buffle headed lamp, here I come!" Imoen pointed the wand at the wall and released the charge without thinking. The lamp burst to pieces.
"And again!" Xzar clapped his hands. The second bolt shattered a loose brick. Montaron jumped up from his bedroll as a fragment hit him, and shook his fist warningly.
"And... again!" This time the mage quickly snatched the wand from Imoen's fingers and pushed her left arm towards the spell components instead. Imoen blinked, but she was already half-through the incantation, and her hands completed the spell.
A red ball of magical energy crashed into the wall. "I... I did it?" Imoen asked in disbelief. "Wow! Just wow!" Her face lit up and she leaped at Xzar, who barely kept his balance. "Oh Xzar, you're the best!" She gave him a peck on the cheek and began to skip across the room. "I did it, I did it, I did it!!!"
Xzar touched his cheek with the same stunned expression that Imoen had only minutes ago, his mouth slightly open.
"Well, it seems to be our Imoen is to become the greatest mage in the Realms," Ala grinned as Imoen skipped past her, looking blissful.
"I hope she is only changing her profession and not her status," Jaheira observed dryly. "An insane member of Zhentarim order is not a match I would wish on anyone."
"A what? No, they can't-" Ala opened her mouth in protest and snapped it closed as soon as she had noticed Xzar's dreamy expression. "Oh my. We must get out of this dungeon really fast, lest I make some party arrangements even here." She thought a little. "On the other hand, now we have three mages in the party, which certainly makes us a powerful force." Jaheira glared at her darkly. "Yes, Jae. As soon as we leave the dungeon, we split. No Zhents in our party."
What have we here? Ala thought as the adventurers prepared to sleep. Both Jaheira and Xan insist that I dump Montaron and Xzar. And I can't agree more, traveling with Zhentarim who probably know that you're a child of a dead god is not a good thing for one's health.
Still, just this once, I wish I knew what The Black Network wants from a Child of Bhaal. Quietly, the girl crept up to Xan.
The elf sat in the corner with a spellbook on his lap, staring into space.
"Xan?" Ala whispered. "I've an unusual request for you. Can you delve into another person's mind? I need to know what exactly our Zhentish friends are up to. Montaron mentioned his allegiance only after I pressed him really hard, and Xzar would not admit even that. You're my last hope, and-" she stopped abruptly as she noticed the pained look in his eyes.
"The Charm spell doesn't work like that," Xan slowly shook his head. "Its victim perceives the caster as his best friend, and answers his every question. But delving into someone's mind and memory is different. It takes time, preparation and skill. Alas, it matters not." The elf absently ran his fingers through his hair. "Every time I concentrate on a spell, it gets disrupted. A hopeless effort if I ever saw one."
"Why... ah. Mulahey," Ala nodded, keeping her voice low, her face tight with anger. "So are you saying you cannot cast spells for now?"
"If only it was as easy as that..." the elf winced, idly twisting his fingers. The spellbook lay forgotten. "There are feelings, links, mental connections that got broken, got... lost. You wouldn't understand, being N'Tel'Quess, an outsider. You only have five senses. But for the elves, it's much more complicated. When the emotional chains are broken, it feels like walking blindfolded over a precipice. If I do not rehabilitate myself in several days, I am certainly doomed. The only thing left will be hanging myself."
Ala raised an eyebrow. "Xan, it's not that we cannot survive if I don't find out what these two want! Your well-being is much more important. And, honestly, while I can understand how the use of some extra senses can make you miserable, there's no reason for suicide, yet."
"A link, spiritual and emotional, is something one cannot have a relationship without," the girl was astonished to see the elf's face taking a dreamy expression and his lips actually smiling a little. "It is common among the partners to exchange images, memories and glimpses of emotional state between friends and lovers."
"The elves must have an interesting love life, then," the girl snickered.
Xan didn't seem to hear her. "Ah, what is the point of dwelling on it, anyway? Life would only seem more hollow afterwards," his voice took the familiar mournful edge as he rambled on, "one of Tel'Quessir blood, who has been stripped of elven traits and the connection to the communal Spirit, is no better off than a carrier of the plague. I have seen it happen once. A dreary fate. I doubt something of the sort awaits me, but losing a link with a soul mate is more than enough."
"You will still see, hear, talk and think, is it not enough?" Ala began to get irritated. These elves are far too arrogant for my taste.
"It is not," he shook his head. "You lose too much. You can no longer feel the grass breathing under your fingers, cannot hear the familiar voice from many miles away, you cannot even dwell in the past, shutting yourself in a dreamscape. For me it would be as if I became blind and deaf." The elf shrugged. "It is hard to explain to a someone of N'Tel'Quess ancestry, I suppose. But imagine if Gorion went blind? I went through something like this. A woman I love, Stai, lost her mentor. Her master. Joneleth committed a crime, and the Queen of Suldanessellar pronounced him N'Tel'Quess, severed his link with elvenkind through the Seldarine. It is a terrible punishment."
He took a deep breath.
"Now I wander in the dark, unable to cast the simplest spell, and... and I am afraid."
"I am sorry, Xan," Ala said quietly. "But you will be all right. I promise."
"I wish," he smiled. "Watch your companions, Ala. And have a good night's sleep."

Chapter 23. Voices

Xzar tossed and turned as he tried to sleep. The voices in his head were not about to die away, but, thankfully, the most terrible voice was not present. A nervous tremor passed the mage's body when he recollected the Voice, and a wave of childhood memories washed over him. The Rabbit...
"...The rabbit has the same mental link with me as the one I'm going to establish with you," his teacher explained. "I have great plans for you, my boy. With this sort of connection, you will be able to follow my orders all across the Faerun."
The boy shifted uncomfortably. "But is it safe, master? I don't want to get hurt like the last time."
"Nonsense, boy!" his tutor snapped. "My experiments never go wrong, now cease your stammering and lie down on this table." Xzar obeyed. With a wave oh his wand, his mentor had put the lights out, and then the unbearable, unstoppable pain pierced the boy's mind. The world went black as he heard...
Voices. Voice of the Orden's cook, ordering his helpmates about. Voices of Zhentarim novices in the yard, and then the harsh voice of the door-keeper. Screams from the cellars. Frantic squeaks of Stepan nearby. Voice, no, The Voice of his master, asking him something. He had a vague feeling this Voice would haunt him till the end of his days. Why was it important? Who was he? Who am I? Mommy, I want home, Mommy!
"Stop whimpering! Can you hear my orders or not?" There was no concern in his mentor's voice, just impatience and mild irritation.
"Yes," the boy whispered and fainted.
Xzar came to himself. A nightmare. Another nightmare. His tutor was far away, and he wouldn't disturb him tonight.
And then he heard it once again. The Voice.
"So, Xzar, you have found the Bhaalspawn?"
"Yes."
"I see. Our plans have changed, Xzar. The girl's cooperation is no longer needed."
"W-what?"
"Our lord Cyric has seen her, too. Now he demands that she must be sacrificed in His glory."
Cold sweat ran down the necromancer's back. "Am I... to do it?"
"Yes, Xzar. The honor is yours. But the sacrifice will be futile if you don't find out her true name. You do remember I have requested you to find it out, yes?"
"But M-master, how?"
"It is your concern," the mental voice snapped. "Soften her up with torture, or threaten to kill her companions. And remember, your time is not unlimited." With these words, the Voice disappeared.
Xzar looked over his sleeping companions, and over Xan and Imoen, who were standing guard. Imoen noticed he was awake, smiled and gave him a little wave. The necromancer's heart skipped a bit. Torture? Torture, yes... no qualms about that, but torture her?
Then another voice interrupted his thoughts. "Hey, I heard ya babbling here about torture," Montaron grinned. "Shall we kill the whelp at last, eh? I'm all for it!"
"Leave me be, Monty." He turned his face back to the wall. For the first time in his life Xzar was about to disobey his master. The thought itself scared the necromancer to death, but he remembered Imoen's lips on his cheek and nodded grimly. He was determined to go on. For Imoen.

Jaheira had troubles falling asleep, too. Deep down, the woman knew that the struggle for balance and her role as a Harper had taken too much of her life. It had to change. But years passed and still she and Khalid were carefully evading the topic of settling down and starting a family. Perhaps the reason was because they did not need anyone else, being as close as two sides of a coin. Or perhaps these two children, who stumbled to Friendly Arm Inn in feeble hope to find shelter, these were her family now. And one of them was a Bhaalspawn--an innocent girl, she was hunted, like an animal. And neither she, Jaheira, nor Gorion himself ever warned her, never prepared her for this life.
Curse the twisted ways of Bhaal into oblivion, Jaheira thought. His very existence was a most repulsive crime to human nature.
"D-darling?" Khalid's arm under her neck tensed. The druid turned her head, meeting the achingly familiar gaze of his dark brown eyes. Her husband was looking at her with mild concern. "Something troubling you?"
"It is the imperfection of the path of conscience," the woman quietly answered. "I did not tell the girl at once that I knew who her father was. I doubt that she trusts me after that. Look how treats the Zhentarim--they are her friends now."
"The moment she stops trusting you," Khalid chuckled quietly, "is the moment the rivers would run in the opposite direction, and the mountains themselves would crumble. You are as d-dependable as the Earth herself."
"Ah, Khalid," despite her current mood, his wife almost laughed aloud, "'twould take a sailor to untie this tongue, but when you do speak, you spill the sweetest balm on my wounds."
"Jaheira, must you be s-so..." Khalid blushed.
"Insufferable?" she moved closer.
"Er..." Jaheira noticed with satisfaction that Khalid eyes went entirely black, as his pupils dilated with excitement.
"Or beautiful?"
"Yes," Khalid whispered, grabbing the woman in his arms, "that is definitely it!"

Imoen woke up in a queer mood. Her euphoria about learning magic had not subsided, yet, but now it was mixed with other emotions. Her thoughts returned to another subject again and again, and it was not her magic, but her teacher. He likes me, doesn't he? He really, really, really likes me.
The girl stole a glance at Xzar. The Necromancer did not look happy, either. There were shadows under his eyes, though it was hard to tell with all his tattoos and scars, and he was packing his things very slowly, his movements absent and sluggish. Did he get any sleep at all?
She sighed. Of course, he's very cute and everything, and he seems to care, but still he's a kind of creepy, she thought. I suppose he can't help it, with him coming from Zhentil Keep. I... I sorta like him too, I think. He's a good teacher, and he's nice with me. But what shall I do if he tells me he likes me, um, like that? I don't know what I'm gonna say.

The bedrolls and supplies packed, the party set out to explore the dungeon. However, before the adventurers had time to advance, a skeletal figure approached them. It looked as it was going to crumble before their eyes, but its jaw moved effortlessly as the creature began to speak. "Strike me down... take the armor back..."
The adventurers stopped, bewildered. Then Montaron jumped to the skeleton. There was a gleam of steel, and an unpleasant, vibrating sound. Its strange request had been fulfilled.
"Wish every monster was like that," Ala said, helping to strip the corpse of its old, corroded armor. "Coming up, asking us to strike it down and preferably offering to help carry the loot, as well."
"Right, sis," Imoen frowned. "But whatcha need the armor for? Looks too bad to net a good price, if you ask me."
"I know, Im. But the guy said 'Take the armor back'. It's a quest if I ever saw one. And probably in two steps from here there's another guy who desperately needs this armor."
Much to Imoen's surprise, Ala proved to be right. A quest it was. After the adventurers turned another corner, several specters made their way to them. Imoen felt very weird as she saw the glimmering shapes approaching, and their whispers filled her ears, like a light breeze. "Together enter... Together fall... Such was the vow agreed... None shall leave until all are one... Such the vow remains... We must be as one..."
"I have a feeling it was a t-threat," Khalid muttered. "None shall leave until they are s-satisfied."
"Try to give them the armor, child," Jaheira suggested.
"How? They don't have any hands!"
One of the specters seemed to guess their trouble. He stretched his hands to the armor, and the blinding light began to pour out, obliterating the grime and stains, until it looked completely new. The armor began to shake and fell from Ala's hands, and a ghostly figure appeared from it.
"So it was... So it is... Together enter... Together fall... Brother traitor completes the one... Together free..." the specters chanted in unison. There was a flash of light, and they were gone.
"That was unusual," Jaheira collected herself first. "Well, the armor certainly will be useful. Montaron, much as I despise your ways, you do fight with us now."
"So?"
"So you'd better try it on, or you'll be killed in the next battle. This vest of yours looks as it's going to fall apart. You'll have to wear this until we can afford a decent set of leather." Montaron muttered something inaudible under his breath, but took it.
"It's so beautiful," Imoen sighed dreamily. "Imagine, they traveled together, and one of them betrayed his friends. They all died, but they forgave the traitor in the end. Just like in the novel I read when I was little."
"Kick that stupid book right out of your head, kid," the halfling sneered. "That's a novel, and this is life. In real life, you kill. You slay the bastard to stay alive. Never think the other way, or things will get really ugly." He winked at her.
"Monty is right, Imoen," Xzar agreed. "Cast your spell before the Rabbits cast theirs, and that's the way!"
Imoen rolled her eyes. "But what if you were the betrayer, Xzar?" she asked. "Wouldn't you like your friends to forgive you?"
"Ask him if he has any, lass," Montaron chuckled. "A good knife in the gullet is all the mercy he's gonna get from me, that's what I know."
The necromancer opened his mouth as if to say something, than snapped it shut and walked away from Imoen. The girl opened her mouth slightly as she watched his slumped figure retreat. Did I say anything wrong?
The ruins were swarming with kobolds. Ala could swear they just popped out of thin air. After the party had to cleanse the same room for the fourth time in a row, she had to admit that exterminating all of them was impossible.
"We must find some exit," the rogue breathed. "I don't think it's good to scatter in this labyrinth, so I'll just go ahead and check the way out. After I'll find it, we can all move in." Jaheira shook her head disapprovingly. "Sorry, Jae, but I don't see any other way." The girl took out her dagger and ran into the corridor, pressing herself to the wall as she went.
It was unbelievingly easy to find the way out. The rogue followed the widest tunnel, and soon it had brought her to a brightly lit chamber, guarded by two large ogres. Ala hastily backed into the shadows. These were far more dangerous than kobolds, and she couldn't slip past them, for their bulk blocked the entrance completely.
In the end, she came up with an idea. Quietly, the girl picked up several pebbles, and threw it down the side corridor. The ogres grunted simultaneously and headed there.
"What's all this noise?" a male voice boomed. "Who dares disturb me? Ahhh, adventurers. Human, make a short work of them! Myahahahaha!"
Two figures emerged from the side room, and Ala barely had time to spring aside as a human mage rushed past her. He eyed the empty corridor warily, then lifted his hands and disappeared. A spell or a potion of invisibility. Well, you forgot not to breathe, my dear friend. That can be corrected.
Her hand slipped a little, but the dagger stroke true. There was a gurgling sound, and the mage appeared on his knees next to her. He tried to utter another spell, but he never got a chance, as the weapon went into his throat. One down, one to go.
She could swear her heart had never been beating so fast and loud. The sound of her breathing was almost making her eardrums burst, too. I've killed him. Alone. And it was so easy...
"What's taking you so long?" an enormous figure turned the corner. Ogre Mage! Ala never saw one, but she knew they were incredibly dangerous. She gulped, pressing her body against the wall as he passed, her eyes automatically looking for vulnerable spots. But I have to try.
The blade slipped. His skin is worse than a chain mail! Ala barely had time to jump aside, as the mage snatched out his own sword and swished it at the girl. The heavy footsteps of returning ogres didn't do anything for her morale, either.
She was cornered, cornered like a rat in a trap. The fear slowly got replaced by rage, and then all thoughts were wiped clean out of her mind. Snarling, Ala pounced at the Ogre Mage like a mad dog, inflicting wounds without order. A stream of dark, sticky liquid sprayed her legs.
"Raaagh! You die, you die!" With an effort, the Ogre Mage managed to push the girl aside. She slammed the wall and sank to the floor, dazed. The monster roared in triumph and reached for his spell components, but the poison from his wounds had completed its course. Another stream of blood poured forth from his mouth, and in seconds, the Ogre Mage was dead.
Ala slowly raised her head, ready to fight for dear life. She could make out two blurry shapes in the distance, then one of them grunted and turned back. Another one followed suit. Good for them. No, good for me. The young rogue tenderly felt her head. Ouch, a bad bruise there. But I killed them both! And they'd better not make me mad again!
When the party came to the sound of Ala's shouts at last, the rogue had already looted the bodies and was standing next to the exit, her arms folded. Montaron whistled as he saw the corpses, and even Khalid looked impressed, if horrified.
But Xan stopped dead as he noticed the girl. She looked completely normal, but his slowly returning magical senses told him otherwise. And then he saw what it was: when the rogue slowly raised her head, there was an eerie golden light in her eyes. The mark of Bhaal.

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #5 on: March 01, 2009, 01:03:06 PM »
Chapter 24.  A Zhentarim Twist

The blissful dark and silence of the tunnel broke with the heavy sound of hurrying footsteps and two globes of magic light. Ala winced. It was so nice to be alone with the bodies of her victims, nothing but battle cries and triumph of the victor in her head. Now she was caught in the web of her current concerns and troubles again, and the feeling was everything but pleasant.
The thoughts flashed in her head, each one a small explosion. Kobolds. Sealing the tunnel. Imoen and Xzar. Zhentarim members, following her. She blinked, trying to concentrate. Killing was easier.
The girl became aware of muttering around her, and raised her head. Everybody was there, but something was very, very wrong. Xzar and Montaron were quietly conversing in the corner, throwing guarded, furtive looks at her. Well, there's always something wrong with these two.
Xan was standing alone. He was looking straight into her face, his own features a grimace of disgust. There was fear, as well. Ala passed a hand over her face. No fangs, no horns, what is it?
Losing her patience, the girl stepped up to Imoen, who was standing closest. Her friend's mouth was slightly open, and her eyes very wide, but at least she didn't recoil. The rogue grasped her by the shoulders. "What? What is it now?! Why are you all staring at me like that? Did I grow a third eye?"
"Sis," Imoen whispered hoarsely, "had your eyes been glowing before?"
"Not that I remember it, no," Ala jerked her head impatiently. "So what's wrong?" Then the comprehension dawned, and she slowly let go. "My eyes are glowing."
"It is fainter than it was when I entered, but yes," Imoen nodded.
"I told you, you shouldn't have gone alone," Jaheira said from the girl's back. Ala whirled around, but the woman merely took the half-elf's hand and felt her pulse. "Your sire was known for his manipulative nature, and during the battle you were twice as vulnerable to his influence. He probably tries to possess and twist you even now."
"But I wasn't possessed by anyone, Jae," Ala forced a smile. "I kill when I have to, not because I want to. I am an rogue, not a berserker."
"That was an ogre mage, sis," Imoen shook her head. "I don't think you could really, really kill it on your own. Sure, you told me you would be able to battle a dragon when you grow up, but I don't think you're there yet, huh?"
"But I did kill him!" Ala protested. "I was not possessed!"
But, on the other hand, I can force my mind into the other person's body. And it was my sire who granted me this. So, it is possible. He made me enjoy the murder, and controlled me all the way! I am doomed to be his puppet now, am I? Ala shut her eyes. It is a death sentence.
"There are no sentences." Xan suddenly said, guessing her thoughts. "There is only knowledge you can take to heart or wave away."
Ala stared at him in amazement. Jaheira, however, gave him a knowing, almost approving, nod. "I presume you can help her set a mind shield against this?"
"It is possible, yes," the mage said. He regarded Ala thoughtfully. "I would say, probable. Your doom is inevitable, I am afraid," (three women groaned simultaneously), "but my professional honor will be wounded, if I could not help you defend your mind."
"How?"
"Bhaal cannot possess you, the god is dead. If he could, you would be helpless before his will. What his essence can do is influence you in the best way it can: your aggression, your performance during the kill," Xan explained patiently. "The best way to withstand his attack would be remain clear about your motivation. It is akin to the state we enter before performing the teleport spells."
"You empty your head and think about nothing but the mental image of the place you want to get to?" Imoen blurted out in a single breath. She blushed. "Well, I know that because Gorion wanted to teach me... he showed me..." The girl bit her lip and turned away.
"That is what I wanted to say, Imoen," the elf said, not unkindly. He turned to Ala again. "You'll have to do almost the same thing before your every battle. Any emotions, any bloodlust, any thoughts of vengeance would play against you. There are also some breathing exercises you could practice to remain calm-"
"I am perfectly calm, thank you!" Ala retorted sharply. Jaheira fussing over her was bad enough, but Xan doing the same was too much.
The elf raised an eyebrow. "I... will try," she said reluctantly. Nobody will manipulate me without my consent. Ever.
"Shall we go, t-then?" Khalid was guarding the corridor, his sword drawn. "I t-think the kobolds are approaching, and we don't need another battle right now."
"Right," Ala drew her own dagger and moved towards the stairs. She passed Montaron and Xzar, who were still whispering. "No Evil Plots, here," she said acidly. "We're going out."
"And I say it's bloody time," Montaron retorted. "I'm bored, and when I'm bored, I kill." There was a distinct threat in his voice, but the rogue decided to ignore it. No need to argue with these two, she thought. I'll get rid of them soon, in any case.

The stairs led the party to a warm and comfortable-looking wine cellar. After a deserted dungeon, the smell of dry apples and soft earth under their feet was a blessing. A blessing for every member of the party, except for Xzar. The necromancer had a lot to muse about. Their recent conversation with Montaron, for one.
"So," the halfling said, making sure that nobody could overhear them, "ye got new orders."
"Why do you think so, Monty?" Xzar said, his voice feeble. "I got no instruc-"
"Shut yer gap, wizard!" the thief hissed. "I've heard ye talking in yer sleep. Moaning. Calling for that pinky dollie, Imoen. What's the deal? I'll kill ye if I don't find out, and I'll kill the girl, too, just so ye know."
"Master wants us to dispose of the Bhaalspawn," the necromancer said flatly. "Torture her for the true name, but I think he won't mind if we simply cut her throat and leave." His voice raised to a scream. "I don't want to hurt Imoen, d'ya hear me?"
"Quiet, you loony! Ye waste my time and test my patience! Nobody wants your lass, do whatever ye like with her." He leered. "In fact, I have a master plan, so listen here..."
"But what if it won't work?" Xzar asked uncertainly, when his companion had finished. "The Rabbits would come for us! They will turn us into shadows, make us vampires and worse! Or they can make us zombies, hide lots of magical rings in our insides and make us write journals on our backs! And make us forget everything till the day we die! Or from the day we die!"
The halfling chuckled. "I'll never forget yon mad visage, mind ye. And it would work. The Bhaal kids are popular, after all."
Xzar returned to the present. Yes, that might work. He looked at Imoen nervously. I shall try, he decided. This way my Master will not be upset, and she will be unharmed. Perhaps she will still love me... who am I kidding? I can only hope she will not kill me afterwards.
Somebody's distant muttering interrupted his thoughts. It grew louder, and a very surly-looking halfling emerged from the trapdoor in the middle of the room.
"What in the nine hells are you doing in my burrow home! I don't know why you're here, but any assumptions you might have about halfling hospitality do not apply to me. When an intruder breaks into my home, I kill 'em."
"Such a remarkable coincidence," Ala purred. "I suppose two mages downstairs can prove my point on the matter. You don't happen to know them, do you?"
"You've found me out." The halfling bared his teeth. "Yes, I'm the one who has been letting the kobolds into our quaint little town. And a cleric made another tunnel and let them into Nashkel mines! Funny how much chaos two simple tunnels can do! It's too bad that you won't be alive to tell anyone about it." He charged.
The mages backed off, allowing Khalid, Montaron and Jaheira space to fight. The fighters drew their swords out. But then something small and red flashed by, and the halfling howled in pain, tearing at his eyes.
"What was it?" Jaheira turned around sharply.
Imoen grinned sheepishly. "It was my spell, Jae. Now we don't have to kill him, only present him to the authorities!"
"Are you sure there are any?" Ala approached the window, eagerly scanning the surroundings. "It looks like a village of a sort."
"Gullykin," Jaheira said, nodding. "The halfling village to the north-east of Nashkel. We have come a long way underground."
"Yes. Let's meet the mayor, if there's one, shall we? I bet he wants to get rid of kobolds, so he might have some means to seal the tunnels."
The mayor of Gullykin, Gandolar Luckyfoot, looked very glad indeed. "So, you've found the culprit, eh?" he welcomed them. "I've seen many an odd thing in my time, but this be the saddest of them all. A traitor in our midst! And a fine lad Jenkal used to be," he sighed. "But never mind the old man's ramblings. Please, accept this meager gift from our townsfolk." He offered a small bag of gold to Jaheira.
"Thank you, good sir," Ala said, "but we also seek to close this dungeon's entries. People of Nashkel suffer from these monsters. Your people suffer, too. Mayhap you can help us in our quest?"
Gandolar looked chagrined. "Alas, we had a Stoneshape scroll, which would allow you to seal the dungeon from the outside, but I have given it to another adventurer. Meilum, his name was, and he claimed to be the best swordsman on the Sword Coast! Naturally, we couldn't refuse."
The girl frowned. "But where has he gone? Can you tell us?"
"Aye. He had gone north, to the Firewine Bridge. I wish you luck, if you can find him."
It was darkening when the party left the village. For a while, they walked among the trees, under the light of the waning moon. Then the forest abruptly ended, and the adventurers entered a wide plain, similar to the one that surrounded Nashkel mines. An old, abandoned, but still visible path was leading to the northeast, where, by the mayor's words, the Firewine Bridge lay. But they were not allowed to proceed.
"So we finally meet. Poor little Ala, I assume you're completely clueless as why you must die. I'm sure you've already had problems with an assortment of incompetent bounty hunters. Well, those days are done, today... you will die."
The voice belonged to a tall, burly warrior, who was standing a short distance from them, twirling a spiky flail in his hands. Two short figures surrounded him, one of them in mage robes, another wielding a very large axe. A man with a Holy Symbol of Cyric on his chest loomed behind them. Ala backed off. Who, who wants me to die that badly?
"Hah, I'm sure you'll be about as much trouble as the rest of the rabble we've killed," Montaron sneered, demonstrating his short sword. "But we don't wanna fight ye. In fact, my companion and I would join ye." He elbowed Xzar meaningfully. The Zhents were edging away from the group as he spoke, and now they were out of the sword's reach. "We're Zhentarim, and we can help ye kill this one," he pointed at Ala. "Or, better, take her alive. We know somethin' yer boss would appreciate."
Now, that's a nice turn of events.. Six versus five. Like the mayor of Gullykin said, "a traitor in our midst". Two traitors, in my case.
The man laughed. "Zhentarim? I suppose we could use your help in the battle, do we, boys? But we'll have a nice long talk afterwards, you can be sure of it. Let's start!" He leered at Ala. "Not running away, are you? You'll be a feisty kill, little one. When you die, know that it was Molkar who killed you."
"You shall hear the word 'traitor' many times, Montaron, but let me be the first one to throw it on you!" Jaheira roared, coming out of her stunned trance. The druid leaped towards Molkar and Montaron. Khalid followed his wife, too furious to speak.
Imoen reached for her bow with trembling hands, but she didn't have time to draw it. A beam of green light shot out of Xzar's hand towards her throat, and she fell to the ground, choking, unable to breathe. Within seconds, the girl was still.
"Don't touch her!" Xzar screamed. "She's mine! I'll revive her after the battle!"
Six versus four, then, Ala thought indifferently, ducking as the necromancer aimed a similar spell on her. We shall die. The girl knew that she should panic, but her senses had gone numb. If there were any urges, coming from the Bhaal's side, she couldn't hear them: her mind was filled with nothing but disbelief. Someone from her party, betraying her? That was impossible to believe, impossible to imagine, and her mind refused to draw the picture of the universe where it had happened. She was mechanically shooting arrows at the cleric, not caring about the accuracy. Khalid and Jaheira were protecting the girl with their bodies, not letting the warriors over a fictitious frontline, but they were no match for an experienced group of five. We shall die.

Xan was standing on the edge of battlefield. To his great relief, his abilities had returned at long last, but he hadn't had the opportunity to memorize any spells yet. And it looks like I shall never have to, he thought bitterly.
For a moment, he wished that Ala, his charge, was one of those evil, self-absorbed maniacs that were so common against the human population on Faerun. Then she would easily abandon her party, and Khalid and Jaheira would give them enough time to run away, to return to the village. He felt sorry for his temporary companions, but seeing Stai's plans come to fruition... just seeing her again was worth to him much more than their lives.
But the girl wouldn't leave her friends, the elf saw that. Charming her so she would... now, that wasn't a nice thought. Besides, the idea was futile.
We are all doomed.
The familiar wave of hopelessness washed over him. The emotion was so strong he was sure it could kill if channeled in a spell.
But it could be channeled in a spell, he realized. And I happen to know this one...
During his earlier travels, Xan had cast it so often, and became so intimately familiar with every curve of the lips, every angle of the fingers, every step of the mind necessary to complete it, that he did not need a spellbook to remember the correct phrasing. It became a part of his being, that lay in a secluded corner of his mind, ready to be called forth.
The mage closed his eyes, letting the emotion flow through his body. At last, a warm wave touched his brain, and a vivid purple glow obscured his vision. Purple, the color of existential despair. The associations worked at their full potential, digging deep into the ancestral memory.
The Scattering. The drow. Their dark faces, a horrible mockery of ours. Blood on their spears. Winged shapes, circling over the battlefield...
Netheril. The flying ships, falling down, shattering. A deadly rain of molten metal. The Weave, screaming in a million voices, as her incarnation was slain. The mythals, writhing in pain, their delicate silver branches quickly becoming a mass of mindless, rotten wood.
The Trial.
Mulahey.
Despair.
The tide had finally reached the tips of his fingers, and a clot of magical energy flew to the direction of battlefield, together with the distant and unfamiliar sound of his own voice. The elf fingered a small knife on his belt. The work of the mind is over, it seems. Now, for the work of the body to begin.

Jaheira fell to her knees, gasping. She reached for a healing potion, but a flap of the cleric's flail knocked the bottle out of her atonic fingers. The next stroke threw her on the ground.
She heard Khalid screaming "Jah... Jaheira. no. No!" The world became dim, degraded. She felt Montaron raising his blade over her, but it didn't matter. Not anymore.
Then something shifted. A golden luminescence descended on the battlefield, surrounding the enemies. Jaheira expected them to go blind, or deaf, but what happened surpassed all her expectations. The cleric dropped to the ground, weeping. She could vaguely make out the words "all doomed". Molkar, dwarven warrior and Montaron wailed nearby, Xzar she could not see. The priest was sobbing at her feet, his Holy Symbol thrown aside.
But the gnomish mage didn't seem to be affected by the spell. He approached them with a malevolent smile, one of his hands on the belt. "I don't think there's any point to live anymore. Do you?" the gnome asked, his eyes glittering. "Goodbye, my little friends." Then he spread his arms wide and the great ball of flame engulfed him, turning his body into a charred mess.
The last thing Jaheira saw, even as Khalid was pulling her away from the center of the explosion, was the face of the Cyricist. His eyes were no longer bloodshot, but wide, shining with deep hatred, and a spark of orange light was visible inside the pupil. His hand stretched out, glowing red, and grasped Jaheira's face. Then a single needle of pain pierced her body, and Jaheira saw and heard no more.
When the smoke cleared, Ala found herself next to Imoen. The girl was wheezing, but she was alive; the necromancer's spell had apparently been short-lived. The rogue hauled her up, and they stumbled towards the gnome's remains. Xan was already there.
All the members of the group that attacked them were now dead, either from their wounds or from the fire. Xzar was lying on the earth, weeping and banging his fists on his head. Montaron was less lucky: he was still breathing, but the flame had nearly baked him inside his metal armor.
Khalid... Khalid managed to roll aside with Jaheira in his arms, she saw that. Now he was standing next to Jaheira... next to Jaheira's... corpse?? The girl rushed to the druid's body. She was wounded, and she never had the time to drink the healing potion. Oh no...
"We can bring her to life, heal her," Imoen suggested shakily. "There was a temple of Yondalla back in Gullykin. It's going to be expensive, though."
"Yes," Ala found her voice, "we'll try. I hope we have enough money for that." Her face hardened. Jae, we'll bring you back whatever it takes. I lost Gorion, I can't bear to lose you, too.
Jaheira's eyes stared emptily into the sky.

Chapter 25. The Temple of Yondalla

"Yes, the equipment you've brought is a good enough price," the little priest of Yondalla nodded importantly. "Now stand back, please."
The temple of Yondalla was the most unusual one Ala had ever seen. True, the temple of Oghma at Candlekeep was modest, but impressive nevertheless. The temple at the Friendly Arm Inn was even more magnificent, a large, respectable stony building. But this one seemed a little more than a wooden barrack, with a couple of roughly carved benches and a small shrine in the middle. A sole occupant of the temple didn't strike the rogue as particularly prominent, either. It was hard to believe that the small, round-cheeked halfling in hastily donned ceremonial robes was actually capable of helping them. But there were no other temples in the neighborhood, and thus, they had no choice.
"Please, proceed," Ala looked at the body in the center of the room. Please. Please let her be all right.
The woman looked as if she was sleeping. Her face and body were untouched, but the fire scorched her boots and blistered her leggings. If not for Khalid, the fireball could get to her, as it had got to Montaron. Then her body would be beyond resurrection, burnt and disfigured. As if somebody was throwing a giant set of dice over their heads, and as a result of this gamble Jaheira was killed, but stayed whole. Montaron, on the other hand...
The halfling was lying in the corner, groaning slightly. He needed help, too...
If not for Imoen, he wouldn't need any help at all, Ala thought heatedly. I'd kill him there and be done. Imoen... why couldn't I kill them and be done? No, she would insist that we really, really need to know the reasons behind the treachery, and so Montaron must live. And Xan was backing her up in this, too. A perfect setup.
The worst was that Ala saw the truth of their arguments. Indeed, learning what Xzar and Montaron were up to was her most fervent desire, ever since she met them near Candlekeep and later, in the mines. But not like this. Never like this. Now she could only wish they were dead, so she could forget the episode for good.
Ala felt dirty, ashamed. She could think of a hundred of excuses for these two, but where was an excuse for her? It was my decision. My responsibility. Jaheira warned me against trusting them! But I was interested. I was curious. Why, a handsome elf saved our lives and wants to help us on our quest, maybe these two are nice, too? Bah!
Cold, emotionless chanting interrupted her incoherent thoughts. The halfling priest had splattered Jaheira's body with some cold liquid, and held out his holy symbol over her head.
"If she doesn't wake up, I'll make a lovely zombie of her," Xzar hobbled by, with his ankles and wrists bound. "She'll be docile and tender, you'll see. Her husband will be pleased."
"You are exactly one word away from your death," the half-elf hissed. "Don't make me spill the blood in the temple!" She stepped on necromancer's toes with all the strength she could muster. The mage lapsed into silence.
The priest's voice rose to a triumphant crescendo, and for a moment, Ala thought that she heard another person speaking the same words. He's drawing upon Yondalla's might, the girl understood.

Imoen stared at the priest with wide, horrified eyes. Things were happening too fast, and now her mind refused to accept the day's events. Xzar--a traitor... no. She winced, squeezing the wand in her hand. Later, I'll think about him later. Jaheira is more important. Jaheira. Her friend, her guardian, who was standing shoulder to shoulder with her only an hour ago, was... she was... lying immobile on the floor. Imoen couldn't make herself say, couldn't even make herself think 'dead'.
Gorion didn't speak to the girls about death. His tales and legends proved more than an adequate substitute for philosophical ramblings. However, they had such a talk, once. A phrase from their conversation still stood in her memory. The sage had said, "Death sinks in when the word 'never' finally sinks in. And regret is the only thing that is left."
He looked saddened on that day, and Imoen knew that he must have lost many friends over the years. Gorion. Never. Suddenly the absolute feeling of loss lashed on her, and Imoen bit her lip, hard, until it began to bleed, in order not to scream with frustration and grief. Never...

The priest dropped his arms, acknowledging his defeat. "I could not call her spirit back," he sighed heavily. "'Tis strange, she's dead, but her spirit is close, as if she wasn't. I know nothing of such cases." He looked at Ala seriously. "I'm sorry, lass."
"I told you he wouldn't wake her up!" Xzar crooned. "Now you'll have to listen to me!"
The half-elf drew a dagger, pointing the tip to the necromancer's Adam's apple. "Talk. Now."
"Just one thing first! You must promise to let us go and heal Monty!" The mage looked at Imoen sadly. "I know you won't come with us, little Imoen, but remember me fondly!" He sniffed.
"What?" Imoen exclaimed, pointing the wand at him. "I've trusted you, you've pretended to be my friend! You won't get away with it!"
"But we shall have to let them go," Khalid said. For one, his voice was clear, without any signs of stuttering. "If he knows a way to bring her to life..."
He doesn't need to continue, Ala thought. "You're not getting any healing, no," she said, her blade still at the necromancer's throat. "If you tell me why you followed me all the way, and what happened to Jaheira, I may let you live. Then again, I may kill you right now, because I want to." She pressed the dagger a bit further, and the necromancer squealed. "Really want to."
"All right," the mage began to giggle insanely. "We're all good friends here, so I'll tell you. There was evidence that somebody was dragging the good, honest name of Black Network to the mud. And there was a prophecy, about the chosen Bhaalspawn who would drown the Sword Coast in blood. Double fun!" He giggled again. "But lately, we've decided to kill you."
"You've decided?" Ala whispered. "Just like that?" The blade in her hand began to tremble. The pull to finish him off here and now was irresistible. No! The girl planted her foot in Xzar's belly, kicking him away instead. The mage hit a bench with his back, and toppled over with an ear-splitting crash.
"Please," the priest feebly said, "it's night out there. You'll wake up everybody in the village."
"Yes," Xzar said defiantly. "I don't like people kicking me, you see. But I'll tell you the rest, out of the good of my heart!" He managed to sit down on the upturned bench. "The gods have the best Necromancy spells. They even grant it to their clerics. Most unfair, it is. And one of these can do just the thing!" He triumphantly pointed at Jaheira. "Harm spell! The body stops moving, the thought ceases to flow, the heart freezes at mid-stroke. Your idiot priest would never even realize she wasn't dead!"
She is alive?!
"It may be true," Xan left his place in the corner and bent over the druid's body, as Khalid dropped his head on his wife's chest, fervently searching for the heartbeat. "I do not feel her emotions, but my powers may be insufficient. Harm spell hides every impression of life, making it impossible to understand whether the target of the spell living or dead, even for a skilled healer. The druid is doomed, if the excessive healing is not performed within several hours."
Xan looked up at Ala, his face tense with some distant memories. "Harm spell is complex, and very rarely used, but it seems to be following you around. Your foster father, Gorion, had experienced it, too, on the day he rescued you."
Ala stared at the elf, but his face was inscrutable. "Gorion? When? Did you know him?"
"No." Xan turned to the necromancer. "Do you have anything else to say?"
"Hmph!" Xzar clumsily crossed his bound arms. "I've told you everything. You promised to let us go, and I put my trust in your humanity, though it is distinctly lacking. But it's no matter. Do as you will."
The rogue looked over the faces of her companions. The priest was already next to Jaheira, fidgeting with his holy symbol. Blue and green rays of light shone on the woman's face, as his hands performed complex curves. Khalid's face was remote and determined. Imoen was pale, and, judging by her face, she was holding back tears. Xan was deliberately looking away.
What do we do? Kill them or free them? Khalid have said we would have to let them Xzar and Montaron go, so he's against the murder. Imoen? Xzar taught her. She wouldn't want him dead, either. Xan? Xan mentioned Gorion. Somebody had done to Gorion the same as the Cyricist did to Jaheira! Who?
What would my father have done? These Zhentarim are nothing but filth, betrayers, murderers, and Gorion would wipe them out in a battle, no doubt. But would he break his promise and kill them afterwards, when they couldn't defend themselves?
Her other 'father' would, she could tell that much. It took all her strength of will not to plunge the dagger deeper into the necromancer's flesh minutes before, and now the dark pull was coming again. She took a deep breath and slowly released the air through her teeth. Xan's advice was helping, and in a few moments, she felt the pressure lessen. Nevertheless, she thought wryly, whatever Gorion or Bhaal would do is their business. I must decide for myself.
Seconds passed. Nothing broke the silence, except for Imoen's occasional whimpers and the priest's rhythmic chanting. At last, with a single stroke of her dagger, Ala cut the cords on the necromancer's wrists. The next stroke separated his bags of spell components from his belt.
"Go. Don't say a word, just get out."
Without sparing her a second glance, Xzar rushed to his companion, picked him up and staggered towards the exit. In the doorway, he paused and looked at Imoen. Then he was gone.
"I cannot say that was wise," Xan eventually broke the silence, "but I am impressed by your choice, Ala. That was most unusual for a child of Murder."
"Maybe it's for the best," Imoen echoed. "But I won't forgive him. Ever. I'll learn Larloch's Minor Drain and use it on his larynx, just you wait!"
"So, you've changed your mind about the forgiveness thing, Im?" Ala asked. "Then, perhaps, it is indeed for the best."
Jaheira opened her eyes, and Khalid sank to his knees, weeping. Imoen sobbed openly. Xan muttered something about 'delaying the inevitable', but he, too, looked somewhat relieved.
"Thank you," Ala finally found her voice, and put a bag of gold into the halfling's palm. It is fortunate that the regular healing spells are not at all expensive, she sighed. Still, our funds are running low. I really hope Berrum Ghastkill will be generous.
"The lass is too weak, you'd better rest in the village," the little priest hurriedly suggested. "My home is yours, if you like. You are welcome to spend a night there."
"We shall," Ala said, smiling. A normal bed. Well, a bed, suited for halflings, actually, but the bed nevertheless!
She stole a glance at the couple. Khalid was whispering something at his wife's ear, the tip of his nose touching her earlobe, his hands firmly wrapped around the woman's waist and bottom. These two would welcome it, I'm sure.

Chapter 26. Firewine: Extermination

Ala stood in the middle of a plain. Everything was covered with snow. Ala's feet were not cold, however, and they left no footprints on the earth. The sky was dark and starless, and the empty horizon was giving off the impression that the whole world had gone black and white. Not another dream, is it?
"So, my dear, did you enjoy your act of charity?" a familiar voice rang into her ear. Her double was standing right behind her, arms crossed at the chest, white hair rippling in the faint wind.
"You wanted to kill them, didn't you?" Ala asked. "Have I bereft you of your regular crop?"
"Not as such. Rather, you've left poor little Cyric hungry," her double pouted mockingly. "But it is of no importance. I suggest you ponder on your motives, instead, for if you strive for goodness, your path is blind."
"What do you mean?"
"The Zhentarim you let go," the second 'Ala' waved her hand, and a group of grey figures appeared in front of her. "All these men would die in their beds from old age, all these women would never feel the violator's breath on their faces, if not for your flawless choice. Or did you think that Xzar and Montaron would forget their 'wicked ways' and turn to light?"
"I do not know," Ala shook her head, feeling the familiar black rage stir inside. Calm down. It is a dream, an illusion. "I..."
"Yes?"
"Everyone deserves a chance. They were our companions, Xzar saved and taught Imoen, and thus they doubly deserve it."
"And these people? Don't they deserve a chance to live? You have unleashed these villains into the world, not caring what happens to others, haven't you, my dear? A bit hypocritical, isn't it? Or are you going to say you don't care for these nameless and faceless creatures?" Her double chuckled. "You know, Ala, you remind me of a certain elven queen..."
The half-elf sat on the ground, her face white. "They were wounded, and they were mostly harmless!"
"Oh, yes. That was exactly what she said to her divine patron and sire. She was actually convinced what she had done was noble and merciful. Well, unlike you, she tortured her victims a little, first, but that was all for their own sake, really. After all, how would you come to the light, if not through suffering?"
"Shut up!"
"I am not interested in continuing this discussion, in any case. Just think, my dear. Think and decide on whether so-called 'mercy' is worth it." A brush of wind, and Ala's double was gone, together with the grey figures. Ala stared at the empty plain.
The right thing, she thought. She implied I hadn't done the right thing. Yes, perhaps it was a mistake. I know it could have been one, but the other choice was unacceptable. Or wasn't it?
I guess I'll find out sooner or later.

They made it to the Firewine Bridge quickly. Nobody mentioned the previous night's events, and Ala was grateful for that, particularly to Jaheira. The girl didn't doubt that the druid was itching to have an 'I-told-you-so' talk with her, but something kept the woman from actually bringing the subject up. Ala vaguely suspected that she owed it to Khalid's gentle influence, but she knew she was never going to ask.
The weather did not favor their journey. The ruins greeted the party with a drizzly rain and repetitive gusts of piercing wind. As for the sounds, they had heard the kobolds' yapping in the distance, but otherwise, the ruins were empty. And then there was an unpleasant male voice.
"Oh, come on, woman! I'm the best swordsman on the Sword Coast, surely I can kill that thing in your bottle!"
"No! Oh Kahrk! Oh Mighty Kahrk!" the woman screamed, and then there was silence. Ala carefully moved around the corner to see what was going on, and the strangest sight opened before her eyes. A huge ogre mage was sitting on the ground, chewing what seemed to be a human leg. A female corpse lay at his feet, a strange-shaped bottle clasped in its hand.
"Oh, hello there," the ogre said, a little incomprehensibly. "I am Kahrk, mightiest of the Ogre Mage, and the purpose of this human's death is to feed my power, for now I am weak. Satisfied now?"
"Er, sure," Ala answered slowly. "Say, can I take his things? There's a certain item we require."
"Go ahead. This foolish human made me free at last, so I'm in the mood to be generous." He burped. "Just remember to get out of here before I change my mind."
"Right." Ala hastily collected the items from the unfortunate swordsman's body, seizing up the woman's robes on her way back. "Bye."
"Child, what happened there?" Jaheira said, astonished. "Did the mage let you go?"
"Yes, and we'd better go soon," the girl shoved the things into her backpack. "I have a feeling that he's got many spells memorized, and I'm sure I don't want to know which ones. One ogre mage was quite enough." Ala turned to Xan. "Here's the Stoneshape scroll. Can you work it?"
The mage took the scroll from her hands, examining it carefully. "It screams 'suicide' to me, but if you are determined to proceed, so be it. I suppose that the casting will cause an earthquake, albeit a minor one. If you don't want to be doomed with me, step back as far as possible." Without waiting for their answer, the elf started to read the scroll.
Khalid grasped both girls' hands and pulled them along, with Jaheira running after them. They had reached a small hillock and hid behind it, pressing their bodies against the wet earth. Ala began to count. One, two, three...
When she reached twenty, there was an ear-splitting roar, and the earth shook beneath their feet. Ala had a feeling that they were about to fall in, but the landscape stayed smooth. There was another, more distant explosion, and the third one that they barely heard. When the earth stopped trembling, the girl carefully peeped out from the rocks. Xan was making his way to them, apparently alive and intact. The remains of the Firewine Ruins, however, had been utterly destroyed. Obviously, the tunnel lay under the bridge, and they had collapsed together.
"I hope there was nobody there," Imoen said uncertainly. "That Kahrk is probably dead, too. But we made it, Ala! We are heroes of Nashkel now!"
"We are," her friend smiled. "I've got something for you, Immy. I'm sorry that it all turned this way, but you still can learn something on your own." She reached into her pack. "I've taken these scrolls from the Ogre Mage in the dungeon, and here's a robe to match them." She thrust the object into Imoen's hands.
"A Fireball! And a Cloudkill! I'll learn to cast them, ya'll see!" Imoen was looking happier than Ala had seen her in months.
"I would wait with these ones, they are too complicated for you to cast, yet," Xan remarked, shaking his head. "But if you are sure that you want to learn magic, I can help you at least with enchantment spells, doomed though my efforts would doubtlessly be. An enchantment school is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding one."
"Enchantment spells?" Imoen snorted. "Boooooring. I bet your spells are not nearly as flashy as mine!" She stuck out her tongue at the elf. "But all right, I guess. Teach me, will ya?"
"If we shall make it to Nashkel alive, I'll teach you, I promise," the elf said solemnly. "And now... shall we return at long last? I would rather put the mines' experience away for good."
"Yes," Ala smiled. "Back to Nashkel!"

Chapter 27. An Impatient Mage

Edwin Odesseiron was annoyed. That city of monkeys was nothing short of a dank hole! It wasn't enough that Nashkel guards were eyeing his red robes suspiciously every time they came past, it happened that the troublesome Wychlaran could do so, as well!
He was sure that it would be easy to kill the witch: it would only take two of them in the wilderness (the addled ranger she traveled with was inconsequential, of course), and his unsurpassable magic would do the rest. But here, in Nashkel, these simians would not understand the simplest of his incantations, and yet they had the gall to refuse him his birthright! The Cowled monkeys strutted along the place as if they owned it, and he had no choice but follow their rules.
As he had no other means to complete his task, and magic was forbidden, Edwin could only grit his teeth as he watched the witch pass by, occasionally making a scathing remark. It was so frustrating he was sure he would forget himself and try to kill her with his bare hands very soon. The fact that she was probably feeling the same brought him little satisfaction.
And the Bhaalspawn... where was she? Master Degardan stated Nashkel as Edwin's destination quite clearly, but almost a week had passed and she was nowhere in sight, though he had heard a rumor of a drunken brawl involving several half-elves. The local library held nothing of interest, and the city didn't even provide a brothel! (Certainly these pathetic species don't need to mate, but how does a refined traveler satisfy his essential needs?) The boredom added to his already full-grown disappointment, and who knows what could have happened if not for an unexpected event that took place two weeks after his arrival.

"I can not linger here any longer," Dynaheir paced the room back and forth, her face calm and collected. The ranger was standing in the center of the room, blinking as she spoke. "I must proceed to the Fortress, and thy blade would'st accompany me in my travels. But the Red Wizard here is a matter that delays me. For the Greater Good, he must be stopped in his wicked ways. While I am away, watch his every movement, and report to me when I return."
"Minsc does not understand," the ranger said, frowning. "Is pretty Dynaheir to travel alone? And what is of my dajemma?"
"I have no choice, Minsc. 'Tis a matter I must accomplish alone," Dynaheir repeated patiently. "Wait for my return, and watch the Thayvian at all times."

Edwin had woken up from uneasy sleep. Reading the spellbook with a mug of ale in his hands was a bad idea, he admitted grudgingly, mopping off a particularly large stain. Most of the cantrips he owned were now completely blotched, as well as the description of Magic Missile spell.
As he cursed, something else caught his attention. A board creaked outside of his room. The mage tiptoed to the door. Someone was moving in the corridor. Quietly he shifted the catch and peeped into a keyhole. It is as I thought, he smiled triumphantly. The witch is escaping in fear of my mighty magic! Ha!
He couldn't miss such a golden opportunity. The witch (Dynaheir, her name is. But nobody will remember that once I'm done with her, and only worms would crawl along her pathetic body!) was leaving the town, alone! Panting, Edwin rushed to pick up his most valuable possessions, hastily cast a spell of invisibility on himself and followed Dynaheir down the stairs.
The night forest was creepy, to say the least. Distant barking and growling made Edwin very uncomfortable, not to mention the fact that his robes were torn and tattered below knees, making every loose branch slap his legs. The witch fared much better. She easily glided among the trees, apparently feeling no discomfort.
Suddenly Dynaheir stopped and turned around. At precisely the same moment the moon peeped out from behind the clouds, and though the spell surely covered him, Edwin felt ill at ease.
"I can feel thy wicked presence!" the witch shouted. Her voice trembled, but she steadfastly continued, "reveal yourself, Red Wizard! Or better yet, return whence you came!"
He noticed that she had forgotten to use her normal old-fashioned form of speech in her agitation. Perfect. Now is the time to strike.
The familiar warmth spread through the mage's body, and he opened his mouth to utter the words of a killing curse. But no sound came out. I must kill her, mustn't I? It's simple, hold out a hand, utter a spell, the nosey wench is dead. But must I do it as a lowly rogue? No, she must see my face and understand that her failure is inevitable!
 "I'm here, witch!" He shouted aloud. "Prepare to die!"
Dynaheir sharply turned in his direction, her eyes gleaming, and began to cast a spell in a rising voice. Edwin fingered his spell components...
...And the night exploded with harsh voices. Barking and growling gnolls, armed with crude but effective polearms, surrounded both mages. Invisible, Edwin watched with mute dread as the tallest gnoll picked up furiously kicking Dynaheir and another one brought down his enormous fist on her head. The struggling woman went quiet.
"More to feast!" The gnoll chieftain bared his teeth. "Hairtooth happy!" With these words, the monsters waddled away.
Edwin staggered back to Nashkel the following afternoon. He felt completely miserable and worn out. I have probably failed the Bhaalspawn mission, he thought tiredly, and now the witch is lost, too.
The large ranger was the first sight that met the mage's eyes in the tavern. This sour-smelling monkey will never recover the witch, either, Edwin sneered. Her life is forfeit. But that was small consolation.
"What?" Edwin heard. "You don't tell me, Boo? Can it be that sweet Dynaheir is captured by gnolls? No! I will beat sense into their heads until they release her! Rrraaaaagh!!!" The berserker charged at the bar, turning the tables over in the process.
Damn this Bhaalspawn, Edwin thought. She will pay for this suffering! I will wait here, but if this excuse of a chimpanzee presses me further... Sparkles of magical energy flew from his fingers, and the customers scattered as Edwin made his way towards the stairs. They'll all pay for their insolence.

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #6 on: March 01, 2009, 01:03:38 PM »
Chapter 28. Enemy at Work

Sarevok's chambers at the Iron Throne never had a neglected look. The servants, having been frightened to death with his menacing demeanor during his previous visits, made sure of that. But he only used it as a temporary lodging, never staying for long. Now, however, he was holding a peculiar council of war in his rooms, a council Reiltar Anchev, his adoptive father, would have been very surprised to learn about.
The room was furnished with taste, and the cherry trees, blooming outside the window, added to its coziness. The delicate aroma also blocked less desirable smells of the city. It was quiet inside: the Iron Throne headquarters were based in one of the most respectable parts of Baldur's Gate, far from the noisy markets and the red lights' block.
A pretty, if somewhat exotic-looking woman with jet-black hair and face that gave away her Kara-Turan origin, was sitting on Sarevok's bed with her legs crossed. Her pleasant face was saddened, and she cast troubled looks at the direction of a cloaked figure by the window. A mage was standing there, and his face, too, was far from composed. He randomly crumpled cherry petals covering the windowsill, and paid no attention to his surroundings.
Sarevok was not wearing his spiky armor this time, but still his presence filled the room, affecting both the woman and the mage like an ominous shadow towering over their heads. He paced the room restlessly, collecting his thoughts, but that seemed only to infuriate him, for his face became more and more agitated. At last, he turned to the mage, fuming.
"I have specifically stated," the warrior growled, "that we do not stop the war preparations!"
The mage looked amused. "The war preparations? I think they are no longer necessary. My intelligence gatherers report that Nashkel mines are to be opened once again. One of the main reasons for the war has been removed."
"I don't care what your petty spies say, Winski!" Sarevok roared. "The war will begin! Let them produce their iron, I'll start the slaughter before a single slab leaves Nashkel!" He caught his breath and continued with a low threat in his voice, "And if not, the Chill and the Black Talon will devour every single caravan! You've hired them, Winski, you're responsible for them. I want every single path blocked by bandits! I want the forest to be swarming with my mercenaries! And I don't want them to fail, Winski. I shall hold you personally responsible for this."
"You behave like a spoiled child," his mentor noted with distaste. "Allow me to remind you that your mercenaries have not succeeded in bringing you the head of your sister yet, despite me providing them with means to do so," he pointed at Xan's moonblade on Sarevok's table. "They know exactly where she is, and still we have no results! She destroyed Mulahey, don't you think that she can find the bandit camp?"
The warrior hesitated. "No," he finally forced himself to speak. "I trust my mercenaries enough to come with her head sooner or later. Sometimes I think I trust them more than I trust you, my teacher. We've discussed your failure to kill her already." The threat in his voice became more pronounced. "And if she kills them, I shall come for her myself. We shall end this in a manner befitting our heritage."
"Very well," the mage shrugged. "I'll leave you to your devices." He strode to the door. As Winski crossed the threshold, he turned around. "You're not a god yet. Consider failing as a possibility, or sooner or later your luck will run out."
Sarevok shut the door with a snap and lowered himself into an armchair with a loud sigh. "It seems I cannot trust anyone here," he said, dropping his head and closing his eyes.
The woman stood up, walked up to him and settled on the chair arm. "He cares about you, though he does not admit it. As do I. But we do it in different fashion." The face became clouded. "Winski wants what is best for you, but I fear what is to come."
"My fearless Tamoko, afraid?" he laughed, drawing her near. "When my plans become to fruition, you will have nothing to be afraid of."
She shook her head. "We talked about this before. Your destiny will change you, it will destroy the Sarevok I know. Do you not remember the prophecy? Chaos shall be sown in their footsteps. Not only in the footsteps, but in the hearts and minds of those who lead and those who would follow. Both you and Winski are obsessed with the idea of your ascension, and it has twisted you beyond belief." The woman bit her lip and resolutely looked straight into his eyes. "I have been postponing this for too long, but I have to say it now: abandon Bhaal's heritage, or it will wipe you out."
Sarevok looked at her for a moment, confused. Then he burst into laughter again. "No, Tamoko. I shall wipe them out. I shall embrace my heritage, crush everybody who stands in my way, and the streets will run red with blood when my work is finished! You of all people should understand this, for your destiny is to be tied with mine! I am to become a new Lord of Murder!"
Tamoko gently released herself from his embrace and got up. "Deities are not known for sharing their power willingly, Sarevok," she said. "Especially the deity who had foreseen his own death." She quickly exited the room, whisking away a tear as she went.
Sarevok slammed his fist into the table. The ebony incrustation shattered, but that brought him little satisfaction. Kill! Gritting his teeth and picking up his sword, he went out.
It was midday, and the square in front of the Iron Throne was crammed with Flaming Fist soldiers, commoners and hawkers of both sexes. The offers of questionable nature were following the warrior along the way, and his head was close to splitting in two with racket they were making. I should have put on my armor. Then none would dare...
 "Tiax moves. Make way!" a small figure jumped before his eyes, and a pair of fingers soundly smacked Sarevok on the nose.
"What? Who the hell are you?" The sword nearly fell from the warrior's hand.
"Thou would presume to speak to Tiax the great?" A gnomish face emerged out of the blue. His eyes glittered excitedly, but he eyed the weapon warily just the same. "Thy... er... bravery is oddly tempered with foolishness. Still, Cyric has decreed that I seek out the services of one such as thyself. Tiax himself... myself will aid in your quest! In return, when the time is right, your might will forge the way for my ascension to power. Do you accept this honor?"
"Ascension? You wretched creature, it is my ascension everybody shall witness!"
The gnome sighed in exasperation. "Is destiny to link Tiax with such a dullard? No, it does not matter. Tiax can make use of such fodder regardless of their belief or understanding! Join with me, and I shall compensate for your stupidity!"
"Stupidity? Die, you-"
"Yes, yes, the all-seeing Tiax thinks that his leaving would be best," the little man babbled breathlessly, slowly retreating. "He must finalize his stratagems and consult in secret with Cyric. You shall, of course, meet the Great Tiax again, at which point I will make my grand ascension and appoint you to your rightful place as whipper of the slaves and faithless!" he shouted from over the corner. "In time you will realize your place. Tiax will wait!"
The warrior considered following the offender, but the mad rage got the better of him. Unable to run or think straight, he buried his sword in a nearest food trolley, scattering the fruit and vegetables across the square. Then his vision cleared, and, throwing several coins to the woman in charge, he proceeded down the street, but there was no sign of the gnome around. Bah! That cripple was no match for me, in any case, he snorted. But still, I must kill something soon. My impatience grows...
"Did he not want to aid you in your ascension, my servant?" A man was pacing a beautiful studio back and forth. His lips were tightly closed, but his voice seemed to fill the room somehow just the same. "I cannot say it was a big surprise, no. Still, you should have stayed a little longer to let him demonstrate his talents. I would be interested."
"But, Great Cyric, then I would die, and there'd be nobody to rule all!"
"Ah, of course. Such a great tragedy it would be. But you see, Tiax, every Bhaalspawn has a portion of divine essence, and it grants them gifts of magnificent power. Certainly, it is nothing compared to what I can grant to my faithful, but that is a discussion for another time. You managed to show me one of Sarevok's gifts, and I am grateful to you, Tiax. Perhaps, who knows, some day you will rule."
"As it should be! Tiax was destined to lead! Soon Tiax rules!"
"Yes, yes, spare me the boasting, please. I am quite capable of producing some incomprehensible, insane yells myself. I am a god of madness, after all. As I said, I am grateful. You have shown me what this one fears the most. His essence grants him protection from magic, for he values so-called 'fair battle'. Fool! I would have thought Bhaal would produce more intelligent offspring. But no matter. This one will undoubtedly be killed by my favorite Bhaalspawn, I trust. Or did I want to sacrifice her? Hmmm... it is tempting. So many opportunities..."
"Do you want me to seek this one, too, Great Cyric?"
"No, Tiax, no. This one would require a more... subtle approach, as I have already witnessed. And she will get it. She calls upon the powers that allow her to be admired and loved--very naive, and very easy to manipulate. The time will come for another ace in my sleeve, and soon."

Chapter 29. Xan's Departure

"Here lies the lord of Fission Slime," Ala snorted, fastidiously evading the small slime puddles, remaining after the battle. "Not much left of his minions, huh?"
The party was well on their way to Nashkel, but the endless red lengths of an arid region were getting on everybody's nerves. It was impossible to rest in the open, so the adventurers were hungry and tired. A thicket of firs a little away from the main tract seemed a good place to spend the night, but a large group of slimy monsters thought otherwise. However, now they were gone, and the party set a small campfire, ready to rest. Jaheira was studying the map, as usual, with Khalid peeping at it over her shoulder. Xan huddled next to the fire, his chin on his knees, and the girls bent over the prone body of Narcillicus Harwilliger Neen, a former scientist of sorts.
"Good catch, too," Imoen responded, carefully looting the body. "Can you believe he had a real Lightning scroll? Soon I'll have all Evocation spells at my disposal!" Her smile faded. "It's just I don't know how to use them, yet."
"No worries, Im, probably we'll come across another mage yet, and he'll teach you," Ala grinned.
Imoen visibly stiffened at these words, and Ala flushed, realizing what she had said.
Of course Imoen has not yet forgotten Xzar and his betrayal, you idiot! And she will not do it soon, make no mistake. Xzar--traitor, stinking traitor! Why did he do this to her? If he wanted to betray us from the start, at least he could do it without hurting her feelings so!
"Sorry, sis," Ala said aloud, touching her friend's arm soothingly. "But you'll learn fast, even without Xzar. I know you will."
"Maybe," Imoen gave her a wistful smile. "Xan has already shown me some cantrips, so..."
A barely audible whisper came from the border of the wood. The half-elf sharply spun around. "What was that?"
"You there, is your name Ala? Hurry up and answer. Your answer better be the truth, for your life depends upon it."
Four women stepped out in the open, three of them taking an aim at the girl immediately. The fourth one was taller than the rest, and the symbol of the Dark Sun hung loosely on her neck. It was her who spoke.
Ala felt her party members closing in, but her legs went wobbly just the same. "No, that isn't my name, I think you have the wrong person," she said slowly, trying to make her voice as confident as possible. We may prevail, but I shall be killed!
The woman smiled, baring her teeth. Her black eyes, however, remained cold, and for a moment the girl could swear they flicked yellow. Then the priestess spoke, and her words paralyzed Ala with fright once again. "You lie! Remember what I told you about lying. You were foolish to even try, as my god Cyric allows me to see through all falsehoods. You shall now die, Ala."
Three arrows, closing in. Three arrows... The girl ducked, but she saw it was useless. Three arrows, let out simultaneously, meant death. She watched in mute horror as three pairs of hands released their respective strings...
A blue glow surrounded both Xan and Imoen, and they stepped forward, protected by magical shields. Two arrows bounced from them harmlessly, but the third arrow hit Ala straight in the chest, sprawling her on the ground. Gasping, the girl reached for a healing potion.
The second shot got reflected again. Then Imoen's arrow found her target, and the bounty hunter wasn't able to make her third one. Xan made a slick gesture, and one of remaining archers turned against her fellow, snarling.
Meanwhile, it took combined efforts of Khalid and Jaheira to take the leader of the amazons down. Even ambushed from both sides, she tried to cast spell after spell, and one of her curses hit Khalid, who began to stumble and miss. Next, Jaheira's scimitar took one of her arms off, and the woman fell, her blood spraying a wide circle of grass. Before long, all four lay dead.
Ala sat up, feeling her vision clear as the potion worked its full effect. "Are you all r-right?" Khalid stepped up to her, looking anxious.
"I t-think so," she said shakily, leaning at the warrior's arm as he helped her up. "But I do not like this at all. Why does it continue? Who sends these bounty hunters? All of them were wearing Cyric's holy symbol; is it Cyric who wants me dead?"
"You have forgotten an important point, child," Jaheira said. "The man who murdered Gorion wanted to kill you, too, and, judging by your words, he was no priest."
"Yes, but he had glowing eyes! He could have been possessed by Cyric, as well."
"Perhaps. But how would you explain the dwarf at Beregost, and the man at the Friendly Arm? And what about the woman at Nashkel? I think it's time we found out who really stands behind this."
"No!" Imoen interrupted her. "First, I want to know how they find us, again and again!"
"Well, it was obvious I would have to spend the nights somewhere, so they waited for me in Beregost, Nashkel and Friendly Arm Inn," Ala shrugged.
"Right, sis. But now we are in the wilderness. No cities, nothing. And we've met two parties, in two days, searching for you! Don't you think it's a little strange?"
"Er, Cyric could give them a hint?"
"I do not think Cyric reveals our location to these pitiful bands," Xan said, shaking his head. "They bear his symbol because they can worship no other. It is highly probable they used scrying, instead."
"Scrying?" Imoen's face lit up, as it always had after solving another Gorion's riddle back at Candlekeep. "They'd need a personal item to do it. And I know what it is!"
"Moonblade," Xan and Imoen finished in unison. An uncomfortable silence followed.
"Well," Jaheira said curtly, "it seems that we shall have to endure these attacks in the future. Everyone must stay on their guard and we'll do just fine. Now, let's move ahead. We have a long way to Nashkel yet."
"No," Xan sighed. "It is my blade and I shall not expose you to the risk of being killed. I shall retrieve it, and I shall do it alone." He turned to the human girl. "I am sorry, Imoen, but you'll have to find yet another teacher. Hopefully he lasts longer than a day."
"You don't even know where the sword is!" Ala stared at the mage in disbelief. But a small voice in the corner of her mind told her that the elf had a point. The blade was his, and they would be safe if he left. She angrily cast the thought away. "What are you going to do, wander the wilderness till you're killed?"
"Now that I am able to cast again, I shall try to locate it with divination magic," she heard. "As for defenses, invisibility spells work quite well. I do not wish to desert you, but neither do I want to be an indirect cause of your doom."
"That would be a complex divination spell," Jaheira remarked, frowning. "I doubt that you're up to it. You'd better stay in the group until-"
"Until my doom? Or yours?" Xan asked quietly. The druid faltered, momentarily lost for words. Khalid shifted uneasily, but said nothing. The girls exchanged looks as Xan went to the dying fire, picking up his backpack.
He will go, Ala realized. If we don't stop him, Xan would go and get himself killed!
But... I do not want to stop him. I nearly died today, and it still may happen. His leave is so very convenient: he even has a chance to survive and retrieve the moonblade, so my conscience is clear. And if he dies, I won't be there. It'll be entirely his fault. A perfect and logical solution.
Ala smiled wryly. But logic has never been my strong side.
"Don't," she stepped up to the elf as he heaved the pack on his shoulders. "Don't go alone, Xan. Either stay or we go together. We are not Montaron and Xzar, we care whether you live or die."
"And so do I, strange as it may seem," Xan answered, an odd glint of amusement in his eyes. With a twinge of shame, the girl realized he knew about her doubts all along. Curse these enchanters! "But where would we go? Group march to the city of Baldur's Gate, perhaps? Out in the open, ambushed every few hours? Or Nashkel? I seem to recall my last visit to the town did not end well. No, Ala, while this life is certainly dull and pointless, I've no desire to finish it so soon." Reaching into his robes, he produced a small vial and tossed it to the girl. Inside was a single lock of hair. "I cannot carry this with me, for the odds are not to my favor. It's time you destroyed it." He cast a spell and disappeared from sight.
Ala buried her face in her hands, feeling strangely empty. What is it? Relief? Regret? Whatever it is, it's not pleasant. Then an arm landed on her shoulder. "He made his choice, child," Jaheira said, her voice unusually soft. "We could not stop him."
Ala's eyes stung. "You think so?"
"I do. You tried, but he already made up his mind, and," the druid sighed, "perhaps it was for the best. We are not experienced enough to withstand these constant ambushes, and Xan has invisibility. He is strong."
But is he? I guess he might be, but will it be enough? Ala closed her eyes for a moment. No, there's no point in self-whipping now. She blinked, twirling the vial in her hands. "Jae, what is it? What on Faerun did he use it for?"
"Oh, don't be stupid, child," Jaheira snorted, returning to her usual snappy self. "He found you in the smithy, don't you remember? It is your hair, he used it for scrying!"
"Yes," she replied vaguely, "probably he did. But how did he acquire this lock in the first place?"
To this question Jaheira could not answer.

Chapter 30. An Inevitable Meeting

"Nashkel! We've made it back!" Imoen pointed at the tall broach of the Temple of Helm close to horizon. The setting sun allowed them to see the shapes of city's buildings and a local river, though they couldn't make out peoples' figures, yet.
"It is nice to roam the wilderness, but it is nice to return, too. I could do with a bath," Jaheira admitted.
Khalid put his arms around his wife, and she momentarily rested her head against his shoulder. "You are b-beautiful always, Jaheira."
She snorted. "The animals are unfettered by civilization, but we are. And the stench drives me mad. You could do with a bath as well, my husband."
"And I could do with our reward," Ala peered at the faintly visible town as they walked along the fields, with small farmhouses popping up on both sides. "Hope the mayor has not forgotten us."
The mayor greeted them with a hearty smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "You have returned! It would seem I was right to trust you. The town thanks you wholeheartedly, and is pleased to give you the proper reward. Please accept nine hundred gold for your efforts. It is a small fortune by anyone's standards. Thank you again." He proceeded to the door and opened it for them.
"Small fortune?" Ala was coming for the mayor, fury in her face. She gripped him by his shirt and opened her backpack. "See this? This is a winter wolf pelt. The storekeeper in the next building offered us five hundred for this one, and we have two of them. Now, do you really consider that killing two small beasts in the wilderness equals being ambushed, kidnapped, tortured, betrayed, forced to kill two dungeons full of kobolds and use a very dangerous scroll to keep your town safe? Please, think again."
"I-I have nothing else to offer you, k-kind sirs," the mayor stammered. "The town c-c-citizens are s-starving, and the provisions are scarce, with the iron s-shortage and all."
Ala released her grip and looked at her companions with unspoken question in her gaze. Jaheira stepped forward. "I do not like it, child. But he is the authority of this town, and we can't do anything about it. If you harm him, the garrison will tear you to pieces. Besides, we have done a right thing by liberating the mine, regardless of the amount of his gratitude."
"But we are heroes!" Imoen exclaimed in a shrill voice. "Why does it have to be like that? Can't we all be friends?"
The mayor squirmed uncomfortably. "Tell you what, as you're the Heroes of Nashkel now, I could, er, ask the local storekeeper to give you a small discount, and I could give you a letter to Taerom Fuiruim in Beregost, too."
The adventurers exchanged looks, remembering their night adventure at Thunderhammer smithy. Heartened by their silence, Ghastkill continued. "Our city is in need of some bounty hunters, as well. Consult Oublek to find out which ones are currently unclaimed. I am sure he can give you a fair price, with these missing emeralds and our guard's captain business."
At the words 'bounty hunters' Imoen started to giggle nervously. "Did I say something wrong?"
Ala smirked. "No. Well, not quite. You're one mean cheater, Ghastkill, but I think your letters will satisfy."
After the mayor sealed the last letter and presented them to the half-elf, the adventurers turned to leave. At they reached the door, however, Berrum's voice held them back. "Maybe you'd like a little ceremony? Dancing, fireworks, the feast in your honor, that sort of thing?"
Ala slowly turned and looked into his eyes. "Thank you, mayor, but I would not like to burden your funds, with the iron shortage and all." Then she left, Khalid and Jaheira behind her. Imoen lingered behind to shot the mayor what she thought was a contemptuous look, and followed suit.
Oublek proved to be a plump, bold man with a wheezy voice. He approached Khalid immediately. "No, say not another word," he began breathlessly. "I would not think of making you wait but a moment for your just reward. When council told me that they had procured Greywolf to rid the woods of the bandit Tonquin, I knew we could expect swift justice. I would not have predicted success this quickly, but who else could it be striding into town looking... as you do. Please accept this meager sum of two hundred gold pieces, as well as the heartfelt thanks of all of Nashkel."
"B-but I'm not the Greywolf," Khalid protested. "Keep your money, it's not mine to take."
"You are not Greywolf the bounty hunter? Oh sweet Helm, I almost gave gold to a complete stranger!? The Captain best not hear of this; he'd have my hide. Thanks be for your honesty, stranger, there are those who would not have done as such."
Khalid shrugged. "Of c-course. Could you tell us what bounties are currently unclaimed?"
The man became much more businesslike. "Our captain of the guard is still on the loose. Keep your blade ready if you get anywhere near him. Very dangerous, he is. Killed his wife and kids, and some of his fellow soldiers, as well, before he disappeared. There is also a bit of foolishness with a local artist named Prism. Stole a couple of emeralds, he did. We seek their return, though Prism's fate is of little concern. Three hundred on each of these ones, but if you'll claim them within a tenday, I'll double the sum."
"Bounties. I liked the reward he was offering," Ala said pensively, as they exited Oublek's office.
"'Tis unseemly work," Jaheira observed. "Still, the man who have killed his children and wife must be brought to justice. He committed most foul and unnatural crime."
"And we need better equipment to destroy the bandits, if we're up to it," Ala agreed. "I would like to increase our numbers, too. Four is a small party, and I doubt Xan will be back soon, if at all. We shall need another experienced mage."
Right on cue, a haughty, accented voice addressed them. "Go no further! I require the services of your group. (Yes, they will do nicely.)" A tall young man imperiously beckoned them to come closer. He was wearing blood-red mage robes with a hood, and the amount of jewelry on his hands and face was astounding. Ala snorted. I wonder why nobody robbed him blind yet.
"Huh?" Ala asked. "Who are you?"
"I am Edwin Odesseiron. You simians can refer to me as 'Sir', if you prefer a less... syllable intensive workout."
Imoen inhaled sharply behind her back. Ala could see what impressed her friend. Odesseiron! She knew the surname well, for Gorion taught both girls the history and affairs of Thay, as well as of other regions. The man in front of them was a kin to the Tharchion of Surthay, an important political figure. However far he was from home, he was not to be underestimated.
"And what would you need from us?" the girl inquired politely.
"I would have you kill a witch, the witch Dynaheir." The mage snapped his well-manicured fingers impatiently. Why do mages care about their appearance so? "She is treacherous, but with your participation I foresee no difficulty. Will you assist?"
"A murder?" Jaheira stepped in, hands on her hips.
"Jae, that's what we do!" Ala snapped. "I'm an rogue, remember? Killing a witch is not exactly the same as killing a helpless maiden!" She turned back to Edwin. "Pray continue. I would know the price you offer before I take the job."
The mage waved his hand dismissively. "The prize I offer would surely be beyond measure in your meager understanding. Either take the job or not!"
A Red Wizard. They place great value in contracts and given words. Ala took a deep breath. "We will. It sounds but a simple task."
"Of course you will, it is as expected. (I will lead them to her and she cannot hope to prevail.) I will travel with you until the deed be done. I last heard of her traveling to the west of Nashkel, close to the gnoll stronghold located there."
"Are you out of your mind?" Jaheira whispered furiously, drawing the girl aside. "What he suggests is monstrous!"
"What's wrong, Jae? He wants our help in eliminating a rival, what's so monstrous in that? I do not like the prospect of a Red Wizard traveling with us, not after Montaron and Xzar. But we cannot positively say 'no, we do not want to take you' to a Tharchion's kin, can we? Anyway, it's got a good side: this way we'll have a competent mage with us, so we can claim the bounties without missing a beat!" The rogue smirked. Then she grew serious as she noticed Jaheira's expression. "All right, if it turns out that something's wrong, we can always prevent him from killing this Dynaheir."
Jaheira stared at her, then nodded. "You'd better, child."
It grew dark, and adventurers made their way to the tavern, anticipating a hot dinner and a bath. But next to the barracks they were delayed once again. A delighted roar reached their ears, and they turned to see a large bald man, who was pointing a hamster at them.
"Where goes the stench of evil, there goes the cleansing wind of Minsc and Boo! Stand and deliver, that my hamster might have a better look at ye!"
Ala rolled her eyes, and out of the corner of her eye she could see Edwin Odesseiron do the same. She felt a surge of sympathy towards the wizard. "Who are you?" she asked wearily. Will this day never end? I want a bath!
The man scratched his head with a free hand and put the hamster back on his shoulder. "Greetings, we are Minsc and Boo. We have traveled far to explore this land, but now my charge Dynaheir has been taken from us. 'Twas gnolls, Boo said, and once we have tracked them I will beat sense into their heads until they release her! Accompany us, and bards will sing the deeds of Minsc and Boo... and friends. Oh, and Boo says that Evil Wizard can accompany us anyway, because Dynaheir told us to keep an eye on him."
"What? The insolence!" Edwin protested. "I shall not... (But it is a delicious irony, the feeble witch's protector is to assist me in her ultimate demise!) Oh, very well. Take him with us, if you insist."
Ala and Jaheira exchanged looks. "I suppose we need both of them in the party," Jaheira said pointedly.
"For once, I couldn't agree with you more, Jae," Ala's eyes narrowed. "I can't wait to learn the whole story about this witch."

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #7 on: March 01, 2009, 01:04:09 PM »
Chapter 31. I am Death Come For Thee

The inn's front door was half-open, and the warm orange light streamed from under the crack, falling to the porch. Drunken laughter and clinking of glasses rang unpleasantly in Ala's tired ears, along with a harp's roulade. Oh, please, don't let there be a bard here! I just want to get some sleep! The last thing the girl wanted was to spend the evening with the tavern's drunk patrons, listening to a half-cooked ballad named "Heroes of Nashkel".
She was spared that particular indignity, but the day was far from over. As the girl reached for the doorknob, ready to enter the welcome warmth and hospitality, a tall, hooded man approached the group, drawing a short sword as he went. The party members automatically reached for their weapons and spell components.
"I am Death come for thee," he whispered dramatically. "Surrender, and thy passage shall be... quicker."
Death? No, thank you. Ala readied herself for the blow, but Khalid managed to strike first.
His sword entered the man's body as easily as if the body was immaterial, which it was. The black figure twitched and disappeared soundlessly.
"Why Nimbul was hired to come after you I don't know," the same low, hollow voice said from Ala's back. She swished her dagger at the sound of the voice without thinking, and another image of their attacker dissolved into nothingness.
"How many of them are there?" Jaheira cried out incredulously, slashing the next image.
"Don't stop!" Ala shouted. "There must be the real one!"
"And here he is, dear girl, here he is!" Nimbul announced. This time it was a real man, as they could clearly see. All too real, because he was holding Imoen by the neck, his short sword pressed firmly against her throat. Suddenly there was a dead silence. "Have you heard the riddle of two buttons, Ala?"
"Wh-what?!"
"The riddle is simple," Nimbul continued. "You and your sibling are captured and locked in separate cells, unable to communicate. The mage responsible appears and speaks. He explains his sadistic game: In each cell there is a magical button. If you press your button and your sibling does not, you will die but your sibling is free. If your sibling presses the button and you do not, they will die but you will go free. If neither you nor your sibling press the buttons, both of you will die. If both of you press your respective buttons, both of you will die. The mage says that you have one turn of the hourglass to decide your action, then he leaves. Tell me, Ala, do you press the button? Take your sibling's place, if you would."
Do you think I'm a noble, self-sacrificing sort? Or just a stupid one? Well, have at you!
"That's easy," Ala said, advancing. "Assuming every possibility has an equal chance to happen, there's one chance out of four that you'll be let out alive. But there aren't any equal chances, are there?" She was breathing into his face now, her own one a mask of rage. "Can you imagine sitting on the floor of a cell, unable to communicate, waiting for uncertain death? Will you do something, anything, to release your frustration? Don't you understand that almost every person will press the button, your sibling included? The only thing you have to do is keep yourself from pressing it."
Nimbul opened his mouth slightly, trying to grasp her meaning, and his sword hand slid down for a moment. Do it now! Ala almost screamed.
And Imoen did. A dweomer of dazzling red light sparkled in the night, and Nimbul shrieked in unnatural high-pitched voice, as the spell hit him. Imoen lunged herself on the ground and rolled away, as Minsc, Khalid and Jaheira stepped forward. However, they never had the chance to strike.
"This is an unsanctioned use of magical energy!" a stooped, cloaked figure of a Cowled Wizard emerged from the silvery portal next to Jaheira.
"All involved will be held! This disturbance is over!" another voice confirmed. This one belonged to the Cowled Wizard who simply walked out the tavern door.
"Ya know," Imoen whispered to Ala, "I have a strong feeling Nimbul has to say something."
"I don't think he can," Ala snickered. "Look at the state of him!" Her face hardened. "Serves him right. Good job here, Im."
"Thanks," her friend winked. "Say, sis, what would you really do if you wind up in the cell, like he said?"
"Dunno... it's such a scary image, I'd rather not dwell on it anymore."
Meanwhile, both wizards managed to tie Nimbul up and one of them conjured a shimmering white portal. They threw the unfortunate rogue through and approached the girls.
"You have been involved in illegal use of magic," one of them stated dryly, pointing at Imoen. "You will come with us."
"Whoa, slow down!" Ala intervened. "That was self-defense, we all saw that! Besides, where would you take her to? She's the Hero of Nashkel, same as us."
"The girl is right, Teos," the second wizard nodded uncomfortably. "They did save Nashkel mines, it would be unseemly to lock the girl away for life."
"What?" Edwin found his voice. "Are you out of your mind, or have you had too much mead already? That is worse than death, you insufferable monkeys! What has this wretched infant done to you to warrant this barbarian behavior?"
"You should consider yourself lucky we're not taking you there for your impudence," Teos looked over the Red Wizard coldly. "We are not taking your companion, either. However..." He reached took out a small black rune from his pocket. "If you use unsanctioned magic in the capital of Amn or in other areas by our control, you will be imprisoned without a second warning. This precaution will make sure of it." He quickly pressed the rune to Imoen's brow, and the girl cried out in pain as a triangle-shaped scar appeared over her eye.
"Now, you-" Ala stepped forward, shaking with anger. Teos calmly put the rune back and extended his hand to prevent her approaching.
"I will thank you for keeping your tone civil. As you have just cleansed Nashkel mines, you must understand these are troubled times, and Cowled Wizards must watch the borders. Do not use magic here, or you will be punished." He stepped into the portal, motioning for his colleague to follow.
"And I still don't know what this Nimbul fellow wanted and how he found us," Ala said wistfully, as the teleport closed and the party was moving away.
"Why, it was probably Cyric who sent him," Jaheira snorted. Then the druid sighed, and in the flickering light of the door lamp her face looked pale and strained. "Perhaps it's for the best that we are to wander the woods once again; there you will be safer. Even now when Xan has left, the bounty hunters might seek you in the cities. Now, shall we go inside or not?"
"Of course," the girl moved to the inn's door. "Just thinking about a bath makes my skin tingle." She paused with her hand on the handle. "Jae, thank you."
"What for?"
"That you care," Ala smiled sadly. "I've just realized that it won't always be like that. Any of these bounty hunters could kill us. We are alive, but I don't know for how long. So, in case anything happens--I care, too."
"And me!" Imoen jumped at them from behind, startling the druid. "Yay, group hug!"
"Minsc loves hugs, too!" There was a sound of rushing footsteps, and the ranger crashed into the women, dragging kicking and protesting Edwin along.
"Stop it! Stop! You are so irritating! (Insane. I am going to wake up any moment and find out it is a nightmare. Dreadful, sickly sweet, pinkish nightmare. The Cowled monkeys should have taken them all, I know it!)"
"B-but what about me?" Khalid slumped his shoulders.
"And for you, my husband," Jaheira disentangled herself and approached the warrior, "the time will come tonight. But first--bath, everyone! We stink like ogre's armpits."
And at the long last, the Heroes of Nashkel went inside.

Chapter 32. Prism of Evereska

"We are swerving from the established route," Jaheira frowned, checking with her map. "I think that we have gone too far south."
The party stood on the rocky plains, not far from Nashkel mines, once again. The sun stood in its zenith, the heat was unbearable, and the flies and dust mingled in the air alike. Nobody enjoyed their journey, but Edwin Odesseiron, odoriferous with expensive perfume, had the hardest time of all.
"Is this what I have to work with? Pathetic," the wizard sneered, brushing dead insects off his robe. "A druid that cannot orient herself in the residential neighborhood! I am sure even the bad-smelling and hamster-wielding companion of yours could do better."
"I was not born here," Jaheira said quietly. "And I would watch your tongue if I were you, Red Wizard. It would be unfortunate if you were to disappear under a rock somewhere."
"Aye, you can mock me whist we are in the very heart of your domain, druid," Edwin spat out the word with great contempt, "but do not push me very far. Even here I am more than capable of ending your life."
Jaheira shrugged. "I doubt you would find the trip back to Nashkel a peaceful one. Do not anger me here, my patience is not unlimited."
"Without your nagging, it will be a sleep of ages. (And make no mistake, I shall not forget this interaction.)"
Why, he is not that intimidating, after all, Ala thought, suppressing a smile. This habit of mumbling under his breath is pretty funny. She looked at the ranger. The large man was animatedly chatting with Imoen, showing his hamster to her. The girl was laughing and feeding the little animal some crumbs left from the breakfast. Boo, for that was the rodent's name, chirped happily. I guess he, too, fits into the group for now. Oh, I really don't want to think about what happens when we find this Dynaheir...
Before turning west, the adventurers came to a sudden stop. An old, abandoned mine shaft blocked their way. Next to it, they could make out a single figure. As they came closer, they saw a thin, ragged man in his forties or so, whose threadbare clothes and disheveled hair did not square with thin, aristocratic face and hands that bore the remains of craftily deposited manicure. He was swinging its arms and occasionally giving out incomprehensible cries, paying no attention to his surroundings.
"Prism!" Imoen whispered excitably to Ala's ear. "It's that artist who stole the emeralds, he fits to the description!"
"Oh, good," Edwin nodded with some satisfaction. "I've heard of this deranged individual. Let's kill him quick and be about my business."
"Ah, beauteous creature! You are my masterpiece!" A high, trembling voice interrupted their conversation. "Never should I have stolen these emeralds, but there was nothing else that would capture the majesty of thine! I did what must be done, for I have left my shop, forgotten all my commissions, and spent all that I had. I must complete thee!"
The artist was fussing around a statue of an elvish-looking woman. Two green stones sparkled in her eye sockets, looking out of place in the middle of a rough grey lump.
"Yes, deranged, as I said," Edwin shrugged. "Why do you even care? I doubt you appreciate art, and this statue considerably lacks in the upper-chest area, anyway. Even milkmaids in Thay look better."
Prism sharply turned around at his words, shielding the statue with his hands. "Wait, there is someone here! Who are you? 'Twas that relentless Greywolf who sent you, wasn't it?"
"We have nothing to do with anyone named Greywolf," Jaheira replied, "and nor would we want to."
"Thank Deneir, I thought I was done in," the artist spluttered. He nervously twisted his arms. "I am not cut out for a life on the run. Mayhap you could help a foolish sculptor finish this epiphany? Please, guard this place, for surely Greywolf will come seeking the bounty on the gems. I will pay with my last possessions if you would do this one service for me."
"T-that is all good and well," Khalid inserted timidly, "but we ourselves promised to search for the emeralds and bring them back."
"I hate to agree with the druid's whining husband, but I do not wish to dally around while he finishes this lump of clay, either," Edwin complained loudly. "Can't you all step aside and let me fireball him? Or is this simple action beyond your meager level of comprehension?"
Prism opened his mouth, but a figure emerged from the nearby bushes, and the artist froze, trembling, as a sturdy, middle-aged warrior approached them.
"I have come for you, Prism," the fighter croaked.
"No! Not yet! My work is nearly done! Please, I implore you!" The sculptor burst into tears.
The fighter looked around. "I am Greywolf, and your sentiment is wasted on me, fool. You are but gold in my purse. Do you make your situation worse by hiring help to protect you? Who are you, fools?"
Ala stepped forward. "We are here to return the emeralds he stole," she said, "but not the man himself. I intend to let him go."
Greywolf gave out a short, bark-like laugh. "Prism will be going nowhere this day. The justice done will come by the blade of my sword." He raised his sword and nearly fell, as a boy's figure jumped out from behind him.
"Hi. I'm Noober," the boy said proudly. "I wanted to talk to you all, but you left too quickly, and I followed you all the way from Nashkel. Nice place, huh?"
"What?" Greywolf roared. "Nobody interrupts Greywolf!"
"Ugh, I think I stepped in something," the boy carefully edged from the bounty hunter. "Those colors look pretty stupid on you," he pointed at Edwin. Without even waiting for the Red Wizard's answer, Noober turned to Minsc. "What's that big weapon for?"
"Have you walked this far just to insult everyone?" Ala asked incredulously.
"No," the boy absently replied. "Just to talk. I haven't had a conversation this long, well... ever!"
"I wonder why," Jaheira crossed her arms at the chest. "I think you'd better go home, boy."
"Rrraaaagh!" The bounty hunter finally lost his patience. "Prism will live a moment longer while I kill the lot of you!" Drawing his sword, he lunged for Noober. The boy squeaked and ran away.
"You will stop right there!" Jaheira cried to the bounty hunter, conjuring a creeping vine with a swish of her hand. Ala and Imoen readied their bows. Then a jet of bright orange flame shot past them, scorching Greywolf's face. Edwin have not been standing idle.
"Minsc would not allow you harm poor boy! Boo tells me Noober has a head wound, too!" Minsc rushed into battle, brandishing his sword. Khalid and Jaheira followed.
Greywolf proved to be a tough opponent, and soon both Khalid and Minsc were bleeding heavily. The battle was stopped by pure luck. A large pearly sphere left Edwin's fingers and made its way to the bounty hunter's face, stunning him into immobility. Khalid and Jaheira struck at the same time, and the bounty hunter sprawled on the ground.
"I thank you, for I cannot run from this place until my task is done," Prism exhaled in relief. "I have been using potions of speed to aid my work, and have not slept for days. She is beautiful, is she not?" The artist stroke the statue fondly along her waist and hips, not letting his arm actually touch it. Then his face fell, and he bit his lip. "'Tis a monument to my foolishness. I saw her but once, on the outskirts of Evereska, and said nothing. I let thee pass from mine eyes, and mine heart hath cursed me for it!"
"Potions of Speed?" Jaheira's eyes widened. "He's a dead man walking! Three of these can kill an ogre!"
Ala, however, was interested in another thing. "Evereska, you say? I have a friend from here, Xan of Evereska, a Greycloak." The girl's hand instinctively darted towards a vial the elf left her. She hadn't found enough resolve to destroy it, she was too curious of its origin. "Have you perhaps heard about him?"
Before Prism had a chance to answer, however, Ala felt sudden warmth coming from the talisman. It became warmer and warmer, until it became unbearable to hold it. She let go...

Ala stared at her fingers in mute wonder. These were delicate and slender, but definitely male. Her body was clad in dark purple robes, and as Ala felt it, she found two small bags of spell components at her waist. Am I in Xan's body? His present... or his past? My Bhaalspawn 'gifts' again? The phrase "be careful what you wish for" has my name written all over it, I guess.
The girl looked around. She was standing in the great hall full of beautiful statues. It was decorated in green marble, and misty green light was coming through the transparent roof. Though she was indoors, Ala could feel slight breeze in her hair, and her nose caught the scent of forest herbs. As her eyes accommodated to the strange scenery, she had noticed other elves next to her, both male and female, all clad in light green armor or dark loose clothes of elegant design. She even saw some children in the corner, close to the walls. Is this a gathering of some sort? And where am I? A thought emerged, unbidden: the temple of Rillifane...
Ala raised her head and almost got blinded by the dazzling emerald glow. There was an elven woman standing on the dais in the middle of the hall, her features matching exactly those of the statue the girl saw moments before. But while Prism's emeralds shone with calm, soothing light, they still could not deliver this fierce brilliance, just looking at which made one's eyes hurt. There was a lancet stained-glass window right behind the woman's frame, and the sunrays fell through the elaborately carved patterns, emphasizing her silhouette. They rearranged themselves in a way that showed the elven woman in a very flattering light: a venerable goddess she seemed, who enlivened all things by her mere presence.
As the girl stared, the crowd parted, and she hastily stepped aside as two sets of sedan-chairs glided past, accompanied by a plaintive melody of arcane chanting. Two elven mages, dressed in plain grey robes, followed the objects with their arms outstretched, guiding them to the dais.
The covers were drawn aside, and Ala's new-found elven senses caught a massive wave of hostility, directed at the occupants of both chairs. She wanted to take a good look at them, but her borrowed body wouldn't turn its head. The movements became slow and difficult, as if she was trying to move through the water, and she felt a surge of repulsion that was not connected to her own sensations. Xan didn't want to look at them, so I cannot, too, she finally understood.
Instead, she concentrated on the woman in the center, who apparently was their leader. Their Queen. Every single face in the crowd was turned towards her, bearing fierce joy and grim, fervent resolve. I have a very bad feeling about this. They do not seem to expect a simple religious ceremony.
The Queen raised her hand, and the utter silence followed. The melodious tongue she used was not familiar to Ala, but as Xan obviously knew this one, she was able to understand, too, though the words seemed to appear right in her head, passing the ears.
"Evil gives rise to evil, but good gives rise to good," the woman's voice was magnified by the acoustics of the temple, but still it seemed a little more than an intimate whisper. Her voice vibrated, and for a moment, Ala imagined that the Queen spoke only to her. The illusion had dissipated within moments, but it was hard to shake off the feeling that she had known and admired the woman for many years.
"Queen Ellesime..." Ala's lips moved on its own accord. A light buzz swept over the temple, echoing the girl.
"This man has brought us death. Terrible, agonizing death for every citizen of Suldanessellar. I am not afraid for myself, for I cannot die. But he and his sister have brought death to you, my friends. My children. And the simplest, most justified thing I can do is execute the man and woman called Joneleth and Bodhi."
The crowd was watching, waiting. Ellesime looked at the masked figure prostrated on the floor--and turned away.
"But is it truly justice? I would seek your council. These two are slaves to their ambition. Yes, we can defend ourselves, and flood the remaining branches of the Tree with blood in the name of revenge. But should we add another stream to the flow already split? I understand that the chance these people would change is slim, but the chance exists, nevertheless. Can we allow ourselves to be merciful? Are we strong enough? Do we believe in ourselves? Are we ready to forgive?"
The crowd kept silence. The crowd was waiting for an answer.
"We shall not meet evil with evil," the Queen's voice whispered.
Hundreds of eyes were drinking in Ellesime's image. Devotion, worship, admiration, respect, love--Ala could not see any traces of skepticism there. The elven rule is autocratic and absolute, she remembered. Nobody would doubt the supreme ruler's decision. Or, perhaps, those who would are not here?
It is more complicated, Ala. These two have violated what we hold most dear: the Elven Spirit, our shared essence. Elven minds are linked with each other physically and spiritually, and Joneleth has nearly severed this connection, damaging our very core. The shock and despair was so great that on the day of the Trial even the wisest of us were little more than frightened children.
And the Queen?
She is one of the People, and yet she is not. You have compared her to the goddess: in a way, she is. But even divine beings make mistakes.
Something had changed. The light still cloaked the woman's figure, but now it was not green and golden. It was pure white, and some of it was shifting to the figures on the floor. Why aren't they saying anything?
A silence spell, Xan's voice answered. Besides, do you really think anyone would listen? Look.
One of the shapes on the floor--a woman, she could see it clearly now, was screaming on the top of her voice, flinging insults and accusations to the Queen. Ala realized with horror that if not for the inner voice, she would not even notice: she felt as if someone pressed a piece of cotton wool to her ears.
Nobody would pay attention to them, the voice continued. The crowd is a single mind, shaped by the Queen's single gesture. Just be in the crowd. Watch with the crowd. Shout with the crowd. And you will refuse to notice.
You will refuse to think.
"Shall we let them go?" Ellesime asked. The crowd sighed, as one man. "Having forsaken everything elven, they have no place amongst us. They would be outcast so they might learn how precious our ways are." Her clear voice became harsh, and she began to chant in the language Ala did not know.
Outcast? She's just letting them go? But what is this spell she is chanting?
An ancient ritual, draining the victim of the connection to the communal spirit. Unable to sense Nature, unable to truly feel, gradually fading into a pared-down, deteriorated existence. Even their memories would eventually fade. There was a brief, bitter mental chuckle. Much as I felt after Mulahey's treatment... can you see any connection?
Mulahey? Xan, where are you?
On my way to oblivion, of course. You cannot help me now, so you would do well to pay attention to the ritual instead: it is about to finish.
The light intensified to the point it brought physical pain to the unprotected parts of the body, piercing her skin with thousands of invisible needles. Then the chanting stopped. The concentration of excitement among the crowd was such that Ala could almost visualize it in her mind.
Next moment the girl wished she was her old self again, and within seconds, she could only wish for swift death, as the Queen's spell descended on its victims. The pain permeated every pore of her body, and something very important was slipping away with its invasion, something she couldn't live without...
But why, why does it hurt? Ala screamed mentally. I have done nothing wrong, it is them the Queen is after!
I am afraid you have chosen a wrong body to inhabit, Ala. It is impossible to become an enchanter without adapting one's emotion perception and sensitivity. What you feel are but the feeble echoes of the victims' torment. Yes, the pain they experience is inconceivable, but it is nothing compared to the doom that awaits them eventually.
Nobody deserves this... whatever they have done... only death. Swift death. Please...
Then there was more pain. And when Ala finally opened her eyes, she stared into the haughty face she was sure would haunt her nightmares again and again.

"...Perhaps our paths shall cross in distant Realms, and I shall find the courage to call thy name. Ellesime!"
Ellesime. Queen Ellesime.
The girl looked around with bleary eyes. Her body was aching, and blood poured forth from her nose, but she paid no attention. At last, she had found what she was looking for: a round, almost heart-shaped stone lay next to the artist. Before anyone spoke, Ala stepped up to Prism, seized the cobble and watched with satisfaction as the clay statue burst to pieces.
"It's high time you've done it," Edwin wrapped himself up in his mantle more tightly, waving away another portion of flies. "Now can we go?"
Prism opened his mouth in a scream, but only a croak came out. "My work... my work was nearly done..." He turned to Ala, nothing but madness in his eyes. "With my last breath I shall curse thee! May your soul know the same unrest as mine!" The artist collapsed at her feet.
The girl extended her hand and took the emeralds from the heap of the rubble. "I'm sorry," she eventually said. "She was evil." But Prism was dead, and there was nothing she could say or do. She put the stones to her pocket, together with the cooling talisman, and turned to the party.
"Can a sentient being torture and cripple another and call it mercy?"
"What, sis?" Imoen blinked.
"Nothing," Ala forced a smile. "Nothing important whatsoever. Let us move on."
Ellesime. I'll remember the name.

Chapter 33. Rufie

"I don't understand," Imoen's eyelashes fluttered in bewilderment, "I just sat on this ledge and whoops! My hand slipped into the hidden treasury and," she lovingly stroke two pieces of parchment on her lap, "I got this! Another Cloudkill and Chromatic Orb, for free!"
"What? Give it here now, you little specimen of a macaque!" Edwin swiftly approached the girl and tried to pry the scrolls from her hands.
"Hey, easy here!" Imoen swiftly drew back, "I know you have an Orb already."
""I have no qualms about the Orb, but I do not think it is wise to trust a Red Wizard with such a dangerous spell as Cloudkill," Jaheira said. "We should sell this one, as neither of you is able to cast such advanced magic yet."
"Oh, relax, Jae," Ala said. She was sitting on another ledge, dangling her feet in a small stream nearby. The adventurers had gone a considerable way southwest, and were now having a short rest in a secluded spot next to a forest waterfall. "The emeralds we've got will net us a tidy sum, even if we do not turn them in as a bounty, so we can allow ourselves some luxuries. Such as," she sprang up, approaching the mages, "carrying expensive scrolls. By the way, Edwin, if you want this Cloudkill scroll, you'll have to earn it."
"Earn it? It's mine, and mine alone, by the single fact that I'm the only one deserving it! (You cannot expect a mere girl to have it when I do not, anyway.)"
"Uh-oh. Yours. Of course. But you see, Imoen is learning to be a mage, and she needs some help. So, if you help her practise, the scroll is yours. But if not..." Ala yanked the scroll away. "No teaching Im, no scroll. Sorry."
The mage looked as if he was going to fulminate, but then he seemed to restrain himself. "Teach her. Very well. But if she proves to be incompetent, it is not my problem," he reached his hand for the scroll. "Deal?"
"Deal."
"I can't believe it," Imoen sighed, as they picked up their packs, ready to move further, "it's been how long, a week? And now it's the third mage teaching me."
"Well, Im, look at it this way," Ala finished applying some dark substance on the last arrow and carefully put it into a quiver, "it could be worse. It might have been that two previous ones were dead, and they're all alive, even the Zhents, much as I sometimes regret it. Besides, Im, whatever you say, I don't think Xzar was a good tutor."
"I know," Imoen nodded, "but I still miss him, a bit. I know he was a scumbag and all, but..." She shrugged helplessly.
"Children, hurry up!" Jaheira called. "We cannot wait for you all day."
"Coming!" Ala waved and turned back to her friend. "So, Immy, I'm sorry it has to be like that. I wish we were back at Candlekeep, or that I could grasp Elminster by his unwashed beard and ask him to teach you. But for now you'll have to do with Edwin, I'm afraid." She snickered. "Just pray he won't fall in love with you, too."
"Him?" Imoen giggled. "Sure, sis, he's tall, dark and handsome, but I'll eat my spellbook without salt if I ever see him in love. Nope, Edwin is out."
Still laughing, the girls ran forward to catch up with the rest of the party.
Edwin clenched and unclenched his fingers as he walked, fuming inwardly. Me, a fully qualified wizard of Thay, with magnificent abilities and vast knowledge of lore both ancient and modern, to teach some peasant girl? They must thank me on a bent knee that I have chosen them to aid me in my quest, and instead the annoying half-elf bothers me with these petty tasks!
The mage exhaled soundly. I'm hopelessly stuck in these barbarian lands, with nobody but monkeys around.
He was sorely tempted to abandon the party and the witch altogether, but that would mean becoming an exile, and Edwin Odesseiron was not about to let anybody see his humiliation. No, he must proceed, even if that means babysitting this Imoen girl every step of the way.
Then another thought came into his head. But I must also mind my task. The witch is just a possible source of influence, the main target is the Bhaalspawn. But that means I shall have to watch the girl, until I can make a valid decision on whether prophecies speak of her or not. And only then will I be able to return to Thay.
"Is Evil Wizard angry?" Edwin heard, as a mailed hand fell on his shoulder. "Boo tells me that the Red Wizard plots the World Domination and must be distracted, lest he comes up with something very Evil. Here, you can hold Boo if you wish, he is a very wise hamster. See?" The ranger bent his head to the rodent. "Yes, Boo, I will tell him. Boo asks me to remind you that we roam the Realms for adventure, and the World Domination is not included."
"I know exactly what's the reason for me to travel with such an obnoxious and obviously insane gibbering idiot!" Edwin brushed Minsc's hand off indignantly. "And that does not include a Mielikki-serving ape telling me what I should and what I should not do!"
A sudden squall of wind nearly threw him off-balance, flinging his robes open and providing party with a generous display of wizard's legs. Imoen squirmed and hastily retreated to the trees, protecting her own mantle from unraveling.
"Well, Edwin, you asked for it," Jaheira noted, chuckling quietly. "Gods do not like being mocked."
"Nice legs, by the way," Ala was laughing openly. "Pity you have to wear these... unmanly garments."
"Unmanly garments?!"
"Little Ala is right," Minsc noticed importantly. "In great country of Rasheman, only Witches wear these, and if a member of Ice Berserker Lodge would go on his dajemma in a dress, everybody would laugh."
"Berserkers? Why, it seems so. I had suspected as much when I caught your scent a few moments ago," an amused female voice said. A pretty, if rather plump, redhead woman came forward from a small grove. Two tall, blond warriors flanked her. "Whatever your intentions are, halt! You trespass quite deep into Amnish territory. Perhaps you have come to spy upon our supposed troop build up? It's quite funny, the stupid notions you northern barbarians can get stuck in your heads."
"Whom have you called bar-" Edwin started, but Ala cut the wizard off. "Are you saying that Amn does not threaten Baldur's Gate?"
"Of course not," the woman snorted. "Our mighty nation has better things to do than attack some self important barbarian city. Anyhow, take our advice, and go back from whence you came."
"I suppose," the girl said. "We were moving west, anyway. But we have done a service to Amn by cleansing the Nashkel mines, so I believe you're not doing us justice when you call us 'barbarians'."
The redhead shrugged. "Even so? Well, whoever you are, you're probably just peasants. And I am Sendai, of the noble merchant house of Argrims, foremost family in Amn, and I apologise to no one. Goodbye, peasants. I wish you luck on your journeys, you'll probably need it." She made a sign to her companions, and all three disappeared in the forest.
"Why, why haven't we attacked?" Edwin was speaking even louder than usual. "I had just the spell for the occasion, and these three were close to attacking us, so that would be self-defense, anyway. If you had no need of their armor and weapons, you could leave it to me!"
"Would you carry them yourself?" Ala raised an eyebrow. "You've answered your question: they were well-equipped. We almost lost Jaheira to such a party once. And the other day I was one step from getting killed. So I say we don't get involve in every brawl."
"Still, we learned some useful things," Jaheira said thoughtfully. "That woman seemed none too bright, so she probably didn't lie. And that means that Amn truly has no hostile intentions towards Baldur's Gate."
The day was drawing to a close, when they encountered yet another person. A small blond boy of about ten approached Jaheira, tugging her sleeve.
"'Scuse me?" he sniffed. "I ever so sowwy to bother, but could you help me? I've lost my little dog and I can't find him. He's probably ever so scared right now."
"Your dog?" Jaheira replied in disbelief. "Child, do you even know how dangerous these lands are? Have you no parents here?"
"Parents? Yes, I'm here with some rewatives, but they away for a moment and I'm lost. We are thinking of moving here someday, but I don't know my way awound yet. I can get home, but I just gotta get Rufie back. Please, could you help?" The boy looked at them with imploring eyes.
"Certainly, little one," Minsc answered at once, crushing all Ala's hopes to sneak away quietly. "Despair not, Heroes of Goodness will gladly aid you."
"How do we recognize him?" The girl made the last attempt to shirk the quest.
"You're sure to know him when you see him, cuz he's just the cutest little thing," the boy smiled, showing them perfect dimples on both cheeks. "Here, take this as well. His favorite chew-toy it is. He'll know you're a friend if you have it in your hands. Thank you so much again!"
"You'd better have this, Jae," Ala indicated the bone in the boy's hands. "I don't like the idea of touching other people's personal objects anymore."
"Is this what had happened when we met Prism?" Jaheira looked at the girl sharply. "You had touched the vial and went all white for a moment, then you had smashed the statue as if it had belonged to Demogorgon himself."
"I... I did, yes," Ala said with an effort. "I've seen the things I'd rather not," she briefly described her vision.
"That is strange," the druid was pensive. "I hadn't met the woman myself, but Gorion told me some unpleasant things about her. Namely that it was her city where Gorion came to dwell first, with you on his hands, and the Queen had driven him out because of what you were," Jaheira's hands clenched to fists on their own accord. "But the ritual you've described sounds unfamiliar to me. Suldanessellar is concealed in the thicket of Tethyrian forests, and elves rarely admit outsiders here, with the exception of friends and relatives. Perhaps later we shall find out more about this."
"Yes," Ala nodded. "I hope we shall."
The party found Rufie quite easily. A large reddish-brown dog was noisily licking water on the sandy river bank, not far from the place where they encountered the boy. It wagged its tail as it saw a bone in Jaheira's hand, and eagerly followed the adventurers.
Before they could return Rufie to its master, however, they met with another delay. A tall, gangly fellow approached them in a careless stride, beating up the bushes with a short sword as he went.
"Hey there, fella!" he clapped Ala on the shoulder. "I'm Vax. Seems like your little party's wandered a bit off the beaten path, eh? Well, that's too bad for you, cause you've had the misfortune of meeting the fastest draw in the West." He chuckled merrily. "See that man over yonder? His name's Zal, and he's the fastest dart thrower that has ever walked the Sword Coast! Now, if I were you, I wouldn't want to test the patience of such a man. So why don't you do the wise thing and hand over all your money? Otherwise you're going to be in a heap of trouble. A large heap of a trouble."
"Woof!" Rufie suddenly barked. "Woof, woof!"
"I think that he doesn't like you," Ala stepped back and drew her dagger. "And I agree. There're six of us, and only one of you. So you'd better leave us alone, while you can."
"Yeah! Go away, you big meanie!" Imoen bristled. "And if ya wanna know, the best swordsman on the Sword Coast got eaten by an ogre! So go away before our dog eats you and your fastest draw!"
The fellow laughed. "Hear that, Zal!" he shouted on the top of his voice. "Seems they don't take you seriously! Guess it's time to show what for, huh? Sorry, guys, but you're in for a world of hurt," he swiftly ducked. Next moment, a dart whistled from the direction of nearby bushes, piercing into Imoen's unprotected shoulder. The girl whimpered, trying to get it out, while other party members drew their weapons.
The second dart went straight for Jaheira's throat, but it didn't get there. Rufie jumped as if to catch it, changing in the process. Its body was melting, the fur giving way to scales, and fangs began to grow over its head. With a swipe of an enormous arm, the monster broke Vax's neck and streamed into the forest. A second later, there was a high-pitched scream, and then silence.
"Rufie! Who's a fuzzy Rufie? Who's a fuzzy little guy?" the blond boy was running to the party across the field. They instinctively stepped back.
"Thank you just ever so much," the boy said breathlessly. "I better take this lost little puppy home right away, or Aesgarth will be really angry. They're stuck in Watcher's Keep again. Here, take this. It's another of his chew things, but we can get more where we're going. Thanks again," with this words, he opened the portal and disappeared. Next, Rufie the fanged demon appeared from the bushes, looking very smug, and leaped into the portal, too. For a moment Ala could see a weird stony landscape and murky shapes on its bottom. Then the portal closed.
"That's a deck of cards," Jaheira said, sounding surprised. "It looks tattered and, well... chewed, but all the symbols are visible."
"This is no ordinary deck," Edwin pushed past Khalid and peered at the object intently. "I do not need useless divination skills to tell what it is. That is the Deck of Many Things! The item of utmost power and magnificence!" He coughed. "What I have meant to say is that it is merely an old artifact which powers have long been drained, I'm sure. (There, that will do.)"
"And of course, you would like to study this completely useless object at your leisure?" Jaheira asked sweetly. "Forget it, Edwin. I'd rather leave it here, but as it probably has some value, we'll take it. Not for your entertainment, though, and don't try to convince me otherwise."
Edwin shrugged. "I am not even remotely interested. (And I shall find a way. Just wait until you fall asleep. But the witch must die, first.)"
"So, shall we go?" Jaheira tapped her foot impatiently. "The Gnollish stronghold awaits!"
"And Dynaheir!" Minsc roared.
"And treasure!" Imoen agreed heatedly.
"And gnolls," Khalid added morosely.
"And a long way to go yet," Ala concluded. "Let's go!"

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #8 on: March 01, 2009, 01:04:26 PM »
Chapter 34. Chess Contract

The rest of their way to the Gnoll Stronghold was relatively uneventful. Now the party had left the forests behind and entered the wild plains and rocky paths. It took them several hours, but as the night began to fall, they approached a steep cliff, looming over the clear blue waters of a hill stream. A ramshackle bridge overhang across, but it didn't look safe.
"I c-can see the keep on the other bank," Khalid said, nervously peering into darkness. "Shall we p-proceed?"
"Not in the night," Jaheira said sharply. "I do not like the thought of us risking that ford at all, but if we must, I say we wait for the morn."
"I agree," Ala wearily nodded and flopped on the ground. "I'm not moving anywhere until tomorrow."
"Not just yet, child," Jaheira gently nudged the girl. "I need you and Imoen to help me with the supper, while others tend to the fire."
"Um, fire?" The girl looked around hopefully in the search of a worthy excuse to stay put. "Jae, there're gnolls on the other side! I don't think they'll take it kindly if someone lights a fire on their lands!"
"They will stay where they are, trembling before my mighty magic! (And nobody had better doubt it, because I want to sit at the fire. How do these wretched simians manage to keep their rags dry? My robes are dirty and wet all over, and I need warmth and comfort, befitting my stature! No, mustn't show it. Must pretend an... an experienced adventurer. Yes, that's it. Experienced.)" Edwin placed his backpack down and was now shifting from foot to foot, shivering visibly under the cold night wind.
Ala looked up at the wizard. He seemed really worn out and miserable indeed, though the girl doubted she was looking much better. Some party we are. Two inexperienced girls, a man obviously used to servants tying his shoelaces for him, and a mentally disturbed ranger. Not to mention that the last two hate each other. Still, we are getting better. Perhaps our party is ready to meet the bandits at long last.
When Ala returned with the water, Jaheira and Imoen had already laid out the simple rations, and the men helped stoke the fire. The men, that was, excluding Edwin, for the Red Wizard huddled himself in a tight knot and refused to do anything.
"The one who doesn't work doesn't get to eat," Jaheira noted acidly, buttering a slab of bread.
"I can go without these slops, druid," the wizard snapped. "When I was saving your sorry hide from hobgoblins the other day, I should have known your gratitude would not be everlasting, so your pitiful grudges do not worry me at the slightest."
"C'mon, Jaheira," Imoen looked at the older woman imploringly, "you're not going to leave Edwin hungry, do you? No, you probably won't. It just means that you would glare at him darkly and mutter under your breath, and then Edwin will, too, and then you will understand how close you two are, and then-"
"And then, child," Jaheira scowled, "you both will be hungry. Supper is ready, everyone."
"Oh, this is most joyous news, right, Boo?" Minsc exclaimed. "Boo says his little stomach is ready to devour nuts and berries, cheese and cookies, to stop the Evil Hungry rumbles it gives."
"So, the hamster is speaking to you now, Minsc?" Edwin snorted. "Tell me, are his thoughts... entertaining? Or can he only think about stuffing the belly of his with putrid leftovers, much as a certain specimen of an ape does?"
"I do not like the tone of your voice, Red Wizard," Minsc shouted, standing up to his full height. "Boo has expressed great dislike for your company, and I cannot say I am surprised! Even pretty Dynaheir's orders will not keep me from kicking your Evil Buttocks with my Hamster-Defending and Manners-Delivering Boot of Justice!"
"Oh, I'm terrified now," Edwin retorted. "Mayhap a fireball down your throat will shut your boasting?"
Ala rolled her eyes. Bandits? Who was talking about bandits? They will have to wait at least a year until we grow up. And it'll be a miracle if we do not kill one another before then.
After the supper, Khalid and Jaheira retreated to a small tent they've bought during the last visit to Nashkel, Imoen got into her bedroll, claiming she needed to study her spells, and Minsc went off to collect more firewood and to 'calm Boo down, because the Evil Wizards about do not know what is good for them, and one of these days Boo may not just go for the eyes!' That left Ala and Edwin alone by the fire.
"So," the wizard began, "tomorrow is the day you will finally accomplish my task. (And high time it is! I have started to doubt whether she has any competence at all!) I trust you would not fail me."
"No." Ala held his gaze. "I trust you won't either."
"What? Ah, the reward. Yes, yes, I have already told you about that, I'm sure," the mage looked uncomfortable all of a sudden. "Tell me, ah, do you have any plans after it is over?" He moved closer to the fire and looked into her face intently.
"Why, yes," the girl shrugged. "You have probably heard of the iron crisis. We investigate it, and we have already solved a part of the puzzle. The Nashkel mines have been infected by the same person who hired bandits to rob caravans. We are planning to get to the root of the problem, through the links we already have."
"Yes, yes, I see. A noble quest. So why did you undertook this particular mission?"
Ala was startled by the question. "Because-" Should she tell the wizard the truth? Should she repeat Xan's words, that the iron shortage would lead to the war, and the war would leap to mass destruction Alaundo had prophesied? Should she tell her about own role in that, the role of her heritage? Tell it to Edwin, the Red Wizard, a complete stranger?
"It started when my father was killed, and I had to find my own lot in life," she eventually answered. "Khalid and Jaheira were his friends, and the task of delving into the iron crisis was originally theirs. It came to be that they became my guardians, so we look into this together. Also, we're adventurers. The dungeon-crawling and monster-slaying is what we do."
"Very well, it is as I expected. (Dumb, all of them. No sense of self-preservation.)" Edwin was looking bored. "Enough of this." He had turned his back to the girl, fumbling with his backpack. After a long search, the wizard had taken a small box out of his pack, wiped it tenderly with his sleeve and opened it. With some surprise, Ala saw that it was a chessboard, all pieces of which were made entirely of ivory, with gold incrustation. The man is a poseur if I ever saw one.
"Well?" he demanded. "Which one of you dares to come forward as a candidate?"
"A what?" Imoen muttered in the distance, frowning over her spellbook. "C'mon, I'm trying to concentrate here!"
"(No, that pathetic excuse of a mage definitely won't do.) So, are you going to play or not?"
Ala gave a start. "Are you talking to me?"
"Who else is there? Either play or admit your primitive skills do not allow you even the basic comprehension of the rules. If so, I am clearly wasting my time," Edwin began to put the pieces away.
"No," Ala hastily interrupted him, "I might give it a try." Gorion had taught both girls to play, and while she was rarely able to beat him, the half-elf knew that she could play well.
After the fourth defeat in a row, however, she started to doubt her abilities. The wizard was good in methodically bringing his forces to the single point of the board very quickly, eventually weakening her defenses and scoring a point, after which his victory in the end-game was a matter of time. But she also noticed that his style was mechanical, and that he lacked the insight she had in abundance. You don't see all combinations, my friend, and I can use it to my advantage. Now, to figure how...
"I am getting tired of this nonsense," Edwin said suddenly. "Either we begin in earnest or we finish this altogether!"
"What do you mean?"
"I say we make a gamble here," he eagerly leaned forward. "If you win, you gain one year of my services as a wizard. If you lose, you grant me the petty trinket you have found on our way here."
"The Deck of Many Things?" Ala raised an eyebrow. "That's pretty high." Then she looked into his leering face, and the reckless daring was upon her. "Deal."
Their fifth game proceeded much as the previous four. "It's high time you learned I am simply better at chess than you," Edwin said dismissively after his regular attack succeeded. "Submit."
"Uh-oh," Ala nodded absently. Now, if I can pull it off, it'll be a miracle. But I'll try... "Check," she said aloud.
"Hah! That empty move will get you nowhere! My figures will stay where they are, so submit!" the wizard moved his king along the board with an audible screech.
"And another check," the girl began to hum. It works!
"How stupid can you get? You're leading the very figures you need to protect your knight away! Now I can take it!"
"You can. Later. But now... check." The excitement welled up inside her, so high that Ala was afraid her next moves would show in her eyes. She hastily lowered her head, but Edwin was taking no notice.
"Very well," he waved his hand, levitating another piece across the board. A show-off... "Now it is your turn. And yes, you can take my pawn with your Queen and announce another check. I'll be awaiting it eagerly." There was open contempt in his voice.
"En garde," Ala said. "And a check. And a fork."
"What? You were not supposed to move this knight! And what's that ridiculous word? A local barbarian war-cry?"
"I know I shouldn't have said that," the girl grinned, "but I really like the way it sounds. It means I'm attacking your Queen." Her voice became dangerously sweet. It seems I'm boasting, but I don't care. "So, now you are under a check and under a threat to lose your precious Queen, what are you going to do?"
"Gahhh! You insufferable monkey!" Edwin screamed, jumping up and scattering pieces over the grass. "This game is over! (Though now that I see it, it was a simple combination. Yes. Very simple. I've seen it clearly, too. I just... let her win this time. Yes, that's exactly it.)"
"No way, Edwin!" Imoen called from her place. "Ala won fair and square, I heard everything."
"Minsc wonders," a voice said next to Ala's ear, "why do you squabble over pretty little pieces? Boo says you can take the white ones, and Evil Wizard can play with his Evil Black ones alone."
"You see, Minsc," the girl answered carefully, "it is a difficult game, and it takes a very long time to explain the rules. But you're right, in a way," she turned to Edwin with an apologetic smile. "I'm afraid that I'm too excited to play anymore tonight."
"Hmph. No doubt that is because you have won for the first and last time in your life," the Red Wizard snorted. "Remember this moment well, for you will certainly get no similar satisfaction in the nearest century."
"Or, but I might have another sort of satisfaction," Ala purred. "In fact, I now have your services. I trust you haven't forgotten our little bargain?"
The look on Edwin's face was priceless.

Chapter 35. The Way to Dynaheir

The morning was as cold as the previous night. It was pale and misty, and the stream was grey instead of light blue. Its waters looked extremely uninviting.
"We have t-to cross it, regardless," Khalid's face was unusually grim. "From what Minsc told me yesterday, I g-gather we don't have much time left."
"Minsc told you?" Ala turned to him in surprise. "But how does he know? We have been together all the time, haven't we?"
"Boo tells me things, little Ala," the large ranger answered gravely. "He is our small animal companion, and sweet Dynaheir gave him to me to carry, because he is her family."
"Family?"
"I think I know what he's talking about," Imoen interrupted her friend. "Boo is Dynaheir's familiar, is he? So, he feels and sees everything she does, but if she dies, he, too... oh."
"Boo cannot die!" Now there were tears in the ranger's eyes. "And pretty Dynaheir will not die! Minsc is coming to save her!" In a single movement, he leaped over the rail and rushed across the bridge into the mist.
"Good riddance, I say," Edwin snorted. "The ape will be a good distraction for the gnolls. (I even foresee they will take him for a kinsman.)"
Jaheira pushed past the wizard silently, giving him a withering glare. Khalid and the girls followed her.
"Oh, all right," Edwin muttered sullenly. "I'll follow... for now. (I'm half a mind to wait for them here, but no. The mission must be accomplished, and without my supreme magic they will undoubtedly fail. And there is a matter of this ridiculous contract. Preposterous! But I have given my word, and I shall comply... for now. But one year of service! The whole year! I shall definitely have to think on how to evade this unfortunate circumstance.)" Still muttering, he stepped on the bridge and disappeared in the mist.
"One hundred gold! You pay and you cross, or you don't pay and go to feed the fishes!" Two large creatures met Minsc on the other side of the bridge. Both of them wore big halberds with rough wooden handles. Ala slowly drew her bow, catching up with the ranger. A little left, just a little left, and there'll be a very dead gnoll...
"Boo says there are no fishes in the stream, but there are Evil Gnolls about! It's time for the butt-kicking Hamster Justice!" The warrior lifted both gnolls by their necks and knocked their heads together. There was a dull thud, and two bodies fell to the ground. Boo let out a loud squeak as Minsc adjusted his sword, ready to go on.
Panicking, Ala ran forward. "Minsc, please, stop!" she panted. "Look, there are too many gnolls here, we can't kill them all. We need a stealthy approach. All this shouting, the battle cries and stuff, that'll give us away. Please, let me find a safe way in, first."
The ranger looked at her, apparently bewildered, than he nodded. "Boo says he cannot go for everyone's eyes, too. Minsc only has two legs, so we only can kick two Wicked Butts at a time. Little Ala must lead us, and WE SHALL CREEP, SLOWLY AND SILENTLY, TO DELIVER THE MESSAGE THAT KIDNAPPING MINSC'S WITCH IS WRONG! WOE IS YOU, EVIL!"
So much for the stealthy approach. "Right. Just... just wait here. And tell everyone else to wait here. I'll be back." She slung her bow over the shoulder, drew out her dagger and began to move towards the keep.
"I distinctly remember her saying that we were not getting involved in every brawl," Jaheira said acidly, following the girl with her eyes.
"Well, d-darling, it might turn out for the best," Khalid said, brushing his wife's cheek.
"Children," Jaheira muttered. "Reckless children."

"Solid rock," Ala muttered. "Again. Will these catacombs never end?"
The keep was surrounded by a labyrinth of passages that went both down, to the water, and up, to the fortress itself. At first, it seemed a good idea to journey upward all the time, but all the paths she followed resulted in a dead end. The girl leaned to the stone wall, deep in thought.
Of course, there was the front gate. There was always the front gate. But it was not unguarded, and however slick and stealthy the young rogue was, she was sure that she could not sneak past the patrol, even in the mist. So what should she do?
The loud drunken song interrupted her thoughts. The sound was approaching, and the girl rapidly threw herself flat against the wall. Next moment, two gnolls turned the corner and sat down on the ground, their halberds next to them. The smaller one took out a bottle of some liquid, and started to unscrew the cork, cursing. Ala really hoped it was wine.
"S-so... hic! What about that new prisoner?"
"Dunno," a large gnoll pried the flack from his mate's hands and took a large gulp. "The folks are getting restless about the woman. I mean, there're, how many, fifty of us? And only one of her." He took another gulp. "Not enough for everybody. Some of the guys have already left because of that. All this modern delayin', slow roastin'--raw meat was always good, if you ask me. And now she's dyin' up here, and I never liked carrion."
The smaller gnoll nodded uncertainly. "Er, yes. But now we must go down and check on the book."
"Nether tome!" the other one snorted. "Who needs that old rubbish? Nobody ever gonna steal it!"
"Some folks would grab anything as long as it's got 'Netheril' on it, ya know."
"Alrigh', alrigh'," the large gnoll stood up, swaying slightly, "let's check on it, then."
Ala took a deep breath. Now, what book did they speak of?
Slowly, she began to follow the gnolls, but then stopped as the path forked before her. The patrol is gone. The way is clear, and I'm thinking about some stupid book! The girl gave the last look to the pair of gnolls in front and then turned to another direction, her face resolute. Though I might get to this tome... at a later time.
The mist gradually faded, and it became more difficult to stay unseen. But Ala managed to do it, clinging to every shadow, crouching and crawling when walking became impossible.
At last, the girl found herself inside the fortress. It was a rough construction, seemingly carved out of the rock a long, long time ago. There were no walls, either, only platforms with dark eyes of the pits, and long wooden stairwells. The sun had risen high already, covering the whole keep, and the putrid stench of its inhabitants increased tenfold under its gaze. As Ala bent over the first pit, she could barely breathe, assaulted by smells of dog, excrements and carrion.
There was nobody alive there. She couldn't even see a single corpse. But there were body parts. Skinned hands, parts of the leg, a half-chewed chunk of somebody's midriff... She hastily threw herself on the ground and vomited right into the hole, once, twice, three times, until her head started to feel dangerously light.
Shaking, the girl got up and crouched towards the second one, trying hard not to breathe. How many of them are there? And is this Dynaheir even alive?
A long flight of stairs, and another row of pits. Dead, dead, all dead. Starvation, thirst, merciless rays of the sun... Ala shuddered. It could have been me! It easily could have been me, lying there, feeling more and more helpless and weak with every passing day, hoping to the last, but no one would come. No one. And then, perhaps, someone would, but to kill me, not to get me out.
I've never imagined it would be like that. I hoped we'd find the fortress, find the witch, and kill her, either in a duel or in a six-to-one battle. Unfair, yes, but life is unfair. But now that I see it all, I cannot. Perhaps I even wish she was dead, so I wouldn't have to make any sort of decision.
There was a low moan from the nearby pit. Oh. Well, they say hope is a foolish feeling.
A young dark-skinned woman lay on the bottom, on a heap of purple rags. The pit was rather 'neat' in comparison to others: there were only two other corpses there, and these were nearly whole and undamaged.
"Dynaheir?"
"Yes... please..." The woman whispered, as she saw Ala.
The girl nodded. "I'll get you out of here," she mouthed. "Wait." She looked around. Most of the monsters were occupied with fighting practice below, which made it easier for them to talk. But sneaking past them with Dynaheir, unnoticed, was simply not possible. I need help. She chuckled quietly as an idea came to her mind. Edwin's help.

Chapter 36. Edwin and Ethics

"Here she is!" Jaheira exclaimed. Though the woman tried to hide it, Ala distinctly heard hints of relief in her voice. "What kept you so long?"
"I found Dynaheir," Ala said, her voice tight.
"So?" Edwin's voice was loud and eager. "Is it over? Is she dead already?"
"What?!" Minsc bellowed. The ranger closed in the distance between himself and the wizard in two steps, and held him by the collar of his robes. "What did you say about my charge?"
"Peace, both of you," Jaheira extended her arm between the two. Minsc hesitantly let go, and the druid turned to Ala again. "Is she kept prisoner?"
"She is," the girl nodded. "She looks ill, perhaps dying, I don't know."
"Is she ill?" Edwin looked baffled for a moment. "I thought we would have to fight, but if so, then the matter is settled. (At last! I expected it to be over sooner, but perhaps it was the best these monkeys could perform. Hmph. I suppose I could call it adequate.)"
"What do you mean?" Imoen frowned at him.
"The witch will die on her own, so we need not sully our hands, You have my services for one year, as directed, so I do not think you need another reward. I now consider the subject closed," the wizard held out his hand to Ala.
Minsc went purple. "Murderer! You will pay for this!" Before anyone could say or do anything, he charged straight at the wizard and the girl, his sword drawing wild curves.
Then, several things happened in very quick succession. The ranger swung at Edwin, with Khalid and Imoen clinging to his shoulders, trying to restrain him. Jaheira managed to yank the Red Wizard out of the way, and they both sprawled on the floor. Minsc roared, and his sword flicked, ready to plunge into the Ala instead. Instinctively, the girl thrust her own small weapon into the ranger's unprotected thigh with all her might, rolling over his leg to avoid the blow. He howled with pain and made another swish, going completely berserk, but she was already out of reach. A soft voice chanted several words in an unfamiliar language, and the ranger stopped dead, a very surprised look on his face.
"A holding spell," Jaheira said curtly. "Unpleasant, but unavoidable. And I'm tempted to do it to you as well, as soon as you move your hands!" she turned to the Red Wizard, who was looking at Minsc's immobile figure longingly. "Now, I want you to tell me everything there is to tell, child. And I mean everything. Imoen has already told me about wizard being in your service, and that's not what I call good news."
"There's nothing else to tell," Ala shrugged. "I was going to talk to the woman, to try and find out what all this," she nodded at Minsc and Edwin, "is about. But her throat was so dry she couldn't talk. Call me a damn hypocrite and a poor rogue, but I cannot kill a woman who's totally helpless, and who is slowly dying of thirst. I say we help her, and now."
"And poor reasoning it is!" Edwin looked very put out. "What is the difference between killing a healthy opponent and a dying one, if you're paid the same? It matters not to the witch, I tell you! She'd be dead in any case!"
"You're right, she would," the girl nodded. "But it matters to me, as a person. It might sound unreasonable, illogical, even treacherous to you, but I won't do it."
"(Now she strikes a heroic pose. Pathetic.) If you have no guts for it, fine," the wizard sneered. "I should have known better than to employ such a moronic rogue for my purposes. Or did you expect her to stand in the pit all ready and waiting for you, hands on her spell components, so you could kill her fair and square?"
She shrugged. "You obviously did, or you wouldn't make us travel all the way to the Stronghold. Anyway, I don't care for your taunts, I have already made up my mind. And as you are in my service, you'll help me."
"What?"
"You've got no choice, really. We'll take her and Minsc to Nashkel, though I doubt she's got anything for us in return, and when your contract is over, you're free to find her once again." Ala looked straight into Edwin's eyes. "Believe me, I wouldn't care. But now, I wouldn't want her death on my conscience."
"Eh? (But there is sense... this way she certainly shall be out of the way permanently, and that should satisfy Master Degardan.) If you give me your word that neither she nor the addled ranger would ever travel with us, I agree," the wizard reluctantly nodded.
"Then, here's my plan..."
One hour later, the rogue and the wizard were creeping past the guards once again, Edwin covered by an invisibility spell. So far, they were successful, though the fact that the girl had to hold wizard's hand in order not to lose him did not improve her mood.
It was feeding time, and several gnolls were sitting along the first pit, chewing something that looked horribly like human flesh. Other monsters were still busy with fighting practice, so the stairs to the second level were empty.
"Now, where is she?" Edwin hissed.
"The last one," the girl whispered. "Here--look!"
Dynaheir was in the same spot they left her. The female wizard was lying on her back, staring at the sky with empty eyes. For a moment, Ala thought she was dead, but as the girl leaned into the pit, the woman shifted a little, trying to say something.
"Don't move," Ala raised a hand. "Be very quiet, please, or we shall not escape this place. My companion will cast a spell on you, and we'll try to get you out."
Edwin let go of Ala's hand and began to chant. His voice descended to a low murmur, and became fainter and fainter as the wizard went to the pit, still invisible.
In a minute, there was a light throbbing around the woman, and Dynaheir's figure disappeared as Edwin popped up out of thin air, his elegant red robes looking very out of place among the decayed corpses. He raised his hands, ready to repeat the spell.
Then there was a high-pitched scream, and a small foot hit Edwin on the groin. Dynaheir reappeared, supporting herself against the wall with both hands. She was looking at the Red Wizard with utmost hatred. Ala's mouth fell open.
The witch has recognized Edwin. Of course. But we are her only chance! How stupid must she be to resist? Oh well. I see it wouldn't be easy to persuade her to let bygones be bygones.
However, the girl had immediately forgotten about the two of them when another sound reached her ears. The loud tramping of many feet, swiftly approaching them. Gnolls.

Chapter 37. Strange Attractions

Ala jumped to the bottom of the pit. "Stop it, you two!" she panted. "Edwin, have you wasted the spell? Could you hide both of you with it?"
"How thick can you get? The invisibility spell I have can only cover a single person! Single! And this monkey has destroyed her own protection!" the wizard sat on the floor, clutching his belly. Obviously Dynaheir's kick hurt quite a lot. But there was no time for this.
"So, you have a single spell for the two of you," Ala repeated patiently. "There is a way to make it work, if you are quick about it. The gnolls are coming!"
Both wizards looked at her with identical looks of disgust.
"Never."
"No. (Under any circumstances, no.)"
"Die, then," she shrugged, looking around her. There was a body under the wooden stairwell. Closing her eyes and putting a hand over her nose, the girl lifted the corpse and slipped between the body and the ladder, hiding herself from view.
Edwin looked at the female wizard before him. "You realize that I'm doing this only to survive."
"Likewise," Dynaheir stared at him with pure hatred.
With a sigh, the Red Wizard completed the incantation, as his female opponent moved closer. The last thing Ala saw was Edwin bringing his lips to the woman's as he picked Dynaheir up. Then both of them disappeared.
Intimate physical contact indeed. Ala chuckled inwardly, remembering an old manual back at Candlekeep. "In cases of emergency, said spell can be stretched upon two individuals, provided both of them are in close proximity. The mentioned individuals are to enter the intimate physical contact the instant the spell is completed, and not to break it until the spell is to be lifted."
Pity they are invisible. Then she remembered Minsc. On the other hand, perhaps it's for the best.
Fortunately, the mages' escape went unnoticed. Ala heard gruff voices speaking in an unfamiliar language, and then a gnoll came down to the pit. She pressed her head to her knees and held her breath. Don't look. Don't look. The first rule of every rogue: never look straight, if you're trying to be inconspicuous, not intimidating. Otherwise your opponent will notice you for sure.
The creature stopped in the middle of the hole and sniffed at the corpses. Go. Just go. There's nobody here. Ala screw up her eyes. She could feel other monsters on the edge of the pit, staring down. If they notice me here, there's a very real chance I'll take Dynaheir's place permanently.
After an agonizingly long moment the gnoll turned and went back to his comrades, apparently satisfied. She took a deep breath. Soon, the gnolls' voices had died in the distance, and the girl assumed it was safe to begin the journey back. She shifted the corpse and ascended the ladder, but a familiar sound of a drunken song had stopped her in her tracks.
These two again. Ala rolled her eyes and retreated into a dark corner, letting the guards pass. Wait, they have spoken about the book before, haven't they? And I've seen which way it lies! It is probably unguarded now, because these two are here. The girl grinned, anticipating a short and rewarding venture. I think my party can wait for a while.
It was dark in the cave, and very cold. A large chest stood in the middle. Is it trapped, I wonder? No, it isn't. Good, let's have a look. Some scrolls, the girl tucked them into her belt, more potions, always good, and what is this?
A large tome, bound in orange leather, was nonchalantly lying in the far corner of the chest. It was covered with dust and cobwebs, but Ala hastily snatched it just the same. "Nether Tome of Truth," she read after wiping the front cover of the book.
The girl opened it with trembling fingers, and the world around her began to revolve...

"Hello again, my dear," her double was sitting cross-legged on the fresh snow, in the middle of the familiar empty black plain.
"Not you," Ala gritted her teeth.
Cold laughter filled her ears. "You made a grave mistake by opening this book, my dear. Why, you could continue to stumble about, listening to imaginary voices and fighting non-existent gods. 'No, sir, it was the inner voice of my Father who made me do this!'" She laughed again, this time almost good-naturedly. "But from this point on, the excuse would ring false. The imprint of Netherese magic on the said tome grants you a perfect villain's exposition!"
"I don't understand."
"Not surprisingly." Her double shot her another toothy smile. "Well, I shall begin, and you would catch on as you see fit." She made a dramatic pause. "Bhaal is dead. Permanently. It is possible to bring him back, but, frankly, I doubt someone would be crazy enough to actually make the attempt. His 'gifts' are products of the divine essence you shape yourself, following your innermost desires, and his voice is a figment of your imagination."
"So nice to hear I am talking to a figment of my imagination," Ala said slowly.
"My dear, it is you who is a little more than a brief dream," the pair of eyes in front of her flashed menacingly. "A flicker of my finger, and you are no more. However, there is a small matter of Ao's edict..." she trailed off and looked at the girl questioningly. "Well? Do you know who I am?"
"No. Not a clue."
"In the name of the Abyss! Even an average member of my priesthood is more intelligent!"
Priesthood... with glowing eyes. Golden eyes.
"You are Cyric, the reigning God of Murder."
"Not the most interesting of functions in my portfolio, but yes, dear girl, I am. Great Cyric--or, rather, the miniscule part of his mind, his avatar on the Prime Material Plane. Restricted to watching and observing, but that cannot prevent us from having a friendly chat, can it? Yes, sad to say, I am not your father." Her double sniffed, closing her face with her hands. Then she laughed again, and as she did, her face and figure changed, shedding the half-elf's appearance.
Plain red and grey clothing. Short dark hair. Two stark black eyes on a strikingly handsome face. A male face, looking hardly older than Ala's.
"The game was interesting, but it started to bore me," Cyric continued cheerfully. "That tome of yours was a good pretext to have a nice and long conversation about your taint, among other things. Mortals are so easy to manipulate: a bit of disinformation here and there, and they start to believe that Bhaal forces them to commit unspeakable atrocities!" He chuckled. "You would not believe how many Bhaalspawn killed themselves or were driven insane because of that. Of course, it makes the process of eliminating my would-be rivals all the easier."
"Doesn't Bhaal possess me?"
"How? Traveling through time to advise his dear offspring? No. In reality, the taint heightens your so-called urges, but this is all. Ironically, what your pet magician suggested is the only way to control them: if he tried to erect a mind shield, it would have no effect, as nobody can protect you from yourself. But I am not here to give you advice on maintaining the ways of Light. Unlike you, I do not have a stupid notion of controlling my urges."
"Really?" Talking to a live deity was harder than to a dead one. "So, was that the reason why you sent bounty hunters after me? Indulging your urges?"
"Me? Sending bounty hunters? My divine company has turned your head, it seems. No, and I am not going to tell you who has done it, either." He yawned. "This cursed object forces me, Great Cyric, to speak the truth at the moment, but that does not mean all the truth."
"But why are you telling me even this? The taint, the fact that all this bloodthirsty desires are mine? They do not feel mine, by the way. I couldn't kill an ogre mage on my own, and-"
"Ah, of course. You are a paragon of Virtue, so all this little dirty things are above your station, and only can be explained by Evil Influence. Stop this nonsense, Ala. Every person has murder within; yours is easier to reach, that is all. If you live to master your essence, killing any mortal would become an easy feat. And as for 'why', the main reason is that I am worried about your path, my dear. Worried about your destiny, as one might say," he stood up and bent over her hand in a parody of a bow. "But we shall talk about it at a later time."
The world started to revolve again...

Ala opened her eyes. She was shivering in the chilly air, but the girl was sure that the true cause of her sudden cold lay deeper.
Cyric! All right, he is not exactly hunting me, he is haunting me, but it does not make it any better. What in the Nine Hells does he want? Worried about my destiny? Worried, ha! Worried that I am still alive, more likely. Ala shuddered.
But what if he doesn't? If he is simply concerned? And he is so handsome, he looks so...
Ala, shut up.
There were no monsters near the entrance, but there was something else. A wide, spectacular blaze was shimmering in the air, not far from the place where her companions must have been. Sparks flew over the rocks right in front of her, and the girl heard the shrill, dissonant sounds of desperate chanting. A single thought pierced her mind. The gnolls cannot use magic. Edwin!

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #9 on: March 01, 2009, 01:04:55 PM »
Chapter 38. Burned Gnolls and Bitten Bridges

Ala broke into a run as the sounds of the battle grew louder. There was a considerable way to go towards the bridge, yet, so she assumed Edwin and Dynaheir got cut off. She was right.
The Red Wizard was standing on a small dais in a large semi-circle of gnolls, with his back to the wall. Dynaheir was lying at his feet, unconscious once again. Ala stared at Edwin. Two orange jets of fire were streaming from his hands, crossing in the air, as he methodically guided both rays along the circle of his opponents. The half-elf noticed several bodies in front of the wizard already, and she could tell there would be more.
But however effective Edwin's actions were, the number of gnolls didn't seem to decrease. There were more and more of them coming from the direction of the keep. Their growls and barks drowned out the sound of the wizard's chanting, and they were forming a tighter circle. Once in a while, a single shape would come apart from the pack and jump to the dais. The moment it did, both flame jets hit the creature simultaneously, and a charred corpse hit the ground. But the example didn't stop the others from trying.
The girl watched, mesmerized. At last, she took a deep breath and dashed towards the dais, gesticulating madly to get the mage's attention. The gnolls' circle broke, confused by her sudden attack, and she used the distraction to climb to a cold, slippery stone, collapsing next to Dynaheir's prone form. Then a pair of hands roughly dragged her up, and she found herself face to face with Edwin. Instead of the usual scent of expensive perfume, the wizard was smelling of sweat, and his face was covered with dust.
"So," he said, brushing off his hands, "did you manage to get lost? (Got lost in the sewers, too, judging by the smell.)"
"What are you doing here?" Ala blurted out, kicking away a gnoll's arm that grabbed her ankle. "You were supposed to bring Dynaheir to the camp! Were you unable to maintain your disguise?"
"It was entirely her fault," the wizard's expression twitched. "And if you mention the word 'disguise' ever again, there will be consequences. (Preferably fatal ones.)"
"Yes, yes, whatever you say. Now, shall we get out from here or not?"
"How?" The wizard pushed the girl behind his back, and another streak of flame burst out of his outstretched hand, gusting at the nearest monster and singeing its mane. The barking increased. "The way is shut! (Wish that I could toss the witch to them. She will certainly prove a useful distraction Her only useful deed--and her last one. Blast this binding, cheating, insufferable contract!)"
"Stop sulking, Edwin! We'll cleave it! Take Dynaheir, and let's make it to the bridge!"
Edwin twisted a finger against his temple. "Are you mad?"
Curse the wizards and their stubbornness, Ala thought. Instead of answering, she simply picked up the witch's arm and began to slide off the dais. A second later, Edwin hoisted Dynaheir's other arm on his shoulder with a grunt, and raised his free hand, chanting a spell. A cloud of golden dust settled around them, and the nearest gnolls suddenly started to look uncertain, stumbling blindly in the mist. As the girl watched, one of the monsters tripped over his halberd and sprawled on the ground, his head crashing into the dais with a loud bang. His comrades wasted no time in tripping over his body, and soon, the dais was surrounded by the yapping furry mess with the distinct smell of the privy hole. The gnolls were no longer paying any attention to Ala and Edwin.
They ran.
Minsc was pacing the bridge restlessly, kicking pebbles with his feet. Back in Nashkel, things were very simple. Guard pretty Dynaheir, watch Evil Wizard, return to Rasheman and enter the Ice Berserker Lodge. These were the orders he had received. He never understood the orders, even as a little boy, but after his witch lent him Boo, things became simpler. The hamster told him when to charge, and that pretty much summed everything. Of course, he still made the important decisions himself, like giving flowers to a right girl, or choosing a sort of ale; here Boo had no vote. Sometimes, however, even Boo could not hold him from going berserk, and the ranger felt very sorry afterwards, especially if he did kill someone.
This time, he didn't. Pretty tree-lady, Jaheira, had stopped him with the Hand of Nature. That was very wise, he decided, because she had time to explain him everything while her spell worked, and Boo confirmed her words.
The Evil Wizard wasn't very evil, just very stupid, she explained. Edwin didn't want to save pretty Dynaheir, but the shadow-crawler, Ala, made him swear he would. Then Jaheira told him a very sad bit of news: they will not kick Evil Butts together! They will return to Nashkel, and then he and Dynaheir will have to leave the party. That made Minsc very sad, but also relieved, because he didn't want to travel with Evil... no, Stupid Red Wizard. If he did, some day he would probably kick his Stupid Red Butt, and even Boo would not be able to hold him off.
Now, Ala and Red Wizard had gone to steal his witch from the Gnolls, a deed worthy of any hero! Minsc regretted he couldn't go with them, but after little Imoen explained that Ala and herself had always returned safe and sound from such journeys, and they were very, very careful, he relaxed and went back to watching the bridge, just like Boo told him to.
"They are coming! Wait... there is a pack of gnolls on their heels! Ready yourselves for the battle!" Jaheira shouted.
"Minsc is always ready!" The ranger shifted a little to protect Imoen. A moment later, Khalid took his stand on the frontline, next to him. And then Minsc saw his Witch.
His pretty Dynaheir was no longer pretty. Her clothes were dirty, ragged and torn, her face sunken, and her hair oily and tangled. She was dangling between Ala and Red Wizard, too weak to run by herself. Evil, you will pay for this, d'ya hear me? They were running very fast, but the gnolls were moving even faster, and Minsc saw that his Witch would be in their hands soon. Boo, do something!
"We must cut the ropes!" Imoen suddenly screamed. "Edwin and Ala will hold on, but the gnolls will stay on the other side!"
"How are they going to do it, with an unconscious woman on their hands?" Jaheira snapped.
What are you saying, Boo? You can do it? Can you? Did you hear her right?
"Boo will cut the ropes," the ranger announced happily. The hamster nimbly sneaked between Khalid's legs and made for the other side. "Hold on to the bridge, little Ala! And hold my Witch!"
Go for the ropes, Boo!
Ala stopped on the middle of the bridge, panting. "We'll have to hold on to something."
"Do not worry about that," Edwin sneered. "In a second, there'll be plenty of gnolls to hold on to. You must thank my supreme skills for them not overwhelming us earlier. (No thanks to you. The way she insists on dragging this Witch around... one might think they were involved in an intimate relationship.)"
"Your dust only stopped those who stood directly in our way, so I can hardly call it 'supreme'. And I think we both know who was involved with whom. Now would you please hold on? I doubt you can swim in these robes."
Indeed, the bridge began to shatter. The first supporting rope burst with a dry sound of a broken twig, and gnolls rapidly moved back. The only monster who had dared to stay in place was now desperately clinging to the remaining rope. Another crunch, and the bridge was no more, just a ladder-like structure on one side of the cliff, with three figures hanging on it, a feet from the water surface. The waves caused by the shattering of the bridge were splashing the trio from head to foot.
"Move it, you two!" a familiar accented voice cried. Ala automatically started to climb. "No, you stay where you are, girl. Khalid and Minsc will drag you up."
The warriors grunted and groaned, but eventually Edwin, Dynaheir and Ala found themselves back on the solid ground, all three of them very wet.
"S-so," Ala said, her teeth chattering, "w-w-we've made it b-back. Alive." She looked at the group of gnolls on the other side. " Congratulations, everyone. I guess Tymora f-favours us."
"Congratulations?" Edwin repeated in disbelief. "Congratulations?! We are cold, tired, hungry, and, above all, the journey was for nothing!"
"You have done very well, Evil Wizard," Minsc patted the wizard on the shoulder, grasping a wet Boo with his other hand. The hamster mysteriously managed to return to his owner. "The real heroes need no reward. Oh, Boo, have you been going for the ears instead of the eyes again? Drop it, Boo, an Evil Gnoll's ear is bad! Here, have some nuts."
"Still, maybe Dynaheir is very rich or something," Imoen said uncertainly. "Then we could at least hope for compensation."
"I t-think we must get to Nashkel, first, before we could t-talk about a reward," Khalid said.
"Indeed, my husband," Jaheira nodded. "Dry yourself, children, and we shall go."
"All roads lead to Nashkel," Ala sighed. "Let's hasten to our inevitable death, then."
There was a moment of silence.
"What?" the girl grinned at the looks of disgust her companions gave her. "We're all doomed, you know."

Chapter 39. Lonely Zhents

"Ah, Monty, you are breaking my heart," Xzar sighed, helping his halfling companion up one more time. "Perhaps we should make you a stretcher, a crutch, a palanquin? Hmmm... no! We should make you metal legs, metal arms, and place a large, shiny black bucket on your head!"
"What for, wizard? Have ye lost yon last marbles in the forest? Why'd I need a bucket?"
"Don't know, really," the Necromancer sighed, stopping. They had been walking all night, and now, as the dawn spread across the fields, he saw people walking down below among large tents stretched across the plain, not far from where they stood. A fair, or a carnival of some kind. "Something to do with strangling people, using your intimidating gaze, I think. A black bucket, complete with a gleaming iron mask makes it flashy and frightening. But then again," he looked at his companion's scorched face, "you are already frightening, Monty."
"Ye bet! Hah, the kid even let us go! Always thought she was a coward, I did," Montaron grunted contentedly, then winced as he stepped too heavily on an injured leg, straightened and looked over the field. "I have been there before, it's Nashkel carnival. Nice place for looting, but not with these churned stumps." The halfling looked at his hands with disgust "Now, wizard, find me some healing, a darned temple or somethin', and get moving before I croak, damn ye!"
"Yesss..." Xzar mused, as they approached the first row of tents, other customers hastily scattering before the duo. "But wait, Monty, I see a solution of our problems! Why buy a potion when you can buy a cleric!"
"Buy who? No slave markets here, ye dummy!"
"No, no, but do you see this pretty lady over yonder, Monty?" The wizard licked his lips. "Not so pretty as little Imoen, of course, but she's got holy symbol of Tempus on her chest!"
Montaron hobbled to his companion. A female cleric was indeed standing in front of them, proud and regal, a Holy symbol emphasizing her impressive bust, a hammer in a slender hand. There was only one problem with her, as the halfling was quick to point out:
"Ye fool! Ye can't mean this statue!"
"Why," Xzar giggled, "I do. The healing potion costs as much as a scroll needed to turn the lady back to life, and the lady better be grateful." A sudden thought came to his head. "Monty, but what if she works for Rabbits? Then she won't heal us, and we'll have to turn her into a zombie! Do undead clerics cast healing spells?"
The halfling groaned. "Let's just find the scroll."

Two hours later...
"Perhaps we've overdone it a little," Xzar drawled thoughtfully, surveying the burning tents and terrified men, running with buckets of water all around them. "But who would have thought that pretty necklace I bought was meant to cast fireballs? I hoped to give it to Imoen..."
"And would serve her right," the halfling sneered. "Ye're lucky the tent burned, too, or ye'd never see yer Imoen again. Now, have ye found the scroll or not?"
"Yes, yes, Monty," the Necromancer approached the statue, pressed one hand to a stone breast and started to chant, holding the scroll in another. As he finished, flesh and stone in front of him twirled, engaging in a mad dance, and soon a tall, impressive-looking blonde fell right into his arms. "Oh. So, what do we have here... er, what is your name?"
"I am Branwen," the woman's voice started as a whisper, but grew confident as she spoke, gently but firmly pushing Xzar away. "A war-priest from the Norheim isles am I, and I have been trapped in stone for what seems like an eternity. You have saved me, for that I owe you my life, and, by Tempus, I leave no debt unpaid! Let me join whichever cause you're fighting for, I should make a valuable ally and bring the favor of the Lord of Battles upon us."
"Er," Xzar stumbled, looking in her shiny eyes. Not as pretty as Imoen, but quite, quite-
"Simple, lady," Montaron grinned. "We need your healing, and then," he glared at Xzar significantly, "we need to find who's behind the iron crisis. Heard of it? Also, there's a rogue brat we need to kill, but it can wait for later."
Branwen smiled, and nodded curtly. "Warriors you are, and your scars tell of your exploits better than your tongues. I am glad to be part of your war party. A word of caution though: beware of the dog that entrapped me in stone. Tranzig he called himself, and I shall see him dead before I see the shores of home again!"
"Tranzig!" Xzar shrieked, rubbing his hands. "Do you remember the Rabbits' letter in the mines, Monty? He is in Beregost!"

Two days later...
"Beregost, dammit! To Beregost we went, not to a old, sandy, abandoned ruin in the middle of nowhere! I'll have no more of your flitting about!" Montaron was almost jumping, his hands curled into fists, his shadow making eerie pirouettes on yellowish rock that surrounded them for miles and miles around. Even curses failed him. Trust the mad wizard to lead them down the drain!
"But Monty, a small detour never hurt anyone! This place was a wonderful school of magic, you know?" Xzar pointed toward the remains of a strange construction made of grey stone, a dreamy smile on his face. "Ulcaster! Magic treasure that would allow me to become death, destroyer of worlds! Bunnies, beware!" The halfling groaned.
A thin, disembodied whisper intruded upon the travellers. "The greatest of schools... all for knowledge did we strive... nothing left..." A transparent figure, clothed in pure white, floated right in front of Branwen, stretching its arms to the cleric pleadingly.
"He fell in battle," the woman said in awe, regarding the newcomer. "But great was his need, and he stayed until his earthy tasks were done, and his duty fulfilled. Tempus willing, we must help him."
The Zhents exchanged glances. "Shoulda bought a potion instead of her," Montaron said under his breath. Xzar shrugged, an apologizing look on his face.
"So, what do you want?" The halfling stared at the ghost, thoughtfully annoyed with the whole enterprise.
The figure's eyes lit up. "Hope would return with the retrieval of the simplest of tomes... beneath the rubble... on the lowest floors... return hope... history is so important..."
"The simplest of tomes? You know, Monty," Xzar said suddenly, "That gives me an idea. Any book would do! I still have Imoen's book here somewhere, a romance novel or some such-" The necromancer bent in two and started frantically rummaging in his pack. Finally, he had come up with a tattered tome and rather unceremoniously threw it to the ghost, making it flow neatly through the creature's stomach. The book started to shimmer and disappeared.
"Knowledge returns with these simple words on parchment... to teach once more... in a celestial class..." the ghost moaned, dissolving into a myriad sparks. "I will prevent the same from happening... some day..."
The ghost disappeared, and a large battered tome fell into Branwen's hands. Netheril: Summoning; it read. Xzar hastily snatched the book and placed it into his backpack.
Branwen gulped. "Teaching by... a romance novel? What will he teach in his school to the maidens? He is naught but a vile seducer!"
"Great, just great," Montaron sneered. "I'm crying in affection, I am." Then he turned to Xzar and grasped him by the waist. "Ye fool of a wizard! We're meant to follow our orders, ye understand? Not to do some adventuring rubbish! To kill the Bhaalspawn brat, to find out who's laying blame on us, and I'll be damned if these two are not connected! The kid was investigating the crisis not out of the good of her stupid heart, and hunters were chasing her not because they had nothing else to do!" He stopped and gasped, his lungs still sore after Gullykin injuries.
"Monty, but we'll go to Beregost, I promise!" Xzar fluttered his eyelashes seductively. "We'll find Tranzig, kill him, and then Ala will have no links to the bandits at all! She'll have to go to Baldur's Gate to find clues! Just like some great fantasy! And here we'll catch her, and little Imoen, too, before the Rabbits do!"
"Baldur's Gate? Some folks there won't say 'no' to a Bhaalspawn's head, either," Montaron nodded, a knowing grin on his lips. "Would do. Prey be so much easier to find in the city."
Branwen turned her head from one Zhent to another, blinking incredulously. "What sort of craven cowards are you? No honest battle, but affairs behind your opponent's back?"
They exchanged glances again. "Ye want yer revenge, we want ours," the halfling chose to reply first. "The Bhaalspawn brat left us to die after the battle."
"Truly?" The cleric was silent for a moment, then her face filled with new resolve. "Lead on, then. May the Battlelord's fury unleash upon our foe!"

Chapter 40. Whispers in the Dark

"Is s-she asleep?"
"Yes, she is breathing evenly. What troubles you, Khalid of my heart? You look far too apprehensive to watch the stars peacefully."
"The stars are... amazing. But what I have in mind is much more s-serious, darling. I do not think we c-can follow our instructions any longer. The girl has become a friend."
Ala held her breath in her bedroll. The warmth and serenity of the night evaporated in a moment, and her heartbeat, sleepy and slow only moments before, was suddenly threatening to betray her presence in the waking world, so loud in her own ears it was. She slowly released the air through her teeth, calming it down, and cocked her ear.
The light drone of a lone cicada was muffling the words, but the voices were still recognizable. Highly recognizable, in fact. That light stutter, and the earnest sincerity of the tone, as if he was pouring his soul into the words--it had 'Khalid' written over each and every of them. Defending me from Jaheira, obviously, but why? Oh dear. I gather that this is not a matter of unwashed dishes, not at all...
"She is considering a Red Wizard our permanent companion. And she was ready to kill the Rashemi," Jaheira commented dryly.
"Yet her actions are kind and honorable, my d-dear. Besides, it would look suspicious, if we dragged her to Baldur's Gate right now, whatever Dermin said. I'd rather fight the bandits and then introduce Ala t-to the Harpers, with naught but good deeds to her name."
"You are so unusually talkative tonight, Khalid. Does the subject worry you so? It is our brethren we are talking about. Do you not trust your own kin?"
"I... d-do not always see truth in Dermin's actions, Jaheira. He tends to be c-carried away in his search for Balance, and may p-possibly overestimate the girl's role in the events to come."
A faint sigh reached Ala's ears. "Perhaps. You are wise, my husband. Let us wait."
The sleep came unwillingly, though her body was aching for rest. Ala lay on her back for over an hour, watching the starry sky, both anxious and afraid to meet her companions' gaze, as they returned to the camp, and terrified to close her eyes and find herself among the void, lifeless lands of her late nightmare.

"Make yourself at home, my dear."
Ala blinked. She was lying in the same position, but instead of the warm blanket, there was snow underneath her bare neck, and the stars disappeared from the sky. With a single fluid movement, she sprang on her feet, reaching for her weapon, but put it back with a wry smile. A dagger? I will need an army of rogues to even try to harm this one.
Her opponent was nowhere to be seen. Could Cyric kill me in my sleep? No, he haven't so far, meaning he probably can't. Besides, he was talking about him being forbidden to interfere.
Ala sighed, gloomily regarding her surroundings. I take it the dreams were not included.
"Oh, they are, they are. But luckily, you are following the path of restraint, and never use your divine essence, except unintentionally. In other words, you are a little more than a mortal, and all the ever-seeing and well-meaning hypocrites have not started to watch you, yet."
The voice was flowing in the air, lingering with a slight echo, caressing her ears. Ala barely suppressed the desire to cover them with her palms; the sensation was highly uncomfortable.
"And I shall stay a mortal," the girl folded her arms. "Taint, essence or whatever it is, I have no need of it. I would have surrendered it willingly, if I could."
Next moment, she heard a shrill, girlish giggle that uncomfortably reminded her of Xzar. "Dear me, you have been fed these childish tales of your sire's essence devouring your acute mind and undulating body!"
"Actually, yes," Ala said, pointedly picking up a strand of her gray hair.
"No, my dear, no. One of your brothers constantly uses his essence to straighten his battle prowess, another protects himself from magic, and your sister has conquered a Drow enclave with her powers of persuasion. All three are alive and well. Flourishing, I would say. Of course, they, too, felt sick, when they used it at first. But later they became accustomed to the power, and the side effects stopped."
Who is lying? Xan or Cyric? Would I wither and die or become a truly divine being, if I use my 'gifts'? The idea of Prince of Lies speaking the truth is preposterous, but--I actually have other siblings, don't I? Cyric would not make up such a primitive lie, because I would eventually meet them and see it for myself. So, can I use my essence, after all? Can I trust anyone at all?
"No, you cannot," Cyric said coldly. "Your little sister, or however you call her, had been stealing Gorion's love all these years. You've learned to like her, but will you trust her?"
"I will," Ala said forcefully.
"Hardly, my dear, hardly. And, I say, you'll be a fool if you do. These Harpers--have you heard their conversations? Do you trust them? No, no need to answer. Even you will not be that... trusting."
Stupid, Ala thought bitterly.
"Now, we come to a very important point." The voice dropped to an insinuating whisper. "There is not trust, but there are alliances. I see that you are set in your ways as to not to let the taint triumph over you. Declining it, rescuing the Rashemi Witch, letting the Zhentarim live, not listening to "Bhaal"--all of it led me to believe you would not seek my realm of influence. Or would you?"
"No, I wouldn't." Talking to disembodied voice of Cyric was easier than looking him in the eye, but Ala still could not bring herself to speak freely. The idea that a god, or the avatar, will speak to her, will know the names of her companions... Strange. Preposterous. Impossible.
Alluring.
She looked around uncertainly, flushing under his invisible gaze. What does he want?
"Whatever you decide, eventually you would have to confront your other siblings. Our interests agree closely on this point, don't they? I would give you beneficial advice and support, Ala. I need to protect my portfolio, and my interests require an ally among your siblings--an ally who would not wish to take my place. You. You have the most interesting power, one that would allow you enter the minds of others whenever you want, if developed fully. Now that you are aware you may use it, my dear, you will make a very useful agent of influence."
"A spy, in other words," Ala lowered herself to the ground again, searching the empty sky for any traces of her opponent's presence. There were none. "I... am interested, yes. Who wouldn't be? But you, yourself, are a Prince of Lies! How do I know that you will not betray me? You may be making the proposal to other Bhaalspawn as we speak, for all I know! Or you may just get rid of me, fetching me 'beneficial' advice that will quickly lead me to the grave!"
"Why would I do that?" Cyric sounded sincerely shocked. "Ah, you are probably not aware of the simple fact that Alaundo's prophecy is talking about you taking your sire's power. And why would you?" The voice was very smug. "It was my own discovery, after all."
"Me?!"
"Well... perhaps not. But you see, as I was the one who killed your dear Father, I had to study his biography extensively: the weaker spots, you understand; and a certain fact caught my attention. A fact that points to you as his chosen heir."
"Wha-"
"No, no, not now. But you have not rebuked my advances. Does that mean you agree?"
Say 'no'. Say 'NO'! Are you out of your mind? Say 'NO'!!!
And then what? More senseless nightmares? If I say 'yes', I'll at least receive some useful information! If not, I'll gain a dangerous enemy. No, make it two dangerous enemies, because Cyric will surely address another of my siblings then, won't he? Feel the difference. And if I cannot trust anyone, there's no difference at all.
All right. But do not say you have not warned you.
There was a long pause. "Ah, the girl is speechless. I'll take it as a 'yes'."

Ala blinked, and the stars appeared on the sky once again.
"Did you have a nightmare, child?" Jaheira leaned over her, wiping a trickle of sweat from the girl's face. "Khalid and I were watching the stars, and we heard you talking in your sleep."
"Talking?" Ala sharply sat up. "What did I say?"
"Nothing I could comprehend, and neither could he. I caught a phrase about a man and his advances, but that is all. Did you dream of someone you left in Candlekeep?"
"I wish I had," the girl muttered. "Hard to leave him behind."
"Is it something you'd like to talk about, child? I know the hurt that unrequited love can bring to one so young," the druid sat next to her, taking the girl's hands in her lap. "Imoen's foolish infatuation seems to have passed, but for all I know such things may last for months and years." There was a sad tone to her words, a longing Ala couldn't miss. Is she talking about herself?
"Um, thanks, Jae," she said, lightly squeezing older woman's hands. Thankfully, her blush wasn't visible in the dark. "But I am not really in love. Thanks."
I wonder if I have made a very serious mistake.

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #10 on: March 01, 2009, 01:05:14 PM »
Chapter 41. Falling for the Trap

"So," Edwin said to Ala, "will you still need my services after the witch is disposed of... er, left behind?"
They were following a forest path, Imoen walking a short distance of them, her nose in her spellbook. Minsc and Khalid were carrying Dynaheir a way ahead, using makeshift stretchers, and Jaheira marched behind them, scowling at the wizard.
"I do," Ala said, nodding. "We are going to confront the bandits, and we'll need a mage of your caliber around. Also, there are some mundane tasks you could help us with. A captain of Nashkel guard was last sighted to the north of here. They say he is worse than any bandit, and there's a good reward for his head."
"A reward? That sounds promising... no, do not distract me. (These mundane tasks are clearly beneath the unsurpassable magic of Edwin Odesseiron, and I won't touch them with a sharp stick, even if asked nicely.) I am not going to waste my valuable time on these petty schemes."
Petty schemes. Ala smiled wryly. Yes, these are simple tasks. Escaping another bounty hunter, killing a bandit, killing another, reaping a reward from the grateful townsfolk that, however, looks only too eager to see the heroes out, selling, stealing, healing, and heading for another adventure--it was so simple a week ago. Why can't it continue being simple? I can close my eyes to Jaheira's scheming, wave away the thoughts of another betrayal, ignore Cyric's whisperings, and my life will be simple once again. Murder, death, kill.
Until it ends in the hands of a more experienced schemer, that is.
So what do I do?
Nashkel. It can wait until Nashkel. We'll leave Dynaheir there, and I'll make my decisions.
Edwin was looking at her expectantly. Ala shrugged. "No? You will not waste your precious time to help some sorry companions of yours? Well, I hate to remind you, but you did promise to serve me for a year. A contract is a contract, Edwin, and I have no desire to break it for the time being."
"(And believe me, you will live to regret it, if indeed you live.) But you could be doing much more than idling about in the gutter. Thay offers great possibilities."
"Thay?" The girl's eyes narrowed. "I have no more objections of your company now, for we are bound with a given word, and I know it matters among Red Wizards. But I lost my interest in Evil Organizations after two Zhentarim members betrayed me in a blink. I shudder to think what would happen if I came to Zhentil Keep, and I doubt Thay is much better."
"I see that you have finally started to listen to the voice of the reason," Jaheira said suddenly, causing Edwin to start. "I would abandon the wizard's company altogether, but that is obviously too much to wish for."
"Oh, yes," Edwin snorted derisively. "You would wish for nothing more than prancing in the treetops with your husband, preferably killing off the rest of the sentient beings in the world beforehand "for the sake of balance". (I do not doubt that peeling bananas is the height of her current intellectual activity.)"
"You push your luck, Red Wizard," the druid said quietly, shifting the grip on her quarterstaff. "An oak staff can crack the skull from only inches away."
"Or crack nutshells, more likely," the wizard sneered. He turned to the girl again. "Zhentarim! Insane, half of them! (And I will not talk of the other half, for it is even worse, if this is possible. She has insulted Thay by the mere comparison!) But I suppose that I see your point. Very well, if you choose to be killed in a slimy dungeon, it is entirely your-"
The wizard's words were interrupted by a sharp swishing sound to the left. A second later, they heard a similar sound from the opposite direction. Ala wildly looked to the sides, but there was nothing. Nothing and nobody where should have been...
"Imoen! Minsc! Khalid! Dynaheir!" The girl jumped around to face Jaheira. "What's going on?"
"I-" Jaheira made a step to the girl, and the sound repeated again. Sadly, they had very quickly recognized it for what it was, for the next moment a large, metal-like net descended on both women, pulling them up into the air. Struggling for breath, Ala jerked forward, face down, and saw the earth down below. Their net was perched atop a large fur tree, and two other bundles were gently revolving several feet away. A lone figure, clad in red, stood on the path.
"Now, that's what I call unavoidable circumstances," Jaheira remarked dryly next to her. "A simple trap, but very effective. I suppose your contract with Edwin is finished, child."
"Yes," Ala breathed. "I wouldn't bet on him helping us, either." She blinked, watching the figure disappear. "Is it a custom among mages now to turn themselves invisible and abandon a Bhaalspawn in need?"

The Friendly Arm Inn was not the best place for the one on the run, but Xan was not in the condition to be choosy. The fever increased over the day, and as he paid for the lodgings, the coins in his hand blurred around the edges, a sure sign that things have become very, very wrong. Not that they had ever looked otherwise.
Climbing the stairs cost an effort, and opening a heavy, paneled door doubly so. With a sigh, he let go of his pack, scattering his things around the room, and collapsed on the exuberant bed, not able to bring himself to protect the room with the simplest of wards. Two, three, four hours? How much do I have until another pack of brigands wakes me up? No matter. I need every single moment of rest, regardless.
Too long... he had stayed in the Bhaalspawn company for too long. The desire to ensure her safety and thus, his mission's success, was not erroneous per se, but he had overestimated his own physique. The weakness took its toll much earlier than he had expected. Straining his memory, he brought a page from the ancient tome to his mind: "Should the moonblade and its current wielder become separated for more than a few days, they will weaken. If they remain separated for weeks, the moonblade's owner will die."
At least no false promises here. But still I should have left earlier and not bother with... what was it? Protecting? Teaching Imoen magic? The human will be dead in a few decades, in any case. No, it is way too optimistic. She will be dead in a couple of days at the latest. We all shall. There was no sense in telling them anything, either, or was there? No, I would only get the unnecessary pity. Unnecessary, unbidden, and humiliating.
Mulahey. It all started with that unfortunate event, when the blade had been taken from him. But then again, the life itself is an unfortunate event, is it? Blaming anyone was pointless, but the sharp and bitter taste of resentment remained in his mouth just the same. And of course, there was the headache, a little beast, feasting on his temples together with weakness and fever.
Tomorrow it would possibly get better, and he would be able to move. But it would come again, stronger and stronger, until his physical and mental resources would finally be drained, and then the inevitable doom would come. A day ago he almost felt it coming, as the sharp probing of another's mind broke his mental shields within a moment, and he was forced to relive a very unpleasant encounter: the Trial in Suldanessellar. Xan had no chance to discover who it was: after scant moments of initial surprise, a wave of pain and blackness washed away his last defenses, and he came awake hours later in the middle of the forest, with no memory of past happenings.
He never learned Joneleth' eventual fate, and neither did he want to. The atrocities the man committed were the reason enough not to wish him amongst the living. But the monstrosity of the ritual itself shocked him to the core, and the mage never returned to the Tree, much as Stai did. He knew it had affected the sorceress even deeper, for she cried about her master's fate for many nights, tried to find him--but couldn't.
Both pointless and unwise, since the consequences of the ritual cannot be undone. The elf sighed tiredly. She is such a child at times. What would she say about my situation now, I wonder?
He could almost hear his lover's voice. Almost, because she was... where was she? The bond that united her world with his was lifeless and frigid, and he needed her close to fully restore it.
If anything happens...
Was it her voice or a rustle of the leaves outside?
'If'... You have forgotten to replace 'if' with 'when', Stai. But perhaps you are right, and not all is lost. I shall enter Baldur's Gate tomorrow, find the grey tower my vision spoke of, retrieve the blade and return.
Sweet self-delusion...
A creak of a stair outside, and hurried footsteps, approaching the door. Xan lifted his head, readying himself for another attack. How many have I escaped already? Three? Tonight it will end.
The doorknob turned, as the feeble lock gave way, and a silhouette of a woman appeared in the doorframe. The room was darkened, so the elf could only see the outline of her face, half-hidden by a mass of sleek black hair. It looked vaguely familiar, as if he had seen her in one of his visions. But I had, he thought. Yes, in my latest divination, as I sought the location of the moonblade. And she was standing close to it, too, I remember. Her name is...
"Tamoko," the woman said. "Please, calm down. I am here to talk."

Chapter 42. Little Blue Men

Edwin shook his head, forcing himself to move. Slowly shifting his feet, making sure there were no suspicious objects on the earth, he backed off from the path and looked up.
Nothing changed there. Three dark-green bundles were still positioned high in the air, and even if there were voices, he couldn't hear any. (And these simians better be silent, or something would come, and if this something set up these, I wouldn't be surprised if it could see through invisibility, as well. And considering it could, I must get out from the place to prevent possible consequences. Of course, to return. When my spellbook is ready. Yes.)
The mage slid down on his fours and slowly crept to the woods, crouching as his hands were feeling the forest floor for more traps. At last, he got up, wiping his face. He was safe, but what should he do? His spellbook was full after their last rest, but he had no spell handy to help his (former?) companions, save for burning the trees, and he was sure they did not want that. A week ago he would simply walk away, but now he was bound with a contract. A contract he had agreed with, and these were not mere words. The wizard tapped his foot thoughtfully. To run... er, that is, to temporarily retreat for strategy reasons, or not to run?

"Imoen, are you holding on there?" Ala tried to squeeze her arm through the net, but it was futile.
"Yeah," came the faint answer. "Minsc doesn't, though: he is still trying to cut the net with his sword."
"To fall off from the height of a hundred feet?"
"You betcha. Anyways, sis, it's just too strong. Maybe Jaheira can cause the plants to grow, or something?"
"No, child. If we were back on the plain, I could, but the Nature would not allow them to grow in the air."
"Tough luck, then. Hey, somebody's coming! Sis, they are coming for us!"
"Little blue men..." Ala breathed. "There are hundreds of them!"
"Xvarts," Jaheira stated matter-of-factly.
"And they are here for us, sis, I am sure! The sack with Minsc, Khalid and Dyn is already descending. Ouch! Mine is, too! See you on the ground!"
Next moment, Ala's stomach gave a lurch as their own bundle jerked, and the tree trunk swam in front of her eyes. "I would give a lot for another wizard to step out of the blue and fight on our side," she muttered and lost consciousness.
The smell was unbearable. The creatures were cooking... yes, it was meat, but Ala had never heard of any animal whose meet would stink that badly. Her lungs were refusing to admit the fetid air, and she started to cough.
"Khazr, khomo!" the little blue creature shouted angrily. "Khazr!"
"He tells you to keep quiet," Jaheira said grimly. "I would quiet him myself, had I my hands free, but you see it is not so."
Ala saw that. The creatures dragged the bundles to their camp, and the adventurers could do nothing to prevent it: the nets did not allow them to even move, leave alone to reach their enemies. Worse, the xvarts bound them with an extra set of ropes as soon as they arrived. The girl knew that in a few hours her legs and hand would suffer, and perhaps, she would never be able to walk. But that did not trouble her as much as six bonfires, set a few feet from the place where she lay.
"Jae," she whispered, "who is the leader of these monsters?"
"You'll see him soon enough, child. Have you noticed the one in the long black robes? He is coming right here."
"Good." Ala tried to concentrate. They won't die because of me. Devastating or not, I'll enter the slimeball's mind and give a command to let us go. Jae will not like it... but she doesn't know I can do it, and neither does she know how dangerous it may be. Let it stay so.
She closed her eyes, mentally reaching for the chief xvart, but an angry shout disrupted her attempt.
"Yondalla! Yondalla bitch! Khazar! Khazar!!!"
"What-" a chilling feeling of foreboding awashed the girl. "Jae?"
The druid gave a muffled curse. "Xvarts hate halflings," she explained briefly. "Nothing can compare to the zeal they torture and kill them with, if they can capture one. And as for the halflings' goddess, Yondalla, they would devour anyone who had been marked with her healing touch... no. No!"
She has been healed by Yondalla priest! Ala panicked. But it was too late. Two xvarts approached their sack, holding knives made of some strange material, and cut the net in two. The girl jerked, reaching for her weapon, but several more dozen surrounded them. They were standing in a sea of blue, and while the rogue could easily kill five or ten xvarts, she could not stand against fifty, and neither could Jaheira. She let her arm fall as they led the druid away.
A rough fighting pit, carved in stone, lay in the middle of the xvarts' camp. Jaheira was thrown there. "Mit Ursa! Mit Din Ursa, khomo!" the robed xvart screamed. "Ktar!"
Ursa. A bear. Will they make her fight a bear? No, not fight. She will be eaten alive! No! The girl bit her lip, concentrating again, but she was too frightened for her special 'gift' to work. Calm. Breathe... no. I... I can't. Jae... I'm sorry.
Meanwhile, a large, snow-white bear emerged from the cave in the furthest end of the camp and slowly began to move towards the pit. The xvarts started to clap and squeal. Ala's knees gave way, and she fell to the ground, trying hard neither to look at the bonfires or the pit, nor listen to Imoen's sobbing nearby. Gorion... Xan... Edwin... Cyric... whoever, help us!

Chapter 43. Tamoko

Tamoko proceeded to the window and closed the shutters. "Nobody should see me here, for your own good and mine," she said softly.
"But why are you here in the first place?" Wincing, Xan sat on the bed, regarding his unexpected guest. "You are one of those responsible for the kobold invasion in Nashkel mines, are you not?"
The simplest of charm spells would get me all the information I need, he thought. Before she inevitably slices my throat, that is. But the last two mercenaries knew nothing, and this one might become an ally yet.
"What? Yes, but it is only a tip of the iceberg, I'm afraid. But wait... you are not with the Bhaalspawn, are you? Where is she? I need to speak to her."
"This pleasure you will not get. You were able to track me down, but you will not do so to Ala."
"I do not intend to cause any harm to her!" Now the woman sounded almost pleading, as if it was her who was unarmed and helpless, barely able to talk. "Indeed, I could use her help. Would you at least listen what I have to say?"
"I will listen, but I cannot promise anything. I won't be able to speak to her at all, if the attacks do not subside."
"They will subside," Tamoko leaned against the wall, absently tapping at the old wardrobe. "I've killed the last group myself, and I know Sarevok is not planning any assaults at the moment, since he is too busy with his other projects. I presume he is going to track his sister himself, when he has the time."
"You mentioned Sarevok more than once," he said, studying her face. A mask, an impenetrable mask, but such emotional turmoil within... who is he to her? "He must be a Bhaalspawn, because you said he was my charge's brother. What is your connection with him?"
"With Sarevok?" Tamoko smiled sadly. "I want to help him, any way I can."
"And yet you hinder his plans and befriend his enemies?"
"There is a reason. His goals are monstrous, and not only that, they are destroying the man I love." Tamoko lowered her head for a moment, but then lifted her chin again, looking both proud and defiant. "I want Ala of Candlekeep to confront him, and stop him. He is steering hostility between Amn and Baldur's Gate, a hostility that would lead to the war. I care nothing about this, but he plans to ascend on the shoulders of his victims, to take Bhaal's place. Do you... do you even understand what I am talking about?"
About ambition? About the thirst for power, the reckless desire to have it all? About a loved one, willing to ascend? Yes, it is rather familiar, isn't it?
Stai...
"Are you listening? Do you understand what he is planning to do?"
"Only too well," Xan muttered absently, returning to the darkened room and his headache. "It is not the only possible way to godhood, believe me, though not the most sensible."
"It is the way to oblivion! He is becoming his father's pawn as he moves down this road, and worst of all, he wants to listen! His heritage corrupts him more surely than any disease would."
"Accepting, mastering or refusing his divine essence is entirely his own choice, not yours," try as he might, the elf was unable to keep contempt from his voice. Does she truly not understand such a simple concept, or does she not want to? "You could help him fight the taint, but if he accepts it of his own volition, you can do nothing. He is a doomed man."
"He is not himself!"
"He embraced his heritage," Xan repeated patiently. "He would not be himself if he made another choice."
"You speak as if you know him better than I do," Tamoko pierced him with a questioning stare.
Not him. Her.
"In a way, I have never known anyone better." The mage shrugged. "But you will not accept it, I see. Very well, what is it you wish my charge to do?"
Tamoko seemed more than eager to change the subject. "At the moment, Sarevok is in the city. The Iron Throne is his stronghold. I have a map of the building: you can have it," Tamoko tossed a small package to the elf. He noticed that her hands were trembling. Yes, betrayal never comes easy, does it? "I- I have more to say, but I won't. I have revealed enough for now, enough for him to kill me, if he ever finds out."
"I do not doubt he would," Xan suddenly remembered a huge, roaring warrior he saw next to her in his vision. That one shall not even hesitate. "Why are you doing this? You are digging your own grave, for your relationship is doomed from now on."
"It was from the very start," Tamoko said in a strained voice, turning away. "One cannot hope to stay the same, if he wishes to become an immortal. His sister is my last chance. I only hope he forgives me afterwards."
She speaks her heart here. Humans... No, they are not short-lived vermin, as some of the People think. They are only children, still a little more than children. Forgive? How can the concept of interfering into your lover's private affairs without their consent even spring to mind? Doing so would mean regarding them... her... beneath you. And then... would it be love?
"I suppose it would be hopeless to convince you that you are making a mistake," the elf said aloud. "No, it could be disastrous, as I certainly would benefit from your help, as would my charge. I'll do what I can, but expect very little," he stood up to see her out.
"I will find you again," Tamoko nodded. "Your blade will help to track you down."
"Yes," Xan stopped in his tracks. "My blade. Where is it now?"
"In the Iron Throne compound. You see, you are doomed to travel there," she smiled. "It is a beautiful sword, though it looks ornamental, useless. Do you really need it?"
"Need it?" the mage made a step into the woman's direction, but the dull throbbing in the temples got better of him. He staggered and fell face down on the carpet. "Yes," he breathed into Tamoko's concerned face as she helped him on his feet. "I do."

Chapter 44. They Saved the Day

Jaheira struggled to her feet. Her arms and legs were free, but sore and sluggish after too tight ropes. No weapon to defend myself, either. Or the girls.
The girls... Khalid, I should have thought of you instead. But the duty goes first. Always my duty to Gorion and Nature. Not you, my husband.
How had it happened? First I joined the Grove, and memories of my family bleached before the duty to my druidic brethren. Then I started to think of my Harper missions primarily, and my marriage only secondary. And now Imoen and Ala have the first and foremost place in my thoughts. Oh, Khalid, what would you say if you knew that?
But he does. He has always known, has he? He has always accepted it, always been content to stay in the shadow. Khalid... if I fall, know that I love you more than anybody else. Duty goes first to me, but you... you are everything.
The beast was steadily closing the distance. Stretching, Jaheira fell on her fours, and a deep growl escaped the throat that was no longer human. Fur, fangs, muzzle... a wolf stood at the arena.

Edwin shuddered, as the bear roared in the pit. He sat in the bushes close to the camp, watching. His brain was feverishly searching for the means of escape. But there are none, he thought. I have given my word, and there are two of us now. I have to try.

Khalid lay in the bottom of the bundle, bound together with Rashemi ranger and his witch. He broke several ribs during their descent, and now every breath brought an acute prick of pain to his lungs, despite his efforts to keep it as shallow as possible. He was dimly aware of the ranger's body pressing upon his, and of Dynaheir, lying at his side, but his thoughts were of a faint scream he heard minutes before. A scream, and then nothing. Only darkness, Minsc's hot breath, and his own pain. What are these creatures going to do to her? What are they doing now? I cannot see...
"Minsc," he whispered hoarsely, "we must do something. You are in the t-top; cut the ropes."
"Minsc and Boo cannot," the ranger answered sadly, "Evil has trapped us to make Sandwiches of Goodness of our heroic butts, and even Minsc's trusty sword won't cut the Ropes of Wickedness!"
"What about Boo? He cut the ropes back on the bridge, can't he d-do it now?"
"Boo is very sick, because pretty Dynaheir is ill," Minsc gave a great sniff, and next moment, Khalid felt a large, stinging drop land on his face.
"But... Minsc, can't you just hold his jaws, while you cut the ropes with his teeth?"
There was a minute of silence, and Khalid was almost certain he had gone to far. But I shall go any lengths, he thought. For my Jaheira, anything.
Then he heard a loud sigh, and next moment the air went right out of the warrior's lungs as Minsc reached for his hamster, his elbow crushing into Khalid's chest. Another crash, and another, and when Khalid was already seeing the stars, came the ranger's triumphant whisper: "Boo did it!"
Dynaheir moaned, and the warrior hastily clasped a hand over her mouth, as soft thuds and muffled squeaks from above told him that Minsc and Boo were working on the remaining ropes. With numb fingers, he fingered the hilt of his sword.
"Minsc and his friends are free," a happy roar came from the above. "Time to kick Evil Butts!"
Khalid rushed forward, forgetting about his injuries.
A single glance at the scene told him all he needed: Dynaheir, lying nearby; Minsc, rushing to untie Imoen; Ala, frozen in a strange trance, her lips moving soundlessly; monsters, surrounding the fighting pit, and Jaheira--Jaheira in her wolf form, against the monster twice as big as her!
Khalid's brain has never worked with such a cool efficiency. A single slap in the face, and Ala opened her eyes, looking strangely dazed. He grasped her hand, dragging the girl on her feet, and out of the corner of his eye saw Minsc do the same to Imoen.
"Will four of us be enough?" Ala was already drawing her bow.
"Five of us," Khalid said firmly. "Jaheira won't die. Now, let's g-get moving!"

The bear was approaching. Its head and throat were protected by a horn-like crest, as Jaheira knew full well. But like every other beast, he has other vulnerable spots...
She hid its tail between the legs and made a step back. Growling triumphantly, the bear reared on its hind legs, taunting the helpless victim. Xvarts jumped up and down next to the pit, thrusting their little fists in the air.
Then the wolf leaped.
A high, strident, inhuman scream cut the air. The bear was trying to push her away, but its mighty talons could not aim properly, not with the wolf's fangs still buried in its groin. The next moment Jaheira jumped to the side, clutching an enormous piece of meat between the jaws, blood dripping from the fangs. The bear made an attempt to follow, but its claws only screeched the floor of the arena in vain: the loss of blood had already taken its toll. The female wolf shook her mane, ready for another leap, but the sounds above made her falter.
A strong jet of fire streamed over her head with a low roar, bursting a nearby tree into flames. Shrieking and cursing, the monsters ran in all directions, some of them falling head-first into the pit. Whose fire was it? Dynaheir? No, she is ill. Edwin?
With a chill, Jaheira recognized the figure of the shaman. The ridiculous parody of a priest... With two mighty strokes, Jaheira shoved the creatures out of the pit, past the now dead bear. Her eyes on the priest, she made a step forward, but halted. The priest made no move to attack. Instead, he was... praying?
You may ask your god for help, but you will get none, Jaheira thought savagely. She bent and stretched, returning to her human form. Another moment, and Jaheira's lips started a war chant on their own, but the xvart was faster. A short, violent gesture, and the sudden pain in the chest made her stumble. Swearing inwardly, she started another spell, but the priest to set off his spell first again. Dizzy, she fell on her knees.
Killed by a mindless creature who is being fed divine energies by an ever hungry, perverted deity--how stupid... But she ached too much to prevent the xvart from approaching. Almost indifferently she looked as he drew a club, accompanied by yet another explosion in the distance.
Then a golden trickle of light enveloped the priest's head, and he froze solid. Instinctively, Jaheira grasped the weapon, leaning on the pit's wall for support, and brought the club against the nape of his neck. The duel was over.
"Jaheira! J-jaheira, I am coming!"
She looked up, and her heart leaped as she recognized the figures above. The girls, free of ropes and nets, were butchering xvarts with their short swords, their bows either forgotten or out of arrows. Then she heard a mighty battle cry, and Minsc jumped over the pit, his sword whirling. Her Khalid she could not see, but the amount of blood flooding the pit was speaking for itself. The battle's outcome was clear.
With a quiet groan, Jaheira hauled herself up and out of the pit. A second later, she heard a relieved sigh, and a large sword went clanging to the ground, as Khalid swept her in his arms.
The remaining monsters were scattering, brooks of blue flowing to different directions. Imoen and Minsc were fussing over Dynaheir, who was groaning quietly. Ala stood with her back to the druid, looking at the tall red figure approaching over the field.
"Well, you certainly enjoyed yourselves without me," Edwin drawled, stopping next to her. "Now, does any of you simians have any doubt about who saved the day?"

Chapter 45.  Two in the City

Stai had passed the Wyrm's crossing without difficulty. If they are scared of the bandits, why don't they employ a Diviner to check out possible spies? A legion could sneak past, and the guards would not notice.
The bridge did not lead straight into the city. Baldur's Gate was built in a mile from the crossing, and thus there was enough space for small fishing villages and local fairs. Stai winced. The only other time when she visited human lands was while traveling with Alianna, and that was a voyage she did not like to recall. After quiet and sheltered Evereska, the bustling crowds seemed a living hell. And she'd have to endure this... for how long?
Her invisibility slowly wore off as she made her way to the gates, fingering her money pouch, now almost empty. Twelve portals, twelve Rogue stones. I suppose my brains did not leak through my ears by sheer accident, she thought. But I was very practical about it, wasn't I? Even my visions seem to follow my unconscious command: the fact that I saw Xan dying only after I completed my research in Evereska, and needed city's archives no longer, speaks for itself. Not to mention that my route to Baldur's Gate very conveniently included several minor points I wanted to visit. Libraries, enclaves, tombs where some of His priesthood were buried--and corpses, always more corpses of those who would not wield me the secrets I need. Non-People, yes, but still living, breathing creatures.
The sorceress flinched. Power, power... Just how far am I willing to go to embrace it?
She entered the city easily, but her further movement was hampered. The crowd at the gates was as thick and noisy as it was at the circus, though the day was already drawing to a close. Mostly they were farmers, trying to sell their simple wares upon entering the city. The others were provident customers, eager to grab the goods at a lower price. The demand met supply, and Stai, already weary and disoriented, found it harder to slip past the tightly knotted groups.
Then a certain head attracted her attention. Not exactly a head, rather a hat. A very well-known pointy hat. An innocent-looking one, though Stai remember well that its owner was far from harmless.
Searing waves of magic, lashing against her brain. Stars in her eyes. Her jaw, moving and speaking against her will. And most of all, terrible, terrible helplessness, and inability to prevent what essentially was to come.
He was nonchalantly leaning against a curvy woman who sold honey-coated apples, and Stai's sensitive ears caught a sound of a hearty chuckle.
Elminster. The one who had organized the Harper attack on the Deathstalkers' camp years ago. The one who killed Alianna. My friend, my near sister... Alianna. I don't care what she was going to do, I would defend her to the last if she was a mass murderer, and he will pay. Oh, how he will pay!
The simple thought about the wizard wiping the floor with her at the first sign of aggression never came to her head, filled to the brim with the idea of revenge. Lightning, Acid Arrows, Cone of Cold... what would it be? He cannot be immune to everything, can he?
"You would be surprised."
"Who... who dares?" The sorceress sharply turned on her heels, coming out of her trance. Xan!
"You are becoming predictable, Stai. I would work on my vocabulary, if I were you." A hand wrapped around her shoulders, gently pulling her close.
"Thankfully, you are not," she murmured, burying her face in the familiar wave of brown hair. "You have scared me. Up to the last moment, I wasn't fully sure whether you still existed at all."
"Not fully sure?" Was it a hint of pain in his voice? She could not sense it, too tired and nauseous after the day's trials. "I cannot call it surprising, since I'm barely sure myself, but why?"
"I doubt you would be able to feel anything, jumping from portal to portal in a mad race." Stai gulped, recalling the dizzy sensation. "I had a... vision, and..." her voice broke.
"Not a pleasant one, I gather?"
She shook her head silently, her gaze never leaving his face. Pale, drawn... beautiful, what has happened to you? Faint glimpses of her lover's emotions were swirling in her mind. Empty, dead, fading...what is it? Why? Who dared-
"Yes, it would be absurd even to hope otherwise," Xan's calm, ironic voice brought her back to reality. "Let us at least choose our own doom and leave Elminster alone. Or have you already absorbed the divine essences?"
Stai shot a last glance at the unsuspecting archmage, allowing her lover to steer her away. "One day, I'll get him, I swear."
"Remind me to prepare a shovel for the occasion. Or, rather, a dustpan."
The first stars had appeared on the sky, when the mages finished the short versions of their respective tales in splendor of the Elfsong tavern's best room.
"Iron Throne." Stai was thoughtfully tapping her foot at the mossy carpet. "We'll have to make an attempt to return the moonblade tonight, it is too dangerous to linger. No, not 'we'. I shall go alone, you can barely stand as it is."
"And you look the height of your physical form, of course." Xan lay on the bed, a wet towel covering his brow. "Or have the greenish skin and shaking hands become the latest fashion in Evereska? Please enlighten me."
Damned portals! "It will not affect my invisibility spells."
"So the compound guards will be delighted to stumble upon your invisible and unconscious body in the morning, when you collapse from exhaustion. Ah, the advanced invisibility dissipates after an hour, does it not? Earlier, then."
"You do not understand it at all, do you?" Stai threw herself on the bed. "How can you even think of waiting after a vision I have told you of? If you carry on like this, it will come to be!"
"It will come to be anyway. There is such thing as too much," the Enchanter shifted the towel on his head, looking at her seriously. "I do not believe it can get any worse."
"It could. Elminster could knock on the door... or the tavern would burn down while we rest... or... or..." She trailed off, as her shoulders involuntarily twitched once, twice, and in seconds her whole body started to shake with sobs.
Stop it, you fool! Would you bawl your eyes out because of a mere vision, in front of the man you love and who needs your support? But these thoughts only made her jerk more violently, hopelessly carried away on the tide of misery.
Then cool fingers touched her neck, and a wave of warmth streamed through her spine, soothing the pain in the wounded nerves, calming her unsteady breath. A rush of images, thoughts and half-conscious desires that were only partly hers followed, flooding her vision. Dazed, Stai slowly raised her head, meeting Xan's concerned gaze. Her heart shrunk within her when she saw how wasted his face looked.
"You--you've drained yourself with the effort," she whispered helplessly, leaning over her lover. Her lips trembled as they locked with his. Bittersweet... always. "The link--you have restored it, haven't you? I should have done it myself, instead of wallowing in self-pity."
"It is worth doing from time to time." Xan's fingers were absently running through her hair. "I might have joined you, but I fear I am no longer capable. Not to laugh, not to cry, not to love you tonight--as if I was buried and mummified already."
And I feel it now. Grey emptiness, pressing silence, sky, high and full of clear blue fire--the vision haunted him ever since he drew his moonblade for the first time, unaware and unwilling. The afterlife that awaits the one I love--sacrificing his spirit to feed the blade of Myth Drannor as it passes down the generations. Once the human empires would fall and the mountains crumble, the sword would die, too, and Xan will be allowed to depart for Arvandor. But would his spirit stay the same after millennia of non-existence?
I do not want to know. And I will do everything in my power not to find out.
"Xan..." Stai felt tears on her eyelashes again, and hastily snatched them away. "You will live. However hollow my promises are, I promise you that. I'll shatter the Iron Throne building brick by brick if I have to! And soon, when the power is mine, it will loom over you no longer. No constant evaluating your deeds, no fear of losing it, no centuries of imprisonment after you die."
"Foolish girl..." Xan sighed. "You are bent on your suicidal obsession, but what moves you to relieve me of my duty?"
"Because you do not desire your duty, and were the choice left to you, you would have never become the Moonblade wielder in the first place, as I heard you musing time and again." Stai smiled at his raised eyebrow. "The mortals cannot twist and deceive the Fates, but a divine beings will be able to lift this burden off you, or such is my hope. Ala will."
"Hope springs eternal, Stai," a wan ghost of familiar smile scared her more than outright despair. "Now, beautiful, it is time to get some rest, if you indeed wish me to wake up in the morning."
"Tomorrow, then?"
"Yes. Tomorrow. If it comes."

Offline Kulyok

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Re: Alyonna's Story
« Reply #11 on: March 01, 2009, 01:05:32 PM »
Chapter 46. It's Her, Imoen!

The rest of the group's journey to Nashkel was uneventful. Once or twice a couple of hobgoblins tried to ambush them, but Edwin let out a few magic missiles, laughing, and the monsters retreated with astounding speed.
"We are really getting stronger," Ala said thoughtfully.
"Ha! You doubted that? You truly doubted the greatness of Edwin Odesseiron?" Edwin seemed drunk with his newfound powers. Ala thought she was secretly afraid of him in these moments, just a little. "Nothing can stand in my way! Hobgoblins? Ha! Gibberlings? Fear me!"
"What about bandits?"
Edwin looked at her as if he doubted her sanity.
"I didn't tell you we were going to stop the Chill and Black Talon bands, did I?" Ala asked.
"What, all of them?"
"Well..."
"Every single one in seventeen hundred?"
"Seventeen hundred? I don't believe you," Ala said flatly. "There can't be that many of them."
"All right. Two hundred. Happier?"
The girl sighed.
"We need to reach Nashkel and make sure Dynaheir gets better," she said eventually. "Then we'll see."
Dynaheir remained unconscious nearly all the time. Minsc did not leave her side, carrying the stretchers with Khalid, Jaheira, Ala and Imoen in turns. Edwin refused even to approach the sick woman. Jaheira, who was limping herself, was getting more and more worried.
"We do not have enough gold to heal her in the temple," she said to Ala in a low voice, as Nashkel appeared on the horizon. "And I fear she may never recover on her own."
Ala sighed.
"Maybe we shall sell some of our things. Or perhaps Edwin has some money. I do not know, Jae... I just don't know..."
Dynaheir groaned and opened her eyes.
"Bhaalspawn..." she whispered.
Ala and Jaheira exchanged looks.
"What do you know, witch?" Edwin demanded sharply. "Who are you talking about?"
Dynaheir looked at him and smiled. A slender hand rose from the stretchers--and pointed at Imoen.
"She is hallucinating," Edwin muttered with disgust. "The girl is no more a Bhaalspawn than her deranged sidekick, or a squeaky hamster of his."
"I knew her mother," Dynaheir whispered.
Imoen was looking at Dynaheir with huge eyes.
"Stop," Ala said and did not recognize her own voice. "Dynaheir, do you hear me? I am Ala, Gorion's ward. Bhaal is my father."
Dynaheir looked into her eyes. And smiled.
"So there's two of you," she croaked. "How fitting."
"What is she talking about?" Imoen whispered. "What is she talking about?"
"Ala, Imoen, we have to talk," Jaheira said with a sudden tremor. "Now."
Ala raised her head in disbelief.
"You knew. You knew Imoen was one, as well. You knew, damn you!"
Jaheira slowly nodded.
Khalid stepped forward.
"Ala, understand that we tried to p-protect you. You already knew, but did it make you any happier? Would you like to lay this b-burden on your sister?"
"No," Ala kept blinking. "No..."
"I knew," suddenly said Imoen. "I knew. Gorion would never... he would have never taken in a normal girl... he needed special. And he took me, because I was special--only I was not special enough, just one of the Children, not a favored Child..."
Jaheira stared at her.
"Imoen, do not say these things..."
"I'm sorry," Imoen started to cry. "I-I don't know what's happening to me."
"Thou art a Child of Bhaal," Dynaheir whispered. "Thine mark will not fade."
Ala put her face into her hands. It can't be, it just can't be... Not Imoen, too!
Xan knew, too, she realized. Or did he? No, he only talked to Ala, paid attention to Ala, comforted Ala, tried to become Ala's friend. He taught Imoen, but she never saw that wary, concerned look in his eyes: they were indifferent at best.
And they sent Xan off to die... For what? To be able to ambush hundreds of bandits? They, who were captured by xvarts, nearly killed by gnolls?
"We will head to Baldur's Gate," Ala said and marvelled at how calm her voice sounded. "I want answers, and bandits do not know them. We must go to the city. We will find the men behind the iron shortage. Gorion's murderer, too--birds of a feather flock together. And Xan. We should have never let him go."
Jaheira and Khalid exchanged looks.
"This is likely the best c-course of action," Khalid nodded. "Other Harpers will help us in the city."
"Come, then. There is a long way ahead."
They left Minsc and Dynaheir at the temple. Dynaheir tried to protest, but stopped when she tried to stand up on her own and fell. Imoen collected the party's jewelry(even Edwin grudgingly took off one of his rings), and it was just enough for the payment.
"We saved your witch, Minsc," Ala said at the parting. "Perhaps we will meet again. But maybe it's best that we don't."
"Minsc remembers little Ala's kindness. If little Ala calls, Minsc and Boo will come and KICK THE BOOT TO THE BLACK HEART OF EVIL!"
Ala smiled, blinking away a tear.
"All right, Minsc. All right."
Nobody talked much during the dinner in the Nashkel tavern. Khalid and Jaheira retired early. Imoen muttered something and went outside without even finishing the salad.
"So the pink one is your sister," Edwin drawled. "Now that there is two of you, I would expect to find your dead bodies before the spring is out. Without powerful friends you will not last."
"What do you suggest?" Ala asked.
"It is high time you were somewhere else. Thay, like I said before, offers great opportunities. Your sister is pretty, and wealthy Red Mages value exotic beauty."
"Do you expect Imoen to become somebody's toy?"
Edwin looked at her coolly.
"Calling things by their names is childish," he shrugged. "Your sister will become a powerful mage under a powerful patron. And you..."
"What--me? I am not pretty?"
Edwin smiled a little.
"You want to find the answers. Thay will provide them. My superiors only want to talk to you."
"Superiors? Who? A Tharchion?"
"For example," Edwin stretched out a hand with long white fingers and touched Ala's jaw. The girl shuddered at the caress. "You will like it."
Ala got up.
"No. Excuse me, I need to talk to my sister."
Imoen was sitting near the river. The sunset painted her hair dusk red, and her face seemed to be shining, until Ala noticed traces of tears on her sister's cheeks.
"What is it, Im?" Ala asked. "You think we'll love you less now that we know the truth?"
"No," Imoen sniffed. "But I feel Gorion betrayed me. And he didn't, did he? He didn't. He only wanted to protect me, and you. But it does not work this way, I guess."
"No, it doesn't," Ala sat next to her. "But we are still friends?"
Imoen nodded.
"Gorion loved us," Ala said in a low voice. "And died. We are Bhaalspawn, Children of Murder... we must kill. I don't want to, not really. But that man, that horrible beast who killed Gorion--I have no qualms about killing him. You?"
"If-if it's really him..." Imoen paused.
"Yes?"
Imoen was silent. Finally she raised her head, and Ala gulped when she saw a weak golden light in her sister's eyes.
Then Imoen smiled.
"Yeah."

Chapter 47. Iron Throne

Xan stopped in the darkness, clutching Stai's hand. The stairs to Sarevok's chambers were narrow, and the mages were walking with their backs to the wall, barely daring to breathe. Invisibility covered them, and they joined hands, afraid to lose each other to the darkness.
"There," Stai whispered. "Stop."
They heard voices.
Sarevok was pacing across the room. Xan heard a woman's voice(Tamoko, he understood), then an older man joined the conversation.
"This is irresponsible, Sarevok," the old man was saying. "Your sister is on the loose--this is not something you can forget about!"
"I will deal with her in my own time, Winski," Sarevok's booming voice was cool, but it was the coolness of a hungry tiger, ready to strike. "I am more concerned about the Chill's actions. They let two Amnish caravans reach the city. We lost months of careful preparation, Winski! The war of sacrifice may never begin!"
"I could never understand why you want this war, Sarevok," Tamoko said quietly. "Taint the iron, stop the caravans and the messengers, make the Dukes and the Council of Six angry... but what of people of the Sword Coast? Of Amn? Why must they die?"
"Because I tell them to. Godhood matters more than mortal lives, Tamoko. You are a mortal, and you are denied understanding. When I ascend, I will open your eyes."
"No, Sarevok. You will shut them."
The door opened, and Tamoko exited, looking unhappy. She passed the mages; Xan felt her breath but was too afraid to speak, to catch Sarevok's attention.
"In two days I will go to the Undercity," Sarevok said thoughtfully. "We must continue the rituals. If we do not find Gorion's ward by then, we may sacrifice another of the Children."
"Viekang?" Winski asked. "He is a frightened idiot."
"No matter. Sacrifices must continue. And so must your scrying, Winski. Use the blade to get to Gorion's ward, or next time I will sacrifice YOU."
A Child of Bhaal is behind this, Xan realized. Sarevok is Ala's brother--and a villain of no small caliber. A war of sacrifice! A grand way to ascension, indeed.
Xan heard Sarevok's footsteps, and the door opened again. The man was huge: his helmet almost touched the ceiling, and the stairs could barely contain his frame. Stai clutched his hand painfully. Don't let him notice us, Xan prayed. But he will go past us and feel us in the darkness, and even invisibility will not help... he will destroy Stai and me... Seldarine...
Sarevok stepped on Xan's stair in the darkness, and Xan became one with the wall. Slim and slender, Xan felt he was too big, huge, and Sarevok would notice, would strike him down...
Sarevok went past, and Xan felt Stai's hand relaxing in his.
"I love you," she whispered.
"We are alive," he whispered back. "Come, upstairs."
An old man stood at the window with his back to them. Winski, Xan understood.
Stai snapped her fingers, and the invisibility around her dissolved. Winski never heard anything: Stai's second spell released a small cloud of white dust in the air, and Winski collapsed at the floor.
"Sweet dreams," Stai waved to the old man. "Now, Xan, your moonblade!"
Xan looked around. A small table near the wall caught his attention, and for a moment he felt as if somebody was calling him from there. Xan made a step, another...
"There you are!" a high-pitched voice screeched, and Xan felt the invisibility spell lifting. "The elven wizard! Got a lady friend, did you? And how is little Imoen?"
Xan sharply turned around.
Three newcomers were in a room. Two of them he knew: Xzar and Montaron, both looking as healthy as ever. The third one, a tall blonde in plate mail, was new.
Stai was looking at them all with very round eyes. Apparently, Xzar's manner of speech was exotic to her. Xan grinned inwardly and realized he was feeling better. The blade was near.
"We killed Tranzig," Xzar continued excitedly, "But there are so many bandits, we decided not to kill them all. Monty was so smart to suggest it!"
"And you decided to head to Baldur's Gate?" Stai smiled. Xan never liked that smile.
"We did! And guess whom we saw down the stairs? Big Sarevok, entering the cellar!"
"Is Sarevok the leader of the Iron Throne?" Stai asked.
"What? No! His stepfather, Reiltar, does the big business. But Sarevok, oh, he is song!" Xzar giggled. "Imagine, he's a Bhaalspawn, like Ala! And he wants to rule the world, like Rabbits! Now, Rabbits ordered us to kill Ala, first, but now Rabbits know about Imoen, so we got new orders!"
"Orders?" Stai raised an eyebrow.
"Imoen?" Xan stepped forward.
"Why, yes! Monty made me describe everything to my master, and master knows about the pink-head Imoen, so Imoen and Ala are both Children of Bhaal." Xzar sighed. "It's so confusing, isn't it? Aaaanyway, the seers said that Sarevok will meet Ala in two days, under dirt and stone."
"He said nothing about the Undercity, did he?" Xan asked.
"Underpants? Overcity? Ah, Undercity..." Xzar scratched his head. "You know, he just might. Anyway, we were here for company, but now we are gone! Oh, and we need to kill you. Sorry."
"This is how it was meant to be," the blonde nodded solemnly. "You abandoned your companions, left them to die a horrible death, and their revenge is just."
Xan sighed. The blonde woman will never know she was just a puppet in Zhents' hands. Or will she?
"Where's your halfling companion?" Stai asked sharply. "Where is he?"
Something pushed Stai from the back. A sudden hit brought her on her knees. Stai screamed, and Montaron appeared out of nowhere behind her back, a blade in his hands.
"Har!" he shouted. "To the grave with ye!"
Xan felt his heart stopping. But there was no blood on the blade...
"Protection from magical weapons," Stai whispered, rising from the floor. "From little runts like you. And now you will know what the power really is!"
Two lightning bolts left her hands. Another moment, and a fireball followed them.
Xan stepped back, raising his hands to help his lover, but there was no need. Montaron's armor was in tatters, the blonde was clutching her chest, and Xzar was nowhere in sight. A scream went from the stairs: "Montyyyyy!" Then everything was quiet.
Xan blinked: the blonde and Montaron were gone, too. Only Winski still slept on the floor, apparently comfortable. Stai raised her arm, preparing another fireball, but Xan stopped her with a gesture.
"You frightened them," he said. "They ran. That's enough."
"They are going to meet in the Undercity," Stai said, rubbing her forehead. "In two days. And Ala's friend is a Bhaalspawn, too?"
"Apparently," Xan approached the small table. He opened it and nearly went to his knees: the blade was there. Dim, barely blue, but it was his again. He sheathed it and approached his lover.
"Come. We have done all we could. Now we must find the girls."

Ala tossed and turned in her bedroll, unable to find sleep. The party passed Beregost last night; another night, and they will enter the city of Baldur's Gate.
Cyric, she thought. Cyric and my sister. Did Imoen see his in her dreams, too?
"She did not."
Ala opened her eyes. The starless sky stretched above her again, and endless fields of snow lay underneath. Black and white.
"I am afraid I must part with you soon, my dear," Cyric smiled, and Ala felt goose bumps on her back. "You are indeed one of the Chosen, and you may influence the Bhaalspawn wars greatly. But recently, another path started to form. And I fear--though, of course, I fear nothing--that you may take this path."
"What path? Is this about Imoen?"
"Yes--and no. It is about you and those who travel with you. You see, dear Ala, there was a mage long ago. Joneleth."
"Joneleth," Ala whispered--and remembered.
Queen Ellesime. Terrible pain--and terrible punishment.
"Indeed," Cyric inclined his head. "This Joneleth had friends and followers; few, but still. His most devoted student, Stai, searched for him. Him and his sister, Bodhi. She never found him, but she found someone else. You. Her friend's daughter."
"What?"
"Yes, Alianna, your mother, was an elf. Surprised? So, Stai decided to aid you--in exchange for your Bhaalspawn essence. You see, if Joneleth Irenicus received it, he would restore himself. He would become an evil demigod, but he would be alive--and so, perhaps, would his sister, Bodhi."
"But he will kill, maim and destroy, right?" Ala asked.
Cyric laughed.
"Ala, dear, you are impeccable. Yes, he will--and so will you, if your essences remain. Cities will burn, armies will hunt you and be slaughtered--all because you do not want to die. Whether you are good or evil does not matter. Chaos shall be sown in your footsteps."
"I don't want this. I never wanted this."
"And Stai knows it. She sent her lover, Xan, to watch over you. Now they are in Baldur's Gate together. If you head there, there is a chance you will meet. You want to go there regardless, don't you?"
"What's your interest in this?" Ala looked into Cyric's eyes. It frightened her, but she kept looking.
"Simplest. I want Joneleth Irenicus as my ally among the gods," Cyric answered. "He will never take my place--he will be an elven god of revenge, destruction or whatever it is elves are afraid of. But he will be on my side. With your essence. Yes, he will kill here, on Toril, but it will end as soon as he ascends. And when he ascends, who cares if another evil entity joins the pantheon? Anyone could be in his place. I need allies here, Ala, need very badly. You are a fascinating girl... but only a mortal girl."
"You are saying that I will be able to live a normal life? After I submit to this... Irenicus?"
"Correct."
"And Imoen? And we will be unharmed?"
"And again correct. I am a Prince of Lies, but, alas, you read from the Tome of Truth," Cyric gave her a charming smile. "I cannot lie to you. Then again, I can be lying right now. You decide."
"One more question," Ala began. "Why did you send mercenaries after me?"
"Because I could not decide whether to let you live or not, silly girl."
"What awaits me in Baldur's Gate? Will you tell me?"
"Gorion's killer. A man who wants to start a war over the iron crisis. Your brother," Cyric smiled enigmatically. "That's three enemies already, Ala, but I am sure you will do wonderfully."
"These men... who are they?"
"No, no. This, my dear girl, you will discover on your own." Cyric smiled the last time. "Go, Ala. Fight for your heritage--or lead a normal life. You decide."

Chapter 48. Bandits

The sun was high over Larswood. Ala took off her cloak with a sigh.
"I am all sweaty," she muttered with disgust. "I'd give up my heritage for a bath."
"You tossed and turned last night," Edwin said. He was marching next to her, Jaheira's spare quarterstaff in his hand. "Bad dreams?"
"Sort of. Edwin... can you keep secrets? Not just from Jaheira and others--from everyone in Thay?"
"Do you expect a Red Wizard to betray his own?" Edwin sneered. "And here I thought you made a few steps up the evolutionary ladder. Obviously I was mistaken."
"No," Ala shrugged. "I thought that now that you gave me your word, I was safe with you, so I wanted to tell you something personal. Forget it."
"No, no," Edwin stopped. "Continue. What is it?"
Ala looked into his eyes.
"I see Cyric in my dreams. The reigning god of murder."
Edwin whistled.
"Why should I believe you?"
"Why would I lie? My father is Bhaal," Ala smiled mirthlessly. "Cyric's interest is obvious."
"What does he want, then? (Do not tell me he is here to aid your ascension, because he is not. I know.)"
"First he kept asking me questions, until he decided I was no threat to him," Ala began. "And he is right. I have no interest in Bhaal's heritage, and my gift--reading the minds of others--is unruly and sporadic."
"And then?"
Ala sighed. "And yesterday he asked if I wanted to abandon Bhaal's heritage altogether. He says there is a way."
"Hmph. But you are not going to follow his advice, are you?"
"Why shouldn't I, Edwin?" Ala raised an eyebrow. "Am I a bad rogue on my own, without my heritage? Or maybe you think it's a good life, being hunted?"
Edwin did not have time to answer. Next to him Imoen screamed. Jaheira turned, a ready staff in her hands--and stopped dead.
The forest was thick with bandits. Badly dressed, armed, stenchy, they were coming out from behind every tree, and Ala felt a trickle of cold sweat on her neck.
A huge ogre stopped in a few steps from them. "Tazok", read crude letters on his plate mail. Ala whistled quietly. Was that blood?
"These," he growled. "To my tent. Sarevok will pay for her," he pointed at Ala, "handsomely."
"Sarevok? For her?" Edwin stepped forward. "What about me? I am a Red Wizard of Thay!"
"There are too many of them," Jaheira said quietly.
"That m-much is obvious, dear," Khalid sighed.
"What do we do?" Imoen whispered. "Run?"
"Surrender," Ala and Jaheira said together and looked at each other in surprise.
"Down with your weapons," the ogre grunted. "And go. Quickly. The slowest'll get his leg chopped off."
"Damn," Ala whispered. "And we were so close..."
The tent was a large brown dome covered with cloth and fur. To Ala's surprise, the smell inside was barely noticeable, and the tent itself was clean. She understood the reason when they were brought behind the improvised bars. A very pretty and very pale girl sat there, rocking a pale black-haired man on her knees. Another man--no, an elf, Ala corrected herself, quietly lay in the corner. At first Ala thought he was asleep, but then she noticed he was covered with blood.
What will happen to us? Ala sighed.
"Hey, sis, why did we let Minsc and Dynaheir go?" Imoen smiled ruefully. "Boo would know what to do."
"Indeed," Ala sat down next to the new girl. "My name is Ala. This is my sister, Imoen. This is Edwin, and these are our friends, Khalid and Jaheira."
"You're married?" the girl asked suddenly.
"Yes," Jaheira answered, surprised. "Why?"
"We wanted to get married, too," the girl said quietly. "Me and Eldoth. But my father is a Duke, so we ran away to Amn in the caravan... and ended up here. Eldoth? Can you hear me?"
The man in her arms groaned.
"He is wounded," the girl continued. "I am Skie Silvershield."
"That Skie?" Ala asked. "A dwarf Kagain in Beregost asked us to find you."
"And now we did," Edwin muttered. "Told you, rescue missions are no good."
"Who is that man in the corner?" Jaheira interrupted.
"Kivan," Skie whispered. "They killed his wife and tortured him. I'm afraid we are next."
"They will never torture you as long as they hope for a ransom," Jaheira said tiredly. She sat next to the wounded elf. "Kivan? Can you hear me?"
"No, he can't," said a new voice.
Ala turned. A tall hooded man entered the tent. He was unarmed, but judging by how Edwin tensed, a newcomer was a mage of no small ability.
"My name is Winski," he continued. "I want to talk to you."
"Talk," Ala said. Her voice trembled, and she hastily shut her mouth.
"Not here," Winski shook his head. "Once you escaped my teleport spell, Ala. But not today."
"What about us?" Skie Silvershield asked. "There are five of them and three of us."
Winski looked at the wounded elf. Then his eyes rested on Edwin and Imoen, Khalid and Jaheira. Finally he turned to look at Skie.
"You will come with me, young lady," he said impassively. "And so will the others. Sarevok will be happy to see you."
"Sarevok?" Skie asked, her voice rising incredulously. "Sarevok Anchev? The stepson of Reiltar Anchev, head of the Iron Throne? Is he in league with these bandits?"
"Yes and yes and yes." Winski paused. "And now that you know that, young lady, you have two ways out of here. Dead or a prisoner--or his future wife. A daughter of a Duke will be very beneficial for his career. As for you lot," he raised his arms, "you will follow me, as well."
Skie cried something, but Ala could no longer hear what. The wizard started chanting, and the familiar white mist filled the room. Ala reached for her sword, for Edwin's hand... but everything was becoming immaterial, she was falling into darkness...
She fainted.

Chapter 49. The War of Sacrifice

Xan sighed. He and Stai were standing on the roof of the Iron Throne building, unnoticed and unseen. Stai blocked the door, put an invisibility spell over the small spot they were standing on, and now was peering intently into the scrying ball. A lock of Winski's hair lay next to her.
"I cannot see," she whispered. "Winski teleported into the woods, then almost instantly returned, but not alone. A powerful teleportation spell... five or seven Rogue stones... but where are they now?"
"In the city?" Xan asked quickly.
"Not quite. Around the city, close to this building... but not in the city. Over the city? Underneath the city?" Stai looked at him questioningly.
"Wait. Two days are about to pass..." Xan bit his lip. "The Undercity? Sarevok talked about it, remember?"
"And I cannot scry there... why?"
Xan and Stai looked at each other.
"Sarevok is a Bhaalspawn..."
"Bhaal's temple!" they finished together.
"Can we teleport there?" Xan frowned. "Bhaal's temple... Ala and Imoen--they may die at any moment!"
"Imoen is safe," Stai answered briskly, searching her pockets. "My last Rogue stone. Do you think we should head there right now?"
"Of course!"
"Then we shall," Stai closed her eyes. "But... I don't know, Xan. I feel it is about to be over--all this. Like my control over what's happening is slipping, like it's never been there in the first place. How can I strip Ala of her divinity, if I do not even know where my master is?"
"Do you even know how to strip a Bhaalspawn of her divine essence?" Xan raised an eyebrow.
"I told you, not yet. But I knew it was possible, I knew I could do it! Master Joneleth... if he was here, he would know and explain. I planned to find him first, to bring Ala to him--then we could do the exchange. Ala's divine half would go to him, and she would be free. Now, without him, with her at Sarevok's hands--I do not know what to do."
"Concentrate," Xan took her hand. "Concentrate, or we are all doomed. Is there a way to make an exchange in the distance? So that your master wakes up restored?"
"Not without divine interference, no," Stai smiled ruefully. "Then again, it does not matter now. We must simply go and rescue Ala. My friend's daughter should not die."

Ala awoke on the altar. Her arms and legs were free, but when she tried to rise, her muscles froze, as if an evil hand was holding her. Ala looked around: she was in a huge hall, semi-dark and dry. It reminded her of the interior of the Friendly Arm Inn, though this empty place, pregnant with danger, was not friendly at all.
And I am alone, Ala thought. Imoen, Jaheira... Where are they? Are they alive?
"My little sister," a booming voice said. "Welcome."
Ala turned her head. And bit her tongue, hard.
Her nightmare was standing in front of her. A tall man in crude spiky armor.. and eyes. Golden eyes.
He doesn't do breathing exercises, Ala thought. He just allows the beast to take hold.
"I heard you stopped my operation in Nashkel," the man continued. "Your journey to the Gate was a lucky coincidence. I was planning to meet you soon, myself."
"You killed Gorion..." Ala whispered.
"And many others, girl. Do you know who I am?"
"Sarevok..."
"Indeed. You have Harpers traveling with you. Gorion was a Harper. Now Harpers undermine my preparations here in the city. So do the Zhentarim. And so do you."
"And you want to kill us all?" Ala gulped: her throat was dry as paper. "I'd rather you started with Zhents, then."
"Silence. You consorted with a Wychlaran and a wizard of Thay."
"Dynaheir is ill," Ala answered tiredly. "By the time she recovers, you will be done with me. And Edwin is in your power."
"The wizard escaped," Sarevok said dryly. "He deserted you before, did he not?"
"Why are you even talking to me?" Ala looked at the man who was her brother. "You want to kill me, don't you?"
"And you are not afraid?"
Ala opened her mouth and suddenly realized Sarevok was right. She feared bandits, xvarts, her dreams, Gorion's death, her heritage, spiders--but she was not afraid now. Did Cyric's promise hold so much power over her? "Gorion's killer. A man who wants to start a war over the iron crisis. Your brother." Well, she met all three now.
Ala lay back on the stone slab, smiled, shook her head and closed her eyes.
"There she is!" Xzar whispered. "See, Monty? There!"
They were standing on a heap of rubble. A small crack in the temple's wall did not give them much of a view, but they saw both Sarevok and Ala.
"Shut yer yep, wizard," Montaron grumbled. "He's here."
"What are you going to do?" Branwen whispered. "Surely what Sarevok is doing is dishonorable..."
"Yeah, yeah, heard that. Bhaalspawn lass on the altar, her companions waitin' for 'em deaths in 'em back rooms. We're here to watch, understand?.." Montaron suddenly stopped and nudged Xzar, hard. "Who're they?"
A small group of people entered the labyrinth of underground catacombs and were heading for the temple entrance.
"Harpers," Branwen whispered. "See the golden pins?"
"What are they doing here?" Xzar whispered.
"Maybe it be has to do with yer papers, eh?" Montaron chuckled. "I gathered all diaries and letters from Sarevok's room as ye were runnin'."
"I told you to keep them!" Xzar hissed.
"Heh, I did. Only I paid a girl to make copies, and sent 'em to Harpers' Hold. Good, eh?"
"And now Harpers are marching towards the temple to stop the foul rituals," Branwen whispered excitedly. "Did you mention the temple, too?"
"Nae. Suspected without me papers, methinks."
The armed procession reached the temple's gates.
"I think we must go inside," Branwen said quietly and froze. From the entrance to the catacombs, another group was approaching. A tall bald man, a hamster on his shoulder, and a skinny woman with a cane. A young man in red robes walked behind them.
"Wychlaran whore," Xzar whispered. "We met her in Nashkel! But... what is he doing with her? This is a Red Wizard!"
"Kill 'em all," Montaron growled but didn't move. "And they be headin' inside, too?"
"Looks like..."
The men and the woman passed to the entrance. A hamster squeaked, and all was quiet.
"Maybe we should follow..." Branwen started again and gulped. A bright light shone from the stony ceiling, and two disheveled elves appeared on the path. One of them was wearing purple robes.
"The enchanter!" Xzar whispered. "Mommy, mommy, panic! Rabbits!"
"That's it," Branwen took a deep breath. "Follow me, comrades."

Something was wrong. Ala opened one eye.
Sarevok stood with his back to her, facing the door. Ala heard indistinct voices.
"Jaheira!" she cried out. "Khalid, Jaheira, I am here! Imoen!"
"Jaheira and Khalid are not here," answered a cold voice. "Yet you are here, Bhaalspawn. Both of you. Where is your sister, Imoen?"
"Sarevok has taken her prisoner," answered Ala, feeling there was something terribly wrong. "Khalid and Jaheira, too."
"I am Dermin, Jaheira's old mentor," the voice continued. "We are here to eradicate you, Sarevok Anchev. For your plans to start a war, for the murder of our brother Gorion. And you, Ala, his sister and accomplice, will follow your brother to the Abyss."
"I am not his accomplice!"
"No matter," Sarevok's voice rumbled. "You will go nowhere, neither of you. Semaj, Angelo, bring forth the prisoners! We will end this fast."
"WHO IS HURTING LITTLE ALA? GO FOR THE SPIKES, BOO, GO!"
"What are you doing, you insufferable monkey? I did not teleport you from Nashkel for your weasel to lick my hood... oww! Let go of my ear, you freak!"
Ala could not see him, could not see anyone behind Sarevok's back--only the ceiling and a small part of the grand hall, but somehow it did not matter. Her friends were here.
"Edwin!" Ala shouted, not trying to conceal her delight. "Minsc! I am here!"
"We heard this already," replied Edwin's annoyed voice. "Now what?"
Ala heard the rustle of the robes, and a familiar voice broke the silence:
"Dermin! It is I, Jaheira!"
"Jaheira, my darling, finally!" the cold voice became softer. "Tell me true: did Gorion's wards assist Sarevok Anchev in his affairs? We received some documents, and suffice is to say that Anchev will hang as soon as he is brought to justice. Tainting the ore, financing the bandits--he sowed death, and now he shall reap it."
"Ala and Imoen were never on his side!" Jaheira replied indignantly. "Sarevok killed Gorion, who was like father to then. We labored against him, until we were captured by his lackey, Tazok."
"Mommy!" someone shouted excitedly. "So many Rabbits! It's like traveling back to the future!"
Ala closed her eyes tiredly. Now Xzar. Great. Everyone is here. Except Xan, but I am sure he'll show up sooner or later.
"If there is to be a battle, perhaps you will let me go, brother?" she asked. "So that I will die like a warrior with a blade in my hands?"
Sarevok looked at her. Ala turned her head: there were indistinct figures near the exit, and other figures near the other wall: her companions, bound.
"We must talk," Ala whispered. "Sarevok, we must talk."
"This is a dead end," she heard Edwin's voice. "A stalemate. Zhents, Harpers, Thay and Rasheman, bad Bhaalspawn and very bad Bhaalspawn--and no way out. At least, none that I see."
"No," somebody sighed, and Ala recognized Xan. When did he appear? Was she dreaming? "We're all doomed."
Doomed, Ala thought. Doomed. And Sarevok is still standing next to me, and I do not see what he has in his hand...
Then a clear melodic voice said:
"My name is Stai. I think we can handle this."

Chapter 50. Resolution

Stai stepped forward. A light gesture, and Ala felt the invisible bonds releasing her.
"If we are going to fight, we can as well wait another fifteen minutes, can we?" Stai continued. "If you, good men and women, want to defeat Sarevok Anchev, do so. But first, I want to fulfill a promise I gave my best friend, Alianna. She was Ala's mother."
"My mother?" Ala sat on the floor. Sarevok mutely stared at her.
"Sarevok, you want to kill a rival," Stai said. "But I am going to relieve Ala and her sister, Imoen, from their divine essence. Then Ala will stop being a Bhaalspawn. Will this suffice?"
Sarevok stepped forward.
"What are you talking about, woman?"
"I am talking about..." Stai stopped dead. "Wait. Xan, don't you feel it? Don't you see it? Netherese artifacts!"
"Here?" Xan raised an eyebrow. "How?"
"We searched this temple through and through," Sarevok said derisively. "There are none."
"I have a Deck of Many Things," Ala winced: the wretched thing kept sinking into her ribs. "Is it Netherese?"
A tall blonde woman Ala did not know stepped forward.
"We found a Netherese tome of summoning," the woman said. "Here."
"Branwen, shut yer yep!" Montaron hissed, and the hiss became an echo.
Ala slowly stood up. Now she saw them all: figures near the walls, grey and small. Their voices echoed a little across the temple, as if they were high in the mountains.
"But these artifacts..." Stai muttered, "these are enough to turn the world upside-down."
"Stop," Sarevok ordered. "Bring the prisoners to me. Come and put the things to the altar. And if every single one of you raises arms against me in this temple..."
"I understand," Stai raised her hands and turned to the silent Harpers. "These are dangerous artifacts, and these are two innocent girls. I am going to help Imoen and Ala. Will you allow me to do this?"
"I'd like to look," Xzar giggled. "Monty, do you?"
"We will watch," Dermin said slowly. "If there is a way to free the world of the Bhaalspawn taint, the Harpers want to see it."
"Not all of them," Stai shook her head. "But I can help Ala, at least."
"What do you mean, 'help Ala'?" demanded Edwin. "She is a child of Bhaal! Are you going to take her immortal and immoral soul out, or what?"
"Will I... be normal again?" Imoen whispered. Winski, who was holding her ropes, involuntary shuddered.
"Come here, please," Stai said. "All of you."
There was movement. Ala stood up, shakily, and immediately found herself in a circle of faces: Jaheira, Khalid, Imoen, Edwin, Minsc, Jaheira, Xan, Xzar, Montaron, Stai, the blonde, Dermin and his four Harpers, Sarevok's servants: Winski, Semaj, Angelo and a very pale Tamoko...
"Where are the other prisoners?" Ala asked. "Skie Silvershield, Kivan, Eldoth?"
"In a chamber underneath the temple," Tamoko answered without parting her lips. "They will live."
"Everyone will live," Xan sighed. "The question is: how long?"
"In every generation, a dark force and a light force is born," Stai said. "The Bhaalspawn are on the dark side. To counter this, we must bring forth a guardian of light. I will summon a servant of gods. A solar."
"To fight on your side?" Xzar giggled. "No go. Solars never interfere."
"No," Stai shook her head. "To ask her a favor."
"A solar," Sarevok smirked. "I should like to look into his face."
"Her face or his face," Stai shrugged. "Do I begin?"
A whisper ran across the room. Stai took a deep breath, opened the tome of summoning in her hands and started chanting.
"Impressive, isn't it?" a familiar sneering voice said. "(Of course, if you can call this pathetic display of carnival monkey tricks 'impressive'). A pity I did not acquire this tome sooner."
Ala turned around. Edwin was standing next to her with a hand on her shoulder.
"Why did you come back?" she whispered.
"I still owe you a year of service," Edwin answered coolly. "Besides, a Red Wizard never runs when he sees an opportunity."
"Am I an opportunity? Even without my heritage?"
"You?" Edwin raised an eyebrow. "You are an idiot."
Ala opened her mouth, but at the same moment Stai finished her chanting.
Nothing happened.
"Well?" Sarevok demanded. "Is this all you are capable of?"
"I am here, the child of Seldarine," a loud, clear voice called. "What is it you want from me?"
A woman stood at the entrance. No, Ala corrected herself, not a real woman. A solar was taller, so tall that her head touched the entrance arch, and her skin was light blue.
"Greetings, Solar," Stai bowed. A tome in her hands was slowly turning to dust, and Ala realized they would never be able to summon a celestial being again. "We require your judgement."
"Speak, then."
"You already know the matter at hand," Stai stepped forward. "This man, Sarevok, is a Bhaalspawn. He is planning a war--a war that will become the prelude to the inevitable Bhaalspawn wars. My friend's daughter, Ala, and her sister, Imoen, do not wish to be a part of this. Yet my mentor, Joneleth Irenicus, who was stripped of his very own link with the Weave most unfairly, would take their place gladly. We wish to make the exchange."
"I see," the Solar's voice rang. "And what of you, Imoen? Will you agree to this exchange?"
"I... yes," Imoen gulped. "Yes."
"And of you, Ala? Would you willingly revoke your heritage?"
"Yes," answered Ala without hesitation.
"Is there a single person who would oppose this? You, Sarevok?"
Sarevok chuckled amusedly. "I would get a strong contender instead of two week girls. I am all for it. We children of Bhaal matter. Other voices are irrelevant."
"Your word is counted," said the Solar seriously. "Now, for the word of Joneleth Irenicus."
"He is not here," Xan whispered.
"Then our talk is done," the light around the Solar started to diminish. "I will go."
"Wait!" Stai almost screamed. "Here, the Deck of Many Things..." she was going through the cards as in high fever, "here..."
She drew a card triumphantly. "Vizier! I drew it! Connect Joneleth Irenicus through the card and see if he is willing!"
Solar shifted, and it seemed to Ala that the Solar's eyes widened. Yes, Ala thought. We mortals are capable of many things.
"The gods will decide," the Solar said at last. "Wait."
The blue light blinked and was gone. The Solar disappeared.
"The card is gone," Stai whispered. "The Deck is gone, too. What is happening?"
Winski approached Sarevok and whispered something.
"What? The Grand Dukes? Sending troops in here? Hunting me? And all because of some papers and letters, and my old diary?" Sarevok laughed. "Winski, you are paranoid. Even if there is truth in your words, this is my temple, and these are my sisters. I will not leave until their fate is sealed."
"And what of our fates?" Jaheira said. "Do we remain and fight Gorion's murderer, or do we let him escape?"
"D-darling, wait," Khalid put an arm around her. "Don't you see that something is happening, something we cannot even comprehend..."
The Solar reappeared. This time she was not alone. Next to her stood a familiar figure, dressed in black and red.
"Cyric!" Ala breathed.
"I would rather you called me 'My Prince'," Cyric's vision called mockingly. "But an adoring tone will do."
"The gods said 'no'," the Solar declared in the same clear, emotionless tone. "But you can affect their judgement."
Stai stared. "How?"
"Joneleth's punishment is just," the Solar continued. "But I can bring you to him, through the card. You shall be able to aid him--or destroy him. The gods will give him a beginning of the spirit: he will begin to feel and remember. You can straighten him--or break him forever."
"And this is forgiveness?" Stai asked bitterly. "After years of punishment--more punishment?"
"This is mercy. You decide."
Stai buried her face in her hands.
"Now, for you, Bhaalspawn," the Solar turned to Ala. "You may continue on your path. Fight your brother, Sarevok, fight your siblings, win the war--and then the power of Bhaal will be yours to command."
"If you want it," Cyric added with a sly smile.
"Or give up the essence in favor of your brother, Sarevok. Surrender your divinity and walk out unharmed."
Ala felt her throat going dry.
"Me--give it to Sarevok?!" she croaked.
Sarevok looked surprised, himself.
"What will happen if I agree?" Ala asked in a small voice. "Will Stai's mentor learn forgiveness? What will happen to Sarevok? How will the Bhaalspawn wars start?"
"Your story ends here. This is what you sacrifice: knowledge, answers, importance. You become a mere mortal, if skilled and courageous."
"And Imoen? What of her?"
"Your sister was never important in the large picture of things. The gods will release her--if you make the right choice."
"But which choice is the right one?" Ala muttered.
"Yours," Edwin whispered, clutching her shoulder. "If you stop being a fool."
Ala closed her eyes.
I can lead armies... and people will die in my name. I, the favored child, a future goddess...
But even in a small group of adventurers, I was never the leader.
I will fight and win, and win, and win again...
But hobgoblins captured me. Gnolls nearly killed me. Little xvarts captured me. Bandits captured me.
I will lord over hearts and minds...
But Xzar and Montaron betrayed me, Jaheira lied to me, and Xan never listened to me...
I can never give my divinity to Sarevok...
But he will kill me and take it anyway...
What shall I do?
Stai, Xan, Imoen, Jaheira, Khalid, Sarevok--everyone was looking at her.
So many people... What are they doing here?
And what am I to do?
Ala took a deep breath.
And decided.
"I agree," she said. "I give up my Bhaal's essence. Do what you will."
"Excellent!" Cyric clapped his hands. "Now, can I take her divinity or not?"
"What?!"
Sarevok's, Imoen's and Ala's voices merged into one.
"Told you I wanted power," Cyric laughed. "I could not get Joneleth Irenicus as my ally, so I chose a bargain, instead: your power was to be my power. Solar said 'Sarevok', because she hoped you would never give your essence to him."
"You lied to me!" burst Sarevok.
"I think we can work together," Cyric said thoughtfully. "If you do not seek my realm of influence, that is. You know, there was a vacancy for a God of Bad Temper..."
"Enough," the Solar interfered. "Bhaalspawn, you made your choice. For you, and for your sister. Now the act must be carried out... prepare yourselves!"
"Goodbye, Ala," Cyric called out. "It was nice knowing you!"
"Idiot," Edwin groaned nearby.
"Thank you, sis," Imoen whispered. "Thank you ever so."
Ala took a deep breath, and the world went white.
The last thing she felt was a mask slipping off her face.

Epilogue

The roof of the Iron Throne building was small. Too small to contain everyone who was standing in the temple minutes ago.
"Sarevok," said Xan weakly. He was holding Stai in his hands, and a light-blue card was throbbing in the sorceress's palm. "Where is he?"
"And Tamoko, and Angelo, and Semaj, and Winski," Dermin nodded. "It seems the Bhaalspawn asked his new ally to give him a chance elsewhere. Tethyr, perhaps?"
"We must head to the basement, Dermin," Jaheira said quietly. "Now that the reign of the Iron Throne is over, the prisoners will need our aid. And we must send the messengers to the Dukes."
"And we must away to the Zhentil Keep," Xzar sighed. "Too bad. And I so hoped to kill someone!"
"I'll kill ye, wizard, be glad," Montaron grumbled. "Come." He nodded to Branwen: "Are ye comin' or what?"
To everyone's surprise, Branwen smiled, nodded and followed them.
"We must go, too," Xan rose and offered Stai his hand. "I only hope that Stai's master is not truly doomed."
"He is not," Stai smiled weakly. "I know. Goodbye, Ala."
"Goodbye," Ala called. "And thank you. I wanted to ask you about my mother, but..."
Stai shook her head.
"Don't."
A card in Stai's hand flashed. Xan stepped very close to the sorceress, there was another flash, and they were gone.
"Must be love," Imoen sighed dreamily. "Jaheira... can I go with you? Tend to the wounded and everything? That elf, Kivan, was nice."
"Do you want to stay with the Harpers?" Dermin asked seriously.
"I do," Imoen nodded. "If only you take Ala, too..."
"There is no need," Ala said sharply.
"No need?" Dynaheir asked. The woman looked much healthier now, but there was a glint in her eyes Ala did not like. "Thou wishest to travel to Rasheman?"
"No, Dynaheir," Ala smiled. "I think--if Edwin returned for YOU to help me... then maybe I'll travel to Thay for him. Just so his standing among the Red Wizards isn't completely ruined."
"You will travel with me to Thay?" Edwin asked. He sounded surprised and pleased at the same time.
"I will," Ala nodded. "It is a pity that we will never see other Bhaalspawn, though. And Stai, and her mysterious mentor. And Cyric, and Solar... Who won? Who will win?"
"We may never know," said Edwin and took her hand. "You know, you do not look any different now that you are a Bhaalspawn no longer. I wonder what my master will say if I bring home my own rogue?"
"With special skills?" Ala grinned. "Well... good bye, everyone."
She already turned to go, when a huge hand caught her.
"Little Ala will not go now!" Minsc's voice boomed. "We must celebrate! Boo says Ala and Imoen are free of evil, and the city is free of Sarevok and evil mages, so it is time to wash our boots in good wine and dance on the tables, so the earth shakes under our feet!"
"Minsc..." Dynaheir sighed. "Thou art incorrigible..."
"We must s-say goodbyes," Khalid nodded. "Me and Jaheira will be sorry to see you go."
"But we wish you well," Jaheira added. "Gorion's murderer is alive, and it galls me, but the Sword Coast is now free of his taint. I will drink to this tonight."
"And to the end of this crazy crusade," Edwin muttered. "(I cannot believe we are heading to Thay. What shall I do with her there? Then again, I missed a good chess partner. Those monkeys could never appreciate my skills. And Tharchion's treasury looks so inviting...)"
"Best of luck to you, young lady," Dermin inclined his head. "You are a Bhaalspawn no longer. Use your life well."
"Celebrations all around!" Imoen laughed. "Sis, you won't desert me so easily!"
"Then..." Ala smiled. "Then let's drink to new adventures!"