Howdy, Stranger!

It looks like you're new here. If you want to get involved, click one of these buttons!

Categories

Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition has been released! Visit www.planescape.com to purchase and check for details. Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition Official Soundtrack is available.
Soundtracks for BG:EE, SoD, BG2:EE, IWD:EE are now available in the Beamdog store.
Attention, new and old users! Please read the new rules of conduct for the forums, and we hope you enjoy your stay!

Brothers and Sisters

MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
Author's Note: Hey, all! This is a story I've been working on for a bit, and I figured since I'm on a BG kick anyway I might as well post it up here too, since there's a subforum for it. My first serious attempt at a fic for the franchise, but I've got a decent record in other fandoms, so hopefully it's enjoyable. It's been fun to write so far, at least! Spoilers for the games, of course, as I'm writing this with the intent that even people not familiar with the series can enjoy the piece.

Oh, and I'm new to the forum, so if I'm violating some sort of forum etiquette in the way I post it, PLEASE let me know?


Brothers and Sisters

Prologue

(*)

There are some places in the Realms that no good can possibly come of, and this was one of them.

The temple was, itself, a place obviously meant for darkness. Hidden away beneath the ground, surrounded by undead, lit only by flickering torches illuminating the skull engraved upon the floor and surrounded by a circle of teardrops—or possibly drops of blood—it was already not a place that any sane body would linger in. The circle of robed figures surrounding the altar set at the northern end of it, opposite the entrance, a low chant echoing between them, did not improve the scenario. The four armored black knights, Deathbringers clasping massive runed broadswords, made things worse still. The high priestess, her robes coated from head to toe in shimmering red blood, the sacrificial dagger clasped lovingly to her chest and an expression of almost sexual bliss on her face, completed the ensemble so perfectly that anyone who stumbled upon this most unholy of locations would be running for his or her life the instant they saw it. Assuming they could, considering the ghouls and animated skeletons that roamed freely about the caverns outside. The clerics no longer held magic to command such things, sadly, but the doors kept them out well enough, and they were naturally attracted to the temple site by the energy left by years of dark rituals. It would be foolish to disregard such valuable guard dogs.

It was the children, however, that were the worst part.

There were seven of them, ranging from infants to youths approaching their tenth year. Most looked human, but the humanoid races were often hard to differentiate as children, and the priests had hardly bothered to label them, so only a few were obvious. Two elves, one Gold, one Moon, identifiable by the odd shade of their skin and the points of their ears. One particularly large lad, dark skinned and far larger than his seven summers would have suggested, was clearly too tall already to be anything but human. One young boy, no more than four, already had a few thin whiskers that clearly marked him as a dwarf. But all had one thing in common: Save for one, each was kept in a separate, rusted metal cage that seemed more suitable for a kennel than a child.

There were also ten empty cages. They had not been empty overly long.

Most of them screamed, or cried, or begged for mercy, though not all. The young Moon elf sat in absolute silence, staring into space. The dark-skinned human gripped the bars of his cage tightly, his already impressive muscles straining against the rusted iron.

And the only child that was not caged, a toddler not even to her second winter, was quiet and focused less on her shrieking companions and more upon a small cloth doll she played with in the corner of the temple. After all, she had little reason to be scared. She was not caged, was hardly old enough to realize what was going on, and most tellingly of all, her mother was there to keep her safe. She was discomforted by the noise, but mama had told her to keep quiet, and she was a good girl.

The high priestess rubbed the knife upon her robes, doing little but smearing the blood around. It was not intended to clean anything, but to bathe her in the love of her god, to carve upon her body and soul the joy of this holy day. A few motes of golden dust floated off the empty altar, drawn into the skull upon the floor, which seemed to briefly glow in response.

"Another," the high priestess murmured. "Our lord stirs."

The Deathbringers, faces hidden behind blank black helmets carved in the skull that was the lord's holy symbol, approached the cages and took out the oldest of the remaining girls, a child on the verge of growing into a woman. She screamed and wailed, kicked and bit, and was met with nothing more than annoyance as the only damage done was cuts to her own small fists on the jagged armor of her captors. Emotionless, cold, the four warriors strapped the girl to the altar with the shackles already placed upon it, ignoring her shrieks of terror and pleas for her mother.

"Do not worry," the high priestess said warmly. "Your mother is gone, but soon your father will be here."

The child blinked tear-stained eyes in confusion, briefly calming...

The sacrificial dagger dove into her throat, slashing open the artery and pulling out almost before the startled child even knew she'd been stabbed. She tried to scream, tried to cry, but produced nothing but a wet gurgle as her eyes grew glassy and dim after only a few seconds. The blood ran down the altar freely, spraying across the face of the serenely smiling priestess. She did not turn away, merely closed her eyes and basked in the warmth.

"Our lord and master, hear our prayer," she intoned as she had done after each of the sacrifices before. "This life we give to you, as you gave it to the world. Feast upon it, and return to us." The circle of clerics repeated her words softly, each clutching an identical, albeit cleaner, dagger to their chests, the blade etched with the same skull and teardrop as the symbol on the floor.

The child on the altar ceased struggling after a few seconds, the flow of blood from her throat slowing, then stopping. After a few short moments, her body vanished, dissolving in soft green light, which then shattered into motes of dust which were drawn once more into the temple's holy symbol.

"Another," the high priestess said, once again. "Our lord stirs."

The Deathbringers moved from their positions around the altar toward the cages once again, before the priestess said, "No. Stop."

"Mistress?" the leader of the warriors asked.

"My daughter. Bring my daughter to me," she said, smiling at the small red-haired toddler with her doll.

"I thought she was to be last?"

"Sentimentality only, commander. And now that we are here, so close... she should meet her father." the priestess's bloodstained smile was warm and maternal, a grim sight considering the blood that coated her like a second skin. "Bring me my daughter."

The Deathbringer commander shrugged, walking toward the toddler, who looked on quietly, without complaint. And why not? He had helped care for her all her life, and she knew her mother wouldn't hurt her. The commander reached down to pick up the child...

And the wooden double-doors of the temple blew inward, lightning searing through the temple in a blaze of sudden light and thunder, the smell of ozone filling the enclosed space. The bolt of lightning slammed home on the dais near the altar, striking one of the priests in the back, the man screaming as the electricity roared through him, his flesh blackening as he fell to the floor in a twitching, smoking mass.

Twelve figures, men and women alike, rushed into the temple, armed and armored, led by a young, black-bearded man in a gray robe. "Secure the children! No quarter!" he commanded, lightning still dancing between his outstretched fingers as he dove into another casting. Four of his companions halted with him, one raising a wand and the other three letting fly arrows, as those of their group armed with melee weapons charged into the fray, swords and spears at the ready.

The Deathbringers met them; outnumbered, but armed and armored with finer gear, they halted the charge dead in the center of the temple. Swords met and clashed, the fighters taking lead slamming against the Deathbringer line with steel as the spearmen backing them jabbed through holes in the melee, seeking holes in the enemy's armor. Arrows slammed into them and skipped off plate steel, one bolt flashing past to strike another cleric in the eye. The man did not even scream as he fell bonelessly.

The high priestess snarled, her expression shifting with mad speed from serene joy to insane fury as her eyes locked on the painfully familiar figure of the mage leading the attackers. She cast off her blood-soaked robe, revealing a shirt of dark chainmail and a mace at her side, screaming, "They must not take the children! Kill them! Kill them all!"

The surviving clerics followed suit, drawing slings, wands, and hammers from beneath robes. Their god could not hear them, but each was a killer, and they joined battle with deadly intent. For a time, it seemed they had the upper hand; with the addition of the clerics, the battle raging in the center of the temple was even in numbers, and the Deathbringers had held back the attackers on their own. A warhammer swatted aside a longsword, and one of the armored knights struck in, cutting the man nearly in half with a single swing of his massive blade. The attackers began to fall back, the swordsmen dissolving into the line of pikemen behind them...

And then the mage finished his casting.

The fireball slammed into the altar and exploded, shattering the stone table and incinerating the two priests still standing near it slinging stones, and it became clear that the attackers falling back had been all part of the plan. The flames roared back through the center of the temple, rolling over the priests and Deathbringers, but stopping just short of both the children and the attacking warriors. This time, ironically, it was the Deathbringers who took the worst of it, their thicker and all-covering armor soaking the heat in, cooking them inside the steel. The priests screamed in agony, flame rolling over them, burning them and heating their chainmail.

The attacking warriors redoubled their assault. A Deathbringer who had cast aside his burning helmet to gasp for air fell, a spear driving into his neck. Another went down to an arrow slipping into the mouth-slit of his helmet as he reeled, stunned. The tide turned.

For the first time, the redhaired toddler began to cry, as she saw her mother fall. Death, she had seen all her life. Mama had never been hurt. She shrieked, uncertain and terrified, huddling against the walls of the temple.

(*)

The young, dark-skinned boy blinked in confusion and pain. The blast of the fireball had not harmed him beyond some bruises, the shock throwing him against the bars... but it had also knocked some rocks free from the crumbling ceiling of the buried temple. One had landed in his cage, and the lock was rusty...

The boy slammed the rock home, and the lock shattered with a single sharp snap. He broke out, repeating the process five more times, letting the doors fly open. "This is all you get from me," he snarled at the other children, before running for the door as the two warring parties clashed.

Of the five children still living, the halfling girl was too small to run, too broken to realize she should. She sat blankly in her cage, staring at nothing and sobbing quietly. The dwarf boy and the human boy were screaming, panicking, huddling to their cages as if the bars would protect them from the madness.

The Moon elf boy grabbed the little Gold elf girl, and dragged her from her cage even as she squeaked in protest. He was older than her, and larger, and though she struggled briefly he pulled her along without much effort, sprinting for the door.

"The children!" the high priestess screamed, running for the cages and ignoring the arrow that slammed into her thigh, the fanatic madness overwhelming the pain. The sacrifices, the ritual, had given the essence in the children greater power. It would delay the awakening to simply kill them...

But it would delay it far more to let them live, and her lord stirred.

She slammed open the door of the first cage and brought her mace down on the child within.

(*)

Gorion cursed, drawing a silver wand from his belt and aiming it at the priestess. It was too late to save the first of the children, but gods willing...

A hurled warhammer slammed into his wards, the magical protections dulling the blow but doing nothing to stop it from obscuring his vision and balance. He cursed once again, shifting his wand to aim at the charging cleric, and sending a wave of cold against the zealot, freezing him in mid-step. The wand, its final charge used up, disintegrated in his hand.

He shifted his gaze upon the priestess once again, casting the quickest spell he could think of that would not endanger the children. Tiny bolts of red-white light struck out, searing into her flank, exacerbating her already existing wound.

She barely seemed to notice, her mad smile only growing wider as she brought her mace down a second time, on a second child.

Gorion snarled in rage, focusing his mind, and cast again as she limped to the final cage. The words slid from his lips without a stutter, his fingers weaving, and another magical missile, and arrow lined with fire, leaped from his fingers. The woman clasped the final door in her hand...

The arrow slammed into her spine, flames running down her back, and she tumbled, twitching madly. He sighed, running over to the cage and kicking her mace away. "It's over, Alianna. Not this one. You don't get this one."

The priestess looked up at him, a snarl on her face and madness whirling in her dying eyes. "Should have known... you were... one of them. But you were handsome and... well... a woman who has lost her love is... often weak for a handsome face..."

"If it helps, you did not give away enough information, no matter how much I... pressed," Gorion said flatly. "We found one of your acolytes who had fallen to Cyricism, and he sold the temple's location to us. You can die secure in the knowledge that your failure was outside your control. We are taking the children."

"The children..." Alianna the priestess said softly, as her hand slipped to her belt, "belong with their father."

Gorion's eyes had just enough time to widen as she slipped the small bottle from her pouch, and raised his quarterstaff to crush her skull...

Just a second too late.

The Oil of Impact detonated, the fireball blinding and deafening.

(*)

The Moon elf boy ran, the small golden-haired girl dragging behind him. "Stop pulling!" she shrieked.

"We have to run! They're going to come after us!"

"I—"

"Shut up! I'm not going to leave you, so just follow me!" he snapped back, stopping to shake her a few times. "We have to run, don't you understand?! I know you're scared, but..."

The girl sobbed, rubbing tears from her golden-skinned face, black eyes shimmering. "I... I... I... I'm just..."

He sighed. "I know you're scared. But we have to run. These people, they... they... my mother was... we have to run. Please."

"Y-yes. I'm... sorry," the girl said. "I... I wouldn't have... th-thank you. I was too scared to run. So thank you for saving me." She leaned in on impulse and kissed him on the cheek.

"You were the only other elf. I... well, I don't know. I could only take one, so..." he stammered, blushing furiously. He was older than he looked, past his tenth year, but he was still at an age where he was not quite sure how to react to this. "Look, let's just go, we can't stay here."

She nodded. "Right, I-"

She cut off, her body jerking oddly. The boy blinked in confusion as she fell forward into him, until he looked down and saw the arrow protruding from her chest, piercing through her filthy gray prisoner's robe...

Her body faded into light and dust before she even hit the ground. The last sight of her face the boy saw was the terror in her eyes vanishing into light...

A tall man with dark hair and plate armor, still holding a bow, stepped forward from the ruins littering the cavern, a woman in plain clothes at his side carrying a long, curved sword. "Galvarey," she said softly. "Gorion told us to act as the rearguard while he saved the children. What have you done...?"

"I saved her," the man said firmly, putting aside his bow and drawing a short sword as he walked toward the horrified young elf. "from a life as herself. It was the best I could do for the abomination."

"Gorion..."

"Gorion trusts too much, Kail." Galvarey picked up the young elf by his hair, pressing the short sword against his chest. "You don't want to live a whole life being hated and hunted by everyone in the world, do you boy? It's quicker this way."

"He's just a child..." the woman said softly.

The man with the dark beard pressed his sword more tightly against the elven boy's face, his expression grim. "Yes. A child of-"

He was cut off, then, by a hurled rock slamming into the side of his head. He snarled in rage as the elf boy sprinted away into the ruins, his eyes scanning the ruins for the source of the missile, and not seeing the young, dark-skinned boy slipping away into the shadows.

"Find him. Kill him. We can't let any of the children escape," Galvarey snapped, raising a hand gingerly to the bruise forming on his temple. He and Kail ran into the ruins after the boy...

The first ghoul found them in seconds, the price of speed over quiet. Their approach had been quiet and warded by spells both divine and arcane. Those wardings had expired, and the sentries noticed them. Two warriors clattering with metal were more of a target than a couple running children, after all...

The two fighters stood back to back, weapons raised as a dozen ghouls swarmed in at them from out of the ruined buildings of the dead city, hissing madly.

The elf boy and the human boy ran, as their pursuers fell into the rhythm of battle.

(*)

Gorion had been warded against flame. The light and smoke stunned him, the shock hurled him back, but the flame rolled over him without doing more than minor harm.

The child, and the priestess, and the warriors fighting in the center of the temple were not so lucky.

"Stand," a rough female voice said, pulling Gorion to his feet. "No good comes of the rest of us dying in this pit."

"Jaheira," Gorion said with a sigh. "We failed, didn't we."

"Aye, but not so horribly as if we had not intervened at all," Jaheira said firmly, running a gloved hand across her sweaty brow. She had been near the entrance with the archers, and taken only the lightest brunt of the blast. "We stopped the ritual, if nothing else. Though damn if the price was not high..."

Gorion's eyes widened. "Khalid?"

The woman smiled grimly. "Thank Silvanus he can handle a bow," she nodded back to the door, and her husband, who, against all logic or reason, waved at her, smiling nervously, his bow held at his side. "All those in the melee..."

"I saw," Gorion said with a sigh. "At least a few of the children escaped in the madness... it's more of a chance than they had before. But... but I had hoped we could save at least one..."

A soft, sniffling sob rang through the silent temple. Gorion, eyes wide with frantic hope, ran to the source of it, his robes swirling around him, and found her. Hidden behind the pillar, a young thing, no more than two, dressed in finer clothes than the children in the cages had been, bright red hair pulled into a ponytail...

The same as the hair her mother had had.

He had been seeing Alianna under cover for the better part of three months, trying to divulge some information from her. It had been among the more unpleasant assignments he'd ever undertaken. The priestess had been... like a serpent wearing human skin. Playing at being a woman of society, daughter of a wealthy merchant, walking among the Baldur's Gate gentry like she belonged there. Gorion had known what she really was, more than one agent had delivered the description of a priestess matching her description at the high temples of the Lord of Murder, long before the Time of Troubles. He had known she was still involved... just not known where she did it, in secret.

The information really had come from a fallen Acolyte. He had 'courted' Alianna for three months, and found nothing of value from her. Not even that she'd been a mother to one of the Children herself.

The toddler looked up at him, tears streaking her face, and said one of the only five words she knew. "M-mama..."

Gorion smiled sadly, and pressed a hand to her forehead, a minor spell to lull her to sleep slipping from his fingers. "I'm sorry, little one. I'm sorry, but no."

"Gorion!" Khalid shouted. "G-Galvarey is back. H-he said that... that the undead took the children who escaped. H-he couldn't save t-t-them. Gods above..."

Jaheira snapped. "The creatures approach, and we've no spells of warding this time. All of you, get together. I'll patch what wounds I can, and we'll have to make a run of it."

Gorion sighed, wrapping the toddler in his cloak and preparing for another long sprint. "Just one. Just one..."

(*)

A mage in gray carried a red-haired young girl out of the darkness, her face streaked with tears and ash. The sun shone onto her copper-red hair, and he stroked her head as she slept.

In the alleys of the city of Baldur's Gate, a pale young elf and a dark young man crawled out of the sewers and turned to each other, their eyes far colder than boys their age should have been.

"You saved me?"

"I drew them in. Distracted the monsters. I didn't even see you," the human boy said. "I told you when I opened the cage: that's the last you're getting from me." His eyes were cold. Too cold for his age by far. "That's the last anyone is getting from me."

The elf tilted his head to one side. "Good. Then I don't owe you."

They each nodded once and ran in opposite directions, the human deeper into the city, the elf towards the gates.

Three children, each one meant to die, each one a survivor, took three different paths into the world.

In an empty, lifeless temple, among the corpses of his faithful and his foes alike, the skull of a dead god grinned in darkness.

(*)
LordRumfishlolienElrandirJuliusBorisovBladeDancerGemHoundMirandel
«13

Comments

  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    And now, since we're caught up on chapters (For the moment, next chapter should be up in a few days, this piece has captured my attention like few others) here's the fanfiction.net link:

    https://www.fanfiction.net/s/9855557/1/Brothers-and-Sisters

    Questions? Comments? I adore both.
    JuliusBorisovlolien
  • FafnirFafnir Member Posts: 232
    Fancy seeing you here. xD

    I haven't read this one yet, but let it be know that I'm fine with you expanding osmotically in every possible fandom.
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    Fafnir said:

    Fancy seeing you here. xD

    I haven't read this one yet, but let it be know that I'm fine with you expanding osmotically in every possible fandom.

    Thank ye kindly. XD My sister's done a few BG fics, but I've never had a solid idea for one before. This one's latched onto me very well, though. It's actually fun to write! That doesn't happen to me much lately.
    lolien
  • FafnirFafnir Member Posts: 232
    Having read it, I must say it is more than up to your usual standards. I love the characterization of the three brothers... Especially Acherai. They already seem to have well defined personalities.
    I'll be following this closely.

    ... I keep reading Gorion's lines in his voice. >_>



  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    edited November 2013
    Author's Note: Told you it would be up soon! This story is so much fun.

    Chapter Two

    (*)

    Sephiria ran, the rain stinging into her eyes almost as much as her tears.

    (“You know why I'm here. Hand over your ward and no-one will be hurt. Resist and it will be a waste of your life.”)

    She ran, her boots slipping in the mud, her cloak soaked through and clinging to her armor, terror and sadness mingling in her eyes.

    (“You are a fool if you believe I would trust your benevolence. Step aside, and you and your lackeys shall be unhurt.”)

    It was Gorion. He was supposed to be there, always. Her earliest memories were of his smile. She had seen his power a hundred times and never seen it fail.

    (“I'm sorry that you feel that way, old man.”)

    Gorion had been amazing. Four against one, Sephiria frozen in terror. She had been sent running from the first attack, fleeing in response to a bolt of burning energy searing a hole in her armor and Gorion's own screams for her to run while he held them back.

    She had looked back a dozen times as she fled, saw him hurling lightning and bolts of magic, arrows of flame and acid leaping from his fingers. He was every bit the hero she'd always known him to be. Two ogres, two, and neither had gotten near enough to even touch him before being reduced to ash and bloody meat. A powerful cleric, her own spells rolling over the battlefield, and he had rendered her helpless with a gesture.

    She had been so certain he would triumph. It was just like every story she had ever read... the noble hero standing firm against the onslaught of evil. She had even stopped, briefly, to watch as he stood against the final attacker, waves light and flame rolling off his fingers like some kind of divine emissary facing a glowing-eyed demon from the Nine Hells.

    And then the man in armor had stepped out of the inferno untouched, and cut him down with a single blow.

    Sephiria ran. She ran and she didn't look back, sprinting madly into the darkness with no concern for where she would go or what she would do.

    Her world was already over.

    (*)

    Sarevok screamed in fury, hacking away at the body of the fallen mage again and again. His initial blow had taken the man nearly in half, and now he shredded those halves further, desecrating the remains, hammering away until he could not recognize it as a person.

    He wasn't angry at the dead mage. He was angry at himself. He had gotten caught up in the moment, in the electric thrill of battle. The scent of burning flesh in the air, the blood rushing in his ears, the lightning flashing in the sky as his foe's attacks washed off his divine strength like water off a rock. He had faced battle before, but nothing like this. The mage had slain two powerful beasts with a gesture, suppressed Tamoko's own powerful spells without visible effort. And yet, Sarevok had destroyed him like he was a helpless child. It had been glorious, everything he had ever dreamed, a worth sacrifice to his impending divinity.

    It had also, he thought as the thrill of murder faded from his mind to be replaced by seething fury and the awareness that his true quarry was gone, been a waste of gods-damned time.

    The girl was gone. Vanished into the night, and the storm only getting worse. Tamoko was magically contained in a shimmering sphere of light, and he had no way to free her, even his blade bouncing off harmlessly. Even if he knew which way the child had run, with the forest floor rapidly turning to mud he could hardly hope to catch her on foot in full plate.

    He fought the urge to scream at his own foolishness, and instead turned to storm back to camp, leaving Tamoko behind, trapped inside the shimmering sphere. She could find her own way back...

    And the way he was feeling now, if she tried to speak to him, he'd likely murder her on the spot.

    (*)

    “Seems a lotta trouble for some books, is all I'm sayin',” the dwarf said flatly.

    “It's not for some books,” the elf said with a touch of impatience in his voice. “It's for THE books. All the books. Candlekeep has more tomes and records than anywhere else in Faerun. If anyone has data on the cult I'm seeking, it will be the monks there.”

    “And ye couldn't wait until the rain stopped, at the least?”

    “Kagain, I just spent four hours out of my way looking for your damn caravan, only to have you give up and declare yourself a fugitive the second we found it. You agreed to escort me to Candlekeep in exchange. If a little rain is too much for you to keep up your end of the bargain, then you shouldn't have made the bargain to begin with.”

    “Oh, well, I'm sorry I took away time from his lordship's questin',” Kagain sneered, his mail and axe clinking damply beneath his soaked cloak. “But seein' as we're half drowned out here to help with the little elfling's royal mission, I think I've a right to be a tad bitter.”

    Acherai sighed. “Gods above, we're not actually doing the 'elf vs. dwarf' thing? You live in a hole, I'm a tree-hugger, we're all quite horrible. Shut your mouth. I swear, I should have tossed you in a ditch and come alone.”

    “You'd still have me!” said the third, equally soaked figure lagging behind the other two in the storm.

    “You don't count as a person, Garrick. I consider you more like a pack mule that can sing.”

    “Well, that's a bit rude!”

    “Rude,” Kagain interjected, “Was you hirin' us to work for yer crazy witch woman, and her tryin' to kill us for asking too many questions.”

    “On the plus side, I did get this new walking stick,” Acherai said cheerfully, admiring the metal-coated quarterstaff he'd plucked off the woman's corpse. “Magic, too, which counters the iron poisoning going around. And we did get the money in the end.”

    “Bah, and I got what for it all?!”

    “A third cut of the gold.”

    “... Right, well, guess that's okay, then,” Kagain admitted. “Bard can live.”

    “You were planning to kill me?!” Garrick wailed.

    “Only because we don't like you,” Acherai said helpfully. “But if you'll both be so kind as to be silent? I think we're nearly th--”

    Something large, and hard as metal, and smelling... oddly nice, considering, leaped out of the woods and slammed into the young elf. He had killed three people in his life, one less than a day ago, and as a result liked to think of himself as something of a veteran at such things, and so reacted in a perfectly rational and logical way.

    “Bloody Hells what the blazes get it off kill it kill it...”

    “Please no I'm sorry he's after me we have to run!” the horror said in response, which Acherai had to admit was not what he'd been expecting to hear. Disentangling himself, the elf looked at the 'attacker'.

    Hell-o.

    She was, frankly, gorgeous. Young... it was always hard to judge with humans, but he'd place her as younger than him. When you were from a species that was fully grown, physically, by the teenage years, yet not considered emotionally mature until your first century, it became a bit rough to pick up the nuances. Long red hair, soaked with rain but still rather vibrant, strong blue eyes, soft, pale skin, a bit tall for him but hardly a deal-breaker...

    He put on his best smile and patted her on the shoulder, locking eyes with her. She was horrified. He could work with horrified. “Hold, miss. My apologies for stepping into your path, but please, who is pursuing you...?”

    “Are you deaf? He could be right behind me!” the woman shrieked in a panic, trying to rise to her feet and slipping in the mud to crash down onto her chest, the sound revealing without seeing that there was some kind of metal armor under her cloak. “Oh Gods... oh sweet Torm, mercy...”

    Ugh. One of those then. You almost never got an affectionate girl swearing to the god of loyalty and righteousness. Still, in a for a copper, in for a gold. “Miss, I'm afraid we can't do much to help if we know not the problem. Calm, and speak.”

    “Leave th' brat.”

    “Dwarf! Stop! Helping!” Acherai hissed. Putting a smile back on he stroked the girl's face, pushing the hair out of her eyes. “Please ignore my companions, they are idiots. Take a deep breath and try to stay calm while I get you out of the rain and get a fire going...”

    “No fire,” the girl said, gasping in several lungfuls of air. She was still shaking, but the wide-eyed terror was slowly beginning to give way to more reasoning fear and, he noticed, quite a lot of sadness. “Just... shelter. We can't give off any sign where we are. I'll explain everything when we get somewhere out of the storm.”

    (*)

    Sephiria sat, sipping from a canteen and nibbling on a trail biscuit as she related her tale to the strange party in the midst of a small copse of trees that hid a tent and kept the rain and wind away. She shivered with cold and shock as she told of them of the ogres, the dark priest, and most of all, the man in the black armor and his inhuman power.

    The reactions she got were not quite what she had expected.

    “Oh my it sounds rather dreadful,” the young human who didn't seem to have much of an idea of anything that was going on around him. “I wonder if I should be writing it down.”

    “Not our problem,” said the dwarf flatly. “Send the brat away an' let's continue on our road.”

    The elf who had been looking at her like she was a piece of meat, however, suddenly became very quiet and serious. His eyes had been roaming over her face and body since they'd met, and she knew that stare... it usually ended as soon as they saw her lift something larger than herself, but she didn't much care for it either way. Now, though, he was more somber than the dwarf. “Girl,” he murmured. “Describe, him, please. Particularly the armor he wore.”

    She shuddered. She had seen it only in flashes of lightning and explosions of magic, and yet each detail was burned into her mind. “He was tall. Taller than me by a head, at the least, though some of it was the horns on his helm. It was all black, and... vicious. Can't think of a better word. Spikes and blades all over it.”

    “Did he carry a broadsword? Was the helmet shaped like a skull?” he asked urgently. “Think.”

    “I... yes, and no. The helmet was shaped like... the mouth of some monster. The fangs hid his face,” she said, her tone a bit irritated. As if she wasn't getting to that! “Though... there was a skull. A symbol. On his chest.”

    “A skull, and... anything else?” Acherai whispered.

    “Something encircling it. I couldn't get a close look at them, but...”

    “Drops of liquid?” he asked. “Tears, maybe, or blood.”

    “... I think so,” she said, eyes widening. “How did you know that...”

    Acherai smiled at her, a predatory grin. “Oh, yes. This is perfect. Just as I come for them, they're coming out of the woodwork...! Kagain and... um... you.”

    “Garrick!”

    “I don't care! We have a new recruit,” he said, his eyes locked on the young pseudo-paladin. “Girl. We're on our way to Candlekeep as we speak, but once we leave, you're coming with us. Do you have a problem with that?”

    “... What are you talking about?” she asked.

    “The man who killed your father is connected to something I've been meaning to look into for a long time. He's after you, and that means when he makes his second attempt, he'll find me,” Acherai said, his eyes practically glowing. “But this time you'll be ready. We'll be ready. I have a book to get us into the Keep. If there's anything in there about this man and his organization, we'll find it. That symbol has to be important, and from there, who knows? Oh, we have so many opportunities!”

    Sephiria started at him, her eyes narrowed. She hadn't entirely bought his act of kindness... no man who genuinely meant you well spent as much time focusing below your neck as he had. But now, there was something... wrong in his voice.

    She shivered, and fought down a yawn. On the other hand, she might not have been in the best position to judge anyone. “We... can't go to Candlekeep...” she murmured, the fatigue starting to catch up with her finally. She smacked herself lightly on the cheeks, and continued, “Assassin. He attacked me in the keep itself. Fought like a fool, but... he proved this man has agents in Candlekeep. If someone starts researching him there, he'll find out. It's not safe.”

    Acherai turned to her, frustration burning in his eyes... but also triumph. “You said 'we'.”

    Sephiria sighed. “I'm alone. I've no supplies, no horse, no aid. You're... strange, but if you meant me harm you'd have an easy enough time inflicting it. For the moment, we might as well travel together... though I'm not sure where we'd go.”

    “Adventuring?” Acherai suggested.

    She raised an eyebrow.

    “I'm serious. This man who attacked you is strong, yes? So we need power, and quickly. There's few better ways,” Acherai said. “We travel. And in so doing, we grow stronger from the conflict, and present ourselves as a target to our friend in the armor. And when he finds you again, well... you get your revenge. And I get what I want. Mutual benefit is the backbone of cooperation, is it not?”

    Sephiria winced, looking from the elf's cool, hungry eyes to the dwarf's gruff, uncaring ones. The young man didn't seem so bad, but those two... put her on edge. Particularly the elf. He was a handsome one, slender and agile, with black hair nearly as long as hers and shining, dark eyes. And he had only been friendly to her, if in a bit of an odd way. But...

    She couldn't shake it. Something was wrong about him. There was just no other word for it.

    And yet...

    In comparing him to the thought of facing that... monster again, all alone...

    She held out her hand, and he shook it firmly. “It is,” she answered to his question. “Sephiria of Candlekeep. We've an accord?”

    “Acherai Moonshadow, of nowhere worth mentioning. We've an accord indeed.”

    She wrinkled her nose. “The name sounds fake.”

    “The name is fake. Chose it when I was ten.”

    She giggled a little at that, even as the fading adrenaline left a weariness in her that was rapidly proving impossible to resist. “Yes it... it sounds like it... … hehehe. Imoen would like you...”

    With that thought drifting into her head and a mostly dry blanket around her shoulders, she closed her eyes, thinking of Imoen and how she could possibly tell the girl all that had happened... and how grateful she'd be for the chance to try. She didn't know if she'd see the girl ever again, if she'd ever again be safe in Candlekeep, if her own new 'companions' would slit her throat while she slept.

    Nothing was certain in the world, other than how cold it all was.

    She slept as best she could, and she didn't dream. Thank the gods for small favors.

    (*)

    Imoen tried not to scream as she looked over the site.

    It wasn't that she was misbehaving, per se. Oh, she knew Winthrop would have her pretty little head on one of his ugly trays if he knew she'd run off like this. But he had never technically told her not to abandon Candlekeep and go off after Sephiria and Gorion, so theoretically speaking she wasn't not allowed to do it. So if he punished her for it when next they crossed paths, well, that was just 'ol Puffguts Winthrop being unreasonable again.

    But the way she saw it, she had a moral imperative. Seffy was family, right? Or at least, the closest thing to family that Imoen had. They'd grown up together, played together, chased each other around half the keep (Imoen won), wrestled over dessert (Seffy won, though Imoen lied and told people it was a draw. And that Seffy started it. And that there was a curse on Winthrop's inn that would kill them if they didn't pay an extra silver to the girl who did their turn-down service in the mornings... that last one didn't have much to do with Seffy, it was just a lie Imoen told a lot). Why, Imoen had once put a live weasel into Seffy's bed just to see what would happen when she found it. And the other girl hadn't beaten her to death for it!

    That was more important than blood, in Imoen's mind. If a girl didn't kill you over a live weasel tearing up all her unmentionables, than she was family in all the ways that truly mattered.

    And so she had dolled up the old bow Winthrop'd bought her for shooting rats (she was a better at keeping 'em out than any cat, and he put them in the stew for the people staying in the cheap rooms), and snuck out. She figured she could make it as an adventurer well enough... she was a good shot, she could pick a lock, she was devilishly beautiful. Gorion would hardly mind her tagging along. And so her first steps into the outside world in over ten years had begun with a song in her heart and a spring in her step.

    This had lasted until she found Gorion.

    The remains were... were bad. It was all bad. Imoen hadn't always lived in Candlekeep, and she'd seen some bad things in her life. But this wasn't death, this was... Mask's bloody knife, it was like someone had just RIPPED him...

    She stepped in something. Looking down, she saw it was an ear. Not Gorion's thank the gods, unless he had secretly been green with ears the size of her hand, but... well, then.

    She turned and ran into the bushes, losing her breakfast in the first one she found. Her heaving coughs rang out through the forest, and she had just enough presence of mind to hope there was nothing about with large fangs and claws to go about eating her at the moment. She could still see Candlekeep in the distance, for crying out loud. Ending her adventures in a wolf's belly before she even got out of sight of home would be a just... just very undignified.

    After a few minutes of that, Imoen pulled her head together and started to think of things. Most people didn't spot it of her, given a general lack of common sense and fondness for sweets that sometimes overruled her judgment, but Imoen was a smart girl, with a thief's eye for detail. And she had seen several dead bodies in that clearing...

    And not one of them a girl.

    Gorion was gone. He was dead. She was sad, but there was nothing to be done about it and right now the important thing was finding Sephiria. The problem became where to look. She didn't know where the girl might have run off to. Assuming she hadn't just been taken by whoever had done... this to Gorion. Imoen had scouted the area a bit and found nothing much, so Sephiria may have moved on.

    Imoen's mind jumped back to the letter on Gorion's desk that she had accidentally read three times, the one that had started this whole silly mess. It hadn't been signed, but it had advised Gorion leave the keep, something about moving targets being harder to hit...

    And Khalid and Jaheira, in the Friendly Arm Inn. Imoen wasn't a master of maps, but she knew where the inn was, she'd made supply runs there with Winthrop more than once when a caravan got delayed in bringing food and spices to Candlekeep. So all she had to do was head there! She could travel fast off the roads, keeping out of sight, and the Arm would be a safe place to wait. Even if she didn't find Seph there, she'd find Gorion's friends. Yeah, this was the perfect plan!

    She slid off into the woods, smiling to herself over her own cleverness.

    About three minutes later, four figures walked into the clearing.

    “We are wastin' our time,” Kagain snapped. “If we're really going through with this daft plan of running as adventurers, we need to be working on finding an employer. Sellswords need someone to buy 'em, and not gonna find one in the woods.”

    “Oh, Kagain. This is important too! Just think of the tale it will make!” Garrick said. “You can't have a hero who doesn't care about her own family.”

    “This is not a story, idiot.”

    “Well of course not, I haven't written it yet. But it's going to be a very good one! And much less, well, evil than Silke's.”

    Acherai sighed, even as Sephiria began to gather together stones. “I do apologize for them. Particularly the bard. Kagain is at least rather good with an axe, but Garrick is... well, mostly useful for carrying things I don't feel like carrying. I confess I was perhaps too quick to take on allies in Beregost. He had a crossbow, he seemed valid. Feel free to toss him aside as soon as someone more useful comes along.”

    “... how rude,” Garrick whimpered.

    Kagain narrowed his eyes. “And another thing. Why is she suddenly in command, elf? You were bad enough, but the whelp's not even bloodied.”

    “"So that bit about her fighting off assassins in Candlekeep just went right over your head, then? Besides, she is in command because if we are trying to lure in someone seeking her,” Acherai murmured softly enough for the girl to not hear him over her work, “then it makes rather a lot of sense to have our party act like her. Worry not, I'll have her ear the whole of the journey. You'll make a profit.”

    “I had best.”

    Sephiria ignored them, gathering up stones. It wasn't much. It was nothing. Gorion had given her a warm bed and meals for her whole life, taught her everything of true value she knew. She owed him her life, in a very real sense; not for saving it, but for teaching how to make it a life worth saving.

    Acherai had called it revenge. Gorion wouldn't want that. But it was the only thing that made sense, and... it just...

    Stop. Breathe. And think. And then do what feels right. Of all the lessons that her father had taught her, that was the most important one, the key to everything else. The question, then, was: what felt right?

    She was a faithful servant of Torm. Er, well, she would be when she found a real priest to take her vows. She shouldn't take revenge.

    More importantly, Gorion wouldn't want her to seek revenge. But what about justice? It wasn't the same thing, no matter how many people tended to call it that. This man, this... thing. He had murdered her father. Tried to kidnap her. Consorted with ogres, monsters known for killing, raping, and pillaging at will. So, then... as a paladin...

    Wasn't stopping him the right thing to do?

    She placed the last stone on the cairn she was building for Gorion, and looked down on it sadly. It didn't feel quite right. How could it? She had just buried her father's flayed corpse beneath a pile of stones, she suspected that nothing would feel right for a long, long time.

    But it did feel like closure.

    “Torm the true, lord of justice, light, and strength, guide this soul on its path,” she said softly, kneeling over the cairn. “Guard him faithfully on his path to his eternal reward in the hands of whatever god may have him.”

    She stood, and turned to her companions. They were not the ideal... but she had work to do, and they were better than nothing.

    “Let's move on,” she said softly, adjusting her sword and shifting her cloak behind her. “We have work to do.”
    Post edited by Moczo on
    lolienElrandirJuliusBorisovGemHound
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    Oh, and here's the ff.net link: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/9855557/3/Brothers-and-Sisters

    Questions and comments of all sorts welcome! I love discussion.
    lolien
  • LordRumfishLordRumfish Member Posts: 911
    What led you to this idea in particular? Telling a story half from the charname Bhaalspawn's perspective (Sephiria in this case), and half from Sarevok Anchev's perspective already seems a bit daunting. I find the addition of another sibling (Acherai) interesting, and I'm wondering how far Imoen's story is going to diverge as well, seeing as the story is named "Brothers and Sisters." Did the idea for including Acherai stem from a multiplayer game, or was it more creative license? I'm always curious about other people's creative process.

    I'll say this much: your story drew me in. I hadn't intended to read the whole thread in this sitting but I couldn't resist finishing it. In other words, I like it. ^_^
    Moczololien
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    edited November 2013
    @LordRumfish: Hmmmm... okay! The initial idea came from creative license; I wanted to explore the concept of a story with two morally divergent main characters, and the easy access to Bhaalspawn all over the place made this an ideal setting. So I created Sephiria and Acherai specifically to be foils for each other: male and female, human and nonhuman, selfless and self-centered, paladin and thief/mage. As opposite as it was possible to be, but both Bhaalspawn, both gifted, and both with equal right to be 'main character' but with vastly different ideas of the best way to go about it, leaving them working at cross-purposes as often as they were able to work together. Basically, each is trying to live their own story and they keep bleeding into each other since they're aimed at the same general target.

    It wasn't until I started writing it that I considered Sarevok as the third viewpoint character, but it appealed to me immediately. After all, he's just as passionate, gifted, and dedicated as either of them. He certainly THINKS he's the main character... from his perspective, Baldur's Gate is the tale of the mighty and cunning Sarevok, seeking to stop his pale and scrawny half-sibling from stealing his birthright. And he acts as a foil to each of the other leads in different ways; for Sephiria the obvious dichotomy of Knight in Shining Armor vs. Evil Overlord, and for Acherai the difference between simple goal-focused amorality against overarching, world-changing evil.

    Imoen... is mostly just super fun to write. And she IS a sibling too, technically. So if I need a viewpoint character for something and none of the others are available... why not? Heya, it's her. Imoen.


    ... wow, I talked a lot. I'll just end here by saying thanks for reading, and I hope I manage to keep you interested! ^_^
    LordRumfishElrandirlolien
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    Chapter Four

    (*)

    “I have a question,” Sephiria said as they marched through the wilderness, brushing aside a thornbush with her armored hand. “If this murderer is as foul as you claim, and has such a bounty, how is it that nobody has hunted him down before now?”

    “Presumably because he keeps killing them,” Acherai said. “The man is a cleric, if the bounty notice is accurate, and Cyric is said to favor madmen and murderers, of which he is both. His power is likely to be considerable.”

    Sephiria grimaced. “You didn't mention he was a Cyricist.”

    “I didn't think it would be a problem. You are a paladin, after all. Of Torm, no less! The Prince of Lies and your deity get along like... well, like Garrick and dignity.”

    “How rude!” Garrick murmured.

    “Garrick, you should stand up for yourself more. Don't let him walk all over you,” Sephiria said.

    “Hm? Oh, no, no. He's actually quite better than my previous employer!” Garrick said. “For one, he has not tried to kill me yet. And for second, he is a far more interesting story.”

    “Eh?”

    “Oh, you're part of it too! Why, I may not be a terribly good bard, but even I can spot the beginnings of a great tale from heroes in the making! Why, if I manage to not die and am able to write a proper ballad about it, I expect I shall be very well-received in taverns up and down the Coast! And really, is that not what life is about?”

    “... Free ale and lodgings?”

    “Exactly!” Garrick said to Sephiria's increasingly perturbed expression as she continued to push forward through the brush.

    “Told you so,” Acherai whispered into her ear.

    “Both of ya, shut it,” Kagain muttered. “I think we're gettin' close.”

    “Hm? We've only been walking a few hours, how do you...”

    “Because I don't hear any animals,” the dwarf whispered harshly, motioning again for the group to quiet down. “And I do smell something. Take a whiff.”

    Blinking in confusion, Acherai and Sephiria stopped and, in unison, inhaled deeply. Almost identical somber expressions clouded their faces immediately.

    “Still distant, but...” Acherai began.
    “Rot,” Sephiria whispered. “And there's no wind, so it can't be too far away.”

    Acherai smiled. “I confess to a certain giddiness now that we're this close. This is where it all comes together for us!”

    “Yeah, and if we get ate by zombies, it's where it all comes apart too,” Kagain snapped. “Stay calm and stay quiet. No sayin' where the bastard is.”

    Sephiria nodded once, and drew her sword, the two-handed war-sword that was her last memento of Candlekeep. Not a fancy blade, and nothing magical about it, unlike the metal staff Acherai had been walking with or the battleax at Kagain's hip. But it was a solid blade, familiar to her, and while it might not have been elaborate, it was perfectly forged, predated the iron crisis, and a half-dozen crushed training dummies over the year since she'd gotten it suggested it was bloody efficient at destroying things.

    Torm, give me strength to strike in your name, she thought, sending a silent prayer to her god as she steeled her mind for her first true battle.

    She wasn't sure of much, lately, but she felt that it could hardly be the wrong thing to do.

    (*)

    To the north, in the Friendly Arm Inn, a young halfling named Bennigan arrived with a message for the travelers Khalid and Jaheira, delivered from the ward of their friend Gorion.

    Upon finding out they were no longer at the inn and had left no indicator of where they planned to go next, he shrugged, left the letter with the owner of the inn, and had a helping of the side of venison that the Mirrorshades had roasting in the kitchen with a flagon of ale. He then stayed the night before walking back home the next day, whistling a small tune to himself, to live the rest of his life in relative comfort with his close-knit family in Beregost.

    What? Not all contributions to a story can be impressive.

    (*)

    “So... Nashkel,” Imoen said. “It's a nice place?”

    “It... could be worse.” Khalid offered.

    “It is a fair enough village, though the mines are a blight on the land. A cesspit that delves into the earth seeking her riches and gives nothing in return. Were it not for the fact that so many lives depend on the iron it produces, I would not cry to see it burned from the map,” Jaheira said.

    “... Is there anything you do like, Jarrie?”

    “I like the solitude of the deep forests. I like seeing animals roaming free, the balance and beauty of nature. A gentle sunny day, with naught to do but meditate on the grace of Silvanus and enjoy the company of my husband,” Jaheira said, a rare warmth in her tone. It was ruined a bit when she continued, in the exact same tone, “Oh, and killing slavers.”

    “... … … what was that last one?”

    “A despicable breed of person. So smug, so superior, so certain in their ability to steal forever the freedoms that are the right of all living things. It brings me deep-seated joy to take from them their vile empires, free their captives, and show them the collapse of everything I value before I smash in their disgusting skulls and leave them for the worms,” Jaheira said, patting her quarterstaff almost fondly.

    Imoen fell back a few steps to walk next to Khalid, who was bringing up the rear, and whispered, “Your. Wife. Scares me.”

    “J-Jaheira means well. S-she just tends to prefer nature to people,” Khalid said warmly. Then, more softly, he whispered, “And s-sometimes she scares me too.”

    “If you two are finished conspiring against me,” Jaheira said flatly, “we have been marching half a day already. A meal would not be amiss.”

    “Ooooooh! Are you gonna teach me the simple and hearty meals of the wandering adventurer?” Imoen asked.

    Jaheira reached into her pack and tossed Imoen a travel biscuit and a small canteen.

    “... This isn't hearty,” Imoen muttered, gnawing at the strangely rock-like bread as best she could, and sitting on a nearby log to take the load off her feet.

    As she nibbled at a biscuit that she could only assume was made of sawdust and horror, she took the chance to look over the papers she had... erm, borrowed from Tarnesh back at the inn. With Jaheira slavedriving her off to the south (And she hated slavers! The hypocrisy of some people) she hadn't had much time to look at any of them, and she suspected they were, if not important, than at least interesting.

    The first one was about what she had been expecting... and afraid of. A description that matched Seffie pretty much dead-on... and matched Imoen herself tangentially, but she didn't so much care about that. The issue that worried her so much was that this was proof. Definitive and irrefutable. Someone... someone wanted Seffie dead. Seffie, who was basically the nicest person in the world. A bit stuffy maybe, but a total sweetheart who basically spent her days wandering around Candlekeep asking to do favors for people and had not beaten the tar out of Imoen nearly so often as she deserved. She was obedient, and hardworking, and always put other people before herself even when (in Imoen's expert opinion) it was a damn stupid thing to do.

    Who the Hells would put a bounty on a girl like that? And why? They were clearly serious about it, if they would go so far as killing Gorion to get at her. The bounty notice was for a kill only, no intent to take her alive. The closest thing Imoen had to a sister, and some... some bastard who had never even met her wanted to kill her and didn't even give a reason why.

    Well. That just wasn't gonna do.

    Sephiria was still alive, she was sure of that. Since whoever had killed Gorion only wanted her dead, and hadn't rescinded this bounty, that meant she was at least still alive. And more... Imoen just thought she would know if Sephiria was dead. It was a sister thing.

    She still didn't know where she was, of course. But she was the sort who would get into freelance heroism if you left her alone for ten minutes. And that meant Imoen's current path was the best she was going to find. Khalid and Jaheira would find her Seffie, and then she and Seffie would find whoever had killed Gorion and hurt them really, really bad.

    Y'know. In a family way.

    (*)

    “You know,” Garrick said idly, “It occurs to me we don't have a healer.”

    “Shut up, Garrick,” Acherai muttered.

    “I just say this because there appears to be a lot of zombies.”

    “Shut up, Garrick.”

    “And I think our current party configuration was chosen on the assumption that we'd be, well, fighting one man. And not one man and his horde of the undead.”

    “Garrick!” Acherai whispered harshly. “Do you want me to use you as zombie bait?!”

    “... No?”

    “Then shut your damn mouth!” he snapped, still not letting his tone rise above a harsh whisper.

    The problem was, Garrick had a point for once. They had come out here expecting to find one man. A dangerous cleric with ready spells, perhaps, but one man. And they had found one man, it was just he was surrounded by at least thirty creatures that might have once been men. Both rotting zombies and animated skeletons, the lowliest of undead perhaps, but... thirty of them.

    “We turn about. We call this one a waste and we turn about,” Kagain said flatly. “We're not to be bringin' this one down.”

    “No!” Sephiria snapped. “We cannot... he made those out of people! Innocent people that he's... waylaid and murdered! This man is an abomination! Torm would never approve us leaving him to continue his predations!”

    “Really?” Garrick asked. “Well, luckily I don't really worship Torm, and I don't think the other two do either... I mean, really, Elves and Dwarves tend to have their own gods, so.”

    “... Garrick. Stop helping,” Sephiria murmured, admittedly starting to find it harder and harder to argue with Acherai when he treated the bard like an imbecile. “My point is... well... I'm supposed to be the leader, aren't I? You said I was. We have to act like I would. And I would never let a monster like this continue his work.”

    Acherai winced. “Yes, I suppose I did say that, but... well, I was a bit counting on us having a numerical advantage. Maybe we should come back at some other point.”

    “When he has twice as many zombies?! He's only going to get stronger!” Sephiria snapped.

    “Mother? Is that you?” Bassilus the mad cleric asked, his gaze drifting over toward the copse of trees the small adventuring band was hiding behind.

    There was silence for several long seconds, before Acherai said, “Talk to him.”

    Sephiria, eyes wide, said, “Um... yes, my son! It is I... your... mother!”

    “Well, we're dead,” Kagain said, almost cheerfully.

    “Ah, mother! I've not seen you since the sacking of Zhentil Keep! I'd feared you had perished... Thurm here nearly did as well, and I'd heard so little of the family since I escaped!” Bassilus said, a huge smile on his face as he patted a zombie on the back as he continued to speak to, as far as they could tell, the tree that Sephiria was standing behind. “Come, join us! We were just telling tales of the old days, before the fall, before so many were... were... no, that's not right, we all escaped...”

    Sephiria was, for a moment, overcome with pity for the poor creature. Cyricist and murderer he might have been, but he was also clearly sick in the head to believe these creatures were family lost in the infamous sacking of Zhentil Keep. “I... I...”

    Acherai sighed. “Yes, my son!” he shouted out, reasoning that Basillus probably was not lucid enough to tell one voice from another if he thought his zombies could talk to him. “I... have not seen you since Zhentil Keep. Erm, thank the gods we all got out alive!”

    “Yup. Dead,” Kagain continued.

    Bassilus nodded, smiling, but a shade of doubt had come into his eyes as he continued to talk to the voices in his head. “Yes, yes, it... it was a true... miracle? Or... no. No, we... no. No! You lie! They didn't escape, none of them! Only I... only I...”

    Acherai smiled. “Only you escaped? When you fled and left them all to die, so you could replace them all with these mockeries? What a terrible son you were...”

    “No! No, I... no...” Bassilus fell to his knees, sobbing, his eyes wide and streaming tears as his gaze tore around the clearing wildly, his undead falling around him in lifeless piles as the will behind them extinguished their false lives in his madness and grief.

    “Well, I'll be damned,” Kagain said appreciatively, hefting his axe. “You really might be just crazy enough to get us all out of this alive.”

    “I'm not crazy, I'm brilliant,” Acherai drawled. “And, oh yes, before I forget: Kill him.”

    “Acherai, can we really just execute him? He is clearly unaware of his actions,” Sephiria said. “And what he said... to flee from the death of his family...”

    “Oh, gods above, you're empathizing,” Acherai said with open astonishment. “Don't. This is not like you and your father, dear. This man is a priest of Cyric. God of, among other things, strife, madness, and murder. You know what that means, don't you?”

    Sephiria sighed. “... Yes. He was a killer long before he lost his family. Even if you could argue him innocent of these deaths, he is hardly an innocent man.” Standing, she drew her sword, walking over to the sobbing man, preparing to exact justice. She stopped beside him, and raised her blade, and closed her eyes. “Torm the true, patron of knights and servants of justice, guide my arm this day, and take the soul of this man to the fate he deserv-”

    She was cut off, then, by the kneeling man slamming his golden warhammer into her stomach, a shock of agony running through her as the enchanted weapon sent arcs of lightning rolling through her metal armor. She was hurled backwards and slammed into the ground on her back, gasping to recover the wind that had been knocked out of her.

    Bassilus looked down on her, smiling widely, his eyes wide and manic. “Mother! Don't worry. You'll be one of us soon, and then everything will be okay.”

    The holy symbol of Cyric around his neck grew darker, the light around him dying, and he began to chant.

    Acherai cursed under his breath, and said, “Why did she stop to pray?!”

    (*)

    Jaheira nodded at Mayor Ghastkill's words. “As promised, Berrun. We will enter the mines tomorrow in the morning, and determine the cause of your issues.”

    Berrun Ghastkill, mayor of the mining town of Nashkell, the northernmost town in the nation of Amn, sighed. “My thanks, Jaheira. Between the captain of my guard going mad, and keeping order in the town, I simply don't have enough men to clear this out on my own. Made worse by the fact that what few guards I can get to go into the mines at all are panicked by the endless yammering of the miners going on and on about 'demons'...”

    Jaheira chuckled slightly. “If it helps, if a true tanar'ri would likely not constrain itself to a mineshaft. Whatever your problem might be, it is not a demon.”

    The mayor sighed and ran his hand through his graying hair, highlighting a scar on his scalp. “I know that, and you know that, but try getting some idiot farmer's son who's been booted up to the border guard in the worst town in the nation to understand. I do not have the cream of the crop to work with here, Jaheira... unless its curdled.”

    Jaheira chuckled again. She was not one prone to humor, but Ghastkill was an old soldier and companion of more than one adventure, the sort of person she let her guard down around more than others and tolerated with much less of her trademark temper. As opposed to...

    “Guys, guys!” Imoen shouted, running up to the two. “You will never guess what I found!”

    Jaheira winced and tried not to scream. The girl meant well, she really did, but in the name of Silvanus Imoen wore on her. It was hard to believe she was truly a ward of Gorion; she had none of his dignity, none of his subtle humor, none of his restraint.

    She sighed, chastising herself for these uncharitable thoughts. Imoen was going through a very hard time, and Jaheira knew that she could be... difficult. Perhaps she was simply missing Gorion herself. She had not seen him in years, but Gorion was fondly remembered. Perhaps she was projecting her own sense of loss onto the poor girl...

    “I recruited a new guy to help us!” Imoen said, waving at the man following her. He was an enormous man, easily two feet taller than the girl who came before him. He was also completely bald, had a pale blue tribal tattoo over his eye, and appeared to have a hamster on his head. “His name is Minsc! I found him standing around and he had a sword so I decided to have him join our team. Isn't he awesome?!”

    … of course, it was also possible that Imoen was just horrible, Jaheira realized, as the red haze of fury fell across her vision.

    “I see,” Jaheira said through gritted teeth. “And rather than helping Khalid make reservations at the inn, as you were asked to do, you instead chose to go about recruiting strangers into our fold. You, who are the target of assassins, chose to recruit a stranger to sleep next to us.”

    “Worry not!” the man proclaimed a bit more loudly than was technically needed. “Minsc is a force of justice and righteousness, not a force of smashing little girls! He is a noble warrior! He is a titan of pleasantness! His sword is large and his heart is pure, and while his head is somewhat foggy he is guided by the wisdom of Boo!”

    “I... I have no idea what that you are talking about,” Jaheira admitted, the red fury giving way to confusion more quickly than she'd have liked.

    “The wisdom,” Minsc said, picking up the hamster and holding it out to her, as if he expected her to be awed by it (and, in a sad kind of way, she was).

    “See what I mean?” Imoen squealed. “He's got a giant sword and a cute pet! And I'm sorry, but you and Khalid need to laugh more. This guy is hilarious!”

    “I... I...” Jaheira sighed. “I confess he does not strike me as being of malicious intent. And he does look... athletic. He seems like one who can handle himself in battle, and it is possible an extra arm would be of value.”

    “Then small leathered woman is in luck, for Minsc has two arms, and each of them is so strong as to be worth two more! He shall strike down all your foes like a man with four arms, only without getting his arms tangled against each other!”

    “... 'small leathered woman'?”

    “It fits you, kinda?” Imoen said helpfully. “I mean, you're not really small, but compared to him, who isn't on the small side...”

    “Stop helping, Imoen,” Jaheira said in a long-suffering tone. “Tell me... Minsc, was it? What do you seek in return for this act? A share of the spoils, or do you act out of the goodness of your heart?”

    Minsc sighed. “A tale of woe it is, and a tale of woe I shall tell! Minsc would indeed much like to help small leathered woman and small pink girl out of the goodness of his heart, for Minsc's heart has much goodness! But Minsc is cursed by fate to need the aid of strong swords for justice, for he faces a foe too large even for he!”

    “It turns out his friend--” Imoen began.

    “Witch.”

    “His friend-witch was kidnapped! I figured, he needs help, we need help, everyone needs help! Makes sense, right?” Imoen asked.

    “Minsc makes sense in all things,” Minsc said.

    Jaheira sighed. “Imoen. We may all die tomorrow. We may uncover information that demands we act on it immediately to save lives. We do not have time to be taking on new quests, and even if we did, you were both irresponsible and extremely foolish to take on new responsibilities without consulting the rest of the group!”

    Imoen pouted tears filling her eyes. “But... b-but...”

    Jaheira winced. “Oh, be silent. Just... just tell the man he must go.”

    “... But h-his... his friend...” Imoen said, a sob entering her tone. Her eyes got red and The sun appeared to grow a little dimmer.

    “... … Fine. He can stay. But paying for his room comes from your share of any reward!”

    Imoen made a little squealing sound not entirely unlike the large man's hamster, and ran off toward the inn.

    (*)

    Sephiria looked up at the face of death, struggling to get some kind of motion from her numb limbs as the cleric called to his loathsome god. Her fingers twitched madly, unable to grasp her sword, her legs shook, she found herself unable to stand. Crackling blue-black energy rippled between his fingers, and she had the sinking sensation she was going to join his 'family' in short order...

    A crossbow bolt slammed home. It didn't slam home into Bassilus, unfortunately, instead hitting the ground next to his feet while Garrick shouted, “Oh dear,” but it was a distraction, if nothing else. The cleric looked up, his snarled cry to Cyric changing its tone, changing into a demand for power. A sickening wave of dark energy blanketed the area, and though Sephiria was not even in it she could feel it, the disgusting aura of the Unholy Blight, the power of Cyric...

    And then Kagain, totally unharmed, charged out of the darkness and drove his horned helmet into the priest's gut. “That's it, then? I thought you were a nasty one. Felt like a light breeze.”

    “Murderer... monster... slayer of children!” Basillus snarled, hefting his hammer. “You killed my family!”

    “HA! Well, I'm going to kill you. Is that close enough?” Kagain chuckled, swinging his ax in. The cleric was oddly strong and armored, and his magical golden weapon was vastly superior to the simple steel weapon the dwarf wielded. He was, however, at a major disadvantage.

    He was tall.

    Two warriors, both armored, both bearing shields and weapons of similar reach, would normally be rather evenly matched, all other things being equal. Kagain was more skilled, but Bassilus fought with a rage so deep it was nearly demonic. The two would likely have been equal indeed, had it not been for something that all dwarves had learned from a young age:

    It was much easier to defend your head than your legs, and height and reach were only an advantage if you used them to keep an opponent away from you.

    The man swung his hammer down again and again, practically frothing at the mouth with fury... and Kagain's shield, held above his head, caught every blow, while the dwarf returned his attacks at the mains waist, knees, thighs. Too low for Bassilus to accurately bring his own shield into play, at least not while he was also trying to attack. The axe struck in again and again, hitting at the lighter armor of the cleric's legs, piercing the chain links and cutting into him, sending streams of blood rolling down them as he continued to hammer away. To all appearances it was a race against time... what would give out first, the dwarf's shield before the magic hammer, or the mad cleric's body?

    The answer would be 'neither'.

    Kagain was not a scholar, not a master of divine knowledge. He was a sellsword. And so, he did not spot the chant, the hissed prayer hidden in Bassilus's inhuman snarls and mad rants... at least not until the wave of energy rolled over him, and his body froze, his muscles held in place as firmly as if they had become stone.

    The cleric smirked wickedly, his eyes filled with a familiarity that was somehow worse than simple madness as he looked on the dwarf struggling against the bonds of his magic, and murmured affectionately, “Oh, cousin Melvar, you always were such a scamp. Don't worry, I know you're sick, but I shall help you feel better soon...” as he lifted his hammer high.

    And with a sharp crack, he fell forward, his neck shifting at an odd and inhuman angle, his eyes going panicked and lost before he even hit the ground.

    Acherai, his spell of invisibility dispelled by the action of striking the man's neck with his heavy metal staff, smiled wickedly. “Well. Not quite so seamless as I'd hoped for, but I'd say it went well enough in the end,” stepping forward, he swung the staff down on the man's head several more times, to be safe; his attack had been perfect and taken the man totally by surprise, and he knew the neck was broken. Still, it was hard to predict how an injury like that could incapacitate a cleric. Best to make certain he was dead.

    “All right. Ladies, gentlemen? Are we all alive?” he asked. Sephiria twitched, continuing to work her way slowly back to a sitting position, and Kagain tried and failed to make his lips move in an answer, producing a kind of frustrated tic to the corner of his mouth. “Yes, then. Well, congratulations to us all, then! A dangerous madman brought low, a very, very nice bounty all ours, and it cost us little in the end save some healing potions and perhaps a new shield for our dwarven friend, if he has some issue using the late cleric's. A fine day indeed!”

    And then an ax, expertly sharpened and balanced for throwing, came flying down off of the ridge of rocks to their north, slamming into Acherai's shoulder and throwing him onto his back, staring up breathlessly into the sky, his mind unable to process what had just happened.

    As blackness drew in around his vision, and the sounds of at least two warriors in armor charging at them filled his ears, his only thought was, All right, I admit it, Garrick did have a point about needing to recruit a healer.

    (*)

    The Nashkel mines were dark, and cold, the entrance filled with filthy miners with no hope in their eyes, and the depths ringing with what Imoen could not help but notice sounded an awful lot like something growling.

    “So,” she said hopefully. “I don't suppose I can stay out and make sure no wolves follow us in, then? Because they are just an epidemic lately, and-”

    With an annoyed sigh, Jaheira grabbed the girl's arm and dragged her into the darkness, Khalid and Minsc on either side of them, the former looking grim and sturdy in a way that nobody who saw him in the light of day would have imagined, and the latter smiling like he was about to go on a school field trip to see pretty horses.

    In hidden alcoves and tunnels stretching through the mine, staring in on the main paths, many, many hungry eyes looked in on the four as they entered the darkness. The growls grew louder, and joining them came the clatter of weapons being readied, canine jaws drooling with hunger and bloodlust, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting adventurers...

    And then Minsc thought he saw something that looked like it might have been unpleasant, and everything very quickly started to go wrong for everyone.
    lolienElrandirJuliusBorisovGemHound
  • FafnirFafnir Member Posts: 232
    Oooooh it's alive!
    You never give your characters a chance to breathe, do you? Everything goes wrong all the time.
    They should really have recruited a healer.
    Moczololien
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    Misery builds character. I figure this applies double for fictional people, who are nothing BUT character!
    Fafnirlolien
  • FafnirFafnir Member Posts: 232
    GARRICK AND MELICAMP SAVE THE DAY

    Take that!

    (Oh Jaheira, so tsun...)
    lolienElrandir
  • lolienlolien Member, Moderator, Translator (NDA) Posts: 2,098
    I really like this, and hope there will be a next part. It's fascinating!
    JuliusBorisov
  • ElrandirElrandir Member Posts: 1,566
    edited April 2014
    It's too late for me to try and get into this now, but it looks great! I'll definitely check it out after I've gotten some sleep.

    Edit: This is great! I'm loving it! Imoen's team is definitely my favorite. I'm almost hoping the three teams never meet and all have their own separate adventures.
    Post edited by Elrandir on
    Moczololien
  • lolienlolien Member, Moderator, Translator (NDA) Posts: 2,098
    @Moczo‌, i just realized, that your story comtinues on the fanfiction link. What a pleasant surprise!
    Elrandir
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    Author's Note: Soooo. Um. I logged in to post the newest chapter and realized I... erm... never posted the LAST one. So. Two-fer!

    Chapter Six

    (*)

    The two sat in silence, unable to say anything or even really think of saying anything, when Acherai finally managed to tear his eyes from Sephiria and say, very slowly, "Is that a chicken?"

    And just like that, the moment was broken. Time flowed again, and Sephiria (who was very much a virgin) realized with a start that she had just spent nearly five minutes gazing longingly into a man's eyes, with barely three inches between their faces. She reacted to this in the logical way.

    "Gah!" she shrieked, and hit him in the face as hard as she could.

    "Hahahaha-AWK!" the chicken laughed malevolently, as Acherai laid in the grass moaning with the impression he had just been kicked in the face by a large, furious horse. "I wanted to *cluck, cluck* do that for ages. Smug bastard. Bu-GAWK!"

    Rubbing his jaw, the elf came shakily to his feet and growled, "Do I know you, sir chicken? Or have we merely found some very amusing dinner for this evening?"

    "Be cautious. It may be possessed," Sephiria said.

    In a murmur too low for any but her to hear, "I am more worried about you on that front. Do your eyes often glow yellow, my dear?"

    Sephiria paled in shock. "My...but your eyes were the ones that..."

    Acherai arched an eyebrow. "Really? Interesting. I wonder..." he shook his head. "No. No, now isn't the time. Someone kill this chicken, then we need to move."

    "In a bit," Kagain said. "Fine eatin' on a chicken, but finer can be bought with assassin's gold."

    "Leave the bodies!" Acherai snapped, interrupting the looting. "The leader escaped. We need to catch him, now, before his trail goes cold."

    Sephiria blinked. "How do you know the one on the ridge was the leader?"

    Acherai smirked. "Because he was the only one smart enough to make sure he had an escape route if things went badly. Any evidence or information about the client will be with him, I'm sure of it. Kagain, take point and head up the ridge. We need to catch him. Alive if possible."

    "Ba-gawk!"

    "And someone kill the damn chicken already. It can't be that hard. Just grab and twist."

    "Acherai-buck, buck-it is me. Melicamp! I...had a small accident, and...BA-GAWK!...well, you can work it out," the chicken snapped. "I...*cluck* could… use a hand. If you don't mind."

    Sephiria fought to avoid a smirk. "You...know this chicken, then?"

    Acherai blinked. "Apparently. We served for a time under the same instructor. Don't worry, you can still kill him. Trust me, he will not be missed, least of all by me."

    The chicken screeched in panic and waddled over to hide behind Sephiria's leg. "R-reward! If you were to kindly take me back to our master, I will be sure *cluck* to reward you! I merely wish to be returned to my human form, and you will never see me again."

    Sephiria smiled, looking at Acherai without even bothering to speak her thoughts.

    "You," Acherai growled, "are very lucky you are pretty. Stuff the chicken in a pack and let's move!"

    (*)

    Being an adventurer, Imoen decided, was a terrible thing to be.

    The problem she had now, really, was that if one was going to be fighting skeletons, a bow was a damn inefficient way to do it. The enemy was really mostly a bunch of empty space partially filled up by something without any soft bits, when you got down to it. And while she was hardly a pro at this adventuring stuff, she had worked out that arrows really worked their best when they went into the soft bits.

    Jaheira, swinging around a big old stick, was actually doing a wonderful job of keeping them back, and Minsc's sword was heavy enough he could basically use it as a giant metal club. Khalid, however, seemed to be having a similar problem to herself in that his one-handed longsword was too light for this kind of work; for every blow that broke bone, there were four that skipped off harmlessly.

    And of course Mulahey (Whom Imoen was now firmly convinced was a jerk) was hiding in the back, chanting madly, and slowly raising more and more undead from the cavern floor. The individual skeletons were weak, perhaps, but there were at least twenty of them now and the cleric was insistent on adding to that number.

    Imoen tried to help, she really did. But it seemed the only target she could do anything to was the half-orc, and he had rather thoughtlessly positioned a small army between them. She wasn't a bad shot, but she was hardly the Grand Archer of Candlekeep (though she resolved to start telling people she was. It might lead to free meals somehow). She had a dagger, but...well. It was a dagger. She didn't know if a skeleton even had a back to stab, technically. Maybe work it between some vertebrae?

    "Excuse me? Is someone dying out there again?" croaked a tired, pained, and yet somehow bored voice from around the corner, deeper in the caves. "If so, please keep it down. The chains make it hard enough to sleep without all the clanging and screaming."

    Imoen, blinking in confusion, left behind the battle (what? She hadn't really been contributing anyway) and turned the corner into a small side cavern.

    "Oooooh! An elf!" she said cheerfully.

    The elf, who was a skinny thing, even shorter than Imoen herself and probably less muscular, sighed. "Quite so. Granted, most people would have noticed that I am chained to the wall first. Or the obvious signs of torture and starvation. But I suppose 'oooooh an elf' was the best quality of rescue I could hope for."

    Imoen smiled. "Well, I could always not rescue you, if you prefer. I understand if you wanna wait for someone of 'higher quality'."

    "Oh sweet Sehanine, a comedian," the elf muttered. "Very well. My apologies, young lady. I am Xan, a Greycloak of the elven city of Evereska, sent to investigate these mines for signs of foul play. As you may have guessed, I found some."

    Imoen nodded sagely. "Dog lizards."

    "... Why not. In any event, I should consider it a personal favor if you would most kindly postpone my inevitable doom by undoing these shackles?" A human skull chose this moment to roll into the cave and settle near Imoen's feet. "Before whatever is out there comes in here, if possible."

    "You sure?" Imoen asked. "It is kinda dangerous out there. And you seem..."

    She paused, and searched her mind for a better word than 'pathetic.'

    "... Pathetic," she finished, not finding it.

    Xan sighed. "Harsh, but sadly fair. I fear my power would turn the tide little enough. Though having my hands freed would leave me access to my magics once again, and my Moonblade is close at hand, I am certain hundreds of kobolds await, and..."

    "Actually, we killed all those," Imoen said, cheerfully removing her lock-picking kit from her pouch and going to work. The shackles were custom, large, heavy clasps that covered his entire hands and held them immobile, but the locks were almost embarassingly basic. She had the first one off before Xan even realized she was working at it. "It is mostly one jerk with a lot of skeletons. You think you can help with that?"

    Xan sighed, rubbing his wrists in a manner suggesting he considered Imoen giving him exactly what he had asked for to be a nuisance somehow. "Well, I suppose."

    (*)

    Sephiria moved through the wilderness as quietly as one could while wearing mail, and wondered if they were on a fool's errand.

    The fact was, the killer had every advantage. He was alone, he wore only light gear for easy travel, and, he did not have a chicken attracting predators to him with disturbing frequency. Apparently Melicamp was delicious, because every wolf, gibberling, and wild dog west of Beregost seemed to want to eat him, and Seph was growing weary. The man was, as far as could be told from his contradictory ramblings, a criminal anyway; perhaps letting Kagain eat him would have been the better course of action.

    Almost instantly she felt a surge of shame at the thought, piercing even her bone-deep fatigue. I cannot believe I would even consider such a thing. Condemning a man to death for thievery?! I... I must be more tired than I thought. That is all.

    It wasn't all, of course. She knew better than anyone the doubts that had begun plaguing her since the night of her flight from Candlekeep...despite Acherai's reassurances to the contrary, she was very much beginning to feel this group's moral compass was not pointing in the right direction. The elf was pleasant enough, even charming in his own way. But when pressed, he showed a streak of greed and blasé disregard for others that truly worried her. And Kagain, of course, was much the same, save that rather than being a streak, greed and amorality seemed to be literally his entire personality. Garrick was the closest thing to decent among the three men, and she was not at all sure this was not simply because he hadn't yet figured out how to be evil.

    And yet, she had not abandoned them. Indeed, as now, she found herself slipping occasionally into the same thought patterns as her amoral associates. Not out of malice or avarice, perhaps, but did doing evil things out of fear make them less evil? She did not want to die, and she was a sheltered girl with little concept of surviving in the real world, much less withstanding what was obviously a coordinated attempt to end her life. Was compromising her morals for the purpose of her own survival wrong?

    Gorion probably would have said so. But he was gone, and he had left her alone in a world that did not run on the black and white morals she had held to all her life.

    She gazed at the dried blood under her fingernails, and recalled the feel of Acherai's heartbeat under her palm, the strange magnetism she had felt in his gaze, the sense of something enormous and powerful flowing through her to heal his wound where her power granted by faith had been insufficient.

    Nothing romantic, gods no. She was worldly enough to spot that the elf desired her, but he had hardly made serious advances and she would not have accepted them. He made her distinctly uncomfortable. But at the same time, she had to admit there was...something. A connection. Something in him that called to something in her, and vice versa.

    Did she have any right to be a paladin? Was this decay of morality not merely weakness and the loss of innocence, but a sign of something horribly wrong with her? Could this darkness be the natural state of her being, suppressed by the kindness and simplicity of her upbringing?

    It was a power of healing. Wherever it may have come from, could such a gift be truly evil? She wondered.

    Of course it could. Evil gods can grant their clerics spells of healing as easily as goodly ones. Her cynical side answered quickly.

    I did not ask or pray for it.

    You did not have to. It came from something already within you.

    Something I did not know was there. I did not use it intentionally, and did so for a good purpose. Can something be inherently evil? Beyond all reach or concept of goodness simply by existing?

    Don't I wish I knew, she thought with a sad sigh. Philosophical implications aside, it was a power that had saved Acherai's life. She might not have known its origins, but she could avoid using it when she had any other choice, and ensure when used it was only for selfless purposes.

    She hoped that was enough. The world was murky enough without fearing she was a monster already.

    (*)

    Mulahey smiled madly as the invaders began to lose ground against his powers.

    The cleric had been genuinely worried for a time. Tazok's lackeys had been well-armed, coated in blood, and one of them had apparently been a pirate. But he was wearing then down, now. His minions had them pressed to the wall, and his magic bolstered the ranks of the undead, the grace of Cyric rendering the simple skeletons more powerful and regenerating their damage. Soon, now, all three of them would be...

    Wait.

    Three?

    Mulahey was not the sharpest sword in the armory, but he could count to four. One of the attackers had slipped away. He opened his mouth to shout for his minions to strike out down the tunnels and seek her out before she released the elven spy he had captured...

    And no sound came out.

    He pounded at his chest, as if hoping to dislodge his voice; if he was magically silenced, then he was in a lot of trouble. But the truth became apparent quickly enough...not only could he not hear his own words or gasps, but the crunch of bone under metal, the shouts of the intruders, none of it. He was not silenced, he was deafened.

    Around the blind curve, in the darkness he had peeked out of to cast his spell, Xan nodded. "As you can see, the cleric's powers are largely neutralized. While many dismiss the powers of Enchantment because their specialization requires abandoning the more...explosive schools of magic, they can easily turn the tide of a hopeless battle. Of course this merely means I am free to pursue even more hopeless battles. Perhaps I should have taken the fireball option after all..."

    Imoen blinked. "You have like, no friends, huh?"

    "It is true, most prefer not to socialize with me."

    "Gee, I wonder why."

    "I don't. It is a blessing that saves me the pain of mourning when our uncaring world inevitably destroys them."

    "... Just keep magicking, please."

    (*)

    "The trail ends here. He is nearby," Acherai murmured. "If the damn chicken clucks again, kill it. We have one shot at this."

    "The chicken is a person," Sephiria whispered, crouching next to him as he studied the faint footprints. "And I worry. The assassin is alone and travelling light. How did we catch him so quickly?"

    Acherai smirked. "You can learn. This is a trap. The bounty on you must be enormous, my dear, because he has decided taking another shot at you is worth four to one odds."

    Sephiria sighed. "I would like to know why someone wants me dead so badly..."

    "Perhaps it has something to do with the way your eyes glow and you can heal wounds with your touch?" Acherai murmured, lowering his voice to ensure the others didn't hear him.

    "If that is the case," she whispered back a little harshly, "Perhaps they should be after you too. It was touching your blood that made everything go...wrong. Your eyes changed too. Whatever...whatever thing I might be, you're the same."

    "I know. Exciting, isn't it?" he said with a small smirk. "You have just been the most amazing clue for me. A week with you and I know more than I did for the last eighteen years."

    "What are y-"

    "All right, team!" Acherai said, standing up. "We need to look around, I think. Split up. Stay in pairs, of course, and be wary. Kagain and Garrick look north, our illustrious leader and I shall head south. Leave the chicken here."

    "B-but *cluck* if there are wolves about..."

    "Then I am sure you will be delicious. March, troops!"

    The team split up with appropriate grumbling to begin combing the woods for the assassin, as Melicamp hid inside a fallen log.

    From less than twenty feet away, safely hidden under the spell of a potion of Invisibility he had brought for just such an occasion, Nimbul smiled and proceeded to silently head south after his target, another of his favored throwing hatchets in his hand. Had anyone been able to see the weapon, the thin coating of a foul-smelling black gel along the edge would have been very attention-grabbing. Obvious poisons were only a problem, he always said, if you had to trick someone into taking them.

    Acherai followed the grumbling Sephiria into the woods, and tried very hard to hide his smile.

    He had lived on the streets of Scornubel for nearly two decades. You didn't survive that long without knowing how to turn a trap around.

    (*)

    Jaheira spun, her staff slamming a skeleton into the cavern wall and crushing its skull between iron-shod wood and rough stone.

    She was not sure what had happened. The undead had been swarming them, pushing them back so firmly she had no time to even chant a prayer between strikes. Yet suddenly, their assault had slackened, the will guiding them losing cohesion as the priest began to spout gibberish and claw at his ears.

    On the edge of her hearing, a murmured arcane spell reached her sensitive ears over the din of battle...and the priest began grasping at his eyes, screaming half-coherent raving about going blind.

    Her blood going cold, Jaheira turned to look down the side tunnel. Imoen waved at her cheerfully, standing next to an emaciated and disheveled elf who was moving his fingers in the intricate gestures of a wizard's casting.

    Jaheira sighed, fighting the urge to rub her temples against the encroaching migraine. Blessed Silvanus, the girl had run down a random tunnel and found a friendly mage. It was like she went out of her way to destroy everything Jaheira knew about logic and replace it with her own personal brand of madness.

    ...Still, she thought as she watched the undead horde slacken and fall out of the determined assault, their master no longer guiding them, one can hardly argue that the girl gets results.

    "Khalid! Some altitude would be a help!" she snapped, slamming aside a creature and sprinting toward her husband. Without a word, Khalid shoved back hard against the skeletons pressing him, the undead puppets too disoriented to resist, and fell to his knees. He raised his shield above his head, and Jaheira jumped onto it just as he stood, propelling her.

    She thanked Mulahey for choosing a cave with a high ceiling for his lair, or this would not have worked. So as she sailed over the skeletons, directly toward the priest in question, she pondered the best way to express this gratitude.

    She settled, in the end, for bringing her weapon down on the flailing man's head with enough force to crack the iron-coated oak of her quarterstaff, splitting his skull like a ripe melon.

    Jaheira had an unusual definition of gratitude.

    (*)

    Acherai smiled at Sephiria, and said, "A lovely day, is it not?"

    The young paladin glanced about warily, murmuring, "I thought we were trying to be quiet. What if he hears you?"

    The elf chuckled. "If he has not heard your footsteps, trust me, the man is deaf. Besides, I don't truly expect to find him. He is almost certainly long gone, halfway to the Gate if he keeps in the direction he was heading."

    Sephiria blinked. "Then...we split up to search..."

    "Perhaps I fancied a walk in the woods with a lovely young lady? Without a grumpy Dwarf and a buffoon ruining the atmosphere, of course."

    "... Please explain, and quickly, why I should not punch you again."

    "I can give you a reason," the elf purred, and Sephiria flushed openly as he leaned in, painfully close to her ear, and she readied herself to drive a knee into his midsection with enough force to break him in half...

    When he whispered, "Pretend I said something absolutely scandalous and horribly offensive. Explode at me. As loudly as you can."

    Her eyes widened. "What are y-"

    "He is right behind us. I am sure of it. This walk has been to lure him to a point in the trees where I can be reasonably sure of where. If he hears me start to cast a spell, he will get away. Now scream at me." Then, almost as an afterthought, he reached and traced a finger down the length of her neck. "Ammunition."

    Sephiria blinked, her entire essence freezing at the tingling of skin against skin as that...unnatural spark, however briefly, leapt between them. Cool, and enticing, and absolutely wrong. As if, behind his touch, there was another set of fingers under her skin trying to push her forward, a voice other than his at her ear whispering promises she could not quite hear, but she knew that something inside desperately wanted her to...

    Well. At least acting offended would not be hard, even if the disgust she felt was mostly for these bizarre sensations that had burrowed into her soul.

    "You sick, amoral, pervert!" she roared, jumping a step back from the elf and putting on her best expression of outrage. "You assume that just because the assassin has eluded us I will simply let you bed me in the woods like some common whore?! You are lucky I don't kill you on the spot!"

    Acherai winced, and turned his head aside...but she saw his lips were moving almost imperceptibly, and his hand was shifting slowly through a series of intricate gestures. She fought to hide a smile, and thought, You know, I rather like this plan!

    "And further!" she roared, doing her best impression of Gorion the time she and Imoen had accidentally shattered the Cormyran pottery in Ulraunt's chambers. "Your choice of a party has been intensely questionable. Garrick is, despite his generally kind demeanor, extremely limited in his actual combat value. And Kagain. Kagain. It would take me literally hours to list everything I find problematic about Kagain's companionship. The man is clearly an amoral mercenary of the worst sort, and yet you not merely allow him to remain, but keep him deep in your counsel! And do not think I have not noticed that. I am not some naive child!"

    Technically she was a naive adult, she knew, so this was accurate. Still, she saw Acherai roll his eyes over his murmured spell casting. Irritant, she thought. "Stop smirking at me. I am, by your own admission, the leader of this group. And I am not amused by your constant decision making without my input, nor by your blatant lechery! You will-"

    And then Acherai shifted, throwing a handful of something that looked like nothing so much as powdered gemstones, a fine sand that glimmered brilliantly in the sunlight as it flew. Sephiria squeaked in surprise at the sudden motion... but not nearly so much as she did when the Glitterdust spell impacted in the seemingly empty space between two thick patches of thorny brush, the glimmering motes forming the outline of a lightly built man, grasping at his eyes as he cried out in shock.

    Acherai smiled. "You don't make it as a thief without picking up an instinct for when you're being followed. Now if you could be a dear and break his hands?"

    "I-"

    "Magic! Break his hands before spells are cast! And gods above if you stop to pray again I will..."

    In a refreshing change, however, Sephiria was in motion before the sentence was even finished. She was a large, strong girl, and she didn't need a sword out to break fingers… but she had it out and ready anyway. Maybe she can learn, Acherai thought in amusement.

    Nimbul was not a direct fighter. He was a rogue, someone who struck from the shadows with poison, or magic, or basically anything other than walking directly up and getting the tar beaten out of him by a gigantic amazon woman.

    But he also, unlike Karlat and Neira, knew who he was working for, who had put the bounty out on this young girl. Above and beyond the substantial reward, he knew failure or, worse, being taken alive were simply not options.

    The elf's spell had mostly blinded him, glimmering sparkles dancing behind his eyelids and burning his eyes, making anything further away from his face than his own hands turn into a barely visible blur. Still, it wasn't hard to spot the fact that one large, silvery blur with a red blur on top of it coming his way. His axes were balanced for throwing, but they made a valid melee weapon as well, and with the poison still on the edge, he only needed a scratch…

    He slid under the descending blade like a wraith, taking advantage of his perceived helplessness, his weapon slashing upwards, hoping to hit a soft spot in her armor, certain he could at least manage this one strike…

    And then he screamed in pain as her descending blade shifted almost impossibly, the blurriness of it becoming a razor-sharp line of light as she intercepted his attack. On the shaft of the axe.

    More specifically, where his hand was.

    The poisoned weapon flew from his grip, and it took two of his fingers with it.

    The assassin cursed, falling backward, trying only his best to get away from the rampaging silver titan he could barely perceive. He could follow her moves well enough when she was this close to him, but she was faster than him, stronger than him, and surprisingly good with that damn sword. The weapon slashed across his shoulder, sending a bright red spray that even his blind eyes could make out, but he held in his screams, reaching into his pouch as he tumbled back. He had more than one potion that might prove useful, but he needed to get the damn thing out, drink it, or…

    He saw the orange bottle in his hand that marked an Oil of Explosion.

    Not ideal, but it would do. He threw the bottle over the girl's head, to land between her and the elf, and dove for his life.

    (*)

    Oh Gods, it hurt.

    Acherai had never been set on fire before. He was surprised to find that mostly, he felt cold. Nerve endings died, making feeling pain impossible in the sections struck hardest by the explosion.

    But the parts around those deepest burns. The pain was…

    He fell, not even feeling the impact as he landed on his back. He could hardly see. Barely breathe. He didn't even have enough clarity of thought to curse his own stupidity for falling for such a simple ruse. All he could do was stare up at the sky, blinking the tears from his eyes, as his charred skin cracked, oozing…

    Blood.

    Sephiria, thrown forward by blast, scrabbled to her feet, her eyes wide. Her back was burning, the same armor that had protected her from the worst of the Oil of Explosion also superheated and tearing into her body. And yet, she could barely feel it over a sudden chill that ran through her mind, a pulse that ran through her blood like a heartbeat, only from a heart that was somehow outside her body…

    Acherai rose to his feet, rising bonelessly from the charred and blackened grass. His face was hideously burned, but his eyes…

    She saw the golden glow in them, far brighter than it had been when she had healed his wounds. His blood, soaked under her fingernails and into the cracks of her skin, seemed suddenly very, very cold.

    Blood calls to blood. Again, and again, and again.

    Born in darkness, living in darkness. Do not run, do not question. Murder is the calling of your soul, what your born for. There is no higher purpose for you than this most holy of darkness.

    And if you fear this… then let the calling of your blood lead by example.

    (Cont.)
    ElrandirlolienJuliusBorisovGemHound
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    Chapter Six, Part 2

    Acherai tilted his head to one side, his eyes glowing coldly, and something golden lit in Sephiria's in response. But he did not see it. He saw only Nimbul, still coated in magic hiding blurring his form… and saw the man, a hardened killer who could barely see, staring at him with undisguised fear.

    He didn't smile. There wasn't enough active thought in the elf's mind for him to be happy about anything. But on some level, if he could put it into words, he would call the fear in the man's foggy eyes something like satisfying. He raised a hand, and clenched it into a fist.

    Nimbul did not scream. There wasn't time. His open wounds, his eyes, and his mouth all exploded in a shimmering white mist. The gleaming energy flowed across the clearing, past the horrified young paladin, to melt into Acherai's hideously burned palm.

    And as she watched, the burns on his face and hands went from a sickening, oozing black, to a more simple angry red. And for a brief moment, Sephiria felt an intense sense of approval, only it wasn't her approving…

    And then the moment passed. Acherai fell to his knees, gasping for air. And the assassin…

    He fell to his knees as well. But Sephiria suspected he would not be needing air any time soon.

    "Search… search…" Acherai gasped, stopping briefly to gag at blood in his throat. "Search his… body. For information. Signs. Anything. Wanted to take him alive…"

    Sephiria did not move, merely cast her gaze suspiciously on the wounded elf. Finally, she said, very quietly, "What are you?"

    Acherai narrowed his eyes, his breath still coming in ragged gasps, before he managed to say, "I could ask you… the same thing. Couldn't I?"

    "I healed a wound. You…" she looked down on the corpse of the assassin.

    "I saved our lives. In a different way. Now check his body," Acherai growled. "I… I need to think."

    Sephiria stood up, her body still steaming slightly and her expression still suggesting a great deal of distrust… but it wasn't like there was anything else to be done.

    Acherai closed his eyes, and shuddered.

    Something formless and dark, coiled in his chest, felt coldly satisfied.

    (*)

    Imoen looked down on what was left of Mulahey's head, and winced. "Jaheira. You maybe take this all a little too seriously."

    "The man was seeking to kill us, child. In fact to kill us all, and with a horde of the undead. You would perhaps wish I should invited him calmly to tea?" Jaheira asked, poring through the chests and containers that surrounded the desk in Mulahey's makeshift study.

    "… Well, I wouldn't mind some tea, if you-"

    "Rhetorical question, child. Rhetorical," Jaheira muttered. Fortunately, Mulahey had been, in addition to a paranoid murderer, a very hands-on administrator. There were at least a dozen letters, requisition forms to request additional slaves and weaponry, samples of the iron poison, all the evidence she would need to confirm with Berrun as to the source of his troubles. But there was more she sought. The half-orc had spoken of a Tazok, and this name was on more than one of the documents he had saved. This, she knew, would be important, and soon.

    She suspected that Tazok himself, whoever he might have been, would have gutted the priest like a fish for keeping such incriminating evidence. She supposed this would be a good way for him to claim a posthumous revenge against the employer who had put him in this place.

    Somehow, she would have to find the will to continue despite this knowledge.

    "My servant Mulahey," she murmured, reading aloud with the most recent letter, "it appears your mining operations do not go so smoothly. How could you have been so foolish as to allow your kobolds to murder the miners…"

    "Oh," Imoen said brightly. "So maybe this Tazok guy is nice!"

    "… I will not send the kobolds you have requested, as I need all the forces I possess to stop the flow of iron into the region. With this note, I have sent more of the iron poison you require…" Jaheira continued, skipping down a few lines.

    "… Or not!"

    "… and here. The next link in the chain," Jaheira said, giving the final line in the note a grim smile. "Tazok has set up a go-between for Mulahey to reach him. Tranzig, in Beregost. Even better, this Tranzig is apparently to wait for Mulahey to make first contact, so he will not come here to investigate! We need merely to find him in Feldpost's Inn, and…"

    Minsc cleared his throat.

    Jaheira winced. "Ah. Yes. That."

    "It is not that Minsc does not wish to rush to do battle with the forces of evil!" Minsc said quickly. "In fact, Minsc wishes to do little else! But alas, Dynaheir…"

    Jaheira sighed. "I am loathe to risk this trail going cold. But this fortress you have described is… is not so far out of our way, and a bargain is a bargain. You have aided us, and we shall aid you. We return to Nashkell to rest and resupply, then on to find this witch you are so fond of."

    "And really," Imoen said with a bright smile, "what are the odds of something happening to this Tranzig in the next two days?"

    (*)

    Sephiria handed the note to Acherai, being careful not to touch his skin as she did. "He had little on him. Some gold, some simple weaponry, a little food and drink. Nothing of interest that I saw beyond this letter."

    Acherai looked over the letter, and smiled, followed by a wince as the expression tugged at burn tissue. "Ha. I thought he was a professional, but this is a childish mistake. It's the assassination order, and not just a basic bounty notice. It has a contact name. We're lucky this wasn't destroyed or too soaked in blood."

    "He didn't have much blood on him," Sephrira said softly, "when he died, after all."

    Acherai narrowed his eyes, but ignored the obvious accusation in her tone. "Maybe he was just dumber than he looked, or maybe he wanted some proof for his flunkies that he had a confirmed contract in place. Either way, we know who he was supposed to collect his fee from after he brought you down…Tranzig. An agent staying at Feldpost's Inn in Beregost.

    "Well, I know where we're going next."
    ElrandirlolienJuliusBorisov
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    edited July 2014
    Chapter Seven

    (*)

    "Do we really have time for this?" Imoen asked thoughtfully, looking over the dryad they had met in the wilds, pleading with them to save her endangered tree. "I mean, she seems nice, but we promised to saveMinsc's witch, you know."

    Jaheira whirled on her, her eyes fairly glowing with wrath. "No. No, child, no. You do not criticize me. Not now, not ever, on the subject of wasting time. Not after you started a fight with those wealthy Amnish hunters just because they were rude..."

    "Which got me this awesome armor!" Imoen countered, gesturing at the gleaming leather armor, studded in gold and obviously enchanted, that one of the (admittedly very rude) hunters had been wearing. "And I don't see Khalid complaining about his shiny new sword."

    "... And stopping to help that child look for his dog, which turned out to be a demon looking for his hellhound..."

    "Which, in my defense, seemed really unlikely at the time!" Imoen said defensively.

    "...and tried to give away all our gold to, and I quote, 'Zax, the fastest dart-thrower in the west!" Jaheira finished.

    "... Okay, yeah, that one was my bad," Imoen admitted. "I got nervous. I mean, what if he had been the fastest dart-thrower in the west?"

    "Then he would have thrown darts at us,"Jaheira said coldly. "And we would have killed him because thrown darts are a largely inferior combat weapon and we outnumbered he and his partner five to two, with magical support."

    "... That's what happened anyway."

    "Yes. I know. Do you see my point?" Jaheira asked.

    "... That maybe trying to give him all our money was not a good decision?"

    "Aaaand?"

    "Aaaaand since I have wasted our time on stupid, pointless things...I shouldn't complain about a druid wanting to help save nature?" Imoen asked. "Because that is what druids do?"

    "You see? You can learn," Jaheira said approvingly. She turned back to the distressed (and at this point mildly confused) dryad who had sought their aid, promising the nature spirit their aid once again.

    "Sorry, Minsc," Imoen said. "I know that you're worried by these delays...and most of them are my fault..."

    The giant warrior smiled and patted her gently on the back, knocking the wind out of her. "Worry not, little Imoen! Fair Dynaheir is strong and clever, and shall almost certainly be fine for a few minutes extra. And besides, what sort of warrior would not aid a lost child seeking his puppy?! Boo's heart cried out for him!"

    "He was a demon, you recall," Xan said.

    "Boo has a very big heart for such a small creature," Minsc said proudly. "Look upon him, and feel the compassion that flows from every whisker!" he bellowed, holding the hamster up to the elf for inspection as Imoen coughed.

    "I would really rather-"

    "Look upon him! Feel the wisdom and kindness!" Minsc demanded.

    "Squeak," Boo said.

    "... ... I was better off dying in the cave, then?" Xan asked of nobody in particular.

    Jaheira sighed. "Lady of the forest, I...apologize. Believe me when I say that what they lack in personality, they make up for in effectiveness. Please, lead us to your tree."

    The dryad blinked. "No longer entirely certain am I that I wish for their help, lady druid. My oak in danger from ruffians may be, but I fear yon madmen may only make the issue worse..."

    Jaheira winced. "Yes, well. That reaction is perfectly natural, but I assure you, unfounded."

    "M-mostly."

    "Khalid, my love, you are not helping."

    Gods above, this had to be the most pathetic adventure of all time.

    (*)

    Kagain stomped onto the animated skeleton's neck, crushing the vertebrae as he ripped the skull free with his bare hands. "Gods below," he muttered, bone dust billowing around him. "This has gotta be the most pathetic adventure of all time."

    "I try to avoid agreeing with the dwarf too often, my dear. Sends the wrong message, upsets my elven kin, all that," Acherai murmured. "But he does have a point, bless his greedy little soul."

    "You promised," Sephiria said firmly. "And besides, I am the leader. And the chicken is your friend, not mine!"

    "And yet, when Master Thalantyr offered us precisely no reward for an undead skull to maybe restore him," Acherai countered, "I quite plainly stated we should leave the chicken and go to find Tranzig."

    "I could hardly leave an innocent man to such a fate."

    "He isn't innocent, he did it to himself!"

    "Even so, he hardly deserved a lifetime as an animal. Particularly not an edible one," Sephiria said firmly. "The assassin's letters suggested Tranzig will be in Beregost until they met to exchange coin, and finding a skull barely took us two hours."

    "Which does seem odd." Garrick kind of poked the shattered skeleton with his toe. "I wonder why so many of them were walking around?"

    Acherai rolled his eyes. "Why, it is as though a famous and dangerous necromancer-cleric lived directly south of here less than a day's travel."

    "Well...yes. But he is dead now. Shouldn't his skeletons be dead too?"

    The elf shrugged. "Magic does not always behave logically, particularly not when granted by the gods. Cyric in particular is not the sort to bother with sanity, especially when being insane leads to more killer monsters in the world." He paused. "That was actually a very logical question, Garrick. I'm impressed. Keep this up and I may grow to not loathe you."

    "An' if ye all shut up. An' help me fix the chicken fer the goodie two shoes. So we can go back ta town and collect the damn bounty we came out here for," Kagain snarled, "then maybe I won't go crazy and smash ye all to death."

    "Grumpy," Acherai said with a smirk. "The gold isn't going anywhere. And besides, that new hammer you're waving around it probably worth as much as the share of gold you're getting anyway, so I would say you won this little field trip."

    "... Wait. Wait, wait!" Garrick said. "Why does only he get any magic items?! We all nearly died, so I think we should all get something."

    Sephiria blinked in confusion. "Garrick, what are you talking about. I got this helmet from the fallen priestess, which allows me to see in the dark as an elf or dwarf might." She pointed to her new headgear.

    "And I got these boots from the leader, which aid me in avoiding projectiles," Acherai added, pointing to the brown leather boots, small runes trimmed around their soles. "And you got...ummm..."

    "... We did save him something, did we not?" Sephiria asked, having the good grace to sound embarrassed.

    "I don't think there was anything else," Acherai said. "Huh...well, Garrick, you don't get anything. Sorry."

    "HA!" Kagain said, showing his deep sympathy for his comrade.

    Garrick pouted. Yes, pouted. "This seems unfair."

    "Well… perhaps Thalantyr will give us some kind of magical reward for saving his apprentice?" Sephiria said earnestly. "Whatever he does give to us, you can definitely have it."

    "Speak for yourself," Acherai said with a grin that was only partially mocking. "He is a mage, after all. I'm willing to bet that whatever we get, it will definitely be the best fit on me."

    One hour later…

    "Five hundred," Acherai murmured in annoyance, piling the final gold coin on the table before the severe-looking wizard Thalantyr.

    "Which just about covers the cost of the scrolls you stole," the old man said, his almost childish smirk making him appear nearly ten years younger, which still left him looking about a thousand years old in Acherai's opinion. "And since you were so kind as to help me out with the Melicamp situation, I will be kind enough to reward you for your aid in the ritual by not turning you into a chicken yourself."

    "Normally I'd be mocking you," Melicamp said cheerfully, "but I'm just so happy to not have feathers anymore."

    "How come he doesn't have to pay? I just stole a few scrolls. He took magical bracers and destroyed them," Acherai growled, trying his best to refrain from punching his former fellow apprentice in the face, and trying even harder to not do the same to Sephiria, who was smiling at him in a manner he would have called wicked if he had seen it on anyone other than a teenage paladin.

    "And he will suffer, I assure you," Thalantyr said, casting a sidelong glance at the young man, who had the good grace to look terrified. "I've agreed to look after him again, due to what I can only assume is senility setting in. Rest assured that his apprenticeship shall make the Abyss seem positively charming."

    "Erk," Melicamp said.

    "As for the rest of you, I'd ask you to leave, but it is nightfall. And since I am certain your antics have riled up the wildlife for miles around and you did provide me a new sale," the old man said with a smirk, "I suppose you may stay the night on the grounds of High Hedge, within the boundaries of my wards. You'll need to provide your own food and drink. I offer you a night of safety, not a full service inn. And if you wish to leave, by all means, do so and do not return."

    "Ah, yes, the famed Thalantyr charm," Acherai said with a sigh. "Well. We saved a chicken and lost a chunk of money, for no reward. Thank you so much to our illustrious leader."

    Sephiria smiled. "Are you trying to shame me with the knowledge that I saved an innocent man and made you pay for a crime you committed?"

    "… Dammit, I was. I forgot that doesn't work with you."

    "HA!" Kagain said, helpfully.

    "What are you laughing about? You hate generosity and justice and all that."

    "Aye, but it's funny watching ya sputter about over yer own plans going wrong," the dwarf said cheerfully. "Bard! Quit bein' a moron and help me set up the tents an' bedrolls."

    "I'm still a bit sore that I never got a magical reward like all of you," Garrick murmured as he followed the dwarf obediently outside. "But I suppose that I have the magic of music, so that will suffice until I can get some actually magical magic."

    "Do you ever have the urge to simply punch that man in the face?" Acherai asked Sephiria as they watched the two go. "I often get that urge."

    "Not recently," Sephiria said, "but this new interest in treasure he's picking up has him reminding me of you, so I'm sure I'll develop it eventually."

    "You are going to be making my life much harder, aren't you?"

    "Only if I do Torm's will properly."

    (*)

    "N-now, gentlemen," Khalid said, "I am certain that we can solve this problem fairly and p-peacefully. Please, t-tell us what you seek?"

    "This here tree's bigger 'n others," said one of the two men, who looked like a man and a particularly stupid cow had gotten married, and then the cow had cheated on the man and had a baby with another, even more stupid cow, and the resulting cow had just been oddly humanoid. His name was Caldo, and against all odds, he was the smart one. "So, there must be treasure inside."

    "Huh?" the other man said. His name was Krumm. And that told you about all you needed to know about him.

    "So's we're gonna chop it down. So's to get the treasure."

    "Can you perhaps… n-not do that?" Khalid asked. "It is merely that the tree is the home to a dryad, who is quite put off at the thought of you…well. M-murdering her."

    "Huh?" Krumm said.

    "Sorry, ain't happenin'. Big trees mean big treasure, as our pa always used ta say afore he got eaten by a cow," Caldo said firmly.

    "… E-eaten by a…?" Khalid repeated, hoping he had heard something wrong in that sentence.

    "So this is my life now, then?" Xan asked nobody in particular, his tone somewhere between disbelief and despair. "Sweet Sehanine, remind that the next time I'm kidnapped and tortured by evil priests, I should just give up and accept death."

    "The next time you're…" Imoen began.

    "Imoen, please stop helping."

    Khalid sighed. "Jaheira d-dear, we s-seem to have hit an impasse in n-negotiations. Perhaps you should try? You are often more gifted at…f-forceful debate."

    Jaheira stepped forward. "You. Imbecile."

    "Huh?" Krumm said.

    "The other one."

    "Huh?" Caldo said.

    "… Charming. I speak with the authority of nature when I say this, buffoon. If you lay so much as a finger upon this wonder of the world, I will gut you like a trout. Am I understood?"

    "Huh?" Krumm said.

    "That sounded like a threat," Caldo said, after a few seconds to ponder the statement.

    "Be cautious, friend Jaheira," Minsc whispered loudly. "This foe is cunning! Already he has discovered your hostility toward him!"

    "Huh?" Krumm asked.

    Jaheira did not reply, precisely. She just began to shake. It was not terribly cold, so it seemed unlikely that the weather was getting to her; and of course, she was never one to show a great deal of fear. Khalid, who knew his wife very well and suspected that, for some reason, she was merely filled to the brim with unspeakable fury that would shortly explode like a wildfire, took several steps away from her and said a small prayer for the souls of the unfortunate morons who had so called down her wrath.

    "So," Caldo said, "If'n y'all would go away, we're getting to the cuttin' of that tree now. And ain't no treasure fer y-"

    He had probably been about to say 'you,' or potentionally something like 'ya' or 'y'all'. However, what he actually said was 'the sound of Jaheira's staff slamming very hard into a human skull.'

    Well.

    He didn't say that, but that general sort of sound most definitely came from the area of his head.

    (*)

    Sephiria realized, of course, that walking away from the party in the middle of the night, as they slept, was not the best idea in the world. She had been the target of no less than five assassins in the last week, she shouldn't be alone in a strange place. But she needed time to think, and besides, she needed practice using her new helmet. Infravision was… odd, to say the least, everything around her, trees and animals and swirls in the air, all visible clear as day, but all in shades of red and yellow, like the forest was not merely lit to her eyes, but actually ablaze.

    The grim thought almost made her laugh. It suited the mood, she supposed.

    This last day had been complicated for the young paladin. She had felt something inside her that she couldn't explain, something dark and wrong that acted against everything she had ever believed to be right. And for a time, she wondered if that somehow changed who she was. If something outside her control could change her, affect her morality.

    But the events with Melicamp had changed things. She had saved a man, with no expectation of gain for herself. Merely to save him. And it had felt right. No inner darkness had turned against her, forced her off that path.

    There was something… off about her. She couldn't deny that anymore. But whatever it was, however out of her control it might be, it couldn't control her either. She was still her own person, for the moment.

    And that meant so was Acherai, and that worried her.

    It wasn't that he was a bad person, exactly. It was that he wasn't a good one. He tried to humor her often enough, and he didn't seem quite as absolutely mercenary as Kagain, but he had made it clear enough that he was more interested in his own benefit than in helping the innocent.

    She could trust herself to resist darker temptation, inner demons. But whatever that force within her might have been, Acherai had it too. And she was not at all sure she could trust him.

    She sighed. "Well," she said to nobody in particular, "perhaps I can serve as a conscience to him, if nothing else. It's not as if I have anything else to do with my time, at the moment, unless I happen to luck onto a valuable antique book to go talk to Imoen."

    "Grrrrrrrrr…" said a reply from behind her.

    She winced, spinning on the sound, sword in hand. "Or I am eaten by a gnoll. How charming."

    There were three of them, and she cursed herself for being so caught up in her thoughts that she had not heard them sooner, because they were hardly stealthy. Like kobolds, they held some canine features mixed with a humanoid body, but the similarities ended there; while a kobold was a scrawny thing that a decently built human could end with a good kick, gnolls tended toward the huge. The three approaching her now were each easily a foot taller than her, and the halberds they carried, while a bit rusted and dull, still looked very capable of killing her horribly.

    She charged them, head on, and unlike just a few days ago, she did it with a plan in mind other than righteous smiting. She had always been a strong girl, and always been a natural with a sword, but the events of the last few days had shown her just how unready she had been for real combat. Most notably, the advantages to be gained from ensuring the battleground favored you.

    The three gnolls had come through a copse of trees, and they were taller than her, carrying longer weapons. They would come to regret this, deeply.

    The lead gnoll snarled and stabbed forward at her chest, and she caught the strike, turning the weapon to the side… and directly into a tree. The creature yipped like an angry hound as its blade was lodged into the soft wood, stuck in deep and at an angle that made yanking it out awkward at best. Its comrades tried to lunge past it, but the thing was thrashing madly to get the weapon freed, and they had to step off to the sides to get a clear strike at the human they had thought to be easy prey…

    Sephiria lunged once, straight for the throat, and by the time the two flanking gnolls had cleared their path through the brush to her, they were the only two left. The first to reach her snarled its fury, and she prepared to parry… when it proved to her that while she might be improving, and quickly, she still had much to learn.

    The thing threw aside its spear, leaving her parrying at thin air, and lunged for her throat with only the yellowed, wickedly sharp fangs in its own muzzle. With a start, Sephiria fell backwards, the thing's stinking weight pressing down on her, its fangs ripping at her face and hair.

    Gods bless that helmet. Above and beyond letting her see the gnolls even in the darkness, she was firmly aware that she might well have gotten her face bitten off by now if she hadn't been wearing it.

    She slammed her gauntleted fist into the thing's mouth, letting it break its fangs on the heavy splint gloves as it gnawed in futility. Blood and slobber flowed around her gauntlet, and she tried her hardest to stay calm because she knew that second one was coming up too, and she needed to get her sword arm free from under the thrashing bulk of this vile thing…

    The second gnoll raised high its weapon, apparently preparing to chop through its own comrade to get to her. She found that offensive on several levels, but at the moment mostly the fact that she was fairly sure it could do that. She slammed her forehead into the muzzle of the creature biting at her, breaking its nose with a sickening crunch. The thing yipped, rearing back in pained instinct, trying to get off the thing that had hurt it so, struggling to breath through the blood… which was the exact wrong thing to do. Her arm free, she altered the trajectory of her blade and lunged, running the creature through and rolling forward to pin it to the earth.

    And not coincidentally, to get out of the path of the descending halberd of its comrade. She felt the weapon slice the air behind her, heard it impact the ground, and the growls of the gnoll as it snarled in frustration. But she knew, also, that her sword was well and truly pinned, fallen into the same trap she had lured the enemy into. She dove for one of the discarded halberds, although she was hardly skilled with it, rationalizing that any weapon would be better than none. She whirled, her newly claimed (and very filthy, ugh) polearm at the ready…

    And blinked in confusion.

    The final creature stood, its weapon pulled free from the soil. But rather than lunging at her, or even simply growling in challenge, it stood stock-still, as if it were a statue. For a moment, wondered if perhaps Acherai had followed her, if this was some spell of his; and then the thing tipped forward, falling flat on its face, and she saw the black-shafted arrow sticking out of the back of its skull.

    "My apologies," a voice said from the shadows. It was soft-spoken, yet still somehow harsh, as if the speaker was unused to actually saying words. "I heard the sounds of battle from some distance away. It took a moment to reach you...though it seems you needed little help. Are you injured?"

    Sephiria threw down the rusted halberd, glad she hadn't had to try her luck with the clumsy thing, and took off her helmet to wipe the sweat from her brow and shake her hair out. She nodded in the direction of the new arrival as she began working her sword out of the ground. "A few scratches, but nothing severe. I can heal them myself, when I've had time to rest, and bandages will suffice until morning. My thanks for your aid, stranger."

    "Kivan, of Shilmista," the source of the voice said, stepping into view, the pale moonlight illuminating his features beneath a plain brown hood, and Sephiria blinked in surprise.

    He was an elf, which she had already not been expecting. All the elves she had met, even Acherai, had a certain...otherworldly grace to them. As if their every move was a dance, their every word a song, and other races simply could not hear the music. They were beautiful, in a way, but also eldritch and oddly insubstantial, like they did not quite exist in the same world as humans.

    Kivan, as he introduced himself, was about as musical and insubstantial as a jagged rock at the bottom of a cliff. He was as tall as Sephiria, and nearly as broad in the arms and shoulders, unusually large for any elf. And of course, his voice, the more she heard it, had a definite rasping quality to it that left it less 'lyrical' and more like he was speaking through a mouthful of gravel. His gear, further, was plain and serviceable; worn leather armor, a simple wooden spear strapped across his back, and the massive longbow in his hands. All appeared to be of human make, well-used, and oddly rugged for something an elf would carry.

    And, she noticed, both weapons were very large. If this Kivan told her that he was out here hunting bears, she would not be shocked. Of course, he might also be hunting people, so...

    "I am a traveler and adventurer, most recently out of Beregost," she replied to his introduction, all technically true, but the most she felt comfortable sharing.

    The elf smiled slightly at her reticence. "A traveler who does not give her name is one who has something to hide..." he paused, looking down at the bodies of the gnolls, and admitted, "...or, admittedly, one who is being hunted. Which are you?"

    After a brief pause, she admitted, "... Hunted. By the same group that killed my father."

    Pain flashed behind Kivan's eyes, visible to her even in the dim light. "Then you have my sympathy. These are dark days, and many have such tales of loss to tell. I recommend you return to your group and stay with them, for numbers are certainly safer. But first, I must ask: the group who attacked you. Were they, perhaps, members of the Black Talon company? Or the Chill, perhaps? They sometimes employ gnolls, were these three vermin connected to them in any way?"

    Sephiria fought to hide her surprise. The elf's gruff tone had gone from what sounded like honest pity to a barely contained, icy rage she was honestly a bit unnerved by. "I… no. Or at least, I do not know for certain. Who are these groups?"

    "The 'bandit' attacks that have plagued the region. They are not performed by bandits at all, but by members of these two organizations," Kivan said flatly, a snarl of anger audible even under the normal rumble of his voice. "They are mercenary companies, attacking caravans and travelers to collect iron because they are being paid to do so. I know not their employer, but it matters not. They need to be stopped, and I have… personal reasons to seek their destruction. That is all you need to know, at the moment."

    Well. That was news to her. Despite the odd circumstances and the elf's obviously dark mood, she began to feel a certain elation at the notion. Even as she had feared for the future of the group, an obvious solution had fallen into her lap. The iron crisis that gripped the region had killed or ruined the lives of at least hundreds of people, probably even more. Stopping a group exacerbating it was clearly a good act, a clear White in the shades of grey that had made up her life of late. And best of all, it was not as if Acherai… or even Kagain, as vile as he was!...could argue with the merits of fixing the economy of the region in which they lived and did business.

    And if, during this quest, she took the chance to whisper in Acherai's ear on occasion, show him the value of acting in such a way, the simple joy and satisfaction that were to be found in protecting the innocent and helping the helpless, well, that was a very nice bonus indeed. If it was at all possible to change his outlook, she needed to do it. He was not precisely a friend, but he was a comrade-in-arms, and she was aware she would very likely be dead if not for him. Letting his soul be overtaken by this shared presence that infected them both was not something she could, in good conscience, do. If she could resist it, then so could he; she merely needed to show him how.

    "Sir Kivan," she said brightly. "Allow me to re-introduce myself. I am Sephiria, a paladin of the god Torm, and an adventurer most interested in the quest you have outlined. If you seek aid in your battle against these brigands, then I am pleased to offer my sword, and the swords and spells of my allies as well."

    Kivan arched an eyebrow. "A paladin? That explains your skill, for certain, but can you be sure the rest of your party will not object? I have no reward to offer save my services in your own quests, and many would not find that enough."

    Sephiria smiled. "You are fortunate, then, that our own quest at the moment should not be long-lived, and will take us no further than Beregost. We need merely to turn in a small item for the bounty on a criminal we detained, and to find an individual we believe may be connected to the… the loss of my father. It should take little enough time once we find this 'Tranzig,' though I fear that Acherai and Kagain might be less than merciful in their efforts to extract information from him."

    Kivan laughed bitterly at that. "A paladin indeed. Only someone like that would speak of mercy for the man who killed her father."

    Sephiria sighed. "I… I'm not sure. On the one hand, yes, I… want them to pay. More than almost anything. But on the other, I wonder if that is the right thing for me to want. I've been having doubts, lately, but… I think that maybe, more than ever, my morals need to guide me. And that may mean making harder choices than usual."

    Kivan smiled, but there was more sadness than anything in his eyes. "Then you have my envy, child, as well as my pity. I fear that someday… you will find those views far too hard to uphold, but for now, I wish I could hold as tightly to my code as you do."

    "Well," Sephiria said lightly, horribly uncomfortable and seeking something that might help lighten the mood, "this Tranzig character appears to be little more than a catspaw in any event. Perhaps when we find the 'Tazok' that he reports to, my temper will fail me, but until th-"

    She was cut off, then, by Kivan's hand clamping down on her shoulder with enough force she felt it even through her armor. "What did you say?!" he snarled, his eyes wide with a manic fury, and… she noticed with a great deal of shock and not a small amount of fear, as she looked at him more closely than she liked, he had a jagged scar across his throat, and trailing down below the collar of his undershirt.

    His voice had not sounded 'elven' to her because, quite clearly, his vocal cords had been damaged when someone had slit his throat.

    "You… your neck…" she whispered.

    "Was slashed open, and I was left to die," he hissed, "by the same monster that killed the only person I have ever loved, and ruined my life. He tortured my wife to death while I watched. While he forced me to watch. For hours. For pleasure. And then, when he was done, he slit my throat personally, and threw me into a cold ditch by the side of the road, next to what was left of the love of my life.

    "And his name was Tazok. And you hunt him?" Kivan finished, his voice low, and cold, and full of more malice than Sephiria had ever heard.

    She shuddered, but nodded. "We… are, yes. We don't know for certain, but… his is the name we have."

    "Then know that I will gladly serve you with my life, with two condition," Kivan said, very softly. "First, Tazok will die when we find him. And when he dies, the last thing he sees is my arrow plunging into his heart."

    Sephiria shuddered once again. There was no light in his eyes, not in the literal sense like with Acherai, but deep down, under her skin, she could feel it.

    Murder. Blood calling to blood, the need for it. Is it always so bad? Does it not serve a needed purpose? Does this man not deserve his revenge? Is his rage not justified? Would the spilling of his foe's blood not bring relief and justice to many?

    Follow the call of your blood. It will not lead you astray…

    She shook her head, growling in frustration. "We will… discuss it. For now, come with me. I'll show you the group, and we'll talk it over."

    She turned in the direction of the camp, and led the strange elf toward her companions, feeling better at the thought of having more armed people around her. It wasn't that she distrusted Kivan, really, though he was a questionable sort. She firmly believed that his hatred was directed firmly, and only, at Tazok.

    She distrusted herself, though. As she walked, she glanced down at the corpses of the gnolls, and shuddered again. It had been so easy to kill them. She hadn't even had to think about it. She had just defended herself without though, and… and she wasn't sure when that would stop. Or if it should.

    Ugh. She had thought she'd worked this out, but once again the universe didn't make sense.

    Look on the bright side, she thought dryly, as she walked. At least there were only three of them. I would certainly hate to find any more.

    (*)

    "Um. So," Imoen said, hopping back down into the crag from her scouting mission. "I have good news, and bad news. First, and this is the good news, I found the gnoll fortress!

    "The bad news is there's… y'know. I checked around the edges, and there's only one way in. The walls are too high to climb, and the only entrance is up a slope with about ten guards. But I was able to climb a tree near the outer wall and see inside. And there's... erm. Well, as for gnolls, I counted... forty of them."

    The silence was painfully deep for a painfully long time, before Minsc said, "I shall take the twenty on the left!"

    "So. We are going to die, then?" Jaheira asked sadly.

    "I have been saying that for days and you only now begin listening to me?" Xan muttered.

    "Not," Imoen said brightly, "if we can take the twenty on the right!"

    Jaheira did not sob, but it was a near thing.
    Post edited by Moczo on
    ElrandirlolienFafnir
  • ElrandirElrandir Member Posts: 1,566
    Your writing is awesome. Keep it up! =)
    MoczololienJuliusBorisov
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    @Elandir‌ Awwwww, thank you! ^_^ This story is more a labor of love than anything I expect a lot of reviews for, but it's still always nice to see I've picked up some new readers here and they're enjoying it. I hope I keep your attention despite my famously awful update schedule. XD
    Elrandirlolien
  • ElrandirElrandir Member Posts: 1,566
    @Moczo‌ I totally understand! I do written play-throughs on these forums, so I know about awful update schedules! XD (Heck, I dropped off the planet when it came to those play-throughs for three months practically, so I DEFINITELY understand.) You've got my attention for sure.
    Moczololien
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    Chapter Eight, Part One
    (*)
    It was when he looked up from the fire to see Sephiria had brought an elf home with her that Acherai began to wonder if perhaps his plans were unfeasible after all.

    He could admit that part of the problem was that he just didn’t like elves. Oh, he liked being an elf; natural dexterity and a lifespan measured in centuries was amazing. But the majority of elves he had met in his life were, to put it bluntly, insufferable little gits. Self-confidence was one thing, but the fact of the matter was that elves, regardless of whatever subspecies they chose to see themselves in, were a stagnant race that was slowly but surely going extinct. It was painfully easy to see, and yet most of them remained firmly convinced they were Toril’s master race and were downright vicious to anyone who disagreed with that assessment. The drow were the worst, obviously, but all elves from the preening, holier-than-thou Gold elves to the viciously xenophobic Wild elves had the attitude to some degree.

    Say what you would about Acherai’s morals or lack thereof, but he was always on the lookout for opportunity, for growth, for improvement, for… well, profit. He valued nothing so much as his capacity to learn, change, gather new power and knowledge to himself. The notion of maintaining a culture that had been proven not to work simply because it made you feel better about yourself was absolutely anathema to him.

    And of course, it was personal. His mother had been essentially banished from Evereska when he was a child, and none of the elves he had met had ever even told him why, instead choosing to act as though the young Acherai had not existed. She had clearly committed no crime, as she was left alone to live on the outskirts of the city, but she was clearly not welcome there either, and her child was unwelcome as well.
    And since that solitude might well have been the reason she was dead, well…

    Acherai did not look back fondly on his childhood growing up on the streets, exactly... but he did think that growing up around humans was a much better idea than spending the rest of his life around a bunch of elves. And yet, here his new pet paladin had gone about bringing one into his group.

    And she hadn’t even asked first!

    “This is Kivan, a ranger from the Shilmista forest,” she had said by way of introduction. “He has offered his assistance in our hunt for the backers of the assassins who attacked us, and may have valuable information on that topic. In particular, he suspects a connection between them and the brigands who killed his wife. As such, I have chosen to recruit him into the group as an ally.”
    The elven ranger bowed, and said, “Your enemies are my enemies.”

    “Bah. Another one, then,” Kagain muttered. “At least seems a bit less pathetic than the other elf, but still too many tree huggers fer my taste.”

    “Oh my. An archer?” Garrick said. “Well, there goes my claim to being special.”

    “You were never special, Garrick,” Acherai said, mostly not paying attention. “Sephiria, dear? A word in private?”

    “I see no need,” the girl said, a small smile on her face. “We are all allies, are we not? We should not hide our dealings from one another.”

    Bitch, he thought. Out loud, he said, “Very well. I question the necessity of bringing a man you met in the woods at random along on a task which has already led to one attempt on our lives. How can you be sure he is not a bounty hunter, or assassin?”

    “Because if he was,” Sephiria said evenly, “I would be dead. I was attacked by gnolls on my walk. If he wished me harm, all he had to do was shoot me in the back while I was distracted.”

    “Regardless,” Acheria continued, undisturbed… at least visibly… by the sudden defiance she was showing. “We are walking into considerable danger. I hesitate to do so with someone I cannot trust.”

    Sephiria blinked, her gaze falling very meaningfully on Kagain.

    “Not the same thing, dear,” Acherai said flatly. “You. Kivan, was it? You said that you are hunting a group that killed your wife?”

    “One in particular. The beast Tazok,” the elf said, his tone a low growl. “Your leader said you hunt him as well. I do not care about any other task, nor any other target. I do not require payment, nor a share of any treasure we might find. As long as Tazok dies by my hand, I will serve your group loyally. That is all.”

    “Sounds fine to me!” Kagain said, brightening considerably at the notion of an ally who didn’t want a share of the gold.

    “Well, not to me,” Acherai said, very softly as he turned back to Sephiria. “You want to know why I trust Kagain, my dear? Well, I don’t, but I can predict him. His motivation is wealth. As long as I can offer him a better deal than my enemies, he will be loyal. If I can’t, then I at least know where the dagger will be coming into my back from.”

    “Won’t be in the back,” Kagain said mildly. “Ain’t no need fer stealth to kill a skinny thing like you.”

    “Oh, yes. He is clearly the perfect ally,” Sephiria said dryly.

    “He is, because I know exactly what he’s going to do and when he’s going to do it,” Acherai retorted. “Garrick is no different. He might be a simpleton, but I understand his motivations and what he is willing to do to achieve them. But your friend here…” he gestured vaguely at Kivan. “That kind of trauma does things to a person. What if we encounter a situation where we need this Tazok character alive? What if we are unable to kill him? What if he’s simply too powerful to be dealt with directly? Can we trust him to react reasonably to such a thing, or will he run in blindly and get us all killed?”

    For the first time in the argument, Sephiria looked doubtful. “He is a noble soul. He surely would not…”

    “Child,” Kivan said gently. “I cannot honestly answer that question. You have no idea what was done to me, or to my wife. I cannot say what will happen if I come face to face with the monster responsible. I may well not be able to hold myself back, and if that puts the rest of you in danger, so be it.”

    If Acherai’s words had her doubting herself, Kivan’s made her jaw outright drop. “Surely you do not agree with him?! You clearly need allies in your quest, and we-”

    “I would indeed prefer to have your aid, and it seems we share a goal,” Kivan said, his tone maddeningly calm. “But my motivation is not a noble one, as you seem to wish. Arvandor is calling to me, do you understand that? My body and soul are telling me to die. The chance for my revenge is the only reason I continue to live. If I see a chance to claim it, however slim, I cannot trust myself to react reasonably. Avenging my Deheriana very literally means more to me than my own life.”

    Acherai smiled at the young paladin in triumph, and she narrowed her eyes. “Well. Unlike some people, I have faith in the concept of goodness. Justice. And if I can offer this man a chance, I will do so.”

    “Even if it’s a bad idea?” Acherai asked with an arched eyebrow. “Even if he can’t be trusted?”

    “I trust,” Sephiria said, “that when all else is said and done, a good person will choose the right thing. Even if he does need some help knowing right from wrong.”

    Acherai blinked at her odd tone and the way her eyes were locked onto his… until a thought struck him, and he had to fight not to laugh. 'Gods above, is she talking about me? Really, now? A week and she’s trying to morally redeem me?' He kind of appreciated the thought; certainly this bizarre power they seemed to share was worrisome, and a girl thinking she could ‘change’ you was rarely a bad thing if you were intending to manipulate her, but seriously. She couldn’t be that naïve, could she?

    '… Paladin. She definitely can be. But at least she’s a not a hypocrite, thus far, you don’t see that in paladins very often.'

    'Okay. So she is operating against me, but in a very moral way. And she’s going to be making her own choices without asking, but they’re going to be guided by naiveté and a genuine desire to help our group refine their moral code. So in other words, she an assertive idiot, but she’s still an idiot. And as for her new friend…'

    'You can never predict the revenge-crazed ones, but I don’t really need to. Just make sure that when he snaps, he’s pointed at someone other than me.'

    “Well. You are the leader, I suppose. Though in the future,” Acherai began, “could you perhaps at least put this to a vote, before you bring in new blood? I recall we needed someone with healing skills, not another gentleman to drive pointy things into people.”

    Sephiria blinked. “That’s a rather sudden change in opinion.”

    The moon elf put on his best smile, the one that made tavern maids blush and not particularly care if he was picking their pockets or not. “You’re the leader. And besides, maybe you’re right. I don’t know this man. I suppose it isn’t sensible to judge him before I see him in action.”

    And it’s not like I can’t still get what I want from this. It’s just going to be a little more annoying.
    The young paladin still looked confused, but she sat down by the fire and took a bit of the simple travel stew bubbling over it. The new arrival stayed in the shadows, avoiding the rest of the party, and Acherai closed his eyes to enter Reverie without a great deal of unhappiness at the situation.

    Sephiria was not the puppet he had been hoping for, but she could still be a different kind of puppet, if he was careful. The potential for him to come out on top of the situation was largely unchanged.
    And wasn’t that the only thing that mattered?

    *

    The only thing that mattered, Imoen realized quickly enough, was getting Dynaheir out alive.

    Fighting their way through a lot of gnolls was a bad plan. She could spot that pretty quickly, based on the fact that there were like thirty of them and they were all in a fortress that the party was, again, outside of. The fortress did not appear to have a door, because gnolls were not the best at architecture, but what it did have was only one entrance, which led up a narrow staircase. A frontal assault was clearly a really, really bad plan. Minsc didn’t seem to care, but thankfully he was outvoted. Still, given the way he was shivering with fury and staring at the fortress, his hand clamped onto his sword, Imoen was very much of the opinion they needed to get this done quickly and get out of here, and said as much.

    And through what the rest of the group could only assume was some bizarre miracle, Jaheira had instantly and firmly agreed. Even Minsc had been kind of cowed by that one. If Jaheira and Imoen agreed on something without even arguing about it first, it was clear that this was the plan to use, no question. And from that simple fact, they had observed the situation, pooled their resources as the group, and devised a strategy.

    First and foremost, they would need three things. A path into the fortress that could get someone to Dynaheir’s cell, a person able to follow that path, get to the witch, and get her out, and finally, something to draw the guards away from the cell in question. All three were easy enough to manage; there were several trees near the walls, and Jaheira’s druidic magic could easily summon vines in vast quantities to bridge the gap between them and the top of the battlements. Second, Imoen was athletic and very used to climbing in and out of the windows of Candlekeep for… reasons… so making the climb and sneaking through the fortress was easily within her abilities. She was also the best suited to maintain her own balance while helping Dynaheir, who was most likely weak from hunger and fatigue after her captivity.
    As for a distraction, well, they had a giant barbarian with a painted face and a wizard who specialized in mind-altering magic. If the two of them working together couldn’t get a bunch of very stupid gnolls to pay attention to them, then something had gone terribly wrong.

    There was one issue, though. And as usual, it fell to Khalid, in his role as what he was becoming increasingly worried was ‘the sane one’ to find it.

    “W-well,” he said, “It seems to me t-that we don’t a-actually know where in the fortress we n-need to go.”

    “My love. I do wish you had brought this up sooner,” Jaheira said with a wince. “Imoen. You are the closest thing we have to a scout. Can you determine the best point for insertion?”

    Imoen scratched her chin thoughtfully for a few moments before saying, slowly, “Well… okay. The outcropping up there let me get a basic layout, and it’s really not much of a fortress. More of a… big open pit with walls around it. There’s basically no structure left, other than a staircase connecting the bottom floor to the top. The only place I saw to store a person would be some pits on the top floor, where the fortress is dug into the side of the mountain. I’d say we go up the ridge on the side of the fort and put me as close to the top as you can get me.”

    “… That was… surprisingly thoughtful, child,” Jaheira said.

    Imoen smiled proudly. “I am pretty good at breaking into places and finding stuff that other people don’t want me to have.”

    “And my respect for you falls apart with barely a whisper,” Jaheira murmured sadly. “But we have a plan, and we have an avenue of approach. Imoen, lead me to the vantage point you found, and I will prepare you a path to enter the fortress. Xan, Minsc, you will proceed to the entrance and create a distraction. Something large, but which preferably does not result in the entire fortress all coming to attack you at once and killing you.”

    “Worry not, friend Jaheira!” Minsc bellowed. “Well-known are the berserkers of Rasheman for our subtlety and grace! And any who would say otherwise shall be crushed by the fist of Minsc!”

    Xan sighed. “Well. I knew I was going to die one day. I suppose being crushed between a gigantic smelly enemy and a gigantic smelly ally is not the worst way to end my existence. It shall render my death as meaningless as my life, if nothing else.”

    “… My love?” Jaheira said, softly.

    “Yes, d-dear?” Khalid asked.

    “You are a kind and gentle soul, and I know that you shall do all you can to protect our allies as best you can,” she said. “But if the worst should happen and a choice must be made between your life and theirs, do feel free to use them as a shield.”

    “Worry not, friend Jaheira!” Minsc bellowed. “For Minsc shall guard your beloved with his life, and his life is nearly twice so large as most! Friend Khalid shall not take a single wound, as I charge into the midst of the foe and slay them all with swing upon swing of my mighty blade! Rest easy, fair Dynaheir, for your guardian shall soon secure your safety, and secure it atop a mountain of the bodies of those who would dare harm your noble soul! GO FOR THE EYES, BOO, GO FOR-“

    “Minsc, m-my friend,” Khalid said, mildly. “T-that is what we are n-not supposed to do. T-they have us outnumbered t-t-ten to one and have the high g-ground.”

    “… Ah. Yes. You see, this is why Minsc is so glad to have his friends here with him!” Minsc said brightly. “They are so clever.”

    The three members of the distraction team began their trek down the paths toward the entrance to the fortress, Khalid taking point, Xan rather reluctantly holding up the line, and Minsc in the back where he would have more people to hold him back if he forgot the plan, went berserk, and charged in blindly to his death.

    Jaheira and Imoen watched them go, just kind of blinking in silence for several very long seconds.

    Finally, Imoen said, “I have a good feeling about this!” her tone bright and cheerful as she began to skip up a separate path, returning to the overhang she had used for her scouting.

    Jaheira tried not to scream.

    *
    Sephiria was not quite happy with how things had turned out; Kivan was, if seemingly a goodly sort, still very much an unknown factor. And Acherai... on the surface he had seemed to accept her display of authority, but she was not so certain that he was completely behind her, deep down. Most particularly, the fact that he had not spoken a single word to Kivan the entire trip back, but was very obviously watching him like a hawk at all times. For his part, the ranger did not seem to care, but he had to have noticed.
    This was the opposite reaction Sephiria had been hoping for; she needed to make sure that Acherai was not exposed to any more negative influences than absolutely necessary. The power they shared was evil, but it would not control their actions unless they allowed it. She firmly believed this to be true, and she firmly believed that with a little luck and a lot of faith, she could help him find a path that led him out of the darkness. She had hoped the addition of a goodly ranger to the group, himself another elf just like her extremely confusing partner (and when did she start thinking of him as a partner in this ridiculous mess that was ‘adventuring’?), would give her another example to use, a show of the righteous path and how it would prove ultimately more rewarding than allowing their inner demons to guide them.

    Of course, Kivan’s morality had proven more ambiguous than she had been hoping for, in the end. And Acherai seemed more annoyed by having another of his people in the group than she had expected. She wished Gorion were here, not for the first time. He would have known better how to handle the situation, he would have understood if she had broken some ancient elven custom or her new allies were simply antisocial, he…

    He would have known what to do. He always knew what to do.

    The group pierced the treeline, and Acherai smiled. “Beregost. Adventure completed, time to claim our just rewards.”

    She arched an eyebrow at his tone, and asked, “You wish to collect our reward first? Finding Tranzig is quite a bit more important.”

    “Well. I would argue that anything is more important than funding we very desperately need in order to procure supplies and… just generally look a little less pathetic than we currently do,” Acherai said dryly, poking a finger through the lightning-scorched tear in her armor that the mad cleric had made, and prompting a squeak of protest she felt his finger brush her side. “But you do have a point. We’re hardly all needed to drop off a holy symbol and pick up some coin.” He snapped his fingers, as though a great thought had come to him. “I know! Sephiria, dear, you will take Garrick and our new friend to collect the reward. Kagain and I will deal with the location and interrogation of this Tranzig character.”
    He tried not to smile too widely as literally everyone other than Garrick protested.

    “I am the leader of this party, and you shall not delegate me to mere delivery duty whilst our quest awaits! And further-”

    “I ain’t trustin’ no prissy paladin an’ no looney elf with that much gold, an’-”

    “I refuse to allow you to drive me off on some meaningless errand while the trail to Tazok lies elsewhere, and-”

    Acherai, without missing a beat, pointed to Kivan, Kagain, and Sephiria in that order and said, “You can’t be trusted in the room with a minion of the man you’re obsessed with killing; if he says something that makes you think of your wife too hard you’ll kill him and we’ll be lost. You cannot be trusted alone with large sums of gold, period. And you, bluntly, are possibly the worst person in this entire city to handle an interrogation. It requires a subtle hand, mental manipulation, the ability to dispassionately analyze a person and make them think what you wish them to think. You’re about as intimidating and subtle as a kitten.”

    “A kitten?!” Sephiria squeaked, her cheeks blazing. “How dare you question my competence in such a manner!”

    “You dare question my commitment?! My self-control?! I would do anything to find Tazok! Anything!” Kivan hissed, his eyes blazing with something not entirely sane.

    “… Aye, I wouldn’t trust me with that much gold either,” Kagain admitted.

    “So,” Acherai said with a smirk of victory, “would either of you two like to admit that at some point Kagain became more reasonable than you? Or shall I just point it out for a few minutes whilst laughing?”

    “This is not a laughing matter, child,” Kivan said, his tone less venomous than before, but anger still bubbling under it.

    “No, it really isn’t,” Acherai said. “If you’re going to lose your temper so blatantly over the thought of Tazok, then you can’t be trusted around a more concrete reminder. I don’t know you. You can tell me all you like that you’re not going to be a problem, but you also wandered in out of nowhere and your behavior is nothing if not suspicious. So you get to run on an errand. And if you do it well, maybe you’ll have earned a little trust from the group. We’re not all paladins, some of us pay attention to people.”

    “Ex-cuse me?” Sephiria grumbled.

    “My dear, you are a paladin of the god of truth and you lived in a library for the first twenty years of your life. You are not a judge of people,” Acherai said flatly. He gestured around the group. “Case in point, your current group is made up of an amoral mercenary, an idiot, and a revenge-crazed woodsman.”

    “Who’s the idiot?” Garrick asked.

    “That isn’t my point. You know full well that I…”

    “Yes, yes, you just want to save us all, you’re full to the brim of morals and truth, you’re a decent sort and you have the best of intentions, blah blah blah. None of that means you know how to interrogate someone, does it?” Acherai asked. “Look. You are the leader. If you really have a problem with it, we will follow your lead. But you should at least be able to give me a logical reason.”

    Sephiria tilted her head to one side. “Well. Maybe if I’m going to be the leader, I need to learn these things, then. Dealing with people, learning how to read them… that sounds like something important, don’t you think?”

    She’s challenging me again. Not letting me get my way without a fight. And she wants to keep an eye on me, Acherai thought, once again struggling not to smile. She was so straight-forward it was almost adorable, albeit in a mildly annoying way. “It does indeed. Very well, I assume Kivan and Garrick can get the money on their own. We can trust Garrick to be honest, if not terribly bright, and I know Kivan wants blood more than he could ever want gold.

    “You, oh fearless leader, will come with us,” he gestured toward the bright red sign of Feldpost’s inn, in the distance. “It’s time to teach you how to be a people person.”
    rufus_hobartJuliusBorisovlolienElrandir
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    Chapter Eight, Part Two
    (*)

    Xan and Minsc made a diversion, and Khalid wondered vaguely if it was all right to actually let these two be in the group.

    He could hardly fault their abilities, to be sure. Minsc was among the most powerful warriors he had ever met, and Xan seemed a capable and gifted mage. It was just that in terms of personality, they were not what he hoped to see in an adventurer. And he was aware that his own temperament was not quite what people ‘expected’ in those who made their living by the sword, but those two…

    “Now, Minsc,” Xan said, “you are almost certainly going to die if anything goes wrong with this plan. But if it makes you feel better, we will likely all follow you soon enough. Time is a merciless destroyer and even the longest of lives are as dust in the wind.”

    “I understand not your words, tiny man, but Minsc is a bastion of strength! To fall before those who kidnapped his witch would disgrace him forevermore!” Minsc said, covering himself in mud and fashioning a crude hat made of sticks and leaves. “And as you know, Minsc is a being of subtle dignity.”

    “Yes, certainly,” Xan said, his tone so dry it could have dissolved a lake. “I see nothing wrong with that statement. Now, you do understand the plan, correct? You are not merely saying you do so I will stop explaining it?”

    “Boo tells me not to answer this question.”

    “… Very well. I will begin casting the spells required while you make your charge, but please, do not charge until I give the signal to no you buffoon what are you doing?!”

    It was worth noting that this probably had not been what Xan had meant to say. It was just that the exact instant that Xan had first said the word ‘charge,’ Minsc had done so without waiting to hear the rest of the sentence. A battle cry on his lips and a great deal of mud on the rest of him, Minsc burst from the small cavern they had been using as a planning ground, and ran screaming at the gates of the gnoll fortress.

    “O-oh dear,” Khalid said.

    “Well! This will… be interesting,” Xan muttered, closing his eyes, and falling deep into a spellcasting. There was a group of gnolls at the gate, and he needed to finish at least one of the spells outlined in the plan before Minsc arrived at their location and… well, died. The plan was simple enough, it should have worked as a distraction, but… well. Timing was a thing.

    The gnolls looked up at the charging maniac, and a few of them snorted in confusion, but overall they didn’t look too upset. There were six of them, after all, and they had over two-dozen allies mere seconds away. The sittings one stepped to their feet, snarling a warning to their allies and preparing their halberds to impale the bizarre thing. They weren’t sure what it was, but it looked solid, which implied it was edible, if nothing else.

    Minsc barreled into them, kind of just stampeding over the first one, screaming at the top of lungs, “I am the noble spirit of Rasheman! I have come from the heavens to slay the takers of witches and defilers of hamsters!” which was not exactly what he was supposed to say, but it was close enough. Gnolls were not hugely bright, and the actual writing of the dialogue probably wasn’t important. Still, Khalid was forced to note that the gnolls did not appear to be either terrified by the distraction, or overly quick to call to all their allies.

    “So,” Khalid said. “S-should I go to h-help, or would that ruin the plan?”

    Xan fought the urge to ask his erstwhile comrade to shut up, as he was in fact halfway through a spell and stopping for tea and a nice chat would actually ruin things rather horribly. He settled for giving him an annoyed glare.

    “N-no, then.”

    Xan hissed out the final syllable of his spell and slashed his hand down, sending a wave of golden light toward Minsc, who was (as was his way) surrounded by monsters violently hacking at his face and the gnoll he had trampled over standing up and looking very cross indeed. The giant warrior swung his weapon wildly, trying to fend off five opponents at once. The gnoll he had stunned picked up its halberd, ready to stab him in the back…

    And Xan’s spell struck it. It stopped in its tracks, blinking in confusion, before roaring in absolute rage, “Death to those who harm the spirit of Rasheman!” It had no idea what this meant or why it was saying it, but those under a charm spell often did things that didn’t make a great deal of sense to them. The creature ran into the fray, slamming the blade of its halberd down onto the head of one of its own comrades, screaming that Minsc was clearly the great god of all gnolls.

    Xan let out a deep breath of relief, and said, “Well. That worked after all. We might survive.”

    “Y-you mean there was a chance it wouldn’t work? And you didn’t mention this?” Khalid asked.
    “Well. The large man seemed so excited, I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

    *

    “I’ll be damned,” Jaheira murmured, looking down on the stream of gnolls charging down the steps toward the small (Oddly brown?) man that was now running away from them at impressive speed… helped, apparently, by the fact that they kept stopping to fight amongst themselves, or oddly just stop moving, as if they were falling asleep on the spot in small groups. “They actually… succeeded.”

    “Why do you sound so surprised?” Imoen asked.

    “Khalid,” Jaheira said primly, “is a veteran of many adventures, the finest warrior I know, and a cunning tactician. I respect him as much as I love him.”

    “So that’s your way of saying you thought the other two would screw up, huh?”

    “Your words, not mine. Now, let us move on,” Jaheira said firmly. She slipped toward the evergreen they had chosen, and began to murmur a prayer to Silvanus, her hand touching the holy symbol hidden beneath her armor. A spark of green light danced from her figures, and the ivy wrapped around it began to grow, twisting up the trunk and weaving through the branches. The thin vines intertwined around themselves, wrapping together into strands thicker than rope that began to grow outwards through the empty air toward the wall.

    “The spell will last for approximately twenty minutes before the vines return to their proper form. Please get in and out before then, if you do not wish to have to jump.”

    “No pressure, then,” Imoen murmured, testing the vines under her weight and smirking. Yeah, this was gonna be fun. She scrambled up the tree like a squirrel, humming a little tune as she reached the top in a few seconds, very literally skipping across the ladder of vines and into the fortress.

    Jaheira watched this. 'That is our master of infiltration and stealth, hopping across into a fortress full of monsters like a child playing hopscotch and humming to herself.'

    Perhaps Xan is right about us being doomed.

    *

    The joy of innkeepers was that they rarely wanted trouble with anyone. If you asked about a person, particularly a person who was behaving suspiciously already, they would almost certainly tell you where to find them as long as you claimed to be their friend. Even if they knew… as the good sir Feldpost clearly did… that you were lying. Acherai was not Tranzig’s friend, he knew nothing about Tranzig, and he had no legitimate reason to ask which room Tranzig was in. And yet, the innkeeper was all too happy to wave the small group up the stairs to the inn’s second floor. Because he didn’t. Want. Trouble.

    Wise man.

    Tranzig was not a large man, which was surprising considering he was ostensibly some kind of mercenary-bandit. If anything, he looked more like what you would get if you took an already slender, bookish librarian-type of person, and gave him access to a career that allowed him to never, ever exercise. His hair was lank and greasy, which was a good match for his skin, and his robes hung off him like they were a tent he had decided to just try wearing as clothes one day.

    Acherai tried very hard not to laugh as he took this all in. He was smart enough not to judge entirely by appearances, but Tranzig made it hard not to judge a little bit and find him desperately wanting. “Excuse me, sir?”

    “Whaddya want?” the man snapped back. “Room’s private. Get out.”

    “Well, I was just told to deliver a message to you, that’s all. A man from the Black Talon mercenaries gave me fifty gold to send it along your way. You are Mr. Tranzig, right?” Acherai asked, using the tone of well-meaning stupidity he had cultivated in his childhood for speaking to adults. Elves tended to look younger than they were to humans, and one thing that everyone was willing to believe about someone younger than them, it was that they were also dumber than them.

    He narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but he didn’t yell at the elf to leave again. “Hm. Idiots know they’re supposed to deliver these things in person. Fine, gimme the letter and scram, kid.”

    “Oh, it’s not a letter,” Acherai said cheerfully. “He told me to tell you something.”

    Tranzig’s eyes bulged out of his head so far it looked like they would fall from their sockets. “What?! Of all the unprofessional…! Fine. Fine, just tell me. Boss is gonna be furious no matter what happens now,” the man muttered, his hand slipping behind his back to the wand in his belt. He would have to kill the kid, nothing for it now. Tazok wouldn’t like a security breach of this magnitude.

    “Hmmm, now what was it…?” Acherai said thoughtfully, once again trying not to laugh. “Oh, that’s right! I remember now.

    “His name was Nimbul, and he told me to tell you I killed him. And you’re next.”

    Acherai stepped backwards, kicking the door open and letting Kagain charge into the room. Tranzig gave a rather undignified squawk of protest as the dwarf charged through the room and, just before he could pull out the wand and aim it, slammed a fist into his midsection with enough force to crush bone.
    Sephiria winced as she stepped into the room, watching Kagain kick away the discarded wand and stomp the man’s hands for good measure. “You could have tried talking to him first.”

    “He’s a mage. See the wand? Gotta move in fast an’ make sure they don’t get all magical on ya,” Kagain snapped, ignoring the man’s whimpering over his broken fingers. “Ain’t gonna be castin’ no spells now, I guarantee.”

    Acherai shrugged. “The little mercenary has a point. And we are on a clock, so…” he knelt down beside Tranzig, and smiled. “So. Let’s try this again, and we’ll all be honest this time. Your name is Tranzig, yes?”

    “Y…yeah…”

    “And you want to live, yes?”

    The fallen man gave a pain-filled chuckle. “N-not much chance of that. That’s the girl, isn’t it? The little bitch Tazok wants dead. If she’s here… you guys found me… he’s not gonna let me live.”

    Acherai sighed, drew a small dagger from his belt, and jammed it through Tranzig’s hand and straight into the wooden floor.

    “What are you doing?!” Sephiria snapped, grabbing Acherai by the shoulder and pulling him away as Tranzig screamed. “You said there would be no torture! You swore that…”

    “I’m not torturing him,” Acherai said mildly. “Torture is about hurting him for information. I’m just hurting him to show him how willing I am to hurt him. It’s not the same thing. It’s all a game, dear. I need to make sure that he is more afraid of us than he is of Tazok, you see? Though I’m glad you are paying attention.”

    “Th…aaaaaah!” Tranzig hissed in agony, as the knife was pulled out roughly. “That tells me… you ain’t never met Tazok. Ain’t nothin’ you can do to me that he can’t… do ten times worse.”

    “Oh. Ooooh, he’s one of those,” Acherai said cheerfully. “The horrible leader that everyone is afraid of? He can give you a fate worse than death? Hair-trigger temper? That is problematic. I don’t think we’ll be able to scare this one into giving us information, if he’s that worried about Tazok. Kagain?”

    “Yeah?”

    “Kill him.”

    “Don’t kill him!” Sephiria snapped, her words drowning out Tranzig’s rather pathetic squeak of terror.

    “Why not? You’re a paladin, he’s evil.”

    “First of all, just because I am a paladin, does not mean I approve of murdering everyone morally bankrupt we meet. We are in the middle of a town. There are guards and gaols for a reason,” she said through gritted teeth. “Second, we don’t know what he can tell us yet!”

    “He isn’t going to tell us anything. He’s already said so. You’re not wrong about torture, dear, it never works,” Acherai said mildly. “The information you get is useless because they’ll say anything to make the pain stop. And we clearly can’t get him to talk any other way. So we have no reason to let him live.”

    “Other than the fact killing him is morally wrong?”

    “Morally wrong is such a loaded term. The thing about conspiracies, dear, is that members rarely end up imprisoned for very long. He has to know that if he ends up with the gaoler, he’s also going to end up dead soon after,” Acherai said, his tone still maddeningly reasonable. “So really, he is pretty doomed no matter what we do. Might as well end it quickly.”

    “Wait, wait,” Sephiria said. “Are you even listening to yourself? The solution is clear enough. Sir Tranzig…”

    “Ain’t a knight,” Kagain noted, his hand in place to crush Tranzig’s throat if needed.

    “Principle of the thing, Kagain. Sir Tranzig. As you may have noticed, my compatriot deeply wishes to kill you,” Sephiria said gently. “I am trying to avoid this, I truly am. But I need you to help us.”
    The man laughed bitterly, a sob of pain under the sound. “S-seems kinda pointless. Elf’s not wrong. Tazok will never let me live after this. Nothing I can do.”

    “You can run,” Sephiria said. “Fake your own death and flee the region, as fast and far as you can. And if you tell us where to find this Tazok, then we will ensure he is far too busy to follow after you.”

    “You… you think you can take him down? You? A buncha damn kids?” the man snapped… but behind his tone was something oddly hopeful.

    “We ‘took down’ Nimbul,” Acherai said, his tone very soft, barely audible. And yet, it filled the silence more loudly than shattering glass.

    Twenty minutes later, a man with bandaged hands limped out of Feldpost’s inn, heading to the stables as quickly as he was able.

    Sephiria and Acherai stood in the doorway, watching as the horse began trotting out of town to the South, one of them smirking wickedly and the other looking vaguely sick with herself.

    “I am a little embarrassed that worked so well. You, my dear, are an outstanding good cop.”

    “You didn’t tell me you were going to hurt him,” Sephiria said softly. “You promised there would be no torture.”

    “Oh, do grow up. He was a mage, after all, we could hardly just let him wave his hands around. He has money, a horse, and all his limbs are still attached. Considering he works for the people who tried to have you killed, he got off fairly light,” Acherai said. “And besides, we had to make sure he was afraid of us.”

    “It still… sits wrong with me. He was helpless.”

    “He was the enemy. And besides, you will have to get used to blood at some point, dear. Unless you’re forgetting that our little band has already put three assassins and a serial murderer in the ground, and picked up a new friend who is hoping to up that body-count considerably.”

    She sighed. “You don’t understand. There is a difference between killing someone in the heat of battle, and doing it in cold blood when they can’t fight back.”

    “Yes. The second one is easier and safer.”

    “Is that really all you care about? What is easiest for you?” Sephiria snapped, her tone making it unclear if she was angry at him, or herself for association with him. “There has to be something more to you. There just… has to.”

    “What can I say? I’m a survivor. And since you seem like someone who desperately needs a little help on that front, maybe you shouldn’t be quite so judgmental,” Acherai said softly. “Besides, I compromised, did I not? He’s alive. You got what you wanted. And the group got what we needed...”

    He unfolded the group’s map of the region, a location just north of the Larswood region marked with a charcoal ‘X’ where Tranzig had told them Tazok’s brigands made their camp.

    “A target.”
    rufus_hobartJuliusBorisovlolienElrandir
  • ElrandirElrandir Member Posts: 1,566
    "'… Aye, I wouldn’t trust me with that much gold either,' Kagain admitted."

    I quite literally burst out laughing at that. So great. I also appreciated the use of gaol, due to the nature of the setting.
    JuliusBorisovlolienMoczo
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    Chapter Nine (Part 1)

    (*)

    Acherai wiped blood from his jaw and winced, looking at the leader of the small gang of bandits, who had a black arrow protruding from where his eye used to be.

    "So," he said softly as he limped over to rest against a tree, using his staff as a walking stick to support his broken leg, "Would anyone like to tell me where this went completely wrong?"

    *Fifteen minutes earlier…*

    "So, we are all clear on the plan?" Sephiria asked.

    "We are, and it is actually a very good one," Acherai said. "And I'm being serious, not mocking you this time."

    "… I suppose I should take that as a compliment," Sephiria said dryly, "yet somehow it does not feel like one."

    "I do my best."

    "What I wanna know is," Kagain said, looking around at the thick forest that made up the Peldvale region, a few hours northwest of the Friendly Arm, and roughly the spot that Tranzig had told them to look, "why we're bothering with doing this sneaky. We just need to smash up the camp, right?"

    "And we will, but I suspect that attempting to do it ourselves will only result in our deaths," Sephiria pointed out. "We are certain to be vastly outnumbered. If we can infiltrate the camp, however, pass ourselves off as new recruits, then we can search it for any evidence we need for our own goals, and pass on the location to the authorities. I am sure the Flaming Fist will be quite pleased to send a small army to deal with those who have been responsible for the iron shortage."

    "Gods bless mercenaries. May they ever need a steady stream of metal goods, to make them easier to point at our enemies," Acherai said cheerfully.

    "They are not mercenaries. They act as the legitimate authority of Baldur's Gate, and by extension the region as a whole. They serve the law, and we can trust them."

    "They act as a legitimate authority because their leader is one of the city's Grand Dukes now, dear. They're still mercenaries."

    "Well, technically, but-"

    "And what of Tazok, in this plan?" Kivan asked softly, cutting off the argument before it could get into full swing.

    "He will face justice, my friend. That much, I promise you."

    Acherai chuckled. "Now, define what you mean by 'justice' for him and see if he still wants to come with us."

    "Please. Stop. Helping."

    "No, I don't think he should," Kivan said. "I do wish to know, and depending on your answer…"

    "Yes, yes, I am aware," Sephiria said, rubbing her temples. "Sir Kivan, I… we may not be able to defeat this Tazok. You must know this. He has an army at his command, and we number only five."

    "One of which is Garrick, so we really only have four and a half if you really think about it," Acherai added helpfully.

    "And I do not care, child. I have sworn to end his life, and I shall," Kivan said firmly. "If I must do it alone…"

    "And die?" Sephiria snapped, with a bit more force than she intended.

    "That is not what I was going to say."

    "No, but it is what you were going to do. Go alone, against an army of mercenaries, each one a trained killer, and die."

    "And accept this as a worthwhile sacrifice, if before I die I am able to plant an arrow in Tazok's heart," Kivan continued, his tone maddeningly calm. "I have made this clear enough."

    "And I am willing to work with you to achieve it. Tazok is a murdering monster who has ruined or ended dozens, even hundreds of lives. Certainly, if we can destroy him, that would be for the greater good," Sephiria countered. "As would ensuring he spent the rest of his life in a pit beneath the Flaming Fist compound. Or he was sentenced to death for his crimes, in a court of law. Would that not be justice?"

    "It would not be vengeance," Kivan whispered harshly.

    Sephiria stood firm, ignoring the chill in his tone and staring firmly into his eyes. After a long, cold silence, he stepped back slightly and said, "There is little reason to discuss this now, either way. We must first find his camp, and he himself. From there… we will all do what we must, I am sure."

    "And speaking of what we must do," Acherai said, his tone lowering until it was barely audible. "Ahead. In that copse of trees. I can see someone behind one of the bushes."

    "You are certain? I see nothing from this distance," Sephiria said.

    "He is correct," Kivan whispered. "I count ten, total. Perhaps more behind the thicker trees, there is certainly room."

    "Oh, really? I only saw the one," Acherai admitted.

    The ranger nodded almost imperceptibly. "You have good eyes, but you are more of a city dweller. The camouflage in the wilds is different, and you're not skilled at sorting through it. I'm impressed you spotted even one."

    "Yes, well, I shall try to suffer through my humiliation at not being more experienced living in the woods like a mad hermit," Acherai muttered. "Dearest, shall I do the talking, or shall you? I warn you, you won't do a good job. You've got a certain charisma to you, but this sort of thing is entirely out of your depth."

    "And what is that supposed t—no. No, I'm not going to engage you on this," she said with an annoyed sigh. "You are certainly more used to consorting with criminals than I am. You do, after all, often speak to Kagain. As a result, you will be better able to work our way into the confidence of these men. I will assume this is what you were talking about, for the good of my own mental health."

    "A fine girl you are," Acherai said cheerfully, strolling out ahead of the group. Then, loudly enough to be heard in the trees, he shouted "Hello there! I was wondering if you fine gentlemen would be willing to come out of your fine perch there and have a talk with us about making us all quite a lot of gold? Oh, and if you keep pointing your bows at us, I will have my friend back there with the very surly expression show you exactly why elves are known for being oddly good at archery."

    There were a few minutes of silence, and for a bit (well, okay, more than a bit) Sephiria worried that her entirely too glib companion had just enraged a large group of very angry men who were going to attempt to kill them all. And then, tromping his way out of the underbrush and into the clearing the group had stopped near, came a tall, bald man with a face so scarred it was barely recognizable as human, and a mace that looked very well used.

    "So, then. Not many travelers goin' about looking for our type," he said, his arms crossed. "Fewer still talkin' about money, unless they're beggin' us not to take theirs. So you want to tell me what yer goin' on about, elf?"

    Acherai smiled, bowing with a flourish. "Certainly, friend. It is just that my friends and I are new to the region, come here after a group we used to run with near Waterdeep met an untimely end with the city watch, and SWEET MYSTRA WHAT THE HELLS?!"

    It should be noted that Acherai had not been planning to say this. He'd had a whole great story worked out, involving a three-night run from the Waterdhavian military, a narrow escape from Khelben 'Blackstaff' Arunson himself, and possibly a romantic encounter with whichever of the High Ladies was most in fashion this month.

    He did not get to say any of this, of course, because a black-feathered arrow shot past him, so close he could feel the wind rustle his hair, and slammed into the bandit leader's right eye. He fell back, unable to even scream as he fell, twitching pitifully as he hit the ground and breathed his death rattle.

    "Well. Um," Acherai said, as the trees began to rustle with movement, and the sounds of bandits shouting and bows singing began to rip through the forest. "I am so unhappy right now, I seriously am."

    *In the present...*

    "No, really," Acherai said. "I would really like to talk about this.

    "And maybe, just maybe, kill everyone."

    (*)

    Imoen smiled as she watched gnolls stream out of the fortress beneath her, chasing what she assumed was probably Minsc. He was extremely loud, so she could kind of tell it was him even if she couldn't see him.

    *Okay. We have maybe twenty minutes, if Aunty Jahrie is right, she thought. Can we do this?*

    *We once stole the entire Keep's dinner, by ourselves and despite Seffie trying really hard to stop us. We can do anything sneaky you name, inner self.*

    *Good on you! That was a test of your confidence, and I knew you would pass. You're me, after all.*

    After shaking hands with her inner self to thank her for the confidence check, Imoen climbed slowly down the wall, taking care to widen any footholds she found for the climb back up. The fortress was old and the fortress was crumbly, but who knew what condition this Dynaheir lady would be in when Imoen found her? Anything that might make climbing out easier was a good plan.

    Fortunately, Gnolls were not the best at maintaining architecture. The top floor of the keep, where she had entered, was entirely bare except for two big pits and a kind of half-wall next to the stairs down. The old fortress had clearly seen much better days, but for Imoen's purposes this was basically Winterfest. She ran up to the first pit, looked down, and saw nobody in it.

    This left finding Dynaheir an awfully simple prospect.

    The second pit contained a woman in a stained and tattered robe. She was pretty; not like, Imoen pretty, but smooth dark skin, bright eyes, and long, deep brown hair that even an extended imprisonment could not quite disguise. Tattered and bruised, she still somehow looked like she was in charge of the pit she was stuck in, and would be throwing an elegant dinner party in it later.

    "So. Hi there! You know Minsc?" Imoen asked, by way of greeting.

    The woman looked up, obviously shocked by the sound of someone who was not a growling man-dog speaking to her, and said, "Excuse me? I hardly hoped to hear as much this miserable place, so I doubt mine own ears. You are familiar with my guardian?"

    "A bit! He's down below us running around covered in mud with gnolls chasing him."

    "… Yes, 'tis indeed what I have come to expect of Minsc, particularly since head wound number seven," the woman muttered with a sigh that reminded Imoen just a bit of Jaheira. "Well. If you count yourself an ally of brave Minsc, then you may count myself an ally of yours. I am Dynaheir, a Wychlaran-in-training of the nation of Rasheman, journeying alongside Minsc on our shared rite of passage."

    "Oooooh. I'm Imoen. I'm journeying mostly for giggles, though I am looking for this one person in between the fun stuff. Gotta find her and smack her for runnin' off without me, y'know? Family stuff."

    "… Quite. Well, young Imoen…"

    "Actually, looking at you I think I'm probably your age."

    "Well, young Imoen," Dynaheir said firmly, "I would much like your assistance in escaping this vile place. The gnolls were too frightened of my magics to kill me outright, so they chose instead to leave me in this pit until I was too exhausted to move before devouring me. Have you some method to secure mine freedom?"

    "Nope!" Imoen said brightly. "Didn't think to bring a rope."

    "… Fantastic."

    "Hang on, madame fussy-britches. I'll go find something to drag you out with," Imoen said, skipping off.

    Dynaheir sighed as she watched the girl vanish. "Yes. Sadly, about the quality of rescue I was expecting of Minsc."

    (*)

    "So?" Acherai said, once again, after the inevitab. "Anyone want to say anything? Kivan, maybe? Especially Kivan. I'm not even going to pretend that I am not leveling blame right at Kivan, here."

    "Why not?" Garrick asked. "I think it is rather his fault."

    "Garrick, thank you for your help, and I will stab you if you don't shut up."

    "Glad to offer my aid."

    "Now, then. Our illustrious leader. As our dear ranger was your recruit, as Garrick is a buffoon of the highest caliber, and as Kagain..." he turned, looking at the dwarf, who was face-down in some moss and mumbling to himself, "...appears to have suffered a serious concussion, I believe that I am the only one here who can offer a neutral opinion on his actions. And that opinion would be a very simple one: he has been a member of this team for all of a day, and yet he has already betrayed us!"

    "I... apologize," Kivan said slowly. "I... lost myself. When he began speaking, all I could hear..."

    "He was there, wasn't he?" Sephiria asked softly.

    "Yes. When Tazok... when he and his men took my wife from me. That man was one of them. I could barely see through the blood in my eyes, but that voice..."

    "Was pretty much exactly like every other inbred moron who takes up banditry in the woods as a career," Acherai snapped.

    "Not to me, child. You wouldn't-"

    "My mother died while I watched, when I was barely ten years old," Acherai hissed, "so don't tell me I wouldn't understand. I don't blame you for wanting revenge, I blame you for being such a blasted moron about it!"

    Sephiria blinked. "Wait, you..."

    "Not! The time!" Acherai snapped, holding up a hand to stall her. "I now have a broken leg, in case you missed that. Because one of these fine gentlemen hit it with a big damn club. In a fight we were trying not to start. Because it was our shot at Tazok!"

    Kivan winced. "Yes. I know. I made a mistake."

    "No, you ruined everything. Because our one shot at getting into that camp without fighting off a hundred bandits was to sneak in, by convincing them we belonged there. And now we can't. Because unless we happen to run into a cleric skilled enough to fix this..." he gestured at his limp right leg, "... out in the middle of the woods, we're never going to get close enough to the camp before they realize that this patrol is gone. And they'll move the camp, and we'll never find them again. And it's your fault."

    "That is enough!" Sephiria snarled, stepping between them. "Acherai, Kivan knows he has done wrong! That is no excuse for such a horrible display, particularly against one who has suffered just as you have."

    She stepped in closer, grabbing the elf by his collar and pulling him toward her. "Suffered," she repeated, "just as we have. I know how much it hurts to lose family too, you may remember. If I met the man responsible, I cannot say I would not have done the same. Can you?"

    "Of course I can. Because when I kill the people who took my family, I'm going to make sure I succeed. And so are you, aren't you?" Acherai whispered. And something in his eyes made Sephiria feel a slight chill down her spine, even as she found herself wanting to stare more deeply. Less than a second, but something compelling, a shimmer of light and the promise of murder was so hard to ignore...

    She shook her head and pushed him away, sending him falling backward with a pained yelp as his leg collapsed under him. "I," she snapped, "am going to find justice for Gorion. And I will help Kivan find justice for his wife, do you understand me? And you will not behave so coldly to a man in mourning."

    Then, without warning, she whirled on Kivan, and said, "And as for you. I understand your anger, and your pain. But if you put this group at risk for your own personal ambitions again, I will cut you down myself, do you understand?" Looking back and forth between the two elves, and ignoring with all her power the strange calling that Acherai's words had ignited in her blood once again, she said, very firmly, "We are here seeking justice for the innocent, and for the fallen. We are not murderers, nor berserk animals. We are a team, and I am in command."

    Something inside her wailed in furious irritation at her stand, and she cheered at the thought.

    She would not lose her soul without a fight, no matter what she battled against.

    "Now. Please sit down, Acherai. I will do what I can for your wound," she said, a bit less emotionally.

    "I'm already on the ground," he said, blinking in obvious shock. "You pushed me."

    "... Yes. Well. That was an accident."

    "It hurt."

    "I am... sorry."

    "My leg is broken, you know. It was painful, to be pushed."

    "Oh, do quit whining," Sephiria said. "You will be fine. I can... well. I have the Laying on of Hands..."

    "Which barely works."

    "It works! Well! Enough!" Sephiria snapped. "And it is not as though we have any other options," That I am willing to use, "So I request that you please be silent. Unless you feel a healer of greater skill is going to simply... wander up to us!"

    And, as soon as she said this, a woman came running out of the trees. Her hood and thick gloves covered all exposed skin, but her heavy breathing and uneven gait showed her flight was one of in obvious panic, despite the mace she carried. "Please... please! You have to help me," she gasped upon seeing the gathered adventurers. "If you don't help me, he'll kill me!"

    Sephiria blinked, turning to Acherai, and said, "We don't know for sure this woman is a healer."

    "She absolutely is, though," Acherai said, smirking. "Just ask."

    "My dear lady," Sephiria said, very slowly. "I wish to let you know that I will not allow anyone to harm you. But first, please tell me that you are not a healer of any sort, because the timing would simply be ridiculous and he will never let me hear the end of it."

    "Nor will I!" Kagain offered helpfully.

    "I... am a cleric, of sorts. But this is really not the..." the woman said, before being cut off by a man in armor tromping out of the brush behind her, a sword in his hand. "Please! You must help me!"

    "Oh, gods damn it all," Sephiria muttered.

    (*)

    "Rope, rope rope, why do gnolls have absolutely no rope," Imoen murmured. Well, she knew why they had no rope: they were awful, seriously among the worst things she had ever known of. She would never go near another gnoll again if she could help it, once she got out of here. It would be the best thing she could do with her life: not be around gnolls.

    "Come on! You nasty things live here, you must have something that's long enough to reach down a pit. You put her down there, what were you going to do to get her out?" she said with an annoyed sigh.

    "Grrrrr..." said a voice in reply.

    Imoen looked up from her search to see a large gnoll (and she meant large by gnoll standards) climbing up the stairs and looking directly at her, its eyes narrowing as it continued to growl low in its throat. It didn't have any blood on its halberd, which meant it probably had not killed Minsc, but the fact it was here meant that they were at least starting to give up the chase. Barely fifteen minutes in, too; apparently either Minsc was a very fast runner, or gnolls were not big on patience.

    "Soooo," Imoen said slowly. "Can I have your big spear? I need something to reach down into a pit and stuff."

    The gnoll charged, then, and tried to give her the spear in its paws. Pointy end first and delivered directly into her liver, but still: points for effort.

    Luckily, Imoen was a real adventurer now, so she did not panic. … well, no, she panicked a little bit, but only because the gnoll was huge and had giant fangs, not because she was scared. That made sense, right?

    Anyway, panicking wasn't entirely a bad thing, because she jumped to the side, and Imoen was nothing if not nimble. The surprisingly fast stab barely missed, scraping lightly against her armor and making her squeal in dismay. "Bad monster! Bad monster!" she squeaked, backpedaling and trying to nock an arrow in her bow before she got chopped into tiny little Imoen cutlets. Unfortunately, she was a little close for archery, but she didn't think much of her chances at trying to stab the thing with a dagger. She skipped back twice, took aim as quickly as she could...

    And hit a wall.

    Once again, Imeon found herself squeaking in dismay as the impact jostled her out of her attempt to aim, and only barely managed to duck under the slashing spear at it took a chunk out of the wall above her head. Seeing few other options, she rolled forward, diving between the gnoll's legs, coming to her feet behind it and spinning to once again take aim...

    And found she had lost her quiver in all the commotion. One of the straps must have come undone when she hit the wall, because she saw it on the ground where she had been only a second before, a rather large creature now between her and it.

    *… I really must get better at this. I bet Seffie wouldn't flub an adventure this badly.*

    (*)

    ElrandirJuliusBorisovlolien
  • MoczoMoczo Member Posts: 229
    Chapter Nine (Part 2)

    (*)

    *I must never let Immy know about this. She would mock me so much for flubbing my second adventure this badly,* Sephiria thought sadly as she watched their new arrival hide behind her.

    The issue, of course, was not saving a young woman lost in the woods. That was clearly the correct thing to do, and she was happy to keep her word on such a matter. The issue was that that the man who came out of the underbrush to chase her was not the brigand she would have expected in these woods; rather, he wore the uniform of the Flaming Fist.

    The Flaming Fist mercenary company was, as the group had been discussing themselves not so very long ago, a complex group. Technically speaking they were, as the name suggested, soldiers for hire. However, their leader was widely renowned for his fair and just demeanor, to the point that the city of Baldur's Gate, the hub of the region, had named him to its council of Grand Dukes. As a result, they truly served less as mercenaries, and more as an unofficial army and police force for the region. Many of them were honorable and good-hearted men, a company she would be proud to join.

    "You there! You harbor a criminal, now turn her over or share her fate!" the armored figure snapped as he walked into the clearing.

    Not all of them, of course.

    "Hold, friend," Sephiria said gently, her hands raised to show she meant no harm. "The lady claims she has done nothing wrong. What do you accuse her of?"

    "She is accused of murder most foul, and I am licensed to carry out judgment in the field for such a crime," the soldier said flatly.

    "He lies! I have done nothing, I swear to you!" the woman shouted in reply, shrinking back from the man as if it was physically painful to look on him.

    Sephiria sighed. "Sir Knight, I understand your duty compels you, but have you any evidence? Any proof that this lady is the murderer you claim? We could hardly allow you to simply execute a woman without any trial nor evidence," Sephiria said. "I am certain, as a soldier of honor, who fights to uphold the law-"

    "If you stand in defense of a murderer, then you will die with her!" the man snapped, raising his sword and falling into a combat stance, his shield held before his chest and his blade ready to swing.

    Sephiria blinked. All right, then. Not quite so devoted to honor or law after all.

    She raised her own weapon, catching the descending blade and shifting it aside, stepping to keep herself between the young woman and the sudden attacker, shielding her with her body. She was exhausted, possibly wounded, she clearly couldn't…

    The woman hissed something, a few whispered phrases in a language Sephiria had never heard. A chill ran down her back as a wave of some energy ran past her, rushing over the Flaming Fist attacker, sickly yellow light playing over his armor. As suddenly as he had charged, the man fell backwards, tumbling bonelessly to the forest floor.

    Sephiria looked down at him as he twitched, struggling against the magic. She raised her sword, drawing her arms back to cut the man down before he was able to move again, resume his attack.

    *Go on. He deserves it. He betrayed his oath, turned on the innocent. Cut him down.*

    Sephiria froze, eyes widening at the sudden impulse. Truthfully, he probably did deserve it. As a paladin, she might well have called ending such a flagrant abuse of his powers her holy duty. But that was not what stopped her blade mid-swing in horror.

    She wanted to kill him. Deep down, in her bones, she wanted to kill him more than anything. Justified or not, deserved or not, the fact was that in her gut she was thrilled by the idea of bringing her blade down on a helpless man.

    Cutting him down was not an evil deed. Her mind told her that it wasn't, but her heart told her that it didn't matter, that as long as he died there was no reason to worry, murder was its own reward…

    And that was roughly when the universe reminded her she was not alone in it, as Kagain stepped forward wordlessly and brought his shiny new war-hammer down on the man's helmeted head.

    Five times.

    Rubbing the weapon on the grass to get blood and fragments of bone off of it, the dwarf looked up at her, shaking his head in irritation. "Worthless. Really, ye are."

    Acherai chuckled. "You are, a little bit. You probably should work on that freezing up problem, my dear. You'll need to learn how to kill in cold blood at some point."

    *No. No, I think that is the opposite of what I need to do,* Sephiria thought, shuddering uncontrollably.

    *Though clearly, something very truly does need to change, and soon.*

    (*)

    *So. No bow. No rope. My options right now are trying to fight a big horrible dog man with a knife,* Imoen thought, *or think of something tricky to pull.*

    She looked down at her knife, and up at the frothing fangs of the creature snapping its jaws at her.

    *Leaning toward tricky! She confirmed to herself.* On the plus side, though she was pretty good at tricky, and she didn't think her new dance partner was terribly bright. It was time for her to show the world exactly what she could do!

    She fell to her knees and screamed, "Oh gods please don't kill me!"

    The gnoll stopped mid-stalk, its eyes widening as it made a kind of confused yelp that might have been cute coming from a real dog, instead of an eight-foot-tall monstrosity, as Imoen squealed, "I am so afraid. Please, you have no idea how horrible it's been for me! I'm a pure, weak, innocent, probably delicious girl. They pulled me out of my peaceful, innocent… did I mention innocent?... life of being daily basted in spices and forced me out into the world where I am not at all fit to survive! Please, I beg you, good sir! Please do not eat me, even though I am pure, innocent, sweet, innocent, and delicious!"

    The gnoll chuckled, stepping forward slowly, its mouth twisting into a crude approximation of a smile. "It needs to be still…grrrrriiigh will not hurt it… just be still…" it said, and Imoen almost ruined her composure in shock at the notion that these things could speak the common tongue. They certainly didn't look like they should be able to. They didn't even have lips!

    "I swear I won't move, Mr. Gnoll!" Imoen said, putting as much fake gratitude into her voice as she could, watching the gnoll stalk toward her, its rusty spear ready to come down on top of her head. It was almost cute, really; somehow this thing actually thought she wouldn't notice that it was holding its spear up, ready to try and chop her head off as soon as it got a few steps closer.

    Though, to be fair… it hadn't noticed that she had stopped to beg right next to the pit Dynaheir was in.

    The creature took one more step forward, and Imoen darted between its legs once again, stabbing her small dagger into its foot. She was a little sad that the same trick had worked twice in a row, but… well, okay, not sad at all. The thing began jumping up and down, howling in pain and grabbing at its impaled paw. And also, not coincidentally, also being completely off-balance right on the edge of a pit.

    "Imoen? What art thou doing? I hear the sounds of battle, but ye gods!" Dynaheir squeaked in dismay as a gnoll came tumbling into her prison pit and landed head-first on the stone floor directly next to her, a loud and very discomforting crack echoing through the pit as she jumped back barely in time to avoid being hit as it flopped forward bonelessly. "Imoen?! What have you done, precisely?!"

    "I got you a platform!" the girl said, grinning down at the trapped mage and her unconscious new cellmate. "I had to pay, too. Lost my dagger. So you owe me extra for this! I hope…wickel-rans make a lot."

    "… So, if I come out with you," Dynaheir began, "is associating with you going to be constantly this… unique?"

    "Sometimes it's even better!" Imoen said cheerfully.

    "Oh, dear," Dynaheir murmured, stepping atop the twitching gnoll, and reaching up to grasp at Imoen's hands as she reached into the small oubliette.

    The thief giggled as she pulled the young mage out, saying, "If it makes you feel better, we may have to jump when we get back to where I got in. I'm not sure the vines I climbed will still be there."

    "Why…would that make me feel better?"

    "It seemed like the sort of thing that Minsc would like, so I figured you would too! You guys are from the same place, an' all, an' he's really enjoying the group! It will be a lot of fun to have you around too."

    Dynaheir winced, and muttered, "I was perhaps better off a captive, then."

    (*)

    It took Sephiria a few long, deep breaths to compose herself enough to actually speak to her new acquaintance. The dead soldier, the scent of his blood, all of it required an almost physical effort to draw her attention away from them, but the new arrival's panicked breathing gave her something to focus on other than her own conflicting emotions. Ignoring the world around her as best she could, she turned to the lightly built young priestess and said, with only the barest of stutters to her voice, "Ma'am? Are you wounded, or-"

    "Back away from it," Kivan hissed, his bow drawn and aimed at their new friend.

    "Oh for the sake of all that is holy!" Sephiria snapped, rage roaring through her veins in a burst so sudden she barely realized she was reacting until she had already begun to shout. "I refuse! I refuse to have everything continue to go wrong, and all of the world continue to work against me! You will lower that arrow and explain yourself, or I swear to Torm, to Tyr, and to Helm, all the gods of justice and law, that I will snap your skinny elf neck!"

    "That's my girl!" Acherai cheered. "Punch him a few times!"

    "You be silent!" Sephiria replied, demonstrating her potential disapproval for this statement. *No. No. Stop it. Calm. Do not give in, not even in the smallest way. Anger is only another branch of the same path you seek to avoid.* In a softer, but still very firm voice, she continued, "Kivan. I have given you a great deal of benefit of the doubt, and you have entirely let me down thus far. If you wish me to continue taking your side, you will explain."

    "I recognized the language she spoke in her prayer. Raids on Shilmista, hunters in the dark, the sun rising on slaughtered children… I've seen it all, shadowed one," Kivan said, his voice low and cold, and his arrow still aimed at the woman's heart, even as she pressed herself back against a tree like a cornered animal. "Take off your hood. Now."

    "I… thank you, but I shall be on my way. I have no desire for any further issues, and…" the woman said, slowly stepping backwards, around the tree and toward the bushes where she might dart off unseen.

    Acherai muttered something soft under his breath, and moved his fingers slightly to the left. A minor cantrip, barely a spell, but it was enough. A minor gust of wind, right under the woman's hood.

    Sephiria's eyes widened as the 'helpless victim' raised a hand instinctively to keep the sun out of her red eyes, stark white hair plastered by sweat to her matte black skin, needle-pointed ears peeking through the matted hair. Garrick let out a startled and possibly exaggerated gasp, Kagain audibly growled, though not half so much as Kivan. Even Acherai looked taken aback, and he normally showed what he was actually feeling about as much as an orc showed good table manners.

    Sephiria could hardly blame them. She had never been one for the books, to her father's disappointment, but she could recognize one of the most feared races in the world easily enough.

    The dark elf sighed, pulling her hood back over her head. In a voice much less filled with fear and far more with exasperation, she said, "Well. That is rather what I was hoping to avoid."
    ElrandirJuliusBorisovlolien
  • ElrandirElrandir Member Posts: 1,566
    Ugh. So good. I just wish I didn't have to wait so long for updates. You seriously do write exceptionally well, absolutely nailing these characters and their personalities.
    JuliusBorisovlolienGemHound
«13
Sign In or Register to comment.