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Memoir of Demons and Angels, Part II


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#1 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 12 September 2010 - 06:06 PM

Chapter 13

To Bear


When I woke after that dream—the first one that I could really remember, the black mourning clothes from the previous day lay where I had balled them into the tent's corner. I didn't feel like unrolling them, cleaning them...There was a lingering dryness on my tongue, a reminder of the blood that had filled my mouth yesterday. I coughed, loosening some phlegm. I grabbed my water skein, took a long guzzle. It was tepid, but better than gagging. Licking my lips, I raised my finger to my mouth to quiet the vague stirrings of nausea. And pain—real pain spread from every muscle I had exercised-so strange...as if it was a new sensation.

I remember. Though I couldn't summon even a wisp of hellfire, my infernal horns were still there, hinting at the power that I had let slip through my six-fingered palms, slightly paler than the ink-dark surface of my hands. Skin is so thin. I scratched my hand, easily scraping the paper-like skin, I will bleed as easily as any mortal.

Good thing I had brought the armor that Sir Nevalle gave me. It was a little ostentatious, like Sir Nevalle himself, but it'd keep back death for a time, at least. The mail clanked link upon link as I hefted the chainmail with both hands. "Sweet and bloody Mystra," I grunted, nearly falling when I was finally able to hold the well-made suit, trembling all the while, above my head. I looked down at the shiny mail dumbly. It had never felt so heavy before. When it was on, I was already sweating like a mare in season and had to steady myself against one of the tent's beams before I could even think about moving. Luckliy, I had opened the tent flap before fumbling about, so I could look at the blue sky and the creek bed that was our campsite.

As I breathed through my open, gaping mouth, Shandra washed her hair by the little stream, humming a song. Her voice was fluttery and soft as a dragonfly as it rose to where I stood, unseen behind the canvas:

Feather beds are soft, and fine-grained shoes in fashion,

Youth bestirs strong passion

Maids can sing a song all dressed in blue,

about who will love them sweet and true.

Times moves by, and widows don black

miles to go, leather soles soon crack

Don that best dress, dandelion green

Before that shade's not seen.


"You may wake her," Casavir pitched his baritone to a soft rumble as he put a gentle hand against her back. His shirt was off, and I saw how his shoulders made a perfect triangle with his hips.

"She needs to wake—sometime," Shandra's honey-gold hair was wet and flat against her head. "It's just you and me for the moment." She was aware of the way her shirt was still moist, clung to her skin, which was tanned to bronze. How many had told her how beautiful she was... Why did it bother her that this one man didn't fawn over her—though she had given him multiple opportunities for it?

Yet she couldn't help but look at him a he turned, giving her a better vantage of his torso. The hair on his chest was thick, but not excessive. The muscles, Good gods. It's not fair! Her lingering eyes accused. What use is all that beauty if I can't ever hold it? "That was a lovely song you sang the other night, Casavir. Where did you hear it?"

He shrugged. I noticed him—how the planes of his face were chiseled, like scrimshaw. The skin, rather than rough, like most men's from being in the sun, was still even-textured, shiny from the sweat he put into his morning calisthenics. His eyes seemed almost drained of color—an icy blue. His dark brows could be quite expressive, but Shandra didn't seem to know just what he was expressing . It could be be a reminder to keep their voices low, a wish to continue his workout, or something she couldn't begin to interpret. Shandra liked simplicity, but Casavir kept surprising and eluding her.

Shandra's voice was an attempt to make a connection, "I know you are modest, but that song really meant a lot to Amara. There are few times I've ever seen her freeze up...It was nice for Cormick's family too. You must have been good friends. That thing...it wasn't true what it said, was it?" Shandra's doe-brown eyes tensed, as if they could still see the incubus, feel his hands. She shivered.

Casavir lifted a hand to touch her shoulder, but let it drop as he saw the trembling. He was afraid of making a sudden move and alarming her, so he met her haunted eyes with an attempt at a smile. His lips were full, a pleasure to contemplate, even if the smile seemed a little forced. He was clearly trying to take her mind off the apparition,"I was very young once...and very, very stupid."

Even with a naked torso, Casavir just had a dignity that seemed inviolate. Shandra gave a disbelieving chuckle, "You're putting me on."

Carefully, Casavir calmly pulled his shirt over his head, "The first time I was paid, as a Cloak, I didn't just visit a brothel-I bought it for for a ten-day." He smoothed the fabric over his broad chest.

Shandra puffed as she made a dismissive gesture of her hand, "That's not so bad—"

He looked at his laces as he tied them, "—After a night of drinking, I went to Blacklake on a dare. I had to get invited to tea into some noble's house. Except I had to do it...naked."

Shandra pink lips spread in a contented way as she pictured just that, "Did it work?"

"With the lord's daughter. And her nurse. And her...maiden aunt," he said evenly as he crossed his toned forearms.

"You're lying."

"I wish I was. I couldn't say 'no'-to anything."

Shandra tried to think of everything that implied, "But it sounds like you had fun. And Cormick, he always liked being around people, having a good time. I don't know, you seem complimentary. He would talk, act, then listen, and you are all, think, listen, then talk."

Casavir buttoned his cuffs, "Cormick and I did get along rather well—for a time. Then he said I was on a 'path of self-destruction.' And just couldn't be a part of that, as much as he liked me...And that was it."

"There had to be more than that."

The paladin's pale eyes looked just over Shandra's head, as if addressing Cormick's ghost before answering her, "The Marshal thought I...bedded someone I shouldn't have. I didn't, but he never believed me...I'm sorry." he held up his hands, "I shouldn't speak ill of the dead."

Shandra's hand rubbed a stray lock from her forehead, "Considering that 'The Dead' just tried to kill us all, feel free to say whatever you like. Was it...Kana?"

Casavir's eyes widened as he shook his head, "I've made lots of mistakes when it comes to women, but that's one I happily never made."

"You don't like her? I thought you liked everyone."

"Of course not. No one likes everyone."

"But you're good."

"Even if I was, it doesn't mean I lack judgment."

"So, who did Cormick think you knocked boots with?"

Casavir looked at the water, but then turned to face Shandra, "It doesn't matter. Cormick always saw me as a 'loose cannon,' even after..." He gave a small, self-depreciating grin, "Maybe I am an old degenerate, in different ways, perhaps, but still with my head in the clouds—if not up skirts. "

"From what I've seen, people don't change." Shandra pointed at my tent, but I knew she couldn't see me..

I held my breath.

Casavir also looked at my tent. An intensity filled his face before he turned again to Shandra. When he spoke, there was vulnerability in his tone, as if he wasn't choosing his words as carefully as he normally did, "I have...deep passions, yes. Unlike some, I don't shy away from my duties to my god, my order, my friends. I feel responsible for her, yes, the same as you. Who will look after her, if not us?"

"You're allowed to be attracted to her Casavir. It won't make you Bishop-"

He shuttered. When he was able to speak, he held up both hands in front of him, fisted, "The difference is this: she is the Shard-Bearer. She is my friend. She must live. That means more than a dozen momentary passions." He stood.

I closed my eyes. So, I'd only be a momentary passion, that's why he blanches-it's the thought of being with me...

"I have changed," he said, echoing my thoughts.

"Oh,"I could hear the hopeful rise of Shandra's voice. She gave an almost shy smile as she asked, "Do you, uh, ever miss being..."

"Bad?" Casavir's eyes crinkled, and his voice became a purr,"Who says I ever stopped?"

I slit my eyes. Why do I care if they talk about me...flirt.

Shandra hit him playfully on his bicep,"Don't do that. You're a paladin, and paladins are good. That's all I need to know."

Casavir shrugged innocently, "Maybe that's just what I want you to think: 'Aw, the a poor, innocent paladin,' then the next thing you know—bam—" he snapped his fingers, "I'll have you on my knee."

She covered her mouth with both hands just to stop laughing.

I decided to step out from the tent. I was angry, but I didn't understand why, so I tried to make a joke, "Why paladin," I said, looking from one to the other. They both snapped their heads in my direction, like children caught with their thumbs in the pudding, "I was waiting for your inevitable betrayal..."

Shandra went red. She started giggling again. "He's not bad," she said. "He's just a great big faker."

Casavir's blush, for once, was deeper than Shandra's, "Amara. I, uh, didn't know you were awake."

"Or this wouldn't be half so delicious," I waved my hand from my wrist. "Please, continue Casavir..." he turned away, but I kept speaking, "I want to hear more about your, uh, methods of seduction. Or we can call it 'hand-to-hand combat,' if you prefer..."

Casavir put the palms of his hands over his eyes, "I think I need to go...pray..."

I looked up at the sky, "You'll probably need more than Tyr's help to get a woman on your knee—try Sune, or-"

"—Amara," he lifted his hands wide in a gesture of surrender, "you win. I pushed the jest too far."

I winked, "You haven't been pushing anything, from what I can see. Though if would have waited another minute, who knows..."

Shandra bend over, her hand to her stomach as she guffawed.

Casavir jaw was rigid as the rest of his body, "Is there anything else you wish to say, my lady?"

I tsked him, even pointed my finger, "Why yes: How have we avoided this 'banter' so far? You seem to grace everyone but me with it."

He moved away, trying to dismiss the conversation. "I think you've have an abundance, rather than a drought."

"But not from you. I suppose you don't want to squander the metal energy-"

"Banter is well-enough, but it never says anything of importance."

"Not true. In just a few moments, I have learned...textbooks of material."

His reply was leaden with sarcasm, "Glad I could be of some use, my lady. Now, if you insist on provoking me, madam, I'll be forced to speak only in monosyllables about Old Owl Well."

"You wouldn't dare—"

"Old. Owl. Well..." he drawled, walking with a strange, limbering gait towards Shandra. With his hands outstretched, the paladin assumed a stance like the walking undead we had so often battled.

"Snap otta it," I said tartly. "I think we've had enough stiffs lumbering about."

I could see the pain I had caused, the apology in his eyes. It felt much like kicking a dog who'd only been wagging his tail...

Instead of apologizing, I turned away, headed up the trail, kicking rocks and weeks and anything else in my way.

I didn't need to look back to know that Bishop followed me. I didn't care enough to look.

I stopped at the sight of a pond rounded with waist-high, golden cattail fronts. Straight maples and oaks replaced the moss-lined, gnarly trees. We were leaving the Mere, and the taint was faint, nearly faded from the marshy landscape. Birds like swallows finches could be heard tentatively, like old men walking up from vivid dreams, muttering to remind themselves that they were awake.

I pulled at my collar, "Come on, ranger, let's just fuck, let's get it over with, so you'll leave me alone."

Silence. I turned around. "Bishop?" But I thought, Sweet Gods, not that thing again. I'd rather face an undead army than look at that again-

I smiled the ranger before I heard his raspy voice, "Whatever happened to wine, candlelit dinners-rings and roses? Promises you don't intend to keep..."

I chuckled. He had managed to sneak around me.

"Actually, I don't like promises," he continued, "even when I know I'll break them."

"Then crawl back to the bitch that bore you."

"Oh no, Mar. I won't let you change the subject. As I recall, you came here to fuck."

"I think I have a headache."

He turned me around to face him, "You're a cock-tease."

"You're a sleazy bastard."

"What's wrong, Mar? Or are you just pissed the paladin's more into the blonde princess than you? Even I could see that one coming..."

"You've never seen anything coming..."

Bishop chuckled, "Really, Mar, did you expect the paladin to fill those lonely spots...We are just returning form you old boy's funeral. Unlike us, he has compunctions. Give him a day-three at most-so he can have a clear conscious when-"

"Don't open your mouth!"

"When he sobs like a baby when he slips inside-"

I smacked him.

He touched his face, the red mark there that would bruise darkly beneath the stubble on his cheek. "If you're going to hit me, then you better kill me Mar. It dents that heroic armor to think this animal will be the only one left to fight your battles. Punch all you want, kick me, you still need me..." He grinned, closing the distance between us in one sinuous motion, "I think I deserve-at the very least- some gods-damned flowers."

I pulled his face toward mine. It was the first time I had ever touch him, brought him toward me rather than push him away. He trembled. "Ranger...all this time...all this talk and you blanch like a virgin the first time I don't slap you. Frankly, I'm...disappointed."

"I don't care."

"You've never fucked, have you?"

He laughed, "My, your dead Harborman's blood must have addled your brain."

"But you seemed to have a history with the Malin, the half-elven ranger we ran into."

"Come on, Mar, you know I have better taste than that slip of a thing. She wanted me, I made use of it. So, what? It's the same thing you're doing with me."

My eyes widened, "I tell you again and again how much I hate you, despise you, that you don't have any chance in any alternative world on any plane of existence, and yet you keep persisting-because you know nothing will happen. You prefer nothing to happen...because you want to stay in control."

"From someone who hates me, you've been thinking an awful lot about me."

"Only in your dreams."

"Know what, Mar. I'm tired of being your whipping boy. Until you can muster up some respect, or admit that you like having me around, we're through chatting."

"Don't worry, Bishop, I won't take your maidenhead-"

He hit me. I let him. For the first time, I could feel the injury, the warmth, the shooting spikes of nerves flaring violently.


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Outside the Keep, Kana strode up to me fluid and lank as the curved blade she carried by her side. Her dark, almond-shaped eyes and complexion marked her as a descendant of one of the eastern empires across the sea. She was slender, but hard-muscled. As she approached me, it struck me that I had not seen her smile. It seemed like a sad thing in one, so young, who might have been so beautiful...but all her passion, her energy was tied up in administration, in warfare, her sole priority.

We were alike, in some ways...though I was glad the others had already headed back to the castle, I also felt suddenly strange in her company, knowing we had shared...

"Captain," she saluted me with a fist against her forehead.

I saluted back, clanking all the while, loud as a dwarf, "Kana, I am surprised to see you outside the walls..."

"I came to greet you personally. I trust you were able to put...Marshal Cormick...to rest," The way she said his name, softly, without the title, made me realize her true purpose.

I couldn't tell her that we were attacked by something wearing his skin, so I tried to set her mind at ease, "It's alright, Kana. I already know about you—about Cormick."

She blinked. "Did he tell you?"

I leaned toward her, spoke low, "He told me the generals. I didn't know you were the particular until recently. Were you the reason he joined the Watch?"

"We served together first on the Watch, then under Callum during the war with Luskan." Kana trailed off, "I did not know when I accepted this assignment that you and he...or I would have told them to find someone else."

"Why?"

She blinked again, "It's...awkward."

I shrugged, "What happened between you and Cormick was history long before we ever met. "

She looked at me, "But...I hurt him."

"...But you haven't hurt me."

Kana pursued her lips into a tight line.

I filled the silence with the only thing I wanted to know, "I did have one question...Did he ask you to marry him?"

"Yes. I said no. That's how I hurt him."

"We all hurt each other, Lieutenant."

"He was a brave man."

"Yes."

Kana gave me a missive, clearly trying to change the subject so she could gain control over her emotions, the little she had shown me in this brief exchange, once again. I let her become impenetrable. I got the impression that she would never speak about the subject again unless I brought it up, and I didn't plan to. A large part of me never wanted to speak of Cormick. I wanted my memories, for once, to stay dormant.

"Captain, it seems Lord Nasher wants you to decide the fate of the former Luskan ambassador, Torio Claven."

I examined the parchment in my hands. Lord Nasher's seal confirmed the edict, "If I read this correctly, Lord Nasher will either execute Torio, or have her brought to this Keep as a prisoner and source of information on Luskan. Torio- in my Keep..." I added, incredulous.

"Yes, Captain," Kana replied. "She will be sent here. Or she will die."

I recalled Fort Locke, and another traitor that swung from the rafters... "A Luskan traitor, deemed so by Lord Nasher, must face justice. The last thing we need is some Luskan whore slithering around this Keep, waiting for a chance to reenter the graces of her former masters. But-we have little choice. I need to know what Garius was plotting."

Kana nodded, seemed to agree with the decision, "I'll send the missive myself, Captain. Also, Sir Grayson has a knight-at-arms approved for your retinue and your descendants." She unfolded a tapestry was emblazoned with a crest.,"I don't know if you are familiar with heraldry. This device can be used to identify you and your troops. It is also the symbol of your nobility. Your line is now officially sanctioned by Lord Nasher and archived in the Neverwinter archives. I suggest we start making cloaks for the solders and livery for the servants. And have a signet ring made for you, so you may seal all official documentation... The palm, from your mother's line, became a fist clutching a white sword, circled by seven stars on a filed of deepest black."

"Is that blood? On the hand... And doI count six fingers?"

"Yes, ma'm. It was painted by Pepin, the famous artist. So there may be some...license in his interpretation."

I smiled, "Frankly, Kana, I don't care if all we have is a crude stick figure...My main concern is the army we're supposed to build. I'd rather have a small army than a bad one."

"That depends om what standards we set. It's easy to give a farmer a sword, but harder to teach him to wield it."

"I only want to recruit the best... Send anyone else who still wants to fight to the Grayclaoks."

"These special troops need a name, Captain."

"Let me think on it... Oh, and be certain we recruit from a number of different abilities. We don't need only fighters, but scouts, magic-users-check with the Many-Starred Cloaks and see if there are any candidates there. Send recruiters to the city, to the villages, the temples-everywhere."

"I suggest you made your unofficial companions the first official members. Some of them may want to recruit or train these soldiers."

I nodded, "We'll speak again once I have some time to think about this."

"Just one more thing, Captain."

"Yes?"

If you fall, since you do not have an heir, your inheritance will fall to your closest living kin."

"My foster-father, but to be honest, I wouldn't want him to inherit this. "

"Without an heir, or living relation, it'd be up to Lord Nasher to decide, unless you designate successor. Sand could draw up the documentation for you, if you wanted to make that clear."

"I'm guessing my heir would inherit my noble title-everything? That's assuming any of us survive..."

"Yes, Captain."

"You've definitely given me something to think about. I'll let you know once I reach a decision."

Kana saluted before she turned to go. We locked eyes for another moment. I wanted to say something about Cormick, but I saw her silent plea to just let it go, which was the better plan. There was no time for us to be sentimental girls blushing over the boys we've kissed. This Keep was kept running properly by her efficiency. I wouldn't make her duty any more difficult, as much as I wanted to know her. Some mysteries were not for me to unravel.

Unsmiling, her dark eyes glinted at mine, "Until we see each other again, Captain."


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"Kalach-Cha?"

"What?"

"It's what the prisoner keeps calling you."

I sat in the audience chamber, listening to reports and requests that lord's had to attend to. A recent recruit to the cloaks, a red-headed girl in scale armor, younger even than I, knelt before me, waiting for my decision as if I were Lord Nasher himself.

"Get up, girl," I said, "Bring the gith here. I will speak to it-alone."

The girl nodded as she stood clumsily to her feet, "Clear the hall! The Lady requires privacy."

Sand, who stood beside my seat, rolled his eyes as the girl tried to push him out of the chamber. "I don't think The Lady means me, child. I helped lead the assault to liberate this Keep."

The girl looked at me.

I smiled, "Just treat my companions as an extension of my own person-understood?"

The girl lowered her eyes, "I'm sorry, Captain. Punish me however you will."

"Burn her at the stake," Sand said drily.

The girl licked her lips, "I'm sorry, Sir Mage."

"Shall I burn her, or should you?" he asked me.

"No burning-not today. Too much rain," I looked at the girl, who didn't know whether or not to believe what we were saying. "The prisoner..." I reminded her. "Bring it in."

The girl saluted to both me and Sand, but didn't even turn her back as she left, as if we were the high priests presiding over the temple sacrifice.

"See Amara: this is why I don't take apprentices."

I buried my head in my hand. That was the position I held when the gith was brought before me in chains, bound hand and foot. She must have been bound since we took the Keep all those months ago. The prisoner was most definitely female. Besides the rise of her breasts, she had rounded hips. Her skin was golden and had spots of darker color along her shoulders. A pale veil with elaborate, golden designs swirled around her forehead all the way to the edge of the veil. There were gold hoops in her long ears. Her eyes were dark lashed, twice as large as any human's, and almond-shaped. Without knowing the standards of beauty of her people, I could still tell that she was a prime example of her race. The other gith I had come across had a savageness, a hollowness to their own features. But this gith looked refined. The white-gold eyes that gazed at me were as intelligent as any human, though I saw her wince noticeably at her bindings.

"So, I'm guessing you want the shards, just like your kindred...are you willing to cut me open to find them?"

When she spoke, it wasn't the hissing accent of the githyanki, but a calm voice full of odd lilts, but pleasant-soothing, even, "No. The shards call only the only who is worthy. I merely seek the one they have chosen, the Kalach-Cha. I'd cut my own flesh before I harmed yours."

"You speak more kindly than your kindred. But then, they were usually trying to kill me. What makes me think for a moment that you will do otherwise?" She was slightly shorter than Shandra, but thin—not in the delicate way of elves: hard-muscled, as if they came from an harsh environment. All the gith I had come across had the same basic form.

"I am known as Zhjaeve. I am githzerai. Those that have hunted you are another people, the githyanki, and they are a cruel, warring people, ruled by a lich queen."

"Do you wear a veil to hide the family resemblance?" Sand asked, swirling the hem of his gray robes.

The gith might have smiled at the elf, but the veil hid it, "No. But you are correct. My people and the githyanki were once kindred, but now we are the bitterest of enemies." She turned to me, "I can speak more freely if I was no longer bound." She held up her hands, " Among my people, such a thing...is worse than death."

I nodded at the girl, the guard, who freed the gith with a quick twist of the locks on her wrists and ankles.

Zhjaeve rubbed her arms where the chains had been and bowed, "I thank you, Kalach-Cha."

I gave her a shrewd look, "Just tell me what you know about me, about the shards..."

She stood straighter, "Gith's blade, once it has tasted the blood of its foe, never rests. The shard inside you, the ones you carry, all sing for the blood of the King of Shadows."

I swallowed. The shards did sing to me...

"Gith's sword" she continued, "has no scabbard—but it found one in your body, until you came to Know yourself and your purpose."

Kalach-Cha. I thought.

But Sand seemed eager to question this woman, so I let him ask the questions, "But Gith. Wasn't she evil?" Sand asked, "How can the sword forged by the will of an evil warrior in some other world help us kill the King of Shadows?"

The gith hesitated, "Gith wielded the Silver Sword, that is true, but it was forged by Zerthamon. Many have wielded it, and will wield it. The nature of the wielder is reflected in the shards, in the sword. This weapon is the only one to ever wound the King of Shadows-it cuts the very fabric of the planes."

I felt the truth of her words, but they did not comfort me.

"Are the rest of your people coming to help?" Sand interrupted.

"No." the gith shook her head, and I detected a hint of regret in her tone, "Know only I have come, and I will be the only one. The hatred between Gith and Zerthamon has not abated. Were we to side with you here, in this plane, the githyanki would fight us rather than the King of Shadows."

Sand narrowed his elven eyes, folded his arms across his thin chest,"Why do you deify your people?"

"You could ask that question of all those that follow the Kalach-Cha: why? I think you Know, elf. But to assure you of my commitment to your task, I will say this. I came to this plane because I believe your leader is the only hope we have against the King of Shadows." She addressed me, "I know this fight that you prepare for, if it fails here, will fail everywhere."

Before Sand could continue to question the gith, I interrupted, "Why do you believe in me?"

Zhjaeve looked at Sand and then at me,"You, Amara Chidi, half angel and half demon, have a spirit greater than either. That is why both sides calls to you so strongly. The strengths of both bloods, but not the weaknesses, yet you struggle as a mortal in this life. There is a wake of destruction behind you, yes. But Know that sometimes destruction is necessary to allow something new to rise."

"Which would be...what? If all you say is true, I need to know what I will do: am I making a path to the Nine Hells or the Seven Heavens?"

The gith thought for a moment, and then locked her foreign eyes on mine, "I Know not." The githzari's yellow eyes were wide in her face. Her voice was deep and clear and calm, "The sword is neither good nor evil. It is the wielder who make the blade an instrument of hope or despair. Know this, Kalach-Cha: it always destroys. That is its nature. Not everyone can wield the blade for many reasons. If it were assembled now, none of your companions could hold it. No one can touch it, except the Wielder. Even those with the will, only a few can handle the responsibility. The power to unmake."

"I don't see how I'm any better than the King of Shadows..."

"The King of Shadows did not begin as what he is today. He was once the Light of Illfarn, who willingly gave up his humanity to be an eternal Guardian of his people. He was the greatest hero of his age. But he was corrupted by the Shadow Weave. As great a light as he once was has become a terrible shadow. He will turn not only this world, but many to darkness. Including your world. The Rituals, you will be given powers that will aid you in the battle to come. These rituals must be completed without delay. "

I rose from my seat. When I spoke, I was unable to control my voice, which began low, but increased in intensity until both Sand and the gith backed away from my pacing diatribe, "Ever since I left the swamp, people have been telling me that I must hurry, there's no waiting, no looking back, no thinking. Just keep moving, Amara, just keep running down this path that's already been set out for you. I am not comforted by talk of destiny and the like. I don't care if the stars came down right now and told me that I need to dance a bloody jig up and down the Spine of the World! Look at all the corpses strewn behind me... From what I've seen of existence, I'm damned, no matter what I do. What keeps me from taking the rest of you with me-from becoming everything that we are supposed to be fighting? Answer me that, gith. Nothing. All this garbage about fate is just a yoke. You want me to serve your will, so you tell me stories, hoping I'll tug that line, but I am no hero. Heroes don't live. It's demons like me who manage to keep breathing, but it's not heroic-it's not destiny-it's sheer luck."

"You do not yet trust me. Let me earn that trust. I will tell you everything you wish to know—about my people, the sword, the King of Shadows. Know this: I also guess part of your hesitation. You cannot control infernal energies anymore. I see it. It is part of my powers-"

"Why didn't you tell me you lost your powers?" Sand asked, glaring at me.

"You...didn't ask. Besides, until I knew they were truly gone, there was no point in informing you."

"I can't help you if I'm not informed. I could have been researching possible causes."

"Well, it happened when my dead fiance was sent by my demon father to turn me into some undead demon thing with some demon fruit. Needless to say, I told daddy to get lost."

Sand shook his head, "Was that wise? If our goal is to defeat the King of Shadows, you can't afford to just throw away power like that..."

"I didn't really think about it, Sand. I know what you're suggesting, and I know I need to consider every option in every possible light, but you didn't see Cormick as an incubus, which was bad enough, but the worst part was knowing it was my fault. That is weakness..."

"You are not weak, Kalach-Cha," Zhjaeve said, taking a step toward me. "You must uncover your greatest gift. The Rituals will grant you powers that will help against certain attacks of the King of Shadows. They will also be the first step away from your father's purposes...and towards your own."

"My purposes? You speak as if I have a choice. I don't. Make an army. Reforge the blade. Bury in the King of Shadows...Amara Chidi doesn't matter."

"You are wrong in this, Kalach-Cha. You matter, else the blade would not have chosen you. If it were assembled now, none of your companions could hold it. Of those few in the planes who might have the will, even less can handle the responsibility-the power to unmake. Once assembled, no one can touch it, except the Wielder. Whether the hand is good or evil, the blade cares not. It is the Wielder who make the blade an instrument of hope or despair. Know this: it always destroys. That is its nature-that is your nature."

"Sweet Mystra," Sand muttered.

I looked at The Keep. I had begun to ignore the hammers and saws of constuction going on around us until a large beam fell from the grip of five workmen-only a few yards away from the gith's head. She drew away from the beam wth a shutter...And I realized how much danger the gith had put herself into...

"That is sufficient, Zhjaeve. You are free to roam this Keep, and to prepare for the journey."

"I will take that as confirmation, Kalach-Cha. Our wills are joined into one purpose."

"Yes. We leave on the morrow."


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The next morning, Zhjaeve stood in the courtyard of Crossroad Keep.

The stableman patted my horse's neck. The stallion was having a bad morning, pulling against the reins impatiently. I strode up to the stableman, but the horse yanked the reins out of his hand. I had to jump into the saddle.

Horses hate me.

I was only barely able to maintain my grip above my prancing animal. "You-must-ride-gith-" I said between bucks.

The zerth's brows knit above her metallic veil, "I do not Know this, Kalach-Cha. I will need assistance."

Khelgar looked from his barrel-chested gelding, the largest horse in the stables that the dwarf was rather fond of, to the yellow-skinned woman, "I suppose King here could carry us both," he muttered to the gith as he held a dirty fist out to her impeccably clean hand. She and Khelgar managed to stay upright in the back of the great saddle, but as Khelgar sat forward, flicking the reins, both seemed hesitant to touch the other.

Once the gith was on her horse, mine seemed to settle. I flicked the reins, dug in my heels just in case he started bucking again. On a sudden impulse, I raised my voice, If I was an truly an agent of destruction, then... "If any here seek death," I screamed, then follow me!" I raised a fist, "I'll take us to the hells and back before we're done!"

Khelgar let out war cry. Zhjaeve, startled, grabbed the dwarf's belt, and closed her eyes as she murmured a prayer to Zerthamon.

Neeshka showed up on the battlements, looked down at the commotion, but made no move to follow. Grobnar came to stand next to her, patting her back as he chatted away excitedly.

Sand came out of the Keep's door and marched forward, "My blood is thin, girl. But it just might be stirring. " He gestured, and a hand brought the black mare he often rode. "I'll follow you."

"Bloody elves...Should learn to stay behind," I narrowed my eyes at the mage, who ignored me.

Shandra, in full armor, maneuvered her horse beside mine. "To the Captain!" she screamed, holding a short sword above her lovely, dangerous head.

"To the Captain!" the call was echoed across the walls by everyone who had been watching this scene. The Keep was full not only of soldiers, but craftsmen and merchants. The population had doubled since the last time I had left. Buildings had gone up overnight, and the dirt path between buildings had been cobbled for the wagons to find better footing.

Kana stood at the Keep's doors, raised her hands in a gesture of farewell. I raised my hand, palm up, towards her, knowing I was fortunate to have her as my seneshal.

Bishop looked at the cheering men and women and spat. "I won't die for you, " he said as he mounted his horse, a gray stallion, "but you'll die without me."

"Ha," I said to the ranger. "You just won't stay behind."

Bishop bit his lower lip, "Why be behind when you can be on top?"

Casavir pulled his large, dappled steed beside mine. Though he was close enough to hear what the ranger said, he said nothing. He seemed preoccupied, even when Shandra waved at him.

Then he turned his crsyalline eyes suddenly upon mine. Was he...afraid?

It'll be alright, Casavir. I tried to convey with my eyes...

"Something is...wrong, Amara." He was oddly pale.

"Casavir, are you alright?"

"Yes, well, it's not me, "He shut his eyes. "Something...evil is coming. It's like I can see the dead..."

Trying not to look scared myself, I snapped my fingers in front of his eyes, "Look at me, Casavir. We won't face it alone. Do you hear me?"

"Yes, but I can't stand to think... Amara," He grabbed my chin, "be ready."

I nodded. My hand touched his, "I am not easily broken."

"No...but I am."

I tiled my head, "I can be held responsible for many things, but not that."

I aimed for the gates. I wasn't a good rider, but the horse sensed my mood. He pranced a little on the green before bolting through.


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The veiled gith cleric led us north. We followed the road until hills unfurled in the hillside around us. These hills were grassy, but occasionally dotted by copses of evergreens. Riverguard was the name of the place we were headed. There was indeed a river, though it was more like a memory of a river than anything drinkable. Pines covered what Zhjaeve said was the tallest peak in this area. After seeing the eastern mountains where the orcs roamed, I wasn't impressed with the height of the hills, but their beauty was undeniable. The gith also said that in ancient Ilfarn, there were real mountains, but after the war with the King of Shadows, the entire area was leveled, except for the peak we headed towards.

This area wasn't settled by humans, but it had been in some remote age, and there were ruins everywhere, sticking out like bones from the hillside. I had heard that goblins currently infested the area. The hardest part of this journey would the Rituals of Purification. According to Zhjaeve, When the empire was threatened, the guardian was endowed with magic from the Shadow weave to save his people. Then the Guardian was corrupted and became The King of Shadows. But those who created the Guardian had a back-up plan. If things went to the hells, as they did, the Rituals would endow those who passed the rituals powers to defeat the Guardian. But ancient rituals rarely turned out the way you expect them to. Sometimes they made you turn dead fiancees into incubi.

"Here is where your companions may rest while we look for the statue."

"I'll go with you two," Shandra said.

I nodded. "Everyone else can rest here. We'll be back once we find the statues."

"Don't hurry," Khelgar said, getting off of his horse."I want to cook some bacon." He untied a large package from the horse's tack.

"Isn't it well, late for supper?" Shandra asked.

"It's never too late for bacon, lass," Khelgar replied, unwrapping the waxed parchment around the salted pork.

Bishop bent over the meat and smacked his lips, "Listen to the dwarf, woman."

"Here's a loaf of bread," Sand said, removing a loaf. "We can toast each slice-"

"And make bacon sandwiches," Casavir finished.

All four men seemed content, cooperated with surprising ease.

"But...don't you want to eat something besides bacon?" I asked.

All four men looked at me in utter astonishment.

"Like...ale?" Bishop said. "Hey, good idea, Mar."

The men all laughed.

I looked at Shandra, who shook her head solemnly.

I threw up my hands. "Just don't eat any mushrooms," I said as I looked for Zhjaeve.

The gith, who was consulting a round tome, motioned for Shandra and I to follow her on foot. As we moved from the riverbed up the hill, following an ancient trail, I wondered just what purification might entail-I was hoping it didn't involve flames.

The gith stood in front of a statue of a woman made from a blue-green marble, half-veiled, with her hands folded. Raising both hands, Zhjaeve bowed to the statue, "This is the first ritual statue. It is supposed to represent the power of healing."

It had been a long journey, and it was approaching twilight. The saute seemed like a dozen other ruined figures we had come across. "I don't think I want to heal the King of Shadows," I said, petulant and tired.

Shandra yawned, "Can the King of Shadows be healed?" she asked, stretching her arms.

"I'll settle on killing him," I grinned.

The zerth was studying the statue with an intense look in her golden eyes. She reached out her hand, touched the rock with a reverent hand, "The healing is for you and those who fight with you. Any battle with King of Shadows will involve injury on both sides. The Ilfarn guardian cannot heal, so we will have an advantage."

I heard a treble of masculine laughter from our camp, "So, Zhjaeve, what exactly are these powers the rituals will give me?"

Zhjaeve looked at me, "One sends a storm of energy on the Guardian's head. It is said the Guardian, if his first form falls in battle, can make many copies of himself. That power combats them. Another lets you regenerate those powers. Know this, Amara: You are the Kalach-Cha. You are the one who has any chance of succeeding. For once attempted, the rituals cannot be cannot be tried again."

I tried to make my voice as urgent as the gith's, "If we're going to do this, it might be a good idea if everyone...stood back. I don't want to stain anybody's boots if I happen to spontaneously combust."

The gith tipped her head, "That was a joke."

I had never seen the gith laugh. I didn't think she understood what humor, at least on this plane of existence, was, "Yes...a joke...but I'm serious about everyone stepping back."

Shandra nodded, "We will be near enough, if anything should happen."

"If anything happens, take them back to the Keep. Find a way to forge the sword, Shandra, even if you have to take the pieces from my bleeding corpse. There have been others to wield the shards...there will be others after me."

"Amara, you're my friend," Shandra said. "More than that, you're the Shard-Bearer. You'll come back."

I nodded. Shandra hugged me. Strange, after where we started...

"I'll see you soon," I said, knowing that I didn't have to say how I would never forget what she had done for me, how she had stayed beside me when anyone else would run away...

You're stronger than you look, Shandra, I thought as I watched her fair head disappear behind the canopies of tree leaves and the growing darkness of night.

As Shandra had walked back to the campsite, Zhjaeve and I stood side-by-side before the statue.

Her voice was rounded and rung with pronouncement, "I will lead the ritual, Kalach-Cha, but The tests are not what they seem to be. They happen in your mind. This is a purification of the King of shadows, yes, but also a purification of your soul."

"...Let's do this."

The cleric held a cylinder that she unfolded between her hands. It made a circle, and on the circle were words. She spoke from the circle in the language of the githzeri.

And the statue responded.

Slowly, it's marble hands spread outward with the sound of stone creaking against stone.

A woman's voice reverberated within the statue...my mind...

I saw a man—a mage in a time when magic was at a height never seen before or since. He had an elven ancestor somewhere in ancient times. His eyes were elven, if nothing else was, but instead of having a normal elven or human shade, they were indigo. Those eyes were detached and intense, and made his rugged face surpass the normal, human bounds of beauty. And he was gifted. As his father said before he died, "My son could be anything but ordinary."

Ilfarn...the name was sweet to him. Human, elves, dwarves-all committed to exploring magical energies. While the elves and dwarves urged caution, there were some men who became interested in how magic could make them masters of the heavens. These men left their homeland, using it secrets to build floating cities. They became the Netherese, the greatest enemy Ilfarn every knew...But there were a humans who stayed. He was descended from that handful of loyal humans.

He had fought in every major battle of his time. He came to lead Ilfarn's, his people's, armies.

What a figure he was, as he stood before that host! His armor was crafted with each element until it swirled with energies, making a nimbus around him during battle that all but the most powerful warriors or spells could withstand.. His dark head was bare, some said out of humility, others said because of the fear he inspired with his battle fury. His staff was made of pure mithril, and had been crafted by six mages with powerful, ancient magics. And he could wield this staff with the grace of a fighter, even as he held it up before his host, sending a soothing light that filled every Ilfarn solder with purpose and every enemy with dread.

He was perfect.

When the Netherese unleashed their nation-breaking magics, the Ilfarn asked the best among them to become a machine of war—a guardian for all time. How could he say no? He loved his people, he loved the idea that was Ilfarn. And so he went beneath their knives and arose no more a man, but the pure will to guard, to keep. He was lost to those that knew him. His creators did not foresee that the Weave could break, and when it did, the Guardian continued—by taking the Shadow Weave onto itself. It grew strong, dispersed every enemy of Ilfarn until nothing moved in the land but shadows, loyal to Ilfarn in death, mindless extensions of the Guardians need to guard. The Rituals of Purification were made to save what was still living in Ilfarn. And they did, but at a terrible cost. The King of Shadows was banished for a time, but the empire was lost and forgotten.

"Will you fight for that memory, that hope that was Ilfarn?"

"Yes, " I spoke.

"Then you cannot be perfect."

Suddenly, everything vanished.



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I hauled him out from beneath the cot and raised his head, striking him with the flat of my hand—short, vicious, and hard—until he ceased laughing.

I placed my hand hard upon his mouth and nose, shutting his jaw with my left hand while my right hand struck him again and again with hard, measured blows until he started laughing again. Then the blows became fisted, increasing in violence as if each connection fueled further aggression, until he could make nothing but chocked, gurgling noises. Once he was silent, I held him until he became still.

I stood in the darkness above the prone body, his breathing alternating hot and cold on my fingertips. I made no sound— I disappeared, even to myself, until he started snoring. I'm going to do something, I thought. I reached to the razor beneath my cot, but thought better of it. He's not the one.

Fumbling out of the cot, I reached for my trouser pocket and the cigar and flint there. I let the cigar until the sleeping body was illuminated. I thought what would happen if the match fell, igniting the timbers of the floor. How the shadows would play on his brute face. Would he feel the fire?

In my underclothes and barefoot, I left the cabin.

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I stood outside the great hall, which was empty as the grave, and the fires were low enough to snuff their lights on the stones. It was a strange moment. To be Thane, no, not while my father was roaring from the inside out. He would be dead. That thought struck me dizzy. The largesse of the world where he was not...that clear spark in which his heavy, smoldering darkness would no longer snuff me out...freedom. What a sweet-terrible word. A dangerous one.

My mother met my eye. Knew my thoughts before I formed the words. She had painted her face elaborately, but there wasn't a stroke out of place. The tears of the grieving widow was something even she could not fake.

But there were other things she would do. All I had to do was tell her. She had endured enough of that man, that accident of spit and seed. She would grin as she held the cushion to his fat, white head.

But I gave no sign. I took a drink of ale, dark and bitter as the life of nobles must be, and let it swill around my tongue. I would let the bubbles fill my throat, my nostrils before I would give that sign.

I coughed, trying to breathe when I suddenly felt my throat constrict. The air came up wet and rancid from my belly.

Before my vision faded into black, I saw was my mother, grinning at me with wide, immaculate red lips...


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I was like a condemned man, living from day to day, expecting the stroke of the executioner every moment I walked through this waking nightmare...but it did not come. When I understood this, I went to my daughter's room, alone, and put everything as it had been before I found her bloody and broken in her mother's arms. The rag dolls with glassy eyes—I threw them away. So too all the clothes, except the ribbons and aprons she had loved and worn in childhood. All these I hung in her room, making a shrine to when she was still happy and still mine. I ordered everything so that if she came back, she would see how I had kept her memory alive.

I would open the door for her, the adult with her mother's long neck, my obstinate chin, and say, "Look, Here's the picture books, with your own frenzied scratchings in red and blue—never yellow. You always hated yellow."

She would smile fondly that I had remembered, indulging her father.

"Weren't you happy, my girl?"

And she would say...

But I locked the door in my mind. In the world, I would never speak of her.

I prayed for hard things, like knowledge. Like war. I drove what was father out of me.


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They're my parents.

I was struck for the first time with the awfulness I was witnessing, which freed me from the impotent stare coming from my own reflection in the glass. I shook like a newborn colt trying to find its legs before the wolf descends with its dead, reflective eyes.

They're burning my parents.

The bonfire flames licked the bodies like a hungry beast. Every plague victim had been piled into one pyre, to cleanse the area. They said. Or everyone might get sick. Well, who were they? If they knew so damn much, why hadn't they saved them?

They're burning my parents and I've said nothing, done nothing, except blubber and hide because I don't want to get sick. No, not the swellings in the pits and throat that turn hard as stone, or the blood-coughs, the black blood coming out of every hole...If they catch me, they'll burn me, too. Feed me to the Monster that lingers over the sick-beds, over the fine dust that rises off the fire.

When I find a hiding place in the cellar, I cradle myself in my thin arms, "Shh, baby. Pretty baby. It'll be alright."


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I felt myself floating. The lives swirled around me. Those I had killed, those I had saved. They swirled like silver spiders' webs extending outward as far as I could see. One movement sent them shuddering, in every direction. SO many threads. But they weren't just threads, each pulsed with heartache and rippled frustration...every emotion, every thought I had caused. I could feel it. I cried out, "Doesn't anyone see?"

There was no answer.


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"What the fuck was that?" I wept big, ugly sobs as I stared at the Statue, which had gone back to its original pose. I don't know how long I lay back, staring up at the marble, femal figure. The canopies of cleaves spread overhead as the tears fell with violence from my eyes. I lay on my back, watching the heart-shaped, dark green leaves change into pale, yellowish green whenever the slight breeze blew, making them move with a rustling sound much like the sound of a waterfall. My only movement in that place, for a long while, was my convulsive sobs, which I tired to still. Even the statue and the voice I had heard in my head were silent, and I began to question if it hadn't all been just another dream...

The gith's voice brought me back to my body, which felt vulnerable rather than protected, "You have passed the Rituals. There is only one more to complete." Zhjaeve tried to put a sympathetic arm on shoulder, but I pulled away. "I did not see what you saw—the Test was yours alone."

My voice was a mere flutter, "It was like...I was living through bad times—horrible moments—in other people's lives."

"Well, knowing what another suffers, according to the teachings of Zerthamon, is the first step towards knowing a remedy."

"I don't understand any of this..."

"And you may not for a long time, but you understand enough to be given those powers that now augment your own."

"Do you think they're enough?"

"Let us hope, so, Kalach-Cha."

"Please, call me Amara. You've watched over me seen me reduced to a puddle of angsty tears-if anyone deserves to name me..."

"Thanks you for letting me Know you, Kalach-I mean, Amara. I hope my own daughter may know your courage."

"You have a daughter?"

"She is a warrior. More like Gith than Zerthamon, but she is young. I believe you are of an age...but being a Shard-Bearer makes one mature quickly, yes?"

I nodded, trying to understand what I had experienced...as my companions made their way to where the gith and I stood, I felt an opening in the air...maybe a portal...

Zhjaeve's voice sounded out with finality, "To complete the final ritual, we must travel through the Song Portal, which will take us to more ruins of Ilfarn."

"I love jumping through portals into unknown dangers," I muttered as I stepped into the pinkish Song Portal, which reflected the clear sky above and around us. Everything became blurred and indistinct, but there was a rhythm to the chaos as I fell-like drums, like a pulse...


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"Daeghun's...a complicated man."

"I know what you mean. He lost his wife. And my mother, but people lose more than that everyday and still manage to have decent lives. I was a child. I couldn't understand...until one day, I knew he hated me. And yet, he was—is— my father."

"Ya still want his approval."

"No. I stopped seeking that a long time ago. But I would like to go hunting with him. Have him show me the proper way to take down deer, teach me the elven prayers he'd say as he sliced through meat and skin. I always preferred to watch him do it. Not a hair would be wasted. Gods, how I wanted to be an elf."

"Well, you may not be an elf, but ya talk like one. I remember now. Don't ya remember? Ya don't have the accent like me, like other Harbormen. When you were first speaking, Daeghun and you would only talk in Elven. Yes, I remember that. Folk thought that was strange."

"I had hazy memories, myself. But I do remember Tarmas getting angry when Daeghun first sent me to be his pupil. I don't think I spoke hardly any common. I learned it. But yes, elven was my first tongue. It what Daeghun still speaks to me—when he speaks to me."

"Say something-"

"Oh no-I don't really speak elven. It takes years to fine tune the complex grammar. Even the simplest word has a history and layers of meaning I can't even begin to understand. It'll take me hundreds of years to say even "Good morning" without sounding like an chattering parrot."

"Now, what about you, Marshal?"

"There's nothing much to talk about."

"You have to at least tell me about the woman you joined the Watch for..."

"What do ya want to know?"

"What was she like?"

"Dark haired, exotic, strong. She was a warrior. And I wanted to be like her. It just didn't work out. "

"Anyone who couldn't make a relationship with you work out is an idiot."

He laughed. "Come here. I wasn't always the fine specimen of manhood ya now see."

"Yes you were. I remember, Cormick. You were always..."

"What?"

I kissed him. "Perfect."


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The portal was mirror-bright. The sky was gray, and the ground a dull blob of mud. It must be some strange reflection of West Harbor, I thought as I looked. Yes, the way some mirrors were made distortions rather than true reflections. But as I stepped through the barrier, and the faint buzzing descended in my ears, the reflection only seemed to become more and more distinct. There was a smell in the air, a sulfurous undertow that made the demon in me smile-

Dear gods, it's like the Well, like...Ember.

Not here. You've taken Cormick. Don't take what he loved away.

"This can't be West Harbor," my voice was a groan, "We were just here."

I walked into the center of town. The silvery wooden houses were abandoned. Several doors were open, as if the occupants had been hunted down, killed, maybe made to watch. There were still fires burning or smoldering in every window. The smell of charred flesh reminded me too vividly of Ember, and was mixed with every memory of the swamp, of what had been home... I made a sound between a sob and a cry. If we had been here just an hour ago-we could have saved them.

"Demons," whispered Casavir, raising his mace. "Tyr, grant mercy to your people...and reap justice upon their enemies..."

Zhjaeve put a hand on my shoulder. The she squinted into the distance..." I see...something strange."

We all walked slowly towards the center of the village, but more specifically, to the open wound on the earth, where the shard entered me...

"This is a ...holy place," Zhjaeve whispered.

"It's where my mother died," I said without sentiment. "We need to look for survivors—"

"Amara," said Casavir. "We need to complete the Ritual, then we will return."

"But what if they've defiled the bodies, like they tried to do in Ember?" I was already walking toward the graveyard...Cormick's grave-if anyone touched him-

Bishop stood in my way.

"Get out of my way, ranger!" I screamed.

"You can't help the dead, except to join them."

I raised my hand at him, but Shandra stepped between us, "Amara, I know you want to help, but there is nothing we can do now. If the Ritual isn't completed, then everywhere will look like this..."

"Wait," Zhjaeve said suddenly, "someone else has already completed the final Ritual."

"We came here for nothing, then?" I asked, but I didn't wait for an answer, "While we were busy completing those rituals, we could have stopped this...Must, someone must live...I sniffed, "I know who did this well enough. The Warlock. He summoned his demons—they didn't stand a chance...But Harbormen are tough-we survive. Yes. They fought to the last man!" I suddenly screamed.

The green grass was charred. I knocked on The Starling's door. "Rhetta? Bevil..."

I found Rhetta's body by her red hair. She had been torn to pieces—gnawed would be a better term. When I turned away from her body, which lay on the same porch where I told her I had killed her son, I looked up. Casavir held the corpse of the little girl-the one who had chattered so amicably with him. The look on his face-I had to turn away.

Body after body. Georg. Merring. Morimee, Kai...

Khelgar cleaned his ax, but I could see by the movement of his hands that he was exacting how to repay this slaughter.

None of it felt real.

I couldn't cross the bridge because it was gone, so I waded waist-deep in the stream before I felt the taint of the place sinking into my skin. My groan as I emerged from the water was for the darkness seeping into me as much as the burnt bodies of the children piled in front of Daeghun's hut. The door was thrown off, making the house look like a gaping black mouth. It was dark inside. I stooped, climbed through the opening. A rafter had fallen, exposing the paneled walls to the elements. Everything was charred. Daeghun's chests, furniture, pictures.

"Daeghun?" I shouted at the opening in the collapsed ceiling. "Daeghun Furlong?"

Another rafter trembled.

"...Father?" I coughed.

Then the remainder of the ceiling collapsed with a loud crash. Before I could move, I felt the air leave my lungs as a great weight pressed against my head and spine.

I was pinned beneath a beam. As spots danced before my eyes, I felt a slight giddiness spread over me, starting from my head to my toes. I felt like I had been wrapped in wet leaves that clung to my skin. Just when I felt my head floating away from my body, I had a strange thought, (Amara Half-Blood, captain of Neverwinter, felled by a piece of rotting timber).

Then there was a great noise as the weight off my back was removed. I head the beam groan like an old man, or maybe it was me, sucking in the air like a babe on a teat. Ash and mud were in my mouth, my hair, my nostrils...but at least I could breathe.

I was pulled up by my shoulders. I felt like I a girl again, being picked up by Daeghun after I had fallen asleep by the fire while reading some history or adventure tale. "Do that again," I could hear the elf's chiding voice as he cradled me in his arms, "and you'll set your hair on fire."

"Amara—"

"Does hair really burn?" I asked. Then I coughed.

I felt a hand on my forehead. Daeghun whispered a long line of words. I tried to hear them, but they just floated away, like foam on the surface of a river.

"I can't hear you..." I said.

Daeghun carried me. He was probably taking me to my room, to sleep. Sleep, I sighed contently, enjoyed the feel of him. He hardly touched me, but when he did, I always remembered.

This is when I know I love him.

I don't remember anything of course. The creek had been tainted deliberately by the Warlock. Not only had our enemy destroyed West Harbor, he set a trap for me, and succeeded. Zhjaeve couldn't sense it—she was overwhelmed with crack in the earth where the shard had killed my mother and entered my body.

But Casavir had sensed it. He told everyone to wait, and had followed me, but was too late. He had to pull me from the ruins of my foster-father's cabin. The paladin carried me as I raved from Daeghun's house to the Song Portal. He carried me through the portal. Once we materialized outside Crossroad Keep, he insisted (much to the consternation of the Cloaks) on carrying me through the gates, up the steps, and the mile or more to my private quarters. He did not let me go except to remove my shoes, and to pull the covers around my feet and shoulders. Then he pulled up a rocking chair, the one I liked to read in, between my bed and the door. He started rocking. He saw my bookshelf and tapped the water-stained cover of The Life and Death of Owal The Tongueless with his fingertip. After he read a page, he sighed, and placed it back in my bookcase. Then he traced the multicolored, leather-bound spines until removed a thin, indigo-bound volume.

Casavir held up the book close to his face, rubbed his neck as he began to recite in a soft voice:

Akatchi's Folly

Can the heart and eyes be as one?

Only in dreams beyond these fields of right and wrong

When the only battle is between who is more content

I have wasted my life imagining your features

yet even my deepest hopes were vague fantasies

next to the candle of your eyes,


He turned the page.

that lights up the world like twin stars

I feared to lose this body to time or violence

before I could behold the face of my beloved,

now that I have seen it, I care no more for vanity.

I will die someday, but I no longer fear the Wall

that would separate us forever, eternity upon eternity,

For your heart is longer than eternity, it will know me, seek me out

know me when I have forgotten my own name

I will know you when the stars have long dwindled into dust

for knowing you is who I truly am.


"For knowing you is who I truly am," he repeated. "...That's a great line. Good thing you can't hear this, Amara. You'd never forgive me. You haven't even flipped through this-the cover's still uncreased. Perhaps you don't care for verse. That's what my mother would read every night to me: poetry. Much better than father's theological interrogations...Though I can always switch to theology, if you prefer." He paused. "Since there are no objections, poetry, and me, is what you will get, madam."

"Frankly, I want to see why such love is called, 'Folly'—" He looked back at the book, swallowed. When he spoke again, his voice was hard to hear, "No, that's not true, is it Sir Casavir? Everyone you care for dies. That's the truth. Isn't it?" He looked back at me, "You should leave, find some noble death, but you're too much of a coward. You're afraid to leave, terrified of remaining. Battle is so much simpler. But here I am," he gave a wry chuckle, "Here I am. Helpless..." He rubbed his forehead, "Tyr, please give me some battle I can win."


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


I dreamed. Often. And they weren't the same nightmares I always had, but could never remember.

These, I was forced to remember.

"What do you need of me, citizen?"

"Don't you recognize me?"

The Guardian surveys this citizen with this sensory organs. The heart-shaped far, pointed ears, height, weight, birth date, familial history, adventuring records. Loyal. "I know who you are, citizen. Is there some justice you need decided?"

"Oh gods."

"Yes, Mystral is kind to grant her servant power."

"Do you remember anything of me...of us?"

"You are loyal in your service to Ilfarn." The Guardian smiled, but it was the imitation of a smile because it could not feel.

The women put her hands upon its cheeks, the Guardian knew it wasn't a sign of hostility, since the elf had no weapon and was classified Citizen. They were very warm. The Guardian had to adjust its internal temperature to match that temperature, since the citizen looked uncomfortable. Never hesitate to put the safety of citizens before oneself. While it didn't really understand "oneself", its programming, the slogan went unvoiced.

This female citizen pressed her external mouth-lips against The Guardian's articulator.

Its internal alarms rang out a sound like a horn ringing out in warning, "HOSTILE. STEP BACK!"

"Love—"

The Hostile reached for something at its belt.

The Guardian knew its purpose. Protect. Defend. Kill.

From its throne in that chamber lit bright as sunlight by blessed magic, the Guardian's lethal spell dispatched the Hostile into nothing but a smear on the white marble.

It forgot the smudge entirely once the hum of its programming confirmed its actions:

The Guardian is always perfect.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Zhjaeve, Sand, Aldanon, the Tyrran priest—they all came to try and heal me. But the poison can from a warlock. And I was the only warlock who could remove the effects. But I had no powers.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


In the meantime, I dreamed.

West Harbor.

Bishop burned it down.

His eyes were yellow, reflective, like an animal's caught in the beam of a bright light.

When he was done, I came to him.

Smoke coming from his eyes, "You make me human" he said,.

The tears in his eyes were of blood.

I caught them in my six-fingered hand. They tasted like cream. I closed my eyes, trying to keep the sweetness, but could still smell the hellfire, which soured everything.

"Mar," He was kneeling before me. "I know your name."

I pulled his hands toward m, examined the lines of his palms. They were crisscrossed with scars, making a chaos of flesh.

"I know yours..."

Before I said it, I started to choke. Suddenly, we were back at the Flagon. A red moon. He held me by the throat, shoved me against the wall. I writhed as I felt him suck my delicate wrist, fist genlty, like a babe, but then he flashed a grin. He had fangs, which he then dug into my veins, making slurping sounds.

"They don't teach that in the swamp," I moaned.

He let go of my throat, pulled my hands to his chest. He was naked from the waist up. His tongue lolled as he guided my hands with his own ,made me touch each wound. I wondered how anyone could survive so many scars.

Soon he was panting, shaking with need he did not understand. He used one hand to tear off my robe. My dark, shiny skin was exposed from belly to ankle.

The wounds of all his battles burst open.

Suddenly, Bishop was off me. He howled, grabbed his head. More tears, "When I want, I don't think. I burn. Burn me, Mar."

I understood. The fire he burst into was every color fire could be: yellow tip, red inundation, violet haze.

But he didn't die. Out of the ashes, He became—

Me.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A woman with ringlets of, white-gold hair sat beside my bed. Her skin was unblemished, held a coppery shine as the light from the windows illuminated her features. Her eyes were wide, almost orange, a rich shade like the harvest moon, or the moment right before sunrise. Her armor was bronze plate. She wore a white tunic embossed with the symbol of Ilmatar, the bound hands.

She touched her shoulder, and smiled at me. Her voice was deep and enchanting."I never had wings. But I have tattoos...you probably don't remember..."

"Whorls...I remember."

She smiled again. It lit up her face. It lit up mine.

"It was the promise of wings. As you can see, I never got them."

"I'm sorry."

"I'm not. There are other things to be besides an angel..." She looked out the window.

I followed her gaze. It wasn't Crossroad Keep. I saw her as a young, beautiful, otherworldly child.

"Mortals die. They have one chance to embrace or deny the gods. I was raised knowing that death that pain, was inevitable. I was in love with the world, knowing my time was short and the days harsh as often as kind. But though I loved these suffering mortals, I was touched by no one. That is what I thought it meant to serve the world..."

Now I saw her as she was I life, a beautiful woman that seemed to be paying attention to things above, not in the world. I saw Duncan, young and handsome try to touch her, but she ignored him. Then I saw Daeghun, intense and silent, attempt the same.

She offered a wry grin, "You have learned the lesson I never could, not even when I was given the world... I did not realize in time.."

"Mother—"

"Don't deny it, my love. You were the reason I was born. There was a prophesy known to the realms above and below. You recall the Time of Troubles, when the gods walked on the earth—but there would also be another time after it,:

A Wanderer shall be born again

of celestial and infernal blood

a contradiction that unmakes the foundation...

Gods rise, and gods fall,

but mortals shall unmake the law."

"What law?"

"Belief is what fuels the planes. Gods must have worshipers, or they fade...To ensure that worship, the gods of this world, both foul and fair, made a pact: The Wall of the Faithless was made."

"Those who do not worship the gods spend eternity in the Wall: their memories, their personalities, everything they were—even their names fade in time. Crusades have been launched against this law since it's inception...Believers and nonbelievers, demons and solars, the living and the dead have marched against this abomination...All have failed."

"Why do you tell me this?"

"I am a part of it."

"Is that why you...had me? To fulfill some prophesy?"

"I had you because a man came to me, and for the first time, I could not deny him. Whether he was a demon or mortal didn't matter...until I quickened. Aasimar should not be able to reproduce with anyone with even a trace of infernal blood. So I was...concerned. I had to find a safe, remote place to hide until you were born. I hoped that my blood would drive out the other, but when you were born—"

"I know. It must have been a shock."

"I thought you were a punishment, but you were the greatest blessing I was ever given. You already wield the sword of justice, of destruction in your left hand, but there is also the open palm of mercy, of creation in your right.

I looked at my hands. The left held my bastard sword. It was outlined in blue-green flames of hellfire. Open palm facing outward, my right hand was bound with red rope and bleeding, just like the image on her tunic.

"Am I supposed to love the King of Shadows?"

"You know what he once was. A hero. There is a lesson there, I think. And a warning. It is time to listen to your heart. It is no accident your shard is there. It''s a reminder of what really matters. It's not about titles or money, even wining. It's about your soul."

Now, I give you to the world, daughter of my heart."


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

When a message came from Neverwinter, the reply came not in the form of a written message, but Sir Nevalle himself the highest-ranking cleric of Mystra, who happened to be visiting with Lord Nasher when the message arrived.

The purple-robed woman was in her middling years, but still handsome. She had eyes blue as cornflower blossoms.

Instead of taking my pulse or feeling for fever, she touched the amulet I wore around my neck. "This is a token, but it is potent. It is through this that healing can happen, This magic that tears at your self, is a perversion of your own. And so it must be your own power that overcomes it. I can act as the conduit, but you must...help me."

I must have agreed because when I woke, healed of the sickness.

I was told the cleric only stayed long enough to see me sleep uninterrupted by darkness. Then Sir Nevalle escorted her back to the palace.

When I woke, only Casavir was beside me. He wore an old tunic over pants of the same material.

"How long?" I asked, slitting my eyes and raising a hand against the glare from the window. My voice was weaker than I could ever remember it being-as if I had been screaming instead of sleeping.

"What do you remember?" The paladin's voice was quiet, measured as if seeing how much I could take of it.

"West Harbor, Daeghun...is he alive?"

"There's no trace," replied Casavir, holding a glass of water out to me.

"No," Casavir held up the glass until I took it, drank with greedy slurps, "There wouldn't be. What happened?" I wiped the water that dribbled down my chin.

"The Warlock, when he set his demons on West Harbor, he poisoned the creek with something meant only for you. It drove you into a strange place between dreams and awakening. You've been here, in this room, for two weeks. It took a high cleric of Mystra to save you."

"A high cleric of Mystra?"

"Yes, she was passing through he region, asking questions about recent events. She traveled from the castle with Sir Nevalle. She is probably back on the road by now."

"What have I missed?"

Casavir looked into my face, I saw how haggard he looked. The shadow of a beard, rather than take away from his looks, made him more tangible. "Everything's been hushed here since your return. Everyone has been afraid...assumed...that you would not recover."

I sat up. It was then I realized I was naked. I pulled the sheet around my bare shoulders, "Well, they'll have to be disappointed. Were there any survivors?"

He shook his head, "We've heard of none. No one can approach the Mere. The taint-"

I pulled the covers over me like a robe, put my feet against the floor, and stood.

My legs collapsed beneath me. "Fuck!" I yelled as I grabbed the bed.

Casavir moved toward me, but I gave him a withering glare as I held up my hand.

"You'd kill me?" he said with surprising heat.

"...No. Never you..." I clutched my head, "I don't know what I'm doing, Casavir, " I cried, "but you must stay away..."

The paladin and I had a contest of wills. Me, nearly falling onto the floor, my arms trembling, about to give, and he, erect and contained, even with the dark circles beneath his eyes and the stubble on his cheeks and chin...

"Why are we fighting?" I asked.

"My lady, I don't think you do anything but fight," When Casavir gently lifted me, set me back on the bed, I let him. When he pulled a stray hair my hair away from my mouth, I let him do that too.

"I look awful," I said, suddenly feeling very self-conscious. I pulled at the tangled mess that my hair had become, trying to smooth it.

"Not even if you were bald as Khelgar," When he brushed his thumb across my lips, I let him do that, as well.

Our eyes met, and I became aware of his weight as he held himself over me.

I pulled his face toward mine, "You've been here? The whole time?"

He shrugged, "Where else would I be?"

The simplicity of his reply touched me. I held his cheek , traced his jawline and stubble lightly, "I don't know. Being gawked at by young women, praying in the temple, discussing strategy with Kana. You know. Leading."

He didn't pull away. "What about Sand, or—?"

I tapped a finger to his forehead, traced his nose, "Only you, Casavir. That can't be a surprise...Don't tell me you were thinking of playing nurse to me when there's a war, and you must play general?"

"Not nurse. More like...well..." he trailed off as he looked at my my features.

"Warrior Poet?"

"You remember? I thought you slept..."

"It's jumbled, but I remember a little."

When he spoke, he sounded so preoccupied with his thoughts, that I don't think he realized what he had said, "You don't look like something to fear... I'm embarrassing you." he corrected himself.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"I don't know...I keep opening my mouth, and the words keep coming."

"Let me have it, then," I laughed. "Lucky for you, I'm never embarrassed."

"She laughs," he sighed. "You're always laughing at me."

"You're funny."

He shook his head, coyly, I would have said on anyone but Casavir, "You're the first person to accuse me of that in a long time."

"It'll be our secret."

He adjusted his knees, and I imagined what it would be like to put my hands on his thighs.

My eyes widened. I'm attracted to Casavir.

"Are you alright?" he asked, pressing his hand to my forehead. I licked my lips as he checked to see if I had a temperature, or if my skin was clammy.

"Not really," I said.

He felt the pulse in my neck, "If you're sick—"

My nipples responded to his fingers on the most sensitive region of my neck, "I'm not sick, paladin. Well, anymore than I usually am."

There wasn't any covering or much clothing between us, and he kept his hand on my neck. Casavirlooked at my responsive chest with a slightly parted mouth. As his dark eyebrows rose, I knew what he imagined doing...

He must have heard my heart quicken, for he flashed a naked look for the first time...

And I remembered what the incubus had said. What had been warm and responsive in me hardened. I pulled away from his hand, rolled onto my side in the bed, my back against him.

Cormick was gone-what? Four moons... I wouldn't trade one man for another. He didn't deserve that. And, even if there was something, what if I became liken the Guardian, killing all those I loved? There were already enough bodies.

"Are you angry with me?" Casavir asked.

"Why would I be angry?" asked, already making emotional miles between us, "You've done nothing but save my life. Again. But, dear saint, be assured that I am awake, and I will recover, with a little rest. You look like you could use a day off. Read a book, go fishing."

"Amara," he kissed the back of my head. My senses seemed heightened where he touched me,"It is good to see you awake."

I turned. He kissed my cheek, lingered...How many has he kissed? How many had I? Neither one of us were blushing, fumbling virgins. We both believed in action. The difference was that Casavir thought before he acted. I usually just did what I thought was best, then worried about the consequences.

He' so close. This moment might not come again.

I knew that if I turned around completely, he'd kiss me. He'd already decided. I knew it as I knew the color of his eyes.

Then my lips were against his, and I forgot every objection.

His lips were smooth and pliable-a surprise from that grim, hard mouth. I knew my own lips were rather full, but his mouth matched mine. Casavir was fully there in that moment and put all the energy that spend fighting, being a good man into the moment when my mouth met his. It was a sweet, building agony that increased until I found my tongue fluttering after his...Sweet Mystra. I pulled off his tunic, ripping off the buttons with a dramatic tear—

We were both short-breathed, panting, wide-eyed for a moment...Then his hands went beneath the sheet, caressed my nipples until his eager mouth went to do the same.

"Oh, fuck," I moaned.

He was the one who laughed against my breast, "That bad?"

"Terrible. Almost as bad as your riposte," but I wanted him naked, I wanted to feel him against me...

He pulled back, but only far enough that he set those soul-seeking eyes on mine, "Amara..."

I ran my fingers through his hair, let my lips flicker against his ear as I spoke, "Kiss me again."

Folding my hands in his, Casavir leaned his full weight against me, Amara., he said my name as if it pained him, "I don't think I can stop at a kiss. I'm sorry-I'm over-thinking."

"And I'm not thinking at all," I pressed my hands against his thighs, kneading the muscles there with rhythmic strokes, "Now...have your thoughts been sufficiently banished?"

He made a noise between a moan and a sigh.

"No? Well, all you need is a naked woman on top," I clamored on top of him, my hand on his belly, "and you need not worry about thought for awhile-"

Then there was a knock on the door.

"Bloody hells," Casavir muttered through gritted teeth.

"Amara? I heard you were awake—" Shandra burst through the door. She saw me pull my shift hastily on, with a dark shoulder still uncovered as I sat by the foot of the bed. She didn't flinch at that—I was supposed to look like shit. But the paladin had pulled the sheet over his hips as he sprawled in the chair with disheveled hair, heavy breathing, and a face full of...

Shandra knew...She crossed her arms, nodded at the sheet, "Did you get...cold?" she asked the paladin without humor.

Casavir tried crossing his legs, but he didn't seem able. He cleared his throat.

"Shandra—" I said...

She held up her hand, "No, I'm asking Casavir. Did you get cold? Because I can't think of another reason why you'd be tangled up in Amara's sheets!"

Casavir couldn't meet her eyes.

But I did, "Come on Shandra. We're all friends here."

"Are we? After everything we've been through, everything I'd told you, I would have said , yes, but not now. No. We're not friends."

Shandra left, tears streaming down her face, and slammed the door behind her.

Casavir and I looked at each other. I ran my hands through my hair.

"I'll leave," he said.

I shook my head, "No. I'll talk to Shandra when she's had some time to cool off," then I looked at Casavir. "We're not children. And we have to reason to slink about as if we have something to hide. Come here, paladin, let's make you presentable." I grabbed my comb, and put it through his thick, dark hair until it was smooth. Funny, as pale as he was to have hair as dark as mine. He watched me with a curious expression as I adjusted his shirt, gave him his boots. "Like I said, we're 'friends.'"

He looked at his boots, where my hand met his, "... This is when you should discard me."

"That's just stupid. Anyone who would discard you deserves an ax in a tender area."

He gave me a look, and I got the impression that I was the only close friend he had. He spoke in a tired rush, as he often did when telling me something from his past, as if it were easier to say if done quickly, "As I told you at Aldanon's, my father was a priest and my mother a mage. In being together, they violated the statutes of his religion. Their families shunned them—especially when I was born before they were legally wed."

I moved a stray hair from his forehead, "I'm so sorry for everything I ever said about bastards—"

He waved his hand, "You didn't know. But a scandal like that—soon everyone in Neverwinter knew, and I was treated accordingly. You know how that is... Then my mother died, and my father felt remorseful. He often did. He decided to live in a monastery for the rest of his days. When he told me of this, I was younger than you are now, but old enough to be...angry at him. I said I'd be damned if I ever took holy orders. I was a big enough lad, and thought to make my living with my sword."

"...When did things change?"

"The usual way. I woke up one morning, the sunlight on my face, pain lacing my vision, and I couldn't remember where I was, who I lay beside.. And then...I saw how meaningless my life was. The sunlight was spilling over me, but I wanted to shield my eyes." He held up his hand over his eyes. Then tried to smile. "I wanted love, I wanted meaning..."

"Poetry?"

"Yes—I wanted my life to be a poem..."

I tried not to let what I felt show, "Is it?"

Casavir looked at me. Then he put his arms around me, hugging me with an intensity that caught my breath. "I wrote that song when I met you, and only you."

I returned his embrace just as fiercely, luxuriating in the feel of him, the hardness, the way we fit, before I could find words, "Casavir, I...don't know where we go from here."

"Let's start by going outside...Eventually."

Edited by Raenemon, 13 September 2010 - 01:30 PM.

"The difference between a cow and a bean is a bean can begin an adventure!"
---"Into the Woods," by Stephen Sondheim

A Memoir of Demons & Angels

http://www.fanfictio...e...ns_&_Angels

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#2 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 14 November 2010 - 01:27 PM

Chapter 14

Absolution




In heavy, dented armor, Shandra moved with symmetrical strides down the dirt path from the inn to the blacksmith's shop. She moved like a fighter, the leg muscles honed to the hardness from avoiding enemy blows, endless bouts of sparring, bearing the weight of steel scale mail. The honey-blond, straight hair now had white-blond streaks and framed an oval face whose evenness could seem gentle in another, but were balanced by her growing musculature. Her skin was tanned a reddish gold, but Shandra's beauty had little do with the classical feminine features anymore—it was the lively eyes, the confident, practiced grace that made many heads watch her with interest and envy as she passed them by.

She bent over the weapons displayed on a table in front of the blacksmith's shop, where many weapons lay illuminated by the midday sun. Her last short sword had been singed by some fireball or some other spell from one of our frequent skirmishes. Bishop passed by in the opposite direction towards the Keep, but suddenly stopped. The midday crowd passed by to the left and the right, but the ranger stood taut. Anyone who recognized him knew enough to avoid the smiling, red-headed man who traveled with the Captain. He wrapped the licorice green cloak about his shoulders as if the heat didn't bother him and slunk through the crowd to stand before Shandra.

“Hey farmer,” he greeted in his raspy cadence.

Shandra gave the ranger one look before she perused the weapons again. But in this moment, she noticed him. The ranger, for once, looked like he had had a bath. He didn’t wear armor, but a cream linen shirt, new leather bracers. His auburn hair was smooth against his head, the cheeks were clean-shaven, and the eyes were clear, rich amber. Fine-looking—she might have thought that of anyone save Bishop...

Laughing good-humoredly for Bishop, he winked, as if he noticed she was noticing him, “You're making me blush, farmer. I take it you like what you see?” he waved a hand at his figure like a peddler hawking his wears.

Shandra rolled her eyes, then traced a silver-etched pommel of a longsword. As her arm moved, her armor clinked almost musically, “Unlike you, I have things to do.”

He glanced behind, as if he didn't want their conversation to be overheard. When the crowd seemed to slacken, Bishop rubbed a hand through his hair, a nervous gesture, unintentionally mussing his thick hair into something like its usual cowlick, “Just out with it wench. Is she breathing?”

Shandra neck flexed as she tilted her head upward and nodded once, “She's alive.” A tension Shandra had not noticed before in the ranger’s forehead, in the his shoulders suddenly lessened, “We didn't let you see her for a reason.”

An abrupt stab of sunlight illuminated the weapons, making silvery lines fall across their faces. Shandra’s face seemed sharp-edged, hard in that light.

The lines danced in Bishop’s eyes, even if he didn’t smile, “Reason? The paladin runs off with our glorious leader, a glorious corpse for all we know, over his shoulder, and you expect me to sit on my thumbs? Play nice and keep my mouth shut?” He wagged a finger at her, and Shandra looked anywhere but at him, “You fucked up, farmer.”

“Fucked up” Shandra held up a curved sickle from the weapon display and aimed it at Bishop.
“I saw what you did to her the night before the Trial—”

“What's between Mar and me is between me and Mar. Got it? Or should I spell it for you?” Bishop pushed down the sickle, “Do you remember the Trial? If I recollect rightly, it was a knife,” he picked up a knife displayed on the table, “thrown into Lorne's back that did the job. Funny thing was, Mar doesn't carry a knife—especially not my knife.” He twirled the knife deftly between his fingers, “A mystery...”

He bent forward, tapped his chest with the tip of the knife. “See, after that night...I felt like I owed her one. So I knifed him.”

“You...saved Amara?” Shandra looked confused, “To gain what?”

Bishop shook his head, “She wouldn't believe me. I don't change, remember?”

“But she would believe me. That's why you're telling me this...” Shandra chewed her lip. “Wow. “ She turned away, touched her hands to her ears. “This just too much, too fast. I need to think.... I'm not making any promises, not to you. Why do you care what she thinks? If it’s just that—”

Bishop took a step toward Shandra, and a intimate smile spread across his face. He put a hand on Shandra’s hip, and pulled her toward him, bending down to whisper in her ear, “I don’t care what she thinks.”

Instead of another hostile comeback or a slap or a short sword to his groin, Shandra stepped back, but looked up at him with her doe-eyes wide and reflective. For a moment, she knew….

“You’re really screwed ranger,” she said.

Bishop’s hands dropped as if he had been burned. His voice lost the false bravado, the hostility, “Just once…” Before he said it, he shook, like a dog that tries to shake off water.

Shandra watched Bishop for a moment before moving back to the table, “Casavir and Amara. They’re together now.” She covered her mouth when she said it. She smile a very small, sad smile, “You can doll yourself up, but she'll still hate you. And Casavir will love her. The sooner you figure that out, the better off you’ll be.”

Bishop snorted, “Love?” His laugh echoed, rung mockingly between them. “The paladin only loves his lame god.”

“Maybe. But he's tall, dark, handsome— more than that, he's good. Something you'll never, ever, be.”

“Everyone thinks they’re good—except me. Isn’t that’s what supposed to matter to you wenches: honesty? To be honest, I’m getting tired of talking. But this day doesn’t have to be a complete waste of time…” Bishop grabbed her hands in his, “ Aren’t you tired of being second best to a demon? You are toothsome, farmer. We could have a good time being very bad… ”

Shandra pulled out of his grip and giggled, “I’m sorry.” She wiped at her eyes, “But…You are a surprisingly bad lecher, Bishop. I thought you evil types were supposed to be…all seductive…” She laughed again, even held her stomach to stop herself.

Bishop had moved away and narrowed his eyes, which send Shandra into new fit of giggling.

“OK,” she said, taking deep breathes to regain control over her voice again, “Let me simplify all this for you: you bargain for swords,” Shandra traced the handle of a short word encased in a platinum-inscribed scabbard that seemed to glow with its own light, “but you can't bargain for affection. That's not the way it works. Hells, I don't know how it works...But talking to me like this makes you seem...predatory, which is, in case you were in any doubt, unattractive.”

She tied the elaborate belt around her narrow hips; she threw a coin purse on the table that landed with a dull clatter of coins against leather. Bishop's eyes were on the pouch as she spoke, “Unlike Amara, I don’t care what you feel, why you do what you do.” she shrugged, “Me,” Shandra tapped her collar bone, making the ranger meet her gaze, “I don’t know what I am, but I'm not a farmer anymore. So, touch me again, and not even Amara can save you.”

Still keeping one hand on her collar, conveying the fullness of threat in her eyes, Shandra adjusted her new short sword so that her other hand rested on the pommel.

The ranger watched her armored back sway away. A struck expression crossed his face before he hunched his shoulders and bumped his way through the midday crowd. Putting up his hood with his right hand, he went out of the front gates. The guards didn’t look twice at the hooded ranger, who left the Keep as often as he arrived. If it didn’t bother the Captain, it didn’t bother them… Bishop became a small, dark dot on the horizon, moving east. The nearest forest was dark, easy to get lost in. Amara had named it, jokingly, “Bishop's Wood.” The ranger breathed deeply of the scent of pine trees rather than the stink of human bodies pressed together, felt more and more alive with each step away from stone walls and crowds.

His Wood. He thought of taking out his bow and hunting, but there was a campsite he had found, an old smuggler’s hideout, was stocked with supplies. He picked up some branches as he walked towards the campsite. Laying log after log in the fire pit, the ranger made a bonfire.

When he was certain there was only him and the fire, he removed something he had hidden in his waistband.

It was a water-stained square of parchment, a sketch of Amara that that Pepin, an artist in Neverwinter, had drawn for Bishop. He crumpled up the picture and, held it over the fire, “I should just burn you, wench, and be done with it.”

Bishop let the picture drop into the flames, but a brush of air it unfurled. Mar's green eyes stared right through the strokes of paint in a way that made the ranger’s skin tinkle. He snatched the picture back from the flames, sucking on his fingers to ease the burns that sprang red and shiny on his fingertips.

Bitch, bitch, bitch…he muttered as he sucked on his fingers.

Yet the ranger used his uninjured palms to smooth out the picture gently—so gently…He traced the dark outline of her cheek.

He had heard what Amara had seen during the Rituals, but she wasn’t the only one. While Amara had stood before the old statue and seen moments in other people’s lives, he was suddenly bombarded with image after image of Mar’s life unfurling like a moving picture across his memory until they shared one terrible memory after another: Lorne breaking her back, Daeghun telling her she was worthless, Cormick dying in her arms, what he had done the night before the Trial— all these things swirled as if it they were his own memories, haunting him even more than the other faces that usually kept him from sleeping—except when he could drink himself numb.

Good idea...

Taking out a bottle of brandy wine, he lifted it not towards the moon, but Shar's darkness. “Oblivion,” he muttered until it came and he curled around the empty bottle.

Sometimes, he dreamed of Mar.

But he always dreamed of fire.


*



When I entered the audience chamber, Torio Claven's thin silhouette, created by her white, high-collar robe, threw dark shadows against the tapestry behind her.

Cormick…I felt a surge of disgust, of anger as I pointed at the Luskan, “Why isn't she chained?” I growled to Kana, who stood beside Torio.

Kana, her usual calm troubled by a grimace, saluted, “I'm sorry Captain. I can have her bound, if you prefer...”

All I could remember was Cormick’s face, twisted and unnatural, as I pushed the former Luskan ambassador, delicate white robe and all, against the wall. A part of my mind registered that the tapestry that had just been embroidered with my symbol: the fisted, six-fingered palm clutching a silver sword circled by seven silver stars on a field of ebony.

The ambassador’s eyes rolled briefly into her skull as her head hit the tapestry with a satisfying clunk. The fabric wasn’t that thick, and the walls beneath were solid stone.

The guardsmen and Kana shuffled quickly away, avoiding my glare; my temper had long ago become legendary. I tightened my grip on the Luskan's throat until she looked at me, gasping not just by the grip, the violence, but my ferocity as I bared my fangs and my eyes became almost feral. I hardly recognized my voice, deep but chilling, because I meant every word, “If you don't tell me everything I want to know, I will hang you from the walls by your thumbs...If you lie to me, I'll send you to the front-lines only in your nightshirt and a prayer to whatever thing would listen to a treacherous bitch like you. Understood?”

I let go of my grip, and Torio took a grateful gasp of air as she fell to her knees, prostrating herself. She kept he face pressed to the ground. Her collar was torn, and her robes spotted. When she finally turned to look at me, her eyes were dark-rimmed, haunted below her askew, brown hair; pieces fell across her forehead, as if she hadn't had a comb through it since the Trial. She didn't wear any face paint. The skin of her face was more sallow than I remembered. Faint wrinkles in the corner of her eyes and her forehead showed that she was a good dozen years older than me.

“I have been tortured before,” she managed to say, trying to use her reason, the only weapon she had at her disposal, “One does not survive in Luskan without learning how to handle...intense situations. Just ask—”

I clapped my hands, “You’re looking the worse for wear, Luskan. I still haven't forgotten that you tried to have me hanged. But,” I stopped clapping, held my hands in a fist, “you did one thing worse...”

Torio looked up, her cropped hair falling in a chaotic mess, obscuring her eyes. She parted the hair with her hand as she looked up, bracing herself to be struck.

She avoided my direct gaze, so I pushed her against the wall by her shoulders, “You hired Moire to kill him...” She refused to meet my eyes, so I grabbed her chin. Look at me!” I hissed, “I'll speak on a level you can understand... I had a talk with Moire. Before I killed her...I didn’t like her answers. I better like yours...or I hand you to the ranger. I think he's' enjoy getting revenge on a Luskan.”

Torio's arched eyebrows went up, and her voice became shrill, “Lorne was obsessed with Cormick! Do you know how many times he tried to kill him?”

I squeezed her thin cheeks, “The fire in the docks?”

Torio grimaced, nodded. “He nearly jeopardized our mission. That pig agreed to the duel rather than another assassination attempt because he thought you were going to have Cormick fight for you. It amused him to think that Cormick was screwing a demon. He was certain you’d hide behind Cormick, like everyone else did. He thought the Marshal always had it easy, always got what he wanted, always a step ahead. I think he was afraid of him—afraid of what Cormick reminded him of...” Torio close her eyes, “Lorne said…He was going to take you right there in the arena, and make Cormick watch.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

She opened her shrewd, dark eyes, “I have nothing to lose anymore. You have every right to fling me around—to kill me. I have...done great wrong. But I still have skills. I notice things.”

“No. You just let things happen—you…watch! And screw the rest of us.”

“I am not here for your forgiveness, Captain.”

I laughed as I grabbed her throat. “I’d be justified to end you right here,” I hissed. Then I noticed Torio's face. Above my grip, I remembered what Marcus had said to her at the Trial…The years of fear were like a rank perfume clinging to this woman, yet her dark, intelligent gaze was steady, unafraid. She was ready to die.

Was I ready to kill again?

I loosened my grip, and the former Luskan ambassador slid down the wall, landing on her ass.

“I will…try.” Torio mumbled, looking beyond me.

“Be careful what vows you make,” My voice nearly broke.

Just then, Casavir entered the hall. He stood tall and fully armored, perfectly beautiful, perfectly calm. I hadn’t seen him since…. as my hand brushed my hipbone, I remembered the third time, when he stopped being careful and dug his fingers with an ache that I knew had deeper sources than just his need for me.

When I woke, I left him there, in my room. I didn’t feel like sharing the bed with ghosts.

Though I couldn’t tap into it, I still felt the power that lingered in this chamber from Garius’ magic. And there were strands of older magic still. This place was a hot spot of unnatural energies made by people long dead. So many had fought and died in this room…I could almost see them, if I let my eyes lose their focus…

His voice was as it ever was, deep and respectful, but his eyes met mine with another layer of meaning, of intimacy, than before, “Captain? Are you well?”

I suppose we both had too many dead between us, “Yes. Torio and I are through.”

Casavir nodded, but he looked at Torio, who was still sprawled on her ass, rubbing her neck, and looking at me as if she expected me to finish her off at any moment.

He touched my sleeve, “Aldanon has information about Ammon Jerro’s haven.”

I nodded.

As I attached my cloak, Casavir walked up and helped me. Torio noticed.

I remembered the Rituals of Purification. How they had given me powers to fight the King of Shadows, yes. But they had also given me my dreams back. I knew that they were real. Zhajeve had called them visions. It was something I knew the Guardian, as powerful as he was, never had. I didn’t tell anyone exactly what I had dreamed. How do you say, “I dreamed I was the Guardian and killed the woman I loved?” I couldn’t say that. I’d tell them the dreams that they needed to know, but I didn’t like feeling so close to the Guardian. It complicated things. Well, I thought, looking at Casavir, there were several complications at the moment…Besides, I would have been heartless not to feel something for him at this point. I felt safe, comfortable…The thought of losing him frightened me, yes, left my mouth dry as bone, but even with the powers I had—.

“That face. Amara,” Casavir touched my bottom lip with his thumb, “what is it you're not saying?”

“Hey, that's what I'm supposed to say to you...“ I smiled, but I wanted to cry, “Just walk away—turn away and run before I hurt you…”

He leaned forward, as if to kiss me, and I saw the silver threading through his black hair, but then Casavir stopped as he seemed to remember that we weren’t alone.

Casavir looked sheepishly at Torio, cleared his throat.

“Sweet Mystra,” I sighed, “you’re such a blushing milk maid!”

The paladin’s eyes widened, “This is not the place to discuss this.”

“You’re right, Sir Paladin. There’s nothing to discuss.”

I gave Torio one last glare before I walked right past Casavir.

After I gave instructions to Kana about Torio’s confinement, the paladin followed me down the corridor to the library. I didn’t attempt to slow my stride. Casavir was wearing several stones of full plate; he couldn't move faster if he had wanted to. And a part of me didn’t want to walk side by side, didn’t want to answer what questions he held for me in those ardent, injured eyes.

As Casavir and I entered the newly-renovated library, Aldanon and Sand sat hunched over a map.

“I don' think that's possible,” Sand said, his hair combed and sleek and dark as he cradled his chin in his elven hand.

“OF course it is!” the white-haired sage replied, smacking a map of Faerun with his wrinkled fist. “All we need is some dragon's blood, lich dust, the hair of an avatar, and—”

“Wait,” Sand squinted with elven intensity at the map, tapping a thin finger on a large, red X, “The location has already been marked.”

“Oh. I must have forgotten...”Aldanon folded his arms around his shoulders as he gave a rather petulant look at the mage. Mages and sages never got along. Then the white-robed ancient looked at Casavir, as if noticing him for the first time, every aspect softening, “You are the very image of your mother, lad.”

Casavir tried to smile at the sage, “Thank you, sir. But we came about the location of Jerro's haven…”

Aldanon rubbed his hands together. “Oh yes! It was child's play.” He glared at Sand, who glared right back, “The location spell was something any novice with his master’s wand could do…It shouldn't be a problem to enter. Jerro was harmless. I remember one time at Castle Never, he removed the tablecloth from a table I was sitting at. I had milk coming out of my nose for weeks.”

“He may have been mild,” I interrupted, “but if he had a silver sword, he's probably just as hunted as I was. Just as desperate…”

Just then, Shandra walked in. She looked at me, then Casavir, and then the sage before settling her doe eyed gaze on Sand. There was a new, quite intricate short sword strapped to her waist, “I heard my grandfather’s haven is found. I wish I could say I'm excited, but, well...”

“Shandra,” I said, as I approaching her, wanting to touch her, but when I raised my hand towards her shoulder, she winced away from me. “Is this what you want?” I said to cover the distance between us, “We don't go in without your say so. There must be other ways—”

Shandra held up her hand, and I shut my mouth. Shandra took a moment to think before she spoke, “I want to know about him as much as you want to know about the silver swords.”

* * *


The road to the Haven was really a path forged by the destructive wake of demons. I could smell it. It was familiar and terrible, just like West Harbor… They must have been drawn by the sword, by the King of Shadows. The countryside was bare—not a single blade of grass had escaped being trampled from green to a dead yellow, and I wondered if the demons and devils had driven everything natural from this world…If anything would ever grow again…

The wind howled among those lonely mountains.

When Shandra finally stood outside her grandsire's Haven, the fear shinned in her eyes, even if her steps were steady. It wasn’t because we had to battle elementals and gargoyles and riddling statues—oh, no. The fear only became palpable as we neared the entrance to Haven. Though she had pulled her yellow-gold hair back, wore her hood up against the chill in the wind, her does-eyes contracted the longer she looked at the golem who stood in front of a pedestal she was beginning to realize the meaning of.

She stopped and grabbed my hand. Her hand was gloved, “I don’t know if it is this place, but I can remember him….grandfather. I pulled his beard. He was furious.” Her breath made a mist in the air.

I laughed, trying to ease her mind, “That sounds like you, Shandra.” Instead of feeling good about finally talking, I felt worse. She wasn’t talking because things were alright again, but only because she was afraid, and I just happened to be there. Shandra would offer up her blood because that’s who she had become, but things would never be the same between us.

From the pinched look on her face, I could tell she was felt the same. “Listen, Amara,” she said, becoming matter of fact even as she lowered it to a whisper only I could hear, “There’s something you need to know. Just in case…” She bit her lip, and pulled me away into a grotto of stone to the east, so no one could overhear what she said.

Once we were alone, she crossed her arms, looked at the ground, “At the Rituals of Purification, I don’t know what you saw, but I saw—no, I lived in Ilfarn, And I…betrayed the Guardian. I was a dwarf, a politician. I spoke before the Assembly and convinced them…” she stopped, put her hand over her mouth, as if overcome by the shame of it.

“That wasn’t you, Shandra. It was another time. Another person—”

She shook her head stubbornly, “If it’s not some part of me…then why did I see it?”

“Did anyone else experience a vision?”

She shrugged, “They may have, but you’re the only one I’ve told. You need to know, Amara, the Guardian didn’t turn on Ilfarn. The Ilfarn—they were the ones who attacked him. When the Weave failed, and the old goddess of magic died, the Guardian turned toward the Shadow Weave. They decided to strike him before he could strike them.”

“Are you saying they instigated this war we’re still fighting?”

Shandra reached out and touched the cloak I wore that bore my coat of arms on the collar, “The Guardian was the sworn Champion of Ilfarn. If there is a champion of Neverwinter, it’s you. There is a connection.”

I laughed, “But I’m not some perfect hero from ancient days—too many horns... Besides, I’ve lost my powers.”

Shandra eyes were as livid as the first time I met her, “There you go. All this bitchin’ about the shards and your horns and false humility is making me gag. You are so lucky.” She turned and gave a glance behind us, where our friends waited, full of a longing I knew too well, “You know what you are. You have a purpose, Amara. If I’m going to bleed myself out in a few moments, I want to know I did it for a reason. For the Shard-Bearer.” She ground her jaw, “Accept it, or shut the hells up.”

“Shandra—“

Instead of answering, she pushed me aside as she marched up to the podium. She swished and clinked beneath the weight of scale mail.

The wind blew shrilly around me as I tried to follow her. I pulled my cloak tightly around my body. Sand crouched on the ground, traced lines of incantations that had been etched into the giant stone golem’s feet. Khelgar spoke to Casavir, but both watched Shandra and I return with grim expressions. Bishop tightened his bowstring, and seemed to ignore the tension that surrounded the Haven, like the feeling in the air just before lighting strikes.

Shandra pulled her gloves off with the help of her teeth. Then she held up a knife I didn’t know she had and cut her wrist with one steady motion. She didn’t flinch once at the sight of blood. As she held her bleeding mandible before the massive door, several dark droplets fell onto the parched earth before she grabbed her tan wrist and held it firmly above the pillar. It wall happened just as the golem guarding the entrance told her it would. There was a flash of light, a sound of wind with something human in it …and then Shandra wasn't there. The giant steel golem was silent and still as the massive doors opened without disturbing the air.

I went up to where Shandra had been standing, touched the blood that made a pool inside the pillar, which was still warm and wet. “Where is she?” I demanded, pulling out my bastard sword.

The golem did not answer. The marble doors were huge and dark…but empty. There even seemed to be a sulfurous tinge to the air, a promise of what might be waiting inside the darkness to tear us into pieces. My people…

I tried to summon light in my hand, a globe of hellfire, which, of course, didn’t come. “Godsdammit!” I howled. “Sand, light—“

The mage summoned a glowing orb from the tip of his staff, which did not dispel all the darkness of Ammon Jerro's Haven.

With the mage’s light winking, guiding us, we made it to a regular corridor carved from the stone of the mountainside. I entered first, Sand shuffled in behind me and sneezed at the thick, dusty air. Then Casavir, Bishop, and Khelgar entered, each with torches.

The corridor became so narrow we could only walk through in single file. The stone was smooth as I put my hand against its surface, as if it had been cut precisely by magic. Our steps rang hollowly against the level floor. Suddenly, the corridor ended in a wall. I took a step toward it, and door became outlined in fire that gave off no heat. There was an abrupt flare, and then the fire disappeared in a harmless burst of smoke.

There was an opening, and I stepped through. There was a summoning circle, and within its magical, thrumming barrier was someone who grinned from an almost-human face, except for the power-blue skin, red eyes, and pointed ears. He turned to face our approach as if he had been waiting for us. The light source was a round portal in one corner that gave off violet, wavering light. In that lurid illumination, the demon was garbed in a purple toga rimmed in gold thread. His eyes glittered malevolently from his parchment-thin skin.

“Why am I not surprised to see you, Mephasm?” I said to the familiar devil.

He spoke in a measured, carefully chosen tone, as if eternity of hells had lent him a particular patience and dignity, “Are you ready to die, little demon?”

All of our torches and Sand’s staff sputtered out.

“Not yet,” I drawled, unimpressed with the parlor trick. Even with only the portal’s purple light, my skin was still the darkest thing in the room. “Where’s Shandra?”

He stared at me, “I have been bound for very long, and have seen nothing but the walls of my cell. Free me, and you shall not regret it.”

“I will never trust you Mephasm, but we don't have a choice.”

The devil put his blue hands together and chuckled, “It takes the energy of three from the lower planes to open the portal you want. Three is the most powerful number in the planes…You already have my aid. Now, seek out two others.” Mephasm studied me long, sniffed delicately, “There's something changed in you.” He spoke an infernal dialect composed of tonal grunts, “You have a mantle about you. Those primes may not be able to see it, but I do. It marks you. I would feel sorry for your poor lost soul, if I could feel pity. Fortunately, it is replaced with a sense of anticipation.”

I replied in the same language, even though it made the back of my throat burn, “If you will speak in something besides knots—that’s all your kind ever does: wheels words around, hinting at much, saying nothing.”

The devil’s crimson eyes were full of depths I couldn’t begin to imagine, but I did see my own reflection, dark and horned and demonic, “You mean ‘our kind.’ Do not blame the messengers. Blame your own soul, little demon. It will kill today.”

I coughed.

“What is it saying to you, Amara?” Casavir asked, almost breathless before the awe that any being of the lower planes inspired in holy paladins.

The devil and I met gazes before I could answer. He pressed his lips into an o and seemed to suck my thoughts from the air between us. “I read your desires…The mortal once known as Cormick is with Him….” The devil sighed and his voice grew deeper, reverberated through the chamber, “If you want revenge on your Father, then never call the Dark Prince, or any of his names, for any reason.”

I looked down at my dark hands, the extra digits, “Cormick is dead, and I’m not a warlock anymore. I won’t take part in your Blood War, or any war. What you fiends do to each other has nothing to do with me. Is that enough, Fiend?” The shards pulsated through the hidden pouch as if to say they were ready to fight this creature.

Mephasm blinked. Then he fixed his red gaze upon the hidden compartment. The Shards were from Gith’s blade---of course he’d be able to sense their power. He made a gesture from his circle, and for the first time, I could feel the infernal magic crackling around him, as if the circle increased the devil’s true nature. I held my breath, and clutched the shards, expecting an attack, but instead, I heard the intricate mechanism of a lock turning in the direction of a sealed door I hadn’t known was there.

I threw myself through the door.

Afraid to turn our backs on Mephasm, we ran down the twisty passageway until we had left him far behind. We stopped on when we had no more breath to run. When we recovered, further down the corridor was another room, one that, unsurprisingly, held a nastily-looking demon whose massive head brushed against the ceiling. Its claws were as big as Casavir, and each point was sharpened to a razor-thin sharpness.

Its voice rose to a heart-rending pitch as it saw us, “Zaxis has not forgotten filthy half-breed!” The demon stomped, sending vibrations in every direction,” Zaxis will make you pay!”
“Zaxis” I shouted holding up my hands. The demon/demoness seemed even bigger than the last time we had met him/her. “We are just passing through. There's no need to get angry.”

“Zaxis is never angry. Other people always angry at Zaxis. That hurt Zaxis' feelings.” The spittle flew in great rivulets from its jaws.

I tried to keep my own jaw from dropping, “Zaxis, I'm, uh, not angry at you.”

The demon cocked his/her head at me. “Really?”

I smiled, “Not the slightest bit. In fact, we're here because of how much we like you. We could have gone to some other demon to help us get through the portal, but we all agreed that you would help us. You've got more power in your thumb than the rest of those demons combined. And you smell much better. Does, uh, Zaxis wear perfume?”

If a demon could blush, Zaxis would have. Instead, his/her face reddened with a malicious light, “Zaxis help half-blood. But if Zaxis help, there is price.”

“Yes?” I asked.

The demon shuffled back and forth on massive, hoofed feet, looking suspiciously like a 16-year-old at his/her first dance, “Date?” the demon asked timidly. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said that he/she batted his hellfire-gleaming eyes.

“With me?” I croaked.

His/her misshapen head shook, then stared hungrily at the ranger and rubbed its claws together.

Bishop laughed nervously, “I've taken a vow of celibacy. And chastity. Until this whole quest is over. Sorry.”

I smirked, “What about a kiss, Bishop? We all know you're partial to them.”

The ranger gave his most withering, gold-rimmed look.

Zaxis clapped her claws together, “Kiss for Zaxis! Kiss for Zaxis!”

“Very well, Zaxis, he'll accept the honor...if you will help us.”

“Deal done.” The demon said as she bent down and puckered her red, saliva-dripping mouth. Zaxis had to bend down to place her gaping maw level with Bishop’s quite hesitant lips.

“Um, Zaxis?” I interjected.

“Yes, flesh-pot?”

“Can you really kiss him without, um, eating him?”

Zaxis licked her lips, “Yes, Zaxis would eat delicious man…and delicious man be dead. You stand in for Zaxis.” She budged me toward Bishop. “Just make good smooch. Or Zaxis be angry,” She raised an accusatory talon, and I didn’t want to know just she would do.

I looked at the ranger with disgust, “Am I really, uh, worthy, Zaxis?” I pleaded.

She clapped her huge claws with something like glee. “The Dark Prince, he tell Zaxis: that this is the only way Zaxis help pitiful half-blood. Now smooch!” she commanded, spittle flying from her gaping maw.

Bishop looked me up and down, mussed his hair until it was flat and greasy. “I think I’d rather kiss the demon.” He said to no one in particular, but no ne looked at him. Everyone, including the demoness, was silently staring at me, waiting for my reaction.

I looked at the sky that could not be seen, as if something up there could help me, but then I reasoned that only a seriously pissed infernal power would arrange for something as perverse as this. Thanks, Dad.

I gave a bitter, throaty chortle as I stepped towards the ranger, intending nothing more than a stage kiss, a peck... Then Bishop casually fingered my hair, pushing it casually back behind my ear. When his finger — oh so casually— brushed my cheek, I shuddered. I was filled with a sudden, deep, and raging contempt. I narrowed my eyes, balled my fists to keep my hands from clawing him. You’ll regret this ranger, I said with the slits of my green eyes, the crease in my forehead, the stiffening of my body in anticipation of something reptilian slithering against me...

I saw the look in his eyes, a long-suffering look, but then he covered it a scornful twist of his mouth that rivaled my own. His voice dripped acid as he grabbed the back of my neck, pulled me toward him.

“Just what a man dreams of,” His hips touched mine, but though he craned his neck, his mouth merely hovered. But his eyes…

I shivered as I felt a surge of electricity in my belly. Oh no...fuck no. I closed my eyes, but I could smell a mixture of pine resin and sweat and leather that made Bishop’s musk. It wasn’t unpleasant.

Bishop inhaled and exhaled in time with my now panted breaths.

Casavir cleared his throat, but I didn’t notice because Bishop’s mouth was on mine.

I don’t know who kissed who, but it was earnest, charged with the tension that had been between us since the moment we met. I didn’t know whether to pull away or breathe in where our mouths touched, but I stopped breathing. Then I pulled his hair. He made a noise, kissed me more deeply, and I felt an acute dissolution, as if something in me was suddenly permeable to him. Sweet Mystra, he made me weak…Then I hated him even more.

I grabbed Bishop by his rough cheeks. Even when I pushed him away with accustomed violence, wiped my mouth several times with the back of my hand, I knew I couldn’t wipe the memory of him away as easily…

“Like you’re any prize,” Bishop spat.

But I knew…we’d both given…something. Our eyes met briefly. And I knew why my father had made this happen.

The demon scratched her great stomach and grinned as she cocked her head at the ranger and I, but she was true to her word. She gave a guttural roar, and the next door revealed itself in the darkest corner of the room. I covered my ears, moved toward the exit, but looked for Casavir before I went through. The paladin was also covering his ears and had his well-armored back to me. I could see than ranger behind him, glaring up at the lecture or threat Casavir was giving him. I didn’t have to hear what was said between them to know what was said. Khelgar caught my eye as he lunged forward, and I could tell he was angry, but then, Khelgar was usually angry… I also caught Sand’s look of “I told you so” even as he cast a spell to protect our ears.

We entered another purple-lit corridor. In the next, circular chamber, a succubus curtsied from another binding circle. This succubus was different than any other I had encountered. She wore a dress of crimson the same shade as her hair, which moved as if fire rather than strands of hair. Yet her face was a perfect oval slashed with lips large and red, the dominant feature of her face. “Hail, daughter of the Dark Prince.” She bowed, “Well, that's His official title, but we know Him on an ...informal level.” Her voice was full, rich with an uncanny musical quality, as if other voices made harmonies beneath her own.

“My father?” My own voice seemed tinny compared to hers.

This demon drew every breath, every sense to her lithe form. “You look much like Him,” I shivered as she licked her upper lip. Her tongue was barbed, “And you have a certain, passion, a ripeness that draws one in, makes one want to gorge. Hmm. We can show you, oh many things, Ikenna, pleasures that last for eons—”

I flinched as Casavir grabbed my arm. I didn't realize I had moved towards the succubus’ circle. She spoke to Casavir, noticed the way he held me back, “Who is this fair, bright thing? So much hunger. Ah, for our sweet, dark demon. Can holy loins ache so, ah—we would die from such longing.”

“Keep within your circle, Beast….” Casavir said to Blooden.

The succubus smiled, showing impeccable white teeth behind those lurid lips. “What of the one you stand beside, Holy One? Is she a monster?” She chortled deliciously, “And even if she was, you seem happy to be seduced, grateful to be released from your sorrow.”

“I don't care what blood is in her veins, Amara is not one of you—she is one of us.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. Thank you, Casavir, but he stopped me with an icy look.

“But what about you, fire-starter?” Blooden said, looking at Bishop, whose face went a pale and blotched as the succubus continued, “Do you think you can ever be free from the shackles of your soul? Even blackened, it keeps incinerating every machination you concoct.”

Strangest of all, Bishop said nothing. He was still as he watched the succubus with mingled curiosity and disgust.

Blooden waved her arms, as if sniffing him, “We can look like the one you want—but more than want.” She laughed a rich chorus as Bishop's eyes widened, “Dear, fiery boy, the strange trap of your heart: it twists like a maze, but keeps returning. She will unmake you.”

“Stop” I commanded, but my voice no longer held magical command. “Look at me, Blooden.” I pleaded.

Blooden touched her hand to her lips. “You still have his taste in your mouth. It drives out all the others. Ah. Can we not have one taste? Your Father would have given...”

What taste…I wanted to ask—there was much I wanted to ask, but I ground my teeth instead, “Help us leave—the portal...”

She looked at me like a starving animal, “But first, you must let us taste.”

I nodded, knowing what succubi need to survive. Blooden purred.

I turned toward the others and held up both my hands. “Step back. And no matter what happens, don’t approach either of us until it’s done.”

Khelgar hit his fist against his shield. “No, lass. That thing ain't gonna place her filthy claws into ya!”

Blooden looked at Khelgar, licked her lips again, “The passion of those who follow you could sustain us for centuries, but you, Ikenna—just one morsel, and we will see bliss or oblivion—a glimmer of eternity. That is much, even for demons.”

I tried to grin at Khelgar, “Don’t worry, I won’t die…” I gulped.

Khelgar snorted, but Sand tapped the dwarf’s round shield, “The girl knows what she’s doing.”

The dwarf pointed a gauntlet at Blooden, “It’s the tart with wings that worries me.”

I stood before Blooden though I was careful to remain outside the binding circle. Do not look at the succubus. Then she twitched her tail, and I opened one eye. The more I looked at her, the more I had to resist the urge to...Do not think of the succubus. Don’t let her have control. Don’t—

Suddenly, Blooden opened her mouth and her tongue lashed from side to side, as if inhaling some unseen part of me, “You don't taste like Him. You are bittersweet. A dreadful blessing....”As Blooden spoke, I could feel my emotions as she caressed them, as she consumed them.

I would have held up my arms, but I couldn’t move.

Blooden’s mouth flew open, and she moaned in ecstasy. I closed my eyes and whimpered, losing the last shred of self-control I still had.

We merged.

The succubus’s voice was like a drum, “Every pain. Every pleasure. Ah, Cormick! This one set you free. Now gone… And what heat remains? Will you grow cold as Daeghun? Oh no. You have your Father's ache for flesh. Your skin should burst from it. The Marshal is the first to be maimed, not the last. The Lord of Shadow is only the means of tempering. You will fall, and awaken to cursed dreams of a dead god. So much power—the gates of the Crystal Palace will be shattered. You will enter the realm of the dead in a mask. And the bones of the dead will cry out “Salvation” at the touch of your blade. Angels, demons, gods will fall at your knees. The Three Kingdoms of the Abyss, the triple crown of thorns, we see it in in your blood. You will bring the Fourth to Him.”

Blooden went to her knees as if she could no longer stand, or because she was paying me homage.

“Remember us, Ikenna, when you come into your Father's kingdom. And more.” Blooden closed her eyes, made cooing noises to herself.

Drained, I also dropped to my knees, holding my hands to my head. As I touched my horns, I thought of breaking them off. My hands tightened...

“Lass?”

I straightened, but stayed on the ground. “I'm here, Khelgar.”

Khelgar's eyebrows knit together, and he pulled on his beard. “I think we've heard enough nonsense for one day. I need blood on my ax—a foe I can fight.”

Sand sighed, “For once, the dwarf is right. Well, I don't want blood on my axe because I don't have one. But I've had enough of family reunion time for today. I say we stick it to this warlock, whoever he thinks he is, and save Shandra.”

I looked at my hands, small, delicate despite the extra digit. I clenched them into fists.

“It's time to end this,” I said, trying to stand, but I wasn’t surprise that several pairs of hands held me steady as we entered the violet portal and arrived in a laboratory.

As my head cleared, I realized Bishop was holding me up.

Fairy-fights flickered in the room, illuminating us.

Then the Warlock appeared, tattoos of power gleaming with a yellow light with every tracing on his shaved head. Two sets of yellow parallel lines extended down to his eyes and ended at the center of each cheek. The eyes were yellow, pinpoints of seething, boiling rage seemed to take in each of us and find us lacking. A red beard covered his upper and lower lips. He wore a robe of some strange material, deep red in color, but cloak was black. There were straps of leather across his chest, and crystals of various shapes and colors were sewn into the robe so that they dangled from his belt. Each crystal was smooth, and glowed blue-green. Energy pulsated from him. My mouth went dry at his power. Had it grown so much…or had mine deteriorated? I could see the energy clinging to him that way I my own once appeared, as a dark fire shooting out from his round head.

“You?!?” he said with the voice that sounded like it had been scorched by hellfire, “This time, I will kill you.”

I stood up, though I felt as weak as a kitten, “You are the one who will die, Warlock.”

With upheld hands, he blasted colored hellfire at my head. I heard someone gasp as I was thrown back. Then the air left my lungs, and I started coughing blood. I hear battle cries as the others attacked him. I tried to summon the defensive magic from the Rituals of Purification. The words came to my mouth, “I am an imperfect vessel…But let the Shadows be banished. The Guardian’s task is done.” Though I saw the pinnacles of light swirling around my fingers, they had no effect on the Warlock, who merely grinned as he saw my impotent gestures.

“Fools!” The King of Shadows snarled as he lifted his arms above his head and a soundless blast pulsed through the room, throwing us the ground. “This entire Haven, and everything held within it, is my weapon. I can summon earthquakes and firestorms, hurricanes and icy whirlwinds.” As he spoke, we felt each attack. First, the ground rumbled and wavered beneath us. Then fire seemed to fall from the roof, like burning rain. Then then thunder and lightning amid a wet, swirling hurricane. Finally, a terrible blizzard blew us around, chilled us to our very souls.

Suddenly, I heard Shandra voice cutting through the magic, You can’t beat him, Amara. You can only take away his power by releasing the demons. Only Jerro blood can break the binding. My blood.

“Shandra, no!” I said aloud.

Let me do this, Amara, for my friends...

“SHANDRA!”

“No!” The Warlock screamed at us, completely enraged. “What have you done?” Then he disappeared through the portal with the sound of his crystals tapping against each other.

We entered the purple portal, and entered Mephasm’s chamber once again.

Shandra lay on the ground. Her face was turned away from us, but I knew. Her body had fallen back, and she lay as if she had died convulsing. “Shandra!” I screamed. I threw my body at hers, shielding her from any other attack. I touched her neck. Cold. No heartbeat...She was as white as a porcelain doll, as if she had been bled dry...

The Warlock stood over her body. Her clothes still smoldered from his hellfire. “…Jerro blood?” The Warlock cried, waving a fist at Mephasm. “Impossible! You lie!”

“She was blood of Jerro.” Mephasm looked at him with something like remorse, then turned his red eyes onto me, “Blood always find a way, doesn't it, Ikenna?” Before I could reply, the demon had disappeared through another portal.

“Come back! Mephasm,” The Warlock cried, “I command you—“ He stopped as he looked back at Shandra’s body, shook his head back and forth slowly, and then with dawning horror. “No…it cannot be.”

Some animal nose escaped my throat as I smoothed her matted, white-gold hair, “Yes. No more demons to fuel your power, Guardian. She freed them.”

Bishop suddenly appeared in front of the Warlock. His knife was raised level at the Warlock's chest, “You killed the farmer. I say we kill you.”

The Warlock looked at the knife... too shocked to fear death. “If she was blood of Jerro,” he replied, and I had a sudden realization that he seemed like a man who had seen the absolute worst thing imaginable, “she was… my granddaughter.”

“Granddaughter?!?” I leapt to my feet, took Bishop's knife before I knew what I was doing, and pushed it into the Warlock’s jugular, “Impossible! You're the Warlock. The Bloody King of Bloody Shadows—”

As a line of blood fell from where I held the dagger against his skin, The Warlock looked at his own blood, and wiped it with the tips of his finger, and stared at it, his yellow eyes bewildered, “I am Ammon Jerro.” Then he laughed, harsh and mocking, “I am Ammon Jerro. Last of my line…”

I pointed the blade at the belly of Ammon Jerro, “You better be lying, or you’re just a common murderer who destroyed my village, now my friend, or I will make you pay for this, Jerro---you will beg---“

“Wait!” Sand shouted as he come to stand beside me, hands raised. “Zhajeve said that someone completed the final Ritual of Purification. Kill the warlock, and we have no chance against the King of Shadows.”

“I say we do what the ranger recommended,” said Khelgar, holding up his axe. “A life fer a life.”

Ammon spoke, “I wielded the sword of Gith—this gith might show you how to forge it, but and only I—and only I— can teach you to wield it without killing us all. That is the simple truth.” But he looked at the blade I held at his throat with a look of longing.

I screamed as I brought my weapon down uselessly, chipping the stone on the floor. This is my fault. I knelt beside Shandra’s body, touched Shandra’s ruined cheek and with trebling fingers, turned her face towards mine. Her eyes were white, rolled back into her skull, so I smoothed her eyelids. “We have to take Shandra back...I won't leave her.”

“I'll carry her,” it was Casavir. “Amara,” he put his arms around my shoulders. “Please...” his head was against the back of mine, solid and warm.

I nodded, and Casavir bent over Shandra. As he cradled her in his arms, the room began to rumble, as if an earthquake had begun.

Ammon’s voice cut through the noise like broken glass, “We must take the portal back to your Keep. Quickly. Now!”

The warlock cast the spell to send us back before any of us could argue. It seemed as if orange flames with green tips emanated from Ammon Jerro, filled the room, swallowed the stone, and swallowed us in its depths until oblivion took us all.
"The difference between a cow and a bean is a bean can begin an adventure!"
---"Into the Woods," by Stephen Sondheim

A Memoir of Demons & Angels

http://www.fanfictio...e...ns_&_Angels

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#3 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 24 March 2011 - 05:54 PM

Chapter 15

Want


Cormick lifted his elbow above his head took a long swing of mead. He coughed, sputtering ale, but I lifted the tankard until he swallowed it all. When I finally let him set it down, I rubbed his beard where a few drops fell glistening against the dark hair.

I tapped my dark thumb playfully until I touched his pearly teeth,"Wow, my dear-you just might finish one drink," I let my finger linger on his lip. As my other hand rested on his black and white tunic, I wondered how soon I could pull it off...

A rowdy, drunken chorus began, led by Uncle Duncan, about a dwarven prostitute with a wooden leg. At the rowdiest parts, my uncle would shout and gesture lewdly. Shandra was one of many who laughed at the half-elf, her face flushing with the mead she had been drinking from a stein. Her shoulders jutted through the pale yellow dress she wore to my Trial. And though several men came to our table just to flirt with her, she waved them all off with a smile, but when they left, I noticed that she kept looking up and around, searching for a particular face.

I downed a shot that someone had pressed into my hand before clunking it down on the tabletop. Someone made an appreciative yell, and so I raised my hands and yelped back. Cormick raised his hands, inviting me to I slithered over to him, which I did, gleaming in the dark silks.

I pointed at Shandra even as I pressed one of Cormick's massive hands into mine, brushing his fingertips, "All good things to those who wait..."

"I hope ya don't mean me, luv," Cormick muttered, pulling me to his knee.

I tossed my head back and giggled, even as I brought my hands across Cormick's shoulders and made circles where his shoulders met his neck. He laid his head across my collar with an appreciative sigh. "The farmer's wanting to get plowed!" I tittered.

"Godsdammit, Amara!" Shandra shuttered, plaiting her hands in her skirt, "I don't need your help."

I looked around, just to annoy Shandra further, and so I spotted him before she did. That was the advantage of demon vision. As I coiled one finger in a lock of Cormick's hair, I could see through the smoke and candlelight to recognize outlines. So I noticed when a tall figure emerged through the Flagon's open door, preceded and followed by a crowd of women of various ages. As he spoke soothingly to each, made each smile, he eventually noticed I was watching him. Then he touched his hair before moving in my direction.

"Nevalle," I said as he came within shouting distance, "If you don't mind the company of simple folk..." I waved him towards our table.

"Please," he said after he had hopped away from that gaggle of fawning ladies as if they were drooling harpies, "save me from... formalities." He wore the blue Neverwinter Nine tunic. Usually, he wore it over his armor, but this particular tunic was made of the finest material, embossed with the most skilled of hands. His hair was shiny and styled in the latest vogue among the young nobility: a hint of wave. Though Nevalle appeared every part the fashionable, young nobleman, his hazel eyes held a canny look-quite unlike the glazed expression of most nobles. As he looked at me in the dim light, I could see him consider my figure, my horns...me straddling his mate, yet he grinned approvingly.

Cormick and Nevalle exchanged hands, the former engulfing the latter's gloved fist. Then they gave the barest of nods—a soldier's greeting. Cormick kissed my shoulder, and I rubbed my nose in his hair. I could tell the ale was making him sleepy...then his hand went to my knee. I smiled, chuckled, swatted with little intention to stop his hand, "Behave yourself, Marshal. At least until we're upstairs."

Nevalle, of course, looked at Shandra, in her yellow dress and pale good-looks, gave his most-winning, even grin, and bowed with grace only cultivated by lords after over a lifetime spent on such courtesies, "Always a pleasure to meet fair ladies, especially those who have fair hearts as well."

Shandra giggled, made a dismissive gesture of her round chin, but her brown eyes were set on Nevalle's, "All that stuff about Amara was a lie, you know..."

Nevalle laughed, but sat down beside her, crossing his mailed legs in her direction, "Then perhaps you should consider politics, my dear."

Cormick and I looked at each other. Our feet fumbled together beneath the table.

First his big hands, then Cormick's face itself went deathly pale, as Lorne's body had turned after the knife went into back.

"Cormick!" I shouted, touching his cold cheek with trembling fingers as he looked at me with a corpse's milky eyes. He laughed with Lorne's brutal chuckle as grotesque, bat-like wings unfurled from his shoulder blades, blotting out the fire, the inn, the sky... Everything became blackest wing as he sang,"Hail, Breaker!"

"NO!" I screamed, but I could only moan as I raised a clenched fist. The hellfire burst in it's agony and its glory from my skin. I only looked down when I smelled smoke. There I found Shandra's bloodless body, smoldering at my feet.


* * *

I had the sensation of floating in memories, as if they were some sticky, oozing substance that clung to my skin, my nostrils...

It was more morning than night at the Keep, so there was no one to witness the Captain and her companions falling from the sky with a flash, a hint of sulfur except for Sal, the barkeep. But it was merely one in a serious of long oddities that had happened since he met the Captain at the Sunken Flagon... So instead of screaming or running away, he slicked his mustaches, rolled up his sleeves, exposing the dark hair on forearms, cleaned the bar of the debris of the previous night's customers, and poured the Captain's folk their accustomed drinks.

As Sal gently placed an ale into my hand, he patted my knuckles. I looked at the ale, I saw my own reflection return to me, watery and golden.

Casavir was suddenly beside me. I saw his own reflection in the cup before I turned to see him. His mailed hands were empty, but his blue eyes were locked on mine with a helplessness that made me not just glance at him, but twine my hands around the collar of his dark blue over-tunic until the cloth was quite tight.

"Where's Shandra?" I asked.

The paladin looked at his empty gantlets.

I stepped closer, but the paladin still stared at his hands.

As we fell through the portal back to the Keep, one thought clung to my temples, making a dreadful thought; after the Rituals of Purification, I knew, either from my new powers or just through intuition, that the vision about the little girl whose parents died of plague and had to be burned was indeed Shandra. Shandra was dead-and I killed her. I've been killing her the moment I stepped onto her farm, trying to save her from the Lizardlings, only to see everything she loved burn because of me.

"You left her," I stated. Something in my look, my posture made Casavir, a much taller and wider man, step back.

The paladin didn't even raise his arms when I flung both fists at his cheek in quick succession of punches. It was only when Casavir's nose started to bleed that I was aware of the impact my fists I had made. It stung.

"It was the warlock's spell," Sand interrupted. The mage's voice was higher than usual, as if he had been sneezing and could only now catch his breath,"It only teleported living things..." The elf pulled out a white handkerchief from his belt pouch and and held it to Casavir's nose."Maybe you should calm down, Amara," Sand warned. "It's not his fault—"

"Then who's fault is it?" I looked around, expectant, my hands itching until I removed my bastard sword with a satisfying ring of steel sliding against steel. It felt good to keep it in my hand as as walked to the inn's fireplace, where he stood—the reason for this whole bloody business.

The warlock stooped with his back to all of us, engrossed in the common room's fire. The orange and gold lights of the fire showed that the tattoos and tracings on Ammon Jerro's head still glowed, though not as brightly as they had in his Haven. I also noticed…Something I had read—yes. In the Life and Times of Owal the Toungeless. Tattoos on the head and red robes meant that, like Owal, he had studied with the red Wizard of Thay—a cadre of spell-casters known for their dedication to one particular school of magic...and a single-minded dedication to brutality.

I pointed the sword between his shoulder blades, "I'm talking to you, grandpa."

Ammon turned his head slightly in my direction. "Don't goad me, girl." he coughed. His voice still was low and grating, as if scorched by his visits to the infernal realms.

"Did the Red Wizards teach you to be an evil fuck-up? Or was that a more recent development?"
He looked at me, then. His firefly eyes were smudged, and the warlock looked as if he'd aged a since the destruction of his Haven and his granddaughter. Still, he looked at my weapon with open contempt.

I knew the sword, even if I swung it at his lump of a head, would never touch him, so I slid the blade back into its scabbard. "If we're gonna talk, warlock, let's get one thing straight: I'm not a girl. Never was…Warlocks never get to be children. I always had to be tougher than the things I would summon. Or every infernal thing would have long ago sucked out my soul before I knew what was happening. The rush is intense...but one slip, one misstep, and you lose everything...I know..I have... Warlocks like you just taste all the power and can't let it go-can't ever let go...That's why we're here, Jerro."

"This is your fault," he said with heat, turning his back to me. I could feel him summon the blue-green hellfire into his hands. A aura of power surrounded the warlock,"You heard the price was blood, and you let your so-called friend bleed to death so that you could get into my Haven."
I started pacing, "She knew the risk—"

"Ha!" He chuckled dryly, "She knew nothing. And neither did you. You actually mistook me for my great enemy. The irony is not wasted." His shoulders slumped, and suddenly, the power left him, and Jerro suddenly seemed like a very old, very sad man.

"Just tell me why—why West Harbor?"

"I was fighting the King of Shadows forces. The destruction of the town was...accidental."
"It had a name—They had names," I stepped towards him as each name propelled me forward, "Georg and Merrin. Morimee and Kai and Rhetta…Daeghun. Names I won't forget. Like the nobles in Blacklake…like Shandra…"

"Not another step, half-breed." When the warlock spoke again, he pulled himself up to his full height once more, his eyes piecing mine like needles, "You think you're righteous? I went to the Abyss to retrieve Gith's sword. I gave my soul for it because I was the only hope. You don't know the meaning of the word sacrifice or honor. I was the one, the only one, strong enough to injure the King of Shadows in West Harbor. When I tried for a death blow, I heard a baby cry. I lost my concentration, and Gith's blade broke in my hands, scattering its shards unto the winds. It should never have broken. But you did it. "

I flinched, felt the weight of their deaths as I looked at Ammon, and I knew what he said was true.

The warlock grabbed me by my wrists. His hands were were strong as a young man's,"They died because you lived. Just like...Shandra did. This path of destruction in your wake, what is it for? Tell me."

As he pulled me around, I caught a glimpse of the inn. Khelgar, Sand, Casavir, and Bishop were all watching this exchange. I even saw Neeshka, Elanee, Grobnar crying. Zhajeve also stood with them, listening as Sand whispered to her. I don't know how they all managed to be here—probably to accuse me, or to leave before they ended up dead too.

"I don't owe you an explanation, kin-slayer," I spat.

"You owe me everything,” He waved his arms above where I kept the shards hidden. A greedy look crossed his features, "I sense the shards. All the time...I sought them to re-forge them. And wield the blade once more. I still don't understand why they went to you, and not to me."

When I first realized they were family, I looked for some trace of Shandra in his features, and found none. But now, when he turned a certain way, I his nostrils flared just as Shandra's would whenever she was particularly pissed, "I'm guessing the shards aren't as stupid as you are, Jerro."

His tattoos flared the same shade as his eyes, "You are nothing. I care not what nothings like you think of me. What I care about is stopping the King of Shadows. Whatever the cost. If anything is evil today, it is you, Shard-Bearer," He laughed. It was a horrible sound, "You are pathetic."

I grabbed a poker, "Yes. I am weak." I poked the embers until they blazed in a shower of sparks, illuminating my face, my horns, in red shadows, “I have the blood of the Dark Prince. I had powers, but I renounced him because it made everything even more fucked up. That wasn't the decision you made. You tried to take on the King of Shadows yourself. So you gave your soul—and still—you didn't win." I raised the poker at him, "You're just pissed—not just because the shards went to me, but because, just maybe, you made the wrong decision. Maybe that's why you lost everything-everyone-you were fighting to save."

He looked at the poker, the fires of his eyes dancing, "Is this when I am supposed to have a change of heart? I think I left mine in Baator."

"You completed the final part of the Rituals of Purification. If I kill you, gods, I would do it and not bloody blink...but, we lose that weapon." I lowered the sizzling poker back into the stand.

Ammon now stood behind me as I watched the fire, "Those shards will kill you, slow or quick. It was forged by Zerthamon, but used to spill his blood by Gith. It is cursed. It cursed her, and it has cursed me. Pray to Mystra that the end is quick, so that you never live to see to see such...things..."

"Don't dare use that a justification, Jerro for what you did, what you've bloody done." I snarled as I turned to face him. "Whether fate or luck, it didn't work. So just man up. You're not dead, and you have another chance. So don't fuck it up." I bared my fangs...And I thought I'd given up making pacts with demons...

Jerro's voice was a scratch, "You can question my motivations, question me, but I guarantee you this." He pointed at me, the way he had every time we had met as enemies, "You will have no more powerful ally in this fight than I. If you're concerned with me getting my dues, I assure you, the pacts I have made will ensure I suffer eternally. Justice will catch up with me, as it will catch up to you, Shard-Bearer." He forgot me as he became once again lost in fire, as if he was trying to read the future in the whirl of its flames.

Someone burst through the front door, letting in the sound and smell of rain and mud before slipping through. As he removed the hood, his back was ramrod straight as he clanked into the common room. The knight's blue Neverwinter Nine tunic was covered by his wet cloak, but his fair hair, familiar face, as well as the posture, gave him away.

I gave him the barest nod of recognition, then pressed of my hand against my right shoulder, the one that had the red tassel of Captain's rank that he had tied there.

Nevalle's hair, usually quaffed in the latest style, was damp and clung to his forehead. Unsmiling, he looked at me from head to boot and gave the Warlock a brief glance before he turned his full attention onto me. But the way he stood, tense and supercilious, a hand jutting against his hip, I knew he was waiting for my salute. He returned my salute, and then motioned toward the door, "We must go to Neverwinter. Promptly."

Nevalle's grim look seemed to confirm my worst suspicions. I rested my hand on the pommel of my bastard sword, "Is it the King of Shadows? Has he attacked—"

Nevalle's eyebrows knit together, "No—not yet..." He opened his mouth as if he were going to explain further, but then the knight looked at the crowd and elevated his chin, "Your duty is not to question, Amara Chidi, but to obey. I have issued you an order. We're leaving immediately. Just you. And just me." The mailed hand that the knight had extended toward me did not move.
I blinked, "At the moment, sir, I have my own problems to deal with-"

"These orders come from Lord Nasher. Fulfill them or I will find someone else to."

"He doesn't own you, Mar," Bishop growled. The ranger heels moved soundlessly against the floor, so I hadn't heard him approach. He held a shot glass in his hand,"Tell um to fuck off."

Nevalle looked from the ranger's feet to the glass, to his longbow jutting from his left shoulder. Bishop was shorter, but and had a tight built that his armor merely emphasized. Moving back and forth on the balls of his feet, there wasn't a part of Bishop that was wasted. Though not as muscular, Nevalle held his height, his posture, with a surety that only aristocrats possessed, even when soaked to the bone, "I'd offer to duel, ranger, but I don't think you'd show."

Bishop grinned, "No, you wouldn't show, pretty boy." He downed the shot, balanced the glass on his hand, "'Cause I'd kill you in your sleep the night before."

"Stop it—both of you," I grumbled. I grabbed Bishop's glass and set it on the bar.

The ranger glared back at me as I took my place beside Nevalle, "They'll kill you, if they think it'll save their stupid city," he warned.

I raised my voice, "Isn't this what you've wanted ever since the Flagon, ranger: me dead? All debts paid in full?"

"What I want..." He turned his back to me as he banged on the bar with his empty glass, "is another drink. Barkeep!" He pointed at Sal's apron, "I want a bottle in both fists. Now." Sal's mustachioed face was unreadable as he placed a bottle of brandywine in each of Bishop's hands.

The ranger uncorked the glass stopper with his teeth. There was a hollow thunk as the bottle opened. The ranger extended the the neck towards Casavir with a wicked grin. "...After getting punched by Mar, you're part of the club, paladin. We should get matching tattoos—something like 'DEMON'S BITCHES.' I think I'd know where you'd put yours..."

Casavir folded his arms. His bruised nose wrinkled, as if he could smell the bottle's contents. Then he touched the black eye I had given him as the pain made him wince. I wanted to run up to him and tell him I was sorry.

Bishop laughed, waved the bottle beneath his own nose, wafting the alcohol's fumes as if it were a lover's perfume, "Loosen up, Cassy. You're wound up tighter than a golem's ass." Then he ran his tongue playfully around the bottle's rim, and I looked away. It reminded me to well of how his mouth had felt like against mine.

Suddenly, Bishop lurched forward and almost lost his balance. The dwarf pumped his well-muscled, if short, arm to detach the bottle from the ranger's grasp and pull the bottle to his own whiskered lips. As Khelgar drank straight from the neck, he made a slurping sound. The brandywine stained his lips, but he didn't wipe it off. When he grinned at the ranger, his crooked teeth were stained as well, "Leave the drinkin' to those who can handle it, boy."

Khelgar poured Casavir a glass. The paladin looked at the glass, his mind somewhere else until the dwarf craned his bald head to look up at the paladin before clanking the bigger bottle against Casavir's much smaller glass. "To our fallen," the dwarf toasted, upending the bottle onto his own mouth.

"The fallen," Casavir repeated, emptying his glass. His solemness was only broken by the cough that followed his empty cup. I tried to catch Casavir's gaze, but he kept it lowered. Casavir was good at ignoring the world and turning inward whenever bad things happened.

Bishop, though, wasn't one for self-scrutiny. He looked at Nevalle, then traced a finger across his neck.

I shook my head, but when Bishop pretended not to understand, I leaned over to him, so that no one else could hear, "No hunting, ranger..."

I followed Bishop's amused gaze as it went to Casavir, then Nevalle. Then the ranger raised an accusatory finger at me, "No screwing Mar."

My mouth widened. "I screw whoever or whatever I please," I whispered fiercely.

"All I'm saying is be smart. You seem to spread your legs at the sight of these big, lumbering types with a hard-on for honor. You might hurt someone's feelings, if not your own."

"Are you one of Nevalle's fanboys? Don't worry, I''ll put in a good word for you."

Bishop chuckled, "That was good Mar...I almost forgot that you want to straddle me."

I had had enough, "Bishop, please..."

The ranger blinked, crossed his hands against his chest. When he spoke, I barely heard him, "...Do you want me to follow? I can..."

I shook my head.

"What do you need, Mar?"

I looked into his eyes. They looked amber in this light, "...I need you... to stay away from me."

Bishop grinned, "That's what I should have done a long time ago, sweetheart."

Sir Nevalle was silhouetted against the predawn sky of purple and indigo, "Are you coming, Amara?"

I nodded. When I looked back on more time at the common room, Bishop had made his way to the back door—the only back that turned away from me and seemed to merge with the shadows by the back entryway. Everyone else in the inn was looking at me—so many pairs of eyes glinting darkly in the fire and torchlight, including Ammon Jerro's.

"Kana will manage the day-to-day duties of the Keep until I return. Casavir, you will lead the soldiers. Sand, try to work with Zhajeve and Aldanon and our new friend to find out how to re-forge the blade...and don't wait for me to have her funeral."

The veiled cleric adjusted a bracelet on her forearm, "I'll take care of that, Kalach-Cha, and I will keep both eyes on a the warlock." Zhajeve looked at Ammon with hostility. I had never seen the zerth look at anything with such antipathy...

I nodded.

Nevalle, ever graceful, turned a corner, hopped on his own horse, and motioned for me to do the same.

I kept my eyes ahead—at Nevalle, at the horses. I couldn't think about what was behind us, for I hadn't slept since before we left for Haven, and so my thoughts were kept simple: Just look ahead, Amara, just keep going... So I did not answer any of Nevalle's questions or attempts at courtesy, and so we rode in almost complete silence except for the clack of hooves and the odd spray of water whenever we ran through puddles on the road. I never liked horses—I never will. What I liked even less was always being pushed and pulled by forces I could never hope to control, like a leaf caught in a hurricane.

* * *

We weren't the only ones walking about Neverwinter's streets. The city seemed to teem with refugees from surrounding lands. They huddled around bonfires or in front of houses, drinking, talking in whispers. Hardly anyone hailed us, though they must have seen Nevalle's tunic. We rode through the Docks, which had an undercurrent to its smell I had almost forgotten of rotting timber and fish. There the sailors boasted over cheap ale, which was easy, since there were at least two alehouses for every other business. Now, men and woman pushed carts or just walked wearing mud and shit-stained cloaks that painted them all in the same shade of weathered taupe. Canvas tents clogged the side streets all the way to Blacklake where the nobles sat in their gilded houses, saved from the multitudes of poor by the interior wall that separated each district from another.

Nevalle and I stood before the wall for only a moment before a guardsman waved us inside after unlocking the gate mechanism. At least a company joined us as we rode down the cobblestone up the hill towards Castle Never. The black and white uniforms of the Greycloaks stretched from the mage academy all the way to the castle's front gate. Every Cloak in Neverwinter seemed to be in the courtyard before the castle.

I looked at Nevalle, only partly joking as I asked, "Did someone die?"

He chuckled and dismounted. "Make way," he shouted in a voice that echoed up and down the walls, "for Amara Half-Blood, Captain of Crossroad Keep, Defender of her people!"

The Cloaks cheered, stomped their feet, whistling, raised 'huzzahs,' as Nevalle helped me off of the horse.

"Wave," Nevalle whispered to me.

"Half-Blood! Half-Blood! Half-Blood!"

I tried to smile, but I ended up standing there, blinking against a surge of emotions I hadn't wanted or expected. As they kept cheering, Nevalle, seeing my frozen smile, put his own hand against the small of my back. More soldiers and knights smiled and cheered as Nevalle and I passed them by.

Making as sharp right, Nevalle guided me to a section of the Castle I had never been before. The interior was blue-veined marble hung with rich and heavy tapestries depicting Neverwinter's history. He led us onto a well-furnished room. The walls were sky blue and had clouds painted in various designs of heraldry that I knew little of. There was also standing mirror, a ceremonial longsword, an embroidered cloak, and some white robes arranged artfully at the foot of the long bed.

I frowned, "War...doesn't leave much time for pampering, Nevalle."

Nevalle laughed as he touched the sword, "Amara: these are gifts. You're not here to fight anything. This sword is for show, anyway—probably wouldn't even cut butter—but all knights of Neverwinter receive the same blade." He touched the blade he wore at his hip. It had a jewel in the pommel that looked like moonstone.

"Knight?" I looked dumbly at the sword.

He gave one of his more oily grins, "One of the Nine, if you can stand the company."

"Oh no—fuck no."

"Amara, come. Look into this mirror with me." Nevalle's gloved hand pulled me to stand beside him. He was taller than me, and even with his armor, Nevalle was cut a rather dashing figure. He wore his blue tunic with the fist over his suit of shinning armor that seemed to light up this little room.

He chortled, "While I may be quite easy to look upon, look at yourself, Amara..."
S
o I did. I had on the chainmail he had given me,which outlined my sinewy, long-limbed figure, a strong body, full of more energy than it knew how to deal with. My chainmail, unlike his, was soiled to a dull gray from use. The black cloak had my device, the fist and stars, on the back and shoulder. My bastard sword was strapped to my back, but the silver-worked pommel jutting out over my left shoulder was covered in nicks and scratches. My face was my own: square jawed, full cheeked, think lipped. My skin was darker than the cloak, and almost seemed to absorb the room's light. My long, black hair fell loose and wild-I couldn't stop a six-fingered hand from trying to smooth my hair behind my ears. My green eyes were the dominant feature of my face, more dominant than the horns...more sinister.

I looked up at this blonde, splendid, noble, this lord of men, with a quizzical, shrewd, fanged frown of villain seizing up her nemesis. "You've made your point, Nevalle. I known what I look like—especially next to you."

"The you don't see what I see." He placed his hands on my shoulders and moved me to stand in front of his reflection, "I see the future. You will be spoken of, sung about, when the two people reflected in that mirror have long faded into dust."

As I watched his neat hands, my eyebrow arched, "I think you've read too many fairy stories."

The smile beneath his His canny eyes was genuine, "Fine. I see a woman who gets things done, who is loyal, and can be as witty as I, and that's saying quite a bit. Keeping Neverwinter safe is working against the King Of Shadows."

"For now..."

"Lady Amara..." I watched his reflection reach out his hands, clasping mine. "I can't foretell the future. These are uncertain times, and and that is likely to continue. I won't ask you to do this for some idea of Neverwinter. I ask you to do it for those men and women outside, who have been waiting all day for a glimpse of the Lady. If that doesn't convince you, then I appeal to the your love you bore a certain Marshal. Hells, do it for me: I promise you won't regret it."

I leaned toward Sir Nevalle, so certain of himself, "What is the promise of a Lord of a manor when the hut is burning?"

Nevalle smoothed his already smooth hair, "You should know me better than that, Amara. It is the promise of one who will be Lord of Neverwinter someday. "

"I never cared for politics, my lord. I'm merely a simple Harborman who likes a good tussle."

"We all have our talents, lady, so I will be direct. The gratitude of those in power is no small thing."

"This is all...very strange, Nevalle. I know how to be underestimated, scorned even, but this..." I gestured towards the window. I could hear sounds of revelry below. A knighting often turns into a feast-day, but it was quite different to be the reason for the feast.

"I don't feel like I should be rewarded for just being, well, alive," I muttered as I looked out the window.

"Then don't see it as a reward." He picked up the sword and held it out to me, "Consider it a duty. Possibly an early death...Or, if we survive, this could be the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship."

Nevalle sat on the edge go the bed. As I walked up to him to take the sword's pommel from his hand, he pulled back, so that I fell onto him as I tried to reach the sword, which he dangled just out of reach. He smelled as if he had just daubed his neck with cologne.

“If my sources are correct, you've already been receiving benefits from certain companions...”

I tried to be nonchalant, so I tapped his nose as I jested, "Keep your head out of my bed, Nevalle."

"That is a double entantre." His hand slid down my waist.

I stopped being nonchalant when I put my hands against his chest and pushed him off, "That's not an answer."

Nevalle was surprisingly strong and managed to pull me to his knee, "The paladin is operatically handsome, but brittle. Under pressure, he breaks rather than bends. I think you're a woman who needs...flexibility...”

This isn't happening. I am not on noble's bed, jiggling on Sir Nevalle's knee, "Why do you care?"

"Because Cormick loved you."

"That very noble, but why don't I believe it?"

"Fine. I like the way you fill out a uniform. I am a weak man." He bent his face toward mine.
I laughed as I rubbed the patch of skin between my horns, putting them between us, "Funny how you wait to have an interest in me until it is politically keen."

"I'm not playing any game here." He brought my hands to his face, blew his breath on my fingers before he kissed each one. "Then again, it's not chivalry, either." Nevalle grabbed my jaw and bit my bottom lip.

I squealed in surprise, "You shouldn't do that! This situation is confusing enough, and I am rather sick of complications."

The thumbs of both his hands kneaded my fingers, "Until the ceremony, I'm still your superior, so smile pretty and curtsey and say, 'Yes, milord, I desire you and your company.' Or you can just glare petulantly...You're rather attractive when you glare. I'm never certain if you're going to beat me or have your way with me. Either way…You can't ravish me yet. Though I'll settle for a little tongue. I'm assuming yours is forked..." He kissed the palm of my hand.

"What I want: is some privacy." I pulled my hand out of his and made a fist, "And it sounds like you could use the company of a courtesan, or failing that, your sword hand..."

Nevalle's eyes widened comically as he looked at the balled fist I was just about to send crashing into his ribcage,"Well, milady, I have never been made to feel like a buck-toothed, squeaky voiced youth fumbling at his first corset."

"I'm quite flattered, Nevalle, but this is business, as you said... I have no desire to be known as the Knight who' bucked' her way to the top. My elevation already draws enough suspicion. I can't afford any more gossip. Neither can this city. And, well, I don't think you want to upset the man that orcs have nightmares about..."

Nevalle stood and bowed, "You are right, my lady. I did not mean to give offense---only a compliment. I will not be so free again." Nevalle bowed gain. I pointed at the door. Fortunately, he seemed in a hurry to leave. As the knight turned, his back made a line of shinning plate against the rooms pale blue walls.

Behind a screened curtain, there was a gilded tub filled with steaming, rose petal-strewn water. I undressed and bathed. The purification was a part of any knighting, just like the vigil I had kept...well, mostly. No one said I had to be a lone...I smiled as I remembered the look on Cormick's face when I pulled his swordbelt off in one long pull. Then Shandra threw my shoes at the assassins, forcing me to display shoeless, muddy toes as Nasher made me a noble. I let the water cover my head and then wiggled my toes. This was much better than muddy fee, but I still didn't feel purified...

I pulled on a dressing gown that hung near the washbin. I grabbed a towel to pat my waist-length hair dry. I hadn't cut it and it was clearly starting to get harried at the ends. I noticed a pair of scissors on the table, so I picked it up and stood before the looking glass.

"How many?" I asked, looking at my reflection. How many dead because of me? If I was going to be one of the Nine, it seemed like something very important to know—to remember.

"Lorne, Moire, Garius, Shandra, Rhetta, Merrin, Daeghun, Morimee, Kai, Cormick...mother," I tugged on a lock, murmured a name before snipping and throwing the dark clumps and tangles to the carpeted floor.

When I was done with my list, my hair was as short as Brelina's, but more ragged. I rubbed my palm against my head, trying to remove any lingering hair. I felt feeling lightened.

"What have you done to yourself, child?" My mother had a hand to my head, frowning as she wiped strands of my hair off my face.

I blinked, but when I opened my eyes, she was still there, in her copper armor, platinum hair crowning a nimbus of a face, "Why do I keep seeing dead people?" I whispered, pulling on a scented, heavy robe.

"...Because you keep making them. Don't look at me like that, missy. You have done as much ill as good. Or you wouldn't be cutting that hair," Her voice was rich and otherwordly, even as it scolded me.

I was confused. The last ghost to visit me had turned out very bad... I had dreams of my mother, but never in the waking world, "What have you come for?" I scanned the room, feeling exposed as I saw my sword on the other side of the room.

Mother's orange eyes followed mine, and then she smiled a bright, even smile that seemed full of understanding,"I want what any mother hopes for her child. To ease your burden—your suffering."
I wiped water from my eyes, wanting to believe her, "How?"

"You've done enough. It's time to let other people come into their own. A time for you to finally understand who you are....nothing. Haven't you begged for a the time when there are no more shards to bear? It will happen. And what will you do, Hero of Neverwinter, who will you be then? A broken girl. And then you'll die. And you will be forgotten. That's your special destiny—"

"Whatever you are,” I threw the scissors at her head, “ stop looking like my mother!"

The masked vampire pointed a sharpened, black fingernail at me. Her hair was darker than mine, but the skin around her black mask was blue-white, like that of a corpse or a doll. Twin, curved short swords rested in sheaves on her forearms. She wore purple greaves and boots and greenish armor the color of tarnished copper. I could see the pale slits of her thighs above her boots. What I could see of her eyes, they were also dark with a purple iris.

All I could hear was her voice, filling my head, "See the truth, now?"

She bent over me, grabbed my head as she made me look into those dark eyes, so dark…I tried to turn away, but I could not. I felt like nothing. Insignificant. A mere fleck in the great drama of multiverse. I was nothing. And I was alone.

Mother, save me... I was shaking.

I heard the words in my head, though her lips did not move,"I am Darkness, which will overtake this land, this entire world. And give it what it longs for: oblivion. Your shards are mere flicking of borrowed light. They will be swallowed. They will be smothered…"I had a great sense of weight and darkness fall over me. I coughed and bit and writhed against it. Then... she dropped me, but only to place my head in her lap and stroke my hair, my horns..."But I all is not lost, my pet. Oh no. Wouldn't you like to have those you loved return? Shandra? Cormick? I can give them all back to you, if you promise to serve me. I could give you everything you want...Just give your will to me. Give me your soul, and you will find peace. I promise."

I punched her in the eye and used the momentum to kick away.

Shar grabbed by chin in her white-blue hands, which were hard and cold as the endless emptiness of her abode. The goddess lifted me up as if I were weightless. She extended her elbow, which released one of her short swords into her cold claw. Shushing me, she placed her forehead against mine as she smoothed a my shorn hair. Quite suddenly, she clawed at my cheek, taking out chunks of bloody skin until my eyes watered, but I met her dark, malicious gaze with a hardness of my own.

When I refused to scream or beg, she spat in my face. "Tell Mystra," she whispered as she hovered above my bloody cheek, "I'll taste her favorite, sooner or later…"

Someone rapped on the door, startling me. "My lady, it is time..."

The goddess disappeared.

I know why you're here, I thought as I winced, wiped the hot blood off my cheek.

"I'm not afraid," I said to the floor.

* * *

As I walked toward the audience chamber, properly bathed and anointed in my ceremonial white robes, a masked woman knelt at the center of a small crowd of nobles, strumming a lute. Her playing was so skillful, I stopped to listen though Nevalle gestured at me from across the chamber that Nasher was waiting.

Amara Half-Blooded!
She felled a giant Lorne
with horns are sharp as daggers,
she rode upon the storm.


I laughed.

Marshal Cormick, lovely man
Lost to Shadow's hand
she will shatter, understand
Every people, every land.
Neverwinter's hero
Knows all she needs to know
To fight every Shadow
Demon-blooded, devil born
She rides swift upon the storm.
Captain now and a Keep
She haunts the Dark King's sleep.
He'll do worse to make her weep.


I took a second look at the singer. It was then I saw her fangs.

"Nevalle! Trap! Trap!" I screamed, closing the distance between the singer and me.

The bard stood. She shook her head at me, as if to scold, "You're interrupting the music."

Suddenly, the hallway was full of shadows and vampires and screaming nobles.
I wished I had my bastard sword.

The vampire looked at the other undead minions around us and addressed them in a booming voice, "Kill the Shard-Bearer and Sir Nevalle! Leave Nasher for the Reaver..." Then she became shadow and disappeared.

I looked up. There was about fifty undead creatures in the antechamber. I grabbed my ceremonial sword from where I had dropped it clattering to the marble floor. But once I held it up in a fencing position, I realized that it was too flimsy to cut bread, let alone a grizzled, tough, undead body. So I threw the useless sword down with a disappointed grunt as I looked for a real weapon instead.

“Oh Shit!” I muttered as a zombie raised its arms and lumbered at me.

My voice caused the e nearest vampire to turn toward me and hiss, "I've never tasted demon before…" as it licked its bloody, uneven fangs in anticipation of what meal throbbed in my veins.

* * *

I made my way back from Neverwinter as Knight Captain, Amara Chidi of the Neverwinter Nine. The cloak of knighthood fell behind my shoulders, and the blue tunic of the Nine was still crisp and gleaming above my mail. My cloak covered my head. But I had new bruises, including a nasty cut that jagged across my left eyebrow. I was alone. I had refused any retainers to come with me— even Sir Nevalle's offer of escort. I hadn't traveled alone since...I couldn't remember. Actually, I could: it was the night I fled West Harbor barefoot, expecting at any moment some dark thing to pull me down into the murky water.

Much had changed, but I still found myself waiting for some dark shadow or silhouette to solidify and attack, but at least I had a horse—and boots—between me and the muddy ground. In fact, any monster was free to take the horse, but not the boots.

It was good to be on my own feet again. The Keep's wall, pale and solid against the evening sky, was familiar, even if the place still held the strange eddies of power. I found that the longer I stayed, the more accustomed I came to the magical pull of the place. It was like having two magnets circling each other, making the air buzz with the possibility of their opposite poles connecting...At the stables, the boy who normally took care of the Keeps stables waved and clapped when he saw my stallion. As he ran off towards the Keep, I heard him shouting shrilling that 'The Lady' had returned...

I looked around, still hoping to slip back to my room unseen, to throw myself onto the clean, familiar hardness of my bed before I had to endure the Keep's response to my knighting.
I even made it through the front door of the Keep with only a silent salute from the guards, and so my hopes were high as I rushed through the entryway, but the hall was occupied with more than just the normal contingent of yawning, black clad guardsmen. Someone had brought in a table before the Lady's Seat, which is what they called the chair in the main hall that I sat in when I gave audience. Some men had found it in the cellars. It certainly wasn't Luskan—it was too old for that. The chair had a round stone at its base, which was marked by strange letters and signs now worn almost completely away. The rest of it had been carved of enchanted wood that was still glossy and fine-grained after many centuries. The first time I had sat in it, I felt...small. There were many tales about a king who lived in the Keep in days long past-—a name that no one remembered. Even without name, the king still stirred the local imagination. I had run into many stories about the Faceless King, who was described as a hero, or a villain, depending on the story and its teller.

Whatever the seat had been, wherever it came from, the top was draped with a tapestry bearing my device: the fisted palm circled by silver stars. Someone had even placed cushions in the seat itself, trying to make it more comfortable, I imagine.

In front of the Lady's Seat, lit by several torches, was a full table. Kana sat straight in one chair, her legs uncrossed as she spoke to Sand, who sat across from her. The mage rolled his eyes at Khelgar, who stood in the seat of the chair made for a much larger person, pumping his fist on the table top. The dwarf rattled a circlet that say at the center on another embroidered cushion. "We need fighters. My people are the best ya'll find. But they will need some convincing."

Sand's lip curled, "You mean they will need a bribe."

Khelgar flushed red from the ale or his temper, "I never said that. They need a reason if we'll be asking them to leave their mountain halls and fight on the surface beneath a foreign banner."

I sat in my the Lady's seat, which caused everyone to tense until I removed the cloak. They could all see my familiar horns and features that marked me as Amara as well as the short hair and the tunic that marked me as one of the Nine. "What will they fight for?" I asked Khelgar as I made myself comfortable, "Bearded and bow-legged women?"

Khelgar laughed, "Lass, I don't think I've ever been so happy to see a demon alive. But now that yer here, it''ll be settled. Ya know we need allies. My clan is the closest. You should go there and do that thing ya do...They need someone strong, who makes them feel strong again. Who better than one of the Nine?"

I tapped my horn, "I'm not a dwarf, Khelgar. Don't your people have their own heroes?" I looked at Khelgar, meaning him.

However, the dwarf flinched and then wiped his nose, “I know," he muttered, "this is more than just some game between clans, but my people don't. They need to be shown the danger the Shadow poses to us all. That's why ya need to go to the clans...The one who leads them...he'll avoid anything that risks his own ass."

An awed look formed in Kana's large, liquid eyes as she studied my tunic, "Now that you are one of the Nine, my lady," she inclined her head, "it might be prudent to send others to form alliances. You've collected quite a group of companions...I think they're more than eager."

"The King of Shadows is my first priority," I said. "Still, that doesn't mean we refuse help. Khelgar, you are their kin, and Sand's diplomatic skills can temper your...natural enthusiasm."

Sand's eyes widened as he sat straight up, "I think I'd prefer to stay at the castle, making potions and, uh, important things."

I smiled at the elf, "This is important. The dwarves are essential. Khelgar wasn't bragging about their capabilities, but Khelgar is hot-blooded, hot-headed, which you, and only you, can cool..."

Sand seemed pleased with the praise, but tried to hide it. "Very well, captain," he sighed, but I could tell he was ready for the challenge, to leave the walls of the Keep. "But if I end up dying in some mineshaft, I'm coming back just to haunt you."

"I won't let ya die, elf." Khelgar boomed, "But I can't speak for the frost giants."

Sand's face became pinched, "Giants? Fantastic..."

"Aye, giants—big, lumbering creatures who can rip off a man's head with one twist of a wrist." Khelgar own hands went though exactly those motions, "I hope ya have a spell that won't make ya soil yer pretty robes."

The mage slit his eyes, "Yeah, it's a spell called, 'Whenever Giant is Seen, Mage Finds Fat, Stupid Warrior to Stand Behind.'"

"Ha! Fat? It's not fat!" Khelgar patted his rounded stomach, "Ya elves are just nothing but wingless fairies who feed on moonlight and maiden's sighs!"

I snapped my fingers to get their attention, "Hey—remember that I'm trusting you both with something very important." I removed a parchment case from my belt and held it up, "Nasher has signed and sealed documents that tells just that. You're both up to whatever might be asked." I tossed the case gently to Sand, who caught it in both hands, "And if there's trouble, such as you both end up in a giant's stew-pot, send word—or better yet, get out of the pot before you get bloody eaten."

"Aye," Khelgar winked at me,"but it's not the giants that will cook us, but my kin."

"Speaking of stew, we need someone to talk to the Lizardmen, too," I thrummed my fingers back and forth on the arm of the seat. "I had time to consider this as I was riding in...They were willing enough to parley at Port Last, and they are refugees as much as those who have come to the Keep. If they are willing to help defend this land, then they should be rewarded. There are mashes to the south that are far from any human settlement, but would be perfect for Lizardfolk. "

Elanee spoke from her seat in careful tones, "I think I understand the Lizardfolk—what they must be feeling: to be far from that you love, what you know..." Her elven eyes reflected forest greens in that candle-light, and there was something in her look that I pitied. She was from the Mere, the same as I, she felt its destruction as much as I did. Yet she didn't whine about it like me. She was strong and silent in a way I never would be. She would risk her life because she thought that was right, even if I never so much as glanced in her direction again.

….And they called me Hero. I removed a sheet of parchment from a stack on the table, and wrote about the terms of settlement. I signed and sealed it with black wax and my signet ring. Then I sealed the envelope.

"You should have company," I said to the druidess as she cradled laid the envelope in front of her chair and traced a finger over the seven stars encircling a hand clutching a sword.

"I'll go with her," Neeshka's girlish voice came from the other side of the table. She was sitting cross-legged in a chair, her hands folded beneath her chin. Her tail, for once, was not lashing from side to side, but curled behind her like a question mark.

I tried to make my face blank, but every time I looked at the tiefling, I still heard her squalling at Casavir when Cormick lay at his feet, "You can heal him, you just won't! And we all know why, don't we?" But I tried to keep my voice even as I spoke to her, "Are you certain, Neeshka? There are bandits, not to mention shadows—"

Neeshka tugged a strand of her short, red hair, which was now much longer than mine,"There's bad things everywhere, Amara—even in this Keep. The last time a friend of mine left on one of your adventures, her murderer came back in her stead." Her red eyes challenged mine, if the voice was cloyingly sweet, "I think I can protect our friends much better than you have."

It seemed that Neeshka hadn't forgotten either.

"Enough, Neeshka," Elanee chided, "I'd like for you to go with me, but all that isn't Amara's fault. It's what happens when people got to war."

The tiefling actually pointed at me, "Her war."

"...There's the door," I said to Neeshka, nodding at the entryway, "You are free to go and do whatever you wish. I'll even give you gold for your service. But if you stay, then this is your war too, and we are on the same side—or you are gone... Do we understand one another?"

Neeshka bit her lip before she spoke, "Oh, I understand you perfectly...Elanee and I will bring back the Lizardmen, won't we El?"

Elanee paused, looking at Neeshka. I got the feeling that Elanee understood why the tiefling was going, even if I did not, and she wasn't pleased.

"Kalach-Cha, you need to reforge Gith's blade. According to Ammon Jerro, you must speak to a dragon named Nolaloth, who was brought from another plane to fight the guardian...The essence of the dragon endures, and that is where Jerro went to learn how to forge the blade." She handed me a map to this dragon's valley.

As I clutched the map, I looked at each face at the table, the gith's veiled face last of all, "I'll go see what this dragon Nolaloth has to say. But first, I think we all need to rest."

"This crown...don't you wish to know it's purpose?"

I stuffed the unexamined map into a pouch, "No."

* * *

The church was still being constructed, but I found that many didn't mind the bare timbers if they had a place to worship. Though it was officially a Tyrran church, I made certain that offerings to any of the gods were to be allowed.

It was dark outside, but there was moonlight through the cracks in the roofbeam. I wasn't surprised to see the paladin kneeling on the floor before Tyr's rough altar, which was lit by a single, blunt candle...I also smelled a lingering waft of incense that must have lit as part of his prayer. He wore a white, simple linen, as if he was preparing himself for a ritual, or maybe the ritual had passed. There were so many ceremonies that I couldn't remember them all. Paladins like Casavir had to undergo a ritual for the first blood, the first blow that landed in anger, even just feeling or thinking of unlawful of vengeance required certain sacrifices and other means of atonement...Casavir had once gone without food for three days before he suddenly started eating again. He never told me the cause.

I must have made some noise in the shadows, for the paladin stood in his gray robe and asked, "Who's there?"

"It's me."

"Amara?" He rushed the distance between us. He held me in his arms before I could tell him he should stay where he was.

He traced the embossed eye on the chest of my blue tunic with an rapt expression, "I can't help but feel like I've missed a great deal." Casavir put his hands over my shorn hair, which was as short as his now, "Oh Amara...who did this..."

"I did."

"Is that another jest?"

I chuckled, "I wish...It was part of my knighting...to remind myself-but that doesn't matter now. I think we are near to the end, Casavir...for good or ill."

Casavir pulled my head to his chest. I could hear the thrum of his even pulse, "What happens now?"

I didn't say anything, just listened to his deep, regular breathing. I wanted to be steadied. I felt every pull of his foreceps as he held me tightly, yet his hands were careful as he traced the curve of my ear with his fingertips, "Dear, brave Amara, you're never alone. Not with me..."

I put my hands around his back, wanting to believe him. He pulled us against the rickety wall, and his hands were soon at my face, my waist, finding the kinks in my armor. My eyes fluttered as as he pulled off my tunic. His robe was surprisingly soft against my chest. "You've been pardoned," I said as I shivered against him.

"But I never—"

I put my hand over his mouth. "You don't have to tell me," I whispered.

Casavir kissed me with such force my that my head banged against a wooden beam. I exhaled and blinked as he bunched his robes over his waist and pulled me toward him.

I stroked his dark hair, several times, "Wait...There's nothing to prove—"

"I love you."

I grabbed his robe, pulled it up over his hipbone, covering his smooth midsection, "And I thought paladins couldn't lie..." I chuckled.

Casavir grabbed my shoulders, "Don't mock this."

"Come on, Casavir. You barely looked at me at the Haven—except to glare."

The paladin cradled my head in both of his hands, "You touched that thing..." he said with surprising venom.

"And now you're offering tender endearments. I don't know who is the more fucked up."

His eyebrows crinkled, "I love you."

I rubbed the spot between my horns, "What else am I supposed to say? That we're soul-mates? Is that what you really want to hear? Well, that's one thing I cannot say. Because I don't believe—"

"I believe in in fate, Shard-Bearer. I believe in many things," He touched my bare breast, "You came down the mountain in a cloud of fire."

"Liar," I ran my hand playfully along his jaw. Then I became serious, "Why do I have to be the one who everyone wants something from?"

He laid his head on my chest, spoke to my neck, "I can't answer that. But yes, I do want something from you, yes. I want everything, Amara..." He kissed the place where my neck met my collarbone.

I grinned, "If I didn't know any better, I would swear that was a 'good-bye'?"

Casavir lifted his head. The sweat glistened on his upper lip, "I should have told you sooner."

My left eyebrow lifted, "Told me what?"

He pulled me close, spoke into my ear, "I had a vision... and I had a dream. I dreamed of Tyr's hammer ringing against the mountains round Old Owl Well. I'm a Grimjaw. That's my order. It had very high standards—a knight must be given a vision of Tyr. We all hope to see his warhammer. To receive Tyr's sword...means he is unworthy. That's what I saw—a sword pointing at my heart, as if he knew the secret violence there. That's the real reason I ended up at the Well. I followed you because you showed an even greater injustice. Now Tyr is telling me that I may finally atone. But I must go back to the orcs. And I must offer them a chance to be just."

"Wait," I grabbed him by the hair and looked into his eyes, incredulous, "am I hearing this right? The man who set out on a one-man campaign to annihilate the orc tribes now wants to reason with them?"

"They respect me, at least. And I understand them better than most."

"I'm not letting them get within shooting distance of you. They would kill you as you raised the flag of truce! No. You are needed here, not to waste yourself on some suicidal mission. I thought you were done with that."

"I have to, Amara. I had almost given up hope, but now..."

"So that's it? 'I love you Amara. See you in the next life'?"

"I know you're angry."

"Angry? Why the fuck should I care where you go? Or if you live? It turns out I was right—I'm not your bloody sign," My hand touched the amulet, but sought his hand, which he brought to my face,"Casavir—"

"You don't need me, Amara."

"I have to go meet some dead dragon. I need my friend."

Casavir said nothing.

"We can't be friends, can we?"

"What am I supposed to do, Amara? You know what I've felt. When we lay together the first time, you left me. What was I supposed to think? Then, I had to watch..." He moved toward me, made me look at him, "Shandra was beautiful and good, and cared for me. Now she is dead. I can't be patient anymore, Amara. I won't have just a part. No one should. Shandra deserved someone who could love her, and so do I."

I pushed him, "Fuck you. You're not happy unless you're a martyr, so go and be one."

Casavir raised his voice, "This isn't what I wanted. I have wanted you, and only you. But it must be. You don't ache for me—I don't know if you ache for anything besides destruction."

I clutched the amulet he had given me in the other Tyrran temple, "You haven't a clue what I want." I said brusquely as I untied the clasp and then held the necklace out to him. The purple stone flashed darkly between us like a blow.

Casavir looked at it, wounded and angry, and shook his head—refusing to take it.

You righteous bastard, I thought. When I spoke, my voice dripped with the pain I wanted him to feel, "I may be a whore to you, but I won't accept payment for my services."

When he refused to take it again, I threw the amulet at his head. It flashed in the air between us before the paladin caught it. All his rage seemed spent as his fingers caressed the purple stone, an unconscious gesture of reaching out to the mother he had never known.

As I watched him grasp the amulet, I felt a sliver of satisfaction for hurting him, but then my satisfaction quickly turned to disgust. Casavir was handsome, even as he glared. He was still broad-shouldered, deep-voiced, large-armed. I was reminded of the first time I saw him take off his helmet near Old Owl Well—when I wanted to, quite selfishly, caress such singular beauty amid all the death and darkness. His black, wavy hair was etched in gray, and framed that chiseled face, so full of gentleness as well as gentility. He was the epitome of my girlish notions of what a knight should look like and be, as if he was plucked out of some fairy story as he stomped through the underbrush, smashed orc heads, and never forgot his social graces-well, mostly... But I had learned to admire the passion beneath, and his eyes...I would have been blind not to notice him, to have had a daydream or two where I kissed him, removed his armor piece by piece as he looked at me in blue-eyed wonder, reciting poetry and my name in those lingering, deep syllables...Now, I didn't dawdle over his expression or his voice.

Not once did I turn back when I left the half-built temple. By the time I fell into my bed, even though his smell still clung to me, I had already let him go. My dreams, though, were not of any stolen kisses, but of the Harbor's river swelling in early spring, and Rhetta with her long, red hair, braiding mine.
"The difference between a cow and a bean is a bean can begin an adventure!"
---"Into the Woods," by Stephen Sondheim

A Memoir of Demons & Angels

http://www.fanfictio...e...ns_&_Angels

Just email me for writing, proofing,or voicing: raenemon@yahoo.com
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#4 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 31 May 2011 - 04:32 PM

Chapter 16

What Remains

I sat across the table from the crown. It sat at the center of the circular table that dominated the throne room. That's what you call rooms with thrones in them. The throne was as old as The Lady's Seat, even if he gave audience in the most splendid hall in the Sword Coast, even after the city was destroyed in the first war with Luskan and plague ravaged the city. It wasn't until I stood before the the tomb of the founder of Neverwinter that I felt that past as more than just a history lesson. That's why I could approach the tomb, and the swords of the original Nine fell clattering at my feet as I picked up the Rod of Neverwinter from the bones of the first lord, gleaming beneath my dark hand.

These words echoed in the vault, "All things change, except death."

When I emerged from that tomb to the secret opening behind Nasher's throne, I could just see through the opening the blur of shadow-draped figure and Lord Nasher's bright crown falling from his bald pate. Falling, falling as I pushed the door open, and the smell of the figure beside Nasher made me wince. It was wrapped in gravecloth, had no face except a skull; its emptied eye-sockets opened into a blackness where a soul might have once shone. The creature raised skeletal hands, which held a black scythe like one of Myrkul's Grims. In the stories, Grims were specters who showed up and left the fear of death, but this figure not only instigated mortal fear-it reeked of it. By its odor of decaying flesh, I knew it had been human, once-and alive.

"Beg," the skull hissed. Nasher did not flinch at the scythe as the undead assassin grazed its weapon just above the Lord of Neverwinter's head, teasing him with the curved blade poised above his forehead, following the curve of his head, as if it wasn't simple there to kill, but humiliate this human lord with the ease with which the scythe would descend into his skin, like a paring knife peeling a ripened pear.

Without his crown, I noticed Nasher's features as if seeing them distinctly for the first time: the brown goatee and eyebrows above the ivory armor, the gold-embellished kerchief around his neck. Nasher saw me just a moment before the undead thing turned its glowing, faintly purplish skull in my direction.

My ceremonial robes, now wet with the stains, with the funk of tombs and sewers, wasn't much protection against anything but potential mates. I must have also seemed weaponless, for the shadowy thing lunged at me, figuring I was easy prey.

I held up the Rod of Neverwinter, the old sign of rulership, which I was hiding behind my back. It was thin, just a about two feet in length, and made from some metal untarnished by time. It was capped by a clear gem. I balanced the rod for a moment in my hand before bringing it down on what should be the shadow's head, but was only a grotesque skull, a mockery of a face. The fabric gave way beneath the rod as it was made only of wind and shadow. The entire creature collapsed into a pile of corpse rags and dust at my feet.

Eww. I held my hand to protect my nose and mouth from the creature's stench. Nasher coughed a little, but otherwise forgot the dissipated shadow as he picked up his crown and placed it on his head.

Sir Nevalle stormed in through the doors that had been barred. He was surrounded by several mages, members of the Many-Starred Cloaks.

Nasher was silent as he slid the rod from my hands. He clutched it with an unbelieving look, and I realized with a dull shock that Lord Nasher of Neverwinter was waiting to see what I would do, how I would react-whether I would validate his possession of the Rod, his right to rule. Nevalle held his breath, then went to both knees on the marbled floors to honor Nasher-or me. Clever. Nevalle knew that in this moment, though I had given Nasher the Rod, I was the one who stood in front of the throne. If I sat in in, would Nevalle have let me? Though my robes were flecked with mud, my horns with gore, I was the the one the spirits and guardians of the city had recognized, the one both men watched.

Bull...the voice insisted itself in my head. I could almost see Daeghun slipping between the two humans , his eyes as hard as the blade of his skinning knife as when he caught me drinking his sweet-wine, setting my bed sheets on fire, kissing Brother Merrin, slamming the door behind me again and again-so many times, I'm surprised the door hadn't snapped off its hinges years ago.

Daeghun, At least his disapproval was consistent-as consistent as another man's love.

Now, the door was long gone. He'd never be standing behind it. And I'd always be the one who left-who always kept leaving...

I sat at the Lady's Seat, looking at the sage, Aldanon "What do you know of Shadow Reavers?"

The sage squinted at me. "I looked them up." He flipped through a red-bound book, "Shadow Reavers. Formed by shadow magic. First noted in the diaries of Mennen Lox, a solider of Ilfarn. The victims must be voluntary sacrifices. Noted for their inability to be destroyed. Whenever they fall in battle, they return to their home base to be re-animated."

"Then we destroy their home base."

"I have been researching tis location, but there are many Ilfarn ruins, many more that are unknown. There might be a quicker method, though" he said, gesturing at the crown. The crown had come from the vaults beneath Castle Never. Nasher had sent it along with some other valuables, and they made to the Keep before I did. "This is the crown of The Guardian. If anything can help us find his lair, this will." He said.

"Then out it on."

The sage sighed, "I wish I could, but I already tried. It shocked me and my apprentices and anyone else who I put it on. But you, my lady. You wield the shards. The crown is of a similar source. It might respond to you."

"Or it might fry my brain." I said

As placed the crown onto my head, it was as if I saw with something other than eyes. I started rambling under some power other than my own:

Deep deep within the mud and stone,

a circle, statue with woman's figure,

aquamarine and blue and-

silent pleas of love

whispers that say destroy

pale face, purple iris,

fangs, wings, and a broken

crown, a broken sword,

a crystal dimming,

I'll have my three and one

my three

my one

As the trees fall down

one by

one by

one...


I ripped the crown off, panting. "It's like I see into his mind...what's left of it, anyway... like he's singing-" I threw the crown away from me. It got caught in my horns, so I had to disengage it carefully, though I wanted to throw it into the deepest pool, or bury it in the deepest mineshaft, "I don't want his thoughts-nor anything-" I hissed once I was free.

Then I threw the crown at the table where it clattered before rolling off the edge and clanging some more. "You will find a better way, sage."

My guards looked silently at me, then the crown. Then they avoiding looking at anything at all.

Aldanon scrambled after the crown as fast as his age and robes would allow, "That is a delicate artifact, my lady. Very..." He picked it up with the same, slow but gentle movements.

"It's dangerous. Like everything to do with the King of Shadows."

Aldanon huffed. He blew on the tarnished gold, rubbed at a smudge vigorously. "Knowledge is what we need, my lady, not fear." The sage seemed seized by another train of thought, and looked around, "Where's the boy?" he asked, tugging his earlobe.

"Gone."

"I liked him."

"So did I."

Aldanon patted my hand. "He'll come back," he soothed, but there were tears in the old man's eyes.

As I left the chamber, Kana saluted, but I didn't stop, and so she was forced to follow me.

"What is it?" I asked over my shoulder.

"Look around, captain..."

Her tone made me stop. The Keep was crowded. Indeed, it was the most people I had ever seen there at one time.

I watched a young woman lead two children, who worked together to pull a small wagon, for they had neither horse nor mule. The woman must have had her children very young, for she looked like an older sister rather than a mother.

"What brought you here, miss?" I asked.

"The Dark Walkers, milady." The woman made Lathander's circle in her tan palm. "They come in the night. I saw one...tear up the dock's master. They seek living flesh. I've seen that much, so I took my girls, and left."

"Where did you come from?"

"Port Llast."

"So far.."

"Aye, milady. We heard that the city's full. They don't want no more folk like us. But you are from the Harbor, ma'am. We heard the tales. We heard that you keep poor folk like us safe." She adjusted the kerchief that covered her hair, but a brown curl escaped, clinging to her temple.

I took a moment to look at the children: two tan, curly-headed girls who were tall for their age. "The walls are up, and there are soldiers, but this keep is not safe." I nodded eastward, "If Neverwinter falls, the shadows will likely come here. And we'll all have to fight. Not just the soldiers-anyone who can carry a weapon." I walked up to her daughters, knelt in front of them. They watched me warily, a look I had seen on too many faces. "Your girls are what? 14, 13 summers old? They are big enough to notch an arrow or two, to hold a knife...to life a sword." I removed my bastard sword with a sound of metal sliding against metal. "Is that what you want? To teach them to kill, to watch them fall to arrows or undead fingers clawing at their throats?"

The woman looked at me from beneath her dark eyebrows with hard, gray eyes. "I didn't raise them to be cowards, milady. I'd rather they die fighting than keep running."

"Then you are braver than I." I said, shaeving the sword. "If I could, I would have run, and kept running."

The woman bowed, "But ya didn't, lady. That's why we'll stand here with Amara Half-Blood."

I looked at Kana, who raised her fist, firmly as her thin lips carried the ghost of a smile, "For the Half-Blood!"

The youngest girl raised her small fist and smiled shyly. She poked the rib of her elder sister, who merely glared. The people around us stopped to contribute their own fists and voices to the cheer.

"Amara Chidi!" someone shouted shrilly beneath the din.

I scanned the crowd, noticing a tall, rather homely, auburn-bearded man, who waved vigorously at me.

"Amara!"

I would have kept walking, but other people were looking at this man who addressed their captain on a first name basis, and so I couldn't deny that someone was shouting my name in a familiar, gentle cadence.

"I'll be damned." I mumbled, rubbing my eyes. Not another ghost...Not here...

"Amara!" The man laughed as he ran toward me and picked my up, and gave me a hug that left my feet off the ground. Though I liked him, Bevil had never been this affectionate to me, but then, we were the the last, and I felt in in the way he held me, like one orphan clinging to and comforting one another.

"Bevil Starling," I patted his cheek, the mutton chops growing thick, "I thought you were dead-that everyone in the Harbor died." I touched the hair on his chin, still disbelieving, expecting him to disappear like swamp lights in sober daylight.

"I wasn't there when the demons came...I came straight here when I found out. There wasn't really anywhere else to go."

I looked down before I put distance between us. "After what I've done, I can understand if you hate me-"

"-Hate you? Do you mean because of Amie-"

"No: your brother..."

Bevil put up his hands, "I already know about Lorne. Ma told me...what you told her. I'm not surprised. There just always seemed to be something missing inside him. Lorne was so big, so strong—he could get away with it. I never could stand up to him the way Cormick could-the way you did. I just tried to shelter mother...she had been through enough from father. "

A shadow passed across my face. "I should have been there-should have saved her...Saved them all-"

Bevil looked at the ground, then tried to meet my eyes. When I pulled away, he cupped my chin in his hands. "You left to save them. You fought Lorne when you didn't have to." He looked up, wiped at his eyes, "They're all gone. I never thought that would happen. I though I'd live and die in the Mere, but I didn't...When I heard you were alive, I had to find you."

"How did you manage to escape?"

"The ranger friend of yours."

"What?"

"He said he was scouting for you. He found me in the Mere—I was completely lost. He said the Mere wasn't safe anymore, and that I should head to the Keep. It's taken me some time, but I've made it. I've even joined your cloaks."

"Black suits you, Bevil" I said. "I'm glad you made it here safely. You may have lost your family, but your mother was the closest I ever came to a real family."Bevil looked t his feet, embarrassed, but I continued, "That means you're my brother, though the gods know I understand if you want to get away from me, from the pain I've caused..."

Bevil paused before speaking low, "Well, I do have something I need to tell you. When I said I wasn't at the village the reason for it was that...some folk who were looking for you found me. They... tortured me until I told them everything...I'm sorry..."

I pulled Bevil into a hug. "I put everyone around me in danger. You should have fled from this Keep, forgotten that you ever knew me."

"But I can't do that, Amara. Seeing you do what you have done, gives even a coward like me hope."

"You're not a coward. We Harbormen are made of tough stuff."

Bevil kissed my cheek, then my lips. "You are too good to me, milady."

The kiss was chaste to me, like something one sibling would give another, but I knew people were watching, and they would misread the gesture.

"Report to Kana. We're going to make you a sergeant," I said.

"I would be honored, Captain. Actually, I need to head to the barracks and start training."

He saluted, and I returned it. "Do me proud, Sargent Starling."

"I will, Lady."

Once Bevil was off, I felt almost happy until I looked at the inn. I walked over to it anyway, and I asked Sal if he knew where Bishop was. He pointed upstairs.

"In his room, drinking, probably. You want me to get him?"

"Don't worry," I said. "I've handled worse trash."

Sal laughed.

I walked up the stairs to Bishop's door and knocked.

When no one answered, I pushed it open. This is what I had become. Doors held no wonder nor surprise anymore.

Thigh-deep in snow-drifts, I had never seen snow fall with such a blazing sheen. It soon chilled my chainmail, the skin beneath the moment my body cleared the Ilfarn portal. There was no moon to reflect the snow's light, but the path we hiked down had the feel of being carved from solid ice. As we-the ranger, the gith, and I- walked in the snow, there seemed be an indentation in the ice and a passage sloping downward. The area seemed to give off its own, internal glow in the darkness. The closer we came to the dragon's valley itself, the brighter the glow became, the more clearly it encircled the deepest part of the valley. The solid ice beneath us turned quickly to slush, and the snow stopped. The wind stilled and the air carried an impossible scent of green leaves, growing things-the last thing one finds in a desolate landscape.

We removed the cloaks amid the plop of melting snow.

"Is that...grass?" I asked, touching the petals of a red rose, "Something tells me this place just might be magical. Great- just one more magical lair where something's going to try to kill us. How come we never meet something like naked Sunites in the midst of a good, old-fashioned orgy. " I pulled the rose from its stem, taking off the petals one by one and tossing them into the the air.

"Going soft, Mar?" Bishop asked over my shoulder.

A crushing a petal between my fingers, "Never. Just wondering if this really is my life."

"You are the Kalach-Cha," said the zerth.

"What? Now that you have titles, you think you're special?"

"Oh come on. Don't you think you're more than Bishop, which isn't your name anyway."

"I know what I am."

"No you don't." I laughed, "The Bishop you told me you are would have been anywhere but here."

Bishop's breath misted as he spoke, "You know why I'm freezing my nuts off? Treasure. Dragons have it. I want it. Then maybe I'll buy my own Keep...and someone to keep me warm."

I grinned as I pressed my hands against my waist, "That's pretty good, Bishop. I almost forgot that you want to mount me."

Bishop's tongue touched his upper lip, "Good to see that no matter what happens, you're still the same bitch underneath."

I blew him a kiss.

The zerth's brow became wrinkled as she looked from one of us to the other, "I do not understand. The githzerai hate our enemies, love our friends. We know these things because we know ourselves. But here, none of you know your hearts, your purpose. And so you become confused. You wills are broken."

"My will is anything but broken" I said.

The zerth looked at Bishop, then I with her gold eyes. "Know yourself, Kalach-Cha. And do not back away from such knowing, or the shards will stay in pieces."

All of us became silent as we crested a rise and looked into a valley blanked in the surprising green of grass and tree leaves. A pool lay at the center, and a huge crystal floated over it. The crystal was the source of the light. We could hear it's hum as it turned, reflecting the light in the pool. There were striations in the crystal's facets that looked like veins.

On the further side of the valley was a path carved out of crystal, leading toward some other ridge. That was where Ammon Jerro had told us the dragon ay on at the end of that crystal path. He also told us to avoid the crystal at the center, which was protected by the dragon's magic.

AS we crossed the valley, there was a lingering reptilian smell, like the smell of old eggshells. I looked around, but I had never seen-or smelled- a dragon before-not even a caged one. But if I had to encounter one, I preferred talking to a dragon's s spirit rather than a flying, fire-breathing, flesh-eating lizard who could destroy us with a sigh.

The crystalline path ended in a cliff and a sheer drop toward a bottom I couldn't see.

"Nolaloth," the gith intoned in her bell-like voice. We had also rehearsed the charm meant to call the crystal dragon's spirit,"I call you by the Unbroken Circle of Zerthamon."

"Nolaloth" I said in my deeper cadences, "I call you by the power of Gith's silver sword."

The gith and I both looked back at Bishop, who sighed.

"Do I have to do this mumbo-jumbo?" he rasped.

"Yes!"

Bishop's eyes were full of contempt, "Fine. Nolaloth. I call you by the strength of this world you tried to save...Are we done?"

"Actually, we need the blood of a virgin." I said over my shoulder. "Shall you open your wrist, or should I?"

"Not funny, Mar-" the ranger said as he turned an obscene gesture in my direction.

The ground shook until a crystal screen dropped between us and the valley, cutting off any hope for escape from this place. A loud wind cut through the canyon, echoing off the walls. It cut through the air until it resolved itself into a voice made of wind and the sound of air moving against the crystal that the cliff seemed made of,"I am the one the Ilfarn called from across the planes to battle the Guardian. Nolaloth in your tongue. You will not leave this valley alive."

"Nolaloth! We came only to talk!" I shouted back at the sheer cliff-face, the deep ravine before us.

"That's what the Warlock said. He took my knowledge and refused to honor our bargain. I will not make the same mistake."

"The Guardian has returned-" The zerth said.

"He always does. Let him take this world. It does not matter to me. I am already beyond such concerns, as you will be, soon..."

"I am Amara Chidi, the Shard-Bearer, I have already undergone the Rituals of Purification. We just need to know about Gith's Sword."

"You bore me...and I didn't think that was possible after so many centuries..."

"I am no mortal thing."

"Nether am I. But you will die in this valley soon enough, like any vulture, and I will soon forget you ever came long before your bones are dust."

"Come out, dragon. If you not to free us, then to tell your story. We have come very far to hear the crystal dragon who blotted out the sky when he was called to this world."

There was silence, then the dragon appeared, his body stretched across the bottomless cavern, seeming to fill it with light. The dragon gave off light like it was a new color. Though the overall effect was white, there were rainbows reflected as his scales were prisms. He was immense, and that was only the part of the dragon. I shuttered to think what he looked like before...

"Nolaloth, Nolaloth, in your speech," he intoned, gazing at me with eyes larger than my entire body.

How did you fall?"

"The Guardian killed me. Made me plummet like a comet from a burning sky. But that wasn't enough. Rather than let me rejoin the ether, be reborn, he took out my heart, condemned me to this shell...an eternal reminder of his victory." The dragon slowly inundated his bulk, "Deep in you is the old matter, sister, that is true. But you are not the only one re-born..." The dragon seemed to close it's great, reflective eyes, seemed to speak to himself, "Is is chance or fate? I can never tell...The nature of a man, or half-demons, is not my concern."

"What is?" I asked.

"That is not for you to know, nor for me to tell. But, I can tell you the knowledge you seek. The Mere, the place where you were born and the shard entered you, the reality, the thread between world was broken. Go back to your Mere, if you would have the weapon. With the Githyanki to guide you, you have enough shards to re-make the sword...But you may fare no better than I. You may find only death if you return, or Maybe he will cut out your heart,

Now, promise me something in return, sister."

"What?"

"You must kill me."

"No," I said, shaking my head. "There must be a way to revive you-"

"I am tired of lingering in the place. Many more years and I will forget who I am and go mad. End this life while I am Nolaloth."

I looked a long time at the scales, marveled again at the immensity and beauty of this creature, "I swear, brother. If I can give you peace, I will."

"Peace?" The dragon looked at the sky, "I can't remember what that is..."

The barrier between Nolaloth's cliff and the green valley dissipated.

"Destroy my heart, which hovers above the sacred pool. I have taken down it's protective magics, but you must strike hard and quickly. There are other dragons, evil ones, who are drawn to this place and its power, hoping to become fierce and powerful. They will not like your hand upon my heart."

As we walked toward the crystal dragon's heart, we kept looking up, searching for other dragons.

We weren't disappointed.

They fell upon us from the sky. At first, they looked like flying shadows riding the waves of heat emanating form the dragon's crystal heart. Then they dived, growing larger and larger until their wings became distinct from heir sleek, sinuous bodies. There were two that dropped their claws against the ground, making deep welts in the earth, tearing out clumps of grass and dirt as they spread their wings with quick, convulsive movements and screeched, baring sharp teeth and long tongues that dripped saliva that hissed as it singed the ground.

There was an deeper, answering screech behind us. A high dragon, four times bigger than its brethren, stomped one ancient claw, then another, making the ground sink beneath its great weight as it bellowed, displaying a red tongue and throat, teeth sharp as any sword. I felt the warm swish of blood as it trickled down my ears, and I lost every sound but my own heartbeat thrumming between my ears.

I fell to my knees as slowly as if I was waist-deep in water, and the dragon leaped toward me. I was mesmerized by its bulk, which seemed to fill the ground between Nolaloth's cliff and the pool with dark curves, yet moved quick as thought. I had heard how dragon's eyes were more deadly than its fire or claws. There was no place to run or hide from its wide, forward-facing, too intelligent, eyes that seemed to suck in every light, every hope of escape.

Then something pushed me from behind, knocking me down. My face in the dirt, I slid along the ground, grunting for several feet before my body halted. Scraped and sore, I wiped the dirt from my face and saw the ranger. The string on his longbow was pulled tight as he aimed at the dragon's head, which moved too quickly for his arrows, which sailed over or around it's massive head. Those that struck flesh merely enraged the beast.

When there were no more arrows, Bishop threw down his longbow. He looked around and then ran toward my bastard sword, which I had dropped when he pushed me. The ranger took up my sword and raised it above his head, screaming wildly. The high dragon snapped its jaws, trying to bite off his head. The ranger dropped just out of reach, brought up the sword, which cut upward through the dragon's jaw, making it bellow in surprise. When the dragon pulled its injured head backward, Bishop held onto the pommel. As the dragon tried to shake him off, the ranger held on, driving the sword further and further into its jaw. Then a blood-stained claw swatted at the ranger, and he fell to the ground.

I held my breath a the ranger dropped. He managed to roll with fall, but he still fell hard, landing on his shoulder with a sickening crunch. The shoulder had to be broken or pulled out of its socket.

Grimacing, the ranger reached down his leg, using fingers and feet to release his dagger from wherever he kept it concealed. Despite the damaged shoulder, he used his left hand to throw it at the dragon's eye.

The dragon's body started to convulse once the dagger, the one Marcus gave him, touched the dragon.

I stood and felt the power in my fingers as I managed to leap upon the high dragon and grab the knife's handle. I felt magic in me as I flicked my wrist and severed the beast's head from its long neck in one, smooth motion. The blood that spurted from its neck was a coppery hue that smelled like pond scum.

The other dragons flew away at the death of their master. I removed Bishop's dagger from the high dragon's eye and held it out toward the ranger. He took the weapon in his good hand, wiped the dragon's ichor on the grass, which did nothing to help the bloodstains, and so he immersed it in the pool until the blade's steel flashed brightly beneath the water.

Nolaloth's heart had fallen during the battle into the circular pool below it. I had to wade in the surprisingly deep water to retrieve the crustal heart from the pool's bottom. When I finally held the beating crystal in my hands, it pulsed through the extra fingers to the flesh and bone beneath.

"Wait," said the zerth as the held the heart above the water, "There is...another shard within. Do you feel it, Kalach-Cha? It is the final shard!"

I waded out of the pool. The Last Shard...I clutched it to my chest. It sang to the other shards, which answered it.

When I stood once more on solid ground, I didn't think of the power that the heart contained or how I could use it. I only thought how Nolaloth's life would end-that I would end it. Wanderer, Brother. "I am tired of deaths..." I whispered as I raised the heart high, high enough the shatter crystal when I threw against ground with all the strength I could muster.

"Wait-" The gith warned, holding up her hands to stop me.

"I made a promise," I said to the gith, slamming into her yellow shoulder with a look of apology even as I raised my hand for one long moment, holding it in the air, uncertain whether to toss or hold the fragment until my hand opened, and the heart broke like a gigantic icicle plummeting, shattering beneath its own bulk.

The zerth frowned as she bent over the fragments, running her fingers along the ground like a blind man searching for something lost that he never expects to find again. The gith's golden eyes flashed above her veiled features as her hand clutched something solid-something that seemed to hum in harmony with every part of me...

A triumphant whine rose on the wind, and a voice as fragile and ancient as Ilfarn spoke a final time,"A creature of mercy...My last wonder before oblivion..."

"Daeghun."

The elf turned, looked at me, but did not respond. He kept aiming his bow at the dark dwarves and their parchment-skinned leaders as they attacked the Harbor in wave after wave on the night after the Harvest Fair-the day I had won the Harvest Cup, a feat that hadn't been accomplished since Cormick, beating Lorne, won all three competitions.

My foster-father did not lower his arm until the last of the invaders fell from his arrows or the weapons of the men and women of the Harbor who fought to protect their village, just as their fore-bearers had before them-as my mother must have. I imagined her white and shining in that darkness, like an avenging angel from another world...

Once the battle was done, I moved a piece of hair from my face as I knelt beside the girl on the ground. Amie, Tarmas' favorite pupil, who Bevil loved, lay on her back, but I turned her over. The spells of the magic-user had opened up her green robes, from navel to collar in a great, oozing gash. Amie oped her mouth, but only blood came to it. One hand tried to cover the gaping wound down her middle. Still, she kept trying to speak, as if she knew there may not be another opportunity.

I bent over her. At first, she allowed me to hold her head, smooth the dirty-blonde ponytail, but when she realized who it was who held her, she coughed up blood as she pushed me away.

"Witch!" she finally spat, as if the battle, her wounds, were my fault. I didn't wipe the blood-flecked spit tle that she spewed onto my face.

I wanted to say something like "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," but Daeghun grabbed my shoulder, making me flinch form his cold touch.

"The girl's gone," his voice, as usual held no emotion-only facts I must accept.

I turned, wanting to bury my head in his stomach, but Daeghun saw my intent. He patted my head in one, deliberate motion, a parody of affection, before he put some distance between us. Only then did he stand above Amie, but instead of reaching for a police or a bandage, he reached for his short sword.

I narrowed my eyes as I pushed his weapon's sharp tip away from Amie's pale throat.

"I'll save her!" I screamed at my foster-father, placing my body between his blade and the girl.

"With what? " he asked, "She's beyond magic. All you can do is ease her suffering, or she will bleed out slowly and curse you with her last breath."

"No..." I muttered.

He pushed the pommel of his sword towards me. "Then you-you do what needs to be done, Bull...Or I will."

I took the sword's carved pommel in my hand. When I stood, I cast a shadow over the ground, over the girl who was dying.

When Bishop tried to stand and couldn't, I offered my hand, which he smiled at. "Save your mercy," he growled.

I merely watched as he tried to stand, but lost his footing, and swore.

"Take my bloody hand," I said at last, extending my hand again.

Bishop looked at me with something like hatred in his candle-bright eyes, "No."

I ignored the ranger's hot look as I grabbed his uninjured shoulder and dragged him to his feet. The ranger was covered in so much blood it was impossible to tell what was the dragon's and what his as I maneuvered us to the edge of the clear pool. He had to lean his weight onto me until I let him down-none too gently. Then, only the barest intake of air that gave away the pain he must have been feeling as his back hit the ground. I had to reach across his chest to get at the the water from the pool, but I still managed to take a handful and dribble it onto his gore-encrusted face. When the drops made rivulets into the sticky ichor, I wiped his face with the corner of his cloak, which was cleaner than my hand. When the familiar angles of face emerged, I put the heel of my palm against his shoulder.

"It might be broke," I said matter-of-factly. I had to reach beneath his shirt to really feel along the bone and the swollen socket.

"It's out of joint..." He whispered, looking at the wound like it was another enemy.

I had set bones before, but never one so swollen and bruised. It made the crisscross of scars along his neck, across his back, look tame. "Someone will need to set it," I said, but I hoped it wouldn't be me.

Bishop looked me in the eye and gave a singular, curt nod. Do it, quick wench. Or don't do it at all.

"Here," I said, taking one of his broken arrows and offering him the broken end, "Bite this, for the pain-" I swallowed.

Bishop grinned,"I don't feel pain, sweetheart. I don't feel anything..."

We'll test that...I grabbed his injured shoulder in both of my hands. I pressed with all my weight, making red marks in his paler skin as I rotated the joint. He exhaled, refusing to close his eyes as everything eventually popped into it's rightful place, yet I knew the wound would leave his joint weaker than it was before. I wrapped his shoulder using strips of cloth from my cloak, pressing my body against him as I tightened the bandage.

His eyelids fluttered shut as I twisted the final knot a little too roughly. It wasn't just my severe touch, but the shock of his wound and its remedy. The gesture, the wanting to hurt him, was instinctual because of every bloody thing that bastard had put me through, but when I reached for the righteous anger I tended to direct at the ranger, all I felt was pity for the broken body beneath me.

"It's over, Bishop," I said, running my thumb down the bridge of his nose, the one that was still crooked from where I had broken it. Whether I wanted to to comfort or to hurt, I still wasn't certain.

He exhaled, obviously in too much pain to speak in complete words, let alone sentences.

"It's done," I whispered, pressing my sweaty forehead against his clammy brow, my bloody fingertips against his jaw.

I could feel his pulse quickening, the flash of amber as he opened his eyes warily, like a dog that expects to be struck.

"You stood between me and a dragon," I cooed, caressing my lips against his. I moved my neck slowly, tracing his mouth with mine until my lips parted into a kiss in earnest.

At first, Bishop returned it as if in a daze, but the more ardent my lips, my fingers, became, the less responsive his, until he brought up both hands between us, halting mine.

There, beside that circular pool, in that glade that was no longer warm, with the heat and snug contour of Bishop beneath me, I panted, working the muscles of my still-open mouth, misting the air even as the ranger pushed me away.

Covering my mouth with the ridge of my palm, I rolled onto the cold ground. "Oh gods..." I moaned as I managed to blink back the tears, but not the ache they stirred up in me. My eyes were dry as I stood up, but my fingers trembled as they wiped at unbelieving lips. Just then, I turned away from it all and ran as the snow began to fall in heavy flakes, which melted against my face but would soon reclaim the rest of the lost, unnatural valley in white.
"The difference between a cow and a bean is a bean can begin an adventure!"
---"Into the Woods," by Stephen Sondheim

A Memoir of Demons & Angels

http://www.fanfictio...e...ns_&_Angels

Just email me for writing, proofing,or voicing: raenemon@yahoo.com
Check out my samples at:
http://nwvault.ign.c...d...5418&id=689

#5 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 01 June 2011 - 12:49 PM

A Memoir of Demons & Angels is now on FanFiction.net

http://www.fanfictio...e...ns_&_Angels


This story is about Amara Chidi, the child of a demon and an assimar. Which blood will prove the stronger? The answer will not just affect the warlock herself, but may change the fate of Faerun and several planes of existence.


Note: This fiction is for those of us who wanted to the original storyline of the Knight Captain to be more fully realized through Mask of The Betrayer. It's rated M for some language and situations.
"The difference between a cow and a bean is a bean can begin an adventure!"
---"Into the Woods," by Stephen Sondheim

A Memoir of Demons & Angels

http://www.fanfictio...e...ns_&_Angels

Just email me for writing, proofing,or voicing: raenemon@yahoo.com
Check out my samples at:
http://nwvault.ign.c...d...5418&id=689



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