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A Memoir of Demons & Angels


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#1 Raenemon

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Posted 27 February 2009 - 07:51 AM

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.



Here are some screenshots to whet your visual appetite. :)


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http://i810.photobuc...maraCormick.jpg

http://i810.photobuc...AMarapoints.jpg


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Check out some more screenshots of Amara and the gang at this link:

http://s810.photobuc.....20and Angels/

Edited by Raenemon, 26 March 2010 - 03:27 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

Just email me for writing, proofing,or voicing: raenemon@yahoo.com
Check out my samples at:
http://nwvault.ign.c...d...5418&id=689

#2 Raenemon

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Posted 27 February 2009 - 08:01 AM

Prelude

It is easy to kill.

I know some make very different claims: “Once you kill, you are changed” or “Kill and the remorse will kill you.” But cruelty is built into us mortals as much as kindness ever was. How many children pull the wings off a firefly just as easily as cradle the creature gently in their soft hands? You can't say that “They don't know any better.” Children choose what seems best. Shame or remorse is only possible once you know that there are consequences—that the limits of the world do not reside in your own desires—that the firefly knows what it's lost.

I'm starting to sound like a priest, or a prim sage who measures the world by letters and ink and paper.

Well, I don't have the purity of a holy woman, nor the detachment of a scholar. I have been in the thick of my times, and the world has changed before my eyes. We are all a part of something new, whether you believe in destiny, choice, or chance. A silver shard struck my chest, set me on a course I did not want to follow. I have been bound by my blood, but have also found freedom. I have seen the Abyss and wielded the power of gods.
While I would be content keeping these pains and pleasures, fears and wonders all to myself, I cannot. I write because it is the only thing I have left to give. Many ask me questions: some I can answer, many more I simply do not understand. One thing I can say is that the stakes I fought for were no different than for anyone else who walks beneath the sun. Every moment demands that we cradle the firefly, crush it, or let it slip away. I leave the judgment to you—and no other.

Amara “Half-Blood” Chidi

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

Chapter 1

Who knew such small places can have such an impact on the larger world and still disappear into obscurity? West Harbor, the unremarkable swamp village of my childhood, has been the scene of staggering conflicts. After every disaster, the Harbormen rebuilt; the only collective memory that endured was a simple credo:“Wars always come.”

My mother, Esmerelle, arrived in West Harbor on one of those clear winter nights where the sun, in a cold fury only gods can get away with, burned every cloud away, so that none of his heat grazed the ground---at least, that's what I imagine.

A short, slight figure concealed in a red cloak, knocked on the door of one house on the edge of town. Daeghun, only slightly shorter, answered the door and drew her inside. He was well-favored in the sublime way of elves, but there were wrinkles in the corners of his large, moss-colored eyes that spoke of seeing many things in his long years, things that would leave marks.
The elf pulled her into a tight embrace. Neither of them spoke.

Daeghun guided her towards the chair closest to the hearth, the warmest seat he had. Snow glazed the windows, making crystalline shapes across the surface. Esmerelle studied the shapes on the window as she removed her cloak.

Daeghun watched Esmerelle as he waited for her to speak. He felt the rise of her belly, saw the wobbling footsteps, but Daeghun was not one to ask questions. He could wait until she told him what he needed to know. He always waited. That's why he had lost her...why she always came back.

“I'm sorry to come to you in such a manner, Daeghun,” her voice held the same strange tone, as if she held a hummingbird captive in her chest, “but I...had little choice.”

“I hope you come here of your own will, Esmerelle. I have missed your company.”

“And I yours, my friend.” She smiled. Whatever had happened to her, she still could sooth or inspire with little more than teeth. Many fell for the promises they saw in that smile, but Daeghun was one of the few that knew her radiance stemmed---in part---from celestial heritage. Even though
Daeghun knew its source, it always held the promise of every good thing, a reflection of her character as much as her lineage.

A trick firelight tinged her pale hair with flames.

When Daeghun spoke, it was a response to her unaccustomed silence, “Would you like something to eat or drink?”

She shook her head and looked back at the hearth. There were sudden tears in Esmerelle's eyes, but she did not look away from the fire.

“Ha! Instead of greetings I give you tears---how weak you must think me...”

Daeghun sat beside her, gently took her hand.

Her eyes watered again as she look at Daeghun, “I have so many regrets...”

“We can compare, then.”

Esmerelle squeezed his hand like a child grasping at a parent for comfort after the terrors of a nightmare. “First of all, I never treated you as well as I should have, my dear, dear friend.. But I mean to make up for it. I did so many things because I wanted to be good, but now I see that many of my actions were rather vain. You were right. And now I, Esmerelle, Paladin of Ilmater, am heavy with a demon bastard. “

She laughed, but there was no joy or warmth in it.

Daeghun 's eyes flashed. “Did he force you?”

Esmerelle gazed at Daeghun with a haunted expression. “No---the Crying Lord help me---it was my own doing.”

She looked back at the fire as the words rushed out of her. “When you settled here with Shayla, I went back to Neverwinter to visit Duncan.” she look at his face, but Daeghun did not protest the mention of his half-brother, or of Esmerelle visiting him.

Esmerelle continued, “I made my way north and east, searching for information on the King of Shadows. I went alone, but I soon met a man on the road. He was very tall and darkly handsome, though I couldn't tell you anything more than that. Wait...his eyes...they were oddly bright. Either he or I was under an enchantment that made me forget his actual features over time. He asked me strange things, and seemed to know too much about me. Every time I thought I was rid of him, he'd show up again. Well, he saved my life from some shadows. I was grateful, and when he showed me tenderness...I could not help myself. After we lay together, I turned my head for one moment, and he was gone. I started to suspect some power at work. I went to a temple, and the priest told me I was with child. Yet he told me with no joy, for we could both sense the demonic blood mingling with my own. Then there was no doubt that my lover had was a fiend of some kind. I couldn't go back to Neverwinter. I have been wandering since then, but I am too tired to go any further."

She looked at him with a fear he had never seen before. “I am afraid, Daeghun . Not only am afraid of the father, but I'm afraid...of myself.”

Esmerelle didn't have to say anymore. Daeghun knew what she might do, even if she did not say it.

They held each other for a long moment.

“Stay here, Esmerelle.”

“I can't ask you to do that.”

“You didn't. I offered. Shayla would enjoy your company as much as I. And when the time comes, she knows about such things. She is a midwife here. You won't be doing any of this alone.”

“But the war—I can't be nursing a babe in battle.”

“We will do what we can. But we are all subject to nature. Worry about the babe, and then we'll deal with the King of Shadows.”

Esmerelle moved from the fire to the window which, round as she was, made the sweat glisten on her forehead. Her mind wanted to pace, but her body wanted to remain right where it was, “I cannot sit still when the world is falling apart.”

Daeghun put a hand tentatively to her belly. Esmerelle let him, but she pressed her lips into a thin line.

He knew enough about childbearing or know when one is about to be born, “You are making life instead of taking it, Esmerelle. Isn't that what you always wanted?”

“Not like this. I don't want to breed some new horror into the world. There is enough already.”

“The child cannot help who its sire is. But you are strong, Esmerelle. Your blood will proved the stronger.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“You must believe that because this child will need your strength, especially with such a...heritage to contend with.”

When her yellow, beacon eyes met his, she was every bit the woman he had gladly left everything for so long ago, “I will stay until it comes. I suppose we've survived worse things than births.”

Daeghun smiled.

It was a smile I would never see.

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

I was born with two horns. They are dark, delicate, and long, much like the horns of an elk. Not many people have gotten close enough to appreciate them, though. I know they have power, if only to threaten. They have gotten me out of as much trouble as they've led me into. There were times when I considered taking a knife to them myself, but those instances have been fleeting and are far from me now.

Not only do I have horns, but my ears and incisors are also pointed. My hands manage to be elegant and deft even with an extra finger on each hand. Mother was fair of complexion, hair, and eyes like most of those with celestial blood. My skin is dusky and my hair is black. And my eyes...a vivid green.

Daeghun wrote to Duncan soon after I was born. Duncan showed me this and several letters concerning my mother after my trial. In that letter, Daeghun described how my mother screamed when she first gazed upon me and vowed to those present that she would never touch the 'demon spawn'---me.

Duncan wrote back and offered to visit West Harbor, but Daeghun said that it was unnecessary. Though Daeghun did not give a reason for refusing his brother's offer, I have my own assumptions. Either my mother was in hysterics and Daeghun wanted to maintain her dignity, or Daeghun suspected that Duncan might harbor some feelings towards her and didn't want to burden Esmerelle any further in her ...delicate state. I don't think Duncan loved her. If he had, he would have come to West Harbor, damning Daeghun all the while. I think the kindness Duncan extended to me at the Flagon was partially due to his own feelings of guilt from leaving Esmerelle and me in his brother's frigid hands.

I don't remember this, but I know it from the letters. If I had been in my mother's place, I probably would have killed a child that looked so...tainted. It is always easier to rid yourself of responsibility than to take it on. But I was much more dramatic when I was younger. The worst my mother, the holy paladin, could do was ignore me.

Then she was dead. I wasn't two summers old. The only happy thing I can remember of her was when she would sing. I was a babe, but I remembered.

Daeghun told me my mother died to save my life. Far more likely was the possibility that she saw her chance to leave this world heroically and did so. The war with the King of Shadows was a means to her own martyrdom. I hope that she sleeps soundly on Ilmater's bloody bosom. If she had lived, my mother would have been too sincere to conceal her hatred of me. Such a fate somehow seems far worse than enduring a foster father who became as cold as the depths of the Mere from the loss of the two women he loved most...and the third he could never touch.
An untouchable heart is what raised me, and so I learned to be untouchable.

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

The first time I saw the demon was in a dream.

I was seven summers old when I dreamed of a man whose features I could never remember in the light of day. The tall man---but every adult is tall to a child---stood on a precipice. I didn't know where. He motioned with his finger for me to step out onto the edge beside him.

His skin oozed a clear-blue, jelly-like substance.

I tottled, trusted this fellow, even though he seemed quite...odd, and looked down.

“What do you see, Ikenna?” His voice was quite soothing.

“My name is Amara.”

He lightly touched my horns, “Not here.”

I saw fire elementals melting snow, making a river that flowed around a place where buildings were stacked right next to one another. People crowded the tiny houses. There wasn't a wood or field for miles and miles...

“I see a city. I think,” I tried not to wipe at the place where he had touched my horns.

“You will see many.”

“Besides West Harbor?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Will I get to meet Elminster---” I squealed.

“---You will meet greater men and women when you are ready, Ikenna.” The man gestured at the cit below us like a man swatting at a fly, “You have a destiny that no one will understand. You will have to learn to wield power, or it will be taken from you. But do not worry, child,” He touched the lel of his garment. Though I did not recognize the cut, nor the color, I knew it was immaculate.“I can teach you how to command others, even in the farthest reaches of the planes. You have reached the age of choice among your Father's people. All I require is your permission.”

I, Ikenna, looked at the man with a hungry look, “You know my father?”

“He is the one who sent me.”

“Can I see him? I would like to see him...”

“Not now. But please Him, and He will take you away from this rotting world.”

“Does he love me?”

“He would like to.”

Well, I thought, he couldn't be any worse than Daeghun, “What will I have to do?”

“What is necessary. Your training must begin immediately.”

“Do I have to agree now?”

“Yes.

“Will I have to leave?”

“Not for many years. I will teach you through your dreams. But you will your village only when you can defend yourself.”

He touched something to each eyelid, and then my forehead, making some mark there. “Will you swear to serve your Father and be bound to his service?”

I did not hesitate, “Yes.”

“You have to say it. You must bind yourself with your own words.”

I narrowed my eyes, thought for a moment before I spoke, but I then spoke very deliberately, “I swear to serve my father. And he will come...and claim me as his own.”

The man laughed. It sounded like the shifting of large animals from foot to foot, “What is the human saying: 'Out of the mouths of babes'? The deal is made, but you have bound your Sire as well. Quite amusing. You already know your business. I am eager to see how this all turns out.”

Tears came into my eyes, but they were tears of blood.

I felt...aware...as if I had never opened my eyes until that moment. I saw the cliff was made out of patterns, squares, and spirals of something tinier than human eyes could see. The man's skin, with its strange jelly, I suddenly understood. The jelly was to to help him transition from plane to plane, one form into another. It made him luminous---his name sprang to my lips---

He waved a hand in front of my eyes, “You will never remember your pact nor me when you wake, but I will speak to you and teach you through your dreams. Now wake, Ikenna, and make your Father proud.”


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

I never really belonged in West Harbor, but neither of my parents would have either. I didn't have Daeghun's patience and love of the slow-moving swamp. Mosquitoes bit me. I was frequently ill since my body did not have the same immunities as the native stock. Many a Harborman thought my frequent bouts of illness proved I was 'unnatural.' At least those suspicions were correct, in a way. Meaner gossips whispered that giving birth to a demon drove my mother mad, and that I probably would have killed her with the evil eye if the King of Shadows had not beaten me to it. The most shameless rumormongers even suggested that I had survived the attack because I was the King's own get.

For those who require the attention or affection of others, this situation might have been unbearable. It always seemed natural for me to inspire fear and trembling in other mortals rather than intimacy. I think it had something to do with the dreams. While I could never remember what these dreams were about, they gave me a certain clarity about the waking world, as if I saw the village and everything around it from alien angles. Strange pattens lay over events and people like fine spider's webs, rubbing off from one person to another. I couldn't understand completely, but I felt power—the call from worlds waiting, hunkering just past the corner of my eye. Sometimes the other worlds sang to me with voices that made me cry because of their terrible, poignant beauty. Other times, I would get horrid impressions of darkness and heat so fetid that I put my hand against my mouth to to keep from gagging. I learned to avoid the blacked spot of ground near the center of town that no one—not even the gossips—spoke about. That place made me physically ill and caused my hackles to rise.

What else can I say about West Harbor? I hear people speak of 'home' with warmth, or a yearning to go back, or somehow re-create the happiness and the sense of belonging that define what 'home' is supposed to be.

The best I can say is that it could have been worse.

So I left. Those who have heard of me know that I left West Harbor to find out why the githyanki attacked the village to possess a shard hidden in the Mere.

I knew that my powers were not that of an ordinary mage like Tarmas, so I tried to kept it a secret from the grumpy mage until I had to use my blasts against the gith, bladelings, and duegar slaves. Maybe that was why Daeghun was so insistent that I leave for Neverwinter. He must have suspected that my powers were from another realm. These powers might threaten the village if I could not control them. Daeghun may not have loved me, but he knew me better than even I knew myself. If I would have stayed, I probably would have hurt him and the rest of the village—probably unintentionally—but Daeghun knew I was also capable of cruelty. It was in my blood, as he had reminded me my entire life. I knew which blood he meant. Truth be told, I was eager to get away.

I was eager, ready for something grand and bloody to begin.

I shouldered my pack, stuffed with the meager things I thought I needed, and walked out of West Harbor. I did not look back, but as the sounds of the swamp swallowed every hint of the village, I widened my eyes, certain that every snapping twig and bird call was an enemy just out of sight. Never before had I felt my own vulnerability so keenly.

...And I was supposed to protect this bloody shard? I didn't see how I could prevent some swamp monster from making a necklace out of my innards.

While I was stomping my way through the swamp, certain that some doom would come clutching at my feet, I came upon an inn. Sweet Mystra, I had never been so happy to see a battered, ill-drawn sign of a frothy mug beneath the boughs of a stylized willow.

Just outside the inn stood a dwarf and several men. They were bandying back and forth. It was none of my business, but they saw me as I tried to sneak unnoticed into the inn.

“Hey girly,” one drawled. He was clearly drunk.

I turned.

“Demon girly,” his friend corrected, making Tymora's kiss with his hand. “You'll have to wait your turn until we finish with the ankle-biter.”

“Ankle-biter?” The dwarf shouted, brandishing his ax,“Aye, that's where I'll start, lad...”

I tried to summon some powers, but when I aimed my hand at the nearest man's head, one of his goons rammed his elbow into my stomach.

He stood over me, “ I had hoped for more fun from a demon.”

“You...son of a bitch!” I growled as I bit into his earloabe.

He squealed. “Get her off me! Get her off me!”

I ripped his ear off. Keening all the while, my assailant held the side of his head as blood poured down his neck. I spat out his ear and wiped my mouth on my sleeve.

Then I grinned.

“Fuck this,” one of the men shouted.

Then there was only me and the dwarf, who looked me up and down the way I had seen men appraise horses they were thinking of buying.

“That was a good wrangle. It's been too long since I've seen a man get something bitten—in a fight.”

“I've been in a tussle or two,” I said as I spat, trying to clean out my mouth.

“How about ya tell ole' Khelgar over a over a pint, lass?”

When we sat down to drink, The dwarf was surprisingly genial. The dwarf held his own in the brawl, and I always respected someone who could handle himself in hand-to-hand combat. Though he was shorter than his would-be-attackers, his zeal more than made up for any advantage bigger folk might think that they had.

I was accustomed to people making a warding of some sort to draw my ill luck away: Tymora's kiss or Lathander's circle. Though it was obvious Khelgar knew what I was (he called me a 'tiefling,' a much more neutral term than what I am normally called), it didn't seem to matter. That violent dwarf wasn't afraid of me. All he cared about was if I had his back. And when the bladelings and duegar showed up at the inn, I didn't hesitate to fight beside him.

Perhaps I had been in the swamp for too long—tussles were one of the few things that relieved my boredom. As I raised my sword, and let out a primal yelp, something told me Daeghun would not have approved.

“Fuck you!” I screamed at the dark dwarf in front of me. There were just some words that were universal, for he aimed his hammer at my kneecaps.

Khelgar and I fought off our assailants and sat back down to enjoy the rest of our evening amid overturned tables and shattered glasses. Sharing the remaining bottles of whiskey, we toasted our bloody partnership. He was quite impressed with the amount of liquor I could consume in one sitting. When he was fairly drunk, and I was still sober, he told me about wanting to become a monk, but I shrugged it off as just drunken rambling.

A few minutes later Khelgar was out cold, snoring like an old hound.

A dwarven monk! Well, it was no more ridiculous then a half-demon warlock trying to make her way in this crazy world.

I put my hand to my head. The drink was finally getting to me too.

And so, my isolation was ended as Khelgar Ironfist and I set out to Fort Locke. I'd like to say that we strode down the road like the Knights of Myth Drannor, but in truth, my temper was shorter than the dwarf's pinky finger. For one, I was doe-eyed. I wasn't used to dealing with another person's wants and needs. Privacy was paramount with Daeghun, and we let each other be for days, even weeks, depending upon his mood. I just wanted to For another, according to Khelgar, I was as green as a fawn still sucking on its mama's tit. He was right. I had never left West Harbor before. I was unaccustomed to trails, to sleeping on your back beneath a sky that could be starry and inviting one night, rainy and bleak the next. I wasn't accustomed to minding the direction, sheltering against the weather, or watching out for ambushes. My boots were as worthless as slippers.  I had to wrap my feet every day and rub the blisters at night. I didn't complain to Khelgar, but he often had practical advice, or just a sympathetic shake of his head.

“Lass,” he said, his head was practically wagging in perturbation, “We need to get you some proper gear at the Fort. “Do you ya even know how to defend yourself—besides biting?”

I nodded. I made a gesture with my hand, pretending to throw lighting from my hands, “If that doesn't work, then I can always use my assets.”
He looked me over, “I hope yer meanin' those horns.”

I smiled, “No man is going to approach me with that on his mind. Well, only if he was disturbed.”

“There's a lot of twisted men out there, lass, who would only be interested in what's below your neck. Yer not in West Harbor no more.”

It was the first bit of fatherly advice I had ever gotten. I thought I would be angry. While I scowled at the old dwarf, inwardly I was quite pleased as I rubbed my foot.

“All I'm sayin' is kick 'em in the groin! Men are more apt to behave like gentlemen if they've been softened up a bit.”

“Should I test that technique on you?” I raised my heel.

Khelgar laughed from the tips of his toes to the crown of his bald head, “Now yer learnin'!”

Edited by Raenemon, 24 January 2010 - 07:30 AM.

"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

#3 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 01 March 2009 - 06:11 PM

Chapter 2


As we neared Fort Locke, I felt a pinprick just over my left temple, followed by a red glare in my left eye.

I pointed in the direction of the glare, “What in the bloody hells is that?”

Khelgar squinted against the glare from the sun, and then scanned his dirt-colored eyes in the direction I had indicated, “I just see trees.” His tone implied that gazing at trees was anything but important.

“Are you telling me you don't see a red glow, or feel like someone's holding a pin to your temple?” I rubbed my temple for emphasis.

Khelgar looked at me as if I had sprouted wings, “This is why I don't use magic. It's always 'Ah! my head aches,' or 'Ah! That spell did a number on me back,' or 'Oh! It's so hard to concentrate in this armor.' Bah! All ye mages ever do is learn how to whine.”

“Fine. The next time you ask me to blast something, maybe I'll be too busy scratching my bunions to notice.”

I walked in the direction of the glow, wondering if what I was seeing was real or whether my injured feet had turned gangrenous and made me see fairy lights. Since every step sent a jolt of pain up and down the my bloated feet, the going was quite slow, and soon even the dwarf's shorter legs overtook my long but wobbly strides.

Once Khelgar and I crested the hill, we saw a group of humans circling a girl. The glow settled around her head like a crown. I blinked, and both the ache and glow were gone, but the girl remained. It could have been my pain or the great amount of alcohol that the dwarf and I consumed, pickling my brain, but I could have sworn that this girl had a tail...I didn't tell Khelgar. He wouldn't have believed me, anyway.

As I knew from experience, men didn't form mobs around some scared thing unless there was something they needed to be egged on to do. I met Khelgar's eyes as he seemed to draw the same conclusion and wrenched his ax from his side before either of us spoke.

When the patrolmen lay dead around us, from the dwarf's ax and my hellfire, I pushed my dark hair out of my face, and examined this girl. She indeed had a rat tail and goat-like horns. That explained the mob. That was the first time I realized that I could detect some beings from the the Lower Planes. Fortunately, the discomfort and glow that went with the ability dissipated as quickly as they appeared. If only the blisters on my feet would vanish as readily...

“So, you have demon blood,” I said by way of greeting.

She pretended to notice my horns for the first time, but she had been studying me out of the corner of her red eyes ever since Khelgar and I arrived. “No. Devil blood. Big dif...I'm Neeshka, a tiefling, and I'm guessing you are too.”

I smiled, enjoying the girl's attempt at sarcasm, even amid the bodies of those who probably would have killed her, if Khelgar and I hadn't followed my demon-sense. “When you first looked at me, Neeshka, could you see a misty glow or feel odd sensations?”

Neeshka shook her head, “Ah. No. My tail itches though when I'm around holy rollers, but for demons or tieflings, no. Thanks for the help. I tried sneaking around the village idiots,” she gestured at the dead men, “but my potion gave out, gave me away. Can I...travel with you? You're a tiefling---you know what will happen to me the next time there's no one to arrive in the nick of time---”

“We don't need her kind with us!” blurted Khelgar.

“I am her kind, Khelgar, and we've had a bloody good time, haven't we?”

“Aye,” he spat, crossing his arms at Neeshka.

They glared at each other.

I smiled, elbowed the dwarf, “Let's just see what happens, then, eh?”

The dwarf met my gaze. He made a noise between a growl and a sigh.

I pointed at Neeshka, “You can come with us as far as you'd like, but we're not skipping down the countryside looking for flowers to sniff. We're on our way to Neverwinter, and you'll be in more danger with us than, well, pretty much anywhere else.”

“Well, you saw the trouble that traveling alone got me into, but I'm not helpless. I'll back you up.”

“More like stick us in the back,” Khelgar warned.

“Khelgar, maybe you need to skip through the daisies for a bit...”

Neeshka laughed, “Aw. Maybe sing a little song...”

“Dwarfs don't sing,” Khelgar sputtered. “We only chant on special occasions, like wars...and weddings...and rock throwing competitions.”

I had questions for Neeshka even if Khelgar kept eying us from time to time, shaking his head, and muttering dwarven curses to himself involving demons and their mothers. Neeshka was willing enough to chat in her high, girlish voice, but it soon became apparent that she was older than she appeared to be and was knowledgeable of surprising things—both of Neverwinter and of the wider world. And I was so curious...too curious,as Tarmas often warned me. You'd take the lid off the pot just to see what's cooking.

There was also another reason I wanted Neeshka to come along, though I didn't admit it to myself at that time. She was a tiefling. I had no siblings, but...I might. I couldn't help but be curious, to compare our appearances. Neeshka 's eyes and short hair were reddish-brown. Her skin was lighter than mine with rust-colored birthmarks around her face and temples. My skin was cooler, darker, and did not bear any of these marks. She didn't have extra fingers, but she did have a tail. My horns were much longer and curled around to the back of my head, while hers were short and near her temples. I also had slightly pointed incisors, but an otherwise bright smile. Her teeth were small and her smile was sly. My features were squarish and set off by full lips, but Neeshka's features were more rounded and her lips thinner. Her voice was very high, but mine was rather low. It was doubtful we were kin.

I also noticed that she was beautiful—not despite of her horns and tail, but because of them. I began to wonder how I looked to others. Did my features create some beauty of their own?

...But it comforted me to think that if I could not be beautiful, I would settle on being powerful, fierce, and widely feared.

Once I got shoes.

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

As Khelgar, Neeshka, and I walked into Fort Locke, all I could think of was not the excitement of knowing that each step was the first into a new world, nor being in a fort with real solders instead of a militia, or how the walls were covered with the bound hands, the symbol of my mother's god---oh no. Amara Chidi had but one concern: how quickly I could find a merchant or a cobbler.

I hobbled up to the first person I saw, a man in heavy armor and dark, curly hair. His armored back was towards me, so I gently tapped him on his rather wide shoulder, hoping he could recommend a likely trader, or failing that, a decent healer...

He turned.

Was every man a bloody half-giant---

I recognized him by his ready, crooked smile. “Cormick!” I blurted. “I'll be damned!”

We had not spoken face-to-face since I was a child, and that was when he left West Harbor to join up with the Watch in Neverwinter. He always seemed like the tallest, quickest, liveliest man who ever walked to me and everyone else in West Harbor. His even features and liquid eyes earned him the reputation as the handsomest man in the surrounding countryside. The years had only added to his looks by filling out what had been a gangly frame. But even when he was gangly youth, he beat that beast Lorne at every Harvest Fair competition. Now, Cormick's wide shoulders matched his height. Now...even when Cormick wasn't smiling with his lips, it was always there in his eyes. When you looked at him, you wanted to know what he found so satisfying.

...Because it certainly wasn't me.

He shook my hand, the way that Harbormen greet each other. His big fist nearly enveloped mine, “Little Amara, I haven't seen ya since ya were, well, shorter. And I was more like to tell on ya for cussing.”

After I returned his handshake, I realized that, in my discomfort---or was it excitement---I had pulled my robes up past my knees. Fearing that my gnarly feet were exposed, I smoothed the robes down as I spoke, “You'd never tell on me, Cormick, or I'd have to tell your folks just what their boy does in the Starling barn at midnight—”

“Alright,” Cormick put up his thick hands in a gesture of surrender, “No tattling.” A man that large had no business being so...approachable.

Neeshka's tail twitched, “Aren't you going to introduce us, Amara?”

“Cormick, this is Neeshka, and this is Khelgar Ironfist. Cormick is from West Harbor too. Though now...he's not.” Since Cormick and I shook hands, so did Neeshka and Khelgar, although I don't think they were accustomed to the greeting. Cormick had to stoop to accept Khelgar's squeeze. Neeshka offered an eager but rather limp wrist, smiling at Cormick until Cormick had to remove his hand.

Though there was a certain awkwardness, the Harborman accepted their greetings warmly. I never knew Cormick had such a knack for putting others at ease with a gesture as simple as meeting their eyes, grinning until all the tension was gone, “Anyone traveling with Amara will find nothing but welcome here, if I have anything to say on the matter.”

“Where can we find grub, lad?” asked Khelgar.

“The pub's closed, but you're all welcome to a share a bottle at my table.”

“Do you live here?” I asked, shifting my weight from one foot to another, hoping he lived within a very, very short walk.

Cormick shook his head, “No, I'm here on Watch business.”

“See that tassel,” Neeshka said, pointing her hand to the black tassel around Cormick's upper arm. “That means you're a Marshal, Marshal.”

“If I would have known, I would have bowed, Marshal Cormick,” I bent at my hips, and flourished my arm the way I had seem traveling players imitate a noble bow.

Cormick shook his hand at me, “Hey, no funning. Ya may have to deal with ranks someday.”

I laughed, “If that highly unlikely scenario occurs, then I'll expect you to curtsy, sir.”

He out his gloved hand to his bearded chin, as if he were considering it, “Just as long as I don't have to wear skirts. So, what are you doing out of West Harbor, Amara, besides making me grin? Daeghun always kept a pretty close eye on ya. Is everything alright? Or are ya running off to Thay? Or maybe Zhentil Keep---”

I touched his forearm. “Then you haven't heard...West Harbor was attacked right after the Harvest Fair. The militia held off the assault, but...Daeghun thinks that they were looking for something. I'm headed to Neverwinter to find out what.”

Cormick was suddenly very serious, “Who attacked?”

“Not Lizardmen, or anything else you would expect. There was a strange-looking mage who had dark-skinned dwarfs and foreign swordsmen fight for him. They certainly didn't come from the Mere, or anywhere else I've ever heard of. Even their language was...swishy.”

“The dwarfs were duegar, as near as I can tell,” said Khelgar.

“Was anyone killed?”

“Your parents were fine the last time I saw them, but yes, there were a handful who fell. Amie was one of them.”

Cormick's eyes were filled with kindness, “Gods...Amie? Everyone thought she was going to be a great mage. What a waste....Ya know, she was the same age as my sister would've been... You and Amie were of an age, right?”

“Near enough,” I said. I didn't say that Amie and I had never gotten along. She was always Tarmas' favorite apprentice, and reminded me every day that she would be as great as Khelben Blackstaff someday, while I would end up joining some freak show just to put meat on the table.

“Amara, do ya have any notion of what they found so important? I know there was a battle, several battles, that took place there. Maybe they were looking for an artifact? Something from those old ruins...”

I shook my head, motioned at the people walking by who might overhear, “Not here. How about we uncork that bottle you we speaking of?”

Cormick nodded down the dirt road, “Follow me, then.”

We ended up at a cottage on the end of the road. As Cormick unlocked the gate, he spoke amicably. “A widow was kind enough to offer her home to Neverwinter. Apparently, her late husband was a Cloak. he died in the last war---the one with Luskan. She's staying with her son on the other side of town. A very fine woman. She checks in every morning to see if I need any meals brought, or laundry done. I think she brought in some bread and sop, if yer hungry.”

“Does a dwarf have a beard?” Neeshka grinned, patted Khelgar on the head.

Khelgar huffed, pulled away from her touch, “What a question! Of course he has a beard. We are born with beards, the way demons are born with horns!”

“But not necessarily tails,” I added.

Khelgar waved a dismissive hand at me, “Yer a different breed than this chit. In more ways than one.”

Neeshka struck a pose that drew all attention to her tail. If I would have struck such a pose in West Harbor, I would have gotten stoned.

While the three of us were talking, Cormick unlocked the door, and pushed it open. He gave me a look as I walked by him, as if he was sizing me up. I wondered what he saw.

It was a simple, but comfortable cottage. The floors had been washed, and the Marshal took off his boots before heading inside. Khelgar and Neeshka did the same, but I didn't---I still didn't have boots to remove. I followed Cormick as he led us inside. There were yellow curtains on the windows, which reflected a cheerful light on the walls, probably the widow's doing. There was a wooden table and chairs.

Cormick motioned at the table.

“I'll get that bottle,” he said before his head disappeared into a cupboard.

The rest of us sat. Cormick came back with wine, cups, sop, and bread. I helped him set the table. As Khelgar and Neeshka busied themselves with the food, Cormick sat across from me with a contented sigh.

But he cocked his head to one side as he crossed his arms, bringing one hand to rest against his chin, “What's the great secret, Amara? Why was West Harbor attacked?”

I put my hand into the the hidden pocket in my robes. I could feel the shard thrum like the strings of a mandolin as I my fingertips grazed it. It had the shape of a silver piece that had been warped in a tremendous fire, with veins of crystallization running along its surface. My sixth finger, rather than merely denote my nature, made me keenly aware of the things I touched. Each hand had this extra digit, but they were so well-formed that, if you looked at my hands, you would soon forget that there was an extra digit hovering at the edge of my palms, if you noticed the oddity as all. These hands would just seem...articulate.

I looked around out of habit, and once I felt no one was peeking in through the yellow curtains, I held the shard up so everyone could see it.

“Can't you...feel it?” I asked, tracing the shard's surface with my ring finger. Besides the vibration, I could feel something volcanic and yet malleable.

“Clanggadin's nethers!” Khelgar swore, “I've seen no ore like that before.”

“You want a closer look?” I tipped my hand in his direction, lighting up his bald head with the shard's pulsing brightness, “I don't think it'll kill you---”

The dwarf pulled his hands into fists, the way he would hold up his hands to defend his face in a fight, “Keep it away. I'll have nothin to do with metal that's been warped with witching.”

It had an opaline shimmer that was reflected in Cormick's dark eyes as he studied it.

“May I hold it?” Cormick asked.

“Me next,” said Neeshka.

“Oh no,” I said to Neeshka, “you are to forget that you every saw it because if it comes up 'misplaced,' I'm not asking questions, I'm coming after you.”

Neeshka swallowed, but her eyes lingered over every facet of the shard.

“Go ahead, Marshal,” I said.

Cormick held up the shard, which looked quite tiny in his hands, but I felt...incomplete. It was as if something in me yearned to be close to it. Ever since I took the shard into my bare hand back at the ruins, I felt a little less substantial when I had to hand it over to another. The magic user in me wondered if I was under some enchantment ... Though I responded to the shard, wanted to hold it against my skin, I did not like the idea of it---of anything--- having power over me. Part of what kept me on on this task was the hope that in Neverwinter I'd be rid of this odd bit of silver.

Would I return to West Harbor, then? I couldn't think of that place without thinking of Daeghun, and the watchful stare, the expectation that I would become something awful. I couldn't help but wonder why Daeghun entrusted the shard to me when he trusted so little to any hands other than his own. Was it a test? Gods knew he had done that often enough. All my life he had been poking and prodding, trying to determine my character, and bend it, like I had seen him treat a sapling that threatened to overwhelm the oak that gave it life.

“Amara,” Cormick out his hand on my shoulder, his face was filled with shard's light, “Ya alright?”

“It just seems very...small,” I said, nodding at the shard.

“Yeah. A small thing to invade a village over, but wars have been fought over lesser, stranger things,” Cormick cradled the shard as if it was a blastglobe that would explode at any moment. He seemed eager to lower it back into my hands, sighing enough to lift his wide shoulders as I tucked the shard back into its hiding place.

“What do ya feel when you hold it?” he asked.

His question surprised me. It wasn't a question I expected of a man as big and Cormick was. Someone like him never had to step into someone else's boots, if he didn't care to.

I met his dark eyes with my green ones, “In one word ...Power. That's why I've got to get to Neverwinter. It's only a matter of time before someone will take it. And use it.”

“What does it do?” Cormick asked.

I shrugged, “It certainly doesn't change half-demons into pretty girls,” I grinned. “But I think it feels...like a part rather than a whole, if that makes any sense...”

“You're right. It hasn't changed a half-demon into a pretty girl...It's change a pretty girl into a fine woman.”

“You don't have to flatter me, Cormick. I know my own reflection well enough. If anything fair ever came from the Mere, it's you, and you know it.”

He laughed, “Now who's the flatterer? Come on Amara, yer mother was supposed to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived.”

“...And I don't look anything like her. It's alright, Marshal, I never wanted beauty---”

“Ya didn't want the shard either, but ya have both. The question is : what will ya do with them?”

“You're starting to sound like Daeghun. I plan on doing my best, Marshal, as we all are...So, where are the patrols? Something's going on here in the Mere...or else Neverwinter wouldn't have sent you.”

“I heard lots of rumbling,” Khelgar spoke between sips of sop, “but most of it just seemed to be tales.”

“Most of it is hearsay,” Cormick agreed, “but there are too many things happening. Well, ya've seen what's been happening in the Mere. To folk who know it, ya can almost smell it, like a decay lying over living things, choking them off from the earth, the air, even the water, which is the lifeblood here... But Neverwinter can't investigate the Mere because our forces are spread too thin. The orcs are making a grand stand at Old Owl Well—we've barely been able to hold out, and Callum, the commander there, won't hold out long if he doesn't get aid. Lizardmen are stirring up mischief further north, harassing farmers and other folk. Neverwinter itself is overrun by thugs and gangs. There's more trouble there than the Watch can handle. The Luskans may be smiling at us now, but they will piss on the treaty the first chance they get. And if that happens soon, we won't be able to stop them.”

His dark eyes met mine,“That's the truth, as I see it. This world is full of woe. I think it'll come out right, but not before we're all just about broken. I wish I could tell ya different, but there it is.”

“Might as well blame you for reporting bad weather,” I muttered, still thinking on what he had said.

“If it's really as bad as all that,” Neeshka crossed her legs, “then we certainly can't go to Neverwinter without an escort.”

Cormick nodded, looked back at at the fort's headquarters, “Until the commander is found, I can't leave the area—”

“You're confined here?” Neeshka asked. “Why, I can't imagine what you do when you're all cooped up, whittling away the time...” she sucked on her pinky finger.

Khelgar snorted, “Nothing with you, that's for bloody sure, unless he wants to lose his pouches.”

I cleared my throat, “Why don' we help you out, Cormick? You would have assistance with your troubles, and we would have...you.”

“It's a deal, then, though I think I'm getting the better end...” Cormick looked at Neeshka, “...just as long as I get to keep my pouches.”

He winked.

Neeshka giggled.

------------------------------------------------------
 
Luckily, the fort did have a cobbler. He was an ancient-looking gent, and he squinted at me as if he had trouble seeing my features, or just didn't want to believe what he was seeing.

As my feet were measured, both Cormick and Khelgar emphasized how important feet were both for traveling and for fighting. After taking my first steps in my new boots, I needed to put another layer of fur in the heels until my feet healed, but the boots themselves seemed study enough.

I stomped, “I always thought an army marched on its stomach...”

“That's only dwarfs,” Neeshka quipped. “Their bellies are so fat they don't even need legs to move. They just roll.” She made her hands do a rolling motion until she nearly fell over.

Now that I had the requisite footwear, I was more than happy to march off into the direction of the graveyard, where the commander was supposed to have gone. Since all of us had been in fights before, the tombs and the bandit camp, that we ran into along the way, were quickly dispatched. Blood and bodies, even the rotting bodies of undead, seemed like nothing out of the ordinary. If I knew killing things could be an occupation, I would have left West Harbor much sooner.

And my skills were already improving. I was learning which blast to use to most effect, depending on the opponent. Also, in West Harbor, since I just did things, somebody always seemed to grab onto my apron strings: Bevil, or Amie---well, Amie just wanted Bevil---even the militia. I tried to defer to Khelgar at the inn, but he he made it clear that he was out for a good row, so he trusted my advice and my initiative, and followed my lead because I always had a strong opinion and a way of 'getting things done.' I had to keep the dwarf from getting into too many brawls, but I once I got used to the idea that I could lead, it worked. And truth be said, I liked responsibility---probably because my foster-father had always given it to me grudgingly, yet Daeghun always held me to the highest standards, even if he assumed I would fall short of them. By assuming responsibility for our group, I was upsetting Daeghun's expectations, which, I must say, gave me the all kinds of warm and fuzzy feelings.

Here, though I was the youngest and the greenest, I still had a will, but I deferred to Cormick. To be fighting at the side of 'Good ole Cormick,' as we called him in the Mere, was something that made everything else seem worthwhile. I felt like I had accidentally walked into some tale of adventure---his tale. I would be content to be a supporting character.

We stumbled upon the bandit camp on our way to find the commander.

Neeshka opened locks and picked apart traps in a way that was a little uncanny. I kept imagining her in Neverwinter, which is where she came from, sneaking around people's homes when they were sound asleep, pocketing precious heirlooms with the same joy that she displayed as she unlocked warded crates and lockboxes.

Every time she would uncover a trap, Neeshka would widen her eyes at Cormick, or do something that was clearly meant to draw his attention. She was very pretty, and I would not have blamed him for...responding. In West Harbor, Cormick always seemed to have a lady or two on his arm, or following behind him like cats wanting a piece of fish. As Neeshka did everything but jump into his lap and purr, Cormick somehow managed to acknowledge her attention in a platonic way, as if it were all in good fun. The only thing that kept Khelgar from upbraiding Neeshka's behavior was Cormick's way of getting round it. However, the dwarf did manage a dart or two at her when he thought no one else could hear.

When the prisoners were free, and the camp was destroyed, we found a likely campsite. Setting a fire, we rested beneath a cloudy sky.

It was one of those nights where large, fast-moving clouds veiled the sky, but the moon came out from behind them every now and again to remind the world that there was something behind the darkness—something full.

Khelgar and Neeshka were already asleep. It had been a long day. And we still had to find the commander tomorrow.

I had first watch. I took up a spot where I could lean against a tree. I was still learning how to stay sharp after having to remain focused for many hours. I set my jaw, but it didn't help my concentration to have the Marshal sitting by the fire. My eyes kept wandering to what he was doing. Still wearing his plate, Cormick cleaned and sharpened his great sword. He was soon sweating.

“Don't you get uncomfortable in that?” I said across my shoulder.

He wiped his face, “Yes. I'll have to take it off before long.”

I raised an eyebrow, “Too bad Neeshka's not here to help you.”

Cormick shrugged, “Neeshka is a lovely woman, but I am a marshal. I arrest folk who steal, even if I like them,” He put down the sword.

I ran my fingers over my chin, “But don't tales of true love usually involve overturning impossible odds?”

He grinned, “Then I'll have to keep an open mind; I wouldn't want to miss my true love, if she happens to steal my pouches.”

“...More like your breeches.”

We both laughed.

I turned fully around, and Cormick had already closed the distance between us. I noticed that even his walk was quick, even after the long day. I also felt lively, but I thought it was due to that rush that battle always seemed to leave in my bones.

I looked up, for he was at least a foot taller than I, and I was considered a tall woman, “So, Marshal, entertain me further. Tell me what you've done since leaving West Harbor."

Cormick smiled, “Riding dragons. The trick all in the saddle.”

I looked at him from beneath my brow, “Stop teasing.”

“Alright. I 'defend Neverwinter from her foes.'”

"Is that what you wanted to do when you left?”

“No, but I got pulled into it.”

“How?”

He coughed, “It was a lady.”

“Really?” I snickered.

He sighed, “Yes. I had a terrible passion for a woman who worked in the Watch. Joining up was a way to make her...take me seriously. I'm sorry my reasons aren't nobler, but there it is.”

I ran my hands through my hair, trying to imagine this woman that someone like Cormick would want to follow, to impress. “Was she...impressed?”

“...Until I started to rise higher than she did.”

“Oh...” What a harpy, I wanted to say. “But you stayed on,” I did say, “There must be something that compels you to stay. Unless the Watch is teeming gorgeous women.”

He smiled, “Did ya ask this many questions in West Harbor?”

I looked at my nails, which were rather dirty, “Why do you think Daeghun kicked me out?”

Cormick swayed from one foot to the other, trying to lean his great bulk to a more comfortable position, but made a face, “Here. I have to take off this damn plate before I can listen properly. Mind yer eyes.”

He walked over to his pack, stripping all the while.

I turned my back and told myself that I needed to be more mindful of possible ambushes that might emerge from treeline. I tired not to think of naked backs, or anything else that I might see if I turned around...Sweet Mystra. I fanned my cheeks, which felt like they were burning with fever.

I wasn't some boy-crazed maiden at her first dance. I intimidated everyone else—that's what these damn horns did. I touched the elk-like horns. If they couldn't instill fear, what were they good for? Well, if Cormick wasn't afraid, then I was at a loss. Grudging respect, even hatred, I could handle, but never...what? Attraction? Gods no. I wasn't Neeshka.

We were just the only ones still awake, and the Marshal and I were from the same place. That was why Cormick was chatting me up: we were finding familiarity, shared experience, which was comforting amid so much darkness, even if his experience of West Harbor was quite different than mine.

Cormick came up from behind me. He had on a loose white tunic and brown breeches---clothes any Harborman would wear. But no boots. I kept looking at those bare feet, the toes as stubby as his fingers, with foolish grin.

Sighing, he stretched beside me, “I feel as free as a babe.” He wiggled his toes as he crossed his legs, trying to get me to laugh, which I did. “Now, let me try the questioning: is that how it really was with Daeghun?”

“No, he didn't kick me out. He just sent me on an errand that puts my life in constant peril. But, I wanted to leave—I've been wanting to leave for a while now. This business with the attack, once it's done, I plan on moving on.”

“Well, since someday soon ya'll make it to Neverwinter. If ya want a guide, I'd be happy show ya around. It's very different than West Harbor.”

“I'm dying to see anything. All these years, hearing stories, reading books, I want to see what these places are really like.”

“What places?”

“Well, Neverwinter first, of course. Then Waterdeep, the Sword Coast.---The Spine of the World and The Dales...Everywhere...I just want breeze through the world---like a gypsy. ”

He flicked my laces,“ Just remember to peel off those those comfortable shoes: gypsies usually prefer going barefoot.”

I gave him a half-grin as I lifted my feet, displaying my new boots, “Not this gypsy.”

Cormick and I talked until Lathander's eye rose up like a golden ball in the east.

When everyone else woke, we made our way to the graveyard where the commander had disappeared.

As we fought various shambling undead, I was once again amazed with how easily we were able to make our way into the crypts below. Neeshka held a torch and shot an occasional bolt from her crossbow. The Marshal was a very good with a great sword—far better than I was in close quarters—as was Khelgar with his ax. I did pick up a bastard sword from one of the tombs, a fine weapon. I had never trained with swords, but when I picked it up, it just seemed to...fit in my hands. I sensed some greenish patterns of magic woven into the sword, but nothing malevolent. Cormick and Khelgar showed me enough about positions so that I would at least hold it properly, rather than trying to wield it like a large butter knife.

We found the commander in the crypts below, and stumbled upon a shadow priest in an ancient room. After dispatching the priest, we brought the commander and his men back to the fort. Most of them were injured, but all of them were grateful.

On our way back, the acting commander of Fort Locke, Vallis, was waiting for us outside the Fort's walls with a number of armed men behind him. He was a well-muscled man of middling years, and was someone who kept his contempt for other people just barely in check.

Commander Tann leaned against Cormick, since the commander was limping enough to impede his steps. Another solder, who had a bandage over one eye, leaned against me in the same manner.

Acting-Commander Vallis stood in front of his men, holding his belt and smirking at me, “Too bad you didn't bring back a corpse, half-breed.”

“I can still do that,” I pointed at him with my free arm.

“That wouldn't be wise,” said Vallis, “considering you're outnumbered.”

I lowered my voice, “Vallis. I don't think you want to try my patience, unless you want your manhood to shrivel and fall off.”

“She's a devil witch!” Khelgar shouted at Vallis' men. “I've seen it with me own eyes: given hale men a rot that eats them from the inside out.”

Vallis' men began to mutter amongst themselves.

“Attack them!” screamed Vallis, “It's all a lie!”

“Drop your weapons, solders, if you still hope to avoid bloodshed,” ordered Commander Tann.

Though the Commander's voice was weak from his wounds and captivity, all the men who were behind Vallis shaved their weapons. Several of those soldiers even walked over, helping Commander Tann to stand.

Cormick shouted as he strode up to the former commander, “Vallis, I represent the law here. Now put down those weapons and show yer men what a real commander can be. A man should pay for his wrongs.”

Vallis leveled his weapon once at Cormick, “I know what happens to traitors. Better to die here than in a noose.”

Cormick just looked at Vallis, “There's been enough killing today. Look at those soldiers. They know that. If trying to kill more folk going to prove anything to them?”

Vallis aimed at Cormick, but the Marshal blocked it. He knocked the sword from Vallis' hand.

I send a bolt of hellfire into Vallis' shoulder before he could make the attempt to retrieve his weapon.

Vallis glowered at us and at the men he led into mutiny, who had betrayed him.

Commander Tann had Vallis hanged in the courtyard. I had never witnessed a hanging before, and I wished that had not seen even a traitor like Vallis kick and sputter at the end of that string. While everyone else seemed to watch the spectacle with varied responses, I turned away before it was done.

Cormick was suddenly beside me. He bent down when he spoke, to look into my eyes, “I never get used to the sight myself. But I don't think yer supposed to. Justice is always pretty...Cause ya have to be willing to deal out death.”

He took one more look at the body, but I kept my eyes on him. I watched the sternness of the man he had become, even as I remembered his smiles from last night. I wanted to grab his face and tell him I wanted to be just like him...to be strong...

Most of the men gave us a wide berth as Cormick led me away from the courtyard.

But the Marshal leaned in close to me, “I just wanted to say that ya did very well—for a demon witch. The four of us make a rather good team...don't ya think?”

I held up my hand, “...But they put 'Marshal' before your name for a reason. You don't have to explain, Cormick. It was a happy reunion. If we make it to Neverwinter, I will see you there. Just take care of yourself in the meantime.”

Cormick put his blunt hand on my shoulder, encompassing most of it, “Amara, if I had no duties, I would go with ya in a heartbeat. But at least we're headed in the same direction. If ya want a job on the Watch, all ya have to do is visit me at the City Barracks. It's in the Docks District. And I happen to be a frequent customer at yer uncle's place, The Sunken Flagon.”

I put my hands on my hips, “You don't expect me to join the Watch to impress a man, do you?”

He smiled that bright smile as his other hand engulfed my other shoulder, “Gods no. Yer more than capable of handling the duty, but I'd like to know that we'll be seeing each other.”

“Why?” I asked in all seriousness.

Cormick brought his hand from my shoulder to my cheek, “If I have to spill my guts...Alright. I fancy ya.”

I looked around, trying to see if anyone noticed that Cormick had his hand against my cheek, “You seem quite certain.”

“Ya seem quite suspicious.”

“It is my way,” I held up my hand, extending all six fingers, touching my horns, my fangs.

His tan hand closed over my much darker one, “And this is my way.”

“Someone will see,” I insisted.

“Men and women holding hands?” Instead of letting go, Cormick massaged my small, delicate hand. There was a surprising gentleness in his calloused, wide fingers, “There's no wrong in that unless ya find wrong in me—”

I shook my head, “No, Cormick. You're all anyone from West Harbor ever wanted to be.” I looked down, “But...no one ever wanted to be like me. I'm being put to good use, but I'm not naïve. I know who the hero of this story is.”

“Hush,” he said, “yer not hearing me, Amara. There are some things ya just know. In yer gut. In Neverwinter---”

I gave him a stubborn glare.

He smiled crookedly, “Shall I shout it, woman?” he threatened.

“Uh!” I covered my ears, but couldn't help but smile.

Cormick laughed and pushed my hands away from my my ears, “Ya'll hear every compliment, sooner or later, even if I have to tie yer arms down.”

“...Cormick...” I whispered as I squeezed his hand.

We looked at each for a good long while.

I opened my mouth to say something else, but Cormick put a finger to my lips.

“—in Neverwinter, Amara.”

When Cormick finally turned away, I watched him, still head and shoulders above most of the people he walked past, until he disappeared behind a cottage. I considered running after him. I imagined catching up, throwing my arms around him, riding off into he sunset to anywhere, everywhere...

Gods. Its not enough to make me a warlock...You had to make me a romantic, too.

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

Khelgar and Neeshka were waiting just outside the Fort's entrance. I told them that we would go on without the Marshal. Neeshka was sad to see Cormick go, but was happy when I told her that we would be seeing him again. “Just don't be stealing anything that'll make him put you in the stocks.”

Neeshka grinned, poked me with her elbow, “You say that like it would be a bad thing...”

I looked at her from beneath my brows.

“Alright,” she squealed, “The Marshal may not be interested in me, but I need my fantasies, Amara.”

“As do I.”

“What?

“Do you really want him, Neeshka?”

“Only...for a couple of hours.”

I laughed, “You can find that easily enough.”

Neeshka sighed, “Uh, are you paying attention? You're a tiefling, too. Most men wold sooner bed a goat, and the rest are just after the novelty.”

“Is that true, Khelgar?” I raised my voice to include the dwarf in our conversation.

“I'm not sayin' a bloody thing!”

Neeshka rolled her eyes, “That means 'yes' in dwarfish.”

Khelgar put his hands over his face and hurried forward, “Just leave me out of it, ya pack of harpies.”

Neeshka ignored Khelgar and turned to me, “You like him, don't you—really like him?”

“Khelgar?” I asked looking at the dwarf who was now running ahead of us. Even with short legs, he was making excellent time.

Neeshka rolled her eyes, “No, dummy. I mean Cormick. You like Cormick.”

“Maybe,” I said evasively.

Her rat tail swished as it did when she was agitated, “Amara, you'd be a fool if you didn't.”

“This is just all happening so quickly. Yes, I like Cormick. But I know what I am. He will probably just forget me—or wish he had.”

Neeshka looked at my face, “You don't want to hurt him? Wow, you're serious. I'm sorry, I'm just not used to all this, well, caring about other people. In my line of work, it just makes more problems than it solves...But really, I'm touched—well, that you're having these feelings, and that you're telling me. To be honest, Amara, I'm not too good when it comes to trust. I like you—not in the way you like Cormick—but I don't see why you have any scruples. If he was interested in me, well, I would have already have him on his back. But that's just me.”

Edited by Raenemon, 24 January 2010 - 07:43 AM.

"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

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#4 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 08 March 2009 - 01:43 PM

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Some things are harder to remember than others. I don't recall much from Fort Locke to the ship that brought us to Neverwinter. With every task, every chore, every battle, all my thoughts were bent on Neverwinter, the city I had never seen. By day and night, every person or lizardman was merely an arrow pointing toward the place where I could lay the shard in someone else's hands. Then I could be whatever I wanted to be, be with whoever I wanted to be with.
Despite being thrown into danger at every darkened bend, the world seemed full.
I do remember my first impression of Elanee, who had been following me ever since I left West Harbor. The elven druid reminded me of my foster-father, so I kept my distance, observing her as she had observed me in the muddy swamp. She was slender as a blade of grass, and her hair was as red as autumn leaves. Like Daeghun, she seemed to see through my skin as if deciding whether or not she could take me in a fight if my demon blood came to rule my actions. Yet there were moments she spoke to me as if I was still teething.
Elanee held  faith in the observable, natural world, while I kept seeing a world beyond the limits of her druidic vision—the real world. I tried to tell her that I did not belong here and did not understand how she could belong so utterly to earth and air and water—things that could so easily be moved or manipulated by a command or a gesture. I felt that everything was subject to change: the trees, beasts, people---even gods. When I told her as much, she smiled indulgently, as you would for a blabbering idiot who didn't know any better, and patted me on the spot between my horns.
“You're still just a child in many ways,” she cooed.
I gave her my most withering stare.
“Don't pout. It makes you look all pinched and grumpy,” She removed her hand.
“If you don't want me to look menacing, stop tempting me to be.”
“What would your father say?”
“I never listen to my foster father before, and am certainly not going to do so now.”
“Aren't you grateful to him for taking care of you?”
“Did you not see, elf? Daeghun barely stands the sight of me. I couldn't be grateful, even if I wanted to be. And that's the last that we will discuss 'my father.'”
The druid was silent, but he gazed at me a long while.
“Very well,” was all she said before she let me be.
She never brought the subject up again—of that, I was grateful.

Neverwinter was not strange to my eyes, and the first sight of it from the deck of or ship made me dizzy. Maybe it seemed familiar because I had been so set on reaching it. Or perhaps Neeshka and Cormick had described it so well that the skyline depicted temples and castles I already knew by name.
What did surprise me was the sheer number of people. I never knew so many people could live like bees in a hive. I bet that most of these cityfolk could hear if a neighbor banged a hand against an adjoining wall. People lived together in the swamp because we had to; everyone needed to reply on everyone else when things got tough, even if you normally despised your neighbors. Crises, whether a fire, or a flood, or a harvest the needed to be brought in quickly, were one of the few times people didn't mind having me around. In the Mere, at least we knew our neighbors well enough to love or hate them. I was hated by some, but I that didn't stop me from turning up my robes and wading out into a flooded field to salvage that last bit of barley. Even Daeghun, who was loved the swamp far more than the people in the village, still defended them.
In the city, when an elf, a dwarf, a tiefling, and a demon walk down the street, while there are bound to be stares, signs, and wide berths, most folk soon recovered, and some didn't notice us at all.
That first day we entered Neverwinter, some shop started burning, but while there were plenty of gawkers, no one offered to help put the fire out. I had to push through the crowd just to get a bucket and drop it in the well. Elanee and Khelgar helped, but Neeshka looked at us as if we were the most hopeless chawbacons imaginable. A few Cloaks showed, and they put the rest of the fire out, but if we hadn't come, that shop would have been ashes.
We were ready for the comfort of an inn when we spotted the Sunken Flagon. The signs depicted a round flagon with a grinning mariner, holding the mug high and imbibing even as he sank into the sea. When we entered, all of us (except Neeshka) were darkened from soot. We must have looked like chimney sweeps to Duncan, so that might be why he played possum when I asked for him.
I assumed Duncan was an elf, like Daeghun, so when I saw the broad, half-elven barkeep with a soiled apron greeting the afternoon with a tankard, I didn't know who he was, but I was certain he wasn't my uncle—foster uncle—gods, what was I supposed to call him? If Duncan was anything like his brother, he'll make me sleep in the barn with the other animals for such a breach of fosterling etiquette.
It didn't help matters that, while Daeghun used every word precisely, Duncan spoke with an accent that was more akin to Khelgar's rough lilt.
The half-elf lifted his tankard,“Duncan, eh? What business do you have with him?”
“That's none of your concern. Where is he?”
He waved his hand vaguely, “About.”
“Look, friend. I suggest you start helping me out, or I'm liable to smash that mug against your face. And that would be a damn waste of good ale.”
He smiled, “It's really not that good.”
“What would your employer say?”
“He's say, 'It may be cheap, but drink enough, and everything seems grander. Women will sigh at ya, men will laugh at yer jests—you'll feel as rich as any lord.'”
Then I saw: The nose, the mouth... they all reminded me of my foster father, if I squinted my eyes a certain way...
“...Duncan?”
He sighed, put down the tankard, “Aye?”
I found it difficult to string together words that would make some sense, “We've never met, but...Daeghun, your brother—”
Duncan regarded me with a stare that would have rivaled any of Daeghun's. They were brothers in more ways than blood, it seemed.
“Amara...”
“Yes.”
Duncan stood. He was taller than I expected. He looked at my boots, my hands, my horns, and lingered on my face.
He took a rag from his apron, and wiped off the soot from my cheeks.
Duncan nodded at the bar, “Come sit, lass.”
So this was my foster-uncle. Not what I had expected, but since most of my expectations about a great many things had recently been torn as easily as a sheet of parchment, I soon recovered my tongue.
A less adaptable Kalach-Cha would have been raving in a madhouse or lying in a ditch by now.
“Duncan, I can't seem to recall, do you and Daeghun share a mother or a father?”
“Father,” replied Duncan. “Daeghun's mother died a long time ago. His father raised him. When Daeghun was grown, his father and my mother...became close, and I was born.”
“And you traveled with Daeghun?”
“He wasn't always as he is now. Not at all. I'm sorry ya didn't get to see him then.”
“Well,” I smirked, “I count myself lucky that he didn't toss me into the Mere.”
Duncan met my teasing look with one of guilt, “We all grieved for yer mother.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose,“There's much I'm not being told. I know next to nothing about my parents or the man who raised me. I don't even know if 'Amara' is what she called me.”
“It means 'grace.' She picked it out long before she met...” Duncan cut his words off, as if he couldn't say 'your father' or 'that demon.'
I leaned toward him. He smelled like stale ale and wood polish, “How do you know that?”
“She told me.”
What would my mother tell this sad excuse for a half-man anything?
Duncan seemed to read my mind. Maybe he was thinking the same thing,“Esmerelle was special.”
“She was aasimar. Daeghun told that much.”
“Yes. But ya probably don't know that both of her parents were also aasimar. Sometimes gods can give divine blood to their followers. Yer grandmother was born an aasimar, but yer grandfather earned his. They were drawn together. I guess their blood was from the same heaven. Esmerelle was their only child. Her parents dedicated her to the servant of their god, Ilmater. They tried to make a priest of her, but she was better at fighting than praying. She may have seemed small, but she had strength. I've seen her pick up a man twice her size and just, toss him, like a rotten apple,” He laughed.
“How did you meet?”
“Here, in Neverwinter. Daeghun and I had just finished scouting for some southern caravans. We stopped in the city. Yer mother had just finished her training in the temple. She was young, but drew heads, even ours,” He blushed. “Ya don't need to know all the details...”
“Wait. Daeghun and my mother?”
He grinned, “Have a drink first, lass. How about everybody have a drink? Any ally of Amara's has a bed here—all free of charge. Just don't bust up the place too much,” He rubbed his hands at Elanee, “What's yer poison, pretty lady?”
“None for me, thank you,” replied Elanee, sitting down awkwardly on a barstool. She didn't seem accustomed to being in an inn, or being hit on by grungy half-elves.
Khelgar ran a hand over his stomach, “I thank ya, lad, for your hospitality. I think I'll start with two mugs of your bitterest brew.”
Neeshka rolled her eyes at Khelgar, “I'll have wine.”
Duncan looked at me.
“Whatever you have, Duncan. Just keep it coming.”
Duncan went to get us our drinks. Another man, named Sal, had to help Duncan carry it all.
Sal handed me a tankard of the latest season's brew. I took a sip. It wasn't bad.
I emptied the rest of it in one long draw.
“Ah,” I signed as I banged the now empty tankard on the bar.
Khelgar was the only one who didn't stare. He lifted one of his mugs to me, and then drank. He always tried to keep up. I wondered if drinking contests were as serious under the mountains as in the Mere. Folk in remote locations have to entertain themselves in some way.
Duncan widened his eyes at me, “Maybe ya should take it easy lass—”
“There are some advantages to blood such as mine. Now, uncle, you were going to tell me about my mother and your brother...and you.”
Duncan scratched his stubble, “We both fancied yer mother. It's part of the reason Daeghun and I are not as close as we were.”
“Who did she choose?”
“Neither of us. Like I said before, yer mother was special. She wasn't...made for mortals.”
“That's true enough,” I muttered.
“Listen, lass: Esmerelle wasn't arrogant. She was the noblest, warmest, loveliest woman I ever laid eyes on. She just wasn't made to live in this world.”
And you're nothing like her. I could hear Duncan's implication, even if he didn't say those words aloud.
I wiped at the some soot that still clung to my hand, “Do you know anything about...the one who sired me?”
“No.”
Duncan seemed done with small talk, so I took the shard out of it's hiding place. There was only one other patron in the other corner, and he kept his back to us. I don't think he saw anything but the bottom of his flagon.
The shard glittered in my cupped hands. I bent my head over it, trying to keep the light from being seen. It felt like sunlight on my skin.
“By the gods, Amara...I don't remember it doing that—”
“So you know what this is?”
He looked at me, and I could see he was being careful with his words, “I have the other. I keep it on me. Seemed safer that way.”
“Where'd they come from?”
“He shook his head. “That's Daeghun's business to tell ya. But I think it's past time to give ya this.”
Duncan pulled a bundle out of his apron. He removed he layers of cloth until a shard lay inside. This shard did not glow like mine, but something inside of me called to the shard he held. I held out a hand to Duncan. He placed the other shard in it.
As I held a shard in each hand, they both lit like twin, silver stars. I closed my eyes. All I could see was the afterimage caused by my dark hands trying to contain all that light.
“Oh my, Duncan. I never expected to find anything of interest in your establishment, but now I'm glad that I decided to drop off your ale purgative.”
Duncan looked at the door with a look of contempt,“Sand, you're dabbling yer nose where it doesn't belong.”
“And your wading in things that will drown a sodden half-wit like you.”
I blinked my eyes, and turned.
There was an elf in immaculate robes gliding toward us. I sensed archaic power, which looks like runes circling a mage's head. I was always anxious around other magic users—always afraid that they would look at me and discover my secret; Tarmas never guessed it because he just never considered the possibility that I could be a warlock. There certainly weren't any warlocks in West Harbor—besides me, of course. I didn't know what I was for some time. It wasn't something one shouted in the village square.
Most magic users assumed that I was a sorcerer, which made most most mages snort or sniff or dismiss me entirely. But this mage Sand was more powerful than Tarmas, and if his conversation was any indication, was much cleverer. I wondered those damned elven eyes saw when he studied me.
I returned his stare, smiling widely enough that he couldn't miss my sharp incisors.
“I don't see the family resemblance,” Sand said to Duncan, but kept his eyes on me. “Tanar'ri or baat'zu?”
“Hells if I know,” Duncan muttered. “Just leave it be, Sand.”
“You have two tieflings in your inn, and you expect me not to notice? My mind is not sodden with drink, unlike some,” Sand gave me another piercing look, and I wondered if all elves and half-elves had that same knack of peeling back my skin with their eyes alone.
“I mold the Weave, if that is the answer to the question in your eyes,” I said to the mage.
“Ah,” The elven mage sighed.,“you are not a brute like your uncle here. Hear that, Duncan? It seems like this girl got all the brains in the family,” He looked at the shards, “and the heirlooms, it seems.”
“Can you try and identify them?” I asked Sand.
“Don't give them to him, Amara!”
“Oh pish posh, Duncan. I am not thief or charlatan. Save your dramatics for a more willing audience like the pimps and sailors who frequent this fine establishment.”
Sand held out his hands to me.
I placed the shards that throbbed silver-opal in time to the beating of my heart, gently into his delicate hands.
Sand's eyes widened slightly, “These are definitely magical.”
“That's not what ya said the first time we brought them to ya,” said Duncan.
“That was several years ago,” Sand replied. “They must have been...activated recently. Let me cast a spell to see...”
Sand muttered a magical incantation, and I could see the words from in the air and wrap around the shards—
Then there was a percussive wave and silence just before I was knocked off my feet.
Everyone in the Flagon was on the floor. Every lamp had been blown out.
Miraculously, Sand still held the shards, which gave the only light in the darkened inn.
“Is everyone alright?” I asked as I got to my feet. “Khelgar?”
He rumbled, “Just fine, lass.”
Neeshka's voice rose, “Fine because you landed on me! Get off, you fat oaf!”
“Here, I'll help,” I heard Elanee reply.
“Duncan?”
“Right as bloody rain.”
I could see Sand illuminated by the shard. He was breathing rapidly.
“That was...unexpected,” he said. “These shards are beyond my skills to identify.”
“Do you know who could identify them?”
“Yes, there is a sage called Aldanon. He lives in the Blacklake district. I would say go here immediately, but it is closed. There was a very suspicious murder of a lord. Until the culprit is found, no one can get inside. But you might have a chance if you join the Watch, or use...less savory associates.”
“I was already offered a job on the watch by a fellow Harborman. Marshal Cormick.”
“The Marshal? He comes to the Flagon. He's very amiable. I didn't know he was from the swamp. Well, if he can rise above his unfortunate circumstances, you may as well,” Sand gave me another thoughtful look. “You didn't say what sort of magic user you are, girl.”
“What do you think?”
“You're no mage, but I shudder to think of the alternatives.”
Duncan ignored Sand's barb, “Daeghun always said she was a right smart lass, that why he was keen on making sure ya prayed to Mystra.”
“Really?” I asked skeptically.
Duncan laughed, “Said ya were too smart for yer own good! ”
I sensed that under the jest there was truth.
Sand tsked, “For great minds, that is not possible. It is only those without control that are excessive.”
Duncan spoke roughly to the mage, “Why don't ya leave my niece alone and go back to yer workbench, snake!”
“Just stop by my shop, little girl, if you want to see what real manners are. But bring coin. My potions do not brew themselves.”
Sand strode out of the Flagon as elegantly as he had entered.





It was levelheaded practicality that brought me to the Watch.

At least, that's what I told myself as I walked towards the barracks.

It's also what I thought as I asked for the Marshal, and was directed towards a closed room.

“Practicality,” I said as I smoothed my hair and knocked.

“Yes?” Cormick answered the door with his shirt half-off. His hair was wet.

“Marshal Cormick!” I tried to sound authoritative, “What if there was a war, Marshal?”

Cormick narrowed his dark, molten eyes at me, “You...are evil incarnate.”

“Well, duh: horns, fangs—it's pretty obvious, even for a clod like you.”

“Huh,” he said, “I suppose it is. In that case, why don't we just let bygones by bygones, then?”

“Maybe, just as long as I get what I came for. I wouldn't be evil unless I had some dread purpose in mind.”

“I'll see what I can do, but I must be honest, I'll probably have to foil yer sinister intentions.”

I leaned my weight against the door until it creaked open.

“Oops...I guess I'm clumsy as well as evil.”

Cormick pulled me into a tight embrace, squeezed my waist. I could smell the soap he had just washed with—something with mint, a clean, sharp scent. I became aware of the lines of his body, which was very well-muscled. He was a fighter, after all. His skin was tanned from the sun to an almost coppery shade

Sweet Mystra, I could get used to this.

“We're in Neverwinter, Amara.”

“That we are, Cormick.”

“I like you still. Are you surprised?”

“Yes. Good folk like you are supposed to kill bad folk like me.”

“Wouldn't you rather I entice you to change from yer wicked ways?”

“But I don't want to change. I don't even want to move...”

He pushed us against the door until it closed behind my back.

“Oops. Well, not really...”

I could hear a voice from behind the door, “Marshal, whatever it is that you are doing...I'd like you continue. But unfortunately, duty is a harsh mistress.”

“I remember decorum, Lieutenant Roe, even when violating it,” Cormick looked at me and sighed as we untangled ourselves.

I leaned close to him and tied the laces of his shirt, “You're quite undone, Marshal.”

He touched my hand, which lingered on his chest, “That may be.”

Then Cormick laughed, and his crooked smile gave me one of my own, “Here, Amara, come meet Lieutenant Roe. He will be who you report to, if you are still wanting the job---”

He opened the door.

“After being man-handled, I don't know...”

“Unfortunately,” said Lieutenant Roe as he entered, “man-handling will be he least of your concerns on the Watch.”

Lieutenant Roe was of age with Cormick. The officer was fair-haired and had a rough scar across the right side of his face.

Roe nodded, “Cormick told me you were in the militia. He also told me that you did in Fort Locke. I am rather curious how you will do here. A city like Neverwinter always has some group of thugs running about, staking out street corners. It's a part of life. That's why a city needs eyes and enforcers. But if these gangs start to work together, they become a force with a will. When they have a will and and a purpose, so must we. They want the city, and we are the only thing that stands in their way. If we fall, so will all of Neverwinter.”

“And a weak Neverwinter is open to whatever might come charging in,” I said, “either with promises and flattery, or threats and swords.”

Roe smiled at Cormick and me, “They train you well in the swamp. I just might suggest that the Watch step up its recruiting efforts round the Mere.”

“From what I've heard and see, it seems like you should step up recruiting efforts everywhere.”

“Would you like to start?”

I waved my hand at my horns, “You need people who can inspire. While I can intimidate small-minded folk, that's about it.”

Cormick scratched his chin, “But you handled yerself very well when things got tough—even avoided fighting.”

I shrugged, “I just try and to say what seems most liable to get things done.”

Roe spoke, “That's what the Watch is about. We can't be killing everybody. It takes a little...diplomacy. Still interested?”

I smirked, “I can affect a pleasing manner when necessity requires it. When you have horns and other...peculiarities, gentlemen, you need all the skills you can dredge up.”





The first time I went on patrol with the Watch cloak round my shoulders, I felt excitement.

The first thing we came upon in an alleyway was a gang of a dozen toughs.

“When did the Cloaks start recruiting drow?” someone drawled.

“When they wanted to get the job done,” I sneered.

Khelgar spat, “Ach! Drow are dark elves. Their skin is dark and their hair's white. They're mean—especially the women.”

I tried to think of a diplomatic rejoinder, “In that case, thanks for the comparison. I am a very mean woman.”

“Lady, why don't you just turn around? You don't know who you're messing with.”

“No, you don't know who you're messing with. Bribes won't work on me, except to piss me off. So why don't you just turn around, slink back to whatever hovel you call home, and be thankful that you get to live for one more day?”

Their spokesman laughed.

I flicked my wrist. Greenish-black hellfire arose from the tips of my fingers, dancing back and forth between them like some malicious pixie.

He stopped laughing.

“Learning from your mistakes is the best way to stay alive, kid. Remember that. Your first mistake was underestimating your opponent. Normally, you'd be dead by now. You can either bear a message to your 'leader'—or you can make a second mistake. I think you know where that will lead to.”

The tough licked his lips, and I guessed he was sixteen, if that.

He tried to be in control, and gave me a curt nod. I don't think he trusted his voice.

“You are a smart lad. Just repeat this message to whoever you follow: 'The city belongs to the people. It does not belong to you, and it never will. You are as a traitor, if you keep terrorizing the citizen of this city. Here's your chance to become legitimate, or flee to more accommodating climates. But if you stay, I will find you. I will either haul you before a judge or I meet you right now. It matters not to me. You will end up dead, in either case. Sincerely, Amara Chidi.'”

“Got that?” I asked.

He looked at me like I was plague-ridden, but he nodded.

“Run along now. And don't stop anywhere to steal a purse, or I will know—What's your name?”

“Simeon—Sy.”

“'Sly Sy.' Hmm, How about you live up to that nickname? Go on, now, all of you.”

The drifted back into the shadows, as those light on their feet were want to do.

Neeshka's tail thrashed back and forth, “Amara, that was unbelievably stupid. They'll put a bounty on your head now—on all of our heads, ” she gulped and rubbed her neck as she watched for stragglers to finish the job.

I raised my eyebrow, “Don't you already have a bounty on your head, Neeshka?”

“That's not the point. I didn't challenge the biggest gang-leader in the city the first time a Watchman's cloak was handed to me.”

“I'm trying to...make an impression.”

“You certainly did that. And soon we'll all be making an impression in the dirt.”

“Come on, tiefling,” said Khelgar, “don't tell me the half-devil is getting scared?”

Neeshka looked at each of us in turn, “Of course I'm scared. We all should be. None of you know how this city operates. Unlike the Watch, these people do not listen to appeals of duty or justice. They'll laugh in your face, just like that boy did. You've caught them off guard, but they will stop at nothing to take you—and us—out. They'll hit you where it hurts.”

I grinned, “I won't let that happen.”

Neeshka held up her hands in a gesture of surrender.

“Just be smart, Amara.”




I dreamed.

I saw a wheel in the midst of an infinite darkness.

I heard the voice of my demon, but I could not see him, “This is the center of the multiverse, where there is balance between law and chaos, good and evil. At the center is a city. The City of Doors, which leads to every other plane.”

“How many planes are there?” I asked.

“They are infinite.”

Innumerable spokes shot out from the wheel.

“And Aber-Toril?”

The many spokes became one. Rather than being solid light, I could see that it was composed of many dots, then of only one large, round dot.

“Is a planet. In a solar system composed of several planets. That solar system is part of a galaxy, which is a part of the universe—one of many that form the Prime Material Plane.”

As he spoke, the dots once again grew into a spoke, and then reconciled into the wheel once more.

“And all that is one plane?”

“Yes.”

“Is there something that tries to keep all these worlds balanced: a force behind the wheel?”

“No. Each always fights to dominate its own plane, or others.”

The wheel turned, and it seemed like each spoke chased the other.

“Then what is power?” I asked.

“It is belief. Fiends must believe in their purpose as much as devas.”

“And what is my Father's purpose?”

There was a pause. The wheel stopped.

“To rule. He is different form other fiends. He knows that the chaos and maliciousness can be shaped into a weapon.”

“To strike whom?”

“Those who would bind. Your Father believes in freedom. And is willing to fight for it.”

“Until all the planes bow to him?”

The wheel suddenly started to burn. The flames were greenish-black.

“Well, just worry about one more...for now.”

Everything faded into darkness.

Edited by Raenemon, 21 December 2009 - 06:07 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

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#5 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 23 May 2009 - 06:32 PM

Chapter 4


Somewhere, I felt the weight of a book in my left hand.

A misty picture weaves around
While purity yearns for its sound—
Its voice is deadened by the tongue
Of lusty sirens lately rung.


In Neverwinter, my hair webbed a knotted maze against my head. I could feel the tangles, even if I couldn't see them. Fairy knots. They meant some wild thing had visited you in the night. Well, if a fairy was that desperate...

I sniffed. It was dark. Too dark for morning. Though the shutters of my window were closed against last evening's air, I could smell the heady, foreboding mixture of wood- and grease-smoke. Throwing off the blanket, I pulled the shutters open. Large pillars of gray smoke drifted towards the inn from the east---from the Watch barracks. Men and women ran away from it, covering their faces against the dark soot floating on the air like blackened snow.

I muffled my mouth as I began to cough. My eyes watered thick as old tears as I tied a pale handkerchief around my nose and mouth.

As mourners dance around the grave
The Jester stoops down to behave
Amid the scarlet birds below
Who throw him in the blackened snow.


Someone knocked.

Cracking the door, I recognized the lump of Khelgar's head. Between his hands, he twisted his ax with a rhythmic twirl.

I had slept in my armor, so there was no need for modesty. “Ready?” I asked Khelgar as I swung the door open.

He grinned, tapped his ax handle, “Aye. Everyone's in the common room,” He sounded gruffer than his normal rumble.

With practiced ease, I strapped on my belt, sword, and cloak, “Come now, Khelgar, where there's smoke, there's fire---”

He rolled his eyes at me, pointed at the kerchief around my face, “Ya can't fight fire, lass. Ya just have to put it out.”

I bent towards him. My face was wrapped, but my green eyes held his brown, “I am far worse than any fire.”

He chuckled, “Just uncover yer face then. The flames will surely wither.”

“Does that mean you won't come a'courtin?”

Khelgar sputtered, “I have never courted anyone---except death.”

“That's why I'm so fond of you.”

Khelgar rocked his bald head as we walked into the common room. The dwarf's steps were heavier than mine, though he was smaller. Several patrons stood by the windows, which were becoming gray and opaque because of the ash. I looked around for Duncan, but he wasn't out front. Elanee and Neeshka stood like two slim shadows by the door. The red-haired elf wiped something beneath her nose. The flame-haired tiefling looked around as if she expected someone to try and knife her.

Towards the Barracks, it was dark as night. On the street, we were the only ones heading towards the inferno concealed in the dust. I summoned light to help us find our way. My greenish fire made our features stark and surreal against the waiting shadows.

The smoke was worse the closer we came to the Barracks. Elanee summoned a zone of sweet air around our heads, but it did not prevent the ash outside the protected area from blowing in. We were all covered with an identical skin of gray. My handkerchief provided some relief, but probably made me look like a bandit---a horned, dirty outlaw and his crew.

We came across the dull, rectangular blocks of the Barracks' wall. I sashayed up to the first figure to emerge from the ash, a Cloak at attention, though he didn't see us until we were a sneeze away.

“Stand back!” he commanded, holding up his mace.

I sighed, held up my hands.

The guard squinted at me. The ash made his features gray, so I did not recognize him. When he saw my horns, he suddenly saluted.

“Chidi,” he said, looking awkwardly at me through the dust, “the Watch headquarters are now in the Merchant Quarter. That's where you should head to. Quickly, now---”

I felt the heat from the fire, even if its flames were hid beneath the debris, “Was anyone killed?”

The solider coughed up so much phlegm that he had to spit before replying,“Yes... Lieutenant Roe. He's dead.”

Khelgar spoke the question I couldn't ask, “What about Marshal Cormick?”

The guard's phrases were punctuated with staccato bursts of coughing, “Cormick's alive. He's meeting with Captain Brelaina in the new headquarters. He also said that if were to see you, Amara Chidi, that I was to tell you to take extra care. Your life is in danger.”

“Nothing new there,” my smile was lost to the soldier.

“We found this,” the guard held a folded length of cloth out to me. “It was nailed to the wall with a knife.”

I stopped smiling as the cloth unfurled. It was a Watch cloak, ripped in several places. Across its length, someone had written in red paint or blood, “DEMON WITCH.”

“Bastards...” Khelgar swore. He tensed as if he were ready to run off into the darkness to remedy the smirch against my honor.

I threw the cloak to the ground.

Neeshka, pinching her face all the while, recovered the ruined cloak. She pointed at the letters, “At least they can spell. That means it wasn't some random gang-banger.”

“And the fire...” I said, “It's not magical, but it's too strong to be random.” I did not sense magic being used, but a nonmagical fire could burn just as thoroughly as the magical kind.

“Arson? Yeah,” Neeshka gave me a look that said I told you so. “That smell? Its like the stuff I've seen in...other places. Not on this scale, but it's something that burns really hot really quickly, and is easy to hide.” She held the cloak out to me. The word “DEMON” stood out like a brand.

“I don't want it---”

“---Cormick might,” She pointed at the embroidery on the lapels. It was a marshal's insignia.

My mouth felt as if the heat had vaporized every drop of spit from my mouth. As I held the fabric in my hands, I looked at each of my companions in turn, as if to challenge them to contradict me, “I'll find whoever did this.”

Khelgar rubbed the back of his neck, “We're all on your side, lass.”

Using all twelve fingers, I ripped the cloak apart. The sound was lost in the chaos of screams and shouting that surrounded us, but I could still feel the fabric tearing beneath my fingers, “There's no fixing this, but I will fix the coward who wouldn't take me face-to face,” I threw the remaining bits of cloth to the ground, “Whoever this bitch is, she's scared. Good. Scared people make stupid moves, like threatening mine.”

I stopped speaking as I shuttered. Every pore screamed that something 'wrong' was nearby. I laughed.

Khelgar eyed me, “Are ya...alright, Amara?”

“Right as rain, “ I grinned again, but this one was feral. “We're being watched, Khelgar—probably for quite some time.”

Elanee looked around, trying to see what was in the shadows. “Who would watch us in this mess?” she asked.

I looked around lazily and stretched, “It could be someone on the Watch or some other 'spectator.' But it's probably better to pretend that we don't notice—for now.”

“How do you know?”

I opened my mouth, but closed it and frowned. I had no idea.

Neeshka coughed, “I sure hope you're wrong—again.”

Khelgar pointed at the blaze, “Hope all ya want, girl. It won't put out this fire, will it now?”

“There's nothing we can do here. Let's go find Cormick,” I finally said.

The new headquarters was in a castle, but instead of looking at the tapestries or the fine stone-work that formed its walls, the world only came into focus when I saw Cormick seated at the end of a long table. As the Marshal raised his hands, a priest wound bandages around his fingers. The priest's eyes were focused on his work. Ugly blisters dotted Cormick's skin before the priest covered them, muttering an incantation to Helm for healing. I couldn't hear the words, but I did hear word “Helm” fall from his mouth with the inevitable weight of the executioner's blade.

I walked up to Cormick, “You're hurt...”

He smiled before he saw me, “It takes more than a little fire to singe a Harborman, eh?” His dark eyes reflected the fire and torch light as he met my gaze.

“Depends on the Harborman. You may be exceptionable,” I smiled, “but you're not fireproof.”

Cormick chuckled. His hands were encased in linen as if he wore white mittens.

Khelgar greeted Cormick, placing his hand to his neck in a formal gesture, “It's good to see ya mostly alive, Marshal Cormick.”

Cormick nodded at the dwarf, “And you, Master Ironfist. Ya appear to be more intact than I.”

Khelgar's mouth widened, “I'm not the one who's been brawling. Next time ya want to crack a skull or two, you just let me know.”

Cormick looked at his hands, “This isn't from fighting.”

Neeshka pushed her reddish hair from her face, pulled it behind her ears, “You're more of a lover than a fighter anyway.”

I placed my hands gently over his bandages. Cormick blinked, but when he looked back into my face, his smile was all the better because I knew he smiled for me.

I tried to say how scared and relieved I was through my eyes alone. It was that moment that I realized how much I wanted to rub my hand over his cheeks, his neck, his chest to remind myself that he was...

I cleared my throat and addressed the priest, “Is it serious?”

The priest stopped praying. He was fit a man in his middle years, but most priests of Helm were as much warriors as they were healers. He looked from me to Cormick, and back again,“He'll be holding his sword before long. But please tell the Marshal that he should avoid running into burning buildings from now on.”

Cormick looked at the carpeted floor, “I heard Roe. No one can hear something like that and do nothing.”

The priest put his hand on Cormick's shoulder, “It's not your fault he died.”

The marshal shrugged, avoiding the priest's gaze, “So ya've been saying.”

Soundlessly, the priest's hand dropped.

“Thanks for your help,” continued Cormick, “but I have a meeting. I'll stop by the temple later, if you want to have another go at easing my guilt.”

“I can do nothing to help you there, Marshal,” The priest had a candid expression, and I guessed that he knew Cormick pretty well---well enough to finish his work in silence and then take his leave.

Cormick's bandages were dotted now with buds of crimson, “Is it painful---”

“It's better than dying,” Cormick replied flatly.

“I'm sorry about Roe. I can't imagine...”

“Yes you can. Ya've seen those around ya fall, and ya'll see more....Do ya regret joining the Watch now?”

“Of course not,” I flashed a look from beneath my brows. “I only regret that you're hurt when it should be me...You said I was in danger, but so are you—especially with bandaged hands—”

“I'll be alright, Amara.”

“I'll keep you safe,” I said suddenly.

A short-haired woman cleared her throat from the other corner of the room. Cormick met my eyes, and I got the impression that I had to be formal in her presence.

“Marshal Cormick, is this the recruit I've heard so much of?” she asked.

“Yes, Captain Brelaina.”

“Come here, Amara Chidi.”

I stood tall, but kept my hand on Cormick for as long as I possibly could. He gave a half-smile as he motioned at the captain.

Brelaina had short, dark hair, but her voice, though feminine, was more like a politician's than a Cloak's. Her armor was the finest steel, and everything about the Captain seemed to embody what was civil and refined.

“I have good news for you.” She kept her hands rigidly at her side. “You have been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.”

“...Thank you, Captain Brelaina. It is an honor to serve Neverwinter,” I bowed.

Her nod was the merest turning of her chin, “We will have a chance put that to the test. You will be leaving Neverwinter. There is a crisis at Old Owl Well that needs our full attention.”

I tried not to wring my hands. Instead, I matched her politic tone, hoping to sway her, “Should I leave Neverwinter under the circumstances? Surely our efforts should be focused on locating the perpetrators of this horrible act?”

“Those responsible for this terrorist act will be bought to the light, have no fear of that, Lieutenant. But there are other matters that need attention. There is a missing ambassador...and we cannot hold out against the orcs for much longer. You will go there, and do what you can. Find the Waterdeep ambassador, first and foremost, but then see what you can do for our defense of Old Owl Well.”

“When should I leave, ma'am?”

“Immediately.”

“But I this gang leader is hunting me---”

“That is immaterial,” Brelaina interrupted. “You made a vow to serve this city. And that means going where you are told to go. When you are told to do so.”

“It just seems as if I have just started to...to have an effect here...”

Brelaina looked at me coolly, “Do you want to be the cause of another violent plot against the Watch?”

“No, ma'am,” I muttered.

“You need to leave the city for awhile. You've been too effective. Now Moira's gang is targeting you. The only chance you have is to get out of the city for time...Don't worry, it'll be here when you return...Isn't that right, Marshal?”

Cormick took a deep breath, but looked away from me, “It'll wait.”

I cocked an eyebrow, “Nothing here can wait---”

“I will, “ he said. “I'll handle whatever might...happen in your absence. I've been doing that for some years now.”

“I don't want you cleaning up after me, Marshal---”

Cormick tilted his chin,“---It's my job, Lieutenant. I'll do it, come hells or hurricane.”

I was silent, but the look I cast at Cormick could have soured a custard.

Cormick sighed, “It's not all bad. Ya'll get to help Callum. He's a good friend of mine. He needs someone he can trust. I can't go, but I hoped you would.”

I snorted, “So I go, against hopeless odds, because he's your friend. I'm starting to see a pattern, Marshal...”

I looked at Cormick' bandaged hands, and then closed my eyes, “Of course I'll go.”

“Splendid,” said the Captain, clapping her hands together.

Cormick stood, opened his mouth as I walked up to him.

My pulse pounded in my ears as I touched his lips with my hand, “I'll come back.”

“I know,” he said.

I tried not to linger on the soft curve of his lips, the dark threads of his beard, but I did. I drank them like someone who had never tasted water.






We left the city out of it's eastern gate. Bringing up the rear, I looked back at the city's walls. Sentries stood in place along the battlements. I looked for a familiar silhouette among that throng of armored men.

As I turned towards the road, a lone, bareheaded figure raised his arms above the wall. His hands were bandaged. I waved. He shouted something I couldn't make out.

The solders all held up their weapons in a salute, and then banged their swords against their shields. They whooped.

I used both hands to raise my sword above my head.

I whooped back.

I had never seen mountains so high although Khelgar told me that they would be 'dwarfed' by the mountains he knew (he laughed until he bend red-faced over his boots). Neeshka started sneezing uncontrollably once we were out of the city, as if something in the air did not agree with her. Elanee, on the other hand, had to be dragged from every natural sight, every deer path. The fields and flowers might have moved me as well, especially since I had not seen such things since we arrived in Neverwinter, but as beautiful as they were, I looked at each as just another obstacle between me and getting to what I wanted---another path to take, another errand to run. The addition of the gnomish bard to our band barely slowed my stride, except when the gnome opened his mouth. I put up with it so that he could show us the way to the Well, but I had to pinch my ear to keep from falling asleep from his incessant stream of nonsense.

We were already motley enough to tolerate the gnome's presence, if not to love him.

Otherwise, it would have been very easy to get lost. Sparse deciduous groves dotted the mountainside as well as rocky outcroppings. Old Owl Well was actually a valley connecting two mountain ranges. It the only hospitable place to pass for miles. While it was a strategic place to have an army, Callum only had a handful.

Good luck. I 'humphed' to myself.

The first solider pointed us towards an armed fellow who was a head taller than Khelgar. His hair and beard were lighter than Khelgar's, but he didn't have a hair or thread out of place. I had never heard Callum's name spoken except with deep echoes of respect, so I saluted him as we approached.

Callum looked at us all before speaking, “I hope you're new recruits...” He had a voice, while not as refined as Captain Brelaina's, demanded attention because of its gruff sincerity.

“We've already been recruited, Sir,” I said, nodding at my cloak. “We come from Neverwinter to find the Waterdeep ambassador.”

“What's your name, solider?”

The title was still new, so I hesitated before speaking,“Lieutenant Amara Chidi, Sir.”

“Chidi...” Callum looked up as he thought, “...yes. Marshal Cormick wrote me a letter about you. So you're from West Harbor too?”

“Yes sir. Cormick's the hero from West Harbor. I'm merely the dregs.”

“Were you friends with Cormick then?”

“Not really, sir. I was still a child when he left our village.”

“Really? By his correspondence, he seems to know you well.”

“We have just lately become reacquainted since I have left the Mere and joined the Watch.”

He studied my fingers as I rapped them against my sword hilt, “The Marshal mentioned you had...talents.”

I grinned, “I am a magic user, Sir. And a half-demon. Both of those seem like rare qualities in most Watchmen. “

“Besides your friend here,” he nodded at Neeshka.

Neeshka held up her hands, “I'm no magic user, no sir. I'm just a law abiding citizen, doing what she can...and I'm not a half-demon. I'm half-devil. Devils are very law-abiding.”

Callum smiled at both of us, “Should I be concerned by your parentage?”

Though she didn't reply, one of Neeshka's hands went to the base of her tail. It was a nervous habit.

I shrugged, “I didn't have any say in that matter...”

“That's right!” Neeshka nodded vigorously, “She lets her bastard sword do the talking...because she's a bastard.”

Khelgar booted Neeshka's foot---hard. The tiefling let out a little squeal, then was quiet. If she didn't already have a reddish cast to her skin, I'm certain she would have been blushing.

Callum looked into my face, “Cormick said that if he were in a storm, he'd want you by his side.”

I tried returning Callum's steady gaze, but could not, “The Marshal exaggerates---”

The dwarf held up his gauntleted hand, “Marshal Cormick wouldn't say it unless he meant it. You may be from the same place, but he is a good judge of character. I trust him. That is why we have him recruiting, when he's not off on special assignments...Cormick may not be here, but there may be some help you could offer.

“What is it?”

“We are overrun with the damn orcs. I need someone to break into their hideout and throw a little dissension into their ranks, so that they stop attacking out position here, at least until we can get more men.”

“Do the orcs have the ambassador?”

“That's likely.”

“But why would orcs take such a hostage?”

“Why would we?” The dwarf removed an unseen hair from his sleeve,“If the ambassador disappears, then we don't get any aid from Waterdeep or the Lord's Alliance, which we sorely need. Then it's only a matter of time before their raids succeed, and they take this place.”

“Why would the orcs want this area?”

“That's the question that needs answering. There's too much...organization to all this. I think we'll find out that some other force is at work here. Right now, we have many enemies. I hope it's not Luskan, but that would be my first guess.”

“Any second guesses?”

“Many,” Callum looked steadily ahead, “but it does me no good to speculate more than necessary. We need to focus on what we can do here---which is fight.”

“And how might we be of particular use?”

“Find their hideout. Behead their leader. Bring his talisman to me.”

Khelgar practically beamed.

I cocked my head to one side, “Sounds simple, but I'm guessing it won't be.”

“That is a very good guess. We don't really know the exact location of their fort. Also, you may run into...things other than orcs. There is someone harrying the orcs, but I don't know who or why. All I know is that captured orcs call him 'Katalmach.' It's an orc word that means 'one who loses himself in battle.' They seemed scared of him, but I can't reply on rumors. If you run into this Katalmach, tell him he and his men would do more good here than out on their own.”

“Orcs!” Khelgar bellowed as he pointed down the road. His spit flew in foamy bits into his beard.

A low horn sounded, and the guttural cries arose to meet it. Then the orcs appeared from wherever they had been hiding, raising clubs, forked swords, and wooden shields. They ran faster than I thought such large, unwieldy-looking bodies should be able to move.

I called hellfire to infuse my bastard sword. When I unsheathed it, my hands and blade seemed made of unearthly flames.

The first orc to come at me let out a cry of fear and surprise when he saw my sword, and ran away. The second orc sneaked up behind me as I watched the first. I didn't turn, even when his hot stench rolled rolled over me and he raised a wicked spear at my back. Before the fatal blow could land, my magic struck out at the orc's spear, stopped it it midair for a moment before turning the wood and the orc into a flaming torch. The orc squealed, began rolling on he ground to put out the fire, but to no use. His burning skin smelled like burning pitch.

I turned, but the other orcs had been cut down. Three lay at Callum's feet.

“Handy...” Callum said to me. He didn't even sound winded.

“Not a much as you, Sir,” I wheezed.

Callum's smile was harder than most men's frowns, “We'll soon find out, won't we, Lieutenant?”





Callum's directions led us through a valley much like every other valley we had crossed---except that the orcs lay in ambush. I swore as our group was beset by the foul beasts, but I had little hope.

Pouring out of the surrounding caves like bees from a hive, the orcs descended in dizzing numbers. We couldn't even run.

Dark blood soon spattered my face and arms, clumped my hair to my head. For the first time, I felt a tight knot of fear slip from my innards like a lizard on warm rocks. I sent up a silent prayer to Mystra.

Then I heard a horn sound. The orcs squealed in response. A small but heavily-armored force swept down the side of the mountain and began cutting the orcs to bits. We joined the fight, and soon all the orcs were either dead or fled.

One of these knights strode towards me. His armor gleamed through the orc gore.

“You seemed overrun.” His voice was deep, sonorous, and echoed through the opening of his helm.

I pointed my sword at his belly, “We would have finished them off without assistance. I'm guessing you want a 'thank you,' but not until I determine your motives...Katalmach.”

The man removed his helmet. His hair was dark, but his eyes were a sky blue. His chiseled, even features shown beneath a sheen of sweat, “I am also known as Casavir, paladin of Tyr. If my lady would remove her sword tip, we might exchange more formal pleasantries.”

No one had ever called me 'lady.' Well, besides the gnome. Neeshka suppressed a giggle, but scratched her nose. Khelgar cleared his throat. Even Elanee looked at the man with disbelief.

“Very well, Sir Casavir,” I sheaved my sword, looked at him again. Sweet Mystra, he was the handsomest man I had ever seen. And a paladin? Wonders truly never ceased.

Instead of wiping my hands and face, I extended my hand in the only informal greeting I knew. He'd probably have to wash after touching a demon spawn, but I did not trust my curtsy, “I am Lieutenant Amara Chidi of the Watch.”

He took my gloved hand in his gauntleted one and bowed. If he noticed my extra digit, he did not show it. “We have both fought for justice on the field of battle. Tyr has made you my comrade this day. As your comrade, I must tell you to cease and desist whatever action you plan on taking in this region. We have tried to overrun the orc's stronghold, but return with too few. If you would not be among the grieved, or dead, do not go any further.”

I was tired, but after the shock of victory I felt giddy---indestructible. “We will enter the orcish stronghold and rescue the Waterdeep ambassador.”

The paladin shook his head once, “You will never find the way there on your own.”

“Then get out of our way, or have one of your shields show us.”

Casavir was thoughtful. When he finally spoke, his words had the ring of a pronouncement, “I will show you.”

A blond knight shook her head, “No, sir. What will we do without you?”

“Katriona,” Casavir replied, “go back to Old Owl Well. We've lost too many today. Go and help Callum's defense. I will return, if Tyr wills it.”

“Yes sir.” Katriona turned way, but she looked at me in anger before she led the remaining men away.

The paladin looked at me gravely, “Are you willing to accept my aid, Amara Chidi?”

“If you're willing to accept ours.”

We went looking for the emissary, but found much more disturbing things. The orc stronghold extended underground. As we fought through layer after filthy lair, we saw unmistakable signs of some malevolent cult at work, egging on the orcs.

These shadow priests not only tortured people, but also performed unholy rituals. They were trying to animate the dead. I've sent many on their path to the dread city, but fighting a foe, killing to stay alive is the way of things. I don't kill for pleasure. I just prefer to make corpses than become one.

I had killed enough that bodies did not bother me, but what was being done to these bodies made us all cringe. In one cave, the smell that came from the corpses and unholy unguents made all of us cover our faces. There were bodies of civilians from Old Owl Well, the Neverwinter forces, and some of Casavir's people---even orc corpses scattered here and there. Only in death would such different kin cease caring who they lay beside.

The sheer number of mutilated corpses, spread wall to wall without regard for the souls that used to dwell there, made me realize that the stakes were deeper, sharper than I had ever suspected. I understood that the King of Shadows would not play by any rules, any notion of “fair.” There would be no mercy for anyone who lay in his path of destruction.

This abomination in the dark, this unmarked tomb, was what evil truly was.

As Casavir made a blood oath among the fallen, I did the same. The rest made vows by voice or in silence.

For better or worse, our fates were all tied together.





When we returned to Neverwinter, I think all needed to lighten our thoughts after what we had seen in Old Owl Well. We found an inn to stay the night in rather than on the ground, a place (according to the gnome) known for the quality of its ale.

As I enjoyed my fourth tankard, I patted Grobnar on his head. He beamed.

Casavir sat across from me at our table. He had a glass of wine, but he had not finished it. I had not expected him to partake at all, but I knew nothing about what paladins were or were not supposed to do.

“You wield magic...and a sword,” he indicated my blade.

I shrugged, “'A bastard sword for a bastard', isn't that right Neeshka?”

“You're never going to let that go, are you?” she sighed.

“It was too witty—a step above your usual humor,” I grinned.

Casavir blushed, turned away.

I waved it off, “I'm not offended, Sir Knight, so neither should you be. It's the truth. I carry a bastard sword, and I am a bastard. There is an irony in that that would be a shame to pass up.”

“I see the irony, lady, but I also see the insult,” Casavir was not just a quiet man, he was a thoughtful one. I don't think he uttered a word without thinking it through.

“Well, I don't know who my father is. I might not sing about it, but I don't hide that fact—although I couldn't really hide it if I tried,” I tapped a horn for emphasis.

“So, your father gave you your more...exotic looks?”

“'Exotic.' Oh my. I'm going to have to find more paladins if all of them will say gracious things to me.”

Casavir laughed.

“As far as I know, my father gave me the horns, the skin, the fangs, the fingers, and the eyes. I only know what my mother looked like from other people's descriptions, but I know I don't favor her,” I took a swig.

“What did she look like?”

“She had a smile that lit up a room, yellow-gold eyes, pale skin, and blond hair. She was an aasimar and a paladin of Ilmater.”

“A paladin---and an aasimar?” His cool eyes took me in a new light, a flash of sapphire. Casavir considered me with a clear, jeweled gaze before he spoke again, “You do have something of your mother's.”

I tried not to turn away from his scrutiny, “What is that?”

“Her smile. There is something innately...warm about your presence. I do not think that is a demonic quality.”

“Thank you, Casavir. That's one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me. Sober.”

“It is only the truth, Amara.”

“I don't think I was 'warm' when I pointed my sword at you.”

He really laughed.

“Since we are being truthful, I must ask. Callum said that Katalmach meant 'one who loses himself in battle.' Why did you feel the need to become lost?”

Casavir became quite serious, “I don't know anyone who finds himself in battle. When I fought the orcs, yes—I suppose they could sense that I wasn't afraid to fight and to die.”

“But you threw yourself into the fray, time and again, at every opportunity; that goes beyond merely accepting death—you seemed to seek it.”

He looked at his glass, “Well, if I have sought death, it was to achieve something of value.”

“Which is...”

Casavir's voice was cold, “Dead orcs.”

“I'll agree with you there, lad,” said Khelgar, suddenly becoming interested in the conversation.

“It's just sounds...uncomplicated,” I said.

“It was,” Casavir agreed. “I have no desire for complications.”

“Then why leave?”

“I...don't rightly know, lady. I'm waiting for Tyr to offer me some insight.”

Khelgar poked Casavir with his elbow, “I think you just want a little a little novelty. Ye can only bash an orc head in so many times before it starts to get routine!”

“I will have to disagree,” Casavir replied formally, but by the end he had a twinkle in his eye. “I never tire of justice—especially when I get to mete it out with my own hands.”

“My, my,” Khelgar studied Casavir, “You've got some fire in you, paladin...Wanna fight?”

Casavir looked down at the dwarf.

“I don't mean that I don't like ya, “ Khelgar put out his hands. “I just like a good tussle.”

Casavir looked at me.

“Khelgar wants to be a monk,” I explained, “of Tyr.”

Casavir pursued his mouth.

“You're practically brothers,” I muttered.

Casavir tuned toward Khelgar and patted his back. “Then I salute you sincerely, Khelgar Ironfist—not only as a fellow servant of Tyr, but I have fought with Callum, and if he is any indication of the strength of your people, you will make a staunch ally indeed.”

Khelgar actually seemed to blush. He patted his beard. “Yer not bad at all, lad, even if you don't have more than two whiskers to yer name.”




When the Waterdeep ambassador had taken a bath, dressed in his finest robes, and eaten a roast pig, he sent a message from Castle Never to Captain Brelaina. She read the contents of that note to us before giving us permission to enter the Blacklake district.

Cormick, of course, insisted on escorting us. As we approached the entrance into Blacklake, Cormick was waiting. He had been pacing back and forth across the cobbled street. When he looked up at our party, I saw a new, dark beard a growing thick on his chin.

He moved swiftly to meet us---I liked watching him move, even if he was too excited to be graceful.

When Cormick was close enough, I stretched out my hand, rubbed it against his cheek, “Hey handsome. Come here often?”

His beard, rather than hide his smile, make it stand out, like a pearl in an oyster, “Not really. Actually, I'm waiting for someone---”

“Oh?”

He looked at me head to toe, “Only for a sweet piece like you.”

“I bet you say that to all the demons.”

“Demon? I could've sworn you were a celestial.”

“You are obviously a bit slow. That's alright. I like my men to be good-looking, but as dull as a gnomish lecture.”

I looked around, but Grobnar was too busy trying to catch a butterfly to notice the insult.

“You picked up a gnome, then? Why am I not surprised?”

Neeshka sashayed up to us, “Aren't you going to say 'hello' to me, Marshal, or have you already spent all your greetings on the Lieutenant?”

Cormick half-smiled, “Well, Neeshka, I am always glad to see you well, but I can't say 'hello.' You have to be a Harborman to get a 'Harbor hello.'”

“And what's that?”

Cormick pulled me toward him, dunked me, as you would at a dance, and kissed me on the mouth.

“You don't even want to know how we say 'goodbye,'” I said as I smoothed my hair,” I think it's illegal on a public street like this.”

'True,” said Cormick as he kept his arms around me, “but sometimes ya have to bite the arrow...”

I laughed, “You are ridiculous.” I looked at him very deliberately, “Of course, I like novelty: like ridiculously handsome men who are more than a little daft.”

Cormick cleared his throat. He looked at someone behind me. I turned. Casavir made gesture of greeting at Cormick.

The Marshal nodded at Casavir, “I did not expect you back at the city, Sir Paladin.”

“You two...know each other?” I asked.

“Yes,” Cormick answered, “Casavir and I both served with Callum. When I heard what was happening at Old Own Well, I must admit, I thought of you, sir. You were always thinking of the good, and how best to serve it.” Cormick offered his hand to Casavir, just as I had done at the Well.

Casavir smiled slightly as he took Cormick's hand, “And you have become a Marshal. How is your lady, Cormick?”

Cormick smiled, “She's not my lady anymore, but I serve Neverwinter still.”

“How do you know the Lieutenant?”

“We both hale from West Harbor. She, Khelgar, and Neeshka happened upon me at Fort Locke. Now that we both serve the Watch, we have had a chance to fight together, and to catch up. So if anyone would like to hear a story about Amara, I'd be happy to oblige. Or make up something sordid.”

“Ah?” Khelgar made the sound both a question and an accusation.

I smiled, “Don't believe a word he says. He's completely batty---always has been.”

Cormick and I both met each other's eyes.

He turned his gaze to Casavir, “What brings you back?”

The paladin looked at the sky, which was the same shade as his eyes, “Only Tyr knows.”

Cormick did not push the issue, but I could tell by the tension in his face that he waned to say more.

“Casavir saved our lives,” I said to Cormick. “Without his aid, we would have been killed by the orcs. Instead, we were able to find the ambassador, but...You wouldn't believe it, Cormick. There were those shadow priests again. Even if it's just a cult, it's got its fingers in some horrible doings.”

“What?”

“They cut up the dead. They were trying to make them---something. More than just regular zombies or skeletons which are already bad enough.”

“We made a vow,” Casavir added. “All of us---to find out what happened and to stop whatever force is behind this.”

“Gods, Amara,” Cormick rubbed my hand, “If I knew, I wouldn't have let Brelaina send you there alone.”

I gestured to the group around us, “I wasn't alone.”

“This is bigger than you are, Amara---bigger than me, bigger than any one person. There's no sense in always sticking your neck out all the time. There's no point to it.”

“I'm not,” I said as I pulled away from his hand, “I'm doing my duty---no different than you.”

“You joined the Watch as a means to an end: to find out about the shards. You have no duty to Neverwinter.”

“What the hells are you talking about? I've done nothing but risk my neck for this damn city. Don't you dare belittle my motives. I don't belittle yours.”

“I do what I have to, not what I want to.”

“Please, you think I wanted all this to happen? This may surprise you Marshal, but I didn't. I didn't plan on fleeing West Harbor, or running into you, or being pulled into any of this. I've seen enough. And I'm tired of being pushed around like some bleedin' game of marbles...I'm tired of being used---”

“Have I used you?”

“I'm just a...distraction. But hells, I'm likely to be wrong---might be that demon blood addling my thoughts. So why don't you tell me, since you're the great hero?”

Cormick spoke slowly, but his liquid eyes were boiling, “If you think so little of me, then I'll be on my way.”

He took a breath, then pointed at one mansion, “There is the sage's house. He is expecting you. I'll go inform the Watch, so you'll be able to come at go at your leisure.”

When I did not reply, he continued speaking in that deliberate way, “There are rumors of strange things haunting the shadows. We need to have a force prepared, if...something should happen. All of you should be safe at Aldanon's---probably safer than anywhere else in the city.”

Casavir spoke in the silence that followed, “It is good to see you, Cormick. We will speak another time.” He saluted.

Cormick nodded, “Be safe.”

He looked at me, but I did not meet his eyes. When I finally allowed myself a look in his direction, he had disappeared into the darkened streets.

I turned towards Casavir, whose face went pale as we approached the sage's mansion, “Are you alright, Casavir?”

“Of course, Lieutenant. I'm just thinking that we should go inside. Aldanon has been waiting for a long time, and so have you.”

The door opened before we could knock.

Casavir was the first the enter. “Master Aldanon?” His voice echoed back and forth in the front room.

As the rest of us entered, we saw an old man studying Casavir's face, “Come in. It's good to see you again, young Casavir. You look just like your mother.”

“So you say, sir, every time we meet.” The words, coming from someone else, might have been harsh, but Casavir made them sound both wry and affectionate.

Th old man wrapped his knuckles on Casavir's chest, “You seem sound. Are you happy?”

Casavir thought before answering, “If one is sound, then one should also be happy.”

“That doesn't necessarily follow, my boy. Soundness can be defined in various ways, but always speak of bodily conditions while happiness involves the overall state of being. So even if the body is whole, the person can still be incomplete. There's a fascinating tract on States of Being by some mage. I can't quite seem to remember her name. But it began with a J. 'Jacinda' 'Jim'? No, that doesn't sound right at all---”

Casavir held up his hands, “Perhaps we'll speak on this another time, sir. It's taken the Lieutenant some time to get here. She comes from West Harbor, and she carries something no one else can identify.”

“West Harbor, eh? So close to so much. It could be a number of things.” The sage tapped his finger against his nose. “Where are my manners? Here you stand in my home, and I haven't even met you---well, most of you...I'll start the introductions. I am Aldanon, so they say. Though I'm not really certain who they are. Well, if you're them, then you can call me Aldanon. I don't like nicknames like 'Al.' or 'Donny.'”

I inclined my head, “I am Amara Chidi. And I come seeking knowledge.”

Aldanon looked at me as if I were some text that needed to be translated, “Oh dear. You've got several problems. But let's begin with your original purpose, what the boy said. Bring me this item from West Harbor and the Meredalain.”

I removed the shards from their hiding place and held them out to the sage. They seemed to brighten the dark curves of my hand.

“Oh my,” he said, “they're like a tuning fork. I'll have to run some tests, but they are definitely magical.”

“So I've heard,” I replied as the shards' light twinkled over both our profiles.

After I had emptied the shards into Aldanon's wrinkled but firm hands, I felt like the sage was carrying away my arm or my leg instead of just glittery bits of silver. The shining seemed to pierce my head, made my breathing shallow bursts...

Casavir addressed Khelgar and Neeshka, “Master Aldanon did not forget you out of impoliteness. His mind just...floats. It has for years. He just follows whatever thread seems brightest.”

“How do you know him, lad?” Khelgar asked.

“My mother was a student of Master Aldanon's.”

“A sage?” asked Neeshka.

“No,” said Casavir, “she was a magic user. The Academy sent her to Aldanon to learn lore. She became one of the Many Starred Cloaks.”

“And your father?”

“He was a priest.”

How did they meet?”

“She came to the Temple for healing...and left with an even greater wound. At least, that was how my mother put it.”

“Was he that kind of priest?” Neeshka asked.

“You mean the sort who has vows of chastity? Yes.”

Neeshka smiled, “That must have caused quite a scandal.”

“I imagine so,” Casavir looked around the room, and I knew he wouldn't say more until he was ready---if he was ever ready. He met my eyes, “Are you alright, Amara?”

Aldanon showed up just at that moment. The sage's robes were singed in several places, and one of his assistants ran with a bucket of water into the study.

The sage dropped the two shards into my hand. I did not realize that I had reached out for them. I breathed deeply as I felt whole once more.

“I have discovered wondrous things, Amara Chidi,” Aldanon began. “The shards you brought me come from a silver sword. The githyanki craft such items. It is rare that such a fine instrument leaves their hands or is broken. They will do whatever they must to find the pieces. I'm afraid possessing them puts you in a great deal of peril. The last silver sword to exist in Faerun was possessed by the court mage of Neverwinter, Ammon Jerro. You should go to his Haven, if you hope to recover the artifact or learn more about its fate. You should seek out the location of his Haven in the city's archives.”

But I haven't gotten to the best part,” Aldanon removed something wrapped in velvet from a glass case.

“It's a third shard,” He added it to the two already in my hand. “They belong to you, anyway.”

“I don't see that---” I began, but when the third touched my skin, all three lit up the room like three silver suns that rivaled the yellow sun outside.

“See,” said Aldanon a we were all blinded, “they respond to you, are tuned into you. I don't know why, but these shards belong to you.”

“That's impossible,” I said, hiding them in my robes, which I could do by touch alone. “Shouldn't you take them?”

“Oh no.”

“Why not? Wouldn't they provide a wealth of knowledge?”

“Possibly, but I cannot tap into them. You are the only one who could manipulate them. But I wouldn't try that.”

“Are you certain they are not putting me under an enchantment?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” I cleared my throat, “I feel...once a shard is activated, I feel complete only when the shards are on my person.”

“Then you should definitely keep those shards, and keep them safe---as well as any other shards you may come across.”

“Do you know what Kalach-Cha means? It's what the gith keep shouting at me.”

“Let me see, let me, see...can you spell it?”

I shook my head.

“Doesn't matter, I think it means 'Shard Bearer,' but I don't know the significance. All I know is that the shards are yours, for now.”

Aldanon suddenly turned away. “Ha!”

“What is it?” I asked.

The sage examined his bookcases, “'Where is it?' is the better question. If I had known you were...ah well. Necessity is the father of...something. Not me. My father was named Norwin. I'm just glad it wasn't me.”

He clapped his hands, “Here! Look, child! What do you see?”

“Books,” I replied.

He gestured at the dusty shelves, “These are worlds. Did you know that there is only a letter of difference between words and worlds. That's not a coincidence. No, no. It's a necessity...” Aldanon's hands came to rest on one book bound in indigo.

The gray-haired sage pulled the book from the shelf with the vigor of a much-younger man. He held the thick tome out to me.

Gingerly, I walked up to him and the proffered text. I half-expected it to explode.

He squinted at the book,“What is the title, child? The letters seem to have shrunk since last I opened it.”

My mouth went dry, “Unholy Fire---The Life & Death of Owal the Tongueless.”

Until I bought a book from a traveling merchant about various forms of magic called The Magic of Faerun (illustrated), I didn't know I was a warlock. It wasn't a particularly good book—there were too many large-bosomed women for me to justify keeping it around—except for one illustration. A man in armor threatened a pleading woman with hellfire as a fanged demon smiled over the warlock's shoulder. I never knew that other people could summon hellfire, though mine was green rather than purple. I kept imagining all sorts of stories to explain that picture—naive explanations at first: the man and the woman loved each other; he was blasting the woman only because of something the demon had told him, but he really couldn't do it. Yet the the more I grew, the more I sympathized with that fanged fiend. Maybe he was bound to the man, and resented it. Or maybe the demon face was a disguise, and the real person behind it had been cursed, and was only waiting for one brave enough to kiss him on the smooth flesh between his horns... I tore the picture out of the book that night I fled West Harbor. I still had it tucked away in my pack, even if the colors had now faded beneath my probing fingers.

The title of the picture was “How Owal Became Mute.”

I gave Aldanon a penetrating glance, trying to see if the sage had read my thoughts, but he looked benignly at Casavir.

“You look so much like your mother,” he said to the paladin.

“I know, Master Aldanon,” replied Casavir. “I think it's time for us to end our intrusion upon your studies---unless you have somehow else to show us about the shards, or who might possess them...”

“Sorry, child,” Aldanon replied, “The city archives may have information on Jerro or his descendants, but I that's as far as my knowledge stretches.”

“That is more than enough,” I said. “Thank you, sir. And what about this book? Are you giving it to me for some reason?”

“Oh, certainly...” the sage waved vaguely. “You'll figure it out---whatever it is. If you don't die first.”

Edited by Raenemon, 21 December 2009 - 06:09 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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#6 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 31 May 2009 - 02:49 PM

Chapter 5




Overturned bookshelves, scrolls torn from being pulled too hastily from their cases, and other debris cluttered the aisles of what had been the Neverwinter Archives. Among the corpses of gith with unrecognizable expressions and the guardians of the Archives with their veiled eyes lay a portal. It was mirror-like, tumultuous, and showed patches of pinkish sky.

Casavir read a book. He had a smudge of ink or dust across his square chin, “Shandra Jerro—it says she is Ammon Jerro's descendant.”

I frowned, looked at Khelgar and Neeshka, “But she cussed us off her place—you remember—the thing with the Lizardmen...”

Neeshka held a discarded veil, “Well, you can't really blame her. Her barn did burn down.”

I held up all twelve fingers, “I had nothing to do with that.”

“No, but you were there,” She put on the veil, which covered one of her reddish eyes, “Wow. I can see your unmentionables! ” She looked at Casavir, leered quite openly.

“Don't even think of looking at me!” growled Khelgar.

“Why? Everybody know you like gnomish gear---gnomish ladies gear—”

Khelgar yanked the veil from her face. Several hairs went with it.

“Ow.” Neeshka rubbed her head, “What would Tyr say?”

“He'd say, 'Ya didn't yank hard enough, lad.'”

Neeshka turned towards Casavir, “Are you going to let this gnome take my things in the name of your god?”

Casavir shrugged, “You stole that veil, Neeshka.”

Neeshka gestured at me, “You didn't get mad at precious Amara for wearing one.”

“The caretaker gave it to her. She had to wear it to find this room and the portal.”

She put her hands at the base of her tail, “It's not like I was going to use it.”

“Oh?” He didn't sound convinced.

Neeshka tapped her foot, “I can help too.”

“You do help, Neeshka,” I said, “You found the traps and disarmed them. I couldn't have done that—”

“—Spare me your pity. Let's just go, ”she threaded her arms and looked away from all of us.

I sighed, “Great. Let's save the ungrateful farm girl, so that she might live to make her own daughters who can then be ungrateful to her in kind.”

“We fight to make the world safe for ingratitude?” Casavir didn't smile, but I could he was being wry.

“We kill so that people can do as they damn well please. Some will be huff and groan, some will sing our names, but I'm not here for that.”

“What then?”

“I never had a choice...”

“There is always choice—”

“—the choice to lie down and just take whatever comes? That's not a choice: that's washing just your hands when you're covered crown-to-heel in shit.”

“Perhaps laying down is not a choice for you, but most people do just that. ”

“It's hard to fight beneath the banner 'Complacency'!”

“Aye,” Khelgar rumbled.

Neeshka pretended to yawn, “Are you done with your stirring pep talk?”

“Almost...I wanted to cram in a few more appropriate metaphors, but really, what's the point?”

“There's no need to be mean,” Neeshka declared.

“There's a great need a need to be mean. Sometimes anger is the only legitimate response to this... You should be happy I'm not howling...Now, who's ready to jump through this portal? I know I am.”

So I did...

...and stood in green grass, a hill, a field. It was Shandra's farm.

And it was burning.

Shandra stood in from of her door, holding an empty water bucket. Her long, blond hair was wet, but her eyes were sharp, accusatory as she met mine.

“You?!?” Shandra shouted at me, “Not you again!”

A group of gith approached the house. Every time I saw them, I was reminded how foreign they seemed in this world. They stepped on the ground as if they expected it to sculpt itself to match their footsteps.

“Grab the girl and the Kalach-Cha,” a very lean gith croaked, “Kill the rest.”

“Shit!” Shandra grunted as she disappeared behind her door. Several gith followed .

I stood in their way.

“Care to fight someone who can fight back?”

They hissed. I took it for agreement.

I fired my greenish fire at them. The first one fell, its face melting into some nightmare of colors, which halted the rest.

Khelgar screamed as he buried his ax into the guts of the nearest gith. Casavir wounded the another by impaling its shoulder on the sharp corner of his shield.

“Protect Shandra!” I shouted as I busted down the door with hellfire, spewing greenish ash over me. It did not burn me, but the door creaked and crackled and buckled like an old man.

Once I fell inside, a clay pot flew at my head. It connected with a shatter that rattled my teeth. I could taste the dirt from the pot, and I winced against the new scratches lining my face. I growled as I looked around for my attacker.

Shandra held another pot high.

“Are ya daft?” I screamed, “I'm trying to bloody help you!”

She frowned, and threw the pot at my face.

“Devil!” she yelled as she put all her strength into her toss.

I dodged the pot, but just barely. It flew above my horns with a whoosh. I watched it spill over a plank in the wall.

When I turned around, Shandra had disappeared further into the house.

“That's 'demon.' to you,” I muttered.

I was wiping the dirt from my face when Casavir plowed through the door.

His eyes were like ice as he saw the scratches, “Amara, what have those beasts done?”

“Nothing that won't heal...”

When I went through the next door, I was more watchful. I saw no angry farm girls, but there were two gith. One was setting fire to the house. The paladin and I were not quick enough to stop it, and the oiled wood lit like Mayday torches.

“No!” Shandra yelled from the further room.

I ran in the direction of her voice. She was in her bedroom, throwing things into a pack even as the flames licked the ceiling.

“Shandra!” I shouted, holding up my hands to protect me from further assaults by pottery, “Get the bleeding hell out!”

“No!” She accentuated her word with a punch.

I managed to dodge it, but I knocked over her pack. Shandra fled the room, but instead of exiting up the stairs, she went into her sitting room.

She screamed.

Casavir and I ran into the room. Three gith were there. One had its hand on Shandra's arm. In the light from the fire, I could see the scratches it had given her.

The paladin narrowed his eyes and dived into the nearest gith as easily as if he were parting water. Once the gith was on the ground, he cut off the arm of the one beside it. On his backstroke, he buried his weapon into the chest of the last gith. Shandra's eyes widened as she followed his movements, even as he bashed the skulls of all three to ensure that they never rose again.

“Shandra,” I said, “you are leaving, even if I have to drag you out...”

Shandra looked at me as if she were considering spitting into my face.

“Lady,” the paladin said as he placed his hands gently on hers, “We must fly.”

Shandra shook her head weakly.

Casavir's voice caressed her as gently as his hands, “No harm will come to you,”

Shandra sighed, nodded.

Casavir picked her up, carried her across his broad shoulders. He looked at me. His expression seemed... penitent—a boy caught sneaking sweets.

Whatever retort I had prepared was lost as the ceiling fell in around us. We were only just able to clear the threshold before the entire structure caved in, blowing fiery sparks into the sky.




When I showed Shandra her room at the Flagon, I gave her an extra set of trousers and shirt.

Shandra was angry—at me especially—but I saw the tears she tried to wipe away with the back of her hand when she thought no one else was looking. Shandra didn't know who her granddad was, and shouldn't have to have everything she cared about taken away like that—all because they were related.. At least a part of me was aching to leave West Harbor; Shandra just wanted things to go back to the way they were before I showed up on her doorstep.

Shandra blinked at me, “Why are you doing this?” she asked as she clutched the meager clothing.

I tossed my dark hair out of my eyes, “I can't give you your old life back. The least I can do is get you some clean drawers.”

“Thanks,” I could see that she wanted to cry, but not in front of me, “I'm sorry...about the pots...”

I gestured at my horns, “It happens all the time.”

“Are you really...”

“A demon—in part. Neeshka's part devil. Grobnar's a gnome, Khelgar's a dwarf, and Elanee's an elf. Duncan, my uncle, is a half-elf...but Casavir. He's human, as far as I know...”

She shook her head, “Thanks for trying to be funny, but I'd like to know...Was it your mother or our father who was...a demon?”

“My father. My mother was an aasimar.”

“Really? How strange...I'm sorry. I don't mean to offend...”

“No at all. It's nice to be asked. Most people try to be too polite.”

She chuckled, “Well, it's good to know I'm not offending you. I tend to do that.”

I raised an eyebrow, “Naw...” and then grinned.

“All of this is just a little...much.”

“You may not believe me, but I know what it's to have your life change utterly in just one day.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, my home village, West Harbor, was attacked by the gith. I had to run away to save it.”

“I've never been through anything like this before...First my farm, then Ammon....it's just...” she put her hands over her face.

I patted her on the back, “Get some rest. Duncan usually serves supper at sunset. I think we all need a warm meal and frothy ales. Maybe the gnome can play something...”

“As long as there's no more gith.”

I didn't want to tell her that there would probably be many more—and worse things besides. She would find that out all too soon.

So I grinned as widely as I could, but I knew my sharp incisors made the gesture more unsettling than reassuring.

As Shandra went to clean up, so did I.

As I laid across my bed, I was so tired...




I dreamed.

I begged a robed man to let me go. He could change, we could change.

He looked at me with glacial clarity. I meant nothing to him anymore. Nothing but a sacrifice.

I wept. I wept still as I unsheathed the dagger concealed on my waist. I wept as asked for one more kiss, just one.

I wept as he leaned forward.




I woke, touched my face, wondered where the tears came from.

I stood, washed my face. The cuts were still there. I'd ask have to ask Casavir or Elanee to heal them. I dressed in a simple, red smock. I was tired of armor.

Khelgar, Neeshka, Elanee, Grobnar, Shandra, and Casavir were all sitting together: drinking, joking, and talking when I joined them for supper.

Before I sat, Casavir asked me for permission to heal my gashes. I let him. His hand were cool, even before he said the prayer to his god. Not for the first time, I wondered how mortals could call on gods so...immediately. I had heard Elanee speak a little about her faith. She believed in nature, not necessarily a god, though gods could represent natural things. Her magic reminded one of sharp thorns and tree bark and purifying streams. But Casavir was Tyr's completely. Other folk might call on different gods for different things, but the paladin only called on one. And Try answered. Casavir wasn't a priest, but he could heal his friends and harm his enemies.

As my wounds closed, I suddenly felt...tainted. Here was this holy man, healing me, a demon-blooded warlock, purely by the grace of a benevolent god of justice...

I chuckled.

Casavir looked at me with concern as he healed my cuts, “Amara?”

I shook my head and kept laughing, “It's nothing, Casavir. Just my strange sense of humor. Don't worry, it will pass.”

He nodded, but I think he understood—at least, in part—why I was laughing. To his credit, he smiled, “Life is...ironic at times.”

“Truer words have not been uttered. But then, you're a paladin. You see truth more clearly than the rest of us.”

“Oh no. I don't detect truth. Good and evil are both truths—they're both real. I just...see the difference. And choose one rather than the other.”

“But..how do you know?”

“I don't. Tyr does. So I trust him.”

“You are lucky, Casavir. I've never been able to...trust...so throughly. It must be comforting.”

“At times. It is also the hardest thing...”

“Have I pried? I'm sorry—”

“—No. You're done nothing wrong, Amara. I just...I...” He pulled his hands away.

“You don't need to explain.”

At that moment, we were both spared further embarrassment when Grobnar asked me to sing a song. Singing a song in the village was one thing, but singing it in a city tavern seemed...a bit tawdry. I didn't want to be compared to the girls at the feast halls who did other things for coppers besides sing.

I was trying to form an excuse when I noticed the sole patron, drinking alone.

I left our table and walked up to the stranger, but he kept his head down.

“Care to share a cup with us?” I asked, hoping for liquid, kind eyes...

“If I wanted a wench,” he snarled without looking up, “I'd go to the brothel.”

It wasn't any voice I recognized. I couldn't hide my disappointment.

“Well, you're here now. There is a place at our table, if you want to avoid having to pay for companionship.”

The stranger looked up at me groggily, but his features were hidden in shadows, “Unless you're offering taste of your cups, I'm not interested.”

“I doubt you even know how to fill a woman's cup...good-day,” I turned away.

He laughed. It was more like a bark.

I walked back to my friends, but could still feel his eyes go with me.

I refused to acknowledge his stare, “What song do you want to hear, Grobnar?”

“How about a lay of your homeland?” Grobnar replied, “A folksong that encompasses the spirit of your people—”

“Gnome—” Khelgar said, “We get the bleeding idea—” He took a swig of ale and belched.

“Want some lass?” he asked Shandra, holding out his mug.

“No thanks—”

Casavir stood, “Allow me, lady.”

Shandra nodded shyly as Casavir got Qara's attention. The sulky sorceress stalked over to the table, banged two mugs of ale on the tabletop, and left without saying a word.

Grobnar handed me his mandolin, “Did I ever tell you how I tune this fine instrument? It's quite a complicated process, usually taking 3-7 hours—”

“Just sing, Amara” Neeshka said, her tail twitching at Grobnar.

“I will try my best,” I adjusted the gnome's mandolin in my lap. “But I must warn you—I was raised in West Harbor. It's not known for its...musical sophistication.”

“She's being modest,” said Elanee, “Amara has the best voice in the Mere.”

I waved my hand, “That's a bloody fiction.”

“Go on lass,” said Khelgar, “I'm too drunk to notice if you screech like a cat in heat.”

“Nothing new there,” muttered Neeshka. “Come on Amara, sing us a swamp song about foggy bogs and boggy logs...and...stuff.”

I began to sing one of my favorite songs, but this song came instead.

There was no prize at the fair that year
There were no girls at the dance
There were no babes to soften their fears
There was no waiting for chance

For the sun has laid his head by the sea
And the men are all doffing their crests
Come whisper sweetly upon my knee
I'm going my dears to the war in the west

And Elly the daughter of a simple man
lost all her brothers and kin
So she took up a helm and threw out her fan
And covered her tender skin.

Grobnar sang a counter-melody on the chorus. His voice was surprisingly pleasant, like a boy's.

For the sun has laid his head by the sea
And the men are all doffing their crests
Come whisper sweetly upon my knee
I'm going my dears to the war in the west

El found a halberd and handled it well
She didn't like killing, but she sure liked to fight
Until a black-eyed brawler, tall and fell
Made her his conquest at night

For the sun has laid his head by the sea
And the men are all doffing their crests
Come whisper sweetly upon my knee
I'm going my dears to the war in the west

El made her way past that foreign shore
She traveled through every land
But all she wanted was a familiar door
And a man with a dark babe in his hand.

For the sun has laid his head by the sea
And the men are all doffing their crests
Come whisper sweetly upon my knee
I'm going my dears to the war in the west


“Oh my,” Grobnar said, looking very sad. “Where did you learn it?”

I licked my lips, “I don't know...I think I heard my mother sing it.”

“It is very haunting,” said Casavir. “Amara...would you grace us with another?”

“Only if you will also sing—and that goes for all of you...”

Shandra shook her head, but she seemed pleased to be invited.

“Oh yes!” Grobnar shook his head. “I must record it..” He started to fiddle with some device from one of his many pouches.

Neeshka snorted, “I'd rather marry a dwarf.”

I raised my eyebrow, “That could be arranged...” I winked at Khelgar.

Khelgar began sputtering, “That's just...unnatural.”

“Alright, you don't have to sing if you're too afraid...”

“I'm not afraid of nothing!” shouted Khelgar.

“Then sing a song for us, Master dwarf...and then the paladin...”

Casavir looked down, “I wouldn't know what to sing, Amara.”

“I'll sing with you, if you'd like...I just need another tankard.”

I strode up to the bar.

Khelgar began to sing a dwarven marching song. Grobnar had a drum that he was beating in time, and it did sound like feet stomping. He sang it in dwarven, then in the more common tongue. Even Khelgar's voice was sometimes speaking the words in time, but other times it was sung with a surprising range for just a few lines.

Hrum, Hrum the drum
Hrah, Hrah the awe
Hree, Hree they flee
Hry, Hry they fly

Duncan was looking at me. The half-elf may have seemed sloppy, but I think it was part of his 'dull innkeeper' persona. The focused, penetrating look Duncan gave me was anything but dull.

“I just came for as tankard or two to loosen the paladin's chords..Are you alright, Duncan? I hope your ears didn't burst...”

“No...I just haven't heard that tune ya sang in some time.”

“Did my mother sing it?”

Duncan nodded, filled the tankards.

“She sang it much better, I'm sure.”

“Ya sang it fine, Amara. Just fine.”

“I didn't mean to bring up bad memories—”

“No, lass, yer reminding me of some of my finest...I've been trying to forget so long. I forgot what remembering can be.”

“Tell me.”

“She was lovely. She didn't know how lovely she was...” He spoke like a man unaccustomed to being heard.

I waited.

“Daeghun never said a word about her to me. So I...pursued yer mother. I never wanted anything as much as I wanted her to smile at me. She cared for me, but then Daeghun confronted me. He said he loved her, and that I was outta line. Ya know how Daeghun can be...stubborn. He said I had betrayed his trust, but hells, I couldn't read his mind. I tried to talk him down, like I always did, but it didn't work. Esmerelle felt awful. That was when she took off on her own, hoping that with her gone, Daeghun and I would reconcile. But we didn't. Daeghun found your mother and they spoke, but only as friends. Esmerelle told me later. And when Daeghun married Shayla, there were some letters...but then...”

“I happened.”

“If she would have come to me, I would've taken care of her, of you both...”

For a moment, I thought of how my life would be if he had raised me. Maybe my mother wouldn't have died. And Duncan would not be broken. He would have been my father. I wondered if my foster-father took me in out of spite, but I couldn't say it to Duncan.

Instead, I patted his hand. “You're helping now, uncle.”

He handed me the tankards. “The world can wait for one bloody night.”

I laughed, kissed his cheek, “Wanna join us?”

Duncan shook his head. “I've already had my days. But you: be young, Amara.”

Khelgar had finished his song. I held up a tankard to him, “This is for you, Khelgar Ironfist, the sweetest-voiced dwarf in all creation!” and drained it in one swing.

“Sweet? Not even my mother would call me sweet!”

“You shall retain that title until I hear another dwarf sing. Maybe Callum will oblige us the next we meet...But I doubt it.”

“You are merry!”

“Who can stand in such company unmoved—then I really would be a demon in more than just looks.” I touched my horns. “I think it's time for another song...Casavir, are you ready?”

“I would prefer to her you sing again, Amara.”

Our other companions cheered.

“...Only if you sing with me, Sir Paladin. Or I will be as silent as the grave.”

He was silent for a moment, as was his way. Then he spoke, “What song, then...”

“Sing” I said, “I'll fit into your song.”

Casavir's voice was hesitant, but when he got into the song, a rich baritone filled the room.


Last night I dreamed of
such dreams, such dreams
of a lady I held when I was a child
Who died of the fever, whose voice was so mild
it stopped my heart with only a whisper
even now I still ache to kiss her.

Will I always wake to
Such dreams, such dreams
where the dead still breath, still sing
and tell me we never forget anything
even in sleep, even when we die
we'll find who dreams up you and I.









Later that night, I couldn't sleep, so I flipped through the book Aldanon had given me.

Unholy Fire—The Life & Death of Owal the Tongueless.

There was no author named, but it was someone who claimed to have been there—the usual claim of a biographer, as if witnessing an event made one more likely to render it truthfully. I snorted.

There was a portrait of Owal when he was young. He wasn't handsome.

I turned to find out how his powers first manifested. I had to wade through some family history and long lines of adjectives, before I found this passage:

Owal's baronial family thought for a long time that their youngest son would never honor the family by choosing a profession suitable to one of his lordly lineage. One day, Owal stood before his amazed parents and conjured a fay-light in his hands. They were astounded, for Owal had no patience for the arcane arts before. Needless to say, they soon got their son a tutor, but this proved troublesome. For Owal was strong-willed, even as a lad. He set the wizard's robes afire. Then they brought him a sorcerer—with the same result. They brought in every magic-user their family's wealth and reputation could muster, but to the same, singed end.
Owal confronted his well-intentioned parents.
“Mother, Father,” he said, “these men are but fools, pretenders. The source of my magic, whatever it is is...untainted by needless philosophy. My only hope of finding my peers lies in studying the great ancients. All I require are tomes and a place to practice my arts undisturbed.”
Being good parents, that is what they did.


“Wake up! The inn is under attack!”

Duncan's voice...it was Duncan's voice.

I sat up in my bed, grabbed my bastard sword; I had learned to keep it within reach at all times. All I had on was a nightshirt and smallclothes, but there was no time to change. I heard something moving; I tiptoed on my bare feet to the door and opened it.

A gith stood in the hallway, as if waiting for me.

“Kalach-Cha!” it screamed, foam escaping from its mouth.

I buried my sword in its gut even as it spat out the last syllable. Then I yanked out the sword and moved quickly down the hallway. I saw another door open, and a half-dressed man stuck out a bald head. I motioned for him to get back into the room as I turned the corner, which he did only after emitting a high-pitched squeal.

Two gith hissed at me. I hissed back. A third one wrestled with Duncan, who was holding his own further down the hall. One of the gith tried to hurl itself at me, but I was faster. Its own momentum brought it to the floor, an ugly gash on its thigh. I pressed the other gith by making a feint attack on its comrade, and then slashing its chest into bright splays of blood. I turned toward Duncan, but he had already broken the neck of the third with a grunt. We locked eyes for a brief moment—He wasn't joking about being an adventurer.

We ran into the common room and saw several gith fighting the other patrons. Neeshka fended off two gith with a dagger. I somersaulted up to the bar, gaining some surprise on the gith already there. I stabbed downward at the creature's neck. It fell off the bar with with a loud crash of bottles breaking. The second gith turned towards the noise, and Neeshka slit its throat. It fell on top of the other gith's body.

Neeshka mouthed a “Thanks” at me but then she paused, looked down...and noticed my bare legs. Neeshka put her hand to her mouth, but I knew she was giggling. I gave her the best scowl I could manage.

“Kalach-Cha!”

“Yes, 'Kalach-Cha!'” I said, not knowing really what the words meant, but knowing the gith meant me.

The remaining gith did not seem to like it when I repeated the phrase; they all moved in my direction like hounds on the scent of a some wounded animal. I counted: four gith remained on their feet until Neeshka dropped one by burying a dagger's ivory hilt into the gith's chest. I leaped from the bar and onto the next gith, kicking it in the head. The blow connected, but the gith managed to get a blade up in time to block her thrust at its side. I ducked, slashed at its calves, and watched the gith cringe as it grabbed its useless knees. Neeshka's dagger across its throat ended the gith's travails.

I heard Khelgar bellow, and another gith collapsed. The top of the dwarf's ax rose above the body, and then fell sharply as Khelgar dealt the gith a killing stroke. I turned to engage the last gith, but it had already fallen to several arrows by the time greenish flames licked the edges of my palm.

I surveyed the room. Qara, the sorceress/barmaid, sat underneath a table, holding her auburn head.

“Are you alright?” I asked her.

Qara rolled her eyes, “I'm just fine, thanks for asking...”

Elanee came up to Qara, “I can take care of that,” the elf said, taking Qara's bruised head in her hands.

Qara hissed in annoyance as I moved away.

“Are there any more githyanki?” I asked the room, holding up my hellfire.

“No,” Casavir said as he came around the corner, “I already checked.”

“Any more wounded?”

“No, Amara,” he said, “but...Shandra is missing.”

Before I could reply, another voice spoke up.

“You need to hurry, demon, if you want to catch them.”

I recognized it as the voice of the rude man even before I turned around. My flames flared as I pointed them in his direction. His hair was reddish, close cropped, like a solder's.

He looked at my flames, but instead of being intimidated, he gave me a feral grin, “Watch where you point that—if I were with them,” he gestured at the dead, “would I still be here?”

“I don't know. I think I'll kill you—just to be safe...”

“He's a ...regular, Amara,” Duncan said from the bar. He leaned against it, as if out of breath.”And a ranger.”

The man studied the gith lazily, “Judging from the mud on their boots, they came through Ember.”

“That's near Luskan lands,” replied Duncan, “That's yer territory, Bishop.”

“What's your point?” Bishop asked as he pulled the arrows—his arrows—out of the gith corpse. He didn't seem to mind the blood staining their tips.

Duncan gesticulated, “Ya know the land, can guide them there and back—”

“—No,” I said to Duncan, “he's one more person to worry about. And he doesn't give a tinker's damn about finding Shandra.”

“That's right,” Bishop confirmed, “I don't care about your little friend. You couldn't pay me enough to risk my neck for your kin, Duncan.”

“Bishop,” It was all Duncan said, but each man stared at the other as if some silent argument was taking place.

“Calling your debt due, old man?“ Bishop asked.

Duncan just kept staring.

'Fine,” Bishop answered, “a debt's a debt. But this settles it once and for all, alright?”

Bishop turned, looked at me coldly, “Get your clothes on, girl. We're leaving now.”

I still held the flame, and had no desire to let it go.

“My name is Amara Chidi—not 'girl.' I don't know what in the Nine Hells just passed between you two, but it looks like we're stuck with each other. I don't like it, and I don't have to like it. But let's get something straight, ranger: you don't want to piss me off. We will leave when everyone is ready, not just you.”

Grobnar came into the room, yawning. When he saw the carnage, the overturned tables and bodies, his eyes widened.

“Did I miss something?” He squeaked.

Edited by Raenemon, 21 December 2009 - 06:00 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

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#7 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 07 June 2009 - 11:37 AM

Chapter 6

Sweet Mystra, I'm going to kill him.




I looked back at the ranger. I didn't trust Bishop to scout alone, so we stood in the mire together, trying to find any sign of the gith and where they had taken Shandra. The rest of our group was behind us on the main road, waiting for directions.

It was cold and gloomy. I think my teeth began to rattle.

Bishop glowered, “We're making too much noise.”

“Then stop talking.”

“You want to keep your friend alive?”

“Yes. But my urge to see you dead has only increased in our short acquaintance.”

“See, Mar, that sort of talk is dangerous—you'll only end up on your back.”

“Possibly. Because when I blast your head like the overripe melon it is, I will sleep quite soundly afterward.”

Bishop snickered.

I made a motion in the general direction we were headed, though all these woods seemed the same to me, “Go and scout, for gods' sake. I'm through entertaining you.”

Bishop raised his hood, “An order, is it?”

“You want Duncan off your back?”

“Then scratch yours...”

“I may be a demon, but unlike you, ranger, I don't need to force someone to touch me.”

“I think you want me to try...but not until we finish with business. ”

I made an obscene gesture at him.

He grinned, “That can be part of my...compensation.”

“That was never the deal. You came because Duncan made you, not because I want you. The only thing I want you to do is be silent”

“You're going to hurt my feelings, Mar.”

“You don't have any, Bishy. Now go do your 'ranger' thing so we can be out of each other's company as soon as possible.”

Bishop led us to an abandoned town.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“A dive called Ember, ” He looked at the ground.

I walked up beside him.

He gestured at the some disturbed bit of land, “See anything?”

“Besides you?” I bent down, studied the earth as well, “You think these are their tracks?”

“You actually see tracks?”

“My foster-father is a ranger. A better one than you.”

“Yeah, how's that?”

“He spends his time in the wild rather than boozing it in some inn.”

Bishop pulled out a flask, took a swing, and held it out to me, “Then I'm guessing you don't want some fuel for your fire? Not that you need it...”

I took the flask from his hand and drained it, “I think I'll hold onto this.”

He sounded irritated, “Don't worry about it dulling my senses—”

“I don't care if its mother's milk to you—” I hiccuped, “—just read the dirt.”

“Give it back, wench. Or I'll leave you here.”

“Promise?”

“Fuck Duncan, fuck your daddy, and fuck you!”

“Feel better, Bishop? If not, I can always put you out of my misery...”

He snarled as he closed the distance between us.

I was about to summon my hellfire, but then Bishop stopped. Holding up his hand, he cocked his head to one side, as if listening. I listened as well, but I could detect nothing besides the usual sounds of a nighttime wood: branches rustling, the sullen drum of a creek, our labored inhalations.

Abruptly, the ranger shot off into the darkness. I heard scuffling.

I didn't have a torch. Bishop had a covered lantern, but I could still make out two shapes—ultraviolet shadows that drew closer and closer. I blinked, rubbed my eyes, but the shapes remained. I could see living things in the dark now. There was no time to wonder about the ability's origins.

“Hold still, you little bastard...” I heard Bishop grumble.

“You don't understand,” it was a boy's voice. “Show me to the woman you're with.”

“No women here, but there is a demon...She might be hungry, so you better tell us why you're following us, or...”

Bishop uncovered the lantern's flame. A large shadow and a small one transformed into the ranger and a dark-haired boy. The boy was not handsome: the planes of his face were too sharp to fit in a child's face. The ranger held him by his slim shoulder.

“My name is Marcus,” the boy said to me. The words were innocuous, but when his eyes held mine, I felt as if my soul was as bare and vulnerable as a worm exposed to the light.

“I know you, Ikenna,” the boy stated. “You are the one who will burn Ember.”

“Ikenna?” Bishop's voice scratched, “Does that mean mouthy trollop in demon-speak?”

“Hush, ranger,” I had heard that name before, hadn't I? It was...no, I had no memory of it. I forgot even the mention of it by the time I addressed the boy.

“Marcus,” I found I could not address this child in any way other than a superior, “I have no idea what you're talking about. My name is Amara. And I have no intention of burning your village.”

“That may not be your intention, but this place will burn.”

“He's buggy.”

I ignored Bishop, “How do you know this, Marcus?”

“I see.”

“Is that why you're here in the dark—”

“No, I'll flee to the well when I see you next. I knew you two were coming, so I went to meet you.”

“If your village is going to burn why don't you warn the other villagers?”

“They won't listen,” Marcus put a hand on Bishop, “but you must...”

The ranger pulled away from the boy's grip like it was electric, “Little boys like you should be careful around big men like me...”

“I need your dagger.”

“Too bad, kid.”

“I need it to save my life.”

“Bishop, give it to him,” I didn't mean it make it a order, but I something in the boy's tone made me certain that he was telling the truth.

The ranger pitched his voice low, “I'd rather slit his throat with it.”

The boy looked into Bishop's eyes. The ranger was still, but for a moment, there was a terrible recognition in that gaze—so terrible that I wanted to turn away, but could not.

Marcus spoke to Bishop, “Don't you want to stop the pain?”

Bishop laughed, a sound both menacing and confused, “What sort of trick is this?”

“I know what you've done. What you're going to do...”

“Everything kills.”

“It's there on your skin. Your real name...You'll never burn it off—”

I had never seen an expression of pain so unsettling, that the merest mention of it tore apart every edifice, every attempt at vindication. I felt like a voyeur looking into someone's house, a house that was burning from the inside out.

The ranger tensed up like a tortured brute seeking escape from its smoldering cage.

I stepped between the boy and Bishop.

The boy looked at me, then back at Bishop, “Don't fear it.”

“Fear what, fire?” Bishop's voice raised shrilly on 'fire.'

I put my hand out to Bishop.

He drew a dagger from some concealed place. The ranger held it up to the faint illumination and twirled it for me, as if he were deciding where to bury it, where it would cause the most hurt...

“—Take it,” He said as he suddenly turned the handle toward me. “It's easy to replace...just like a woman.”

Locking eyes with Bishop, I reached out and took the proffered dagger. The naked blade winked in the vague light. I handed it to the boy as if I half-expected the handle to sting me.

You'll get it back,” Marcus didn't even look at the blade as he tied it to his belt, but kept his eyes on Bishop.

Looking everywhere but at the boy, Bishop grunted.

I couldn't see the boy, but I felt his gaze penetrate the back of my head like a twin nails, “Goodbye—for now.”

“Wait—”

When I turned, Marcus was gone.





The ranger, for once, was silent.

I just wished more enigmatic boys wandered through woods at night, spewing prophesies from their lips that made the most hardened men as docile as mice.

Bishop? A mouse? I looked at the ranger. Only if mice had fangs.

And I, for the first time since meeting the ranger, I felt at ease—well, as easy as one can be when tied to a wild animal.

The ranger caught me looking at him. Maybe he was thinking the same thing.

“What did you find?” I asked him, trying to cover a shiver.

“The tracks go through the town. Then they double-backed. That means it's a trap...”

“Then we'll be ready.”

I motioned to the others, “The village is not as abandoned as it appears to be. We must pass through it, but we must avoid being surprised. Bishop and I will go on ahead, look for tracks, and draw our enemies' attention. So keep hidden until you see us being attacked, or one of us signals you to follow. Is that clear?”

I looked at Casavir for confirmation, “Will you make that call?”

He nodded, “I will.”

I smiled.

I turned toward Bishop, and the smile faded, “Let's hope you're half as skilled as you think you are.”

The entrance to the githyanki hideout was hidden behind a cave. I found it first, and seeing no one else around, I went inside.

There was a chamber. Three succubi tormented a blue-skinned humanoid trapped within a binding circle. I had never seen succubi before, but their wings, beautiful faces, and curvaceous bodies named them even before they spoke.

When they looked at me, they all three greeted me with a smile, extending their wings in a gesture of welcome.

“Care to join us for a little fun, deary?” Their voices were cloyingly sweet like fermented honey.

I rubbed my temple, “Keep away from me!”

“Enough for all.
One sip, one dip, one tip—
You'll make us weep for pleasure.”

I summoned my powers and the succubi's smiles became grimaces of pain as the greenish blasts lit them like unholy torches.

When the rest of my companions entered the room, the succubi were nothing but ashes. They all looked
at the devil as I slowly walked around the edge of the binding circle, trying to decipher how it was constructed. The devil looked back at each one in turn. Who knows what terrible knowledge his red eyes concealed, but would only divulge for a price, of course. And even then, that knowledge would be twisted until there was no truth left within it---only the semblance of it, like a death mask that can only reflect life.

When the devil gazed at me, I felt a familiar pressure. I put my hand on my left temple and looked at Neeshka, but she didn't have her red aura. She was looking at the devil with as if she were struggling with an unpleasant dream made real. I looked at the devil. There seemed to be ruby red halo above his head.

“This is a very strange day,” said the devil, looking from Neeshka to me, echoing my thoughts. His voice was as passionless as one of Grobnar's constructions, “What are you doing on this plane?”

“Me? I was born here. The correct question is how you came to be bound,” I studied the runes that bound him. They created several concentric circles knotted together in dizzying patterns.

“Come now. Let's leave old animosities behind. We are are all the same inside the circle...Or have you turned traitor to your own kindred, taking pleasure in bonding the devils and demons you can never fully be, half-blood?”

“Watch yer mouth,” Khelgar threatened. “You need us.”

“Not as much as you need me,” replied the devil.

I stood to my full height, “I take no pleasure in being a daughter of some randy little demon, so don't appeal to blood to get you out of this. Besides, if I remember rightly, demons and devils don't get along. I know what The Blood War is, but even if I was just a stupid half-breed, you can still stay there and rot for all I care.”

“You wouldn't keep me to add to your own power, then you're as dull-witted as your parentage suggests...” the devil sniffed delicately, “Is that...celestial I smell? Has your father really lowered himself so such shenanigans? Even for a Tanar'ri lord, that's abysmal.”

Neeshka's eyes widened, but I ignored her, “My mother's dead. I don't care about my father.”

“Aren't you curious, little cat? Or do you think that by ignoring him, he won't use you?”

“The only curiosity I feel at the moment is how you can help me find my friend before I decide to tighten this circle around your fat head.”

I examined the runes and spell around the devil. They were too complex. It would have taken me hours, maybe days to figure it out—if I ever could...

“Study these runes all you like, dabbler,” The devil grinned. “You may look like your father, but you don't have a tenth of the power of the one who bound me, so your magic is useless here. The only way to open the gateway to your friend is to set me free.”

”Sorry if I don't trust your word. I may not be able to break your binding without your true name, but if you try and trick us, there are other ways someone like me can...annoy someone like you. Are we understanding one another?”

“I think I'm starting to like you, little half-breed. No offense, child” he said to Neeshka.

“Um. Thanks?” she replied.

“But, heed me, little demonling, little dabbler. You can only use my name to banish me. If you try to summon me, I will become less polite the next time we meet. Oh, and take this sphere. It will help you against the githyanki...”

I shook my head at the strange ways of devils, “Very well, Mephasm. We are both bound.”

“Amara...” it was Casavir, “these bargains never lead to good ends.”

“Aye, I'm with the lad there,” spoke Khelgar. “Can't we just...muss the bastard up?”

The blue-skinned devil sighed.

I raised my voice, “I can't break the circle, so we can't fight him---not yet.”

Then I lowered my voice and hoped the devil wasn't reading our thoughts, “If our enemy wanted to bind this devil, then setting him free would, at the very least, annoy someone...Unless this is a trap. In that case, let them think they have us caught like mice...”

Bishop grinned, “...but be the 'wolf 'in disguise. ”

“I was going to say 'cat,' but either way, we offer them, a nasty surprise. Summoned fiends are bound to their summoner. Some bindings will make a fiend dissipate if it can't fulfill its master's commands. Until it's freed, the fiend will be bound until it fulfills its master's purpose, the binding is broken, or the master dies.”

Neeshka frowned, which made her fangs stick out, “Have you bound a fiend before?”

“No,” I replied.

“Would you?”

“What does it matter?”

“Your dad's a Tanar'ri lord,” replied Neeshka. “Do you know what that means?”

“I imagine it has something to do with the Abyss...”

“That means he controls has a whole plane...”

“That's only if that devil is telling the truth, which is somewhat doubtful. Come on Neeshka, do you really think a demon lord came to this plane just to have a go at my mother? It's more likely that it was some tiefling who took the first bit of 'fun' that he came across.”

“You're still part demon. If you tried to summon something, you might get caught.”

Casavir put his hand on my shoulder, “It is something to consider.”

“What you really mean, Neeshka, is that you're part-devil and afraid of getting caught. Well, don't worry. Like our blue friend here said, I don't have the power anyway.”

“Come on,” said Khelgar, “Amara's not some evil witch baiting children with poisoned apples...”

“Thanks, Khelgar.”

“She's just one that likes to bite.”

“Only ears,” I made a chomping motion with my mouth, which made the dwarf laugh.

“Ears?” Elanee asked as she covered her own.

I shrugged, “No one grows up in the swamp without getting into a few...scrapes.”

Bishop chuckled, “So what sordid little swamp hovel did you crawl out of?”

I grinned, “Probably the same one you did.”

Elanee spoke, “She's from the Merdelain. From West Harbor.”

Bishop sneered, “Are you her mother, elf?”

The elf did not look at the ranger, “No, ranger. No more than than you are human.”

“As much as I want to continue baiting the ranger,” Bishop gave me a withering look, “we still have a real devil to deal with...”

“Do what you think is right,” said Casavir.

I smiled at the paladin. I knew he disagreed, but was willing to go along with my decision.

The hairs on my neck stood up as I recited Mephasm's true name—not necessarily because of the magic itself, but because his name was familiar to me.

The devil disappeared in a puff of smoke.

We went into the northern passageway.

“What's that banging?”

A huge demon beat its head again a locked door. As we approached, it sniffed loudly and sneezed. When it stood, its horns scratched the ceiling.

It turned toward us, but directed its bellow at Neeshka.

“Wait!” I said, “Why are you trying to break that door?”

It's voice was filled with frustration, and it punctuated its speech with grunts,“Zaxis will make summoner pay. Zaxis cannot be held by filthy mortal!”

I bowed, “What is a great demon like you being assigned such menial tasks?”

Fiery jetties spewed from the corners of his mouth, “Zaxis supposed to guard door. Zaxis will break door and people who want through door!”

“Why don't you let me go do that for you? It would be an honor to serve the Great Zaxis,” I looked at Neeshka. I looked at her, then at the doorway, and back at her. She nodded her head so casually that anyone else looking would not have understood it, but I did.

“No one get through.”the demon insisted, “Zaxis can do job better than half-breed.”

I held up a finger, “But I've already won...”

The demon seemed to grow taller and wider with every word, “No you haven't! Zaxis is strong! Zaxis will kill you and make a purse from your pitiful skin-sacks! Zaxis will make matching purse and hat! And...slippers!”

“Wait...if your task was to guard the door, and you haven't—oh my.”

“Zaxis has really screwed up!” Neeshka taunted from the doorway Zaxis had failed to guard.

Zaxis bellowed as his great girth toppled, and the demon disintegrated into ashes.

As the debris settled, Khelgar scratched his bald head, “Do you suppose that was a girl demon?”

“Does it matter?” asked Neeshka.

“All women are demons,” Bishop smirked.

I tossed my hair, “I guess that explains why you're such a bitch.”

“Amara!” Elanee interjected.

“I'm not the one in heat,” Bishop said to me.

Casavir stepped between us, “That is enough, Bishop..”

I glared at Bishop, who looked like he wanted to break the paladin's neck.

“Let's kill something,” I said as greenish hellfire webbed around me.

After I summoned my defensive shell, I stood before the doorway. It was locked. I held up a glowing hand, and when I touched the door's surface, it melted as if it had been dipped in acid.

Neeshka's high voice came from behind me, “Isn't that a little dramatic?”

“They need to fear what's coming...” I turned my head in her direction, “Don't you?”

“I'm terrified,” she replied, “but that's seems about normal for anyone who travels with you.”

Khelgar's gruff words filled the chamber, “I'm not afraid, not while I have my ax in my hands and the strength to swing it.”

I laughed.

There was a portal, several gith, and a cage to the eastern corner of this chamber. I was too far away to see the face of whoever was caught in the cage, but the fair hair confirmed it as Shandra.

An impressive-looking gith was protected and bound by the magical portal, “You've taken the bait, I see. What a pathetic creature...”

I hid the orb Mephasm had given me in my sleeve.

“Why are you after me?” It was the only thing I could manage to say before my defenses were breached and I was held immobile. The words of the gith's spell swirled like orange flies around each of us up to the gith leader's mouth.

A male gith struck me, which was easy to do,“Do not speak to Zeeaire of A Thousand Reigns! You are unworthy...”

“Do no expect understanding from a savage of a savage race,” The gith leader pointed at me, “It is time for you to pay for your crimes, infidel.”

“What crimes?” at least I could still speak.

“No demon is to ever to touch any shard—any sacred sword. They have become defiled with your pollution---the taint of the Green-Eyed Doom,” She made a sign of warding on her forehead.

“I can't help who my father was—”

“Is—He will not interfere this time, for we now have you and the shards.”

I was held immobile as my shard fragments sped towards the gith, losing their brightness the further they sped away from me. I felt the loss of each silvery shard like a strip of flayed skin torn out by dirty fingers.

Once all the shards I had been carrying were in her hand, Zeeaire showed her teeth. The shards did not shine in her hand the way they shone in mine. She counted the pieces, but I could detect agitation in her strange face.

I looked at my companions. Each was as still as stone except for Casavir and Elanee. Their lips moved, and I knew they were summoning protective magics. I just hoped they prayed quickly, or I would soon be beyond anyone's power.

Zeeaire made a clutching motion, and I rose above the floor.

She made some further movements with her hand, and the real pain began...

Sweat poured down my face. I clenched my jaw so tightly that my incisors cut my lip, but I would not scream for this hag.

“The shards are not just on your person, but...” She sounded unsettled.

I felt another sharp stab just above my heart. I tried not to bite my tongue.

Her warriors started to mumble. One asked, “What does this mean, O Zeeaire?”

“A shard is inside this creature. It is an abomination!” Zeeaire replied.

“What?” I somehow managed to yell. The sound of my voice seemed far away next to that pain.

“There is a shard lodged inside you, half-breed. Removing it will kill you, but that is the price you must pay.”

I struggled in midair, but managed to stand erect, “You will have to weed it from my cold, lifeless corpse!”

Her eyes narrowed, “I relish picking apart your unhallowed flesh...”

Zeeaire dropped me, but I was able to recover from the fall.

Her mouth fell open as I stood.

I smiled.

Her gith minions and my newly-freed fellows attacked each other.

I used my blasts, keeping an eye on the portal.

When I had a clear shot, I threw the sphere that the devil had given me at the portal. It shattered with a sound like a thousand windows breaking.

Zeeaire stood in the center of the portal. She began to age rapidly: her yellowish skin flaked into petrified dust.

Though her flesh was faltering, exposed and dazed, she was still unbowed.

The gith fixed her ancient eyes upon me. Her voice was still potent, “Know this, You have sealed your doom, and the doom of this plane.”

“What are you talking about, hag?”

She coughed, “Fool. The the shards are useless to you. Without the githyanki to stop him, the King of Shadows can now take this plane, and any other. And he will. You have destroyed us all!”

Zeeaire would have said more, but the structure that held her face together collapsed, and there was nothing left except a noise like paper blowing in a shrill wind.

A shard was in me? I thought that this whole business was just to take the shards to someone who would make everything right. Now, I had a shard within me, and I knew I could never be safe again---I couldn't rip it out, just as I couldn't stop moving forward towards... What? Final confrontation? I almost laughed. I wasn't fit. Why couldn't the shard have passed to someone like Cormick, someone who was a bloody hero in every sense of the word—someone who had a chance?

The shard put me and everyone around me into the worst kind of danger, and it would not stop until the King of Shadows was defeated, or I lay dead, the shard ripped from my chest, just as I took them from Zeeaire's ashes. Who would stand over me, then? I shuttered.

I looked at the portal, felt the magic of a strange land. It called to some deep part of me, a part that wanted a world that would bend to a strong enough will.

I thought of jumping through it...I could, but someone was crying...

Moving toward the sound, I unlocked Shandra's cage. Someone mentioned going back to Neverwinter. I nodded like one asleep.

Trying to wake from this dream, I bent over the dust—all that remained of the once-potent woman. Were Zeeaire and the githyanki fighting the same thing, the same evil that our little group had sworn to end? I clutched the shards, bathed in their glow, and wondered how these bright things had attached themselves to such a dark soul as mine. I wiped away as much corpse dust from their scintillating surface as I could. The shards were sharp, and one nicked my finger.

What a great and bloody business this was turning out to be.




“Duncan,” It was the first time I had spoken anything more than monosyllables since the gith lair, “We need to talk.”

Something in my tone caused the the half-elf to lick his lips, “Go on, then.”

I guided Duncan's head toward mine, so that we spoke eye-to-eye, “How did a silver shard get stuck in my bloody chest?”

Duncan ran a hand through his dirty hair, “It has to do with...yer mother.”

“...My mother? What? Did she try to kill me...”

“No, no. Esmerelle died to save ya”

I blinked.

“The shard, it's from a sword, must have went through her and...It was the first war with the King of Shadows—the big battle in West Harbor. Ya were the only one to survive it.”

I stomped my fist into the planked bar top, “Why the fuck didn't anyone tell me?”

Duncan placed his hands on my fist, “That was up to Daeghun to decide, but, a part of him died when he lost Shayla and yer mother. I wish you could have seen him before. We were all so different...and now,” He shook his head, “look at what we've done to ya...” Duncan held up my fist. It was already bleeding. He tried to wipe away the blood with his shirtsleeve.

“But...she couldn't look at me,” I mumbled.

The half-elf took a gulp of ale, “Ya can't remember that...”

“I do.”

“That was her own fault, not yours, alright? If she would have had time, I know ya would have loved her, as we all did.” He patted away a tear from his eye.

Then Duncan leaned over and embraced me. His brother never touched me needlessly. As we clasped each other, felt each other's loss, I understood the simple comfort of being held. I could imagine other comforts that most parents gave their children, so much of what I had missed...

“Aww, Why the long faces—did someone die?” Bishop's voice wrenched us back to the present.

“You're going to, if you don't keep your filthy nose out of my business,” I wanted to slap the grin off the ranger's mangy face.

“But you should be thanking me. I've decided to stay on.”

Duncan and I both looked at Bishop as if he had just grown two heads.

“If you want to show your appreciation, Mar, how about getting me another tankard? You owe me at least a flask of brandy—”

Duncan waved a dismissive hand. “Ya've done more than your fair share, Bishop. I won't ask ya—”

“Come now, Duncan, a debt is a debt until the end. Isn't that right? Besides, I like traveling with your niece here. Let's me keep an eye on her for you. Help her out of compromising situations. That should make you happy...”

“Listen here, ranger,” I said. “You heard what Duncan said. You're free. You've done one good thing in your miserable life, and you had to be forced to do it, at that. So why don't you lose your way on a trail that takes you as far from Neverwinter as possible? As for 'keeping an eye on me' you'd only be looking for a soft spot to turn the knife. Just don't hesitate because if you threaten me or one of mine, I'll kill you and not think twice about it.”

“See? That's what I like about you, Mar. You're honest.”

Sal shouted at Duncan that they needed more mead. Duncan gave me a warning look, then left to open another keg.

I slit my eyes at Bishop. “I don't think you would know honesty if it was tattooed on your ass—I mean face. They're easy to confuse.”

He smirked as he sat beside me, “You're quick to judge, demon crone.”

I scooted away from him, but flashed my fangs, “That's right. You better head for the hills because I can turn you into, well, wait, I don't think I could turn you into anything worse than what you already are. ”

Bishop ignored me, reached across the bar, and poured himself a liberal shot of some hard liqueur. “That was supposed to be threatening?” he said after he had tossed off the shot. “I've been more intimidated by half-men playing lyres.”

I raised my fist, still flecked with blood, “Leave me be, ranger, or so help me, I'll do something you will regret.”

“Oh, Mar,” He leaned in close to me, inhaled, ”why don't you do several?”

I kicked the bench out from underneath him. It wasn't as satisfying as booting him in the crotch, but it was worth it to see his chin smash against the table. I needed to thank Khelgar for the brawling lessons.
I put my hands on Bishop's neck, pinning him to the spot. He grunted a very nasty word.

“What was that, Bishop? Let me lean down, so I can hear you better...”

Duncan was back behind the bar, “Is everything alright, Amara?”

“Yes Uncle,” I said sweetly, “We were just having a heart-to-heart.”

Bishop tried to unknit my palms, but the hold I had on him wouldn't allow it.

Duncan seemed pleased as he walked away. The Flagon was so busy, and this was a rougher neighborhood anyway, that no one seemed to take notice of Bishop and me—or if they noticed, they saw nothing out of the ordinary, just a woman trying to keep the man beside her from falling down...

“Now Bishop, do I have your full attention? I'll just assume 'yes,' since you can't really speak at the moment. You still haven't given me a reason for letting you live—let alone keeping you around. I don't care about you and Duncan. You've been nothing but a pig. I don't want any swine mucking up the stables. But I'm going to let you go. I suggest staying as far away from me as you can. Or if you, for some reason only the gods can imagine, want to speak with me again, you will do it like a man. Hells, I might even listen. But don't count on it.”

I let go of his neck. I expected him to try and kill me.

The last thing I expected was for him to stand up, rub his neck, and cackle like he enjoyed it.

“Anything else you going to do to me?” he purred, “Or I could show you right here what a real shard is—”

I gave him the most withering look of distaste I could summon.“You're sick.”

“You're the one who wants to catch it.”

“You mean what you've catch in whorehouses? No thanks, sailor.”

“The only thing I get from whores is gratitude. Speaking of, why don't you lower your head beneath this table and show me how grateful you can be.”

“You'd have to have something down there to please, or else you wouldn't need to substitute verbal thrusts for real ones—”

I felt a hand on my shoulder. I grimaced and turned.

“Cormick!” I greeted the other Harborman by standing on my feet very quickly and giving him a fierce hug. He wore dark leggings and tunic, “You are out of uniform, soldier.”

He grinned his half-smile, “Well, they're bloody uncomfortable. I keep telling Cap'n Brelaina that we should just wear out skivvies, but she threatened to have me drawn and quartered.”

I laughed, “Well, I like what you're wearing now. It's been too long, Cormick...Why don't we find a place to sit?”

“Of course, ma'am,” Cormick grabbed us both ales, and guided me to a table with several other members of the Watch. I greeted them, heard several “Ma'ams.”

Cormick and I sat at the end of one table, and I smiled as he passed me a pint.

“You'll have to drink deep to keep up with me tonight,” I polished off my beer in one swig and sighed.

“Or any night,” Cormick agreed, but I could tell his attention was on the bar. “Amara, I don't mean to say anything, but that red-headed fella is glaring at us something fierce.”

“Don't worry, Cormick. He's just some wormy dog who can't take a hint.”

He narrowed his eyes at Bishop, but his voice was as pleasant as ever, “I can go and make sure he gets it, if you like.”

I chuckled, “Tempting, but don't trouble yourself. He seems to like getting cuffed.”

Cormick fixed his eyes on me, “Ya know, I keep forgetting how much staring ya've had to put up with—with bastards like that, like Lorne Starling---that was some piece a shit. You could never help who your father was— ”

“—Really, Cormick, you don't have to say anything.”

“After everything ya've done here in Neverwinter, it just seems like...ya know, ya should be able to come back and be, well, a hero.”

“Like you?”

He laughed, “I'm just One Who Went Away.”

Here's to us, then,” I said. “The Two That Ran Away.” We clanked together our mugs.

Then we both spoke at once:
“I'm sorry about that fight—”
“I didn't mean—“

We laughed.

Cormick slipped his hand into mine, “I was scared.”

“I was looking to fight...”

“I know.”

“I always do. I hate running through these bloody hoops...I just wanted one moment to make things right between us—well, as right as things can ever be...”

“Well, we're making it right now, ”Cormick smile widened.

Sweet Mystra...

I turned away tried not to put my hand over my scar, “I don't know if it'll ever be right again.”

“What?”

“I can't see a future, Cormick. To anything.”

“Where do these grim thoughts come from?”

“Experience.”

He waited for me to explain.

I looked at my still-bleeding knuckles, “I have killed. I've had to. I can't even remember the first... probably some lizardman, gith, or duegar. Is killing them any better than killing a human? I don't know. I'll keep killing, but what's the point? Is any cause worth the trail of corpses I'll leave behind? I think what this King of Shadows is doing is wrong, but what makes me any better? To believe I'm better isn't enough—that would be a lie. We're both killers.”

“You're not a killer.”

Looking at him from beneath my brow, I traced my finger from my black hair up through the lengthy curvature of horn.

“Killers don't care,” he insisted.

I gave a wicked grin, exposing my fangs, “They only...lose the habit of conscience.”

“I think you're worrying too much about what might happen.”

“Cormick, do you think this is easy for me? Playing this part? I struggle constantly. I am violent, hot-blooded, power-hungry—just plain demonic. I'm not good, like you. I will deserve whatever end I come to—”

“Amara,” Cormick traced my features with his fingertips, “no matter what ya do, ya die. That is inevitable. But it's how ya live, despite the...twists... that's what makes us what we are.”

“You deserve every happiness. You should give up adventuring, return to West Harbor, find you a pretty little wife, and go make pretty little harbor boys and girls.” Not half-demon monsters.

“I don't think I can be a farmer after this, but making babies—that would be a job I'd look forward to,” he winked.

“Didn't you used to fancy the Mossfield girl...with the long eyelashes?”

“Well, I hate to admit this, but in my youth, I fancied a number of ladies, but never fell too seriously. I wanted adventure more, and that takes up a lot of time.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” I said.

“Didn't you and Bevil—?”

“No! Bevil wasn't as scared of me as everybody else, but he was still pretty unsettled. He and Amie were much closer...before she died.”

Cormick' eyes seemed to darken, “You saw it, didn't you?”

I nodded, “Cormick, I just wanted to say that I really appreciate everything that you've done for me. You've treated me like was a real person.”

“—Amara,” He took my dusky chin in his paler hands,“yer no monster, and don't let anybody tell ya different.”

“Maybe a 'Harbor hello' will make me feel better,” I muttered, putting my hand on his knee.

He put his lips against mine, whispered, “Hello, Amara” against them. I giggled as he slipped his tongue into my mouth. He tasted like clover, but much better, like clover with a sheen of morning dew.

“Ye gods, woman,” Cormick sad breathlessly. Then he started laughing.

“And we haven't even...said 'goodbye'.” I laughed too.

We both started giggling hysterically at each other.

“I think that's all I can handle tonight,” I said. “We just got back from the ninth level of hell today...any more revelations and I may go on a killing spree. And I already know who my first victim will be...”

“I noticed new folk mulling about. When ya feel up to it, I want to hear about everything.”

“I will tell you, but I don't want to spoil this. There's so much pain, so few...joys. You know?”

“I'm starting to,” he replied. “Just tell me yer safe and will ask for my help if need be.”

“My champion,” I said as I kissed him. “Very well, if you dream tonight, don't let it be of battles or duties—just dream of saying 'goodbye' to me. That's all I require.”

Cormick smiled, “You're asking me to dream of a pretty lady. Very well, it is an arduous task, but one I'm prepared to undertake—though I might need a 'hello' or two to steel my nerves...”

Edited by Raenemon, 21 December 2009 - 06:13 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

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#8 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 20 June 2009 - 01:32 PM

Chapter 7


I slept, but woke in a hot sweat. My heart throbbed like a luna moth, which are as broad as Khelghar's head. I was afraid that my scar had split in the night—that the shard had sought finally release from this unworthy chrysalis.
I lit a candle. As I passed the mirror beside the bed, some perverse impulse made me check my reflection. I normally avoided mirrors for anything other than necessity, but something compelled me to stand in front of this particular mirror. Large mirrors were a luxury, and I wondered how Duncan came about it. Maybe he was a vain young man, but it was more likely that he came upon it while adventuring and stuck it in this room much as he had other relics from his younger days. They cluttered the already cluttered inn: a lance made of silver over the bar, a oddly-shaped clay pipe in the pantry, a ragged veil lingering on a wall....
And here, a mirror. I could be mistaken for a very tall drow, but no drow every had square features, full lips, or black hair. Neither did I have the elven grace, the trick of moving without seeming to—of flowing rather than walking. When I was young enough to think that my foster-father might come to care for me, I tried to be as much like him as possible: still and silent. I moved in what I thought was a wood elf grace, but strutted more like a plucked chicken. Not only did I imitate Daeghun's movements to no avail, but my lips also jumbled elvish far worse then even the most inarticulate, drooling elf-child, as Daeghun always reminded me. I think I even tried praying to an elven deity or two, but my foster-father was quick to douse that impulse with a skillful flick of a switch.
“...Definitely not elven,” I said to my reflection, who regarded me with green, clear amusement.
A sheen of sweat made my skin look like obsidian in the half-light. My hands were well-shaped, so expressive as I moved about that it was easy to forget there was an extra finger on each palm. My eyes shone as if lit from some feylight within. When they gleamed like this, I knew I could sense anything breathing that lay withing my sight by the heat its body or soul generated. I know some hold that distinction between body and soul as important, but to my gaze, they are reflections of each other. Body effects soul, just as soul effects body. They cannot be broken apart, except through unnatural magics. To be bodiless is to be a ghost. Death does not mean the body is cast aside, but that another is given.
Where did I get such notions? Not from Daeghun. Not in any temple. In the temples sit judgment, in this life and the next. When you have horns coming out of your head, maybe you need to believe in transformation.
Looking at my reflection, I saw little change from the girl in West Harbor, but the eyes are often deceived—even one's own.
“So what does one trust, then?” I asked my reflection.
She shrugged.
“You're not very helpful,” I yawned, “I'm going back to bed...”
The morning sun was red.
In the Mere, such mornings were called the 'Woe of the Morning Lord.' The legend told that Lathander, god of the sun, was in love with Selune, the goddess of the moon. Everyday he chases her through the sky, and everyday he begins the chase anew, knowing that he'll never see her, never catch her. Since Lathander is a cheerful god, he takes this well, but on some days, when the sky is scarlet, he is angry and heart-sick for this lost love, the love that will never be.
I sang a song about it as I dressed in the lurid light.
I have the palace of the sky
I tread it in the day
then rest in the earth
as you tread it after me
I hear your steps, beloved
though you are hidden from me
Your face is etched in every beam
all creation contrives to remind me
the world is brightened for you
though I will never see your eyes.
Casavir slept in a chair outside my door with a warhammer in his hand. He didn't wear full plate, but padded armor that could be slept in, if necessary.
I put a hand gently on his shoulder, “Casavir.”
He opened his eyes, kept his hand on the handle of his weapon even after he recognized the dark hand touching him, “Amara, is it morning?”
“Yes. Have you been here...all night?”
The paladin nodded, completely alert. The only evidence that he had slept was the sleep dusting the corners of his eyes. I had never been this close to Casavir, and I couldn't help but notice a few strands of silver shimmying like veins of silver through his coal-dark hair.
As if he could sense my scrutiny, the paladin put away his weapon and then smoothed his hair as best he could, “The Shard...with it inside of you...you are not safe. They will try and take you like they did Shandra. You need to be protected.”
“Casavir, you know that you have a comfortable bed just down the hall...”
“I tried to sleep, but could not.”
“Might I ask why you chose to guard my door?” I imagined how awkward this morning night have been if Cormick had stayed the night.
He looked at his hands, “It is my duty, lady. Nothing more.”
“You aren't outside Shandra's door. ”
His kept his eyes on the ground.
“Gods, man! Why can't you just talk to me? We've been through much together, and will go through much before all this is ended; it would be nice to know that you trust me.”
“I do.”
“Well, then listen to me. I'm telling you that such noble gestures are quite unnecessary. You come and guard when I did not ask you to, or need you to. I take care of myself. I always have. I'd rather you were well rested and better able to administer to everyone's needs—not just what you assume to be mine.”
He inclined his head, “Forgive me, if I have offended. I only meant to help.”
I could see that I had wounded him, but I didn't care, “I'm not a priest. You don't need to court after my my good graces. Next time, instead of asking for absolution, talk to me before you go and do and something we'll both regret.”
Casavir's back straightened, “I take my leave then.”
I strightened my stance as well, “You may do as you like, paladin. I'm not your mistress either.”
The word caught him like blow, “No. But you are my...ally.”
My jaw tensed, “Alliances are for generals and lawyers. I don't need a bondman who whistles for crumbs; I'd like a friend.”
“You have that, Amara.”
“Then quit acting like I'm not some frog-kissing priestess of Eldath who can't even scratch a flea. I'm a warlock. I have no illusions. The bit of metal in me is probably going to kill me, sooner or later —” I stopped my tirade as my hand crept over to to the scar. I imagined it was some alien claw trying to pierce my skin.
“Many have been thrown into situations they did not intend,” the paladin spoke as if each word was forced from him. “You did not ask to be followed, but you are. You did not ask for that shard, but it's there. You know you cannot run away... "
he placed a cool hand on mine, "and I fear for you because of that.”
Casavir quickly turned and walked down the hall without looking back.
I followed him.
“Casavir...”
He turned. I stood helplessly as he gazed at me longer than was proper.
“I can't,” he whispered it so low, I didn't know if he was talking to himself or to me.
I smiled, trying to lighten the situation, “I refuse to believe there's anything you can't do.”
He bowed, spoke low again, “Then I regret that I will only disappoint you, lady.”
I backed away, “Don't...don't you dare become formal with me. I'm not some girl you can make bloody sigh.”
Casavir looked down, then back into my eyes. For a moment, it seemed like he was going to say many things that I had half-guessed and other things I could not even being to understand...because I don't even think he understood these things himself, but the moment passed quickly, as missed opportunities usually do.
Casavir 's gem-like eyes became focused, and I knew he wouldn't open up to me before he was ready—not even if I put him on the rack.
He bowed again and left.
Bishop stood in my way as I walked into the common room. He looked like he had just rolled out of a barn. His reddish hair stuck up at odd angles. I doubt if he'd washed in a tenday.
I cracked my knuckles, “So, shall I have to break something this time, ranger? Or will you be polite and wait until after I've had my breakfast to bother me?”
He looked at me as if I had said something dirty, “Polite? People are only polite when they want something.”
“Mommy doesn't have time this morning. Come bitch tomorrow.” I waved him aside.
Bishop didn't move. In fact, he crossed his arms.
I raised a finger, “I'm not fucking around, ranger. Disappear.”
He leaned forward, looked me in the eye, “I'm just trying to clarify a few things that we didn't get to last night.”
“Save me the trouble of listening—just ask Khelgar to kick you in the balls on my behalf.”
“I'd rather the dwarf touch my balls than a green-eyed devil.”
“Go ahead. Ask Khelgar to 'stimulate' you. Hells, I'll dare ya—”I motioned towards Khekgar's room.
“My fantasies, unlike yours, don't involve your merry little band.”
“Ouch, ranger. Do you have something to spew besides poison?”
Bishop sat down at a nearby table. He kicked a chair in my direction before crossing his feet on the table top and threading his hands nonchalantly behind his head.
“What do you know about nature?” he asked.
I cocked my head to one side, “Are you serious...”
“Survival is serious. Answer the question.”
I took the chair, turned it around, and sat bow-legged across from him,“Let me see, nature...it's life without civilization.”
“How do things live in the wild?”
"Wildly," I muttered.
The corner of Bishop's lips twinged with amused contempt.
“On their own.”
He snapped his fingers, “Exactly. All the crap that civilization makes us care about are of little use to survival. Like clothes. In the wild, to eat, you kill. To breed, you mate. Everything is pared down to what is essential. How you act when there's no one beating some morality into your head. The difference between choices is not the difference right and wrong, but between predator and prey. The question is: will you do what you need to do to survive?”
Everything about the ranger seemed conditioned to be unpleasant, but when he started talking about survival, there was a glimmer of substance, as if there was solid earth beneath his boggy surface. But I'd never see the whole of it. That's just the way Bishop liked it.
For all his posturing, I didn't have to see into his soul to know that it was bloody ground.
“You might survive in that poignant scenario, ranger, but you wouldn't be happy.”
“Well, I survive, and I'm quite happy.”
“Yeah, you practically reek of happiness” I sniffed Bishop. “Funny, I didn't know happiness smelled like stale sweat and desperation.”
His legs came off the table, “You're a real cunt.”
“Well, yes. They tend to be real. You might find that out someday, if you get a girl drunk enough, or pay enough—”
Bishop's eyes seemed lit with gold-flecked anger, and I could see his hand twitch ever so slightly behind his head.
Not as in control as you'd like to be, “Poor eunuch, all this time I thought you liked my honesty...?”
The ranger leaned in very close, all indifference gone as he placed both fists on the table, “Well here's a little honesty for you too. You can't run from what's hunting you. And they won't stop until they cut a hole in that black bosom. These sheep you have around you are going to run when the wolves come for you, the few who don't shit themselves will be slaughtered. 'Cause sheep always get gobbled up. You want to spare them? Tell them to run away. Your only shot is to stop being the hunted—to use those pointy teeth for something besides snapping at me. You need someone who can stalk a wolf, and I want coin.”
Oh, I'm gonna have to watch the ranger just as much as he's watching me, “But you could make more coin less dangerously.”
“Probably, but I'm sick of this city. And...I think you're enough of a predator to merit sticking around. For now. Until someone gobbles you up.” He chomped his teeth together and smiled.
I gave him a withering glare, “I'm nothing like you.”
Bishop smirked, “You're not as good as me, no..but then, no one is..”
“You're not good for anything, Bishop, except fodder.”
“I'm touched that you want me to stay. But sharing a room—that's a little too forward, even for me, but if you come jingle on my knee,” He slapped his thigh, “I might consider sharing a bed...”
“Are you saying you want me, ranger?” I leaned in close enough to see the edges of old burns, slightly paler than the surrounding skin, tracing his collar line. The ranger usually had his hood up, but not this morning.
Bishop tilted his head back and looked at me from beneath his lids as if inviting me to touch his chin, “I'm saying I could have you, if I really wanted to. But I don't. It'd be like fucking Beshaba.”
“Good. Or I'd have to kill you.”
The ranger's eyes glittered, and he made his voice mock-sweet, “Promise?”
Someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Amara, I need to talk to you.”
“You have impeccable timing, Shandra. ”
I looked up at my savior. Shandra was wearing a old robe of mine. As the sunlight lit her face, I was struck: when she wasn't throwing things or running for her life, Shandra was uncommonly pretty. I didn't see why Casavir had slept in front of my door rather than hers.
Bishop also seemed to notice Shandra's charms, “Now here's a farm wench who's fields I wouldn't mind plowing.”
Shandra didn't look at him, “You can't plow with blunt instruments, Bishop.”
We both cackled as Shandra pulled me towards the fire.
“How are you doing, 'farm wench'?” I asked with a gleeful grin.
“Alive—thanks to you. That's twice now that you've had to save my ass. Don't get me wrong—I'm grateful for your help, but if trouble is gonna come my way, I want to be ready for it. You guys aren't the only ones who might look for a way into grandfather's haven.”
“There are enough people around with weapons that can show you how to use them. Khelgar's particularly good at brawling, if you're partial to hair-pulling and bustin' balls. Which I am.”
“I saw last night when you busted Bishop's mouth. I couldn't help but smile.”
I winked, “Brawling lessons it is, then.”
“I really mean it. I don't want to be the helpless damsel. And I don't want to be around just because my blood is the key to my ancestor's magical hideout. That sounds really ridiculous, doesn't it?”
“Stay with me long enough, and the ridiculous starts to sound more and more likely. It's like listening to Grobnar speak. At first you want to pat him on the head and treat him like a mad little puppy, but then you start to wonder...Sometimes I think Grobnar is more perceptive than we are, but those moments are fleeting, and easy to dismiss. My own hold upon sanity is becoming far too tenuous. The ranger is even starting to make some sense to me,” I shuttered.
She laughed, “At least you have some sane people around you.”
My eyes widened, “A dwarf who wants to be a monk because he likes to fight? A tiefling who constantly 'picks up' things that aren't hers? Elanee is probably sensible, if she stopped treating me like a two-year-old. When I want to be brought back to reality, I look for the paladin. Casavir is probably the sanest man I've ever met, even if he's a bit intense...”
“...And easy on the eyes,” Sandra sighed in a way I had never sighed, would never sigh.
“Well, yes. Obviously,” For some reason, I didn't like the thought of her eyes drinking in Casavir's form like he was some dandy. “The ranger is also easy on the eyes, but is so rough everywhere else that it cancels out anything of worth.”
“Bishop is disgusting. Casavir is...” She sighed again.
I put up my hands, “No argument there. If you're looking for romance, you'll have plenty of time for that when all this is over.”
Shandra gave me a sly look, “You haven't waited...”
“What?”I played dumb, which has always been an easy part for me to play.
“I saw that man you were with last night. " Shandra insisted, "The bearded one who smiled a lot and that everyone sees to know.”
“That's Marshal Cormick. We come from the same town in the Mere.”
“Must be a friendly place.”
“Well, until the githyanki started killing folk...”
“Your town was attacked by the githyanki?”
I nodded, “We managed to fight them off, but they were looking for the shards—for me, so I had to leave it to save it.”
“Did Cormick leave with you.”
“No. Cormick left years ago, when saw still a girl. When the attack happened, I made my way to Neverwinter, and met up with him along the way.”
“And Khelgar and Neeshka and Grobnar—everybody else was the Lady's own luck.”
“Yes. I had never left West Harbor until it was attacked.”
“You don't seem like a swamp girl with muck behind her ears.”
“Well, I clean behind my ears now...”
“Your shard. That's what the gith commander said before she...blew away. They will keep hunting you.”
I shrugged, “We all have something trying to kill us.”
“I'd be happy at this point just to stay alive.”
“With me around, ya will,” Khelgar said as he poked Shandra good-naturedly.
“You're up,” I said to the dwarf, “Duncan must be making bacon.”
“Aye, what of it?”
“I'm just saying that you like his bacon, and it shows,” I patted his stomach.
He swatted at my hand. “A dwarf's supposed to have a thick belly.”
“I don't think monks do...Do you think so, Shandra?”
“I've never seen a fat monk, no.”
“I wonder what happens to the old monks, once they start getting round...”
“I think they hide them in a monastery. Make them wash dishes and peel potatoes.”
“That's an excellent idea. Maybe I should tell Duncan...”
Khelgar rolled his eyes as he headed towards the kitchen for another plateful, “Humans!”
I was about to follow him, to say good morning to Duncan, when I heard my name.
“Amara Chidi?” the voice was well-pitched, and I got the impression that its owner could use it as well as any actor.
As I turned towards the front of The Flagon, the figure who had spoken blocked the sunlight briefly as he passed through the door. I had met Callum, so I knew what the blue tunic with the white fist meant— he was one of the Nine. While Callum had been, well, a dwarf, this gentleman was tall, lean, blond, and handsome in an aristocratic way. He held himself with an air of authority as if he were accustomed to giving orders. As he surveyed the room with a look of preoccupation, I saw him give my companions varying looks of distaste.
I thrust my head and horns high, “Amara Chidi is my name, though I'm sure I have others.”
I heard Shandra laugh.
“And what should I call you...sir...?”
“I am Sir Nevalle, of the Nine,” He gave a bow with a flourish, as I had seen actors playing nobles do.
I bowed the way I had seen Casavir bow. It was much easier to bow than to curtsy, “How may I be of service to Neverwinter?”
“Well, madam, you seem to be the one getting served. Do you know the village of Ember?”
“I passed through there recently.”
“Did you happen to rape and pillage anyone, did you?”
“Is this a joke?”
“I'm certain the people of Ember could use a good chuckle at the moment. Unfortunately, the entire village has been slaughtered, and Luskan holds you accountable. ”
“But I didn't do it!”
“Good. Keep that sense of outrage. It'll make your testimony all the more believable.”
“But I'm not trying to convince anyone. I am innocent. Can the Luskans really charge me?”
“Luskan cannot charge a loyal member of the Watch without proof. If you would counter their claims, you must form a case on your own. I have already contacting someone to help you in all your legal matters. If you are part of the nobility, you won' be subject to Luskan justice. You must also see Sir Grayson about becoming a squire.”
“What's this all about, eh?”
It was Duncan.
“Are you the owner, Duncan...”
“Yeah.”
“Your foster-niece is accused of mass murder and is going to become a knight.”
Duncan looked thoroughly confused.
I held up my hands,“ I am no knight.”
“Obviously,” Sir Nevalle countered. “But you need to seem like one if you wish for a fair trial.”
“I don't mean any...disrespect, Sir,” I said. “But surely there is some Neverwinter law that forbids demon bastards from entering the ranks of nobility?”
“There are exceptions to every law. Your mother was an aasimar—a paladin of Ilmater, correct?”
“Yes...How did you know that?”
“Esmerelle Chidi was a Holy Warrior of Suffering, and no stranger to Neverwinter. It wouldn't matter if Bane himself had sired you.” He regarded me coolly, “I trust that isn't the case. The last thing Neverwinter needs is more godlings running about and wreaking havoc...”
“Um, I don't believe so. At the worst, my father is a demon of the Abyss.”
“Good,” Nevalle sighed, “That will be a relief to Lord Nasher.”
“I am a bastard, though.”
He made a dismissive gesture, “You're certainly not the first.. The church of Ilmater only needs for one parent's lineage to be traced for purposes of legitimacy. Your mother suffices. Her line is without fault.”
“Except for me”
“Well, few of us are unspoilt by circumstances—”
Another shadow passed over the door.
“Sand!” Duncan swore. “Quit darkening my door—”
“Simmer down, Duncan,” Sand was as polished in manner and voice as the first time we had met, “I'm here to help your niece.”
Sir Nevalle nodded, “Sand is a competent lawyer who has helped Neverwinter on numerous occasions. He also has a certain...talent for overturning Luskan aims. A calling, really.”
“Oh yes. I can't wait to see Torio Claven writhe as she's exposed for the scaly tart she is.”
I looked at Sand, “You are supposed to will win my trial?”
Sand nodded, “I will. But first you must become a squire.”

I stood in the Solace Glade alone, as ordered.
It was still light. It was the custom for would-be knights to spend the night in solitary vigil beneath the stars in nothing but simple robes and devotion...purposeful musings about honor and duty....one's place in the orderly stratosphere evidenced by the fixed courses of the stars.
What did I have to contemplate? I was only here to protect my life. I was more like a comet, burning everything as it broke through every sphere, rather than a cold constellation.
Back at the Watch barracks, when I had been assigned to this rite, I had asked Sir Grayson if there had ever been a demon-blooded knight. He calmly replied that none that he knew of, but he would set a scholar on the matter.
What about a warlock?
That had silenced the room---a genuine feat when the room contains Sir Grayson and Captain Brelaina.
Sir Grayson advised me to maintain discretion on that particular subject. I think that was Grayson's chief virtue: circumspection. He took me under his wing readily enough, made no complaints, curbed my every misstep with patience. I had a feeling that I wasn't the first to enter Lord Nasher's service in an unorthodox manner. But some traditions cannot be thrown away entirely.
So I, an accused murder, demon-bastard, and warlock, prepared for my assent up the social ladder.
I wondered how long I could maintain this charade. So far, I had kept mum about being a warlock to my companions. It was bad enough that they knew about the shard within my chest—bad enough that I had some dark powers over fiends because of my sire. A demon lord, bah. I'd sooner believe that the ranger had feelings.
I hadn't even told Cormick of either the shard or warlocks. No, he had enough to endure—
Someone unafraid of being heard walked toward me.
“Who's there?”
I stepped towards my small campfire. My infrared vision caught a ultraviolet shape.
“Me.”
I knew that voice, sincere and smiling, “...Cormick?”
The firelight was reflected in his laughing eyes, and the warmth of his crooked grin struck me because it was the last thing I had expected to emerge from those trees.
“I had to come check on my favorite girl.”
My kiss was fierce. There was nothing but the sound of our breathing in and out of each other's mouths for several moments.
“I must say, Lieutenant,” he pulled my hair away from my face, “ya know how to keep a man on his toes.”
“So you heard about... ”
“The whole city knows by now. They're trying to make it a public showdown: Neverwinter vs. Luskan. I told them it wasn't fair, but I was overruled. Well, they may try to make ya a noble, but I'll be damned if they make ya a patsy.”
“I won't go down easily.”
He kissed my nose, “Too bad...I could take the plunge for ya...” He looked down past my waist.
“Marshal Cormick, if you haven't noticed, we're in a quite public park. And I'm supposed to be undergoing an important ritual of some sort...”
The Marshal made a dismissive 'nah,' “You're becoming a blue-blood, remember? Ya'll have a a host of menservants administering to your every whim.”
Cormick removed his shirt as if it was quite natural for him to be half-clothed. I kept forgetting how powerfully-built he was. Sweet Mystra. I did not hide my approving eyes.
“Hmm,” I said as I hitched his buckle and pulled him towards me, “ I think I might like being a knight.”
The Marshal put his hands in his pockets, “They all be dumb as marbles, but as handsome as—”
“—you?” I pulled his belt off in one long, graceful movement.
“Me? Oh no. Much prettier...But there are certain skills that I possess that a great lady like you may find useful.” Cormick placed his hands on my shoulders.
“Such as...” I said, running my hand across his naked chest.
“I think a demonstration may be in order, your grace.” He started to unstring my meager laces. The paper-thin robe couldn't have left much the the Marshal's imagination. There was nothing beneath it but what the gods and demons gave me.
I gasped as he traced my outline, “Such devotion to your mistress is bound to be rewarded...”
There was a loud noise, as if some blind giant was crashing through the tree branches.
Cormick jumped up as I grabbed my sword.
Shandra tumbled into the firelight. Her hair had several twigs and leaves sprouting out of it. Seeing Cormick without a shirt, and me with my laces undone, her fair skin flushed.
“They really should rename this place...” I muttered.
“I'm sorry,” Shandra placed her hand over her eyes.
I pulled my shirt closed, “I hope this isn't for a brawling lesson, Shandra. I am in deep...contemplation.”
“Aye,” Cormick covered his mouth to hide his laughter,“Deep”
Shandra picked a branch from her hair, and looked at it with anger as she tossed it aside, “Casavir told me not to come, that this was sacred and 'blah, blah ,bah,' but I said someone had to stick by you. But if I would've known that you were already being helped, I would've stayed in bed...”
I put my hands on my hips, “Shandra! You're going to get yourself killed if you run about at night all alone—are you at least armed?”
“...I”
“Not even a pot or two?”
“Hey,” Shandra said, “I already apologized for that—”
Three armed men approached us from the shadows.
The first, who seemed to be the leader, had a smile that never touched his eyes, “Well, well, well. Lovely evening.”
The second man already had his longsword at hand, “Hey boss, you didn't say there'd be three...”
“Hush up you. That just means we get triple the coin, eh?”
“Who paid you?” I asked as I stood.
“Doesn't matter, does it love?” The one with the cold eyes pulled out a short-sword, “So just be a good girlie, and this might not hurt so much...”
“Good?” I laughed, “Now I know whoever sent you is a fool.”
The third robber spoke, “She does look awful funny.”
“She'll look even funner when we cut off those horns...” Shandra winced at the man's grin.
“That was the wrong thing to say, friend,” Cormick picked up his greatsword.
Shandra looked at me, and then Cormick, and then at our attackers, “This is the part where you run, if if value your worthless lives.”
All three laughed as they closed the distance between us. Cormick and I stood next to each other, with Shandra behind me.
A heavy boot sailed at the head of one attacker. I followed its arc...and came eye to eye with Shandra. She held the other boot upraised.
“That's my bloody boot!”
I summoned my greenish hellfire. It licked my face and hair without burning either.
Cormick parried the leader's short sword. I pointed my magic at the second assassin, who was trying to sneak behind Cormick's back. The man fell with a scorched hole in his stomach. He was dead before his body finished toppling.
Shandra aimed another boot at the assassin she had already hit. He put up his hands.
Cormick finished the leader by lopping off his left arm at the shoulder. The blood spewed on the only remaining assassin. He looked at us all wide-eyed, but brought out a dagger as he charged at Shandra.
I pushed her out of the way, and the man's blow flew short, though he managed to cut off some of her blond hair.
As Shandra put a hand to her head, Cormick stabbed the would-be assassin in the thigh. The man began weeping as his useless leg gave out from beneath him.
Shandra watched the man die with tears running down his face. Cormick and I looked around for more attackers.
A rooster crowed.
“The sky's lightening. Grayson will be here soon,” I said.
Cormick put a hand on Shandra's shoulder, “Are ya alright?”
Shandra nodded.
Cormick looked at me, “I should take her back before Sir Grayson comes. Don't forget to search their bodies. There might be evidence—guild indicators, rings, tattoos, something like that—but even if they're clean, we know that someone wants ya dead. This only helps yer case.”
I nodded, “But it takes you away...and I was just remembering what it was to fight beside you...”
“Some things are worth fighting for,” He kissed me.
“Let's just do worthy things, then,” I kissed him.
Shandra made a face, “Um, I hate to interrupt, but dead bodies...confused knights...lots of questions?”
I grinned, “I'll take care of it. You two head to the Flagon. I'll head there after—if they don't put me in the stocks.”
Shandra rolled her eyes, but headed that way.
Cormick hesitated.
“Go,” I said, “I'll be fine. Really, your mistress is pleased with your work so far. We'll have to see how deep your contemplations really are, but...”
I shrugged, stuck out my lower lip in a pout.
He grinned, “Dear Lady, there is one thing in particular, the peasants call it a 'harbor goodbye,' that ya might find particularly enlightening...”
I laughed.
Cormick gave me a look full of promise as he headed through the grove and back to the Docks.
Alone, I searched the three bodies on the ground. One carried a ring with a heraldic marking. It might represent some thieves guild, but I wasn't certain. The rest of the bodies had nothing to indicate where they had come from, or who sent them, but it had to be Luskan.
A light fog settled among the trees. Sir Grayson emerged from it, a ghost-like figure himself.
“What happened here?” He asked as he surveyed the carnage.
“Three men came and attacked me in the night,” I showed him the ring.
“Assassins,” he said darkly. “Well, solace is rarely obtained, and only after much toil... Are you ready to serve Neverwinter, Amara Chidi, even if you only find more suffering?”
“Yes,”
“Then we must head to Castle Never. All you need to do is stand before Lord Nasher and offer your fealty. Come,” he said as he clasped my hand.\, “It is custom to swear in these humble trappings, but afterwords there will be festivities enough.”
“What about them?” I gestured to the bodies on the ground.
Sir Grayson shrugged, “I'll have my servant inform the Cloaks. They will investigate the matter. Now be an obedient Squire, and follow.”
“Um. I don't don't mean to question, Sir. But, uh,” I held up my bare feet, which were caked with muck, “...But perhaps these trapping are too humble?”


Lord Nasher did not smile when Sir Grayson presented me to him. I did not expect the lord and master of Neverwinter, who the saved his city from plagues and invasions, and that his people believed to be an avatar of Tyr himself, sent to guide the city in its most perilous hour...No, I did not expect him to smile at me. I was beneath such a man's notice. I expected indifference.
Therefore, I was surprised when the Great Lord Nasher gazed upon me with...disdain, as if his thoughts were marked in ink across his forehead, just below his crown: “Oh, it's you. Surely Neverwinter can do better than...this. I'll knight it, but I'm certainly not happy about this whole affair. But then again, ruling is a rather unhappy business. I should have been a gardener instead...Oh well, there's no use crying over spilled wine—somebody's still got to clean it up—even if the stain is particularly stubborn.”
He looked at like as if he wanted to hike up his golden sleeves and give me a good scrub with a stiff-bristled brush.
I curtsied as if my life depended upon it—because it did. It was very hard to pull off in Sir Grayson's oversized boots, but I somehow managed it.
Then Sir Grayson looked at me as if I were supposed to say something.
Fuck...
Sir Nevalle, though he was dressed in the habit of the Neverwinter Nine, made it seem like the height of fashion rather than a practical piece of armor as stood seneshal at the root of Nasher's raised throne. Nevalle must have read my confusion in my face because he stifled a delicate chuckle with his hand, which drew my gaze. He pointed his pinky at his eye, then traced it down to his heart as one would if swearing a solemn oath—
“I swear to serve Neverwinter's people faithfully,” I said as earnestly as I could while clad in a skimpy, blood-stained robe that Lord Nasher and the entire court could see was quite inadequate for fostering modesty.
“Good, good” replied Nasher, dismissing me with a curt, controlled wave of the hand.
“In all due respect, my lord, it is not good. No for those slayed by this woman's hand.”
I turned toward the voice.
“Ambassador Torio,” replied Nevalle, “This audience is private,” his voice was faintly mocking.
“It's alright, Nevalle,” replied Nasher. I could almost see his beard bristle, “You've arrived just in time to witness this woman's ascension. Sir Grayson. I accept the pledge of your Squire. As she swore fealty, so I offer a lord's protection.”
“She is accused of murder. She should be tired by the law of the land that she has violated—” Ambassador Torio might have been beautiful at one time, but years of conniving and ambitious plots had hardened any natural charm. Any guile she showed was art and craft rather than wisdom.
“She is now a squire of Neverwinter.” replied Nasher, “And she will be tried by the laws of this land. This is in keeping with our treaty, and there will be no more said about it. As for you squire, you will stand trial for the crime against Ember. But you will be given the opportunity to prepare your defense. You may leave the city to gather evidence. Return when you are ready to defend your honor and reputation against these charges...Yes, and see Sir Nevalle before you depart.”
Defying the boots once again, I curtsied, “I will my lord.”
Nasher nodded. I kept my eyes downward until he had left the throne room.
Someone took my hands and raised me to my feet. It was Sir Nevalle.
“Do not fret, Squire. You won't have to earn your title on your knees like Torio over there,” He kissed both of my cheeks. “Welcome to our fellowship. Now wave smile at that harpy, and let her know we're onto her little game.”
We both beamed at the oddly-dressed woman. She glared, made dramatic gestures at the people she was talking to, and left.
“Good work, Squire,” Nevalle looked at my robe, as I noticing it for the first time. He appraised my figure with an approving nod. Like a man would for a horse he had bet money on, “I wish we had time to fill your head with expensive spirits until I wheedled out the utmost secrets of your heart, but Nasher has wisely postponed the feast—at least until after your possible execution.”
“Quite wise,” I replied. “Though by your gaze, sir, you've wheedled out quite a bit already.”
“Ha! Oh, Amara, we do not elevate those that we do not...probe. I know your salty humor, and now that we are of the same class, I expect you to indulge me with it as often as possible”
“Sir Nevalle, I am all salt...”
He chuckled,“Be careful who you say that to, or the beasts will be licking your heels... wouldn't you agree, Sir Grayson?”
“Only if you mean yourself, Sir Nevalle.” Sir Grayson leaned conspiratorially in my direction, “Sir Nevalle is known for his unusual, exacting tastes.”
I looked from one knight to the other, These are my peers?I wonder if I can still be tried in Luskan.
“Don't worry, my dear. You are safe from my lubricity. Marshal Cormick would have my head and on a pike. Both of them.”
“So, as far as these false charges are concerned, I am free to uncover the real criminals at Ember?”
“That would certainly help to clear your name,”replied Nevalle.
“I'm free to take my companions, correct? Otherwise, I think I'm likely to get lynched.”
“Of course,” said Nevalle, “Everyone but Marshal Cormick.”
“Any particular reason why, sir...”
“He's needed for a special mission. But don't frown. He'll be back in time for the trial. You should head to Port Llast first and speak with the law there before you head to Ember. We'll have a trial, clear your name, and possibly go to war with Luskan—again.”
Sir Nevalle made a playful fist and tapped by shoulder, All in all, you are doing very well for your first day.”

I dreamed.
I looked in a mirror.
Innumerable reflections looked back at me.
One was of a woman with platinum hair, golden eyes, and skin the color of milk.
Mother—I said, but the she laughed and resolved into another reflection.
A winged man holding a flaming sword.
A blue-green hummingbird
A tall, broad man in black, cowled robes and a skull half-mask. His exposed skin covered in ash.
An amorphous woman, beckoning to someone out of sight. Her true shape too horrible to imagine
Finally, they all merged into a dark warrior covered in tattoos who grew larger and more terrible...
I screamed, which broke all the mirrors.

When I woke, I was panting.
The ranger stood over me, “When you finish polishin Nasher's scepter,...I found the tracks leading to Duskwood, Squire.”
“You know,” I said as I got up, “Though you've used it a dozen times, that joke keeps getting more and more entertaining. You must have a little bard inside you,” I pulled on my chain shirt.
“No, but I'm certain you have whenever you've visited the half-man's rooms at the Flagon,” He threw my sword at me.
I had to dodge quickly to catch it, “Well, after your impotent come-ons, I find myself yearning for a real man.”
“Funny, that's what the bard said—”
I strapped my sword to my waist, “—only to your mother...”
Bishop looked at me with contempt as he strolled into he woods, “Good thing we weren't ambushed, or you'd be dead.”
“Better dead than have to suffer through your company.”
Sand laughed, “Oh, I have been missing out on quite a bit of fun,” The elf moved gracefully, but try as he might, the bottom hem of his robes looked like they had been dipped in mud.
Shandra, now dressed in mail and armed with short swords, rolled her eyes,“It's not so fun when you have to listen to that day in and day out...”
Neeshka leaned toward them and lowered her voice, “She's a little stressed about the Trial. And the Bastard knows it.”
“Why is he traveling with you if he is such a bother?” Sand replied.
“Why does Qara sulk about the Flagon?” Shandra retorted.
“Good point,” Sand conceded. “Strong personalities can draw strange kindred....”
Shandra dodged a puddle, “Kindred? Amara and Bishop?”
“Well,” Sand looked at Shandra as if enjoyed correction, “They have sharp wits, a talent for violence, a knack for survival, and...formidable exteriors.”
“Don't say that too loudly,” Neeshka warned, “Or you're likely to get stabbed.”
I stopped listening to their conversation and stretched. As I looked around, I saw Casavir sitting by himself beneath a tree. He looked out over the woods with an aggravated expression.
Casavir? Angry? I walked over to him.
The paladin looked up at me as if it hurt him to be caught fighting that emotion, “Yes, lady?”
“Is there something on your mind, Casavir? You look...troubled.”
“Amara, it is not because of anything you have said to me.”
“You can still tell me.”
“It takes me time to become angry...but there are some things that must be said.”
“Speak, then,”
“Why do you let the ranger speak to you in such a way?”
“His words don't touch me. They're nothing but foul air.”
“But you respond. That is just what he wants.”
“I don't care what a pissant like Bishop wants.”
“If you keep letting him goad you, he will push you in the direction he wants you to go.”
“And where is that?”
“...his way.”
I balked, “What? Do you think I'll let Bishop have his way with me?”
“No. Not at all—I'm merely trying to be your friend. To warn you. If the circumstances were altered, I would wish for you to do the same.”
“I appreciate your concern, but let me out your mind at least on one thing. I will never ever go willingly into Bishop's bed. Frankly, I think he is just as disgusted by the idea as I am. Any teasing he may do is because I'm Duncan's niece. He wants to hurt Duncan, to make him pay for whatever debt he keeps on ranting about. If he can hurt me me, and Duncan through me, then he'll try. ”
“Then we don't need him.”
“Can you track? Do you know this territory? He's got info about Luskan that we may need for the Trial. Besides, if Bishop decides to do something, I'd rather be facing him, than to wait for him to sneak up from behind.”
Casavir seemed impressed,“You've thought about this more than I expected.”
I winked at him.,“I may look like a demon, but I have the mind of a devil.”
He chuckled wryly.
“Casavir, you have a face that is made for contentment—maybe even happiness, not sadness. Try letting yourself breathe, or at least smile.”
The paladin took a deep breath, “I will try, Amara. For your sake.”
He gave a wan smile.
“You know, “ I said. “They should have given you a title, Casavir. After all, you're the paladin”
Casavir shook his head, “Oh no, my lady. I would not take any of their titles for all the gold in Undermountain.”
“Why not?”
“I wouldn't sully myself with Neverwinter politics—I do not mean to offend you. You had no choice. The nobles jockeying and scraping for favor and influence and are no better than the gangs down in the Docks.”
“I see what you mean, but there must be more to it than that for you to have such a strong...distaste for their politics?”
“I lost...something dear. Please, I can't speak of it now,”
The paladin quickened his pace, and I let him move past me.
When we arrived at Ember, the whole town had been raised. All the building had been abandoned or burned. Corpses lay without any rhyme or reason, as if whoever killed them just raged blindly through the streets and houses, murdering at will. No one had even bothered to bury the bodies. The flies had settled in, and the decay. I sprinkled some herb on the bodies that, according to a woman in Port Llast, would keep the bodies from arising as specters or any other form of undead. The King of Shadows would not have more solders—at least, not from this place.

Shandra helped me with the herbs until we came across what looked like an entire family: a man, woman and two girls, even a dog—all dead. She threw up in the ditch. I held back her hair until she had nothing left in her stomach to empty.
“I'm sorry,” she said, wiping her mouth with a trembling hand.
“It never gets easier, does it?”
I shook my head. “You just have to find a reason not to go insane.”
Sand found the Quarter Master's log and a body that had died of something besides smoke or flame. Both were important pieces of evidence because they established a Luskan presence in the town.
As I approached the well at the center of the ruined village, I kept thinking of the boy Marcus, who had foretold these events, and what might have become of him...
No matter where we went or what we saw, the well kept holding my attention until I was overcome by curiosity and I looked down the shaft of the well. Instead of finding winding darkness, is bottom shimmered.
I pulled the rope. It seemed secure. “I'm headed down,” I announced, wondering if I could get a strong handhold.
“Down the well? Why?” Shandra looked at me as if I had sprouted wings.
“I just have a ...feeling...”
“Ya want company?” Khelgar asked.
I shook my head, “I'll go on my own. If you hear shrieks, then we'll know where to find the killers..”
“That's not funny lass,” replied Khelgar. “Just let me go with ya...” He had already laid down his ax.
“Really, I'll return before you can say, 'Ambush.'”
Shandra gave me a helpless look, “That's really not funny.”
“No, I didn't expect it to be.”
“I thought it was funny, Mar.” Bishop slung his longbow across his back, “But then, I like the thought of you getting trapped, pleading for your life.”
“Wanna come?” I asked Bishop.
He grinned, “I don't think I want anything you have to offer. But I'm sure the paladin would love to traipse through dark crevices for his lady love.”
“Bishop,” Casavir said, “You're just too coward to follow her.”
“It's good to see a little arrogance, paladin. I was beginning to think your god cut off your balls when he made you his bitch.”
Khelgar clocked Bishop with the blunt edge of his ax. The dwarf's head turned reddish purple in his rage, “Don't be talking to the paladin or to Tyr that way unless you want to lose yer balls, ya skinny, gutless worm!”
He spat in Bishop's face.
The something snapped in the ranger. As the glob of spit hit his forehead, he gabbed Khelgar' ax in his bare hands, ripped it out of the dwarf's grasp, and kicked Khelgar in the teeth.
Khelgar bellowed as he grabbed Bishop's ankle, and twisted it.
“Khelgar, let him go,” I said.
“What?!?”
Bishop used the opportunity to kick out of Khelgar's grip, and get on his feet.
The ranger opened his arms, “Come on Mar. Let's see how you fight now.”
“Is once not enough, ranger?”
“Not for your touch, sweetheart. Come on, or are you afraid I might have my way with that tight little ass?”
Instead of waiting for a reply, he pounced on me. I pulled up my bastard sword and pointed it at his throat. Bishop didn't even flinch.
“I could end this now, Bishop. And save the world a lot of grief.”
“Do it.”
I lowered the sword, and flung it away.
“Stupid.”
Bishop put me in a headlock. I stomped on his feet, which loosed his grip enough for me to wriggle free.
“Why were you so scared of the boy, huh?”
“Shut up.”
He grabbed dirt, threw it in my face.
As I was blinded, he unslung his bow, held it up like a club.
“If your not going to fight fair,” I hissed, “neither am I.”
I summoned my hellfire, made it dance from my hands up to my fingertips.
I could hear Bishop laugh, “There's no such thing as a fair fight.”
“Then I don't feel bad about doing this,” I waved my hand, the green hellfire circled the ranger, held him immobile in the air.
“Neat trick,” said Shandra.
I could feel Bishop's anger like a heat wave.
“Bishop, I think you scout ahead of the rest of us. Because someone is going to kill you, and I won't raise a finger to stop 'um.”
The ranger glared at all of us, but especially at me.
“I suggest you scurry...”
I let him drop.
“Fuck you all!” he shouted as he took off down the trail that brought us here.
“I'm going down the bloody well now,” I said, wiping away sweat and dirt from my face.
No one said a word.
I held the rope in both hands and yanked. It held my weight as I shimmied down, even though it was quite slick.
There was a splash of cool water as I found my way to the bottom. While there was sunlight entering from the top of the well shaft, the further I waded into the caverns, the strongest light source became some phosphorescent moss on the cavern walls. Everything was then illuminated by a surreal, greenish-blue glow.
“Marcus?” I asked in the echoing black and aquamarine space.
As my voice echoed back and forth, I realized this cavern was part of much larger complex. The boy could be anywhere.
“Marcus?” I yelled again.
“I'm here,” came a faint echo.
I splashed toward the voice.
“Marcus!” I said once I saw the boy. He was surrounded by natural light from above. There must be some shaft that went all the way up to the surface.
The boy regarded me with those same, unsettling, seeing eyes, “You don't need to wear armor anymore.”
“That is an original introduction....and why not?”
“Your power increases.”
“Well, I'm flattered that you noticed. Are you alright?”
“I am fine. I will head back to Port Llast. Then I will travel to Neverwinter. The mage Sand will want me to testify. And I will.”
“Who did this to you?”
“You did...”
“Marcus...”
“It was someone who seemed to look like you, but I could see though the disguise.”
We both heard a spattering and were silent.
I stood between Marcus and the noise.
“We are here,” said Marcus.
Casavir waded towards us, squinting his eyes, “Amara?”
I sighed, “We're fine, Casavir. There was no need to wet your feet.”
The paladin looked down at his boots, “Well, since they're already wet, there is no sense in leaving, is there, lady?”
Marcus looked at Casavir, “There is pain in you, servant of the Maimed God. There will be more, even when you beg the gods to take it away.”
Casavir seemed to grow even more sorrowful, and yet, even more calm in that boy's gaze, “What then is there to hope for?”
“You know the answer.”
“I know nothing, child.”
“Fear not, you will die nobly.”
Casavir was silent.
Marcus looked at him, “The answer to your questions, the ones you do not ask, is yes.”
Casavir put his hand to his eyes, but the tears still came.
I walked over to him, put my hand on his shoulder.
“I'm sorry,” Casavir said to me. Even with tears in his eyes, he still seemed strong, far stronger than I could ever be.
“Don't apologize, Casavir. We all cry, sooner or later. Apologize when you find that you lack remorse, but I don't think you'll ever come to that point. It's why they followed you at the Well...why I keep wondering why you follow me.”
“You are...better.”
I shook my head, “I am...cold. There are no tears here, paladin. I don't think I can cry.”
Casavir's face was reflected back as a bright blue-green mask in the water, “As you said, we all cry, sooner or later. It's just not your time.”
I laughed, but it wasn't happy.
“At Old Owl Well, I had a small group of warriors, but we were all like-minded. You bring together people I never could. If you would not have shown up, I would still be fighting arcs and accomplishing very little.”
“Don't underestimate yourself.”
“I could say the same to you.”
“Amara Chidi,” said Marcus as he pulled out a dagger, “you should watch your dreams...”
I took the dagger from the boy. It was Bishop's.
I shook my head.
Marcus grabbed my hand before he disappeared once again into the gaping caverns as unfathomable as his eyes.
“...They watch you.”

Once we had all the evidence we could gather, we packed up, and headed back to Neverwinter.
As we set up camp, there was just enough light to read by. I pulled out Unholy Fire—The Life & Death of Owal the Tongueless, and flipped to a promising passage.
I felt Neeshka standing over me.
“Sit,” I said before looking up, “I can always read later.”
“How—oh yeah,” She gave an embarrassed laugh, “I keep forgetting you can sense demons.”
I shielded my eyes against the setting sun, “What's on your mind?”
“What do you mean? You called me over here...”
“No, I didn't.”
“Yeah. You said something about keeping an eye on,” she looked around to be certain no one listening, “...the Bastard.”
“Neeshka, I didn't say a thing.”
“Amara, I know damn well you did.”
I looked at her blankly. I tried to to remember: I sat, got out the book, didn't say a word, but ...wait..I did think...yes. I did think that.
“How can you read my thoughts?” I whispered in her ear as looked around.
Neeshka held up her hands in the same way she denied sifting through the pouches of strangers, “Oh no, I've never had a drop of that sort of magic...I think you projected them onto me...somehow.”
Then I remembered what Marcus said in the well: Your power increases... Could I be able to project my will onto fiends? Naw.
I was certain there was another explanation, “Neeshka, tell me everything that you were thinking and feeling before you came up to me...”
She shuffled beneath my scrutiny, “I was just thinking of ..some things you said to the paladin.”
“What things?”
At first her high voice was hesitant, then became bolder, as if saying the words seemed to confirm something in her own mind, “I was thinking...that you shouldn't say things about his face...when you already have the Marshal's.”
“I can't believe you're actually listening to the ranger.”
“I just wonder.”
“Why are taking such a fine interest in the Marshal?”
“If you're not looking after him, then someone else should.”
“And do you have someone else in mind?”
She looked away.
“Neeshka,” I rubbed my neck, “I thought we had discussed this already. You seemed fine with me and Cormick.”
“If you have other interests, maybe you should leave the Marshal alone. He's already taking a big risk just to be around you, ya know.”
“'Interests'? Cormick's the only one, and you bloody know it. He's not something to be parceled out and shared with the less fortunate.”
“So that's what you think of me. If you haven't forgotten, you're a tiefling too. You're no better, though you act like you're the Queen of the Abyss.”
“Look at me, Neeshka,” there was s a magical command in my call, though I didn't intend it.
Neeshka's body froze in place, but her eyes widened.
“I could make you leave him alone, but that's too easy.”
The words came from my mouth, but they felt like a stranger's.
I beat a hand against my chest. I am Amara...
I let my will go, and Neeshka shook her head.
“I want you to see what free will really is, Neeshka. You have my permission—hells, my blessing—to pursue Cormick. But if he rejects you, then you will stop this idle nonsense.”
Neeshka winced, as if my voice pained her, “Stop...commanding me! I don't know where this comes from, Amara, but you're scaring me.”
“I'm scaring myself.”
“Just...If he picks me, you will leave us be—promise it Amara. You must promise me that much,” Neeshka placed her hand at the base of her tail.
Gods, I wanted to slap that willful, childish look from her face.
I gritted my teeth instead, “I swear. If Cormick chooses someone else, I will not utter one word of complaint.”
Neeshka grinned, and then attempted to hide her relief by hugging herself, but she might as well have been dancing.
“Now...your blocking my light.”

Owal was a man that many women wooed. There is something attractive about a dangerous man, and Owal, as one who consorted with devils, was no exception. He was known to have courted Princess Fortina of the Ans, the tavern wench Sorche, and the matron Heloise de Guinde. However, all of Owal's previous dalliances paled in his memory once he laid eyes on the dark beauty known only as Marim. It was said that the very earth flowered beneath her feet, and beasts and birds came to eat from, her hand. And Owal, like a beast in comparison to this fair creature, also tried to lay his head on her lap, but Marim refused, saying, “If I let you lay there, sir, you may soon place more there than just your head.”
Owal replied, “Why else would a man place his head on a maid's lap?”
“To find rest,” she said, “Not just to conquer.”
“If by eternal rest, you mean he conquers everything.”
“If I gave eternal, rest, sir, you mean death, it is man that is conquered.”
By such words, and other similar exchanges, it was clear that Owal and Marim were destined for each other. They were married within a season.
They were happy then, when Owal still had a tongue, and Marim was still alive.

Cormick and I walked hand in hand down the trail. We were both still wet from jumping into a secluded waterfall he knew just outside the city limits. I was supposed to be resting for the trial, but Cormick literally picked my up and carried me out of the Flagon the moment we arrived.
He knew the last thing I wanted was to sit and braid my hair.
And then very first thing I wanted was, well, a something only a Harborman could offer.
I put my hand through Cormick's dark, wet hair, and pulled his head toward mine.
“We don't have to do anything, Amara. I just had to see ya tonight,”He closed his eyes as he kissed my nose,
I pushed him against a tree. I wasn't in a mood to be subtle, “Well, you've already seen quite a bit of me, Marshal. And you're still here...”
He pressed against me, “I'm still here...And I won't lie, Amara, I have thoughts that would redden Shar's cheeks,” his molten eyes seemed to brighten, “but this is your night, not mine. I can wait.”
“If not now, when?”
“Whenever it's not out of desperation.”
“It's always out of desperation,” I smiled. “Or it wouldn't be half as...enticing.”
“Hm,” he scratched his beard, “I hadn't thought of that before.”
“That's why I'm here—to do the thinking for you.”
“Ah, really? What a relief. Here I thought I had to be good-looking and bright.”
I took his hand, and measured it with my own. It really was huge in comparison, “You have the perfect hands for they type of chores I save for well-endowed retainers.”
Cormick clicked his tongue, “Maybe I don't like being your dumb, scantily-clad manservant....”
“At least my death will fix that.”
He put his hand over my mouth, “Shh. Don't say that. It's bad luck”
“You want me to lie?” I nibbled his ear.
“They will find you innocent of all charges. And then—”
“—I don't trust 'then's.'” I put one hand beneath his shirt, traced his pectoral down to his rib cage.
“Do ya trust me?”
“What a question. Might as well ask as me if I bloody breathe...But that doesn't mean you're right. You could be possessed, under an enchantment—”
Cormick laughed, “I might be, that's true. So forget what I said, and come here.”
He pulled me tightly against his chest. I still wonder how he always managed that, despite my awkward horns. I wrapped one arm around his waist, placed the other on his chest as I listened to his heart beating.
“Yer shaking, Amara.”
“Am I? I think the wind just picked up...”
He pulled his cloak over both of us.
“It's only right to be scared. Yer facing fate...So many looking at ya—I can't blame them there,” He smiled crookedly, “but it's not fair. No matter how capable ya are, yer still just—”
“—just a girl?” I smiled.
“No. You were never 'just' anything—including 'a martyr.'”
“No worries there. You have to be a saint before you can be a sacrifice. I am many things...but never 'holy.'”
“I don't know what holy is either, Amara. I skipped out of Temple lessons...but I know what good is,” Cormick tapped my chest, “It's here.”
And here,” he tapped my forehead.
“And in yer mouth...”


...I didn't arrive back at the Flagon until Selune was still winking, but on her last legs. I wagged my finger her. You really should let that Sun catch up with you...

Before I went inside, I lingered outside the door, I looked at the stars once more with a changed perspective; they were soft, beckoning, brim, the loveliest lights I could ever remember. I knew that they might be the last stars I ever saw, and that was, somehow, alright. I had no fear of death.
Sweet Mystra...let it come.
I floated through the door, up the stairs.
Then I realized that I wasn't alone.
A voice hailed me in the hallway outside my room,
“I know where you were,” it was a mocking sing-song.
“Who's there?” I put out my hand, expecting another Luskan assassin, “Show yourself.”
“You and your Harborman went to fuck in the moonlight,” Someone emerged from the shadows, and I could see his profile clearly.
I waved him away, more relieved than angry, “Get back to your own sty, Bishop.”
“I noticed the swamp rat left you to yours. Typical. If I thought my sweetie was going to die, I would be screwing her silly.”
“Thanks for that picture,” I put my hand on my door handle, but Bishop put his weight on the door so that it wouldn't open.
He smiled, “You're going to hang on that leafless tree.”
His hot breath withered the air, made me cringe, “You're going to drown yourself in cheap booze.”
“I don't think I like your tone.”
“What are you going to do about it? I've beaten you twice already. Learn from your mistakes, if you brain isn't too pickled to respond.”
He kept smiling.
“Hello, what's your plan, ranger? Want to run into my fist again? Or will you use your usual smarm to try and get under my skin?”
“I already am...or soon will be,” he chuckled, licked his lips.
“Quit messing around.”
“I haven't begun,” He ran his hands down the long, graceful curve of my horns, then used them to pull my head towards his.
“I don't like your tone, ranger”
Grinning all the while, he clutched my chin until his fingers dug painfully into my cheeks.
“Wha—Get off me!” I tried to butt him with my horns, but couldn't.
Bishop held me still as he sucked on my lips.
Outraged, I made a noise between a growl and an cry, but he kept his hold.
“Here's something they don't teach you in the swamp.”
Suddenly, but very deliberately, Bishop cut his palm on my fangs—an easy thing since they were quite sharp. I tried to bite him, but he shoved his palm into my mouth until my head banged against the door with a dull thwack. As spots of luminous color danced before my eyes, I tried to break away, but he only pushed my head further back. My cheeks were torn and bloody from his fingernails. I could only narrow my eyes as the metallic taste of his blood filled my mouth. While he held me tightly, the ranger took my palm, pierced the wrist, and brought it to his own lips.
“Um,” he said, “now that's the way a woman should taste—like blood.” Bishop's face, what I could see of it, was ecstatic.
I managed to free my mouth enough to speak, “Ya, want it, ranger?”
He licked my wrist, the soft skin beneath. As he reached to unfasten his belt, I tripped him. He fell to the floor. I climbed on top of him, held up my fist even as his blood started to dry red smears down the corners of my chin.
“Ya still want it?” I asked.
“Mar—”
My delicate fist punched him in the face until his nose was bruised and bloody.
“Still?” I asked.
He laughed.
Bending my knees, I kicked him in the ribs until he couldn't laugh anymore.
I went up to him to make sure he was still breathing. He was, raggedly. I grabbed his ankles and pulled him all the way down to his own room. It was unlocked, so I dragged him inside. It was dark and smelled like a skinned animal. I wrinkled my nose.
“You damn mother fucker, you bloody damn bastard...”
The insults flew from my lips until I salvaged two healing potions amid discarded liquor bottles and other debris that cluttered every corner of the room.
I emptied the first potion over the bloody mess that was his face.
He woke, gurgling at the liquid caught in his throat. His eyes were glazed with pain or the elixir.
Noting with a tinge of satisfaction that his nose was broken in several places, I grabbed his chin, “Listen to me, Bishop. I'm not giving you this potion unless you leave me be. Tonight and every night after. Or else you can lay here and bleed to death, and I will smile at your corpse...”
He mouthed something, but I couldn't understand.
“I hope, for your sake, dickless, that was a 'yes, Amara.'”
After watching him struggle for another breath, I emptied the second potion down his gullet.
I didn't wait. I stood, walked back to my room, and locked the door behind me. I pulled a chair opposite the locked door, but then I pushed the chair up against it—I wasn't taking any more chances tonight.
As I paced the length of room, I wondered what to do. Cormick was on the other side of the city. I didn't want to bring Duncan into this. Khelgar or Shandra would kill the ranger, and I'd have to pass Bishop's room. I needed...discretion...I needed some sleep.
I caught my reflection. What in the gods own names did he see worth all...this? The dribbles of dried blood made me look feral, and would not come off, even after I rubbed it with both hands—both wounded hands.
I'm a bloody beast.
My reflection's grin said otherwise.
I shook my fist at the mirror, “This is quite a mess you've gotten us into.”
My reflection pointed at the door.
“Yeah, I suppose it is his fault...I should've killed him.”
You still can.
I growled loudly.
After some more angry stomping and pacing, I moved the chair away from the door as silently as I could. Neeshka's room was the closest to mine, but I didn't stop there. My feet carried me further down the hall. It was quiet, but my eyes stabbed at every fall of light, every play of shadow.
I tapped on the door with three deliberate knocks.
There was one long, breathless moment before it opened.
Holding up my finger to my finger up to my lips, I went inside.

Edited by Raenemon, 21 December 2009 - 06:16 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

Just email me for writing, proofing,or voicing: raenemon@yahoo.com
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#9 Raenemon

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Posted 12 July 2009 - 11:12 AM

:rolleyes:

Edited by Raenemon, 10 January 2010 - 06:07 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

Just email me for writing, proofing,or voicing: raenemon@yahoo.com
Check out my samples at:
http://nwvault.ign.c...d...5418&id=689

#10 Raenemon

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Posted 07 September 2009 - 05:10 PM

Chapter 8


I did not know the hour, but my left palm still oozed drops of blood onto my dress. It was blue-green like the color of the sea at Port Llast. Cormick had helped me slip it on. Like some large men, Cormick displayed surprising delicacy with things he thought he might hurt or break. Even with his big hands, he was as careful as a kitchen matron with her paring knife as he slid the dress over my dark, tousled hair. He cradled a thick tendril in his fingers like an eggshell. I was touched to think he thought I was breakable.

It seemed like another age since the thin fabric clung to my damp skin and the gurgle of the waterfall was as mild, as moist as his kiss. Now the dress was stained---not just by my palm or blood; everywhere an insidious, indigo-black rain marked me, bore witness to my blood mingling with the ranger's.

Suck it up, Amara, this isn't the first time you've been drenched in gore. Usually someone else's.

But there was a difference. There was no possessiveness in Cormick's hands when he touched me, no glint in his coal-dark eyes to master. Cormick...all my aches seemed to condense in his navel. With him, I got to savor life like I had never experienced it before, a sweetness that went to the bone.

After everything, I could still taste it.

These thoughts came after.

After Shandra's door opened, and I went inside.

My mouth and hands were mutually ruinous. Shandra 's blond hair was braided. Her yellow robe showed off her coloring.

She looked looked at the dress, looked at me, and somehow knew.

“I'll kill Bishop,” Shandra was barefoot and unarmed, yet I would not have traded places with the ranger. There was murder in her eyes---I half expected her to pick up a nearby vase to smash Bishop's skull with her sturdy arms.

I held up my hands, “Can we do that later?” I sounded more calm than I felt.

“Isn't that why you came---to have someone hold him down while you---?” She made a stabbing motion.

“If I wanted him dead, I would have been at his door. And I wouldn't have knocked.”

I looked down at the dress, closed my eyes as Bishop's words and lips slithered beneath my skin,

“...now that's the way a woman should taste—like blood.”

I shuttered, “I don't think---I don't want to touch another man tonight.”

Shandra pushed a lose hair away from my forehead, “Amara, you look awful.” She looked behind me, as if daring the ranger to be there, “I have something you can wear...”

Her arms tightened protectively around me as she guided me inside.








I dreamed I was someone else.

I was Owal.

“How many?” I spat.

Marim wept. Her dark hair spread like a veil over her face.

I towered over her,“How many have you spread for?”

Her dark brows furrowed, and she held a ringed hand before her mouth to protect herself ot me from the terrible implication. Spare us the shame.

But I didn't want to be spared---I never did, “ Tell me, while you can...”

Marim shook her dark head, moved her hair aside until her face rose like the moon within waves of fragrant darkness, “Owal...”

I backhanded her. She wouldn't sidetrack me.

Sobs raked Marim's body.

I wasn't going to spare her either, “Silence won't save you. I already know.”

Marim looked up, her face wide and white with her terror.

“What? Didn't you know that your husband always watches his dear wife---his dearest love. Remember when you called me that, too? I doubted everything, except that. Then you...If you would have just stopped loving me, I would have let you be, but you, you had to...betray not just me, but everything we ever were...Now, I see. It's all a lie. And you've showed me that...Don't you think I'm grateful?”

I caressed my fingers across her face, wiping at the wetness there.

“Tears, never-lover? I've been needing human blood to command a certain demon. I probably wouldn't have been able to do it, but suddenly, I'm full of inspiration. Purpose. Well done.”

A part of me recoiled from the tableau, but I could do nothing as my hand made strange signs in the air...

There was a flash of blue hellfire across my vision.

Marim's face suddenly became Shandra's...

My voice was a deep snarl, “Do you know what you have done?”

“I'm sorry,” Shandra cried just before bolts of energy sped from my hands into her chest.





When I woke, my heart was pounding. It took me several moments to realize why I wasn't in my own, familiar bed.

Shandra's light snores brought me fully awake.

I sat up slowly, slipping out of the bed without disturbing her dreams. Thanks to some healing potions of Shandra's, my wounds were nothing but a bad memory. I tiptoed to the door, meaning to go to my room, but then I saw my bodysuit already lying across a chair. She must have sneaked out in the night and retrieved my outfit while I slept.

I smiled at Shandra as I ran a hand across the dark sheen of the bodysuit. Made of eastern silks, some foreign dye process had altered the fabric so there was the merest hint of violet caught the light. The garb was as tight as a glove and just as smooth over every curve. Even with a high collar, no one would call it 'modest.' It was one of Sir Nevalle's strange jokes. The message he had attached merely said, “An aristocrat need not be meek, only fashionable.” Whether or not it was fashionable, the suit gave me more mobility than my armor or robes ever could. I looked like I had been dipped in oil rather than wrapped in cloth.

It was a costume, nothing more. but I did enjoy the dark, shimmery figure I cut in Shandra's mirror.

I slunk down the stairs for breakfast. No one was in the kitchen, so I grabbed some bread and cheese, and went into the common area.

Sand sat alone. He did not look up, but stirred his porridge as if he was displeased with the consistency. Or me. Or both.

“Would someone please tell me why I agreed to defend you?” my lawyer murmured into his bowl.

I sat smoothly across from him. We were alone, which wasn't surprising, considering the hour, “Because Sir Nevalle made you take my case?”

“Well, yes,” he added some cream from a pitcher into his bowl.

I crossed my legs,“...and you're bored having your talents squandered here in the Docks?”

“Perhaps,” the elf whisked his bowl vigorously without moving his elbow and tasted his porridge.

I grinned, “Because you hate Luskan---like everybody else in this bloody city seems to?”

“Obviously,” he used the honeycomb deftly, adding only a thin thread of amber.

“Because...” I poured myself a cup of brown tea, “I'm innocent?”

He finally looked at me,“That's what they all say.”

I filled his cup before setting the teapot down, “What have I done? From your tone, you'd think I slept with Lord Nasher.”

“Lord Nasher,” Sand voice considered the possibility, “that might have helped our case. No, dear, I saw you with...the Marshal.”

I looked at my cup before sipping the hot liquid, “Were you spying on me, mage?”

“They call it a 'spyglass' for a reason,” said Sand. “You went...skinny dipping.” He said it more like a maiden aunt than an elf several centuries old.

“Is that it?!” I asked. “I don't think there is anything illegal about taking a dip---skinny or otherwise---”

“Think, girl, what would have happened if you had been caught? Don't you see how your case would be...imperiled?”

“Listen, Sand, Cormick and I are respected members of the Watch. Even if we weren't careful, no Cloak would report anything. And we were very careful.”

“Well, I caught you. You could have been caught by the Luskans too.”

I patted his hand, “Come on, Sand, if you thought you were going to face execution, wouldn't you want to have one night...?”

“I certainly would not,” Sand pulled away from my touch as he straightened.

I looked at my empty cup, “I'm on trial for mass murder. If you have been spying on me, certainly you can dish up better accusations than that.”

Sand leaned over his bowl, “Think. The Luskans probably know that you ...fancy Marshal Cormick.”

“So?”

“Don't be naive. They will kill him, if they think it will help their cause.”

“If they so much as sneeze at Cormick---”

“You are the one putting him in danger. The best thing you can do for the Marshal is to let him disappear---”

“I can't, Sand. As you said, I...fancy him. Besides, he wouldn't let me. It's that Harborman stubbornness.”

Sand held up his pinky, “They may put you on trial, but as our unofficial Commandant, our fates are the same. One misstep, one false note, could send you, Cormick, all of us to the gallows. Remember that.”

“I know. I'll do whatever you advise, Sand. I don't think the noose would suit you. Too gaudy.”

Bishop's words from last night came back to me,“You're going to hang on that leafless tree.”

Sand looked around. I looked as well, but saw no one. The mage cast a spell to prevent us from being overheard, “There's some other things we need to discuss more privately.”

I tried to make my face blank, but I suddenly had an image of the ranger's smashed face grinning at me---proud, defiant, practically singing,“I know where you were.”

“No games,” Sand's voice was free of his usual contempt.

I shrugged, “Says the lawyer...”

“You're a warlock.”

I tried not too let my relief show, so I wiped off an imagined hair from my dark sleeve, “How long have you known?”

“Long enough. But I must say, I am far from approving.”

“I wouldn't expect you to be.”

“The strange murders in Blacklake, they might be the work of a warlock. There was an infernal trace at each scene that could not be identified.”

“Do you think it was me?”

“Of course not. The murders began before you arrived. But the Luskans may choose to make that connection. Your demon blood plus warlock plus waves of crime and violence might equal a hanging, whether or not it's true.”

I reached up, gestured at Sand, “Then we must have a stirring defense. I am fully confident you will represent me to the best of your abilities---not from the goodness of your heart, of course, but to shove the truth up Torio's upturned nose.”

There was the merest hint of a smile in the corners of his mouth, “Well, such a prospect does delight me. And if we succeed, you and I will have a chat, where you tell me everything about this warlock business.”

“I'm the daughter of the Dark Prince. What do you expect?”

Sand rolled his eyes, “As your councilor, I must not only see you objectively, but see how the other side will show you to be. One of the questions I have, is well, why you? You're a fosterling from a swamp village. A magic-user of potency, yes, but dare I say suspicious origin. Even those who don't know you're a warlock can still smell hellfire.”

“I like the smell of hellfire.”

“I'm certain you do. Where was I , oh yes, people are attracted to certain things, but to stick your neck out for someone means that the price might be worth getting your head caught in as noose.”

“That doesn't sound very appealing.”

Sand gave me a piercing elven gaze, “I think each of those who follow you is drawn by more than one reason: many spoken, many unspoken. There are only certain qualities that people risk their lives for: power, greed, sense of purpose, camaraderie.... “

“Love?”

Sand blinked, “I said camaraderie.”

I smiled, “Hate?”

He looked like a professor making a point, “Hate is when you want camaraderie, but the other...isn't interested.”

“And do I inspire any of these qualities?”

“Of course,” Sand's voice was full of energetic detachment as he considered each argument, “Power. The shards are powerful. The githyanki trying to kill you makes you powerful, even if you feel hunted. That Luskan wants to get rid of you means you're powerful enough to be a threat. Greed comes into play, too. Neverwinter sees you as a good investment, as do some of your companions. And let's face it, Amara, you have a very strong sense of purpose, even if you're less than twenty. You're aiming at this King of Shadows—a high mark. It's a gamble, but who doesn't like seeing a young colt race past more experienced horses in a mad dash to the finish line? And...if I may be so forward, your charms are ample enough that you'll always have someone fighting to...ride in your saddle.”

I rubbed the space between my horns, “I should have stayed in the swamp.”

“Then we would not have met.”

“It almost sounds like you like me, mage.”

“I find you...fascinating. Like and fascination are not the same thing.”

“From this point forward, I leave the technicalities to you. Now,” I stood, stretched, “is there anything else you want me to do before we head to Castle Never?”

The tight circles of words that kept our voices hidden dissipated as Sand created a half circle in the air.

Sand narrowed his eyes, “Just remember to heed me in the future.”

I bowed, “I will do my best, councilor.”

“Good,” Sand replied, “because our lives depend upon it.”



That morning, we marched in a formal procession from the Flagon to Castle Never. Sir Nevalle and Sir Grayson, both in full ceremonial plumes, were attended by several Cloaks, who instead of guarding me behaved more like an honor guard. Sand came next, looking very ministerial in his gray robes. Duncan, Khelgar, Elanee, and even Grobnar looked like they had had their boots scrubbed and shined. Casavir was immaculate, but he always seemed to be, even when he was waist-deep in mud. Shandra was speaking to the gleaming paladin, and her homespun, mauve dress just seemed to let her natural beauty show. Neeshka had been told by Sand to make herself scarce; another tiefling was too much to explain.

And as for Cormick, he was waiting when I came out of the Flagon, though I did not ask him to be there. He moved toward me as if I were the only thing in his field of vision. He was dressed in ceremonial black mail and his Watch cloak with a white, embroidered tunic over the armor.

It put his office in peril and drew Luskan eyes to him, but Cormick put his arms around me and grinned. His dark hair was oiled and shiny, and I couldn't resist running my hand against his cheek as I smoothed a rogue lock.

“Good morning, Marshal,” I muttered. “It looks like you slept well last night.”

“Thank ya, but if I recall rightly, there wasn't much sleeping,” he touched my hand. “By every god I know, Amara, ya grow more beautiful the more I look at ya.”

“Sounds like you need spectacles.”

A loud shout joined those already gathered, “Am I late?”

My whole body went cold.

Cormick pulled me into his arms, “Amara? What is it?”

“Nothing. I'm just, tired.” I pulled away from his embrace. “I'll feel better once we start moving.”

Khelgar's voice rose, “Bishop, you look terrible, lad. Aw. Don't tell me ya got yer skinny arse handed to you and I missed it---”

“Shut up, dwarf, or I'll---!”

“You should be sleeping it off, ranger,” Sand's voice chided.

I looked at Bishop. The potion I gave him must not have been enough to heal all his wounds. His nose was quite broken, he still had some mean bruising, and he walked with a definite hobble.

Bishop's voice was deliberate, “The last thing I would ever miss would be her hanging.”

Elanee walked up to Bishop, unstrung a pouch, “At least let me tend these wounds,” she looked over him with a clinical eye.

“If that bone isn't set, that limp will become permanent...”

“Keep away from me, elf," Bishop took a staggering step away from the druid. "I don't need your flower magic.”

Elanee shrugged, “Then heal yourself.”

Scowling, Bishop muttered some incantation over his thigh. I have no idea what power answered, but his walk assumed his usual, graceful glide.

While the healing had made the bruising disappear, Bishop's nose was now definitely, permanently, crooked.

I smiled as our group marched towards the Castle.

Cormick walked beside me. We didn't speak much, but when Cormick whispered in my ear, it was to the point. We both knew time was short and didn't waste it with unnecessary words.

When he saw me looking at the strange procession, he said, “All these people are here for ya, Amara. Look at what ya've done in such a short time...Imagine what ya might yet do!”

As he caught me memorizing his features, he said, “I've already thought about what I will say if they call on me. I'm going to tell them the truth---that I can't stand being next to you without trying to touch you. And that the Luskans don't deserve to lick the soles of your feet.”

Another time, he said, “I know ya once stole Georg Redfield's birthday cake, but I don't think that warrants execution.”

Before the castle gates and the throng of people waiting for the trial, he said, “Even if they say yer guilty, I won't let them take ya. Do ya hear? Just look for me, and we'll make it right.”

“Cormick,” I looked into his eyes, “if something happened to me, don't you dare do anything brash. I won't have you come to harm. Do you hear me?”

He touched my neck, “I don't think we have time for a Harbor 'goodbye,' or 'hello.'”

I kissed his forehead, mumming, “No heroics,” as I traced his eyebrow with my finger.

Cormick pulled our foreheads together, “Ya'll be just fine, Amara.”

Sand cleared his throat loudly.

After looking into each others faces, we parted.

“Oh, what a tender scene,” said a cloying female voice.

I turned. Sand hackles seemed to rise, “Ignore that hag, Amara.”

The woman in white and a wide collar smirked,“...two solders of Neverwinter trying to put on a brave face. Your lover is right to be sad; justice will be done today for the people of Ember. And you will be hanged. Along with anyone who might have helped you commit your atrocious crime---

I moved towards Torio, but her Luskan retainers wouldn't let me get close enough to slap her, “Listen here, Ambassador. It's is enough for you to falsely accuse me of something that I didn't do, but don't you dare bring those I care about into this. That may be how they play it in Luskan, but your dirty tricks will leave you cold and alone in this place.”

“Is that a threat?” Torio was all mock outrage. She pretended to run a hand through her short, red-brown quaff, but she didn't disturb a precious hair.

I smiled, “I don't make threats, Ambassador, I merely state the obvious, even for someone with your meager means of perception.”

The crowd around us laughed, including Sand.

“That is enough,” said the Judge, “We will begin the trial.”

The air in the room was tense as a drum, or a taunt bow. Like any mob, this throng of disparate people wanted a catharsis. Commoners and nobles waited to see what my fate would be, whether I lived or died. I held no illusions---I knew that either fate would suffice for this rabble.

I searched the faces in the crowd. Cormick's was the first face I knew. He was beaming with the same grin he had worn on his face even in my earliest memories of him. Khelgar was beside the Marshal. He didn't seem happy to have to watch this farce of a trial, and whenever he looked at Torio I could tell he was waiting for my permission to show her a little justice. Grobnar chatted very enthusiastically with Elanee, who tried very hard to be polite. Shandra's hair was slightly askew, as if she was too distracted to smooth it this morning. When I was certain that I had her attention. I winked at her. She sighed, rested her face in her hands. Casavir's eyes were on his feet. I think he was praying. Bishop did not stand with the others. He made a great show of maneuvering his way to the very front, fastening those avid eyes on mine as if he had the sole claim.

Sand's touch at my elbow was feather-light,“Don't concern yourself with the groundlings.”

I turned toward my lawyer.

While I felt awkward in front the crowd, here Sand was in his element, “Keep doing what you started to do out front,” he counseled, “Let Torio the mistake of getting angry. You must always seem to come out better, whether she tries false reasoning, or persuasion---don't attack her unless you know that you you're completely certain you can win. This trial is a game. A game for your life, true, but a game like any other. Torio had been playing political intrigues for a long time; you can't imagine what it takes to survive in Luskan. If you show the slightest weakness, she will pounce on you, like a tiger on a fly. But we have truth on our side, we have the law, we have the testimony, and we have the evidence. All they have are empty words.”

“My, that's rousing, Sand.”

“I am quite aware. Oh, and I'd just like to say one more thing: if they do string you up, it's been nice knowing you,” he tapped my shoulder with a chaste caress.

“Um. Thanks, Sand. I can see how that might be sweet. I'm am more than ready—I am as eager as anyone on trial for murder can be.”

“Then you might have missed your true calling: a lawyer.”

I made a sign of warding, Lathander's circle, “Gods forbid.”

“I call Alaine,” said Torio, strutting before Lord Nasher and the Judge, “the only survivor of the slaughter of Ember.”

A young woman was escorted to the stand. Her sandy-colored hair away from her sturdy face, but her bangs gave her eyes definition. She looked around as if she expected to be attacked.

When Alaine looked at me, she set her jaw at a stubborn angle. She was scared, but she was determined to see me pay.

The Luskan ambassador may have had questionable taste in clothing, but Torio's oratory skills were superb, “Alaine, we all know you've been through a terrible ordeal, but you must continue to be brave. Who attacked your village? Was it someone...in this room?”

The Luskan motioned at the crowd, but I knew it was only for show.

“It was her,” Alaine said, pointing directly at me. She sounded utterly convinced. If this was any trial but my own, I probably would have believed her too. The crowd stirred at her accusation, and there were raised voices. I have no doubt that mob would have strung me up right there by Nasher's throne---trial or no trial.

Though she wore a veil of assumed humility, Torio still seemed pleased, “No further questions, your honor.”

A voice rose from the general commotion of the angry crowd.

“Alaine, you know me!” it was Shandra who spoke. She brought herself to her full height, spread her feet as if she was getting ready to fight.

Alaine nodded, but seemed confused, “Yes...you're Shandra Jerro. You come through Ember, selling your crops and trading. I know you.”

Shandra's hair glowed like the halo of an avenging angel, “How many times have I sat at your table, Elaine?”

“Countless.”

“Would you consider me a friend?”

Elaine nodded, “Yes.”

“Your Honor,” interrupted Torio, “this woman” she gave Shandra a contemptuous glare, “has no right to speak. Only the Accused's councilor may do so---”

Sand spoke from beside me, “As the Accused's councilor, I give Shandra the right to question this particular witness. They are friends, after all, as we have already established.”

“Very well,” the judge indicated Shandra, “continue.”

Shandra gestured at me, “Did you know that I've been traveling with Amara for some time now?”

Alaine paused, squinted at me, “No, I didn't.”

Shandra's voice was full of sincerity, “Do you think I would travel with someone who...would do what happened at Ember?”

“No. I don't think you could, Shandra. But I saw her,” the girl pointed at me again as tears filled her eyes.

“Alaine, I know you've been through something terrible. But I'm going to ask you to remember. Did you see me in the company of those who took part in the slaughter?”

“Of course not.”

She gestured at each side where all of our companions sat, “Did you see any of these people there, Alaine?”

“No.”

“Why would Amara go and do this without any of us? It doesn't make sense...”

“I don't know why you weren't there, but she was,” Alaine pointed at me even more firmly.

“So it was Amara that you saw, and only her?”

“Yes.”

“Alaine,” I made my voice as soft as a caress, “is it possible that you could have seen someone who was disguised to look like me?”

Alaine looked at Shandra, “...I don't know...”

I stood and placed a pouch before the judge, who opened it. He closed his eyes, smelled the contents, and then nodded, “I have seen enough alteration powder in my time to know it.”

“Let me state to the court that we found that alteration powder near the village, which would easily have given whoever slaughtered these people my face and features,” I turned toward Elaine. “Such trickery would have fooled anyone, even honest folk. I just ask you, Elaine, to consider the probability. I don't doubt that you saw what you did. You are an honest woman. Just, is it---at least---possible that someone used magic to deceive you?”

Elaine wept freely. Shandra went up to her, gave her a handkerchief.

“Well...” she sniffed, looking at Shandra, and then at me, “I suppose so.”

There was outraged chattering amid the crowd.

“I believe we are finished with this witness, your honor,” oozed Sand as Elaine blew her nose. “Let it be known that this witness has admitted that she may have been deceived.”

Torio was mirthless, “This is an mockery. These people are manipulating this poor girl, but I won't let this abomination of justice continue any further...I call my next witness.”

“Proceed then, Ambassador,” the Judge replied.

Torio looked at her perfectly oval nails, “I call Shandra Jerro to the stand.”

“What?” Sand and I asked at the same time.

Shandra moved to the witness stand and placed her hands upon the wooden podium as if she expected it to entrap her soul.

“It's alright Shandra. You are safe here,” Torio patted Shandra's hand.

Shandra wrenched her hand away from the Ambassador's touch. She held it tucked to her chest as she spoke, “This is trial is ridiculous---a sham. And I want no part of it.”

“What do you mean, Shandra? This is a court of law. The charges are dire. You have a duty to answer the questions put to you. And you may speak freely of your...home. The Accused cannot harm you anymore---”

“My home?”

Torio looked at Shandra as if she were explaining to a child or a simpleton, “Wasn't it lost to fire after the Accused showed up there with her gang?”

Shandra scratched her elbow, “Well, yes, but...”

“No,”interrupted Torio, waging a finger at Shandra, “There is not 'but'---only 'yes' and 'no.' This is a court of law---we cannot have any confusion.”

The Luskan addressed the throng, “I'm only looking for simple answers to very simple questions, my dear. I ask you again: was your home destroyed after the Accused showed up there?”

“Yes---”

Torio lifted up her hands, shrugged dramatically for the crowd, “From the mouth of her 'friend,' no less.”

Now Torio switched tactics, leaning very close to Shandra, “Is this how Amara Chidi makes friends, through strong-arming and intimidation---just as she has kept the 'peace' in the city?” The Luskan pitched her voice as a plea, “Don't you regret the first moment the Accused darkened your door?”

Shandra looked at me...

Then her fists hit the stand, “No! Amara is a good woman. And she is my friend. And it breaks my heart to see her forced to endure these outrageous accusations! You should be thanking her rather than putting her on trial!”

Torio made a tsking sound, “Clearly, the Accused has poisoned your mind. How unfortunate---yet another woman's life has been ruined by the Accused---”

I replied without thinking, “Why don't you question me yourself, unless you're scared...” I let the word and the threat linger.

There was a short, pregnant silence in the hall as everyone focused on Torio.

The ambassador folded her hands in front of her lap. For some reason, I thought she was fighting very hard to to control her reaction, but when she spoke, her voice was measured, completely efficient.

“I fear no one. especially not...you.”

Turning her back to the crowd, she moved gracefully to stand in front of me. I knew then, as her dark, sharp eyes met mine with disdain, that Torio Claven would do whatever was necessary to win. This woman was not only several years older, but had been through things I could not begin to imagine to rise to her position. As she looked down at me with that hard-fought face, she gave me a pinched grin before turning towards the judge. That look said everything:“I'll eat you alive, little girl.”

Torio did not look back at me, but seemed to feed from the crowd's excitement.

“I call my next witness, your honor: Amara Chidi.”

“Sweet Mystra, don't say anything,” whispered Sand.

I walked up to the stand, folded my hands upon its surface. It felt like every eye in Neverwinter was upon me.

Torio faced the assemblage, “And what are you, Amara Chidi?”

“A woman.”

“I'll say!” someone yelled from the gallery. There were several snickers.

Torio smiled. It was purely malicious, and just for me---another promise of what was to come, “Hold up your claws, Half-blood.”

I smiled back at her, “Only if you hold up yours, Ambassador...”

“Your Honor,” replied Torio, rolling her eyes at me, “I need for the people to see that the Accused is of demon blood. These markings needs to be brought to light. They are integral to our case. A honorable woman would cooperate, your honor. If she has nothing to hide, then there can be no problem with an...examination.”

“Very well,” the Judge looked at Nasher, who offered only a steely stare. “Let it be known that the Accused shall submit willingly to this line of questioning, or else the court will have to assume that she is hiding some truth.”

Nasher's voice cut through the room as his gaze feel upon me. The glittering of his gold-white armor added to his regal air. He might be 'lord' in name, but in everything else, he was a 'king', “As a solider of Neverwinter, Amara Chidi, you are sworn to uphold truth and justice before your Lord and your people.”

“I swear before all of Neverwinter: I will tell the truth, and strive only for justice today---and everyday.”

Once the words left my lips, I knew they were true, but what that meant, I had no idea. Truth was a sketchy thing. After all, Elaine had been so convinced of what she had seen. And it was true, for her. If the King of Shadows was truly behind what happened at Ember, he had picked that town because I could be framed or its destruction. They had died , in part, because I had passed through there on a certain day...While it may not be the same as wholesale slaughter, why could I still see their glassy-eyed faces? I didn't destroy that village, but I didn't do anything to save it either, even after Marcus warned me. So, I was guilty---I felt guilty---so guilty that my bile rose, burning the back of my throat.

And one question formed in my mind, refusing to be be ignored: Would I destroy a village to stop the King of Shadows? If I was honest---truly, bleach-bare honest---like Elaine, I didn't know.

I would always see their eyes. That, I knew.

Lord Nasher inclined his head. I think he was pleased with my vow, but with Lord Nasher, it was hard to know.

Torio allowed herself a satisfied smirk, which showed her pearly teeth beneath her painted lips.

“Amara Chidi, Squire of Neverwinter, put up your hands.”

I raised them, wiggled the extra digits.

“How many fingers do you have?” asked Torio.

“Twelve,” I replied.

“Thank you. You may lower you hands now. Now, will you point out your horns for the court?”

I ran my hands against the smooth, curved length of my horns from my temples to the back of my head.

“How many horns do you have?”

I showed one profile, then another to the crowd, “Two.”

Torio gestured vaguely at each area she described, “Note the color of the Accused skin: dark as a drow, but the eyes are an emerald green. That's not any human coloring that I have seen.”

“Perhaps your experience of the world is limited, Ambassador,” I replied, “You might as well blame an elf for having pointed ears, or a dwarf for being shorter than you happen to be.”

I could hear Khelgar snort.

Torio ignored my barb, “Now, open your mouth, Squire. Show the court your fangs.”

To illustrate how sharp my fangs were, I ran my thumb against each point.

“Anything else you want to see?” I winked at Torio as I straightened my back. Such posturing merely emphasized the dark silks already caressing my curves, which were as womanly, as human, as any other female's.

Once again, there was laughter. Torio waited for the chuckling to die down before replying, “These deformities are all signs of fiendish blood. They came from your father, correct?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

“But who---or should I say---what is he?”

“Well, I've only heard of him, but I couldn't tell you his name. He might be a demon, he might be a tiefling,” I shrugged. “I am a bastard, if that is what you're driving at, but I have never pretended otherwise. There are many children who don't know their father. Sometimes that is a blessing.”

Torio's hand curved gracefully as it pressed against her cheek, “Your mother was an aasimar, correct? Fair of hair and skin? You are the offspring of an odd coupling, with a clear result. Your features, one by one, clearly indicate that you are anything but celestial. It seemed like your father's blood, whatever demon he may be, has won out.”

“I didn't have any say in the way I look, Ambassador, or who my parents are. Whatever blood I have, it can't make me do anything.”

The Luskan ambassador paced before the stand in her heeled boots, which made a deliberate tap, like an ax splitting wood, “It's just that a child, looking the way you do, might be drawn to evil because it's in your veins. Your very conception was a brutality, was it not?”

“Most likely,” I replied, “but it wouldn't be the first nor the last time brutality has occurred between men and women.”

“Let me bring us back to the point,” Torio's stopped right in front of the stand and addressed her questions to me. “You are a warlock, correct?”

“Yes.”

“A half-demon warlock in the service of Neverwinter. That sounds like quite a tale,” Torio did not hide her contempt.

I leaned forward, “It is the truth. Just as it is true that not all warlocks or tieflings are evil.”

“Just most?”

There were some snickering, and more than a few faces that seemed to share Torio's opinion.

I spoke to the crowd rather than Torio, “You could also follow that line of argument to say that my mother was a paladin of Ilmater, and so I am just as likely to take up a holy sword and heal the world's ills than to sprout bat-wings and become a succubus.”

“We'll, let's set aside your parents and look at your motivations, then, shall we?” her heels clicked against the marble once again, “You left your village under peculiar circumstances.”

I wondered how much Torio knew, so I kept my reply as simple as possible, “West Harbor was attacked. I served on the militia, so I helped defend it. When that attack failed, I came to Neverwinter.”

“Perhaps your village did not want a demonic spell-caster?”

I grabbed the stand hard enough that I could feel my limbs, my whole body, tighten, “Go there, then, Ambassador. Ask the commander of the militia what happened---ask the whole village.”

“Don't think we haven't talked to those who knew you. Again and again, wherever you have stepped, it has been the same story: you have a history of violence. Do you deny it?”

I touched my belt, the scabbard that was not there, but the gesture was still reassuring, “No. There are always conflicts, and I have never shied away from violence when necessary. That's what happens when you stand up and fight for something...”

The phrase lingered in the air until I met Torio's eyes, “...You get dirty.”

The Ambassador spoke low, “Has innocent blood sullied your hands, Amara Chidi?”

“I never claimed to be righteous, but that does not mean I took part with what happened at Ember. These allegations are false---odious not only to the memory of those who have fallen, but it sets a stain on the character of my parentage, my home, my companions, and the people of Neverwinter, whom I serve.”

“Huzzah!” cried Grobnar.

I pointed at Torio, “You are trying to appeal to people's fears, but it won't work...I am innocent of this, Ambassador, but what about you?”

“Ridiculous,” Torio sneered, but I could see the fear in her eyes.

“This deed has a Luskan reek about it,” I said. “I see the look in your eyes...Does it gnaw at your soul? There is still time to do what is right. If you know who really did this, Torio, you can say it in this court. I'm certain Lord Nasher will protect you---”

Torio slit her eyes, “Is that what you said to the people of Ember before you slaughtered them one by one?”

“Don't change the subject,” in my anger, I spoke only to Torio. “These people were not slaughtered without reason. The bodies had been tainted, and had to be blessed so that they would not rise. They were killed---men, women, children---as a means to an end, a twisted experiment. I saw it before at Old Owl Well. There are those that seek to create an army of undead, but such an army requires bodies---desecrated bodies---just like what happened in Ember. If you helped commit this atrocity, Ambassador, only the gods can help you. And you should pray to them for mercy because you deserve none from me.”

Torio covered her ears, but her voice rang out shrilly, “I am not the one on trial---you are, demon witch!”

“Ambassador,” said Lord Nasher, “no more outbursts, or I will end this trial and offer my judgment. Either proceed with your case, or let the Accused call her own witnesses.”

Lowering her hands, Torio was still wide-eyed when she spoke to Nasher, but her voice carried every possible threat, “Luskan is not yet satisfied, oh no, Lord Nasher, but I am through with this witness, and will call no more.”

I stood beside Sand, and there was applause all around.

Sand cleared his throat, “The Defense calls Marcus, another survivor of the slaughter of Ember, to the stand. Marcus is gifted with sight beyond sight, the seers' gift, which allowed him to see the real perpetrators of this crime.”

I could see Marcus' short, dark-haired profile moving through the crowd, which had parted for him.
The boy was thin, but those eyes were again deep and reflective, and made the looker feel infinitely small in those black pools. He had to stand in front of the witness stand, since it was taller than he was.

“Marcus,” Sand seemed to keep his composure by looking at the crowd rather than meeting the boy's gaze, “did you see what happened to your village, child?”

Marcus nodded. His voice sent chills up and down my skin, “They roused the town when there was little moon and everyone else was asleep. They were orderly until their leader arrived. He started the killing, mostly with his own hands...”

“And who did this leader look like?”

Marcus looked at the crowd, and then moved his gaze deliberately to me, “No one I can see here.”

“But Marcus, there was another witness who said she saw the Accused led this attack.”

“That is because he had a spell to make him look like Amara Chidi, but they look nothing alike. This other person must be mistaken, but I see through things like that.”

Torio had not given up the attack, “Are we really to believe this?” She yawned, “They conveniently dredge up some boy off the streets, offer him a few coppers, and we're supposed to believe he is a seer as well as a survivor---?”

“Go ahead,” said Sand, indicating Marcus with a delicate gesture of his hand, “Test the boy.”

Torio put her hands behind her back and looked at the crowd, “Alright, boy, if you are a seer, then tell me---what do I have in my hand?”

Marcus did not hesitate. His voice was as even and certain and chilling as everything he saw with those uncanny eyes, “You hold in your hand a ring. It is Garius' ring, the Master of the Fifth Tower. You clutch it as if it might fly from your hand. You fear him; you fear his ambition. But what you really fear---”

“---Enough!” shouted Torio, making a sound like a kettle boiling over. “Yes, I have the ring in my hand, but this just a parlor trick. A trick! None of the rest is true.”

Sand smiled. For the elf, it was the equivalent of jumping up and down in glee, “We have no more questions for Marcus, unless the Ambassador wishes another demonstration...”

As Marcus left the stand, he came up to me. The child merely glanced at me, but time stopped when our iris' met: deep black and verdant green.

I could feel his voice in my head---just as calm and penetrating as it ever was, but neither old nor young, male nor female,“This is the third time I greet you in this life and the last. But our kind says neither hello nor goodbye. Yet, while there is time, I will say this. I am born knowing. You are born in ignorance, but you may come to know.”

My own voice, the telepathic one that answered his, was more like his voice than any that ever passed my lips, “Know what?”

“What you are.”

“I am a half-demon bastard accused of murder.”

His laughter was like a pulsating star, “I see few of our kind, but I knew what you were in my dreams...You dreams are not your own, not until you know yourself. Be careful. You are not yet ready. The end will be another beginning, no matter whose daughter you are.”

“I don't understand. You are a boy...”

“Only in this life. There are others.”

“Is that supposed to be a comfort?”

“No. Knowledge is unsettling.”

“Can you at least tell me what I am? Or what will happen?”

“You must find yourself amid sadness and joy---like all who breath...like all who Wander. I tell what you need to hear---never everything. Not even the gods know everything. Just enough.”

“But 'our kind'? What kindred? Why do I know you? Are you an angel, or a demon?”

“I am. I was. I will be---and now, I must be going.”

Light seared my mind...

“Amara...” Sand leaned towards me, waved a finger in front of my face.

I looked around. Marcus was gone.

Sand looked quite concerned, “Amara...you're looking a little glazed, my dear.”

I blinked, “Mm, just struck...I can practically taste the acquittal.”

Sand preened, “You're going to miss the best part.” Then the elf stood and addressed the court, “The defense calls Marshal Cormick, of the Watch.”

Cormick strode up to the stand, smiled at the crowd, then directed his smile at me.

I smiled back at Cormick because I could never do otherwise. When I looked at Sand, my smile became feral as I showed my teeth.

“You could have told me,” I whispered to the mage.

“I enjoy intrigue. As your lawyer, the less I tell you, the better off you will be.”

I raised an eyebrow as Sand started the questioning, “Marshal, how do you know the Accused?”

Cormick's liquid eyes went first to me, although they held the entire room. I was once again struck with how well Cormick commanded attention---not because he sought it, but because he was utterly 'charming.' His eyes invited those he looked at into his soul; truly, what spell is greater than that?

I let Cormick's voice settle my mind after the strange, otherworldly contact with Marcus,“Amara and I were born in the same place---a little village in the Mere called West Harbor. We've known each other, well, pretty much out whole lives. I came to the city several years ago and joined the Watch. I ran into Amara recently in Fort Locke, when she was making her way to Neverwinter. While at the fort, she found the missing commander and freed some slaves who had been help captive by bandits. She also prevented all-out bloodshed when the acting commander turned traitor.”

“You've also worked together in Neverwinter, correct?”

“Yes. She joined the Watch and has done outstanding work. It's all there in my reports.”

“What else did she do?”

“She saved the Waterdeep ambassador who was held prisoner near Old Owl Well, where she also helped one of the Nine, Callum, secure the area against orc assaults, which led directly to his recent victory there. Callum wrote a letter for the court, conveying his deepest respect and admiration for Amara Chidi's deeds. And that's just some of what she's done for the city. She is a hero, not a villain, as some might say.”

Cormick looked at Torio like a rabid dog.

“Thank you Marshal,” Sand said. “I have nothing else to ask at this time.”

As the elf sat, Torio walked in front of Cormick, her heels clicking once again, “You have an excellent record, Marshal. You have served your city well. I wonder, though, Marshal, do most of the Accused's friends have such radiant reputations?”

“I don't know what ya mean.”

“Let me inform you, Marshal. Your fellow Harborman has been in the company of a well-known instigator,” she pointed at Khelgar.

“That' a lie!” Khelgar shouted, “Let me at her...” Casavir had to drag the dwarf back into his seat.

“A murderer and a defector,” Torio then pointed at Casavir, who stared back until the Luskan flinched.

“A bounty hunter---a wanted man,” she nodded at Bishop, and when their eyes met, I was surprised to see mutual recognition: grim in his eyes, spiteful in hers.

Then she motioned at Sand, “...and one who studied at the Hostower of the Arcane. Now, if this really is a Luskan plot, why is there a Luskan defending the Accused?”

The crowd murmured as Torio smirked at Sand.

“Harpy...” Sand whispered vehemently beside me.

It was Cormick who spoke, “I won't deny that lots of folk are drawn to Amara. I have some ideas why that's the case, but it has to do with her warmth, her flame... Ya can't blame people for cozening up to a fire, Ambassador. But we are in a court, trying to find the truth, and I'm not here to testify about the anyone other than Amara Chidi.”

Torio chuckled, “Ah, come now, Marshal. Aren't you going to tell the court your real relationship to the Accused?”

“I don't see where yer going, Ambassador.”

“Are you and the Accused friends? ...Lovers?”

“I don't see how that is your business,” Cormick looked at Torio from head to toe, “but I don't think she's yer type.”

There was laughter in the gallery.

Torio ignored his comment,“If you are lovers, then of you'll say anything to put her in a favorable light.”

“But wouldn't I be just as likely to do that if she was just my friend? Amara and I get along...but even if we didn't, she doesn't need my clumsy words to save her reputation. Her deeds and her character speak for themselves---quite eloquently. She does what she must, and somehow manages to make good things happen in bad times. That is something ya should learn from---thank her for, rather than blame her for what Luskan has done.”

Torio sighed, “Luskan did not do this. It was the Accused.”

Cormick smiled, “That's a lie, and ya know it. Luskan is looking for any excuse to invade---even one as flimsy as this.”

Torio placed her hand on her hips, “Marshal Cormick. I will direct you only to answer the questions put to you. Are you lying for this woman?

“No,” he said, “I don't need to.”

“Would you lie for this woman?”

“I can't answer question about things I might do, can I?”

Torio pointed at me, “Do you love this woman, Amara Chidi?”

Cormick pointed at Torio.

“How dare, ya?” he demanded. “Ya have no right to utter that word. I refuse to speak of her feelings or mine with a viper who can't understand any sentiments other than selfishness, fear, and ambition.”

Applause broke out from the gallery.

I leaned toward Sand, “Well done.”

“Thank your swimmer,” he said.

“I have no more questions, your honor,” Torio said.

Cormick winked at me as he stood up from the stand.

I looked at him like I wanted to give him a 'harbor hello,' 'goodbye,' 'good afternoon,' and 'everything-in-between.'

“Shall we rest our case?” Sand asked.

I nodded.

Sand gave a little speech and Torio gave hers.

Then Lord Nasher pronounced the sentence from his throne,“If there are no more arguments, I am prepared to render a verdict in this case.”

Suddenly, Nasher raised his hand for silence. His face was a study of dual-edge of justice, mercy and judgment combined,“The Accused is found not guilty.”

There was wild applause, whistles, and stomping.

Lord Nasher looked ahead, raising an arm solemnly, making lights dance across the shiny surface of his gauntlets, “But...every Luskan is to clear out of the city by nightfall---”

Wait!” Torio's voice cried out,“I call the right to trial by combat!”

Nasher looked at Torio, and for a moment, I could hear his dislike of her when he addressed her, “No more distractions, Torio---”

The Ambassador held up her hands like any common penitent, “But it is the law of our god. Not even you can violate Tyr's law, Lord Nasher.”

“Judge Oleff, is this true?” Nasher asked.

“Lord Nasher,” replied the judge, “The Ambassador is within Tyr's law. A trial of combat would supersede what has occurred today, my lord. I leaves the judgment in Tyr's court rather than this one.”

“Very well,”said Nasher, but he was not pleased. “On the morrow, there will be a trial by combat to determine the fate of the Accused, Amara Chidi. She, or her champion, will fight the champion of Luskan.”

“Will you be the one to fight, Torio?” It was Sir Nevalle. He stood at the base of Nasher's throne,“I wouldn't mind seeing you run through by a solider of Neverwinter, but I thought you preferred to use assassins?”

Torio gestured meekly at her white dress, her thin, pale arms, “Sadly, I am not able to champion the people of Ember myself...I am not a warrior, but I know someone must want to champion the people of Ember...”

No one spoke up.

After several moments, a large, tattooed man stood, “I will.”

That voice was familiar. I looked at him again.

The bald man met my eyes and rubbed his fingers as he stuck out am eel-like lip.

Sweet Mystra, it couldn't be.

He was older, but there was no mistake; I would know him anywhere. It was Lorne Starling, Bevil's brother---the bully of West Harbor.

Edited by Raenemon, 21 December 2009 - 06:19 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

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#11 Raenemon

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Posted 23 October 2009 - 05:32 PM

Chapter 9


The senior priest led me to a nave containing a mural of Tyr at its center. Outlined in gilded filigree and filled in with jeweled tones, the god held a hammer in his right hand and a longsword in his left. He waved the warhammer in benediction over a helmed, kneeing penitent---I think... The more I looked at the stern, grim line of Tyr's features, the less certain I became whether the hammer was poised to bless, or to strike the poor mortal on his knees.

Interrupting my study of the painting, the head priest, Oleff, who was also the Judge at the day's trial, whispered that it was custom to have visitors before a trial by combat. He squeezed my shoulder in a fatherly way. Since Daeghun never touched me except through accident or need, the concept of 'fatherly' brought to my mind something much more distant and rational than I think the judge intended. I did not doubt that Oleff was trying to comfort me by letting me know I wouldn't be alone, but he didn't realize that all I wanted to do was a few, stolen moments where the world wasn't clamoring for my blood.

I nodded, smiled---the two things I always defaulted to whenever I really didn't know what to do, but didn't want to make an enemy. When I had no desire to be diplomatic, that's when I resorted to my weapons: my bastard sword, hellfire, or something mocking. All methods meant to intimidate.

The Judge bowed in priestly fashion, and then walked beck to the inner sanctum. Tyr's temple was massive, the largest building in the Merchant quarter, which wasn't surprising, considering that Tyr was, for all practical purposes, the patron deity of Neverwinter. Every two hours, the clergy conducted prayers. Not having much else to do, I wandered the temple as purposeless as a ghost.

In the early evening, a male voice broke into a song in the central, largest section of the temple. I followed the voice as it echoed off the walls, making my way to where priests and laymen already gathered. Those attendees who knew the song sang it as they seated themselves in the marble benches. Never having seen a Tyrran service, I slipped into the foremost bench, the only one that was unoccupied.

The bench was marble---expensive, hand-cut, but cold. When the rock was beginning to warm beneath me, the young singer, a gloved acolyte, stopped singing. His tenor became a steady and compelling baritone as he chanted the names and deeds of people who had died for justice. It sounded like he was imitating the sounds of a prayer bell, which rang after every name. The names I did recognize were various heroes from my childhood. I was surprised; it wasn't just Tyrrans who were named, but anyone whose dedication to valor led to an early death.

The more I listened, the more lulled I became until the names themselves chimed like music in my ears, silencing me the way the conversation of deep-voiced of adults soothed me as a child, even if I didn't quite know what was being discussed with such solemnity...

Then one name pierced the long, respectful toll like a war drum, “...Esmerelle Chidi, Holy Warrior of Suffering, in noblest service to Neverwinter and Ilmater...”

I looked up in disbelief. ...Mother? I pictured the fair hair, the sunflower eyes hidden behind some winged helm. Long after the last name was chanted, I tried to sustain that image of her in my mind, a portrait born of the singing.

My mother, the saint...I folded my hands together and put them against my forehead. ..Why do I know more about demons than I know of you?
“Amara?”

Why couldn't everyone leave me the hells alone? I looked up from my meditation. The singing had ended some time ago. No one else disturbed the sanctity of Tyr's hall except for me. And the paladin, who stood behind my shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. My voice seemed to grate against the silence.

Instead of armor, Casavir wore blue and purple robes and a white sash. The white glove on his left hand and a black glove on his right one made him look like a cleric. A ridiculously handsome cleric. A ridiculously handsome cleric whose merest gesture was a declaration of dignity. Then I remembered what the gloves meant. Tyr lost his right hand to the Chaos Hound, Kezef, during the Time of Troubles, when gods were forced to walk the earth.

“I am a servant of Tyr. We tend to end up in his temple sooner or later,” Casavir didn't grin, but I knew he was joking.

“I mean those vestments,” the more I looked at the garb, the more I became amazed at how the paladin always seemed like a hero ripped out of a fairy story, made flesh among us lesser mortals, an avatar of Grimjaws himself---especially with those steel-gray eyes. If a demon could sire me, maybe a god sired Casavir. That would explain much: his beauty, his manner, his presence...even his distance. But Tyr wasn't the type to cat around.

Something of what I though must have shown on my face, for Casavir smoothed the front of his robes with a black-gloved hand, “If I would have known your reaction, I would have changed first, lady.”

I snorted.

As much as I...felt...for Cormick, I knew he wasn't pretty like Casavir, not even as Bishop might have been, but Cormick was more attractive than either men. Cormick was approachable. As different as Casavir and Bishop were, they both kept other people away. Cormick was completely at ease in his own skin and made other people feel the same way. In Casavir's case, something that made you admire him from a distance. No one likes to feel like they don't 'measure up', and next to Casavir, few did. It wasn't because the paladin thought better of himself than others---quite the opposite--- but other folk became keenly aware of their own imperfections. Most people can't handle such intense self-scrutiny for long---not even half-demon warlocks.

Whatever it was that rendered the paladin both heroic and inviolate, it was something that I did not possess. Even with my smiles and words and gestures, I was still a demon in the eyes of the world. With these horns, these fangs, I would always have to work to convince people of my intentions.

All Casavir had to do was breath...and women like Shandra would sigh whenever he crossed a room. And he was clueless.

Instead of informing him, I utilized one of the few gifts at my disposal, my wit. “Have you taken vows, Casavir, or is this the latest fashion?”

Casavir pretended to examine his clothing with a critical eye, “Well, I do have a great desire to be fashionable...”

I gave him a disbelieving look. I even scratched a horn.

He sighed, gestured from Tyr to me, as if appealing to the god to intervene on his behalf.

Casavir's humor always surprised me, “I know my presence is a great affliction, Sir Paladin, but look on the bright side. You can wear whatever you like soon enough---I'm sorry.” I blinked. I really was tired, “I'm being too morbid and facetious. Ignore me. Forget I'm here.”

The paladin put up his hands, serious once again, “I should apologize. I'm the one interrupting...I...” He closed his eyes. When he spoke, he retreated to his normal formality, “My knightly order requires this attire during important temple rites and rituals, such as 'The Remembrance of the Just Fallen.' Were you here for the whole ceremony?”

I nodded, then I realized that his eyes were closed, and he couldn't see the gesture, “It was moving. More moving than I expected...I heard my mother, Esmerelle Chidi, named.”

Casavir' eyes opened at that news. As he sat down beside me, the “O” of his lips, the genuine look of surprise, compelled me to continue.

I just couldn't joke when was suddenly studying me so intently, “... It's all so strange: my mother is 'justly fallen.' My father is...who knows. I have no siblings, nor children, so memories are all I will leave in this world. My mother did not live long enough to leave any real memories to me, her own child...I had no idea of all this....” I looked at him apologetically, “I feel like I shouldn't say this, but I'm glad I don't have a child to orphan. I found out my mother is a saint, and that's the only thought that gives me comfort: being childless.”

Casavir looked up at a statue of a long-dead hero,“You may not be a martyr or a mother, but in the short time I've known you, all you do is make an impression...But I understand. I've had similar misgivings. I have no...living kin, either,” the way he hesitated on living kin made me realize that he had lost much as well, “Sometimes I too wonder what my legacy will be.” He didn't realize that he had spoken his thoughts aloud—a rare thing for the paladin.

As I often did with Casavir, I had so many questions. I settled on one he probably couldn't evade, “So... you've wanted things other than honor?”

The paladin looked at his gloved hands, which rested on his kneecaps, “Of course. Everyone does. I was not always a paladin.”

Casavir folded his hands.

I gave a small, encouraging smile.

He looked at his linked hands, “I have never been celibate,” and then cleared his throat.

When the silence between us stretched out to an uncomfortable length, I finally spoke up, “Were you so terrible?...”

He stood, walked up to a mural depicting Tyr's maiming, “The last thing I wish to do tonight is burden you.”

I gave a low, short chortle, “You always do that...”

The paladin turned toward me, “What do I always do?”

I made a gesture with my extra finger, “Turn away.”

Casavir's stare would have ended most lines of conversation. He didn't use it often, but the few times he let it fall, the other person ended up stuttering. He used it when Neeshka had said something about holy men earning their spells on their knees. She sputtered, and her face grew even more red the longer Casavir stared at her.

Instead of withering beneath the paladin's stern glare, I folded my arms and glared right back.

The paladin was the first to break his eyes away, “You don't understand. This isn't the time or place to---”

“Isn't that what all this is for? To bear one's bloody soul?” I stood up, gestured at the temple walls, the altar, the statues.

“To Tyr,” He emphasized the god's name so that it sounded like the stroke of a hammer as he looked at the statue. The piety in his face, his voice struck me as something otherworldly; it came as easily from his lips as the sighs that followed him.

“...But not to Amara?” I put my hands to my temples, to the spaces where my horns grew hard, unyielding. The touch of the other worlds was not always gentle, “Then I'll leave you alone. Speak to your god. Don't let a silly thing like us poor, misguided sinners interfere.”

Casavir turned suddenly, “It is not my right.”

“To what, paladin? Talk to me? What of my rights? Everyone has the right to speak from the heart, and be heard. Wouldn't it upset you if you thought I was holding back? I do my best. I let you in. I suggest do the same because we may never have another moment to speak---ever. And it scares me because I really, really want to live long enough to think that making babies might actually be a blessing---”

Casavir touched my cheek to silence me. His eyes were full of sympathy as his gaze met mine, but then he let his red hand drop.

As he looked away at something over my head, his face became rigid, as if he were willing himself to witness something terrible. I remembered the last time I saw that look on his face: when we came upon the corpses near Old Owl Well, when he made the vow to fight this King of Shadows, when we all swore never to rest until the dead were avenged.

I had seen Casavir weep, but I had not seen him scared---until now.

His voice was so low I had to bend my neck to catch everything that spilled forth, “When I joined the Watch, I w hored and drank and lived from one destruction to another. Is this what you wanted to hear, Amara? I am a man. I have the same struggles as any other man. But in serving Tyr, I a given the option of serving all. And that requires sacrifice. I would give my soul if I thought it would save you. But whatever I offer up, whatever good I try to do, the things I've seen, I've done, still haunt me. ”

I swallowed. Sweet Mystra. My voice was also little more than a whisper, “Is that what Torio meant when she...”

Casavir set his jaw, “Do not trust one like her. She twists words the way assassins twist necks. I left the Watch, yes, but I was following Tyr's call...Some might call that desertion. And I have...killed. Yes, some might call it murder. I have paid for both...and am still paying...But none of that can be changed now, as much as I have wished to wake up free of all this sin...Yet every day only conforms my own guilt. Forgive me, Amara, I really should leave you---to think.”

My mouth hung as slack as a fish at market, “You have to tell me more.”

“You will have to live through tomorrow, so that we may speak again,” Casavir reached for my hand. He looked at it as he spoke, “While I live, I will do everything to ensure that you never die,” There was a new tenderness in his grip, his look, and an invitation, “ Is that enough for tonight?”

If Casavir were another man, I might have sighed. But we were what we were, so I patted his cheek, “I couldn't ask for anything more. But I'm not going to name you as my champion... ”

“Frankly, I think you should be the one to deal justice tomorrow.”

“Then why come?”

“I just wanted...to see you. To offer what little comfort I can. To tell you, I believe in you.”

I didn't know what to say, so I chuckled until I could form a coherent reply, “Me? Inspire belief...Won't Tyr be jealous?”

Instead of answering, the paladin held out a silver amulet set off by a round, purple stone. It dangled at the end of its slender chain like a egg. As I concentrated, I could see the magical energies of protection woven into the surface of the stone. There was more magic embedded within, but I'd have to touch the stone to have an idea of what lay beneath.

“My mother worshiped Mystra. This amulet was hers. I'm not a magic-user, so I don't know what it does, but I'm certain you can find a use for it. I know you serve the Lady of Mysteries. ”

“Cas---”

The paladin's eyes softened to a color of a cloudless, midday sky, “I know what you would say, but it's not a matter of deserving, lady,” Casavir folded the amulet and his gloved hand into mine, “...or no one would be found worthy. Not even paladins.”



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



“Is Tyr making you his his new disciple?”

I didn't turn because I knew...

I knew Bishop stood in the aisle behind me. His chuckle was as cold as the marble that made the seats, the statue...whatever he had in that thin chest beside a heart.

“We're in a sacred place, or I'd just as soon cut you,” I flicked my fingers over my shoulder, “as look at you.”

“Not sacred to you, not sacred to me...”

As I turned to face the ranger, my hand clasped the purple, circular, stone against my skin. Please Mystra, I prayed, Keep me from killing him just yet, ”You don't know what sacred is, Bishop.”

His face was illuminated by the torchlight, but there were more shadows in the oval of his face than light, as if his visage obscured every attempt at illumination...but I knew it was only a trick---his trick. The ranger knew how to use a play of light or pool of darkness to his advantage.

The ranger made spoke with a smirk and kneaded his fingernails in a manner that was very much like the villains in plays, “You have real problems, Mar: big problems with sharp weapons.”

I think he was expecting me to tear out his eyes or something else equally violent. Whether it was the stone or just my own state of mind, I didn't. This wasn't a play. We---I didn't have time for these stupid dramatics. I stared at Bishop. Since the ranger only seemed to respond to drama, I tilted my head, hoping that the dim light of the room made my eyes glow.

The ranger's eyes weren't just colored by the candle-light, they were the same shade as the flames as he tilted forward, “Lorne's older, bigger, and he's been trained how to kill by the Luskans. It's the only thing they're good at. It's the only thing I ever learned---”

“---Blah, blah, blah. I really don't care what you blame the Luskans for. All I know is : Lorne's just a bully. Just like you are. I can deal with bullies... remember?” I beamed as widely as I could, really let my fangs show, “How's the nose? I heard you wheezing the moment you crawled in here...Maybe you should get it checked.”

The ranger's nose actually twitched, “Come on, Mar,” Bishop made a mock of a pout by sticking out his lower lip. “Are you gonna cry, now? Fuck. You were in control. You always are. That's why your sheep bah whenever you grumble. I wanted to see how far I could push you. I'm not here to make friends. I don't work with someone I don't respect.”

“That had nothing to do with respect. And you fucking know it.”

The half circle of Bishop's grin reminded me of a cat---a mountain lion as he cleans his paws, “I like that your honest with me, Mar. Let's keep being honest...You never hold back with me. I've seen your power. If you really wanted to, you could have incinerated me like that,” he snapped his fingers. “But you didn't, Mar. Oh no. And we both know why. You like my blood in your mouth---and you want...”

I grabbed Bishop's shirt and held up my hand, “Is this what you want? If you were half the man you pretend to be, you'd kill yourself. And save me the trouble.”

His lips were dark swathes of scarlet as the ranger tipped his chin, “Ooh, Mar, never let feelings, even hate, get in the way. You need to be cold-blooded to fight the King of Shadows, to fight Lorne---to fight me.”

“Lesson learned.”

I cast a spell that wracked the ranger with pain until he sank to one knee, then the other.

I examined my fingernails as the ranger writhed, exposing his teeth like an injured animal, “See, Bishop, Whatever you think you know about Lorne, remember this, I stood up to him once, and I'll do it again. Want to know why?” I paused as Bishop moaned, “Because the world doesn't belong to bastards like you. I don't belong to anybody---certainly not some thing like you.”

Bishop grunted something incoherent.

“I wonder...” I whispered, “if I opened your chest, what would I find? A lumpy, blackened hole where your heart should be? Let's see...”

Bishop managed to sit up. He wheezed as he parted his shirt, exposing his tea-colored skin, the pale webbing of scars, “Burn me, bitch. Make us even.”

I let my power sink back into its source. If I would have held on, I had no idea what I would have done.

Bishop was quickly on his feet, “Do you have do what it takes? To be cruel? To gut me over Tyr's altar?” The ranger pulled my black hands against his brown stomach, “No. You don't---not yet. That's why I'm around, isn't it?”

“Ha!” I balled his sweat-stained shirt into my fist. “You're only around because I allow it.”

He laughed, even as the fabric tore, exposing his navel, “Hurting me won't hurt Lorne.” Bishop paused, letting his words sink in, “I could fight him. No one would care if I fell. Some might even thank you.”

My fingers dug into his rough skin until I saw the satisfying spread of flushed welts, “Trying to get pity from me, Bishop? You might as well drip blood from a stone---”

He pulled my hand off finger by finger, “---I'm here for me, not for you. Remember that, captain. Or I'd cut your nasty fingers off.” He smiled, and I believed him. “Fight Lorne, or don't, I don't care. If you're stupid enough to fight him, remember this: he expects your weakness, not your strength. Keep him off with that hellfire until he's weakened. You may only get one chance to strike---when you do, cut his fucking head off.”

There was a clank of metal on stone. It was the priest of Tyr, Oleff, dressed in full battle armor. “This is a vigil, my son. Raised voices at this hour, the night before a combat, will likely cause more harm than good.”

“I'm no one's son, old man. The girl and I have ...business..” Bishop licked my cheek

I looked at the ranger in horror.

“While your concern for your friend is...admirable,” the priest said, “It is best to leave this matter in Tyr's hands---at least for tonight.”

“He was just leaving, Brother,” I said.

The priest clanked back into the inner quarters of the Temple.

I sashayed up to him, and slapped him.

Bishop just stood there, chewed his lips.

“Why are you still here, ranger?”

Bishop and I looked at each another.

I slapped him again.

Bishop wiped the blood that dribbled from the corner of his mouth. He smiled when he looked at it, “To see you bleed.”

“I will kill him. Then I'll kill you, you crazy son of a bitch.”

Bishop became still, “No one needs anybody, except to eat.” He opened his mouth, as if he weren't certain whether to eat me, or ...

I whistled.

His voice was suddenly urgent, forceful, “Just ask me, ask me to---”

“---I will never ask you for anything. Except to die.”

Bishop bent close enough that I could see the dark hair on his unshaven cheek. “Then take what you want.” He yanked my wrist to his lips, flicked his tongue over the veins as his eyes locked on mine, “Nobody wants to face the Grim hungry...”

I laughed a delicious, vicious chortle as I punched him one last time, “We're done talking.”

He brought his broken nose level with my own, “I could ruin you over that altar. Right now.” His tongue touched his upper lip.

The hellfire sprang into my hands, lit up both of our faces, “I can ruin you right here.”

Bishop didn't move, but his eyes smoldered, “We're already ruined.”

The spell I cast send the ranger flying through the air.

As Bishop flew head over heel out of the Temple of Tyr, he knocked his hip against the last row of marble benches. A dull thud rang through the hall as his bones met solid rock. Other than that, the ranger's exit from the temple was surprisingly quiet.

Then he was gone. It felt good---righteous.

As I turned back towards the altar, I gave a little bow to the statue of Tyr.

I could get used to feeling just.


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


Outside, someone else approached the ranger.

Bishop spat out some loose teeth as he rose. As he recognized the figure, the ranger gave a bloody, gap-toothed grin, “As if I haven't had enough Harbormen riding my ass tonight.”

Cormick emerged from the darkness, drew his greatsword. The blade flickered in the waning torchlight.

Bishop eyed the sword. It's steel pommel was wider than the ranger's neck.

“Don't worry Bishop. The old girl's not for you,” Cormick leaned his greatsword gently against the side of the Temple.

The Marshal crooked his leg, as he knew how tall he was, and was trying to make himself smaller. More reasonable,“I know who broke that nose.”

Even though there was no one else on the street, Bishop looked from side to side, as if divulging a secret, “It was just some whore who likes it rough. You know how that is Marshal...”

Cormick put up a bear-sized fist and motioned for Bishop to do the same.

The ranger folded his arms against his chest.

“What's the matter, ranger?” Cormick raised an eye brow, ushered the ranger by tapping a fist against his own chin, “Or do ya only fight unarmed women in the dark?”

Bishop tried to slip a punch into Cormack's ribs, but Cormick, the bigger man, blocked it.

“That bitch is always dangerous.”

“Least yer not denying it.”

“That's what she likes. She likes it when there's blood...That's why she wants me. I give it to her---”

“Don't speak to her, or I will come for ya, if Amara doesn't beat me to the punch, and end ya.”

“I think I'll stay. At least to see her strangled.”

Cormick grabbed Bishop by the throat,“Not so fun to experience, is it? but I do like watching you squirm for your next breath. But I get unhinged. Mad. And do terrible things to little fuckers like you.”

Cormick let Bishop out of the choke hold, but banged his head against the wall.

The Harborman didn't break a sweat as he yanked back the ranger's bloody head by his spiky, reddish hair.

Bishop wheezed as he looked down at the dagger as it's the sharp point was traced across the ranger's jugular.

“That's mine,” the ranger spat.

“This? The one they give Luskans scouts?” Cormick got into the ranger's face. When the usual laugh-lines of his face were gone, Cormick looked like a different person. The pools of his eyes seemed as dark as death. The ranger recognized the look. It was the same look he saw in his own eyes whenever he happened to catch their reflection.“You may think yer tough, but I was smearing little fucks like you when you and Lorne were still up yer mother's skirts. Oh yes, ranger. It's not hard to figure out. Ya might of trained together, but ya never made it into the squad, yer not tattooed. What's the matter, the killing get to be too much for ya, or not enough?”

“You play the good-natured sod pretty well, Marshal. Well enough to play our swamp wench.”

“If anyone is playing, it's you.”

Bishop did not seem frightened, “I think she'd like to know what sort of man she's taken to her bed...” He nodded at the blade, “Knife-work for Nasher is still knife-work. ”

The side of Cormick's mouth twitched, “Are ya threatening me?”

“I think of it as being...prophetic,” Bishop grinned.

Cormick punched him in the groin, “Didn't see that one coming, did ya?”

Bishop moaned through gritted teeth, “She's going to kill us all!”

“Maybe,” said Cormick, picking up his greatsword, “that's why you stay isn't it? You want to die.” The marshal held the dagger at Bishop's face as his held the greatsword one-handed.

“Not as much as your sweetie. Or she wouldn't screw killers like us.”

Cormick raised his sword, but Bishop grabbed the pommel with both hands, pulled it down until it hit the top of Cormick's head. There was no blood, but Cormick grunted, grabbed his head in both hands as the sword fell.

The ranger punched him in the cheek, managed to grab the dagger.

Bishop's eyes were as sharp as the dagger the ranger pointed at Cormick's dimple.

“I think it's time for you to beg, Harborman”

Cormick made no motion, did not flinch an eyelash as Bishop brought the dagger's blade against the Marshal's windpipe.

“Come on, tell me how much you want to live. I think I know, but I want to hear you say it.”

Cormick said nothing.

Squinting into into Cormick, eyes, Bishop clipped the marshal's chin. Cormick pressed his lips together when the blade cut him, but remained silent.

With a deft movement of his wrist, the ranger held the dagger poised over Cormick's heart, “Aren't you afraid to die?” Bishop shouted.

Cormick looked at the blade, then back into Bishop's eyes.

An unreadable expression on his face, Bishop placed both hands on the handle of his dagger. His brow wrinkled as he seemed to fight some internal battle.

Suddenly, the ranger twitched. He stared at Cormick for almost a minute, but his mind seemed to be elsewhere. As the tension seemed to leave his body, his gaze became focused once again. He smiled. Then lowered the blade, “There's really no point in killing you...”

Cormick tilted his chin,“This changes nothing. I'll still kill come for ya.”

“Oh. You can try. And I may kill you. Just not now. I want you to see your sweetie die. There are always things worse than death. Remember that.”

“Ya've got it wrong, ranger. She'll win,” Cormick looked towards the temple. When he looked back at the ranger, his dark eyes widened as the warmth returned to his gaze,“I almost feel sorry for ya. But then I remember what a mess ya are...”

Bishop hated the pity in Cormick's eyes more than the marshal's words.

The ranger kicked Cormick in the stomach,“Fuck you, and fuck all Harbormen!” He kept kicking until the spittle flew from his mouth. In his fury, he dropped the dagger.

Cormick crouched to avoid the wost of the kicks, but the dull thud of the ranger's leg making contact with Cormick's body rang hollowly down the darkened street. As Bishop tired, the kicks began to lessen---slightly. Cormick did not waste the opportunity. His hands darted after Bishop's foot, and he was able to clasp the ranger's leg against his chest.

Bishop flailed wildly as Cormick twisted the ranger's leg until there was a sound of twigs being crushed. Bishop's legs trembled as they could no longer support him. A whoosh escaped from the ranger's pipes as Cormick knelt all of his weight onto the smaller man's back.

Cormick breathed from his mouth, “I think it's best if ya put yer tail between yer legs, Bishop. Skedaddle...After today, if I ever see ya again, I'll let the Luskans take ya...If yer lucky, they'll chop off yer balls at the border.”

“If yer not lucky...” the marshal thrust the dagger into the space between Bishop's legs,“You'll see me.”

He left Bishop to lie with his face in the dirt.





Though it was the well past the longest watch, I paced up and down the main aisle of the Temple.

I sang and tried not to think about the roiling emotions and thoughts that threatened to overwhelm me if I stopped moving---let alone tried to sleep.

My love has wealth and beauty
And suitors by the score
But I would give my last tabac
If she would give me more.

Such gold hair, such sweet fair
She barely seems to bend
I believe her when leaves me here
I thought she was my friend.

Then she wore a ribbon green
Dyed with the finest tea
And I knew before she spoke
She'd never marry me.


“I haven't herd you sing since...well, you sang dirty songs that one of the Mossfield's taught ya... ”

I turned. Cormick leaned against a column, pushing the the dark hair from his darker eyes. He had scratches on his face, a bleeding line on his chin. His clothes were covered in dirt. Cormick was many things, but he always had a clean shirt.

Concerned, I walked up, put a friendly hand at his waist. He drew in a sharp breath as he pulled away from the touch, as if injured there, “What happened to you, Marshal?”

He grinned when he saw my anxiety, “Nothing that won't heal. Really, I'm fine. But ya've been hiding something from me, Amara Chidi---that voice. Now, where did ya learn that song?”

Instead of asking questions, I stretched and yawned, “I think it was somewhere between Old Owl Well and Castle Never...”

I knew exactly where I had heard the song. It was in a dream. I could never remember my dreams, but sometimes I just recognized things: a building, a face, a song. But after what the boy Marcus has said---projected---I was found myself going through every dream, every impression, and even from my limited knowledge, I knew that strange boy spoke the truth. I knew him. We were kin. The answer was in the place I went when my eyes closed at night. But to shape that knowledge into words that made any sense, to the man who was warm and alive in front of me...

Cormick scratched my nose, “Poor girl, ya must be dead on yer feet.”

I put my arms around his big shoulders, “Why aren't you kissing me?” As gently as I could, tugged his hair until he kissed my nose. But I wasn't gentle, I wanted him. His beard tickled my lips deliciously.

He sighed. I could tell from his voice, the heaviness which seemed to ride on his back, making his tall frame bend, and his shoulders stoop, that he was as exhausted as I was. But he said nothing about it, “You didn't doubt that I would come, did ya?”

“No,” I felt a tightness in my chest at the very idea of not having Cormick there, “but after seeing Lorne, everything else seems like a waking dream, or a waking nightmare...”

Cormick flicked a wrist, “Dreams are nothing but bloody tripe. But Lorne, he's as hard as a man can be. He came to Watch soon after me. Then poof, he disappeared. I thought he just ran off or got himself killed. But I didn't think even he would join the Luskans. He was a Harborman.”

“Not every Harborman is respectable, Cormick,” I placed a hand across his inner thigh.

He sighed, “I'll lose my train of thought if ya keep that up---”

My eyebrows shot up. I couldn't help but giggle until Cormick was also grinning. When he shook his head, I laughed so hard I had to cover my face with both hands.

“What great fools we are...” I whispered once I wiped my face, and clinched Cormick tightly.

Cormick ran his hands along my back. We stayed in that enough in that position to keep the sweetness for a long moment.

“I know,” Cormick began as he rocked us, “Lorne had a mean streak ever since was a lad. I don't know how many times we fought. But I keep expecting him to turn his head, say he was only kidding... Ya know?”

“No.”

Cormick stopped rocking us. Slowly, he pulled me back, held me firmly at arm's length.

I stood with my legs shoulder-width apart and put my hands on my hips, “Lorne is a traitor. He is all that is cruel and viscous, and I will kill him tomorrow. Without hesitation.”

“Why can ya have fellow-feeling for duegar and bladelings, but not a boy from West Harbor?”

The humane timbre of Cormick's words usually helped calm me down, but at that time, I found them credulous.,“Remember Fort Locke? Your word hanged a man. You didn't hesitate because it was the right thing to do.”

“I don't relish killing, and I don't want to see you start.”

“Why not? It's what I'm good at, right? It's why Neverwinter has a use for the demon witch.”

“Ya know better than that.”

“Do I? If I know better then why the fuck am I in this mess? If I knew better, I'd find some other way. But I am what I am. A hunted half-breed with some bloody bits of showy tinfoil.”

“Yer more than that.”

“You don't understand. I'm the reason Lorne left. He was made to leave after...” I laughed. “It's so ridiculous, really. What does it matter what he did to me? It's nothing---absolutely nothing--- compared to what he did at Ember---”

“Tell me.”

I shook my head.

“Amara---”

“He broke my back when I was thirteen.”

“What?”

I kicked him. He tossed me like a pebble.”

“You kicked Lorne?”

“He was torturing a bird. You were gone. There was no one who really understood what he was. Well, Daeghun did, but he told me to take care of it. And so I did. And got my back broke. But luckily, they caught him at it, and made him leave.”

Cormick smoothed my hair. “Gods, do ya know what ya are? Yer are the best damn thing that ever came out of West Harbor.”

I didn't know what to say. Luckily, Cormick cradled my chin in his hand, and kissed me.

I kissed him back.

“After a hello like that, I can take on a hundred Lornes.”

My green eyes met his dark, “No, Cormick. I need to do this. If a Harborman is going to kill Lorne, it's going to be me. I owe him. Besides, I'm already the black sheep. You're going to stay the bloody hero on the bloody white horse.”

“I've never ridden a white horse...” Cormick scratched the dried blood on his chin, “Mottled, yes, but never white.”

I pointed at him, “Shut up.”

“Yer telling me to just stand by—I don't see how that's heroic.”

“Please, do as I ask, I couldn't bear the thought of his hands on you.”

“But you expect me to what? Grin and bear it?”

“That's why you're the Marshal.”

“Amara---”He kissed my forehead, spoke to it, “I can't talk ya outta this, I know. But look at me,” I rolled my eyes. “...love,” that word was like sword to my belly---something mortal. I knew if I looked at Cormick, he would see it.

Cormick's gaze was relentless, “He's the monster, not you.”

My mouth went dry, “Tomorrow will be what it will be. If I fall...just...will you tell Daeghun?”

“Shh.”he held me. “I'll tell him, but it'll be to tell him how you won when no one else thought you could.”

I nuzzled my chin against his, spoke into his ear, “The One Who Left will return?”

“Someone's got to tell Rhetta and Bevil what happened here---might as well be us.”

I pulled on his beard, “You ...go back to West Harbor...with me?”

“Why not?”

“Ha, ha, Marshal Cormick, good ole Cormick. Show up with the demon witch? No one would believe it. They'd think I'd put a hex on you. And stone me.”

“Daeghun wouldn't let that happen,” I narrowed my eyes at him until he put up his hands, “Alright, I wouldn't let that happen. But I might like to be enchanted, to be a thrall to a beautiful, passionate, lusty woman...”

I kissed him slowly, caressing every shape in his face, “When you meet this dream woman...” I winked, “...don't expect me to give you up.”

Yer all I want, Amara. If ya don't know that by now---”

I put my fingers over his lips, “Wait, Cormick. Save the rest for after. I want to hear it so much...it'll make me burn, it'll make me come back and say, 'Put those paws on me, my molten-eyed, saucy-tonged, large-hearted---” I placed my hand over his heart.

He held my hand against his chest in both of his. It made me feel small. I made me feel human.

I kissed his fingers, then his eyes, his brow, his forehead. I wold have kissed him until morning, if he would have let me.

“Hells,” Cormick suddenly growled. His eyes seemed black as they met mine, “I can't leave ya here...I won't leave ya---” Strong and vulnerable and certain. That was my Cormick.

“If you really mean all this, Cormick, you will. You must. I can't win if I don't fight. And you can't fight this battle for me, but you're doing more—right now—than you'll ever know. And I am grateful, so grateful...” I started kissing him again.

Cormick held my cheek in his hand. He pushed away some wisps of hair that had strayed into my face, “Just come back to me Amara. Or I swear, by everything that I know to be good, whatever might part us, I'll---”

I covered his mouth with mine.


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


I dreamed of West Harbor.

I was a thirteen---and hiding behind a barrel.

I wiped at my nose, which was running because it always did when I cried.

Amie had told me that I was going to the Hells. I told her that I wouldn't go alone. She did some stupid spell that pinched my arm. I told her to quit. She acted all innocent when Tarmas turned from his lesson board and told me to stop lying.

“Only Azuth knows why I expect anything from a demon spawn.”

“Only Cyric knows why an ogre fucked your mother---”

“That's it! I told Daeghun---this is a waste of time. You Harbormen have as much brains as mosquitoes---”

“Do you mean, me, Master?” Amie's lips were thin, but she had an impressive pout.

“You are the exception, Apprentice.”

I punched the barrel. I hated them all for making these tears---for making me weak. It was their fault. I have more magic than she ever dreamed of---

“Aww. The demon-cunt is crying.”

Not Lorne. Not now. Maybe if I just kept still, he'd forget.

Let him pass. I didn't want him to find me. Not like this.

I knew that if I turned, he would be there, like he always was.

Set him on fire. Another voice, the voice from my dreams whispered. Show him weakness, and you deserve whatever he does. But make him weak, and you gain everything.

The hellfire in my hand and in my eyes were one.


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

To kill in battle is hard enough to justify, but to slaughter, to rape, to dismember, to burn people is something else entirely. Some are not content merely to conquer, but must destroy.

We were never friends. Lorne was always rather simple, even humorless, but when he developed, he used his muscle to compensate for his lack of wit. The smaller children were terrified of his crunching bulk, his ringing blows. Lorne struck me more than once. He the the first person to ever harm me for pleasure, the first person I ever hid from. He taught me that some people existed just to cause pain.

I had gone to Daeghun, to tell him about what Lorne was doing, but the elf only said, “If you do not stop him, will you always avoid fights you might lose? I'd rather see you knocked down than refuse to stand up.”

When next I saw Lorne, he plucked the feathers of a blackbird one by one while the bird flapped and chirped like a mad thing. Instead of avoiding Lorne, I forced one reluctant foot after another until I stood before him. To a 13-year-old who had not had her adult height, Lorne was as tall as some god of cruelty, and just as implacable.

My voice was a squeak, but I was surprised that I could speak at all, “Leave that bird alone,”

Lorne squinted down at me. He still clutched the blackbird, whose eyes were glazed with terror.

“You say something, hag?” Lorne's voice rumbled.

“I think you should let that bird go.”

“That's a good idea,” he lifted one meaty hand, but only to bring it down on the bird's head, whose skull collapsed with a sound like eggshells breaking.

I kicked Lorne where Daeghun had always taught me to kick: his shin. Neck muscles bulged as his hands went, belatedly, to his leg. He snapped his head at me in surprise and anger.

In his pain, Lorne picked me up by the throat and threw me as hard as he could into the air. I felt a rush of air, a pressure bleeding the air from my body before blackness took me.

Luckily, someone saw Lorne toss me and intervened before Lorne could stomp the life from me as I lay unconscious. I found out later that it was Amie who found me. When I woke up, my legs were broken and one arm was sprained.

While Lorne was tolerated before he came of age, he was now 19, and not even his mother Rhetta had any more patience for his behavior. Lorne was encouraged to leave West Harbor. No one heard from him ever again.

Until now.

Such thoughts strike when life is suddenly precious.

I walked into the tourney grounds with the sound of trumpets.

As did Bevil's brother---no---even in my first, brief glimpse---this 'Mountain' was no kin to any Starling. I had seen falchions before, but Lorne's falchion was shaped into a vicious blade with a pommel sticking up like shark's teeth, probably to help egg on his fury by drawing blood. What was once just brute force, a freak occurrence of nature that lashed out without thought, had been shaped by some dread purpose, into...not a man. No, that the huge, jagged sword over his shoulder, the thick, dark skins, the assassin tattoos dotting his forehead all spoke of lost humanity---if he ever had any.

Grobnar's singing brought my attention away from my enemy. The gnome hadn't stopped singing from the temple to the arena. I think it was his way of handling stress. He sang something about Ember. It wasn't the finest rhyme I had ever heard, but it was the frame for his magic, which fell over me like a skin of stone.

I nodded at Grobnar, accepted his gift.

When I took another step towards the tourney grounds, Shandra pulled me back with a sharp tug. She really did have strong hands.

“Amara, please. This is madness!” Her fair hair fell loose in the wind. It was terrible that day. Half the field was veiled with dust.

I looked at where Lorne's back loomed across the way, annoyed at her interruption, “Remember Ember, Shandra? Remember what he did there...”

Shandra frowned, looked as if she was nauseous, “Yeah, justice needs to be done, but why does it always have to be you?”

“I have been asking that question since I was born. I really don't have an answer. I don't want to die, but do you really expect me to be a coward?”

“At least let the ranger do it. He's expendable.”

On another day, I might have smiled, but instead I fixed her with an uncompromising glare, “You don't know who Lorne was...I need to finish this. Listen, Shandra, I don't expect you to understand this now, but whatever happens, you need to keep on going. You're the last of the Jerros.”

Shandra held me in a tight embrace, “I'm glad you burnt down my barn.”

“I didn't! That was Lizardfolk!” I growled.

“I know,” she grinned, but the tears were already misting her cheeks.

I gave a little grin, “If you get an itch to throw anything, farm wench, please aim it at Lorne's head.”

Shandra covered her face, turned away from me. She didn't like to cry, “Alright, I'm leaving before I blubber...Just...Do what you have to. Don't hesitate.”

Grobnar guided Shandra towards the benches where the rest of the crowd gathered. If half of Neverwinter assembled to come to my first trial, all of Neverwinter was in the stands for the second. I saw colors of all kinds, heard noise that I had never heard from so many people gathered in one place. It sounded more like monsters or a machines rather than human beings.

Blonde and sleek, Sir Nevalle stood at the perimeter. He gave me a salute, which I returned. Then, surprisingly, he lit a cigarette. The knight was clearly excited for he offered one end to me.

I put up a hand, “I didn't know you smoked, sir.”

“I don't,” he replied, “but my nerves are shot. Care to fire up before facing that?”

“Save it for after. It'll taste better after I win...As long as I don't have to wear any more scanty garments.”

“Sadly, not today,” He nodded behind me, “Here comes your man.”

I turned, hoping to see Cormick again, but Sand glided up. Khelgar took quick, heavy steps to match the elf's pace. The dwarf was also loaded down with my gear.

Sand sighed, “Sir Nevalle showed up at the Flagon. Told us someone had to be your squire. Let me tell you, there was some heated words. After much bickering and pulling of hair---”

“Come on, elf. There really was no contest,” Khelgar held up my pack. “Ya may not let me fight this bastard myself, but I'll see ya fight him, good and proper.”

“With teeth!” I grinned.

“Aye, lass,” the dwarf's voice was tender, “aye.”

“Ahem,” Sand interrupted, “all this is very sweet, but you should save your breath---”

Khelgar gave Sand a knowing glance, “I think yer jealous, elf.”

“Jealous? Hardly.”

“Sand, is there anything else you need to tell me?”

“Only 'good luck.'” He bend over, tapped my shoulder and spoke low enough so that no one could hear what he said, “I also stuffed your pack with healing potions. It's against the rules, but I din't think you'd mind.”

I hugged him, “You are a rogue, councilor.”

He allowed me to hug him, but kept his hands raised, “All lawyers are, my dear. ”

More trumpeting sounded across the arena.

Sir Nevalle finished his cigarette by stomping it out in the dirt, “While the support of your fellows is inspiring, we've got hand-to-hand combat to attend to, madam. Master Ironfist, if you would so kindly see that your ladyship is fit for combat... ”

Khelgar and I, with much cursing between us, managed to get my outer-robe secure, my bastard sword slung across my back, and my boots, bought in Fort Locke, laced.

“From this point forward, ya walk alone, Amara, but we'll be waiting for ya. Marshal Cormick told me to tell ya, that if the worst should happen, he has a plan.”

I'd rather have him here, I thought as I frowned. I said, “A plan is quite unnecessary.”

“That's what I said, lass. Ya have the advantage of size,” He stretched a hand out, and then balled it into a fist. “Being smaller means moving faster, being underestimated. Ya follow me?” He punched the air for emphasis.

“I get it. Be the fist.”

“Come here, lass,” Khelgar kissed my forehead, then held his thumb at the same spot as he said a short phrase in dwarfish.

“What does it mean?”

“It's a...blessing. 'Be as swift as the currents, as sharp as the pickaxe, as hardy as steel---or lie in good earth.'”

I looked at the ground and nodded, “It's fitting.”

Sir Nevalle nodded, “It is that.” He gestured towards the grounds, “Shall we greet the earth, then?”

I stood before Lord Nasher and most of Neverwinter. As Judge Oleff read the charges, I couldn't help but appreciate the irony: I was accused of the very thing Lorne had done.

As he shambled up to where I stood, all I could smell was the stench of Ember after the dead had been left to rot for days. The stench was so horrible, Shandra vomited before we ever saw a corpse.

Lorne saw me. He took a dirty fingernail and traced it across his neck, licking his eel-like lips all the while...and I knew, as if he had scratched it out in the dirt, that this Mountain would do what he had always promised to do. He'd rip my corpse apart with his bare hands, drag it through the arena, drink up my blood like it was wine.

Judge Oleff's voice rang over the scene playing out between the me and Lorne, “Lorne, do you have any final words before the trial by combat?”

We stood at opposite ends of the raised platform, where Oleff, Nasher, Nevalle, Grayson, and Torio sat, but I was close enough to hear his reply.

Lorne hit his massive chest with one, ham-like fist, “I will avenge those slaughtered by this hateful woman!”

It was the same, squeaky, voice of that pimply boy....

I turned towards what remained of that boy, “Lorne, your family still wonders what became of you. Admit your crimes, so that I can tell them you became a man.”

He bared his yellow teeth at me, “I'll show you, bitch.”

“And you, Amara Chidi, do you have anything to say before your trial?”Apparently, the Judge could not hear what Lorne and I were saying to each other.

I raised my voice, so that it would carry, “I fight for those slain at Ember. May the dead guide the work of my hands this day!”

Judge Oleff's voice was even as he offered his blessing, “Combatants, to the ready---it is now Tyr who will decide this day.”

Lorne didn't waste time. As the Mountain lifted up his blade, he let out a roar that made my neck-hairs curl.


“Demon cunt!”


As I held up my bastard sword, I had to use both hands to keep from shaking. “For Ember!” I screamed at Lorne as I launched my much smaller body at his.

When Lorne's falchion first crashed into my bastard sword, I was forced backward through the air. It was only sheer terror that kept the sword clenched in my hands. Fuck, no more heroic charges, was the only line of thought I could manage before I landed hard against the earth and the air flew from my lungs with a shuttering oof.

Meanwhile, Lorne's steps were not very fast, but they made the ground shake. No, that was impossible--- I must have hit my head harder than I thought. I heard Lorne chuckle before he stomped his tree trunk of a leg on my head. I turned at the last moment, but not quickly enough. He managed to pin my right horn. It felt like he was digging his heel into raw bone.

“Fucking cunt,” he spat in my face as he pinned my neck with his forearm and slashed downward at my exposed throat.

I should have died beneath that stroke.

But time seemed to stop. I raised my hands to his ribs, covered by filthy skins of animals he had killed: deer, boar, but also squirrel, rabbit---Lorne would be proudest of the easiest kill.

I wanted to see the eyes of an animal when I looked at him, for an animal can't help its nature. But the fevered glint that thrashed in his eyes as he pinned me to the ground, prepared to cut my throat, was entirely too knowing. I saw bliss, there, in that manic abandon. I saw my death in those round, dull eyes.

Yet when I placed my hand against him, Lorne flew away from my touch as if he had been launched from a catapult. The force was so great, he broke though the wooden wall that surrounded us from the spectators. Splinters flew as Lorne shook himself free. Great scratches covered his exposed skin.

He bellowed something incoherent.

I raised my hand, sent hellfire at his tattooed head. The green energies hit him hard enough that every undulation made him stagger, made him reel against the wall.

My head ached. I stopped blasting Lorne just long enough to touch my forehead. My right horn was nothing but a jagged stump sticking out of my temple. My hand trembled as I reached for the healing potion concealed beneath my robes.

As I groped, I sensed something---a vibration----something massive coming at me. I looked up in time to side-step away as Lorne used his sour bulk as a battering ram to knock me down.

Trying to put ground between us, I dropped the potion.

Shit.

Before I could scramble for another, I saw Lorne shuffle up to his real target. White drool ran down his face as he brandished the wicked flacion in both hands and pointed the forked tip at me. His neck bulging purple with the effort, he swept at me with with the sword.

I cringed as the blade swept less than a foot from my face.

Lorne's eyes bulged as kept swinging again and again, but without connecting. Instead of engaging him with my own sword, I kept feigning, darting away from the dark blade and the savage, unstoppable force behind it.

“Stand still!” Lorne bellowed, “...Scared I'll break you?”

Abruptly, Lorne lowered his blade, and sucker-punched me right in the mouth.

I lost my balance and reeled backward. As I lost my grip on my sword, fairy-lights darted before my eyes. I shook away the pinpoints of light, groped at the ragged mess that was my face. My upper lip hung to my face only by the barest thread of tissue. I coughed up coppery blood and several pale teeth, but the tang of blood kept spilling into my throat. I had to keep spitting it up, or I would have choked on my own blood.

Instead of hitting me again, Lorne stopped his attack. He stood over me, held the blade against my chest as more blood erupted from my face.

I spat.

Lorne smiled at the blood, “I will crush you today, weak, little birdie.”

I cleared my throat, “You're a coward, Lorne---always have been. ”

He grinned, brandished his falchion with little deftness, but incredible strength, “There's no Cormick to save you now. After I finish with you, I am going to put your teeth round my neck. I will do to Neverwinter what I did at Ember. Starting with you.”

I aimed all my remaining power at his chest, praying silently for it to be enough.

The skin around his chest smoked as wave after terrible wave of green, infernal energy slammed into Lorne's chest, igniting all that it touched. Lorne whined like an injured dog as he tried to put out the fire in his furs and remain standing against that barrage. His massive legs shook with the effort before he eventually toppled to the ground.

The falchion clattered as it fell.

I kicked the wicked blade as far as I could away from Lorne, who squealed and tried to crawl after it.

I aimed my hand at his back. More hellfire sprang into his spine, framing his body with a gruesome, greenish light.

Lorne bellowed as he fell. This time, he didn't get up. His chest rose and fell unevenly, but the Mountain's eyes were shut.

Trying to stay alive, I had forgotten that we were being watched. When the crowd saw my opponent keel over, someone began to cheer. Soon the entire arena was screaming. Some shouted “Neverwinter!”and others “Ember!” but the most popular shout was “Half-Blood! Half-Blood! Half-Blood!”

Nasher's gesture wasn't enough to silence that mob, but I could hear his words even as I coughed up more bright blood, “Every Luskan is to be escorted out of the city gates by nightfall. As for you, Amara Chidi, what fate will you deal this instigator?”

I wanted to kill Lorne. I felt the hot want of it like a fever.

Then I remembered Cormick's eyes, He's the monster, not you.

Easy to say, My face was grave from the effort to control my hands, But it doesn't make me good, Cormick.

I wasn't certain what I would say when I opened my mouth.

Then I heard another bellow.

Sweet gods---

I spun around, brought up my hands, but Lorne just crouched there, a confused look on his bloated features as he clutched at something in his back. When he fell, the befuddled expression remained on his face even as his eyes glazed over. Lorne would never breathe again.

A dagger stuck out of his back.

I know I didn't throw that.

The wind had just kicked up, so all the spectators heard was Lorne's bellow, then, as the dust dispersed, they caught a glimpse of me standing over his corpse. They drew the natural conclusion.

Once again, the applause was deafening.

I ran up to Lorne, looking for whoever might have thrown the dagger. With the wind and the crowd, it was impossible to tell with any real certainty where it came from. I bent over Lorne's body, trying not to gag at his stench, and gave the dagger a cursory glance.

I didn't have to look twice. It was the same dagger that had saved Marcus' life---Bishop's hunting knife.

What the fuck is it doing in Lorne's back?

Cormick, was this your part of your bloody plan?

Just then, the world decided to spin. I went to my knees, gagging on the blood. I felt sick.

Even though Lorne was dead, they took his body away in heavy chains. As they loaded his body, too large for four guards who tried to carry him, onto a cart, I had distinct feeling that Lorne's employer would not have shown as much mercy.

I was so busy waiting for the world to stop spinning that I didn't notice Casavir as he suddenly appeared, bent over me, and laid his hands on my wounds until the worst closed. There was still some pain, but at least everything was right-side up again.

The paladin's hand lingered over my split lip, my broken horn, “I thought we had lost you today.”

“Sweet Mystra, so did I,” I kissed the pendant he had given me as I unclasped it.

When I held it out to him, Casavir shook his head. “You can thank Mystra by wearing it.”

I wiped my hands on my knees and laughed, “You're so stubborn---are you certain you're not a Harborman?”

Shandra pushed past a grinning Casavir, and gave me a hug that made me wince. She held me clse, “Don't do anything stupid like that ever again.”

“Amara can't help her stupidity,” Sand looked from Shandra to me, “Despite your proclivity for dramatics, it's good to see you sound---except for one thing.” He held up what remained of my horn.

“Can you fix it, Sand?”

Sand seemed as enthusiastic in studying the horn as in seeing in me sound, “It'll take a little alchemy, but of course. It may not be as strong, but it'll be whole. I'll just stop by the Flagon once I brew an appropriate remedy. ”

“Won't anyone help the lass up?” shouted Khelgar.

“I've been waiting for you, Khelgar,” I grinned, held up my hand.

The dwarf pulled me to my feet and hugged my waist, “Ya did well, lass.”

“I just wish I could have used my favorite move.”

Khelgar laughed.

“What's that?” asked Shandra, looking slyly from me to Khelgar.

I looked around the field. I wanted to shout his name, but held my tongue. There was such a press of people, I doubted I could make my way through it without divine intervention.

Suddenly, someone lifted me up from behind. I was set on strong shoulders. I put my hand in thick, dark hair...I couldn't stop myself from bending over, inhaling the faint, familiar scent of mint...

“Hail the conquering hero!” Cormick shouted as he held me up for all to see.

There cheers seemed to come from everywhere..

I let myself be carried away. My questions could wait until people weren't cheering on all sides, and Cormick didn't have his hands, well, right where they needed to to be...

There was a celebration breaking out the streets of Neverwinter, as if a great victory had been won instead of one women's innocence proven, and a treaty broken. People waved as we passed, but also played instruments, danced, sang. Some threw flowers that stuck in my hair. The hated Luskans had been thwarted. After the victory at Old Owl Well, the city was looking for a reason to celebrate. And few had ever supported the treaty with Luskan.

When we reached the Flagon, Duncan ran up top me, kissed me on the cheek, “Thank the gods. Yer safe. I'm sorry I wasn't there, lass, but I couldn't watch some Luskan ... Well, there's saying all kinds of crazy things about what happened, but I want to hear it from horse's mouth, so to speak...”

“I'll tell you the real story tomorrow, uncle. Suffice to say, we have to much to celebrate tonight,” I embraced the half-elf as if he were my uncle.

Duncan blinked. I felt a surge of tenderness for the half-elf.

“Duncan,” I said before Duncan could cry, “You've met Marshal Cormick, haven't you?”

“Yes.” Duncan smiled as he scratched his hair, “he's one of my finest customers, even if he drinks like a wee girl....” He grabbed the Marshal's hand.

Cormick shook Duncan's hand warmly, “Luckily, Amara drinks enough for both of us.”

They laughed.

“Speaking of the devil, I'm parched. I'll leave you two to get acquainted while I enjoy the best part of being half-demon.”

I saw Neeshka at the bar, drinking a glass a of wine by herself. Her reddish skin and eyes would have made her and standout, but the goat-like horns and tail only emphasized her strangeness. Even though the city could be happy for one tiefling defeating a hated enemy, I doubted if one night were enough to undue the deep-seated prejudice of the people against other demon and devil-blooded, like Neeshka.

When she Neeshka looked at me, her tail twitched. She pointed at my necklace, “That's SO pretty. Where did you get that?” her voice always had a high, child-like quality that made her seem innocent.

I put my hand over it. I wasn't fooled by her voice. She was a thief, a good one---it was one of the few professions in Neverwinter open to someone with fangs, “It's a charm Casavir gave me. It was his mother's.”

Neeshka looked into her wineglass, “Hmm, that's really generous, even for a paladin. Is there anything special you had to do to get it?”

Then venom in her voice surprised me, “It's not like that, and you bloody know it.”

Neeshka giggled as nudged me with her elbow, “I was only kidding, Amara. You're not the only one who makes jokes. ”

“I think the last time we spoke, you said you were going after my man, so there's really no point in talking.”

Neeshka rolled her eyes, “Whatever...”

As I ordered drinks, Neeshka, found Cormick.

Her hips swayed precariously from side to side as she approached him, “Good to see you, Marshal...”

Cormick held up his mug, “You too, Neeshka. It's a fine day, isn't it?” He smiled at Neeshka, made room beside him at the table.

Her breath caught, but it always did around Cormick, “Yes, much better than what we were expecting...”

Cormick grinned, “Amara really came through.”

Neeshka sat, but she kept moving her hands nervously, “Well, she had lots of help.”

“Ya know Amara appreciates all the support--- all her fiends---friends like you,” he patted Neeshka's arm.

Neeshka's eyes widenend, “Did you notice the necklace she's wearing? It's gorgeous.”

“Yes, but anything is gorgeous on Amara.”

Neeshka smiled, “Why, I think that's what Casavir said when he gave it to her.”

“I'm glad she has a friend like him. I think it's magic helped protect her.”

“Did you know it was his mother's---”

Cormick looked at her questioningly, shook his head.

“Amara must have told you---” Neeshka continued.

“No,” he said, still smiling.

Neeshka tapped her leg and reached under the table to steady her twitchy movements, “Hmm. Well, I always manage to stick my foot in my mouth. I just try and call things as I see them---will you forgive me for being an oaf? But Cormick, you're my friend, and know I want you to be happy, right?”

Cormick's brow rose, “You are my friend, and I am happy, Neeshka...Is there something on yer mind? Ya seem---”

“You deserve the truth, Cormick...”

Cormick's brow furrowed, and he put up a hand, “I don't think I like what yer implying.”

“Neither do I. But you are my friend. I don't have any of those. Most people aren't good like you are, marshal." Her face reddened even more than it usually was, “You have every right to be...aware of unpleasant truths, even if it hurts,” She touched his hand. “You're a better man than the paladin and the ranger combined.”

Her red eyes met his with a pleading look.

Cormick grabbed her hand, “I don't care if every paladin and ranger in Neverwinter declared his love for Amara. What she and I share goes beyond those piddly jealousies. I suggest ya leave, Neeshka. Now. Before Amara gets back.”

“Cormick...please...I'm sorry....but Amara's not the only woman in the world.” She kissed his hand.

Cormick pulled his hand away, though his eyes were kind, “She is that to me. I hope ya get to find that out with someone someday, Neeshka, but it can't be me.”

The tiefling ground her teeth to keep back the tears. Grabbing her tail, she turned and disappeared into the crowd. She looked like someone who's lost her way.

Cormick would have followed her, but I called his name, and held up a mead in each hand.

Somewhere near us, a girl started to sing.

I had a lover true and a lover fair
He loved me more than Sune loves her hair
He drew me close, and he drew me round
My heart beat like water for a night on the ground


There were whoops, and a male voice answered her verse.

I only know one who could me so well
With hands light as feathers, her laughter, a bell
The trees and her eyes are both silver-blue
She wraps her legs round me--- oh what's a boy to do?


I couldn't hear the rest of the words, but the song continued. Many of those around us started dancing.

I held one ale out to Cormick, but downed it in one gulp. He laughed as I did the same with the other. “You don't drink anyway,“ I muttered as rubbed my nose against his.

Grobnar came up to us, “Oh, Mistress Amara! You must sing. I have been telling well, every person that I meet that not only can you summon arcane energies to disposed of would-be assassins, but that you also have a divine singing voice,even though it's not really divine in origin, since you origins are definitely of the Lower Planes---”

“Grobnar, I'm sure there are better singers about...”

“Wait,” Cormick said. “Ya have to sing---for me---remember? I only heard a piece...”

I sighed, “You are very demanding, Marshal . I think a reprimand is in order. Or at least a through tongue-lashing.”

“That better be a promise.”


What draws people to music? Even those who can't sing or play a note still want to hear it. I sang because I always had. Just like I was a warlock because...well, I always was one. They were the two things that always came easily.

Music is an awful lot like like magic. It casts a spell on upon whoever hears it. It can move people to their feet, or make them twirl, laugh, or weep for some long-dead girl. Even hardened soldiers can be moved by a few simple chords. I knew---I had been moved in just the same way. There was something mollifying, yes, but also something powerful in music, something dangerous---like my magic.

Ultimately, you can't explain music. You just have to listen.

I smiled as Grobnar pulled me towards those with instruments. I told them the tune and hummed a few notes so they knew what I was going to sing. Once they started playing the right notes, I made eye contact with Cormick and clapped along to the steady beat. Anyone with eyes could see that I sang it for him, and him alone.

I sat beside my window
in summer, winter, spring
but in the fall you came knockin at my door
As the leaves fell down
in the Merdelain

With children's honest eyes
I saw your face, hands, feet
for the very first time
as the leaves fell down
in the Merdelain

Some have hearts and
some have smiles, dimples, pouts
that can turn a head away
as the leaves fall down
in the Merdelain

All I want is time
no more to be a child
when we'll both be wise
as the leaves fall down
in the Merdelain.

I loved you then
your buckles, laces, cloak
and I love you still
as the leaves fall down
in the Merdelain

I loved you then
and I love you still
as the leaves fall down
in the Merdelain

If you fall
I will rise someday
like the seeds, grass,'n breeze
as the leaves fall down
in the Merdelain.

If you fall
I will rise someday
as the leaves fall down
in the Merdelain.


There was shouting, and even applause. Cormick was whistling like great fool. He drew me close, and gave a kiss that made everyone around us hoot and holler.

If anyone had asked me, I would have said that was the happiest moment of my life. When everything Amara was wrapped in the magic of Cormick's arms, Cormick's smell, Cormick's touch.


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


When Neeshka huffed away from Cormick, she was so upset that the normally graceful thief ran into someone.

“Watch it, devil,” Bishop growled. He wiped a clear liquid off his face with one hand, and capped his flask with the other.

“Shut up,” she smelled his breath and held her hand to her nose, “Pew. You're drunk.”

He chucked, “Not enough,” before staggering away.

Neeshka grimaced at him, started to walk away, but then followed him to the doorway of the cellar, where Duncan kept the finer casks. “So, why are you drunk?” she asked, tilting her head to look down at the darkened stairs Bishop was heading down.

“The real question is why is everybody else sober...” Bishop cackled as he unstopped his flask and took another noisy chug.

Neeshka grabbed the flask out of Bishop's hand, sniffed it, and took a tentative gulp. She stuck out her tongue, “Eww! Gross!”

“Hey, don't waste that,” the ranger took back the flasand, looked inside as if tabulating how much liquor he'd lost.

“Sorry,” Neeshka coughed, “I'll get you some more...”

She helped him down the stairs. It was dark---too dark for his human eyes, anyway, but Neeshka could see shelves lined with booze of all varieties. Her fingers and tail twitched as she estimated how much she could get for some of those bottles.

Neeshka blew some dust off of one amber bottle. “This'll do,” she said aloud.

When Neeshka placed the whole bottle of brandy in his hands, Bishop looked at her disbelievingly, “Is it poisoned?”

“If I wanted to kill you, I'd just stab you in the back,” Neeshka replied with an innocent grin.

“Fair enough,” Bishop drank straight from the bottle. This time, he didn't offer her any, “So, why are you pretending to like me?”

Neeshka's voice was a sweet as a sugar cube, “I'm not pretending, Bishop. I do like you.”

He was the one who choked on his liquor, “Come on, wench. We both know better.”

“Alright. I don't like you.” Neeshka mussed up her short hair as she looked at her reflection in a nearby bottle.

Bishop drew a labored breath, “So, what do you really want? Somebody offed?”

Neeshka brought Bishop's hand to her small breast.

Bishop was going to say something, but Neeshka kissed him---there was more teeth in it than lips.

The ranger kept the bottle of brandy at hand as Neeska pushed him against the shelves. Her deft hands untied his breeches and groped him beneath them without overturning one bottle.

At first, Bishop just chuckled. Then he grunted. He had his hands on her horns, and yankined hard.

“Mar---” he panted.

Neeshka stopped what she was doing.

“Shit,” Bishop breathed, then glared at Neeshka, “I didn't say, 'stop.'”

The tielfling stood silently. There were tears in her eyes.

“What did you expect?” He took a long pull from the bottle before he thew it against the wall, shattering it in a yellow explosion of glass and brandy, “You are nothing to me.”

“But Amara's something---to you, to Casavir----to Cormick.” She rubbed her horns, “Why?”

“I want to screw Amara, so what? It's not like you want to screw me anyway. You want to mount the Harborman. The difference is: I don't care.”

Neeshka's voice, even when she cussed, was still rather high, “Amara is a cunt.”

Bishop grinned, opened his arms, “Welcome to my world, little girl.”

“And you're a dick.”

“You're the one who grabbed me, sweet lips...”

“You could have called me anything---except her name.”

Bishop shrugged, “Life's one long cock tease.”

Neeshka already had her hand down his pants, “It doesn't have to be...”

“Wow.” Bishop knocked her hands away, “Oh no. I don't fuck anyone that cares.”

“Amara does. All she does is care, care, care--- about Cormick. And Casavir. But not you.”

“Exactly. Now piss off.”

“You just can't ...”

“Bitch. If Duncan hadn't called his debt, do you really think I'd want to be with you boot-lickers? You think your something just because you're around her. What happens when she croaks? Or gets tired of all you crawlers? You're nothing. You can't play me. Don't even try, or you're the one who'll end up in some back alley with your tail cut off and shoved into your big mouth.”

“Amara wouldn't let you.”

He grabbed a piece of broken glass, “I could kill you. Right now. And get away with it. None of the rest of you could. Except Mar.”

“She wouldn't do that...”

“She could. She will, if she hasn't already.”

“What makes you so certain?”

Squinting, he grabbed her by the elbow, “We're through chatting.”

Neeshka backed away, but Bishop grabbed her wrist, and twisted it with precision.

“Look at me, slut. You tell anyone, anyone, and what's going to happen?”

Her voice was a pained whisper, “...You'll kill me.”

“I think you should go back to ignoring me. But keep your ears open. Have a chat with Mar, demon-to-demon, wench-to-wench, whatever. I want to know what she's thinking...If you do well, maybe we can detach that swamp cock from her and into you. And maybe then you'll let mine be.”

Neeshka nodded, “I'll do whatever you want, just let me go...”

“You must really hate yourself,” Bishop loosened his grip and smiled.

He leaned his face close to hers, “Don't ever kiss me. Got it?”

She nodded.

Bishop whistled as he ascended the stairs.

Neeshka didn't rub her arm until Bishop was long gone, but she still looked over her shoulder as if she expected him to come back.

She held her face in her hands as she wept there in the darkness.
"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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#12 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 10 January 2010 - 11:20 AM

Chapter 10

Ikenna...

I spasmed. I saw a sky made of fire, a landscape as vast and desolate as any I could have imagined, but so real that the heat seemed to singe every hair, every follicle of my flesh.

Dear gods, protect my soul.

Strong arms reached out from the furnace, dripping blue-green flames. I put up my hands, saw them become transparent against that burning, exposing the bone beneath.

“Open yer eyes...”
You're mine.

No. I kicked and bit and tore into the hands that tried to burn me.

But the sulfurous hands pushed me down, shook my shoulders until I thought the joints would tear out of their sockets. I held onto those arms until I felt the blue-green, molten world shift into the starless darkness of eyelids.

The smell of the sea and the docks tainted the air with the familiar mixture of salt and sweat and stale ale of Duncan's Flagon. Only then did I open my eyes.

I watched in silence as dawn made a lurid path through the rooftops, spilled hot and red through my window. The bed covers lay discarded on the ground. My body as well as another naked shadow rose against the paler mattress. Real arms wound tight around me, pinning my arms and legs, either to keep me close, or to keep me from moving.

The square jaw, bull-neck were there, even if couldn't make them out their definitions in the indiscriminate dawn. I could still feel the course hair on his chest against my back, the massive curve of his shoulders and thighs, which dwarfed my own dimensions. I wanted to spread his body across the bed, stretch my hands, feet to meet his...

“...Cormick,” I whispered, turning my face, my body toward his. His eyes were bright lights after the strange, otherworldly darkness of my dream. I looked into them until I found our chests rising in one rhythm.

This is what's real. “You can let go now.”

Cormick laughed, kissed my neck, “Can I now? Ya tried to kill me, girl. Can't say I like it, but then, I'm not the ranger.”

“That's hilarious---”

He extended his wrists, showed the bite marks on his forearms.

I ran my tongue behind my fangs. All I remembered was making love, falling asleep, ... something blue-green in my dreams... so I kissed the bites with a look as apologetic as it was confused, “I guess...I must have remembered who was in my bed.”

He squeezed my backside, “Ya didn't seem to mind when ya pulled me into it...”

I yawned, arched my back, “In case you haven't noticed, I'm not much of a lady.” I grabbed him by his neck, pulled his body on top of mine. Having an extra digit on each hand made my touch keener. As I ran may hands all over the muscles of his broad back, I always noticed the smattering of freckles on his shoulders, the mole on his left shoulder-blade, the round scar of an arrow that had missed his spine by a fingernail...

With a chuckle, Cormick stood. Naked, shaggy, and beautiful in the way I has learned men could be, he wagged his finger at me.

“You want me to beg?” I asked, sitting up. I took advantage of my own nakedness by crossing my hands behind my head, “I'm not above begging. I want you all to my own selfish self.”

The light poured into the room, lighting everything in gold. My eyes switched from their night vision to normal sight. The red-gold wallpaper seemed to gleam, as if it were remembering dawn.

“Ya have me, Amara...” He kissed the space between by breasts, “...every part.”

“Where to stake my claim?” I murmured, appraising his bare body. “How bout here ...and here...and oh, I couldn't forget here.”

He pulled away from my chest, rubbed his nose against the scar the shard had made on the day my mother died, “Tell me how ya got this...”

I pulled away from his probing, put a hand over the old defect, the only mar on my otherwise smooth skin. I didn't like looking at it, let alone have someone touch it.. “What? I thought you were off duty, Marshal...Further probings can wait until later. ”

Cormick laced his arms together, “I don't like secrets.”

I crossed my arms, deliberately imitated his stance, “Good thing I'm not keeping secrets then.”

“Really? Then please explain the gaping scar that almost splits yer chest in half.”

I gave him a withering stare as I covered up the wound and my body with what remained of the bedclothes, “Get dressed, Cormick. Uphold the laws that keep us one step above savagery...” Then I softened my eyes, my voice, “Now, dear one, is not the time to talk about old wounds...”

Looking into my eyes the whole time, he leaned down, pushed the covers away, deliberately kissed the puckered, pale cross above my heart.

I wound my hands in his curly hair, concentrated on the sensation of his lips against the only place where my skin, with its secret scar, was forbidden to him. He liked a challenge---well, I presented more than enough of that for twenty men... An image of us, years from now, flashed through my mind: two graying, wrinkling, more-or-less content people, and even then, I knew he'd still go after the tender spots I was always trying to hide.

My voice was fond as I twirled a dark lock between my fingers, “Stupid, stubborn Harborman. That scar...is just where I tore out my heart, set it adrift in the sea until the right man came along to put it back again...”

“...The Princess of the Lost Heart...I think I've heard that story...Without a heart, the Princess becomes something deadly. Isn't she tall, and dark, with green eyes that cut right through a man like a basilisk's glare?” I rolled my eyes, “And black hair,” He tried to pull my hair behind my ear, but it was too dense, “thick and smooth as flax? A voice like a siren's? Her look maddens every admirer, but I heard it's with her voice that she weaves her spells, and so voice and beauty, which should enchant, only deal destruction and death.”

“I heard a slightly different version. The Princess, who's not really a princess, but an Enchantress, deals out deal out death and destruction---oh, yes---but only so she can find her heart. Good thing I know where my heart is...my heart is right here,” I tapped his chest, sucked on his nipple.

He sighed in pleasure, “The only thing I wonder is if yer going to enchant me or---”

“Fuck you?” I threw his knickers at him.

He shimmed into them, “Does this mean ya won't propose?”

I pretended to trace Lathander's circle on my palm, “Gods forbid. Or you'll start asking me to make you dinner, or maybe darn your socks...Princesses don't do that sort of thing.”

“I thought ya weren't a princess?”

I narrowed my eyes,“I'm a noble now. Manual labor,” I chuckled, “is what servants like you are for, my dear.”

“So that's what keeps all these strapping folk around? Cheap labor?”

“You should talk to Sand. Before the Trial, we talked about what would bring our little gang together...Power, coin, simple boredom? I like to think it's common purpose, maybe affection. While I may not understand why, I won't belittle their motivations---unless I have good reason for being suspicious. I'd rather trust. And be disappointed. Because there is nothing that any of them can do that I can't recover from. “

“One more speech like that, and we're not leaving this room.”

“Too many opinions this early in the morning?”

“...I'll have to marry ya. Or fuck ya.”

I banged lightly on his chest, “Quit that!”

“Quit what?”

I pushed him out of the bed. He made a loud thump as he fell.

“Ow, ” he laughed, still splayed on the ground.“Yer already mean to me. Marry me.”

“What?” I looked down at him, “You want me to push you out of bed every day?”

He sat up, placed his arms on the bed as he looked at me, “I'm not joking, Amara.”

I sighed as I rolled off the bed and climbed onto his lap, “I can see it. You're really serious. I've never been proposed to, but even with my limited experience, I'm pretty certain it's a little...soon. We only just started being close---as in the naked kind of close. You---we've---been completely unexpected. I will be happy if you keep exceeding my expectations,” I kissed his forehead.

He held my chin in his hand, “I like things as they are too, but I keep thinking of the future. I don't know how much time we have. It might be fast, but there's no time limit on these things. Either it's right, or it's not...And we're right.” Both his hands cradled my face, “I've never had it so right...”

I mussed his hair, “Cormick, getting married is for people who have futures and broods to look forward to. You do know my father is a demon and that I'm a warlock, as well as all that stuff about being the Kalach-Cha and the Shard-Bearer. I don't know if I can conceive, or if I should, with the shards throbbing with some extra-planer electricity---”

“---That's my point. Despite everything, we've managed to find each other,” He placed his cheek against mine. “That don't happen everyday.”

I tried to look out the window, but could only see a small patch of gold-flecked sky, “This war's a long way from being over.”

He spoke low into my ear, “There are always wars. The only thing good about them is that even the worst one's end.”

“After lots of destruction. After lots of death...” I looked past the horizon, as if I could see the future written in the air, hovering above us.

Cormick smiled. I could feel the tickle of it against my neck, “That is what yer meant to do, Amara. See what's coming, and bear it. Me, I need a little hope. I'm pretty certain that someday, we'll look back at this, and grin, and remember all the wonders we saw together rather than the pain.”

I wrapped my arms around him, flashed my fangs, “While our demon brood looks after Ma and Pa in their twilight years?”

Cormick laughed, “Why not? I only see dawns before us, love. Always, no matter what happens.”

“...You're a bloody sap.”

“I'll take that as a 'maybe' cause I'm too stubborn to give a straight answer---'”

My eyes met his, “Even if you can take on Luskan armies, gangs, gith, and criminals, do you really think you can handle Daeghun as a father-in-law?”

“Gods-be-damned, woman---”

“---I'm just being honest.”

“Yer being pig-headed.”

I made an oinking sound.

“I'll turn ya into bacon. And eat ya up.”

“...Really?”

“Cross my heart.”

I raised both my hands in a gesture of surrender, “...We can discuss your proposal later---when one or both of us isn't bare-ass naked,” I slapped his backside, “Now, git, and hurry that fine ass back to me.”

His white-toothed grin, his I'm-going-to-do-all-sorts-of-things-to-you look, made me smile long after he was gone.

I felt weightless as I lay back in the bed, smelling his scent. I wanted to be enveloped by it, as his arms had enveloped mine. I wanted to run out of the Flagon naked as a babe, shouting, Cormick, Cormick. My heart belongs to Cormick.

He was the same boy I knew, and now brave, funny, tender man. And he came to my bed. Didn't even hesitate, caressed every...(sweet Mystra) of this drow-dark body. He even wanted to marry me, the fool. I stretched my fingers, all twelve digits, remembered the feel of his skin, even the coarser cloth of his uniform, the black and white of his marshal's tunic.

Think, Amara. Being a warlock, I dealt with fiends and the possibility of death every day. When you hazard your soul every moment, it lowers the odds of having a stable home life---just look at poor Owal. I was fond of Cormick---no, I adored Cormick, but...marriage? That involved a whole other world of complications involving...financial stability...and...babies...

I swallowed. I'd rather face a dragon. Or two. Or ten.

I took my time getting ready...My dark robes, Sir Nevalle's fine gift, were covered in dirt and dried blood, so I slipped on my old suit of chain mail after a hot bath. While a part of me thought the mail was probably unnecessary, the other part recalled that twice already I had been caught half-clothed in compromising situations. In the Solace Glade, I was ambushed by assassins while wearing a paper-thin robe. And then I had to fight the gith---in this very room---with nothing on but a night shirt. Since circumstances indicated that the less clothed I was, the more likely I was to get attacked, I decided to be cautious, and slip on the chain mail. As I yanked to get the familiar weight of the mail over my head, I got a quick glimpse of my face in the mirror--- it was a good thing I did. I pulled my mad hair into a knot and slipped on my boots, bought in Fort Locke, with a fond grin before thudding downstairs.

Everyone else had alright eaten, and many were still recovering from last night's festivities. It had seemed like all of Neverwinter crammed into Duncan's Flagon last eve: singing, dancing, making a holiday. This morning---afternoon, really---the only sound coming from the common room was Khelgar's stuttering snore from the far corner. Duncan had already chased away the stragglers and the drunkards . The tables and bar had been polished to a high gleam. I could smell my uncle's rolls baking. My stomach rumbled.

Shandra was the only one awake in the common room. She sat at a table, making a face at the plate of hot rolls. She didn't have on her armor yet, but a padded suit with the top laces untied.

Shandra rubbed the sleep from her own eyes, and looked at me from crown to heel, “Well, you look like as content as a cow that's just been milked.”

I grabbed a roll from her plate. It was oven-hot, so I blew on it as I tossed it from one hand to another, “If you're waiting for a 'grope and tell,' forget it. You know that's not my style.” I looked around, “Where's the butter?”

“If you hadn't spent all morning waking up half Neverwinter, Kalach-Cha, you might have had a chance to have a bit of butter before the rest of us ate it. Next time, you might want to use a silence spell. Or I'll gag you myself.”

“Have a cup of tea. Everything seems more marvelous after a cup of tea---”

“I don't want any tea. I want—”

“Cream?” I bit the roll.

We both laughed.

She wiped a tear from her eye, “I want Casavir to ravish me. Again and again and again.”

The roll was swarm and crusty, and I chewed slowly, “And you are telling me because---”

“I am used to men, well, approaching me. I want someone to say things like 'Wow, Shandra, your hair is very shiny, I want to run my fingers through it...'”

“I don't think that's Casavir's way. If he doesn't approach you, then you're going to have to talk to him.”

She rolled her eyes. “Talk to him? Say, Cas, sometime before our next battle, I was thinking we could have carnal relations. It takes the edge right off...”

“I'm certain we can arrange something at the next sparring match. Who knows what might develop when you get all grunty and sweaty.”

“Hm... A little moonlight, a little hand-to-hand combat,” Shandra counted each on her fingers, “I'm in---as long as it involves me, the paladin, and the removal of clothing.”

“Don't worry, Shandra, I'll make it an order, if necessary.”

She laughed, imitated my voice, “Sir Paladin, yo will get into that bloody bed, and you will make sweet love to Shandra until her bones twitch.”

Casavir cleared his throat. We knew it was him because only the paladin had such distinctive phlegm.

Shandra and I looked at each other like two babes caught with their the thumbs in the pudding.

Casavir had just come from the kitchen, and was wiping his forehead.

“Morning, ladies,” I couldn't tell exactly how, but I knew Casavir had heard every word Shandra and I had said. There was something in the way he said morning ladies, with those the raised cheekbones, as if he was trying very hard not to laugh.

The paladin paused before continuing, as if he was well aware of our discomfort and was making a joke of it, “Amara, you just missed Sand. He has to get some special item to finish the spell he's working to repair your horn. And Shandra...Khelgar and I were going to spar after lunch. You are welcome to join us---as always.”

Shandra turned red, gulped, and nodded. A stay hair fell in to her face in a very charming way. I think she wanted Casavir to push the stray lock from her eyes and gaze into them soulfully.

As I looked at Casavir, I could see why Sandra wanted him to run his hands through her hair. Something about the paladin looked...different. He wore just a simple shirt and trousers. His sleeves were rolled up, as if he had been working. I guessed he was the one who had buffed the tables. Out of his normal plate mail, he looked like the young man he was rather than some battle-hardened solider. I had never seen him look more handsome.

I was about to say so, breaking that tricky conversational ground, but Casavir spoke instead.

“You look well, Amara. Even with a broken horn.”

“It's all the exertion she got yesterday,” blurted Shandra, who punched me good-naturedly in the shoulder.

I gave them both my warmest, widest grin, “Exercise is good for the soul.”

Casavir did smile, “And good for the body. Though some forms of exertion are better than others...”

Shandra's mouth hung as wide open as a barn door.

“Is there a form in particular you have in mind, sir?” I asked.

“...Fencing.” He said seriously.

“Fencing?”

“Anyone who's ever fenced knows you have to use every muscle, for the merest flicker of a wrist can cut through the best defenses, or leave you wide open to your enemy's attack. A good fencer makes it look instinctual, but it requires control to know when to build tension and when to release---when to feint and when to flurry.”

“...It sounds like you've fenced a time or two.”

“Everyone needs exertion. ”

“But wouldn't Tyr be quite upset if you spent all your time...in...sword play?”

Casavir looked up, “As long as we do our duties, and cause no harm, Tyr is quite...lenient to his paladins. And forgiving when necessary.”

I laughed. “Have you stood in great need of forgiveness?” Then I regretted my words, remembering our conversation in the temple..

The gleam went out of his face for a moment, “When the sin is great, the need for forgiveness is greater.”

“Are you still talking about...swords?” Shandra suddenly asked.

“He's talking about battle.”

“Yes, facing demons,” Casavir added.

I arched my eyebrow, “Facing demons...I always wondered about that expression. When I was a child, I though it meant I was hard to look at because I was so vile.”

“I...I apologize, Amara. Truly. I wasn't thinking.”

“No need, Casavir. I like seeing you so...content. You haven't offended me. I don't think you could, if you tried.”

“I probably could, even without trying, but I'd rather not---if I can help it.”

Casavir did not wait for a reply. He nodded at us both, looking a little sheepish, and headed for the kitchen.

Shandra watched him leave, “I don't think I understood half of that conversation, but I got all I needed to...That man needs me. ”

I chuckled, “Well, just don't make him sin too much.”

“Or what? You'll ground us?” she said, pinching my ear.

“No. I'll send you to the Abyss...”

She laughed. “Oh. I'm so scared of the big, bad warlock. Who will save me from your terrible clutches?”

“Next time your house burns down, you better save yourself.”

“I'll just squeal for the paladin. Gods, I didn't think I could be more attracted to him, but...” she sighed.

We both started laughing.

Shandra rapped her knuckles across the tabletop, “I still can't believe he just said that...What has gotten into that pretty head?”

“Maybe a prettier head,” I gestured at Shandra.

“You know something?”

I shrugged, “I don't know anything. But he seems altered. What alters people more than...the possibility of ... carnality?”

“I think you're seeing things through those Cormick-colored glasses. If Casavir's changed, I'm guessing your head had something to do with it.”

“No---”

“---I don't mean anything bad by it like Neeshka's implied. You're the person Casavir's closest to. If you said something to him, he'd take it to heart.”

“We only talked...”

“You have the irritating habit of getting people to confide in you. Casavir doesn't talk to anybody else. Things come out of his mouth, quite polite things, but I've never talked to him.”

“He talks!”

“About tactics, and Tyr, and necessary things: 'Shandra, guard your left shoulder,' or 'Shandra, be certain to keep your feet dry,' or 'Nothing, Shandra, I just need a few minutes alone to pray,' 'Shandra, did you help Grobnar scrub the pots?'”

“At least he's not like my foster-father. Daeghun could go for days---sometimes weeks---without saying a bloody word. Casavir's just... been through a lot. The distance is his way of coping. ”

“Well, We've all been through a lot. I've lost my home, my family before that. My method of coping is to pant after the prettiest man I can, only he never smiles. Did you notice that? and when he does, he doesn't even show his teeth. Don't get me wrong, I'd still do all sorts of things with that frowning mouth, but I prefer a man who looks at least a little jolly. While I want him, I'm not certain I really like him. Am I terrible?”

“Yes. But that's why I like you.”

“Amara, I really am happy for you and that grinning stud of a Harborman. Don't let my moaning fool you. Speaking of moaning---”

A hand brushed the jagged remains of my horn. Shit. A dull throb of pain reminded me that I had forgotten to ask Cormick about the dagger—the one that had killed Lorne.

“Shandra!...” I looked around, “Seriously, I have something to ask you.”

“What is it?”

Suddenly, I saw Lorne's face---not the face of the man I had fought, but of him as a boy, when was red-headed and freckled. When he looked like Bevil.

I licked my lips, but it did not stop the memory of Lorne's stench from filling my nostrils. I punched my belly lightly beneath the table, commanding it to behave. Daeghun once told me that guilt was in the navel. It was an elven belief that stomach aches, and most physical discomfort, were due to one's state of mind and being rather than any physical cause.

As I rubbed my stomach, I had to face my guilt. While I knew that whoever threw the dagger was the one who actually killed Lorne, I was ready to---I thought I had, for a moment. I didn't doubt that his death was deserved, but I had never killed someone I knew before. I might as well have thrown the dagger myself.

“Did you eat a bad roll?” Shandra asked, concerned.

“No. When I fought Lorne, did you notice anything...odd?”

“Besides the fact that I had to watch while that monster tried to kill you? No. Why are you asking?”

“When have you ever known me to carry a dagger?”

“Never. So...how did one get into Lorne's back?”

“That's my question. One moment he was lying there, then that wind swept over us, and he had the ranger's dagger sticking out of his back.”

“What?!? Bishop would only throw a dagger at you, not to save you.”

“... Khelgar told me that Cormick had a plan, if things should go badly. Did you know about it?'

“Even if Cormick threw it, wouldn't he tell you? And why would he throw the ranger's---it doesn't make sense.”

“Unless he wanted to frame Bishop, if anyone else grew suspicious.”

“Cormick's too honest, Amara. If you ask him, I know he'll tell you straight.”

“If it was Cormick, I'm going to be quite upset.”

“What? That he loves you enough to do whatever he can to keep you safe? Yeah. It's unpardonable. I'm sure you'll find an appropriate punishment for him,” she put a finger to her dimple. “I suggest starting with a strip search---”

I buried my head on the table...

“Squire Chidi?”

I looked up, grinning like an idiot, “Yes?”

A young man stood inside the open door with a cap in his hand, “Master Aldanon has need of you. It is... urgent. He asks you to come with all possible speed.”

“Alright. We'll be there in a moment.”

The apprentice bowed before leaving.

I looked around the common area, saw only Shandra, Casavir, Khelgar, and Neeshka gathered around the bar, drinking tea or eating the last os the hot rolls. I went back upstairs to grab my remaining gear, and asked Shandra to wrangle together our 'little army.'

I needed to ask someone about the boy, Marcus. If anyone could answer my questions, it would have to be the sage.

As we neared Aldanon's house, there was a commotion outside. Two men stood in the walled courtyard. They seemed to be crouching over a third man, either to protect him, or hold him down. Several members of the Watch, most of whom I knew, kept looking from the three men to their sergeant with concerned faces. Some tensed their bow strings, others waited for the order to unsheathe their maces.

I ran up to the leader. I couldn't remember his name, but I knew his rank, “What's happening, Sargent?”

He saluted. There was something in the way he looked at me that made my stomach as tight and heavy as a boulder, “I'm sorry, Squire. It's Cormick---they've got Marshal Cormick!”

“That's impossible. I just saw him an hour ago.”

“They've taken him hostage. A whole gang broke into Aldanon's place. Cormick tried to stop them, but that wand---its Aldanon's. The greedy bastards---who knows what kind of magic is in it...”

My mouth and eyes widened as I looked at the third man, the one on the ground, trying to see if I could see anything familiar.

I knew it was Cormick because of the black and white overtunic. I had helped him slip on this morning.

One, the brown-headed tough, kicked Cormick in the ribs.

I didn't think. I raised my hands--- I called upon my power.

“Wait---” someone yelled, but it was too late.

Hellfire arced into the brown-headed figure kicking Cormick. I killed him instantly, but the other was able to aim a slim wand at Cormick's head before I sent hellfire into his belly. In the moment before the thug was consumed, some terrible magic issued from the wand's tip and tore into Cormick's chest like a column made of searing, blue-white light.

The spell burned my eyes. Whatever it was, it was potent. I could hear those cries of those around me, but once again, I didn't think. I ran.

“Cormick...what the bloody hells was that?” I coughed. Everything was happening too fast. I expected someone to appear and say that it was a joke---a terrible joke, and then Cormick would wag his finger at me, and then put his arms around me and say it was just a play to get me to marry him.

This, the numb pressing of my fingers against the brick wall, the cobblestones, wasn't real.

“Cormick, this isn't funny---” I said as I blindly groped for him.

In the sightless press of my fingers along the ground, I found a boot. I traveled up the leg, which ended short--- a bloody, wet stump. I made a strange sound as I jerked my hand away.

“Amara---”

I heard ragged breathing. As I bent in that direction, something grabbed my sleeve.

“...Cormick? Where are you?”

Even blind and light-headed, nauseous form all the carnage, I could still smell him.

Cormick pulled my forehead head against his, “Amara...Yer here.”

“Yeah,” I checked his body. There was only one wound I could feel. I put my hand on his chest, where the wand did its work. The wound oozed more blood than I though a body could contain. The blood spilled up over my hands, staining them a crimson I could now see all too vividly.

Cormick shook his head as if shaking away sleep.

I shook him, “Don't you go to sleep on me. Stay with me, or---”

“Listen, Amara....“ his hold was surprisingly strong. His hands were as cold as his vise-like grip. But he couldn't say anything. He just stared me with those dark, lovely eyes, as if memorizing my features, or noticing them for he very first time.

“Don't you dare look at me like that,” I threatened even as I kissed him. At least this lips were still warm.

Cormick became terribly pale.

“Stay with me,” I smacked his bearded cheek. “Cormick!”

His eyes sank shut.

“Cormick. I'll can't marry you if you don't stay with me, now. Just open your eyes, please. Cormick...look at me...”

Cormick made a gurgled noise from the base of his throat, as if he was choking.

My voice was an animal cry, “He's alive! Someone help him!”

I heard movement before I saw several figures stumbling to where we were. Casavir placed his hands out out his hands to Cormick's chest, and called on Tyr. After a long pause, Casavir closed his eyes, said something I didn't catch, but the blood still gushed through the paladin's careful hands.

Then the paladin took out a healing kit to stanch the blood. Casavir worked quickly, but I could tell he didn't understand why the healing spell wasn't working.

Neeshka came up from behind Casavir, “Why aren't you helping him?”

The bandage was already soaked. Casavir put another one on top of it. “Amara, hold this bandage tight,” I held the bandage as tightly as I could. “Tyr sometimes heals, Neeshka, but not always. I'm not a priest. Cormick needs more healing than than I can offer.”

Neeshka was still as she looked down at Cormick, whose mouth was slack, “You're a liar.” She tried to push Casavir, but only managed to swat at his armored back.

“You can heal him, you just won't! And we all know why, don't we?”

The paladin looked into my eyes as I ran my hands through Cormick's hair. The sorrow and anger deepened the paladin's eyes to a thundercloud blue before he turned around, grabbed Neeshka's arms before they could slap him. He only looked at her, but Neeshka glared with red-eyed petulance that would have made me even more angry when I looked from her to Cormick, lying there in his own gore.

“That's unkind, Neeshka,” Shandra reprimanded. “We don't know what that magic was that hurt him. And you're not helping anybody---especially not Cormick.”

Neeshka seemed ready to say something, but Shandra's eyes softened. Shandra held out her hands, and the tiefling's sobs were the only sound for several moments.

I worked my jaw until I found my voice again,“Casavir, find Aldanon, and find out who did this...”

“We will,” Casavir squeezed my shoulder briefly. “But I should come with you---”

I shook my head. “He's mine. The least I can do is be with him... Just---”

Casavir looked one last time at Cormick, “I will bring justice to them all, Amara. I swear it.”

“Yes, we all do,” said Shandra as she kissed my forehead, “Take him. We'll take care of the rest.”

“Kill them,” I said, “Kill them all!”

“Aye,” said Khelgar, who waved his ax at the sage's house. “Come out, ya pixie-livered---”

“Khelgar!” whispered Neeshka. “We can't get the drop on them if you tell them we're coming.”

As my companions headed into what remained of Aldanon's mansion, I looked at the Cloaks, “Don't just stand there, take the Marshal to the bloody Temple!”

Then I turned to Cormick, whispered, “It'll be alright.”

The only response was fluttering of his eyelids.

I held Cormick's head. He was sweating, but his flesh was too pale, his skin too cold. I muttered every incarnation I knew that might help, but power from the realms below was never made to make mortals whole.

The solders carried Cormick to the Temple of Tyr, the same temple where where I had stayed the night before, contemplating my own death.

A Tyrran acolyte, robed in white, opened the doors, guided us to the rooms where the sick and dying were tended. No one was in the room until we entered, a solemn procession bringing in the wounded from the field---except it wasn't a battle that brought him here. He didn't fall by a gith sword or trolls or undead---it was a wand from an inept hand. Cormick had been weaponless, defenseless. He had probably thought that he could reason with them. “Let me put the old girl down---so we can speak like civilized folk.”

When the Cloaks laid Cormick in the bed, I kissed his big, stubby hand, “Cormick...” It was clammy, oddly smooth. I knelt down, massaged his hand gently with both of my own, trying to keep what little life I felt in that pulse to remain there.

The solders left to get a priest, but I felt their accusing eyes boring into the back of my head.

I looked into Cormick's eyes, and I knew then that he was fading. There is a look, a pale sheen, that bleaches the skin of the dying. I had been the cause of it often enough to know what it was, but seeing it unfold in Cormick's face, a black anger rose in me. I couldn't love him, or I wouldn't be able to stand there as he, the great hero, the one person that deserved to live, was drained of life.

Cormick's gaze fixed on the ceiling.

I moved so that, if he could still see, he would look at me, “This morning was the happiest I've ever been. And that was because I woke beside you.” It wasn't enough. There was so much more to say, just let me think...

One moment, he was Cormick---the next, he was...gone. The kindness, the life were gone from his dark eyes, and they looked just like bits of dim glass. The only expression that remained was a half-smile, as if dying was just as another thing to grin about. Or maybe he grinned for me...


Cormick...


I smoothed his hair, buried my face in it. As I smelled his smell, the familiar fragrance of mint, rather than soothing me, was like an accusation of what I had taken from the world. That smell would soon be decay because I had wanted it too much.

“Squire?” It was the same priest who had bandaged Cormick's hands after the fire in the Docks---the fire that Moire's gang had set. The one where Cormick burned his hands tying to save his friend....oh gods...

The priest looked at Cormick, “I was fond of that boy,” he whispered. His voice creaked.

“Can't you help him?”

“I already tried every incantation. There is nothing more to be done. The spell that did this did more than just injure him---it prevents any healing from working. I am sorry.”

I shook my head, “No.”

“I've started prayers for his soul,” the priest said without turning. The incense burned with a yellow pop, oozed smoke as the priest set it in a corner of the room. In West Harbor, Brother Merring did the same thing when someone died. It purified the air.

“Squire, won't you sit with me in the chapel? You look like one of Myrkul's Deaths.”

If only, I thought. I let the priest led me away from Cormick's body, though I didn't want to leave him. I kept looking back at the door to the infirmary, as if I could see him through the door.

The priest tried to make his voice soothing, “The Marshal...was a doubting man.”

“Cormick's...doubts need not disturb you any longer,” I replied. While he was trying to smooth things over, I was looking for a fight.

“I'm afraid that's not the way things work, child.”

I blinked rapidly, “Then inform me because I have no clue why were having a theological discussion when my friend is lying cold and dead in the next room.”

“If no god claims his soul, he will be declared Faithless, and sent to the Wall.”

My voice seemed to come from underground, “Is that your idea of comfort?”

“I don't like it any more than you do, but there are just some things that cannot be changed.”

“I've lost him not just now, but forever. That's what you mean,” I put my hands to my head. This can't be happening...

I turned my back to him, yet he kept speaking to me, “We cannot know someone's fate, as much as we may love, because we are not gods---only flesh that lives one, brief moment. Think of the eternity of time before you were born, or the eternity that will continue long you are dead. Our knowledge, our experience, is too limited, so we must trust in something to lead us down the right path.”

“And who decides what is just? Priests? I though we were all 'just brief flesh,' if so, you're no more able to determine justice than a half-demon like me.”

“Everyone will be held accountable for their actions, but not by me, but the gods, who are the only ones who can render judgment.”

“I think Cyric would have a very different idea of justice than Ilmater.”

“That is between each soul and their god.”

Then there's no deed for a Wall to send the Faithless to---because there are enough gods to represent ever variation of human faith, right? So no one is really Faithless---only the gods who abandon us... ”

“If you tread much further, you may tread on dangerous ground. I have already lost one who I was charged to save...

“Save the bullshit for the your sheep. Cormick didn't swallow it, and neither do I.”

“If you really want to help, if you do love him, pray for his soul. It goes to to Crystal Palace as we speak. Perhaps a god may take pity on him, or recognize in his deeds.”

I laughed as I turned on the priest, “Or he goes 'to the Wall.' I've heard that before. Want to know what I think about this Wall?” I took a step toward the priest, “It's a sham---a cock and bull story meant to scare children into saying their prayers and to go to temple, so that when they grow up, they are certain make their tithes. Right?”

I gestured at the empty benches. I kept stepping towards the priest, and he kept backing away, “That's not faith---that's manipulation. And you're telling me my Cormick may suffer the worst torment that the gods can concoct because he didn't spend enough time listening to your sermons?”

The priest stool his ground, “The Wall is real. And Cormick is in real danger.”

I grabbed the priest's shoulders, I shook him---hard, “Then resurrect him. Reincarnate him...Animate him...I don't care. Just bring him back to me.”

We ended up at the altar. A beam of natural light lit up the priest's face, “I cannot.”

I tipped over the altar, sent the incense crashing to the ground, it left a tendril of heady smoke. Why did gods always need burnt offerings? “How much magic must there be in this bloody world, and it can't save one life?”

The priest looked at the desecration of his altar as if it were only a trick of his old eyes, “Death, painful as it is, but it is a part of life---”

“Do you want to find out?” I growled as I lifted the priest by his collar.

“That will not bring him back.”

“He was murdered. You knew him. Isn't your heart on fire to think that his murders will sit tonight to sup, when he'll be lying in the dark alone.?”

“Death comes for each of us. It is why life is precious---we know it ends too soon...”

“Death may be natural, but an eternity of suffering is not right. It is not just!” My words rang into the rafters.

“It is not for mortals to judge.”

I grinned until I felt my fangs expose white and curved, dangerous as twin daggers, “I'm not mortal, old man.”

I dropped him.

A torch, carried by the priest, was our only light as he led our silent processional into the Temple's crypts. As we we walked further and further down the clammy, winding stairwell, the smell of embalming agents grew more and more distinct. Four acolytes carried Cormick's body in silence and placed it on a raised dais with an engraving of a raised fist on the base. When they turned away, they bowed before retreating back up the stairwell.

The priest set out more incense. I only saw his back as he lit several candles with his torch.

I felt helpless, a state I was never comfortable feeling. As I looked from Cormick to the darkness, where my night vision gave some idea of the untold number of bodies lay mouldering, a shiver touched my spine, “...Cormick loved West Harbor....And that's where I plan on taking him. I'll take him home.”

My eyes must have glowed with a green phosphorescence, for the priest looked at me for several seconds. With my glowing eyes, fangs, and even a broken horn, he must have thought, Was it wise to bring her here?

“Once again, I am sorry for your loss.”

“It is a loss for all Neverwinter,” I said, tracing the stitching of my cloak.

“Come back the temple, child...” the priest said to me. “I will stay to performs the rites.”

I shook my head, “Not while he's down here. We...we were going to be married...”

“Then stay for as long as you find the need to. No one will disturb you. I'll see to it.”

The priest took the torch with him, leaving me with only a few candles and the darkness.

I only mentioned marriage because I was certain the priest would leave. See ,Cormick, more proof that I'm not good.

Cormick seemed to be asleep. The hand, my hand, that touched his cheek shook uncontrollably. He was cold, as cold as the stone around him. Yer shaking, Amara. I took off my cloak, put it across his shoulders. It was dark green, embroidered with silver thread by the women's circle in West Harbor. I won it when I won at the Harvest Fair competition. Cormick was the only other Harborman to win every competition of the tourney. How long had it been? Five months. It wasn't yet summer, but last harvest already felt like another life...

Not one year. And now we had none.

I closed my eyes, grimaced as I shoved my fist my mouth so hard that my teeth bit into my knuckles. A sound came from me that I did not know I was capable of uttering. It was mournful, empty...I didn't know which was worse: being alone, or just realizing I would walk out of this room and never lay beside him again. I could do nothing as wave after wave of sorrow racked my body worse than any physical pain could have done.

It's my fault...oh gods...why do I only take lives...

I knew there wasn't time. I had so much to say. I didn't know where to begin. With prayers? With confessions? I ---I did it --- It should be me lying on this slab.

I wiped the snot from my nose. I'm not helpless, I thought as placed a hand against the smooth dais. I may not be able to heal, but, I could take his soul, lead it back to his body. There were evocations... I racked my mind. Didn't Owal do something similar?

I upturned my pack, spilling its contents on the ground. There, amid dry rations and herbs, was The Life and Death of Owal the Tongueless. I opened it...Yes. The exact details of the spells weren't there, but there was the basic structure. I could use it as a guide. My magic was spontaneous, a channeling of infernal energies, but it was, ultimately, a natural process. I did not violate any magical laws. The magic of a warlock wasn't like the studying that mages like Sand had to do for years before they could light a candle. All my life, my body just behaved like a tuning fork into other realms. I could see in in my dreams, even in the walking world---patterns of power---nets and webs...My magic was mostly that of containment and channeling. The necromantic arts, which dealt with death, were something I never pursued. There was no going back once that path was taken. Once you manipulated death, it altered something within the mage, as if it left a stain on the soul. It was what had destroyed Owal and everything he thought he loved.

From somewhere, a mental image of a raising spell formed in my mind as bright as daylight, as regular as a maze, which may have many tuns, but always has an end... It was dangerous, and there was no guarantee that what was raised would be completely Cormick, but... I buried my head for a moment in his dark hair. The rest of him was stone.

I smoothed his hair again and again. Was damnation worth it, if it brought him back to me---even if it was just a shell of what he was?

Pulling off the chain mail piece by piece, I piled my armor in the corner, rolled up the sleeves of my cloth undershirt. Gently, as if if I did not want to wake him, I pulled off the Harvest Cloak from his body. It fluttered to the carved floor, disturbing the layer of dust that had accumulated there after centuries of decay and corpses.

Avoiding his glassy stare, I pierced my own hand, the right one, with my incisor. The blood was hot and wet again my forearm. I stopped the wound with my hand. Each drop would be needed before the end.

I scrutinized a raising symbol from the book: a cross topped with a loop. With my blood, I traced the sacred symbol at each of the four corners the platform. According to the book, Owal said the symbols transformed the table into a “tablet of life,” only then would raising be possible.

To bring a body back to life, I had to convince the other powers that the soul of the departed deserved to live. That is all the book offered.

I closed the book, closed my eyes. What am I doing? This is folly. I should turn away, march back up those steps, and go back to the sun, the day above. I should pray to Mystra, ask for forgiveness.

I remembered the altar I made to Mystra in my room back at West Harbor. Daeghun had even helped make a figure pf the Lady, hoping her influence might curve some of the ferocity of my soul. Lady of Magic, all the songs I sang, all the times I sat beneath your benevolent, carved gaze. I told her most of the things most girls tell their mothers.

I prayed that the magic would come, but instead of being a mage, my powers were everything that the Lady seemed to disprove of. Some considered warlocks no better than shadow mages---dangerous. They were right. Warlocks were dangerous. If we choose, we could tap into other powers besides the Weave. In other worlds, the worlds we warlocks tread across, magic was not always constricted by a Weave or a goddess of magic. Most warlocks chose easy powers, dark or wild magics, but I had always tried to keep my powers within Mystra's Weave.

Even if did not turn to those forbidden arts now, how could I leave Cormick here? If I didn't use every power at my disposal to raise him, I would always wonder...would always regret...

I don't know how long I was there, hovering between alternatives, but if there was anything I was good at, it was making decisions.

Holding up my bloody hand, I spoke:

“Lady of Mysteries,
Mother of Magic,
It was by magic that his life ended,
Let magic bring him back.
I was reckless with your gifts,
I have perverted the Art,
Forgive your servant
And I will do as you ask.
I will create wonders in your name.
Your Weave make all things possible.

“Powers of light, listen to me,
He has not been driven by spite.
He has not avoided danger
he has not raised his hand without cause.
He had not given into temptation
nor has he led anyone into despair
He has not proved false.
He has not thrown away his life
He did not dawdle his life in meaningless pursuits,
He has not been forgotten

Give him life,
that he may do even greater things.”

“I love him, Sune Firehair,” I pleaded.,“Tymora, you have walked with him all his life---do no not let misfortune still his brave heart. By whatever blood in me is still holy, Ilmater, preserve his spirit. Tyr, if you can her me, rectify the evil done to this man. Torm, let me repay his loyalty. I took his life, Lathander. Do not let your child be guilty of his blood. Selune, by the love you bear the Morninglord, let your stars lead him out of death's moonless dark. Kelemvor, Judge of the Damned, let him live, that he might earn his reward.”

Though there was a hum in the air, an aftertaste of something bitter, and I felt light-headed, if anything good listened, the only response was the echo of my own voice.

Cormick laid there just the same.

It's not enough. I wanted to howl. The blood on my hand was beginning to congeal. I shook it.

I unsheaved my bastard sword, held it up as I traced a hooped cross in the air just above Cormick's body.

You gods have abandoned me.

So be it.

My voice dropped into an ancient, infernal dialect. Each word emitted a vapor from my mouth, as if the room was suddenly plunged into the bitterest of winters.

“Mortality is a broken dream.
Eternity is where all power lies,

The strong are only subject to their own desires
A potent will makes all things possible.

Fix his soul within this shell.
Keep him from passing into peace, into knowledge.

Make him breathe,
the direst of curses.”

I slit the wrist of my left hand, a parody of a grin.

My blood, rather than gushing, glowed as if on fire, but flowed as if partially frozen. The room filled with green light, illuminating the darkness, and exposing the rotting corpses of the crypt.

“Living blood to call to life what was once alive.
Remember.”

I dotted his eyes, drew careful patterns over every part of his body. Eyes, then forehead, mouth, Adam's apple, shoulders, heart, spleen, navel, groin, thighs, knees, feet, then his arms, his hands. My blood reflected the pattern of green snowflakes over his body and my face.

I held my hand over Cormick's still heart, “Rise...”

The elaborate patterns of snowflakes erupted into greenish fire. It traveled across Cormick's form as if his skin was coated with oil. Every part burned with bright flames.

I put both hands into the fire. The skin on my knuckles crackled from the heat.

“All you powers, heed me.”

Multicolored light spread from my hands, encapsulated his body like a warped rainbow.

“Rise!”

All the sound left the room, but the multicolored light surrounding Cormick darkened until it was dark even to my eyes, that could see through ordinary darkness. The darkness seeped into his body along the lines I had painted with my blood until his body disappeared within it.

“Live, Cormick!”

Just as suddenly as the darkness appeared, it was gone. Everything was dark---natural darkness and candlelight.

It can't be done.

I wiped the looped cross into my own forehead.

“Take my soul, not his,” I moaned.

His eyes reflected nothing: no hidden depths, no laughter...and no kindness.

All that remained on that pedestal was a defiled corpse.

Drained of blood and purpose, I swooned. And this time, no one caught me. I hit my head on the corner of the table and cried out from the pain, smearing a hooped cross, destroying any magic there. I curled my legs against my chest until I lost consciousness.


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


I dreamed. I lay on volcanic rock beneath a twisted tree.

Green apples fell unto my head. I bit into one. It was full of blood, dead flesh.

I tried to spit out the taste of burnt corpses, but I fell to the ground, convulsing.

“This is what knowledge is,” the voice from my dreams whispered, “Poison...”

I felt a muzzle on my mouth, which kept me from screaming.

Even as the tremors made me curl my arms against my head, my knees against my stomach, the ground shook as it opened, divulging fire.

Marcus appeared in front of me.

When the boy's shadow fell on me, the tremors stopped and the muzzle disappeared, but I still tasted something putrid.

“Spit it out,” the boy commanded.

I did.

The crack of lava sealed up with a hiss of steam.

He tapped my back gently as I coughed, “Now, I keep them at bay.”

“Who?”

“Those who call you Ikenna.”

The green feylight swarmed about me like halo,“That is my name.”

Marcus waved his hand, and my power left me. “Why are you eating what they offer?” he asked.

“I have to...”

Marcus took my hands in his.

“Amara Chidi, look. See.”

I shook my head, set my jaw.

I looked into his face.

Marcus's ancient eyes were like the darkness before the dawn of the world.

I knew. I was there.

No---I closed my eyes.

Marcus spoke with a voice unlike any I had heard him use, “Yes. Remember who you are. You have always Wandered.”

I couldn't look at him---he was too bright, “What does that mean?” I asked as I shielded my eyes.

“ The King of Shadows builds his army of dead on this plane. Your shards are from the only weapon that can harm him. You must reclaim it and wield it. There is no other way. In this time, in this world, that is your duty.”

“'This time'? 'This world'? I don't understand. Have I done this before?”

“You are a Wanderer, like me. That is all I am allowed to speak of. You will discover more when you are ready.”

I narrowed my eyes at this luminous figure, "My duty---I want no part of it. Do you hear me?”

“I will not name him here, but the Lord of the Triple Crown of Thorns has plans for this plane---and for you. This power you possess was given, but at a terrible price.”

Tears stained my eyes, “I had to save him...”

“It was not the first time you asked...”

I started to deny this, but then I remembered. The man. The vision. The pact. “But...that was many years ago. I was a child. And it was in a dream...”

I saw Owal, aflame with power, Marim on her knee, pleading.

Marcus seemed to dim, to flicker. “Dreams are real...they're just real somewhere else.”

I looked at the black, tortured landscape full of gnarled trees and misshapen things moving beneath their ashen boughs. How many times had I been here, stood on this obsidian rocks, seen the fire gush like rivers barely contained, erupting randomly and violently against a gray, sunless sky?

“Well, I don't think I can just ask Daddy to take it back.”

“Amara, look around you. This power, the power that fuels this realm, will consume you and everything you hold dear.”

I saw a dark, horned shadow with green eyes.

“Is this...my father's...”

“It is part of the realms he holds sway over, yes.”

“First the shard, then the pact. My power...is it even mine?”

“Your true power has nothing to do with silver swords or infernal energies.”

“What am I...”

An armored figure flashed for a brief moment behind Marcus.

“You must uncover that for yourself, but only when you have lost everything.”

A statue with outstretched arms. A wall like a scar, stretching far past any horizon.

“I already lost everything...”

Marcus became the small, dark-haired boy I had last seen at my Trail, “You loved Cormick. Then fight for his memory.”

I saw Cormick's smiling.

I closed my eyes, “Are you asking me to just let go of the magic? Even if I could, I can't defeat the King of Shadows if I can't fight back.”

“There are many ways to fight.”

A sword made of silver materialized between the boy and me.

“Is this power you spoke of?”

The sword disappeared.

“Nothing can happen until you renounce your father's power completely.”

“What will come in it's stead?”

I saw a blonde-haired figure holding a child with a blue-white star in her hand.

“It is your father that gives power and promises easily.”

“How do I know you're not the servant of something else just as unpleasant?”

There was a pause. Purple light came into Marcus's eyes.

“You don't....but there is a part of you, Amara, that knows me. I cannot give you assurances. The only thing I can promise is more heartache, but trust that small part of you that still knows what must be done.”

Three women made a circle round me, but I could not see their faces.


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


My eyes widened. Mystra...Was it all a dream?

Then the smell of the embalmed corpses reminded me of where I was.

Cormick---he's dead.

I looked at my injured wrist. How easy, I thought. Just one swift motion of these fangs and the pain would stop. No more shards, no more violence...no more Amara.

I flicked my tongue over the indentation where palm met wrist. I'd rather die here than in some epic battle with---

I caught a glimpse of something lying on the ground. I let my eyes focus until I realized what it was: a bandage. It must have spilled from my pack when I emptied it, searching for the book.

Cormick's words echoed in my head:

“...Despite everything, we've managed to find each other,” he placed his cheek against mine. “That don't happen everyday.”

I tried to look out the window, but could only see a small patch of gold-flecked sky, “This war's a long way from being over.”

He spoke low into my ear, “There are always wars. The only thing good about them is that even the worst one's end.”

“After lots of destruction. After lots of death...” I looked past the horizon, as if I could see the future written in the air, hovering above us.

Cormick smiled. I could feel the tickle of it against my neck, “That is what yer meant to do, Amara. See what's coming, and bear it. Me, I need a little hope. I'm pretty certain that someday, we'll look back at this, and grin, and remember all the wonders we saw together rather than the pain.”


The tears were hot and wet and sticky, but I still managed to affix that bandage to my injured wrist.

“I only see dawns before us, love. Always, no matter what happens.”

I wouldn't let my hands tremble as I covered what used to be Cormick with my Harvest cloak, whose green was the same color of the grass of the Merdelain.

I left the best thing I ever knew on that blood-stained marble.

Like a waking corpse myself, I shuffled into the main area of the Temple. Each halting footstep was one footstep further away from Cormick, yes, but also a footstep away from my life with him, a world without his cleft chin, without his hair...It felt like the better part of me, my heart, was lying in those crypts beside him.

The walls of the temple felt like the damp walls of a crypt, closing in around me. I started to wheeze. I stood for a moment, put my hands against the columns until I could breath. I stepped outside. Slitting my eyes against the expected brightness, I took no comfort in the stark blue sky.

Shandra and Neeshka sat on a bench beside the entrance to the Temple, holding hands.

“Amara...You're horn,” Shandra said.

I felt my forehead. My broken horn was now bone-hard, smooth, and whole.

Khelgar and Casavir were talking by the fountain in the courtyard, but were silent once they saw me.

Grobnar was singing a sad song in his own language, cradling his mandolin.

Bishop had appeared, chewing something as he looked into the park. When he saw me, he stopped chewing.

I closed my eyes. I wanted to scream, but I was too numb to do anything but murmur, “He's dead. Cormick's dead.” It was the first time I said the words aloud, and they rang with a finality like that of a death knell.

“That can't be.” It was Neeshka's high voice.

I moved faster than I thought I could, “Go into the Temple then...” I gestured behind me.” Follow the path to the crypts. He's with the with the rest of the corpses. Do yo still want him, Neeshka?”

“Amara!”

“Don't say a fucking word, paladin.” Casavir put his hands on mine, but I l kept pulling away. “That's what he is, now. Dead meat. It's not fair, but I don't think any power cares what I think, or they'd be merciful, and let me moulder beside him. But I don't count on anyone's mercy anymore..”

There was a war coming. Cormick was the first, but he wouldn't be the last to fall, only the best...

Casavir would have held me, would have whispered something soothing, but Bishop spoke instead.

“You can't bring him back. But you can see that he has company.”

I stared at Bishop.

I moved before I knew what I was doing, “What did you do, Bishop?”

“Something bad happens, and I get blamed. Cool down, Mar. Yeah, everyone knows I hated him. But do you really think I'm that sloppy? Think. This wasn't an accident. This smells like a setup---one that got botched.”

“That sounds like Moire,” said Neeshka. “Elaborate plans that never quite work.”

“Moire...how do you know about her?” asked Shandra.

“You can't be a thief in Neverwinter and not know the gangs---mostly how to avoid being noticed by them. But she was behind the fires in the Docks. And we know she had it our for Amara, and Cormick---remember the present she left: a cloak with 'Demon Witch' in bright letters? She already failed and Moire isn't known for letting people slip away. It's likely she found...another way.”

“All this is fine talk,” said Khelgar, “I don't see how waggin our tongues is helping, when we should be waggin our fists---”

Casavir spoke, “Aldanon is missing, Amara. Moire was hired to do it. We know Moire had a hand in it but only that. There's nothing to show that the Marshal's death was anything but an accident...”

“An accident?” I laughed, “ Those bastards who grabbed him, they just accidentally tried to take out a a Cloak in the daylight? Well, It wasn't an accident when I killed them. And it won't be an accident when I kill Moire.”

“But the other shard is with a Lord named Tavorick.”

“Fuck the shards! Fuck everything!” I shouted.

“And fuck Moira.” I spat. “I bet the Luskans paid that bitch. Well, there's only one way to find out.”

I walked towards Moire's hideout. If there was anything I, Amara, the Shard-bearer was good at, it was action.

“You there, stay put. Wait here until we come back.”

When I tuned away from those three people, I knew something in me had changed. But I was too numb, but I couldn't process complex emotions. The only thing I could focus on was an image of a Cormick. Dead. The reaction to that was simple. I stormed off, hellbent on remedying the wrong done to me, to Cormick.

Bishop stood behind me. He grinned, baring his thin lips at Casavir, before following me.

Neeshka ran after us, though at a distance.

Grobnar blew his nose loudly, “This is not what I had expected.”

Shandra and Khelgar looked at the gnome.

“It doesn't change what's happened.” Shandra replied. “Poor Amara...She looks terrible.”

“She'll snap outta it, lass. It's what she does,” Khelgar's eyebrow's knit together thoughtfully.

Everyone was silent.

“I can't condone this,” Casavir felt everyone's eyes upon him..

“I don't think she's waiting for your permission, lad,” said Khelgar.

Casavir put a hand to his head. “I can't help her...”

Khelgar tapped the Casavir's armor. “Go after her. She still needs ya---if not now---then later.”

Shandra did not fight the tears that came down her face, “If Amara can manage to be strong, so can we. Grobnar, you should go, tell Sand, let everyone know what's happening. I have a feeling we're going to need all the help we can muster.”

Grobnar sighed, but nodded. He even saluted at Shandra before heading back towards the Flagon.

Casavir was silent, but his mind was in tumult. He looked in the direction I had gone.

Mystra, he prayed, please keep her from harm...or from causing it. Don't let her make the same mistakes I did...

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

I had been a Cloak long enough to get an idea of where Moire's hideout was, but I paid a couple of urchins to point out the exact location. The Fihelis Estate. It was with a surprisingly short distance. It must be fate, I thought, guiding my steps.

People were walking on the streets, going on about their mundane lives completely unaware of the drama that had unraveled in such a short time in their beloved city. He died to defend this... I sneered at the people I saw. A fat man in butcher's apron, elbowing past a servant girl overloaded with baskets, a woman screaming a string of obscenities at a toddler, a noble matron clutching her purse to her chest when a beggar held out his wrinkled hand. Was Neverwinter worth it? When they did find out, that their selfish little lives could end up at the end at the edge of a sword, what would they do? Take what they could get, and flee. Few would stay, even fewer would fight.

“There is it,” Bishop said, pointing at an unremarkable, cream-colored mansion. The only person in the yard was a man trimming the line of hedges that served as a fence. It looked as innocent as any other estate in Blacklake. I guessed the unassuming facade was intentional.

The ranger tensed as he scanned the windows. They were all closed and curtained. “We need to get in the shadows...”

Al three of us huddled in the alleyway, trying to avoid notice.

I put up my hood,“Why am I not surprised that you've been here?”

Bishop spoke to me, but looked at the gardener, “I was good at snaking things that the Cloaks didn't need to know about. I'm guessing you've been here too, Neeshka.”

She nodded, but didn't want to look at me or Bishop. “They offered me a place in the gang, but I wasn't interested. Moire's too...cutthroat. At least Ledon knew his...limitations.”

He looked at the door, “Let me take the lead. I'll pretend I have something worth some coin---”

“Will you take me to Moire?” I asked. “Or turn me over to her? It's what you've been wanting to do, isn't it, you fucking turncoat?”

He looked at me, “Mar, why don't you shut up for two seconds?”

“Don't play games...”

“I'm not. No game, but a fair trade. I help you, then you stop trying to kill me. ”

“Earn it.”

Bishop stared at me. Then he grinned.

“Neeshka,” he said, still looking at me, “You know the way this works. Watch out for the backstab.”

We walked as a group to the estate. Bishop waved at the gardener, who seemed to recognize the ranger, and go back to his trimming.

Bishop knocked a complex series of knocks on the ordinary looking, though expensive, door.

When the door opened, Bishop didn't hesitate. Once the door shut behind us, he slit the doorman's throat in one quick motion from a dagger he kept concealed in an armband. Before the body had fallen, Bishop stepped over it, and had an arrow cocked. He fired at something down a hallway, and I heard a body drop. Then a man just appeared behind the ranger, a short sword pointed at the back of Bishop's neck. Bishop thrust his bow backward, stabbed the man in the eye before he could strike. As he turned, the ranger pulled out another arrow, and used it to stab the injured man in the throat. Then Bishop took the man's short sword, and removed his head in one graceful motion. As the man's head and body parted company behind him, Bishop held his final position.

And winked at me.

I rolled my eyes. “You haven't earned anything.”

AT the end of the hallway, there were two passageways. Bishop pointed at the left one, which seeemd to go further underground.

“Stay here, tiefling,” Bishop said to Neeshka. “Guard our backs. Mar and I can handle the rest.”

Neeshka took out her twin daggers, found a likely spot behind a shelf. But right before the ranger and I headed down the passageway, the tiefling touched my shoulder.

Her grip was feather-like, but her red eyes were like full of hate, “Make them pay, Amara.”

I nodded.

Neeshka, satisfied, slipped back into the shadows.

When Bishop and I finally made it to Moire's inner sanctum, which was a really a converted warehouse, Moire wore a mask. I was surprised to see that she was alone. There were no guards. It was as if she had dismissed them. Her brown hair was richly woven into a complex set of braids---the latest fashion for court ladies, or one's who imagined themselves to be courtly. The pointed ears hinted at elven blood. Her dark clothing was expensive, but only imitated a darksuit. She couldn't go far in the dark with those garments with the glint of jewels and jewelry giving her away. I had a feeling it was years since she'd so much as lifted a change purse.

When she spoke, it as if she were addressing someone at court---that this was her court, at which we were merely common penitents, “I heard about your dear friend, lady. What a tragedy. But it was inevitable, don't you think? The Marshal kept sticking his nose in where it didn't belong. I kept trying to warn him, to warn you, but the Cloaks don't recruit the ones with brains. Only the muscle.”She looked at Bishop. “Muscle-bound and stupid.”

I removed my hood, “Is that a confession?”

“Maybe word just reaches my ears quickly.”

“Who hired you?”

“I answer to no one. But perhaps you should reconsider who your friends are..” She turned toward Bishop, “If anyone can be called a friend.”

“Who paid you to bump off Cormick?”

“That” she chuckled, “was pure pleasure.”

I grabbed her by the throat.

“You won't kill me. You could even kill that Lorne, and he deserved it more than I ever did.”

“Tell me.” I tightened my grip until she couldn't talk, but gasped for air.

“Not so tight,” Bishop whispered in my ear. “You'll knock her out before you can have any fun.”

“There is nothing funny about dying,” I dropped Moire, and she fell to the ground, coughing. She gave Bishop a look. Even with the mask on, I could tell she thought she knew something---she thought she knew him.

But I was too set on my task, “Do you think this is fun, Moire?” I murmured, “We can take a trip to Tyr's temple. There's a spot in the crypts, I saw it when I lay Cormick there...” I was so close to her that I could smell her expensive perfume. “You could bury someone alive down there---and no one would ever know. But unlike Cormick, I don't think anyone would care if you disappeared.”

Bishop looked down at her without expression, “I can make her pay.”

“Should I let him?” I pulled Moire to her knees by her braided hair, and ripped off her mask. Her face, thought she was half-elven, was unremarkable, easily forgettable. It had probably let her slip by.

Moire shuttered, shook her head. She started to cry, “Please, don't kill me. I'll tell you anything...”

I turned away from her in disgust.

Suddenly, she had a knife in her hand.

“Look out!” Bishop shouted.

I turned, and I struggled with Moire for her knife. In our fight, I embedded the weapon into her throat. She spat anf gagged, fell to the ground. But instead of pulling away, I pushed all my weight against the blade until it was buried up to the handle, poking its tip through to the other side of her neck. Blood spurt like a fountain into my face. The half-elf looked at me with a dazed expression in her brown eyes. I pulled the knife out, and stabbed her again. I wanted her expression to change----I wanted to see fear in her face. I kept stabbing and stabbing until Bishop pulled me bodily off her corpse. My chain mail was soiled with her blood and bile, but I didn't care---the knife was still poised to strike...

Bishop had to pull me close to disengaged the knife from my white, bloody knuckles.

I blinked. I knew I should be feeling something.

“Come on, Mar,” He pointed at the bloodstains, “You can't walk around Neverwinter with someone's blood on your chest. It might look suspicious.”

I looked down at the chain mail and wiped at the blood. It just smeared.

“That's not going to help. Just take it off. I'll stash it somewhere where no one can find it.”

I looked at my hands. How did they get all sticky...

“Mar---” Bishop snapped his fingers in front of my face, “snap outta that shit if you wanna live through today.”

“Who said anything about living?” My voice seemed to come from far away, as if I had left it in that temple. Was I still there, I wondered, or was this just another dream?

“Look at me, Mar. Cormick's dead. You need to stay alive. Don't get numb, get angry.”

I kept my eyes on the floor. Dreams are real---they're just real somewhere else.

“Are you gonna take off that jerkin, or not?”

I looked at the mess on the floor. Suddenly, I realized what I had...oh gods...

“I feel sick...”

“It'll pass,” Bishop hissed.

He pulled up my hands, yanked off the mail through one arm, then another. It caught on some of my hair. Instead of untangling the caught hair, Bishop pulled it out along with the mail.

“Ow...” I growled, grabbing my head.

“You're lucky you're not bald.” the ranger wiped his hands through his short, reddish hair.

“Fuck you, Bishop,” I had on my cloth armor beneath, which was unbloodied.

“Glad to see you back among the living, Squire...” he tucked my chain mail into a sack.

Before Bishop wiped the blade clean on Moire's rug, he pressed the hilt onto my forehead, leaving a bloody cross.

I raised my hand to wipe it off, but Bishop stopped my hand with a grin, “You're flushed.”

“I don't flush.”

“You're all warm, Mar.” the ranger practically purred, “Cause now,” he shrugged, “you're free. Now,” he looked at the knife's keen blade, “you're bloodied..”

His eyes were as intimate as a lover's as he tucked the knife into his belt, “Now...you're a killer.”

“I've stooped to knifing people, yes, but I did it for better reasons than you ever had.”

The ranger chuckled as his gold eyes gazed into some other time and place, “I said the same thing, once upon a time. But then I realized, almost everybody lives in fear of something. Death's a release---a gift for most of these pathetic sods. And some of us are just born with blood that burns---white-hot, Mar---in that moment between one heartbeat and the silence.”

“Death is a release...but I'm not like that...”

He pulled he sack over his shoulder, gestured at what was left of Moire. “Oh Yeah, honey bee? You're sting's much, much worse.”
"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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#13 Raenemon

Raenemon
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Posted 20 March 2010 - 02:19 PM


Chapter 11




I rubbed the scar hidden beneath the bronze-colored, quilted armor. The Shards. They answered my call, each in their own song. Here we are, here we are...I couldn't hear anything distinctive---only impressions---but the Shards had some will of their own. Whatever weapon they came from was forged by a will far stronger than my own. The remaining power was just residual, but I wondered if the more Shards collected, the better my chances of understanding this first Bearer of the Silver Sword. I could almost see this original wielder: a thin, yellow-skinned female, a githyanki warrior with red eyes.

Shard-Bearer. Kalach-Cha. I looked up at the ceiling, the sky somewhere above us, at any ghosts that might be listening, or laughing.

My destiny is to bear the Shards, that's what they say. Fine notions, but I know what they really mean. This, I touched the pocket where the Shards were concealed, except for one...I could feel my heart beating in time with their hum. This weapon will wield me . I could see them, even without removing them their hideaways: crystal silver streaked with something molten, pulse, pulsing, like the haze that lingers over the blacksmith's anvil. I have been through fire, now. Maybe I'll never leave it. But Bishop was wrong. though the ranger's face was covered by his dark hood, I glanced at him as we made our way back upstairs, out of the bowels of what had been Moire's hideout. Now, it was a tomb. As we took the stairs two at a time, practically running from what we---I---had done, I wasn't anything but warm. If I stood in fires, I would snuff them out. The only heat I generated was the burns of frost, of white snow. I was a glacier: crustal-hard, sharp-edged...

Neeshka waited at the door,a crossbow aimed at the shadows, her rat-tail flickering this way and that until she saw us emerge from the stairwell. Relief marking her features when she saw me, but the one glance she gave Bishop made her rub her nose, seem even edgier, as if she would sneeze, scurry away at any moment.

“Is she dead?” she asked shrilly.

“Mar killed that bitch.” Bishop replied for me.

Neeshka spat on the ground, “Good.”

The sun was setting as the three of us emerged from the entrance of Moire's hideout onto the cobbled street. The sun was just descending into a gray cloud-bank. A wall of gray, swallowing the sun like a walls of a tomb. All I could think of was how much I wanted this day to be over.

“What's that on your face?” whispered Casavir. The paladin stood outside with everyone else. There was a slight catch in his deep voice, as if he knew---

---Was it still there? I touched the dried, bloody cross on my forehead with my fingertips, He couldn't know...“This?” My voice was rough, “It's warpaint. We go after this other shard. Lord Tavorick has it. The Warlock, the one who's been killing nobles in Blacklake. He'll try to take the shard.”

“Why would a warlock want the shards?” asked Shandra.

“Daeghun, he told me before I left West Harbor. The King of Shadows is a warlock.”

He is here, I thought. The air sings it. The scent of something that once was a man, but now...he had cheated death. There is only one who would smell like that. The Warlock, the one who unlocks the door between the worlds, sowing war beneath his passing shadow. The King of Shadows---no one else could contain all that power.

I looked at each of my companions in turn. First Shandra's even-features, the lips set in a unyielding pink line, The lines of her face were like the lines of my hands----delicate, but diamond-hard. Then Casavir's dark brows, framing a face as true as an arrow pointing upwards. Then Neeshka's red eyes, small, goat-like horns, and rounded features creating a guileless facade, masking her dissembling nature. Grobnar's ear's always upturned, as if he never quite believed what he was hearing. Khelgar's brute head, always butting, always the last to bleed. Even Bishop, who had been watching everything with silent glee, tapping his fingers against his chest, something barely coiled.

This is my army. I am a warlock,too, locked in the arms of war.

I flicked my dark hair from my face, “If anyone can't handle fighting the King of Shadows, I suggest you run back to the Flagon..”

There was silence, but no one moved---except Grobnar. He dipped his head, “Mistress Amara, I have the utmost confidence in your abilities as a commander. However, this seems like a very small delegation. If we are indeed facing the, uh, King of Shadows.”

“I think somone needs t go tell Sir Nevalle what's going on. He can see to raising troops. And Sand will want to be informed as well. Their all at the castle.” I emphasized the last phrase to try and sound like the need was dire. “Who shall tell them the tale?”

“I will be go at once, madam,” Grobnar relied with a flourish and a bow.

As the gnome turned and ran in the the direction of Castle Never, Khlegar snorted. “Ya don't need to make any speeches, lass. We're here to fight. Always have been.”

“The fighting is real, the blood is real enough, but this isn't an adventure, and there is no happy ending.”

“Lass, I've lived a wee bit longer than you. I've fought, and I've lost, and while things never turned out that way I thought they should, at least I kept spitting in that evil eye of that harpy who breeds bad luck.”

“Is that why a dwarf wants to be a monk of Tyr? I don't think he'd approve of the spit.”

Casavir spoke, “Tyr has done as much himself hen he came in human form. Anger, when it is justified, is never misplaced. It just needs...a proper channel.”

“Like a sword,” I said. “Cutting down orcs.”

“Yes. A hammer is for his favor. A sword for his vengeance.”

I unsheaved my bastard sword. “Then, Katal-mach, maybe this is a sign.” I watched the light flicker on the naked blade.

“Perhaps,” Casavir drove his gaze into mine, as if he was indeed looking for some sign there, “One who believes might receive guidance or a blessing, but are you truly looking for a sign from Tyr, or merely justification for what you have already decided is just?”

I sheaved the weapon with a loud thwack., “I am justified! They tried to kill me---all of us. They killed Cormick.” I squeezed the pommel. “If I kill every damn Luskan, every mage stupid enough to follow Garius, my conscience will be clear. How is that wrong?”

“I did not say it was wrong---”

“---Just like you didn't think your little suicide mission against a horde of orcs was wrong. You'd be dead by now if you hadn't found a bigger battle to fight. So, when did you decide that the more you kill in Tyr's name, the more likely he'll forgive you for being, what? A man? How many must die so that Casavir can feel virtuous? Don't you dare judge me.”

Casavir looked at the ground, “ If I have sinned, I will ask forgiveness ,” he looked at me,” but not from you. You are right: I can't judge you. But neither can you judge me.”

“We don't have time for this. If I am wrong, I will pay the price for it. Your noble soul will not be soiled by association with mine.”

“Amara,” that was Shandra's voice, “there's no reason to be cruel.”

“And here I thought I was being kind. Must be that demon juice poisoning my brain again.”

I started walking toward Tavorick's estate. Everyone fell behind me with the sound of clanking armor, swishing cloth, and armored boots. Tavorick's was a lush estate, with butter-colored walls and gold on every flourish, every archway. I was drawn there not because of any missive, but by the webs of power that were aimed at that place. They were as certain as the lines of a map, and I was just as certain of their origin: the Warlock.

The guards, both Cloaks I had shared beers with at the Flagon, opened the door, avoiding my green--eyed stare. Word must have reached them about...their Marshal.

After passing several unguarded entryways, we passed into the main hall of Tavorick's estate. Several soldiers watched us as we entered. A man, who had to be close to eighty, a woman who might be his granddaughter. The woman, with a stylish page's bob, wore a halter top that bounced as she did. From her getup and the way that she pressed her hand suggestively against her hips, I was soon certain what sort of women she was----the kind that was paid to please men. I had little patience for that sort of woman. I had even less patience for the sort of man who used took advantage of that sort of woman.

Seeing our group, the woman left the room in a huff---probably because Lord Tavorick seemd to forget she was there, and gazed long and unabashedly at Shandra, Neeshka, and me. He flexed his fingers like an lecher out of some bad play. “If you're here to guard me, then let's start with a strip search. You men can stand down...Go,” he insisted when Casavir merely crossed his arms, Khelgar rubbed his nose, and Bishop shared a knowing, almost admiring, look with the strange lord, “Amuse yourselves in some other manly fashion while I show these ladies why a bed is the best place for interrogation---”

I held up my hand, took this 'lord' Tavorick in from toe to crown. He was quite elderly, and his manners were that of a degenerate, aristocratic, snob.

Why, in the name of every god, had Nasher trusted the shard to this fool?

Neeshka squeaked. “ Amara! They're here!”

I was going to shout that everyone should use magical weapons when hellfire erupted out of my eyes, my hair, my hands, my legs. Something from the raising ritual, when I tried to raise Cormick, must have multiplied my powers. I didn't care how, but I welcomed the sweet/bitter sensations. They told me that I had power, that I would have my revenge.

Cormick. I walked through the barricade as if it were only an illusion. The infernal language leaped from my mouth as the power filled me. I have no idea what I said, but every infernal eye glared balefully at me.

Fire memphits came, setting the wood and tapestries on fire. Arrows and long-range spells were enough to halt that first rush. They were under a strong binding, but I managed to command half of them to attack the others. Those that remained sizzled beneath a shower and great wind that I commanded to blow them away. Then the fiends came. Instead of just a handful of succubi with their angel-like wings, hair inadequately covering their too beautiful bodies, there was a battalion. Just like the succubi from the gith lair, these succubi halted when they saw me, and cried out in pain, but most of them soon recovered, then attacked. Then the erinyes came, demons of vengeance. Unlike the succubi, they were clothed, armed with whips and scale mail.

One grabbed Shandra, turned into Casavir, but Shandra killed it with an unrelenting slash of her shortsword. Khelgar was also attacked until a vision of a young, blond dwarven woman that stopped him in mid-swing.

“I coulda been yer queen,” the dwarfess said in a heartbroken voice, “ but you left me, and I had to marry another. But it's not too late---”

Khelgar buried his axe in the dwarf's head, and as she died, she reverted to her demonic form.

The demons saw me, but kept their distance, either out of fear or respect...or confusion.

There was a muffled scream from upstairs, a human sound.

The door to Lord Tavorick's room had been twisted out of its wooden frame. In his bedroom, the two guards attempted to fight two succubi.

“Not as tasty as I usually like” one succubus said while crooking her finger at a guard, “but you'll do just fine for what I have in mind.”

“Ah!” she cried as the guard's sword struck a rib.

When all the demons in the Lord's chamber had been dispatched, I looked around,

Tavorick stood on his bed. “While I usually encourage strange women to come to my bedroom, I suggest we depart. Any suggestions, Squire?”

“Any secret exits?”

“Only to the crypts.”

“Fine. We're not going to last if we stay here much longer.”

Dodging memphits and fiends, we made a dash downstairs for the crypts, which Tavorick had a key for. Once we opened the secret door in the family chapel, I let us through the dank corridors below, seeking a way out, but something was waiting for us. I could smell the wrongness of it, like a wine turned to vinegar, or the fetid, rank stench of old garbage.

“Tavorick---is there holy ground here?” I shouted, grabbing his frilly collar.

“Yes. The ruins of the old cathedral. Follow me---”

A roar sounded low on the human register, but felt like a bolt of hellfire to my brain. I was soon on my knees from the pain.

Run! “ I screamed at Tavorick, pushing him forward, “Unless you want to die.”

He ran. When the chapel's engraved, rust-covered door closed with heavy thud, I looked down the corridor of the poorly-lit crypt. At the end of the corridor, just beyond the illumination of a torch, was a figure, a darkness with hooded, red eyes at the center. It was a demon, but like no demon I had never faced before.

The demon's voice sounded in my mind. I knew, somehow, that it had commanded untold legions of the Abyss in the Blood War, the eternal war between demons and devils---where the every-changing malice of the Abyss was pitted against the calculating machinations of the Nine Hells.

“I am Qaggoth-yeg, Eternal Watchman of the Pit of Seolodurias, where the only sun is a bloody orb that drips ichor on a desert of glass. I have been summoned to destroy the mortal Tavorick and any who impede my commands. I can smell his fear---all their fear. Yet you stand before the door...”

“This is sacred ground, demon. You cannot breach it.”

“I have eternity. They do not.”

The demon moved forward, spurts of flame licking its dark, never-fully-illuminated flesh. Each step rattled the door behind me, made craters in the stone.“Why don't I smell fear from you, binder?”

I straightened. My shadow grew long, my voice deep as the pit the demon guarded, “I am the Daughter of The Dark Prince---you think I will flail and cringe from some insect from a forgotten corner of the Abyss? You are bound, so all your fireworks and blustering is really just to cover up how scared you, and your master, are---of me.”

“Impudent---”It snarled, and I could see the gory wings unfold. The whole crypt grew as dark the layer of the Abyss I had heard of where no light ever shined. Flames circled around the demon's head like a borealis.

I called upon my power. It filled me up as never before. It hinted at every pleasure, promised every pain... I felt like I was floating in a sea of neon green energy that set me on fire, cooled my very marrow, even a it made me want to retch.

“Die Worm,” My words turned into an ancient curse, sinking into the form of an infinite number of snakes all striking at the same time, making then demon's skin singe from the venom.

It uttered a high-pitched, horrendous shriek...

...When I was the only thing, living or dead, in that corridor, I limped the door to the ruined cathedral. It was locked. I knocked three, deliberate raps, the signal that Shandra and I had devised in case...well, just in case.

“Amara?” It was indeed Shandra's voice, muffled by the thick stone of the carved door.

“Yes,” my voice was surprisingly calm. “I don't think a pit fiend would knock.”

The door flew open with a groan.

Khelgar looked over my shoulder. “We feared ya was eaten alive.”

I motioned behind me, so they could see. The massive body of the demon had tuned into black dust. As I gestured towards the black ash, I noticed that my palms were coated with the remains of Qaggoth-yeg. I wiped my hands across my thighs, frowning at the lingering stench of charred meat that now would never wash out of that cloth.

“I think they may have to find someone else to watch the Pit of Seolodurias.”

Shandra raised her shortsword at me. Then the farmer looked at me for a long second before embracing me, as if it were hard to choose between a hug and running me through. “Don't ever do that again!”

“Shandra, that's like asking a bard to shut up,” Neeshka said, rubbing a hand through her short hair.

“Or a thief to stop stealing,” Khelgar eyed Neeshka, setting his elbow on his the head of his axe and stretching his knees.

“Or a woman to stop being stupid.” Bishop's voice was like acid. “Must be all that bleeding you do. Drains the sense out every month until you're as weak and useless as the half-man.”

“I still have enough fight left in me ranger to turn you into half-a-man.”

“It'd be half more that he is at present,” chuckled Shandra, trying to ease the tension. She put a hand on my forearm. I looked at my dark fist as if it were someone else's. I didn't even know I had raised it until Shandra's touch made me drop my hand.

I looked around, “Where's Tavorick?”

Shandra motioned towards the altar, “Casavir is healing him. The Lord Tavorick had a nasty head wound. He nearly passed out when the blood oozed into his eye. But Casavir caught him.”

Casavir bent over Tavorick, who watched me approach with a steady eye---the other was bruised shut.

“You still have the Shard?” I asked, ignoring the paladin was he frowned at the rough treatment I gave his charge. There was blood on my skin, but since my skin was dark, the blood did not show on my face the way it lit up the old man's pasty skin.

“Well, the shard isn't actually here.” Tavorick looked penitent.

I reached down, picked up Lord Tavorick by his collar once again, and made him face me. Though he couldn't see all the blood, I knew he could smelled it as I stained his well-starched, white collar.

“Where, old man?”

“Remember Melia, the woman who I sent away when you arrived? She has it.”

“What?”

“She's...one of the Nine.”

I grunted, “She looked like a well-paid tart to me.”

“She was disguised as one of the Mask's girls.” His voice was direct, with only a hint of hysteria, “That's where she's keeping it---the Moonstone Mask .It was part of the plan---Sir Nevalle's plan. The one who hunts the shards is clever. But he hunts you, but he doesn't seem to know that you bear so many shards. There must be some magic that protects you. Meanwhile, Melia's shard would be safe, and we might catch the Warlock.”

I laughed. They really though they could catch the warlock like you would a man? “Only one problem: my lord, your murderer didn't show. Only his army of demons, which are now pouring into the city. And they will find the shard...”

“Melia! The Mask! He must have gone after the only shard he could sense. Go, please, and save her. I'll head to Castle Never.”

I shook my head, dismissing him. In truth, I was disgusted. It only now he was thinking of this woman's welfare. Then he must be useless indeed...

Before we reached The Mask, that whorehouse for the rich in the Merchant Quarter, for those who thought themselves superior to the normal patrons of a brothel, I felt something in the air. It wasn't just the stench of demons and devils and other being from the lower planes. Any mage worth his or her salt could conjure a thing or two, but the fissures in the air, like beads of power, beads of dew, were all collecting in one place---the place we were going.

I said nothing, but I did not know if I could take the master of all this.

At the Mask, I felt the Warlock's presence before Ophala, the patroness, pointed a trembling hand at the ceiling.

Upstairs, The Mask was a disaster. The paint was gurgling, peeling off the walls from the presence of the demons. Furniture was overturn, burn-marks were on the walls, the floors. I was as if someone had given an order to destroy everything.

Nothing was alive here, I thought. I was about to say so when we were ambushed.

Sensing the strongest demon, I jumped through an open doorway to my right. Inside the chamber, a man with wings held a woman in an embrace. When I stepped towards him, ready to strike, he unfurled his wings as the woman's body dropped to the ground. He was dark-haired, dark-eyed, tall, beautiful..an incubus, the male version of a succubus. I had never seen one before---

He held out his clawed hand over his heart, “You are the glory of your Father.” His voice was deep and low and seemed to buzz right at the base of my spine,“You do not have to suffer the touch of mortals upon your flesh any longer. All they do is hurt. Their passions are fleeting.”

“And yours aren't?” I pointed at the body he had dropped.

“That's food. You are more than that.” His form was perfectly proportioned, teeth, muscles, height---it was as if he projected every expectation I had of what a man should be. Even his skin was a creamy-complexion, completely unlined.

I swallowed, “Is that what you said to that girl before you killed her?”

He didn't move, but let me inspect him further as he kept his eyes locked unto mine, “I wouldn't hurt you. Don't be afraid....”

“I'm never afraid. You're the one who should be afraid.” I pointed my hand at his lovely form, preparing to send it back Below.

“Really?” His chuckle was like bells chiming in some forgotten temple, “You may lie to those who follow you, but do not lie to me.” He glided up to me until my hand came against his midsection. It was then I realized he wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing, but I could not pull away. His muscles were exquisite, and my hand inspected their hardness quite against my will. “You are afraid of losing control. But you do not realize that that's the only thing you must do---embrace what you are. It's the only thing that can save you.” He pulled my hand lower...

“I don't think you can save me, demon.”

He was so close that I could smell his musk, see the beads of sweat glistening on his forehead. “Please, there is too much pain in your eyes. It would break any heart...” I knew that if he kissed me, I would let him. And he knew it. He kept teasing his face against mine, sniffing me like a confection.

“Ikenna...” he moaned as his forked tongue flicked across my lips, “I will show you pleasures mortals only dream of.”

My mouth parted, even though I grimaced, “Sorry, but being compelled just isn't my thing---especially by a demon who gets a hard-on for unwilling women. But hey, I'm guessing that's the only way you can get any action because no woman would willingly touch that scaly skin---” I would have seized control, but then, he shifted, confusing my will.

He licked my fangs.

One moment he was a demon, the next, he was Cormick---down to the smell. “The ones we love never really die, ya know?”

“No!” I raised both my hands, shook my head, “Anything but that, you son of a---”

“---Amara, ya know it's me,” Big Cormick, surprisingly gentle Cormick. Gods, how I wanted to believe it.

I closed my eyes, “You are a demon. Nothing more.” But the beard, the lips were exactly the same as Cormick's when I kissed him this morning, when he was alive.

Cormick pulled me against his chest, “Ya wanted me to live, and I am. Hear that heart? Your magic worked.” his voice was not only the same lilt, but was so gentle...a demon couldn't fabricate that...

I looked ta him---had to look at him, “How...” My hand reached for his hair, Cormick's dark, curling hair. Don't cry, Amara.

“Yer strong, love. I've been changed. Death does that, but I came back for ya, just like I promised.”

And I didn't care if he was a demon, or if it were all a lie. I needed him too much to question, and I was tired of death, but even more: I wanted to believe it. I wanted to believe that he was back because I had brought him back, remade him. I wanted to believe that I was strong--that love could overcome any obstacle, even death.

If I kissed him, I would know for certain. Yes, I thought as I put my arms around Cormick, just one way to know...One way, those eyes said without speaking.

Neeshka entered. “Uh, Amara?”

I didn't look at the tiefling. I had my eyes only on Cormick, who beckoned me those few remaining inches to his mouth.

“Amara, get away from it!”

Cormick look at Neeshka, and smiled. “Come here, Neeshka, there's so much I need to tell ya---”

She made the sign of Tymora's kiss. “The hells you do!” Neeshka grabbed my shoulder, pulled me back.

I backhanded her without taking my eyes from Cormick's.

Even with a bleeding lip, Neeshka managed to throw a dagger at Cormick. Once the weapon went through his chest, his wings unfurled. I could see fangs framing his lips.

I didn't care. I put my arms around him, felt the familiar weight, the life...“Cormick...” my voice was a desperate whisper. “...Don't leave me....” I clutched his neck, but there was no heartbeat.

“I must tell ya,” he muttered, “The one who summoned me—be wary. He has power like yours, but greater. Leave now, love, until yer stronger...” He pulled my hands from the back of his neck, but only so he could cradle my chin in his big hand and look into my face as he spoke, “When ya've raised your sword against the Wall of the Faithless, I will see ya again.”

I tilted my head towards his to rub my cheek against his beard, but Cormick just disappeared. There was no trace of him, not even a lingering warmth where his body had so briefly touched mine. It felt like I had lost him all over again, and I stifled a moan of complete abandonment.

Neeshka picked up her dagger from the ground. She watched me with a mixture of pain and anger, “That wasn't Cormick.”

I glared at her, “Never do that again.” For moment, I imagined setting her goat-horns on fire.

Neeshka touched her lip, “Yeah. You really looked like you had everything under control. He's dead you know. And its your fault. Next time, I won't keep you from screwing a demon.” She turned on the balls of her heels and left me in that room.

I could hear the battle sounds, grunts and shouts and curses, but they were all muted. When I finally managed to stand, I walked through the carnage of the Mask like a dream. Time slowed to the barest seconds.

It's is strange what one thinks when the end feels so near. I thought the sight of Cormick was a sign that I would join him. That was how these stories were supposed to end: in glory, in battle, when a shaft of golden light would fall on my face just before the end...and I would understand... and be led to a world free from all this doubt and confusion.

I followed the Warlock's stench while my companions were fighting off various demons. It was the smell, really, that led me to him. The Warlock's musk wasn't sulfurous, like a demon's tended to be, but old and dry as shed snake skin. On a man, this scent was sinister---it spoke of a life prolonged unnaturally.

Another room opened before me. There were paintings of scantily-clothed figures on the walls, low lighting, and a large, circular bed at the center with pink pillows and coverlets. They shone like silk in the firelight, which was the only illumination in the windowless room. Standing before the fireplace was what looked like a hale man approaching his middling years. He had a beard, anyway: short, ginger-colored. It was the only hair on his face. The tattoos on his forehead and bald head flowered with a infernal, bluish-green energy. The patterns were those of an angular spiderweb, concentrating into a dot above his forehead. Crystals glowing with the same light were sewn into his rust-colored robes.

Melia, still in the guise of a pleasure women, was dead at his feet. Her bloodless corpse lay in a position just the way Moire's body laid at my feet : head thrown back, neck exposed, one arm partially-covering her mouth.

As I looked at the body, this warlock looked at me with distaste in his yellow-green eyes. When he spoke, his voice was a scratch, a wound in my ears, “So, this is the half-breed dabbler?” The crystals on his robes were the same color as my hellfire.

My only reply was to raise both hands.

When I poured my magic into him, he made made a motion, and I failed to singe a single hair of his beard. Though my power was stronger than it had ever been, it was a mere flickering of a candle flame against this man's inferno.

The Warlock's chuckle could have boiled glass, “Apparently, I'm not the only one who's made pacts.”

Rather than running, I let go of my power, but squared my shoulders. “You killed him.” I tore my bastard sword from its scabbard with a sound like parchment ripping. I aimed the tip of my weapon at his jugular vein, where it would draw the most blood, “I'll take you by word or by blade.”

“A sword? Are you really serious? Do you know how many I've killed just for thinking they could stab me?” He made a gesture, and the sword wobbled out of my grip. “Whoever he was, I don't have time for your pathetic attempts at vengeance. There's a war, girl. Leave the fighting to those who can. ”

“This girl will kill you, old man.”

“With what---incompetence?” He laughed again. “Hero of Neverwinter...Go back to your swamp. Leave the Shards to those who can wield them.”

“Fuck you. I'm just getting started.”

“Then meet your end.”

Using power too similar to mine, he summoned two Nessian hounds, both as large as horses, breathing fire from their nostrils.

When I tried to cast a banishment to remove the beasts, I couldn't move. I was as stiff-armed as a tree. The Warlock had placed a hex upon me.
I wanted to scream in frustration, but could only watch as he bent towards me.

The tattoos on his forehead glowed with a power I could never posses, “I'll tell you once. Keep out of my affairs, or I'll bind you to me until the age of this world seems like a fevered dream.”

He disappeared---melted away, I would say much later, taking Melia's shard with him.

I couldn't even blink as the hounds blew delicate bursts of fire into my face. But tears welled in my eyes from their heat. As they yipped in excitement, anticipating their easy prey, an ax fell into the neck of the closest hound, cleaving off its head in one blow. The blood burned my face, but I could not wipe it away. The other hound yipped at its attacker, who stood behind me. I hear Khelgar's war cry as he disengaged his ax. Just as Khelgar kicked the hound's head in triumph, it bit his foot. The dwarf cried out in surprise, but it soon turned into a war whelp as he punched the hound's head right between its red eyes.

Unfortunately, I couldn't tell him that there was only one way to kill a Nessian hound. You had to cut out its fiery heart.

My companions hacked into the hounds for a while before felling one by a fortunate accident. When Neeshka stabbed it in the back, Bishop's arrow went into its chest. Then Casavir hit the arrow like a nail with his warhammer, shattering the beast's heart. Then the spell holding me wore off in time so that I could snuff the remaining hound's heart with an banishment.

When the battle was over, I walked to where the Warlock had vanished, but there was no trace of him. His smell was so strong, I wanted to cover my nose.

“Was that..the King of Shadows?” Shandra whispered. She was cloaked with dried demon gore, and breathing heavily. It was good that she had pulled her blonde hair back into a braid for the fight. Even her head was spotted with black blood, “He wasn't what I was expecting.”

“I know what you mean. My senses kept telling me he was a Warlock, but his form felt mortal, which doesn't make sense only the King of Shadows could have that kind of power. He's...”

I looked for what had killed Melia, but there was no mark on her body that could see.

“...More powerful then... you?” she asked, looking down. She seemed...disturbed. Shandra stood beside me, followed my gaze.

I merely met her eyes and nodded. Then I turned back at the Warlock's work, Melia's pallid, unblemished corpse. Warlocks only had one purpose. No one deals with those below without a price: a price in flesh and bone. Luckily, Melia's' eyes were closed. She could not glare at me as, could not accuse me as I touched her cold, rigid body and looked for a shard I knew wasn't there. Just as she had paid the price for being one of Nasher's Nine, the great knights who serve Neverwinter in life or death, I saw my own future laid out before me, as if it had already been painted in murals in some other world... as if it were impossible to change, as if this were all the past rather than the future.

I should have seen this coming, I thought. How did The Life and Times of Owal the Tongueless end? I hadn't reached the book's conclusion, but I already knew. It ended with Owal, so promising, so heroic, murdering his wife and losing his soul...because warlocks always lose their bloody souls. And everything dear. Well, good thing I had already lost everything. But I did have some choice. I wouldn't fall without a purpose, but it would be my purpose.

“Lass, there's naught to be done. She's gone.”

“She's looking for the shard, dwarf.”

Instead of answering, Khelgar wiped the blade of his ax and gave the ranger a look that said he would be might be worth it to dirty the ax on the ranger's meat.

Finding nothing but her flimsy disguise, I stood up from my search of Melia's body and wiped my hands on my thighs,“ If Lord Nasher wold have to me that Melia was one of the Nine---” I couldn't control the anger in my voice. I had a brief mental image of running my bastard sword through Nasher's middle.

Casavir spoke, “He is your Lord, Amara. You swore.”

I rubbed my hands together in a gesture of dismissal. I wanted to make it obscene, but such a flippant gesture didn't seem appropriate with a body on the floor, “Yeah, I swore. To serve Neverwinter, not Nasher. He has no right to lie to me. We're supposed to be on the same bloody side.”

Bishop paced up and down the room, but I knew he was looking for something he could pocket, “Nasher's a lord. They move the rest of us around like pieces on a chessboard and then expect us to kiss their asses for the privilege of being...plucked.”

Casavir brought himself to his full height. For a moment, he assumed the stature of the man who had led his handful against a handful against a horde of orcs and won, “Whether he lies or not, you must follow his orders now. Aldanon is still missing. If you want knowledge of the shards and the sword they came from, then we can't be divided. We must work together to find him. Or we lose everything.”

The paladin was articulate, ardent, committed,...I wished he would've chosen any other time to be so,“Oh, you make perfect sense, Casavir. I'm just getting tired of doing what's sensible.”

Casavir could not have been more upset if I had skinned a puppy. Turning his back to me, he moved to the window and looked outside in loaded silence. I watched as Shandra walked up behind him, placing a hand on his shoulder. Good, I thought with a vehemence I did not think I had, let her comfort him---get him off my back and on to hers.

Khelgar turned his heavy steps in my direction, “I never do any thing sensible either, lass. But I'm guessing ya've got a plan, sensible or no.”

I looked at Melia. “Someone cover her up... We're going to let this Lord see the price of his plots.”

It was Bishop who smiled as everyone else gave me varying looks of confusion. The ranger removed his cloak in the imitation of the paladin, and covered the body with it When he bend to pick her up, I gave him a look from beneath my brows---one that could be coy or intimidating. I stared at him without concealing my feelings toward him: anger, disgust, and some sense that, for all his talk, he's concealment and deceit more that anything human.

“That's enough, Bishop,” I picked up the body instead. With Bishop's cloak on, it smelled like dried earth, and something resinous that made the dark green, almost black folds water-proof. At least the ranger's cloak was cared for, if little else about his person was.

Bishop didn't turn away, but welcomed my estimation of him. He eyed me with those flame-tipped eyes, and I felt the scrutiny like fingers in my hair, tracing my horns...He had already seen what he though was what defined me: the yearning for blood balanced with a cold calculation, not flinching from what's necessary. And he would always remind me. No matter what I did, he would always see the horns, the extra fingers, the fangs. To him, I was dark everywhere---skin and soul. To be a demon, panting over a kill, was something, perhaps the only thing, he really understood, “Do whatever relieves your conscience, Mar. But you already turned this into a show. I'm just playing my part.”

“What is that? The Fool?”

He chuckled, shrugged. “Maybe I'm making it up as I go along. Just like you.”

“I have a plan.”

“Don't we all?” He laughed. “But plans never turn out the way you expect.”

I shuffled my feet, getting Melia's weight to fall in a position so that I could carry her all the way to Castle Never.

“What I plan to do,” I raised my voice so that everyone could hear, “Is head to Castle Never. Nasher will make the same argument he did at my Trial. Neverwinter is not prepared for a war. And he's right. And now, we just witnessed the power of the Warlock. Rogue Luskans, undead, and demons are all at the beck n' call of the King of Shadows. And who do we have? We will end up like Ember. It's only a matter of time now. That' what I plan on telling Nasher. Neverwinter must get prepared. And, if the Arcane Brotherhood can't check Garius and his Master of Fifth Tower nonsense, then we will.”

“You're talking of invasion.” Casavir again.

“No, she's talking of justice. “ Bishop made a pout, which made him look strangely young, “You should understand that, Sir Paladin.” Then he grinned with a childish exuberance--- as if he could already see the flames.

“Burning Luskan...” Casavir let his blue eyes rest on Bishop only for a moment as he registered the other man's obvious excitement at the mention of destruction, “The Luskan people are as innocent as the people of Ember.”

I looked from one to the other. How did any of us ever be on the same side? They were looking at me, each one assuming that I would side with him.

“No one is innocent,” I was surprised by the callousness of my own voice, but it true. I remembered too well that teenage Lorne, shrieking, “Demon cunt!”as he threw me through the air. “If we do nothing, these innocents will be more than happy to take up the call to arms when Luskan decides to invade Neverwinter---for real. These innocents will rejoice in Neverwinter's destruction. One Lorne was bad enough, but a whole army of---no. I won't let it happen.”

There was a moment of silence as each of us contemplated yet another impossible task...

“What will you do?” Shandra finally asked.


***


Nasher was easy to convince. It amazing what the corpse of a hero can do.








I dreamed.

There stood figure on a dark horse with flame for a mane and tail. There was a single, spiked horn in the beast's forehead, and its eyes were crimson. The figure was armored in bronze with long spikes protruding from the shoulders and elbows. There was a helm, but it was like the cast of a face with long, straight hair. It was a terrible grin that the mask wore, There was no exposed part of the figure---no even slits for eyes. It held a sword made of silver. Before and behind, an army clashed, but the figure on the steed just seemed to watch, the sword naked and gleaming across its thigh and the steed's shoulder.

...Gith...

As the voice spoke, the earth trembled and lighting hissed through the clouds,“Zerthamon, come forward, you cringing slave. Let's settle this with one will against another, and we shall know who whether there are Two Skies, or One!”

A gith warrior, simply clothed, moved ahead of a line of warriors. His head was bared. His eyes were like gold, and he moved like one no more young, but still strong. “Even if I fight you now, Gith, you will not be fulfilled with my blood. You will kill all those who follow me.”

The figure reared the horse, which had fangs, “Because they are traitors, just as you are. You would have us bend our neck, slip our wills into bondage once again when we must strike while the Illithid's are weak.”

“We did not fight for our freedom to become that same as those whom we served.”

The figure on the nightmare stallion circled the unarmored man. “We will not be the same. We will be better. We will eliminate them, and any who stand in the way of our vengeance.” The nightmare tried to nip a sleeve.

Zerthamon's features, though they were as foreign as any gith's, were calm, focused, “Gith, know that you are not the will of our people.”

“Know that I am the will of my people. You, and your people, are my enemy for all eternity. I will see it done!”

Zerthamon buried his own dark blade into the horse's neck. The nightmare screamed like a person as it toppled to the ground, taking its rider to the earth in a tangled rush.

The figure on the nightmare disentangled her legs from the steed, raised her arm, bared the silver sword, and spat at Zerthamon, “Coward! I will sheath the sword you made in your own body.”

The gith man made a circle with his own weapon, a blade that absorbed the light even as Gith's reflected it. They grew large, both becoming giants against a sky whose weather shifted chaotically from one moment to the next. The effect was dizzying.

I saw that silver sword in the Gith's mailed hand rising and falling, making storms in the air, taking strength from its enemies, healing it's wielder. I knew it had been forged not from a furnace, but from distilling the essence of her chaotic will into some weapon, just as Zerthamon's sword was the embodiment of his will to balance, to contain.

I couldn't see who won that battle. I seemed to float away from that world, the world of the githzerai and githyanki, who had been hunting the shards of the silver sword that I had defiled.

I floated in complete darkness.

And what is your will? The voice from my dreams asked.

To win. The shards sang. Always to win.






Damn all men and their bony kneecaps.

“Cormick, turn over,” I growled as I stretched. But when I went to grab Cormick's knee, I remembered where I was: sleeping in a tent, heading east towards a place called Crossroad Keep...and Cormick was dead. All I held a round, circular stone, not his knee...

“Fuck!” I spewed the curse as I stormed out of the tent flap, throwing the rock into a small copse of trees. A couple of Cloaks watched it sail over their heads with alarm, but once they saw I wasn't aiming at them, they hurried to finish their breakfast. I was in my cloth armor. It's what I had slept in. I had been too tired to remove it, but I knew it was stained with sweat. I went back into the tent, pushing the flap shut behind me, wanting to scrub off every reminder of these last few days.

I performed the necessary tasks of making my body presentable. As I splashed the water over my head, rubbed my face with brutal precision, I saw the reflection of a new, silvery set of chain mail, complete with helm, in the hand-mirror. Most helms were made for someone who didn't have horns, but this one was crafted for my use. Sir Nevalle presented the suit to me at Castle Never. Nevalle said I couldn't lead an army looking no better than a foot-solider. I told him he took much time worrying about my appearance, but accepted the gift. The helm was shaped like the stylized head of an elk with green, iridescent stones for eyes. There were openings for where my own horns could curl around, yet seemed a natural extension of the elk's head. It was an elegant piece of work, and as I affixed the helm on my head, I looked less like Amara Chidi, and more like some shiny demon, about to led her troops into one hell or another...

My mood must have been contagious---even the sun hid behind solid, gray-green skies. Everyone hunkered down in their cloaks, expecting sleet. Elanee was tending the wounded, but Shandra, Khelgar, Casavir, Bishop, and Neeshka were all part of our small contingent of Graycloaks,
but it was too small to take the Keep, which Garius had overtaken and now defended.

As we finally came within sight of the Keep, what greeted us were not reinforcements, but a battlefield. The dead seemed to be everywhere, undeniable evidence that the Neverwinter troops had failed the first assault. Most seemed to have fallen not by arrows or swords, but spells. I knew the work of fireballs, clouds of acid, and lightning bolts well enough. One spell from one powerful mage could kill a hundred seasoned soldiers. Defeating the magic of Garius' spellcasters would be the key to breaching these walls and taking back the Keep. Luckily, Nasher had told the Many-Starred Cloaks to join us for the assault. Sand was with the Cloaks, discussing strategy. Grobnar had insisted on accompanying Sand, arousing the elf's nettles.

There were moans from the dying, but we were strangely silent.

Bishop stepped into a pool of gore, but didn't react. He just had a peculiar look of familiarity as he looked at the slain, “Stupid sods.”

Shandra had a handkerchief to her mouth, “Show a little respect Bishop.”

“Why? Just because they're dead? People don't stop being stupid just because they croak. Look at that position...it was suicide. They wanted to die, so let them.”

“You don't know that.”

“How do you tell a smart solider from a dumb one, here's a hint, sweetheart: one's alive, the other's dead.”

“What would you have done?”

“Survived.”

Shandra sent me a pleading look, but I didn't intervene. I simply didn't care. I didn't feel anything when I looked at the bodies because I kept thinking how Garius was just inside those bloody walls, taunting me with tiny whispers of thoughts, telling me that I should just lie on the ground and join the other corpses....No, I couldn't spare the time or the energy to think about the any more dead, especially when I knew I was going to make more before the day was over, and it'd only end with my hands around the throat of that bloody bugger---

Shandra waved a hand in front of my face, “Hello...Are you awake?”

I looked at the walls of the ruined keep instead of stepping between the daggers Bishop and Shandra were throwing with their eyes, “Oh I'm awake. I just don't feel like playing wet-nurse to your bloody argument.”

“She's telling you to shut up, wench. And you might get a tit.”

“I'm telling you both to stop bickering. Or I'll send you to guard the mules and asses.”

Shandra looked chagrined, but Bishop just grinned, “Mar, don't bring up wet-nurses unless you want me to say something about tits. So, since we just might be food for the crows in a few hours, how about a little suck?”

“With my tits, it wouldn't be a little. But you're more likely to feel up one of those corpses than me.” The more stressful things became, the more I found myself responding to gallow's humor, which Bishop had in droves. “Don't make me repeat myself ranger. Why don't you be a good, quiet scout, and see if there are any other ways into the Keep? Nasher's men said they found nothing, but if there's anything they couldn't spot, I'm certain you could find it.”

“Mar, for once, you're making sense.” He gave the parody of a salute, but it was only to cover up the genuine...pleasure he got from hearing my praise. Ever since the business with Moire, Bishop seemed less frenzied. He still had a strange energy, but he seemed to have more control. He knew what war was. It was ugly as the scars that would never leave his skin. All he seems to want is real respect from a someone he actually respects. Gods know why he respects me...

As Bishop pulled up his hood, and made his way north into a shadowy copse, I had a chilling thought, Maybe I should be more frightened of his respect than his animosity.

Well, too late now, Amara. You've made that bed already, haven't you?

Sand and the Many-Starred Cloaks were hiding in the ruins of a barn. That is how few their numbers were: all of their mages could fit inside one, lone barn. We could see the Keep gates through the decaying timbers.

I walked up to the elven mage, who was talking to Grobnar. The gnome held a diagram drawn on a stained handkerchief up before Sand's face.

“If you would just hear me out, Sir Sand, I think I could manufacture enough blastglobes---”

Sand cut him off with a look, “That would take a day, at least. We don't have an hour before we must strike. So, unless you have a useful idea, I suggest you keep your mouth closed.”

Grobnar, ever the pleaser, pinched his mouth shut.

“Is this the only force you have?” I asked the mage. The disappointment must have shown in my face.

“Well, there is your contingent, Squire.”

I looked in the direction of Crossroad Keep. Instead of noticing turrets or geography, my senses were all drawn towards some circle of power concealed within, hidden beyond normal vision or magical detection. Beyond Garius' dark and arcane magics, there was strong, old magic here, beneath the surface.. It was like a whirlpool of magical energies had been stirred up by Garius and his lackeys that making a tumultuous stirring just beneath the sad ruins. Such ancient sources were unreliable, more likely to turn on those stupid enough to tap into ancient mysteries.

“No doubt your peculiar abilities have already sensed the magic here...”

I nodded.

Sand looked in the same direction as I. He loved to give lectures and took the opportunity to address all of us like apprentices, “Crossroad Keep has a long history. It's foundations lie in arcane energies as much as stone. The diviners say that the magical force we face, however, is not too large. There is one, Garius, who is most potent, a mixture of arcane and divine energies of dare I say, suspicious origin. And from what I remember of him, there is no limit to the man's ambitions. Then there are a handful of magic users of the same stripes as Garius. There will be some Luskan fighters protecting the mages, of course, so we'll be fighting that as well. Though their numbers will be greater, the Many-Starred Cloaks are all seasoned spell-casters. I came here to consult, but I must see this for myself. I wonder if Garius would recognize me...” The mention of Garius left a condescending grin on his face.

“You want to go in, Sand? I thought you preferred to fling spells from a sane distance rather than charging in with the...pawns.”

“Well, you are going to need every hand you can raise. This may shock you, my dear, but I have been in a combat before. ”

Shandra elbowed me,“Yeah, hundreds of years ago.” She couldn't contain her laugh, and it fell over us all, breaking the tension.

Sand sighed, “I do not ask you to understand my motivations. Merely to place some well-muscled fighter between me and harm.”

Khlegar laughed too, “I'll watch yer twiggy back, elf. Just as long as you don't turn me into stone, or a faery.”

“A bit late for that concern...” Sand muttered.

“What about me?” asked Grobnar. He clapped his hands, “I want to charge head-first into the fray---”

I had already decided where Grobnar would be, but I tried to look as if it I thought about his request very carefully---I even bend down so that I met him eye-to-eye, “Grobnar, your magic will be more useful here than with us. For, if we should fall, you will have to help lead those who remain. Can you do that?”

He kissed the hem of my cloak, “Oh, I will, my lady. May the gods bless your calves and feet and---”

Sand, serious, interrupted, “My lady, We could only breach the defense by taking a series of tunnels into the very library where we think Aldanon is held hostage. The Tome is with Garius. I'll take care of the Cloaks, but the attack is yours to command. We stand ready. ”

I nodded, and the mages, all of whom could hear this exchange, were tense as bow strings. While some were seemed to be excited to have one of their own,a hero of Neverwinter, in command, they were also uneasy. Whatever I had done, mages are taught from birth that all warlocks are evil.

While I knew, as I looked at the Keep, that I could send those gates crashing down, it'd serve little purpose. I'd scare my own troops as much as any enemy. I decided that I had to try other means, like winning the respect of these people. That's what Cormick did, why he was followed so readily. Fear was one way of getting people into line, but now that I was known as Hero of Neverwinter, my reputation had already made the decision. Awe would be the only thing I could cultivate.

“Master Sand. Prepare your people for battle. Form the lines!”

Sand saluted by touching his forehead. It was an elven gesture of respect.

I replied to Sand's salute by imitating the same gesture and giving the correct response in elven, which can't be translated into Common.

Sand chuckled. “A demon speaking elven...now I've seen everything.” He took a breathe before turning towards the other mages, as if to steady himself.

“My lady,” I turned. It was Casavir. It was the first time he use the honorific since we met. Khelgar and Shandra, Neeshka and Sand...It felt like something had been lost. Not just between me and Casavir, but between me and everyone else.

I forced myself to smile, “Making war isn't very lady-like.” We hadn't spoken one word to each other since Neverwinter. I avoided looking at him directly, but his voice was insistent.

“Whatever anger you feel towards me, If you don't want to lead this, I will.”

I turned my head, inspected Casavir. His armor was full plate mail, practical rather than ornate. Though he shined it often, we'd just seen too much combat: there were nicks and other places where the mail was permanently marred. His shield was slung across his back, but I knew there were designs of Tyrran symbolism etched on its surface. His helm was simple, but it was off, for the moment. His hair was neither short nor long, but was black as my own---touched with silver, which only set off the silver specks in his sky-colored eyes. The square jaw, the frown---he looked like a commander, which just agitated me further.

“Really? I thought you had had enough of leading troops...”

“Will you at least consider---”

“Thank you. But no. War is something Shard-bearers must do.” I had worked too damn hard to have him undermine me now.

“No, my lady, this is something you want to do.”

“I don't want this. I never did.” But as those words left my mouth, I knew that I had wanted the opportunity to prove something. To prove that I was something more than a Shard-bearer, more than a warlock, more than a demon, more even, then a Harborman.

Damn you. “What does it matter? We're here. I suggest you prepare yourself for a fight, Sir Casavir. You're going to lead the the Cloaks.”

Casavir bowed, “If that is all you need from me, you won be disappointed, lady.” From Casavir, that tone was far worse than any punch.

“That's all I've ever needed from you,” I dismissed him with a curt nod.

“Have I done something wrong?”

“Don't use that tone with me. If you're pissed, be pissed.”

Casavir narrowed his eyes, “I am pissed. But I'll take it to the field. I suggest you do the same.” He didn't raise his voice like some men when they were angry. His words just became more precise, more direct. I had a sudden insight that, in that state, he would say exactly how he felt without his normal...niceties.

I got into his face, “No, let's have it out. Right here---”

He didn't move anything but his lips, “I'm not Bishop.”

“No? Maybe I should have him lead...”

Casavir clenched his jaw.

“You're really scared that I will. And deny you your get your chance to die nobly in battle? I might be a demon, but I'm not heartless. You'll get your chance. We all will.”

“Are you quite done?”

My green eyes flashed dangerously, “Are you done, what?”

He met my glare with an steely blue one of his own, “Are you finished barraging me, my lady?”

“Yes. I'm quite done. You're dismissed unless you have any further insights you'd like to share.”

“Just one thing.”

I grinned at the paladin, daring him to finish that thought.

“When Cormick and I served together, there was a battle cry that we made up, partially as a jest, but it became our war cry.”

I put my hands on my hips, “What was it? For Glory? For all the wenches we won't wench?”

Casavir looked down, “'Who will weep for you?' It's about being remembered---living in the moment so that if you fell, you knew your life meant something. That your memory would continue. It kept us going. It kept us alive.”

“Is this your way of saying that you'd weep for me, Casavir---”

“---It's my way of telling you that you can be very selfish, Amara.”

I got within an inch of his face, “Who are you---you don't have a fucking clue. I'm doing this---all of this--- for Cormick.”

“Then remember him. I do. You are not the only one who has lost someone.”


* * *


As the mages, protected by Cloaks, formed put into tight battle formations, I climbed to the roof of the barn. I heard a chicken squawk as I emerged at the second story, looking down at the soldiers. They looked small and vulnerable next to the long shadow of the stone fortifications. The Keep stood on the highest spot, a hill. Small, dark figures stood on its ramparts. I wondered what rousing speech could keep men and women shackled to such a cause. “Do this, or die,” Must work, else there would be no need to fight.

Holding up my hands above my head, I waved for the attention of the mages and Cloaks. Then I used magic to amplify my voice, “We represent Neverwinter today. This may be the last time we stand and fight, for the King of Shadows may appear.” There were mutters. “Yes! The King of Shadows, whom Garius serves may try to destroy us. They will destroy this land, if we let them. They have already destroyed too much.” I had their attention, “Do you remember Marshal Cormick?” There were several nods, “He was killed because of the Garius' intrigues.” Many sounds of outrage could be heard. “Though I am different, I was welcomed into the Watch, into your service because of good men like The Marshal, who believed that it is our deeds define us, not our skin. No matter what I am, if I die avenging Marshal Cormick, then I will have died well. If we fall, then we fall. But if we face this so-called King, let it be said that he was defeated not by those consumed with hate, but by those who loved good men like Cormick---who loved Neverwinter!”

By voice grew horse by the last line, but it did not seem to matter. There was on loud roar. One speech, and they were prepared to die.

The appearance of the ranger seemed like a sign from some dread, immortal hand.

Bishop was able to lead us to a secret way into the tunnels below the Keep. One by one, we squeezed through a cave, then a crack in the earth until we came upon a door. And so, I entered Crossroad Keep for first time covered in dirt and spider filth.

The room we finally came to was an old, partially-decayed library. Aldanon, the missing sage, looked up when we came spilling out of the secret door, weapons and wands at the ready. The sage sat on a wobbly, three-legged stool, his white beard touching his stomach as bent over a book. His robes were dingy and stained, but he seemed as comfortable as he was in his own library---until he saw us.

“Azuth!” he cried, clutching the book to his chest.

“Oh,”when he recognized me, he sighed audibly, “Oh, I certainly didn't expect to see you here. The gith holy woman was just asking about you.”

I looked around the room ,but there was no sign of another prisoner, so I shrugged, “Well, I didn't expect to be here either, but here we are. It's nice to know they haven't killed you.”

“Yes, quite fortunate,” agreed the sage. “And the books I've gotten to study...” He stroked the book he still held, closed his eyes in pleasure.

As I spoke to Aldanon, Casavir had already crossed the dust and debris to kneel before the old man, “Are you well, sir?”

The sage's brown eyes sprung open, and widened at Casavir's profile, “My boy! Did you know you are the very image of your mother?”

“Aldanon---”

“Chidi...,” Aldanon said as he studied me with furrowed brows, “You don't look anything like your mother. Not at all...Too bad. She was a quite a stunner.”

“The book, sage. Where is it?”

“Oh. Right. Siege and all. Don't let me stop you.” Aldanon jumped back into the precarious stool, and buried his face in the pages of his book. “They're performing the ritual through the door.” He waved vaguely.

“Wait,” I said as I put a hand gently over the page he was reading, “Where's the door?”

He pointed at what seemed to be an empty corner, “That's it. There's an invisibility spell, but you can easily undo it. Beyond the door are the Luskans. Lots. And Garius has already started the Ritual. What I would give to see it performed....” He sighed again, then sneezed. “Ah well, it probably would have killed me anyway...Still...” He looked around, as if just noticing the force of armed men and women that had appeared in his prison. After an odd oh of surprise, hid behind a bookcase. It was the most sense I had ever seen the sage show.

I pointed at the door, “Neeshka, Do you see it or any traps?”

I could tell by the way she grinned and stretched out her fingers eagerly towards the lock that she sensed it. Then she removed a saw-like tool from her belt, but then tipped her head for a moment, examining it. And the ground. Though Neeshk'a voice was girlish, her red eyes were focused, her gestures precise, “Before I hack into it, you better remove any spells, or I'll set these traps off.”

“Sand, can you remove the ward?” I gestured at the door.

“Of course, but then they will become aware of our presence.” The mage moved forward, lifting his gray robes away from the dirt on the floor.

“They already know we're coming.”

When Sand looked at me, I saw the briefest glimpse of fear enter his blue eyes before he mastered it.

I ignored it, “This is no time to get squeamish, sir mage. Ready your Cloaks, and open that door.”

Once he started muttering, casting spells, I could see not only the door, but also the energies surrounding the door, and what lay beyond: dark magic, and something old, something connected to summoning...was it the Warlock---the King of Shadows? Were they summoning him?

I called my defensive magics. I was outlined in searing blue-green light for one moment before my shadow absorbed it.

“That's new,” Sand held his thin hand against his brow at the brief flaring of light. Those elven eyes seemed to cut through the gloom of the room and pierce right through me like a needle.

“Take out the magic-users first,” I said to those around me, ignoring Sand's poignant insights and glances, which there wasn't any bloody time for, “before they can summon anything. Whatever you do, don't attack Black Garius. That bastard is mine!”

“Yeah!” shouted Khelgar and Bishop at the same time. They regarded each other warily as the dwarf twirled his axe-head free just as the ranger unslung his Duskwood bow---each pretending they had never agreed on anything.

“But if the Warlock is here, it will take all of us to bring him down.”

“Justice!” Casavir vowed, banging his hammer against his shield with a metallic echo.

“Yes---of Kelemvor. Of the tomb.” I added.

Casavir looked at me sadly.

I looked back. Stop looking at me paladin like I'm the sorriest wretch who ever breathed---

Sand sneezed loudly, then closed his eyes in concentration; it was a full minute before the dark-haired elf opened them, “The spells are...undone.” He rubbed his temple. The door was free of magical bonds.

“Neeshka,” Khelgar cried, “Quickly, lass---now---”

“Come on Neeshka,” encouraged Shandra.

Neeshka sawed off the lock with an expert motion.

“For the Marshal!” Neeshka squealed as the bolt fell with thud to the dirty floor. She aimed her crossbow at the door.

I waved my sword above my hand as I pointed at the door. “For the Fallen!”

“The Fallen!” came the reply from every throat.

“Charge!” I screamed as I crashed through the door.

In the summoning room, the blackness of the magic gave me goose-flesh. It was as if the Ritual calling on something beside the Weave, but that could only be one thing: the Shadow Weave. Sweet Mystra. Even to a warlock like me, that magic---shadow magic--- was an abomination. That was the magic we had sensed at Old Owl Well, at Ember: the magic of Shar's dark, tainted power. I should have known---

Suddenly, something assaulted my will. Binding magics called to my demon blood like a lover, to just step inside the circle and everything would make sense...I clutched my head, growled. I could see Neeshka throw her head back in a silent scream. Garius had made a warding with ancient words that were supposed to bind demons, and that slithered over our minds mind like burning chains, pulling me ever towards the circle...

I heard low, malicious laughter, “You think you are stronger than your father?”

Yet soon the Prince beheld his mortal cage;
A prison sure as those in Shattered Night.
And though his thoughts ran red with sterile rage,
He had no choice but serve at her delight.

“I ..will..not...be...bound!” I screamed, raising my bastard sword with both hands. But that song, I knew it like I knew the sound of my own voice...though I had never heard it before.

It's about my father. He let a mortal cage him because he was bored. No, because she was as beautiful and cunning as he was...an enchantress on some other plane, not my mother, but they had a child, my brother, who became a god...and he wasn't the only sibling....

I could have let these words and their knowledge hold me, stiffen my limbs, but every part of me that was Amara Chidi, daughter of Esmerelle, raised in West Harbor, who fell in love with Cormick, would not be stilled.

Garius, with his sallow skin, almost-white eyes, and shaved head, smiled at me from across the room. It was more like the grin of the skull than anything human. He beckoned me with his hand like a fencer before a match. I noticed that the delicate, tapered fingernails were sharpened and painted to resemble black claws.

He looked at my weapon. Instead of pulling out a sword, he opened his mouth, which was oddly black: lips, teeth, and tongue.

“Scared I'll break you?”

It was Lorne's bestial bellow that came forth from Garius' stained teeth, but I knew---Lorne was dead. I saw him fall.

Unaffected by Garius' illusion, I made the symbol of a triangle with my fingers. My power cackled, magnified by the energies of the circle and their dark rituals. “You will be the one who breaks.”

The green energy that erupted from that triangle was such that it pushed me backward even as I heard it connect with Garius' body, emitting a sound like the rumble that precedes the thunderstorm.

“For Cormick!” Silver sparks erupted when my hellfire swirled over the dark iridescence surrounding Garius' head. At first, he didn't seem concerned with me, only the Ritual. He just held up his hands and the darkness became hard, encapsulated his body with a crystalline shield. Then I made a sign, and the green energy surged knife-like, transforming into a billion tiny blades that broke through the crystal shield with the sound of shattering glass before embedding their points into Garius' body.

He screamed, “I'll send you to your Harborman,” and clapped his hands. A percussive wave broke out over the room, shattering potions and mirrors alike.

When the percussive wave reached me, I could hear nothing but an ocean. As I touched my ears, a stream of blood trickled down my fingertips.

I ground my teeth as I touched the scar above my chest, which seemed ready to rip open and bleed like wound newly made. I can't die. Not yet. The shards---I could feel them humming, still in time to my pulse, as if in protest to Garius' magic...Though I couldn't hear anything, their pulse drowned out any other song. Hear me, shards---

Garius smiled. His voice was surprisingly smooth, and for a moment, I could see how he could lead so many into his sway. There was a compulsion in it, “That shard must hurt. It must want to leave such a weak vessel. Wouldn't death be preferable, Half Blood? If you hand them over, surrender your life, I'll let your friends walk out of here. I would make it, your end, a peaceful one. A well-earned...retirement.”

The voice that came from my mouth mine, but at the same time like a voice from a dreams, a dream I'd forgotten, “I am as hard as the weapon the Shards came from---from the weapon they will make again. I defy you and your master. And I will be avenged.”

I pointed my finger and uttered one word of power. The spell, combined with the energies of that place, had opened a direct conduit to the source of my powers, with me as the nexus, linking this world and the one below. Because of Garius' spell, he was the only one in the room who could hear it. It was an infernal, forbidden word, and it burned my throat as I uttered it.

Garius' eyes bulged as he put his hands to his throat and then fell to the ground. He did not move.

Was he dead? The power that washed over me in reply was thick and...I ached for more...

I couldn't hear Sand, but I saw the elf was shouting something at me. Then he made Lathander's circle against his palm, the warding against evil. Against me...

I snarled. Stupid mortal... as if demons were so easily bound. He needed another circle, at least...or my true name. The roomed seemed suddenly so small. I wanted to stretch. I looked around, annoyed at feeling confined when I could be anything...

Then some vague light seared my mind. I looked down, slitting my eyes.

The light came from a man---from Casavir. But he couldn't...He wasn't a cleric. Paladins might detect the taint of realms below, but to be so bright, he had to be touched by some god or another. It was like looking at Tyr. His steel-blue eyes seemed to see the energies that tried to take me, or I them, I couldn't be certain which. He held out his hands, but he didn't seem able to touch me. Strain showed in his muscles. He had been forced to one knee, and the other threatened to give---

Gods, was I doing that?

I let go of whatever it was, or maybe it let go of me. For now...

Casavir/Tyr slumped to the ground.

“Casavir---” I grabbed him, kept him from falling. “Grim-jaws...” How can I be holding him up?

The paladin steadied himself, but he was breathing deeply. He kept searching my features, but I couldn't tell what he was tring to find.

Casavir held his head, “It was you, but it wasn't. There was another name, but I've forgotten it. Your hair---it was as if it sucked out every light. There were more horns, and your skin was darker...it was as if I saw you as a...demon.”

And I saw you as a god, I didn't say. I helped him stand. I looked around, daring anyone to meet my gaze. “I may be the daughter of the Dark Prince, but I'm doing what's necessary.”

“I know,” he said. “But you must do it as Amara.”

There was another name I kept calling myself, “Amara...who is that?”

The paladin saw my confusion. He held my head in his hands, and spoke slowly as he traced some sign on his mother's amulet, which still hung round my neck. “Amara was born in West Harbor, the daughter of a paladin of Ilmater. She had the celestial blood. She is is the Shard-Bearer, and will face the King of Shadows, as a loyal servant of The Lady of Mysteries.”

I turned away.

He lowered his deep baritone to a whisper only I could hear, “And she brought me from a path that would end in death. Do you hear me, Amara? You were the sign. Marcus told me...”

But his words had worked better than any spell.

“Yes, I hear you...though I think you exaggerate.” Pulling off my helm, I wiped the sweat from my forehead.

“Welcome back, Amara. I think it's time we left this room. It makes me feel strange...”

“Yes, let's get out of this hellhole,” I said to the paladin. Then I raised my voice so everyone could hear, “The sooner we are back to Neverwinter, the better.”

Edited by Raenemon, 23 March 2010 - 03:56 PM.

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#14 Raenemon

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Posted 19 June 2010 - 05:52 PM


Chapter 12





Once the food and spirits were tested for poison, we sat in groups around the casks, drinking from bowls, sometimes straight from the barrel. There was no inn, and once the bodies had been cleared off and buried, we went back to the abandoned farm. No one wanted to sleep in the Keep. In the open, a sharp wind from the mountains was better then corpse-rot.

Away from the stone walls, every solder and Cloak tried to regain their humanity. We had won, after all---against Luskans, mere men and women, who managed to steal and murder and rape worse than any undead force. But when the ale was passed around, every glance at the shadowy Keep sobered even the most grizzled veterans until they found themselves talking in whispers, or merely falling silent before retreating into canvas tents. We fought to save that place? Only the gods could understand why.

Immune to any natural chill, I spread out on the ground, a bottle of wine cradled in the crook of my arm. The overcast, nighttime sky did nothing to make the Keep more inviting. The shadows merely lengthened.

Once I pulled off the bottle's cork with my teeth, I sat up, emptied the first dram on the ground. “For you, Cormick---though I don't think they drink in whatever heaven you're in.” Yes...eternal happiness. I didn't want to think of any other alternative, and I didn't have to as the wine warmed my throat. Though I didn't get drunk like other people, the alcohol made a pleasant physical sensation, like a hot bath, and with him gone, there were too few pleasures left to me. I closed my eyes to intensify the feeling, but an image of Cormick---no, the incubus I saw at the Moonstone Mask---rose up in my mind, uninvited and unwelcome.

Undaunted, naked, and more sculpted than my Cormick had ever been, he beckoned me with a fleshy wing-tip, “Ya wanted me to live, and I am.”

I can't make a demon. I took a long pull, fuzzing my thoughts for a moment of brief bliss before they came thundering back. I just become one. I squinted back at the Keep, put the the narrow neck to my lips, and intended to empty the entire bottle when I felt a large group clank into formation behind me.

Sir Nevalle strolled up to me, shining in the reddish-gold bonfire as a company of bodyguards trailed in formation behind him. All of them glistened, but Nevalle's platemail shone mirror-bright, as if it had never been in a battle, but was only brought out upon state occasions and then polished by some nameless retainer. Over the armor, Nevalle wore his splendid blue Nine tunic, the fisted eye embossed in gold thread. Nevalle's features were even, rounded curves, balanced from every angle. Perfectly quaffed, evenly cut, his blonde hair held just enough wave to reflect the light from his armor, and his tone held the formality only years of court and generations of good breeding could produce, “Squire Chidi, may we speak before you take a well-deserved rest?”

My first response was to imbibe the dregs of my bottle. I had removed the armor he'd given me and was wearing nothing but an under tunic. I washed my hands, hair, and face free of most of the gore, but the rest was still soiled from crawling through underground tunnels and avoiding Luskan blades. My dark hand wiped at some vagrant stains on my paler tunic, but I gave a genuine smile to Nevalle I brandished my empty bottle with a wink, “I'd offer you libations, sir. But sadly, there's no more lubrication.”

Though I knew Nevalle had a ready wit, his hazelnut brown eyes were focused on me without a hint of his usual mirth, “If I may say so, madam, I suggest you be serious.”

“You may not,” I chuckled, wishing he had made some jape, “If you’ve come to flatter, I must say, I expected better verbosity...”

“No flattery. No witticisms,” Nevalle removed his longsword, a beautiful weapon of blue steel as he approached me with a stiff, formal stride. “Kneel, Squire Chidi.”

I knelt on the bare earth, but I frowned up at Nevalle. I had to run a hand through my hair to see him properly, “If this is an execution, well, don't I get a final request, such as 'Please don't kill me. I'll kill more Luskans next time?'”

I stopped wagging my tongue as Nevalle touched each of my shoulders with his sword, “Lord Nasher has issued a commission---not an execution. Since you have been the one to cleanse this place of the evil that corrupted this ground. Therefore, this Keep---” he gestured dramatically at the decaying walls “----is yours.”

Several solders, probably the more restless ones, came over to see why Sir Nevalle of the Nine was pointing a sword at their leader. Nevalle raised his voice, making eye contact with every face he could, “The Shadows are lengthening. We must be prepared for the fight to come. That means fortification of key areas like Crossroad Keep. That is why this Keep is yours, Captain Chidi. You have proven your worth as a commander. Let us hope you prove an able steward.”

“Sir?” The smoke from where we burned the carcasses of Garius and his unholy lackeys still lingered in the air like a haze even as a sudden stab of moonlight illuminated the ruins, “Can't you smell the air? This place is barely inhabitable.”

Nevalle inspected his sword before sheathing it and gazing down at me, “You question the decision of your lord?” A faint wrinkle appeared on his forehead.

“No, I...merely wonder, sir. It's a habit I can't seem to break.”

Nevalle sighed, “In all earnestness, Neverwinter needs you.”

“It needs a miracle.”

“Well, that is your specialty, from what I gather.”

In the wan illumination, my green eyes glowed with their own light, “Would you have me shut my eyes and pretend that this place is not full of death?”

We locked eyes likes two combatants. Nevalle spoke low, so that only I could hear, “Death is everywhere, Half-Breed. You should know that better than most. Now get off you gods-damned knees. You will be a Captain. And you will be grateful.”

I leaned forward, performed a mock curtsey, “I thought 'grateful and on my knees' was exactly where you and Nasher want me to be?”

He gave a look of utter contempt that only lords can give, “Neverwinter---Lord Nasher--- saved your life---”

“---And I just saved this Keep, these people. I just made another vital corner of Nasher's realm safe, if not tidy. Even I've lost count of all the bloody 'good deeds' I've done... Do I do it from the goodness of my heart? No more than you. It's about power. I can make things happen. It's why I'm alive. You have ambition. Good for you. But I want no part of it. I haven't done this for fame and glory. I'm just trying to stay alive long enough to kill the King of Shadows. End of story.”

“Be that as it may, I, lady, am anything but ambitious. I plot to secure the safety of my land and its people. That is my ambition. You might help, or become a threat. I'd prefer to have your help. Therefore, I will ignore this little outburst. But I don't expect this disrespect in the future. Think what you will of me, but you have vowed to serve Neverwinter, so at least maintain the appearance of gentility, if not the substance. We'll be of little use against the King of Shadows if we all start killing each other.”

He looked at the Keep, then back at me as he tied a red tassel of rank to my upper shoulder. “Serve well,” he intoned before he touched his lips to mine in the way of knights. His taunt mouth seemed certain that I wouldn't serve well at all.

I tried to calm down. After all, I like what he just said. I took all this seriously, but I always seemed to be at odds with everything. I pulled on the ribbon as he pulled me up. My voice was chagrined, “I might not be as well-mannered or well-bred as you would wish, but I am honest. I will bury Cormick...then I will serve Neverwinter, as promised.”

Nevalle suddenly held me at arm's length, “Such an oddity you are: a demon's bastard with the will of a queen.” I might have slapped any other man for the insult, but Nevalle said it without malice---only curiosity. What will come of this? the slight wrinkle on his forehead asked.

I straightened my back, tried to sound authoritative, like a queen, “We are all singularities, Nevalle. Even you.”

Nevalle slipped into a smile as easily as slipping on a night gown, “Oh, I am.” It was the white, luminous smile of the most eligible man in Neverwinter, a smile that promised everything and nothing, that must have had many maidens and matrons slipping out of their undergarments.

I did contemplate slapping that grin off his face.

My thoughts must have been easily read, for he held up the index finger of his well-manicured hand and wagged it at me, “I have retainers for a reason, Amara. You have a history of thrashing those around you.”

“You have anticipated me, sir. But you won't always have retainers about you---unless you take them with you to bed,” I looked at the thirty-odd men and women. “I imagine it becomes quite crowded in there.”

He laughed, “Debaucheries aside, there is a prisoner that asks to see you---This is not a Luskan. It's a gith that Garius had under lock and key with Aldanon.”

“I'm certain you can handle the situation until I return.”

Sir Nevalle raised his voice, filled it with good humor for anyone who might be listening, “Neverwinter is in great need of inspiration, captain.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he cut me off with the palm of his hand, “I know you would say something disarmingly humble,” he chuckled, “but let’s skip that. You know your abilities. And I know your abilities. And you know that I know what you know.” He spread wide his arms, and turned around to make eye contact with the men, “Shall we agree to be 'knowing' partners in this business of war, Amara Chidi?”

There was a smattering of rugged cheers from his men and the group of tired, curious Cloaks as I came to stand beside Sir Nevalle.

Just when Nevalle extended his hand, I showed off my bright fangs with a smile that said, You know I can't refuse, Nevalle, but I'll be damned if I make it easy.

He gave a wry eye at our joined hands, but raised the other high, “For Neverwinter!” he chanted.

Though this man, this knight, was my superior in breeding, in manners, political acumen, these people hurrayed loudest for me, the demon bastard, Amara Half-Blood, warlock from the most remote corner of Neverwinter. I felt my blood surge as I pumped my fist against that dark sky. My skin and the night were one shade, and a phosphorescent nimbus, a by-product of the magic still surging in the air, settled on me like a crown. They were already whispers about what had happened in the chamber where Garius had died. Some said the magic of the Luskans' own dark ritual turned on them. The more romantic whispered that Amara Half-Blood gutted Garius herself and spat, “For Cormick!” as the mage's body fell to the ground. Others said that Amara had summoned a demon that killed the shadow priests. Other tales said that an avatar, maybe of Tyr, maybe of Mystra, had turned up and punished Garius for dabbling in forbidden shadow magics. Even stranger versions said she became a demon and destroyed every enemy in the room with a word of terrific and hellish power.

Whatever had happened, I was at its center. And events seemed to circle round me like spokes round a wheel.


* * *



The dawn held no redness, but was full of purples, oranges, and then golds before the sky became a bright blue. It was the first dawn I had watched from the Keep. Kana, the seneshal Nasher had appointed, greeted me with a deep bow at the base of the steps running up to the castles' interior doors. The doors had been completely destroyed by the Many-Starred Cloaks, but already there were new planks being fashioned to make it, I was assured, even stronger than before. Kana gestured at the castle, and explained the condition of the keep as we walked from room to room. Her voice had hints of an eastern lilt, which was soothing as she spoke deliberately and to the point. The castle, but hadn't been lived in for many years. The paint on the walls was cracked if not completely worn away, revealing the stone walls behind. At least there was good stone for the foundation. Most of the repairs there would be cosmetic: bedrooms, library, war room, stateroom. Once the bare walls had been cleaned of the Luskan debris, it would be easy to screen the walls, bring in tapestries and furniture. But outside the castle was another matter. There wasn't one complete building. I already had to make the decision of which buildings would be rebuilt first---all before the walls or roads were properly restored. We'd need mining operations to unearth raw materials. Then we'd have to woo workers and craftsmen out to the Keep: blacksmiths, cobblers, farmers---every trade that ensured the Keep was self-sufficient if it was cut off from Neverwinter. Crossroad Keep was on a major trade route, which would only open if the roads were reliable and safe. Otherwise, any travelers would be easy prey not just to minions of the King of Shadows, but more mortal foes like bandits. Though I could not escape these day-to-day business of management, my true concern was whether or not it would stand the assault that was coming. We needed soldiers. But there was one thing that took priority---even over building the army.

I dismissed Kana when the caravan finally arrived from Neverwinter. The priests had brought Cormick's body to Crossroad Keep. They were willing to carry him when they discovered I was going to bring him home.

Khelgar wanted to go to West Harbor, but at least one fighter needed to stay in case we didn't return. Secretly, I hoped that Khelgar would get a little more experience leading the men. But even my best arguments did nothing to convince him until I swore that at least three would go with me. Casavir and Shandra were going. They didn't even pretend to listen as I tried to tell them they had to stay. Bishop was needed to scout. Neeshka had wanted to go, but I remembered too well the way she had tried to insinuate herself between me and Cormick. I didn't like admitting it, but it still stung. Sand and I decided that he need to stay—he was simply too good at administration to risk losing. Elanee refused to go, and I could tell from her face that something was wrong in the Mere or her relationship with the Circle. Grobnar also wanted to go, but I set him to assisting Master Veedle, the architect re-building the Keep.

Casavir, Shandra, and Bishop were all on horseback. I drove the wagon that carried Cormick's body. As we prepared to leave, everyone at the Keep seemed to come down and pay their respects. Cormick was a popular man, very respected. The priests hung garlands from the wagon and chanted the song reserved for those who died honorably in battle. Even Nevalle had stayed, saluting the coffin while all his retainers imitated the same gesture of respect, before heading back to the city. The Cloaks, many who had served with 'good ole' Cormick, gave a formal salute led by Kana as we passed through the broken gates of Crossroad Keep and headed south to the Meredelain.

We made good time. There were few travelers, and no bandits thought we looked vulnerable or wealthy enough to bother. Bishop stepped through trails and found paths as if he had been born in the Mere and pointed us towards shortcuts even I would have never found.

Once the road started giving way to denser and denser woods, I knew we getting close. There is a smell of water flowing through the marshes that some find repugnant, but to Harbormen, it is the familiar smell of things growing in hidden depths. The trees became moss-lined with roots that looked more like human knuckles grasping at the water than anything vegetable. There was also the song of marsh birds: storks, crimson cranes, the large-billed marlin, who always hides, but has the most beautiful song.

But the deep life in the Mere that I had known all my life was muted. The closer we came, the colors themselves seemed...subdued. There wasn't a hint of bird-song; the few birds I did see were far away, flying away from the heart of the Mere, which was our destination. Though I had heard the dark warnings, each step made me more and more certain that something was wrong with the Mere---something that made even a warlock's hackles rise.

“When you said you lived in the swamp, you weren't kidding,” Bishop muttered when the road ended, all we had was the trail. He looked around, and I could tell he sensed the wrongness too. If he were an animals, his eyes would be rolling in fear, but since he was Bishop, he kept pacing, as if he wanted to bolt away.

“I'll lead from here,” I said. “I wouldn't want you to get scared.”

“Some of us, those with sense anyway, are scared,” Shandra replied. “It's a swamp. They're dangerous, even when they aren't haunted. This is where the Shadow army marched bef, right?. And...Elanee did mention that there have been fights here for hundreds of years, ruins of ancient empires reclaimed by the waters...”

I snorted, “You've been listening to too many of Elanee's tales.”

The closer we got to West Harbor, the more my memories came in a rush of fragments. I even remembered the night I fled this Mere, the torn hem of my robes as it caught on the undergrowth. I recalled too the feeling of being hunted and terribly alone. I could almost see that Amara: skinny, weaponless, emerald eyes wild, waiting for the attacker to come around ever bend in the road. All she knew was that she was a demon. She was far scarier than anything she would meet.

I shook my head. Almost nine moons ago, when the crops, the earth herself was dripping from too much fulness. Now, the crops had been harvested long ago, the snows had come, and the earth warmed again to the touch of the sun, who wept at her beauty. That's the old stories, older than even the Lord of the Morning.

When we reached the outskirts of West Harbor, we were greeted by two men with taunt bows, “Who goes there?” one asked. I recognized the feigned gruffness through the gray hood.

I stepped into the light, “You wouldn't put an arrow through a face as air as mine, would you Georg?” I wore dark leathers, a black scarf around my black hair. I must have looked like a living shadow, a restless ghost. There were many of those in the Mere.

“Amara?” he stammered, “You're back! Do you hear that, Wyl? Amara made it!” Georg, the captain of the militia, was as bald and friendly as he ever was. His brown, amused eyes took in me and each of my companions. “Well met!” he said, extending his hand.

Wyl Mossfield stayed back, watching Georg greet each with open hostility. When he looked at me, his voice held his usual, rough contempt, “You planning to stay long? Or do you want to bring another army down on us?”

I gave him a look of disgust---a look I always seemed to reserve for Wyl, “If another army comes, just remember to stand behind me again. I wouldn't want you to get that pretty face bashed in. ” The last time I have seen him, I had saved his life. He had apparently forgotten.

Bishop snickered.

Wyl glared at Bishop through his shaggy brown hair and muttered something about witches. Bishop---almost casually---touched the knife handle at his belt. Bishop turned his glare at the youth, then folded his hands against his chest and preceded to watch Wyl until Wyl moved behind Georg's back to avoid the ranger's glare.

Georg raised an eyebrow, “It's good to see you've got friends, Amara.”

“Where's Daeghun?” I asked, half-hoping he was gone, as he usually was.

”He's at the house, but you're lucky to catch him. He's been in and out of the Mere ever since you left.”

“Is Rhetta in town?”

“Yes.”

“And what about...Cormick's folks?”

Georg lit up, “Do you have news of ole Cormick? I heard he's one of Nasher's finest---” He smiled at Shandra, “Now, I could tell you tales of that boy that would make yer ears blush.” He laughed, but stopped when he saw our grim faces.

He ran a nervous hand across his shaved head, “What's wrong? Must be bad to bring you back here.”

I motioned for Georg to follow me. I walked to the wagon, put my hand against the wooden box. But I couldn't form the words He's dead.

“Gods...” Georg whispered.

“I need discretion. Don't say anything until I talk to Cormick's family, Rhetta, and Daeghun. Can you do that?”

He nodded. “Aye. Of course...”

I climbed into the wagon,“Can you feed all three?”

“I can keep your friends, Amara. I'm just sorry---this is a sad day.”

As I led the team into West Harbor proper, the first thing I saw was houses and barns made of timbers so old and weather-blown that they looked silvery in the light. Lean-tos had been added here and there as families expanded, either with birthing a babe or taking care of an grandparent. There were smoking stacks pointing through the roofs, evidence of cook stoves and winter grates. Wooden post fences, some painted, but most were as worn as the planks on the houses. There were wraparound porches, often screened with fine meshing or cloth. There had to be something to keep the mosquitoes out.

How many identical days had I sat, watching the change from night to day to night to day in a monotonous succession of moments, as if I were moving forever on the rivulets of water that always dampened this ground? Those currents dictated the rhythm of the seasons: wet---all wet, never dry, though surely as hot as any hell, or as cold as the peaks of the Spine of World.

The rain began to fall.

I plodded to Cormick's old home. Cormick's casket will soon be as worn as these houses.

I knocked on the door. My hand was like a dark shadow on the pale wood.

“Coming,” Cormick's father, Kai, answered with the booming voice of a much younger man.

I crossed my arms as the door opened as the warm light of the fire and the candles spilled over my face, surely my horns. The rain glistened on features that had locked so many doors...

Kai, large and gray-headed, squinted at me, “Why...little Amara? I won't call you big, though it seems like ya've grown. Get in here before ya catch a fever.”

He pulled me in before I could protest, shaking my hand warmly. His fist engulfed mine, “Morimee! Come in here, and bring the tea...and...Would ya like something to eat?”

Cormick's mother came into the room, and I realized how much he favored his father---except for those dark, liquid eyes, “Why Amara, what news from the great wide world?”

She also shook my hand.

I took a deep breath, “I..” I would have been able to speak if her eyes didn't look at me just like Cormick's.

“We've heard all sorts of rumors...” Kai began.

I had to close my eyes to to find the words, “When I was in the wilderness, trying to find my way, Cormick guided me. He literally put shoes on my feet. Then, when I was in Neverwinter, I joined the Watch, and Cormick and I worked together on numerous missions. We also became close friends. He was the best at what he did, and many flocked to the Watch just to serve with a real hero. Your son. I don't think I knew a finer man. “

“Knew?” Kai looked at his wife and looked at me. “What happened?”

“Cormick was ambushed by a local gang, Every coward involved in the attack is dead now, but Cormick but was hurt real bad. I was there with him when he... passed... If I could have switched places with him, I would have. I might not have been able to save him, but I brought him back to you. I think he wanted to be buried here...”

“I want to see him,” Morimee whispered.

“The priests already prepared him.” I said. “He's outside, whenever you are ready...”

“Ya have me, Amara...” He kissed the space between by breasts, “...every part.”

Kai turned toward me, “I think we just need some time to let it settle.”

And they had already lost a daughter, now a son. They would have no other children, no grandchildren..

His mother turned toward me with tears in her eyes, “Thank ya for bringing him back to us.”

“Cormick was the best thing that ever came out of the Mere.”

Kai smiled. “That is the truth, though we always teased him about it..”

Then Morimee was weeping. She nodded once. She tried to smile, to be brave, but a high-pitched wail made her whole body shudder. Kai was beside his wife. “There, there, love.” He whispered, cradling her in his arms.

Then Kai met my eyes, “The ones who did it...are ya sure they're dead?”

“I did it myself.”

He nodded. In the Mere, if someone spilled blood, then the family of the injured could name their due There were no judges or lawyers. Justice was swift. There were few murders, but one that I ever remembered. It was the family of the murdered who took the murderer to the cross roads and cut off his head. The body was thrown without ceremony into the Mere.

“Here. I have something. It's not enough, but ya deserve something for doing this.”

“Keep it, please...”

Kai waved a finger at me, “Hush.” He turned to his wife, “Mori, I'll be right back.” He nodded at me to follow him.

We walked through the front parlor to an old writing desk. Kai shuffled through some papers. “He wrote. Every week.” Ki said over his shoulder. “Like clockwork. I knew something...when he didn't write. Did ya know?” He held up a letter. I could see it was filled with Cormick's chicken scratches.

He placed the letter in my hand gently, “Ya need to keep that.”

I shook my head, “I can't keep that.”

“We have plenty of letters. Years of letters. But, I know he'd want ya to have that.”

“...you know then...”

“Ya were going to pretend nothing had happened between ya. I know. To everyone else, that's all they need to know. But not to us.”

“You don't disprove?”

“Well, it was a surprise. Morimee couldn't help but think of what yer kids might go through...But he loved ya. It's obvious. And ya love him,or ya wouldn't have come here. That's enough fer me. I won't forget what ya've done. I'm just sorry...” he put his hands over his eyes.

I clutched the letter in my hand like a moth that might fly away, “Thank you.”

“I should see to my wife. We'll talk. After...”

I nodded, “I'll see myself out, sir.”

Instead of tearing into the envelope, I hid it in the safest place I could, given the circumstances: the same pouch that concealed the shards. Once outside, I touched the wagon at the place where Cormick's head lay. This was the end of whatever journey we had set out on. I didn't expect to come back---not alone, anyway. All the Keeps, all the titles in the world could not bring Cormick back or pluck off these horns or make Lorne a decent man. Two Harbormen dead. And how many more because of me? I stood there, like the lone survivor of a tragedy...But this wasn't a play. The tragedy was always me.

I tried to form a prayer, but the words of comfort wouldn't come. Instead came the phrase, Now I have to tell Rhetta, the one women who was like a mother to me, that I killed her son.

My final smile for Cormick was bitter, but I only mocked myself, I'm sorry I mucked up everything beautiful between us.

The growth between the houses was as it ever was. Thick and dank. The only tameness came form the Harbormen. I heard voices. As I followed them, I came to a small clearing beside the river. Shandra and Casavir were talking in low voices. Shandra pointed toward Daeghun's, but Casavir shook his head and pointed at Cormick's.

I shook my head, “What are you green-knees doing here?”

“How did it go?” Shandra asked.

“About as good as it could,” I didn't touch the letter or mention it. It felt too...intimate. “I've already been to Cormick's. Now I'm headed to Lorene's mother's. Then I'll go...home.” Home? Daeghun's house had never been more like a place I had lived.

Shandra hugged me, “No more of this 'alone' business, Amara. I lost my whole family, and I had to face it alone...I don't wish that on anyone, especially when doesn't have to be.”

“I just...When I left here, it was a lark. I didn't even have shoes. Things here---are complex, like the Mere. There's lots of layers, and just when you think you're walking on solid ground,” I snapped my fingers, “you're dead.”

“You're not the one who died, Amara. You're a captain with a Keep. They tell stories about you now.”

I laughed, “I can't imagine what version they'll hear. I'm...not even certain what happened,” I looked at Casavir. We had not been able to talk about what had happened in that summoning circle. I had been avoiding the subject---avoiding him.

“Well, I was there. Do you want to know what I saw?” Shandra asked. She answered her own question, “I've never seen a magical battle like that before. There was lots of flashing lights...of confusion, but I saw enough. It took one word, and Garius was gone. I felt light-headed after, and everybody was knocked to the ground. I think every one of us had a headache for the rest of the day...that was some spell. Is that what you saw, Casavir?”

He met my eyes, but I couldn't tell what he was thinking,“...Something like that.”

He's lying...for me. I know what he saw. He saw me become a demon, and he called me back. He's probably as perplexed by what happened as I am.

I was thinking so much that it took me several moments of staring before I realized I was looking at Rhetta, who sat on her porch, drinking sweet tea from mugs I had helped Bevil make for her. She looked just like she did when I was a child---a handsome woman---except now her hair was grayer, but the red that showed was still thick and dark.

“Rhetta?” I asked. And suddenly, I felt the memory of my fight with Lorne as clearly as If I still stood on the tourney ground.

Lorne saw me. He took a dirty fingernail and traced it across his neck, licking his eel-like lips all the while...

She looked a me. “Amara? Come over here, let me look at you. You look... proper.”

“Fucking cunt,” he spat in my face as he pinned my neck with his forearm and slashed downward at my exposed throat.

I tried to ignore the memory, “It's still me, Rhetta.”

“And who are these folk?”

“This is Casavir and Shandra. They are friends of mine.”

“Well, you're both welcome. Come on up...”

“Is Bevil around?”

“He's off doing some work for the militia.” Rhetta wagged her finger at me, “He would be sore if he knew he missed you.”It had always been a running joke between us that I would have to marry Bevil, just to have her as a mother-in-law.

But I couldn't smile, “I wouldn't mind seeing him either, but I have something I need to talk to you about...”

“I know that look, girl. I'm assuming you can speak freely with your friends here.”

“You're a good mother, Rhetta. I always envied your boys---that they had a mother like you in their lives. When you asked me to find out about Lorne, I did. And I am sorry, Rhetta, that ---

“He's dead, isn't he?” she said it calmly.

I looked into the distance,“Yes. He joined the Watch for a bit, served with Cormick, but there was always bad blood between them. I don't think Lorne ever forgave him for beating him in the Harvest Fair. Lorne ended up as an assassin in the Luskan army. Then he started working for a man named Garius, and I'm sorry to say, there was a lot of bad things that he did. I was working for the Watch in Neverwinter, and the Luskans were trying to frame me. I was made a squire so I would be tried in Neverwinter. During the trial, I had to fight Lorne, and...he fell, Rhetta. I'm so sorry.”

“You killed him.”

I wanted to see the eyes of an animal when I looked at him, for an animal can't help its nature. But the fevered glint that thrashed in his eyes as he pinned me to the ground, prepared to cut my throat, was entirely too knowing. I saw bliss, there, in that manic abandon. I saw my death in those round, dull eyes.

I got down on my knees in front of her, “You can take justice on me, Rhetta.”

“All the people he's killed, their family could claim the same on me. Get up, Amara. It's about time Lorne paid his own reckoning.”

I extended my palms in gesture of submission, “I killed your son.”

As he tugged me to my feet, I always knew Rhetta was made of steel beneath that lovely form. She had to be strong to raise her sons with a terrible father, whose only gift to his sons was to leave,“You, of all people, must remember what Lorne was. He was a monster to you, especially. Don't think I'm dotty. Bevil's told me just about everything, now. It's taken me some time to understand, to quit blaming myself for what he became. The boy I raised, he died a long time ago...I'm just sorry you were a victim of his cruelty, but don't apologize for standing up for yourself, for all those people he hurt.”

Shandra spoke tentatively, “I saw the fight, ma'am. Amara tried talking to him, but he wouldn't listen. And Amara had the chance to choose a champion to fight in her stead, but she insisted that it was her fight.”

Rhetta grinned, “That's Amara. Always made of tougher stuff. She even puts us Harbormen to shame.”

“It's the demon in me.”

“Take some credit. Whatever you have become is because you're you. That's why Bevil thinks you hang the stars.”

I sipped at some tea that Rhetta offered, “He'll probably change his mind now.”

Rhetta shook her head, raised a finger, “That son is mine. And he would forgive you anything.”

I handed my cup to Shandra with a nod of thanks, “Have you spoken to Daeghun lately, Rhetta?”

“Very briefly.. he seems preoccupied. Who isn't with all the strange things happening in the Mere. There were many times that I went to your father, telling him he needed to be kinder too. But he can't understand my concern. How could he? He's an elf. He doesn't have the same...needs. But in your his case, he didn't refuse to change out of malice. It was just lack of understanding.”

Shandra handed her cup to Casavir, who empied it as I began to speak to Rhetta, “'Lack of understanding,' well that's one way to put it. You and Brother Merring....have both said something similar. But I don't think either one of us is willing to change. He will always hate me, Rhetta. And I won't accept being hated.”

Rhetta refilled Casavir's glass. He gave a sheepish grin as he took another long, appreciative sip. “So, have you talked to him yet?” Rhetta asked me.

“..No...”

“Amara! Still dragging your heels when it comes to Daeghun. You have to give a little if you want to gain anything.”

I smiled, but then I remembered the letter. I could almost feel its weight, the press of his hand as he made the letters...“I also came for another reason, Rhetta. Cormick died. I brought him to his folks.”

“Not Cormick, too” Rhetta whispered. “He was in his prime. And such a sweet boy---a sweet man.” She did start to cry, but held out her hand when I went to hold her. Rhetta didn't accept anything she thought was pity. “Now don't you be trying to comfort me.”

She away the few trickles of tears as if somewhat ashamed of those few drops.“You need to go up to your father, Amara, and you to need to have a good cry yourselves. Now,” she said to Casavir and Shandra,” if you' can excuse an eccentric old woman...Git” she smiled. They smiled back. Rhetta planted a kiss on their foreheads.

Then she came to me, opening her arms wide, and I did what I always did: I fell into them gratefully, nuzzling in the scent of this woman as if she were my mother. “I have missed you, Amara, and I keep praying for you. But don't blame yourself for what happened with Lorne? Alright?” She kissed my forehead. I could tell she would mourn, for this son who was always lost to her, but not where I could see.

“Thank you for your hospitality, ma-am.” Shandra said gently.

“Is there anything we can do for you, madam?” Casavir asked.

Rhetta shook her head, but pointed at me, “Just keep her outta trouble.”

As we trudged towards Daeghun's, she waved a solemn goodbye from her porch.

If I closed my eyes, I could still find my way. My feet knew. This is it, Captain of Neverwinter. I should be able to knock on my foster father's door without all the old weights slowing my life back to those moments that seem eternal, when I was young enough, naive enough to care whether or not he loved me.

Still...I looked at Shandra and Casavir, “You two might want to step back...He might be armed.”

“You've got to be joking,” Shandra said nervously. “She's got to be joking,” she said to Casavir.

The paladin took her elbow and guided her a safe distance away, “In my experience, when dealing with father figures, especially those with attractive daughters, it's best to assume they're already armed.”

Shandra frowned, “This is one of those times I have no idea what you're saying...”

“Pitchforks hurt.” His voice was deadpan.

“Why would---Oh...” She crossed her arms as she looked at Casavir, “Thanks for destroying my maidenly innocence.”

Casavir voice was full of knightly gravity as he took her hand, “My lady, one night of your maidenly charms would be worth a thousand pitchforks.”

Shandra sighed, every inch the grateful maid, then chuckled as she pulled her hand away, “You great big liar!”

“Being charming isn't the same as being sincere. But I meant what I said. Any man who would run away at the first sight of an angry pitchfork is unworthy of you.”

“Oh. When you say it like that...thanks.”

Though her skin was rather bronze at this point, Shandra looked a bit flushed. She looked at him, and what was there lit her features, which were already quite lovely. She looked like one who wanted to be seen. But Casavir was already looking past her golden head to where I stood, watching these two beautiful people with a stab of envy. The possibilities they had...the possibilities I would never have...

I knocked on my foster-father's door with a bitter taste in my mouth.

The door flew open, as if he had been watching the door for some time.

“Es---” Daeghun's ageless face and deliberate voice was full of longing...until he saw my horns.

“Amara---” His voice changed so quickly I wondered if I had imagined the other, “What are you doing here? Do you still have the shards?” Daeghun was shorter than I, but it felt like he was looking down at me from a great distance.

“Yes—I have them.”

“Child,” Daeghun reverted to elven, as he always did with me, “you bring trouble to my door. Do you want to bring death upon us all?”

I slipped easily into elvish, “I came back here because I had to.”

He pulled me inside with the same strong grip I remembered. “Explain.”

I nodded my head at Shandra and Casavir. I stopped, reverting to Common, “We have guests.” I gave them a look to show how embarrassed I felt.

My foster-father looked behind me with an elven glare that far exceeded what Duncan or even Sand could do. His large, hazel eyes was the dominant feature, and what made his glare so effective. He had the stare of some fey creature that belonged to the wild. He leveled it at Casavir and Shandra, conveying his anger and distrust just with those eyes. The rest of his face seemed to lack expression, but with a gaze like that, he had no need of further expression.

“We can wait outside,” Shandra smiled, “I'm certain you two have much to discuss. Just holler if you need us.” But Caviar returned his gaze. He tipped his head at the elf, “I only wish to greet the one who raised Amara.” Then he extended his hand; it was a Harbor greeting, not something one saw a paladin of Tyr offer to a man who looked like he might kill him rather than take it.

Daeghun didn't move, didn't acknowledge the hand. “Keep your hand, stranger,” Daeghun drawled, “it's apparent that I did not raise her well.”

Casavir's hand lowered, but his eyes did not, “You do not understand---”

“Oh, I understand human... Amara, is it not enough to make mischief with the local priest? Must you shame me in Neverwinter as well?”

I had to think before I could remember what he was talking about, “That was...five years ago, Daeghun!”

“Not to me. But we trail from your task, which you have apparently failed. ”

It was one thing to take Daeghun's upbraiding, but it was something else to have it witnessed, “Casavir, Shandra...Why don't you head back to Georg's. It well past supper, and I'm sure you're as tired and hungry as I am.”

Shandra turned to go, but stopped when she realized Casavir wasn't moving.

Somehow, I sent the thought through on the breeze, You can't save me, not from this...hoping Casavir would catch it. Shandra understood, said something to him. I could do see her mouth moving. He nodded. Said something back.

I closed the door. Hard. It made a familiar thunk against the frame, “That was rude, Daeghun.”

Daeghun's home had changed little. There was a smell of woodsmoke with roast mutton, probably what he had for supper. Rugs of various colors lined the entryway from the door to the mantle, which he stood before. Maps and paintings hung to either side, but he looked at the fire rather than at me. “If they are your friends, they should not have let you bring the shards back here.”

“I was quite...” I crossed my arms, “determined.”

“Yes, I have run into your determination.” For the first time, he noticed my clothes were wet and dirty, as was I. We had to leave all our finery at the Keep. It was too risky to travel in gilded armor in the Mere, so Daeghun saw my padded armor, inky cloak---not things a Captain of Neverwinter would wear. But even if I was dressed and helmed in the finest armor, his response would be the same. For him, I would always bring trouble.

He reverted again to elven, but he did not offer any elven hospitality: clean vases of water to wash hands and face, sometime times feet, honey-sweetened fruit, spiced wine to remove the rain's chill. He called me a name, which roughly translated, means bull with too big horns. “Speak what I need to hear, bull.”

Rationalize---remove emotions until you see the truth. I remember your lessons, elf. I wiped the rain from my forearms, “First, I went to the sage, as you bid me. The shards are from the silver sword. That's why the gith have attacked. It is a great offense to steal a silver sword. I have several fragment, including a shard in my chest. The scar. Now I know why you never spoke of it. But now, you have to tell me everything...my mother...” I couldn't keep the emotion from my voice.

Daeghun held up a dismissive hand. I could only tell by a slight tightening in the corner of mouth that he was annoyed, “That can wait. Second?”

“Second, Lorne Staring became a Luskan assassin. He tried to frame me for the murder of a Luskan town called Ember. I won my trial, but Luskan demanded trial by combat. They made me fight Lorne. He is dead. I already told Rhetta.”

“Lorne was always looking for dis death. Next?”

”I've been tasked by Nasher to repair Crossroad Keep, which is now my keep---I'm a captain now--- and prepare a defense against the King's armies."

“You---a noble? I may not understand human notions of nobility, but why would Lord Nasher elevate you, of all people?”

“It's to keep me loyal, Daeghun. I had to take the oath of knighthood: to serve Neverwinter. Nasher knows I won't back down from my word, or I lose Never winter's protection. Even if he doubt's my motives, he knows I'm caught. He needs an army to protect his kingdom, and I need one to take to the King of Shadows, the real threat. A knight captain has a greater chance to stir people to her banner than just a lone Harborman.”

Daeghun held up his hands, “Politics,” he spat.

I tried to shock him, “I've seen the King of Shadows. He is a warlock, like me. And he is experimenting with raising the dead.”

“I determined as much from the Mere...Is that all?”

I wish. I looked away. When I spoke, I spoke in Common, “Cormick was...murdered. I brought him back to his parents.”

“I didn't know you were that close,” Daeghun's tone was ambiguous, made me angry in a way only he could.

“Despite everything, we've managed to find each other,” Cormick placed his cheek against mine. “That don't happen everyday.” I clung to the memory, unconsciously touching my cheek, even as I gave Daeghun a look that told him to drop it.

Daeghun, rather then notice my reaction, was thoughtful, absorbing every bit of information. “You should be at the Keep, rather than here.”

I had to choose each word carefully before I spoke, or I would scream, “Well, I am here now, Daeghun. You could be happy to see me.”

His tone was dismissive,“Too risky.”

“'Too risky'? You are the one who sent me after bloody fool's gold. How many years did you throw away, all because you couldn't say, 'You have a fucking shard in your fucking chest!'”

His voice was chill, “I did not know. The wound in your chest, the blood. The shard must have passed through Esmerelle and into you. She died so that you might live. But such knowledge, of her, of the shard, wouldn't have done you any good, bull.”

“It would have helped me to understand---”

“---Understand what? So you could feel the same loss as I? You're already upset...”

“Upset? How would it upset me? I would have known that she loved me,” I touched the scar. “Here, where I have felt deformed, here is the evidence that Amara Chidi was loved. For once. Everything else, like these horns, these fingers, would have seemed small in comparison.” I looked at my delicate hands, closing my fist until the extraneous digits disappeared, “At least, that's what love is supposed to do...”

“Amara, you know little of love. Love breaks everything. It leaves you hollow. It's like swamp lights that flicker like torches, but disappear, leaving you neck deep in filthy waters.”

“No, ” I touched space where Cormick's letter lay. I didn't have to read it to know that he had loved me. “You're wrong, Daeghun, about a great many things. You'd let your rancor drown both of us. Well, I won't listen to any more lies.”

He bristled, “I never concealed what was important. You have demon blood. Your life was never gong to be easy, with or without the shard.”

“Thank you for reminding me Daeghun. You were always reminding me every moment you could. Don't worry, I've never forgotten. How the hells could I?”

“I remind you because you have to be on your guard. I don't care if Nasher makes you one of the Nine. You're still the little girl playing with things she should leave alone.”

“This might surprise you Daeghun, but I am not some animal that needs to be domesticated. I was supposed to be your daughter.”

“You think I asked for this? I did not ask to take care of you. I did it because I promised, but after losing Shayla and your mother, I couldn't lose someone I loved again.”

I wanted to hurt him, “Duncan should have raised me. It would have made everyone you, dear-dead mother, much happier.”

“Say your peace, but keep your mother out of this conversation.”

“You meant Esmerelle 'Just-Fallen' Chidi? The stunner, who you and Duncan fought over? You know what I think of the great hero? It's because she couldn't keep her knees together that we're in this big, bloody mess---”

Daeghun struck my left cheek with a practiced backhand. It was blow made to instruct rather than harm.

From beneath my brows, my green eyes became dangerous slits, “Come on, Daddy. You can do better than that. Unless you're getting old...”

He grinned wryly, “Go on, continue Amara. These are the sorts of conversations fathers and daughters are supposed to have.”

“If I have a father, it's not you...”

“Then appeal to him.”

“And prove you honest?” I laughed. “I'm rather tired of that game, Daeghun.”

I paused. I almost told that blank face, just to see some expression, even if it were rage, but I thought better of it. I'd keep him in the dark, just like he'd done to me, “Don't worry Daeghun. I will trespass no more on your fine hospitality. My companions and I will stay at Georg's tonight. Once Cormick's in the ground, I'm leaving, and I don't plan on coming back---not to this house. “

“Bull, why must you always push me?”

Instead of answering, I opened the door.

“It's what bulls do. We tear up everything.”

I slammed the door shut behind me.

By the time I left Daeghun's, it was night. Selune was full of promise, practically rolling across the sky with a trial of stars churned in her wake. I used to imagine that someday, I would reach those stars, see what they were made of. I used to think that people lived in the sky, just like we lived on the ground, making constellations out of our strange lights and shadings...

I stepped beneath my favorite tree. A willow--- gnarly and lichen-covered. It was where I would do my gazing. I climbed to the indentation that still seemed as if it had been specially carved for my body. Here I belonged, if nowhere else...

“Don't cry, Amara. There's no point,” I whispered to myself. Yet the tears fell silently. I curled my feet against my chest, put a hand against my forehead. Bloody elf. I'm done---

I heard something rustling in the undergrowth. I held my hand, readied my blasts---

Bishop stumbled into the tree with a thunk. “Fuck!” he spat as the branched recoiled, hitting him right in the forehead.

I grabbed a branch, tilted my head, and cackled like a swamp hag.

He turned around, tense, ready to strike at whatever was stupid enough to laugh at him.

I wiped away the remaining tears with my fingertips and frowned at them.

He looked up. "Fuck you, Mar.”

I snorted, “How did you know it was me, oh mighty ranger?”

“Only one can laugh at me with such contempt.”

“Are you lost, little boy?” I asked sweetly.

“No. I'm scouting. Wandering.” he took out a flask, rattled the contents until they swished, “Celebrating.”

“You shouldn't drink.” I folded my arms, remained where I was. We both know what happens when you drink...

With a quick, abrupt motion, Bishop threw the flask into the river. I could hear the splash as his eyes met mine, “I hope some fish chokes on it.”

I looked down at him. Even the moonlight did nothing to soften him. His reddish hair, his stubble seemed spiky, likely to cause pain if touched.

“Ranger, just leave me alone,” I climbed up the smooth, greyish bark, pitting several branches between us.

“Why are you alone, Mar? Shouldn't you be catching up with your kin, maybe kissing a cousin...”

I let my night vision take hold, revealing the faint glow of the leaves wherever I turned. Not being a chipmunk or any other sort of animal that likes to climb in trees in the dark, I looked for a way down. It had been a while since I had climbed so far up a tree on anything but a dare, but I managed to get down without falling, though I did make a slight thump as my feet connected harder than I expected.

I held out my hand at the ranger, daring him to say something about my lack of balance, but he merely smirked. “If your looking for your kin, Mar, snakes tend to stay on the ground.”

“And what are toy kin to ranger, besides dung beetles? Wait, wait, that's right: I don't care.”

"You may not care about me, but I found out something interesting about your Harborman.”

“Please, enlighten me with your genius.”

“He was engaged, but you probably already knew...To Kana. Small world, isn't it? I wonder if Nasher knew...” a flash of teeth in the moonlight, an animal smile.

I grabbed his collar, “That's a big fat lie. You should have kept it in your big, fat head.” I flicked his forehead with my finger.

“For someone with such small hands, you really like to poke and prod.” He smacked my hand away, “I'm not a dog, captain. But I do bite. ”

“Is there where you try to throw doubt over my relationship with Cormick, and then, for some reason only the gods know, get us to fumble into your unwashed bedroll?”

He raised his arms and shouted at the sky, “Can't we just skip all that and get to the fucking?”

I laughed. The way he said it was like a parody of the lecherous tripe he usually said.

Bishop smiled, “I was articulate once, but when you work with Luskans, you're expected to talk a certain lingo. It's all 'kill, kill, kill.' and 'fuck, fuck, damn, fuck.'”

I laughed again.

“I came from a place this---off the beaten...before they came.”

“They?”

“You don't think I would work with Luskans willingly.”

“I don't understand.”

“You've never been a slave.” I could tell by his tone that he wanted the conversation to end.

And so, we were silent. There was only the sluggish sound of the river, the sound of frogs, of night beetles.

As Bishop spoke, his voice softened. It was as if the ranger were speaking the way he might have spoken when he was a youth, “Nights like these, we used to go skinny-dipping in the creek, whatever the weather---as long as there was water, were we in it.”

When I didn't respond, he continued, “Mar, I know we have bad blood, but can everything can start from here?”

I laughed. It was a mean laugh.

“I should've kept my mouth shut.”

“You really think a couple of words will wash all the shit you've pulled off? You must think I'm a drooling, stammering half-wit.”

“Let it go, Mar.”

“No. I know what you are. You aren't even dirt because dirt at least, nourishes plants, makes things grow. You're just a waste---a walking, talking, waste of air.”

Bishop grimaced.

“Aww. Did I hurt its feelings?”

His gravely voice sounded worn, “According to you, I don't feel. I don't breathe...So why don't I just slit your throat right here? That's about all I'm good for,” He brushed his fingers over the knife's handle, but didn't draw. “It's what you want, isn't it? To be with your dead sweetie instead of weeping in the dark, alone with someone not even worth the trouble to kill.” “How romantic,” I offered him my back. “If you're going to knife me, then do it. If not, get the bloody hells away---”

There was another sound in front of us. I looked up.
He was going further into the trees, but his height, his broad shoulders, were as unmistakable as his Marshal's black and white uniform. He stopped once, turned his head right to where I was, and smiled that crooked, bright smile...

“Cormick”? I whispered, afraid that if I named him, he would disappear like any other dream.

I stood, completely transfixed on what I saw.

“Don't change the subject,” I heard Bishop growl.

I looked at the ranger as if seeing him for the first time, “Listen to me, for once. Nothing you do will ever be forgiven. Not by me. I will always remind you of everything you fuck up. If you ever thought different, then you're stupid as well as evil.”

He ran a hand through his hair, made it stick up even more, “But you need me, Mar, so what does that make you?”

“Desperate. Maybe crazy. I haven't decided which,” I smiled. Well, I was seeing dead people,“I'm leaving. Now that you mention it, there are some cousins I want to screw---anything to get your stink off my skin.” I stepped beyond the canopy of the willow, leaving Bishop behind to do whatever freaks like him did for kicks.

There was enough moonlight for me to see the dirt path that his vision of Cormick took as he moved towards the orchard. I didn't see him actually move. Whenever I would blink or turn away, he would be just closer to the Mossfield's plantation. Actually, it was a failed orchard. Ma Mossfield, who was from Amn, tried to make a fruit grove from seeds that she brought with her when she married her husband, whose family were Harbormen. She even had magics cast and prayers made to make the grove live. And it did, in a monstrous sort of way. The apple trees and pear trees were fine, but the oranges and lemons were puny and rancid. If you took bite from her orchard, you were just as likely to get sick as full.

“...The Princess of the Lost Heart...I think I've heard that story...Without a heart, the Princess becomes something deadly. Isn't she tall, and dark, with green eyes that cut right through a man like a basilisk's glare?” I rolled my eyes, “And black hair,” He tried to pull my hair behind my ear, but it was too dense, “thick and smooth as flax? A voice like a siren's? Her look maddens every admirer, but I heard it's with her voice that she weaves her spells, and so voice and beauty, which should enchant, only deal destruction and death.”

Cormick stopped in front of a tree I hadn't seen before. Though Cormick was tall, this tree was taller. It looked like something from some foreign land, some windswept dessert, rather than the Mere. He rooted for something in the lowest branches, and his dark curls bobbed as he removed whatever he found there.

My entire body tensed, waiting for some attack, but I couldn't keep the longing out of my voice, “I thought I wouldn't see you again.”

He turned slowly, cradling something in his vast hand. It was leaking something dark and sticky onto his pale palm.

Suddenly wary, I raised a fist at this imposter,“He is dead! Dead! Why do you torture me with his form?”

Cormick put his free hand up to his mouth and his finger against his bearded lips, as if telling me to be quiet. Then he tapped his forehead twice with his broad finger, as if to say, Think, Amara. His forearms were dark with course hair as he lifted his hands, revealing what he held to me. His eyes were full of depths, absorbing the vague moonlight rather than reflecting it.

If you fall
I will rise someday
as the leaves fall down
in the Meredelain.


Part of me kept repeating a fevered warning, Look away, Amara---look away, even as he approached, or maybe I floated toward him. I touched my scar, remember how he pressed his lips against it, “My heart...oh Cormick, where is my heart?”

Destruction. He blinked. Death. No more.

I looked down...

* * *



Cormick's parents decided to bury him in the morning. The ceremony was one unique to Harbormen. When parents lost a child, the custom was for them to put the boy or girl back in the ground. They gave the child life, so they made that final bed, kissed the cold eyelids, bid their babe a good sleep'and an awakening into some time and place where they would all meet again.

Instead of Brother Merring giving a benediction, an older man with an aged, tangy, but powerful voice began to sing.

Oh Death
won't you take my shirt instead.
Or my house, my stove, and every bed.
Don't take away what I treasure most---
Don't make my little babe a ghost.

Oh Death
won't you take me instead.


I saw Cormick, gliding past the singer, shaking his head, as if to say That's not it at all.

When I blinked, he was gone. I rubbed the bridge of my nose with my thumb and index finger.

I felt a light hand against the small of my back.

“I think I need to drink to stop seeing things---” I said to the poor bastard behind me, whoever that happened to be.

“Uh...where did you meet up with Cormick?” a familiar female voice asked. I couldn't place it until I turned. The girl, her belly swollen with a babe was a certain long-lashed Mossfield. She dropped her hand. I couldn't remember her name, but I remembered...other things. She may have asked the question, but was already looking for a way to end the conversation and avoid any other strange thing I might say.

I tried my most-winning smile, but she flinched as I tried to answer her question by speaking deliberately, and I hoped, quite sanely, “I met Marshal Cormick at Fort Locke. He encouraged me to join the Watch.”

“I heard he was engaged...”

I shrugged. I was always good at faking ignorance.

Delighted she could reveal something I hadn't known, she spoke in a poor attempt at a whisper, “I heard it was a swordswoman. Cloak. She was eastern, funny name: Cone, Conna---something like that.”

“Kana?” I asked. My voice sounded very small.

“Yeah, did you meet her?”

“She's manages the Keep, but I...never saw them together....” Kana? That couldn't be right. Then Bishop would have been speaking the truth. It wasn't true---couldn't be true, but why did it hurt so bloody much?

“Well, if I heard right, he was crazy about her. And you know how many of us ladies well, knew Cormick,” she had a faraway look to her face. “I know I woulda married him, but he never asked no body in the Harbor. When he left, he broke all our hearts.”

“I can imagine,” I didn't want to be sarcastic, but I felt as if this woman had just gutted me with a very blunt weapon, one that hurt rather than killed.

Caught up in her own thoughts, this Mossfield didn't catch my tone, “Funny that you found him. Of all the West Harbor girls, you're the least likely to nab him.” She laughed, putting her hand to her belly, as if she were imagining what her life would be if it were Cormick's, “I guess he was always made fer better things than us.” Then She gave me a mean grin. The us included me. “But you managed to bring some fine-looking men---very fine---back with you.” I followed the upward glance of her long-lashed eyes, that Cormick had once found pretty.

Bishop had entered the inn. The ranger was dirty, but his cloak and gear were expensive, and looked it. He liked to have the best, though he never seemed able to maintain it. Taller than most of the Harbormen, his rugged features were emphasized by his stubble. I don't think I had ever seen him clean shaven, yet the man was graceful. I had to give him that. Once he leaned against a wall, a lone, solitary figure, his stance invited nothing but confrontation.

The ranger cased the room as he shrugged off his cloak. His well-fitted armor gave him bulk. The man at the tap offered him a mug of ale, but he denied it with a curt nod. Suddenly, Bishop turned his head. He looked right at me, he saw me watching him, and pressed his lips together, making a motion like a kiss.

The pregnant girl eyed Bishop unabashedly. “Whew. That sure makes me wish I wasn't married,” she sighed.

I smiled, “Maybe I should tell that to your husband? Who is the lucky fellow?” I looked around, as if trying to find him, “Is it your brother? I always told Wyl that no woman in her right mind would every touch him, but, it appears I was mistaken.”

It took a moment for the insult to sink in. Once it did, her lovely eyes widened in disgust, and a frustrated humph could be heard as she waddled away from me with as much outraged dignity as she could muster.

I threw up my hands, as if in protest, “No, no, no! Don't go. There's so much fat to chew---” She ignored me completely, which was well-enough, but I kept speaking to her back, raising my voice the farther away she moved. “Really, I'm blushing, you just can't see it. I am abashed. I need a priest. And lots of penance. Oh gods, why do you make me say such wretched things? I think I'm possessed. Yes. I need an exorcism---I...” I put my hands to my forehead in a gesture of woe, but widened my eyes, made my fingers tremble as they discovered my horns, “I am...entusked!”

The whisperings and looks I had almost forgotten had now begun again with unabated vigor. I knew this encounter, as she would likely relate it, would become just provide further evidence for many in West Harbor---as if any was needed---that Amara Chidi was a fantastic bitch.

“Did you call for an exorcism...I think I already tried that. It never seemed to work.”

I didn't looked at Brother Merring as he sat beside me.

“Maybe because your methods were flawed,” I drank, “but then, I was just 15.”

“Fifteen going on fifty. Daeghun still hasn't forgiven me.”

I lookked at the priest. He still wore The red roves with the yellow cowl---red gloves too. His brown hair and beard were always cut in the style of the city, where he came from. The beard was still thick, well-trimmed, even in West Harbor, where most men didn't take the time to look in a mirror. He smelled like the incense from the shrine, which clung to his robes like a cologne.

“Daeghun doesn't forgive anyone. The bigger question is: Have I forgiven you?”

Merring was a man of the world, while Tarmas withheld his knowledge from me when he made Amie his apprentice. Merring told me stories, taught me history and any subject I had an interest in. He was intelligent and kind. His mean was gentle, and I was unaccustomed to gentleness from men. I think he considered me his protege. Back then, he seemed older and wiser, though he wasn't as old or as wise as I wanted him to be. But it was enough, once upon a time.

“Was there anything to forgive?” he asked, genuinely concerned.

“Not really. I knew Lathanderites weren't chaste. We had some good times. But it's all ancient history.”

“It hasn't been the same around here since you left.”

“Is that your way of saying that you missed me?”

“Of course. Who else can I debate?”

“Well, life's rarely fair.”

“That's what Lathander's for.”

“Let's not debate that here. I'm likely to become provoked.” I looked at him from beneath my brows, “You remember what happens when I get provoked.”

He tapped his jawbone, “My jaw still clicks from where you broke it.”

I shrugged, “Seriously now, the taint. It's worse than before...”

Merring looked around, but no one was listening in. Still, the priest lowered his voice, “Most of the Harbormen aren't talking about it, but my divinations all say the same thing: devastation from something...unnatural. I've tried warning them, but they don't listen. I sent word to Neverwinter, but they don't have the troops to spare.”

“I am the captain of Crossroad Keep. Tell anyone who needs a safe haven they'd be welcome.” I smiled when I saw his eyes widened in surprise, “Trust me, 'captain' sounds very fine, but there was a lot of 'demon witch' in between.”

“Has so much happened? Ever since that night, I have replayed it in my head. And every time, I go with you...” He folded his red-gloved hands together. It was a nervous gesture I remembered well, “Are you happy, now?”

“Not so much. But it's been a long year.”

“I'd like to hear about it, but I don't suppose we'll get the chance. You're leaving tonight, correct?”

“Yes. We cannot linger.”

“Are there priests at your Keep?”

I tugged a stray lock of hair, “Not yet, but we need as many gods as will help us.”

He was thoughtful for a moment, “I may come. I will do what I can here, but if things get bad, I'll take whoever I can to your Keep.”

I touched his red forearm, “Rhetta and her kids? Cormick's folks?”

He smiled, “I'll even try Daeghun---if he doesn't kill me.”

“You're a good man, despite being a priest.”

He held out his hand. I took it, “And you're a good woman, despite being a demon.”

“Just remember what I said, if things get bad...”

“I will remember. It had been good to see you well. May the Morning Lord protect and keep you, Amara.” He made the blessing known as Lathander's sun, which was a blessing that only priests of Lathander could make.

I bowed my head to receive the blessing. When I looked up, Brother Merring stopped in mid-sentence. He looked at me, as if stuck by a sudden pain.

His face was as red as his robes. “I'm sorry,” he muttered, “I think I need some air.”

“Do you need help?”

He held up a hand. “No. No...I'll be fine. Good journey, Amara.” Holding a hands against his forehead, Brother Merring gave me a wan smile before walking slowly towards the door.

“Amara's always been...” I heard Georg snort. He seemed to answering a question someone had asked.

I walked to a table where Shandra and Georg sat side by side, “Come, spit it out, sirrah. You were going to say that I'm 'evil,' or perhaps 'impolitic?' Or maybe 'swamp-addled?'”

Georg laughed, “Sometimes you used words I had never heard before, then, you were cussing as well as any fishwife....Coarse, Daeghun never spoke like us. He uses elfish. And me made you speak it too. So even your common had something elfish, sometimes. He was so quiet and you were...liable to say anything. ”

Instead of saying something, I took a drink of ale. The foam clung to my mouth. I couldn't help joking, “Look, I'm foaming at the bit.”

Georg laughed, but he had been drinking pretty steadily. Shandra laughed too, but it was a laugh more out of pity than mirth.

“Say something Elven, Amara,” She teased.

I wiped off the white foam, “No. It's Daeghun's tongue, not mine.” I kept wiping at my mouth I took the edge of my sleeve and daubed it all off.

“Where is he?” Georg asked, “He likes his space, but if I remember right, Daeghun was the one who took Cormick to Neverwinter when he was just a lad, introduced him around...”

I clenched my jaw, “The 'Great and Terrible' is not coming. You don't have to fake surprise, Georg. Everyone knows Daeghun would only turn up to say, 'That's not how the wood elves do it.' Then he'd spend the whole evening trying not to be offended by our savage customs.” I took another drink. When I spoke, I imitated Daeghun's voice, “'Leave it to humans to find an excuse to drink even when someone dies.'”

I saw Casavir shake his head. If I didn't know any better, he was covering a laugh. "Sir,” I said, pointing an accusatory arm, “Don't you dare stifle a chuckle on my account.”

The paladin was one that many eyes and thoughts followed, but no one approached him until a small gang of shy kids slowly advanced. When the paladin spoke to me, one a little girl, the bravest of her companions, sat beside him on the bench. Casavir bent down, asking her questions as they spoke eye-to-eye. Soon the girl was chatting. When the girl paused for breath, Casavir smiled at me.

“He's the Orc Killer, isn't he?” a little blond-haired boy suddenly asked me, staring at Casavir.

I nodded, “The orcs are afraid of him---with good reason.” I raised my voice so that Casavir could hear as well as the children, “When I first met him, I was in the mountains round Old Owl Well. From the mountain, a huge army of orcs descended on our little band of four. There were more orcs than I had ever imagined; they were on us thick as flies on a dead dog. They fell upon us, brandishing curved blades and filling our ears with blood-curdling roars. We fought them, expecting our doom to fall. But suddenly, a silence fell among the orcs. I did not know orcs could be afraid, but they were. They scratched their filthy heads and seemed to wait for something to happen. And that was when he appeared over the horizon, a company of able warriors at his back. They slew the orcs, who called him Katal-Mach, which means 'One who Loses Himself in Battle.' As the orcs lay in their black blood, he removed his helm, his eyes shining from battle, and said, “My name is Casavir, my lady, and I am a servant of Tyr.'”

As I told the story, even some adults stopped to listen. “Is it true?” another boy asked.

“Go ask him,” I said, nodding at Casavir. “Real knights are rarer than diamonds, but he certainly is one.”

“What about that one?” another youth asked, pointing at Bishop. “Is he a knight too?”

I laughed. “No. He's a scout, like Daeghun.”

“Is she a knight?” another asked, looking at Shandra. “She looks more like a princess. But I suppose princesses can be knights...”

“Well, that beauty has fought more battles then most princesses. She's fought assassins, lizardfolk, demons...before that, she was a farmer.”

“I hear you talking about me,” Shandra said, coming over.

“Harbormen love their stories,” I replied. “Do you have one, Shandra?”

“Well,” she turned towards the children, “did you all know that Amara is a captain now? She has a whole Keep to manage. She's a noble too.”

“Shandra---” I interrupted, rwitching my fingers through my hair.

Shandra may not have been a great story-teller, but she had experience, and her story held a ring of sincerity. As I listened to her tell my story, her version made me feel more humble than the best bard in Neverwinter. She didn't exaggerate. She said it all very simply: Amara did this. Amara did that. So simple, but more effective than all the speeches I found myself making.

When she finished, I hugged her, “You're the best farmer I know.”

“I wasn't a very good farmer, you know,” she muttered as she patted my back. “I'm better at fighting things planting seeds.”

It was also the custom in West Harbor to tell stories after a burial---usually involving lots of ale. Harbormen didn't drink at all when work was to be done, but on feast days, weddings, and funerals, they imbibed enough ale that soon eveyone thought they could tell a good tale, dance a jig, or sing...

So it was only natural for Cormick's mother put a hand on my shoulder and ask, “Will you sing?” Several heads turned on my direction expectantly. I had sung at every other occasion that called for it. And there were many times that folk said, Poor Amara may not be a looker, but at least she's got pipes!

I didn't say, I don't think I can sing again. But I couldn't smile, I couldn't find the words. I could only look at Morimee with panic-stricken eyes as she regarded me with Cormick's kind, steady gaze.

Surprisingly, it was Casavir who stood. “May I sing?” His rich voice carried across the room when it was pitched not much higher than a whisper. “I'd like to sing something in Cormick's honor.” The paladin, with his voice, his sad, brilliant eyes, his strong, even features, was something that wasn't often seen in West Harbor.

“It is you who honor us, Sir.” Morimee said as made a gesture of thanks, “My son seems to have kept... good company.”

I realized that Casavir almost always closed his eyes when he had to sing or when a crowd focused its attention on him. Though the paladin gazed at the floor, his bass carried across the room and into the gathering night.


The blindness is from above:
Lord Ao, high god,
Lord of all things,
so is it a punishment,
or a blessing?
Even Try does not know,
but he must carry the darkness
like a shield across his back.


I thought I had heard all of Tyr's songs, but this was a new one, written after he was blinded and maimed in his battle with the Chaos hound.

Can you learn to walk
without sight?
Can you learn to fight
without a swordhand?
Who is lame before the Lord?
Everyone of us.

The Maimed Lord has given himself
so that you may know
those things beyond
even justice's eyes.

The grim lines of his mouth
are crossed for you.
Though we all yearn for succor,
for smiles,
for glory.


I looked at Casavir's bowed head, the strong muscles of his neck.

But the days are full of woe
for the Just.
We will only smile
When the hammer falls hardest,
in the darkness.






* * *


Dear Ma and Dad,

I got the knee socks. They have kept my feet snug even if I've had to be in some pretty damp places. Nobody in Neverwinter sews half as well as the smallest girl from West Harbor. Let me know if anyone wants to set up a shop. It may not draw the Lords and Ladies, but my men would be grateful.

You asked in the last letter, and I think you should know first. Ya did give birth to me, so I think I owe ya just a bit. Before the gossips get it wrong,I plan on making grandchildren for you both. To accomplish that, I need to get married. I've asked, and she said yes. So, did I mention grandbabes? Lots of them. You won't know what to do with um. We'll come, make it official, but I know ya'll will treat her right. Gods know they'll be enough wrong from every other direction. Just look at my other letters, if ya need convincing . I'm going to be taking order from her, in more ways than one. She's already done thing, I couldn't dream of. 'And that's what the world needs right now. I'll be happy just to be able to kiss her, and say she's mine. But ya'll probably don't need to hear any more of that. Ya'll see enough of it when we come down.

And don't say anything about it being too dangerous to visit. I'll cut down anything that even thinks of hurting us. We've got important things to accomplish, yet, like making babes that will love ya as much as I do--- probably more. Because I know you will spoil them worse even than ya did me.


Ever your grateful and loving (and soon to be hitched),

Cormick


The flap of the tent lay open, letting in the firelight. I lay awake on my bedroll, smoothing, re-reading the letter until I had it memorized. My eyes drifted towards the sound of rain, and I imagined how drop by persistent drop, it would reclaim the way back to West Harbor.. No matter how loving, how promise-crammed we are, how easily we return to nothing... Just as this paper, no pmatter how full of meaning for me, would melt so easily in the rain. Still, I clutched it with greedy fingers. Just as the Harbormen had stubbornly cleared pathways and rebuild their homes and returned to the job of planting even in the midst of invasions and disasters, I would not---

Lightning flashed. A peal of thunder cracked over the campsite. It sounded very human.

Cormick?

I stood. A shadow fell across the tent flap.

“Amara?” someone asked.

“Who's there?” I threatened.

“It's me, Casavir...It's time to switch watch...”

“Bloody hells, Casavir. I was just about ready to...”

“Did I scare you?”

“No. I'm just....feeling cautious.”

“This Mere would make anyone cautious.”

More rain.

“Step in, get out of the rain. As much as I like to stay alert, we'll not see anyone coming when it's like this outside.”

Casavir stopped into the tent. He saw the letter I still held, “I'm sorry. I'm blocking your light.”

I tucked the letter away. “It's alright,” I said, preoccupied. Now that I had invited, I didn't have anything to say. So I fidgeted . I wanted to read the letter again. My eyes wandered with my thoughts.

After a time, when we both stood in silence until Casavir spoke, “It must be hard coming here. But it was the right thing to do.”

“He deserved it. Sometime I will ask you more about him. But tonight, I think the sooner I get this day over with, the happier I will be.”

“I understand...Then, let us speak of what we've been avoiding...”

I met his eyes, but did not speak. There were several things that came to mind: Brother Merring... Daeghun....

Casavir cut right to the point, “The Keep. What happened there. You became a demon.”

I looked away, “You say that rather calmly, paladin of Tyr.”

He moved so that he was in my line of sight, “I already told you. You are the sign, whether you believe it or not.”

“Then how come I felt the urge to maim and kill? Well, more than usual...”

“But you didn't.”

I flicked a hand in his direction, “Because you did...what you did---whatever it was you did.”

I expected him to have another firm answer, but I was surprised when he looked just as perplexed as I did, “What did I do?” He shook his head. “I saw the darkness rise, and it seized you, but I reached out. I don't know what I thought I was going to do, but---”

“Well, it certainly worked. Do you think you could do it again? If the need arose? I think the more I'm around shadow and summoning magics especially, the more I'll be at risk.”

“Do all warlocks go through that...transformation?”

I shook my head, “The only other warlock I have met is the King of Shadows, and we haven't had a chance to compare notes. But I think it's safe to say that this is to do with my father---whoever he is. I think---no, I know--- he's given me powers.”

“Can't you refuse them?”

I patted my chest with my palm, “I Asked. And I won't justify it.”

Casavir paused for a moment, processing just what a warlock would Ask for, what she would be given...“Just tell me one thing, Amara: was it to restore Cormick?”

I nodded. I ran my hand over my horns, “I have no excuse. I tried to bring him back, but, I made it worse...

Casavir put a hand on mine. He looked at me a long time. “I would have done the same,” he whispered and then turned quickly away. “But we must do whatever we must to keep you in control of yourself. The last thing he would have wanted would be for you to become what we're fighting.”

At the Moonstone Mask, there was an incubus. It took his form, and I think I turned him into it---”

“ Let's hope it was just a deception. You made a mistake; we all do.”

“I know. Thank you for reminding me that we're both fallible, if not entirely human,” I smiled.

Casavir's voice was stern, “No more calling on dark powers.”

“Cross my heart---what's left of it anyway.”

There was another flash of lighting.

“Sealed with a thunderclap. That's always a good sign, “ Casavir said wryly as he looked up. “Why do I feel like a horde of orcs is just about ready to descend from on high?”

“Because a horde of undead led by an immortal shadow king is about to swarm the Sword Coast?”

“Right. I knew they made you captain for a reason.”

“Besides my good looks, charm...and the ability to wield demonic hellfire?”

He shrugged, “Well, you did rip a man's ear off with your teeth.”

“How did you know that?”

“Khelgar told me.”

“Bastard.” I laughed. “I rip something of his off with my teeth...”

Another flash. The wind tore the tent flap open. Casavir closed it after a great effort that took both of us. We were both wet, shaking, somehow we were tangled up in the canvas.

Suddenly, I smelled mint.

We're all the same in the dark.

Cormick...no....

“Casavir, you need to get away. Now!” I embraced my powers with a flick of both my wrists. Nothing happened. The Mere---the taint. Must be effecting my magic.

Casavir looked at my impotent gesture as Shandra screamed. With the fire snuffed out, Casavir and I ran as well as we could in the tempest. All of our tents were situated around the campfire, but when we emerged from the ruins of my tent, the rain stopped completely, as if the storm hadn't raged around us mere moments ago. Magic, I thought as my night vision caught a figure outlined in reddish fire, as if the hellfire of the Abyss still clung to its naked form.

This tall, winged demon bent over Shandra's body. Her fair hair, wet from the rain, clung to her cheek, which was far too pale. Her mouth was open, as if she were pleading with this monster.

No. Even before it turned, I knew the face it wore, “Step away from her, fiend.”

“Jealous?” Suddenly, the campfire roared, but cast a lurid purple light, the hottest part of any flame. And this demon wore Cormick's face, his hair, his beard above a too-perfect body.

Cormick?” Casavir reacted very quickly. He stepped in front of me, trying to draw its attention away from Shandra and me, “How do we know this is you and not some clever deception?'

Cormick narrowed his dark eyes, “What are ya doing with my woman?”

Casavir held up his hands, “Nothing...' he said, but managed to imply quite a bit.

“I've heard that tune before, haven't I? Yer still the same punk ya were when ya joined the Watch.” Cormick made a dismissive gesture, and Casavir flew back through the air until he fell to the ground.

I was stuck between helping Casavir, who lay still, or Shandra, who was crying.

“Cormick,” I pleaded with the incubus, “You know its you I bloody love. If you really love me, then prove it. Let her go. Now.”

The plea degenerated into an order, but Cormick dropped her. Shandra grabbed her neck. Where his hand had been was raw and welted. She couldn't seem to move away from the incubus, but if I could just keep his attention on me...

The incubus turned towards me with tears in his eyes, “Amara...lost Amara...you had my heart...”

I tried to keep calm, but my pulse was wild, “Have you been...feeding?”

He smiled that lovely smile, “Shh.”

I felt nauseous, “How...?”

“Yer heart called me. It beats blood through you, I can hear the song. Can ya hear it? It says 'If you fall I will rise someday'...It means that we're supposed to be together. Ya ate the fruit, now,” he held his big hand out to me, “time to rise.”

“Rise?”

“Destruction. Death. No more.”

“Sounds like a slogan.”

“Ya'll know soon enough...” when he spoke again, his voice was a Command. “Now come to me, Amara Chidi. And we'll be married like we were supposed to be. ” The incubus flapped his wings.

Stall. “You're an incubus. I just can't make a commitment to someone who'll be sucking on other people.”

He laughed, “It's not like they'd mean anything. Ya'll always be my girl. Besides, ya might change yer mind once ya rise.” He gestured for me with a flick of his fingers.

I put my hand on my hips,“Why didn't you tell me about Kana?”

“Ya didn't ask. Why didn't ya tell me about Merring...or the shard? Or the dreams? How many times did ya run from those questions?” He wrinkled his nose, “You ask questions well, Amara, but yer weren't the best at answers.”

“Wow. You're pretty insightful for a demon. I'm guessing you're reading my nastiest thoughts. Desire demons can do that...or someone has informed you.” I shook my head, “For what its worth, whatever I did or didn't do, I loved you as best as I could.”

“And I ended up dead. Remember: I'm doing this because it's what's best, love,” he opened wide his arms.

“Tell that to Shandra and Casavir, you---” I again summoned my powers, but nothing happened. It was as if I couldn't remember the words, the motions to bring forth the energies...

He laughed, “Oh, I had forgotten how funny you look when ya get flustered. Yer powers aren't going to work here. The fruit is quite potent...”

The fruit...My eyes went to Cormick's eyes, though I knew that was an incubus' most dangerous weapon. They didn't seem to have an end, yes, I could spend eternity swimming in those depths, suffocating in his depths...

Casavir came from wherever Cormick tossed him. He looked like he had been rolling head over heels in mud, There was blood staining his chin, but he ignored it as stood between Cormick and me. The paladin held up his warhammer, just as he had against that innumerable horde of orcs, “I'll use this, if I must.”

Cormick tossed back his head and began to laugh, “Cas, Ya went after every cunt with two legs. Then one day ya day ya just 'changed yer mind'.” He snorted, “They only let you in the temple as a joke. Ya were always throwing yerself on whatever was there---women, gods, vengeance---” Cormick sniffed, “Wait. Amara doesn't know. Oh, don't glare at me, pal. I won't tell her. I wouldn't want to spoil yer chances with her fine cunt. Ya could say it's worth dying for.” He smacked his knee.

“It's not Amara's fault you died,” Casavir's velvet voice sounded groggy, as it did sometimes when I would wake him in the morning.

The incubus laughed, “So handsome, Cas, but so dense. Why don't ya step aside? A woman needs a man who's along for the long haul---in this case, eternity. Yer good at pretending to care, to be good, but underneath, yer scared shitless.” Only then did I realize that this trade was a spell. Casavir made a barely perceptible nod of his head, but by the end of the incubus' speech, Casavir was rigid and still as stone.

“Ya know I'm better---” Cormick said, circling the paladin, “always have been. That's why I was a Marshal, and ya were a deserter---why I got everything and ya lost everything---”

Suddenly, Cormick toppled, an arrow in his wing. He bellowed, flapped his wings.

“I owed you one, Harborman,” Bishop hissed from behind us. He buried three more arrows in rapid succession into the same wing until the incubus couldn't fly.

Biting his bottom lip, Cormick pulled out the arrows. The dark blood spurted from his wounds over his naked shoulder. He held up all the arrows, and I saw reddish fire skitter around them, straightening them, as the hovered in front of Cormick. He said a word, gestured to where the arrows came from, and they sped with a whoosh right back at the ranger. I heard a thunk as they hit their target.

Shandra used the opportunity to try and sneak past the incubus, but Cormick grabbed her. He held her up by her throat, “Stop squirming, Shandra. I was hoping we'd save that for later. What else are fiends for, if not the occasional fuck?” He dropped down to kiss her neck, caress her breast.

I felt the pit of my stomach turn to ice.

Cormick looked at me. He was suddenly around me...suffocating me like a noxious vapor. Here is your heart, he said as he materialized before, pointing at his bare chest. He exuded not sweat, but but some sort of narcotic, that blurred my vision, slowed my reactions. Even so, my head arced towards his. Some deep, hidden part of me knew what to do. I bit him. It was purple: bite, blood. It felt like acid, at first, then it was heavy and sweet as clotted cream.

“Ikenna!” he panted, curling his fingers round my hair. “The things ya do with that mouth...sweet gods, woman...ya'd make an angel come.”

His skin was fire-textured, like sand.“What about a demon?” I whispered, still licking the rivulets of blood that came from the bite I had made.

Pulling my lips from his chest, he kissed me as the purple blood covered both our faces. His hands were already between my legs.

But I was still Amara. I patted his hand away playfully. “Five's a crowd,” I chuckled.

“Let them watch,” he rubbed his hand very hard.“It'll be quite the show. I've learned a few...tricks since last time.”

My hand tugged his beard until it must have been painful.“But... it needs to be right,” I pouted.

“...Cause we're right. So right..oh, I remember....”

“Once they're gone, then we can let go of the past, and move towards out future---our eternal future,”

“I love it when ya get all brutal.”

I rose.

“The paladin first,” Cormick cooed. “I want to see ya take him.” He made a gesture, and Casavir shook his head.

I opened my arms to Casavir, “Am I still the sign you're after?”

Instead of answering me, he made Lathander's circle in the air between us, “Remember who you are, Amara.”

“Do you now who you are?” I asked, moving toward him. “You poor, sad, lonely, thing. How many years, wasted? Oh Casavir...Casavir....look at me.....”

He closed his eyes.

I bent over his ear, “What if I had met you first?” I could see the silver in his dark hair. Please paladin, play along.
Casavir opened his eyes, and we locked gazes, “Don't tell him, Amara.”

“What?” Cormick said. “Don't lie to the poor bastard. Just eat him.”

Keep being smart, Casavir. I draped my arms around Casavir's shoulders, even though he wore his armor, I traced my fingers as if I caressed the skin beneath,“Did you think all this would make me nice, Cormick?” I laughed. “Come here, paladin. I think it's time we consummate our long flirtation. I'll be nice, though, Cormick, and let you watch.”

“Ya shouldn't say things like that.”

I looked lazily back at Cormick, “Would I lie, love?”

“If yer going to be ungrateful,” he pulled me toward him with one hand and threw the paladin through the air with the other. Then the incubus flung me to the muddy ground. I blinked as the world spun for a sickening moment as the wind was knocked out of me.

Cormick was on top faster than a human could be, “I'll fuck ya til ya mind me.”

I could use some hellfire about now. “Maybe I don't want you. Ever consider that?” I winced, waiting for some attack.

The incubus wrung his hands, practically moaned, “But, I...thought ya wanted me forever...” It was a pitiful sight.

“Nothing lasts Cormick,” I put my hands to his face, it was the only part I could pretend was familiar, “This should of ended when you bloody died!”

“But who's fault is that, love? If I'm not this monster that ya've made of me, I will suffer for eternity. Ya know what waits for me? No paradise. No rest. No new world. Just The Wall of the Faithless, where I will forget everything but regret. ” His wail was like a spear to my belly.

“Cormick...There must be something---let me help you. ”

“I already wish I'd never seen ya...” He sobbed, even as he kissed me. “I'd ask ya to kill me, but I don't think ya have it in ya, not now. But we'll just give it time---yes---”

“We?” I asked between kisses.

“His Highness. Or 'Daddy,' as ya've called him before.”

I pushed him away, “I will not be part of his plots. And neither should you.”

“You will bring the Fourth to Him.” He smiled as he pushed my knees apart with his knee,“Ya don't really have a choice. Neither did I. None of us do.” He straddled me, his eyes reflecting nothing but malice,“This has been set from the beginning. Just give into it, love...” I realized that the way he had me positioned was exactly the way Bishop had attacked me at the Flagon. A hand went to my throat, pushing back my head as his fingernails dug into my cheeks. His fangs tore at my wrist, and he licked it loudly as he stared up at me with dead eyes.

Though I felt weak, the rage drove out every other thought, “You're not Cormick. And I'm not your girl.” I freed my hand enough to slap him, raking my fingernails against his skin.

He grabbed my hands, pushed them down behind my head, bruising them. But one hand I knew I could free. “This is what ya've been aching for...”

“Just try, motherfucker. I'll really kill you this time.”

He slit his eyes, spoke slow and dangerous, “And they lived happily ever after.” He giggled hysterically, “It's what the story says, dark princess. Us. Happy, even if we don't have hearts, we have something better.” He forced one of my hands down to his crotch.

The incubus did not seem beautiful, merely grotesque when he left my nightshirt and I felt his appalling flesh against mine. He tried to thrust, but I grabbed his balls, twisted them savagely until the skin tore. I held on as he let loose an inhuman shriek of anguish and fury above me. I twisted again, using both hands, and this time the cry turned shrill, and Cormick twisted my wrists until I had to let go. He immediately flew up as fast as he could away from me, wincing all the while. With his injured wing, he was barely able to keep himself upright.

He, a broken, bloody thing, could only hover above the purple fire long enough to address me, “We could have been together, and now ya've tainted it. Now, it's done. I'll do the worst thing I can. I'll leave. I'll forget ya,” He flashed his fangs. “I'll be the worst thing thing ever came outta the Mere.”

I spat, “Why don't you come back here and tell me that---”

“That holy cunt is yers boys. May she do ya the same turn she did me.”

The otherworldly, purple light went out, and the incubus disappeared. I knew he wouldn't be returning. Not as my Cormick.

I couldn't stand, but I raised my fist and shouted. It was if all the rage inside fought for release in my cry, “Whatever you are, we are enemies! Do you hear that, father? I renounce you, I curse you! I would shed every drop of your blood from my body if I could. But I can't. But it will serve me---not you!” I pushed down my shirt, which only made me angrier, “Fuck you, daddy--- fuck you!” I trembled with rage like some do with fevers. Maybe I was sick from all that anger.

He must have heard, for my powers of summoning, of command, had not returned, aching to be used. The shards, however, tingled as if to say, forge me, wield me, but as I rubbed the dark blood off my face, I realized I, Amara Chidi, was vulnerable.

Bishop stood over me.

I wanted to laugh, but I didn't have the energy. “Just do it, Bishop.” I whispered, closing my eyes.

He dropped his cloak down over my shoulders. Amazed, I turned to look at him. I gave a stare that Shandra had dubbed my “hellfire stare,” because my wide, emerald eyes, at such times, burnt right through whoever they were directed at. Instead of meeting my gaze, the ranger crouched down and fastened the cloak with special knots that would keep out any rain. His hands were strong and deft, and, for once, I didn't want to punch him.

When he finished with the ties, Bishop held up his hands. I met his flame-eyed gaze with a steady eye as placed my hands in his, and he helped me to my feet.

“Why...”

Bishop seemed amused by the question, but didn't answer it. He ran a hand through his short, ruddy hair and and moved soundlessly to the remains of the campfire. He lit it with a flint and stone.

I heard Shandra's voice, and I followed it. She leaned her back against a tree. Casavir was beside her. “Are you alright?” I asked as I put a hand gently to her forehead, smoothing down the panic I saw still clinging to her face.

Shandra's eyes were wide, and she clung to Casavir, who rocked her like a child. He was muddy and had a nasty cut from his nose to his cheek, which still bled. He had taken care of Shandra before healing himself.

“What the hells happened, Amara? What was that...thing?” her voice was filled with trust that I would have answers---that I would make things right.

I stopped, licked my lips. My mouth was dry. The bruises she had...

Casavir looked behind Shandra's fair head at me. He saw the cloak, first, and his eyes narrowed, but when he saw my face, his blue eyes softened...Suddenly, I was seized with the desire to cry and be held like that.

Instead of acknowledging any desire, I concentrated on what needed to be done.

I patted Shandra's cheek, which was wet from sweat and tears as much as rain. I looked at the bruises blooming darkly on her pale skin until I could meet her searching eyes with assurance. “It is a thing. And I won't let that thing harm you---any of you---again,” I swore as the storm, unabated, began to thunder around us once more.



* * *


I dreamed.


Morimee once again had her Cormick-eyes on mine. “Sing for us, Amara,” she said, and every head turned in my direction.

“I don't think I can sing again,” I said.

“Then don't sing.”

The wooden walls seemed to darken, move back. There were chair everywhere, all facing forward. I was in one. In front of the chairs---so many chairs---was a raised, painted platform. There was magics cast to brighten the stage as bright as daylight while the audience was in complete darkness. Every seat was filled.

I stood. Something pushed me towards the stage. I felt three hands on my back, but I couldn't turn to see who they belonged to.

Suddenly, the stage lights nearly blinded me. I stumbled the last few steps to center stage, but I hadn't rehearsed. I don't know my lines. I couldn't see or hear the audience, but it felt like a million pairs of eyes were focused on me...waiting for me to do my part. But I had played so many: would I be the lover?The villain? The clown? The fool,---yes, I played that part most---

“The Sword,” a boy's voice whispered.

I looked down. I held a prop silver sword in my hand. As I slowly raised it, an “ahh” went through the audience, as if it were a wonderful stage effect. When I looked at the sword again, it wasn't a prop at all, but a sword carved from silver and shaped like a thunderbolt. It was heavy. It was more real than I was. It was then I realized that I wore a mask.

Then music swelled. There were strange instruments I had never heard before, but the thrums, the sounds, though foreign, were loud and strong, and it made me feel like I could do anything.

I opened my mouth, which was as real, as substantial as the sword I held:

At the end of my grief, there was a door.

My voice boomed and echoed from the ceiling to the depths below. It felt like I had said these words timeless times before. But this time, I knew it had happened.

You who die without love, remember:
That which returns from oblivion
returns to find a voice.

The soul is as it ever was,
silver-streaked and molten;

it survives all beings,
becomes the hand that opens.

At the center of the Wall, there is a tree,
fragrant and fetid, green as marsh grass.

That which you call love,
I remember...

Edited by Raenemon, 19 June 2010 - 07:24 PM.

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