Adventure Date: November 1, 2008
Last Updated: March 29, 2009
THE TWO LETTERS
Brother Landry d’Ewart
Monk/Priest Servant of Oghma
1770 DR Year of the Swan
Sister Kendra Dellapadriac
Curator Servant of Oghma
Leaves of Learning, Highmoon
May our Lord of Knowledge illuminate you with the holy Light of Learning. Please, I beg you, read this entire letter through before opening the attached packet. The packet contains a prize of high worth in historical importance. But let me first introduce you to it. I have prayed many thanks to Oghma for allowing me to be the one who found it. I’ll start at the beginning.
As you are aware, both the High Abbot and the Chief Librarian recently decreed that in all the temples and libraries dedicated to Oghma, old tomes, scrolls, missives et. al. stored in basements and old stacks were to be taken up for preserving, resorting and re-cataloging. Dutifully, we began this task.
Here, at the Bristar Branch, there are many such rooms in the basement for storage of barely used papers. One day, last week, carrying a huge armload of such papers, I had just begun to climb up a set of stairs leading from the basement. Suddenly an owl hooted directly into my ear! So startled was I that I lost my balance and tumbled back, thereby scattering all those papers onto the floor of the basement room. Lying there, when my brain started to function again and I realized that there could not be an owl in the middle of the afternoon in the basement of the library. As the owl is the sacred bird of Oghma, I now realize, it must have been the god’s method of leading me to the discovery.
As I was on my hands and knees, picking up the papers, some had slid under a bookcase. Retrieving them, I noticed an older, very dust covered envelope. From the amount of dust gathered, it must have been lying there unnoticed and forgotten for a very long time. Blowing off the dust, my eyes bulged at what I read on the envelope. There, in a neat elven script it was addressed to Lilia Vulpae. Kendra, do you recognize the name? Of course you do! The mother of Swan Morgana Battlestar herself. How the letter got to be here, for how long it was unattended, is a mystery. That it was found now, is ironic. I am sure the Lord of Knowledge is chuckling at the timing. Check the year and also realize that the celebrated birth date of Swan Battlestar is approaching in only three days.
As Bristar is the largest city closest to Green Glen, Swan’s birthplace, the self-proclaimed Cult of the Swan is very prevalent. Also as it is so close to her birth date, cult members from all over the Dalelands and beyond are swarming into the city for the annual festivities. It is a common sight to see little girls dressed up as scouts with toy bows and arrows. True scouts and rangers, in these parts have taken to wearing the so-called Sign of the Swan pins on their attire. The local militia, Swan’s old regiment, has incorporated this Sign as part of their coat of arms. They believe that Swan is with them in spirit and aids them whenever they strive to protect our beloved Dalelands. Mothers pray to “the Swan Mother” to watch over and keep their young children from harm. The Cult believes that Swan Battlestar has become the patron saint of the hopeless and the helpless; slaves, orphans, children and such like. They believe that she walks in the Elven Forests of Arvandor alongside Solonar Thelandria himself. Makeshift shrines have sprung up all over Faerun. Slaves in far off lands secretly make the Sign of the Swan to each other as a symbol of hope that soon liberation will follow. Countless hundreds of people all lay some kind of claim to being descended from her, either through her children with Inialos Oakwood or those with Neon Wilde.
It is said that the power of faith, belief and prayer can elevate deities. Rumors of clerics of the Swan have appeared in certain locales, but this has not been substantiated, nor has the verity of the “Five Miracles”except for her first resurrection. Perhaps there is a new saint in the Seven Heavens but you or I cannot confirm or deny. Certainly, since the times of the Spellplague, the face of Faerun, indeed the entire world, has changed. As has the deities, with some older deities returning, others leaving and still others transforming. Divinations do reveal the presence of a new minor power of good but, at this point, not the identity. The Church of Oghma uses speculation only in so far as it leads to the Truth. I believe that there is a reason why all this is happening now, so many years after her ‘Disappearance’. I believe that the Lord of Knowledge will soon reveal the truth.
But enough of this .The letter concerns the confusion that certain emotions and feelings have instilled in a very young Swan. She apparently seeks her mother’s advice in controlling and coming to terms with them. At the same time it gives insights into the young Seekers and their relations with each other and other personages of the time.. Once the existence of this letter is made public, scholars and sages of all types will be begging for a chance to peruse it, to verify their own theories or to disprove those of their rivals; especially pertaining to the complex relationship between Swan, and her two well-known lovers, Inialos and Neon. Be prepared for an onslaught of famous historians and sages.
Oh, I should tell you that we are mentioned in the letter. Not directly of course, but through our great-grandfathers five times removed. Padriac and Ewart, the first ever slaves freed by Swan Battlestar. Now you understand why I sent it to you first. The letter is incomplete. Much of it is missing, but what it contains is rich in information. Enjoy the treasure.
Your fellow Servant of Oghma
... and so most, dearest Mother, there I knelt on the bloodied cold stone floor. Granpar’s transformed bow in my hand. Barely recovered from the god’s voice inside my head. I felt a sense of doubt. What if I could not manage the responsibility? What if I could not maintain the tenets of the Great Archer? I so wanted to make you proud of me!
It was at this point that I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. Gideon’s soft voice! “Fear not Swan.” Armor, battered and blood-brushed, face-to-face he knelt beside me. Had he read my mind? “It is normal to feel inadequate at the first calling.” When the Fire Lord first called, I too felt frightened. Afraid I could not live up to the expectations. Just keep your faith and all will be well. The god will not have called upon you if you were lacking.” His words soothed me, mother. I envy Gideon his faith. It burns from within him. It purifies his soul, making him at peace with his god. This enables him to soothe and heal others. It maintains his aura of righteousness and confidence. With Gideon there is a sense of correctness. It was he who first assembled the Seekers. He is the de facto leader of our little group. With Gideon, one always feels confident and assured.
“Here take this.” He held out the curing wand. The one only he could use. There must have been still doubt in my eyes for he continued, “Have faith in yourself and in your god.” Mother, grapping the wand, I must have gasped. I had the knowledge and power to use it. “Yes Swan. For me it is Kossuth. For you it is Solonar. But it is our strong faith that is of importance. With it you channel the healing energy of your deity. Keep it as my welcoming gift to the ranks of the clergy. Who can tell, he grinned, perhaps one day, you may be elevated to the ranks of the saints.” Oh Mother, how I laughed at that absurdity.
At this point, Risca let out a painful groan.
We had left him sitting on the floor, back to wall. Still blind, there was little for him to do. On his neck was the ugly blister where the imp’s tail had penetrated. It pulsed larger and an angry red. We rushed to him. About to use the curing wand, Gideon stopped me. “No, that won’t work on poison. I will try to slow it down It is all I can do now. We need to get him to a temple Pray that his insides are as tough as his hide. Then the poison won’t stand a chance.” He applied a soothing slave, intoning Kossuth to be merciful. I watched and learned.
Mother, you already know about Risca. Before the Seekers, I knew Risca. He is my good friend. As Gideon inspires confidence, Risca oozes determination and steadfastness. His bravery is second to none. He seeks out his goal undeterred and so sets an example for us.
As Gideon attended him, I comforted him. Head on my shoulder, I wiped his brow from perspiration, gave him water and washed his face and beard clean. Mother, I choked back fresh tears. ”Hang in there my Risca. We’ll get you fixed up soon. You’re too old and too tough for any old poison. Besides, you still have to train me more on the handling of my ‘squirrel-sticker’, referring to my standard militia issue short sword.
Blind eyes turned to me. “Swan, Swan me gurl. Ya’ smells just loverly. Hey Guifoon, don’t me gurl smell just loverly? As long as al can smell yur loveliness, al will be just fine.
”You silly old goot! I’m covered in blood and gore.”
“Yes, yes, me gurl. That’s what me saying. Ya’ smells just loverly.”
At this point, Okul stepped up to us. Mother, Okul stepping is a series of thunderclaps. Huge, powerful and magnificent. As Risca is a solid unmovable mountain, Okul is a primeval force of nature. A gale storm, unstoppable! He makes you feel safe. Yet while he can be ruthless and viscous he is also gentle and considerate. I rather like and am fond of Okul. His duel with Captain Malveena will be the stuff of legends.
With a voice, deep, throaty and somewhat reptilian, he inquired “Will the short one be alright?” His throat golden scales quivered. “The Banite priest is all trussed up. Dragon bait. He will keep. Kilzadi and Neon should be back soon.”
No sooner spoken, then I spotted them returning. They had gone to search and investigate those rooms, which in our rush to subdue the outpost, we had passed by. They dropped a bunch of items to the stack of booty already gathered on the floor; Banite robes, incense burners, bags of coin, and other items.
Mother, I have already told you about Kilzadi... He is a mystery to me. There is no doubt that he is a magical master. As such, he adds a great deal of power to our little group. Yet, I could not seem to relate to him. He is so aloof. He barely shows any emotion. He gives the impression that magic is the all-important to him. There is no doubt that he is smart, brave, and able. He does prefer to co-operate with the group, rather than work alone. As such, he does produce excellent battle strategies. Later events that I will describe proved him to be most capable and I found myself trusting him more and more. Gideon has always vouched for him.
Oh, mother, it is Neon. Help me here. I need some womanly wisdom! I am so mixed up about him. There are times I want to surrender to him. There are times I want to rip his heart out. Would that he not be so handsome, brave, witty and charming. A keen mind resides within his athletic body. But he is such a scoundrel! His own pleasures must be foremost. He cannot seem to commit to anyone or anything else. All he wants is a pretty face and another firm body to share pleasures with. But I cannot be like that. I need something deeper’ anything! I cannot be just another of his “pet fems”. I want him to want me, because I mean something to him, other than a temporary pleasure mate. I know that he feels something for me. He risked his life, at great odds, to attempt to rescue me. So I pretend that his teasing has no effect. At times I catch him looking at me with sincerely and affection in his eyes. Those are the times I desire him. I know that he can feel deeply, even if he tries not to show it. The change that has come over him, since poor, Aleena’s death is proof. Mother, I have always liked Aleena. She was always good to me, especially during the time I spend at the temple. Sweet, kind and generous. A true daughter of Chauntea. I could not stay jealous of her. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me relate the events as they occurred.
“Look, Swann-knee. He held up a glittering silver necklace. A tear shaped, smoky brown amethyst dangled at its center. His other hand held a pair of large saltwater pink pearl earrings. “One of these is for Aleena. But I can’t seem to decide between them. Which item will look better against her naked skin, as she models for me? Which will make her more err…appreciative? The amethyst will match her eyes, but the pearls will contrast nicely with her dusky skin. I need a female’s advice and you are a female, right? Which of the two would you rather had received and how appreciative would they have made youuu?” I could see the mischief in his eyes as a wide grin flowed across his face.
I choked back many nasty retorts. I grit my teeth and calmed myself with the vision of a fire ant colony nesting inside his rectum. “The necklace!!” I growled. “Stay with Risca as we check out the prisoners.” With that, I turned my back to his grinning face and followed Gideon into the cell room. Oh mother, what a pleasant surprise awaited me. From the first cell, we released a handsome, serene young man. Kurud was his name. A paladin of Tyr. He had been on his way to his church when he was ambushed by the Zhent bandits, captured and brought here. Kurud and I became friends. We had many discussions on faith, deities and the afterlife. He became my source for all things paladinish. The next cell held the captured people of Mistledale, mostly farmers and caravan workers. They were most grateful for their liberation. There was one small boy who just kept staring at me. I patted his cheek, telling him all was now well. Soon we would be taking him home. It was Walter Little, the missing stable boy. As Gideon tended to them, I approached the last cell door. A familiar voice called out in elven; “Cygni, che voie?” My heart leaped, recognizing the voice of Inialos. Mother, you must remember him. You were fond of him and thought we made a good match. Yes, even father, once he realized that Inialos intentions to me were honorable, came to respect him. “Inialos?! I shouted, yes, it is I!” Quickly unlocking the door, I pushed it open to allow light in and my eyes to adjust. Oh mother, he had been hurt so much. Practically naked, he had been chained to the wall. Face puffy and bloodied, midnight blue hair disheveled and awry. With one eye swollen shut, his bruised and battered body showed signs of torture. Even so, his good sky-blue, gold-flecked eye lit up as he spied me. I rushed to him.
“Inialos, you’re hurt. “Love what have they done?
“Hurt only in body, dear one, not in spirit.”
I threw myself on him; covered his face and neck with kisses. With no conscious effort, dear mother, and for the first time, I intoned the new divine power within me. No healing rod here. I wanted to use my hands. I wanted to feel his body as the healing essence of my god flowed through me into him. I had no sense of shame. Mother, now I understand the satisfaction in being a vessel of one’s deity. I watched as his wounds closed and healed. I heard his gasps of pain relief. His eyes, now both normal, widened as he spied my new holy symbol.
“Priestess of Solonar!? I prayed for a merciful death and was sent an angel. Every day, I will thank the gods. Can you also help her?” He was looking at the far wall as I unshackled him. Still weak, he leaned on me. A most welcome weight. I followed his glance to the far wall. So engrossed, had I been with Inialos that I had not even noticed her. She too was shackled to the wall. She too wore only a loincloth. Her near nakedness did not seem to embarrass her. She returned my stare with a proud, disdainful look. A most beautiful drowess! Her perfect ebony skin showed signs of recent bruises. Unkempt, pure white, waist long hair covered her back. Deep, rose red eyes coolly regarded me. Pride and an unbroken spirit stared out of those eyes. Inialos continued. “As elves, we were being saved for a special sacrifice. They put us together thinking we would be at each other’s throats, she a drow and I a surface elf. We did not accommodate them. This seemed to enrage them. So they shackled us to the walls. I, they would beat and torture daily. Her, they would manhandle roughly; bruising her as they took turns ravishing her body. But they could not break her spirit or her will to live.”
By now others had arrived. Gideon rushed to free her shackles. Kilzadi, after one look, inhaled sharply, and ran towards to her, unloosing his cloak. Reaching her, he wrapped it around her. Keeping his arm around her, he proceeded to lead her out. Silhouetted in the doorway, mouth agape, stood Walter Little. I shouted out:
“Walter! Go to Okul. The big man with the big spear. Tell him to bring back clothes for two people.” He was off like a comet. I led Inialos out. Kilzadi was whispering to the drowess as he escorted her out. Everyone had gathered outside the dungeon room. Discussions centered on how to return home. In a short time, Walter and Okul returned bearing underclothes, shirts, trousers and boots.
Inialos had barely finished dressing when Neon approached him. Oh, Mother! I held my breath. There they were, finally face to face. The two men that could make my blood race. One with whom, I already had many intimate moments and one with whom I wanted to. I hugged myself with anticipation, fearful that this meeting would not go well. Neon, taller, broader, more muscular. Inialos, more slender and sinewy. Neon’s half-sun elven features, a faint image of Inialos’ full moon elven ones. The two stared at each other for a long moment. Each reading something in the other’s face. For me, it seemed an eternity passed, when with a smile Neon held out his arm and spoke in elven, “Paci, ciamome Ninniach.” The moon elf held out his arm and as they grasped each other’s wrist, replied,”Paci, ciamome Inialos.” Having introduced each other, Neon turned to me, gave me a slow smile and a quick wink, and moved to greet Kizadi and the drow. Disappointed that he did not stay longer and staring after him, I could see Kilzadi give a scowl as Neon approached. Then Inailos spoke and drew my attention.
“Cygni, are you aware that Ninniach is lisserlig? I tell you this because one can tell you care much for him and unless you fully understand his lecherous nature, you will be hurt. He cares for you. This I recognized in his countenance and demeanor towards you but he cannot go against his nature. He will be kind, tender considerate, even thoughtful and affectionate but he will not be faithful. He cannot be. I am telling you to spare you heartache. You cannot control his nature, either. Attempts to do so will only cause strife between you both.” He cupped my face.
“I see your longing for Ninnach. I care deeply for you, Cygni. My home in Tangled Trees will always be opened to you. Anytime, for as long as you wish to stay. But we are warriors. We may fall in battle. If so, we should fall with no regrets for deeds undone. Your happiness is my desire. Do not wait. Follow your own desires! Should we all survive, I am a full-blooded elf. I will outlive you both by many years. So who am I to dictate to whom you give your affections. Follow your heart Cygni. Do as it asks- -no regrets. Mother, I was agape. He was saying that I could have him and he would not bar my other desires. That he was willing to have me... no conditions. I was feeling totally confused. I pushed my face into his chest, hugging him hard. “Oh, Inialos, give me time. Everything is happening so suddenly. Know that you are beloved by me."
“Of course, take all the time necessary. Know also that you are forever beloved by me. I will always welcome you.”
Then I remembered. I lifted my tear-streaked face up to his. “Inialos, how did you manage to arrive here?” He replied: “The twins, Simimar, and Lathai, I and Nylian were sent to Galath’s Roost to investigate drow activity. One night we were ambushed and overpowered by the Zhents. In the ensuing melee, I was knocked unconscious. When I came to I found myself a prisoner. I do not know what happened to the others. This happened, a week ago.”
Let out my breath and now cupped his face. “Brace yourself, dear one. Upon our travels here, the Seekers and I came across the twins. They were on their way back to the Cromanthar elves to report what they had discovered. That is when I found out you had disappeared. But they also told us that that Nylian had been slain by the Zhents. We later found his grave site.” I could feel him sag in my arms. He quickly recovered.
“Cygni, this is indeed sad news. He was my good friend. We rangered together for many, many years. He now walks in Arvandor. I will mourn him properly when there is sufficient time.”
“No. We will mourn him together. I will take you to his gravesite. We will be sure to return him to Tangled Trees for proper ceremony.” He took my hand and kissed it.
“Cygni, voie cororasci- you have the heart of an elf.” Mother, you know what a great compliment he gave me. “Come let us join the others.” Turning, I noticed that Walter Little was standing beside us, staring intently. “Walter, have you been there all this time? He nodded. “Do you understand elvish?” He shook his head. “Oh good, I thought, no harm to his young boy sensibilities.” “What are you doing then?” He responded “I have been scared for a long while now. I feel safe with you. I want to be close to you. You move like a cat. ”Then, mother, he asked such a surprising question. Indicating Inialos, “Is he your husband?
Attempting to gather my thoughts after his outburst “”What... no, why do you ask?”
“Oh, you hug and kiss him a lot and he hugs and kisses you a lot. I thought that’s what married people do a lot.”
“Ah, no, we are very, very good friends and they also kiss and hug each other a lot as well.” I sighed looking into his doleful eyes. “Here take my hand and I’ll make sure nothing bad happens.” With a huge grin, he latched his hand to mine. Inialos laughed. “I think you have a young admirer, Cygni. Try not to corrupt his innocence. I turned to give him a quick retort. That was when I caught sight of Kilzadi handing the silver bastard sword used by Captain Malveena. The sword that had the symbol of Eilistraee on its hilt. As she gripped the sword two-handed, she was engulfed in a flash of moonlight. Many of us averted our eyes and cried out. All except poor Risca, who sensing something amiss, stood up into a defensive position. “Wha’ jus happene? Some’ne talk me!” he shouted.
Then the lady drow stood tall. All signs of hurt removed, straighter, stronger.
“Stand down, Risca” shouted Gideon as she began to speak.
“My name is Gweneck Moondark. Know that the power of this mystic sword has opened my eyes and that I now serve the Lady of the Dance-, the so-called Dark Maiden, the goddess Eilistraee. My brothers and I were to investigate intrusions into the Dalelands and the elven territories of Cormanthor forest by the Loth drow, those viscous and ignorant slaves of the Spider-Queen.
She continued: “I was a Vhaeraun drow and led by Jezz the Lame. The Loth drow are our enemies as much as they are yours. They are bestirring. Their aggression lately has increased many folds. Something is stirring them up. Something is pushing them upwards and away. The Dales and the elves of Cromanthar must be informed. They must become more vigilant. As for returning, this citadel is located in Daggardale. Yes, the Zhents had a stronghold right in the Dales. Something else that must be watched out for in case there are others. It should take us a week’s riding to get to Ashabenford.”
There was silence for a moment. Then Gideon took command.
“Okul, see about getting arms, armor and martial equipment for the warriors. Perhaps Kurud and Inialos would like to join you?” Both nodded agreement.
“Swan, see to the horses. Ready as many as possible. Neon, back to the kitchens. Gather as much provisions as you can. Use the kitchen people to help you. I assume that they will want to come with us. Kilzadi and I will stay here with Risca, Gwenect and the other prisoners and see to the gathering up of all the items.” We all left to carry out our tasks.
I left for the stable area. Still clutching my hand tightly, young Walter followed along. “Walter, you can saddle up Axel and then help with the other horses. There are two other stable boys that will be helping us. Now they are a bit younger than you and don’t speak your language. So here’s what we are going to do. You are going to be like an older brother to them and learn each other’s language. I am going to see about them going to work and live with you on Councilor Wolcott’s estate. Just think, Walter, soon you will know a whole other language. Do you understand what I am asking of you?”
“Yes Swan, I will do my best.”
“I know you will. Good lad!” I ruffled his hair putting my hand on his shoulder. By now we had arrived at the stall where I had left Padriac and Ewart. Knocking I called out. “Boys, it is I Swan. It is safe to come out now. Please open up.” Slowly the heavy door opened a little and two pairs of large mournful eyes stared out. Seeing me, the opening widened and suddenly each of my legs was being hugged hard by a small crying boy.
“Mistress, mistress, you came back for us” sobbed Padriac.
“We were so afraid you would be gone and we would be beaten again,” blubbered Ewart.
Mother, those two innocents were absolutely terrified. I felt great rage against anyone who could put children into such a state, let alone beat them. I reached around and hugged them both.
“Boys, boys, don’t be afraid. No one will ever beat you again. Not as long as I’m around.” Four tear filled eyes stared up at me.
“Does that mean you will be our mother?” inquired Ewart?
I could only stammer”wh- wh- what?”
“Yes, continued Padriac, we never had a mother. But we know that’s what mothers do. Save children from being beaten. So will you be our mother then?” Looking down at them with such feverent hope in the faces of these two slave orphans made my own eyes tear up again.
“Yes, I’ll be your mother then.”
This caused them to literally jump up and down, so full of joy were they. In unison, they shouted, “We have a mother! We have a mother!”
“Mother Swan! Mother Swan!”
Walter, not knowing Damarian, just looked dumbfounded as this unfolded. I got them under control, introduced Walter, and explained what I expected. Walter and Axel, the prize stallion, had an affectionate reaquaintance Soon we were all busy readying the horses. Task completed we rejoined the others. All was ready and we all left the citadel.
The journey back was uneventful. As we were in Daggerdale, it was easy to send word out to all the Dales to be vigilant for evil drow and Zhent activities. Word of our passage and arrival preceded us. The boys would follow me around constantly and much to my chagrin and everyone’s amusement we became known as Mother Swan and her three cygnets. I spend most of my time with Kurud, learning about the calling of paladins and the church of Tyr and with Inialos discussing our feelings and being intimate. No mother. I was still maiden at this point. Kilzadi became inseparable from Gwenect. He doted on her.
Three days from Ashabedford we were met by a detachment of the Riders of Mistledale. They brought wagons and supplies. Paladin Captain Nelyssa Shedean herself led them. A veteran of many campagains. She wanted as many details as possible first hand. Neon practically attached himself to her. At times, she would give a chortle and shake her grey-streaked auburn curls at something he said. Other times, she would laugh and rub her hand along his arm before moving away. At these times, Neon studiously ignored the glares the Riders would give him. But I felt no jealously. My regards for Neon did not change. Inialos attributed it to my growing maturity and acceptance of my feelings. During my questioning, I asked her about Neon. She laughed heartily.
“The half-elf?” He just wants to bed me. Despite the age difference. I am flattered though He is… what’s the elvish term?”
“Lisserlig?” I responded in a low voice.
“Yes, that’s it. A kind and thoughtful lecher. Is it not true that for elves it is not a disdainful quality? Just one that needs understanding and acceptance of the nature?”
“Yes”, I sighed slowly.
“He is most appealing though”, she stated glancing across the camp to Neon.
“Yes, he is” I sighed again.
She continued, “I told him that my duty must be done first. After that… well we’ll see. Now please continue with your description of the gate assault.”
Upon arriving in Ashabedford, we discovered that in two days a feast was to be held in our honor. You must have rumors about the events of this feast. I will detail the actual events as they occurred. Since the aristocratic Council of Mistledale was giving it, I did not really wish to attend. But Gideon insisted that as a true member of the Seekers, I should be present. Also Inialos was going to attend, as a minor representative of the Coramanthar elven Court He would arrange that he and I be sitted together at a side table away from the nobles and the fanfare. So I agreed to attend under those conditions.
In the meantime many other things occurred. Gideon visited his dwarf friends in the village of Glen, returning with magical plate armor. Okul paid a visit to the wizard Noristuor. We never did find out exactly what transpired, except that for a time afterwards, he was heard to mumble”Why should I care that he has horns? I have scales. Why should I care that he has horns?” Risca ordered some items that would have to be brought in from out of town. I picked up some knickknacks. In doing so I questioned all I met, the alchemist gnome, Almaes, the elf stable master Kaulvaeras and the merchant Multhimmer regarding their opinion concerning how Councilor Malhorn seemed to be running the town. Each replied that they thought that Harsek Malhorn was doing a fine job. So did Councilor Wolcott when Kurud and I returned Walter and the horse Axel and Kurud managed to persuade Zander Wolcott to hire on Pedriac and Ewart as well as the kitchen staff from the citadel. Oh, mother, there was such tear letting and leg clutching then. I had to promise those boys that I would visit every day before they would let me go. But mother, there is a mystery here. What I first heard rumored about the cheating and usury of Malhorn does not comply with what I am being told by the Ashabenfordites. I must ask outside of town.
Kilzadi spends most of his time with the drow woman. He has taken full responsibility for her. He takes her out to the finest and most expensive establishments. He persuaded Kuruk to check out Gwenect’s two brothers, who happened to be the two drow we captured at Galath’s Roost. Apparently, Gwenect wanted her brothers released from the city jail. Kurud promised to look into it. Neon went in search of a magical bag to purchase for the Seekers. Jhaer Brightsong, the self-proclaimed bard of Ashabenford apparently had one for sale. Mother, even I know that one cannot afford the clothes and jewelry that she owned on a tavern singer salary. Who knows how she got the customers to pay foe extra attention. Anyway, the winsome moon elf bard and Neon became an item around town, even while he was seeing Aleena. Speaking of which, mother, this now leads into the major events that occurred. I received an invitation from Aleena for evening tea. This was the day before the feast. It was to be the last time she and I would spend together. Mother, even after all this time, her death still saddens me greatly. She was such a gentle, pleasant soul. She and I had become friends during the time I stayed with the Sisters.
She wore Neon’s necklace. It did suit her.
“Neon gave me this last night. He told me you help him select the necklace, Swan. It’s beautiful. Thank you,” she began, while fingering the amethyst.
I did not elaborate the conditions under which I helped Neon “select’ the necklace.
“It shows how much Neon truly cares for me, don’t you think? It is so sweet of him. He is also very fond of you, as well. But you already know that. It is also most obvious that you care for him as well. What is surprising is why you try to suppress those feelings.”
“Ah, Aleena, I replied, purposely ignoring her last comment, you may not know this but he is spending a lot of time with...”
“With Jhaer,” she interrupted. “Yes I know. I’m glad it’s Jhaer. I like her. They will be good for each other.”
“Wait, you know? And it does not bother you?”
She laughed,”Swan, Swan, this is Neon we are talking about. It is his nature. I cannot control it nor do I wish to. As long as I know that he cares for me. Of course he wants to bed every woman, but he does not care for every woman. As long as I feel deeply for him and he for me, I will accept him for what he is and work out our relationship from there. He will only stay with the women he cares about.”
“So, I replied somewhat hotly, these women he cares about, they should just wait around like harem girls until the master decides to grace them with his presence?”
“No, no Swan. Not like harem girls. Those poor girls are powerless and have no choice. We, on the other hand can do as we wish, when we wish, as we wish. I have no desire to pine away on Neon. That we care deeply for each other is well and good, but there are many things I want to do. When Neon returns, if I am too busy, he may have to wait until I have time for him. Do you understand now? Neon is not my life, only part of my life. A good and fun part though. His heart is good Swan. Did you know that he keeps a journal?”
I thought over what she was saying. She echoed what Inalios and I were discussing recently. She continued. “Swan, do the things you want to do before you die. Do not wait. Especially someone like you. You risk your life constantly. Perhaps if the world was safer then we could take more time. But that is not our reality. Enough now. I have wonderful news. The Earthmother has blessed me, Swan. Chauntea has granted me the gift of fertility and renewal. I am so happy. I am bursting to tell you.
Silly me, mother. At that point, I thought it had to do with the granting of divine spells. She rubbed her stomach. “There is a little, tiny Neon in there. My son!”
My jaw dropped as I stammered,”Wait. What? You mean you’re preg...
She nodded swiftly and happily. ”Uh hah, Uh hah”
“But, but, How can you tell? Is it not too soon? You have not even been with him that long. Are you sure?
Aleena laughed out loud. ”Swan, you can be a silly goose at times. I am a priestess of Chauntea. Hello! You know Chaunn-Teeeaaa! Great goddess of fertility and renewal. The Great Mother. Protects the earth and hearth. Brings in the harvest. Fertilize and preserve. Life everywhere! The Bountiful Breast. That sort of thing. She laughed again. I felt very sheepish.
“So are you happy for me or what?”
“Of course”, I yelled, rushing up to hug her. We both jumped up and down, as we held onto each other.
“Promise me, you will not tell him. I wish to do so in my good time.”
“I have no desire to tell him. But to indulge you, I hereby swear on Solonar’s Silver Arrow that I will not be the first to tell him.” We spent the rest of the time discussing her plans for her son, trying out various names and tomorrow’s feast.
“The daughters of Chauntea will help serve. I plan to do Neon myself.” She giggled. “He’ll probably want Jhaer and I to both ‘do’ him in his bed.”
She gaffed as my jaw dropped. “Swan, friend Swan, you’re innocence makes you so darling. You know, he once wanted me to persuade you to join us. There goes your jaw again. But I told him that there was no chance of that happening then as you were still inexperienced, virgin and unsure.”
The rest of the time was spent discussing such revelations and how Neon was easily manipulated by his women without his knowing. I found myself enjoying and participating in bawdy repartee. Finally, as I was preparing to leave, Aleena tilted her head, and with an impish leer, asked” Swan, that elf ranger of yours, he is yummy, just yummy! Tell me when you drink him, does he taste good?”
I leered back, “like ambrosia, Aleena, sweet ambrosia.” We both had a good laugh. Hugging good-bye, I took my leave.
Mother, after all this time, as I still grieve for her, I thank all the gods that I had that last night with her. We had such a good time together and she was so happy when I left. That is how I will always remember her that way. On the way back, I mused over what we had discussed and I came to a decision, a turning point decision. I remember her words, “do want you want to do before you die.” Mother, I want you to be happy for me. You taught me to be proud, independent and free-willed. We could always talk openly and easily. As you used to tell me whenever I had problems, “Deepingdale women rule themselves”. It is because I love and trust you so much that I tell you this in detail. Arriving at the inn, I purchased a bottle of Arlho’s Pearl of the Moon green wine. I made arrangements to rent the private bathing room for exclusive use that evening. While the large bathtub was being filled with scented water, I made my way down the hall to my room. Inialos was waiting up for me. He had several new purchased clothing apparel spread out on the bed. He greeted me with a hug and a long drawn out kiss. Finally breaking off he asked “Cygni, help me decide. What should I wear at tomorrow’s feast?” Looking into his handsome face, the last thing on mind was in selecting clothing. I felt myself beginning to get excited with anticipation. But one thing at a time.
“Later, dear, later. Right now, we are going to bathe and while you wash me clean, we are going to finish this fine wine. The large tub should be filled by now and we have the bathing room reserved. So let us grap lots of towels and be on our way.”
A huge grin crawled across his chin. “Fine then! No questions asked! First, I spend days undergoing the tortures of the Hells and now I spend days savoring the delights of the Heavens. You bring the wine and I’ll bring the towels.”
The water was good and hot, full of bubbles. The room was steamy. We were both submerged to our necks. Inialos sat leaning back to tub. I sat between his legs, leaning back against his strong chest. We had been passing the wine back and forth, mostly silent, just enjoying the sensations of our closeness and the bath.
He cupped my breasts. As he finger massaged the nipples, he licked into my ear. “Cygni, your breasts are near perfection. Small enough to be entirely cupped, yet large enough to fill up the entire hand. Taut, yet elastic.” I sighed, leaning harder back into him. Pleasant sensations began to ripple through my body as I retorted, “What do you mean NEAR perfection, moon elf? Besides how many breasts have you experienced that you can so judge?”
Laughing, one hand traveled further down, across my stomach, stopping only to trace out my belly button. It continued down following my pubic hairline to the thigh junction. There it parted the lower lips and began to rotate my woman’s button in the manner that it knew I liked. The pleasant sensations began to intensify.
“Inialos, The time is now. I want to” I whispered.
The instant he realized what I meant, the hands became motionless.
“Cygni…escerte...are you sure? You don’t have to on my account. You know that.”
I turned in the bath to face him and held his head. “I am very, very sure. An opportunity like this may not happen again. I want no regrets.” Then I smiled into his lovely eyes and echoed your own words, mother. “Besides, I am a Deepingdale girl and I rule myself. Your only choice is to refuse me.”
“Refuse you? Refuse you? Never! Cygni love, you honor me so! My fear is that I will not be able to find as great a gift for you as you are bestowing upon me. I will search my lifetime for one. I will...”
I placed a finger across his lips to silence him. I giggled “Why are we still here? Time is passing and I do not want to feel anything between us, not even bath water. So please do not keep a lady waiting especially when she is anxious to begin. It is considered rude.”
Oh my mother, what a night! I could not have imagined how it felt to be fulfilled as a woman. We made love for hours and hours. Once the ache of discomfort gradually became the throb of gratification, mother I became insatiable. The need for someone I loved to be deep inside me was irresistible. Does it run in our family? Am I unique this way? Mother, you must let me know. I drained poor Inialos past the point of exhaustion. I wanted more. I wanted to experience more. The poor dear thought only of me, kept wanting only to please me. He is such a good lover! Finally at the end, he had to rest and we both fell asleep worn out.
The next morning, I awoke first as usual. I normally get up earlier to do my morning stretching exercises and calisthenics. But all my muscles already felt stretched out. I found myself lying front to back against Inialos, my face against the back of his neck, breathing in the sultry odor of him. I also found myself wanting Inialos inside me. I reached over to fondle his manhood. I felt it beginning to stir, but not fast enough to my liking. So I reached over and used my mouth and tongue on it the way he liked. In no time he was ready, even before his eyes opened. I rolled myself on top, just as he awakened. I whispered good morning as I pulled him inside me and began to ride him. Then we took turns being on top.
The rest of the day, before the feast, passed in a sort of fog. Details were unclear. I vaguely remember cleaning up, and breakfast and laundry. But I do know that all day, I felt wonderful and satisfied. The drudgery of this feast seemed abated. I recall picking out my dress clothes for the feast: Grandmother Morgana’s embroidered crimson culotte and white chin high collared shirt, my militia black leather dress boots and dress jacket, topped off with my black beret. The beret had Granmar’s personal touch of a red foxtail attached to it. It indicated my pride in belonging to the Fox tribe. Inialos breath caught when he first saw me in my outfit. He told me I was just stunning. Lastly we both carried a short bow and a quiver with a few arrows. Apparently we were to arrive “armed” as we were at the time we assaulted the citadel. It seemed silly to me and there was no way I was bringing Granpar’s war bow to this get together. Walking to the feast grounds, I drew more than several appreciative wolf whistles and howls from male passersby’s. Many women looked longingly at Inialos.
Arriving at the grounds of the High Councilors’ Meeting Mansion, white linen covered tables and tents had already been set up. People were already gathered and mingling. Servants in fine livery were placing settings while priestesses of Chauntea served drink and tidbits. I spotted most of the Seekers as well as others I knew. Standing near the head table, Gideon was in deep conversation with Zander Wolcott. Kilzadi off to one side, radiant in a new robe, held hands with Gwenect who stood out amongst the fair skinned crowd. Okul stood by an ale cask, great spear in one hand, and flagon in the other. Completely by himself. Neon was engaged with a seemly important female personage who was a stranger to me. Jhaer in a resplendent velvet gown was hanging onto his arm. A familiar voice called “Swan, oh my dear Swan.” Turing we saw Aleena holding a tray of wine and cordials. Behind her were two novices with trays of tidbits. One look at me set the two novices into fits of giggling while Aleena blurted “oh my, oh my.” Placing her tray on the table, she rushed me, embraced me and kissed me on both cheeks.
“Oh Swan, how wonderful! Finally! I am so happy for you but you must tone it down.”
“What? What do you mean?” I asked hugging her back. I was totally confused.
She looked into my face. “Did you not look into a mirror before you came? You are positively glowing! You may as well be carrying a sign stating that you have just lost your maidenhead to your lover. One look at you and it is obvious. Everyone will know with just a glance. Your jaw drops quite easily, doesn’t it? My advice is to think unpleasant thoughts. Think about the forthcoming speeches, these silly aristocrats or slipping in a pigsty. Anything! Just stop looking so happy and contented. I really like your outfit by the way. Good taste. It makes you look perky” Turning to Inialos, she touched her hands to his cheeks, “yummy, yummy, just yummy you handsome, lucky dummy. Here, handing us each a glass of wine, a toast, to lovers and happiness. Come on girls, she called out to the novices who had giggled non-stop, we have work to do. Catch you later Swan. You too yummy.” With that, young still giggling novices, in tow, she led them towards the kitchen areas.
“What an amazing person” commented Inialos, staring after them.
“Is it all that obvious what we did last night was so different than any other night?” I asked him still puzzling over her words. “Is it written on my face?” He tilted his head at me. “Well, you do look more serene and there is a brightness in your eyes which is new and your mouth is in the state of a constant grin. You give off an air of contentment, pleasure and satisfaction. Other than that I just do not know...”
‘Well, well, well” Risca’s voice interrupted. We both turned. We seemed to be turning around a lot lately. “Risca” I exclaimed, hugging him hard around his head.
“Swan, Swan me gurl, enough. Yer trying to choke me? What’s that Guifoon? Yes she do look it, donna she? What? Yes, I’ll tell ‘im. Hey, elf. Guifoon say me gurl look very happy. That goud. You keep her happy, that goud. You make her not happy, that baaad. Fer ya! Then Guifoon and l’ come find ya. Bad fer ya. Understand? Hey, there’s Okul by the al’ barrel. Looks alone. Hey, Guifoon, les go pest ‘im. Bye gurl. Bye elf. ‘Member me words. Later.”
“Well,” chuckled Inialos, as we watched him walk away, “I guess we now know the answer. Apparently your face is a dead give away. So if you’re embarrassed, perhaps you should, as Aleena suggested, think unpleasant thoughts. Now why is it that your friends think my name is either yummy or elf?”
“Why not” yummy elf?’ another familiar voice joked behind us. “Sorry. I could not help overhearing that last conversation.” One more time we turned around. I was starting to get dizzy. There stood Neylssa Shendean in dress armor and cape, the Red Rose and Golden Sheaf of Chauntea predominant on the shiny breastplate. A few steps behind her, looking awkward for interrupting, Kurud swayed in the colors of Tyr. The two paladins stepped up to us.
“Oh, my, yes, Swan dear. There is no doubt. I sense such a strong aura of wellbeing emanating from you; it positively chokes the air with happiness. It’s making poor Kurud rather gawky. He does not want to trespass on your personal emotions, but the way you are now, it is impossible not to do so.” She tittered “We could use you right now as an undead detector. We could take you around the grounds and anyone who did not react would have to be undead.” She tittered again. “Seriously, are you well? I am happy for you. Hugging me continued, “We women, fondly or not, always remember the first time. I am glad that for you it will always be a joyful memory. Ah, to be so young again” she sighed. Turing to Inialos, “You are one very lucky man. But I do not have to tell you that.” He nodded agreement.
I protested. “But I do not want to spend the rest of the festivities having my personal affairs a topic of conversation.”
“Well then, come along with me. The four of us are sitting together anyway at a side table. I am not one for pomp and circumstance” Arm in arm she walked me to the awaiting chairs. The men walked behind us.
“Kurud and I, by our very presence should be able to keep most everyone from approaching. Others will think it Rider business. That should give you time to becalm yourself. I admire your choice in fashion by the way. The perky look. It suits you. Now let me see. A boring conversation? I know. How about I point out and describe our High Councilors? All right then. You already know Zander Wolcott, he and his wife are with your friend, Gideon and my abbess Watchful Sister of the Earth Alena, that’s her beside Watchful Sister Jhanira. Uh, the older man in brown, having a laugh, that’s Wendell, the Herbalist. A jovial sort but smart as a whip. He’s from Elven Crossing. The older matron he is talking to, she with the serious face who is not apparently amused, that’s Ulwen Sharin, present matriarch of the Sharin family, the founders of Sharin Freehold. As cold and calculating as Wendel is jovial. It is said that those two have a history together. What sort, I do not know. The pretty young lady that your friend Neon and that bardess, Jhaer Brightsong, are in conversation with, that is Rose Faern, direct descendant of Peldan himself, from Peldarn’s Helm naturally.” It was then that Neon turned to us. As if he had heard his name mentioned. Spying us across the wide lawn, he broke into a grin and gave a half arc wave. It was difficult to determine if it was directed to myself, Nelyssa or to us both. I resolved to ask him about it at some later date.
“What about the High Councilor, Haresk Malhorn?” I inquired. “Is he doing as good a job as all in Ashabenford claim he is?
“Haresk? Oh, yes. He has Mistledale’s best interests at heart. He has increased trade and commerce with all our neighbors, increased our defense forces and made improvements in infrastructure all over. We have prospered under his leadership.” Again mother, this did not concur with the rumors I had heard. Something was amiss. While I was pondering this, a trumpet sounded.
“Ah, The High Councilor is arriving,” declared Nelyssa.
Preceded by two armored riders as bodyguards was a short, pot-bellied, rotund man. Past middle age, he wore rich, red robes, lined with ermine fur. His grey-haired, balding head was bare. His skin was wrinkled throughout. Around his neck hung the gold chain of the High Councilor office. Towering over him as she walked beside him hand on hand was a raven haired beautiful woman. In strong contrast strings of white pearls interlaced her hair. Behind them, arm linked to arm, were three younger ladies, each beautiful. Each was a slightly different version of the older woman. Each was bedecked in one type of jewelry; the oldest, a burgundy gown with diamonds, the middle, a silver gown with emeralds and the youngest a midnight black gown with rubies. “His wife Imbrautha and their three daughters” explained Nelyssa.
Mother, I was flabbergasted. I know that some women are attracted to men of power regardless of their physical appearance and that may have been the case here, but I could not otherwise phantom how such a lady could attach herself to such a man. There may be a proper and legitimate reason but as I sensed something amiss, I intend to find out. Their arrival signaled a scurry of activity as honored guests hastened to greet him and his family, servants hied to place the last touches on the tables. Harsek made a point to greet the other Councilors and the Seekers. First Risca and Okul, as they were the closest. Then Neon, who lingered over kissing the back of the lady wife’s hand and those of the daughters’. He must have said something witty to them, as is his wont with pretty women, as all three began to chuckle and Imbrautha smiled. Harsek then greeted Gideon, who led him to where Kilzadi and Gwenect were standing. After a few moments of conversation, Gideon turned to where I stood and pointed to me out to him. He regarded me closely for a time, but I stood firm. I would not allow any aristocrat to make me feel inferior or intimidated. Then seemly reaching some kind of decision, he turned his back to me and continued with Gideon. By now the feast was to commence. All the tables were seated alternating boy and girl. I had Inialos on one side and Kurud on the other. At the head table, Neon was sitted between Jhaer and the lady wife. He had again made the wife respond with a laugh while placing her hand on his arm. But she left it lingering there, far longer than the social norm. The first course was soup and as we broke bread, servants came out carrying tureens, Aleena among them. Walking past our table, she gave me a wink and headed to the head table. As she served she whispered to the bard, which caused Jhaer to blush deeply and nod. When done serving she walked past me again and gave another wink. Mother, whatever you heard about the following events, this is how I remembered what happened at this point.
Aleena had just reached the kitchen areas, a good distance from us, when completely unexpected, a red wizard, identified by the distinctive red robes and bald tattooed scalp, materialized in the middle of the field. We know now it was the rogue wizard Bareris.
Looking wild-eyed, he drooled and spewed gobs of spittle as he uttered crazed words. He was staring at Aleena as he spewed forth “harlot, deceiver, darkness rising in my mind, clerics lie, truth is in the dark.” At the last word, long black tentacles erupted from the ground. Writhing, twisting and waving, several wrapped themselves around poor Aleena, lifting her off the ground. She began to scream in agony as they started to pull her apart. At this point it was all pandemonium. Riders and guards were attempting to pull back the councilors away from the commotion. Servants and other guests were yelling and running in all directions. The clerics present, Gideon included attempted to cast spells. The Seekers burst into action. Kilzadi was attempting to safeguard Gwenect, who seemed to be searching for a weapon with which to attack the wizard. While Nelyssa and Kurud had to go around the table in order to reach the red wizard, Inialos and I simply side vaulted it. As quick as we were, Risca and Okul were even faster, mainly because they wasted no time. They simply overran their table, knocking it down, sending china and glassware crashing adding to the din. Risca had drawn Guifoon and was screaming some dwarven battle cry as he raced to the wizard. Okul had his great lance held out as a knight on a charger and with his longer strides soon overtook Risca, and bore down on the mad mage. Neon had leaped up shouting Aleena’s name. As I ran alongside the table loading my bow, I could hear the pain in his cry. I remember your teachings, mother. Always, always as soon as possible, take out the wizard. Inialos ran across the wizard’s line of sight. That way we could hopefully avoid being targeted by the same spell at the same time. We loosed our arrows at about the same time. An instant later, I recognized one of Neon’s arrows whizzing by towards the wizard. All three came close to striking but were somehow made to miss! Mother, much of the anguish I was to feel that night was due to the idea that if only one arrow had managed to hit, we could have saved Aleena. It was not until many days later that Kilzadi explained to me it would not have mattered. Even had we managed to kill the caster, that particular spell would still have run its course, unless dispelled.
By now Bareris had turned to face Gideon. Still mouthing inane words, ‘cursed one, sacrificed soul for naught, the power is now mine’, his hand emitted a black ray. It struck Gideon fully in the chest, knocking him down. Aleena now completely encased in sticky black tentacles, desperately trying to disentangle herself screamed out one more time, “Save M...”. A sickening crushing and ripping sound silenced her last words. The same kind of sound one hears by stepping on a hard-shelled beetle squishing out its guts (oh, prophetic words). Only this sound was magnified. Most people now agree that she was about to say ‘Save Me.’ But I knew better She was about to say ‘Save My Baby’. And mother, I could not! Oh, the guilt I felt afterwards. But not at the time because I follow the Warrior’s Way. Father first described it to me, at the time I decided to stay on with the scouts. We talked long into the night then. He told me of many things, including the warrior’s way: “Swan, my cherished daughter. You have chosen to be a warrior. In the heat of battle, you will see friends and companions fall, gravely maimed or killed. Do not allow that to distract you from the enemy. In battle harden your heart. The time for grieving and mourning and gods willing, celebration will come later.” He looked away then as if recalling other memories then continued. “A warrior best helps her companions by killing the enemy. That is the warrior’s way. Remember, always kill the enemy first. Let nothing distract you from this. It may save your own life.” And so, mother, as Aleena was being murdered, I did not gasp in horror, I did not wail out my anguish, nor did I rush to aid her. Nor did I concern myself with Gideon’s fate at that time. As I reloaded my bow, all my thoughts were directed at Bareris. ‘Kill him, kill the enemy’. I moved closer. I took careful aim. No rushing. I wanted a headshot. I wanted to kill Aleena’s murderer with one strike! By now Okul had reached Bareris, Risca close behind. Okul’s spear tip would strike in two more running steps. I released my arrow. In that same instant, the wizard took a step back, spoke a word of arcane power and disappeared. Both my arrow and Okul’s spear passed through empty air. One step later, Risca arrived, slashing Guifoon through empty air.
It was much quieter now. The grounds were mostly empty. The black tentacles dissipated into black smoke. Left behind were crushed and unrecognizable shredded pieces of what had once been, my friend Aleena. Now that the battle was over, I began to sob quietly. Inialos came and held me against his chest, offering comfort, as I washed my grief into his shirt. I could hear Neon loudly announcing his own anguish “No. No. Oh, Aleena, my sweet Aleena.” I heard the deep pain and the love, yes, love in his voice. I heard him berate all the clerics for not being able to resurrect her. My crying bout done with, I looked to see Jhaer leading away a sobbing Neon, Kilzadi and Gwenect following. Okul and Risca stood together, unsure of what to do next.
The Watchful Sisters Alena and Jhanira approached Gideon. With them were priestess and novices who were directed to cover and retrieve Aleena’s remains. Also with Gideon were Nelyssa, Kurud and High priest Nerval Watchwill. An intense conversation began. I went over. Inialos followed me.
The Lady Abbess Alena was speaking to Gideon. “...CANNOT be allowed to MURDER my priestesses with impunity!!! My church will reward you and the others if you track down that Red wizard and return with his head!” Before Gideon could respond, Nelyssa interjected “Allow me to accompany them, Lady Abbess. As a paladin of our goddess, to be your representative.” “No dear Guardian of the Red Rose. I need you here, to help protect our young ones in case that mad wizard returns. He seems to be targeting clerics for some reason.
Then Nerval Watchwill spoke “Kurud has agreed with the Riders to help escort the drow prisoners to Deepingdale to sort out their tale. Perhaps they can leave together?”
“I could then accompany them to Cormanthar forest,” added Imialos. We all looked at Gideon, still a bit weakened from that black ray.
“Yes”, he responded, “it sounds like a plan. Let us use the rest of today and tomorrow to prepare ourselves and leave early the day after.”
“Eh, whas ems whan, now?” Risca’s voice interrupted. We all turned to look. Approaching, was that Thayan trader, Chathi something or other and her knight bodyguard. The local red wizard, her bald tattooed head so similar to Bareris’, nodded to the group and began “we have just found out what has occurred here.” She stared at Gideon all the while she was addressing the group. We are willing to offer information and a generous reward to anyone willing to destroy that rogue wizard. Will you accept?”
“He has already accepted our contract” Jhanira hissed at Chathi.
“Excellent! Then we will just add to the reward. His name is Bareris Years ago a red wizard named Dracandros set up residence in a keep upon Haptooth Hill in Battledale. We think he enjoined with the Cult of the Dragon because his red dragon mount, Crimdrac became a dracolich. They were both destroyed when the keep was assaulted by a group of adventurers. Bareris was the very young apprentice of Dracandros at the time. He alone apparently escaped and returned to Thay. All was fine for several years as he spent time improving his wizardly skills. Then about a month ago, he killed some guards, stole some magical items and went rogue, back to the old keep.”
“So why didn’t the enclave track him down and kill him then?” growled Okul. The knight, sensing Okul’s anger and disrespect, stiffened and put hand to his greatsword. The two huge men stared hard at each other.
“It was not worth our while. There were more important issues. As long as Bareris kept to himself, there was no hurry to destroy him. Eventually, he would be destroyed, but now he has forced our hand. He makes the enclave look weak with these antics and we cannot look weak. The Dalelands would not welcome a group of Thayans causing a ruckus, so we are hiring locally. In addition to the monetary reward, you will be allowed to keep any Red wizard items that you find and most importantly you will earn the gratitude of the Red wizards, something not given lightly. We would then own you a favor”
Gideon responded, “Done. But how certain are you he has gone back to the keep? What caused his insanity?” Chathi shrugged. “He was just seen riding a red dragon towards the west. That is the direction of the keep. It will be a good place to start. As for his insanity, I do not know.” With that we began to disperse.
Inialos and I went back to our room. All the joy had gone. I was in mourning. As I changed into more non-descript clothes, he returned with bowls of stew and hot buttered brown bread and slabs of cheese. Good, wholesome solid Daleland fare. He explained that regardless how I felt; I had to keep up my strength. Especially if I planned to go after Bareris. I owed it to Aleena to be at my prime. Dear Inialos. After supper, I told him that I had to go out for a short time. I arrived at the Ashabenford Arms, where I knew Neon could be found. The clientele was subdued, the day’s events being the topic of conversation. On the stage, Jhaer was playing skillfully on a lyre. Its soft tones setting a calm easy mood. I spotted Neon, by himself, hunched over a bottle of dwarven brandy. I brought over two large mugs of Ashaben Ale. Mother, he looked so desolate, it near broke my heart.
“Here, chase the brandy with this” I said, sitting down beside him. Darkened, red-rimmed eyes stared up at me.
“Swan? Thank you.” Mother, he said Swan, not Swanie or Swann-knee. I sensed a change in him. I put my hand on his, holding tight. “How are you holding out?
“I couldn’t save her, Swan, couldn’t help her at all. Even when she was screaming in agony.”
“Neither could I, Ninniach, neither could I. No one could. Do not blame yourself, please do not.”
“I miss her already. We are going to get him, right Cygni?” Mother that was the first time he used my elven name, at least directly to me. I squeezed harder on his hand.
“Oh yes, Ninniach, I promise you. We are going to get him good!” It was at this point that Jhaer burst into a song, ‘The Promise of Chauntea’. It tells of Chauntea’s love for the good earth and its peoples. Of how, when it seems that cold and darkness will overwhelm the lands, she will gather the earth to her bosom to protect it and deliver a new and bright morning. Jhaer’s voice was magnificent. I felt it ease away much of my pain and guilt, restore my peace and inner strength. It brought tears to my eyes, as it did to all who heard it. “There will be a small service for Aleena tomorrow. I will see you there?” he nodded. “Will you be all right tonight Ninniach?”
“Why, are you offering to keep me company? He replied with a little trace of a smile. Looking at Jhaer, he continued, “Fear not, I will not be alone tonight.”
“I am not afraid.” That caused him to jerk his head back to face me. “It does not bother or offend you? Make you jealous?”
I shook my head. “Well, that is a change for you, Swan.”
“Yes, I think we have both changed a little. Well goodnight then.”
“Goodnight. Give my best regards to Inialos. See, I am not jealous either.”
That was true, mother, but I did see a hint of regret in his face. On impulse, I leaned over and kissed him hard. He tasted of brandy, ale and salted tears. It was good. He returned my kiss. Breaking off, he murmured hoarsely, “Swan, Swan..”
“I must go now”, I sighed, “Sleep well.”
“You also. Sleep well.”
Back in my room, Inialos studied my face. “All is well Cygni?” I replied yes.
“Inialos, tonight, just hold me close. I just want the comfort of your warm body against mine.” And so mother, as I slept wrapped in his strong arms, I had a dream. But not a darkness dream. Just the opposite. I found myself in a vast, endless plain of grain. Gentle breezes caused the grain heads to sway, first one way, then another, creating ever changing patterns. A golden sun sent out streams of angelic light from a brilliant blue sky. Across the same sky, raced fluffy, snow white clouds, again in ever changing patterns. The air produced a heady mixed odor of flowers, fruits, and trees. Amongst a haze of yellowed pollen, flew countless butterflies of all colors and patterns. One had a feeling of peace and beauty. Through the haze, I could make out the shapes of two figures approaching. Getting closer, I could see that one was a young woman, the other a boy child no more than three years. The boy seemed to be chasing butterflies, running hither and yon, arms outstretched. I could not move or speak. As they moved closed, the haze lightened and mother, this is true, I determined the woman to be Aleena. The boy looked so much like Neon, reddish hair and all, with just a little of Aleena blended in. So sweet and innocent. He made my heart ache. Seeing me, she took the boy’s hand and pointed to me. The little Neon waved and smiled just like his father. Aleena smiled and winked at me, in the same manner she always did. I felt noiseless tears running down my face. Only this time they were tears of joy. Then hand in hand they walked away, back into the pollen haze, slowly disappearing from view. It was at this point that I awoke with tears. I had been crying in my sleep. Softly as not to disturb Inialos, I eased out of bed. A futile effort! He is an elf ranger remember? Sitting up, as I went to the little window, he asked, “Cygni, passakay?”
“Oh, yes, dear one, all is fine, better than fine,” I gave a glad answer. Upon the eastern horizon, a beam of light was illuminating the last of the dark night clouds. Dawn was breaking over the city. “Thank you Earthmother”, I prayed wordlessly. “Thank you for this gift of knowledge.” Aleena and her son were safe in the arms of Chauntea. Neon’s son would grow into manhood upon that celestial plane. My heart was light. My sorrow was gone Left was only a smoldering desire for revenge on Bareris. After all, I am a war domain priestess. People tend to forget that about me mother. Their fatal error.
“Day is breaking, Inialos. There is much to do .As much as it will be so pleasant to get back into bed with you, we must start our tasks. As tonight is our last night here, the anticipation will grow if we forfeit pleasure now. Join me in some calisthenics. See if you can best me this time. All right, all right, we’ll do them in the nude. Let’s start!” Now mother, be honest here. How many times did I catch you and father exercising together naked in our little yard? Huumm?”
The morning passed by quickly. Breakfast, then off to buy little items. Then Aleena’s service at the temple. Most of the people I knew from Ashabenford were there. Before it started, I went up to Neon who had arrived with Jhaer. Nodding to her, I took him aside. And mother, I felt no jealously towards her. It felt proper.
“Ease your pain, dear Ninniach. She is well safe and content. Be happy for her.” Her soul is not here because she is in a far better place.” He looked at me a bit askance.
“And you know this how?” he began. I let out a long sigh and spoke a bit more hotly than I intended.
“Minor cleric though I am, Neon, I still have some clerical abilities. Try and remember this. I pray and at times deities answer. This happens quite often to clerics, even minor ones. So either I have no idea what I am talking about or I speak the truth. You decide.” I turned to leave.
“Swan, Cygni” he whispered. I turned back. He looked taller, less stooped. There was a sense of relief as if a weight had been lifted. More flash in his eye. “Thank you for this.”
“Well come on then. They are about to start. Bring Jhaer and come stand with Inialos and me.” Oh, mother, the ceremony was wonderful. Joyful and uplifting. Aleena had been placed in a closed rosewood casket. It was bedecked in red roses. There were many who gave witness to her kind deeds and caring. The rites ended with the priestesses singing the festive ‘Hymn to the Earthmother’. Standing between Neon and Inialos, one arm around each, the priestesses ringing voices filled my soul with gladness. I could not help but join in. Then so did a new voice, one whose richness stood out amongst the rest and took control of the others. It was Jhaer. Then a miracle, mother. Another new voice. One rich and vibrant! Neon’s! His voice soared to the heavens. He and Jhaer blended together perfectly. There is no doubt, that should Neon wish to do so, he could make his living as a bard. The casket was taken to the rose gardens of the grounds and there, she was placed, under the rose bushes that she loved and cared for so much. Then we all had a light lunch in the garden gazebo. It was sooner after that Nelyssa called me into her office.
“When you arrive in Hap,” she explained, “take this letter of introduction to the sheriff. War Watcher Elphron Pharlyn. An old friend of mine. It explains what the Seekers are doing. It will ensure that he gives you the best help and information possible.” As I thanked her, she added, “I really wish I was coming with you. But I obey my abbess. Swan, when you encounter Bareris, strike a blow for me, for Aleena. I promised to do so. Leaving, I rode to see my cygnets. I had to explain that I would not be able to visit them for a while.
“Oh Mother Swan, don’t go! Don’t leave us”, they wailed.
Their sorrow and tears at this announcement was somewhat assuaged by the gifts I gave them. Just the common all purpose knives that almost every boy in the Dalelands owns. Mother, those boys were so excited, you should have heard them going on in a mixture of Chondathan and Damarian. With many tearful hugs and kisses all around, I promised to come back to them as soon as I returned. I made them swear to take care of each other, and to this day I can still see those three little sprites, Walter, Padriac and Ewart waving to me as I rode off. The rest of the day was spent preparing. Sharpening weapons, checking provisions, readying armor and arrows took us to suppertime. A quick supper and Inialos and I retired to our room.
“Now Cygni, about that promise of yours this morning, I have been waiting very patiently all day.” I had been kneeling naked on the bed, watching him undress. I held out my arms, and as I exaggerated licking my lips, in a pretend husky voice spoke “Well then, elf-man, why don’t you just get yourself over here and let me show you the many positions we Deepingdale girls use to keep our promises.” He literally jumped onto the bed. Mother, sages say that sex is a messy business, do they not? Well that night, we learned that great sex is really messy! Hours later, both exhausted, I was rubbing my hand, up and down from his chest to his groin; caressing, fondling stroking. Every part of me, inside and out, was covered in perspiration and juices, wet and dried-both his and mine. He lay, similarly covered, and totally drained. I could feel his heartbeat slowing as he began to relax, heading towards slumber.
“Inialos, dear, you realize in one week we will be going our separate ways. We will both be in combat. There is no guarantee of survival. I want no regrets, so let us use our limited time together. We really do not need to sleep tonight. We can sleep in the saddle tomorrow. Let us not waste any more time.”
“Cygni, love, please…need rest”, he began to protest. I silenced him with a finger on his lips and sliding up whispered “No more words. There are better things to do with your mouth and tongue. So saying I straddled his face between my thighs and it began all over again.
Needless to say the next morning we were both happy but extremely tired. Dark circles rimmed our reddened eyes. Our bodies were rubbed sore from friction. We both needed plenty of fluids. I was glad to note we were not alone in this. Neon was in the same state as he arrived, accompanied by Jhaer. She seemed to walking a manner suggestive of sore thighs. Catching sight of us, Neon grinned and winked. The most surprising were Kilzadi and Gwenect. She seemed to be in the same condition as I, whereas he seemed in a worse state, ashen, and trembling from exhaustion. I had had very little interaction with her since our first meeting at the citadel. I approached her. Still amazed at her beauty; the beauty, which I knew covered an interior of a spirit of steel.
“Paci, Gwenect. You look tired. Is all fine with you and Kilzadi?” She regarded me studiously.
“Paci, Cygni. With me, yes. With him, no. No stamina. But then he is a male after all.” She looked fondly his way. “Still the ‘mighty mage of magic’ has his uses.” And started to snicker. Mother, why is it that when one is overtired all seems humorous? It set me giggling as well. I could never understand the female drow belief that males were inferior in all things. But at the time it seemed incredibly funny. She continued, as she stared towards Inialos, “And yours?”
“As you say, a male; no stamina!” From both of us this set off another round of quiet laughter. I continued, “You will fall will in love with Deepingdale. It is the most beautiful of all the Dales and its peoples the most accepting.”
The laughter stopped as she regarded me closely. “You mean, accepting of drow elves?”
I retorted back “I mean accepting of anyone who claims Deepingdale as their home. A home that they are willing to fight to defend. Regardless of their race. A home where they and their children are allowed to grow, as they desire, free to accept each other on merit. A home where they rule themselves. A home where no one is allowed to tell them how to live and think. These are the people I claim as my fellow countrymen, the people that I am willing to defend and fight for. Those who will also defend and fight for me.”
Again, those red eyes bore into me, as if reading my soul. Softly answered, “Finally I understand why the Lady of the Dance wants her drow to regroup and settle in the forests of Deepingdale. We will have much to learn there. May She forgive my lack of faith. Voie cororasci. I name you friend.” She held out her arm to me. I gripped it the elven way. “I name you friend”, I responded. “If you have time, go to Green Glen. Look up my mother, Lilia Vulpae. She leads the local militia. Tell her all you know. Do not wait for the “authorities” to filter down the information. Get the wood elves as well as the militia on patrol as soon as possible.”
As you say, friend Cygni. Ah, the paladin brings my brothers.”
I spied Kurud escorting the two drow that the Seekers had captured at Garath’s Roost. They were placed hands tied together in one of the two wagons. The one that also carried Nylian’s remains to be interred in Tangled Trees. The second wagon carried supplies for the journey.
“Your brothers may not be all that comfortable, Gwenect.”
She shrugged. “They’ll survive. Besides, being males, a little discomfort will toughen them up. It will be good for them.”
Besides, Gwenect and her brothers, the Seekers, Kurud and Inialos, a score of Riders, led by Jarrod Rold would be making the trip. I could see that Neon was not too happy about this. Soon all was ready and we set off.
Mother, the journey itself was uneventful. On the road to Essembra, we passed, by the Standing Stone; that monument to the Elf-Human Compact. The stone in my dreams. I was strangely drawn to it. We skirted Aencar’s Manor, the first and last so-called ‘King of the Dales.’ It is said to be haunted. I spend my days in conversation with Kurud regarding deities, celestial planes and the purpose of paladins Nights I spent with Inialos. We would sneak away to a private spot for lovemaking. We were to be separated soon and so wished to utilize as much time together as possible. We were not the only ones. Once we inadvertently came upon Gwenect and Kilzadi enjoying their own love bout. She was sitting over him, silently riding on top as he lay on his back, grasping her breasts and issuing grunt like noises. Attempting to stifle laughter we retreated as quietly as possible. I am fairly certain that Kilzadi was oblivious to our presence. However Gwenect did look our way and with a quiet grin increased the speed of her lurching. This caused him to change the grunts to groans. Later, when I asked her about it, she seemed puzzled. “But we are females. We are in control. We always assume the dominant position, do we not?” was her response.
At last, we reached Essembra. Here the company would separate, with the Seekers continuing to the village of Hap, while the rest headed towards Deepingdale. Inialos and I had one last night together. Oh mother the ecstasy of being together and the sorrow of parting. Suffice that it was an evening that will forever be ingrained in my memory. I would not die with any regrets.
Early, the next morning, after a heart wretched farewell, the Seekers rode out.
At one point, Neon maneuvered his horse beside mine.
“It’s good isn’t Swan?” he inquired with a pleased look.
“What is?” I was puzzled.
“All that wonderful lovemaking. It is easily surmised that you are the earthy type of girl that truly enjoys herself. I’m sure that there is no love act that you find offensive or inhibitive.”
I found myself a bit cross at his presumptions and lashed out.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. I do enjoy them immensely and despite my inexperience, the acts come naturally and I act wantonly. But my dear Neon that is something of which you will not be a beneficiary”.
His response surprised me. He laughed at my outburst. “You have no realization of how more luscious a bit of anger makes you. One of my skills is reading the hearts of women, Swan. And I have read yours. Yes, sooner or later, I will be a beneficiary. For two reasons. Mostly because you care for me and second you do so want to find out.”
“Find out what?” I snarled back.
“How Inialos and I compare. How similar we are. How different we are.” But not now. Now we are on a mission.” His whole tone and demeanor changed. A look of deep anger blended with pain came upon his face.
“First we take out Bareris. We do this for Aleena. Nothing detracts from that.”
The sudden change in mood, his voice filled with such emotion, cooled down my ire.
“There is a change in you Neon. A change directed towards goodness. You are beginning to do things because it is proper, not because there is something to be gained. I find myself liking the new Neon more.”
With a grin he switched back to his teasing. “And so makes you more accepting of my lisserlig ways. When this is over, we can reward ourselves, Swan. I can be your reward and you can be mine.” With a laugh, he spurred his horse ahead to reach Gideon’s. So intent was I on watching him ride away and mulling over his words that Risca’s voice startled me. He had ridden up beside me unnoticed.
“Swan, me gurl. He pesting ya? Tell me an Guifoon.” He patted his battle-axe. “Wel’ ‘ave a chat wit ‘im. He no pest ya.”
“Oh Risca, you are such a sweetheart.” I leaned over my saddle, wrapped an arm around his head to pull him towards me and gave him a big, smack kiss on his cheek. He blushed a beet color.
“Hay, let go gurl. What ya doing? Make me fall off? Come on Guifoon, wel’ go pest Okul.” He disengaged himself and rode back to Okul.
We arrived at the village of Hap near breakfast time. A local directed us to the sheriff’s office. War Watcher Elphron Pharyln was an older grizzled battle scarred veteran. He finished reading our introduction letter.
“Well if Neylssa vouches for you that is good enough. Bareris, hey? Well, he last came through these parts about a month ago. Didn’t stay long. Talked to a few farmers. Bought a few supplies, and went on his way. Was told he was looking to stay at the old keep on Haptooth Hill. The old keep, that’s where many years ago, a group of heroes defeated another Red Wizard, Dracandros by name. He had an undead dragon with him, Crimdrac by name. No mention of whether or not they were able to destroy the phylactery. Anyway apparently getting reports of strange monsters; lights at night and other strange goings on from Haptooth Hill. But no ones been hurt or livestock attacked. What? No, no investigations. There has been no trouble, so my men and I don’t go looking for it. All is peaceful. Old Hobber, he runs a mushroom farm close to the old keep, so he may have seen things. As well Dawnmistress Cathlandra may shed new information.
She attends to the shrine of Lanthander. A good place to stay the night, actually the only inn in town is the Millery. But the sheets are clean and the fare plenty and wholesome.”
After registering and having breakfast at the Millery, armed with directions, we set off for the shrine. Mother, I just seemed to have the knowledge regarding Lanthander. Known as the Morninglord, the Lord of Dawn, he presides over re-birth, renewal regeneration and light. A sworn enemy of darkness, especially undead, during the Time of Troubles, his avatar walked through Battledale and fought with avatars of undead controlling deities. A major battle occurred on Haptooth’s Hill in which the god was wounded. His blood was collected and stored in Hap.
Much to our amazement the shrine was inside a barn. Dawnmistress Cathlandra Dovaer herself met us at the door. An engaging young woman, in the blush robes of her god. Her pale skin and roseate hair accentuated the colors of dawn. She welcomed us and led us inside. Therein was a shrine, above which floated a ball of ember. Inside the amber ball, one could make out a dark liquid; the divine blood. Light streamed from the ball, filling the barn. I could sense the holiness of the light. It was somewhat enrapturing. She told us that Bareris had passed through but had kept away from the sacred shrine. We were also told that the holy light had dimmed on occasion for a brief time. Amazingly, these dimmings apparently occurred the same times as our dreams of darkness. While we gazed in awe at the ball, Neon had contrived to stand beside the priestess. They had engaged in conversation as we stared. I could make out Cathlandra nodding and agreeing to something he said. Thanking her we returned to the Millery for lunch.
It was decided to leave before dawn. We would visit the mushroom farmer for any more information, and then head for the keep. I went to my room to prepare. When all my blades were well honed, all my arrows checked and stashed, as well as bow strings well waxed and armor laid out, most of the afternoon had passed. Heading down the stairs, I was thinking that tomorrow we would be in combat. Anything could happen. I wanted no regrets. So perhaps Neon would like to take a stroll after dinner. Reaching the main floor, I could see Neon finishing a conversation with Gideon and then leaving the inn. I approached the Seekers who were already sitted at a table. “What is that all about?
Kilzadi answered. “Oh, Neon will not be dining with us. Apparently he has an engagement with that priestess to, ah; learn more of the tenets of Lanthander. Gideon not too gently reminded him that we must be well rested for tomorrow and so needed real sleep. Neon, not too gently told Gideon that he understood his responsibilities to the Seekers and would be ready when we were.”
I sighed and bit my lip. “Hey Risca, hey Okul, want to stroll around the town after supper for a bit?”
An hour before dawn found the Seekers riding out. Neon was waiting for us at the barn shrine. All prepared to go. His horse fell into step with mine.
“Learn enough about the Morninglord to become one of his priests?” I cracked.
He fetched me a grin. “Actually a lot about color combinations. It is most interesting how hair my shade of red blends in with hair the roseate color of Cath’s. Very dawny.”
“Ah so it’s Cath now is it?
“Well yes. We became good friends last night and good friends address each by their friend name. Don’t they Swannn?
“I guess they do Neonnnn! I hope you got enough sleep.”
“Oh, I feel exhilarated. Well hardened! And you? Did you sleep well? No longing kept you from resting comfortably, I hope?”
I spurred my horse ahead trailed by his low-keyed laughter.
Shortly we approached Haptooth Hill and the mushroom farm of Hobber. We found him sitting in front of his hut, jug in one hand, and corn hob pipe in the other.
“Yep. Do most of my work between midnight and dawn. Mushries wake up in the dark. Best time to work with ‘em. Got ten different kinds. Like to watch the sunrise with a drink. Glory to the Morninglord and all that and then get some sleep till midday. Unusual sightings? Well, seem to be a lot of little lizard guys lately coming in and out around the old keep. Bother me? Nah! I let ‘em take a few of my mushries and they leave me alone. Same with the really big ugly guys. Don’t see ‘em as often though. Dragon? Nah, ain’t seen no dragon. What? No, no wizard either. Tall rundown wall around the keep. Big large gate in front. Oh, you all welcome. Hey a silver piece. Thanks lassie.”
The dawn light was beginning to glow as we reached close enough to see the wall.
Gideon took command. “Swan, Neon, we need some reconnaissance. Scout around, report back and we’ll get a plan going.”
Dismounting, the two of us then proceeded silently through the thick underbrush, taking advantage of cover and shadows to hide. We used the leap frog maneuver. One would guard the other as they advanced. The front would then stop while the end would move ahead and so on. We used hand signals to communicate. The walls were roughly 50’ high, but crumbly. Easy to climb, but may not support full weight. The center of the front wall contained the front gate opening, except only the doors were standing. The main gates were lying about 20’ in front of the wall on the ground; one piled over the other. In the southwest corner, a large portion of the wall had crumbled leaving a large opening. Peering in the keep was another 50’away. The courtyard was overrun with undergrowth. We could make out creatures moving around. They were gnome sized humanoids and reptilian. But their snouts resembled those of a dragon more than a lizard. We both returned to our companions to report.
“Kobolds” snorted Risca. “Nasty critters. ‘Ems set nasty traps.”
“Alright people. Here’s how we can do this. A two-prong attack. Risca, you and Okul go through that opening and engage the kobolds. Neon and Swan, you two can climb up the wall first, cover them and attack from range. Kilzadi and I will be back up.”
Neon spoke. “Before we climb, I would like to check out the front doors. Make sure there are no surprises waiting.”
Gideon nodded. “Good idea. Risca, Okul, wait at the opening. Swan, you cover Neon.” Neon grinned at the choice of words. “Act professional” I whispered. His grin grew. I rolled my eyes. We set out. Neon and I moved quickly. The others were barely half-way to their positions as Neon passed the main gates on the ground. And that’s when it happened. A flurry of motion as a pony sized insectoid like creature emerged from hiding under those gates. Tentacles grew out of its round head, flaying away at Neon. A carrion crawler! Caught by surprise, Neon still managed to use his agility and footwork to dodge. He almost made it. One tentacle just brushed his hand. It was as if he had turned into a statue. He fell motionless. The creature sprawled over him, its maw ready to bite into his face. I had started to run towards him as soon as I had spotted the monster. I felt the ground shake as I did so. By now I had fired my arrow. It struck just as the beast lowered its head. Right into its eye, penetrating to its full length. A stream of foul smelling ichors spilled out! It gave a loud screeching scream as the force of the arrow caused it to jerk up. The ground was shaking because Okul raced towards it, spear leveled. In two steps, the spearhead penetrated the crawler’s body. Powerful arms moved the spear along the body, totally gutting it. As its insides disgorged, it shrilled and collapsed.
By the time I arrived, Okul was bending over Neon. “He’s still alive. Just seems paralyzed.” I found I could breathe again myself upon hearing these words.
By now the others had arrived. “That’s what happens with crawlers,” instructed Risca. “He should be up in a few moments.” I leaned down, grabbed Neon by the hair and spoke directly into his face.” You should have checked out those gates first. You act like an amateur again and get yourself hurt or worse, and I promise you I will kick your butt all over.” “Well there goes the element of surprise,” asserted Kilzadi. A moment later Neon gave a shudder and began to sit up.
“How do you feel?” queried Gideon.
“Like Swan said, an amateur who needs his butt kicked all over. I’ll be fine shortly.”
“Alright Seekers, same plan, except now there is no need for stealth.”
“Yes” shouted Risca and began to move out. Okul followed.
All this while, I found myself still holding on to Neon. “Ready to climb?” I questioned.
“You anytime. The wall, give me a few more breaths. Ouch!” I pulled on his hair. Hard.
I examined the wall, picking out a suitable path and visualizing myself climbing it. Just the way father had taught me. “See you at the top then.”
About halfway up, I could hear him climbing below me. “Swan” he called out, “thank you”
I glanced down. He was a bit below me, looking straight up at me. He went on. “Just before it gets too serious, want to thank you. For many things, but right now for the lovely attractive view you’re affording me.” He beamed widely and then suddenly became serious. “Wait for me at the top and keep your head down”
I nodded, stuck my tongue out at him and continued climbing. Reaching the top, I carefully peered over. Scattered throughout the tall grass and bushes of the courtyard, I spotted ten of those kobold creatures. Some were armed with slings, others with short spears, and some with both. All looking towards our wall. Neon arrived beside me and eyed the situation.
“I count ten. You go right, I’ll go left” He nodded and turned to me. With faces practically touching, our eyes bore into each other’s. With no conscious effort, hanging onto the wall, we fell into a lingering kiss. Breaking off, he whispered, “Please take care. Ready? Let’s do it!” At the last word, we leaped onto the wall, moving in opposite directions. As I ran along, I was unslinging my bow, notching an arrow. I had already picked my target.
I heard Risca bellow a battle cry. This drew the attention of the kobolds and gave Neon and I a bit more time to separate and prepare our own shots. Mother, I am fairly certain that Risca’s battle cries help focus him for combat. But what I do not understand is why there are so many different ones. Then he used ‘Crush for Crull!” I have also heard him at various times blare out ‘Death and Destruction’ ‘Seekers Assemble’, ‘Imperius Rex’ Risca Smash, and ‘Its Clobbering Time’. I have no idea where he gets these from, whether it is a dwarven barbarian tribal ritual or what. Anyway I now digress. Even as he howled, he step through the wall opening and fired an arrow at the kobold nearest him. It struck, spinning the creature around. It gave a hiss and fired back a sling bullet, as did three of his fellows. Two missed, but one struck him. This so enraged him that he dropped his bow, drew his long sword and with a cry of ‘Risca Smash’ charged at the trio. One of who happened to be my target. Even as Risca began his charge, my arrow took that one through the heart. It dropped dead. “Neon” I shouted as I rearmed while dodging sling bullets. “A wager! Five gold pieces to whoever kills the most kobolds today and one gold piece for every difference”. Neon had already fired his own arrow. As it struck and killed the second kobold, he laughed and shouted back “Done!” At this time, Gideon stepped forward and taking careful aim fired his crossbow at the last remaining kobold of the trio. A throat shot. The force of the bolt lifting it backwards already dead. Risca suddenly found himself charging three dead kobolds. He stopped and with a wild yell changed direction towards a pair holding short spears. I noticed a trio of slingers had moved towards Risca, seeing him as an easier target than Neon or myself.
With a blare of ‘Tempusss’ Okul exploded out. With his long strides quickly overtaking Risca he engaged the kobold spearmen. He transfixed one on his spear, lifting it up as he would a banner. This exposed him to the second who thrust and managed to slice his arm. Okul then wheeled his gruesome trophy to bash against his opponent, knocking it down. Before it could recover he rammed his spear through its chest, fixing it to the ground as it died.
“Neon, those slingers” I called out even as I shot my bow. My arrow sank deep into the head of one.
“I got them”, he replied shooting his own arrow. A second slinger went down. By now I was ready with my next arrow and fired. It struck and then there were no slingers left. Gideon had moved in to check on Okul’s wound. Once again Risca found himself with no one left to fight. He jumped up and down. “Quits robs me! Quits robs me!” He spotted one at the corner of the keep and again with a cry raced towards it. Then to everyone’s surprise and with his own desert cry, Kilzadi charged out waving his scimitar, running at the same kobold. Risca finally reached the kobold but his helm strap broke, causing the helm to fall over his eyes. The sudden distraction allowed the creature to take careful aim with his spear in order to skewer the dwarf. Two things prevented this. First Kilzadi arrived and took a wild swing at it, causing it to draw back. Second Risca was no stranger to fighting blind. The dwarf took advantage of the kobold’s retreat to swing his sword and decapitate it. “A kill! Etlast I gets me a kill!”
The last kobold was running for the center door of the keep. Neon had reloaded before me and shot at its retreating back. He hit, but the range was so large that much of the arrow’s force was already spent. The kobold stumbled but kept on running. “Gods! Out of range” he snarled. Now I was ready. I calmly pulled back on the bowstring taking careful aim. “Ninniach, observe now the range difference between the short bow and the long bow. I released the arrow. It arrived at the same time the kobold reached the wooden door. There was a sickening thunk sound as it passed through the back of the little humanoid’s skull, through its snout to embed itself in the door; thereby pinning it to the door to act as a suspended door knocker. “See. Still in kill range of the longbow. Now that would make it four for me and only two for you.”
“The day is not over yet Swan. Let’s join the others.”
Climbing down, we reached the others. Gideon had attended to Okul’s wound. “And just what by Kossuth’s cleansing flame were you thinking of?” he addressed Kilzadi.
“I wanted to save my magic for when it would be better needed. Besides there little guys were easy to kill. I wanted to practice my scimitar,” answered back the sorcerer.
Gideon just shook his head. Risca was at the door, pulling back on the suspended kobold and letting go to thump against the door. He did this over and over again. “Guifoon, can me gurl shoot or can me gurl shoot?”
“Seekers” Gideon called us together. “We go straight as long as we can. When we no longer can, we will discuss which way. But if there is no time we go right if able. That way we can always retrace our steps if need be in a hurry. All right? Guard each other’s backs. Eyes sharp. Let’s go!”
Standing to one side, Neon opened the door. I stood in front with Risca, bow ready. The door opened to reveal an empty large antechamber. At the opposite end was another closed door. In the center of the chamber, openings in the wall led to the right and left. I took the left side, Neon the right. We moved straight down carefully checking or spotting for anything unusual. The openings led into other large room areas which seemed to be empty. At the doorway, Neon checked it out while I guarded him. He signaled the all clear and we repeated the open door pattern. It opened easily into a smaller type chamber again with another door at the opposite end and openings to the right and left. We repeated the same search and hunt process. Again the openings seemed to lead into empty rooms. Neon checked out the new door. He found nothing. We opened it. This time it was different. It opened into a large dining room. A huge unlit fireplace stood against the far wall. The left and right walls each contained two closed doors. But the biggest surprise was in the center of the room. A large dining table with ten chairs. Atop the table were ten dinner settings composed of a gold plate, silver cutlery and crystal goblets. Seated in each chair was a human skeleton. Neon turned to me. “Undead?” he mouthed? I shrugged. Just then Risca peered in, saw the set-up and went “Oi wats this?” and walked into the room. As he neared one end of the table we were attacked! There was a commotion from the fireplace. Two creatures flew down. They had the lower body, legs and wings of bird like dinosaurs. Their faces resembled those of old humans and glowed with evil. Their hands ended in long curved claws. With coal black eyes, their hair was matted with dried blood. Harpies! Even before landing they were singing their enchantment songs. I found myself mesmerized. I had this incredible urge to approach them, to let them do as they pleased with me. Against my will I found myself unable to stop walking towards them. Neon walked beside me equally enchanted, as did Kilzadi.
Not so Risca. Even as the harpies landed, he drew out his enchanted blade and with a cry of ‘Its Clobbering Time’ rushed towards them. Still trying to make my body do my bidding, I reached the table. As did my two companions. The table prevented us from approaching the harpies. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Neon turn to go around the table. But Kilzadi and I both jumped onto the table. The irony is, approaching them in the shortest route possible, allowed us to break the enchantment. You see mother, as we landed, the force of our jump knocked yellow spore dust of some kind into the air. These spores had been lying on the gold plates, blending in undetected. Very quickly, this dust was breathed into our throat and lungs causing us to choke and bend over from coughing. So caught up were we with retching and coughing that the power of the enchantment weakened as the song in our heads lessened. I knew I had to act while I was able to! Gideon arrived at the doorway, crossbow in hand. His strong belief I his god granted him the willpower to resist the harpy enchantment. He fired his crossbow but missed. Seeing there was no time left to reload, he dropped it and drew out his morning star. Then Okul thundered past him. All this occurred as Risca reached the first harpy. It claw slashed at him. He shield blocked and used his shield to push the claw out and away. This gave him the opening to slash it with his sword. Not a killing blow. But as the monster screeched and reeled back it allowed Okul to reach over the table and spear stab it in the side. In rage it attempted to fly at Okul. This left it defenseless against Risca’s return stroke. The blade sliced through the obscene neck. The head fell to the ground as the neck gushed a foul black blood. Risca lifted sword and shield to the sky, shouting, “I’s love to decapitate!”
I caught all this action in that one moment that I had regained control of my body. Neon had walked within reach of the other harpy. I knew if it managed to grasp him, it would fly him up the chimney. Kilzadi was still vomiting beside me. Risca, Oku l and Gideon too far away. I was the only one who had a chance to end that song. Coughing, I leaped forward off the table and into the air. The harpy had reached out to grap Neon, who still had a silly smile on his face as he gazed at the monster with love in his eyes.
At the top of my leap I fired my arrow for its throat. Even if I did not kill it, I could at least stop its song, allowing Neon to break the enchantment. In case, I missed, my jump would let me fall on the creature, hopefully knocking it down to allow the others time to reach us. My arrow penetrated its throat, sinking to the fletching and emerging out. I landed on a dead harpy. Disgusted, I rolled onto my knees and more spasms of heaving overtook me. I felt more than saw Neon kneel beside me. With on arm around my shoulders, he used a clean cloth to wipe at my mouth. “Are you hurt?” There was concern in his voice. I shook my head. “Here drink this.” He handed me his canteen. I took a swallow. It was water, but so refreshing. The foul taste in my mouth lessened and my stomach calmed down. He helped me stand. Gideon had attended to Kilzadi who now sat beside the fireplace. They were all staring at me. Gideon spoke. “Swan that was an amazing jump. Risca spoke with pride “Guifoon and I’s keep telling yas and keep telling yas, me gurl can shoot. Nows yas have the proof of it.” Realizing that we had ended the encounter with none of us hurt or injured in any way lightened our mood. Neon was staring down at my arrow. “Yes an excellent shot. Now Swan this is not a kobold, correct? So therefore this kill should not count towards your tally, correct? I chuckled and retorted “correct”
“Hey a chest” spoke out Kilzadi drawing everyone’s attention. He had been looking up the chimney and spotted it. Recovering it we found silver coins and a set of turquoise earrings. Storing these, Gideon explained. “All right then, no one got hurt. Great! Now let’s find that wizard.” He pointed to the east doors. “That one. Get ready. Break it down. Let’s go.”
Okul kicked open the door. There revealed was another empty chamber, except for two things: a kobold stone statue holding out a sword and five living kobolds arraigned against us. Four had short spears, one a sling. As soon as the door opened, the slinger shot a stone, missing everyone. The Seekers sprang into action. Screaming battle cries, Risca and Okul charged in. Risca took a spear thrust on his shield. But nothing blocked his sword thrust as he passed it through the kobold’s guts. It gave a shudder and fell lifeless. Okul impaled his opponent and lifting his spear, tossed it to crash hard against the wall. It slid down a broken lump. I had waited to see which opponents, Risca and Okul selected. I did not want to shoot at the same ones. There were two spearmen left. The slinger had turned to run. “Don’t let him escape but don’t kill it either” shouted Kilzadi as he scampered to give chase. So I shot at the remaining spearmen who were still rushing us. I let fly. My arrow took him in the heart. It gave a squeal as it fell dead. I started to restring an arrow.
“No you don’t Swan. This one is mine” Neon blared as he ran to meet the last spearman. With his rapier he easily parried the spear thrust. And then, a twist of the wrist to bring it back on line, he slid it between the ribs to emerge out the back. It died noiselessly. He looked at me. “One each” he smiled. I smiled back and replied “Five for me, three for you.” He turned to examine the statue. Gideon was only an instant behind me entering the room, but the affair was over. Gazing around, he uttered “Very impressive Seekers.” Kilzadi had caught the fleeing kobold. It had surrendered to him and he had it lying on the ground. Kilzadi’s foot was on its chest, pinning it while he pressed his scimitar tip into its throat. They were speaking to each other in some language, which I later found out to be draconic. We all gathered round.
“What is it telling you? asked Gideon.
“Many things. There is a red dragon somewhere ridden by the master of the kobolds. The description sounds a lot like Bareris. Also in the levels below are ogres as well as undead. Bareris feeds kobolds to his ghouls if they do not follow his orders, make mistakes or just on a whim. The statue is in the likeness of their kobold king who apparently dwells in the lower levels.”
“Interesting. Now we know a few things of what to expect. We will take it with us. It may prove useful. Tell it at the first sign of a lie or betrayal you will cut its throat.” We will finish this level first.” He addressed Neon. “Well?”
Neon shrugged. “Just a stone statue. I could not find anything out of the ordinary. Perhaps someone else will like to try.” He looked at me.
“No need at this point” continued Gideon. Let us move on. The chamber turned south. There was an opening. Going through we entered another room. This one had stairs leading down across from the opening. To our right (the west) was a large silk covered bed. Across from the bed was another fireplace. There were two openings in the walls. One was across the stairway in the southeast corner while the other was in the middle of the west wall leading to the area where we had first entered. We avoided the stairs and carefully moved towards this unusual bed when a stench of decaying matter emanated from the stairs. We all turned towards the stairs in time to see four zombies silently moving up the stairs towards us. The kobold screeched in fear. Kilzadi grabbed it, placed his scimitar across its throat and stated, “be still” It quieted down still shaking. The zombies reached the top as we sprang into action. Once again, Risca and Okul led us in action. Reaching the slow moving but undeterred zombies, Okul’s spear stabbed through the heart. Risca’s sword stabbed through a second zombie’s neck. Both zombies gushing greenish pus continued to advance, seemly unperturbed. My arrow took the third zombie through the head. It crumbled into a pile of black dust. These zombies must have been dead for a long time. “The head” I shouted. “Strike through the head.” Then I heard Gideon finish intoning his prayer “And so by the power of Kossuth, I order thee banished and be gone. The mercies of Kossuth renew your souls.” As he prayed, the firey flames of his god outlined him. The remaining zombies shrilled and began to retreat. They ran away from Gideon towards the southeast opening. One avoided Risca’s second thrust but Okul was faster. Quickly withdrawing his spear he punctured it through the head. It crumbled into black dust. The remaining two ran through the opening. Okul, Risca and neon gave chase. “Head them off,” shouted Okul as he ran through the west opening. They met the zombies in the first antechamber we entered. The rest of us arriving in time to witness the finale. The zombies were not even trying to resist, just to run away from the Glory of Kossuth. Okul’s long spear easily perforated a zombie skull. It crumbled into dust. Risca charged at the last remaining one, but Neon’s longer strides allowed him to make contact first. With a well-aimed lunge, his rapier passed through a zombie skull, transforming it into a pile of dust.
Risca jumped up and down. “Guifoon, wees robs again. Robs again.” Walking up to him, keeping a serious face the best I could, tried to console him.
“Fear not good friend. There will be more to decapitate before the day is done. We have to return Bareris’ head. Remember.” He grinned at this. “Tank ye gurl. Tank ye.”
Gideon’s voice broke through the laughter. “Well our kobold spoke true. There are undead here. Most likely more to be encountered. But first we finish this level. Come’ let us return and finish our explorations.” We retraced our steps back to the room of the zombie staircase. We headed carefully, on guard, for the bed and fireplace. There were also six largish crates in this room. Checking out the fireplace revealed a series of loose bricks. Removing the bricks revealed a fine ornate silver dagger. Also mother, I caused a good deal of humor, as several of them landed on me. Ouch!
Turning to the bed we could make out a humanoid form under the covers. Kilzadi told us that the bed radiated magic, as did one of the crates. “We should check the bed first,” suggested Gideon. Neon drew out his rapier and approached cautiously. Risca went with him as backup. With one hand, Neon whipped back the covers. There was a tall humanoid completely covered in strips of cloth. No part of its body was visible. The knowledge of what it was popped into my mind. “Mummy”, both Gideon and I shouted together. It began to sit up. With lighting reflexes, Neon stabbed deep into its chest. A fraction later with a cry of ‘Death and Destruction’ Risca swung a mighty blow. So powerful was the swing that it cut right through the rock hard neck of the mummy. It crumbled into dust. This was followed by Risca’s cry of ‘I’s love to decapitate!’ It was over even before the rest of us could react.
“Interesting”, mused Kilzadi. “The magic still radiates. It is in the bed not the mummy.”
“Lets find out what happens then. Lie down in the bed”, joked Okul.
“I have a better idea.” Before anyone could guess his intention, Kilzadi picked up the kobold and threw it on the bed. It screamed as it flew through the air, landed on the bed and promptly fell asleep in the middle of a scream.
“Now that is interesting. Okul, see if you can wake it”
Okul prodded it with his spear. Despite the impact of the prods the creature kept sleeping. It even began do snore. Who would have guessed?
“O.K. Seekers”, spoke Gideon. “No more time to waste. What? Oh all right Neon. Check out the crates. But be as fast as you can.” I moved to go with him, but he waved me back. We watched as Neon fell into his routine of checking locks and boxes for trap devices. He left the magical one for last. As he examined the lock, he stiffened and then spoke” “yes he is.” We all tensed. He then picked open the lock and opening the lid, showed that the chest was …empty. He then walked to another one it too was empty. As were they all.
He walked back to us. He explained “Well that was strange. That magic crate. There was a voice in my mind speaking Chondathan. It asked ‘who goes there?’ I ignored it. Then it asked ‘Is Bareris with you?’ That’s when I spoke out loud. Then it said ‘oh, never mind then.’ What do you make of it, Kilzadi? The sorcerer shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“We can discuss it later,” declared Gideon. “Swan?” I had gone over to investigate the empty crates. Father had taught me that even if a container looks empty, it might still be holding something. I was checking for secret compartments and false bottoms. Did not find any. “Alright. On my way”, I called back. The Seekers moved out. Kilzadi was dragging the sleeping kobold, declaring that it could still be useful. Neon waited for me and fell into step.
“No faith in my professional expertise, Cygni? Those crates held nothing secret,” he grinned at me.
I placed a hand over my heart in mock humility. “Far be it for me to question your expertise, Ninniach. I just needed the practice for the real thing.” He laughed. We caught up to the rest at the west opening of the entrance corridor. It opened into a chamber almost identical to the one we had been in. There was a bed, and a fireplace. Instead of crates there was instead old furniture; a wooden chair, a stool, a coat rack. In the far corner we could just make out a hatbox. Against the west wall a set of stairs led down We entered.
“The bed is magical’’ intoned Kilzadi.
“Fireplace first”, spoke out Okul as he headed in that direction. Risca close behind. He probed up the huge chimney with his spear. A loud high pitched shrill sounded. It made one want to clamp their hands over their ears. The kobold kept on sleeping. Emerging from the fireplace chimney was an enormous black bat. The mouth full of wicked, sharp teeth. It flew at the two Seekers. Startled, Okul could not bring his spear into play. It flew by, ripping at his arm as it did so. Then it flew up towards the ceiling, thereby placing itself out of reach of Risca’s ‘Crush for Crull’ thrust. I could hear Kilzadi chant out a spell, even as it dived towards us. I waited for a timely shot. As it swooped, Gideon fired his crossbow. The bolt passed through its wing leaving a hole. It shrieked but continued its attack. We all ducked as it flew over us. Neon held out his rapier. It caught the other wing, leaving a tear in the leathery membrane. It shrieked again. It swooped up and so presented its side to us. This was my chance! I straightened and fired at the junction of wing and body. My arrow struck true and deep into its wing muscles. It squealed as with one wing now useless it lost height. Enough so that it fell into Risca’s reach. With a ‘Risca Smash’ he cut off its head. The headless corpse left a trail of blood as it smashed against the wall. “I’s love to”, he began. “Decapitate”, we all finished for him. Okul was bleeding from the bat bite. Approaching him to aid him, I was astonished to see Kilzadi sporting a translucent ghostly, lizard-like tail. “My spell’’ was all he had to say.
Once we had all ensured that we were all fine, we neared the bed. This one had no one lying on it. “Want to try something”, muttered our mage. He tossed the sleeping kobold onto the bed. Upon landing, it woke sat up and looked around. Spying the bat’s body, it gave a shriek. Spying Kilzadi’s tail, it shrieked even louder. Kilzadi began to question it. He reported. “It remembers nothing of what occurred between the time it first fell asleep and now. These stairs are the ones the kobolds normally use to go up and down.
“Fine”, acknowledged Gideon. We’ll avoid this set and use the other. It makes more sense since nothing should associate with undead. Besides, it’s easier to turn undead than tens of kobolds. Let’s finish this up.
The furniture was just old furniture, but the hatbox looked newer. Before any could delay him, Risca opened the box. Inside was a red lady’s hat.” Oi, wats ‘his?” Turning the hat inside out he extracted a long hatpin. Holding it up for closer examination he called to us, “platinum. ‘most stabbed meself.” Then he sniffed. “Poison. Who wats it? Neon just shook his head. “The luck of the ignorant” was all he could say.
We passed through the north opening into another chamber. There was a door on the east wall and another kobold statue. Neon examined around the statue. “Not the same as the other”, he declared. “There’s a trigger mechanism here that would set the statue to spinning. A human sized creature would have its knees struck by the heavy stone sword. Avoid it”. We opened the door and found ourselves looking at the corpses of two harpies. We had come full circle. There were still two doors in this room as yet unexplored. Opening one revealed a small garbage room. Opening the second revealed the same except for the four dog-sized creatures that were rummaging through the garbage. Dire rats! As soon as the door opened, they squealed and charged out. Risca and Okul charged in. Spear and sword each ripped out a rat’s insides. The remaining two each leaped at Okul. Two arrows passed very close to Okul’s ears. Each arrow impaled a leaping rat.
“Hey”, Okul veered around and glared at Neon and I whom had just released the arrows practically simultaneously. “That was too close! You almost struck me with those. Don’t fire unless you have a clear shot! Be more careful!”
Risca walked up to him. “Hay Okul. Me gurl, she can shoot She shoot gud! No werry there.” “Red haf-elf?” he shrugged. “Yas on your own there.”
“Time to go Seekers.” Once again Gideon brought us to the more immediate problems, before the discussions could continue. “Nothing on this level managed to escape. The ones below may not know we are here about to descend. We revert to silence and stealth down the stairs. Him, pointing at the kobold, we can’t bring. Keeping a constant eye on him, so he can’t escape to warn others, or having him stab us in the back, during an engagement, is too risky. We kill him or lock him up here."
I decided to lock him up. We may come back this way and retrieve him. He might have more information that others could use.
“I’ll take care of that” piped up Kilzadi, staring hard at he little creature.
"All right, Seekers. Kossuth is with us. Forward!!” intoned Gideon.
And so mother I led the Seekers down the zombie stairs...