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From Darkness, From Light


grogerson

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Part 1

 

She looked at the rising slope before her and cursed herself again. She showed mercy and it may have cost her life.

 

The previous evening she thought she had found a safe hiding place to rest. A hedge of heavy brush had a small hidden opening that led to a small space. She had to crawl in on hands and knees, but the chamber she found gave her ample room to sit or stretch out to sleep. The foliage prevented anyone from seeing in, but gave her a fair view out. If she hadn't been so tired, she might have wondered why the ground inside had so little debris. When the two children stumbled into her refuge enough light still existed for them to see her clearly, and the fear and recognition in their eyes told her everything she needed. Two quick strikes with her mace would have silenced them.

 

Before she could move, however, the boy had pushed his sister out and ordered her to run. Then moving quickly into the opening himself, he turned to face her. Terrified though he was, he was willing to sacrifice his life for his sister. It was at that moment that she gave the mercy she now regretted, as a memory all to fresh rose inside her. She let the boy slowly back out and flee after his sister.

 

She had managed to rest through the night simply because she was so exhausted from her travels. That was the only reason she was still alive. When she woke up just before dawn, her mind and body had recovered enough to flee when the patrol came to investigate the children's story.

 

For the past hour, since shortly after dawn, she had been trying to escape her pursuers. Using all her cunning, she had managed to lose all but one. This one male had been able to follow her no matter what she did. She was out of tricks now, and she was at the limit of her endurance. If something didn't happen soon he would be upon her, and he wanted nothing less than her death.

 

Wiping the sweat from her eyes, she began stumbling up the hill, all the while hearing her attacker closing in behind. She managed to reach the ridge just moments ahead of him and almost screamed in terror and frustration. Two others were but a few yards in front of her, looking at her without surprise.

 

"Jeez, Cov. Can't you ever be wrong?" a slightly whiney female voice snapped.

 

She realized these were not with her pursuers. If she were to have a chance, she had to think fast.

 

"Please help me!" she called to the two, using her best helpless maiden voice. Maybe she could get them to help her. Let her pursuer deal with these two while she got away. "They're trying to kill me!"

 

The male was already putting his bow behind him to make room for his shield and sword. She had a feeling her words had little effect on him. His female companion had also readied her shortbow.

 

"I serve the Flaming Fist," bellowed her enemy as he reached the ridge crest as well. He paused a moment to size up the two new intrusions into his chase. He noted the armored man before him, standing casually but with shield hanging relaxed in one hand and the other on the hilt of his sword. "Surrender that Drow woman to me."

 

"What will happen to her if I do?"

 

The eyes of her pursuer locked onto hers. "She will be killed," he responded coldly.

 

Unmoved, the stranger asked in return, "What has she done to deserve death?"

 

"She's a Drow! That's enough!""Not for me, I'm afraid. Unless she has done something worthy of death, I can't turn her over to death."

 

"I serve the Fist, and you defy me?!" he spit out in anger. "Then die with her!"

 

This stranger's words took her by surprise, and something inside her rose up. He was willing to give her a chance when no one else had. Her pursuer was far more skilled than these two youths, and would probably kill them unless . . .

 

As 'Cov' blocked the first blow with his shield, she muttered a quick prayer to Shar and spoke a Word of Command. It only had a momentary effect as her attacker shook it off, but it forced him to defend against both a sword stroke and an arrow from her bow-wielding defenders. He barely managed to dodge the arrow and block the sword with his shield. 'Cov' was stronger than she realized as his blow split the guard's shield.

 

The Flaming Fist suddenly realized his position. Flinging the now useless shield aside he leapt at his prey, consumed with hatred and fury. He was ready to bring his sword down on the exposed head of the Drow before him when her second Word of Command hit him. He didn't feel the arrow as it entered his throat or the sword as it drove into his side and through his lung and heart before he even fell.

 

Silence followed, except for the sword being pulled from the body and cleaned on the grass of the hilltop. In these few moments she looked at her two rescuers more closely. He was just under six feet and lean, with black hair and a full black beard surprising for what she could see was a youth, and he moved with an unusual grace. His companion was at least six inches shorter, with bright red hair and a mischievous look in her eyes. They had both seen death before, but they were still new to it. Their hearts were not yet hardened by it. Weakness, she thought.

 

The morning breeze brought her back to her own condition, as her perspiration soaked clothing chilled. Her limbs were beginning to ache from fatigue, and she barely had enough strength to stand. She watched in silence as he examined the body, then began removing the plate armor from the corpse.

 

“My apologies, sir. Perhaps this will serve me better than it did you,†he whispered softly.

 

"Thank you," she spoke softly, barely audible to her two benefactors. "He would have killed me . . ."

 

She saw the young man utter a prayer and recognized it. Her stomach sank. Surely he would know she served the Darkness now, and would kill her. Paladins just don't let "evil" live, and she had no strength left to defend herself. She met his gaze. She would defy him even in death, as she had her dark queen Lolth.

 

She was astonished after a few moments when he softly smiled, then bowed. "You're welcome."

 

"May I join you for a while?" she found herself asking this audacious young man.

 

"The roads are free," he replied as he removed his own chain armor, "except for the bandits, gibberlings, xvarts, wolves . . . and the occasional ogre. Do you think you can wear this? It’s better protection than your leather."

 

For a moment she thought he was trying to scare her. Then she saw a twinkle in his eye. If he were a paladin, he certainly was like none she had ever heard of.

 

"Oh, come on now, Cov. She's a Drow. She's probably as evil as they come."

 

"Of course she is, Immy. Probably kill us both in our sleep." He gave a quick wink to the dark elf.

His companion was horrified. "Some maniac kills our foster father, then sends a mage to the Friendly Arm to kill you! What do you think you're doing?!"

 

"You know, you're probably right. She'd probably be safer with the bandits, though you've heard the same things I have about them and lone women. But if you don't want her with us . . ."

 

"That's not what . . . I didn't mean . . . That's not fair!" She watched the young woman's face grow as red as her hair in anger and frustration. After a moment she continued. "You're mean, you know that. Okay, you can keep your lost puppy, but I'm not cleaning up after her." She turned and angrily walked away.

 

The Drow didn't know what her ‘lost puppy’ comment meant, but it sounded like an insult and she grew angry.

 

"Don't let her get under your skin," the young knight whispered as he began following her. "She's just mad I got her in a corner so easily. I'll have to keep watch tonight . . ."

 

She stood silent, watching the retreating figures in perplexity. She was debating whether to follow them when the smaller turned around and called back in a surprisingly cheerful voice. "My name's Imoen, and this walking fortress is Covenant. Are you coming or not?"

 

Anger, mixed with hope, rose in her as she called back. "I'm Viconia, and would you mind letting me rest a bit first?"

 

The two stopped and began talking, though they were too far away to be heard. After a few moments Imoen pointed back at her. With great drama, Covenant stooped his shoulders and hung his head, then walked back in mock dejection.

 

He bowed deeply and spoke with great deference. "Lady Viconia, the Lady Imoen insists. If you are too tired to walk, I am to carry you until you can." She barely heard him add with a grin, "Better this than her pranks for the next three days."

 

Anger faded as hope began to grow. For now she would go with these two. Perhaps this was Shar's way of giving her protection and a chance to adapt to this new world without a roof.

 

Edited for spelling, punctuation, minor details.

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Part 2

 

Viconia slipped slowly into the bath tub, and let the heat from the water seep into her entire body. She welcomed the chance to reflect on the things she had seen. She had lost track of the days they had spent in the wilderness, the number of battles they had fought. She had come to respect her two rescuers in that time, watching as they became skilled in combat but somehow keeping their hearts from becoming hard from the killing.

 

Imoen's simple honesty, and her mischievous nature, managed to make her laugh when exhaustion made everything seem so dark. Mostly it was Covenant on the receiving end of some prank she found herself getting the most enjoyment from. She was amazed at the creativity of that redhead, and the quiet restraint of her victim. She had an insatiable curiosity as well. She took any locked door or chest as a challenge, and none had long held against her. It also created a rather early departure from the Friendly Arm Inn when someone found her in their possessions and called the guards.

 

Covenant confused and intrigued her. He deferred easily enough to the two women, as any Drow male should, but with a strength and grace that half-mocked both they and him. She would have slain any male like this in the Underdark, her home she would probably never see again. What infuriated her most, however, was his apparent near-perfection. He seemed to have the strength of an ogre, the constitution of a dwarf and the speed and grace of an elf. He and Imoen seemed equally matched in mental agility as they regularly challenged each other with verbal puzzles, riddles and jokes beyond what she could keep up with. He also had a natural wisdom that should not exist in one so young and inexperienced. Yet he downplayed all his abilities, even mocking himself. She couldn't tell if his humility was feigned or real. Imoen joked he could charm the fangs from a snake if he wanted to, and that didn't seem far from the truth.

 

Covenant had carried her for nearly an hour before setting her down to walk on her own. Nothing was said from the time they left the body of her attacker, and the silence continued until the sun had reached its zenith. They stopped for a few minutes to eat some bread and cheese and drink some water.

 

She finally broke the silence. "Imoen, what did you mean when you asked him if he's ever wrong?" She assumed she owned him, and it was proper to talk to the female in charge.

 

"We heard some rumors of Drow seen in the Peldvale area," Imoen replied. "They varied from one to a band of twenty. Cov decided to check out the rumors."

 

Viconia sneered. "That was foolish. You would have been easy prey for just two of my kin."

 

"So she told me. But Drow don't willingly move about in the daylight." Covenant's voice was surprisingly contemplative. "That was the one thing the rumors had in common. Either it was a raiding party of suicidal Drow, or one alone. If the first, my oaths wouldn't let me stand idly by to such a danger. If the second, then the need must indeed be great to expose themselves to the sun."

 

In attempting to evade her kin, she had made a near-fatal mistake she realized. "What else have you deduced?"

 

Imoen was guarded with her reply. "You called on Shar, not Lolth. That makes you an outcast."

 

The silence returned and they started off again. They reached the fortress of the Friendly Arm Inn some time after dark and understood Imoen's urging to keep moving until they reached its safety. They had covered a lot of ground. Any Drow pursuers would have a very difficult time following them, and the walls of this refuge would not be easily breached.

 

Covenant asked Imoen to give Viconia her cloak before entering the compound, and suggested the Drow wear it to hide her features. They might guess her nature, but without knowing would be less likely to act. Once inside he negotiated the price of a room for them and purchased a sling and bullets for her.

 

They found a table, had a meal and a mug of ale, and negotiated the nature of their relationship. She willingly deferred to Covenant's leadership. He asked but two things of her, not to act upon her natural impulses since she was no longer in her own culture and to use her curing services for the party he expected to bring together. Neither Imoen nor Viconia were warriors, and so should be support for those that were. In return he would defend her from those who would attack her simply because of what she was until such time as she decided to leave. There was no arrogance in his voice or manner. She agreed.

 

They had to leave before sunrise when Imoen's curiosity created an uproar, and they barely beat the guards through the gate.

 

They were in the city of Beregost before sunset. She thought the reference to assassins was rhetoric until they met Karlat. The note on his body was only too real. They found a room at an inn and, before Covenant went to ask about the town, asked her to keep an eye on Imoen. He didn't want a repeat of the morning. She suspected Imoen was given the same request.

 

The next morning she watched as Covenant went around town for supplies, even to a Temple of Lathander for some healing potions, which he put in her charge. He also picked up another party member, a weakling male named Garrick. All they had to do was kill a trollop calling herself Silke. What skills he could possibly provide was beyond her.

 

Then began a period of travel and combat. She began to notice the journal he kept referring to when they would rest, and occasionally made entries in. She realized he was not just wandering aimlessly. He was training them in combat, developing strategies based on their skills. Even Garrick, who surprisingly had some magical ability and a fairly broad knowledge of items, showed he could be useful. His songs when they would rest, though not great, also helped to relax them all. He also had a fairly decent voice.

 

When they returned to Beregost he managed to net some interesting items as well as gold. The mad cleric Bassilus was most profitable when they returned his holy symbol to the Temple of Lathander. Covenant used the money to buy more supplies, including a suit of enchanted chain mail and sling for her. She was given Bassilus' enchanted hammer and some pathetic paladin's magic shield as well.

 

The only problem she had was that they were becoming known. She was glad that she could now walk around without always keeping her face hidden in some cloak. It had become easier to negotiate prices, and get better deals as well. But it also made it harder to hide. Sooner or later another assassin would come looking for Covenant, or the Spider Queen would send someone (or something) for her. And the humans were so . . . weak and irritating. They trusted each other so easily, and expected the same in return. They had no strong governing authority to guide them. No wonder her kin could so easily raid them. They were like sheep with no shepherd to guard them, and they were the wolves.

 

The reputation Covenant was creating followed them to Nashkel as well, so when another assassin attacked them at the inn, it came as no surprise. She fell quickly. They hardly broke a sweat.

 

As usual, Covenant purchased a room and went to look around this small human settlement. It was such a change from Beregost. There was at least some sense of civilization there. Here she could not see even that. The squalor of this collection of hovels would never be seen in the Drow homelands . . .

 

She had finished her bath and the water was growing cool now. She climbed out and began drying herself. An outcast, Covenant and Imoen had taken her in. She could leave at any time. They had agreed to that. Yet she stayed with them. Why?

 

Covenant was a paladin, yet did not question having an "evil" cleric working beside him. When he called her Lady Viconia, as he always did, there was a respect in his voice. Even with Imoen he showed a certain deference, though their relationship was more like brother and sister. He could easily take whatever he wanted from her, and she doubted she could resist him if he tried.

 

Her towel stopped moving as a realization came to her. The bath had indeed helped her relax, and in relaxing to perceive.

 

Her guardian, and so he had acted several times to his own hurt, was also changing. She had noticed it in the battle with Bassilus, but was too tired to react. He could have easily confused the madman, perhaps caused him to release the magics controlling his undead minions. He chose to fight them all. There was a terrifying coldness in his moves, a darkness that seemed to engulf him there. After the battle she saw him pale and shiver as fear momentarily overwhelmed him. It was only a moment, then the moment was past and he regained control.

 

Viconia made certain they knew very little of her, but she had made no effort to learn about Covenant or . . .

 

"Imoen," she asked the person in the other tub in the room, "where are you from? I'm an exile, yet you and Covenant act as much the exile as I."

 

"I guess, in a way we are," came the reply. "Gorion took us both in, and raised us in Candlekeep. It's a nice place. Boring but nice. The rules to get in are downright harsh, so most troublemakers are kept out. If Gorion took us out, which didn't happen often, he could bring us back in. But he's dead now. We can't get back in."

 

"What about Covenant? He's a paladin. What god does he serve?"

 

There was a surprising silence from Imoen. When she did finally respond, the curiosity was clear. "I don't know. I've never given it a thought."

 

Viconia was astonished at the thought that came to her. "You are a bad influence on me, little rogue. Are you up for some mischief tonight?"

 

****************

 

In the main room of the Nashkel Inn Covenant was showing another talent, as he and Garrick were singing some surprisingly bawdy bar songs. A couple cups of mead may have had some hand in the liberties he was taking, but both Viconia and Imoen were astonished at the harmonies they were producing.

 

Sitting on the bed, Imoen brought Covenant's journal from its hiding place beneath her blouse. The locking clasp sealing it was open in less than three heartbeats, and with wide eyes and shallow breaths the cover was opened.

 

Viconia picked the book up in absolute bafflement. Imoen made a strange, coughing sound as she did her best not to be heard outside the room. Their eyes met and Imoen could only bury her head into a pillow as her sides began spasming in laughter. Viconia was more controlled, but she had to laugh as well.

 

Struggling to keep her voice steady, she managed to finally squeak out, "Mister Perfect isn't after all. This has got to be the absolute worst penmanship I have ever seen." And she had seen a lot, especially from some of the dark creatures she had dealt with.It was several minutes before they could open the tome again without giggling. The first entry, Imoen noted, was when Covenant turned ten. Her laughter faded as she remembered, "This was when Gorion took him to Beregost to get this journal. When he came back, he spent the next two months in his room or in the library. He got real serious after that. Even Gorion got worried. He was never taken outside the keep after that."

 

Viconia examined the first few pages, struggling to read what was before her. "There's little here in these entries. He keeps referring to a wolf that's coming after him . . . It wants to eat him . . . He's looking for protection from this wolf that's eating him . . ." She paused. Imoen looked at her with curiosity and fear. "Some of the Dark Rituals use children because they can see into the realms of spirits. He must have seen something he wasn't prepared for, and then saw something inside himself awaken. The wolf that was eating him. Oh, get over yourself, girl," she snapped as Imoen recoiled from her. "You want to live, you need power. Or you die."

 

"And at what cost to you?" she returned.

 

"You don't want to know, Immy." The women jumped at the voice behind them.

 

In the doorway stood the two men. A shocked sadness was on Garrick's face. Covenant's face was emotionless, but his eyes held a deep shadow. "You're showing your wisdom, Lady Viconia, though I expected you two to get my journal before this." He had no anger or bitterness in his voice.

 

"So you've seen the Darkness. Why not rest in it?" Viconia baited him. "It can hide you."

 

"Rest." Just speaking the word carried a great weight. "If only it were that easy."

 

Covenant knew he was too talkative, the result of the alcohol, but he was so tired. "I saw a wolf pack descend on a farm north of Beregost. Gorion managed to get us to safety, but only us. I watched them kill everything, the animals, the farmer, his family. They weren't eaten, just torn to pieces. The wolves were in some mindless rage. And I felt that rage, that desire for death, take a bite out of my soul.

 

"You, Viconia, can hide in the Darkness. You can find rest in it. You can walk away from it if you choose. For now. My wolf *is* that Darkness. It will consume me should I try."

 

"Cov . . ." Imoen whispered, wanting to wrap him in her arms, to comfort him.

 

Viconia knew he spoke true. She had seen such people before, and saw the same shadow on him. "Yet you serve a god of Light. Who . . . ?"

 

"I don't know. All I know is He answered me in my darkest moment when no other god did, and He holds the Darkness back. Imoen, I saw the same Darkness on the man that killed our foster father."

 

A strength returned to his voice, and all heard it. "I don't know who he is, but I know I have to find him. I'm sure he knows what this Darkness is. I intend to learn its Name, and having that Name, free myself from it."

 

Watching him, listening to him, Viconia began forming an idea. He was a child from the Time of Troubles. Could it be possible . . . ? He required father observation. There may be Power here she could use.

 

Covenant took his journal from Viconia's hands. "Now get some rest. We'll be starting early in the morning on another step toward that goal, and with luck we'll have two more members to fill in some sorely lacking abilities."

 

Edited for spelling, punctuation, minor details.

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Part 3

 

The sun was low when they set camp. They found a small clearing in the forest with a quiet stream nearby. Garrick, among his other skills, had proven a very good forager and cook and had begun preparing two geese for dinner, conveniently provided by Minsc's arrows. Covenant and Minsc were setting up the two tents. Imoen has vanished into the surrounding woods to scout the area. She would talk to Minsc when she returned, telling him what she found. Later he would also disappear into the trees and update Imoen when he returned. Imoen may be irritating, but she took her skills seriously. This was an exercise in stealth and detection, and Minsc was the judge letting her know what sign she had missed and what she had left. Imoen's skills had served them well in the Nashkel mines, and now in the Cloakwood mines.

 

Viconia sized up Minsc again, and 'size' summed it up. His frame was a couple inches taller than Covenant, at least twenty pounds heavier, and almost as strong. He was loud and brash and irritated her all too easily, and the two had more than a few arguments, but she knew where she stood with him. Her disdain for males was moderated with him. His sanity may be questionable, but he was no idiot. Even though he carried that rodent he called a miniature giant space hamster, he (and Boo) was surprisingly careful about hygiene. He was terrible to behold when he swung that great sword of his and the bloodlust took control. He was the perfect bodyguard. She was only slightly disappointed he was unavailable.

 

This brought her attention to the final member to be taken in. Dynaheir sat by the fire, studying her magic in preparation for the day ahead. Strong willed and self-assured in her abilities, she grudgingly followed Covenant's leadership. Minsc was *her* protector, sometimes to her chagrin, and she had to remind him of his place regularly. Her arcane skills were most formidable and many enemies had fallen before them. Like the rest of the group, she showed no animosity to her as either a priestess of Shar or a Drow. She did have an arrogance of a high-born noble, and this challenged Viconia.

 

She had learned much in dealing with these humans, about weakness and strength, courage and cowardice, and Power. She had grown skilled in subtle manipulations, in combat and the magic of her Goddess. This ragtag party of adventurers had melded into a small but formidable fighting unit. They would have to be, she realized. They had some powerful enemies to deal with. Covenant had someone sending assassins after him, and he had lead their party successfully against an organization capable of sabotaging the iron mines in Nashkel, uniting the Black Talon and Chill bandits, and running another hidden iron mine in this forest. On top of this, someone was trying to start a war between Baldur's Gate and Amn. And Covenant intended to stop it all.

 

There was a lot of possibility here for the cunning and courageous to gain a lot of power.

 

Again she found herself thinking of him. "What is he," she muttered to herself.

 

She knew many rituals of binding for everything from the weakest humans to lesser Powers. The idea of Covenant under her control appealed to her. If he could be turned and enslaved she could create an empire from the current chaos. There was even the possibility of revenge against the Queen of Spiders, if her theory was correct. Her problem was that the rituals required help, and using the wrong one could result in either the intended victim's death or their fury unleashed.

 

She remembered the fight with Bassilus again. The shadow of the Wolf was still in his eyes, and she felt a chill both of fear and anticipation. She knew what she would do, and the ritual necessary. She had even collected the required items. She did not see how it could be done at the current time, however. Covenant would have to be willing and the other party members would have to participate. If she were right, the opportunity might soon present itself. But would the ritual be powerful enough?

 

It would be all or nothing.Imoen returned to the camp, and as was routine she went directly to Minsc. With the tents set up, he then vanished into the woods. Imoen sat down beside her.

 

"So, Vicci, what plots are you crafting now?"

 

"Little thieves should be more respectful of the betters," she responded coldly. She realized her mistake.

 

Imoen responded like a hungry wolf on a wounded sheep. "That's no fun. Besides, someone has to keep them in their place." Another part of the routine was her attempts to bait Viconia into an argument.

 

"And you in yours, little fishergirl. Don't you tire of being so annoying?"

 

"It doesn't bother me," she replied impishly. "You looked like a cat stalking a mouse. That was a dead giveaway. So, what do you want to do? Be a bandit queen? I know! Let Amn and Baldur's Gate destroy themselves and make a new Queendom on the rubble of the old Kingdoms!"

 

She looked Imoen in the eye before responding, her face and voice absolutely emotionless. "You've such a small imagination. I want what every Drow wants. I want to rule the world."

 

Imoen grinned. "And I'd still be annoying you when you did. But why stop there? If you want Power, why not go for godhood?" She regretted her flippant comment immediately as she saw a strange expression cross Viconia's face. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend."

 

With great restraint, Viconia managed to keep her voice a whisper only Imoen could hear. "You've no idea how treacherous and vindictive the gods can be. I do. They require absolute obedience, as is their right. I wasn't, and it cost me dearly."

 

They fell into a long silence.

 

"So when are going to try and seduce Cov?"

 

Viconia looked at Imoen with a start. "What?!" Imoen was observing the camp as if the previous exchange had never happened. When Imoen returned her gaze Viconia knew she had been baited again.

 

"Mind you, it probably wouldn't work. He's in his 'driven' mood right now, and a forest of naked nymphs dancing before him couldn't get his attention."

 

"Aren't you a bit ahead of yourself, little trollop?"

 

Imoen returned to watching the camp. "You want power. He has it. You said it yourself. Power is the way of the Drow."

 

"He must not be very good in bed, if you'd give him up so easily." The words were spoken with malice. She wanted to see this human squirm, and the implication worked.

 

Imoen flushed and shot Viconia a glance of both anger and horror. "I would never . . . He's my . . . I mean, I . . . " She realized she had been baited, and had crossed a line of propriety. "I guess I deserved that. He's like a brother to me, so I never even thought about it. And the idea just feels . . . wrong."

 

"And you show how weak you are. We Drow have no such moral barriers. Make no mistake, I would seduce him in ways you can't even imagine if it would gain me the power I desire. But you have to know what you're dealing with. After all these weeks, can you still say you *know* him anymore? He is dangerous, child. He knows it, even if he doesn't know why. He cannot be seduced so easily."

Imoen was casually observing the camp again. This irritated Viconia for some reason. "You're not offended at what I just said?"

 

"Sure I'm offended, but I'm not surprised. Candlekeep has some very interesting books, including some very accurate descriptions of Drow judging by you. Ol' puff-guts Gorion thought that part of the library was secure from me." After a moment she looked at Viconia. "I feel sorry for you. What good is power if you don't have friends you can talk to, you can trust?"

 

Before she could reply Imoen had risen and moved over to Garrick at the fire. Trust and friendship make you vulnerable, she thought. House DeVir had paid the price, she had paid the price, for those weaknesses. She swore it would never happen again.

 

Viconia began her meditations to Shar, and was quickly deep into them. She didn't notice when Minsc returned, that he immediately went to Covenant. She did not notice Covenant motion Imoen over, and after a brief discussion the ranger and the thief vanishing once more into the trees.

 

She did not break her meditations until she became aware of the smell of roast fowl and someone standing before her. "I don't think your Dark Majesty will mind you taking a few minutes to receive sustenance," Covenant said as he sat beside her. He offered her a dish with a large drum stick and boiled vegetables.

 

As she took the offering she realized the sun had set. The campfire was all the light they had. Dynaheir had put away her spell book and had moved over to the women's tent. Garrick was cleaning the cooking utensils. She almost missed Minsc near a tree, her infravision disrupted by the campfire. She could neither see nor hear Imoen.

 

As if sensing her thought, he added "She's down by the stream."

 

His voice and manner somehow relaxed her. He would not harm her, she knew. He took efforts to be open and honest. This was weakness, yet she responded to it. She would have thrown the dish in his face if he were not right. She was quite hungry and the meal proffered, though not large, was nourishment sorely needed. She ate it slowly, and in silence.

 

She handed him the dish when she finished. "Few males among my people would dare approach a female as you do. You act subservient, but there is mockery in it. My sisters would have you slain for disrespect. They would think you mock them, not yourself."

 

He took the plate, but did not rise. "Since the night of the . . . Wolf, I have lived a life devoid of simple fun, Lady Viconia. Even in play I must be on guard against it. I suppose it's my way of keeping sane. It's ironic, don't you think, to be as capable as I yet terrified of what may happen if I'm not careful?"

 

"There are many places where your power would be welcomed. Places where you could have what you wanted, when you wanted. You wouldn't have to keep that "wolf" locked up. You have grown strong! You could *be* the wolf!"

 

As he looked toward the fire, she watched him smile sadly and shake his head. "It's true I've grown stronger, but so has it. Since the first night we entered Nashkel, it's been sending me dreams." Why, Viconia wondered, had he told her this? He continued.

 

"Power is a dangerous thing, much like a great storm. It may look safe from a distance, but it's another matter when it overtakes you. You may think you could control the Wolf, but I know better."

 

He turned to her and locked his gaze with hers. "You think you know what I fight. You may be right. Candlekeep is a repository of knowledge, and I have studied it. I am well aware of the Prophecies of Aloundo. Do you really think you could control that kind of Power for long?"

 

A sound from the forest startled her. A branch had slapped someone and the curse that followed was unmistakably Drow. Covenant calmly handed her war hammer from where it had been hidden at his side.

 

"It looks like our guests have finally arrived," he commented casually as he rose and went over to where he had placed his weapons. She noted his bow was already strung. Minsc and vanished into the woods and Dynaheir had moved to her right. Garrick took position to her left, crossbow ready.

 

There were several more of these traps tripped, and Viconia smiled. They weren't meant to cause any serious harm, but did reveal the movements of intruders. When the Drow party finally entered the clearing, they were clearly in a bad mood. They seldom met anyone who knew they were coming, let alone play what amounted to a prank on them.

 

There were six of them, two fighters and two vanguards protecting a mage and a cleric. They locked eyes on Viconia, then on Covenant as he moved between them and their target.

 

With an arrow in his bow, though not drawn, he offered a courteous bow. He had no armor. "Welcome, honored guests. I would offer you a meal, but I'm afraid we've run out. May I help you in some other way?"

 

For a moment they stood confused. The vanguards raised their crossbows to shoot him when the cleric snapped an order, staying their attack as she stepped forward.

 

"You are insane or a fool. Your response will tell which. Give us the renegade Viconia DeVir and you shall live."

 

Covenant looked utterly perplexity. "Viconia . . . DeVir? Who is that?" His voice sounded as bewildered as his expression. What was he doing?!

 

The cleric cursed angrily. "The one who looks like me that's standing behind you!"

 

He bowed deeply again. "But . . . there is no one here who looks like you, my lady. You are far too beautiful to compare to anyone here."

 

He sounded so sincere to Viconia that anger began rising in her. He was her possess . . . And she realized what he was doing. He was stalling for time by playing on this woman's weakness.

 

"That woman with the dark skin behind you, fool," the cleric snapped through clenched teeth. Viconia saw lust rising in her eyes. His act as idiot, and his flattery, had succeeded for the moment.

 

Covenant's head snapped as if slapped, and again he looked bewildered. He turned around and looked at her. "Nice lady? Is your name," and he struggled with it, "Viconia . . . the Deer?"

 

Turning your back on a Drow was the height of foolishness, or bravery, and Viconia almost missed her cue because of his brashness. "Yes, you dolt," she snarled. "And it's De-Vir, not the Deer! Vi*co*nee*ah De*Veer! Can't you keep more than two thoughts in that simple head of yours?" The only thing she could do was play along now.

 

Covenant cowered. "You still surround yourself with weaklings and fools," the cleric chuckled. "This one looks strong enough, and docile too. I think I might actually take him as my slave."

 

Covenant turned back to face the cleric, still showing fear and bewilderment. Suddenly his expression and pose changed to absolute carefree. "Okay, you can have her," he casually spoke.

The transition was so abrupt the Drow cleric was momentarily stunned, and in that moment the battle was joined.

 

Dynaheir began muttering a spell as the mage fell with two arrows and a quarrel impaling him. Covenant then dropped his bow, grabbed the cleric's arm and threw her toward Viconia. The vanguards fired their crossbows at Covenant as the fighters lunged forward with swords to strike him down. The Wolf had again been released, but it was not alone.

 

Dynaheir finished her incantation and flame exploded just beyond, and engulfing, their attackers. One of the vanguards screamed in agony and fell lifeless. It was well placed, expending itself but inches from Covenant. The burst was barely over when Minsc charged from the woods in a berserker rage. The remaining patches of fire effectively destroyed any advantage Drow infravision may have provided.

 

Viconia saw little after this as she found herself in combat with the other cleric. The rage she had withheld while among these humans she released now. Shar smiled on her. Her opponent was better skilled, but less prepared and quickly overwhelmed. She first managed a blow that broke the leg of her enemy, then shortly landed a second blow that shattered the weapon arm. The scream for mercy was silenced when she crushed her skull. Then she became aware of the battle still going before her.

 

Minsc was pulling his sword from the body of the last vanguard and ready to move after the fighters pressing Covenant.

 

Dynaheir finished another spell, and darts of energy shot at one of the fighters only to evaporate as they struck. He was dead a moment later as Imoen suddenly appeared behind him, short sword driving up from just below the plate of his armor.

 

A moment later the final fighter lay dead from the combined attacks of Covenant, Minsc and Imoen.

 

Minsc immediately began extinguishing the few smoldering remains of Dynaheir's fireball. The others quickly followed, except for Covenant. He had several deep gashes, and a bolt in his right calf. He winced in pain and inhaled sharply, almost collapsing as he sat.

 

Viconia grabbed her pack and moved quickly over to tend his wounds. One quick look at the bolt was all she needed.

 

The thrill of battle was fading, and she was beginning to feel a little angry. "You must have a death wish," she muttered to him as she pulled the quarrel free. She made sure she twisted it in the process.

 

His grunt of pain as satisfying. "Lady Viconia, are you trying to cure me or kill me?" Was that a touch of laughter in his voice? He grunted in pain again, but not from anything she had done.

 

She quickly removed an antidote potion from her pack. "Drink this. The bolt had a slow acting poison on it. I'll not waste Shar's gifts to it."

 

Covenant swallowed it down, and a moment later his body visibly relaxed. After she cast her first spell, he replied. "My apologies. At times I do believe I do want to die. But not this time. Minsc noticed a track Imoen missed, one he guessed was a scout. I congratulate you on taking my hand-off so well. I feared I might have overplayed my hand."

 

"You are very blessed by that god of yours, fool. Playing such games with any Drow as you did is dangerous." She smiled. "Still, you pulled it off masterfully, my Perplexing Paladin." She cast a few more minor healing spells on him before getting up.

He grabbed her wrist, then glanced at the dead cleric. "Shar seems to have blessed you as well this night." He caught her gaze and she felt as if he were looking into her very being. "Please be careful. Sooner or later the gods of darkness charge for their services, and no mortal can pay their price."

 

He let her go, and began looking at the fire. "Thank you for remaining with me, Lady Viconia. I am certain it hasn't been easy."

 

She looked at the dead in the camp. "I have been a fool. Whether by intent or chance, this hunting party found me. My presence will only add more danger to you. I should leave."

 

"And we defeated them as we have every other enemy we have encountered. I believe it was chance only that brought them here. We've traveled too far in the time you have been with us for it to be otherwise."

 

He climbed to his feet. "Please stay. My quest is coming to an end soon, I believe. I fear your skills and knowledge will be sorely needed before then. Now let's help put out the remaining embers of Dynaheir's magic. I prefer to die in battle, not asleep caught in a forest fire."

 

She watched him move off toward Minsc. Did he just give her the opening she sought? She would remain with him a while longer.

 

Edited for spelling, punctuation, minor details.

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Part 4

 

The Friendly Arm Inn was as she last remembered it, full of the noise of people and smells of food and ale, and warm. If anything, it had become even more active. The bandit threat had been greatly reduced, iron had again begun flowing from Nashkel. People were traveling the roads again. She still shivered: she had begun to know fear. Since the night of that encounter with the Drow raiders, they had met and defeated even more and greater adversaries. It seemed nothing could stand in their way.

 

In the far corner of the main floor is where the others were relaxing, refreshing themselves with food and a bit of alcohol to take the edge off the current turn of events. It was the same table Covenant had found two acquaintances of Gorion when she had first entered this establishment. They looked at her with distrust, and questioned his choice of companion, but were willing to give him latitude. She now knew he was serious when he refused them, and told them he didn't want them to die as his foster father had.

 

Now Viconia was wondering if she should have left Covenant that night as well.

 

The time in Baldur's Gate had not been wasted. She had made some contacts in the Thieves Guild she would build on - if she survived. She had learned much about human culture, and was certain she could make her way in it now. This gave her some hope.

 

If only they had not entered the Iron Throne building. The fight with the welcoming committee that had been left had been rough, and it was then she saw that something had begun going wrong. The Wolf had freed itself again, and only with great difficulty did Covenant cage it again.

 

Then it was on to his childhood home. Candlekeep was everything Imoen said. Clean, orderly, boring. It would have been, anyway, had they not found dopplegangers had infiltrated it. In the battle with the leaders of the Iron Throne the Wolf had again broke free, and it took him even longer, required even more effort, to restrain it. But not before it looked at her, and she began to fear.

 

The letter they found in Gorion's chamber only validated what she and Covenant had suspected. That was when her fear truly came to life.

 

This evening she decided to dress in a gown before descending from their room. She knew she could not seduce Covenant, but perhaps she could plant an image in him that would give her a moment's chance if what she feared proved true. By the reactions of the party, she certainly had succeeded.

 

Imoen glanced at her, and Viconia half expected to hear her neck snap as she looked again. She detected a shadow of jealousy in Dynaheir's gaze. Minsc sat motionless, mouth hanging open in wonder. Garrick, whom she had enjoyed tormenting and ordering about, was quicker of wit than she expected. "I will most gladly get you some food now," he offered with a bow and a mocking smile, "and with pleasure!"

 

Though his exuberance was a welcome relief, it was Covenant she watched. It was he she was trying to impress.

 

Covenant rose from his seat and came around the table. He bowed and offered his arm in courtesy. As their eyes caught each other, she saw a dance of emotions in his. Joy and sadness and despair all struggled to master him. She realized that he, too, was scared. "You are the most beautiful woman I have had the pleasure of knowing, Lady Viconia." His words were simple and honest. He meant them, and it both pleased and annoyed her.

 

She accepted his arm. She would play along. She spoke so only Covenant could hear, "That's not what you told a certain Drow cleric not long ago. A lying paladin?"

"That was no lie, Lady Viconia. After a tenday on the trail even the flies were keeping distance. A bathed orc probably looked better than any of us."

 

She chuckled at this. "And certainly smelled better." That cleric had at least bathed sometime before that encounter.

 

"Garrick," Covenant called as they approached the table, "why don't you play us some music. I think I'd like to dance with this fair Lady. One fast, one slow if you please, so she can sample some of our simpler pleasures."

 

The bard was swift to oblige as the pair moved out into a suddenly clear space on the floor. Viconia thought it might be because of their reputation until she realized that other couples were going to join in. "Think you can keep up, my Lady?" came a sly whisper in her ear. She was thankful for Imoen's prodding to learn a few human dances when they stopped at the various inns along their journey.

 

A challenge then, and somehow that idea gave her joy. Garrick had improved considerably since he had joined them, and the first dance was fast and vigorous. Few were the couples that stayed with it to the end, and all were breathing heavily except them. She was surprised at how quickly she had picked up the moves, and that she had Covenant struggling a few times when she put in a move of her own. She was also quick enough to curtsy to him at the end, as did the other women to their partners. Covenant's bow was considerably deeper and longer than that given by the other men on the floor.

 

The second piece Garrick played was waltz-like, slow and graceful. It was a longer piece, and even an old couple was able to stay to its end. It made her uncomfortable when he put his hand to the small of her back, however.

 

"Thank you, Lady Viconia." She was startled at the sadness his voice carried. "I understand what you're doing. Thank you for putting up with me."

 

"You haven't told them yet?"

 

There was a pause in his reply as they continued dancing. "Not yet. I wanted them to have a little enjoyment before dropping that bit of news. I expect you've some ritual ready to bind me? I think that's why we were brought together."

 

She almost missed her step with the question. "Imoen," she whispered angrily.

 

"Said nothing. Whatever you said to her has remained with her. She would never violate your trust. I expected your clerical duties included such things. She wasn't the only one who read those books on the Drow forbidden by Gorion." He smiled impishly. "She only read a little and had nightmares for a week."

 

Viconia grinned. "A paladin that's a sneak as well. You are full of surprises. You read them all, I presume."

 

"Of course. I was looking for anything I could use against my enemy. They held no terror that compared to what I was already experiencing." They continued to dance for a bit before he spoke again. "May both our gods grant your efforts success."

 

They remained silent until the dance ended.

 

As they moved back to their table, Viconia began berating herself. She was beginning to feel for this human, feelings she knew made her vulnerable, made her weak. She would likely need to kill him in the next few days, and they might interfere.

When the Inn had returned to normal, Covenant reached inside his tunic and withdrew Gorion's letter. "Each of you please read this. Say nothing about it until everyone has had a chance to review it." He handed it to Dynaheir first.

 

Viconia watched each in turn as they read the letter. Dynaheir showed little, though her back stiffened slightly. Minsc, not as well trained in letters, took longer to read the document and his face hardened. She wondered what strange link existed between he and Boo because the hamster seemed to squeak in shock, then definitely began staring at Covenant. Garrick paled. She saw a spark of rage ignite in Imoen's eyes, ready to defend her foster brother with everything she had. When it was passed to her, Viconia returned it to Covenant; he insisted she read it after he first opened it.

 

"Now," Covenant began, "you know what we're up against. My 'Wolf' now has a name, as does the man behind everything we've come up against until now. What you may not understand is that the Wolf is becoming stronger, and harder to contain."

 

There was an intended avoidance of his Father's name, and Viconia could see the understanding in the eyes of all at the table. A human generation later that name still brought fear. Bhaal, God of Murder. Gods who know they are about to die make plans for a return . . .

 

"Blood calls to blood" Dynaheir interrupted. "If this Sarevok is your twin brother, then it is not unexpected. My people believe that such siblings are bound together in mystical ways, and what happens to one affects the other. The closer they are, the stronger this link becomes. Normally this works on both, but with the blood of your Father in this . . . "

 

"And we have to confront Sarevok. There is no choice." Covenant's voice took on a hardness Viconia had not heard before. He had made his decision and would not be dissuaded. "I wanted you to know the totality of what you're up against. What I am about to ask of you may be the most difficult duty I have required, but this is why we've been brought together. I will fight my brother personally, and there is a very real chance I will be consumed by the Wolf. If that happens, It must not be allowed to live."

 

He paused for the others to speak. If things were not so serious, Viconia would have laughed when Boo ran up onto Minsc's shoulder and began chattering away in his ear. He nodded. "Yes, Boo. You are right. We swore to fight evil wherever it is, and kick it in its backside. And this Wolf is a *big* evil. This will not be easy, though, even for us."

 

The rest nodded in agreement. "This is why I've asked Lady Viconia for help. She knows a ritual to bind the Wolf. You are to follow her directions if it becomes necessary, no questions asked."

 

Garrick was visibly upset at this. "I will not participate in such dark arts. There must be some other way."

 

"How many innocents will die if the Wolf runs free? That is the heritage of my father and not something I want to leave behind. The ritual is a last resort only. Remember, you will likely all be weakened from the fight with Sarevok's inner circle. If I lose to the Wolf I will no longer exist, so I ask this one last duty."

 

"So it's the lesser of two evils we're faced with," the bard responded. "I will agree, but only if there's no other choice."

 

Minsc and Dynaheir also agreed. Only Imoen remained. "The problem is," she began, "it's evil either way. That's a lot to ask, and I don't know if I can do it."

 

Viconia restrained her anger. "I've had the Wolf look at me, you weak-kneed little girl. It wants nothing but to kill, and to keep killing. But if it will make you feel better, your parts require nothing evil." She would have explained more if Covenant had not placed his hand on hers.

"I will leave now, while you discuss this. You are to follow her instructions in this matter. I will be making my own preparations." He rose and went up to their rooms.

 

Why, she wondered, am I still here? These humans meant little to her, and if the Wolf did break free it would be slain before it escaped Baldur's Gate. Shar, why do I still remain, why do you keep me here?

 

She suddenly understood, and spoke with unexpected confidence. "The gods don't want Bhaal to return, and we are their tools in this matter. Covenant knows it's best he not to know what will be done. What he knows, the Wolf will know. The ritual has two parts. You will only be involved with the first, the Ward of Containment." She saw Imoen's attitude soften a bit. "It brings no harm to those inside. Only I will be involved in the second part. I doubt I can slay the Wolf, but I should be able to weaken it enough for you to kill."

 

"Will we not will need a Magic Circle?" Dynaheir would have some knowledge in these matters, and the question was sincere.

 

"By now Sarevok thinks himself the heir of his Father, thinks himself the new Lord of Murder. He will no doubt have his Father's Symbol in his inner sanctum. That will serve."

 

Imoen's question was both serious and a jab at her. "No children or virgins? No innocent blood for the sacrifice?"

 

"Blood will be required, but such sacrifices are only for getting favors. We are seeking destruction. That requires a different sacrifice, the blood of the powerful and strong. *That* we will already have in abundance."

 

That seemed to satisfy Imoen enough to give her assent, and Viconia was able to finish her instructions to them.

 

******************

 

Their second visit to Baldur's Gate was a far cry from the first. Even though the Iron Throne leaders had attacked first when they realized who Covenant was, somehow the facts had been twisted and they were charged with murder. Only cover of darkness and fast feet allowed them to avoided capture by the first group of Flaming Fist enforcers they encountered.

 

Of course, things became even more difficult when they were approached by an armored woman. This led to another visit to the Iron Throne compound, several assassination plots and a pass into the Ducal Palace to confront Sarevok face to face for the first time. Covenant had completely destroyed his brother's plans, and provided the remaining Dukes a chance to stop the war with Amn. From there the chase went through the Thieve's Guild and into a forgotten city below Baldur's Gate.

 

It was an ancient city, only ruins but for a single structure. The city had a thick air of evil with undead hiding throughout, drawn by its aura. The Temple seemed to be shrouded in a cloak of evil, as though trying to swallow all light, all life. This was the heart of the city and the final refuge of Sarevok.

 

As they stood before the great bronze doors, Viconia glanced at Covenant. The Wolf was peeking out through his eyes, waiting for the right moment to attack. It wanted, it thirsted for the fight ahead. Covenant then pulled the doors open and they entered.

 

A symbol of Bhaal was barely visible on the floor ahead of them. Imoen immediately faded into the shadows to scout things out. A few moments later she returned.

"They're near the altar at the far end. The steps to it are trapped, but I couldn't get close enough to disarm them without being seen. I found several traps on the east side and on the symbol, but couldn't disable them. There's nothing else in here."

 

Viconia prayed a Chant over them before they spread out to meet this final battle. She was a little irritated when Covenant gave his brother a chance to surrender, though realized he would do not less. He had made a promise to Sarevok's rejected lover, Tomoko. He knew what the answer would be even before he asked.

 

The battle was the hardest they had faced until now. Sarevok immediately went after Covenant, who had moved onto the symbol of Bhaal and received a small electrical jolt as a result. The others immediately placed their objects around the symbol as instructed before turning to Sarevok's lieutenants on the dais.

 

Garrick and Dynaheir each cast a Fireball into the altar area while Imoen and Minsc peppered the area with arrows. She prayed to dispel any protective magics their adversaries might have cast, then began the ritual for the Ward.

 

Viconia sensed the attacker behind her. She turned as quickly as she could but was not fast enough to avoid it. The blade missed her vital organs, but the numbness that immediately set in told her it had been poisoned.

 

Before Tazok could pull his sword free Viconia had responded with her hammer. Her natural speed allowed her to strike before he could put up a defense, and the enchanted gauntlets she wore provided the strength that shattered his collar bone and left his arm hanging useless. She wondered if he even saw Minsc swinging his great sword with enough force to split him in two. Minsc would have helped her had she not motioned him back into the battle. Dynaheir's second Fireball went off and Semaj fell. A moment later Angelo followed with arrows from Minsc and Imoen.

 

Viconia finished the ritual prayer and a shimmering blue curtain rose around the symbol of Bhaal and the combatants. The Ward of Containment was in place.

 

Viconia finally looked at Covenant. The Wolf was free and its dark shadow had become physical to her eyes, but it was fighting a losing battle. At her command they began launching whatever missiles they had at the massive form of Sarevok. He, too, was lost in a battle rage and seemingly impervious to pain. Crossbow bolt, arrow, bullet and magic missile alike struck with no apparent effect.

 

Sarevok struck a blow that Covenant blocked with his shield, but it had such force they could hear his arm break and it forced him to his knees. The Wolf, though down, managed one last strike as Sarevok raised his sword for the killing blow. Covenant's sword came up and somehow found a weak point in his enemies armor. All the punishment his body had taken now took hold and Sarevok cried out in disbelief before collapsing in death.

 

They all watched, mesmerized as Sarevok's body began dissolving and his armor collapsed in on itself. Viconia saw his essence drawn to the altar and vanish.

 

Viconia was ready to release the Ward as Covenant climbed to his feet when she saw the Wolf. It had grown even stronger with Sarevok's passing, enough that the others, if unable to see it, could feel it now. Had it somehow absorbed some of his power? The inhuman cry that escaped Covenant's throat chilled them all. He leapt at Viconia only to be repelled by the Ward in a blaze of magical fire. Only she saw how close he came to breaking through it.

 

Viconia collapsed to her knees, suddenly weak, legs numb, awareness returning of the blade in her side. The poison was taking its toll now. She had to finish this now.

She began the Death Chant. The spilled blood from Sarevok and Covenant began to glow and rise in fine droplets as the power of the ritual grew. Soon the blood from Sarevok's dead lieutenants began to join in the deadly magic, then the blood come from the wounds of the living. All spilled blood was drawn to the Ward, turning it from blue to violet.

 

The Wolf prepared to spring at her again. Catching her eyes as she worked the incantation, she saw a glimpse of Covenant still within. He was struggling, desperate, but still fighting the Wolf. It was then she began to see another shadow within the shadow of the Wolf, a shadow of . . . light?

 

She finished the Death Chant except for the final Word, but found herself waiting. Why was she holding back? She berated Imoen for this very thing, yet still she held that final Word.

 

Inside the Ward a new battle grew, and all could see the struggle as the two 'shadows' sought supremacy. Then with a quiet but irresistible power the shadow of light began to rise up like someone shaking off sleep, and as it did the Wolf shrank, then cowered, and finally disappeared.

 

In that moment she knew the battle had been won, and that pleased her for some reason. She let the last Word fade from her throat and mind and the Death Chant faded with it. With her last energy she released the Ward, then slowly rolled over, all strength leaving her as the numbness took her body. As her vision faded she saw Covenant rush at her and wondered in fear if she had been wrong . . .

 

********************

 

She was floating . . . no, falling, and not just falling. She was being pulled, drawn down a long, dark shaft. She slowly became aware of small sparks around her, glowing like dying embers from a fire. This was Sarevok's soul, she realized, this was his power. The shaft began to glow from a light below and in a moment Viconia found herself floating in a great chamber filled with statues of all sorts, images of creatures and beings she had seen before, some she had only heard about in legend, each somehow linked to a living being somewhere.

 

She heard a crack and turned, her vision drawn to the image of Sarevok. As his essence touched his image it cracked then crumbled, the life in it dying as he had.

 

She looked around, slowly becoming aware of the immenseness of the chamber, not just across, but in height as well, and in the awareness recognized two of the images.

 

She began falling again and looked down, and went numb with horror. At the bottom of the chamber Bhaal had left a symbol, burning with His power, set to destroy any who would dare intrude here! Everything went black just before she hit it.

 

*********************

 

She became aware of pain, as if being consumed by fire. Every fiber of her being burned with it, and the darkness around her was absolute! This must be Hell, she thought, and tried to call to Shar but found herself unable!

 

She had no idea how long she was here, moments or years or millennia. Time had no meaning here. Slowly she became aware of light approaching her. The light took on form and the shape of someone became visible inside. She recognized the face of Covenant as he reached her, reached out to touch her. She recoiled and would have screamed in pain had she any breath in her. His touch only magnified the pain she was experiencing, yet he continued to touch her, grab her, hold her!

 

Then the pain began to subside, the burning to fade, as the light slowly and gently expanded to engulf both of them. Her vision faded again, and she remembered nothing more.

 

**********************

She became aware of the smells first, of clean linen, of food on the hearth. Touch came next, of soft cloth and a soft bed, and the sound of someone moving about. With difficulty Viconia opened her eyes to a softly lit room and Imoen beside her.

 

"You made it after all," the rogue muttered in fake surprise. "I guess even the gods get soft-hearted sometimes."

 

She tried to sit up, but Imoen's hand stopped her. "You're lucky to be alive, so don't do anything for a while. Cov would be heartbroken if you were to die after all his efforts."

 

Viconia relaxed under her hand. "What happened?" She cringed. That was a stupid question.

 

"Well, once the Ward dropped, so did you. Cov just wouldn't let you die, so he used all of his powers to keep you alive. He used every one of his 'gifts' on you." Then she added with a grin, "I told him he didn't need to. Death wouldn't want anyone as ornery as you!"

 

Viconia smiled in return. You have no idea what he did, little tramp, she thought to herself as she drifted into sleep.

 

**********************

 

Covenant was in the room when she awakened next. She was in the same room, but it was unfamiliar. "Where are we?"

 

"Thieves Guild. Seems someone here thinks a priestess of Shar might be helpful." Covenant looked into her eyes. "Shar must not be done with you. She let all my healings work on you. You had no resistance. I'd ask what you saw, but such visions are best left until the proper time."

 

She was startled. "What do you mean? About visions?"

 

He came over to the bed with a bowl of hot soup. "You were on the very edge of death, Lady Viconia, and maybe beyond it for a few moments. Our natures allow us both to see a little into the Realm of the Spirit. You were released into it for a time."

 

She thought about her 'dreams.' Were they visions? Had Shar taken opportunity with her soul? She felt a chill. Shar was to be obeyed without question, and She could do with her as She saw fit . . .

 

Covenant helped her into a sitting position so she could eat. He turned his head in modesty when the sheet slipped, and she grinned. He had somehow charmed her. No Drow male would have cared.

 

She repositioned the covering. "Where's Imoen?"

 

"She got caught pilfering the house of a mage," he laughed softly and easily, "then he decided to take her as an apprentice. Ah, well. She was getting bored with being a thief."

 

"It seems you've changed, too," she replied. "You're more relaxed now. Is the Wolf gone?"

 

He shook his head, still smiling. "No, it's still there. It's part of me. I'll still have to be careful. My mistake was in thinking it wasn't, so I made matters worse because I was fighting myself."

 

"I saw two shadows fighting over you inside the Ward. Were they both you?"

Covenant looked up at the ceiling, remembering. "No. One was my father's essence, the Wolf, trying to consume me. The other was my God. It was in the Ward when I understood, when the Wolf tried to get you. You wanted to plant an image in my mind, and it worked. I remembered you in that lovely gown, and the dance, and my God gave me two visions of you, two possible futures. Then he told me all I had to do was stop fighting the Wolf and let Him fight it for me. He would not as long as I insisted on doing it myself. So I did and He did."

 

Her voice carried a note of ridicule when she responded. "That's a lot of trust for a God no one seems to know but you, and you don't even know His name"

 

"Yes, it is." He heard the attack in her words, but ignored them. His voice remained quiet and calm. "I don't understand a lot of what He does or asks of me, He only asks that I trust Him. So far He hasn't failed me."

 

Sometime during their conversation she had finished her soup, so handed the bowl back to Covenant. What kind of god, she wondered, asks only for the trust of their worshipers? What of her visions? "I grow tired," she muttered as she lay back down, and was quickly asleep.

 

*******************

 

She regained her strength over the next few days. Covenant was right, the Guild did want her services to curry the favor of the Lady of Shadows. He still came by frequently to update her on the other party members, and to finish one last job he would say.

 

Imoen had taken handily to her new profession, much to the delight of her new mentor. Dynaheir had continued on with her mysterious quest with Minsc by her side. Garrick had been playing in the Friendly Arm when his Guild invited him to Amn. He had not accepted yet, but Covenant was certain he would. And what was his 'unfinished business?'

 

It was early afternoon when she heard a dull rumble and felt the Guild building shake ever so slightly. A few minutes later Covenant walked by her chamber escorting three dwarves and a gnome, all blindfolded. He returned a while later.

 

"I take it you've finished your work here? What was it?" she asked as he entered. She expected his answer.

 

"The Guild and I both agreed the hidden city was a problem. We made sure it was sealed by collapsing the tunnel to it. We are also agreed that this is my last time I'll be allowed in here."

 

After a short pause, he added with a mischievous smile, "I think I make them nervous."

 

She smiled at the understatement. "I wonder why? What will you do now?"

 

"I'll spend the next tenday at the Friendly Arm, just relaxing. After that . . . " He shrugged, then looking at her he bowed. "I'd appreciate the pleasure of your company in that time, Lady Viconia. Perhaps we can have another dance together?"

 

She though about it a moment. Something had changed between them since the fight with Sarevok. She began to understand. "I'm afraid I have other . . . duties."

 

They looked at each other, and she saw the recognition in his eyes. "I suppose you do." Whatever had kept them together on the trail had been removed. There was no animosity or ambivalence in his voice, only a sincere honesty when he added, "I wish you well. Perhaps we'll meet again."

 

The idea, however remote, pleased her. "I'll probably be coming to your rescue, if we do. I wish you well on your journeys."

 

The paladin bowed deeply and left. He had grown strong, she realized, no longer the youth she had tried to use in their first meeting. And he did please her.

 

"If ever there is a next time, my young paladin, I will seduce you. I will make you *mine*."

 

Edited for spelling, punctuation, minor details.

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Part 5

 

Viconia's time with the Guild was fairly uneventful. Most of the time she was healing those thieves who were clumsy or not observant enough to avoid traps. Every now and then things were more serious, as when the Fist would stumble upon them in the middle of their work. Things were quite routine otherwise.

 

And then there was Alatos. The leader of the Guild was regularly making subtle advances (and some not so subtle) and was becoming more than a minor irritation. Since the fall of House DeVir she had done many things to survive, but her time with Covenant had allowed her to see herself with a greater dignity. This was something Alatos clearly lacked. She could see his hatred and lust for her. She knew he kept her here only because she provided a needed serve to the Guild. She would bide her time and punish his insolence when when the opportunity arose.

 

She had begun making contacts outside the Guild. The Undercellar and Low Lantern proved trees of corruption ripe for the picking, profitable both in finances and information. Given time she might be able to use them to become a Duke, but because of the inherent hatred most of the surface dwellers held for her race, she had to be subtle. Too many were the times she had to retreat from a group of children to avoid releasing her wrath upon them.

 

This state of affairs gave her a little time to do some research. In the Underdark there was little to be found, or heard, of other gods except Lolth, and she found herself ignorant of the most basic knowledge of the Powers these surface dwellers worshiped. Unfortunately, the more she learned about Shar, the more uncertain she became. Her own nature seemed aligned with her goddess, but she found a need for a stability that her goddess was not known for.

 

Finding information on Bhaal was easy, and the more she knew the more she understood why at least some of the gods did not want his return. Shar would certainly like part of his portfolio. She learned much about the Time of Troubles as well, things only whispered about in the Underdark. With the knowledge she had gained from Candlekeep she began to understand who the Bhaal-spawn were, and their reason for existence. She had to give a reluctant respect to Covenant for controlling the chaos which certainly raged within his very being.

 

Covenant still perplexed her, though they had not met since the sealing the Temple below. Through the Guild she still kept track of him whenever he came to Baldur's Gate. Bhaal-spawn, paladin, a servant of some unknown god, he seemed to be a walking contradiction to everything she knew, and with her years she knew much. Three months adventuring with him and, unlike every other human she had encountered, he somehow evaded categorizing. She did not like that, yet it drew her to him. He remained an unknown, a "coin on edge" as their proverb went. He could not be used easily, and not without risk.

 

As for his god, she could find nothing but whispers, hints and rumors, and they were often contradictory. A sage from Kara-Tur suggested it was his good nature manifesting itself through his divine heritage, while the Wolf was his evil nature. This may be true of the Wolf, and even Covenant admitted that, but that "other" was completely different and somehow . . . alien.

 

Other ideas she had considered included one of the current gods using Covenant in some scheme, a new god trying to establish a presence in the Realms, or an ancient Power returning. These ideas had more merit and fit her observations of Covenant better than the words of the sage, but there was nothing to work with. She doubted it was one of the current pantheon, since they seldom let their work go unrecognized. But with Bhaal's portfolio up for grabs it was possible. The power she had seen, had felt from Covenant, also seemed different somehow. She found herself with two choices: either a new Power was rising, or a long hidden and forgotten Power was manifesting once more. She did not like this. The vanity of the gods, and the lust for power of many, could result in a power struggle that might jeopardize Faerun.

 

Three months had passed since Covenant's departure. She learned the routine of the Guild, but had not grown numb to it. Perhaps that was why she noticed when the Guild began having difficulty. At first they began finding their major targets had been picked off ahead of them. Then deadlier traps began appearing at some of the jobs. She warned Alatos and Narlen that someone may be betraying them. Alatos seemed unwilling to believe her, and openly rejected her warning.

 

Returning to the shrine to Shar, as her room had become, she cursed the stupidity of thieves, and humans in general. She was more than a little angry and did not notice Narlen was in the room.

 

"I'm glad I don' know what you sayin'. Might burn my ears off right down to my neck." He quickly raised his hands in a gesture of peace as Viconia spun around with hammer in hand. "Be here to talk, not fight."

 

Viconia held her weapon ready, but glared at this intruder. "It better be good or you'll feel my wrath. It's very ill mannered to enter uninvited into a woman's chambers."

 

"So my wife keeps tellin' me," he replied with a momentary grin. "I been thinkin' same as you told Alatos. Been doin' some lookin' on my own, but findin' empty boxes."

 

"Looking behind the back of your boss? You surprise me."

 

"Alatos be a fool at times, but still the boss. The Guild be in trouble, so extra efforts needed. Maybe you find something Narlen missed with your fish. You got lines go higher'n me."

 

Viconia lowered her hammer. "You're better than I gave you credit for. One whisper about any of my connections and you'll pay a steep price. I don't like being betrayed."

 

"You play with fish too big for me. Too much trouble if they want off the line. You find anythin' and it be inside the Guild, let me know. We got special things for traitors." With that Narlen left. Viconia was a little unnerved that he could apparently vanish so easily while she watched, or that he had uncovered her ties to power.

 

A month passed and things grew worse, with the Fist regularly disrupting, even capturing, some of the best thieves the Guild had. The Guild members began to distrust her, muttering that she was destroying them for some unknown Drow plan. Finally her contacts finally paid off with a name. She collected the evidence, then prepared herself and went to Alatos.

 

"Are you still willing to deny someone's destroying the Guild, Alatos?" she demanded as she entered his office. She shot a quick glance to Narlen standing near Alatos' desk.

 

"About that, priestess," he began, "I've been doing some lookin'. Got three that fit the bill. Dax, Shal and Wyn. They faded and left their pals to fall."

 

She noticed Narlen shake his head almost imperceptibly. He did not agree with his boss. Did she see anger in his eyes?

 

"They're spineless curs, and should be punished, but they're not the betrayers. They're footpads, bottom rung pawns and nothing more. The Guild's problem is from someone with full knowledge of your operations. The only two who fit the bill are Narlen . . . and you."

 

Alatos' face grew red in anger. "You accuse me?! I built this House, why would I destroy it?"

 

Viconia pulled a small bag from her vestments and tossed them to Narlen. "You are a fool. Figuring it out was easy. I wanted to know why."

 

Narlen removed a ring from the bag. He recognized the symbol of the Shadow Thieves. He looked at Alatos with narrowed eyes. "You been sellin' us out long enough! Why?"

 

She spoke before Alatos could give a reply. "Is your hatred so great you would betray your own just to get to me, Alatos? Is it because I'm a Drow, or I wouldn't submit to your petty lusts? I'm sure the Guild would want to show you how upset they are when they find out."

 

The blood drained from his face. "How'd you find out? He said he'd keep it wrapped."

 

"Darkness and shadow are the eyes and ears of my goddess. The Sewers and Undercellar are filled with both."

 

Alatos seemed to deflate, the futility of his position taking hold of him. "I guess that's it, then. But you have to be alive to tell the Guild. In a few minutes the Fist will be here and it won't matter anymore." With speed borne of desperation the Guild leader slid around the desk, drawing his short sword before Narlen could even move.

 

Viconia was ready for the attack and a quick prayer froze the man in mid-strike. "Narlen, get everyone out. The Fist will be here soon, but not as soon as Alatos expects. The Undercellar has some very good diversions for their new commander. I'll take care of this . . . rubbish." She brought a mace from beneath her robe.

 

When Narlen had left, she glared at Alatos. She saw terror in his eyes, and relished it. "It's foolish to betray a Drow. You first betrayed Imoen after she fulfilled one of your contracts, and would have happily seen us dead. Now all this just to get to me. You are a weak, pathetic little male! Did you think your new master would let you live because you betrayed me? That makes you twice the fool. Drow do not forget weakness, nor forgive betrayal. Now you will pay!"

 

An hour later the Fist entered the Guild house to find it empty except for one body. Duke Eltan had to reluctantly commend the killer on their brutal efficiency. Except for his hands there were no bones unbroken, and the victim no doubt screamed until the final stroke crushed his skull.

 

************************************

 

The Guild quickly set up new operations, now with Narlen at the helm. He scattered the thieves around the city, using many of the abandoned houses as cover. In time the search by the Flaming Fist would cool and operations would return to normal. Narlen was smart, Viconia noted, and he would be a capable leader.

 

She was sitting quietly on a crate near the Low Lantern, watching the water, listening to the waves breaking against the pylons. The afternoon sun reflected warmly under her hood and into her face. She was surprised she enjoyed such a simple thing. It was a long way from when she first emerged into this roofless world and the light burned her so. Narlen came and stood near her with hardly a sound.

 

"We be doin' good, thanks to you, m'Lady. The Fist be gettin' quiet with Alatos gone."

 

He spoke quietly, without looking her way. Being the new Guild leader made him a marked man with the Flaming Fist. He had to be circumspect now, to avoid bringing undue attention to himself. She smiled to herself and thought how it must chafe him, not being able to get his hands into the work. Having the two additional "companions" wherever he went did not help. At least Imoen had found something to keep her hands occupied. This meeting was, however, about business.

 

After a bit he continued. "Be a couple tendays before things smooth enough to settle. No proper place for a Shar priestess till then." He paused for a few moments, casually looking around the dock.

 

"If you're looking for Fist spies, try the two dock hands by the warehouse," she advised him. "They've been in the same place for the last hour, playing the same card game, passing the same six coins. Thinking of lifting their purses?"

 

"You've a mean way with you, m'Lady. I be doin' it for the challenge if not for duty. But I stay off for duty to me mates. No place here for you, but maybe someplace else. Be meanin' you lose most of your fish, though."

 

"So it's not near the city. Where is it then?" Losing her contacts to power was not unexpected, still it disappointed her.

 

"Beregost. We . . . acquired a small property north of it. We be needin' someone to keep it. It's a good place, nice for those needin' a . . . time away from the Gate because of heat or they be hurt, or we needin' a place to meet for other business."

 

"And my compensation?"

 

Narlen was silent for a few minutes, watching the activity around the docks. "Two gold a day till we get our feet again, with healer fees if needin' 'em."

 

"You almost sound like you'll miss me," she chuckled, and could not resist a taunt. "You wouldn't be thinking about the Drow pleasures I could offer, would you?"

 

His answer carried a touch of laughter. "Narlen be a fool maybe, but no' stupid like Alatos. Got a wife I love. She find out, I get trouble. I don' please you, and maybe if I do, I get trouble, maybe she get trouble, maybe we both get trouble. Gettin' between a bear an' her cubs be less trouble. 'Sides, what about that pally you was helpin', the one you a little sweet on?"

 

He paused before continuing, his voice serious once more. "You'll be missed by some o' us. Give some color to the place, you did. But the others . . . Plenty scared they are of you. Scare me a bit too, you do. But no mistake Alatos needed what he got. Make the rest think twice about rollin' on their pals. Heard Alatos' was workin' with someone workin' with one o' your kind, hidin' in the sewers. You went down to meet them. You come up, they didn't."

 

Viconia was impressed. Narlen had better eyes and ears on the street than anyone else in Baldur's Gate. It was probably best she took up his offer.

 

Before leaving he added. "Look for Wyn near sunrise at the Elfsong. She be needin' some time away, anyway."

 

*************************

 

The house was in a moderate state of disrepair, but it was quiet and well away from the town. There were a few farms nearby, but their owners tended to keep to themselves. It did well as a haven, a "safe house," something she was too familiar with. Such places existed even in the Underdark, and she had used them from the fall of House DeVir until shortly before escaping to the surface.

 

Wyn stayed with her. She was clumsy, almost laughably so. It was no wonder Narlen wanted his daughter out of the city. She had a natural affinity for numbers, however, and that put the finances in her hands. She had enough fire in her to stand her ground when needed (especially when gold was involved), with sense enough not to threaten Viconia's leadership. She earned her respect for that.

 

Over the next few months the pair managed to improve the place, though not by themselves. Whenever any thieves came through from the Guild, whether for healing or to hide, they became the work force. Viconia made certain they worked. Not everyone was willing, but the Alatos incident gave her some nice leverage with the more reluctant "helpers."

As things returned to normal with the Guild, their "visitors" became less frequent. "Meetings" and "transactions" began taking place at regular intervals, but her services were seldom needed. Wyn handled everything else in the "house."

 

Viconia had days without anyone around, and she began enjoying the solitude. She even began working the farm itself. But as always seemed to happen in her long and hard life, the peace she found was quickly gone. She became careless. She let her guard down and paid the price. Her second mistake was letting her lust for revenge control her actions, and she crossed a line these surface dwellers watched very closely. There would be no safety here for her anymore.

 

Wyn was in Baldur's Gate doing some Guild bookkeeping when it happened, so she left a letter and packed a small bag. Numb, angry and bitter, she hoped to find another chance farther south, where her name and the name of Covenant were unknown. She thought about him and cursed. Why did she feel shame whenever he crossed her mind?

 

Viconia entered Beregost late that evening, looking for a caravan going to Amn. Few noticed her, thanks to some disguise tricks she learned from the Guild, but she was still concerned. The longer she stayed in Beregost, the more likely news of her action would arrive and she would be found out. She found a caravan departing early the next morning, paid passage, and thanked Shar for watching over her.

 

The journey was mostly uneventful. She kept her cloak wrapped around her, the hood always up to hide her face and gloves to cover her hands. She kept silent, and few tried to talk with her. They were lost in their own concerns, she noted.

 

The caravan reached the Athkatla city gates in the late afternoon, and began dispersing. She followed a few of the caravan passengers into the Crooked Crane Inn, and sat in a dark corner to eat and decide what she would do next. She knew where to look to find information from her time with the Baldur's Gate Thieve's Guild, but she wondered if she should hire herself out as an adventurer or seek a temple of Shar first. She considered the size of the city, and had little doubt there would be a temple here. First, she needed information about Athkatla before she could do anything.

 

She quickly found the Slums District and learned how the city was laid out, as well as a rumor of where to find a temple of Shar. It was there, between the Government and Temple Districts, hidden from the eyes of all but the followers of the Night Mistress. She rendered service to the small temple and talked with the temple priestess before leaving. Night had descended and it was time to find an inn.

 

The life of an outcast is never easy. As she told Alatos, the Drow have long memories and do not forgive a transgression. She was but two blocks from the Temple of Shar when three figures stepped from the shadows before her, and her blood chilled. This was no raiding party, they were no outcasts, they were Drow bounty hunters.

 

"You certainly have been an interesting hunt, renegade," a tall, powerful and lean male growled in Drow as he stepped toward her. "That male you hid behind was difficult to follow. We almost had you in the Cloakwood forest. That cost me a good team. We almost lost you in that human city, hiding among thieves. Since the fall of your house, that's all you've done, isn't it? Hide?"

 

Viconia removed the hammer from beneath her cloak, raised it to the ready. She knew she had little chance if they chose to fight. "I am not without teeth, vermin. Was that one of yours I left in the sewers?"

 

The male stopped, then shrugged and laughed. He was definitely the leader of this pack. "He was a good thief, and an excellent scout. He'll be hard to replace. But that's the way things go. We have you now, and this time you won't be so lucky."

An arm wrapped around her throat from behind and pulled her back as another gripped her hammer. She was surprised at how skilled this new attacker was, and how efficient. Off-balance, she was helpless as the other three moved in to further restrain her. The struggle was brief as they took her cloak, helm and weapons, but she managed to gouge the face of the leader just above his eyes. If they wanted her dead, they would have already slain her. They had something else in mind.

 

"You've claws as well!" he laughed as he wiped his blood from his eyes. "Well, we've something planned for you."

 

He took a small flask from his belt, removed the stopper and forced the contents down her throat. Her senses became greatly enhanced, painfully so, but her motor skills were just as impaired. Viconia immediately recognized the poison from the smell and the effect. A little was often slipped to a fighter in the arena to sway the outcome of a combat. Greater doses were given to make the tortured experience even greater suffering.

 

She was half pushed, half carried through the streets by the hunters, struggling as well she could but to no avail. When they stopped, she recognized one of the buildings nearby. They had brought her to the center of the Government District.

 

"You wanted to live among these weak surface-dwellers, then we'll let you." The sarcasm was clear in the leader’s words. Though whispered in her ear, it almost sounded like a shout. "Maybe your god will send your pet human to your rescue. Or maybe you'll die cursing them both."

 

With that she felt her hammer shoved into her hand, then she was pushed into a brightly lit open area. She nearly screamed as her eyes burned in the enhanced glare, but she kept her feet and turned to face her attackers. They were nowhere to be seen, and she expected as much. They would watch the coming entertainment from hiding. It did not take long for the show to start.

 

There was a shout of warning to her left followed by other voices and the sound of weapons being readied all around her. She gripped her hammer with both hands and turned to face the sound that seemed closest, barely able to distinguish between her squinting eyelids the approaching figures of three guards. They spread out as they approached. A crowd was gathering to watch and the sounds of their hoots and calls roared in her ears. If she were to die here, she would die with the name of her god on her lips.

 

She leapt at the center guard and swung her hammer with all her might. He must have noticed something amiss in her attack. Parrying with his sword, he brought the small shield he carried up and across the side of her head. Light and pain exploded and she collapsed, her hammer flying from her grasp. Down and unarmed, she could only protect her head as they began kicking her. The chainmail she wore absorbed most of the beating but the drug made each blow a lance of flame through her body. Somehow she managed not to cry out.

 

When they stopped, the guards picked her up and dragged her quickly into one of the buildings where they stripped her of everything except a few cloths for modesty. When one of the guards began going beyond this, the Captain of the Guard made it clear he had crossed the bounds of propriety and honor and physically threw him from the cell.

 

Bound and gagged, she was given a mockery of a trial. It was swift, pausing only momentarily as a low rumble was heard and a slight shaking could be felt from some great blast somewhere within the city. A rabid few in the audience screamed for her death, and the judge granted their wish. The cold chill of fear began clawing at her, and she quietly prayed for the courage to face her death.

 

The drug was wearing off when she was dragged into the square. The stake and the wood and the smell of lamp oil declared her manner of execution. Her guards knew their job well. When she began to struggle the Captain of the Guard wrenched her hand in a way that would have been extremely painful, even without her senses being heightened. Her struggling ceased.

 

As they bound her to the stake, she looked around in the morning light, thankful for the heavy clouds that blocked the sun and eased the pain in her eyes. She watched as the guards withdrew from the plaza, their Captain clearly displeased with events. The most fanatical of her accusers then began taunting her, trying to fan the hatred of the rest of the crowd. She knew what they wanted from her, so she kept her face passive and made no sound. She smiled to herself as her accusers became even more infuriated. The pyre would be ignited in a few moments, and she prayed again to Shar for the strength to be silent in death and to grant her a revenge against her accusers.

 

Her prayer was barely uttered when she heard a familiar voice from the edge of the crowd.

 

"What's this? An execution? And a Drow at that! What did she do?"

 

The closest fanatic replied with derision, "She's guilty of murder, tried and sentenced, and she's gonna die for it!"

 

Viconia could barely make out the approach of three, no, four figures from where she heard the voices. She recognized Covenant immediately, and a moment later the huge frame of Minsc. The other two she did not know, though the female seemed vaguely familiar.

 

Covenant spoke again. "Who did she kill?" When he received the same response as before, he asked again, "Who did she kill? Surely you have the body of the victim, don't you?"

 

By now Covenant was nearly to the pyre. Minsc had moved off to her right, the woman to her left, and the other male remained back from the group but with bow readied.

 

With a casual manner she had become familiar with, the young paladin stopped at the foot of the pyre and looked directly into her eyes, as if measuring her. His question startled her. "Did you kill anyone here, as they say, Lady Viconia?"

 

Fear and hope collided as she responded, perhaps a bit too vigorously, "Before all the gods, I swear I've killed no one! Please, Covenant, I beg you! Save me from these madmen!!" Anger replaced all other emotions as she realized she was . . . begging to him, a mere human male!

 

"I believe you," Covenant responded with a soft smile. He took a quick glance around. "No city guard?"

 

She restrained the urge to curse them in Drow. "The cowards didn't have the stomach to watch me die. Please, I beg you! Free me! I have done nothing to deserve this treatment! Please!!"

 

"That, or they wanted no part in an injustice." He caught her gaze again, then he began removing the wood to get to her.

 

The fanatics went into a frenzy at his actions. With the first drawn sword the crowd scattered in terror, and the battle that followed was swift. Covenant then quickly removed the rest of the wood, leapt up on the platform and cut her loose. Then in one smooth motion he scooped her up in his arms and leapt down to the others. Together they ran straight to the largest building. Covenant set her on her feet only when they had reached the entrance, blocked from sight by the ornamental trees and shrubs there.

 

"Lady Jaheira, give her your cloak. We've caused enough trouble for one day. We don't need to bring more."

 

"And the sun has barely risen," Minsc added. "Even Boo knows this is not good for getting help."

 

Reluctantly, Jaheira passed the cloak to her and for the first time looked at her eyes. "She's been drugged!"

 

"And when the sun comes out she'll be totally blind until it wears off." In a soft whisper only she could hear, he asked, "A Drow poison, I assume?"

 

Viconia could only nod, confused and elated at the turn of events, yet feeling shame in the presence of this paladin. She felt as if she were caught in some great river or tidal current. It was pulling at her and she was helpless and drowning within it. She pulled the cloak close around her to hide herself.

 

It was still early in the morning when they entered the Council of Six building. The first person they encountered was the Captain of the Guard. He was only momentarily surprised before bowing slightly to the group.

 

"You have Tymora's luck today, and Helm's eye as well," he said to Viconia. Then to Covenant he asked, "May I help you?"

 

Covenant returned the bow. "Sir, a companion of mine was taken from me by a group of wizards. They appeared to be some sort of guard over magic in this city. They took her with another mage from what you call Waukeen's Promenade."

 

"Waukeen's Pr . . . " The Captain's face paled slightly. "Were you the ones that caused that destruction?"

 

"Only if you consider us as the intended victims. It was that other mage I mentioned. He sealed his lab, and tried to get us in the process."

 

The Captain nodded slowly. "I was told about that mess only a few minutes ago. You're lucky no one was killed. That mage was considered quite insane. He was taken by the Cowled Wizards to wherever they send them. I can't tell you any more than that, except I've never heard of anyone returning from that place. If your companion was taken with Irenicus, that's where you will find her." He paused a moment in though. "You might learn something in the Slums or Docks. I'd recommend spending a couple days there, anyway. You've created quite a stir today, and no one there looks too closely at faces.

 

"A warning. Don't use any arcane magic in the city unless you have a license from the Cowled Wizards. They will arrest you unless you do, and they aren't nice about it. Licenses aren't cheap, though. I'll inform the magistrates this Drow has been released into your custody. I doubt they'll argue once they hear about her trial. If she does anything wrong, you will suffer the consequence with her. I'd ask the gods to watch over you, but it seems they already are."

 

Covenant bowed again and they left. The party moved as quickly as they could through the streets to the Slums district without attracting undue attention, Viconia walking beside Covenant. She began to notice the smell from the others.

 

"I've been to the Slums. We should get to the Copper Coronet quickly. You positively reek!"

 

"Being locked in cages for who knows how long tends to do that!" Covenant snapped angrily, then apologized almost immediately. "You did not deserve that, Lady Viconia. I'm sorry."

 

Something had changed in him, she realized. She changed the subject. "Who's your missing companion?"

 

"Imoen," he replied flatly. She felt a strange sense of concern for the little thief. He continued, lost in though. "He evades me for now, but I *will* find where that monster is."

 

Viconia was startled at the comment. "Monster? How uncharacteristic of you."

 

"Remember your meeting with Lady Jaheira, back at the Friendly Arm? Remember Minsc?"

 

She thought a moment and remembered. "She had a male with her. And where's Dynaheir?"

 

Minsc moaned. "I failed her. He killed her before my eyes, and I could do nothing! I could not protect her."

 

"And he butchered my husband for some insane experiment," Jaheira added. "Imoen said he made her watch his butchery!"

 

Viconia cared little for the stuttering half-human weakling she barely remembered, but felt loss with Dynaheir. The three of them, she, Imoen and Dynaheir, had formed a bond of respect, even a limited friendship in their chase after Sarevok.

 

"His lab may be sealed," Covenant added, "but we will never forget what we saw there, experienced there, the pain, the horror, the madness. Cruel even by Drow standards. He's become a monster."

 

They remained silent until after they arrived at the Copper Coronet, rented some rooms, and had a chance to bath. Viconia made certain to clean the cloak to remove the stench of Jaheira's unwashed body. She noticed some half-healed scars on the woman's body as they bathed, and knew she had be tortured. Would Covenant and Minsc also bear such marks?

 

It was near sunset when everyone gathered in the main hall to eat, to talk, and to finally relax. Each found a place of solitude around the hall, separate from the others. Viconia saw Minsc also carried some fresh scars on what she could see, his arms mostly, and not as many as Jaheira. The other human had none she could discern, and his presence made her feel uneasy.

 

"An interesting group, wouldn't you say, Lady Viconia?" Covenant asked as he sat next to her and sipped a glass of wine. "What are your thoughts?"

 

She felt both a gentle thrill and an uncomfortability at his question, and it made her angry. He was acting as if nothing had changed since they had parted so many months ago. "Why ask me? I'm nothing but a bloodthirsty Drow. You can't trust me except to slay you in your sleep."

 

Covenant looked at her and chuckled softly. "As divided as ever, I see. Your mind and will rule your actions, but your heart is still held by evil. Given the right motivation, I'm sure you would kill me." He became serious. "Given the right motivation, I'd let you. But neither of us are at that place yet. I trusted your insight before, I'll trust it now."

 

She could not hold his gaze and turned away. "Trust is for fools. It makes you weak and . . . vulnerable." Her voice was mocking, but she could not hide from herself the ache she felt inside. She looked back at him, partly in defiance. "Since you asked, Minsc seems a bit more unstable than last I saw him. Keep him in front where you can watch him, where he can take his madness out on your enemies and not your allies. I don't know about the half-breed yet, though she appears capable enough. What are her skills, anyway? And I don't trust your other male. Get rid of him."

 

Covenant nodded in agreement. "Lady Jaheira is skilled as a fighter, and as a druid. If she has a weakness, it's Khalid's loss. I must be careful helping her through it lest she mark me his replacement. She's stable enough in combat, though. And I agree that Yoshimo's not to be trusted. You should have seen Boo when we first met. His appearance in Irenicus' dungeon was too convenient. But he's something of a thief, so I need him for now. Now what about me? What does your sight reveal?"

 

"What?" His question startled her. "Why do you ask? Does this have something to do with your monster mage?"

 

He nodded slowly. "The best I can judge, he had me for three tendays, maybe more. Thirty days of torture and pain. Imoen was in his hands for only one tenday. She survived because he spent most of his time on me. Lady Jaheira and Khalid were brought in five days ago, Minsc but two. We'd be there still if the Shadow Thieves hadn't attacked his lair. If they'd attacked just a few hours earlier maybe Khalid . . . Imoen said Irenicus did something to the two of us, something deep inside, and it made her feel like her bones made a little dagger that wouldn't go away. I can feel it now I've been able to rest a little. He was doing something to . . . the Wolf."

 

Viconia looked at the paladin again, this time with a different perspective, then she looked deeply into Covenant's eyes with that other sight that allowed her to see Bhaal's legacy within him. She sensed more than saw. "What kind of madness would dare meddle with the power of a god?" she gasped.

 

"Lust. For revenge. For power. Either will do." Covenant took another sip of wine and looked somewhere beyond her, eyes unfocused. "Thank you. He still has her but he wants me, I think. His experiment wasn't finished. He put too much effort into it, so he'll keep her alive until he has me back, live bait for his trap."

 

His focus returned to Viconia. "I have a request. You worked with the Thieves Guild in Baldur's Gate. If anyone knows where Imoen and Irenicus are, the Guild will. Tomorrow see if you can contact them. I want to talk with them if you can arrange it."

 

"This Irenicus is using the little thief for bait, yet you willingly walk into his trap? You are twice the fool!"

 

"She's the closest thing to family I know, the only one I have left. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't try, just as I couldn't let you die at that stake. Irenicus is dangerous. He took out four Cowled Wizards without effort, and their replacements were clearly terrified of him. He surrendered only because they agreed to take Imoen with him. All the while he kept looking at me, challenging me."

 

Unsettled by his last words, she nodded, remembering her own past. "I will do as you ask."

 

"Thank you, Lady Viconia. May I get you something to drink while we relax?"

 

She sat quietly as Covenant excused himself to get her a glass of wine. What did Shar want of her, she wondered, of this Bhaal-spawn? She felt the order as before. Shar would not allow her to leave this human until she had what she wanted from him. Viconia was bound to him again, and she began to resent her situation.

 

She saw a movement in a shadow near the door and recognized the figure, and their eyes met. She glanced over to the bar and saw Covenant talking to the barkeep. Quietly she rose and followed the figure out the door. In a pool of darkness near the door she confronted two figures.

 

"You want to talk, so talk," she snapped in Drow.

 

The male moved threateningly toward her, but stopped at a command from the other. She saw the scab above his eye.

 

"So it is true," a cold feminine voice muttered, also in Drow. "The last child of House DeVir has survived beyond the House that replaced them. When the Dark Queen whispered to me you lived I was . . . doubtful. When my bounty hunter captain returned this morning to say he found you, I wanted to rip his heart out. Do you know why?"

 

Viconia recognized the voice. "You taught me to be a priestess of Lolth. How many places did you lose when I rejected her?" She felt fear but showed none to the powerful priestess before her. She may have lost status and position when Viconia turned against Lolth, but she could still feel the power the priestess wielded.

 

"Allow me to teach her not to blaspheme the goddess," the male growled and began moving toward her again, raising his fist. The leader of the bounty hunters stopped in mid-stride at another command from the high priestess.

 

At that moment Covenant casually came out of the Copper Coronet. "Pardon me. Am I interrupting something?" The paladin moved next to, and a step in front of, Viconia. He did not stand between the two women. He did not threaten or attack, as she would have expected a paladin to do when facing such as these two.

 

"This doesn't concern you," snapped the male Drow in common. "Leave or suffer."

 

"I'm afraid it does. The Captain of the Guard placed her in my custody. Besides, I've grown fond of her sharp tongue. Keeps my wits sharp."

 

"Know your place, little male, and leave," the Lolth priestess commanded, and Viconia's blood chilled.

 

Covenant bowed to the cleric, keeping a weary eye on the male. "With respect, your Grace, this is my place. If you are here to speak with Lady Viconia, I will not interfere." His voice remained calm and respectful, with a quiet confidence and an unspoken warning to the bounty hunter.

 

The priestess glared at Covenant, then at Viconia. In Drow she continued, "The orders from the Queen are explicit. As much as I would enjoy watching your . . . reproof, you are not to be harmed. Is this human your would-be protector?"

 

Though she still felt fear, Covenant's presence and demeanor gave her an odd confidence and cleared her thinking. Diplomacy was needed in this confrontation. Their conversation would be only in Drow. "He is stubborn and strong willed, but he has done well so far."

 

"He is more than he appears. I sense great power in him. The Queen has taken an interest in him and gives you a rare chance, renegade. She will forgive your rebellion, and will allow you to restore your House and your name. She simply asks for the soul of this human."

 

Viconia began to understand. "He serves another. He will not so readily change service."

 

The priestess smiled softly, cruelly. "She cares little if he serves Her or not. Turn him to worship the Queen or bring him to us for sacrifice, and your House will be restored. Just remember, Her patience in not infinite. We are finished."

 

With that the two Drow walked away and quickly disappeared into the darkness. Covenant remained motionless, staring into the blackness where they had vanished. "So, did she give you enough reason to kill me?"

 

"Did you understand us, or are you just guessing?" Viconia grew angry, knowing the intelligence of this man.

 

Covenant turned to her and grinned while offering his arm. "Yes. Now let's go back in. We've had enough trouble for one day, don't you think?"

 

She cursed. "Which is it?!"

 

Still grinning, he covered his ears in mock horror. "Such language from such a beautiful lady!" Before she could respond he placed his finger on her lips, his voice grew soft and his eyes tired. "Does it matter? Today we are alive. Let's celebrate our victories while we can. Tomorrow's troubles can wait until tomorrow. My Lady?" He offered his arm again, his smile returning.

 

Though her anger remained, she realized he was right and took his arm. He was just as unpredictable as she remembered. "I will find out, one way or another, little paladin."

 

Covenant looked at her, and their eyes locked, and she felt a strange resonance. "We are alike, you and I. We're outcasts and rejects looking for a place of rest in this broken world. Perhaps together we'll find it someday."

 

"Are you making a pass at me, oh holy warrior?" She knew better, but could not resist the chance to humiliate him. She had a difficult time restraining herself as he took a quick step away as if she had just become a white-hot iron and his face turned bright red.

 

He bowed quickly. "M-m-my Lady, I apologize if that is how it sounded. Such was not my intent!"

 

She finally laughed. "I do believe this is the first time I've seen you lose your composure. Beware, my little paladin. Next time I just might take you up on the offer. And we Drow can be . . . very seductive." He probably thought she was joking, she thought, but she meant every word. Her desire was in the open now, and this honesty gave her a strange pleasure.

 

Covenant quickly regained his wits and offered his arm again, though his face was still flushed. "Then I shall be more circumspect with my words, Lady Viconia."

 

She looked again at this enigmatic young man who took himself so seriously. She was still angry, but it was now tempered. If he could play the role of a noble knight . . .

 

"I accept your apology, Lord Covenant, and willingly receive your escort to the celebration. As you suggest, we will celebrate being alive." She then added with a note if irony, "And we will celebrate something else. It must be a divine joke because today is exactly one year since we first met in Peldvale."

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Part 6

 

She had rested in a room shared with the mongrel Jaheira, neither even trying to talk to the other. Viconia realized this would have to change if they were to survive the troubles they would no doubt face. She had heard about Athkatla from the Guild in Baldur's Gate, but had been unaware of the Cowled Wizards. The city guards were ill-equipped and trying to maintain an uneasy peace in a city controlled by thieves and mages. They would be the first casualties if a struggle for power were to occur, and if rumors of a conflict between rival Thieves Guilds were true that was already happening. Still, there was potential for social and monetary advancement where such conditions existed. She realized Covenant would have none of that, unless his treatment at the hands of Irenicus had changed him.

 

She had also been thinking about Imoen. She, like Covenant, had been taken in by Gorion. They had suffered and survived similar treatment at the hands of Irenicus. Both suffered similar results. She wondered, could Imoen also be a Bhaalspawn?

 

Viconia brought her mind back to the present.

 

Hiding behind some empty crates piled haphazardly on the roof of the Copper Coronet, she watched Covenant practice his combat skills. The predawn light was only now beginning to brighten the sky, and he had been here at least half an hour. He had certainly changed in some ways. Though gaunt from his abuse, he appeared even faster and stronger than she remembered, and he no longer worked with a shield but with two weapons. She had watched him as he moved from two swords, to sword and mace, to hammer and mace, and now hammer and sword. She could see an anger burning in him, focused in his feints and strikes. That fire gave her a strange thrill. Here was a dangerous and valuable prize to be won, to be made her own. All who should challenge her for him would pay a very high price, including last night's visitors.

 

Did he understand what had been said? Had he learned the language? If so, how? There was only one other Drow she was aware of whom Covenant had met and lived. That Drow also used two swords. It was possible, since she lost track of the paladin after moving to the farm with Wyn. The question he had asked her was, she also realized, baited. Her response was answer enough. Covenant had not lost his mental edge.

 

As the predawn light increased she began to observe his body, with difficulty trying to be as objective as possible. What kind of scars did he carry now, what had Irenicus done to him? Infravision made it easy to see his body in the darkness, but could give no fine details. She began to see a story of torture unfold as she made out one scar, then another. This was a burn, that a cut, here his flesh was pierced, there it had been torn. His upper torso was covered with scars. There were others she would never see with her eyes, but she sensed them, scars of the mind and soul, scars she knew too well.

 

"Enjoying the show, lady Viconia?" Covenant asked. He had returned to working with two swords.

 

"Of course. If the half of your body I see is as good as the half I don't, you would do well to keep your shirt on. Pity that mage had to mar it so. How long have you known I was watching?"

 

Covenant set the swords down and grabbed a towel near his feet. "Not as long as you've been there. I thought to practice in private. But since you're here, I hope you were doing more than just enjoying the show. Since Irenicus' experiments I'll need your wisdom and insight more than ever. I will not trust my own."

 

Viconia felt disappointment. "You show me weakness? What's to keep me from exploiting it, godling?"

 

"Foolishness," Covenant snapped coldly, "would be to ignore a weakness. Wisdom sees it and finds a way to overcome it. You saw something. What was it?"

 

"Be careful how you talk to me," she growled, restraining an epithet. "I am not your servant to command!"

 

She watched as anger arose in the paladin's eyes and his jaw locked to cut off an equally angry response. "Yes, you are right. My words were ill-spoken, my lady. Now I ask. Did you see anything different while I practiced? Anything at all you have never seen before?"

 

This relationship was certainly starting badly, she thought. "Your anger belongs in your sword, not your tongue." She began walking to the steps down to the street. "I'll see about getting you a meeting with the Thieves Guild."

 

"Please wait." Covenant's tone was more respectful as he collected the weapons and began following her. "Allow me ten minutes to wash up. There'll be less trouble if I accompany you."

 

"I couldn't get within forty feet of a thief with you along. I'll do it alone."

 

"I can't allow that." She spun around with an angry retort, but stopped when he added, "I've a duty to the city guards to watch over you, and to myself to protect you. You already know the hatred humans have for Drow. I'll go unarmored and unarmed, if that will help. I need to talk with you."

 

She relented. Ten minutes later he was sitting next to her on the steps outside the Copper Coronet.

 

"My outburst earlier was uncalled for, lady Viconia. That is why I will be looking to your wisdom. My last accommodations were somewhat restrictive, and the host left something to be desired. My practice this morning was the first chance in a month to check myself out."

 

"And I'm supposed to be impressed? What do you really want to talk about?" she asked coldly. She continued with a note of mockery in her voice, "Your anger drove you in our previous adventure. What happened? Did your nameless God abandon you while that mage toyed with you as a cat does a mouse? Or is there something else you want to say?"

 

Covenant shook his head. "Fear drove me before, not anger. And no, my God did not leave me, though at times I felt he had. It's strange, but in my suffering I learned He was closest to me when things were at their worst, giving me strength when despair overwhelmed me. He allowed my suffering for reasons I've yet to understand." He paused, rubbing the back of his neck. "Right now I have a lot of anger, and my . . . father's blood only aggravates things. But there's something else I'm concerned about. Since regaining my freedom I've had a continuous ache through my entire body, as well as a constant headache. I thought they might be from my confinement. I now know better. I still feel the effects of Irenicus' experiments."

 

She studied his face, considering what he said. She should have realized that tampering with his divine heritage could have a physical consequence. "I will have to think about this. If it's magical in nature, perhaps a geas or curse, there are a few prayers or rituals that could remove it. There are also certain arcane spells that could . . ."

 

"They won't work. Don't ask me how I know, I just do. That's why I need your wisdom, why I can't trust my own right now. My anger is a weakness I need to deal with, but with pain added to it my judgement may become clouded. And there's a chance the Wolf might be able to exploit it. If that happens Imoen will be lost and Irenicus will win."

 

Viconia almost laughed. "So while you watch over me, you want me to watch over you. Good guarding evil guarding good. Imoen would give us no end of grief were she here. If the Wolf should start to sneak out, what's to keep me from manipulating it for my own ends?"

 

He looked at her, and she saw the answer peering from behind his eyes. "It hates you, my lady. You caged it long enough to be chained."

 

She nodded. Shar, she silently prayed, I have served you faithfully, and you have protected me, but this is more than I can grasp! What am I supposed to do with this paladin?

 

Covenant rose to his feet and stretched. "I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by all this, myself. There's an up side to this for you, though. You get to question my every decision, second guess me at every turn, and challenge me if you see me failing to keep the beast chained."

 

Viconia smiled sadistically. "I'll put a mace across your skull if I have to. I might actually get to like this."

 

She need not have worried about Covenant's presence making things difficult to contact the Shadow Thieves. They were looking for him.

 

Gaelan Bayle freely admitted he was only a negotiator for the Thieves Guild. The Guild could get him the information he wanted . . . but at a price. They even had a contact, one Lord Jierdan Firkraag to get him started toward the twenty thousand gold they required.

 

When they had returned to the Copper Coronet Viconia cautioned him, and Yoshimo agreed. The Guild would likely require more of them after getting the gold, and Jaheira wondered if they might be drawn into the Guild War they were hearing about. Covenant considered that very likely, but they had little recourse other than Gaelan's proposition if Imoen were to be rescued.

 

Someone pointed out Firkraag to Covenant, but before he could reach the noble a young girl intercepted him. She needed help with her family hold. This Nalia De'Arnise was, Viconia thought, the perfect example of a spoiled noble, arrogant and weak. The girl admitted to some arcane skill, so Covenant allowed her to join them. He then met with Lord Firkraag, and agreed to follow him to the Windspear mountains.

 

Viconia felt an unease with this noble. Nalia and Yoshimo were more than a little displeased with having to deal with him. Minsc was more than happy to help but Boo, while quiet in Firkraag's presence, was clearly agitated when he left. For the first time she could remember she saw Minsc get angry with the rodent, and Boo with him. It seemed Boo was terrified of the man, saying he was no man, while Minsc clearly liked him and Boo should not insult someone they knew little about. Of course all she, or anyone else, could understand was Minsc's side of the argument. Covenant calmly watched the two, stepping in only when Minsc grabbed Boo with clear intent on hurling him into the nearest wall. Whatever passed between the two warriors as they locked eyes Viconia could only guess, but soon Minsc relaxed and apologized to Boo. Covenant, seemingly siding with the rodent, declared they would follow but not immediately. They had to prepare first.

 

And so began the preparations. They dealt with the trolls in De'Arnise Hold, from which she received a nice magical flail, and Covenant was installed as acting Lord of the Keep. She was startled when he accepted the offer. Perhaps he had a desire toward power after all.

 

As for Jaheira, they had a "spirited" discussion after they had cleared the Hold, and Viconia smiled. The number and level of insults the nature lover had at her disposal were far better than she expected. She was almost her equal. Jaheira was not intimidated and kept her wits about her even when it became clear she was finally outmatched. The debate made two things clear. They could at least respect each other, and they both had an interest in the paladin. By mutual consent, each would watch the other to "protect" Covenant from the other.

 

They then went on to Trademeet to deal with some renegade druids. The trolls they encountered around the Druid Grove were more trouble than the druids themselves.

 

Her curiosity got the better of her as they were returning to Athkatla. "I have been thinking about the divinity that flows through your veins . . . Does it fire your ambitions, Covenant? Is there a lust within you superceding mere passion, a desire to lord over others as a conqueror and superior?"

 

"I've no interest in lording over others, lady Viconia." His answer was simple and honest, his eyes never leaving the road ahead, and it irritated her.

 

She baited him. "Ah, I see. As I thought, you are yet the reticent coward. You remind me of the lowly Drow males, crawling along the ground on your belly with eyes downcast."

 

She watched for some sign of anger or wince of pain showing she had struck a nerve. He laughed instead and looked at her.

 

"Coward? I think we may have different definitions of that word. I said I have no interest in *lording* over others. I said nothing about leading, which I have done since we first met."

 

"Yet you are *lord* of De'Arnise Keep. I think you deceive yourself, paladin."

 

"That's *acting* lord of the Keep," came a voice from behind, "and for only as long as I allow!"

 

"I was not speaking to you, child," Viconia snapped back to Nalia, with special emphasis on the last word. "It is dangerous traveling with *lord* Covenant, and the title would be permanent should you meet an unfortunate end while in his company."

 

"Thank you for clarifying my position, lady Nalia," Covenant added before the youth could reply. "Lady Viconia, I took the position because there is a need. She has a capable Major Domo, so my services as acting Lord De'Arnise will seldom be required. But I can assure you, they will be needed."

 

"So how do you distinguish between *lording* and *leading*? What's the difference?"

 

The paladin grew thoughtful. "I suppose it's attitude. Those who lord over others see themselves as superior to those beneath them, and they expect, they demand special treatment as a consequence. A good leader, on the other hand, earns the respect and obedience of those under him, he doesn't demand it. I expect it's a delineation you will find hard to grasp."

 

"Where I come from, power is gained and maintained by your definition of lording. Anything less is considered weakness and invites swift destruction. As the previous Lord De'Arnise learned."

 

"Even the strongest giants have weaknesses. But I see you remember TorGal's words. Someone wants that Keep and its lands, enough to buy the services of those foul creatures, bribe enough guards to make the Keep vulnerable, and try to kill every member of the ruling family."

 

Viconia continued his reasoning. "So you step in as the new lord just long enough for them to come after you. You're right. You are no coward. You are either a fool or insane! We shall find out soon enough."

 

When they returned to the Copper Coronet they had to deal with another of Nalia's problems. If Viconia found Nalia naive and irritating, she was at least capable and intelligent. She found Nalia's unwanted betrothed arrogant, ambitious, grasping and incompetent, completely below Nalia's status. It was a small matter to expose his machinations and dissolve the betrothal arrangements he had been using to steal De'Arnise Hold. She would have preferred to see the House Roenall torn down, but human law limited what could be done and they were no minor House in Athkatla. It had become clear who was behind the attack on the De'Arnise Hold, so she comforted herself knowing she would likely see the fall of House Roenall in due time.

 

Covenant released Nalia to return to her Keep after this, telling her to learn from her Major Domo the duties she would all to soon be required to fulfill.

 

A trip to the Graveyard, and the catacombs beneath, gained them some magic as well as combat experience, but even there Covenant involved himself with insignificant matters. He helped an orphan find a guardian, then dealt with a kidnaping. Why, she wondered, did he continue helping the weak and foolish, who would turn on him if they knew what he was? Still, she experienced a strange pleasure when they helped the child spirit Wellyn find rest.

 

With Nalia's departure, the party needed someone with better arcane abilities. Covenant found them in the one person she felt everyone could have done without. Xan was certainly skilled in magics, but he was still just as dismal as when they had rescued him from the Nashkel mines. She watched him, respect replacing disdain as they cleared the slavers from the Copper Coronet, then moved on to destroy their nearby base. It was in the Umar Hills she reluctantly accepted him as full part of the team. Pessimist though he was, he had courage and skill enough to face the horrors of the undead in that ancient temple and the dragon that lived beneath it. And he knew how to use that Moonblade very effectively when necessary. Though she was loath to admit it, his dialogs with Covenant were well aimed at probing his character.

 

While Xan probed Covenant with intelligence, she used her wisdom with equal skill. She had long before learned that truth, even a partial truth, could be a more effective weapon or tool than any lie. The few lies she did tell were to test the paladin's reactions. She wanted to know Covenant's thoughts of her, of her heritage. She wanted to know if he was worth pursuing. Slowly she began revealing her own past to him. She gave it in small pieces, baiting and testing him. That was her intent at the first.

 

She expected him to . . . What? Fear her? Hate her? Pity her? What she found was an ear willing to listen, empathy and encouragement. He accepted her for who she was, not as she had been, and as an equal in a male dominated society. This led to her revealing more to him than she would have ever dared to anyone else. And still he did not reject her.

 

Viconia knew Covenant was repeating the process she had seen a year before. He was testing his party, creating strategies and tactics to best use their strengths and weaknesses. The battle with TorGal exposed how important this was. It took the efforts of both her and the druid to keep Minsc from dying from his wounds after the battle. No one came out of that battle unscathed.

 

When Covenant fought it was with a cold ferocity she had never seen, and more so when dealing with undead. He had refined his skills to be extra effective against them in those months she lost track of him. Vampires, the most dangerous of all aside from liches, had no power to drain him. She would have to start asking him about those missing months.

 

He paid the Cowled Wizards for a license as soon as he could so Xan could use magic in the city, though he clearly found the bribe distasteful. It proved a wise purchase, however. She had been right about the power struggles. There was plenty of trouble that required a skilled group of adventurers to deal with, and at times it came looking for them. The potential to rise in social and financial standing was indeed great. Covenant could see it but had his own objective. He put every effort into the rescue of Imoen, or so he said. Several times over they had the gold Gaelan required, but he used it to buy new equipment.

 

When she asked why they had not moved on to rescue Imoen, he said he had some tasks to take care of first. Then he mentioned his dreams, though she knew they were clearly more than that after he told her of them. Imoen had been pulled into them, making even more certain the cleric's belief she was also a Bhaalspawn. More telling was that Irenicus had been able to intrude on them as well. The mage needed to keep his bait alive if he wanted Covenant to come to him.

 

When they would rest, he would ask her about the events of the day. He was true to his word. He wanted her opinion on his decisions, especially in his dealings with the people they met. Her dark nature took perverse pleasure in pointing out those elements of conduct or discourse she found unpaladinlike. One thing he never asked about was his combat decisions. He knew what he was doing when the battle began. Her only concern there, and she let him know, was his habit of exposing himself to the greatest enemies they faced to protect the team.

 

She found one thing that made her uncomfortable. His mood was slowly becoming darker.

 

"I would talk with you, Greycloak," she stated, seating herself across the table from Xan. They had returned to the Copper Coronet for some rest after returning from an other-planar prison controlled by a half-demon. It had not been a pleasant visit or an easy escape. She was pleased, however, that she won the battle for Covenant's attentions over Jaheira.

 

"A Drow is willing to talk with a mortal enemy. To what do I owe this dubious distinction?" His eyes never left his cup as he added, "I find human wine most unusual. Their best is unsophisticated and bitter compared to elven vintage. So much like their lives, don't you think? Yet it has a passion that will not be denied."

 

"I have always found your elven wine bland and lifeless, and human wine lacking subtlety. But I agree. It does have a passion." She waited a moment as the mage lifted his eyes to meet hers. "Will we agree on something else?"

 

His face remained passive. "I would know what you speak of before I answer."

 

"You have been asking Covenant questions. You have been testing him . . ."

 

"As have you, Viconia. If you desire his attentions, I suggest you be less subtle. He knows what you're doing, but human males dislike a woman who dances around the subject. Just don't throw yourself at him."

 

"Human wine seems to lighten your heart as well. I believe you find my desire for him humorous."

 

"A cosmic jest of divine proportions, as you will understand if you continue pursuing it. You seek to make him yours, but in so doing you risk becoming his in turn. But why do you want him? Will you attempt to use his godly power to take revenge against the city you left, or their Dark Queen? Do you want to try and restore your House through him? He was born from Chaos. Anything he does is likely doomed to failure."

 

Xan had turned the question back on her, and this angered her. "I want him because he pleases me," she replied honestly, but with an edge of sarcasm and defiance.

 

Xan kept his gaze locked on her. "He is no Drow male. He will not be submissive nor will he fear your wrath. He will not be like your dead husbands. But you know this from the Temple below Baldur's Gate. Why do you want him, really?"

 

"What do you know about that?" she snapped angrily. The memory returned unwanted, of utter darkness and burning and infinite despair, and a deep fear with it.

 

"I encountered Dynaheir a month after the event. She gave a very clear description of the events. I then talked to Imoen and Garrick, and they gave much the same details. Dynaheir believed he brought you back from death. I believe her." She saw a puzzled look crossed his face. "How could this be? He serves no elven deity, and no paladin has been known to have that level of power to bring you back from Arvendor, yet he did."

 

Viconia could hold his gaze no longer. Her eyes dropped to the table. "It wasn't . . . Arvendor . . ." she managed to say softly. She looked up and saw surprise in Xan's eyes.

 

"I did not understand. I apologize for any pain my question may have caused. Still, for a paladin to do that . . . No, it was his god! I had not expected this. Thank you for telling me. You have been given a most precious gift, and though you may not understand this, you have given me a glimmer of hope in these dark times. Now, you asked about my questioning Covenant. What did you want to know?"

 

She needed to put her mind on other things and was glad for the change of topic. "How do you feel about his answers? Do you think he means what he told you?"

 

He looked at her again, and she saw he understood her change of topic. "He believes so." His gaze returned to his cup.

 

"But you have doubts."

 

After a long silence he responded. "He wants and needs friends, and we fill that need. But he has an anger in him, and it's slowly poisoning his soul. He is quickly approaching a pit that will destroy him, and us if he falls in. That is what you wanted to know, is it not?"

 

She nodded. "Then we both agree on this. You are not so unpleasant, for a surface elf."

 

Xan smiled weakly. "Was that a compliment? Pity no one would believe me if told them." He lifted his cup in a salute to her before taking a sip and returning to his mediation of its contents.

 

They had to deal with some problems in the Docks district. Jaheira had a falling-out with the local Harper Hall, especially when their leader wanted to Imprison Covenant being a Bhaalspawn, or so he said. Everyone saw it was for what it was: a grab for power at the knight's expense. Then Yoshimo had to appease the Shadow Thieves, and in so doing they learned how bad the situation was with the Guild War. It was clear they would be drawn in before they could get help finding Imoen.

 

Finally they went to the Windspear Hills. When the magic was dispelled, what appeared to be Firkraag's "ogres" were revealed to be knights, and all lay dead at their feet. The true lord of the land, Garen Windspear, took them in. He lived more simply and understood far more than Viconia expected from a noble, and left to smooth things over with the Order of the Radiant Heart, whose knights they had slain. But when Firkraag kidnaped Garen's child, everyone was of the same mind. This Firkraag must be dealt with.

 

They had to fight through a most unusual collection of defenders; orcs, hobgoblins, vampires, wolfweres, and far too many golems. When they confronted the half-ogre Tazok, however, she almost fled in fear. Fear turned to fury when she saw Minsc, and remembered the swing that took the assassin's life once before. This time she was not preoccupied with any ritual and she had a much better mace.

 

When they finally fought through to his lair, they were more than a little intimidated to find Firkraag to be a huge red dragon. Weakened as they were, they had little chance of defeating him. He knew this, yet had a deal for them. Rescue Garen's child from his mage or attack and die. Covenant agreed to rescue the child, but not before coaxing some information from the beast. She would have cared little about the conversation except Firkraag mentioned his interest in the mage Irenicus, and that both had been watching Covenant since before he had fallen into Irenicus' hands.

 

She then knew Imoen would be relatively safe until they left to rescue her. Irenicus may play with her a bit, but live bait is far better at drawing prey. She would be in danger only when the mage had Covenant in his control, and she doubted that would happen.

 

After rescuing Garen's child, Viconia and Covenant discussed the situation privately. The paladin believed he was still being watched by Irenicus, and Yoshimo was the likely candidate. It would also explain his often overheard muttering about "these setbacks" being only temporary. Whether he was willingly helping the mage or not, the paladin still foolishly refused to send him away.

 

Returning to Athkatla, Covenant went immediately to the headquarters of the Radiant Heart knights. They made him a member of the order, then sent him on a few errands for them. Nothing difficult overall. Reinforcing a group of knights in the Umar Hills against an incursion of monsters was quickly done, as was the mediation between a noble and some farmers. It quickly became clear this noble expected the Order to do his bidding, and when Covenant refused, he foolishly attacked. Viconia saw the example of lording and leading in a most instructive way. When they reported back, the Order was displeased with the outcome but agreed it had been necessary. She disliked the followers of Helm, thought them mindless slaves of order, but they at least knew the importance of a harsh lesson. This the noble's death would serve that well.

 

The next duty was simple, but most vexing. She stifled the urge to rip the tongue from a young noble they were to protect, the last of her family and too haughty for her own good. They were successful. She sent word to Narlen to have the Baldur's Gate Guild prepare her a lesson in discretion.

 

The Order had one last duty for Covenant to perform.

 

"You almost had him." She was startled by Xan's soft voice behind her. "We all underestimated him, it seems."

 

She gripped her flail tightly, but did not turn around. "Here to mock me, elf?" She burned with anger, but also with shame. Telling him of Valas had awakened a terror in her, and she had approached him in weakness. She was a fool. No one could protect her from Lolth's wrath, not even this spawn of a god.

 

The mage walked up beside her, looking down the path and across the Windspear Hills. "I was actually hoping you would succeed, strange as it sounds. You help each other, you balance each other in ways I doubt I'll ever understand."

 

"Where I come from, unless he wishes to die a male dare not refuse to service a female. Yet he has refused me! I should slay him!"

 

The mage sat on a rock and produced a bottle of wine and two small cups from his robe. "It was bad timing, of a sort. We are on the very steps of a red dragon's domicile, and he has a duty to perform for the Order." He removed the stopper from the bottle and poured a small amount into each cup. "Yet he chooses to rest here, knowing Firkraag will be aware of our approach."

 

She took the cup he offered, and swallowed the contents in one gulp. She shivered from the unexpectedly sharp taste of the human wine. "You could have used elven vintage, if you're trying to console me."

 

"You neither need nor want that, especially from me. Have you considered human wine any since our last talk? I've found it has another effect, when taken in small quantities at least. It has a way of clearing the mind in a way that elven stock does not."

 

"I'm not interested in your observations, mage. I want Covenant. It's as simple as that."

 

"From your side. What about his? I told you he is no Drow male, yet you act as if he were." He poured her a little more wine. "He is human, though he carries a nobility I've seldom seen. We have made the same mistake. We misjudged him."

 

Now aware of what the wine was, Viconia looked at it before sipping this time. "Does he have no desire for . . . women?" His rejection, no matter how gentle, gave the idea some merit. She was shocked when Xan began to laugh softly.

 

"By the gods, woman! I've seen few as certain of themselvesy as Covenant. You know it as well, and that is part of why you want him. I doubt he's ever had to work so hard to tell anyone no as he did you! I expected steam to start pouring from beneath that armor he wears!"

 

"Then why did he reject me?" Her anger was beginning to fade, but she still hurt, and felt shame even more strongly. Why?

 

Xan grew quiet and thoughtful, and took a sip from his cup. "I don't know. I'm as surprised as you. I think we all are. It definitely wasn't from lack of desire. He is clearly interested in you. But why are you so interested in him?"

 

She ignored the question the first time he asked it. This time she could not evade it. A year ago he was useful to her. She needed someone to protect her, and he needed help to survive. It was business and little else. He deferred to her because of her experience, she to him because he knew how to live in this vast surface land and provided her protection. Things were so much simpler.

 

They had grown since then. They had both matured in knowledge and awareness. Covenant had grown beyond his fear, had leashed that which had tormented him. He had gone from an uncertain youth to a man aware of a greater destiny. In all this he still managed to keep a gentleness she had seldom encountered. All his difficulties had not hardened him nor made him callous to the needs of others. What she had always thought, had been taught, was weakness he somehow made strength. And he actually seemed to care for her. Somewhere in all this she realized she had come to trust him, that she had grown comfortable with him.

 

In trust was weakness, she told herself, and in weakness was death.

 

"I want to make him mine because he pleases me. And I can't see any other way to be with him," she admitted softly.

 

"If you do succeed, you will find his cup like human wine, a bitter drink. His heritage will not be denied. He will find himself in the struggle for the Throne of his father. Either he will die, or he will ascend, and you will be left alone."

 

His words stung, and she became defensive. She drained her cup. "What if he survives and refuses the Throne?"

 

"He is a human. He will grow old, and whither, and die before your eyes, and you will again be left alone. A divine tragedy, don't you think? And I find myself part of this futile endeavor." His eyes returned to his cup as he lifted it for another sip.

 

She felt a chill in her heart. She knew this, yet why did it matter so much to her? Why did the thought hurt so? She could only nod as silence returned. "Lolth could not have devised a more cruel punishment, mage. I am cursed whatever I do."

 

Xan gave a small smile as he filled his cup. "So are we all. Such is the doom of the living. So do something about it. Or are you going to let the Queen of Spiders win without a fight?"

 

Coming from him, it sounded so ludicrous. He who spoke most of the futility of resisting fate was telling her to do just that. He was right, she realized. She could surrender, or she could defy Lolth and fate. If she must lose, let it be on her terms. In his way Xan was doing the same thing.

 

She did something she had seldom done; she laughed. In the face of fear and certain loss, she laughed. She took the cup from Xan. "Onward, to futility!" she laughed as she lifted it in a toast, then took a deep drink of the bitter human wine.

 

She returned to the camp, still angry but with new focus. She found Covenant where she expected, at the most vulnerable point of the camp's defenses. He was removing his armor and she was astonished to see his shirt soaked with sweat. "Are you becoming so weak? I didn't find the travel here so difficult."

 

"No, I'm not and it wasn't," he replied. Setting down his armor, he reached into his pack and withdrew a bottle of Balor Ale. He grimaced as he took a deep swallow before returning it to the pack. "Nasty stuff. But it takes the edge off the pain. Irenicus' invitation can be very loud at times. Like now. I'm glad you didn't leave. You were so angry, I thought you might."

 

"I would have long ago, had I the choice."

 

Covenant looked at her, then shook his head. "So the gods of Faerun have deigned to take an interest in me. I regret you have become Shar's puppet in this matter. Mind you, I do enjoy the company."

 

"So why did you reject me?"

 

His face flushed a little in embarrassment. "What if you conceived?"

 

She was stunned, not knowing whether to laugh or strike him. She had not even considered the question. She saw the expression on his face, and chose laughter. "That, my little paladin, is not likely to happen."

 

"Your ridicule is misplaced, my lady. I am serious and my question remains. What if you conceived?"

 

Her first answer was tinged with mockery, but now she was becoming uncomfortable. Anger crept into her voice. "That is my affair, not yours."

 

"So I would have no say regarding *our* child? That is part of my problem." Covenant shifted his gaze to the sky, his eyes unfocused. "Gorion was a good man, a father to Imoen and I. Until a year ago I dreamed about marriage, having a family, raising children as he raised us. That dream died with him. I became aware that I'm not just another man, thanks to my real father. Being a Drow half-breed would be bad enough, but being the offspring of a . . ." His voice trailed off and his eyes returned to hers, looking into her very soul. "What would you do if you conceived?"

 

As his gaze pierced her, she found herself peering into his soul as well. What she thought she understood about the chaos within him was nothing compared to what she now saw. Light and dark, strength and weakness, life and death, divine blood and human blood, lust and love, pride and humility, and countless other struggling opposites surrounded him in a great maelstrom, and he was in the middle somehow managing to keep them all balanced, knowing if he failed he would be swept away into overwhelming the madness that now threatened to sweep her away.

 

And within the maelstrom was the whispering laughter of Bhaal.

 

The window to his soul suddenly closed. She realized she was on her knees, her nails digging into the palms of her clenched fists, and he was standing over her with a concerned expression. Was this fear fading from her mind his or hers? What had just happened?

 

He offered his hand to help her up. She slapped it away angrily. "What did you just do to me?!"

 

"Whatever happened, I assure you I had nothing to do with it. Your spirit and power have grown much stronger, my lady," Covenant's soft voice came, calming her mind. "I've also grown stronger, but so has my father's blood. If you don't want to answer my question, I'll understand."

 

She had four husbands and lovers beyond count and never once conceived. Now she feared it was all too likely because of the divine blood raging in him, and it revolted her. "I would never allow such a conception to see the light of day."

 

She was confused by the deep sadness in Covenant's eyes. "All for the sake of a few moments pleasure. Death surrounds me, it hounds my every step, but I have never willingly allowed the innocent to die because of me. I have protected the innocent, defended the helpless. That would be my child as much as yours, and I don't know if I could survive your . . . solution. And what would it do to your own spirit? No matter how much I may desire to, that is why I *dare not* lay with you."

 

He offered his hand again. "Lady Viconia, though I might want you as my wife, right now I need you far more as a friend. Since Sarevok, I have had to deal with two more of my siblings, and with the death of each the power in me grew. What Irenicus has done has made my control of the blood that much less certain. Until my heritage is dealt with, I need you to help me stay . . . human."

 

She refused the hand, slowly getting to her feet on her own. She began to laugh softly at the irony. "Everyone I've known has wanted to become a god, though they never admitted it. Even I have dreamed of it. Now I find myself chained to someone who can, and doesn't want it. I . . . I need some time to think about this."

 

She walked outside the camp, far enough away so no one would see her tears or hear her soft sobs. Her mind was in disarray. One conversation with this half-god and everything was reduced to chaos. She had never conceived. She had never wanted to. Now she found that desire awakening. Family was an idiotic institution that chained people together, required you to be constantly on guard against those closest to you. Yet his yearning for one somehow resonated in her. No doubt he would want her to be as all human wives she had so far encountered, passive, submissive, slave to every whim of the male. Yet he disdained such women, and those that traveled with him certainly had wills of their own. He led with authority, but yielded to the judgement of others when it was clearly better.

 

"Shar," she whispered in desperation, "give me understanding, give me relief from this madness in my mind and soul!"

 

Immediately she sensed the goddess laughing, her voice deep within telling her to find the balance, and she remembered the chaos in Covenant, a chaos not unlike what she was experiencing now. No, his was far greater, and he managed it, not in forced order but in a balanced tension. He did not repress the chaos but restraining extreme against extreme. She needed to find her balance, understand what was creating this conflict. And as the thought came, she understood. Emotion and reason, opposites, and she was swinging wildly between them. One must not rule the other if balance were to be gained.

 

The laughter faded, replaced by a sense of Shar's pleasure. I am Darkness, not Chaos, Viconia felt her say.

 

She returned to camp a few minutes later. Her mind was still not fully calmed, but she had at least regained her composure. She considered Covenant's words. There had been a sarcastic tone when he spoke of the gods of Faerun taking notice, even bitterness. It was also evident he had no intention of ascending to his father's Throne, yet for the chance to be free of Bhaal's essence he must win through to it. She was not certain, but she believed she was finally beginning to understand the confusing paladin. She would talk with him about this, but not now. Her emotional struggle had exhausted her, and she rested, preparing for the battle to come.

 

The battle was surprisingly brief, but brutal. If not for the sword and helm found in the tomb of King Strohm, it would have been a far different outcome. As it was Minsc barely survived being crushed by Firkraag's massive foot, Jaheira and Xan suffered severe burns as they barely evaded the center of the dragon's fiery breath, and Yoshimo had nearly been eviscerated by a claw. She had somehow come through without injury except for being slapped by one of the monster's wings. After she and Jaheira had finished ministering to the worst injuries, she turned her attention to Covenant.

 

The paladin was still standing where he had been when the beast finally fell, his swords sheathed, helm in hand. The dragon had hit him twice with his flaming breath, but the magic in the helm and prayer of protection from fire she had placed on him had made it all but useless. He had, however, taken the brunt of Firkraag's rage. The dragon knew who the real threat was. She had seen Covenant release a terrible fury of inhuman strength, speed and endurance upon the dragon. His armor would need Cromwell's hand to repair.

 

"You fought magnificently, my noble warrior," she said as she approached him.

 

"No," he snapped, just loud enough for her to hear. "I fought poorly. I was distracted, I was uncoordinated, my blows were ill-placed." He turned to face her. "I allowed anger to cloud my judgement. I jeopardized everyone here, and nearly let the Wolf break free!"

 

If the situation had not been so serious, she would have laughed at him. His words were so different from what she had come to expect, what she had seen. And he looked so different without his beard and mustache. She realized he had not been entirely unscathed by the dragon's flame. She was also reminded of just how young he was. She was being led by a youth, and this angered her.

 

"Keep those thought to yourself," she growled just loud enough for him to hear. "Speak like that in front of the others and I *will* crush your skull. You led them into battle, successfully I might add, and they deserve better from their captain." She had the satisfaction of watching him flinch under her words.

 

He was silent for a few moments, then nodded. "It doesn't change the fact, but you're right, my lady. That is a weakness they don't need to see. Thank you for bringing me back to my senses."

 

"Good. Foolishness would be to ignore a weakness. Wisdom sees it and finds a way to overcome it. Your own words. If your anger is a problem, deal with it. And while you’re at it, grow back your whiskers. I like looking at the face of a child about as much as listening to one."

 

His hand went up to his face, first feeling for the beard, then rubbing the skin of his face as he casually walked back to the others. "Got me a mighty nice shave here. Can't recommend the barber, though."

 

The stunned silence that followed quickly vanished in gales of laughter as the others saw the bare face of their leader. Viconia smiled. His wit was still sharp, and just as self-mocking. He had just stumbled, and recovered flawlessly. So would she. She would recover. She had grown to close to him and left herself vulnerable. She needed some distance. She needed to drive him away!

 

The Order let Covenant keep the sword Carsomyr, recovered from Firkraag. Even she could feel its holy power when he wielded it. He was just as impressive and dangerous swinging that great sword as he was two long swords. And the power of that great sword . . . She was glad she was behind the paladin, and not facing him.

 

The craftsmanship of Cromwell was impressive, and few Drow could equal his skill in shaping dragon scales into armor, or improving the enchantments of weapons. Covenant wore his trophy from Firkraag's battle in the plate armor forged from the dragon's scales. He looked even more the very divinity the paladin denied wearing the new armor and holding Carsomyr.

 

They were summoned back to De'Arnise Keep to face Lord Farthington Roenall. The noble was insistent Covenant relinquish his position and turn the Keep over to him. He left in a fury and spouting threats when the paladin calmly commanded the guards to escort the lord from De'Arnise lands. She realized he would return, in an attempt to take the land by force. Covenant was neither a fool, nor insane, for becoming Lord De'Arnise. She now had the measure of Roenall, and he was no real threat.

 

They had barely time to rest before they found themselves in the sewers below the Temple District, investigating a cult that was slowly reducing the followers of Helm, Lathander and Talos alike. She questioned the purchase of Balduran's shield from the Adventurer's Mart until they found themselves facing a beholder incursion, the very source of the cult. Almost as dangerous was the illithid plot they uncovered in the same sewer system. Covenant put the items gained from Firkraag's lair to the test, and they passed very effectively.

 

The minor quest for the Temple of Helm that followed would have been quickly forgotten if not for their encounter with the madman Neb. When they encountered him in Baldur's Gate, she thought him simply insane, victimizing children for his own twisted pleasure. She had seen, she had done, worse. She realized how wrong she was when they cornered him and he summoned the enslaved spirits of the children he had murdered.

 

She had heard of such dark magics, but had never seen them. In fury she prayed to reveal his hiding place, then ordered everyone to ignore the wraith children and kill this abomination. Minsc must have been as furious as she. He knocked Covenant aside and decapitated the gnome in one swing. As soon as Neb died, the spirits of his victims were released. Again, though she did not understand why, she felt the same sad pleasure as when Wellyn was released. She could only think her relationship with Covenant was making her soft.

 

They returned to De'Arnise Keep three more times. The first was an insignificant matter about a betrothal, but the second surprised her when Covenant put to death two moneylenders with forged notes of debt for a thousand gold. There was a harshness in him, a strength she had not expected. He could rule, if he chose. He said the executions were a necessary evil to warn others not to threaten the people under his hand.

 

The third matter was more severe, but on the people this time. The dike had failed and the farmers that had suffered from a flood. The cost of repairing the dike was heavy as well. Her initial reaction, thinking Covenant was only helping the undeserving weak, was moderated as she listened to the farmers as they left. The paladin had gained their loyalty in a way and with a strength no Drow ever could. She understood more when he spoke with Captain Cernick. The soldier was to set watches on the borders of the Hold lands and prepare defenses for a possible attack.

 

It was after a trip to the Abyss, compliments of the magical device called the Planar Sphere, that the final summons came from the De'Arnise Keep. Lord Roenall attacked with a small army, intent on gaining the lands by force while they were still recovering from the flood. What he had not counted on was the will of the farmers to protect the land they now felt was in part theirs, or the ingenuity with which they did it. She found herself surprised at their courage and cunning as well. The Keep's soldiers may have been poorly equipped and inadequately trained, but they fought well and with determination, and the farmers had prepared a few surprises of their own to slow the invading force. They finally destroyed the dike they had just rebuilt. The resulting flood swept away or mired down the greatest part of Roenall's force. Still, Lord Roanall managed to get through with a force large enough to assault the Keep itself.

 

Covenant lead the defenses as they attacked. The last to fall was Roenall himself.

 

"Have you given any thought to what you will do once this whole business is over?" Viconia asked as they left the Keep. Covenant kept his word, and had relinquished the title back to Nalia.

 

Covenant shrugged. "I've devoted most of my thought to survival. And it's nice to have the civil you back, my lady."

 

"You were too thick to get my message." She muttered just loud enough for him to hear. She had been as obnoxious as possible with him since the battle with Firkraag, lying to him about her past, trying to drive him away. He saw through her, and she just could not continue the charade. "Well, I have thought on the future myself. With a little ambition, I see us carving an empire, ruling a small kingdom, and living the hedonistic luxury we were meant to!"

 

She was not surprised by his soft laughter. "Same question, different wording. I have no interest in lording over others, lady Viconia. I thought you knew this."

 

"Do not dismiss it so easily," she returned, with a hint of mischief. "Inject some kindness, if you must. With your power, you could bring order to a chaotic land. People might appreciate your rule."

 

"Maybe, my lady. I don't think the would appreciate yours, however."

 

"True. It is little more than idle talk and fantasy. A strange thought to overcome me, truly, but not entirely unpleasant."

 

"No, not entirely unpleasant." She noticed a far away look in the paladin's eyes, a quiet smile on his lips. "My thoughts and dreams are less grand, however; more of a cottage somewhere in a deep wood, or a small farm far away from battle and blood and ceaseless death, a place of quiet and peace I've never really known."

 

Viconia found herself laughing at his words. "After a ten-day you'd be a raving lunatic. You thrive on chaos and battle. It fuels your divine blood, and drives you to greater things."

 

He returned her gaze. "And hedonistic luxury would do the same to you. You and I, we are touched with an awareness of eternity. Hedonism would serve as a distraction for a time, but the pleasure would soon fade. Then you would be bound by chains most devious to the things you thought you owned."

 

She nodded, smiling softly. "Perhaps, but it's just talk. Idle talk and fantasy and dreams are all we have right now." Maybe she could sway him toward her. "They help us through the day-to-day drudgery and horror of this wanderer's life we have. You must grant me this, my dream is more likely to come true than yours, and you'll become a lord somewhere after this is all over."

 

"And no doubt you'll be there to goad me into it," he responded with a soft laugh, then he quieted. "But there's a great chasm between dreams and the needs of the present. My tasks are finished here, I think."

 

"So you're finally going after your sister? Perhaps now Yoshimo will cease his not so subtle proddings. Does this Irenicus fill you with such dread, even after all the enemies you've defeated? I thought you above such cowardice." She knew she hit a nerve when his eyes narrowed.

 

"The question of Imoen's paternity aside, the enemies we've faced could only destroy the body. Irenicus did something to my soul. When I confront him, he'll have a chance to finish what he started. And that, my lady, is what scares me. But confront him I must to be free of my fear, and confront him I will."

 

They returned in silence to the Copper Coronet, arriving shortly after nightfall. Covenant purchased some rooms and the party headed up the stairs together.

 

Viconia wrapped her arm around the paladin's and lay her head on his shoulder. She wanted him, she needed him, and she would deal with the consequences. "I . . . I cast my white flag before you. I can struggle no more. You have . . . you have defeated me."

 

She could feel him tense and he stumbled slightly as his foot caught the next step. He stopped. "What are you talking about? Defeated you?"

 

"Yes, defeated me," she said softly. Her heart was racing, and her head felt strangely light. She did not understand what was happening, nor why she spoke what followed. She moved up to the next step and gazed into his eyes. "I do not know what it is about you, Covenant, but I opened up to you . . . I let you inside with honesty and candor. I am not used to such. Trust is death. I have been betrayed again and again, and yet I began to trust in you. I . . . I could not allow it to happen. I was confused, I tried to drive you away. Those . . . things . . . I said when we spoke last? Lies. I told you the truth of things the first time. You saw through my deception, and would not be driven away. I owe you . . . so much. You are a safe harbor in a storm of terrifying power. I begin to feel that I need you . . . and this enthralls me and enrages me all at once . . . If you will have me, I shall not push you away again . . . stay with me tonight, Covenant, let us be together in earnest. Let me savor the unfamiliar fear that goes with this trust."

 

"I don't think the time is right for this," he responded, voice tightening. His face flushed, and she saw a returning passion.

 

"There is no right time for such as us. Tomorrow could bring death. Allow my need, Covenant. Allow my honest submission." She paused a moment as she remembered outside Firkraag's lair, and she felt a sharp pain in her heart. She had no choice but to add, "Refuse . . . and I shall bother you no more."

 

"I . . . I dare not." She saw the pain in his eyes overshadow his desire, a pain she heard in his next words. "Then perhaps it is best if this ends here, lady Viconia. You know this will never work out between us."

 

"Oh, no," Xan groaned.

 

Jaheira made an unintelligible gurgling sound and slapped her forehead.

 

Boo squeaked something as Minsc roared, "This is not good."

 

Viconia barely perceived their responses, muffled by a strange roaring in her ears. Her voice seemed remote as she calmly replied, "Yes, perhaps it is for the best. Aluve' mrann d'ssinss. I shall bother you no more."

 

She stood looking in Covenant's eyes for a few moments, then pulled her gaze from his to turn away. She would leave in the morning.

 

Only she could not move. Two strong hands gently but firmly held her arms against her sides, holding her immobile. The paladin was struggling to say something, anger, fear, passion, pain, but most of all confusion in his face.

 

"KISS HER, YOU IDIOT!" she heard Yoshimo yell.

 

As if a bucket of cold water had been poured over her, her mind suddenly cleared. "Don't you d---!"

 

Covenant's hands left her arms and wrapped her in his embrace faster than she could follow, picked her up and stopped her protest with his kiss. It was most definitely passionate, as no Drow male would ever dare, and she was enjoying it!

 

She heard the others cheer.

 

When it finally ended and he pulled his head back, her heart beat quickly again from an excitement she did not understand, but her head was clearer than it had been for the last several days. His face had changed. It was flush with excitement, but now showed a new resolve. And she felt a stab of fear.

 

Xan had been right. She had made him hers, but at the same time she had become his. He would not change his position, would not give his father any opening, but neither would he let her go.

 

"That was well done," she found herself saying, and could not resist adding, "for a first kiss. Now, do you intend on carrying me to your bed or are you going to put me down?"

 

"I do love you, but you know my answer," he laughed as he set her gently back on her feet. "Consider that a promise of what is yours, if we both survive this madness. Then we can both freely surrender."

 

She needed to make sure he understood what he was moving into. "I am a Drow and hated by Lolth. I walk in darkness. You are a paladin. You walk in light. Are you certain you can make that promise? Are you ready for its consequences?"

 

"My lady," he added cryptically, "it is not my promise, and we are not now what we will be. Get some rest, while you can. I'll be back in a bit. There's an ice cold fountain near the Promenade I need to visit."

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Part 7

 

"There's been a change in plans," Covenant declared as he came down the stairs. His voice carried an unexpected authority and urgency.

 

Viconia was startled, as were the others. They had been waiting for him at a table near the northern entrance to the Coronet. She had looked for him earlier on the roof, expecting to find him practicing. Not finding him there, she then looked around and in the building itself. She had not thought to check his room.

 

"Jaheira, Yoshimo, we need provisions for a ten-day. Viconia, make sure you have the healing supplies ready to travel. Xan, ensure you have enough components. Minsc and I will check the armor and weapons. We leave in two hours."

 

"I always keep the healing supplies in order," she told him after the others scattered. She was still adjusting to him being clean-shaven. Firkraag's fire had done more damage than she originally thought. Though his face did not appear to have been burned, it must have since his beard would only grow in patches now. She wondered how Imoen would react, or if she would even recognize him. "One doesn't know when we will be traveling with you. Did your god give you a vision, or are you just hiding that you overslept?"

 

"Prayer is as important to me and my abilities as they are to yours. I spend an hour in it before I even touch my equipment. This morning He gave me a vision just as I prepared to grab my weapons." He paused, then added with a bit of embarrassment, "To be honest, I've spent the last two hours arguing with Him."

 

"And he let you? Either he is a fool, or extremely patient with a stiff necked servant. I expect it's the latter."

 

"His tolerance is amazing, I'll admit," he grinned. The smile disappeared. "But He has my attention now, and set us a daunting task indeed. And since you have your items in order, you can help Minsc and I check the weapons and armor."

 

They had grown used to long marches, but she could not recall any as difficult as this one. The paladin seemed tireless, stopping only when both she and Xan were ready to collapse. Even Minsc was finding it difficult to keep up. It was just after sunrise the next day when they broke through the forest and found themselves at the base of a great tower.

 

"Seldarine," Xan gasped, his voice almost a whisper. "I have . . . I have never seen anything as . . . majestic."

 

Viconia looked at the structure before her. She had expected something similar to De'Arnise Keep, not this massive tower. But there was something odd about it her tired mind could not grasp.

 

"Majestic?" Covenant asked. "I thought you'd say 'terrifying' or the like."

 

"It is a human construction, not elven," the mage continued, "but I see it's beauty regardless. A perfect shelter, an impenetrable stronghold, an ideal . . . prison."

 

"A prison?" she asked. She suddenly understood what perplexed her about the tower. There were no battlements, no defensive works to stop an attacking force. It was not designed to keep enemies out. "I wonder, who is contained within?"

 

The mage thought a moment. "One they call the Imprisoned One. I know nothing more of the creature, however." He turned to the paladin. "Covenant, do you intend to proceed? A foolish question, of course: you do. But . . . is there the slimmest chance that I will make you change your mind and return to a less dangerous task?"

 

Viconia nodded her agreement. This place filled her with a subtle but certain dread.

 

"I am sorry, Xan, but no," Covenant replied.

 

They moved forward and saw a covered stairway ascending the tower, with six warriors standing before it. As they approached, one of them began moving toward them.

 

"Ah! The Child of Bhaal has come! We had hoped that our call for aid would draw you here . . . praise to the Watcher for hearing our prayers! "

 

She whispered just loud enough for the paladin to hear, "They wait for you? Do not trust them!"

 

The apparent leader continued. "Please accept my apology, Covenant. The Watcher's Keep is a long journey from any nearby settlement, and your trip could not have been an easy one."

 

"I would be happy," Covenant responded tersely, before this knight could fawn further, "just knowing who you are and what you want."

 

Viconia would happily have silenced this mewling sycophant as he continued trying to stroke the paladin's ego, though now with a bit more subtlety. "Allow me to introduce myself properly. I am Brother Odren, currently the leader of the Knights of the Vigil. We are . . . a small sect that was given a most solemn charge by the Vigilant One, Helm, Himself. . . ."

 

She grew bored with his self-promoting, but gleaned the main idea. This Keep was indeed a prison, they were the guards, but the seals holding the prisoner were beginning to fail. They were unable, or more likely unwilling, to do their duty, and they wanted Covenant to do it. She wondered if he were being taken in by their deception until she saw the look on his face. It was the same when she first met him in Peldvale.

 

Covenant agreed to listen further and they were taken to the top of the Keep. The view from the top was spectacular. Minsc reminded her of a small child barely managing to keep himself quiet as he looked out over the forest below. She wondered how the Order would have reacted had the ranger been his usual boisterous self.

 

When Covenant agreed to help them, they gave him a Wardstone that functioned as a key, and a scroll with the ritual needed to restore the seals of this prison. They then opened the Keep and the party entered.

 

Once inside and well away from the Knights, Minsc declared, "Boo does not think this is wise, Covenant, and Minsc agrees. They did not tell you all they know."

 

"I agree," Jaheira added. "This has the feel of a trap. I do not think they expect us to return if we complete this mission."

 

Their leader nodded but remained silent.

 

"They know who and what you are. They are using you," Viconia added. "They may intend to seal you in this place with their prisoner. Why do as they want?"

 

Covenant spoke clearly for all to hear. "I am not here at their command, but at the command of my God. Helm will deal with his knights if they are shirking their duty. If he does not, then my God will. Now let's secure a room. The journey has been hard and you need rest. I'll take first watch."

 

What followed was a confusion of puzzles, traps and mazes with many opponents ready to take their lives. The tower acted as a lodestone, drawing evil creatures from the astral plane to it, then trapping them in its labyrinth. Tanar'ri and baatezu were the most common, but they also encountered mind flayers, githyanki, even a couple of dragons. Not every encounter ended in violence, however. They were able to restore and release an elf driven insane from the horrors he had encountered. There was also a cambion noble with his entourage. He wanted a game of chance using a Deck of Many Things he had recently acquired, and the Wardstone was the prize. Covenant lost the last draw, but the cambion was true to his word. All he wanted was a way out, and returned the artifact after opening a portal to his own plane.

 

In all, it took them seven days to finally reach the final seal to the Imprisoned One. After all the battles they had come through, she began to suspect Yoshimo was trying to get himself killed. Since entering the Keep, he required more attention from her and Jaheira than Xan. Much more. She saw Covenant had also noticed this behavior.

 

After resting, they entered the chamber of the Imprisoned One. They could not see him, but they could certainly feel his presence, a great and cunning evil. He knew Covenant's heritage and dealt with him alone. It appeared the rest of them were beneath his notice. He knew what they were to do, warning them they would be trapped with him should he complete the ritual. When it became clear Covenant would use the scroll, the entity mockingly conceded.

 

All could feel the separation from the world as the seals were restored. They discovered even the entry portals were disconnected from their opposites when they approached them.

 

Viconia stared at the dead portals. "The Imprisoned One knew this would happen, yet he did not stop you."

 

"He more or less dared me to use the scroll, lady Viconia. He has something in mind, and thinks me his tool. No doubt he has a way for us to escape."

 

"Of course he does!" she snapped. She found this place wearing on her mind and soul. In a calmer voice she continued, "It occurs to me that, if Odren were the one charged by Helm to do the ritual, the seal may not be as strong as it should. Such scrolls are attuned to one caster, and the Imprisoned One would know this."

 

The Imprisoned One did have a plan when they returned to talk with him.

 

As they neared the now active exit portal, Xan asked, "You have made a deal with a demon. Will you do as he wants?"

 

Covenant nodded his head. "I will keep my word."

 

"So you *will* lie, then?" Viconia asked. "And send them to their deaths? How uncharacteristic. Have the terrors of this place darkened your soul?"

 

"I will not lie. No one say anything. I alone will speak with Odren."

 

When they walked onto the top of the Keep, the confusion and dismay of the knights was evident.

 

"You return! We . . . we sensed that the lower vault had been breached! What has occurred? Did you not cast the ritual?"

 

"Oh, I cast your ritual all right," Covenant replied to Odren without emotion. "Imagine my surprise to find myself entombed along with your Imprisoned One."

 

Confusion and dismay gave way to horror. "But if you are here . . . that means the Imprisoned One is destroyed? No! Helm's mercy, no! To destroy him is to free him . . . to send him back to the Abyss! Covenant, tell me this is not so!"

 

"The Abyss?" Covenant asked quietly. "Just how much did you not tell me about this Imprisoned One?"

 

"It is true, Covenant. I deceived you, for I believed it was necessary. But if you have destroyed the Imprisoned One, then all is for naught! He will be free and Helm's wrath shall be great!" Odren's face paled, no longer able to hide from his own cowardice and shame. "Come, my brethren! We must venture into the lower vault now that the Bhaalspawn has cleared the way . . . we must see for ourselves if the Imprisoned One is truly dead or not!"

 

"Why, we humbly beg your forgiveness for our incredible stupidity," Xan called out. "But will you at least wait and hear what we have to say?" He sighed as they ignored him and entered the Keep. "Obviously not."

 

Viconia saw the paladin's eyes grow sad. "They can't hear you, Xan. They can't hear anything but their own guilt. All they can do now is face their failing and the judgement of Helm."

 

"And so you keep your word with the Imprisoned One without a lie. You let the knights think what they would, and so they doom themselves. Again I underestimated your cunning," Viconia added with a note of ridicule. She would have continued had she not sensed the approach of a spirit, and the power behind it.

 

What appeared before them was the spirit of the knight that had placed the original seal, sent by Helm to talk with the paladin. She delivered Helm's apology, and a request from her god to finish the work Odren had failed. She then named the Imprisoned One, Demogorgon, Prince of Demons.

 

Viconia had participated in many summoning rituals, and had seen the results of those improperly done. "A demon prince is not to be taken lightly, Covenant . . . perhaps it would be best to seal this creature in its prison without facing its wrath. Even Helm has released Odren to this fate."

 

Jaheira agreed with her. "The natural order will scream in protest, should this demon prince be allowed to walk freely through the Realms. To preserve the balance, we must imprison the creature - or send it back to the Abyss."

 

The spirit moved before the paladin and held forth her hand. "Take this ritual scroll as the Watcher's . . . apology . . . to thee, Child of Bhaal, for the disobedience of His followers. The choice, however, is still ultimately thine. What dost thou wish?"

 

Covenant's eyes narrowed as he received the scroll. "I won't, I can't, leave Odren to Demogorgon's mercies, despite what he's done."

 

The eyes of the spirit widened in astonishment, then she bowed in respect to him. "Thy compassion has merit, Bhaalchild. I shall entrust Helm's scroll with thee, regardless, should you decide to alter your decision. Take the scroll . . . and should you wish to use it, do so out here in the open outside of the prison. Read it aloud and thou art done, all entrances to the prison will be sealed. Go with Helm's blessing, Child of Bhaal. Be safe . . . and be wary of thy destiny."

 

The spirit faded, returning to Helm's side.

 

"Do you truly intend to face Demogorgon, Covenant? I have . . . had dealings with such beings before, and they are rightly to be feared."

 

He nodded. "If I sealed the knights in with that demon, I would be no different than they, my lady. And I cannot leave knowing he will escape if I do nothing. We know what we face now, and we are rested."

 

They quickly returned to the door on the side of the tower where they exited the prison chamber. After preparing for battle with prayers and protective spells, they entered. They descended the steps from the portals at a run, Minsc, Jaheira and Xan to the west, Covenant, she and Yoshimo to the east. As quickly as they had arrived, the knights had arrived ahead of them. Clearly they knew the way here and withheld it when asked before.

 

The knights had surrounded the place where the evil presence could be felt, even as he was hidden from their eyes. They had barely begun their attack and they were all fallen, dead except for Odren who lay badly burned and screaming in agony. The demon was taking pleasure in the knight's pain.

 

Fear washed over Viconia. She would have run in terror had she not felt the eyes of Shar upon her, and a Word impress upon her mind. With boldness she spoke the Word.

 

Demogorgon appeared before them, astonished and angry. He turned his wrath toward her only for a moment before Covenant and Carsomyr pulled it away. Immediately the demon gated in two marilith demons to defend him. One moved toward her only to be intercepted by Yoshimo. She knew he lacked the skills to survive without help and joined him.

 

As powerful as the paladin and his sword were, they could not harm Demogorgon until Xan struck the demon with a spell stripping him of his mystic protections. Minsc on one side and Covenant on the other, as soon as they could hit the monster they struck as one with a whirlwind of blows that she had, until now, only seen Covenant do. She was astonished, relieved and disappointed, at how quickly the enemy she thought so dangerous was defeated. After the previous horrors of the tower, this battle seemed anticlimactic.

 

The mariliths were quickly destroyed, but not before Yoshimo was once again fallen on the ground and nearly dead. The two warriors were badly wounded but would survive. Jaheira began saying healing prayers over the thief as Viconia began taking care of Minsc. Xan stood in numb silence, unharmed, trying to comprehend their victory. Covenant walked over and knelt beside the charred body of Odren. Minsc stopped her healing spell, intently watching his leader. She could barely hear the dying knight speak. He struggled for every word, every breath.

 

"Th . . . thank you . . . We . . . we meant for you to . . . perform *our* duty. To . . . trap yourself within . . . along with the demon. We thought . . . we thought ourselves too important to . . . sacrifice. But . . . a Bhaalspawn? It was wrong of us. Grievously . . . wrong. Helm forgive us . . . Demogorgon is now released back to . . . the Abyss. But . . . but he is gone from this plane, at least. It was . . . a valiant fight, no? Perhaps . . . perhaps we were truer to Helm in death . . . than in life. Please, Covenant . . . forgive us . . ."

 

The paladin replied solemnly. "You faced your fear and failure, and fought as a true knight of Helm, with honor and courage. Rest now. I forgive you. May Helm also grant you forgiveness."

 

Odren struggled for a few moments more, his face slowly relaxing in peace as his spirit left to face his god.

 

"Minsc and Boo are honored to travel with such a great leader." The voice of the giant was barely audible to her.

 

"Odren was a coward. He did not deserve forgiveness," she replied coldly as she began a healing prayer over him.

 

"That is why Covenant is so great. Minsc hopes one day you will see without evil in your eyes. Then you will know his greatness."

 

They returned to Athkatla, this time at an almost casual pace. The dwarven smith Cromwell could and did work on some of the items they returned with. She gained an enchanted armor made of white dragon scale and a new head was added to the flail from De'Arnise Keep.

 

Then came the Shadow Thieves. She had suspected the Guild War was far more than they had been told, but only when they were ready to leave did it become clear how serious it was. They had encountered vampires at night targeting the thieves, and the number of thieves Aran Linvail now had was too small to take on their next task. He had to ask them to deal with this new guild.

 

"Now we are sure to step on some toes," Yoshimo warned the paladin. "Be careful, Covenant."

 

"I intend to be," Covenant replied. Viconia sensed something more behind his words, as did the paladin. "Have you additional concerns?"

 

"I . . . I do not mean to complicate things." His voice carried a current of regret Viconia doubted any of the others would note. "I simply worry who we might find ourselves in conflict with. I do not mean to delay you. We will all do what we must when the time comes."

 

Viconia sensed there was more he wanted to say. He had been subtly but regularly prodding Covenant to get moving. Now he seemed reluctant. As she thought about it, she realized he had been unusually quiet for the past two ten-days.

 

They had to again enter the Tombs beneath the Graveyard to root out the rival guild, and it truly was a den of vampires. Their leader, a female named Bodhi, managed to escape their purge, hinting she had ties to Irenicus and they would meet again.

 

She noted the paladin had changed since Watcher's Keep. His mind and actions were calmer in combat, becoming a far more formidable adversary. When they had entered she could see anger driving him. By the time they confronted Demogorgon he had reached a turning point. She finally began to see what Minsc had realized when Covenant forgave Odren. In that moment he had apparently released his bitterness toward Irenicus.

 

They returned to the Copper Coronet to rest before setting sail to Brynnlaw. Everyone knew they were about to begin the hardest part of their quest to rescue Imoen and confront Irenicus. Anticipation and fear of what they might encounter, wondering who would survive or if they would even succeed, was heavy on their minds. So they did what warriors and sailors on the eve of battle have done from time immemorial. They gathered together around a table with their favorite drinks, remembering and bragging about their past successes, getting well lost in their cups.

 

Xan, ever the pessimist, wondered how they had survived so many powerful enemies. Minsc, with childlike enthusiasm, took each combat and enemy Xan mentioned and in his simple way explained how they, as a team, had overcame them. Though he bragged of his own prowess in battle, he saved his best words for Covenant. Of course this only made the mage more taciturn.

 

Yoshimo talked about the treasures they had collected, the traps they had encountered, and how the paladin had come to the aid of each at some point, often to his own hurt. Viconia again had the sense he wanted to say more. She also noted he was also unusually intoxicated. Was it intentional?

 

"Well, Drow," Jaheira interrupted her musings, "how does your venture into love sit in that black heart of yours? Unpleasantly, I'd wager."

 

"What does that have to do with you, druid?" Viconia growled. "He's mine, not yours."

 

"I made Gorion a promise I'd watch over him. I don't trust you," came the prodding reply. "He has a good mind and heart, and I will protect him from you if need be. You have him for the moment, but I'm right behind you if you screw it up. For the life of me I don't know why he picked you."

 

She took a sip of her wine. She found herself appreciating the human vintage more of late. "Bored, are we? You usually reserve such comments for more . . . private accommodation."

 

"Careful with your words. Someone might come to think you don't like men." She smiled innocently at the cleric. "He hasn't even taken you to his bed!"

 

"Don't worry. You don't interest me in the slightest. I prefer men for that kind of . . . entertainment."

 

The druid let the insult pass. "Still, it must gall you, having to wait on him. Are you sure you can handle it?"

 

"We Drow learn patience and careful planning early. It's necessary for surviving the treachery and deceit of our society. We can wait centuries, if we think the prize is worth it. Which reminds me, why are all of you interested in our . . . relationship?" Viconia avoided the word love. She found her understanding of love uncertain at best, and clearly flawed. She would need some time to know if that word was right for what she was experiencing.

 

Jaheira took a sip of her mead. "A holy warrior and an unholy cleric. It is odd, I know. But you two have a peculiar symmetry. You balance each other much as Khalid and I did."

 

The druid sounded too much like Xan for her liking. "What about you, Minsc? Why do you want Covenant and I together? Don't worry, Greycloak. You've already made your position clear."

 

Minsc had to pause a moment to let the question sink in. "You work good together. Minsc sees you give each other courage and hope. You are happy together." He paused as Boo interrupted him. "Boo says you stop each other's darkness. That is good for us, because his Wolf is getting bigger and meaner and it scares Boo."

 

The hamster looked at her for a few moments, nodded its head, then ducked into the ranger's pocket.

 

"That leaves you, thief," she said to Yoshimo, a menacing note in her voice. "Kiss her, you idiot? You will pay for that."

 

The thief laughed. "It worked, did it not? Yoshimo sees you two love each other, but Covenant . . . he was too afraid to do anything. I just gave him a little push. Everyone deserves some happiness. Enjoy it while you have it."

 

She again sensed he was not saying all he wanted, but this time she sensed something restraining him.

 

Covenant had earlier asked her to sit on Yoshimo's right while he sat on his left. She caught the paladin's eye. He raised his cup to his lips but did not drink. She knew he intended something, and began to follow. Even from where she sat she could smell the stench of the Balor Ale in his cup. She had seen its effect. Any civilized culture would classify it a poison.

 

"That's an interesting statement, coming from one who's lately been throwing himself upon his enemies swords." Then, just loud enough for him to hear, "I begin to think you know Irenicus, and are afraid to face him." She saw only the slightest hesitation, the smallest tightening of his grip on his cup before she added with a lighter note, "But we all know that can't be. Such betrayal would be . . . dishonorable."

 

Yoshimo looked coldly at her, his voice steady but anger clear in his gaze. "You speak of honor? I understood Drow had no honor. So how would you know of it?"

 

"I've found honor exists in every society, thief. What is honored differs, however. Among my people it's cunning, treachery and deceit above all. It is the only way to gain power and respect, and I learned those lessons well. Perhaps we are more alike than you let on, bounty hunter." She named his profession with contempt.

 

Focused on Viconia in his anger, Yoshimo he did not see Covenant pour a little ale into his cup. "I do not like your tone, woman. We are nothing alike! Do you question my loyalty?" He took a swallow of his drink and noticed a different taste.

 

Before Yoshimo could say anything, she gave a mocking laugh. "Why do this tree-hugger and I have to heal you so often? If not your loyalty, then it must be your skills. Perhaps you want to die because they are so . . . inadequate?"

 

"My skills are more than adequate, Drow!" he growled at her, and angrily took another swallow. This time he did not notice the taste. "Yoshimo is known for his skill at hunting men down without fail, and no one takes him by surprise!"

 

Viconia was enjoying baiting the thief, and amazed at how quickly and effectively the little bit of Balor Ale had taken him from intoxicated to drunk. With his thinking clouded by anger as well, he was revealing more than he would have otherwise. Such as his meeting with Covenant in Irenicus' dungeon being no accident.

 

"That's enough," Covenant said calmly but clearly. "Lady Viconia, you know he's saved our skins more than once. But she is right, Yoshimo. Lately you have been putting yourself at unnecessary risk. You take great care in your skills as a point of honor, don't you?"

 

Yoshimo turned and looked hard at the paladin. "My skills have brought me much honor and respect. What is life without honor?"

 

Covenant nodded thoughtfully. "Nothing. I can think of only one thing worse than losing honor." He took a sip from his mug.

 

"There is nothing more important than honor!" Viconia heard a desperate emphasis in his voice when he spoke that word.

 

"Conscience is," the paladin replied softly, shaking his head. "Honor is meaningless if I have to sear my conscience to get it. Honor is given, not taken, so the more you grasp for it, the harder it is to hold."

 

"The more you . . ." Yoshimo's thinking was sluggish enough he could not follow the riddle. " Wait . . . I am talking honor, not conscience!"

 

"You seek honor, Yoshimo. You gain it by the use of your skills hunting men." Viconia began studying Yoshimo as Covenant tested him. "But what would happen if you took a commission and found the duty conflicted with honor? You gain honor by your success, but what happens when that success requires you to dishonor yourself?"

 

The thief's expression hardened, his voice deepening. "It would be a most unpleasant . . . position to be in."

 

"An impossible decision must be made. Honor suffers no matter which path you choose. Death might even seem a preferable choice. To be faced with only two choices - honor or duty. Or are there more?"

Yoshimo took a deep swallow from his cup, then looked at Covenant, face emotionless and empty. "I have no choice."

 

"You are an honorable man." Covenant then took his cup and poured some of its contents into the thief's as he watched, then lifted his in a salute. "For honor."

 

Viconia could sense Yoshimo struggling within. Yoshimo knew Covenant and Viconia knew about him now. After a few moments the bounty hunter came to his decision. He took his mug and raised it also. She found no comfort in his words. "When the time comes, I will do what I must. For honor."

 

She had watched Yoshimo's actions, listened to his words. She was able to discern he was under a magical compulsion, most likely a geas. He had revealed all he could without triggering it's fatal consequence. By using honor as a focus, her paladin had managed to skirt the magic.

 

They discussed Yoshimo after everyone else had gone to their rooms.

 

"You should leave him behind, Covenant. He will betray us to your enemy. Say the word and I will slay him."

 

"He knows we know he'll betray us. He told us he has no choice in the matter."

 

"Do you want to face this mage so badly?! This action is madness!"

 

The paladin remained calm. "I want him, yes. He has much to answer for. But my first duty is to Imoen. Yoshimo may yet prove helpful before we face Irenicus. He may even make it easier to reach her. And with or without him, I'm sure Irenicus will have something planned to capture me."

 

"But we won't have to deal with a traitor! He would be one less enemy to face!"

 

"He'll die whether he stays here or goes with us," he shook his head sadly. "But with us he may find some small way to help us, even against the magic he's under. It's a matter of honor for him now."

 

Dealing with such magics were never a problem in Drow society. You either lived with it or you died. Covenant would want another solution. She needed to expand her knowledge and skills to deal with this situation. It would be a point of honor, she thought mockingly to herself, to undo the work of this boogeyman mage Irenicus.

 

She had seen a holy symbol of Ilmater in Yoshimo's possession. Maybe the priest could give her an answer. The priest certainly had not expected a visit from a Drow, let alone a priestess of Shar. He was pleased to share what little knowledge he had once she explained the situation. Unlike the priest of Helm in the Bridge district, he was amiable and treated her as a respected equal. He sadly admitted that there was little he could do, and not in a manner the paladin would wish. As a cleric, he told her, she should let wisdom guide her when the time came.

 

She returned quietly to her room, but rested little. She wanted to do more, and realized it was because she wanted to please Covenant. She wondered if her desire was a weakness or a strength. It was weakness in that what she did was not for her own power or gain. Yet he gave her strength and courage to challenge her own abilities and knowledge in ways that were unthinkable before. She sighed. Life was so much simpler, even if far more dangerous, in Menzoberranzan.

 

They set sail the next morning. They had been at sea three days and the boredom and routine began wearing on her mind. It was time to learn more of her paladin. He was on deck, near the bow of the ship, quietly watching the waves and sky.

 

"And what is my noble lord doing up here? What are you thinking about?"

 

He smiled at hearing her voice. "Not a thing, my lady."

 

Something about his answer irritated her. "You must be looking for something, thinking about something."

 

"Nope," he replied, stretching the word like a human child planning some mischief. She expected him to rock on his heels.

 

"I have this terrible urge to slap your ear, little boy," she growled.

 

He turned to her, still smiling. "I've noticed women are always thinking, or talking, or both. Believe it or not, we males can actually think about nothing. And . . . I see you don't believe me. Since you think I had to be thinking about something, then I'll humor you. Did you know the nearest land is no more than a mile away?"

 

There was something about his manner that put her on guard. She looked around the horizon. "I don't see any land."

 

He smiled, raising his hand. He extended his finger and slowly pointed around, then down. "I didn't say it was dry land."

 

Viconia rolled her eyes. "Next time I'll leave you to your nothing thinking."

 

"Just do us all a favor. Don't tell that to Xan little joke. He's having a hard enough time with the rolling of this vessel, and more pleasant for us all that he lean over the railings."

 

Of the six of them, only Xan found sea travel beyond his ability to cope. She had always thought surface elves were attuned to the sea just as they were to the land. It gave her a slight pleasure watching him destroy that stereotype. "You'd think he'd have some spell in his book to fix himself."

 

"Or a healer would be able to cure him," Covenant added, reminding her of the helplessness of both she and Jaheira to give him relief. "You have to give him credit. He knew this would happen, but still came with us."

 

She nodded in agreement. After a few moments she spoke again. "After we killed your brother, we went our separate ways. When you . . . rescued me, I noticed you had changed. Wielding two swords, increased strength and agility, regeneration . . . hostility to the gods."

 

She knew she had hit a sensitive spot when he stiffened and looked back to the horizon again. "You noticed that slip outside Firkraag's lair, I guess. Only, it's not so much anger as hurt." He grew silent.

 

She waited a few moments for him to continue. When he did not, she asked, "It has to do with your first awareness of your divine nature, doesn't it? You told me you sought help from the gods, and none answered."

 

He nodded slowly. "It started there. But it's become more than that. I learned why they didn't answer when I faced another of my siblings. I try not to let myself be bitter. Bitterness clouds the judgement. But sometimes . . . sometimes . . ." He brought his gaze back to her. "Sarevok, the bandit leader Kavis, the necromancer Temaris, they heard the voice of their father and sought his power. There were others I talked to who didn't even realize what they were. I learned we all had this in common. The children of Bhaal are forsaken by them. We have been abandoned."

 

Viconia felt a chill in her stomach. "The gods would never do such a thing! Worshipers give them power, and Bhaal's children have too much power to ignore!"

 

Though she could see the sadness in his eyes, his voice became hard. "It's easy if you see us as nothing more than an extension of Bhaal. His blood, his power matter more than we do!" He stopped, watching the disbelief in Viconia's eyes.

 

His voice softened. "I'm sorry, my lady. I did not mean to sound so harsh. You know what it's like to be abandoned by your god. Shar, though evil, has taken you in for her own purposes. The children of Bhaal are denied even that."

 

He turned back, watching the horizon. "I may be wrong. I want to be wrong. I keep looking for any sign the gods have taken note of our plight, that they're actively involved in our lives and not just watching. But I've seen none."

 

"But you have a god guiding you," she interjected, trying to find some defense against his pain.

 

"He's not of Faerun, though He's in it. He's far greater and older than this world. This world rejected Him, but He has never abandoned it. One of my tasks is to tell my siblings He is here for them if they'll listen."

 

Except for the short time between rejecting Lolth and the intervention of Shar, she had never experienced isolation from the gods. She had learned since then that she had been mistaken in many things. And no argument she could provide would stand against his experience. "You said you've met others? And they didn't know what they are? How is that possible?"

 

Covenant took a deep breath, relieved at the change topic. "Maybe Bhaal's blood runs weak in most of his offspring. Maybe their personalities are like Imoen's, and the taint has no chance to reveal itself. I'm sure others feel the taint, even give in to it, and never understand what it truly is, or what they truly are."

 

"I mean," and she spoke cautiously, "why don't they feel the isolation you speak of?"

 

"I'm sure you've seen it, my lady. Most people, regardless of race, don't pay much mind to the gods. They're functional atheists. They know they're there, but have no need or use for them except in the most desperate circumstances. Others like us have a sense of the spiritual, but think the silence is because of their own limited nature and simply struggle on. And those who continue to seek the gods find only Bhaal's voice. That voice leads them to madness and murder." He laughed softly, sadly. "I must sound like a heretic. But I feel I can trust you, that you won't condemn me."

 

Viconia shook her head. "Don't thank me yet. I still serve Shar, and she may not be pleased with your ideas. Still, you listened to me often enough."

 

He reached out his arm and gently drew her to his side. "I'm sure she already knows my opinion, and is laughing at my bravado. Just one more reason I can't escape the fight for Bhaal's throne once this current unpleasantness is over."

 

She followed his gaze out to the empty horizon. "What will you do if you win? Will you take your place among the gods? I could be your first cleric."

 

He shook his head. His voice was soft and gentle. "I am a mortal, Viconia, not a god. I have no desire for either their power or their company. Let the gods fight over Bhaal's place, or pick someone else to take his place. My God has promised me a place with Him, a place of peace and rest when my life is done, and that's enough for me."

 

She smiled, laying her head against his chest. "You know, that's the first time you didn't call me lady."

 

"I didn't? I'll have to be more careful. You have earned the title and deserve the respect."

 

They stood together, enjoying each other's company, letting time pass.

 

"What's wrong?" Covenant asked as he felt a sudden shiver run through her. His arm tightened around her.

 

It took Viconia a few moments to gather her wits. "I have . . . I have an odd feeling. I do not . . . think . . . I have ever felt its like before . . ."

 

"What kind of feeling?" His voice was low and tense.

 

"I am not sure. As Drow, we grow to have a natural tendency to feel rock . . . and to feel magic . . . and this has similarities of both within it . . . It is almost as if a dark whisper is traveling over Faerun, searching, seeking out . . . something." She understood what was happening after a moment and she shrank inside. "I . . . fear it is looking for me."

 

"Are you sure? What makes you think that?"

 

"It . . . it has the stink of Lolth," she hissed. "She is spinning her web, Covenant . . . she is looking for me. Why now? Why?! It . . . no . . . there it goes. The feeling . . . has vanished. But that does not mean it will not return. I . . . I am suddenly quite cold, inside . . . "

 

"Perhaps that demon took offense at my words?" he joked, but his voice was tense with concern. "Don't worry, Viconia . . . I am here to protect you. We have dealt with other troubles, we'll deal with whatever she sends at us. Besides, where could any of us run?"

 

Though she could not feel the hunt, she still felt the chill of fear. "A somewhat comforting thought. I am sure, somehow, that it will take more than brave words on your part if my fears prove to be true."

 

He let her go and turned toward the main deck. "Minsc, Xan, on guard! Yoshimo, Jaheira, get our equipment! We may have guests soon! Captain! Keep your men back if our guests do come! It will be our fight, not yours!"

 

The thief and druid disappeared below deck immediately, returning a few moments later with five bundles. Covenant slid one of them to Viconia, then drew Carsomyr from his own.

 

She looked blankly at her equipment, her mind reeling. If the Spider Queen were to send anything, there would be no escape. She should surrender to them, save the others. Capture or death was inevitable for an outcast such as she. It was the only way to protect Covenant. That was his only hope.

 

"VICONIA!" The paladin's shout cut through her despair.

 

Her mind cleared. Anger replaced despair as she realized she had nearly fallen to the simplest mystical attack. "You realize," she snapped angrily at him as she struggled into her armor, "that an attack now is unlikely. We know they're coming."

 

"Then consider this an exercise in readiness," he retorted, then more calmly he added, "I pray you're right, but I've been expecting this since you rejoined me. As I said before, there's no place to run, so why not now? Besides, I've come too far to lose you now."

 

Covenant and Xan watched as the others put their armor on, and not until they were all prepared did he reach for his own. He had no chance to put it on.

 

Viconia's vision grew dark, her mind confused. "That . . . feeling! It's back again, but stronger this time! I can feel the ripples of the dweomer . . . black whispers from the depths of the Abyss!!" Panic began to rise again, her vision blurring. "She has found me! SHE HAS FOUND ME!! It . . . it's inside my head! IT'S INSIDE MY HEAD!!" Pain seared through her skull and she screamed!

 

Two arcane portals shimmered near her, allowing a Drow woman and a demon to step onto the ship's deck.

 

"There is the strayed one!" the woman shouted. "Gather her, rothe . . . and kill the others!!"

 

Memories long buried and forgotten flashed before Viconia's eyes, adding to the physical pain and nausea. She leapt at the cleric, swinging her flail with all the strength she could muster. She felt more than saw the heads connect with the shield. She found her momentum carrying her forward uncontrollably. The pain and memories were more than she could handle and still keep her balance in the fight. She rolled away from her attackers and had to pause a moment to clear her head. She could see Yoshimo and Jaheira attacking the woman, while Covenant and Minsc dealt with the demon.

 

Viconia struggled to her feet. She managed one more attack on the cleric before again falling, but had the satisfaction of seeing the Drow stagger back, her mace falling from her hand. Before Viconia could gain her feet again, the battle was over.

 

The pain subsided, and her vision cleared. She moaned. "That sort of psychic rape by a hound from the depths of the Abyss is the sort that I simply will not tolerate! My head feels as if it's barely connected to my body . . ."

 

She felt Covenant's hands reach under her arms and lift her to her feet. "What was that thing?!"

 

She had to lean against the paladin for a few moments to gather her strength and balance. "That was a Handmaiden of Lolth, with a yochlol. Gated assassins. To think that she would go to such efforts to gather me up, it's almost beyond belief. Why would she come after me now, after all this time? Why now? Has she grown bored with my escapades, or is there some other reason? And . . . what will she do to take me, next? The Spider Queen is not so easily dissuaded, Covenant. I despise this terror that threatens to swallow me!"

 

"If she sends more," he whispered harshly, "we will deal with them the same as we did these. Don't worry."

 

He must not realize how powerful this enemy was, she thought. "Easily and bravely said . . . but Lolth is no creature to be trifled with. I . . . I must think. Please, leave me be for a while . . ."

 

She pushed him away and walked silently to the cabin she shared with Jaheira. Her head still ached, and no curing spell would ease it. The psychic attack had brought up so many memories, so many hurts. Most were easily brushed aside. Not so the memories of Valas. She remembered the pain of his loss. What about Covenant? What would happen to him? The pain she felt with Valas' loss shrank at the thought of losing her paladin. Why did that thought cause such crushing pressure in her breast?

 

She knew what she had to do, and the thought of it also hurt, but it was far less painful than the thought of losing Covenant. She isolated herself for the rest of the trip, eating little, remaining in prayer and meditation. She had as little contact with him as possible.

 

It was early morning as they entered the port of Brynnlaw. The sun would not rise for another hour. She could see the ship slowly slide up to the dock and the dock hands receiving the lines as they were thrown from the ship.

 

"We . . . we must talk." She stood next to Covenant, but beyond his reach. Her voice was barely above a whisper, meant only for him. "This . . . is not working . . . between us. It will never work, and I think you know this. There can be only one outcome. It can only end poorly."

 

He showed no emotion, made no movement toward her. "Why do you say this?"

 

"Sooner or later I will fail you, or you will fail me, or Lolth will capture me, or I will cause your death. I am Drow and you are not . . . there is no happy ending here. We must poison our hearts, my ssinssrigg . . . we must do what is necessary and cleave us apart before it is too late. And I cannot stay."

 

His voice was steady and quiet, but tense. "I . . . am sorry, my lady. If only there were some way for you to stay . . ."

 

"There is no way," she sighed. "You know this."

 

He nodded, his voice quiet and sad. "I can't say I'm surprised at your decision, not after your conduct these last few days. But I need you here in the party, even if we aren't together." He was silent a moment, then added earnestly, "I can't succeed without your strength."

 

She had worked out what she would say, how he would respond. She had not expected this. Jaheira was an adequate healer, but limited balancing skills as a druid and a fighter. To stay would benefit Covenant in his quest, but would complicate things immeasurably. It would keep alive the desire in both of them that could not be allowed to continue.

 

The fresh morning breeze cooled her face, and with it came Shar's presence. Bhaal must not return, she heard in her spirit, and he wants you to keep him human. Steel yourself for this trial. It was not what she wanted to hear.

 

She hid her frustration and anger under a voice trying to sound rational. "I . . . I suppose I am being selfish. You are on a quest of great importance to you, and my leaving would be more than an inconvenience. It shall be . . . difficult to stay by your side, but I will. But there is nothing further between us, and we part once your task is complete. This is the way it must be, if I am to help you. I . . . am sorry, Covenant. In my own way, I do . . . love you. Let us go now and put this behind us."

 

He nodded. "And I love you. Perhaps the future will be kinder to us than the present."

 

He still hoped. She would have told him again there was no future, but Saemon approached. They had arrived and the gangplank was going down.

 

Things were quickly back to normal, at least regarding Covenant. They had barely stepped off the ship when they were ambushed by vampires from the defeated thieves guild. She noted Yoshimo's reaction when Saemon revealed his duplicity and his command clearly sent from Irenicus.

 

Again the bounty hunter found himself frustrated when they talked to Perth the Adept. Apparently Yoshimo intended to bring Covenant alive to the mage, but Irenicus was thwarting his every attempt. The bounty hunter was clearly becoming distraught as his honor was being undermined.

 

Viconia was now certain Yoshimo was doing everything he could to resist the geas. He would fail, of course, and would no doubt be slain by Covenant or one of the others. She felt no anger, no bitterness, no hatred toward him now. He was already dead, and he knew it. She was, she believed, finally understanding why the paladin had not left him behind.

 

The only humor in their time in Brynnlaw was when they talked to the Pirate King, Desharik. Even Yoshimo found it difficult to stifle a grin when Covenant had Minsc convince him they should be committed. They found themselves immediately sent into the Spellhold Asylum by a very confused and frustrated pirate.

 

They were let out of their cell almost immediately, as were the other inmates in the Asylum. All the inmates were disturbed in one way or another, as was Imoen when they found her. Something had happened to her. Her eyes were vacant, she recognized neither Covenant, Minsc nor herself. Viconia sensed something missing from her, but could not place what.

 

They had little time to discuss what they were going to do next. Irenicus, the hobgoblin she had heard so much about, appeared in the hallway ahead of them.

 

How can you hate a traitor when the betrayal is expected? Is it even a betrayal? Viconia watched with an odd sadness as Yoshimo struggled once more against his geas, and failed. Irenicus commanded and he obeyed, helpless and without hope against the magic. She watched him wither away, his honor destroyed before those he had come to know so well. He could only apologize and wait for the wrath that would surely come. She now understood the hatred and fear of Minsc and Jaheira, the apprehension of Covenant.

 

It was only after Yoshimo's betrayal was revealed that the mage's full planning was revealed. Meals prepared days before to his specification, a word of command, and all collapsed in sleep.

 

Because she had less of the mysterious ingredient in her system, Viconia was the first to awaken. She made a quick evaluation of her condition before moving or opening her eyes. She still wore her armor, she could feel one of the heads of her mace pressing into her side, and her shield was across her chest. She heard nothing but the slow, steady breathing of the others. The moisture and mold she smelled told her they were in some underground chamber.

 

Viconia opened her eyes and looked around. Perched immobile on a platform above them was Bodhi. She locked eyes with her but the vampire did nothing. She sat up and looked around, noting four stairways rising above them. She then moved over to check each member of the party. None were injured and they were all beginning to revive. Only Yoshimo was missing, as she expected. She was concerned about Covenant, however. He was the last to awaken, and appeared unusually pale. She sensed a disturbing emptiness in him.

 

After a few minutes they were all on their feet. Only when Covenant had risen to his feet did Bodhi finally speak, offering them a challenge. Escape the maze and they would be free. They just had to get past her to do it. No one believed her.

 

They were preparing to move on when she heard a soft moan from the opposite side of the east stairway. Covenant also heard it and walked quickly around it, recognizing the voice. Viconia followed and watched as he knelt down and lifted Imoen into a sitting position. There was a familiar backpack at her feet.

 

"Cov? Is that you?" She lifted her hand and touched his face, clearly afraid it would vanish. When she knew it was him, she threw both hands around him and began sobbing.

 

"Oh, please!" Viconia sneered at her. "I expect such hysterics from infants and weaklings. I thought you stronger than this!"

 

Her words cut deep enough that Imoen quickly brought herself under control. "Cov, wasn't having to deal with . . . Bhaal trouble enough that you had to bring that she-devil with you?"

 

Viconia nodded, her face a blank slate. "It's good to know you've still some wits, little pest. Now I'll return to the others before I retch at such a blatant showing of emotion."

 

"It's . . . it's okay, Vicci." Imoen's voice was becoming steady. "Please stay. I'm okay now. It's just . . . I'm sorry, Cov, I was just so worried . . ."

The paladin helped her to her feet, and gave her a hug. "We survived, but not unscathed. I must know what he did to me . . . and you."

 

For a moment it appeared she would collapse again, but one look at the Drow triggered a stubbornness in her. She would be strong, if just to spite Viconia. She still had to struggle to get the words out. "I . . . I don't know, really. Same thing he did to you, I guess . . . since we're . . . the same? Cov, he showed me what you are and . . . what I am. And then he took it away. I don't know who I am now. You may not feel it yet, but the spell for me made me feel hollow. He took something vital . . . he says it was my divine soul? I find out I'm a child of a god and now I'm empty and dying. You are too . . ."

 

Covenant smiled softly. "We'll survive by helping each other, like you helped me in the dream during the spell."

 

"The dream?" Imoen was clearly baffled. "I had no dream during my ritual. Just blackness, and my will draining away. Has this affected you different than me? You've been dealing with the Bhaal essence longer . . . perhaps you are more focused . . . Or perhaps it's more focused upon you?"

 

"There *was* a malevolent taint to my dreams. I wonder if there was a will behind it."

 

Viconia had remained silent, listening, learning what had happened to them. She voiced what they did not want to say. "Dead gods never rest easy. And Covenant has dealt with that Wolf for half his short life."

 

Imoen nodded her head in agreement. "Whatever the case, our mortal lives should be our first concern. I have been getting weaker, Cov, and it's only been a few days since they performed the ritual on me. If we don't reverse what was done . . . if we don't restore our souls . . . we will probably both die."

 

He helped her up and began moving toward the others. "Then let's get going. We will escape this place immediately."

 

Imoen's voice grew stronger and a little lighter. "Good. I've missed traveling with you, even when times were bad."

 

He stopped, then pointed at the backpack. "Is that yours?"

 

Imoen followed his finger and gazed on the item in bewilderment. "Never saw it before."

 

"It's Yoshimo's," Viconia stated flatly. "He knows he has no further need of it. Take it, Imoen. He left it for you."

 

Imoen followed her counsel. Except for his own katana, everything the bounty hunter had was in the pack. Once everything was in order, they ascended the western steps. It was momentary and it almost escaped her notice, but Covenant stumbled slightly on the steps.

 

"You look weak," she whispered. "Do not tell me you are withering already. I thought you stronger than that."

 

He shook his head. "Strange . . . I felt like I wasn't in complete control for a moment there. It has passed."

 

"I see. Strange that Imoen seemed to have weathered the ritual better than you," Viconia added sarcastically. "Well, I should like some warning if the condition continues. We need strong leadership through the trials ahead, and if you are not up to it . . ."

 

Covenant thought a moment. "I don't know what he took from me. I would think if it were my soul, I would be somehow . . . different. Some kind of zombie, unable to think or feel. I still feel like me, just weaker." He smiled wryly, "At least he took away that endless body ache I've been tormented with."

 

"Perhaps a fraction of your soul remains, but without the rest that fraction will fade. And you will die. We must find that mage quickly. I do not want my last memory of you to be a mindless, empty husk."

 

After the horrors of Watcher's Keep, they were well prepared to deal with the hazards and puzzles of this labyrinth. Perhaps they had made progress too quickly. They had just entered a room with a statue of a hornless minotaur when Bodhi appeared with a few other vampires. No one was surprised at her ambush. What did surprise everyone was what happened to Covenant and how quickly the battle was over.

 

Viconia had seen many dark creatures in her time, and terrifying transformations. None compared to what happened to the paladin. As he leapt forward to strike Bodhi, Carsomyr fell from his grasp. The transformation began as his hands opened, his fingers elongating into claws as long and sharp as short swords. It then spread to the rest of his body, so that he became like a monstrously deformed werewolf, perfected for speed and strength and killing.

 

Bodhi had enough sense to retreat, as did Viconia. At her command the others retreated to a previous room.

 

A few minutes later the paladin came back to them, pale and shaking at what had just transpired.

 

"Vith'ir! Such power I have not seen! Covenant, what manner of creature . . . ?" The question faded as the answer dawned on her. "A Bhaal aspect . . . a remnant of his avatar. That must be it. Covenant, you became a creature of pure murder."

 

He shook his head. "I pray you're wrong, my lady. I had no control over that transformation, or that monster. If it should happen again, everyone will be in danger."

 

Viconia laughed softly and shook her head. "You have overcome everything in your path. You will no doubt overcome this difficulty as well." Still, what she had seen troubled her.

 

There were a few more riddles, a few more minor battles before they reached the exit of the maze. The spirit which oversaw the tests confessed they were the first to actually complete them. It had taken time and effort to reach this point and Covenant called a rest. They would be facing Irenicus next.

 

She took first watch. She did not sleep. She felt no need. She meditated on Shar and the events of the last several hours. Things were quickly growing beyond anything she had experienced or expected. It was also clear there was a greater plan working out. Was it Shar? Covenant's mysterious God? His words that the Bhaalspawn were being left to their own devices still grated on her. There was too much power at stake for that. Yet her goddess gave no answer to this question.

 

Covenant had placed his bedroll near the steps descending into Spellhold, well apart from everyone else. He had rested for a couple of hours when she sensed something was wrong. She went over and knelt beside him. Beads of sweat had formed on his unusually pale forehead and his breathing was strained. After a few moments he opened his eyes, but there was an unusual fear in them.

 

"You look distastefully weak, ss'inssrigg, like you have seen your own ghost. Are you well? Your lips move as a jester's, with no sound for me to hear. Do you mock me, Covenant?" Something behind his eyes changed, and she became afraid. "Covenant! Do you hear me?!" she shouted, trying to awaken him, but to no avail. "Shar protect me, no!"

 

She tried to leap away but she had underestimated how fast the Bhaal aspect was. She managed to place her shield in front of the swordlike claws, but the strength of the blow lifted her off her feet and threw her half way across the room. The Wolf had matured into a Slayer, and it had set its eyes on her.

 

She rolled to her feet, suppressing a scream of pain as she felt bone grind against bone. The blow had broken some ribs. Viconia saw Minsc step between her and the Slayer. It brushed the giant aside with a crushing backhand, intent on its prey. She needed to keep distance from it, and that was not going to be easy. Xan must have seen the creature's intent. He cast a hastening spell on her while Imoen and Jaheira tried to distract its attention to little effect.

 

She was able to run just a little faster than the Slayer. Three more times it got close enough to strike at her, all the while trying to back her into a corner. She knew better than to let that happen. She risked another blow to dodge past and back into the middle of the room.

 

Everything stopped just as quickly as it started. With a sound somewhere between a scream and a roar the beast stopped and changed back to a terrified and angry paladin.

 

Viconia's injuries caught up to her. She collapsed and began coughing up blood. Her lung had been punctured. Covenant was by her side before anyone else, giving his most powerful healing prayer.

 

"You . . . you would have struck me down where I stand . . . such power . . ." She felt the virtue from his prayer move her ribs into place and mend the hole in her lung. She knew what would happen next and got to her knees. It took several minutes of coughing to clear the blood from her lung. The paladin continued his healing prayers until she had fully recovered.

 

"Covenant," she managed to gasp weakly, "we will work to capitalize on this, but if you endanger me again I shall have to bury you here. Let us hope it does not come to that."

 

"And you have my permission. I'm just glad I didn't do worse." He raised his voice so all could hear. "If I change into that monster again, I make it clear here and now. You are to defend yourselves and each other by all means necessary. That includes killing that abomination. There will be no debate on this, no argument." Then so softly Viconia had to strain to hear him pray, "Lord, it's too much. I can't deal with this anymore. Give me Your strength, Your peace, or give me release."

 

"So the godling has his limits after all." Her voice was for the paladin alone. "You concern yourself too much about the others. If you could seize control of that . . . let's call it the Slayer, just imagine the power you could wield. Nothing would be beyond your grasp!"

 

He shook his head, anger burning in his eyes. "You don't know what you ask. Your Slayer has taken me twice. I had no control over it. You experienced the result. If I do manage to chain it, and that's debatable, it will cost me part of what little remains of my soul to release it! I will *not* give my father that satisfaction!"

 

"And I thought my little brother was perfect. My poor heart will be scarred forever." Imoen startled both of them. Her voice did not show it, but Viconia could see the terror in her eyes. "And just when I think my brother's favorite cleric is beginning to play nice, she goes back to being a nasty little Drow. You? Capitalize on that thing? Better have Jaheira pray for your full healing. Cov's blow seems to have addled your brain. So, have you seduced him yet?"

 

"I'll . . . leave you two to talk," Covenant muttered as he rose to his feet. He went across the room to where Minsc and Xan were talking with Jaheira.

 

"It's a pity Irenicus' spell did not also take your talent for being obnoxious, little tramp. Be glad I'm too tired to do anything for your rudeness."

 

"Hey, someone's gotta look after him. You know how helpless he is." Her voice was light and mischievous, but strained.

 

There was a time when Viconia would have ridiculed her. Now she held her first impulse. She could easily guess what was on her mind. "You haven't mastered the art of death as he has. If you transformed, you would probably trip over your own feet and impale yourself on your own claws."

 

Imoen nodded. "I'd forgotten how frightening things can get around him. So, have you seduced him yet?"

 

Viconia thought a moment. "I haven't gotten him in my bed yet, if that is what you mean."

 

"I'm glad," Imoen responded, but her voice was still troubled.

 

Viconia realized she wanted to know her brother could still be trusted. She knew what to say, though she did not believe it herself. "He is too focused to fall to my wiles. He'll focus on caging that beast once more. He won't let this happen again."

 

"You've been around him too long, Vicci. I can actually tell you're lying. But thanks anyway." Being able to catch Viconia somehow relieved her, and the words began pouring out. "I'm afraid, Vicci. Who am I? What am I? I don't know who I am anymore. How did you do it, Vicci? How did you make it before Shar helped you?"

 

She answered after a few moments thought, her voice hard and cold. "I did it by doing whatever it took to survive. You do what you must, or you die. If you are not strong enough to do that, then leave now. I'll not have dead weight jeopardizing the rest of us."

 

Viconia had experienced need and horrors Imoen had only brushed against. Would the old Imoen rise up, or was she broken and beyond help? She had chosen her words carefully, her harshness intentional. She would tolerate the old Imoen. She was ready to use her flail otherwise, regardless of what Covenant thought.

 

"And leave Cov to your lecherous claws?" Imoen snapped, a fire rekindling in her voice. "You want him, you gotta get permission from his big sister. And it won't come cheap."

 

The cleric smiled. There was still something of the old Imoen left. "You want a bribe? For Covenant? I already have him. I thought you were a mage but you're still a little thief at heart."

 

Imoen grinned. "Hey, a girl's gotta protect her interests. I need something if I'm gonna lose my provider."

 

Imoen walked back to her bedroll. Viconia could still see she was still afraid, but there was a renewed focus in her.

 

Everyone returned to their beds. Covenant remained on watch while the others rested. No one argued.

 

When they finally descended the steps back into the Asylum, they ran into Saemon. The only thing that saved him from their wrath was his counsel to get the inmates to help in any attack on Irenicus. Covenant allowed him to leave, then found the other inmates. It was easy to convince them their only chance at freedom would be to attack their tormenter directly.

Though the inmates were few, they were all powerful in the arcane arts. One of them, an elf named Dradeel whom Covenant later told her he had met before, teleported everyone into the main chamber with Irenicus. Irenicus was not alone, but it soon became apparent he could not win.

 

Perhaps the mage had doctored the Asylum food as he had theirs on Saemon's ship. All Viconia knew was that Irenicus released a burst of magical energy that immediately killed all the inmates and blinded the party long enough for him to teleport away.

 

They had no chance to pursue him. From the shadows and from behind the magical equipment of the lab new enemies appeared, including clones of the party. They were led by Yoshimo.

 

"There you are, I see," Yoshimo spoke softly to Covenant as he approached with the clones. "Why do you continue? You are dead inside already. Irenicus has seen to it. I am left to finish the physical shell."

 

Covenant turned to face the betrayer. He dropped Carsomyr and brought his two long swords to the ready. "He will not succeed in the end. You should reconsider your allegiance to him."

 

The bounty hunter shook his head slowly. His voice was hollow. "I can't fight it, Covenant, I can't. I was in his service first, and all those that follow him must undergo a Geas. I was willing at the time . . . but now . . . Do you . . . do you know what happens when you try to defy a Geas? It hurts . . . it hurts and then you die. His spells are powerful, Covenant, so powerful."

 

"I will help you. This does not have to be like this." Viconia wondered why Covenant was still trying to turn this enemy.

 

Yoshimo's reply gave her answer. "I believe it does . . . I can wither and die for failing to kill you, or I can fall in battle, and pray that my heart will find purchase with Ilmater. No redemptions, no second chances . . . Let's get this over with! I stride into the hell that Irenicus promised! Ilmater, take my heart, I have no choice!"

 

Yoshimo led the attack, going straight for the paladin. The clones were little more than a nuisance, but provided enough distraction for assassins in the room to place a few telling strikes before falling themselves. She was the first free of attackers and would have joined Covenant against Yoshimo had she not realized the bounty hunter wore no armor and they were both holding back. As the others dealt with their attackers, she motioned them to stay back.

 

She knew what was happening. The outcome had been negotiated in the Copper Coronet. As soon as Yoshimo knew only he was left and those he betrayed were watching, he attacked Covenant with everything he had. Viconia could not follow the attacks he made, yet the paladin was still faster. In a blink of an eye the bounty hunter was motionless, impaled on Covenant's sword. He pulled his blade free, eyes locked with his dying attacker.

 

The katana fell from Yoshimo's hand as he slowly sank to his knees. "Ilmater, take my heart!" he whispered his plea one last time, eyes looking into the heavens, before falling backwards to the floor in death.

 

She watched Covenant in silence. The others began cursing their betrayer. "Enough!" Covenant commanded. "Didn't you see? Didn't you hear? He made the only choice he could, he helped us the only way he could!"

 

A heavy silence settled over the chamber as they considered the body before them. When Viconia finally spoke, her words sounded strangely muffled. "Give me his heart." The others recoiled in horror except for the paladin. He looked directly at her, questioning. She returned his gaze. "He is dead, but the Geas is not. His spirit is still bound. He called on Ilmater to take his heart. When we return to Athkatla it must be given to Ilmater's priest. Or would you prefer he suffer in whatever hell Irenicus would send him?"

 

The paladin nodded slowly in understanding. "I place his spirit in your care, my lady," he responded as he turned slowly toward the bounty hunter's corpse.

 

A few minutes later they were moving again, a grisly trophy of their hollow victory in her backpack. Back in the Asylum they had another encounter with Saemon. He needed help regaining his ship from the Pirate King. With that they could be back in Athkatla in five days. The only other option was a portal into the Underdark that could take twice as long, if they survived. Covenant agreed to help, if only to get after Irenicus and Bodhi quicker.

 

They made a quick search of the Director's Office before heading back to Brynnlaw. Irenicus' diaries provided little real information of what his schemes were, but clearly pointed to Suldanessellar. Viconia was uneasy about entering that city. The elves' need must be dire to allow her entrance and live.

 

It was early morning when they entered the Vulgar Monkey. Saemon explained what would be needed to escape by boat, but they would have to wait until nightfall to get the item they needed. No one complained when Covenant purchased some rooms to rest.

 

She sat near Covenant as he slept, the Flail of the Ages in her hand. She would not be taken by surprise a second time. She watched as he began to dream something more than a dream, and her grip tightened on her weapon, shield rising. She could not hear his words but knew he was struggling within himself. She could see the shadow of the Slayer pass over his face as it sought to gain control. Then the argument was over and the paladin opened his eyes.

 

She exhaled slowly. "It's good to know I won't need to kill you. If you had begun to change into the Slayer . . ."

 

Covenant sat up and dropped his feet to the floor. When he spoke his voice was both angry and elated, yet it sent a chill through her heart. He appeared not to have heard her. "My father overplayed his hand this time! Now *I* control the Slayer!"

 

"And how will the mighty Covenant keep that oath without his soul?" she snapped sarcastically. There was a strange detachment in his voice, an uncharacteristic arrogance. "You have bested him in a dream only, and Bhaal's blood still flows in your veins."

 

Her words had their desired effect. He blinked his eyes and focused on her. His mind raced to remember what he had just said, then he answered in a subdued voice. "I said that? Your words are as dangerous as your sling stones, and as well aimed. You're right. Whatever Irenicus took from me, I have gained only a temporary victory until I get it back. Thank you for bringing me back to my senses. There are still eight hours till nightfall. You rest now while I watch."

 

It was well before midnight when they left the tavern. They followed Saemon's plan, found the horn they needed to leave the harbor, and boarded the ship he had "acquired" but hours before.

 

Desharik arrived with some pirates in an attempt to stop them. They shoved their bodies into the waters of the bay before they were clear of the dock.

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Part 8

 

Before they were clear of Brynnlaw harbor, Saemon gave Covenant a silver sword blade he had received from Irenicus for services rendered. Viconia thought she recognized the workmanship. Because she was not certain she said nothing. They were at sea barely six hours before she regretted that decision. A ship materialized next to theirs, and they were boarded by githyanki. The battle that ensued was ended by the arrival of a third party. Sahuagin live in the water. Humans, Drow and githyanki do not. The sahuagin shattered the ship hulls, making their victory simple and swift. Weighed down by her armor, Viconia sank like a stone. Her last image before darkness overtook her was of several sahuagin grabbing her arms and pulling her into the depths.

 

She awakened with the others in a temple. "This is getting tedious," she told Covenant sarcastically. "I will not be surprised to find you are the cause of this. I find myself in death's boney claw only to awaken in some new adventure. When death finally does take me, I probably won't know it for a ten-day."

 

She could only shake her head when the sahuagin high priestess declared they were here because of a prophecy, and Covenant was most clearly described by it.

 

"I should have known," muttered Jaheira as they were being escorted to the sahuagin king. "Once again your peculiar destiny has drawn us into something, Covenant." Then with a touch of irony she added, "Even the shark gods flounder in anticipation of your arrival."

 

Imoen giggled at the pun. Xan hung his head, though Viconia noted a slight smile on his lips. Minsc missed it completely as usual, but Boo looked at the druid before slowly retreating into the ranger's pocket. Covenant said nothing, expression unchanging, but his face reddened. He was clearly uncomfortable being a prophesied savior.

 

They had little trouble dealing with the problem of the city. The sahuagin king was soon dead, replaced by the rebel prince he so hated. They gained some gold and magic items, were given a nice thank you and a magic rope, and shown the exit.

 

Minsc made sure the rope was tied securely to one of the nearby pillars then tossed it into the pit.

 

"I am surprised. I would have expected you to destroy this city," Viconia commented to the paladin. "Or at the very least leave the king in power and let him do it."

 

"To what purpose?" he asked. "Even these creatures have a place in the order of the sea, my lady. They are still on the edge of extinction as it is. All we have done is give them a chance to survive."

 

"And so you fulfill Sekolah's prophecy. Still, all paladin's I've met or heard of attack anything or anyone of evil nature, no matter where they are."

 

"Not all of us are like Phandalyn," he replied, referring to an encounter they had in Baldur's Gate. "Our duty is to restrain evil. We *cannot* destroy it. Those like him make for a great story but die quickly. Or fall from the path. They forget there is evil in us all, and that the evil we fight could have been us if not for the grace we received. And who can say but these sahaugin may find that same grace one day."

 

Minsc had descended the rope first, followed by Xan and Imoen. Jaheira was preparing to go next. "The evil here is contained for now, and of little threat," he added. "I am more concerned with what waits ahead of us . . . down there."

 

Viconia felt the tug of fear. It was a place she knew only too well. She took a deep breath and followed Jaheira down the rope into darkness.

 

The shaft ended in a hidden alcove of a cavern. She knew the feel, saw the evidence of a life she had long abandoned. She stepped away from the rope as Covenant appeared above her. He released the rope as soon as his feet were on the cavern floor and they watched as it ascended the shaft, coiling itself up as it rose. There would be no going back.

 

She looked around the cavern before speaking softly, "So I am in my homeland once again. Already I feel how unwelcome it has become. My eyes are no longer used to its darkness and my senses to the hint of the threat around every corner."

 

Covenant stood beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. "And yet you are our best hope of survival. You have the knowledge and experience we don't."

 

His gesture did not bring her any comfort. Instead she found herself growing angry and brushed his arm away. She was Drow and it was inappropriate. Her voice grew hard and cold. "We must tread with caution, Covenant. There are, no doubt, Drow in this place. Along with beholders, illithid, kuo-toa and perhaps even worse. The denizens here will expect no mercy, and will offer none. If we are to survive long enough to find your Irenicus, we must be stronger than any of them."

 

She looked at him, expecting some resistance. He calmly returned her gaze, but she could see he was thinking. "Very well, my lady," he said with an unexpected note of submission. His intent became clear when he added. "We must think as Drow, behave as Drow. You are the mistress, we your obedient slaves. Got that everyone?"

 

"If circumstances were different, your ploy might have merit," Viconia snapped, cutting off any response. "I wear no badge, I have no House. My life will be forfeit should any Drow see me. Such is life for the outcast. Still . . . I see this cavern is well traveled. Minsc, what tracks can you make out?"

 

The ranger studied the area for a few minutes before returning. "Lizard men with webbed toes walk close to the wall. They don't want to be seen from the main path. There are strange foot prints, like ours but not right somehow. Minsc can't tell because the robes they wear wipe most of them away. They also walk off the main path. The path shows a few gnomes come by, but many Drow use it, and they have many spiders with them. Most go east, but few return."

 

The cleric considered his words a few moments. "Kuo-toa and illithid footprints along the road likely mean they have outposts nearby. The Drow footprints disturb me. A city must be close, and they seem to be preparing for war. I need to know more about the area. Find some duergar or svirfnblin and I will get them to tell us what we need."

 

They quickly found a trio of duergar merchants. They directed them to a svirfneblin city a short distance away. There were a few delays arriving. Covenant insisted on releasing several Imprisoned beings, most of whom they had to kill, then they took a wrong tunnel and entered the kuo-toa outpost. It would have been unremarkable but for the strength enhancing girdle she now wore, and the blood of a kuo-toa prince she knew this may prove useful later.

 

Viconia expected no help from the deep gnomes without giving something in return. She was not disappointed. Such was the way of the Underdark. They quickly dealt with the problem the svirfneblin had uncovered, and were given a special "light gem" and directions to someone capable of getting them into the city of Ust Natha.

 

A Drow ambush as they crossed a bridge gave them a harsh lesson in what they would face should they try a direct assault on the city. She suggested they use the Drow armor as they would find none better while in the Underdark. They found a hidden path just beyond the bridge. Only the light gem allowed them to pass through the impenetrable darkness across that path. They found they had been sent to the lair of a silver dragon.

 

Adalon had a problem, and they could be of great help to her. She had met Irenicus and Bodhi, as had so many of those they had so far encountered, and the mage had stolen her eggs. They had been given to the Drow. The dragon could get them into the city undetected, if they agreed to recover her eggs. When the paladin accepted her quest, Viconia was ready to challenge his decision. He proved once again he knew the situation.

 

"I question the logic of this," he told the dragon. "I am not of the Underdark. I do not know the ways of the Drow as well as I should."

 

"Improvise." Adalon snapped in irritation, her reply tinged with anger. "They are in the turmoil of war at the moment and will overlook much. They will not turn away extra hands." She then looked hard at Viconia. They could all feel a rumbling hatred in her next words. "You might also consult the Drow you travel with. I'm sure she will be a fountain of knowledge. She has an interest in not being discovered, I understand. Viconia, is it not? You are a rogue and as such reviled by the Drow and any surface dweller. Still, if you seek redemption and betray me I will end your life."

 

"You need not threaten me," she retorted with a note of disdain. She showed no sign of the fear chilling her. "Your desire serves our needs as well. Just see to the transformation."

 

The power of the dragon magic was beyond anything Viconia had experienced, and Adalon's eye for detail was without equal. From the House symbol on their armor to the ability of all to speak and understand Drow, nothing was missing. Adalon even had a cover for them. They were to replace a Drow party from Ched Nasad she had eliminated earlier.

 

Entry into Ust Natha was easy, and they quickly found themselves drawn into the subterfuge and deceptions of Drow society. Viconia told everyone how they were to conduct themselves, but was astonished at how well the paladin blended in. Unlike with the sahuagin, little by little he began dismantling the power structure within the city. He was as thorough as he had been with his brother's plans in Baldur's gate. She was impressed at his cunning and strength, avoiding detection under the chaos of inter-House rivalries and war. If she found one weakness in him, it was showing kindness to their supervisor and watchdog Solaufein.

 

Even here Covenant never lost his integrity. He fought honestly, but with a fierceness that overwhelmed his enemies. He even avoided seduction by a power-hungry priestess and once-lover of Solaufein, after she sent Covenant to kill him. When they were in a place away from any listening ears, Imoen asked how he had escaped that serpent.

 

"I told her the truth. I told her I . . . couldn't," he said with sad look in his eyes, "because I'm under a terrible curse."

 

"You let Solaufein live, and then tell her that? And she believed you?" Viconia shook her head in amazement. "Only you could use truth to escape one so skilled at deception! You are a Drow without peer!"

 

Imoen laughed softly and nudged the cleric. "I told you he could charm the fangs from a viper! Better watch out, Vicci, or yours will be next!"

 

While Covenant adapted easily, Viconia noticed Jaheira looking around, observing the cruelty of Drow society. Xan, a full surface elf, was handling the situation better than the druid. It was clear by the looks the half-elf gave her she was harboring bitterness against her.

 

They were finally in a position to get Adalon's eggs after acquiring the blood of a "noble race." Though they had the blood from the kuo-toa prince, Covenant still took the quest. He would no doubt attribute his decision to illithid and beholders being a far more dangerous enemy than the sahuagin, but Viconia wondered if he enjoyed the challenge of battle and the smell of blood.

 

They found themselves in the illithid outpost. They had to slay all the mind flayers before they could leave, an impossible task if not for the very githyanki that had attacked them earlier. Then Covenant led them against the beholder outpost, which was quickly cleared with the help of Balduran's Shield.

 

They had three days to complete their task. They had completed it in less than one. Covenant chose to let the party rest at the inn before returning to the Temple of Lolth. Viconia felt uneasy, though she did not know why. Alone, she walked to a platform near the inn.

 

"You are familiar," she heard a familiar voice state, and her blood chilled. She turned to face the high priestess that taught her the ways of Lolth, and noted that the bounty hunter was with her.

 

"Yes Mistress?" she asked submissively, feigning ignorance. She prayed for Shar to cloud their eyes, and hoped Adalon's magic had altered her appearance.

 

Her mentor stared at her long and hard. "We have met before," she stated flatly. "Your face is strange but your manner is familiar."

 

"Have you been to Ched Nasad, perhaps, Mistress?" Viconia asked, head bowed. "I have only recently arrived from there."

 

"Perhaps I saw you there, then," she replied slowly. It was evident she doubted this. "Why have you come from your city to this place?"

 

She was wondering how to answer when she saw Covenant approaching. "Your pardon a moment, Mistress. Veldrin!" she called and was glad to see her mentor had heard this name.

 

"Yes, Mistress?" he asked as he ran up. He bowed to the priestess. "Have you a need?"

 

"Tell me your name and city, male." The command was sharp and quick.

 

"Veldrin of Ched Nadad, Mistress."

 

"Why are you here?"

 

"We were sent to help the House Despana in its current endeavor against the surfacers, Mistress."

 

"Then why are you not on the battle front?"

 

"The Matron Ardulace has commanded us to another duty, Mistress."

 

"How many came with you?"

 

"We are but six, Mistress."

 

"Who leads?"

 

Viconia watched the rapid fire exchange, noting the demeanor of the paladin. He knew the danger these two presented, yet remained calm and respectful, subdued as to present no threat to either of them. But this last question was the most dangerous. "I do, Mistress."

 

"Only until he trains me in the ways of combat," Viconia added quickly. "To my shame I find myself . . . lacking such experience. This is my first foray outside my city."

 

"And what is your mission? The male will answer."

 

"The Matron Mother has sent us to deal with a beholder outpost near this city, Mistress."

 

"Why are you not on your way, then, male?" The priestess was becoming agitated. Covenant's answers were not helping her place Viconia. He had actually drawn her attention away from the outcast.

 

"They are a most dangerous adversary, Mistress. We have been given time to prepare. We will be departing once they are ready, perhaps half a day at most."

 

"What are the names of those with you, Veldrin?" Viconia betrayed nothing of the fear that gripped her.

 

The paladin's voice took on a cold detachment. "They have none at present, Mistress. Names are meaningless to the dead. If we return, then they shall have earned them."

 

His answer brought a smile to the priestess' face. "An . . . unusual outlook, Veldrin. If that is your name. The dead remain nameless and forgotten while the victors gain the smallest of recognition. Perhaps we shall meet again after your return."

 

Viconia bowed as was proper to one of much greater position. A final test. If Covenant copied her they would be revealed. She noted he gave the proper bow for a male. Perhaps he had observed it somewhere in the city, perhaps he had learned from another Drow in those nine months they were apart. She had given up being amazed by his adaptability.

 

As the priestess and the bounty hunter vanished into the city, Viconia heard Covenant give a long, slow exhale of relief. "This changes things. We may have gained two days at most before she realizes who we are."

 

"We should leave immediately. Let the dragon take care of her own problems." Viconia felt again the fear that had driven her until she had met this paladin. "If we remain, she will remember and we will all die. You know nothing of what the Drow can do."

 

"We still have a little time, my lady." He walked out onto the platform, to the farthest point from the walkway. She followed. There was no one else here.

 

"Quite the view from here, my lady. Not what I had imagined a Drow city would look like."

 

"What did you expect? Something like a human city? We are elves. The stalactite and stalagmites are our trees." She paused. "You have a strange habit of arriving when I need help the most."

 

"I recognized them as they passed me. When she hailed you . . ." He shrugged. "I find you as amazing as this city. You survived for what, seventy, eighty years down here before we met? No small feat, that."

 

"I told you I had been on the surface for some time."

 

He smiled softly. "Ah, yes. The merchant and the caravan. That was partly true, I think. But he was an Underdark merchant, if I guess right. Your manner when we first met told me you had been on the surface for maybe two ten-days."

 

She considered his words for a few moments. "I suppose I knew you'd see through my stories at some point. Why did you let me keep telling them?"

 

"You were learning to trust. I was learning about you. We would have both been the poorer had I stopped you. Still," he paused and looked around at the city, "I have come to understand some things far better in these last few days. It has also left me with some questions."

 

"About me, no doubt."

 

He nodded. "How you survived, what resources you found, how you came to serve the Night Mistress. Did she come to you? Or did you learn about her, then choose to follow her?"

 

She was uncomfortable with his questions. "You are asking much. I don't know where to start, or if you could even understand what it is to be an outcast."

 

He laughed softly. "Let me see. My father is a murderer of the worst sort. When people learn that, they hate and fear me. If they don't try to use me for their own ends, they're busy trying to take my life. I can't stay any place for long. I'm forced to wander from place to place. I have been rejected by the gods themselves and my own father seeks my life. I . . . think I have a basic understanding. The question is, do you trust me enough to tell me?"

 

"And your curiosity won't let you rest until you know." She laughed in return. "You are as insatiable as Imoen." She grew quiet as she considered her answer. "I survived for nearly a century before I met you. For eighty of those years I was powerless and alone. I could not even escape to the surface world. Every exit I found was heavily guarded. I should have died many times, but somehow I managed to escape death. I learned very quickly how to hide, how to move about in shadows without being seen, how to disguise myself from prying eyes. Most of those I encountered feared or hated me because I was Drow. Some were willing to look beyond their first emotions for other . . . desires. I did what I had to to survive."

 

"So you've said, more than once. I'm sure not all encounters were so demeaning." There was neither hatred nor condemnation in his reply. Nor was there pity or condescension. He showed a strength and understanding few surfacers had, and this pleased her.

 

"There were a few willing to grant sanctuary for a time. Usually it was because they had need of my other skills. Though I had no divine power, I still had knowledge of herbs and wounds. I can cook up a basic healing potion or antidote when necessary. Such ability is not taken lightly. But I was always met with fear and distrust."

 

Covenant nodded. "In places short of clerics, it makes sense. I've seen a few minor injuries turned deadly for lack of care. One more talent I should not forget. I'm sure there are other potions you could make of a less beneficial nature."

 

"Of course. Such training is mandatory. It is a foundation. Understanding how potions work helps direct the power of our prayers. Paladins and rangers make use of the same principal, only you use the knowledge of the injuries you inflict and receive. That is also why your healing powers are so limited."

 

"That, and our martial disciplines limit our depth of clerical training. Still, how did you find yourself under Shar's protection?"

 

"I already knew of other gods, of Ghaunadaur and Vhaeraun and Eilistraee. These were too close to the Dark Queen for my liking. Then I began hearing whispers of another Power, one of secrecy and darkness and loss. I am all too familiar with all three. First it was a rumor in a duergar camp, then from an orc I slew. It was eighty years before I learned Her name. I learned it as I stole some food from some foolish human adventurers. They died attacking a lich. That night She came to me in a dream, a voice whispering from shadow. She told me to go to a certain place if I wanted power again. It was a tribe of orcs that worshiped the Dark Lady. Their shaman had been killed by a sword spider a ten-day before, and now they were being threatened by other spiders. Lolth's handiwork. My hatred made my choice easy. Shar gave me the power to help them survive and drive their adversaries away."

 

Viconia smiled. "Though my power was small, it felt good to have the eye of a Goddess once again. I was their shaman for a decade before a Drow war party found them. Shar hid me from the eyes of the attackers, then led me to a small duergar settlement. They had contact with a human mage who took . . . an interest in me. It was this Calishite merchant that taught me your language and ways. Finally Shar told me to flee to the surface world. She led me to an exit unwatched but by a few careless guards. Again she hid me from their eyes as I moved quietly through their encampment. I would have been unnoticed but for an alarm spell on the door to the surface. Again the Nightsinger blessed me. I entered your world just after full darkness had fallen. Fear of the guard behind kept my mind off the roofless world I had entered until I was many miles away and had lost my pursuers."

 

She looked at the paladin again. "The rest you know. Shar continued to lead me across your lands, lending me strength when the emptiness threatened to overwhelm me, protecting me from the elves and humans who hunted me, until I met you fifteen days later."

 

Covenant shook his head. "She led you straight to me. She wanted me to find you. I would not be surprised that she was preparing you for this endeavor from the moment you became a renegade."

 

"Nor would I," she agreed. "The gods have many plots and schemes we can only guess at. We can only hope to survive their conflicts, and obey those we serve without question."

 

"Would you if the command were to take my life? Could you? Somehow, I think deep inside you're conflicted and don't fully believe that last statement. If you did, you would have finished your ritual below Baldur's Gate." He began walking back to the tavern. "Let's get some rest. We need to be finished here before this time tomorrow if we're to keep our cover long enough to escape this city."

 

After they rested, they returned immediately to Phaere. She wanted them to help her eliminate the Matron Mother so she could take her position. Unfortunate for her, Covenant had impressed Solaufein. The Drow had one of his own, and a double-cross became a triple-cross. They escaped the city before word of the betrayal had left the temple.

 

They were barely out of sight of Ust Natha when Viconia felt familiar arcane stirrings ahead of them, and her mentor appeared. Covenant was as quick as she and signaled everyone to stop and prepare for battle.

 

"I knew you were familiar," the priestess stated, looking steadily at Viconia. "I know not what magics hide your true appearance, but I know your manner. Now, renegade, you have one last chance. Give us the Bhaalspawn, lead the ritual for our Queen, and you will have the post you have just made empty."

 

"I'm afraid he is not what you want at the moment," she replied calmly. "He does not currently possess what you seek."

 

"So he is among you. Surrender him to me. I will decide the matter."

 

"If you seek my soul, Mistress, you are looking in the wrong place." Covenant stepped forward, again placing himself between Viconia and the high priestess. "Another has taken it, and I am trying to get it back. Perhaps you have seen a mage named Irenicus and his vampire sister?"

 

The high priestess said a quick prayer. The paladin was struck by a shaft of darkness, and he collapsed to his knees in pain. "Impossible! He is the one, but he has only a shadow of his soul!"

 

"He is useless to you now!" Viconia snapped. The dark power the high priestess wielded was great, but hers had also grown under Shar's guidance. "But not to me or my Goddess! I serve Shar now and you will *not* have him!"

 

"Then you shall all die, outcast!" the high priestess spat. Her escorts appeared around them; the six bounty hunters she had encountered in Athkatla with another half dozen driders.

 

Viconia was upon her mentor before she had finished speaking. She heard Xan begin a casting and Jaheira start a prayer and the clack of Imoen's crossbow firing. Minsc ran past her to engage the leader of the bounty hunters, followed a moment later by Covenant as he attacked a mage and another cleric.

 

Fear chilled her blood, but anger fueled her will and vengeance burned in her bones. The suffering and humiliation she had endured under her mentor became a focus as she swung her flail. It was blocked by a shield, but the force was enough to stagger the priestess and disrupt the prayer she had begun.

 

Though the battle raged around her, she did not see it. Her attention was on the enemy before her, and that enemy was just as battle-hardened as she. Viconia had one advantage, however, and it proved the most important. The high priestess had been away from combat with her Temple duties while Viconia had been in battle almost daily.

 

Her first effective strike was a glancing blow across the helm of the high priestess, and the magic of the Flail of the Ages slowed her enemy. Another blow reached around the priestess' shield to strike her breastplate, and she heard ribs crack. A third successful hit was able to get two flail heads around the edge of her enemy's shield and send it flying with a pull of her girdle enhanced strength. The final blow struck just as the priestess finished a prayer, and Viconia's thoughts shattered as her enemy died.

 

She recalled little until after the battle. She remembered defending against a drider that attacked her, being struck by some magic missiles, even a crossbow bolt deflecting off her armor. When her mind cleared, she looked around the field of battle.

 

Jaheira was praying over Xan, who stood beside the body of a drider that had apparently engaged the mage. Minsc was giving aid to Imoen. She counted seven Drow, but only five driders, and Covenant was missing. The calm actions of the others told her he was near and in reasonable health. Viconia realized she had taken some blows from the priestess and the drider, and said the needed prayers to heal her wounds.

 

When Covenant returned, he was quiet and thoughtful.

 

"So the hero returns," she stated with a touch of ridicule. "Slaying the drider that fled, I presume?"

 

He shook his head. "Actually, we had a long talk. Then I healed him and let him leave."

 

"You what?!" Viconia shouted angrily. "He will bring more Drow back to attack us!"

 

Again the paladin shook his head. "I think not. Trust me on this, my lady. He is probably the most cursed of all driders, somehow left with a part of his mind and will intact."

 

"That's impossible!" Viconia was surprised to hear Xan saying it in unison with her.

 

"Impossible or not, I stand by my judgement of him."

 

"He did help us," Minsc added quietly. "Even Boo is curious about this drider."

 

"And what did you two speak of?" Jaheira asked.

 

"I'm not at liberty to say just yet." Covenant paused a few moments as he thought how to continue. "I have another piece of a puzzle. I just have to figure out which puzzle it belongs to. We may yet meet him again, hopefully under better circumstances. I have a lot to think and pray about."

 

The last statement, though spoken aloud, was to himself and not meant for the rest.

 

They quickly moved on and returned Adalon's eggs. The dragon removed her disguising magic, then teleported them to the nearest exit to the surface. They had to deal with a few Drow guards and spiders, but nothing too troublesome. They met a few surface elves that had come down to deal with their enemy, and it became clear that the tide of battle had turned against the dark elves.

 

Viconia expected far worse than what happened when they finally reached the surface. Though the elves were less than pleased with her presence in the party, they did not slay her immediately. Covenant mentioned they were after Irenicus and the situation changed dramatically. They were immediately escorted to the commander of this battlefield.

 

General Elhan stated he would come back to Viconia, then began questioning Covenant. Sages checked the truthfulness of the paladin's answers through their arcane arts. It soon became clear things were not going so well for the elves either, and Irenicus and Bodhi were responsible. The elves needed their help if they were to gain access to Suldanessellar. Covenant readily agreed.

 

"Unfortunately, I must bring up a final point of contention," Elhan stated, turning his full attention to Viconia. "I said I would return to the Drow, and now is the time. I will not allow her to accompany you."

 

The cleric returned his gaze. She spoke with a note of mockery. "I was wondering when you would give voice to the looks you have been giving me all eve. Poor Elhan, hating me so."

 

The general glared at her. "You are an unhealthy risk. I will not allow it."

 

"I had the impression this was my team," Covenant interrupted. "I cannot do this without the group I am familiar with. She must go with me."

 

Elhan considered the paladin. "Very well, there is one way that I will allow her to partake in our plans. She must first swear loyalty to you and your cause, Covenant."

 

Jaheira's experience among the Drow had filled her with distrust and hatred and she erupted, "Yes, declare your loyalty, Viconia. When you eventually betray us I will hold your statement up as proof of the untrustworthy nature of your kind."

 

Minsc's eyes widened in surprise at the outburst. "Boo would have sensed any treachery long ago! She fights well with us!"

 

"Bah! Such a statement is unnecessary. I am loyal." She baited Elhan, watching his anger rise. "But if it will help your doubts, I do so swear loyalty to this cause."

 

"And she must agree to a geas. That is the only way." Elhan stared at her, challenging her.

 

"Enough!" Covenant had been calm until now, but his voice now carried a current of anger. "She has had far greater opportunities to betray us than you could imagine. If she had intended to betray us, she would have done so long before now. She does not need your geas and I will not allow it!"

 

For a moment she wondered at his strong reaction, then remembered Yoshimo. He was not taking that event well, and would not see it happen again. Then she saw the shadow in his eyes and knew a greater danger.

 

Viconia put a hand on his arm and caught his gaze. Her voice carried a commanding tone as she told him, "Though I would find it . . . entertaining to see how these elves would fare against the Slayer, it would only help Irenicus." She saw the paladin pale slightly at her warning.

 

He nodded his head to her. "As always, your counsel is as sharp as your tongue, my lady. Though it galls me, I will leave this to your wisdom."

 

She turned back to Elhan. "Your distrust is such that you require magical bonds to ensure I commit no treachery? I wonder if the Drow are the only elves with darkened hearts."

 

Perhaps Elhan had seen the shadow of the Slayer, perhaps he sensed the bond between the paladin and the cleric. It mattered little to her. It only mattered that he was more guarded in his speech. "Such talk does not endear me to you. Do you agree, or do you not?"

 

"I am already bound to Covenant, so your request is of no consequence." She did not lie, though she knew the elven general would not believe her. "Very well. Have your spells cast and secure my will to the task. I imagine spitting on you for the indignity will be restricted as well? A pity."

 

"And you will make it only for the recovery of the Rhynn Lanthorn," Covenant commanded. "You will remove it when we return."

 

"I command here, paladin, not you." Elhan's voice carried authority, reminding Covenant he was in charge in this place. "But if it will set you at ease, the recovery of the Lanthorn is the task I have given you, nothing more. The geas will be removed when you return."

 

Elhan nodded to his mages. "With the casting of this spell all my doubt is removed. Viconia, you are bound to the task and I fear no treachery. Let death be the threat if I am wrong. Covenant, I wish you well in your goals. All Suldanessellar depends on your success."

 

They were preparing to leave when a mage teleported next to Elhan. Xan knew this new arrival, and after a few exchanges, they found themselves on a side quest to recover some stolen documents. With both mages and Covenant's willingness, they were teleported into the one place she thought never to see.

 

Viconia had seen torture chambers before. Though this appeared no different than any other, its feel was. Like an insect crawling across her skin, she could feel the horror and pain of this place crawling across her soul. She wondered, was it because of Covenant's divine heritage and his suffering here that these echos were so strong?

 

Jaheira must have noticed something in her manner. "I suppose this place could be made habitable if it were properly cleansed and balanced."

 

"There are few things Drow do not tolerate, druid," Viconia responded softly. "We learned throught harsh experience. But they were done here. Only the gods can cleanse this place now. This place is fit only for the Abyss. Tell me, what lies down that passage that creates such an aura of despair?"

 

Jaheira followed her gaze to the west passage. She began rubbing her arms as if to ward off a chill. "Lost souls, trapped between life and death by a madman seeking immortality with no regard for his servants."

 

Before she could ask anything else they were teleporting again to a very well appointed bedroom. Though some documents were found, they were not what they were searching for. They were challenged by a guardian as they were teleporting back to the elven war camp, and had to deal with a golem when they arrived.

 

Since they had not recovered the documents the elves wanted, they found themselves hunting the party of Drow the general believed had them, a group claiming to follow Eilistraee. When they finally found them, Covenant quickly caught their leader in her own words. They had to return to Elhan with the news the documents had been passed on before they could continue on their way.

 

As they were returning to Athkatla they encountered another party of adventurers, their leader she remembered encountering before. Imoen and Jaheira enjoyed watching the search for an enchanted hammer, and the argument about its color, Viconia simply wondered if the legendary Drizzt would be so oblivious to their approach. That was until the halfling mentioned their arrival. The Drow called his companions to peace, then turned to Covenant.

 

"Ho there, travelers! I am Drizzt Do'Urden, most recently of Ten Towns. Are you friend or foe?"

 

Covenant grinned slightly, a glint of mischief in his eye. "I am a friend, Drizzt. I have heard of you."

 

"Well met, then, friend. Tell me, have you perhaps seen a, ah . . . a pink war hammer in the vicinity during your travels?"

 

At this the argument over color of the hammer erupted again, but settled as the others continued searching the foliage for it.

 

Drizzt seemed to be enjoying the show as well. "Tell me, though, stranger . . . have we met before? I feel as though your face is familiar, but I cannot attach a time or place to it. Should I know you?

 

"We met briefly near Baldur's Gate. I helped you defeat some gnolls."

 

"That was you?" Drizzt seemed puzzled, and studied Covenant. "Glad I am to meet you again, friend, it is good to see others of decent nature travel these roads, especially with all the rumors of danger. But the man I remember had a full beard, and traveled with me later in the Ten Towns."

 

The paladin laughed. "The beard was a good companion but it perished, I'm sad to say. A red dragon was its bane. I doubt even Temaris' could bring it back now."

 

"And only Covenant would have reason know that name." The ranger laughed as well. His eyes left Covenant to pass over his party and stopped on her. "Three of your companions I recognize from your descriptions, including the exile you showed such interest in. Did my instruction prove valuable?"

 

"But for your training and her guidance we would not have survived Ust Natha. Such darkness of spirit is indeed a heavy burden," he replied. It took a moment for Viconia to realize he had spoken in fluent Drow.

 

"I see by her reaction you did not tell her of our travels. Is she what you thought?" Drizzt asked, bringing the conversation back to Common.

 

He shook his head, looking into Viconia's eyes. "No. She is more, and has become far more important to me in my current travails." He paused a moment, then turned to the ranger. "I have a proposal for you, Drizzt, if you will wait for a moment."

 

"A proposal? Very well, I have no objections to hearing you out. If I can assist you, I will."

 

"I seek to defeat a vampire in Athkatla too powerful to face alone. Will you help?"

 

Drizzt looked at the paladin, his face growing hard. "I had heard rumors of this creature, but I also heard she and her cohorts were destroyed. Are you claiming that this is untrue, that she yet exists?"

 

Covenant nodded slowly. "We were the ones who destroyed her guild, but she got away. She has returned now, and is stronger than ever before."

 

"I have had experience with such creatures in the past, and I know well their power." The Drow was clearly interested in this new information. "If what you say is true, we cannot allow it to continue to exist. I will join you in your battle, Covenant, although there are things that we must do before that time. Where does this creature reside in Athkatla?"

 

"If she returns to where we defeated her the first time, it will be in the crypts beneath the Graveyard District."

 

"I think I know the area you speak of. Very well . . . we will meet you there when you are ready to venture beneath the surface. Until that time, Covenant . . ." He extended his hand, and Covenant took it in his own to accept his offer.

 

As they continued on, Jaheira approached the paladin. "An excellent idea, Covenant. Adding Drizzt and his companions to our battle against Bodhi will certainly tip the scales. You show great wisdom."

 

"What do we need *him* for?" Viconia responded, prodding both Covenant and Jaheira. "Having one Drow in your party is not enough, you need to go trolling about for extras? Even though that one is a little on the luscious side . . ."

 

Jaheira glared at her, but Covenant only smiled. "Dream on, my lady. His heart belongs to another, and I doubt Eilistraee could turn it from her."

 

The return to Athkatla was uneventful. They went to the Shrine of Ilmater above the Copper Coronet and gave the priest Yoshimo's heart, then made a visit to Cromwell. He was able to assemble several weapons for them, including the war hammer Crom Faeyr, which was given to Viconia. Minsc gained the githyanki silver sword, Imoen the short bow Gesen. Viconia considered how such powerful weapons could fall into their hands. Clearly there had been divine intervention. After a visit to the Adventurer's Mart, they returned to the Copper Coronet to rest before going after Bodhi.

 

"You are becoming an impressive pest, one that I am finding difficult to ignore." Bodhi appeared behind them as soon as they entered the Graveyard. She sounded like a parent scolding her child. "Honestly, Covenant, I simply do not know what to do with you. I grow tired of seeing you in my shadow."

 

The paladin's reply was as sarcastic. "I was not the one that fled our last encounter, Bodhi. Sorry if I . . . scared you."

 

The vampire laughed coldly. "Hardly. It was simply more important that I report of your condition to Irenicus. He has decided that it is of no importance, interesting though it is. Regardless, I have not the time to stand here discussing what you will or will not do. I have more important duties to take care of."

 

She paused a few moments, glancing at Viconia. "You follow in hopes of retrieving something dear to you. I say that the longer you keep this up, the more you will lose. Consider the brutish Viconia here. How difficult is it to lose someone when you have only just discovered such feelings?"

 

"I have no fear of losing Covenant to the likes of you," the Drow hissed.

 

"But does he fear your loss, woman? Let's find out. Follow me further, Covenant, and you will lose more than you can fathom. Starting now!" Bodhi turned to mist and vanished.

 

Immediately they were set upon by several vampires. Viconia found herself with one on each side. She prepared to defend herself when she felt the enchantment strike. Her body became rigid as a vapor rose about her. The two vampires each grabbed an arm before turning to mist themselves. She became mist with them and everything she had fell to the ground. Helpless, she was carried into the catacombs to Bodhi's lair.

 

Bodhi ignored her as she rematerialized, naked and unable to move or speak. Viconia noticed that the vampire was in the middle of a ritual, and the cleric somehow knew it was meant for her. She felt a corrupting darkness begin to consume her spirit, her will grow weak. Horror began to fill her mind as she understood what was intended.

 

"You are my special treat for that pest," the vampire finally looked at her. "The first part of the ritual is now complete. Resist as you will, you will soon be my slave, Viconia. You cannot resist for long. My brother thinks you a master of dark rituals, all because of what you did to your paladin. Yet you fall so easily to my own workings. It does intrigue me you managed that ritual at all by yourself. Do you know what you did beneath Baldur's Gate by leaving such a powerful ritual unfinished? A ritual of death on the child of a god of death? It changed him in many ways. Imoen too."

 

The vampire paused. "Did you know he has killed three of his siblings? He absorbed some Bhaal essence from each and grew more powerful with each. It took a long time for my brother to remove the remnants of that ritual. His task was made easier by removing it from Imoen. I did so enjoy watching him work, and their sufferings were so deliciously entertaining. Irenicus was willing to tolerate your foolishness because it made your paladin's soul so much stronger. But now he has taken his soul and he has become a problem. Let's see how he does when his lover is the first to attack him."

 

Bodhi turned away from Viconia and began the next part of her ritual. The darkness slowly grew, consuming her until only a desire for blood and death remained. The last act of her dissolving will was to call upon Shar to save her, then all volition fled and all she could hear was Bodhi's voice.

 

"How delicious the taste of a corrupted soul." The vampire gloated. "You are my puppet now. Pity I won't have the time to make you my slave. Covenant has found some allies and moves faster than I had anticipated. He will be here soon. He may survive my minions, but it is already too late to save you. Come. We will wait back here by my chamber, where we will watch the combat."

 

Her mistress commanded and she obeyed. In silence they waited until someone entered the main chamber. There were several of them, and she knew she should recognize them but the smell of their living bodies stirred a hunger that consumed her thoughts. The mistress spoke to one of these creatures who wore red armor, but she could not understand what they said because of the hunger. Finally her mistress let out an unearthly scream and the room filled with her servants. Without a sound they attacked these stranger. She waited obediently until her mistress commanded her to attack, then she sprang at the one in red, red for blood, red for food, her hunger would be appeased!

 

The stranger in the red armor was fast, faster than she, and she could not touch him, but he could hit her and he hit her with the flat of his great glowing sword and the pain seared and her mind reeled and she recognized Covenant but the hunger drove her and she needed to feed and he was close oh so close and he hit her again and again and she found herself falling and darkness taking her and . . .

 

She was standing on a high ledge, her mind clear again. "Now I know what it's like to be on the receiving end of Carsomyr," she muttered to herself. "I pray you prevail over Bodhi, my love. I'm sorry I wasn't there to help you."

 

Viconia looked over the edge and saw a valley full of thick darkness, a darkness that had substance so it that broke like a wave against the cliff wall below. She knew what was within that darkness. She had been there before. She backed away from the edge until her back was against the cliff on the other side of the ledge.

 

She looked up. High above she saw the branches of a great forest, and a light that penetrated it so that there was no place for the smallest shadow. She could not see the forest as much as sense it, and it gave her pause to consider herself. There was beauty beyond her ability to understand above. She somehow knew this. She also knew she could never go there. Her spirit was of the darkness and she had only earned what lay below.

 

"An interesting place, is it not?"

 

She recognized the voice, yet was not surprised to find him here. It seemed only proper. "What is this place, Yoshimo?"

 

"Blessings above, torment below. This is a place of waiting."

 

"For what? Judgement? I know where I belong."

 

Yoshimo nodded. "As do I. Death clears the mind, reveals your spirit to yourself. No self deceptions, no lies."

 

"So why am I here and not . . ." Her eyes moved to the valley.

 

He shrugged his shoulders. "Covenant may yet restore you. You wait for him to succeed or fail in this task."

 

"We are dead. Does he have such power to hold our spirits from judgement?" For the first time since she arrived here she felt astonishment.

 

"He has become incredibly powerful, Viconia. He does not yet suspect how powerful."

 

"You said he can restore me. Since you are here with me . . ."

 

Yoshimo shook his head. "This is not so with me. I have been judged by Ilmater. Only Covenant's will keeps me here. I would thank him if I could. He gave me a chance to fulfill both duty and honor in my death."

 

Suddenly Viconia felt herself becoming hot. Yoshimo noticed. "He has found the way to bring you back. Covenant will soon learn how powerful he is. When he does you must help him, or the power will consume him." Her vision began to fade. Almost as an afterthought he added, "Tell him he need no longer worry about me. I am ready for my judgement."

 

Darkness engulfed her as the heat became a fire that burned through her, a cleansing fire that stripped the darkness of Bodhi's enchantment from her soul and spirit. Then the fire passed and she felt a cold surface on her back.

 

She opened her eyes. It took her a moment to realize she was in the Temple of Amaunator, on the altar of the sun god, and the paladin was standing above her. Her memories of the ledge began quickly fading. She knew she only had a moment before it was all gone. "Yoshimo thanks you, Covenant. He's ready for his judgement, so you need not worry about him." Then the memory was gone.

 

"What?" he responded, dumbfounded by her voice. He was clearly surprised that she was alive. "What did you say?"

 

"I . . . I can't remember what I said." She sat up. She realized she was naked but for a sheet wrapped about her, and in such a way to preserve her modesty. She stifled her laughter. "You saw my naked body in Bodhi's lair. Is it that enticing? Such desires are only natural. You know you want me."

 

Covenant blushed at her teasing. "I fought a monster then. Protecting your modesty keeps us both from crossing a line neither of us wants to deal with right now. You don't remember what you said a moment ago? About not needing to worry about Yoshimo?"

 

Viconia thought a moment. "The last thing I remember was being struck by your sword before waking up here. I know something happened in between, but I can't remember it. It has something to do with moving back into my body, or so I was taught. But if I told you something, you should believe it. Would you help me down? I'm feeling a bit dizzy at the moment."

 

He helped her to the floor and held her up until she was stable enough to stand on her own. "You have . . . you have saved me, freed my spirit from a most foul contamination. I am in your debt."

 

"No, I am in *your* debt." He smiled, and she caught a glint is his eye. "You restored my spirit with your beguiling ways long ago."

 

"Your fanciful tongue speaks like an elf, your words flow like curdling milk. Still, I am . . . glad to be returning to your company." She looked around. "By the way, where are the others?"

 

"Out in the corridor. I don't know about Jaheira, but I'm sure the others will be glad to see you, just as I am. I know Imoen will, now that she has regained her soul. Rejoin me and we will see this quest through to it's end together."

 

She found herself struggling, but wanted, needed to say what followed. "I do not often express such feelings, but I must say that . . . I would not wish to be parted from you again."

 

He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to him in a gently but firm hug. "I would not want you to leave me, either." He released her. Their eyes locked, and his kiss was just as gentle and firm as the hug.

 

He let her go and stepped back. Reaching down, he lifted a bundle and set it on the altar. "I'll step out while you dress."

 

They returned to the elven war camp with little incident. Elhan sensed the Rhynn Lanthorn immediately. Apparently she had missed something because Covenant began questioning the general, and he was clearly evasive about both Bodhi and Irenicus. When Elhan prepared to teleport them to the hidden entrance to Suldanessellar, Covenant reminded him of his promise. He did not command him, but he spoke with a holy authority that gave all who heard the paladin pause. Elhan had the mages remove the geas. They were clearly perplexed when they found it had run its course.

 

"You can thank Bodhi for this puzzle," the paladin responded to their rising distrust. "Viconia did not betray me of her own will, but she paid the price for it none the less. You need our help dealing with your *Exile*. It is vital that I face him. But I *will not* assist you if any of my people are under *any* form of compulsion."

 

"I must agree with Covenant," Xan added, his voice carrying the authority of a Greycloak. "If you cannot trust us, then the city is already lost. We each have reasons to aid you in this, but I wonder if the city is worth saving if it requires such deceptions as you have clearly undertaken regarding Irenicus."

 

"I would give you more information, but I am not allowed." Elhan was becoming angry. Viconia could hear the truth in his voice. "There is no time to waste. As you wish. There will be no compulsions. You have returned the Lanthorn. You have earned as least this much trust."

 

The situation was indeed dire as they entered the elven city. What kind of power this mage Irenicus wielded she could only guess, but the enemies he had brought in were powerful and numerous. They aided the defense of the city as best they could, helping the guards and warriors, rescuing those who were not able to defend themselves. And all around she saw the bodies of the fallen, with no regard for gender or position or age. It was the deaths of the infants and children in this carnage that struck her most deeply. She felt a loss of hopes and dreams, something that had been taken from her so long ago. She did not understand this. She was familiar with death, but these deaths filled her with a terrible sense of outrage.

 

When they finally reached the priestess Demin, they learned the full story of Irenicus and Bodhi. They had to scour the city to find the items needed to release the only means of clearing the invaders. It was also the only way to get in to the Temple of Rillifane. When they entered the temple, they found it empty. It took them a bit to find the secret exit.

 

Covenant paused momentarily before descending the steps. Viconia could see his vitality increase slightly and a glimmer of recognition in his eye. His stolen soul was near and he would only grow stronger the closer he came to it. But with his returning strength came his concern for those with him. As he looked at each, he offered them a chance to leave. She knew what each would say. Imoen, Minsc and Jaheira had suffered terrible loss by his hand. Xan had a duty as a Greycloak to defend Suldanessellar, and she suspected he wanted to keep watch on the Bhaalspawn he followed.

 

He looked at her last. "Viconia . . . I ---"

 

"There is no point in saying what you are going to say, Covenant. It changes nothing. You are the only one I have encountered since I fled my homeland who has both taken my measure and given me quarter. You have saved my life more than once, we have fought together and bled together . . . and more. Whether loyalty is a trait you would ascribe to me does not matter. I would offer my last breath in your defense. You are . . . unique amongst men, and I salute you."

 

She had prepared to ridicule him as they entered Brynnlaw harbor. She had since considered his words. "Now let us finish this business you have at hand. The future will deal with . . . us . . . as it may."

 

They descended the stairs and walked out onto the Tree of Life. Queen Ellesime gave them the guidance to make their enemy vulnerable. When they finally confronted Irenicus, Covenant had them retreat from the mage as the queen teleported away. This let the mage's initial arcane protections expire, but also allowed Imoen and Xan to summon some creatures that fed on arcane magic. Even so, when the battle was joined the mage was difficult to slay.

 

When Irenicus finally fell, she expected Covenant's soul to return to him. She should have known better. Irenicus' magic was far stronger than any she knew from mortal hand. Even in death he held onto his stolen soul. Covenant was drawn to his soul, and Viconia realized how powerful the paladin was becoming as he dragged everyone with him.

 

After they had regained their wits, Viconia spoke with irony. "You humans have a saying about following someone to Hell and back. Well, Covenant, you've managed the first part. You better be as good for the second."

 

"Why, Vicci, I do believe you're developing a sense of humor," a grinning Imoen snapped back. "There's hope for you after all. But jokes work better without adding threats. Besides, shouldn't that have been my line?"

 

"Then be quicker, girl. Unless this place has scared you witless?" She suspected Covenant had shaped this place with his will. She did not want to think what would happen to it, and them, should he perish here. "Covenant, can you sense where Irenicus is? Or your soul?"

 

He shook his head. His face was still flushed from her joke. A paladin having his soul dragged down to Hell was bad enough, but having dragged those closest to him was more than embarrassing. "He's near, but I can't tell where. It's this place. So much evil makes it like listening for a falling needle in a hurricane."

 

"Then we should start looking for him," Minsc piped up. "Boo does not like this place, and neither does Minsc. The quicker we place our bootmark on his backside, the quicker we leave."

 

Or so everyone hoped, Viconia noted.

 

Aside from the door near where they arrived, which was protected by five Sealing Eyes, there were five stairways descending into other areas. With no other choice they descended them, beginning with the one to the west. Each led to a test of Covenant's character and virtue, and at the end of each test was a Tear of Bhaal.

 

The first test was a confrontation with Sarevok, drawn to this place by the paladin's growing power. His attempts to provoke Covenant revealed much of this place and of Covenant himself. It also validated Covenant's reasoning why the gods had abandoned the Children of Bhaal. In the end they had to defend against the wraith of his dead brother, but Covenant never let anger control him. Viconia looked at him with an approving nod. He was walking his own path, and his father's blood no longer held power over him.

 

He showed this with the remaining tests as well. In each he was given a choice, in each he chose the way against death. In some it led to his own harm. Viconia had come to expect no less. Though a part of her still thought his actions foolish, with each she saw him cut a tie to his fate. And with each he gained a measure of power. If he survived the prophecies of Alaundo he could become a Power in his own right. This thought both thrilled and terrified her.

 

When he had collected all five Tears they returned to the sealed door. Covenant placed one Tear upon each Eye, and as he did so that Eye closed and one barrier protecting the door was removed. With each closing Eye she saw his power increase. Whether he wanted it or not, he was becoming more like the gods he detested.

 

When the last Eye closed the door burst open and Irenicus strode out. The immensity of his power pushed them back as a wind drives dried leaves before it. Even Covenant was carried back with the others. Then the power faded. Viconia wondered if it were because the true owner and the thief of Covenant's soul now faced each other.

 

Covenant had rolled with the blast and came to his feet when it passed. Calmly he walked forward to face his adversary.

 

"So we are to battle one last time," the mage stated coldly. "No more hiding for either of us. I will enjoy destroying you, Covenant. To die in this place is to cease to exist."

 

The paladin raised Carsomyr to the ready. "I am ready to face you. I have seen the depths of my soul and am not afraid."

 

"Yes, perhaps you are focused within yourself, despite the loss of your soul. But I know as much of myself as well, and I, too, have no fear! As horrific as this place is, it merely mirrors the soul we now share. Shrink from it if you will, but I have grown to appreciate what it can offer!"

 

Though he spoke boldly, Viconia detected an uncertainty in Irenicus' manner. He also foolishly believed he could control the power of the soul he had stolen. She knew better.

 

"Now defend yourself! One of us is not truly dead, and may be restored if the other is left here to rot! I will be free with what I have taken!"

 

Covenant gazed unwaveringly at the mage and replied quietly, "Do what you must, and I will do the same."

 

"You will not be so calm when I doom you to non-existence!"

 

So the challenge was made, the prize set. Whichever one survived would return to the land of the living - with the power of the Bhaal-cursed soul. If Covenant won, it would be contained and they would be returned as well. She knew what horrors would befall Faerun should the mage win.

 

"The darkness has already taken you, foolish one, yet you refuse to close your eyes!" A cold anger filled her as she moved beside her paladin. She knew what she must do. "Let us help you onward to your final rest! L'il alurl! For Shar!"

 

The demons he summoned fell quickly, but gave Irenicus time to get his arcane defenses up. The battle was not as long as some they had survived, but it was brutal. He was a master of deception magics and he used them very effectively. And to make matters worse, he had taken Slayer form. When the mage finally fell, they were all somehow still alive, if barely. Only Covenant appeared unharmed.

 

Silence fell over the battlefield as they gazed upon the form of Irenicus. They waited for something to happen, just what they were not sure. Slowly a nimbus of energy began forming around the mage and Covenant. They grew until they became shafts of pure white light. She had to cover her eyes and look away. As it began to fade, she felt again the tug on her spirit and herself being lifted.

 

When she opened her eyes, she saw the leaves of Suldanessellar. She sat up and looked around the platform. Covenant and Xan had awakened but moments before her, and the others were quickly coming around. Their awakening apparently startled the clerics that had been watching over them.

 

What followed was a blur of celebrations that she found uncomfortable, and quite ironic. Considered an enemy by her own people, she had become a hero to her enemies. Covenant was simply uncomfortable with the notoriety he received.

 

It took some doing and two days, but the two finally found themselves alone in the city.

 

"We need to leave this place, my ssinssrigg. I . . . do not belong here."

 

He nodded. "We will leave at sunrise. The final struggle for my father's power is fast approaching. I have many things to do in Athkatla with little time to do it in. You have fulfilled your promise. You have stayed with me to the end of the task with Irenicus. Now I ask you, will you stay with me to the end of this final challenge?"

 

"I told you I did not want to be away from you again," she replied with a soft smile. "And I have found Shar agreeable to this desire. And your own. It seems she wants you to stay human as well."

 

"You realize, of course, that it will be no easy task." The paladin wrapped his arm around her shoulders and drew her to him. "I have defeated the call of the blood. The power I carry is a far more dangerous threat to my spirit and soul. Twice you have kept me from its grasp."

 

"I know. Nothing with you is ever easy. Nothing in my life has ever been easy." She wrapped her arm around his waist. "I will help you stay human. Whether through seduction or intimidation or a hammer against your head."

 

"I hope it doesn't come to that!" Covenant raised his hands as if to ward off a blow and laughed. "I heard what happened to Alatos!"

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Part 9

 

"What is this?" Viconia asked as she examined the small box Covenant had just handed her. The paladin's lips curved upward slightly, and there was a twinkle in his eyes. But he remained silent and Minsc was clueless as usual. There would be no quick answer to her curiosity.

 

Since they would not be forthcoming, she examined the box more closely. She was surprised at its craftsmanship. It was clearly of human design, yet felt almost elvish. It was made from one piece of wood with a tight grain that alternated white and black. The corner joints were barely perceptible to her elvish eyes. It could easily be mistaken for a simple block of wood but for the weight. Even the ends looked so natural. Her curiosity was almost lost to frustration as she looked for the release mechanism. It took her over a minute to find how to open it.

 

As she slid the top off, she found herself staring at a small hair clip. The clasp was of finely wrought silver, and held a stone carved in the likeness of a flower. It, too, was of exceptional crafting. It was not until she removed it from the box and exposed it to the full light of the sun that she saw its true beauty. The stone was midnight black, with flecks of red near the center and fine veins of white separating each carved petal as they fanned out from the center in an intricate web.

 

"Where did you find such an incredible piece of work?" she muttered softly as she let the sunlight play across its surface.

 

"I'm glad you like it," his smile breaking into a full grin. "There's a small shop by the Docks. The man's son was born strong as an ox, and about as dumb, but he's wonderfully gifted with his hands. The box is also his. May I?"

 

She placed the ornament into his open palm and he gently placed it in her hair before stepped back. "Now *that* will make some heads turn!"

 

"And Minsc will put his boot to anyone who says anything nasty to such a pretty woman," the ranger snapped with his usual bravado, but Viconia noticed his eyes admiring both her and the ornament. Boo looked at her and nodded in agreement.

 

"Why . . . ?" Her voice faded in confusion. He should be trying to keep other males away, yet this ornament would draw even more attention to her. Of course, very few males had the courage to deal with a Drow, and fewer still to risk Covenant's jealousy.

 

Covenant bowed and kissed her hand. "Because I love you, my one and only Lady. It's a human custom for a man to give beautiful items to his beloved."

 

"Ah, a bribe to keep my affections. I'd rather be testing your virility in my bed, paladin."

 

Covenant blushed. "You have been patient with me, and I pray you will be amply rewarded." She began laughing and he blushed even more as he realized his verbal blunder. His words were more guarded when he continued "I am still . . . resolute. Until the taint of my father is removed, I dare not."

 

"I don't care about your curse," she proclaimed as she contained her laughter. Her voice became low and sultry as she moved close to him, and was pleased to note his body responding to her advance. "I wouldn't mind having a child if it were yours, Covenant."

 

The paladin backed up, wide eyes looking for help. They stopped on something behind her and he lifted his hand to beckon someone. "Ah, lady Jaheira!" he called. "Glad to see you back!"

 

"Nice try, paladin," she grinned lustfully as she moved closer to him, "but she won't be back for another ten-day."

 

"That was a fast ten-day," came a voice behind her. Viconia spun around in surprise to glare at the druid. "You know he doesn't lie, Drow. I see your base nature still rules your desires. I've seen rutting moose with more discretion."

 

Viconia's voice was soft and friendly, though her eyes were not. "I'm only doing what's . . . natural, tree-hugger."

 

Jaheira's voice was not so peaceful and she met the cleric's gaze with equal hostility. "Keep it up and *your* paladin will likely have a seizure. Go back to your den and let him be for now."

 

Before Viconia could return the insult, Covenant placed his hand on her shoulder. "I'm sure Minsc would enjoy watching you two wrestle, as would all the men watching us, but I'd hate to have your beauty marred by any unsightly bruises. We've an event to attend tonight. They might get the idea we're not . . . civilized."

 

Jaheira took the hint. "So Covenant is taking you to see how nobles waste their time? It might be interesting to see how a Drow . . . livens things up."

 

"Don't get your hopes up, half-bred. I have yet to shed the blood of any of those fools, tempting though it is. I find Human high society little different from where I came. The rules may be different, but their hearts are the same. They are weak, simpering dogs that cower if threatened, and are constantly grasping for power and wealth. They are as treacherous and corrupt as any Drow."

 

"But not all. She has found the few noblewomen that actually have a brain and backbone," Covenant added with a grin. "That has made my work much easier."

 

The druid looked at the two of them, her eyes narrowing. "And just what *have* you two been up to?"

 

"Saving the city from evil!" Minsc proudly announced. Jaheira noticed the paladin wince. "His brothers and sisters keep coming after us, and we keep kicking their backsides!"

 

"Actually, they've been trying to assassinate me," Covenant added with an embarrassed shrug.

 

"Is that why half the Slums are a charred ruin? And you're still here?" Jaheira's voice grew sharp with anger and displeasure. "How many have been hurt in these attacks? Or worse?"

 

"Less than you seem to think, druid," Viconia snapped back. "He has managed to create an alliance between the Cowls, Temples, City Guard and Shadow Thieves. They decided it was better than suffering the fate of Trademeet."

 

Jaheira's voice grew guarded. "I . . . saw the city. I heard two Bhaalspawn decided to kill each other there. Only Nalia and her soldiers kept the people from being slaughtered in the battle. And the three of you acted as rear guard, then dealt with the victor. With all that, why do they let you remain?"

 

Minsc grinned. "They come after us and leave the rest of the city alone. And they don't look for the others hiding here."

 

"The . . . others? You mean there are other Bhaalspawn in the city?" Jaheira's face was growing red in anger.

 

Covenant was calm, but tired. He had been over this ground before so many times. "Not all Bhaalspawn are like Sarevok, lady Jaheira. In fact, most just want to be left alone and live normal lives. But they have been targeted by those who follow the blood. They can't protect themselves. They come here until they can be hidden somewhere else on the Sword Coast."

 

"And the attacks continue here," she retorted angrily. "You are putting innocents at risk!"

 

"They're innocents, too. And for each one alive, there's that much less Bhaal essence available to those using it. Yes, the Slums have suffered, and regrettably some have died, but it would have been far worse had things not been this way."

 

Viconia knew he was doing what he could to weaken those he would have to fight soon. And she knew better than to assume the sadness in his voice showed weakness. She had watched him among the people of the Slums. He talked with them, prayed with them, healed them where he could. In return they were the main support for hiding the ones Jaheira would condemn. They had little, yet knowing the risks they willingly put what they had to his service.

 

"Do you begin to fear him, druid?" Viconia's voice was cold, carrying a tone of accusation. "Do you fear he is becoming like those he fights? Then you are indeed a fool. He remains here only because he needs to know where the final contest will be fought. When the Shadow Thieves have something, they will let us know and we will leave."

 

Jaheira was not moved by her answer. "And the city will become a target because of the Bhaalspawn hidden within it. You may not regard the lives here, Drow. They're just surfacers to you. But I do!"

 

"And when we leave," Covenant interrupted the argument, "the most dangerous will follow me, because they will know the time is near. And I have far more of our father's essence than the few remaining Children here. The city can handle the rest. Did you think to ask why Athkatla allows any Bhaalspawn to remain? Whoever wins the Throne will draw all remaining Bhaal essence to them and the surviving Children will be freed of the taint. They are the canaries in the mine. They will be watched closely for this very thing. Then through them, for good or ill, the city will know the conflict is over."

 

"And you believe this?" It was clear she disagreed with his rational.

 

The paladin's voice and body reflected a firm resolve. "I have to, lady Jaheira. Isn't that the nature of faith? Otherwise my life and my work will have been in vain, and my God made a liar."

 

Viconia saw recognition appear in the druid's eyes. She had forgotten he was in all ways a paladin, dedicated to the service of his God, and he was part of a struggle beyond their comprehension. Though Covenant tried to apply them, the rules of mortals did not always apply.

 

"It is scary," Minsc added with surprising calmness and clarity. He must have seen Jaheira's dismay. "Even brave Boo feels small in such a big fight. Covenant does what is good, though Minsc does not understand it. All we can do is help him stay good. Maybe this will be Minsc's dejemma."

 

They returned to the Copper Coronet in silence. It had taken some damage from the attacks, but still stood strong. Covenant immediately went to Bernard and asked if he had any unwanted visitors. Jaheira was perplexed when the barkeep nodded, Covenant hung his head and Minsc immediately departed up the stairs. A few moments later she understood as everyone heard two female voices rise in angry curses, and the ranger escorted their partially dressed bodies into the main room. The paladin vanished into his room.

 

Jaheira stared, mouth open. "It's become quite a nuisance," Viconia commented with a bored calm. "I swear every female in the city wants to sleep with him."

 

"This happens all the time?"

 

Viconia shrugged her shoulders in helpless futility. "Every time we leave this place. The first couple of times I laughed and joked about the *guests* in his bed, questioning his virtue. But it's grown routine and . . . boring." She watched as the two females finished dressing, then leave angry and humiliated. "Pfeh! No nobles this time! What a shame. I can't make them squirm at the party tonight."

 

Jaheira turned to the cleric with a measuring gaze. "I do not trust you, Drow. I doubt I ever will. But you've changed. You are more open, you have learned things walking with Covenant. You are still cloaked in evil, but I wonder how much longer you can stay that way."

 

"Why should that matter to you?" Viconia retorted. "You have returned to deliver what you found, but I see you will not remain."

 

Jaheira nodded calmly. "I have seen vengeance on my husband's murderer. I will stay until Xan and Imoen return. Covenant has changed so much. Minsc was right. He frightens me. No matter how much good he does, the taint is there to corrupt it. Someone must remain behind to watch over this city."

 

"Such an unexpected admission of weakness?" Viconia's voice was harsh and mocking. "Then it is best you do not come. The terrors we have faced will pale in comparison to what is ahead. Such weakness would endanger us all."

 

"The bear is not weak because it does not attack the dragon, Drow. Like the bear I know my limits. But that does not mean Covenant does not matter. Gorion sensed something special about him and his fate. Covenant has put a trust in you that he has done with no other. Fail him and the whole of Faerun may suffer. Betray him and I will hunt you down!"

 

"Your threat is unnecessary. Perhaps you have forgotten trust works both ways." Her voice took a note of mocking anger. "Or did you not learn that lesson with Khalid? My duty to both he and my Goddess is to ensure he does not become a god. To that end, I will give my life if needed."

 

Jaheira's eyes narrowed, but not in anger. She was measuring her, weighing her next words. "Then you must soon choose between your evil heart and him. And I think you know this."

 

"That would require turning against the Dark Lady. I would be better slitting my own throat." Viconia had rejected one god, and found favor with another. To reject the favor of the second without returning to the first was to be forever rejected by all gods. And she would never return to Lolth.

 

"Maybe, but Shar knows her place in the Balance, and not all her followers are evil. I have met some. You cannot stay evil and remain by his side. Not where his fate will take him."

 

*******************************

 

That was the beginning of this final leg of her paladin's quest, she realized as she looked back. Jaheira was the first to return from a search for information Covenant wanted. He wanted anything they could find, of spells, rituals or artifacts, that could undo the power or subdue the will of a god. He said it was insurance against his blood, though she suspected it had more to do with that drider he let live. Imoen and Xan returned within three days of the druid.

 

Within a ten-day of Jaheira's return, both the Shadow Thieves and the elves of Suldanessellar had information. They went south immediately, seeking the Grove of the Ancients at Queen Ellesime's direction.

 

Even with Minsc's tracking ability, it took four days to finally find the Grove, and they had to deal with another Bhaalspawn before they could leave. Viconia watched as the body dissolved into dust, the essence she carried drop into the earth and fall toward the pool she had seen while dying beneath Baldur's Gate. None went to the paladin, but something happened to him. He froze, his face distorted in pain, then they all felt his pain as his spirit reached out to them for strength . . .

 

Once again Covenant found himself in Hell, dragging those closest to him there with him. This time he was not unprepared and only shook his head in quiet frustration. Though she resisted the obvious paladin in Hell mockery, Imoen was not so restrained. A strange fear began growing in Viconia. She desired him, and he desired her, but his growing power and heritage were quickly taking him beyond her reach.

 

The stay was short. Only two events of note occurred. Aside from an odd imp that claimed to be the paladin's butler, and a less than helpful Solar, the only other encounter was with the shade of Sarevok.

 

The warrior had somehow become even more powerful while in Hell than he had been in life, but not near the power of the others in the party. He had knowledge, but to get it Covenant would have to bring him back to life. She knew the suffering he must have endured in death, and how the desire to escape it could change someone. The corruption of evil was still upon him, as it was upon her, but he was less desirous of power now and surprisingly open with his intentions. Covenant restored him back and allowed him to join the group. Dynaheir believed Sarevok and Covenant were twins, yet they seemed so different. When they could see him without anything to obscure his face, all doubt vanished. The only difference to be seen was how their separate paths had changed their countenances.

 

The second event was a test. A minor Bhaalspawn who had murdered and died without knowing what he was oversaw it. When it was over, she senses a wave of power wash over the paladin. Covenant stopped and looked around, his eyes focused on something beyond her view. For a few moments he straightened to his full height and his expression changed, becoming more than mortal, remote and frightening. Then a shadow fell across his eyes and he was human again. He lowered his head and fell to his knees in shame and contrite prayer before his God.

 

"His soul and body have been tested, and he passed," she heard Xan whisper. He had also seen the momentary change. "I wonder, will his spirit have the strength for this final test?"

 

"Such power can be difficult to deny, Greycloak." Her bold reply hid a knot in her stomach. "I will see he does not fail!"

 

"As powerful as we have both become, it pales before what he wields now. We are but ants by comparison."

 

"I have seen great warriors brought to their knees by a single insect under their armor, mage. I have too much invested in him. I will not lose him now."

 

"I pray you are right, Viconia," the elf replied. "He has been a good friend. To both of us."

 

Everyone returned to the main chamber, the paladin joining them half an hour later. He called a rest and after a quick meal of iron rations, everyone spread their bedrolls and lay down. The others quickly drifted off to sleep. Viconia tried, but her mind kept going back to how far they had come, and how powerful Covenant was becoming. She quietly arose and moved over to where the paladin lay resting. He, too, was awake. He sat up when he saw her approaching.

 

He motioned to her. "Pull up a piece of floor," he invited in a voice she could barely hear.

 

She sat beside him, not sure where to start. "I have been thinking about us, my m'rann d'sinss. Perhaps thinking too much. Dwelling on such things leads only to headaches and confusion, don't you agree?"

 

"Not really," he replied, shaking his head. "It's important to think some things through."

 

"Then with all you have to think about, I am surprised you do not just curl into a little ball and contemplate things for a year or so." She laughed softly. "What a pretty sight that would make, no?"

 

He laughed softly with her. "I admit there are times I'd like to crawl into a hole and pull it in behind me. The only problem is, no matter where I go I still have me along to spoil it."

 

After a few moments, they grew silent. "Since you have stopped us for now, perhaps the time has come to . . . I have . . ." She found herself struggling with her wants, her words, afraid he would reject her again. She saw in his eyes he knew what she wanted. "This love you surfacers hold so high, it's so emotional and confusing to me. The physical, at least, is an arena I feel comfortable in."

 

"Are you sure you want to, Viconia?"

 

His reply startled her. It was not the open rejection she had received with her previous advances. "What do you mean, 'am I sure'? You know that physical intimacy does not carry the emotional baggage for me as it might for you or other surfacers."

 

"That's just it, though," he replied, his words slow and thoughtful. "And you've missed so many things. Perhaps the time isn't right just yet."

 

He was making things difficult for her, and her thoughts were becoming even more jumbled. "Now you confuse me, jaluk. I am tired and I sit here willing to become intimate with you, and I know you desire to as well, yet you choose to pull away. Why?"

 

His gaze was steady and penetrating. "I think we'd be doing it for the wrong reasons."

 

"Wrong reasons? What reasons do we need?" She was feeling a little angry, realizing he had turned her question back on her. What was he looking for? "Very well, I will not argue with you, wael, even if I do not fully understand. If I did not know you better, I would swear you were more fickle than an over-pampered housecat. I do have . . . one question that I would desire an answer to. Why do you continue to pursue me? I am a Drow. I have treated you poorly and am unfamiliar with your ways. Yet you continue to claim interest in me despite the fact that I am no creature to love."

 

The hardness on Covenant's face softened, and his eyes took on a strange glow. "I'm not in love with a Drow, Viconia. I'm in love with *you*."

 

She found her heart race as she looked at him, heard his words, and her mind became even more confused. How could he love her? Best not to think too hard on it, she thought to herself. "An interesting answer, jaluk. You are full of them, it seems. Sleep alone then, as it seems you desire to. I swear I shall never understand you."

 

She returned to her bedroll, and though her mind was still struggling to find some understanding of the paladin she quickly fell asleep.

 

After resting, they left what Imoen nicknamed Covenant's Retreat. This time there was no pain in the planar transition. The paladin had gained enough power from the test to now move them on his own.

 

They went from one Hell to another, finding themselves in a city under siege. The guards were not pleased with their sudden arrival and fell quickly. Covenant was then confronted by a woman, Melissan, who first chastised them, then suggested they might help the city. Viconia was only too familiar with deceit, and immediately sensed it in this stranger. Covenant responded courteously to Melissan's idea, but with a reserve that told her the paladin was of the same mind. Their second encounter with her, after dealing with another of Covenant's insane relatives, only added to her distrust.

 

Even before dealing with Gromnir, Covenant had gone through the city doing his usual good deeds. She still did not understand why he insisted on helping the weak as he did, but willingly followed his lead. His way often gained items or information much quicker than any methods she would have employed. So it was with the mage Lazarus. They returned to his shop after Gromnir's death. Imoen and Xan had opportunity to purchase spells from him, and he and Covenant had a long discussion.

 

When they returned to Covenant's Retreat, Viconia looked around at the walls protecting them, then up at the strange sky above. No sun, no moon, no stars, but it gave a strange bluish light, and in the sky she could see the chaos of this plane striving to enter this pocket of order, kept at bay only by Covenant's will. She thought she had at least one reason for his refusal to bed her. She had provoked him so these last months, now those sexual energies he had restrained were being drawn upon to maintain this place of shelter. Shar's command returned to her, and she began to understand it was not to keep the paladin human, but to stop him becoming the true heir to Bhaal's power.

 

Everyone quietly contemplated the current situation. Viconia knew Imoen, Minsc and Xan would be considering the plight of the people of Saradush. Sarevok was working out how he could leverage this to reclaim some of his lost power. She found herself wondering about the new adversaries they were facing. A person could easily be measured by the enemies they acquired, and by that standard Covenant had become a powerful man indeed. She had no doubt the enemies ahead would fall before him. She also knew it was a role he did not relish.

 

She watched him quietly slip out of the main chamber to where he faced the test. No one noticed. She waited for a few minutes and followed, careful not to be seen. She found the paladin sitting against the wall just inside. He noticed her and motioned her to sit with him.

 

"And what great thing now troubles my godling?" she asked sarcastically as she sat beside him.

 

"Please, don't call me that. Great Warrior. Lord Jackass is fine. Just not . . ." His voice faded and his gaze moved to the center of the chamber.

 

"You puzzle me, Covenant. A paladin does not associate with evil, yet you took me in and protected me. And you act as if becoming a god is something to be hated. I agree with your brother. You should grab that power, use it as you see fit. It's your heritage, your birthright, and your prize for all you've been through. You could destroy all your enemies with impunity!"

 

He remained silent for a few moments, and she wondered if he would respond. "I have thought long and hard about that. Yes, it's my heritage and birthright. I could make all my mortal enemies cower before me in terror. I could be a great force for good in this broken world. Or would I?"

 

She looked at him. "What do you mean? I've seen you grow into a mighty warrior. You overcame the Wolf and the Slayer. You have beaten the blood of your father."

 

Covenant shook his head. "You don't . . . you *can't* understand. What it's like to have known nothing but the pull of heritage or blood. Or of power always trying to dominate you. I have to face the possibility this is another of Bhaal's plans to return to the realms of the living. And what of the gods themselves?"

 

"You're right. Lord Jackass is a better title. You sound like a child afraid of his own shadow," she ridiculed him. An idea took form, a possible answer to her dilemma. "You control such great power, while merely mortal. If you become a god, you will be changed and be able to control even greater power. And I could help you until you are comfortable with it."

 

"And you would make sure I was never comfortable with it." He laughed softly with a strange joy. "Ever the Drow. The female must be in command of her male. If only it were that simple."

 

"I fail to understand what you find so humorous. I'm serious! I brought you back from madness beneath Baldur's Gate, and kept you from madness after Irenicus stole your soul."

 

The paladin laughed a few moments longer before answering. He looked at her. "You played for a chance at power. If I ascend, maybe you can get me to take you with me. Yet you knew I would see through your words. But you had to try because you are Drow. You're as trapped as I am, in your own way."

 

His words struck deep, and she did not like the way this was going. "Explain yourself, jaluk!"

 

His gaze returned to the center of the chamber. "You were born and raised in Darkness. It's all you knew. It has become a part of you, and you act accordingly. It's what traps you. I was born with the Darkness in me. It's all I've known. I have had to resist it to the point where I know nothing else. I am just as trapped. Why don't I act as other paladins? Who am I to condemn you when I carry a greater condemnation? You asked two questions when you first came in. I think that answers the first."

 

She paused a moment in thought. "Perhaps you're right. We do understand Darkness as few others, and we know what it is to be outcasts. Still, the fear of your growing power doesn't explain your rejection of godhood. Everyone wants to be a god but you, it seems."

 

"Have you studied the gods? I mean, really looked at them? Not just their portfolios and doctrines and dogmas, but their lives and conduct? They have appetites and needs that their worshipers satisfy. They lust after each other, they fight against each other, they grasp and struggle for ever more power. They are more interested in their own status and position than helping their mortal followers. Even after the Time of Troubles they haven't changed. And sooner or later even gods perish."

 

Covenant rose to his feet and moved out into the room. He slowly looked about him, then at his own hands. "Think about it. Should I become a god, I could make my mortal enemies cower before me." He clenched his fist as if crushing an insect. After a moment he opened it, palm up, and looked at her. "But I would gain new enemies of equal or greater power than I. I would inevitably be drawn into their constant struggles for power, and I would require the power gained from the worship of my followers. I lose as much as I gain, perhaps more because I would lose my compassion in the trade. In the end, they are no different than you or I. They are nothing but mortals made larger than life." He paused and shook his head. "Of course, this argument assumes this fight for the Throne is not another ploy of Bhaal to return. In the first case, I become no different than the rest of the gods. In the latter case, I may lose my very self. I don't like those choices."

 

"You care so little for power? I swear I will never understand you. Or your god. Certainly he requires the worship of his followers to continue."

 

The paladin returned and sat beside her again. "You see power as something outside yourself, something to be grasped for, and taken by force. A god takes power from his worshipers, he needs that power to stay a god, but if his followers stop worshiping him, he stops being a god. Remember the avatar of Amaunator? What good is power if you're a slave to it?" His expression changed, and he almost glowed with a quiet joy. "My God showed me a different way. I know what it is to be lost and condemned and without hope. He redeemed me, He sustains me, so I worship Him. He doesn't need my worship, I need to worship Him. And so I love Him. He's beyond the gods of this world, He stands outside their circle of power. And I don't want to lose my relationship with Him."

 

"Are you trying to convert me, Covenant?" Her voice was tinged with criticism. She knew he was not, but his words cut deep into her heart. He showed such peace as he spoke of his god, something she had never known as a cleric. "I am in service to Shar. That will not change."

 

He blushed slightly as a child would who it caught doing something wrong. "I didn't mean to, but if it seemed that way . . . I said before, the gods of Darkness charge a high price for their services. When you find that price too high, He won't turn you away."

 

"You just don't know when to quit, paladin!" She was beginning to get angry now.

 

He raised his hands and hung his head in mock surrender. "It was just an idea. What can I say? I'm a bad boy!"

 

Viconia gave a snort of disdain. "Is that what you call healing the sick, protecting the weak, and sending corrupt knights to their death by asking them questions?"

 

His face flushed at her words. "I'm not proud of how I handled the knights at Watcher's Keep. I had given my word to that demon, but I had a way around it. All they had to do was to ask if we had killed him. Instead, in their guilt and shame, they assumed we had done as they would have. Proud fools. And I was no better."

 

"You condemn yourself over such a small thing? They were cowards! They deserved their fate!"

 

"You misunderstand. I knew how they would answer, and I was glad they went in. I was a child again in Candlekeep. I had thought myself beyond that." He raised his head and looked at her again, his eyes haunted. "I have never told you of my childhood, have I? There are things I had forgotten, things I did not want to remember. Gorion me well about good and evil. But still the blood of my father had its hold on me, even before the wolves. Did you never wonder why Ulrant had such harsh words for me after our arrest? He has a scar running the length of his forearm. I gave it to him when I was four. Imoen arrived two years later. She has some scars as well. I think part of me knew she was my sister, so I tried to kill her. Several times. I think she's forgotten that time, but her pranks remember. I remember."

 

"An interesting revelation, paladin. There's a side to you any Drow could respect. So how did she survive?"

 

"How do you think she got so good at dealing with locks and traps? Or hiding in shadows? I'd be good for two or three ten-days, then the Darkness would take me for a few hours. In that first year she turned her need to survive into a game. Such was the chaos of our lives then, and the malleability of a child's spirit. What *are* you doing?"

 

As he spoke Viconia had taken his head in her hands and began turning it as a mother inspecting her child after washing up. She let him go with a shrug and leaned back against the wall again. "You sound so like a Drow, I just had to make sure you weren't one in disguise. I guess that explains why she hasn't played any of her pranks since we rescued her. So, how did you manage to stay in that scholar's hole? Even you humans have limits."

 

"Tethtoril. Or rather a stranger he brought into the Keep. He called himself Sojourner. He said his name told everyone this world was not his own. He looked like an Uthgart to me, though he often suggested he was from another Prime Material Plane. Tethtoril called him a sage. He seemed to understand me in a way no one else did, and he had a peace about him that calmed the Madness when it came. He'd tell me stories that made me want to resist the Darkness. He was a priest in his own way, though I never saw him use any divine power. He showed me what holiness was, and made me aware of the profane. He taught me about mercy and grace and redemption in a way no words could."

 

"You were indeed blessed by your god to have such strength and wisdom around you. I presume this Sojourner was a follower of your god?"

 

Covenant nodded silently. He raised his arm and put it around her shoulders and drew her to him, though his eyes were focused on something beyond sight. "If not for the sustaining power of my God, I would long ago have become as Sarevok, or worse."

 

They sat quietly as time passed, his arm across her shoulders in a gentle embrace. She slowly relaxed and leaned into his warm body. "You owe me, paladin. And when this is over I expect payment."

 

"And that would be . . . ?" he asked innocently.

 

"I *will* have you in my bed, as you promised."

 

"I did? I did, didn't I! And in front of all those witnesses!" His voice was full of feigned shock and horror. "I guess I'll just have to take you as my wife!"

 

She winced at the idea. To surrender her freedom in such a union was both pleasing and terrifying to consider. "I don't think I'm ready for that."

 

"Have we ever been ready for anything that came before us? I must admit it scares me, too. But I think somehow that is the right choice. For both of us."

 

Viconia remained silent a few moments, considering such a union, and Jaheira's words returned to her. What could they really have, she from Darkness, he from Light?

 

"I have been . . . mulling over something. You . . . have the blood of your sire, Bhaal, running in your veins. You told me once that he was the god of murder in your pantheon before he perished, correct?" Covenant nodded. "It is equally obvious that the power of this Bhaal is becoming greater within you. I wonder, what is it you feel . . . when you kill? Does it feel good?"

 

He shook his head. "No. I kill because I have to, and nothing will ever change that."

 

"So you hear the call within your heart, telling you that the kill is pleasing." She had been watching him since they fought Bassillus, and she knew this to be true. He remained silent, but she saw the acceptance of this fact. "But of course you would have the power to deny it, you being Covenant and all. I have thought about all those I have killed, and I do not think I have ever felt remorse for any of them. Why should I? They deserved what they received, they were in my way, or they were simply weak." All this was true, and he knew this was the way she saw it. Yet she felt a need to tell him openly, but once started her words kept coming.

 

Was it an attempt to justify her life, or a need for an explanation that asked the question? "Only once has the lure of my blood ever failed me, and it puzzles me still to this day. The . . . human child that I refused to sacrifice to Lolth's gluttony. The one I spared, losing me in the Spider Queen's sight forever. That one still confuses me, Covenant. Where was my Drow ruthlessness, then? Was I simply weak, and that is why I am here now?"

 

His voice was quiet and thoughtful. "I don't think you were weak. I think, even in your Darkness, you began to see the weakness of evil, that evil for its own sake is not an accomplishment, Viconia."

 

There was no condemnation in his words, though she expected such. It made her realize how little she had actually done that meant anything. "An . . . enlightened viewpoint. I am not sure I share it. All things fade with time, and are forgotten, but . . . perhaps it is time I give the matter some thought. You spoke long with that Lazarus. Did he know something about your quest? About an object of power to befuddle even a god?"

 

Covenant laughed softly. "I have you. What else do I need?" She must have stiffened slightly in anger at his flippant response because he gave her a loving squeeze. "I may have. Why?"

 

"You have spoken little about it. You say it's insurance against your divine blood. That is not entirely true, is it?"

 

He nodded. "I have a promise to a drider to fulfill."

 

"Why? Those creatures earned Lolth's wrath. As far as you know he could be part of a trap She is setting!" Driders were the epitome of chaos and corruption, the Spider Queen's most useful tools. She knew of none living more than four decades.

 

"I know. But that isn't the real problem, is it? Why do you judge yourself so harshly about Valas? And he *is* at the heart of your argument, isn't he? You did what you needed to, as did he. He knew what he was doing, and did so willingly."

 

She tried to pull away from him, surprised as he expressed what she had so long denied. Anger masked the guilt she felt as she snapped, "It was my actions that put him in that position, and he suffered for it! It should have been me!"

 

"But it wasn't." The paladin's voice was soft and calm and a little sad. His grip, though gentle, held her firmly against him. "He became a drider. You became an outcast. I became the best hope for keeping the God of Murder dead. We didn't ask for what we have. Heaven knows I don't want my burden. But that's the way things are." Covenant smiled impishly. "And I know your brother would not have quite the sway on me."

 

She had an image of Valas making a pass at the paladin, and the less than friendly response. Just how far could Covenant throw an adult male Drow in full armor? The image if her brother sailing through the air like a javelin made her smile, and her anger moderated. She relaxed in his embrace. "You make it sound so simple."

 

"But not easy. We have survived while others have not. Gorion, Valas, Yoshimo. It falls to us to continue, and to honor their memory. And maybe put the gods on notice even they have limits."

 

"And so you seek something that can undo what they have done. You have certainly chosen a quest worthy of a god." She saw his face redden with embarrassment. She cut him off before he could reply. "Once I would have thought your blush was weakness. Now it tells me you have not yet lost touch with your mortality."

 

He nodded as his face returned to its normal color. "Thank you. You have no idea what that means to me. I find myself with growing powers, and it becomes harder to tell which are from my God, and which are Bhaal's. And I fear I may follow the wrong one and lose myself and my God's grace."

 

"Yet you choose to pursue something that brings you closer to being a god yourself. Why?"

 

"Because someone asked for my help. I would like to think it was your brother."

 

"It has been a hundred years since he . . . I'm certain he died long ago. Driders do not live long. Yet with you I find myself foolishly hoping."

 

"He gave no name, so I can't say it's your brother. I'd like to think is was. And hope is never foolish. It's what allows us to continue to fight and live when all else fails. But there's more to this quest than just freeing a drider from his curse. And like you, I only have one small hope right now. I've prayed about this since we parted in Baldur's Gate. My God gave me a vision before we left Athkatla to keep me moving, about something called an Oath Stone . . ."

 

"And so you hang your hopes on a vision." She shook her head slowly. "Have you found something about this Oath Stone?"

 

Covenant nodded. "Imoen found a reference in an ancient legend from Netheril. Xan found another in the lore of his people, from before they came to Faerun. Both references are in pacts made between gods. The Stone itself is not used, but they call upon it to judge between them should it be violated. Just the threat of its power was enough to keep the. According to the legends."

 

"So that mage in Saradush must have had something of interest, I presume."

 

"Lazarus has heard of it. He knows someone who claims to have seen it. I just have to get to Sigil to find him."

 

Viconia had to think a few moments before she remembered. "I have heard of that place. It is called the City of Doors. It is said you can find a Gate to any Plane of existence there. It is also a very dangerous place. I'm sure Xan or Imoen could get us there. But what happens if you do find it? You grow more powerful each day . . ."

 

"I know. And it terrifies me, too. So I fix my eyes on the work at hand. Sigil will wait. The relief of Saradush is the more pressing matter."

 

They sat together in silence, and somewhere along the way they drifted off to sleep.

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Part 10

 

"Ahhh, I had forgotten such scenes of carnage!"

 

Viconia looked about her in the early dawn light. Yaga-Shura lay dead at Covenant's feet, his body crumbling to dust, his personal guard slain with him. And with their death the army had fled the field. Across the river was the smoking ruin of the city of Saradush. The smell of fire and blood and death permeated the air. The city had fallen. No doubt the Bhaalspawn inside were all slain, but to see this raw display of power, to have survived such an imposing force as they had, brought a thrill to her. Especially after falling prey to that Shade Lord's illusion.

 

She turned to face the paladin. "And to know that such destruction has been wrought by one who solely sought to seek you out is a glorious tribute to your power! Think of it, Covenant . . . a whole town of rivven destroyed simply to get to you!" She laughed coldly. "If anything spoke of your destiny as a being to be feared, this is it! By Shar, you must seek an unholy vengeance for this! You must strike all your enemies so that your name will be shouted across the Realms! Your destiny has arrived!"

 

She was shocked to see a flash of anger cross his face. It was quickly suppressed, and his voice was slow but hard. "That's not my intention at all."

 

"I fail to understand. Why? Does this not please you?"

 

He shook his head. "All this killing is wrong, Viconia. And the fact it's happening because of me is worse!"

 

She felt confused, and was again reminded of the gulf between them. "Perhaps I misunderstood your godly heritage. I thought it would please you to celebrate this victory . . ."

 

This time he did not hide his anger, and he waved his hand across the area between them and the city. "Look around you, Viconia! Does this look like a victory to you?!"

 

His anger did not bother her. She actually enjoyed seeing it. It showed spirit and virility. What bothered her was that he believed her wrong. She looked across the field once again, across where he had motioned. She could see nothing moving except crows and other carrion eating fowl. "I do not see ugliness where you do, Covenant. But I will . . . try to, if that will make you happy. Let us go, then, and leave this place behind."

 

"No." His voice grew soft as he walked over to the body of a woman slain fleeing the city, and gently picked her up. "Minsc, Sarevok, start collecting the bodies of the dead from the city. Viconia, Imoen, Xan, collect all the wood you can and stack it in the Saradush plaza. They didn't ask for this war. We didn't save them. But I'll not leave them to the beasts. Let Yaga-Shura's army remain where they fell."

 

"What purpose will that serve, brother?" Sarevok let his disdain for this duty show. "They're nothing but empty shells. There are greater enemies to defeat, and you have a Throne to claim!"

 

"You have your orders, *brother*," the paladin responded coldly, eyes locking with Sarevok's. He then raised his voice and added, "Send any survivors you find back to the city. If they're too injured to move, get Minsc, Viconia or myself. We'll heal them enough to make them mobile."

 

Viconia could see the anger seething in Sarevok's eyes as Covenant turned and began carrying the body back to the city. She walked over to the warrior. "You lost this round, though it was a good try."

 

"What do you know of it, Drow," he growled at her.

 

She smiled coldly, unimpressed with his posturing. "We are very much alike. We want to be in control. I'd have been disappointed had you not tried to gain it. I'm glad to see the torments of Hell have not cooled the fire in your belly. It makes you more . . . interesting."

 

"You know nothing of the torments I suffered, elf."

 

Viconia's eyes narrowed as she stared into his. "You were not the only one to die in that temple." She paused a moment for him to understand her meaning. "I know the endless burning, the hopelessness, the despair. I have no desire to return there. Do you? He knows his destiny, jaluk, and what he is doing. We both owe him our lives. Now do as he commands. You might learn something."

 

There were few survivors. The Temple of Waukeen remained relatively undamaged, though the interior had been defiled. The survivors could find shelter and protection there. When they saw what Covenant planned, those who had returned began helping. They cast the bodies of Yaga-Shura's soldiers out of the city, then dismantled the engines of war and placed the wood in the city square. The bodies of the dead of the city were then placed upon the wood. As the sun set, the priestess of Waukeen, supported by Lazarus, set the wood ablaze as the survivors watched. Her missing right leg was only the most visible of the many wounds she had received defending those within the Temple.

 

Covenant and his party stood a discrete distance away from the people and their pyre. Sister Farielle motioned Lazarus toward them. The cleric moved directly before the paladin, looking at him firmly.

 

"Do not hold yourself responsible for this, Child of Bhaal. Such are the fortunes of war. You have saved a remnant, and have honored the fallen. By your actions you kept us from being lost in our sorrow. Now other survivors will find their way back here, and the city will recover. For this you have our thanks. I regret that is all we can give you. Farewell, and may Waukeen grant you success in your venture. Help me back to the Temple, Lazarus. I am tired and there's so much we need to do."

 

"One moment, my friend," he replied to the priestess. He looked closely at Covenant. "Against your nature you returned to aid us. You could have left with the scattering of our attackers, but you remained. The God we both serve told me to watch for the Son of Murder who honors the dead. If you gain the Stone, I will have something for you when we next meet. And we will meet again, this I know. Until then I, too, will pray for your success and protection. Farewell."

 

As the two began moving away toward the Temple, Viconia looked around her once more. Does this look like victory to you? Covenant had asked. Where were the cries of victory, the celebration, the parade of slaves, the blood sacrifices?

 

He had failed the city. They had failed the city. Slaves could at least be put to work rebuilding the walls, but now the idea of sacrificing any slave to any god for any victory felt . . . wasteful.

 

The city faded around them, replaced a moment later by the walls of Covenant's Retreat. Another challenge awaited them in another side chamber. Their mirror opposites quickly fell before them, and when their bodies faded and the chamber changed under Covenant's will, Viconia sensed another surge of power flow through him. The paladin stood immobile and tense, jaw clenched, eyes tightly closed against something she could not see. After a few moments he opened his eyes and looked around. Then, as he had after the previous test, he closed his eyes, bowed his head and sank to his knees in prayer.

 

She saw Xan by the opening to the main chamber, motioning her to leave Covenant alone. Whatever new power he had gained she would find out in time. For now, he needed some time alone with his God. She moved across the main chamber to the exit arch and her gear.

 

"You were right," came the deep voice of Sarevok from behind her. There was a tone in his voice she could not quite define, but made her cautious. "Watching my brother is proving instructional."

 

"In what way?"

 

"When I sought the power of my sire, I thought it could only be gained through terror and blood."

 

She looked at him calmly. "That madness seems to be an inherited trait. You failed, as have all the other Bhaalspawn we have encountered."

 

He smiled, realizing she was baiting him. "Did you notice the eyes of those fools in Saradush? I thought not."

 

"I did," Xan interrupted from the side. "Please explain yourself. I wish to know if we agree."

 

Sarevok was sightly startled by his openness, and a little angry at the intrusion. "The awe and respect they gave him borders on worship. They were ready to make him a god!"

 

"I saw it. And as many," the mage added, "were ready to kill him. He did not allow them either chance."

 

"Only because he did not remain. They will worship him as a god. It's just a matter of time. And without the bloodshed I thought necessary, he will ascend with more worshipers than my methods would have allowed."

 

The warrior's words made Viconia think, and she cursed herself. She had not been paying the attention as she should have, and this parasite had observed what she had ignored. "Even so, he does not wish their worship, nor does he desire the deity you failed to achieve."

 

"Do you think he will have a choice in this matter?" Sarevok asked harshly. "I know the power of the divine blood coursing through him. It will have far more say in what he does than you know."

 

Her eyes narrowed. "And it is my task to see it does not win."

 

Sarevok laughed coldly, bowing in mocking imitation of Covenant. "By all means, you are welcome to try. Just remember," and his voice turned icy, "this little contest was set up by the gods themselves." He turned and walked away.

 

He was barely ten feet away when water fell from nowhere and drenched him. His demeanor changed immediately to bloodthirsty anger, he drew his great sword and spun to face Xan, who immediately threw his open hands up in innocence.

 

"You're such a wet blanket, Sari," came Imoen's mischievous voice. "Figured you may as well look the part."

 

"Show yourself, imp," the warrior snapped, "and I'll turn you into carrion!"

 

"Ooooh, is that a dare? This could be fun." Six laughing images of her appeared around the chamber. "Take your pick, but beware . . . "

 

Before she could finish, Sarevok had brought his sword down on the closest Imoen to him. He was enveloped in a purple mist, and the scent of grapes filled the area.

 

"You are such a winer!" she taunted. Xan groaned at the pun, and Minsc laughed. "As I was saying, strike an image and you get a surprise."

 

Everyone moved to the walls, leaving the warrior and the images alone in the middle. Viconia had to give Imoen credit. This was a prank beyond anything every tried on Covenant. And Sarevok had been provoked so easily.

 

He drove his sword into another image. It dissipated, replaced with a large log carved with a cartoonish likeness of his face.

 

"Blockhead," the four remaining images mocked as Sarevok's great sword was pulled down to the floor by the weight of the log. By now he was in a rage even Minsc watched with interest.

 

Sarevok pulled his sword free and leapt at the next image, dropping low and swinging at the legs. The image was replaced with a huge fish, the tail slapping him twice across the face before it fell to the floor. "I hooked a big one!" Imoen laughed.

 

There was fire in his eyes still as he stood up, sword hanging loose at his side. His rage was replaced with a wicked smile. "I yield the floor to the mistress of absurd magics," he bowed with a cold laugh.

 

"A wise move," Covenant stated, standing in the entrance to the second side chamber. "That's enough, Imoen. It's good to see you've returned to your old self, and with such style, too! But I advise against using our father's power so frivolously. It carries a high price, one you may not be able to pay."

 

The three remaining images in unison turned and stuck their tongues out at the paladin. "Spoil sport! And the best was yet to come!" The images vanished as Imoen appeared near Cespanar and Minsc. "Watch yourself, big brother. I still have three unused tricks, and I went to a lot of effort to prepare them."

 

The paladin grinned and bowed to her. "Then I shall be careful."

 

An image of Imoen appeared immediately behind him. "Oh, really?" it asked, then leapt on him and the paladin was engulfed in a thick green cloud.

 

When it dissipated Xan's mouth hung open in silent shock. Minsc turned immediately and began berating Imoen for being such a bad girl. Sarevok doubled over in laughter.

 

Covenant looked at his hands, then at Viconia. "Is there anything else I should be . . . aware of? Extra appendages? Wings? A tail perhaps?"

 

"I *knew* I missed something," Imoen muttered just loud enough for Viconia to hear.

 

She shook her head, stifling her laughter, then walked up to Covenant. Her face became serious as she began walking around him, examining him, her voice flat as she began calling out her observations so everyone could hear. "Sapphire blue skin. Ebony black finger nails. Fiery orange hair. Silver-grey feline eyes." She grabbed his lower lip and pulled it down hard enough to make the paladin wince. "And leaf green canine teeth. You have outdone yourself with your extreme and clashing use of colors, Imoen. I see being a mage has only given you another way to make others miserable with your frivolous pranks. This is not permanent, I trust?"

 

"Why, thank you, Vicci," Imoen replied cheerily. "I'm glad you like it. And, no, he should return to normal in a day or so."

 

"Don't think yourself safe, girl," Sarevok softly growled at Imoen. His eyes were still cold and calculating, but he was still grinning broadly. "I will pay you back for my humiliation."

 

Imoen returned his stare, grinning devilishly. "I still have two more to go, Sari. I can always send them your way."

 

Cespanar looked from the warrior to the mage and quickly made his way to a far corner of the chamber.

 

"Don't worry, wench. I won't kill you. I'll only hurt you a little. Seeing our leader in his current . . . state has been far too entertaining." He grabbed the fish and tossed it to her. "This is yours, I believe. We're all getting hungry."

 

Her mouth opened in resistance, but Covenant cut her off. "It's your mess, Immy. You can clean it up. And there's a large log here you can use for the fire. Don't argue. After all, this is . . ." he paused, then added with his own impish smile as he turned her own words back on her, "*Covenant's* Retreat."

 

The trip to, and through, Sigil was uneventful. Viconia did not like the feel of the place, however. It was not because of its antiquity, which Xan all too quickly noted. It was not the strange architecture that filled the city. She had seen similar in Menzobarranzan. Nor was it the mix of races from all planes that walked the streets together, some natural enemies. Together it was disquieting enough, but it was the feeling of an imposed balance that seemed to dominate everything, and burdened the spirit and mind of everyone in the party. It was well known the Lady of Pain enforced Neutrality with a harsh hand. It was a relief to pass through the portal Covenant sought.

 

The landscape they found was barren and lifeless, with nothing but rock outcroppings blasted by sand that moved in a constant strong wind. Any exposed skin quickly became numb from chill and abrasion. Two large full moons hung in the firmament that had more stars than any had ever seen, and they filled the land with a pale blue light. This was a dead world. They could all feel it. No one spoke. No one dared. In the distance could be seen the ruins of a small Keep and they began walking toward it.

 

It took nearly six hours to reach the structure, and the moons were setting by then. A red glow on the horizon told of the approaching day. The Keep was far larger than they had expected from a distance, meant for beings the size of Yaga-Shura. The architecture was easily mistaken for ruins at a distance, but it was no ruin. The walls had no joint or seam visible, looking as if carved from a single piece of stone. Whatever magics were used in the construction of its black walls also protected it from the ravages of the elements. Not a scratch or pit could be seen on its glassy surface. Even the Gate was made of the same material. It took all the strength Covenant could manage to open the Gate enough for entry, and Sarevok's help to close. They went to the main building and entered.

 

As Covenant closed the door, Xan cast a Light spell, becoming the first to speak in this foreboding land. Only Xan and Viconia could see in the dark so she did not disagree with his action, but somehow the light seemed harsher and brighter than normal. She glanced at the mage and saw he noticed it too.

 

The foyer was barren but for several hooks on the walls. A single fabric bag hung from one of them, another was on the floor near the arch into the main building where it had fallen when its strap broke.

 

"Touch nothing," Covenant warned as Imoen and Sarevok moved toward the fallen bag. "Disturb nothing. The Power that slew this world sleeps only. Our presence disturbs its slumber. Awaken it, and we all perish."

 

"I must rest," Viconia groaned in exhaustion as she began removing her armor. The sand had gotten into her clothing and had begun to chafe badly. Some healing would no doubt be required on everyone.

 

The paladin nodded. "We stay in this chamber until everyone is rested. Viconia, use potions for anyone who needs healing. Shar has no reach here. Your healing powers will be limited to what you now have."

 

Startled at his command, she began praying to her god and found only silence. "How can this be?! She is the most ancient and powerful of the gods!"

 

"Your overstatement aside," Xan replied, "if this Oath Stone is real it must be both hidden and guarded against even the gods. Imagine the chaos and destruction such an Artifact could create in such hands. Covenant, it has become a forgotten legend. Is it wise to revive it?"

 

The paladin shook his head. "Honestly? I don't know. But if it's real, and it's here . . ."

 

At the mention of the Stone, Boo began chittering rapidly to Minsc. Imoen and Sarevok turned toward him with curiosity in their eyes. Clearly they had no idea what the purpose of this trip was.

 

"Boo has heard of this object and he agrees with Xan. It is dangerous. He says it destroys all who use it."

 

"Boo?" Covenant looked at the hamster. "If I ever learn to understand you, we have got to talk."

 

The rodent returned his gaze and began chattering. "Boo would like that very much." Minsc smiled and added energetically and simply as only he could, "Boo is so much smarter than Minsc, he would be happy to talk with you! And what makes Boo happy makes Minsc happy!"

 

"If it exists?" Sarevok wondered. "So this may be a fools quest?"

 

The paladin looked around, catching the eye of each in the room. "You all know I have no love for the gods. They have done nothing but cause me grief. And you, by being drawn into my struggle, have become as much their puppets as I. You, Sarevok, know this better than the rest. The Oath Stone is older that the most ancient of gods, and is supposed to be able to bind even their will. I have a promise to a drider to fulfill. If we find it, I will meet with Lolth. And the gods will be reminded they are not the only Power to exist."

 

"For someone who doesn't want to become a one," his brother sarcastically added, "you act like a god."

 

"You think you know the power of our sire's blood?" Covenant stared at him. "Be glad it no longer holds you, because it burns ever stronger now this little game of the gods draws to a close. I hold my will by the smallest threads. I know more of this Artifact than all but the most knowledgeable sages. I seek it because its power is a double edged sword."

 

Sarevok thought a moment. "I will be curious to see how you wield it."

 

"So will I. Get some rest, people. Minsc, Imoen, you take the watch in four hours." He looked at his brother. "We should talk."

 

They took a quick meal and drank sparingly of the water they had. Imoen and Minsc were quickly asleep. Xan rested but guardedly. Viconia found her mind too active to rest, so listened and watched as the two warriors talk.

 

She expected Covenant to give his brother a chastising, or try to sway him to follow the path of good. Instead he asked about the warrior with an honest interest, about the events that had shaped him, the people he had taken around him and why. Slowly Sarevok relaxed and began opening up to his brother, talking about his desires and dreams. Though he still dreamed of power and greatness, like her the warrior was now looking for something more that seemed just beyond his reach and understanding. When the conversation turned to Tamoko, his voice became soft and regretful.

 

"I suppose she's dead, as are the rest of my minions, fallen before your wrath."

 

Covenant laughed softly. "You misjudge me, and her. My fight was with you, not her. I destroyed your works, I fought to survive, but it was without anger."

 

"So she did confront you, then. And you let her live?" Sarevok seemed cynical.

 

"I did. Honor and duty compelled her. Don't hold her betrayed against her. She believed Cythandria had misled you, and wanted you back. She didn't understand our blood until we met before the doors of that temple."

 

"It would have been kinder had you slain her." His voice was both angry and sad. "You left her no choice but to take her own life."

 

The paladin did not respond immediately, and when he did he was slow and thoughtful. "Somehow I don't think she would. She knew you had gone beyond her reach long before our meeting and I couldn't kill her simply for loving a madman. She of all your cohorts had not fallen into the darkness that drove you, and in that she retained her honor. I would like to think she's still alive, perhaps returned to Kara-Tur. When this is all over, perhaps we can find her. Together."

 

"You would do that for me? Why?"

 

"It's clear you love her, and she loved you." Covenant laughed softly again. "Think of it as sticking my finger in the eye of the gods, if you must. But there's been enough suffering because of us."

 

After a time Sarevok again spoke. “I am surprised. You make your offer of help, but from your constant wary glances it seems that you do not trust my presence, yet.â€Â

 

“That's not true. I trust you." Covenant smiled at his brother. "It's your spontaneity that concerns me.â€Â

 

The warrior was startled though it was barely noticeable in his voice. The paladin had seen the true question. “You have grown in power, so I don't expect you to fear me as you once did. But I do expect the lack of trust, the suspicion that I might betray you. If I were you, I would feel so." His face was expressionless, but his eyes revealed his curiosity.

 

"You aren't me" the paladin's voice was strangely gentle. "I was given a different path to walk, a different life to live, though we are alike in many ways. Remember our battle?"

 

"I remember. That was glorious!" He almost laughed as he remembered. "I was the stronger, but you were the better leader. And when we fought . . . That is why it eats away at me. Why you would agree to take me with you without some form of compliance. I told you that oaths had real power in our father's realm.â€Â

 

"I know too well what such can do. Oath or Geas, I'll not have anyone with me labor under such a burden. Distrust and suspicion are forms of fear, and I can't afford either if I'm to succeed. You're here on your own recognizance. Screw it up and you can always die again. Neither of us want that, I think.â€Â

 

Sarevok's words faltered slightly. “So you . . . allow me to make my own destiny by your side, trusting I will not betray you. Why? Vengeance aside, why would I not do so, if I thought I could gain advantage?â€Â

 

Covenant shook his head. He put his hand on his brother's shoulder as a comrade in arms. “You might. But everyone gets a second chance, Sarevok. Even you.â€Â

 

Viconia smiled. He had forced his brother to think beyond his own view, and it was not something he was comfortable with. “An . . . interesting view, Covenant. Perhaps it shall be your downfall. I shall have to think on it.â€Â

 

The two returned to silence, and in that silence Viconia finally was able to still her mind and rest.

 

When they began moving deeper into the Main Hall, they found there was light entering through sections of the walls that were almost transparent. Though there was a bright sun outside, they walked in a twilight. All the furnishings were made of the same material as the Keep, and scattered about were items of previous adventurers who had somehow gained entrance here. Armor, clothing, weapons; all pitted and decayed with age. Nowhere was there evidence of the adventurers themselves. Many of the piles looked as if the owner had simply vanished from inside their possessions. From room to room it was the same. Yet there was no cover of dust, and everywhere there was an oppressive silence that seemed to absorb the very sounds they made.

 

They found a pair of spiral stairs, one descending and one ascending into darkness. For the first time there was some movement of air. The stench of rotting flesh came on a draft from below. Sarevok moved to descend but was held by Covenant. The paladin began climbing the steps into the darkness. Once again Xan cast a Light spell.

 

"Seldarine!" he groaned as everyone covered their eyes. After a few moments they were able to open them, but they had to squint against the brightness. "The Weave is so strong here! I dare not cast anything more!"

 

Imoen nodded agreement. "It looks like you'll have to do without our help if it comes to a fight, Cov."

 

"Good," he responded. "A fight is the last thing I want to get into here."

 

Xan had the sphere follow them up the remaining steps and into a large room. They could not be sure if it was a treasury or an Audience Chamber. At the far end was a dais with a throne. Stacked neatly on tables along one wall were thousands of coins of gold, platinum and mithril, with bars of the same metals under them. Next to the tables were open chests full of jewelry or gems or rings. Along the opposite wall were racks of weapons and armors, shelves with wands and staves and scrolls, and tables with other assorted items, all powerfully magical.

 

Viconia's eyes fell on a robe, a clerical vestment her mind recognized from her days as an Initiate. It was deep blue, almost black, with red edging around the sleeve openings and bottom and brown around the head opening. It had been given by Lolth herself to one of the greatest High Priestesses of Drow history. While she wore it she had been nigh invulnerable to magic, poison and weapon, and her prayers were increased in power. With it, she realized, she could stand beside Covenant in the most violent battles, and all their enemies would be as dust before them.

 

"Touch nothing!" Covenant's voice commanded.

 

Everyone stopped and looked at their leader. Viconia looked around and saw that she and the others had been moving toward something in the hoard.

 

"I recognize that sword!" Sarevok pointed to a plain looking two-handed weapon, his voice challenging. "It was forged for our father and he imbued it with his power! I would be unstoppable with it!"

 

"Do you recognize anything else in this place, jaluk?" Viconia asked harshly, an idea forming in her mind. "And just how many?"

 

Boo chittered a moment and Minsc responded, "Boo says he recognized far too many things here, and he does not like it."

 

Sarevok looked around carefully. "What is my armor doing here?"

 

Imoen saw it as well. "It can't be! It disintegrated when you died! I saw it!"

 

"It is his armor, Imoen, and fully restored." Viconia's voice was strangely calm. She knew she was right. She could see the same understanding appear in the eyes of the others.

 

"There is a subtle charm magic in this room." Xan stepped back to the paladin. "If this is a trap, it is most insidious."

 

"Everything here is real, and purposely placed," Covenant added softly. "Avarice? Power? Your desire is here for the taking. And you probably end up at the bottom of the other stairway. A very effective test of our resolve, you must agree. But what we are after dwarfs the power of all this. Let's find the exit from this chamber."

 

"And what are you after?" asked a childlike voice from near the throne. Something about the voice chilled them all.

 

"A Stone."

 

Covenant's reply seemed to please the voice as it responded with a soft laugh, "Then why enter this House of Desolation? There are many stones outside."

 

"This Stone is no mere pebble. Those who seek power stumble over it, those who have power are offended by it."

 

"Then you seek an enchanted stone. Look upon the tables before you," the voice responded, now grown serious, and two tables were illuminated. One was covered with sling bullets, the other with crystals and orbs. "Do you seek a weapon? Here is a stone that can kill a god! Do you seek knowledge? Here are scrying stones that can reveal the thoughts of even the Greater Powers!"

 

The paladin's eyes never wavered from the area of the dais. "Such weapons are only for those who seek to supplant the gods. I have no need of such. I am cursed with the blood and power of one, and such is my destiny if I allow it." The table with the bullets went dark. "And knowledge of another's thoughts does not grant understanding or power. Thought and intent change, and are subject to other wills not their own." The second table went dark.

 

"So you come not for power or knowledge. All that is within this room. What do you seek then?" Viconia had been listening to the voice from the darkness, trying to detect why it generated such fear. She began to understand.

 

"The Stone I seek belongs to no world yet can influence any. It can give hope to the powerless, yet destroy the world of the powerful. It has no power in itself, yet can bind the mightiest Power. It is Will given form. I seek the Oath Stone."

 

The voice became cold. "I guard the Stone of Breaking, and you seek to take it?"

 

Viconia finally knew fully why the voice created such terror. She had dealings with beings living and dead and undead, natural and supernatural. Each voice had some form of life in them, even if corrupted. This voice had the sound of absolute death.

 

The shadows around them slowly took form and surrounded the party. Everyone except Covenant closed in for defense, preparing for battle. Though she prepared herself, she spoke softly but clearly to all, "Do not attack them! Their touch is death!"

 

"I have not come to take it, Guardian," the paladin spoke calmly, but she could see the fear in his eyes as the circle of shadow creatures slowly began drawing tighter. "It cannot be taken! None can own it! The Will forbids it!"

 

As the circle drew closer their fear grew. Viconia noted in a small part of her mind that she had begun sweating, her heart beat far too quickly and her chest felt as if it were being crushed. She could barely breathe, and her body became lead as her legs and arms grew slowly numb.

 

Sarevok finally broke, and Imoen followed immediately. With a cry the warrior struck at the shadow closest to him with a Deathbringer Assault, and Imoen unleashed a volley of enchanted missiles at another. The creatures were untouched. Instead the attacks rebounded against the attackers. Even with the protective spells upon them they should both have died immediately. Covenant must have been using his growing divine power to protect them, because he gave a groan and dropped to his knees in pain even as they fell. As it was, they were both incapacitated.

 

"None can take it from you," Covenant called out in desperation as the shadows moved to attack, "but you can give it to one who asks! I ask you do deliver it into my keeping!"

 

The shadows stopped. "It is within my authority to do as you ask, but only for those found worthy. You have gained a reprieve only. Your answers will determine your fate, godling, and those with you."

 

The paladin rose to his feet. His hand moved slightly, a Drow signal telling Viconia to tend the fallen. She would heal them enough to get them mobile and able to defend themselves. They could not win against this enemy. If Covenant succeeded in gaining his objective they would need to retreat quickly.

 

"Then speak, Guardian, and I will answer without delay or guile," he said as he bowed to the voice.

 

"You have seen this world. A mage sought the power of the Stone to gain mastery over what you call the Weave. In the end his desire for power mastered him. He sought to strengthen the Weave, so he drew all life into it, leaving this world lifeless and sterile."

 

"I do not seek my own power, Guardian. I seek it to restrain the power of another I must confront to fulfil an obligation."

 

"And what will you give in return, godling? You call it the Oath Stone. An oath binds two to an agreement."

 

Covenant straightened to his full height. "I have more power now than I desire, and will gain more before my quest is over, and it threatens to overwhelm me. I desire to protect the one who holds my heart from the one who seeks her life, and from myself should I be mastered by the power I wield. I will bind my power as I bind the other I must face."

 

The voice did not reply. Viconia finished her healing work, then slowly stepped beside Covenant.

 

"Is this the one you seek to protect?" the voice asked.

 

"It is. And not only her. Those who walk with me, and those of my world will suffer should I fall to my power, for it is the power of one who lived for death. My sire is Bhaal, God of Murder."

 

There was a short silence. "I know not the name, but the blood you carry speaks clearly. Yet two with you carry the same shadow. You would protect them as well?"

 

Covenant nodded. "Should I win the contest I am now in, that shadow will be removed and placed upon me alone."

 

"Those who fall upon the Stone will be broken, those upon whom it shall fall will be crushed." The shadow creatures dissolved, the fear