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At Soul's Edge

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At Soul's Edge is my ongoing fanfic of the Baldur's Gate saga that I've been writing at SHS, but I'll try keeping it updated here as well for anyone interested.

 

Chapter I: Mind Blade

Chapter II: Imoen

Chapter III: In Evening's Light

Chapter IV: When the Wind Blows

Chapter V: Into the Mists

Chapter VI: Balancing Act

Chapter VII: A Lever and a Place to Stand

Chapter VIII: Last Moves/First Moves

Chapter IX: Come Devils, Come Darkness

Chapter X: Baptism of Shadow

Chapter XI: Undertow

Chapter XII: High Tide

Chapter XIII: Point of No Return

Chapter XIV: What the Dawn Brings

Chapter XV: In the Land of the Blind

Chapter XVI: The Storm Breaks Loose

Chapter XVII: Beneath a Sea of Stars

Chapter XVIII: Lions and Tigers and Bards

Chapter XIX: Fault Lines

Chapter XX: Veil of Shadows

Chapter XXI: Crush Depth

Chapter XXII: Notes of a Dirge Foretold

 

Chapter 1: Mind Blade

 

Twelve years before Gorion's death

 

The visitors were unusual. Most who visited Candlekeep were met by the Captain of the Watch, or perhaps by the Chanter or even Tethtoril. But this was the first time she had ever seen Ulraunt himself meet anyone at the gate. There were two of them. One was a tall man, with lightly tanned skin, and traveling clothes rather more elaborate than she had ever seen. Behind him was a boy, though a few years older than her. The boy shared the man’s blond hair coloration, and wore elaborate finery. Behind them was a carriage and horse team. They looked like they had been on a long journey, but had imperious bearings, rather than the somewhat overwhelmed awe with which other scholars and sages had regarded their first sight of Candlekeep.

 

“Ah, Lord Roenall. It is a pleasure to see you!†Ulraunt called out.

 

“Indeed.†The man replied. “Do you have the books we require?â€Â

 

“Yes, please follow me.â€Â

 

“Oh, and I brought my son, Isea, with me.â€Â

 

“Very good, sir.â€Â

 

Ulraunt motioned them towards the central keep. The boy sniffed the air with disdain, and followed his father inside. Waiting until they were inside for a few minutes, the girl followed them in.

 

Had anyone seen her, they would have seen a girl, seemingly ordinary enough from a distance. She was taller than most eight-year-olds, with dusky skin and a wild mess of flaming red hair that violently resisted any attempt to tame it. However, her eyes marked her as not entirely human. They belonged on a cat, seeing through the darkness as thought it were daylight, and her pupils were a pure, utter black. Combined with the rest of her appearance, Alexandria of Candlekeep was a tiefling, demonic blood flowing through her veins. Ulraunt had always instructed her to keep out of sight of important visitors, which she tended to be happy enough to do. She preferred exploring Candlekeep’s many hidden nooks and crannies, but this time, her curiosity was piqued by the visitors.

 

Ulraunt was speaking with the man.

 

-“A reader was sent to retrieve the books you require, Lord Roenall. He should be back shortly.â€Â

 

“He had better. The information of those tomes is of utmost importance, and I will not let a bumbling monk cause me an undue delay.â€Â

 

“Be patient, Lord Roenall. The libraries are vast, and retrieving each book takes time.â€Â

 

“That does not concern me, Ulraunt. I require those books. As we agreed, you will be well paid for their purchase.â€Â

 

“You do realize this is irregular enough as it is. Those tomes you requested… the Athkatlan authorities will not look kindly on you if they discover them.â€Â

 

“I am the authority in Athkatla, and I will have those books.â€Â

 

“Yes, of course, Lord Roenall…â€Â

 

This was strange. No one talked like that to Ulraunt, let alone made him sweat. He had had Alexandria paddled just because he heard her singing a silly tune making fun of him. Her father had objected, but even he couldn’t override the Keeper of the Tomes. It wasn’t like Ulraunt liked Alexandria anyhow. “That irritating demon-girl†was the nicest thing he had ever called her. She stuck her head out from behind the bookshelf.

 

“Hey!†the boy called out.

 

Oops, she thought, and started to run.

 

The boy followed her. Alex ducked and weaved between bookshelves-this place was her home, but the boy was older than her, and followed her easily. Finally, she ran out of breath, and he cornered her, an arrogant smirk on his face.

 

“You run pretty fast for a little girl.â€Â

 

“Why were you chasing me?â€Â

 

“You’re one of those devil-spawn freaks, aren’t you? I wonder why the fools in this place haven’t killed you already.â€Â

 

“I’m not a freak! My name’s Alexandria.â€Â

 

“If I say you’re a freak, then you’re a freak!â€Â

 

“No, I’m not!â€Â

 

“Yes you are. Don’t you know who I am? My father’s Farthington Roenall, and he could buy this entire castle for me for my birthday.â€Â

 

“Good for you, now leave me alone.â€Â

 

“No, I don’t think I will, freak. I wonder what those silly knights would say if I slew a demon before my majority? I might even get knighted!â€Â

 

Anger began to cloud Alexandria’s mind, and her blood began to kindle the way it always did when she got mad.

 

“Leave me alone!â€Â

 

“What, you afraid to fight me, demon? You oughta be!â€Â

 

The boy suddenly swung his fist at her, and caught her across the face. She fell to the ground, but an entirely alien sense took control of her. Raw, focused anger. As she rose, her mind seemed to rage outwards, as though trying to strike the boy down where he stood by will alone…She wasn’t even aware her arm had been in motion, swinging towards him, until a blade abruptly appeared in her hand. It was a wickedly serrated sword, and glowed blood red. It slashed across the boy’s chest as he screamed.

 

 

The adults rushed over towards the source of the scream, and found Isea Roenall on the ground, blood welling up from a wide cut across his chest. Standing over him was Alexandria, an incredibly unusual serrated red sword in her hand. Tethtoril looked more closely at the blade-where on Toril had she gotten it-and realized it wasn’t solid. It seemed to be made of some indistinct energy that glowed a deep blood red, and was shaped into a vicious blade.

 

“Alex, drop the sword!†he shouted.

 

She obeyed, snapping her hand open. But rather than fall to the ground, the sword simply fizzled out of existence once released, as though maintained by Alexandria’s will alone…

 

“You killed my boy!†Roenall shouted. “I swear, your life ends here, demon!â€Â

 

“Stop!†Tethtoril roared. He walked over to the two children, and applied a healing spell to the boy. The cut looked much worse than it was, and healed over quickly and completely. Then he looked over at Alexandria. She looked confused and horrified at what had happened, as well she might.

 

“Ulraunt, Lord Roenall, I will take care of this matter personally. Alexandria, come with me!â€Â

 

Tethtoril stormed upstairs with Alexandria close behind him. Anger and indignity burned in Roenall’s eyes.

 

 

In the relative peace of Tethtoril’s office, Alexandria obediently sat down in a chair opposite him. She wondered what had happened, and what was going to happen.

 

“Alexandria, tell me what happened.â€Â

 

“I… I was watching Ulraunt talk with mister Roenall. I was hiding behind a bookshelf. Then I stuck my head out, and the boy saw me. I ran, but he chased me down. He started insulting me and Candlekeep and talking like he was going to kill me and I was really scared. Then he hit me.â€Â

 

Tethtoril looked closely at the tiefling girl. A rather spectacular black eye was beginning to form over her left eye. Isea was a few years older than Alexandria, it was no wonder…

 

“After he hit me, I fell to the ground, and I… I felt mad. Really mad. I’ve never felt so mad in my life. Then my head started to hurt, like it was pushing out, and suddenly there was a sword in my hand and I was swinging it at him and then there was so much blood…â€Â

 

Tethtoril frowned. In a way, he couldn’t blame her for what happened. He knew Alex didn’t anger easily, but she could be very violent when she did get mad. She was a tiefling. But that wasn’t what had caught his interest. There was something even more interesting…

 

“That sword you had-it disappeared when you dropped it.â€Â

 

“I don’t know what it was-I wasn’t holding a sword or anything. It just appeared in my hand.â€Â

 

He had a sneaking suspicion he knew what had happened, but would need to look a few things up in the tomes. It wasn’t a common phenomenon. No, not at all common…

 

“Alex, I want you to go to your room. You’re confined there until Gorion gets back from his trip in a few days. I’ll bring you food. But I want you to meet me here tomorrow after mid-day meal. There’s something I’m going to have to talk to you about.â€Â

 

“Yes, Tethtoril.â€Â

 

“Good girl. Now go.â€Â

 

Alexandria left.

 

 

She didn’t get much sleep that night. She wondered what that sword had been. One moment, her hand had been empty. The next, there was a sword in it. None of her father’s tales ever mentioned someone able to make a sword from thin air. Oh, there were swashbuckling thieves who could draw one in a moment’s notice, or wizards who could conjure a weapon from thin air, but she had done something entirely different. She hadn’t had a sword at her waist, and she hadn’t cast a spell. All she could remember was how her mind seemed to have focused purely on pushing outward… and then a sword had appeared in her hand. For a long time, she lay awake in bed, wondering what she had done.

 

 

She went to Tethtoril’s office again at the appointed time. A thick tome lay on his desk-the golden letters on the front read The Edge of the Soul.

 

“It is good to see you again, Alex. As you may have surmised, I was researching just what you did yesterday. And I believe I have found the answer.â€Â

 

“What?â€Â

 

“You created a mind blade.â€Â

 

“What’s a mind blade?â€Â

 

“Nothing less than a physical manifestation of your will. You were so angry, so focused and bent on directing your energies, that your living mind created a sword-shaped extension of itself, formed of purely mental energies.â€Â

 

“I thought the sword into existence?â€Â

 

“Basically, yes.â€Â

 

“Could I do it again?â€Â

 

“Almost certainly. But I have to caution you: a mind blade is a dangerous tool. It can cut as easily as a sword of iron. More easily, actually, not being bounded by the limits of iron and forging. And I think we should try it again.â€Â

 

“You… want me to get angry again?â€Â

 

“No. I want you to concentrate, to focus as hard as you can. Try to push your mind outwards again. I want you to try to create your mind blade again, but without being angry. Just concentrate.â€Â

 

Alexandria frowned, but she closed her eyes and began to focus herself. She slowly tried to focus all of her thoughts, all of her feelings, into a point. A single hard point of thought in her mind. Then she began to push that point outwards, imagining it like a rock in a sheet, pushing outwards and dragging a narrow length of material along with it. Concentrating harder, she ignored Tethtoril’s inquisitive gaze, and her own nervousness, focusing purely on pushing that point of her mind outward…

 

Suddenly, the pressure in her mind was released, and in her hand was a glowing blue blade. Unlike the last one, this sword was a simple, straight blade, made of light blue energy. She picked it up, and realized that it weighed nothing at all, didn’t even appear to be solid, but felt strong as steel in her hands.

 

“Well done!†Tethtoril said. “You were concentrating on that thing for a good ten minutes, but you did it!â€Â

 

The tiefling girl looked back at the old wizard.

 

“Ten minutes? But what’s the point of it if it takes so long?â€Â

 

“Your mind’s like any other muscle, Alex. Exercise it and practice it, and it’ll come faster and easier. But I warn you again: that sword is as dangerous as any steel blade.â€Â

 

“Can anyone else do this?â€Â

 

“Yes, but it is an extremely rare gift, to be able to use your mind to affect reality. I’d be surprised if there were more than two or three other psionic individuals on the entire Sword Coast. But there have been many, across the Realms, who had the same type of gift you do. Some spent their entire lives refining their skill with the mind blade, training their minds to make the blade even more powerful, and do virtually anything they could imagine. These people are called Soulknives.â€Â

 

“Can I become one?â€Â

 

“Becoming a Soulknife is not something that can be taught, Alex. It is a deeply individual process, manifesting your blade and altering it. I’ll lend you this tome, which contains a wealth of information on mind blades and Soulknives in general, but neither I nor Gorion can personally instruct you in using your blade. Your mind blade is a reflection of your own mind, Alex. When you attacked Isea Roenall, it was red and serrated because your mind was deeply angry and out for blood. Now, you are calm and at peace, so it is a plain blue sword. I offer you my blessing if you wish to pursue this rare gift of yours, however, and will arrange for Jondalar to teach you general combat skills, if you wish.â€Â

 

“I do.â€Â

 

“Very well. I’ll inform Gorion what has taken place when he gets back. For now, go back to your room.â€Â

 

“Thank you, uncle Tethtoril!†Alex said happily, giving the old wizard a hug.

 

But despite the warmth of the moment, Tethtoril was chilled. Bhaalspawn. Tiefling. Soulknife. Daughter of the Lord of Murder. Demon-blooded human. Warrior wielding nothing less than the physical extension of her will. Gorion’s Harper friends are going to have a collective stroke. Between the power of her blood and the power of her mind, it is all too easy to imagine she’s the one the prophecy speaks of…

 

Alexandria began skipping down the halls back towards her room.

 

That little girl is the most dangerous being I’ve ever encountered...

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Chapter II: Imoen

 

Three days after the end of Chapter I

 

Alexandria gazed out the window. The past few days had been interesting, but her wanderlust was approaching dangerous levels. She had been reading the tome Tethtoril had lent her, and had practiced manifesting her mind blade. Each time she did, it seemed to get a little easier, though it still took several minutes of intense concentration. She had also learned a fair bit about mind blades: their appearance always varied depending on the mental state of their creator. Most of the time, hers was a simple azure blade similar to a short sword. When she was tired or hungry, the normally sharp edges and lines became fuzzy, and it took on a lighter hue. And, she knew, when she was angry, it took on a vicious, serrated edge, and turned a dire bloodred.

 

A soft knock on the door interrupted her rumination.

 

“Alexandria,†Tethtoril’s voice called, “You can come out now. The Watchers just spotted Gorion-he should be at the gate in half an hour or so. Your punishment is suspended.â€Â

 

Alex grinned, and opened the door. Tethtoril’s inquisitive gaze went to the tome he had given her-The Edge of the Soul. She grinned with pride at the unspoken question.

 

“I’m slowly getting better at it. According to the tome, no two mind blades are alike, and each soulknife develops their blade at a different rate. But it did include a lot of meditations and exercises to help open my mind and manifest my blade more easily, and I’ve been learning.â€Â

 

“That’s good, Alex.â€Â-he was one of the few in Candlekeep who called her by her preferred nickname-“You have a rare gift, and are quite possibly the first psionic Candlekeep has ever had. Your father will be proud.†Tethtoril wore a friendly smile as he led Alex back down to the courtyard.

 

Gorion entered the main gate riding one of the keep’s horses, and Alex ran out to meet him. He held a hand up, though, and a girl dismounted the horse behind him. Alex examined the newcomer closely. She was fully human, unlike Alex, and had a length of reddish brown hair. She seemed slightly disoriented and overwhelmed.

 

“Hey, what’s your name?†Alex called out.

 

“I’m Imoen.†She responded.

 

“Hello again, Alexandria.†Gorion said calmly. “Imoen will be staying at Candlekeep from now on with. She, like you, is to be a ward under my care.â€Â

 

“So she’s my sister?â€Â

 

“Not exactly. But I must speak to Tethtoril now about recent developments-please show Imoen to the library. She’ll be staying in the room next to yours.â€Â

 

Gorion left, leaving Imoen and a small bag of clothing and personal items at the gate. The two girls shrugged, and Imoen picked up her bag.

 

“Well, welcome to Candlekeep. As my father said, I’m Alexandria, but you can call me Alex. Where are you from?â€Â

 

“I… don’t know. All I remember are… horrible things.†Imoen’s face was ashen, as though staring into a nightmare.

 

Alex placed a friendly hand on Imoen’s shoulder.

 

“It’s okay if you had a bad time, you’re safe here. We probably should get you up to your room-follow me!â€Â

 

Imoen smiled reluctantly, and followed Alex into the keep. She seemed stunned at the sheer number of books inside the library.

 

“Wow. I’ve never seen this many books before. Do people actually read them all?â€Â

 

“I doubt even Ulraunt has-he’s the old guy with the beaky nose. I’d stay away from him, though. He has a nasty temper when it comes to little girls making trouble.â€Â

 

Imoen giggled.

 

“If you happen to like reading, this place is a dream come true. Your room’s up on the next floor, though, next to mine.â€Â

 

The two girls continued up the stairs, and came to a small, unoccupied room. There was a decent-sized bed, desk, bookshelf, and two large sets of cabinets. The furnishings were sparse but comfortable, and the two girls quickly stowed away Imoen’s belongings, and made the bed.

 

“So, Alex, what’s there to do around here?â€Â

 

“I’ll give you a tour, but Candlekeep’s a pretty small place.â€Â

 

“I saw. Comfortable, though.â€Â

 

“Yep. I’ve lived here as long as I can remember. Gorion’s my foster father.â€Â

 

“Your foster father? Do you know what happened to your real parents?â€Â

 

“He was a dear friend of my mother, who died giving birth to me. But I don’t know anything about my real father. How about you?â€Â

 

“I… don’t remember much at all. Just darkness and pain and cruel voices, then combat, and Gorion telling me he was there to rescue me.â€Â

 

“Well, whatever the case, make yourself at home.â€Â

 

“One thing, though-what’s up with your eyes?â€Â

 

“I’m told I’m not a real human. I’m something called a tiefling, though I’m not sure what that means.â€Â

 

“They look cool. But anyhow, let’s take the tour you suggested.â€Â

 

The two girls traipsed back down the stairs.

 

 

“That’s the stables over there.†Alex pointed. “And the building to our right are some priests’ quarters.â€Â

 

“You weren’t kidding about Candlekeep being a small place. The only place left here is that big building up ahead.â€Â

 

“That’s the inn, where all the visitors stay. Winthrop’s a good guy, though, with a great sense of humor.â€Â

 

“Hehe. He must be good if you’ve got nothing bad to say about him, big sis.â€Â

 

“Big sis? We’ve only known each other for an hour, even if I am a bit taller than you, silly.†Alex grinned.

 

“You’re my big sister and I don’t care if you like it!†Imoen slapped her playfully.

 

“Oh, now you’ve done it!†Alex shouted, and shoved Imoen into a pile of hay by the stables.

 

“Hey, no fair!†Imoen shouted, then grabbed Alex’s arm and dragged her into the hay pile.

 

“Ack! You are going to suffer!†Alex crowed.

 

The two began struggling with each other in the haystack, girlish laughter ringing across the somber stone walls of the keep. Several residents raised their heads at the alien sound, disturbing the studied peace of the fortress. Winthrop, the new innkeeper, decided to see what the commotion was. By the stables, he found two girls tussling in one of the haystacks. One was Alexandria, the fire-haired scamp, but the other was a new girl, wearing purple, with reddish brown hair. He couldn’t help but laugh at the sight, so utterly out of place in the quiet fortress of learning.

 

“Oh! Er, hello, Winthrop.†Alex said hurriedly. “This is, ah, Imoen. She arrived here with Gorion.â€Â

 

“Hello, mister Winthrop.†The new girl said, somewhat embarrassed by the scene.

 

Winthrop chuckled again. “It’s good to see a fresh face around here, especially one who can keep up with Candlekeep’s favorite little imp. I run the Candlekeep Inn.â€Â

 

Imoen grinned, and quickly began cleaning the hay out of her clothes and hair.

 

“Alex was easy to pin down. How on Toril could you have had trouble with her?†Imoen asked, despite the snickering from behind her.

 

Winthrop laughed.

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Chapter III: In Evening’s Light

 

Thirty-eight hours before Gorion’s death

 

 

The sound of someone tramping noisily on the stairs awoke Alexandria from her sleep. She sighed, but a look at the window confirmed it was time to be getting up anyway. Cursing softly, she dragged herself out of bed. She found her clothes, including her preferred silvery tunic and brown pants, and strapped on her boots. Another day, another chore… Ulraunt could never seem to decide what to keep her busy with. Some days, she worked in the forge. Others, she ran errands for the temple of Oghma or caretakers of the shrines of Azuth and Savras. Still other times, she helped out her sister in Candlekeep Inn. Ulraunt would give her any task that kept her busy.

 

It seemed that ever since the incident twelve years ago, Ulraunt had bordered on outright hostility towards her. He didn’t like anyone with a penchant for getting into trouble, but where he might simply sigh and confine Imoen to her room, he didn’t take those kinds of chances with Alexandria (he would have been chagrined to learn that Imoen in fact seldom stayed in her room for long, even when it was locked from the outside). She remembered well how angry he had been at her, how only the influence of Gorion and Tethtoril kept her in Candlekeep. But she didn’t feel guilty about it. Isea had deserved exactly what happened to him…

 

You’re just full of happy thoughts this morning, aren’t you?

 

Alex shook her head, and went downstairs to the meal hall where the monks and other residents and visitors had already begun eating. A few new visitors did small but noticeable double-takes when they saw the tiefling enter the room, but she simply ignored their reactions. She had gotten used to people sidling away from her. Everyone did. Gorion loved her, of course, and both Winthrop and Tethtoril seemed to consider her a niece. And Alex and Imoen were an inseparable pair of troublemakers, much to Ulraunt’s consternation.

 

As she sat down to eat, she realized that something was wrong. The atmosphere of everyone seemed… different, as though some calamity had just occurred, or was approaching. Her eyes narrowed as she saw that her foster father, Gorion, looked deeply worried, and both he and Tethtoril kept casting furtive glances in her direction. She didn’t think they were worried about her mind blade like they had been originally-her gift had been common knowledge for years. But she hadn’t seem him look so troubled since the day he had returned to Candlekeep with Imoen, and learned that Alex had developed a rare and powerful ability.

 

“Hey, you’re not eating at all. The cooking bad this morning or something?â€Â

 

Alex looked behind her for the source of the cheerful voice. It was Imoen, of course, in her all-purple outfit. They had become close since their meeting, twelve years ago. Being the only two little girls permanently living in Candlekeep, they had adopted a sister-sister relationship, though Alex had become by default the elder sister, being both more cautious (though that was a relative term when used to describe her), and taller. Imoen never seemed to grow out of being a girl, even though both women were around twenty years old.

 

“Everyone seems a little different, Im. Like they’re expecting something bad to happen, and aren’t sure when.â€Â

 

“Not sure when? The number of clerics who live in this place, they could whistle up a god in an instant.â€Â

 

“Even Gorion and Tethtoril look worried.â€Â

 

“Huh. That’s odd alright. Well, if ya hear anything, I’ll be in the inn as usual.â€Â

 

“Sure thing, Im. See you later.â€Â

 

The rest of the morning meal proceeded uneventfully, but the buzz of conversation was subdued, and Alexandria began to feel very uneasy. She had never seen the denizens of Candlekeep look so worried before. The keep was heavily fortified, and as an important holy site to the Oghmanyte and Savran faiths, as well as a center of worship for Mystra, Deneir, and Azuth, the keep had extensive magical defenses as well. She wondered what kind of danger could worry people so. Visitors had brought tales of contaminated iron pouring out of Nashkel, and bandit attacks along the road to Baldur’s Gate rapidly increasing in frequency and intensity, but she couldn’t see how they could possibly be connected to the veil of fear that now hung over the ancient stones of Candlekeep. Gorion met her as she rose from the table.

 

“Alex, my daughter, Candlekeep is in terrible danger right now.â€Â

 

“From what? What could present a threat to this place-and who would bother attacking it in the first place?â€Â

 

“It is not the stones of this place that lay in the center of enemies in the dark. It is you, child.â€Â

 

“Me? Why?â€Â

 

“I cannot say right now. I will tell you when the time is right. But for now, you must know that we are leaving Candlekeep tomorrow night. Take this pouch of coins, and purchase supplies from Winthrop. I know you have no need of any weapon he can sell you, but purchase armor, and supplies for a journey on the road. I pray dearly to Azuth that you will not need the armor, and that the danger isn’t as great as I fear it is, but we must prepare for the worst. Also, speak to Jondalar-you must be prepared to fight for your life.â€Â

 

“I don’t understand, father. Why are we doing this?â€Â

 

“I cannot tell you here. I fear the agents of the enemy are anywhere and anyone. Do you understand what you must do?â€Â

 

“Yes, father.â€Â

 

“Good. Tomorrow night.â€Â

 

Gorion then hurried off. Alexandria remained for a moment, stunned by what had happened. What was really going on? Was it because she was a tiefling? Or because of her mind blade? She had lived in Candlekeep her entire life-she couldn’t have angered anyone who could launch any plots against her. But Gorion said it was her that was the problem… why was this happening? She couldn’t answer that question. All she could do was do the things Gorion told her to do, and hope she learned what was going on when he was ready. She would have prayed, but Alexandria didn’t worship a god.

 

 

Alexandria concentrated for a few moments, and felt the reassuring tingle of her mind blade form in her hand. She had gotten much better at it over the years, and now it only took a few seconds of focus to create it. The blade itself had changed as well. It was still a light blue color normally, but now had a curved, single-edged blade, and felt perfectly shaped to give her arm more striking power. Jondalar, her combat instructor, said it resembled an ethereal scimitar. She liked the feel of the weightless blade in her hand, though it could feel surprisingly solid when making heavy, slashing blows with it. And it cut as finely as any blade in the Watchers’ armory-she had seen it herself, how the shimmering, immaterial blade left gash marks in leather like a normal sword. Consequently, Alex didn’t train with other weapons, the way Imoen had practiced with a short bow and a dagger on the rare occasions she joined Alex on the practice field. Her greatest weapon was never more than a thought away.

 

A tap on the shoulder from Jondalar put an end to her ruminations, and she set her blade at a ready guard as Jondalar drew his long sword. She concentrated for a brief minute, dulling the edge of her mind blade for sparring purposes. Alex and Jondalar bowed to each other, and Alex leaped into motion. Her lunging swing missed cleanly, and Jondalar advanced. She darted backwards, parrying a blow with her blade, then lunged forward again, making an awkward attempt at a stab. Jondalar’s sword came crashing down on her mind blade, wrenching it out of her grasp. The weapon dissipated into thin air as soon as it left her hand, and she danced backwards. As Jondalar closed the distance, Alex reformed her blade in her hand, bringing it up to ward off an overhand swing from Jondalar. Lacking any other expedient option, she butted her head into Jondalar’s chest, then made a rising slash with her blade across his chest while he recoiled. His face streaked with sweat, he grinned at her.

 

“You’re good with your blade. Still creeps me out when that thing disappears into thin air and reforms in your hand like that, but it makes you tough to predict, and impossible to disarm for more than a few seconds. Don’t get cocky, though-no matter what kind of fancy tricks you pull with that thing, it’s still just a sword, not a magic wand. But beyond that, I don’t think there’s much else I can teach you.â€Â

 

Alex’s face flushed with pride, and her blade rippled, taking on a yellow hue.

 

“I’d give my eyeteeth to have your kind of gift, Alex. The ability to walk around town, seemingly unarmed, then pop a blade out of nowhere… maybe it’s a good thing it’s such a rare gift. You’re going to have the element of surprise going for you a lot, but surprise and a few fancy tricks aren’t going to save you if you rush headlong into a fight without planning. Choose your fights carefully, and don’t get cocky.â€Â

 

Alex nodded.

 

“Good. I have to report for my shift on the walls soon, so good-bye.â€Â

 

Impulsively, Alex hugged him. Jondalar had taught her everything she knew about fighting, except for the tricks with her mind blade. She would miss him, when she left with Gorion.

 

 

Alex walked past the temple of Oghma. The priests were conducting a service, and she paused for a moment, wondering if she should go inside. Raised in Candlekeep, Alex had known for a long time that most churches considered her kind to be unnatural at best, unholy abominations at worst. Though the Oghmanytes valued knowledge above all, and would have welcomed her, Alex never felt the urge to worship any gods. Between her extraplanar heritage and unique mental gift, she had accepted that she was rejected by almost everyone, and certainly didn’t feel the need to pray to a god. She shook her head, and moved on.

 

As she wandered about Candlekeep, Alex found herself thinking about what it meant that she had to leave. She knew she never really fit in, even if no one had consciously turned her away for years. But would the world beyond treat her any better? She had read, in many storybooks Gorion seemed to avoid reading to her, how so often the villain had the blood of a demon. From the historical books, she knew tieflings were far from unheard of, but almost universally despised. Most were evil beings, in tune with their demonic ancestry, and she couldn’t really blame normal people for hating them. As much as she tried to keep her temper under control, more than once she had sent people to the temple seeking healing when she exploded. Not just with her mind blade, but with her bare hands. When she left Candlekeep, would anyone ever accept her?

 

Lost in thought, she eventually found herself in front of the bunk room. On a whim, she went inside. But odd-there was a man inside…

 

“Hey, you’re that old wizard’s demon whelp, aren’t ye? Yer name be Alexandria?â€Â

 

She nodded hesitantly.

 

“Good! There be a price on your pretty little head, and I’m gonna collect!â€Â

 

The man advanced, a drawn dagger in his hand. She briefly considered running back out, but decided that wasn’t an option. An orange blade flickered to life in her hand. The man’s eyes widened as he saw the blade form, and some primal instinct took over her. Scimitar-like blade in hand, she darted forward into his guard and promptly carved her blade through his abdomen in a fast, vicious strike. The man looked down, saw his own viscera spilling out, and fell. There was a thrill to the moment, and a primal part of Alexandria’s being rejoiced that she had taken a life. She made a feral snarl and prepared to slash the corpse again…

 

Then she took control of herself again. It had happened so fast… and horror overcame her as she saw what she had done. Blood coated her mind blade, which had taken on a red hue, and was slowly growing jagged edges. No blood had touched her. It was just like her training-she had killed the man purely on instinct and memory. But that part of her… it enjoyed killing the man, and hungered for more. Alex hadn’t expected killing to be like that. She had expected killing to be full of regret at a terrible necessity. But her spirit reveled in the kill. It had felt good.

 

She dissipated her blade. The blood fell to the ground with a soft splash.

 

 

Alexandria pointedly avoided the inn for the rest of the day. She wasn’t ready to talk about what had happened, not even with Imoen. She had taken a life, and had felt pleasure from it, not remorse or anger. The Captain of the Watchers had asked her what happened, and she told the truth. The man had threatened her with a knife, plainly stated his intent to kill her, and she slew him. He seemed to find it satisfactory, but she was all too aware that people kept looking at her with fear. Perhaps it was a good thing she was leaving, a good thing for everyone in Candlekeep. People were afraid of her. She was afraid of herself, too. As much as she tried to be a good person, she had no doubt that somewhere in the Abyss, a demon was smiling at his descendant.

 

Was that the secret Gorion had been keeping from her? Or, one of the secrets, anyway? Her relationship with him had become somewhat strained in recent years. Alex didn’t like secrets, and she knew Gorion was keeping several that related directly to her. Did he know the true nature of her demonic blood? Was she secretly descended from one of the lords of the Abyss? Or was he hiding an even darker secret about her past? Alex couldn’t remember a thing about her life before Gorion, save for very rare, but terrible nightmares. Gorion never said a word about how she came into his care, other than that he was a dear friend of her mother. But he never mentioned her name, either. Ulraunt and Tethtoril knew about the secrets he kept, too-she was sure of it. But they told her it was Gorion’s decision if and when to tell her.

 

And now all this… a price on her head, a man willing to kill her, being forced to flee Candlekeep… There was so much she didn’t know. Night began to fall, but it didn’t bother Alex. She saw as plainly in the dark as she did in the day… another gift of her mysterious heritage. If only she could see in the darkness surrounding her as easily as she could see in the night… She had been standing atop one of the towers for hours on end, but the answers she sought were nowhere to be found. The moon was bright, not quite a full moon, piercing the night with silver radiance. Alex supposed she would have to follow the rays of the moon, to head into the darkness ahead of her if she was to learn what was going on. An old saying, one of Gorion’s favorites, echoed through her head as she returned to her room for the night.

 

When fighting monsters, see that you do not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, remember that the abyss also looks into you…

 

 

The next day dawned much like the last one had, but if anything, people had only grown more nervous. News of what Alex had done the previous day had already spread throughout the keep. Everyone knew she was a killer, and had slain the man with nothing more than her mind, which she had trained into a deadly weapon. At the meal table, only Imoen dared meet her eyes. She heard the murmur of conversation, though. Demon-spawn. Mind-witch. Abomination. She ate quickly, and soon excused herself from the table.

 

“Heya, Alex! Do you want to talk about what happened yesterday?†Imoen called.

 

“I… I suppose I should, Imoen.â€Â

 

“I’m all ears, big sis.â€Â

 

“When I went into the bunk house, that man accosted me. He said there was a price on my head, and he intended to collect.â€Â

 

“A price on yer head? For a girl who probably woulda become a librarian, yer sure movin up in the world.â€Â

 

“Imoen, someone wants me *dead*. That man intended to kill me. So I made my mind blade, and just… acted. I didn’t think about what I was doing at all-I just avoided his clumsy stab, and ripped his guts open. He didn’t even have time to scream.â€Â

 

“Ouch. That’s pretty bad. I’m glad you’re okay, though.â€Â

 

“Imoen… I’m not okay. The scary thing was, I felt good when I killed him. Some part of me… enjoyed spilling his intestines onto the floor.â€Â

 

Imoen frowned.

 

“You’re startin to scare me a little, big sis.â€Â

 

“I’m scared, too.â€Â

 

“Aw, get over it! Winthrop’s waitin for ya-he found a suit of armor for you, and put together supplies for the road. Word got around fast that you’re leaving.â€Â

 

“And I expect most people are glad.â€Â

 

“Don’t let it get ya down, sis. Give the world a kick in the arse from me!â€Â

 

Alex grinned.

 

“That I will. See you later.â€Â

 

They parted ways. True to her word, Winthrop greeted her heartily, and showed her a suit of armor he had found for her. It was a suit of fine studded leather, and she awkwardly strapped it on. The armor was surprisingly light and comfortable, once it was fitted, but to Alex, it radiated a chill. Somehow, walking around Candlekeep in battle-quality armor told her that life as she knew it was over. She wasn’t sure how, but she had a sinking feeling in her heart that the armor would be used in the future, and that her mind blade would kill again. People avoided her the rest of the day, and she simply sat and pondered her situation. What was going to happen? What was Gorion hiding? And most of all, would she be ready?

 

 

Eventually, the day dimmed, and Gorion found her. He didn’t have to say a word. She picked up her bag of supplies, and left Candlekeep.

 

Night was falling.

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Chapter IV: When the Wind Blows

 

Alexandria kept careful pace with Gorion as they left Candlekeep. Old as he was, he still moved quickly. His eyes were constantly scanning the horizon, as though expecting an ambush at any time. Alex was worried. Gorion was a powerful wizard-if something worried him, there must be danger indeed. She wished Gorion would tell her what was going on, what he was afraid of. There were so many secrets-even now, he kept them. Something of her annoyance must have shown. He turned to her and spoke quickly.

 

“Listen carefully. If we ever become separated, it is imperative you make your way to the Friendly Arm Inn. There, you will meet Khalid and Jaheira. They have long been my friends, and you can trust them.â€Â

 

She frowned. Still more secrets, truths half-told. Even now, when he clearly implied their lives were in mortal danger, he kept things from her. But she put those thoughts aside as they continued to walk along the road. Visibility wasn’t a problem, if Gorion was expecting something to leap out of the shadows. It was a full moon, and Alex’s feline eyes pierced the gloom with ease. The forest, though, was unnaturally quiet. A dark wind was blowing, and sensible creatures were keeping their heads down. Alex wasn’t sure how she knew it, but somehow she knew something terrible was going to happen tonight. And Gorion knew it, too.

 

They hadn’t been walking for long when Gorion suddenly became alarmed. Alex’s eyes scanned the forest, but even her eyes couldn’t see anything…

 

“Let’s hurry, child! The night can only get worse, so we must find shelter soon. Don’t worry, I will explain everything as soon as there is time.â€Â

 

There was plenty of time today. And yesterday. And in all the years I lived at Candlekeep…

 

A flicker of movement caught her eye. Somehow Gorion was still alert-he spoke before Alex could should in alarm.

 

“Wait! There is something wrong. We are in an ambush! Prepare yourself!â€Â

 

A dark, heavy voice answered.

 

“You’re perceptive for an old man. You know why I’m here. Hand over your ward and no one will be hurt. If you resist it shall be a waste of your life.â€Â

 

A violet blade sprung to life in her hand. But then a massive figure approached. At first glance, she had trouble deciding if it was even human-it had the bulk of a golem, and was clad in extremely heavy, and likely magical, armor. Fire burned in the man’s eyes. Alex’s gaze locked onto his, and the fire suddenly seemed warm, inviting. The fire called to Alexandria, whispering of power, of uses for the rage and flame sleeping within her…

 

Gorion didn’t even flinch at Alexandria’s paralysis.

 

“You’re a fool if you think I would trust your benevolence. Step aside and you and your lackeys will be unhurt.â€Â

 

“I’m sorry that you feel that way, old man.â€Â

 

Alex was dimly aware of Gorion shouting to her.

 

“Run, child! Get out of here!â€Â

 

But she didn’t. Her mind blade fizzled out of existence, transfixed by the flame in the man’s eyes.

 

Pain jolted her back into reality. Gorion had cast a spell at her, and Alex abruptly realized the danger of the situation. Turning her back on him, she ran. Where to, she wasn’t sure. It was dark all around, lit only by flame and spell. Paying no attention to where she was going, she tumbled through the darkness. Then she saw something. Silver motes, like moonlight, dancing in the distance. She didn’t know why, but they promised safety. Alex ran towards them, until she stumbled across something in the gloom, and fell.

 

 

“Hey, Alex, you alright?â€Â

 

She tried to place the feminine voice. Imoen. Was she dreaming? Or had the night been a dream? Was she still safe in Candlekeep, or was she lost in the forest… was Gorion still alive, or had he been cut down by that massive armored figure?…

 

“Alex… it’s me, Imoen. Wake up.â€Â

 

Alex opened her eyes and stood up. It was morning, and she was in the thick of a stand of bushes, near the cliff. Next to her was a familiar figure-Imoen. She was wearing leather armor, and cradled a short bow in her arms.

 

“Imoen… how-how did you get here?â€Â

 

“I saw you and Gorion leaving, and there’s no way I’d let you go off on an adventure without me, big sis! Especially not after reading that note.â€Â

 

“What note?â€Â

 

“You mean Gorion didn’t tell ya? Sheesh… that man likes his secrets.â€Â

 

“Yes, he did.â€Â

 

“He did? Why the past tense? Where is he?â€Â

 

“Imoen… he’s dead.â€Â

 

The girl’s face turned ashen.

 

“Whaddaya mean he’s dead?â€Â

 

“We were ambushed last night, Im. By a gigantic man with flame for eyes. Gorion… he told me to run. But I heard him scream as the man killed him. Gorion… is dead.â€Â

 

Imoen didn’t react much, as though still absorbing the news. Alex sighed, and decided what she had to do.

 

“Imoen, before he died, Gorion told me to make my way to the Friendly Arm Inn, to meet two of his old friends there. He didn’t get the chance to tell me anything else, and I think that the Inn is a good enough goal for now. I have no idea what’s going on, Im, but someone is willing to kill to get to me. And they’d kill you, too. Whatever kind of mess we’ve fallen into, I, for one, intend to take an active role. Gorion will be avenged, and I will figure out what’s going on.â€Â

 

Imoen grinned. “There’s the Alex I remember! Count me in, big sis! But before we set off, I think maybe we should go… check… Gorion’s body, see if he left any useful information. And… to say goodbye.â€Â

 

Alex nodded, and gathered her supplies, which she had dropped as she ran the night before. They made their way back through the forest, following Alexandria’s trail as best she could remember it. It didn’t take long for them to find a large clearing, with three bodies strewn about. Two ogres, slain by spell, and an elderly wizard…

 

“Father…†Alex whispered.

 

Gorion lay facedown on the cold earth, his dagger and pouch of spell components scattered about. Despite her revulsion, Alex turned over his body, ignoring the gaping slash wound on his chest, and found a scroll in a case that he had been carrying. She carefully removed it, and slowly looked around to see if there was anything else. There was his small purse, which she reluctantly took, and his necklace, bearing the symbol of Azuth. She stood up, and opened the scroll case. Inside was a letter. She wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t this.

 

My friend Gorion,

 

Please forgive the abruptness with which I now write, but time is short and there is much to be done. What we have long feared may soon come to pass, though not in the manner foretold, and certainly not in the proper time frame. As we both know, forecasting these events has proven increasingly difficult, leaving little option other than a leap of faith. We have done what we can for those in thy care, but the time nears when we must step back and let things take the course they will. We have, perhaps, been a touch too sheltering to this point.

 

Despite my desire to remain neutral to this matter, I cannot, in good conscience, let events proceed without some measure of warning. The other side will move very soon, and I urge thee to leave Candlekeep this very night, if possible. The darkness may seem equally threatening, but a moving target is much harder to hit, regardless of how sparse the cover. A fighting chance is all that can be asked for at this point.

 

Should anything go awry, do not hesitate to seek help from travelers along the way. I do not need to remind thee that it is a dangerous land, even without our concerns, and a party is stronger than an individual in all respects. Should additional assistance be needed, I understand that Khalid and Jaheira are at the Friendly Arm Inn. They know little of what has passed, but they are ever thy friends, and will no doubt help however they can.

 

Luck be with us all. I’m getting too old for this.

 

E

 

 

Alexandria passed the note to Imoen. Her mind was in turmoil. Plots within plots, mysteries within mysteries. The letter answered a few questions, but raised far more. The letter pointed at odd things, to say the least. Candlekeep was home to a great room full of scryers and sensors, a site sacred to Savras, Lord of Divination. A powerful wizard, working from Candlekeep, had trouble foretelling the future? From what little she’d overheard, it seemed that the future ahead had to be in extreme uncertainty between extremely disparate possibilities. And what did it all have to do with her? She was apparently wanted dead, especially by the man with the eyes of fire…

 

“Whaddaya think, big sis?â€Â

 

“I think we’re in something way over our heads, Im. There’s a lot going on that we don’t know.â€Â

 

“Yep. Still… what should we do? Not even Puffguts could talk the Captain into letting us back in. You know how he is about the rules.â€Â

 

“I don’t intend to go back, Imoen. I want to know why Gorion died, and I want to know what secrets he was keeping from me.â€Â

 

“I’m with ya all the way, Alex! I’m guessin we should head to the Friendly Arm Inn to meet Gorion’s friends?â€Â

 

“Not yet, Imoen. We can leave these ogres here for the crows, but Gorion… he deserves a burial.â€Â

 

“Yeah… I guess you’re right. It just seems so strange… I came out here, knowing he would be… alive… and he’s dead. It’s not what I was expecting, if ya get my drift.â€Â

 

“I do. I don’t suppose you brought something to dig with, though?â€Â

 

“Nope. And I suppose that blade of yers can’t turn into a shovel?â€Â

 

Alex shook her head, but they eventually found a solution. Reverentially carrying Gorion’s body between them, they brought him to the rocky Cliffside, where they assembled a stone cairn over their foster father. The silence broken only by the cries of seabirds, Alex drew her mind blade, and scratched an inscription onto a wide, flat rock by the cairn.

 

Here lies Gorion of Candlekeep. Murdered 1 Mirtul 1369. Respected wizard. Learned sage. Beloved father. Survived by Alexandria and Imoen.

 

For a long moment, the only sounds were tears softly falling to the ground as Alexandria and Imoen stood on the Cliffside. Then Alex spoke softly.

 

“Gorion… you kept many secrets from me, and I do not know why. I don’t know that I ever will. But I promise you, I will find the man who killed you, and bring him to justice, no matter the cost.â€Â

 

Alex took in hand the necklace Gorion had always worn, a silver pendant on which was engraved the seal of the Lord of Spells. She placed it on the cairn.

 

"Goodbye, Father."

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Chapter V: Into the Mists

 

 

The coastal road was strangely empty. For all Alex and Imoen knew, they were the only travelers heading to the Friendly Arm Inn. Neither of them had done so much walking before in their lives-hardly unexpected, perhaps, but they were ill-used to the long trek, punctuated by frequent rest breaks. Alexandria was in very good shape for someone raised in a library-fortress, tall and solidly built, and Imoen was no wilted flower. But the road was beginning to take a heavy toll on them as day passed into evening, and they felt the first few sprinkles of an evening storm.

 

“Talk about yer storybook classics.†Imoen mused. “Night’s fallin, we’re about halfway to the Inn, and a storm’s coming.â€Â

 

Alex grinned. “You suppose they’ll be telling stories about us, someday? A demon-spawned warrior with a mind blade and her trusty imp companion?â€Â

 

“Hehe. You can take center stage, big sis. Me, I’m just interested in getting enough money from a dragon’s hoard to buy a new pair of shoes!â€Â

 

“Oh, good grief. You didn’t mess up your new boots again, did you?â€Â

 

“Nope, but why wait until they do get ruined? If we’re gonna be adventurers, we’ll be goin all sorts of dirty, messy, smelly places, so I’d better stock up now!â€Â

 

“I don’t know about being adventurers, Im. I just want to find out what Gorion was hiding.â€Â

 

“Well, unless ya somehow joined the priesthood and can raise the dead, that might be tricky.â€Â

 

“I don’t worship a god and you know it.â€Â

 

“Gee, you sure are sensitive about that. You sure about that choice? I mean, even I went to the temple of Oghma every week. And with all that’s happened today, well, I find it mighty comforting to think that someone up there might be watchin out for me.â€Â

 

Alex’s reply was stolen by a conveniently timed clap of thunder. She made a wry grin.

 

“I don’t deny the gods exist, mind you. I simply do not choose to worship one.â€Â

 

“Well, it sounds like they aren’t too happy about it.â€Â

 

“I’m sure we could continue this conversation for hours on end, but the rain’s starting to pick up. I think we should set camp for the night.â€Â

 

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s starting to rain.â€Â

 

The two women looked fruitlessly for a place out of the wind and rain, but found none. Eventually, they settled on a small, tightly packed coppice in the woods, and stretched a large piece of canvas over their bedrolls, driving spikes into the trees and tying the canvas down. Lighting a fire would have been too dangerous, so they unhappily pulled out trail rations and began to eat and talk. It was a somber evening.

 

“Alex… are you alright?â€Â

 

“I’m fine.â€Â

 

“I’m your little sis, Alex. Something’s bothering you a lot.â€Â

 

“It’s just… Gorion. I loved him, but he kept secrets from me, Imoen. From us.â€Â

 

“What kinda secrets, do ya think?â€Â

 

“Imoen, do you remember anything about your life before Candlekeep?â€Â

 

Imoen didn’t respond for a moment, searching her memory. “No, I don’t guess I do. I was a little girl, though-not eight years old. It’s no wonder I don’t remember much.â€Â

 

“But Im… When other kids visited Candlekeep, they talked about memories of playing out in the fields with other girls… you know, a childhood. We never had a childhood. We both know we’re not really sisters-people kept asking me if I was from Calimshan, and I’m a tiefling besides. You could be a young woman from anywhere in Faerun. But somehow, we both ended up in Candlekeep. Maybe it was something as simple as our parents being friends with Gorion and they were killed by bandits or something. We’re old enough to handle something like that. But I want to know what Gorion was hiding.â€Â

 

“Alex, I know ya don’t like secrets. But what I don’t know can’t hurt me, I figure.â€Â

 

“What I didn’t know almost killed me last night, Im. And it did kill Gorion. I guess I’m just really angry at Gorion. I know he was a good man, and a good father, but… I don’t like being manipulated. I want to live my own life, free of the machinations of the gods, the powerful, and anyone else who would try to determine my destiny.â€Â

 

“Sounds nice in theory, sis, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen. I suppose I’ve accepted that I’ll never be fully in control of my destiny. Gorion, Ulraunt, and Puffguts played a big role in who I turned out to be in Candlekeep, you’re kinda guiding me in this mess, and, well, I guess I’m okay with that. I don’t want to be the heroine. I’m fine being the sidekick. I just don’t know what else to say, sis.â€Â

 

“I don’t think there’s anything else you can say. I just needed to get that off my chest.â€Â

 

“Hehe. That’s what I’m here for.â€Â

 

“Thanks, Im. I guess tomorrow we’ll head up to the Friendly Arm Inn and meet Gorion’s friends, then figure our next move from there. Good night, Im.â€Â

 

“Night, sis.â€Â

 

Alex turned over in her bedroll, and slowly drifted into a fitful sleep.

 

 

The next morning was cool and damp, a stiff breeze still blowing from the storm. Alex felt irritable. She hadn’t had a good night’s sleep-quite the opposite. The storm had woken her again and again, but she had the feeling that even if the night had been perfectly calm, she would still have had an uneasy rest. Her world had died with Gorion, the comfortable, safe world of Candlekeep. Now the future would be decided not by how well she pleased the monks, but by her skill with her mind blade, and her intelligence and wisdom and charm. In short, she had been tossed into the real world, Imoen at her side, and already a game was in motion, regarding lives as pieces on the board… and just as expendable.

 

Imoen was still sleeping soundly, and Alex envied her for it. Much to Alex’s amusement and Gorion’s frustration (along with most of the other residents of Candlekeep), Imoen had displayed the uncanny ability to fall asleep virtually anywhere, in any position. More than once, Imoen’s explorations of Candlekeep’s hidden places came to an ignominious end when she found a cozy location and closed her eyes. If the monks’ stories were true, Imoen had wormed her way into places even Alex had never snuck into. She was glad her sister was able to find peace.

 

Alex left the camp and stretched. It had been a full day now since Gorion’s death, and for all her ruminations and talk, she was no closer to the answers she sought.

 

For now, I suppose I should put that on hold. Survival will have to take precedence over figuring out Gorion’s secrets. A long-term goal, yes, but the short term is a more pressing issue. Hopefully, Gorion’s friends will have some idea of what to do. It would be too much to hope that they know what’s going on, but I’ll take any form of guidance at this point. Imoen and I are now two entry-level adventurers, I guess.

 

Noise from behind Alex informed her Imoen was waking up. She seemed nonplussed about their situation, and simply shrugged when Alex asked if she was alright. They broke their camp, such as it was. Neither of them was an experienced camper, but, Alex thought with a wry smile, they would probably become quite good at it in the future, if they survived. Imoen slung her quiver over her back, Alex gathered their supplies, and they continued onward.

 

Alexandria gaped a bit at the Friendly Arm Inn. The converted fortress was a bit smaller than Candlekeep, but for one who had lived in Candlekeep her entire life, the Inn somehow seemed much bigger. She had heard Gorion’s tale about the place, of course. It had been the stronghold of a priest or wizard of some dark god or another, until an adventuring team led by Bentley Mirrorshade cleansed the fortress and converted it into a heavily fortified waypost on the road, neatly situated between Baldur’s Gate, Candlekeep, and Beregost.

 

One of the guards glared at her as she entered through the main gate. “What do you want here, demon-spawn?â€Â

 

Alex sighed. Her fears were coming true. “I’m not demon-spawn. Just a traveler, looking to stop at the Inn.â€Â

 

“You don’t fool me, tiefling. I know all about your kind.â€Â

 

“I am not like my so-called kindred. I am Alexandria of Candlekeep.â€Â

 

“Alexandria of Candlekeep? Some wizard was asking for that name, or something close to it.â€Â

 

“Who-where is he?â€Â

 

“His name’s Tarnesh, I think. He’s in the inn. But I’m keeping my eye on you, tiefling. You’ll conduct no dark business here.â€Â

 

“Then you have nothing to worry about.â€Â

 

The guard reluctantly let the women past. As they went up the steps to the inn, Imoen whispered to Alex.

 

“Wow. I knew tieflings were supposed to be unpopular, but… wow. How’d he know?â€Â

 

“Probably my eyes. And I’ve been told I just tend to strike people as being somehow wrong. I’m glad I don’t have horns or a tail like a lot of tieflings do.â€Â

 

“Yeah. I’m glad I’m not one, too.â€Â

 

“Oh, very funny.â€Â

 

Alex softly punched Imoen on the arm as they walked into the inn’s common room. A tall man in black robes immediately strode over to them.

 

“Ah, two more travelers blowing in. And one with the blood of the Lower Planes, no less. Would you happen to be from Candlekeep?â€Â

 

Alex frowned. Was it possible that this wizard was one of Gorion’s friends?

 

“Yes, I was there until quite recently.â€Â

 

“Would you be Alexandria, then?â€Â

 

“I would.â€Â

 

“Good. I have something to tell you.â€Â

 

The man’s hands flowed into arcane motions and he began to chant odd words. Alex realized what was happening, and her mind blade flared into her hand.

 

“Imoen, watch out! He’s casting a-!â€Â

 

The blast of magic burned into Alex’s shoulder and sent her toppling down the stairs. She got back up in time to see him casting another spell, before an arrow struck him in the gut. Imoen had managed to get clear of his magic, and she drew a slender pink rod from her belt and pointed it at the wizard. A bolt of magical energy sped forth and pitched the wizard backwards. Her balance regained and mind blade in hand, Alex slashed as her enemy came around. The trailing edge of the blade caught the man’s neck, ripping a second mouth below his own and cutting to the bone. He screamed-a hideous, gurgling sound-and a fountain of blood arced out, spraying all across Alex’s armor.

 

“What in the hells is going on here?!†A guard shouted.

 

Alex turned around. It was the same guard who had accosted her at the entrance.

 

“This man attacked us. No sooner had I identified myself to him than he attacked me and my sister.â€Â

 

“A likely story, demon girl. How do I know you don’t just love the smell of blood? You’re covered in it, filth. What proof is there that you didn’t just kill this man in cold blood?â€Â

 

“The woman is telling the truth.†Another voice called.

 

Alex and the guard looked around at the sound of the voice. It was a half-elven woman in leather armor, carrying a staff. She had long brown hair, tanned skin, and an unusual accent. Behind her was a dark-skinned man with black hair, wearing chain mail and carrying a long sword and shield. His manner seemed subservient to the woman.

 

“Guard, it happened exactly as this woman said. My husband and I watched the scene occur. This woman entered the room, identified herself when asked, and was attacked, along with her companion. They killed him in self-defense.â€Â

 

“Very well. Times have been getting rough lately. No one would have dared try something like this a year ago. I’ll get a priest-we’ll need to bury this fellow. Tiefling, I am… sorry. You are free to go.â€Â

 

Alex turned to the woman as the guard left. “Who are-“

 

“Hush, girl. Quickly, check the wizard’s body for anything useful before the guards remove the body.â€Â

 

Alex frowned, but did as the woman asked. She found the wizard’s purse, spellbook, small collection of spell scrolls, and a letter case. Out of curiosity, she opened the letter.

 

BOUNTY NOTICE

 

Be it known to all those of evil intent that a bounty has been placed on Alexandria, foster daughter of Gorion. The person is a female tiefling, of roughly six and a half feet in height, with brown skin and red-brown hair. Distinctive features include cat-like eyes.

 

Last seen in the area of Candlekeep, this person is to be killed in quick order.

 

Those returning with proof of the deed shall receive no fewer than two hundred coins of gold.

 

As always, any that reveal these plans to the forces of the law shall join the target in their fate.

 

“This is very strange, and very dangerous. There’s now a bounty on my head, and they’re not being subtle about it-‘Be it known to all those of evil intent’.†Alex looked up at the new woman. “Do you know anything about this?â€Â

 

“No, child. I overheard you identifying yourself to the wizard. I am Jaheira, and this is my husband, Khalid.†The woman motioned to the man behind her.

 

“Pleased to-to meet you.†He said.

 

Jaheira continued. “You are indeed Gorion’s daughter, aren’t you? The cat-eyed girl with the mind blade.â€Â

 

“I am.â€Â

 

“Good. Gorion is an old friend, one we have not seen in some time. Where is he?â€Â

 

“He’s dead.â€Â

 

“Dead? How?â€Â

 

“Murdered, and probably by whoever wants me dead as well.â€Â

 

“That is sad news. May Silvanus guide his soul to a well-deserved rest. Would you be Imoen, then?†She asked, pointedly looking at the girl, who had been trying to slink behind Alex.

 

“Yep. Or, I was Imoen the last time I looked, at any rate.â€Â

 

“Very good. Khalid and I promised we would look after you if anything ever happened to Gorion, so I suppose we should do so now. Did he tell you anything? Anything important?â€Â

 

“Only that I was supposed to meet you here if we ever got separated.â€Â

 

Jaheira frowned, which set Alex wondering. Did she hold another piece of the puzzle? Or was she simply hoping Alex did?

 

“Alexandria, my husband and I were on our way to Nashkel, to investigate the iron crisis that’s plaguing the Sword Coast. Surely even you’ve heard something about it.â€Â

 

Alex nodded.

 

“I expect we can fill you in on the road. You seem a capable fighter, so I suppose we should get moving.â€Â

 

“Wait-I never said I’d go with you to investigate the iron crisis. I want to know why there’s a bounty on my head, what Gorion and possibly you know about me that I don’t, and I want to know why Gorion died.â€Â

 

“There is nothing more about that that I can say. More than your life hangs in the future, and I cannot endanger the Balance.â€Â

 

“I don’t care about your Balance.â€Â

 

“Then you should at least care about surviving, girl! There is nothing more you can do about these assassins now-you must do what you can. Do it for the coin and the fame if you must, silly girl, but make your choice.â€Â

 

Alex almost snapped her mind blade into existence again, but she forced herself to calm down. Jaheira was making sense, unfortunately.

 

“Okay, I’ll go with you to Nashkel. And you can call me Alex, by the way.â€Â

 

“Good of you to come to your senses. Khalid, Imoen, let’s be off.â€Â

 

Alex reluctantly turned and followed the woman. She didn’t like this at all.

 

But she also had a feeling things would grow worse in time. Much worse.

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Chapter VI: Balancing Act

 

 

The part left the Friendly Arm Inn, Jaheira in the lead, and Alex following mutely behind. She wasn’t happy, to say the least.

 

“Jaheira, why is it so important that the iron crisis be solved?â€Â

 

“I do not expect you to understand, but Gorion always said you were brighter than you sometimes appeared to be. Iron coming out of the mines of Nashkel is extremely brittle, breaking with ease. Anything forged from tainted iron is worse than useless. No one has found a way to remove the taint in forging.â€Â

 

“So? Can’t people buy iron from other places?â€Â

 

“Under normal circumstances, yes. But prices of iron have been rising steeply as of late. Most of the merchants blame it on bandit attacks that have been growing sharply in frequency and intensity recently. There is a severe iron shortage on the Sword Coast, Alexandria, and the consequences if this crisis is left unsolved are beyond most rational comprehension.â€Â

 

“Try me.â€Â

 

“Very well. There is a complicated political layer to the crisis as well. Amn is blaming Baldur’s Gate for instigating the crisis.â€Â

 

“That makes no sense. From what I was taught about politics and economics, Baldur’s Gate has no reason to want to do something like that.â€Â

 

“Most people would agree. But Baldur’s Gate thinks it’s Amn that sabotaging the mines intentionally. And there are rumors coming out of Nashkel, the Amnish town producing the iron, of demons living in the mines. That, child, is what Khalid and I came to the Sword Coast to investigate.â€Â

 

“So Baldur’s Gate and Amn are being driven by their mutual paranoia? If they’d only take each other at face value, there would be no crisis, but they aren’t.â€Â

 

“You are more intelligent than one would think. That is quite correct. Things are moving slowly in the direction of full-scale war between Baldur’s Gate and Amn, unless this crisis is resolved, and soon. That, I trust, is sufficient reason for you to get involved.â€Â

 

“I guess.â€Â

 

“You guess, child? That kind of answer may have sufficed to your tutors in Candlekeep, but nature brooks no such half-hearted responses. Alexandria, your life as you knew it is over. You are a monstrosity of nature, but you must find the balance in your life, and you must take a firm stance for what you believe in! The weak and the foolish have no place in nature!â€Â

 

Without conscious thought, Alex’s mind blade sprung to life.

 

“Is that what I am to you, Jaheira? A monstrosity of nature?! I had no choice what I was born as, woman! Nature may not accept me, you may not accept me, people may not accept me, but I’m here regardless! There is no balance in me, there is no balance in my blood! I’m simply trying to survive in a world that considers me as unnatural as you do!â€Â

 

“You have no idea what you’re talking about, girl! You think you’re somehow unusual for having demon blood? You’re not! Everyone exists in nature, no matter how unnatural, and they always come to an equilibrium with their environment. There is a balance in all things, which you cannot change. You must simply decide how you are going to find balance in your life.â€Â

 

“I do not want balance, Jaheira.â€Â

 

“Then what do you want in life, Alexandria? Acceptance? Peace? Joy? What do you want?â€Â

 

“I want answers. Answers to who and what I am.â€Â

 

“And even if you do someday learn those answers? You will still be nothing more than what you are now-a young tiefling woman with a bizarre mental gift, alone on the Sword Coast. Even if you someday kill the man who slew Gorion, what will do you after that? Everyone finds a balance, a reason for existence beyond merely fulfilling some vow. What will you do, Alexandria?â€Â

 

“I will make that decision when the time comes.â€Â

 

“Did Gorion teach you nothing, girl? You are allowing yourself to be motivated by short-term emotions. Your desire for revenge will burn out, your determination to learn about your past will fade. Will you accept a meaningless day-to-day existence, or will you seek to live for a purpose, a goal? In short, what will be your reason to live?â€Â

 

“Do you expect me to know that kind of thing, now of all times?â€Â

 

“Yes, I do. You do not know where you stand in the world, Alexandria. Your footing is uncertain, and your path hidden. It is in the beginning of a journey that the most important decisions are made. The destination does not matter. What does matter are how you are going to get there, surviving the trip, and most importantly, why you are going.â€Â

 

“You aren’t going to leave me alone until I come up with a reason for my actions, are you?â€Â

 

Jaheira made a rare smile.

 

“You are correct, child. I promised Gorion I would look after you, and nothing is as fundamental to a person’s identity as their reason for living.â€Â

 

“I would give anything, seize any excuse, not to have to continue this conversation right now.â€Â

 

Naturally, the gods grinned and decided to take her up on it.

 

 

The arrow missed Jaheira by only a few inches.

 

“Bandits!â€Â

 

Alexandria and Khalid immediately drew their weapons and charged the bandits, now showing themselves from the trees. They had planned their ambush well, but put down their bows as the two warriors approached, drawing swords. Alex swung her mind blade towards the nearest bandit, battering the sword aside, then slashing across his shoulder. The bandit roared with pain, but pulled a throwing knife from a sleeve sheathe and threw it at her with his good arm. The tip of the knife slipped between the rivets on Alex’s armor and drew blood. She bit her lip from the pain, and finished the bandit, driving her blade into his chest.

 

No sooner had Alex and Khalid dispatched the first pair of bandits than Imoen shouted in alarm. Two more groups appeared, coming from behind in a perfect flanking maneuver at the adventurers, drawn out by the decoy. Imoen loosed an arrow at one, but dove for cover behind a tree as multiple shafts launched themselves at her. She wasn’t quite fast enough, however, and an arrow lodged itself deep in her calf. She cursed and withdrew her short bow again-she wasn’t going to be moving much. Khalid and Jaheira moved to engage the group on the north side of the ambush.

 

Leaving Alex alone to deal with the other group. She ran as fast as she could towards them, ignoring the arrows flying at her. One hit, but lodged itself in her armor and failed to do any harm. Mind blade in hand, she attacked the nearest one, cleaving through bow and fingers, and biting deep into the upper arm. As she did so, however, two arrows from the other bandits and a heavy fist impacted her shoulder, and Alex went sprawling to the ground.

 

The man she had wounded made a toothless grin as he stood over her, ready to drive his short sword into the fallen woman, until a blade suddenly thrust itself through his chest. He looked down, seeing half a foot of sharp steel coming out of his torso, and his expression reflected surprise more than anything else. The blade withdrew, and the bandit fell. As he did, Alex saw the source-a tall man clad in splint mail, and bearing a sword and shield. She got to her feet and reformed her mind blade as the man felled another bandit, and with his assistance, the beleaguered adventurers finished the remaining bandits.

 

Their rescuer softly chanted a prayer and touched Alex’s wounds, closing and sealing them as though they had never been. She had seen such effects before, from priests in Candlekeep tending to various injuries, but had never managed to need healing herself. The man smiled at Alex’s inquisitive gaze.

 

“I am sorry if I seem untoward-I was traveling this road and saw the bandits attack you. I am sworn to defend those in need, and attacked the bandits. I am Ajantis, paladin of Helm. Who are you?â€Â

 

Alex’s gratitude for the rescue cooled as the man identified himself. A paladin. Still, might as well inform him of everything.

 

“I am Alexandria, lately of Candlekeep, and this is my sister Imoen, and my… friends, Jaheira and Khalid.â€Â

 

“Pleased to meet you. I beg your pardon, m’lady, but there is something strange about you. I saw you wield a blade of shimmering light, that simply appeared in your hand. I have never seen such a thing.â€Â

 

“It is a native gift, not magical. Anyhow, thank you for your assistance. We’re on our way down to Nashkel, hoping to investigate the iron crisis. And exterminating any bandits that happen to cross our path, of course.†Alex grinned.

 

Ajantis smiled. “I have not been on the Sword Coast for long, but I have heard of this iron crisis, and am pleased to hear that there are brave individuals trying to solve this crisis before it grows any worse. If you would allow, I would like to offer my assistance on this quest. You are a talented fighter, and have quite a streak of boldness, charging the bandits the way you did.â€Â

 

Alex considered the man’s offer briefly. She still didn’t want to get involved in this crisis any more than she had to, but privately, she had to admit that Jaheira had been right about some things. Perhaps once they resolved the crisis, she would be in a position to pursue the mystery of the bounty on her head, among other things.

 

“I welcome your company, Ajantis. Let’s check these bodies, make sure everyone’s ready, and get moving. Beregost is still a day or two of walking away.â€Â

 

Jaheira passed close to Alex as she moved to check the bandit corpses, and spoke softly under her breath, loud enough for only the two of them to hear.

 

“You are learning, child.â€Â

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Chapter VII: A Lever and a Place to Stand

 

The rest of the journey to Nashkel was uneventful, broken only by a handful of attacks by bandits, gibberlings, and other pests. The five heavily armed adventurers drove off the attacks briskly. What Alex found harder to avoid, however, was her new traveling companion, Ajantis. Though they had passed through Beregost without incident, he finally cornered her when the adventurers set up camp for the night, about a day south of the town.

 

“Alexandria, I know you have been avoiding me for the last few days. May I ask why?â€Â

 

Alex sighed. At this point, getting him off her back seemed worth the trouble.

 

“Because whatever you’re after, I doubt I have anything to say that will make you happy. But if it’ll get you off my case, tell or ask whatever you want.â€Â

 

“I understand you recently lost your father, so I understand if you are feeling on edge, but as a sworn knight of Helm, there are some questions of you I must ask.â€Â

 

“Then ask what you will. I don’t suppose I have anything to hide from you or anyone else here.â€Â

 

“Thank you for your trust, Alexandria. And forgive me, I am not talented at courtly speech, but… you are not human, are you?â€Â

 

“Not entirely, no.â€Â

 

“Do you know what manner of being lies in your ancestry? I have never seen a woman with eyes like yours, and you have a strange… aura.â€Â

 

“You aren’t going to like this, Ajantis, but I am a tiefling.â€Â

 

“A tiefling? I have heard of such creatures before, heard that they are evil creatures, but I am not certain just what one is.â€Â

 

“Ajantis… hellish blood runs in my veins. One of my ancestors, perhaps a great-grandfather, or something even further back in my lineage, was a demon. Who, or even how, I do not know.â€Â

 

“A demon-blooded woman… you are most strange, Alexandria. I can sense evil by its very presence, and I always feel a slight tingle emanating from you, but… it is only a faint sense, weaker even than the typical corrupt merchant in Amn, from whence I hail. Do you fight your heritage?â€Â

 

“I do not fight it, but I do not embrace it, either. My heritage is simply a part of me, as natural-or unnatural, as you prefer-as my mind blade. Do I relish having the blood of the Lower Planes? No. But neither do I regard it as something to be fought. I accept who and what I am. If the rest of the world does not, that is their problem. I care little for society, and especially what others think of me. I do what I feel is right, and let my conscience guide my actions.â€Â

 

“But what if your conscience leads you to evil?â€Â

 

“Then who are you to say that I am doing evil? I answer to myself alone, Ajantis. Not to some king, not to the law, not to the gods.â€Â

 

“You walk a very dangerous road, Alexandria. I am a paladin-I live each day knowing Helm watches over me and holds me accountable. My code of honor guides my actions. Even in the darkest times, I have faith, and I have a code and standard to which to adhere. There is never any question about what is the proper course of action.â€Â

 

“If there is never any question about what to do, then you live an empty life. Living beings are not meant to be slaves, Ajantis, to other men or to the gods. Whether willing or unwilling, happy or not, those who never question their actions or ask why they do what they do, are slaves. Slaves to the gods, slaves to their society, slaves to their own ideals. Life exists for its own sake, Ajantis. There is no purpose to life except to live. It is what you do with that life that counts, not the ideals to which you subscribe.â€Â

 

“But what about peace, what about joy? It is the life you describe that is hollow-there is no fulfillment in such a life. And ironically, you, too, live by your own ideals. Is peace not worth the cost?â€Â

 

“And is freedom not worth the risk? I do have my ideals, my principles and goals. But I define them myself, and do not allow others to choose them for me. Define your ideals, set your goals, then act. Do not let others decide your ideals, your goals, or your actions for you. If others accept and laud you for your actions, that is their choice. As it is if they hate and reject you. No two people live exactly the same life-it is impossible to ever truly understand another. Judge a person by what she does, Ajantis. I reject no one simply because of what they are-if a pit fiend were proven to be pure of heart, I would gladly hail him as a hero.â€Â

 

“Evil finds such attitudes all too easily to exploit, Alexandria. Allow me to cite an example from my training. Two farms are beset by bandits. A knight answers to one farmer and purges the bandits from the land, refusing reward for the task. He does so because such is the right thing to do. But another man answers the other farmer’s plea. He also slays the bandits and refuses reward, because it was his idea in the first place that the bandits attack, and the man betrayed his fellows for his own greed. Is the second man evil, I ask you?â€Â

 

“No. The end result is the same as the knight’s: a group of bandits are dead and a farm is safe.â€Â

 

“But Alexandria, he was the one who convinced the bandits to attack the farm in the first place, and then he betrayed them!â€Â

 

“Your point being? If they could be so easily talked into attacking the farm, they would have been doing evil regardless. And were I the second man, I would have no qualm about betraying such people as that. In the end, a group of bandits is dead either way. Actions count, Ajantis.â€Â

 

“Then how do I know you will not betray myself or the others so easily?â€Â

 

“Because you are not evil, and neither are Imoen, Jaheira, and Khalid.â€Â

 

“But are you?â€Â

 

“You’re the paladin who can sense evil by its presence. You tell me.â€Â

 

“Your blood is irrevocably tainted by evil, but you yourself are not, I admit this. However, you are in the grip of chaos and disorder.â€Â

 

“If chaos and disorder are the result of determining for oneself how to live and how to act, then perhaps I am. But that doesn’t make me evil, and you know it.â€Â

 

“Law is the right to all people to keep them safe.â€Â

 

“Not everyone needs laws to keep them safe. I, for one, get by just fine without the chains of law.â€Â

 

“I will pray to Helm that you reconsider, but the fire is dying, and I do not think the others wish to hear any more of this. Good night, Alexandria.â€Â

 

“Good night.â€Â

 

She softly quenched the last of the fire, and returned to her bedroll, and softly fell asleep, thinking over what had been said.

 

 

Alex didn’t dream often, but that night, the visions were vivid indeed.

 

She awoke, finding herself in a dark forest she knew all too well. Even though her eyes seemed unable to pierce the darkness, she knew she was back in the woods outside Candlekeep. She turned around, facing the mighty citadel of knowledge, bathed in moonlight. High in the central keep, a candle burned in a window, the same window Alex had awoken next to for so many years. But the light flickered, and the candle died. As it did, the window vanished, the wall rising up and sealing the room.

 

“You cannot go back that way, child.â€Â

 

Alex turned at the familiar voice. Gorion walked out of the gates, but there was a massive slash across his chest, cutting almost to the bone. He was dead, just as he was when she left his simple funeral marker on the Cliffside. But another figure emerged from the gloom, a heavily armored man with eyes of fire. He strode towards Gorion, allies creeping behind him, and the doomed scene replayed itself again.

 

And as in life, Alex turned to run. But out of the corner of her eye, a path seemed to present itself to her. It pulled at her, promising to quickly lead her away from the life she once led, and whispering of vengeance for Gorion’s death. But Alex frowned. Such a path seemed too covenient for her liking. As much as she was determined to be her own person, she knew Gorion and the others had played a powerful role in shaping who she was. Such things should not be embraced, but neither should they be forgotten. Alex turned away from the path, and picked a new one at random. She had never been accused of being eminently reasonable, and while her new direction would no doubt be difficult, she was confident there would be excitement and adventure aplenty.

 

As she began to walk down her new road, the old path’s tug became a pull, ripping at the essence of her being, but Alex refused to turn back. She had set her new course, and would see it through to the end. She had never asked for more than a fighting chance. She had never needed anything more.

 

But a haunting whisper, familiar despite her never hearing it before, followed her.

 

“You will learn…â€Â

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Chapter VIII: Last Moves/First Moves

 

 

Alex kept quiet as the adventurers continued their journey to Nashkel. She knew she had had no ordinary dream-that voice she had heard… it came from within her, somehow. She felt a little strange, too. Alex had always been able to tap into the core of her being and spill forth clouds of darkness, but she recognized a new power slowly waking up in her. What kind of power, she wasn’t sure. But given the nature of the dream, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Maybe it was just the stress of it all, awakening new powers from her fiendish heritage. Jaheira and Imoen kept giving her odd looks, but Alex decided to keep the dream to herself. Her blood was her problem, not theirs.

 

Despite Alex’s anxieties, the rest of the journey passed without incident. Following the map Khalid thoughtfully carried, it wasn’t long before they found themselves approaching a small town-Nashkel. Alex thought it might have been a pleasant little town, but there was a large contingent of people within the town, who weren’t residents. Judging by their uniforms, armor, and weapons, they were some sort of military unit. One of them, wearing a particularly elaborate helm, walked out to the party as they approached the bridge into town.

 

“Halt, travelers. Nashkel is now under the protection of the army of Amn. What is your business in Nashkel?â€Â

 

Jaheira made a movement forward, but Alex spoke first, cutting her off.

 

“I am Alexandria of Candlekeep. We are here to investigate the iron crisis, and solve it if possible.â€Â

 

“Candlekeep? Those doddering old scholars have finally decided to take a side in this?â€Â

 

“No, I am from Candlekeep, but we are acting on our own initiative.â€Â

 

“Adventurers, eh? Good luck-you’re going to need it. Seems like everything that can go wrong has, these days.â€Â

 

“Just what is going wrong? We’ve heard nothing but rumors and suspicions.â€Â

 

“Aye, no one’s sure what exactly is wrong. The wild-eyed miners talk about demons coming out of the mines, bandits to the north strike without warning and disappear again without a trace, and iron is getting damn expensive. Still, any help is welcome these days, so head on into town. You’ll want to talk to Berrun Ghastkill, the local mayor. Good luck lass, you’ll need it.â€Â

 

The officer stepped aside and let Alex and her friends walk into town. Late as it was, there were still plenty of people moving about, some peddling to the Amnish soldiers, others going about their daily business. Seeing shrugs from her companions when she inclined her head in the direction of the inn, Alex went over and opened the door. A woman in chain mail immediately strode over to them.

 

“So you’re the naughty girl with a price on her head, who killed that idiot Tarnesh. Hmph. You don’t look so tough to me.â€Â

 

Alex manifested her mind blade.

 

“If you’re another bounty hunter, draw your weapon and get this over with. I’m getting rather tired of people trying to kill me.â€Â

 

“Too bad, dear. You’ve angered someone in a rather high place-your head will earn me quite a boon.â€Â

 

Before Alex could flick her mind blade into position, the woman bashed her shield into Alex’s face. She felt her nose give way and she fell to the dirt. From her half-open eyes she saw her assailant draw a heavy flanged mace, and was readying it to strike when a sword crashed down on her arm, cutting through the links of steel armor. Khalid expertly ducked the flailing edge of her shield, and drove his sword into her chest. Alex didn’t react much to seeing the woman die. It was strange. Had she already grown used to the sight of death?

 

A hand took her arm and helped her to her feet. Alex hadn’t given Khalid much thought, given his cringing attitude towards Jaheira, but she smiled at him in gratitude.

 

“Hold still a moment.†Jaheira stated from behind them. “Your nose is broken-it’s a bit beyond nature’s healing magics. I think you might have to live with your face marred a bit, girl. An apt lesson. Never stand so close to a potential enemy-the advantage is all theirs. You cannot react quickly enough to an attack at that range, child.â€Â

 

Alex’s gratitude melted into flame. She had committed herself to this woman’s mission, and still she treated Alex like an ignorant child? Alex’s natural energies swirled within her, and exploded outwards.

 

Much to her surprise, the surge of energy she had felt from within didn’t strike Jaheira as she expected. Instead, it manifested as a soft glow on Alex’s skin, and she suddenly felt intense pain on her face, and there were cracking noises as her broken nose moved. When the energy was spent, Alex looked back at Jaheira. She, and the others, were dumbstruck, as though they had just seen a ghost.

 

“What-what did you just see?â€Â

 

Imoen approached her cautiously. “Sis, your facial injury… it’s completely gone. You looked like you were ready to kill someone, then you glowed real bright, and suddenly you healed yourself. Never seen anything like it before. Didn’t even look like one of Jaheira’s healing spells.†She frowned hesitantly. “What did you do, sis?â€Â

 

“I’m… not sure, Im. It was almost like manifesting my mind blade, just pouring my spirit into the physical world. But… what a rush. I felt downright giddy for a moment. Never felt quite like that before. You know I can tap my being to produce darkness, but this was… different. Similar, and similar to my mind blade, but very different somehow. It felt much more… primal, guided only by my instinct.â€Â

 

“Well… you can heal, so I guess it’s a good thing, but sis… you’re scaring me a little.â€Â

 

“Lady Alexandriaâ€Â-Ajantis cut in-“I beg your pardon, but I have felt something like that before. Helm has granted me the power to heal another’s wounds by laying my hands upon them. It is a gift of the Watcher, and it is through his power that I can use it. But you… has a deity granted you some minute portion of power?â€Â

 

Imoen laughed at the paladin. “You really haven’t gotten to know Alex much, have you? She doesn’t worship any gods.â€Â

 

Ajantis did not share her amusement-his expression turned grave. “That is a most dire choice, Lady Alexandria. And if you do not… then I do not know how you could display such a power.â€Â

 

Alex shook her head at all of them. “My new trick is not important. What is important is that whoever sent Tarnesh, and that man in Candlekeep, to kill me, is evidently tracking my movements. We can’t stay in town for long-I don’t want other people getting hurt because of me. Go to the inn, get some sleep. Tomorrow, we’ll purchase more supplies, talk with this mayor, and set out for the mines.â€Â

 

“It is decided, then?†Jaheira asked. “You are determined to investigate this crisis?â€Â

 

“My path is set, yes. But make no mistake, Jaheira-I’m not doing this for the sake of your precious balance. There’s an enemy with a great deal of resources evidently aiming to kill me. Gorion’s worries for my safety began at about the same time as we first started hearing whispers of an iron crisis, of bandits, and of the specter of war. Even it is all a coincidence, experience can’t help but make me a better fighter, a better thinker, and a better survivor. I don’t like being dragged into this, but as I really have no other choice, I will follow this road wherever it leads.â€Â

 

“Reluctant and self-serving commitment to the balance is commitment nevertheless, Alexandria. Don’t be so certain of your destination on this road-rare indeed is the woman who dies having done precisely the thing she set out to do with her life.â€Â

 

Jaheira, Khalid, and Ajantis went into the inn, but Imoen remained outside. Her face was worried as the two sisters looked at each other.

 

“Alex… you’ve been keeping something from me. Ever since that night after your big argument with Ajantis. Talk to me.â€Â

 

“I’m sorry, Im. I didn’t want to alarm anyone, but… I had a nightmare.â€Â

 

“A nightmare? Seeing how shaken you were, that musta been one hell of a scare.â€Â

 

“It was. I was in the woods outside Candlekeep…â€Â

 

Alex explained her dream for the next few minutes. Imoen, if anything looked even more worried.

 

“Sis… you are really starting to worry me. Weird dreams, people out to kill ya, mysterious powers from nowhere… it’s all scary. But… I’ll stand by ya no matter what, big sis.†Imoen forced a smile.

 

Alex impulsively hugged Imoen, a bright smile on her face. The two women went indoors.

 

 

While the other members of the party went about their business, Alex went straight to the inn’s bar. Gorion would have been apoplectic if he had known Winthrop had let Alex taste alcohol, but then, Alex had always been a troublemaker, and she enjoyed a good drink. But her motives weren’t entirely recreational, either. As the barkeep served the young woman a drink, she asked him.

 

“How’s the iron shortage affecting things in Amn? My friends and I have been traveling for some time, and we’ve only just come this far south.â€Â

 

“Just as bad as it is up north, I’d imagine. The Roenalls are making a lot of trouble.â€Â

 

The Roenalls… she remembered that day in Candlekeep vividly indeed, for all that it had occurred twelve years ago. She would never forget the day she first manifested her mind blade… and almost killed Isea Roenall. Lord Roenall had been seeking books from Candlekeep’s library… ones the Amnish authorities would not have looked kindly upon.

 

“The Roenalls?â€Â

 

“Yeah, a big family of nobles. Strong in Athkatla. Very powerful family, and reputed to be more ruthless than your typical noble family. Word has it they had a hand in laying low the Delryn family, and even the De’Arnise family has been forced into working with them, though Lord De’Arnise is said to be a very canny leader. But the Roenalls have evidently found some secret source of iron, which they’re keeping a tight leash on. Prices are exorbitant unless you agree to do them a favor or two. They’re pushing for war with Baldur’s Gate over this crisis. They blame the Flaming Fist for trying to cripple Amn.â€Â

 

“Do you?â€Â

 

“Gods, no. It just makes no sense-the entire Fist hasn’t got the men to actually invade Amn, and what would be the point? Amn’s worth more to the Gate as a trading partner-the economy of the entire damn Sword Coast depends on Athkatla and Baldur’s Gate being reliable trading partners. A war would ruin everything, and disrupt trade as far away as the Ten-Towns.â€Â

 

“Any idea what the Roenalls’ angle is on this, then?â€Â

 

“Nary a clue. They’re said to do a lot of trading with Calimshan, so it wouldn’t hurt them much, but there’s just no profit to be had in a war. But the commander of the troopers says the old Lord Roenall himself saw his company off.â€Â

 

“That’s odd indeed. Thanks for the drink and the tales.â€Â

 

“No problem, lass. Coin from Baldur’s Gate is still good coin.â€Â

 

Alex walked to her room for the night, but the gears in her mind ground away. The thing with the Roenalls couldn’t be just a coincidence… could it? Why in the Nine Hells were they pushing so hard for war? Did it have anything to do with those tomes they had secured from Candlekeep all those years ago? The mystery woven around her was impenetrable as ever, but she was certain another piece of the puzzle had just fallen into place.

 

The problem was, she wasn’t entirely sure if she wanted to see the completed picture.

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Chapter IX: Come Devils, Come Darkness

 

 

The Nashkel iron mines were a scar on the earth. The great pit loomed before them, filled with all manner of buildings, ironworks, smelting equipment, and all the necessary apparatus for extracting large quantities of ore from the depths of the earth. For a mine, it was rather unremarkable in appearance, especially for all the trouble it was causing. The road south of Nashkel had been interesting-lots of people and wagons moving north, but only a few soldiers and Alex’s party advanced south. Berrun Ghastkill’s orders had been simple enough in concept: find out what was tainting the ore, take appropriate measures to fix it, investigate the stories of demons in the mines, and make the depths safe for mining once again.

 

Simple in concept, perhaps, but Alex believed Jaheira’s muttered insight that it would be beyond lucky if it were so easy to do in practice. And lately, Alexandria’s presence seemed to draw the gaze of Beshaba.

 

“Civilization.†Jaheira snorted. “It has its place in nature, to be sure, but seeing the earth split open like this gives me a strong desire to plant my spear in someone’s vital organs.â€Â

 

“You must be joking, Lady Jaheira.†Ajantis responded. “The metal head of your spear was likely forged from Nashkel iron, as are all the other iron items you use.â€Â

 

“I seldom jest, Ajantis. I know perfectly well the role mines serve in civilization, and so long as the miners show the proper respect for the earth as they plunder its treasures, I do not object overly much to them.â€Â

 

Alexandria sighed. Having three highly opinionated individuals traveling in each other’s company had made for some lively discussions on the road, to the discomfort of Khalid and Imoen. She advanced down the road, approaching the gentle slope down to the mine pit, when an Amnish sentry stopped her.

 

“The mine’s no place for a lass like you, girl, even if you’re wearing armor. What are you doing here?â€Â

 

“I’m Alexandria of Candlekeep, and these are my companions. We’re here to investigate the crisis in the mines.â€Â

 

“You’re the adventurers, eh? Ghastkill sent word ahead-he said to be on the lookout for a woman with weird eyes and red-brown hair. You’ll want to talk to the mine foreman, Emerson-he’s down below. He wears a bright red shirt. Can’t miss him. Good luck in there, lass-the miners tell tales of creatures I’d never want to run into.â€Â

 

Alex thanked the man, and the adventurers proceeded down the slope. There were several guards stationed near the mine entrance, all armed with long pikes and crossbows. Their expressions were that of boredom, but there was also a tension to them. The general anxiety on the Sword Coast was getting to them as well. Looking around, Alex spotted the man the guard referred her to. She strode up to him.

 

“Would you be Emerson, the mine foreman?â€Â

 

“Aye. I take it you’re the leader of the adventurers who want to take a look in my mine?â€Â

 

“I am. Anything I should know?â€Â

 

“My men report demons coming out of the walls down there, lass. I personally don’t believe it’s any sort of actual demon, but whatever it is, it’s killed quite a few of my workers. We’ve withdrawn from the lower levels entirely-a guard post on the second level was overrun a few days ago. Just one guard managed to get back up. What carts of ore we have managed to salvage from below are worthless-contaminated, every last pebble. Here’s a map of the mine-there were three active production levels, and we recently broke into a big underground chasm even further below. There’s a couple of big underground lakes we’ve had to be careful around, and a crevice splitting the third level in twain. The first level is still safe, but once you go past the guard post there, you’re on your own, lass. You’ll probably need a supply of torches-grab some from the supply room on the first level.â€Â

 

“I don’t need any. I can see perfectly in the dark.â€Â

 

“Hey!†Imoen shouted. “Just because you, Jaheira, and Khalid can see well in the dark doesn’t mean I can! Thank you, mister Emerson-we’ll be sure to grab some!â€Â

 

Alex grinned at her sister, then turned to face the foreman again.

 

“Thank you for your help. We’ll get your mine open again.â€Â

 

“Good luck, lass. You’re going to need it.â€Â

 

 

The interior of the mines was cool and damp. Walls were tunneled stone, with reinforced wooden supports at regular intervals. According to the map, the first level wasn’t really used for production anymore. Various rooms had been excavated and converted into sleeping quarters, storerooms, even a small armory. Torches were carefully placed, and overall illumination was good, though miners they had passed indicated that the torches on the lower levels had gone out. Whatever the things below were, they weren’t impeded by darkness. Alex wasn’t, either, but Imoen grabbed a plentiful supply of torches. The adventurers paused for a moment at the lift down to the second level, and entered the gloom.

 

The second level of the mines was much darker, and Alex paused briefly as her eyes adjusted to the dark. It wasn’t pitch dark, however, as one would expect of a lightless tunnel under the earth. There was light coming from somewhere… wait. What was that smell? Rather like a wet dog… lots of them.

 

“We’re under attack!†Jaheira shouted.

 

The sound of loud, dog-like barks and yips betrayed their position, and a fusillade of arrows came screaming down the tunnel, and the adventurers dove for cover behind an old mine cart and the natural curve of the tunnel. Imoen drew her own bow and fired, but she couldn’t see very well in the dim light, and there were no sounds of an injured creature. Alex was about to step out from behind the old cart to attack, when another volley of arrows flew down the tunnel. She turned to her friends.

 

“Jaheira, Ajantis-any suggestions?â€Â

 

Ajantis shook his head. “I am sorry, my lady, but I doubt my shield could hold off that many arrows.â€Â

 

Jaheira, however, had a touch of a smile on her face. “I am a druid, child, and I can prevail upon nature to aid us. We are in her embrace down here, in the bowels of Toril, and her power runs strong.â€Â

 

She began chanting a prayer to Silvanus, and magical energies gathered around her. Just as the kobolds began to advance on the trapped adventurers, her spell completed, and roots exploded out of the earthen walls, floor, and ceiling. The living roots wrapped themselves around convenient limbs, weapons, and necks, stopping the creatures in their tracks. Alex leapt out from behind her cover, and took immediate advantage of the creatures’ sudden immobility, manifesting her mind blade and slashing away at convenient targets. Beside her, the other intruders did the same with their preferred weapons, and in a few moments, all of the creatures lay dead.

 

Alex looked more closely at the things they had just slain. The creatures were small but humanoid, with distinctly dog-like features. Their equipment was, surprisingly, almost identical for all of them. A very rough and poorly maintained leather cuirass, small wooden short bow, and a crudely forged iron short sword. Altogether, there were no more than half a dozen of the creatures, but the hail of arrows they had unleashed, coming almost without warning, gave Alex the feeling that the creatures were rather more dangerous than one might imagine. She looked over to Jaheira.

 

“What on Toril are these things?â€Â

 

“They are called kobolds, child. Small, physically weak, prone to cowardice and internal squabbles that keep them from bothering other races very much. But do not underestimate them. They can be clever in the very worst ways, and have a penchant for cruelty. Kobolds live mainly in the depths of the earth, but it’s very unusual that any would live here… this is outside their usual area of habitation. They mainly pursue ancient grudges against dwarves and gnomes-they are seldom foolish enough to intentionally anger humans as well… this is most unusual.â€Â

 

“Then what the hell is going on? The shadow of war looms over Baldur’s Gate and Amn because of an iron crisis, and its being fomented by kobolds?!â€Â

 

“I doubt it.†Ajantis interrupted. “Kobolds are known for being disastrously clever, not necessarily smart. And they certainly don’t have the imagination-or ability-to instigate a crisis like the Sword Coast faces. The iron shortage is only part of the problem, remember. I came to the Sword Coast from the Order of the Radiant Heart to pursue the bandit troubles. And when you couple the bandit assaults with the iron shortage with the political agitators in Baldur’s Gate and Amn… I think it might all be interconnected, my lady. How it’s all connected, I cannot say. But the only possible consequence of all this would be someone who wishes war between Baldur’s Gate and Amn.â€Â

 

“But that makes no sense-everyone I’ve talked to agrees. War serves no one’s purposes.â€Â

 

Jaheira smiled sadly at Alex. “You are learning, child. Wars are begun by frightened men. Civilization is irrational and foolhardy. But there is a method to this madness, I fear. And I pray to Silvanus you adapt to it.â€Â

 

“Er, don’t mean to bother yer chatter, but I found something.†Imoen cut in. “The kobolds or whatever were carrying around bottles of some weird green stuff. Never seen anything like it before.â€Â

 

“Hand one of the bottles to me, child.†Jaheira ordered.

 

Imoen did so, and Jaheira began to examine the fluid in the bottle. It was green and oily, and when she took a small piece of wood and stirred the fluid, it was thick and viscous. She frowned.

 

“This substance is rather unlike anything I’ve seen before. It is no ordinary potion or alchemical mixture, that is certain. Imoen, check that mine cart. Is it loaded with ore?â€Â

 

“Yep. Sure is.â€Â

 

“Take a look at the pieces of ore. Do you notice anything strange?â€Â

 

“Yeah… it glistens in the torchlight. Like it’s been coated with something.†Imoen paused. “That stuff the kobolds were carrying around, maybe?â€Â

 

“It may very well be, child. Some alchemical creation… weakening the iron in its unrefined state… certainly within the bounds of possibility. But not within the skill of kobold alchemists, unless there is a fully fledged city beneath these mines. And were that the case, we would never have been allowed this near.â€Â

 

“Wow. There’s really no end to how deep this goes, is there?â€Â

 

“The mine or our situation?â€Â

 

“Our situation. I mean, I came to help Alex, and I really do want to let Gorion rest easy, but… we’re getting into something way over our head. I’m a little scared of what all this is pointing at.â€Â

 

“A reasonable response, Imoen. We’ll protect you, but if you want to head back to the surface, I won’t think any less of you.â€Â

 

“No. Just because I’m scared doesn’t mean I’m going to run. I’m in this until the end.â€Â

 

Jaheira gave Imoen a rare, warm smile.

 

 

Their investigation finished for the time being, Alex and her friends moved deeper into the dark, following Emerson’s map of the mine tunnels. Then the tunnel opened up into a wide cavern-a large underground lake the miners had broken into, fed by an underground river. A natural stone bridge extended over it. And on that bridge was a force of kobolds.

 

Imoen and Khalid drew their bows and fired while Alex and Ajantis wove forward-Alex relying on her mobility, and Ajantis on his shield and armor. The soulknife was the first to reach the kobolds, her sapphire mind blade glimmering in hand. The ethereal blade ripped downwards across the humanoid’s paltry armor, tearing open the flesh beneath. Ajantis was beside her, fighting just as adroitly with his iron blade. Then the world in front of them exploded.

 

The blast knocked Alex off her feet and sent her flying backwards, coming to rest on the stone floor, several feet behind the bridge. Ajantis was only knocked down, his heavy armor shielding him from the effects. The kobold or two left in the vicinity of the explosion didn’t exist anymore. Though some… pieces… remained. Alex searched frantically for the source of the explosion, and found a kobold on the far side of the bridge, a vial in hand that glowed ominously. For lack of any other option, Alex simply reformed her mind blade and hurled it at the attacker, focusing all of her spirit on keeping the blade intact. Normally, it fizzled out whenever it went more than a few feet from Alex’s body, but she focused her will on the blade as it went through the air.

 

It hit, though it wasn’t the best blow she’d ever made. The blunted end of the scimitar-like blade where she held it had struck, dazing the kobold and sending it reeling backwards. And right into Khalid’s sights. He carefully nocked an arrow in his composite longbow, took aim, and fired. The arrow arced gracefully through the expanse of open air, and hit the kobold dead center. Wounded, the creature dropped the vial it was holding, and the far side of the bridge disappeared in a fiery explosion.

 

The stone bridge itself, fortunately, was not harmed by the exploding potions the kobolds had been armed with. Alex and the others moved across, picking up a few coins here and there that the kobolds had carried. After checking further ahead, the second level seemed clear. The adventurers found an abandoned store-room, closed the door, and settled into an uneasy rest.

 

In the darkened mines, it was impossible to tell how much time had passed, but Jaheira insisted they had rested enough. Though no one had gotten anything approaching a good night’s sleep, the fact that they had to move on was real enough. They had yet to breach the third level, and if Emerson’s suspicions were correct, the heart of the problem lay on the fourth. With Jaheira’s aid, they managed to create a small fire, and ate a brief, tense meal.

 

The depths of the earth awaited them.

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Chapter X: Baptism of Shadow

 

 

Morning, such as it was, was a somber affair. Alex hadn’t slept very well, but from the looks of things, no one had. She, and the half-elves, could see fairly easily in the darkness of the mines, but Imoen and Ajantis looked very edgy. It was understandable, she supposed. Falling asleep in pitch darkness, bedroll laid out on a cold stone floor, being careful not to make enough noise to attract more kobolds… even with a spell of Jaheira’s active to alert them in case the kobolds breached the room while they slept, relinquishing consciousness was not an easy thing. Jaheira conjured a fire, using a spell to dim its light so that it didn’t penetrate more than a few feet. Still, it was sufficient for everyone to rise, eat a meager breakfast from their trail rations, and prepare for a day of blood and darkness. However, she was sure to take Imoen aside briefly as everyone prepared to leave. Alex was worried about her sister.

 

“Imoen, you sure you’re alright?â€Â

 

“I’m fine, sis.â€Â

 

“Now it’s my turn to say you’re not. Imoen, you hardly ate, and your movements are shaky.â€Â

 

“I guess you’re right. It’s that… none of this is what I ever expected it to be. In Gorion’s tales, he never mentioned the hero falling asleep slowly on a hard rock floor, scared to death he would wake up with a kobold’s sword in him.â€Â

 

“Im, those were just stories. In Father’s tales, the heroes are always perfect, and the villains either misunderstood or utterly evil. I love ya, sis, but I know you have flaws. I have mine. That man who killed Father… he probably has virtues.â€Â

 

“Kinda surprised to hear you of all people telling me that, not Jaheira. You never listened to his stories much.â€Â

 

“No, I prefer action to talk. But I want to make sure you’re okay, sis. I don’t like getting dragged into this mess, but dragged into it I am, and I’m going to see this through wherever it goes. There’s a lot going on that doesn’t make sense, and if I can unravel it a little, so much the better. I desperately want to find and kill the man who murdered Father, but the way things are going with the assassins… I’m getting the feeling we won’t have to go looking for trouble. If you don’t want to do this, head back up to the surface. I don’t want you getting hurt if you don’t want to.â€Â

 

“No, Alex… I guess I’m just not as eager to dive into danger as you are. Making trouble round Candlekeep was one thing, and the bandits really weren’t that bad, but here… I’m scared of the dark, Alex. And not just the dark of the mine. The dark of what killed Gorion. The dark starting to grow, just a little, in you. Where’s the light in all this?â€Â

 

Alex didn’t reply for a moment, kindling her mind blade. It glowed a soft azure in the darkness, and she concentrated further, diffusing the normally razor-sharp edge of her mind, and brightening it. The glow from the blade intensified, and soon it was not so much a blade as a sapphire torch in her hand.

 

“The light is wherever we want it to be, Im.†Alex said with a grin.

 

Imoen didn’t say anything more, but hugged Alex fiercely.

 

Watching them silently, Jaheira smiled. As much as Alex rejected balance on a conscious level, as much as she was a bizarre anomaly in nature, adversity was, little by little, drawing her into nature’s web of life and balance. The woman had a spirit like a raging tempest, but that spirit was, ever so slowly, being tempered by experience, by compassion, and by sheer necessity.

 

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, she wondered at the mysterious reasons her old friend Gorion had had for raising Alexandria and Imoen. They were somehow extremely important individuals in some grand scheme, but neither Jaheira nor Khalid had ever been privy to them. It had been a matter kept closely by the master Harpers. Such a shame, Jaheira thought. Determined to carve her own path as she was, she could have been a powerful Harper. But, alas, she would never accept such a thing, at least not anytime soon. The Harpers were, by their nature, manipulators. Though Alexandria had the spirit and, however reluctantly, the heart of a Harper, such a thing was not meant to be in the immediate future. In time, perhaps.

 

“Is everyone ready?†Alex asked, returning her mind blade to battle-ready form.

 

“I stand ready.†Ajantis replied.

 

“Khalid and I are prepared.†Jaheira responded.

 

The adventurers warily advanced from the store-room, but there was no sign of another kobold ambush. It was an eerie experience, the only sound that of running water from the underground river. The torches did little to dispel the gloom that enshrouded the once-productive passageways, nor did the occasional corpse of a miner or guard, usually with evidence of being killed in a hail of arrows. Alexandria shivered, recalling how close she had come to suffering a similar fate the day before. None of the adventurers had even been wounded in the attack, but that was more the result of luck than anything else. Alex shook her head to clear her thoughts as they reached the lift to take them to the second level, and pulled the level, descending further into the dark.

 

As the lift descended, Alex studied the map Emerson had given them. The second level had been the primary production level of the mine-it was a winding labyrinth of passages and rooms, broken in the middle by the course of the underground river. The lift shaft was in the north-central side of the level, leading to a wide, relatively open north-south tunnel. The passage that had recently been opened up into a new third level to the mine was in the southeast. According to the guards on the surface, it had been a protracted battle down here-the kobolds had overrun the southern half of the level quickly, but the guards were able to hold them off for a time at the river bridge, which neatly bisected the maze in half. Alex sketched out the most direct course for them to reach the third level, in the vain hope they would be able to proceed as planned.

 

The clunk of iron on stone drew her back to the real world. They had arrived.

 

 

Alex moved forward cautiously. Emerson had been as good as his word-the main passageway was broad and open, multiple tracks for carts of ore clear for the ore to reach the lift and be hoisted up to the next level. Her nose rankled, however, at the dog-like stench of kobolds. None seemed to be in evidence, but inexperienced as she was, it nevertheless occurred to Alex that standing around in the open when enemies were nearby was probably not the wisest idea. She motioned her companions over to the side, into one of the mining passages. Had she worshipped a god, she probably would have uttered a soft prayer to her deity.

 

The whistle of arrow shafts was as sudden as it was expected. Kobolds had taken up positions further into the passageway, and shafts suddenly started to fly from behind them as well. Ajantis and Khalid lifted their shields and advanced swiftly down the passageway, while Imoen and Alexandria found what cover they could against the attacks from behind. Imoen returned fire against their assailants, and Alex ducked out and threw her mind blade into the darkness, immediately returning to her cover to reform the blade. The attack continued, and then suddenly stopped.

 

Ajantis looked around uneasily, his shield studded with kobold arrows, and blade streaked with blood. He and Khalid had only slain a handful of the kobolds waiting in ambush before they withdrew.

 

“This isn’t good, my lady. They caught us in a perfect pincer attack-had they pressed the assault, I am not certain if we would have been able to stop them. We made a tactical blunder out of the necessity of the terrain-why didn’t they press the advantage?â€Â

 

Alex simply shrugged. Kobold combat tactics hadn’t been one of her required lessons in Candlekeep. But Jaheira answered.

 

“I think they merely intended to harass us. Kobolds favor hit-and-run attacks, keeping their prey off-balance and straining morale, until they are ready to make a killing blow in overwhelming numbers. We are fighting them in their most favored terrain. Alexandria, you’re the one with the map. Is it possible to skirt around the edges of the level without getting caught in another crossfire?â€Â

 

“To an extent. The underground river cuts this level in half-we’re going to have to cross a bridge to reach the southern section of the mine. If you ask me, I’d say we should try to clear the northern section of the mine, and inflict as much damage as we can. I don’t want to get flanked again that badly.â€Â

 

“Your instincts are sound, child, but flawed in this case. We have no way of knowing what degree of organization, or even what numbers, we are facing. Although I am loathe to inflict outright destruction, this place has been weakened by the mining activity. If you can find a chokepoint on the south end of the map, I believe I can cause a cave-in. Not one large enough to stop the mine from producing once it is purged, but one that should buy us quite a bit of time against the kobolds. I expect that if we can reach the third level, or below, and slay their leader, the problem will be over. Kobolds are weak-willed creatures, Alexandria.â€Â

 

“I don’t know if that sounds very smart. What if we need to retreat, and the cave-in blocks our escape route?â€Â

 

“Then we would be doomed regardless. We do not have the numbers to cleanse these tunnels, and it is folly to try. We must do what we can. Nothing more, and nothing less.â€Â

 

Reluctantly, Alex nodded.

 

“Okay, then. The more time we stand around talking, the more time we have for the kobolds to launch another attack. Let’s go.â€Â

 

The tunnels in the second level were relatively noisy. The rush of the subterranean river was loud here, as was the yip-like language of the kobolds. The adventurers could also hear the distant sounds of mining activity. It seemed the kobolds were tainting the ore on the human-held levels, but good iron ore was still good iron, no matter who was mining it. The kobolds launched more attacks against the adventurers, but rapidly disengaged. They were content to fire a barrage or two of arrows from multiple directions in the dark tunnels, and disappear as abruptly as they appeared. By the time they reached the final passageway before the bridge, they were weary.

 

Alex took stock of herself and her companions-taking the bridge would not be an easy task. Imoen seemed more-or-less okay, but a sliver of chipped stone had opened up a nasty gash above her right eye. Jaheira had mended it, but said she would probably live with the scar for the rest of her days. Ajantis and Khalid were unharmed as well, due to their armor, but both displayed signs of incumbent fatigue. Alex could understand that. A few arrows had struck her. She wasn’t as heavily armored as the warriors or Jaheira, nor as quick as Imoen, but the only arrow that had actually done much harm to her, she had taken care of on her own, using the strange healing ability she had acquired.

 

Alex paced restlessly on watch as the others rested. The world always seemed a little off whenever she used the gift. It was like a void deep in her heart, and though there was no question she was able to draw upon it for the power of good, she wondered what the void was taking in exchange for the power. It wasn’t part of her demonic heritage, she was certain. She knew the lingering power in her blood quite well, bestowing her with supernatural power if she wished it. But the void was something far deeper than mere blood. It had only begun to manifest itself since that terrible nightmare, but… what if it had always been there, lurking like a shadow behind Alexandria’s soul? And the mysterious voice in the dream… the void seemed to have a will not entirely her own. The concept frightened her, that there might be parts of her not entirely under her command. Her mind blade was a beautiful gift, maintained by sheer force of will, but now she had to wonder what influence the void had on it. Did her feelings, too, shape the blade? There were so many questions… and the specter of Father’s secrets loomed large once again. Did he somehow know about the void, even when she was a girl? There was so much she didn’t know…

 

“Alexandria?†Ajantis’ voice interrupted her contemplations.

 

“Yes?â€Â

 

“That’s the fourth time I’ve called your name. We are fortunate the kobolds didn’t locate us-we’re all ready.â€Â

 

“Well, you’ve seen the map. We’re going to have to cross an open bridge, probably under a barrage of arrows. Once we do, we can run straight south, then when we reach another large pool of water, turn left. There’s a natural hollow in the rock with a narrow entryway-it’s where the miners broke into the third level. This isn’t going to be easy. Even if Jaheira can collapse the passageway behind us, getting there is going to be a feat and a half. Near as I can tell, our only real option is to run like hell and pray. Which in my case limits me to running like hell.â€Â

 

“Khalid and I will lead the charge. With our armor and shields, we have the best chance at this. Alexandria, I hate to ask this of you, but you are our best choice for the rear guard. Jaheira can’t be interrupted when collapsing the passage, and Imoen isn’t really qualified for this.â€Â

 

“I will do what I must.â€Â

 

“Then Helm protect us all.â€Â

 

Alexandria looked down at the map one last time, tracing again the route they’d have to take, and wondered if she’d ever see the sky again.

 

 

The adventurers ran into Hell. No sooner had they emerged from the dead-end passageway than a swarm of arrows came out of the gloom. Khalid and Ajantis lowered themselves behind their shields and charged, the other adventurers close behind them. Alexandria fought off claustrophobia as they barreled down the tunnel, her keen darkvision only making it worse-she could see the kobolds as they nocked their arrows and loosed them. Something stung her shoulder, but she ignored it and kept moving. Then they were on a stone bridge, a swift-moving river beneath them. Something exploded as they ran to the other side, and Imoen cried with pain. Once again, they were in a maze of passages, swerving right, then left, then into a descending passageway. Alex could see the chamber entrance ahead of them-it was so close. The pain in her shoulder intensified, and she began to fall behind the others. She let the void reach to her shoulder, mending the injury, but something burned yet. She wasn’t going to make it. She did. The passageway behind her collapsed in a cacophony of rock and earth. The darkness took her.

 

 

Alex opened her eyes.

 

“It is about time, child.â€Â

 

“What-what happened?â€Â

 

“You were hit in the shoulder by an arrow coated in a paralytic toxin. You managed to heal the arrow wound, but the poison was already in your bloodstream, and you collapsed right after entering the room. I administered an antidote potion, but you were slow to come out of it-you’ve been unconscious for about twenty minutes. How are you feeling?â€Â

 

Alex snarled. “I’m fine, Jaheira. Is anyone dead?â€Â

 

“No, we all made it successfully.â€Â

 

“Good. Then let’s get down that shaft and kill whatever’s down there.â€Â

 

“Are you certain you’re alright, child?†Jaheira placed a hand on Alex. “Your skin is clammy-perhaps the antidote hasn’t yet taken full effect.â€Â

 

Alex recoiled from Jaheira’s touch and her mind blade flared into life. It was a dark violet, and the scimitar-like blade seemed unusually heavy, like an exocutioner’s sword.

 

“Touch me again, and you’ll face the same fate as those damn kobolds, druid. Let’s move.â€Â

 

Her companions looked very strangely at her, but they followed her as she advanced down the passageway.

 

They came into a vast hollow-the river pooled here in a vast underground lake, with an island of stone rising from the middle. There was a cave leading into the island, and a stone bridge reached across. It was really quite beautiful, but Alex saw none of it. Her gaze relentlessly probed the cavern, noting the dim natural light that crept down. Had she cared to think, she would have noticed the fissure in the rock above them. All she saw were the kobolds arrayed around the island and the path.

 

Without even pausing to see if her companions followed her, she charged. Ignoring the arrows flying towards her, she scythed her mind blade towards the first kobold and ripped across its canine face, feeling bone and cartilage splinter beneath the ethereal edge. She instinctively followed the blow with a heavy shove from her free arm, sending the already off-balance kobold into the lake. A feral grin on her face, she didn’t register Ajantis and Khalid moving past her, engaging their own targets. She dashed forward on her own, engaging a second kobold, and quickly dispatching the creature. Under the onslaught of the adventurers, the kobold defense quickly folded. After briefly looting the creatures, Alexandria moved forward into the internal cavern. A tall, brutish figure was waiting for them.

 

“What?! Who are you-did Tazok send you?â€Â

 

“I am your death, beast. That is all you need to know.â€Â

 

“You must be the intruders my servants reported. You think you can challenge Mulahey? You are already dead!â€Â

 

“I think I’ll see for myself who’s dead!â€Â

 

Alex immediately drew her blade into a low guard and attacked, aiming for a slash across the belly to gut the half-orc like a fish. The tip of the blade slid uselessly across chain armor. He swung a heavy mace at her in return, grazing her shoulder with the flange, but inflicting no real harm. An arrow whistled from behind, but glanced uselessly off the man’s shield. Alex’s mind blade came about, taking advantage of the opening in Mulahey’s guard to rake its edge across the man’s chest, tearing a rift in his armor. The impact of his mace on her abdomen dazed Alex, but the void only grew stronger, and with a snarl, she reformed her blade and brought it crashing down on the half-orc’s arm, feeling the satisfying crunch as the blade impacted bone. He roared with pain and dropped the mace.

 

“I-I submit! Spare me, and I’ll tell you everything I know!â€Â

 

Alex was dimly aware of Jaheira shouting something to her, but she paid no mind, bringing the blade back at full speed toward’s her helpless foe, striking will all of her innate rage and fury. Mulahey screamed-a noise that was abruptly silenced as the dire blade struck his neck and cleaved through mail, flesh, and bone. A geyser of black ichor sprayed over Alexandria, and the head made a soft clunk as it landed on the ground. The void rejoiced. It all seemed very distant.

 

Alexandria collapsed onto the stone floor.

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Chapter XI: Undertow

 

 

Alexandria drifted in a void. She could see, but her eyes were not her own. She could hear, but sound was meaningless. She could feel, but her body did not obey her commands. The void was empty, an endless abyss in which she was a helpless prisoner. No… not empty. It went far deeper than that. The void was not content with mere emptiness. It hungered, thirsted for more. What it sought, she did not know. Merely that it existed to consume. The hunger was the only constancy, and from it, Alexandria slowly shaped herself within the void.

 

Was this what lay within her heart? Was this eternal void the very essence of Alexandria’s soul? Or was this something else altogether? Had the void always been there, or was it a result of the terrible stresses, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual that had wracked her since Father’s death? The void called to her, telling her that such questions were unimportant. It promised overwhelming power, power enough to destroy any who would oppose her or her development. It whispered seductively of countless pleasures, if she would only let go. It challenged her with abilities beyond reckoning.

 

For a time, she hovered on the edge of giving in to the void, letting it consume her. But slowly, she forced herself to shut out the void’s whispers, one by one. Power? What use did she have for that? She didn’t want power. Power only meant the ability to enforce one’s will upon others. Alexandria wanted nothing more-and nothing less-than the ability to strike out on her own, and not be a pawn of the games that accompanied power of any sort. Pleasure? Nice, but ultimately transitory. Giving up one’s self for the sake of passing pleasure was foolish in the extreme. Like pain, pleasure would pass, and positive sensations were even more fleeting. She was Alexandria, and this… void… existed within her. That meant she still had power over herself.

 

In the void, Alexandria could sense that it was not a cohesive thing. There were currents and eddies, patches of calm and roiling maelstroms. And it could be navigated. She set a course for what seemed to be the heart of it all, plunging deeper and deeper into the darkness. Whether it would be her salvation or her destruction, she did not know. But it would be her fate. Her fate, not the void’s. The void might think it knew better for Alexandria, but she refused to be a pawn. She could feel the void resisting as she moved inexorably closer to the center, and she began to sense why. Injured as she had been, she had drawn upon the power of the void in a moment of absolute weakness, and it had seized her. But the void was not yet at full power. Oh, no. She could sense this wasn’t even a proper shadow of whatever lay inside Alexandria’s soul. It didn’t matter. She drove into the maelstrom…

 

 

The first thing that struck Alexandria when she opened her eyes was the moon. It was clear and bright, a shimmering disk of silver in the void. It took a moment for the realization to work its way through Alexandria’s mind. She wasn’t in the mines anymore, and she was once again in control of herself. The void had retreated from her body, and she hoped even as she knew it was false that the void was gone forevermore. She tried to speak, but only a harsh croaking sound made it out of her throat.

 

“Hey, I think Alex is waking up!†Imoen’s voice called.

 

Alex turned her head, and saw she was lying down in a bedroll, in a grassy area. Imoen was crouching nearby, and she wasn’t wearing her armor. She looked worried.

 

“It’s good to see you’re waking up, sis.â€Â

 

“How-how long was I out?â€Â

 

“Almost two days. When you collapsed in the mine, Ajantis carried you out, and Jaheira managed to force food and water down your throat. We found another way out of the mine-we’re about a day’s walk from Nashkel. We were thinking we’d have to take you to the temple there. It didn’t seem to matter what we tried-nothing would bring you out of it. D’you remember anything about what happened down there?â€Â

 

“We were running. Running for our lives down the tunnel. Something hit me and burned, and there was a cave-in right behind us. Then, the darkness…â€Â

 

“Yeah, you were unconscious for about twenty minutes there. Jaheira said you’d been poisoned, and you were really slow to come out of it. Do you remember anything that happened after that?â€Â

 

“I… I don’t know. We were fighting kobolds? And then-a man. A big man. I was… was fighting him, and then… I don’t know.â€Â

 

“You really don’t remember? Alexandria, you cut off Mulahey’s head.â€Â

 

“I did what?â€Â

 

“The half-orc. He called himself Mulahey. You disarmed him, and he surrendered, pleading for mercy. And you cut off his head with your mind blade.â€Â

 

“I… I don’t remember that at all. All I can remember is blood and darkness… and the void.â€Â

 

“You are really scaring me, sis. Now more than ever before. Ever since you killed that man in Candlekeep… I’ve had an increasingly hard time recognizing you. I still love you, Alex, but I’m just not sure if I’ll be able to keep calling you sister for too much longer if this keeps up. When you fought and killed Mulahey… I’d never seen anything like that before. I really wish I still didn’t. The idea that you might drop into that state again, without warning… is really frightening.â€Â

 

“Imoen, I… I wasn’t in control of myself. That wasn’t me down there.â€Â

 

“Then what was it, Alex?â€Â

 

“I don’t know.â€Â

 

“Not the most comforting answer I’ve ever heard.â€Â

 

“I’m so sorry, Im. I just don’t know what else to say.â€Â

 

“I don’t guess there’s much else you can say right now. Anyhow, guess I should fill you in on what happened after you collapsed. We found and rescued a prisoner of Mulahey-an elven mage by the name of Xan. He’s agreed to come with us, since we found and gave to him some fancy sword or something. We also found a bunch of letters to Mulahey, from someone named Tazok. They said something about a contact named Tranzig up in Beregost, connected to the bandit attacks. Seems this whole thing is an orchestrated plan of someone’s, and Jaheira and the others want to pursue it wherever it goes.â€Â

 

“Well, I suppose it can’t hurt. Did anything else happen while I was out?â€Â

 

“Aside from Ajantis refusing to leave your side? Not really.â€Â

 

“Ajantis? What do you mean?â€Â

 

“While you were out, he absolutely refused to leave your side. He took care of you while you were unconscious, and insisted on making sure you were okay. If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost think he likes you, sis.†Imoen grinned.

 

But that only provoked a frown from Alexandria. What did Ajantis see in her? She offered nothing to a paladin-a tiefling soulknife with a fierce individualistic streak who didn’t worship a god.

 

“He’s pretty handsome, if I do say so myself, sis.â€Â

 

“Thank you for the advice, but I think I’ll deal with this on my own.â€Â

 

“You need proper sleep, child.†Jaheira’s voice interrupted them. “I have prepared a sleeping draught-unconsciousness is not the most beneficial form of sleep.â€Â

 

Alexandria took the offered vial, but didn’t drink it right away. She had to think about the implications of what had occurred. She had beaten back the void, returned to control over herself, but the void hadn’t gone away-it merely returned to hiding behind her soul. It still offered her power, for a price. She knew she could still force it to grant her the ability to heal herself-and possibly another person-but the price, she decided, was too high to pay. She would never draw on its power again if she could at all help it.

 

And what of Ajantis? How would he react if she told him of the abyss that hid inside her, had seized control of her? As much as he seemed to be an honorable person, he was sworn to destroy evil. And the void within Alexandria was evil, that much was plain. Even if he didn’t feel the compulsion to kill her, though, she didn’t think he would have much in the way of useful advice to give her. He would recommend she trust in Helm, or some other god, or develop a strict code of conduct to live by.

 

Utter nonsense, all of it. Alexandria had no particular faith. As recently as a few days ago, she would have said she had faith in herself and her will, but the void broke that faith rather thoroughly. She could have said she had faith in Imoen. But the nervousness in her words, the way she tip-toed away from Alexandria, all spoke of a slowly growing rift. She still loved her, there was no doubt, but it was plain that some things were going to have to be dealt with by Alexandria alone. Into the labyrinth, the void, the storm… she walked alone.

 

Ajantis certainly meant well, of that there was no doubt. But… she didn’t want him getting hurt because of her own problems. That was it, really. She didn’t want the troubles she had with her own soul to spill over and harm anyone else. Ajantis, Imoen, Khalid, Jaheira… they had problems enough without the void in Alexandria’s soul. Imoen didn’t really know about it, and the little she did know made her scared as hell. Khalid would likely panic. And Jaheira… her reactions didn’t bear thinking about. Alex knew she wasn’t a natural being, and the void merely confirmed it, no matter what Jaheira might say about the balance. She would cross those bridges if-and when-she came to them.

 

Alexandria raised the potion vial to her lips, and surrendered once again to the night.

 

 

Sleep was, for once, mercifully free of nightmares and darkness. Just a quiet period of oblivion. As Alexandria awoke, she had to admit she had been frightened as she drank the sleeping draught. There it was. The void scared her. Much as she had tried to put on a brave face to herself, she had never been a good liar. She sighed as she dressed herself for the day. Assassins, bandits, kobolds… none of those things had worried her anywhere near as much as this. Threats from without were one thing. A threat from within was something else entirely. Hesitantly, she thrust her doubts aside, and manifested her mind blade.

 

At first glance, it looked the same as ever-an azure scimitar, perfectly sized for Alexandria’s hand. But she could tell there were certain, small, differences. The blade had grown unusually sharp, an edge as keen as the finest katana imported from Kara-Tur. And the sword itself was now a darker shade of blue-not quite indigo, but not the sky-blue it had been before. As darkness had infiltrated Alexandria’s soul, so had her mind blade followed suit. Her examinations were interrupted, however, by an unfamiliar voice.

 

“So you are awake at last. The others told me you were the nominal leader of this band, though you were unconscious at the time when they freed me from my imprisonment, for which, I thank you. I am Xan of Evereska.â€Â

 

Alexandria turned to look at the newcomer. He was an elf, but even for one, he was unusually gaunt. His cheeks were sunken and limbs slender, though he wore what she could only call a quiet dignity. He had robes on, and a large spellbook at his side marked him as a wizard. Also at his side was a silver-blue blade. A moonblade? She had been told stories of such things in Candlekeep.

 

“Well, good to meet you, I guess. I’m Alexandria.â€Â

 

“Yes, though it is unlikely we will survive long enough to make more than a passing acquaintance. I am a Greycloak of Evereska and a mage, and I was sent here to investigate and if possible stop the iron crisis before it spilled over to affecting Evereska. We appear to have the same, doomed, goals.â€Â

 

“Doomed? A real charmer you are.â€Â

 

“We are all doomed. We are six people of wildly varying backgrounds and little to no reason to trust one another thrust against what increasingly appears to be a sophisticated enemy with a great deal of power and resources. We will be fortunate to live out a fortnight.â€Â

 

“Not if I have anything to say about it. If we are doomed, why are you on this mission to stop the crisis.â€Â

 

“Because I must.â€Â

 

Xan’s words chilled Alexandria, though he could not have known why. She had decided that she would pursue this crisis wherever it led… because she had to. There simply weren’t other options. But the elf spoke again.

 

“That sword of yours… Imoen spoke of it as a mind blade. What did she mean by that?â€Â

 

“It’s not a sword, Xan. It’s a sword-shaped projection of my mind, maintained by my will alone. I can manifest it by simply concentrating and letting my spirit fuel the blade-it’s very difficult to describe to someone who does not share the gift.â€Â

 

“I see. And anything you feel is translated into the blade?â€Â

 

“Yes. It’s nothing more than a reflection of my own mind.â€Â

 

“Such a beautiful gift… and such a terrible curse you bear. You are doomed as assuredly as I am, and the worst part is, you will see your doom arrive.â€Â

 

“I am not doomed. I will determine my own destiny in this world, and if anyone dares attempt to choose my destiny for me, they will learn otherwise.â€Â

 

“And by our choices are we all damned. Not always in the same manner, seldom in the company of others, but we all choose our own doom by the actions we take. Our fates are already assigned by the gods, and every single one inevitably leads to doom.â€Â

 

“I don’t worship a god, and I don’t give a damn about their goals for me.â€Â

 

“But you are affected by them just the same. Your determination to chart your own course accomplishes nothing more than a different manner path to death than most.â€Â

 

Alexandria wasn’t sure how to answer that.

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Chapter XII: High Tide

 

 

The adventurers slowly made their way back to Nashkel. Alexandria feigned being in good spirits, but she knew it was nothing more than a façade. And she suspected everyone else knew it, too. Jaheira and Ajantis kept throwing odd looks her way. She sighed inwardly-she still hadn’t really come to terms with what had happened, and wasn’t in the mood to talk about it. The void was her problem, not theirs. They had plenty to worry about without adding Alexandria and her soul to the heap as well. It seemed that Mulahey had been nothing more than a pawn, and they were going after a man who was either his superior or some sort of go-between, a man by the name of Tranzig, in Beregost.

 

And yet… the void was definitely more than just Alexandria’s problem. The incident in the mines, with Mulahey… what if it happened again? She had beaten it back for now, but there was no doubt in her mind that it was still there. Was she doomed to live like this, forever wondering if the void would seize her, forever a danger to everyone around her? The others deserved to know that her will wasn’t entirely her own. The problem was, how would they respond?

 

Well, only one way to find out…

 

“Jaheira, can I talk to you for a bit? Away from everyone else?â€Â

 

Jaheira looked at her as though she had been waiting for Alex to ask. She motioned them to a knot of trees, away from the rest of the group, who sat down to enjoy a rest break. They were only an hour or two away from Nashkel.

 

“Child, you wish to speak with me? Of what happened in the mine?â€Â

 

“Yes. Jaheira, I wasn’t in control of myself down there.â€Â

 

“That much was evident. You were more a savage beast than the fierce young woman I have come to know.â€Â

 

“A while ago, when we were still journeying to Beregost from the Friendly Arm Inn, I had a very strange dream. I was back at Candlekeep, but the walls grew over my old room there. Father walked out the gates, as dead as he was when Imoen and I buried him. I watched him be murdered again.â€Â

 

“Are you certain it was not merely a nightmare, child? Such a thing would only be natural.â€Â

 

“It wasn’t natural, Jaheira. When I ran away, something inside of me presented a path to run away, an easy path.â€Â

 

“And did you take that path?â€Â

 

“No. I want to live my own life, not a life that someone else chooses for me. I turned away from the offered path and chose my own. But as I did, a really strange voice told me ‘You will learn.’ I’d never heard that voice before, but it sounded… familiar. Like I knew it all along.â€Â

 

Jaheira studied the tiefling for a very long moment. Gorion had been doing extensive research and divination work when he died, as were many of the Master Harpers. Though she hadn’t been privy to knowing why, she did know the nature of their research. It couldn’t be true… could it? And yet, it all fit. Raised in Candlekeep, Alex probably knew all the prophecies by heart, though she had no conception of what they could mean. She remembered well that terrible battle at that dark temple, rescuing a dark-skinned girl even as the temple collapsed around them. And if Alexandria was indeed one of the Children… what of Imoen? Realizing Alexandria was waiting for a response, she spoke quickly.

 

“That… is rather unsettling, child.â€Â

 

“You have no idea. I didn’t think a whole lot about it at first, but then, after killing that assassin in Nashkel, I got so angry at you… I wanted to kill you, and just… let myself go. But the energy I unleashed didn’t hurt you. It healed me.â€Â

 

“What kind of energy, child? Energy like your mind blade, or energy like the remnants of your demonic ancestry?â€Â

 

“Both. Neither. It went much deeper than just the power of my mind or the power of my blood. How deep, I’m still not sure. But in the mines, as I began to consciously tap that power to heal, I started to realize that whatever the effect, I was drawing the power from a source that wasn’t at all good. It feels like an endless abyss inside me… a void.â€Â

 

“What evil lurks in the hearts of men…†Jaheira said, her face thoughtful. “And this… void… has a will of its own?â€Â

 

“I’m not sure. I’m not sure if it’s truly a will of its own, or if… if it’s my will, somehow. My will, free from the restrictions of my mind.â€Â

 

“I do not know, child.â€Â

 

“Yeah, no one seems to. But… do you have any idea how something like this is supposed to fit into the balance you like so much?â€Â

 

“I thought you said you did not care about the balance.â€Â

 

“I want nothing to do with druids, and I do not like your concept of balance. But I like the void even less.â€Â

 

“All beings serve the balance, child, whether they know it or not. And whether they like it or not. Even beings of extreme natures do so, for they balance other beings of equally extreme, but opposite in the nature of their nature.â€Â

 

“There has got to have been an easier way to say that.â€Â

 

“Certain things come awkwardly to some people, as the balance does to you. I already told you what you needed to know.â€Â

 

“Who the hell are you to decide what I need to know?!â€Â

 

“I am your guardian, as tradition dictates, a druid of the Circle of Tethyr, and most importantly, your friend.â€Â

 

“You are not my friend, Jaheira! You aren’t my enemy, but you are not my friend.â€Â

 

“To the contrary, child. Sometimes friends must make difficult choices.â€Â

 

Alexandria paused, forcing herself to calm down. She could sense that Jaheira was building up to something.

 

“This… void… is not something hiding in your mind, Alexandria. It is hiding in your heart. It is an agent of evil, as you know better even than I. And you have a good heart, no matter what you say to attempt to convince me otherwise. As I said, extremes balance each other. You have a passionate spirit, child. I suspect it is more your spirit than any sort of disciplined mind that fuels your blade. And you must use that spirit as you would a weapon. Use it against the void. Though the rest of us can offer you what aid we can, if there is truly an evil with a will of its own hiding inside you, you must be the one to fight it. For if you fail, I do not know what will happen.â€Â

 

“Was any of that supposed to make me feel better?â€Â

 

“No.â€Â

 

Alexandria had to laugh at that. The sound surprised her, her own laughter. It occurred to her that she hadn’t laughed in a long time. She’d grinned a few times at Imoen, but laughing… she hadn’t done that since before Father’s death. Even though the sound soon died, Alex couldn’t help but smile at Jaheira.

 

“Well, thank you for being honest, at least. I suppose we should get going.â€Â

 

As the women got up to leave, Jaheira carefully hid her concern… and fear. If what she suspected was true, then the essence of Alexandria’s father ran strong in her. And in this case, if Alexandria truly was her father’s daughter, then she, and everyone around her, was in terrible danger.

 

 

“Alexandria, you have returned! It was nearly a week ago that returning miners said you went down into the mine! When we didn’t hear of you again, I started to fear the worst…â€Â

 

“Nope, we’re fine. Just took the back way out.â€Â

 

“What happened down there? Is the mine safe?â€Â

 

“There may be a few pockets of kobolds left, but we killed their leader, and Jaheira says the kobolds started to flee. The mine is too close to active human civilization for the kobolds to risk dwelling there.â€Â

 

“Then what were kobolds doing down there in the first place?â€Â

 

“Their leader was a half-orc. Apparently, he set himself up as some sort of kobold god, and took over the mine. He’s dead now.â€Â

 

“Any idea why?â€Â

 

Alex paused. Though Berrun Ghastkill was a good man, she didn’t want to draw him into this mess of hers.

 

“We found a holy symbol of Cyric on the corpse.â€Â

 

“Ah. And the ore contamination-did you find out anything?â€Â

 

“Yes, the kobolds were tainting the iron with a chemical of some kind. We retrieved some samples, which Jaheira is carrying. Maybe when a wizard examines the stuff, he can determine a way to counter the substance’s effects.â€Â

 

“Then you have Nashkel’s deepest thanks, Alexandria. You’ve saved our livelihoods, and this will go a long way towards smoothing things between Amn and Baldur’s Gate. Getting the mine operational again will take a few tendays at least, but it looks like the iron crisis is finally starting to pass. As mayor, I have a substantial amount of discretionary funds. You’ve earned yourself a substantial reward for your heroic efforts down there.â€Â

 

Alexandria frowned. This wasn’t at all what she wanted. She wanted to get back on the road and follow this odd trail of evidence to Beregost. She had to admit she had grown intrigued by the idea that the bandits to the north were operating with Mulahey, and taking down this bandit network would be a good test of her abilities.

 

“Sir, thank you, truly, but there was nothing heroic about the fighting down there. It was dark, dirty, and claustrophobic. Keep the gold, Mayor Ghastkill. Nashekel can use it more than we can. You’ll need to buy supplies to get the mine working again, I imagine.â€Â

 

The mayor smiled at her. “Ha ha! Very noble of you, lass, but in this case, I must insist we repay you for what you’ve done for us all. I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony, so take this.†He pressed a small pouch of gold into Alex’s hand. Opening it, she saw several heavy Amnish coins-a large amount of money, in Sword Coast currency.

 

“Thank you, sir.â€Â

 

“You more than earned it, lass. You’re not just brave-you proved that when you cleaned out the mines-but you’ve got a good heart, too. Everyone in Nashkel owes you a big debt, Alexandria of Candlekeep. Keep your head screwed on tight, and don’t let your reach exceed your grasp. It’s a big world out there, lass.â€Â

 

Alex blushed at the man’s praise, but bowed respectfully, and turned to her friends. Naturally, Imoen was the first to talk.

 

“Wow, sis. I don’t guess I needed to worry about ya after all. Whatcha gonna do next?â€Â

 

“Rest at the inn, I think. We need to start making our way back up to Beregost tomorrow and hunt down this Tranzig creep. Tonight, everyone just have fun.â€Â

 

“Right with ya, sis!â€Â

 

Alex grinned as the adventurers separated. Jaheira and Khalid moved to talk with Berrun Ghastkill further, and Imoen and Xan went to the local shops. For her part, Alex put on her cloak as evening fell, and slowly wandered around the small town. The adventurers had pretty much blown through Beregost on their way south, and Alex hadn’t ever really been in an actual town before. Candlekeep was more library and fortress. An actual functioning town was a new experience as Alex quietly wandered through Nashkel.

 

It was a different kind of place. There was no centralized time for everyone to meet and eat in the evening, no universal time for anything to start or finish. People operated as families and individuals. Those, too, were different dynamics from anything she had known before. She liked the way children answered to their elders and not much else. There was a greater amount of freedom here, a freedom she appreciated. Everyone did their job, trusted their neighbors to do the same, and things went on. Oh, there were disadvantages, to be certain. But to Alexandria, this place seemed much better than Candlekeep. Or perhaps the grass was just greener on the other side.

 

“Fair evening, Alexandria.â€Â

 

Alex didn’t turn to the voice that came from behind.

 

“Fair evening to you, Ajantis. What do you want?â€Â

 

“Ironic. I was about to ask you the same question.â€Â

 

“What do you mean?â€Â

 

“When you tried to refuse Mayor Ghastkill’s reward-you surprised me. You had given the impression earlier that you were involved in this purely for your own benefit.â€Â

 

“I was.â€Â

 

“Then what has changed?â€Â

 

Alex sighed. Ajantis was a pain in the posterior, but she had to admit she rather liked that about him.

 

“I don’t think anything’s changed, per se. It’s just… what happened down there, in the mine, caused me to think about a lot of things. Both you and Jaheira had been trying to get me to come up with a reason to act, but I wasn’t listening to either of you and you both know it.â€Â

 

“And what conclusion did you come to?â€Â

 

“I’m not in this purely for the sake of doing the right thing, like you are. But I can respect why you are doing this. I’m doing this because there’s a war looming over the Sword Coast. If it does break out… there will be so much death. Not just professional soldiers. Lots of innocent people. My father was murdered, Ajantis. But a war would cause so many more fathers to die. I don’t intend to let that happen.â€Â

 

“I am sorry for being so straightforward with you, but there is more that you aren’t telling me. Much more.â€Â

 

“How do you figure that?â€Â

 

“You know Helm has gifted me with the ability to detect evil. While there are always lingering traces of it about you-a relic of your tainted blood-down in the mine, after you were poisoned, the sense of evil about you was stronger. Much stronger. It was all I could do to not run away from whatever you had become. But now it is nothing more than the faint traces that surrounded you before. What happened?â€Â

 

“What evil lurks in the hearts of men… and women…†Alex quipped, drawing silent. Though she was open and honest with Jaheira, she had to admit that… she cared about what Ajantis thought about her. It wasn’t anything so base as girlish attraction, though there was plenty of that to be sure-she had gone through puberty, and was familiar with those feelings. He was certainly a handsome man, and his strong sense of honor and duty was perversely attractive to her. But… that wasn’t what stopped her words. He was a paladin, the epitome of absolute good in the Realms. His opinion of her mattered to her. But she had never been a good liar, and lying to Ajantis would be insulting.

 

“In my case, it’s not just a rhetorical question…†Alexandria began to explain, as she had to Jaheira. Ajantis listened patiently, though his expression was grave.

 

“Alexandria… I am not certain how I should respond. On one hand, I have seen firsthand the way you refused Mayor Ghastkill’s offer of a reward. But on the other, I saw the way you murdered Mulahey with a smile on your face. You have a strange and terrible duality of spirit, and though your good spirit seems to be the controlling aspect, I cannot ignore this evil that hides deep in your heart.â€Â

 

Alexandria looked down at the ground, and was surprised to realize that her vision was becoming blurry. Tears were forming in her eyes, despite her normally iron-hard self control. As with so many other things, her ability to control herself was slipping.

 

“Ajantis, I do not want this void. I do not want what it offers. Were it a kobold, I would strike it down without a moment’s hesitation. Whatever power it has, whatever insight into my nature it can offer… the void is evil, and I want nothing to do with it. I will be controlled by no one and no thing, least of all some part of me that thinks it knows better than I.â€Â

 

“Then I will remain at your side, my lady, but I can do no more than that. This void is a question of your own heart, Alexandria, and I cannot do anything more than that.â€Â

 

“That’s more than enough for me, Ajantis. I… I don’t know what’s going to happen.â€Â

 

“Nor do I. But I promise you, I will lend you what support I can against this threat from within your heart.â€Â

 

 

That night, another dream invaded Alex’s sleep.

 

She was standing on the lip of the deep scar in the earth of the Nashkel mine. As before, she walked down into the pit, then into the tunnels. She proceeded down unerringly, following the paths of blood she had spilled on her previous passage. Kobold corpses, piled high against the walls by the Amnish troops. But the dirt and stone tunnels were stained with what had once been the essence of life for the dog-like humanoids. Alexandria passed through stone as though it were air.

 

Alex went deeper and deeper into the darkness, at last coming to a massive underground air pocket, home to a large lake. Stumbling towards Alex was a ragged humanoid figure in worn chain mail, neck clearly cut through, but the head somehow remained atop it. Mulahey. He was dead in the dream as he was in life.

 

Another shadow distracted Alex-a dagger of bone glided through the air, coming to rest in front of Alex, hovering in the air and ready for her to take. Mulahey’s apparition stood defenseless before her, but it opened its mouth. No sound issued from the ghost, but Alex felt sure that it would have been hurling obscenities and curses, daring her to finish the job as she had done in life. Alex considered the bone knife before her. It was perfectly crafted, polished and carved to the finest edge she had ever seen. It would be child’s play to take the dagger and end Mulahey’s spirit, and the void roared from within her, ordering her to take it.

 

But Alex heard other voices, too. Imoen’s cheerfulness at seeing Alex apparently back in good order. Jaheira’s caution that Alex must fight the void. Ajantis’ worried but resolute support. Ghastkill’s grin as he insisted Alex take the town’s gratitude. Xan’s pronouncements of doom. Even Khalid’s hesitant, stuttering encouragements.

 

The void had murdered Mulahey, not Alexandria. Though it was a part of her, it was nothing about herself that she accepted. Mulahey had been evil, yes, but he had paid the price for his deeds. What awaited him, she did not know, but she did know that he had suffered enough. His spirit sought the kill, death beyond death.

 

“No.†She said.

 

Mulahey’s spirit smiled, and it hobbled past and through her, going to whatever punishment or reward awaited it in eternity. It left something behind, however, entrusting it to her safekeeping. It was his hope, of redemption and of peace. As it filled a dagger-shaped hole in her heart, the dagger turned towards Alexandria, and flew with frightening speed.

 

Alex awoke with a yell, the moment before the dagger would have struck.

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Chapter XIII: Point of No Return

 

 

“My lady, are you alright?â€Â

 

Alex sighed. That she’d had another nightmare was no secret, but did Ajantis have to chat about it this early in the day?

 

“I’ll be fine, Ajantis.â€Â

 

“Do you wish to speak about the nightmare?â€Â

 

“No.â€Â

 

“My lady… if something is troubling you, do not hold it in.â€Â

 

Ajantis frowned, and Alex felt anger starting to well up within. She did not want to talk to anyone about the nightmare, least of all Ajantis, and definitely not now.

 

“Ajantis, it is none of your damn business. Finish eating your breakfast and get ready to go. We’re heading back up to Beregost to hunt down this Tranzig creep.â€Â

 

“It is decided, then?†Jaheira cut in. “You are going to follow this trail wherever it may lead us?â€Â

 

“You have any better ideas, Jaheira?†Alex snapped.

 

“No, child. I merely wished to know if you were confident in your course.â€Â

 

“There are still assassins trying to kill me, I’m no closer to any of the answers I’m after, there’s a void gnawing away at my heart, and you want to know if I’m confident in my course?!†Alex stood up abruptly. “Of course I’m not confident in my course! Why the hell should I be?! We leave in twenty minutes!â€Â

 

Alex glared at the rest of the party, still seated at the table, then stormed upstairs, heading to her room. Across the table, Xan, Jaheira, and Ajantis looked at each other.

 

“That did not go as well as I had hoped.â€Â

 

“She has no conception what she is getting herself into, does she? We’re doomed.â€Â

 

“She is a volatile woman, Xan, and she is under tremendous pressure. I have told you what she told Ajantis and I.â€Â

 

“Yes, and she is as doomed as surely as her late father was. Her blood was forged in the Abyss, and it is beginning to claim her at last.â€Â

 

“I do not think this is the work of her demon blood, actually. According to what Jaheira’s said, she’s been dealing with the taint in her blood for some time, able to bend it to produce clouds of darkness.â€Â

 

“Yes, that is what Gorion said in his letters. She is volatile and chaotic, but a good woman at heart, I believe. But Ajantis, she has been subjected to tremendous strain recently, and… I fear I may know why things have taken such a dark turn with her.â€Â

 

“Why, then?â€Â

 

“I am not certain what your libraries in Everska know of the Time of Troubles, but there are certain prophecies, made by the seer Alaundo, kept in Candlekeep, where Gorion raised Alexandria. I do not know the exact content of these prophecies, and though Alexandria and Imoen likely know them by heart, they do not realize the significance of them. The High Harpers have been extremely active for the last twenty years, Xan.â€Â

 

“We know much of the Time of Troubles. Why-what prophecies are you talking about?â€Â

 

“Only the High Harpers knew for certain. But I can tell you what Khalid and I suspect. And it is not pleasant.â€Â

 

“Nothing is in this world. But better a doom that I know than one I do not.â€Â

 

“Then listen carefully…â€Â

 

 

By the time Alex tromped back down the stairs, Imoen not far behind her, Jaheira and the others had finished talking. Xan was even more pale than usual, and gave Alexandria a discreet look. What he saw was not what Jaheira had told him of. He saw a tall, strongly built young woman with dusky skin, red-brown hair worn to the shoulder, and bizarre cat-like eyes. Not unattractive, but hardly one to stand out in a crowd for her beauty. But if Jaheira was correct, something terrible lurked within. He shivered, and went to his room to gather his spellbooks.

 

For her part, Alex was even more annoyed than before. She didn’t like that glance Xan had given her. There had been a hint of fear in his eyes, and she sighed. Had Jaheira and Ajantis told him of the void? It seemed likely. Ajantis and Jaheira, she felt she could trust, but she wasn’t certain of Xan yet.

 

“Everyone ready to leave?†She asked.

 

“Yes, child, we are ready.â€Â

 

“Good. Let’s go.â€Â

 

Alex left the inn, but there was a man waiting outside. He was perfectly “mediumâ€Â. Moderate height, weight… he could blend in easily in any city on the Sword Coast. However, in this case, his longbow and the presence of several armed thugs around him rather gave him away.

 

“You’re Alexandria of Candlekeep, eh? And lately the Heroine of Nashkel? You don’t look so tough to me.â€Â

 

Alex sighed. Not another one… her azure mind blade flickered to life.

 

“Don’t tell me-you’re another bounty hunter?â€Â

 

“To the contrary. I’m much more than a mere bounty hunter. I specialize in rather more precise work. But there is quite a price on your head, little girl. Price enough for your death to be worthwhile to Niso.â€Â

 

“If you’re an assassin, is there any particular reason you’re fighting me out here in the open rather than, you know, assassinating me?â€Â

 

“I want to watch your friends watch you die. Is that a problem?â€Â

 

“For your life expectancy, I expect so.â€Â

 

Without waiting for orders from anyone else, Alex dashed forward, mind blade out, into close range with the nearest attacker. He parried her first blow, then her second, but his eyes went wide as her mind blade winked out of existence in her right hand and materialized in her left, cutting under his guard and carving a gash down his side. The mercenary cried in pain but brought his sword around in a sweeping blow aimed at the tiefling. She dropped to the ground and lashed out with her leg, hooking her boot behind the mercenary’s knee and jerking forward. As the wounded mercenary fell, she returned her mind blade to her main hand and stabbed the man as he struggled to get back on his feet. The scimitar form of the mind blade wasn’t the best for thrusting, but it did just fine in a pinch.

 

Until an arrow grazed her neck. It didn’t hit directly, but the razor-sharp arrowhead had little trouble opening up the skin, and blood began to trickle down her neck. Alex snarled and looked for the source: the same Niso, who was content to let Alex and her friends fight his hired thugs while he fired at them. It was only the thug Alex had been fighting that kept him from targeting her before now. He drew back the bowstring and prepared to fire when Alex released the darkness in her blood. She heard cries of alarm as the magical darkness-a gift of her demonic ancestry-spilled forth, and she ran forward to Niso, her feline eyes seeing through the darkness as though it was not there.

 

Blind as a bat in the darkness, Niso never saw the mind blade arcing towards him. The first blow was aimed at his longbow, breaking it in twain. The second was aimed at his belly, ripping through his studded leather armor and digging deep into his viscera. He let out a shrill, unearthly scream as the ethereal blade eviscerated him, and he toppled over into the dirt.

 

With their leader dead and the darkness field fading, the rest of the mercenaries folded in short order. None of Alex’s companions were seriously injured, and Jaheira’s magic quickly healed what wounds were taken. Alex looked over Niso’s corpse. The man had been quite well-equipped, and he had a sizable coin purse. But what interested her was his scroll case. Inside was another bounty notice, similar to the ones the other assassins had carried. Alex whistled as she saw the current price on her head.

 

“Wow. A thousand gold pieces for me now?â€Â

 

Imoen grinned at her. “You sure are movin up in the world, sis!â€Â

 

“Yes, but I’m deeply worried now. A thousand gold pieces… Im, that’s a small fortune. Someone wants us dead, and wants us dead very badly if they’re willing to spend this much gold.â€Â

 

“Yeah, but who cares? The assassins keep coming, we can keep killing them.â€Â

 

“You sound remarkably cavalier about this, Im.â€Â

 

“There just ain’t much we can do about this, Alex, cept keep on fighting. Eventually, whoever’s behind this will have to reveal themselves.â€Â

 

“I suppose you’re right. But we have to get moving to Beregost. A moving target is harder to hit, and I suppose following the trail of these attacks is the best thing we can do for now. Let’s get out of here.â€Â

 

The adventurers left Nashkel, heading north to Beregost.

 

 

The journey north was relatively uneventful, broken only by sporadic attacks by bandits, gibberlings, and so on. None posed much of a threat to the adventurers anymore. Xan proved himself to be quite a powerful wizard, though he kept largely to himself. Which suited Alex just fine. With all of his predictions of doom, he didn’t exactly make for pleasant company. After a few days of travel, they found themselves back in Beregost, settling into the Jovial Juggler for the night. They would hunt down Tranzig the next day.

 

Alex was content to remain in her room and write in her journal about the tumultuous events of the last few days when her door abruptly opened. She rose with a start-she had intentionally locked the door.

 

“Sis. Downstairs. Now.â€Â

 

“Why?â€Â

 

“Quite frankly, I don’t like this new Alexandria. You are going to relax if I have to talk Xan into enchanting you to dance around in your underpants.â€Â

 

“Imoen… as I recall, it was you who did that once at Candlekeep when those visitors from the church of Oghma in Sembia were visiting…â€Â

 

“Yep, and turnabout’s fair play.â€Â

 

Alex sighed and put her journal away. She wasn’t in the mood for any sort of revelry, but the common room in the Juggler was in full swing as the women went down the stairs. It was a popular place for the younger residents of Beregost, and Imoen fit right in as she went off to enjoy the music and dancing. Alex went straight to the bar.

 

It was after her second tankard of mead that she noticed a man sitting on a stool next to her. He wore the robes of a wizard or scholar, and seemed fairly inebriated. Alexandria, fortunately, was blessed with a rather stronger constitution, and could shrug off drink fairly well.

 

“What’s a wizard doing in the Jovial Juggler?†She asked.

 

“Oh… just waitin for orders from me bosh.â€Â

 

“Who’s your boss? What kinda guy orders a wizard around?â€Â

 

“Hic… his name’s Tazok. Big guy… don’t wanna mesh with him…â€Â

 

Very interesting…

 

“Would your name be Tranzig by any chance?â€Â

 

“Yep. I know I’m shupposed to be waitin at Feldepost’s, but this place has better booze…â€Â

 

“Any idea where I can find Tazok? There’s something important I need to tell him.â€Â

 

“You don’t find him, pretty girl… hic… he finds you. But he runs a buncha bandit gangs in Peldvale. They oughta know where he is.â€Â

 

“Thank you very much friend.â€Â

 

The man’s glazed-over eyes suddenly seemed to clear… this wasn’t good…

 

“Wait… would you be Alexandria, by any chance?â€Â

 

“Why would it matter?â€Â

 

“Because this damn periapt is supposed to ward me against poison, including alcohol… you are Alexandria, aren’t you? You match the description.â€Â

 

“Then, yes I am.â€Â

 

“Oh. Hate to say it, but I have orders to kill you, especially now that you know where Tazok’s friends are.â€Â

 

“I don’t suppose I can buy you another drink?â€Â

 

“Sorr girl, but the gold on your head’s worth it.â€Â

 

Alex shrugged, and lacking any other option, brought her fist up and rammed it into his face. Her blow caught him across the jaw and sent him sprawling to the ground. Combined with the beer, he had evidently had enough.

 

“Nice punch, lass.†The barkeep said. “Guess he had that one coming. But I suppose you’re hunting that Tazok now? We’ve heard the stories from Nashkel, lass.â€Â

 

“Yes, I suppose I am. There’s more to this iron crisis than meets the eye.â€Â

 

“Then have a round on the house.â€Â

 

Alex took the proffered drink.

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Chapter XIV: What the Dawn Brings

 

 

Alexandria checked over the unconscious form of Tranzig, taking his purse, his scroll case, and the necklace he had been wearing-he had said it was a periapt, but perhaps one of her companions would know more. She also removed the man’s dagger, spellbook, and journal, then looked up at the bartender.

 

“You don’t mind, do you?â€Â

 

“It’s an unpleasant business, lass, but I’d guess that man wasn’t someone you like?â€Â

 

“Nope. This guy seems to have been working for the bandit gangs plaguing the area up near Baldur’s Gate-I’m hunting them down.â€Â

 

“Then go ahead and take what you want. I’ll get a guard to toss him in the prison. Find anything useful?â€Â

 

“Looks that way. Got a name and a location for this guy’s boss, so we’re probably leaving tomorrow.â€Â

 

“Good luck with that. The sooner this damn plague is over, the better. You might want to check with Kelddath Ormlyr before you leave-he’s always happy to see another adventurer out in the world doing good, especially one as ambitious as your goal seems to be.â€Â

 

“Kelddath Ormlyr?â€Â

 

“Most Radiant of Lathander, lass-high priest. He’s pretty much the mayor of the town, but you can usually find him in the Temple of the Morning Song.â€Â

 

“Which I would find where?â€Â

 

The bartender laughed. “Huge building on the east side of town-impossible to miss, and opulent as hell. Not as bad as what I’ve heard of the Sunites or Lliirans, but it’s pretty extravagant.â€Â

 

Alex snorted. She had as little use for temples as she did for its priests.

 

“Well, I suppose I might want to find and talk to him. When would be a good time?â€Â

 

“Morning, after the service, which always starts promptly at dawn.â€Â

 

“Great… I hate temples and their sermons.â€Â

 

“Well, it’s your best chance if you want to talk with him, lass, and I’m certain he’ll have some news he’ll want to give you if you’re hunting those bandit gangs.â€Â

 

I nodded, tossed the bartender a few coins to pay for my drinks, and walked out of the tavern. It was still early evening, and shops were open yet. Alexandria quickly found the local smith-the famed Taerom Fuirium. The smithy was still noisy, the sound of hammers ringing against steel in a constant rhythm. As the tiefling walked in, the Thunderhammer himself looked up and walked over. Alexandria was no elf, but the famed smith made her privately wonder if he didn’t have giant blood.

 

“Good evening. An adventurer, by the looks of you?â€Â

 

“Yes-I’m interested in purchasing a new suit of armor.â€Â

 

“You’ve come to the right place, then! I always keep several suits in various sized forged-adventurers always seem to be in need of good armor. I see you’ve been wearing a suit of studded leather. Decent protection and keeps you mobile, but I take it you’re interested in something heavier?â€Â

 

“Yes.â€Â

 

“Well then, let’s get you started with a suit of field plate, see how it fits you. Then you can decide if you want some real plate mail, or just chain.â€Â

 

Alex nodded, and followed the smith into the store-room, where several finely crafted suits of armor stood on dummies. With the smith’s help, she put on the underlying chain, then the metal breastplate, leg-guards, greaves, and gauntlets. It was much heavier than the studded leather she was accustomed to, and limited her mobility, but after walking around a bit in the armor and tightening various straps to better fit her, she decided the tradeoff was acceptable.

 

“I think this will do just fine. How much for the suit?â€Â

 

“Oh, five hundred gold pieces, or five platinum.â€Â

 

Steep, but Alexandria’s purse wasn’t exactly light anymore.

 

“That’s acceptable.†Alex handed over the requisite payment.

 

“Now, anything else you need? I don’t see a weapon hanging at your belt-do you need a new one?â€Â

 

Alex grinned, and concentrated a moment, springing her mind blade to life.

 

“I think I’m good with the weapon I have.â€Â

 

“Ha! Whatever trick you have, I’m glad it’s not common, or you might put me out of business!â€Â

 

Alex grinned. “It’s a very rare gift, so no worries there. Thank you again.â€Â

 

“Farewell, then.â€Â

 

She left the smithy, taking time as she walked back to the inn to get used to her new armor. It was heavy, even though it was lighter than true heavy plate mail, and the metal plates felt somewhat constrictive as she moved about. But on the other hand, if offered her much greater protection than the studded leather. Healing magic wasn’t cosmetic in nature-she had picked up a scar or two from her adventures thus far, and if she continued in this path, it seemed likely she would acquire many more. And as a purely practical matter, the new armor would make it harder for her seemingly endless numbers of enemies to kill her.

 

Alex paused. How had she gotten herself into this mess? Much as she ranted and raged and cursed against it, she could not escape this vortex of death and violence. One thing had led to another and then another… was there no hope of ending this? Fundamentally, Alex wanted nothing more than to live her own life, free of anything that might attempt to control her. But the odds of that happening anytime soon would daunt even the most fanatical luckbringer of Tymora. It had all started with Gorion’s murder, and now it was spiraling far out of her control… it seemed to be all she could do to simply stay afloat in the tide of shadows, let alone try to chart her own course in the flood.

 

For the time being, the only real option was to continue to follow the trail…

 

 

Alexandria made her way back to the inn and informed the others of her decision to go see the high priest in case he had any information for them. Getting up at dawn didn’t appeal to Imoen in the slightest, but she relented quickly. Alex herself was not looking forward to it.

 

The night was mercifully brief, and for once Alexandria got something approaching a good night’s sleep. Though understandably cranky as she was prone to be so early in the morning, she nonetheless dressed herself and walked out of the inn with her companions, joining most of the town at the great temple on the east edge of town.

 

It was a magnificent structure, befitting one of the primary gods of the arts in Faerun. The temple was build mainly of white stone, with great overlays of gold and stained glass. A particularly prevalent motif was that of the sunrise, often in various shades of yellow and red-the same colors of the sun beginning to rise on the distant horizon. What surprised Alexandria the most, however, was the sheer opulence of the temple. Fine stonework and craftsmanship was endemic in the structure, and it was itself a monumental work of art. The various shrines in Candlekeep were small and sparse in comparison-there had been shrines to Mystra, Deneir, Gond, and two large temples to Savras and Oghma in the fortress-monastery, but they were relatively simple things, temples to things which had no true physical form.

 

Reluctantly, Alex took a seat in the back of the temple as the priest strode up to the front of the temple. The temple was built so that the dawn light filled the structure, illuminating everything in a warm golden glow. Alex looked more closely at the priest-he was an older man, but possessed of a rugged vitality and athletic build. This was no cloistered scholar. He radiated energy and optimism, and it was obvious to the adventurer why he was the town’s leader-this man was easy to admire, and easy to follow. Alexandria disliked him on sight.

 

The service began with a long, flowery, and altogether boring prayer to the Morninglord. Alex’s friends, as followers of other gods, did not join in the prayer, and neither did Alex herself. Then came the singing of hymns. All the music was bright and cheerful, and all the lay faithful of Lathander seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, as were Imoen and Ajantis. Jaheira, Khalid, and Xan, all of whom were rather more dour, simply nodded and listened appreciatively.

 

Then, thankfully, the singing ended, and Alex breathed a sigh of relief, which turned into one of frustration as she saw what was next. The priest cleared his throat and began to preach. Alex had certainly read of Lathander and what he represented, but was curious to hear what the actual dogma of the faith was. She listened intently.

 

About halfway through the sermon, she decided she’d heard enough. Was there any more naïve faith in the multiverse? The priest spoke constantly of optimism, the power of renewal, and hope in new beginnings. He spoke with great energy and vigor, believing wholeheartedly in the power of perseverance and optimism, and the power the dawn represented. Curious as Alex had been, the priest’s message fell on unwilling ears.

 

Alexandria had lived a life in Candlekeep that was happy enough, and begun another just a short week or two ago. A new dawn had come for her… and it had brought nothing but darkness and pain. She had learned of a void in her soul, a void capable of consuming her entire being. Alex had fought, and fought hard. Not because she believed the future would be rosy and happy, but because the consequences of not fighting were even more terrible than the consequences she chose. The dawn for Alexandria was nothing more than a harbinger of pain and darkness.

 

She didn’t realize she had stood until she was already out the door of the temple. Several temple-goers looked at her strangely, but she ignored them as she paced and fumed. The words of the priest were seductive, and Alex supposed she could understand why so many did take solace in spiritual faith. But that would mean willingly handing over control of her life to an alien entity, and that she would not allow. That, she supposed, was why there was no true deity of freedom or independence. Lliira embodied freedom of motion, but the true freedom, the escape of all ties save to herself that Alexandria sought, ran counter to the very concept of gods.

 

“Excuse me, young lady.â€Â

 

Alex looked up. How long she had been pacing, she wasn’t sure, but the priest from the temple was facing her.

 

“Oh-good day to you.â€Â

 

“I greet you in Lathander’s name. By your dress, you are an adventurer, are you not?â€Â

 

“Yes, I am Alexandria of Candlekeep. I’m passing through.â€Â

 

“Yes, I have already spoken with your companions and gave them a map of the area to which you are heading in your hunt of these bandits. Lathander smiles on your endeavor, young lady.â€Â

 

“Lathander can smile elsewhere. I do not need the sanction of your damned god for my actions.â€Â

 

“You are troubled, young lady. You must lay your troubles behind you, and embrace the dawn of a new day, and a new beginning for yourself.â€Â

 

“You can shove your vaunted dawn where the dawn will never come! Guess what, priest? I got the privilege of starting a new life a couple of weeks ago-and it started with the death of my father and has done nothing but go downhill since! I’ve killed a dozen or more living things, and there’s no end in sight! And I still know nothing of who killed my father or why!â€Â

 

The priest appeared quite unconcerned of Alexandria’s outburst. “You will eventually lay all of that behind you, young lady. Life is never eternally dark-the dawn always comes, and each day is a chance to start anew. Never let the chains of the past drag you down-embrace the possibilities each dawn.â€Â

 

“All the optimism in the world would do no good in as dark a situation as mine, priest, and each dawn brings no possibilities but those that are more appropriate for evening. If you’ve given my friends the information we came for, then I have no reason to speak with you anymore.â€Â

 

“As you wish, but remember young lady: a new day will always dawn.â€Â

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Chapter XVI: The Storm Breaks Loose

 

 

Waiting until evening to attack had definitely been a wise idea. In the dim light, Imoen had managed to sneak up behind the bandit sentinel and slash his throat with her blade. The man had made a hideous gurgling scream as a torrent of blood sprayed out, but the thief held him from behind, preventing any blood from spilling onto her, and a spell of Xan’s stopped sound from transmitting outside a small area around them. When she was confident the bandit was dead, Imoen dropped the body and quickly gathered his coinpurse and quiver.

 

Imoen wrinkled her nose in disgust at the body as Alexandria moved past her. The bandit encampment was up ahead, sitting in a small artificial clearing in the dense Wood of Sharp Teeth. Jaheira identified the depression in the ground where the camp was set up as a former pond, long since dried up and overgrown. As it was, the encampment was very well hidden, and the bandits seemed to take their security seriously-Imoen reported that all the comers and goers were careful to conceal their tracks, and were competent enough to fool most would-be trackers. To Jaheira, however, the traces of their passing were plain to see.

 

“Hurry up, sis. The sentries check in every fifteen minutes, which gives us ten until they notice they’ve got a man missing.â€Â

 

Alex nodded, and went prone, looking over the camp. It was large, consisting of several small tents and crude huts, with a large, hastily-built structure in the center, and the remains of several carvans littered about. The central structure would likely be where the leaders were. However, there were several anomalies. There were several demihumans present-mostly hobgoblins, but some big, hyena-headed creatures Xan and Jaheira identified as gnolls as well. Also, aside from the sentries, none of the humans even looked like bandits. They were wearing carefully maintained suits of armor-mostly varieties of leather, but some chain as well-all marked with the same insignia, that of a grasping black talon on a red background. And unlike the demihumans, they were organized.

 

“Xan, Jaheira, Ajantis-suggestions?â€Â

 

“My lady, those humans do not appear to be common bandits at all. I believe they might be a mercenary company. Though I cannot identify the insignia, it would appear to be a well-organized, and likely well-disciplined, company. I would not expect them to react like common bandits-their armor appears well-cared for, and that suggests we are facing a group of experienced, disciplined opponents.â€Â

 

“I concur.†Xan reported. “I would call for some subtlety here, but such is a quality you in particular lack. This attack is doomed-we will accomplish nothing but finding our way to our graves.â€Â

 

“Xan, if you don’t have anything useful-or new-to say, keep quiet. If they’re a disciplined mercenary company, we can’t just run in, whack their leader, and expect them to fall apart.â€Â

 

“Most likely, my lady. However, there aren’t as many of them as I was expecting. If I had to guess, I would say a large portion of them are on a raid.â€Â

 

“Good for them. Recommendations for taking this place down?â€Â

 

“I think a frontal assault might be in order.â€Â

 

Xan waved his hand dismissively. “Frontal assault or some attempt at subtlety, it matters not. All that matters is your choice of how we are going to die.â€Â

 

“I’d prefer to not die at all, if you don’t mind.â€Â

 

“Alas, that is not an option.â€Â

 

“Uh huh. Jaheira, you have any spells that could be useful here?â€Â

 

“Yes, child. I assume you are planning on leading the charge?â€Â

 

“You still have to ask? Of course I am.â€Â

 

“Not the wisest course of action, but I know better than to try to dissuade you. I can call down lightning upon the encampment while you attack, as well as cover you in barkskin.â€Â

 

“Barkskin?â€Â

 

“Yes-it will make you more resistant to the hail of arrows you are hellbent on running into.â€Â

 

“Sounds good. Ajantis, Khalid, with me. Imoen, Xan, linger behind. Let’s do this.â€Â

 

With the touch of Jaheira’s spell, covering Alexandria’s skin in brown bark and turning her hair green, she manifested her mind blade. Looking around one last time, Alex saw Imoen nod, and she spun lightly on her toe and threw her mind blade at the nearest sentry.

 

 

Alex parried the downward cut of the longsword, mind blade rising and forcing it out of the way. Keeping the mercenary’s blade high and out of the way, she pistoned her other elbow into the man’s abdomen, the blunt force of the blow unhampered by the suit of chain mail. As he doubled over, Alexandria brought her blade back around and made a graceful, powerful slash at the man’s exposed neck. The ethereal edge caught in the bone, and Alex strugged to free the blade, working it back and forth like a crude saw as she tried to retrieve it. After a few seconds, she gave up as another arrow streaked through the air and was deflected by her steel breastplate. Dematerializing the blade, the semi-decapitated man fell to the ground. She turned to face the attacking archer, but he had already fallen, three arrows protruding from his back. Imoen, crouching behind an overturned wagon, had already moved on to the next target, of which there was no shortage.

 

“Alexandria, a force of archers is hiding behind that barricade! Take it out!†Ajantis shouted.

 

Alex nodded, and pulled out a vial of chemicals Xan had brewed. Locating the barricade of wagons, piles of wood, and other debris the mercenaries had erected in front of the central tent, she carefully estimated the distance and pitched the flask of alchemist’s fire. It fell short, but the liquid splashed over the central part of the barricade before the secondary chemical reaction ignited the liquid, covering the area in a sheet of flame.

 

She cursed herself for the pause as a hurled axe clanged off her armor, and turned to face the attacking hobgoblin. A part of Alex’s mind not engaged in the battle noted that this was no ordinary hobgoblin. It was bigger than the others, and wore a crudely fashioned suit of plate mail. Despite the makeshift-seeming nature of the armor, it was freshly polished, and likely offered greater protection than Alex’s own armor, a theory proven true when the mind blade she threw in return glanced off the hobgoblin’s steel helm. Both warriors ran an evaluating glance over each other, and dove into action at the same moment.

 

Two minutes later, Alex was beginning to have serious doubts about whether she could defeat the brute. He was stronger than she-much stronger. She blocked another slash of the hobgoblin’s greatsword with her mind blade, and winced as the impact nearly tore the ethereal blade out of her hand. By the time she recovered her guard, he was swinging again. This time, she was too slow. The demihuman’s sword cut through steel plate and chain as it opened a massive gash in her sword-arm, then her attacker reversed the sword and slammed the hilt into her helm.

 

Alex fell away and down, galaxies of stars flashing through her eyes. She rolled over, seeking to grab one of her healing potions, but a heavy boot stomped down on her injured arm before she could reach it, causing the tiefling to cry aloud with pain. Alexandria looked up into the eyes of the hobgoblin, saw him grin as he prepared to make the killing blow, and her spirit rebelled against what was about to happen. The power of the void coursed into her arm, mending the wound and causing the skin to meld back into place as she watched. She grinned as the hobgoblin’s eyes went wide, and a dire red blade formed in her hand.

 

The blade slashed upwards, cutting into and through the joints of the armor where the legplates joined with the waist. Rising with a strength she didn’t know she had, Alex snarled and stabbed the mind blade into the wound she created, ripping it upwards and breaking apart the metal plate, the void singing in time with her rapid heartbeat. Even as she rose, the hobgoblin fell, and she stepped on the brute’s arm as he reached for something of his own. Their positions neatly reversed, a feral grin, every bit as malicious and intent on murder as his had been, worked its way across her face.

 

But another blade stabbed down into the hobgoblin’s heart, instantly ending its life. Alex looked up to see who had stolen her kill, but her rage immediately stifled itself as she saw Imoen’s face. It was a weary face, to which another scar had been added, in addition to the one above her eye she had gathered in the Nashkel Mine. But she was triumphant.

 

“That’s the last of them, sis. It’s over.â€Â

 

“What-what about the command tent.â€Â

 

Imoen motioned wordlessly. Following her arm’s motion, Alex saw a blazing funeral pyre, flames reaching high into the sky even as rain began to fall.

 

“The rain’s of Jaheira’s doing. That fire you started spread quickly-send the whole thing up in flame. A lot of the mercenaries started to run after that, while you were fighting the big hobgoblin. Khalid ran in and managed to pull some prisoner and a bunch of papers out of there while it was burning-never seen someone that crazy. Or that brave. But then I saw you still fighting over here, and I saw that look on your face… you were drawing on that void again, weren’t you?â€Â

 

“Yes… I was. He would have killed me.â€Â

 

“You could’ve shouted for help, Alex. Everyone else was busy, but if we’d known you were in trouble… you’re not alone out here, sis.â€Â

 

“I know I’m not, Im. I just… wasn’t thinking.â€Â

 

“Alex, I know you when you’re operating on instinct. You’re a little scary when you do that.â€Â

 

“I guess you’re right, Im. It’s just… that fight took a lot out of me. I’ll be alright.â€Â

 

“Okay, if you’re sure, sis.â€Â

 

“I am.â€Â

 

Alex followed Imoen back to the others, where Ajantis was interrogating the man Khalid had pulled from the command tent. Alexandria took up station next to Jaheira and spoke softly.

 

“Who’s he?â€Â

 

“A prisoner of the mercenaries, child. He has confirmed that these were indeed mercenaries, well-paid for ones as well. The leader of the humans, Taugosz Kausan, I believe, was killed in a battle with the Flaming Fist not long ago. In the interim, they were being led by a hobgoblin, Ardenor Crush, a local chieftain of some repute with a mercenary streak. I believe that is who you killed.â€Â

 

“Great. Does he know who was paying Crush?â€Â

 

“Of sorts. This is where it becomes interesting, child. The mercenaries believed they were being paid by the Black Network-the Zhentarim.â€Â

 

Alex shivered. She had heard plenty of tales of Gorion’s about the Zhentarim-by all tales, they were an extremely evil and dangerous organization, and not to be taken lightly.

 

“Your anxiety would be warranted if it was indeed the Zhentarim behind this smokescreen, Alexandria. However, we have learned something else altogether. This man-Ender Sai-did not offend the Zhentarim at all. He has been telling us that he was ambushed in a caravan and captured not long after angering an organization known as the Iron Throne.â€Â

 

“The Iron Throne… I’ve heard that name before. In relation with the iron crisis.â€Â

 

“Yes. It would appear the Throne is the one orchestrating the mercenary attacks disguised as bandits or even detachments of the Flaming Fist or Amnish army. And they were behind the kobolds in the Nashkel Mine as well.â€Â

 

“Well, I guess we’re heading up to Baldur’s Gate to crack some heads, then.â€Â

 

Jaheira laughed and shook her head at Alexandria.

 

“By Silvanus, you are going to land yourself in a prison some day soon, child! Either that, or you will be hailed across the Sword Coast as a heroine. But we must proceed carefully, child. The papers my husband recovered indicate that the Iron Throne has its own source of iron, which grants them substantial economic-and thus political-power. Think of this as a trail of bread crumbs in a cavern, as you might have heard of in a child’s tale. I laud your audacity, but we must shut down this mine.â€Â

 

“Fine. Where is it?â€Â

 

“The Cloakwood.â€Â

 

“You’ve got to be kidding me.â€Â

 

“I do not ‘kid’, Alexandria. From your response, I would assume Gorion has told you the tales of the Cloakwood?â€Â

 

“Yes. Would it do me any good to say I don’t like this?â€Â

 

“Has it ever, child?â€Â

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