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At Soul's Edge

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Chapter XVII: Beneath a Sea of Stars

 

 

Alexandria was glad to see the Friendly Arm Inn again. Even though she had just been there a few days past, that hadn’t been much more than a pause to rest for the night. The assault on the mercenary camp had taken a lot out of Alex-more than she would have thought. Even with the aid of the void, the fight against the hobgoblin leader-Ardenor Crush-had been by far the most draining thing she had ever done. By all rights, she should have died two days ago.

 

She had never confided in anyone how much that idea scared her. It had been nearly a month since her flight from Candlekeep, and even after that much time on the adventurer’s life, the concept of death in battle was still deeply troubling. She might say to her friends that she was unafraid of death, and they might even believe her, and she might not think about death while gripped with battle-lust, but lying had never been her strong suit. All she could think of on the trip back to the Inn was how close it had been, how her strength and skill had been ultimately futile. Even armed with her supernatural mind blade, Ardenor Crush had been stronger, tougher. The only way she had been able to defeat him was by drawing on the darkest of power. Why, oh why, was doing the right thing so damnably hard?

 

Alex looked up at the night sky, at the moon. It was infinite up there, without limit, without regulation. None dared tell the stars there was something stronger (though the Planes were infinite, she supposed). The battle against Ardenor Crush had made her all too aware of her own limitations, and though she felt as though a veil had been lifted from her eyes, what she could now see was not exactly welcome or comforting.

 

She continued her dark ruminations until the adventurers entered the keep, and immediately made their way to the blacksmith’s shop, where a team of busy gnomish smiths, led by a priest of Flandal Steelskin. The heat from the smithy was intense, the gnomes hard at work forging what looked like weapons. The priest walked over to them.

 

“Good evening, adventurers. Looking to purchase something, or place an order?â€Â

 

“Yes-I understand you do armor repairs?â€Â

 

“Sure do, for metalwork. For leather, Timmal Jansen is a good leatherworker-his workshop is on the north end of the keep.â€Â

 

Alex nodded, and removed her armor, as did Khalid, Ajantis, and Jaheira. The plate mail was universally dented and scratched, along with holes from arrows that had punched through the steel plates, and of course Alexandria’s breastplate, which had been rent completely asunder on the left shoulder. Jaheira’s chain mail was in better condition, though it too displayed the signs of hard wear and battle. The priest motioned them over to a section of the shop set aside for orders, and the adventurers placed their armor in line next to a large waiting order weapons and other pieces of armor. Ajantis and Khalid also dropped their blades and shields. Jaheira’s spear was undamaged, as was Imoen’s bow. Alexandria, for obvious reasons, didn’t have to worry about her weapon being damaged.

 

“Very good. That will come to about four hundred gold pieces, and best estimate is five days to work. It’s been busy lately-Flaming Fist, adventurers, even the common folk seem to want their swords in good condition. I’m expecting we’ll be even busier in a few months, of course.â€Â

 

“Why? Expecting another upswing of business?â€Â

 

“Business? Of course not. I’m expecting our services to be conscripted by Baldur’s Gate for the war with Amn.â€Â

 

“War’s a certainty? My friends and I have been up and down the Sword Coast, trying to end the problems.â€Â

 

“Not a certainty, maybe, but everyone can feel the winds.â€Â

 

Alex shrugged, and paid the gnomes. The adventurers tromped up to the inn proper, which as usual sounded like a small battle. But the first person to call out to them was a surprisingly familiar voice.

 

“We meet again, Alexandria of Candlekeep.â€Â

 

She turned to the source of the voice. It was the same Flaming Fist officer who had tried to arrest her a few days ago.

 

“Officer Donos… please tell me I’m not under arrest again.â€Â

 

“You are not. Commander Scar was red in the face when I told him I had tried to arrest you and your companions-arresting a knight of the Order of the Radiant Heart without solid proof of guilt of a crime… I think the only reason I still have my job is because I was able to prove I had received my orders directly from Commander Angelo. And it seems you yourself have been creating quite a stir, tiefling. They say you cleaned out the Nashkel Mines, fighting off a thousand kobolds.â€Â

 

Alexandria laughed. “A thousand? I only killed a handful, but I did clear the mines, yes. They fell apart and fled when I killed their leader. How has the bandit situation been going the last few days?â€Â

 

“Funny thing. They seem to have lost most of their coordination-the last few days have been spent chasing isolated attacks up and down the road to Baldur’s Gate. They’re nowhere near as organized and clever as they have been.†The officer’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Did you have something to do with that?â€Â

 

“If by destroying their encampment and killing their leaders I had something to do with it, then the answer is yes.â€Â

 

“That’s the best damn news I’ve heard since this whole crisis brewed up. I’ll have to buy you a round.â€Â

 

Alex grinned and followed the officer to the bar, where Bentley Mirrorshade was serving drinks to a mixed crowd of commoners, Flaming Fist, and other travelers.

 

“So, how did you end up decapitating their leadership? Our best scouts weren’t finding anything, and my wizard reported that their leadership was warded against magical scrying.â€Â

 

“Don’t know why you would have had such trouble finding them. Jaheira-the elven-looking woman with brown hair-is a druid, and she was able to find and track them down without much trouble. When we found their encampment, we attacked.â€Â

 

“Just like that? You attacked, without trying to find us for assistance?â€Â

 

“Nope. Guess it just didn’t occur to me.â€Â

 

“Then you’re either one hell of a fighter or Tymora was looking at you with a grin that went from ear to ear.â€Â

 

“Or a bit of both.â€Â

 

Both warriors laughed as their drinks arrived. Alexandria had developed a fondness for Amnish mead during her visit to the south, while Donos ordered a dark stout.

 

“If you don’t mind proper introductions that aren’t at the wrong end of a spear, I am Nathaniel Donos, lieutenant of the Flaming Fist, Third Company.â€Â

 

“Well, you already know my name.â€Â

 

“No surname? For someone who’s done as much as you have, I’m surprised you haven’t taken one already.â€Â

 

“Never felt the need to. I’m Alexandria, and that’s all there is to it. Take it or leave it-I am who I am.â€Â

 

“You’ve got more spirit than half the men in my company, young lady. If you’re ever in Baldur’s Gate looking for work, Commander Scar has expressed an interest in meeting a firebrand like yourself. The Fist is a good organization.â€Â

 

“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m heading on to the Cloakwood Forest in a few days.â€Â

 

“Oh? What brings you there? The Cloakwood’s a nasty place.â€Â

 

“I’m sorry, officer, but I really can’t say. Don’t quite know who I can trust, or who you can.â€Â

 

“True enough-I think Commander Angelo’s got half the Fist working for him, directly or indirectly. He’s third in command of the Fist, but rumor has it he’s angling for second. Or even first.â€Â

 

“Not a very nice person, I take it?â€Â

 

“Oh, no. He’s actually a very polite and well-mannered person. The thing about Angelo Delryn is that he’s more oily than a shadow thief. And his connections, well, that’s a whole nother story.â€Â

 

“What kind of connections? Sorry if I seem a pest, but something smells very funny about all this.â€Â

 

“You’re far from alone. He’s said to be the bastard son of some minor noble in Amn, but word has it there’s been pressure on the Fist from the Roenall family for his well-being. Commander Angelo is currently third in command of the Fist, and he seems to be angling for second in command. Maybe even first.â€Â

 

“Wait… from what I’ve read about Baldur’s Gate, the Lord Commander of the Flaming Fist is automatically granted the title of one of the four Grand Dukes of the city.â€Â

 

“Aye, a title currently held by Duke Eltan. What’s worse is that Angelo is a strong proponent of aggressive war against Amn. Duke Eltan, Commander Scar, and a lot of other officers think war is madness. We’re still, at our heart, a mercenary company, not an army, and the resources to mount a war like this, compared to the potential profits… not good for the bottom line. But a nice bag of coins can do wonders for turning a man’s opinions the other way, and Angelo’s got plenty of followers. He’s also said to be close to Sarevok.â€Â

 

“Sarevok?â€Â

 

“You haven’t heard of him?â€Â

 

“No-the internal politics of Baldur’s Gate have never been my primary concern.â€Â

 

“Sarevok’s an officer of the Iron Throne. Very influential-he’s got a lot of coin, a good heart, and people like and trust him. He’s also said to be angling for a position of more power in the city, and I think it’s a good thing-he’s responsible for a big trade delegation coming up from Amn in a couple of weeks. Real powerhouse players. The Roenalls, the De’Arnise, even a Cowled Wizard official by the name of Semaj. Never seen him myself, but he’s one of the good guys. Anyway, you said you’re heading out to the Cloakwood soon. Not many people go out there unless they have a damn good reason.â€Â

 

“When my friends and I took out the bandit camp, we found a couple of letters to their leader, indicating that…†Alexandria paused, wondering just how much she should tell Donos. He was a good man, but good men were easily deceived. “Whoever hired the mercenaries to pose as bandits seems to have a base of operations deep in the Cloakwood.â€Â

 

“And you’re going after them?â€Â

 

“Of course. But we’re not leaving for about five days. Our gear’s more than a little worse for the wear, and we need to restock on supplies before heading out.â€Â

 

“You’ve more than earned a few days of rest, Alexandria of Candlekeep. Maybe I’m just too city born-and-bred, but it feels odd to address someone without a surname.â€Â

 

“What is there to a name? I am who I am.â€Â

 

“But you’ll need one if you continue on this path like you are. You’re well on your way to a life of distinction.â€Â

 

“Maybe, but I think I need another drink. It’s been one hell of a tenday.â€Â

 

“I’ll drink to that.â€Â

 

 

Later that night, Alexandria and Imoen finally went up to bed. They had splurged on a set of the Inn’s best rooms, and hence found a pair of luxuriously appointed beds, complete with long mirror and other amenities. Alex sighed, and stripped off her worn silver tunic-even after washing by the Inn’s servants, a month of battle and adventure seemed to have pressed the faint smell of dust and blood into its very fabric. Her heavy leather hiking boots, once newly fitted and uncomfortable to walk in at the start of her adventures, were now worn and well broken-in. Ditto for her other clothes. Everything was showing the signs of hard wear.

 

Even her body was, examining herself in the mirror. There were scars on her body-not many, but some, where healing magic hadn’t quite finished the job. Her brown-red hair had flowed nearly to her waist at the beginning, but by the time she had reached Nashkel, she had realized how impractical that was. Jaheira had cut it, leaving the ends of her hair to brush against the shoulder. Her face was a little more worn than it should have been on someone her age, and there was a certain darkness in her eyes. Once, she had been terrified at the idea of killing another person. Now, she didn’t even blink when someone was stabbed to death in front of her-frequently by she herself.

 

But… as she looked over her dusky skin, she began to realize something. She had scars, yes, but they were the scars of not just a survivor-they were the scars of a victor. Through kobolds, mercenaries, and Ardenor Crush, she had flourished on the road. What little fat she’d worn on her when she left Candlekeep was gone. Her sword arm was noticeably stronger, and there were similar changes elsewhere, her body’s adaptations to a life of travel and combat. Her figure had suffered somewhat from the constant exercise and exertion, of course, but she didn’t consider that much of a downside.

 

She had left Candlekeep little more than an innocent child. She was neither innocent nor a child now. Battle, intrigue, and her own soul had taken a toll. But by the gods, she had survived! More than that-she had thrived on the road! The people of Nashkel praised her for saving their livelihoods, and many merchants on the coastal roads would likely begin doing the same once word of Alexandria’s strike against the bandit leadership spread. Alexandria had never been truly happy in Candlekeep-she had wanted freedom. And now that she had it, she was surprised to realize that for all of the trials she had had, despite the void lurking behind her soul and the shadow of war looming large across the coast… she was happy like this.

 

“Night, sis.†Imoen called.

 

Alexandria fell into bed and swiftly into sleep, moonlight filtering through the window and across an unusual expression for the tiefling-a smile.

 

 

Alexandria awoke to find herself in a place she recognized-the Wood of Sharp Teeth, near the mercenary encampment. She strode towards it effortlessly, even as demihumans and humans like began patrolling. Her walk into the camp was unimpeded, the images paying her no mind. She saw they were indeed well-organized: carefully timed patrols and watches, the plate-armored hobgoblin, Ardenor Crush, bellowing orders while Taugosz Khosann, leader of the Black Talons, calmly monitored the camp from the entrance of the command tent.

 

There was a rumble, and a large group of bandits set out, riding horses and moving with precision. At their head was a massive half-ogre. Tazok. None of the sentries even turned to watch the raiders move out. She waited in the camp for some time, until the sentries gave shouts of alarm and six individuals poured out of the forest, moving with speed and coordination. Spells flashed from two of the band while three armored figures armed with swords launched themselves into the fray. The battle was short and brutal. Not ten minutes after it had begun, the command tent was ablaze and Ardenor Crush drove a young woman into the dirt.

 

The scene played itself out as she remembered, but the moment Crush fell, a gust of wind lifted her high into the air. From above, Alexandria could see the entire encampment burning from Jaheira’s lightning bolts and Xan’s incendiary potions. It was a brief moment of total freedom, free from even the shackles of doing what was right. Then her weightlessness reversed itself, and she plunged to the earth.

 

Alexandria sped towards the ground, but there was no impact. The ground swallowed her whole, and sealed itself behind her as she descended into the bowels of the world. For a time, it was completely dark, even to her feline eyes, and for all she knew, she was heading straight for Toril’s fiery heart. But then her eyes picked up the flicker of light again, and saw that she had seamlessly entered a great cavern, lit dimly, but it might as well have been bright daylight to her. She saw a figure and turned to it, coming face to face with… herself.

 

It was a stone statue of Alexandria, identical to the smallest detail, and almost as alive as she was. There was a darkness in the statue’s eyes, a darkness that was only the barest hint of a terrible void. As the thought filtered through her mind, the same voice from the other dreams called out from the recesses of the cavern.

 

“Such pride undeserved, great predator, when your whole being is borrowed. Credit where it is due, and dues where payment is demanded.â€Â

 

Movement registered in Alexandria’s vision as she turned to the source of the voice. A dagger flew out of the abyss and struck the statue square. Though the stone only cracked slightly, Alex cried as she was wracked with intense pain, as though she had been torn completely asunder. She fell to her knees as the voice taunted her again.

 

“You were made as you were, and you can also be broken.â€Â

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Chapter XVIII: Lions and Tigers and Bards

 

 

Enjoyable as the respite was, Alexandria was beginning to feel more than a little restless. Four days at the Friendly Arm Inn may not have seemed like much to a person raised in Candlekeep, but now that Alex had had her taste of the wider world, even the Friendly Arm Inn felt rather small. And there wasn’t much for her to do-carrying exposed weapons was forbidden within the walls, even for adventurers, and Lieutenant Donos and his patrol had departed to Baldur’s Gate the day after Alexandria’s arrival. It hadn’t taken long to stock up on supplies they would need for the journey into the depths of the Cloakwood-a handaxe for chopping wood, some sturdy tents, and extra materials for fire-starting.

 

Jaheira had also been very busy, constantly venturing outside the walls to gather herbs and other materials not available in the apothecary, being careful to gather plenty of antidote for spider and ettercap venom-tales abounded of the inhabitants of the Cloakwood, and spiders and ettercaps were foremost among the creatures, in addition to tasloi and even wyverns. On that note, several communities, including the Inn and Beregost, were offering substantial rewards for wyvern heads. There were even rumors of a green dragon somewhere in the Cloakwood. When Alexandria mentioned this to Ajantis, he laughed.

 

“If we come upon a dragon, I hope you can run for some time in your new armor.â€Â

 

And quite frankly, there just wasn’t much for a bored adventurer to do while waiting for armor and weapon repairs. There was a big temple to Garl Glittergold within the walls, and a temple to Waukeen, which had since been reconsecrated to Lliira, and a shrine to Shaundakul outside the walls, but there was very little else in the fortress aside from shops. She had attended one of the Lliiran services, but like the Lathandrite service, she had slipped out quickly. Alexandria wondered what it was that she was seeking-what her battles had left empty in her. She had thought it might perhaps be religion, after seeing how greatly it impacted Ajantis and Jaheira, but, it appeared, such was not meant to be.

 

Eventually, though, a runner from the blacksmiths came. Their equipment was duly repaired, though the gnomes could not erase the signs of battle damage entirely. Alexandria’s field plate was in the best condition of any of their armor, having only been worn a short time, but even her untrained eye could see where the left vambrace had been torn apart. It suited her. Like Alexandria herself, the armor had once been pristine, but was now showing the effects of hard wear and combat.

 

That wasn’t to say they left immediately, however. Outside the fortress walls, Jaheira and Xan brewed potions from ingredients the druid had gathered-from antidotes to alchemist’s fire. Bentley Mirrorshade flatly forbade the mixing of potentially dangerous chemicals within the Inn, so the adventurers made do. Lacking anything else to do immediately, Alexandria and Imoen played gofer, but the former noted the streams of peasants on the road, traveling to and from various locales. Raised in Candlekeep, neither woman quite realized just how many people in Faerun lived simple, rough lives.

 

“They look worried.†Imoen noted.

 

Jaheira looked up from her work and nodded.

 

“They are worried, child. The possibility of a military draft grows more likely by the day.â€Â

 

“Military draft?†Alexandria asked. “You mean, actually conscripting peasants to grab a pike and fight?â€Â

 

“Yes. Surely you’ve noticed so many of them bringing old swords and suits of rough armor to be repaired-most local militias are likely going to be incorporated into the Flaming Fist as auxiliaries, while the rest form levees.â€Â

 

“But that’s not right! No one should be able to be forced into fighting!â€Â

 

“The draft is an old institution, Alexandria, and there are limits. The draft can only be instated by a unanimous vote by the Grand Dukes of Baldur’s Gate, and then only in the summer or spring-after planting and before harvest.â€Â

 

“Idiot nobles.†Alex spat. “Instead of fighting wars at the cost of so many innocent people, why don’t the nobles just grab swords and fight it out?â€Â

 

“Such things have been done on occasion, child, but it is no solution this time. You know as well as I do that this is no ordinary conflict between Baldur’s Gate and Amn-this is careful manipulation. I have seen war and bloodshed before-I hail from Tethyr, which has been enveloped in civil war for more years than it has not. Wars are an inevitable consequence of civilization-greed, pride, and ambition run deep in those who rule and would rule nations, and war is an expedient method of satisfying those desires. There have been those who have always sought to quell war-from the faithful of Eldath to monastic orders such as that lead by Balthazar in Tethyr, but they have always been quiet voices in pandemonium.â€Â

 

“Why is it no solution? It would spare the world a lot of pain and suffering.â€Â

 

“Because that is not the way the world works, child.â€Â

 

“So?â€Â

 

“So you cannot change such things, child. While I do appreciate your idealism and determination to do what you feel is right, would-be agents of reform typically must work behind the scenes, and effect change slowly.â€Â

 

“Change it slowly? You mean would-be agents of reform are too frightened of failure to actually change things.â€Â

 

“I do not expect you to understand or appreciate the intricacies of politics, Alexandria. You are a forceful woman, with a spirit and determination bards may sing of, should you not come to an unpleasant end. But pick your battles, child.â€Â

 

“Me. Pick my battles. Uh huh. In case you haven’t noticed, most of my battles have been picked for me. They’re as forced upon me as the spectre of war is forced upon the everyday people of the Sword Coast. Now, I’m hoping to stop the war before it starts and spare everyone the needless suffering, but we both know I didn’t choose this life for myself.â€Â

 

“The woman who decides for herself what her destiny shall be is beyond rare, child. We all do what we can with what the gods and the fates give us, and can do no more.â€Â

 

“And if we don’t like what the gods give us? They’ve also done a real nice job of taking away everything.â€Â

 

“Are you so foolish, child? Nature has taken much from you, yes, but you have found a great deal as well. You have found courage, determination, and resolve. You have decided of your own initiative to pursue a plot that may very well cost your life because you cannot abide seeing innocent men and women suffer. You have earned dear friends and already there are tales of your deeds circulating the Coast. It is as I have said all along, Alexandria-all beings serve the balance in the end, be it willingly, wittingly, or otherwise.â€Â

 

“What does it matter whether she serves the balance or herself?†Xan cut in. “We’re all doomed. Alexandria will come to her death in our strike into the Cloakwood-whether at the hand of the Iron Throne or by the denizens of the wood. We all will.â€Â

 

“No, Xan, we will not.†Jaheira replied. “If Alexandria has taught me one thing, it is that nothing is over until we say it is. Khalid and I are no strangers to the deep woods, and we will find this Iron Throne base.â€Â

 

“And do what? Attempt to destroy it? The mercenaries in the Wood of Sharp Teeth were not expecting an assault, and Mulahey and his kobolds beneath Nashkel were scattered and disorganized. We are contemplating attacking a fortified position deep in a treacherous wilderness whose location we don’t even know.â€Â

 

“We don’t know where it is?†Alexandria asked. “I thought you were employing divination magic to find it while we rested here.â€Â

 

“I did employ divination magic, but I felt my magic repelled-the Iron Throne base is warded against any scrying I can employ. The Cloakwood forest will be our grave.â€Â

 

“Xan, if you don’t start to lighten up, I’ll justify your pessimism with my mind blade. Look-that letter did say something about a mine deep in the forest. Now, I’m no druid, but I do know that a mine is hard to conceal. Caravans coming and going, disruption of the forest, maybe even diverting a river… I’m confident Jaheira can find it for us.â€Â

 

“And even if I cannot find it myself,†Jaheira responded. “I am a servant of nature and the creatures of the forest would heed my call. Alexandria is correct-a mine is indeed a disruption in nature’s plans, and such a thing would not go unnoticed by the denizens of the forest.â€Â

 

Xan threw up his hands in surrender. “Whatever. Onward, then, to futility!â€Â

 

 

It was decided. The adventurers would leave under the cover of darkness that very evening, hopefully reaching the woods before sunrise. If Donos’ suspicions were right, the Fist couldn’t be trusted. He could, Alexandria felt, but she would have to keep her cards as close to her vest as she could. Which was, admittedly, a skill she wasn’t especially good at. Imoen, quite adept at sleight of hand, had learned several card games during their stay, and always wanted to play against Alexandria. Thankfully, Imoen’s total inability to maintain a poker face worked against her more than her dexterity worked for her.

 

As they worked their way out of the courtyards, however, the adventurers’ attention was drawn by the sound of ribald music. There was a raised platform near the entrance where several bards were in what appeared to be a competition of some sort, and a small crowd had gathered around them. Imoen immediately peeled off in their direction, and Alexandria and Ajantis shared a look of good-natured exasperation as they followed. They arrived just in time to see a new bard step onto the stage.

 

He was quite young-no older than Imoen or Alexandria, and probably younger. In the bright torchlight, she could see carrot-colored hair, freckles, even a stray pimple or two. He made an unnecessarily exaggerated bow to the audience, and removed a yarting from his back-an instrument the Candlekeep women had some familiarity with, due to its strong association with Oghma. The elderly bard who appeared to be running the competition grinned as he shouted to the audience.

 

“And next in our battle of bards, troubadours, minstrels, and other performers is a rising young star from Beregost! This dashing young lad goes by many names, probably to avoid many outraged parents and innkeepersâ€Â-the audience laughed on cue-“But for now, his name is Garrick, so on with the show!â€Â

 

The young bard flashed a nervous smile and played a few notes on his yarting before beginning in earnest. He was good-no question about it. His fingers raced down the strings of his instrument with speed, and danced with the notes of the melody with a dexterity worthy of a thief. Garrick’s face went from nervous to pure enjoyment as he warmed to the tune, playing a warm, lively song. Then he slowed, shifting to a harmonious ballad that hinted of faraway lands and places, before dramatically flourishing and racing into a pounding tempo that darted up and down the scale before ending in a bright finale. Face flushed with pride, Garrick bowed again to the audience before stepping aside, knowing well that he’d just made a tough act for the next performer to follow. The man running the competition stepped forward again.

 

“Well, that certainly tips the odds in young Garrick’s favor! And that’s the end of the show, ladies and gentlemen!â€Â

 

“Perhaps this sparrow may be given his chance to fly?†Another voice asked.

 

The older bard looked around for the source of the voice, but not even Alexandria’s darkvision could see the source.

 

“Is this some kind of joke?†The older man asked.

 

“Nay, my silver-haired sparrow. Merely a wondrous little gambit of mine.†There was a flash of magic onstage, and another figure resolved. The newcomer was a man, somewhat smallish, with gray skin covered in odd markings, two elegant blades at his waist, and strangely enough-blue hair. There was a harp in his hands, and he spun lightly on his feet as he turned to face the elder bard.

 

“So, you wish to compete? I must have your name.â€Â

 

“Of course, my friend! This sparrow is called Haer’Dalis. My troupe is stopping for the night, but I would relish the chance to act in this little play of yours.â€Â

 

“This is most unorthodox, but very well. You have ten minutes to perform however you wish, but this is a musical competition.â€Â

 

The flashy newcomer simply bowed, and turned to face the audience. He cracked a smile that went from ear to ear as he started to play.

 

Garrick had been good. Haer’Dalis was better. The performer seemed to immediately loose himself in bliss as he began to play-an alien melody that was beautiful nonetheless, and Alexandria soon lost track of his performance, the bard’s talent far beyond her ability to fully perceive, let alone describe. But he didn’t merely stand as he played, either-he spun and danced, moving with remarkable agility, even as he somehow found the energy to begin singing as well. His song started in common, but each stanza seemed to be in a different tongue. Alexandria knew a handful of languages besides common, but most of the song was incomprehensible to her, save for a few verses that she thought were sung in Abyssal. But a song in the tongue of the Lower Planes? The impossibility didn’t seem to stop Haer’Dalis, and when the performer finally stopped, Alexandria had to think a moment to remember where she was. She had lost herself in the bard’s performance, and from looking around, her companions had, as well.

 

A somewhat stunned announcer stepped forward once again. Surveying the audience, recovering from the bard’s enthralling performance, he grinned.

 

“I hereby declare Haer’Dalis the winner of tonight’s competition! Thank you all for being a wonderful audience, and let’s give all the performers a last big round of applause!â€Â

 

They did so, and Alexandria and her friends began to head in the direction of the gates when a familiar face caught up with them. Garrick, the young bard who had had the misfortune to perform just before Haer’Dalis. He seemed almost pleading as he approached them.

 

“Hey, I saw you people arrive just as I went on! I wasn’t that bad, was I? I mean, even if I couldn’t keep up with that guy who appeared from nowhere, I’m not that bad, right? I would have won if he hadn’t shown up, right?â€Â

 

Alexandria looked at her friends, and made a motion towards the gate. She really didn’t want to have anything to do with this. But Imoen was already walking towards him.

 

“No, I think you did pretty good. I actually liked you better than that guy with the blue hair-you seemed more earnest.â€Â

 

“Gee, thanks-oh, er, thank you! Did you mean that?â€Â

 

Imoen grinned at him, and he smiled brightly in return, but he couldn’t keep his eyes on her face. They kept sliding downwards, and Imoen winked at Alexandria, causing the tiefling to smirk. She had seen that expression before on her little sister’s face. Imoen’s response was still cheerful, however.

 

“Of course. You’ve got real talent. I’m Imoen, by the way.â€Â

 

“Oh, wow. Do you have a boyfriend-er, I mean, it’s a pleasure to meet you! I am Sir Garrick, poet, scholar, and sometime performer.â€Â

 

“Sir Garrick? I’ve never met a real knight before!â€Â

 

Imoen quietly made an odd gesture with her hands, as though drawing an invisible sword-a gesture in an odd shorthand she and Alexandria had come up with when they’d wanted to talk in Candlekeep without letting the monks know what they were up to. Alexandria made a gesture back, confirming she knew what Imoen was planning.

 

“Erm, well, not a knight, but not for lack of trying.â€Â

 

“Uh huh. Garrick, maybe you’d better meet my big sis-I never date anyone without her approval. She’s the woman in plate armor and carrying a sword. But be careful, she’s got demon blood, so don’t make any sudden moves.â€Â

 

Garrick turned towards Alexandria nervously, and gulped as she gave him the most malevolent smile she could.

 

“Erm, what sword?†He asked.

 

“This one.†Alexandria responded, springing her mind blade to life.

 

“What an interesting gift your sister has, little swan. And demon blood, too? You do not display signs of living on the planes.â€Â

 

Alexandria and Imoen snapped towards the newcomer. It was Haer’Dalis, grinning as ever.

 

“Ah, a flock it is! The little sparrow, a bird of flight, a willowy ptarmigan and attendant warbler, a dour petrel, a good hound, and of course the beautiful little swan!â€Â

 

Haer’Dalis bowed before the adventurers with an extravagant flourish, his eyes coming to rest on Imoen.

 

“A strange flock it is, led perhaps by the bird of flight? What brings such a motley flock out this way?â€Â

 

Alexandria chose to respond before Imoen could. “We’re adventurers, and we were just leaving.â€Â

 

“Ah, a raven it is! Is the little sparrow one of your flock, or is this merely a chance meeting on the road of destiny?â€Â

 

“Garrick is not a member of our band, no.â€Â

 

“Wait!†Garrick shouted. “You’re adventurers? I’d love to come with you! I don’t have any experience, but I’ve heard of you-you’re Alexandria, the demon woman who cleansed the Nashkel Mines and fought a hundred bandits in the Wood of Sharp Teeth! I could write a ballad about our adventures!â€Â

 

“Er, we’re full.†Alexandria responded tersely.

 

“Aw, don’t be such a sourpuss, Alex. I think he’ll do just fine-with one small change.â€Â

 

Imoen immediately began chanting arcane words and moving her hands in odd motions. Casting magic? She shared a worried look with Jaheira-neither of them had seen Imoen cast spells before. The girl finished her incantation and there was a flash of light. When it faded however, she frowned with disappointment.

 

“Odd. That didn’t seem to work.†She reported.

 

It was only then that the change registered on Alexandria, and she doubled over laughing.

 

“What’s so funny, sis?â€Â

 

Alex struggled to find breath between her laughter. “Im… look at your hair…â€Â

 

Imoen took a lock of her brown hair, and saw what had happened. Her hair had turned bright pink.

 

“Oops. I meant to turn Garrick’s hair pink, not mine!â€Â

 

“You silly girl. What did I say about attempting to cast magic?†Xan asked, stern with disappointment. “None of us are powerful enough spellcasters to reverse the spell. You’ll have to live with it. Don’t attempt to cast spells unless you’ve actually studied magic.â€Â

 

“Eh, I like it!†Imoen decided.

 

Haer’Dalis was still wearing a grin. “From swan to flamingo, is it? Your spirit flies as freely as any this sparrow has ever seen. I must depart with my troupe, but allow me to give you this.â€Â

 

With that, the bard stepped lightly to Imoen and kissed her lightly, before jauntily waving them farewell and disappearing with another burst of magic, leaving Imoen’s cheeks an identical shade of pink as her hair.

 

“If you are done playing with male hormones, child, it is time we depart.†Jaheira reminded her.

 

Imoen simply nodded, too flushed to speak properly, and Alexandria quickly but firmly sent Garrick to the inn to get himself drunk.

 

If only her problems could be solved so easily.

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Chapter XIX: Fault Lines

 

 

It had been four hours since they had seen any sign of civilization. Jaheira led the way as the adventurers walked off the main road and into the wilderness of the Sword Coast, heading in the direction of the Cloakwood Forest. It was an unnerving experience to Alexandria. She’d always imagined the coast as being largely civilized, but she was beginning to understand that this part of the Sword Coast, west of the Friendly Arm Inn, north of Candlekeep, and south of Baldur’s Gate, was an untamed wild.

 

According to Jaheira, the local druidic circle was active in the Cloakwood, and it was to their grove that she was leading Alexandria and the others. She and Xan might have been at home in the forest, but Alexandria was not, and she suspected she wasn’t alone in that, either. Nonetheless, she followed Jaheira, knowing that if the druid somehow got lost, the group didn’t stand a chance of finding their way back.

 

“Excuse me, my lady, but is this a good time to talk?†Ajantis asked, interrupting her musing.

 

“Oh, I suppose so. Not much else to do.â€Â

 

“There is something I have been meaning to ask you for some time-ever since Beregost in fact.â€Â

 

“Wait… let me guess. You want to talk to me about the way I walked out on that temple service.â€Â

 

“Well, yes. And not merely because of the disrespect you showed Kelddath Ormlyr, whose aid was of tremendous help.â€Â

 

“Say whatever it is you’re going to say, and let’s get this over with.â€Â

 

“My lady, I understand you do not worship any god.â€Â

 

“Correction: you don’t understand, if I’m not mistaken.â€Â

 

“Well… no. How is it someone raised in Candlekeep does not worship even Oghma?â€Â

 

“Because I choose not to. Ajantis, you’re the paladin. Tell me, is there any deity specifically related to freedom, independence, and choosing one’s destiny for one’s own self?â€Â

 

“Not that I am aware of.â€Â

 

“Exactly. The gods are not omnipotent beings. They are living beings, just like you and I. They require worship and the energy it provides in order to survive, just as we need food and water.â€Â

 

“But my lady, they are not like you and I. Do you care so little for the future?â€Â

 

“My future will be what I choose for myself.â€Â

 

“But can you take your choices with you when you die, my lady? Your soul will be placed among the wall of the faithless.â€Â

 

“Rather than go to some god’s personal playground? What will happen to you when you die, Ajantis?â€Â

 

“I will go to be with Helm in the House of the Triad on Mechanicus, where I will serve him for the rest of existence.â€Â

 

“But what do you call an existence bound helplessly to an unknowable entity? Better oblivion than slavery.â€Â

 

“Alexandria, do you even understand the concept of service? Do you truly grasp the concept of giving oneself freely to a power beyond the day-to-day world? You gladly serve the cause of peace, do you not?â€Â

 

“I’m not one of the Eldathyn, no. But I want to stop this war because it is the right thing to do-so many innocent people are going to die if war erupts that I will be damned if I stand by and watch it happen.â€Â

 

“Exactly, my lady. You already live in service to a higher cause-that of the innocent people of the Sword Coast. Why do you not take it a step further?â€Â

 

“The road to the Abyss is paved with good intentions. We started this chitchat talking about Lathander. Fine. Let’s talk about him. People celebrate him as the Morninglord, god of light, renewal, creativity, birth, and all that other excrement. He’s also one of the most power-hungry gods out there. Name one other god that performed a ritual intending to reshape the entire damn multiverse according to his own particular view of things.â€Â

 

“My lady, how do you even know of the Dawn Cataclysmâ€Â-

 

“I grew up in Candlekeep, idiot. And may I remind you that your own precious Helm lost his lover in the Cataclysm?â€Â

 

“Why are you bringing up ancient history? Why did you even learn so much about what you profess to hate?â€Â

 

“Because I was curious. I wanted to know if the gods were as childish as they seemed. They are. And I bring up ancient history because no man can truly claim to know oneself unless they know their origin. I see no reason the gods would be any different?â€Â

 

“Then what of your own origin, Alexandria? Do you truly know yourself?â€Â

 

“No.â€Â

 

With that last remark, Alexandria turned away from the paladin, her simmering anger and frustration with him bleeding away from her as she thought to herself. After a few minutes of awkward silence, she speaks again.

 

“No, Ajantis, I do not know myself. I never have.â€Â

 

“What do you mean, my lady?â€Â

 

“You spoke the truth. I don’t know my origin. Indeed, how can I claim to know anything, about myself or the world? My soul is haunted by a void, and though I have only survived this long in the world due to its power, you know as well as I that it is nothing but evil.â€Â

 

“Why do you not know your origin? You were raised in Candlekeep by the wizard Gorion, were you not?â€Â

 

“I was. That doesn’t mean I know anything about my origin.â€Â

 

“What do you mean? Your fatherâ€Â-

 

“Gorion was not my father. He raised me, and I do call him Father, yes, but he was not related to me by blood. Mind you, he never actually told me this. He kept a great many secrets from me. I don’t know why. But over the years as I grew up, I was able to figure out some. I am a tiefling. Gorion was not.â€Â

 

“But such heritage can be passed through only one parent. My father had my brown hair, but my mother was blonde. And it only needed one to pass that trait to me.â€Â

 

“That is true-Father taught me some of genetics, of that crazy monk in a distant part of the Realms named Mendel. It is true that only one of my parents need have had demon blood. But I also look absolutely nothing like Father. He was small and lean. I’m big and strongly built. He had pale skin, blue eyes, and a somewhat beaky nose. My skin is brown, my eyes red and visibly non-human, and my nose is small. Were Gorion my true father, there would have been at least some resemblance. There was not. And there are other discrepancies besides. I never knew exactly how old he was, but I could guess. He’s too old to be my father unless he managed to impregnate a woman rather later than most men are capable of.â€Â

 

“And what of your mother?â€Â

 

Alexandria didn’t respond for a moment as she looked down at the ground. It was an odd question, and one she really hadn’t thought of.

 

“I don’t know. Never had one, never missed having one. Father raised me by himself. I think he knew who she was, though, now that I think about it. A couple times while I was sneaking around with Im, I heard him weeping to himself, and a few snatches of conversation with Old Beaky and Uncle Tethtoril. Nothing that meant anything at the time, though now I have to wonder.â€Â

 

“I am deeply sorry, my lady. I did not realize your own parents were a mystery to you.â€Â

 

“No way you could have known. Say, since we’re on the subject, would you mind telling me a bit of your family?â€Â

 

“Well, my upbringing was quite different from yours, please understand. I am heir to the Istenvarrs, a noble family in Waterdeep.â€Â

 

“I should’ve figured you were a nobleman. No offense.â€Â

 

“None taken. My parents worship Lathander-that was why I took issue with the way you acted earlier.â€Â

 

“They worship Lathander, but you worship Helm? Isn’t that a bit odd?â€Â

 

“I suppose it is. I never thought of it as being particularly odd. After becoming a squire, however, I did not see them for some time.â€Â

 

The wistfulness in Ajantis’ tone stung Alexandria. How nice for him that he had had a nice family. But she kept her peace as he continued to talk.

 

“My family is known for being great patrons of the arts. Do you enjoy art, Alexandria?â€Â

 

“I suppose I do. I prefer a good book to a painting, though.â€Â

 

“You would enjoy visiting Waterdeep, then, I think. There are some truly wondrous artists in the city. Though if you prefer learning, the city’s primary temple of Oghma recently began a new endeavor. They acquired a building and filled it with artifacts and paintings and illusory duplications of events and things lost since past, all for the aim of educating the people of the city, regardless of class. I understand magic mouth spells cover a great deal of the building, to explain to visitors what it is they are seeing.â€Â

 

“What a silly idea. But alas, I can see the Oghmanytes doing such a thing all too easily. What on Toril do they call it, anyway?â€Â

 

“I believe I’ve heard them call it a museum.â€Â

 

“What an odd name. Related to a mausoleum, perhaps?â€Â

 

“Only if they intend to inter there those who die of boredom.â€Â

 

Both warriors laughed.

 

“I must say, you are exceptionally well-educated, my lady.â€Â

 

“You try being raised in Candlekeep by two wizards, a priest of Oghma, and a whole lot of monks and scholars. I got so damn bored there was nothing else to do but read.â€Â

 

“And well spoken as well. You could do a fair imitation of a noblewoman if you so wished.â€Â

 

Once again, the tiefling burst into laughter.

 

“Me? A noblewoman? No, thank you!â€Â

 

“I am quite serious, my lady. Your features are sharp and beautiful-you have a rugged elegance about you, tempered by your… extraplanar heritage. I would not be surprised if one of your missing parents was indeed a noble. Perhaps that is why you never knew your parents-a noble did not wish it known that he or she consorted with one of demon blood.â€Â

 

“You sure you aren’t imagining things, Ajantis? Or did you take a smack to the head when I wasn’t looking.â€Â

 

“Why would I imagine things, my lady? You are worthy of everything I have said.â€Â

 

“Now you’re just flattering me. And stop calling me your lady.â€Â

 

Ajantis grinned. “And what if I do not?â€Â

 

“Then I may just do this.â€Â

 

Alexandria abruptly reached over to Ajantis and kissed him. As she pulled away, a smile that was equal parts mischief and pleasure spread over her face. Ajantis, too, wore a smile, but his was about nine-tenths embarrassment, she decided.

 

“Ajantis, if you think I’m pretty, just come out and say it.â€Â

 

The knight flushed the deepest shade of red she had ever seen and his jaw worked frantically, but no sound seemed to work its way out.

 

“Oh, dear. You seem incapable of saying anything right now.â€Â

 

“That… that was… improper of you.â€Â

 

“If it’s any consolation, that’s the first time I’ve ever kissed a man.â€Â

 

“Why, my lady?â€Â

 

“Why not? Was I supposed to ask your permission or something before kissing you?â€Â

 

“I, ah, no.â€Â

 

“Ah well. Wouldn’t have mattered if I was supposed to.â€Â

 

“You are impossible, Alexandria.â€Â

 

“I like to think I am, yes. Impossible to kill, impossible to stop, impossible to shame…â€Â

 

Several sounds came out of Ajantis’ mouth, but none formed into coherent words. Alexandria grinned as she watched the hapless paladin try to speak, but decided to save him the trouble.

 

“As I’ve always told you, decide what you want and go for it. And nothing against you, but you’re downright adorable when you’re so embarrassed you have no idea what to say.â€Â

 

“I’m… I’m not sure if there’s anything I can say… my lady.â€Â

 

“Nothing that could do you any good, I suppose so.â€Â

 

Alex grinned, enjoying the precious moment when she held all the cards. She would be on the other end of someone in that position more often than not.

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Chapter XX: Veil of Shadows

 

 

“You sure we aren’t lost?†Imoen asked.

 

“That is the third time you have asked in as many hours, child. According to the directions my colleagues gave us, we should reach our destination in a few more hours.â€Â

 

Alexandria looked up at the conversation, irritated at the disturbance. She’d been meditating and attempting to pull off a new feat with her mind blade. The tome she still carried around mentioned that, with discipline, it was possible to manifest the blade as two smaller blades instead of one large weapon. It was a maddeningly difficult exercise-she had managed to manifest both blades, but keeping them stable long enough to use to cut her food, let alone use in combat, was problematic at best. It at once required great mental focus, but also required splitting that focus in two. She personally preferred using her gift as one powerful blade, but being able to split it would have interesting, and useful, tactical applications.

 

“If you say so. I can smell the sea air-it just doesn’t seem right that the mine would be on the coast.â€Â

 

“You recognize the scent of the ocean, child? You are more attuned to nature than I would have thought.â€Â

 

“Oh, stuff it, Aunt Jaheira. Candlekeep was kinda built right on the cliffs. I know the smell of it.â€Â

 

“What have I told you about referring to me as your aunt, child?â€Â

 

The now pink-haired girl laughed.

 

“You call me child, I call you aunt.â€Â

 

Jaheira sighed. “Khalid, if we should have a daughter, we will instruct her in discipline.

 

Khalid nodded meekly while Imoen burst into laughter. Even Ajantis chuckled appreciatively. Alexandria stole a glance in his direction while he was distracted. Two days had passed now, since she had kissed him, and they’d hardly spoken since. More than once, he’d moved as though wanting to speak to her, but he always ended up blushing hard and backing down. The problem was hardly unique to him-it had been an impulsive act on her part, and she just wasn’t sure how to behave in his company anymore. She was attracted to him, that much she had known since meeting him, but it felt to her that she had crossed a thick red line two days ago, and it was new territory for them both.

 

Imoen hadn’t been of much help, either. At Candlekeep, she’d always been a little flirtatious with visiting boys, while Alexandria was usually too busy alternately provoking and fleeing Ulraunt’s wrath. Aside from a great deal of good-natured teasing, targeting Alexandria and Ajantis both, she’d kept her peace on the issue. Privately, Alexandria wondered if Imoen sensed the same thing she could-all flirting and attraction aside, there was a deep gulf between the soulknife and the paladin. The former viewed rules as not even guidelines, and subject to the needs of the moment and personal feeling. The latter was deeply ingrained with obedience, duty, and loyalty-he would never think to disobey the law or break an agreement.

 

And there was the matter of the void in Alexandria’s soul as well. It had been quiet, since killing Ardenor Crush, but the quiet was all the more ominous to her. Each time it had manifested, it had done so in situations of violence and death. It was anything but gone-she could still sense the tendrils of abyss in her heart, still ready to provide power if called upon… for a price. Quite frankly, a constant battle for her soul sounded more appealing than having to wait, constantly wondering when the blackness within her would surge forth once again, perhaps in a moment of weakness where it would seize her as it had done in the depths of the Nashkel Mines.

 

Everything important in the world seemed to keep itself hidden in a web of illusion and deception. Gorion’s secrets-which now included the identity of Alexandria’s mother-, who wanted her dead and why, the nature of the void in her soul, the location of the Iron Throne’s base…

 

“Gods damn it all!†She cried in frustration.

 

The normal noise of the forest slowed and soon halted altogether in the wake of the tiefling’s cry. All of the adventurers glanced around nervously.

 

“You have doomed us all, Alexandria. Even now the denizens of the forest gather to slay us all.†Xan pronounced.

 

“It is probable you have attracted a great deal of attention, Alexandria. Remember that we can no longer afford to use alchemist’s fire-even I do not have the power to contain a blaze in this wood.â€Â

 

The adventurers nodded, and Ajantis began to say something, but whatever he was about to say was lost in a sudden tide of noise as the attack crashed into the party.

 

It was the spider that did it. Alexandria hadn’t quite registered the ettercaps and tasloi screaming out of the forest, but then she saw the bloated arachnid, moving forward on eight jointed legs with surprising speed. A wave of revulsion came over her as the creature’s eyes focused on her, and tiefling and spider moved to the attack.

 

A blow of the mind blade, and one of the spider’s limbs fell away from its body. The arachnid quickly dissipated any hope that it might have been disabled by the loss-the spider’s mandibles jutted forward and closed on Alexandria’s leg, denting the steel armor. She was now profoundly thankful she had switched to metal armor-that bite would have gone clean through leather. However, it did render her severely off-balance, and she stumbled backwards, arms flailing as she fought to stay on her feet. The spider advanced as she retreated, but not quickly enough. Alexandria found her footing again and her mind blade flared into life again and advanced forward into the path of the spider, sword arm lancing out and driving the blade into the creature. The impact of the spider’s exoskeleton shook the blade, but it kept going, ramming into whatever passed for the arachnid’s brain. Alexandria’s mind blade dissipated as another wave of nausea passed over her, seeing the creature shake and spasm in its death throes.

 

A quick look around told her how the battle was faring. Khalid was fighting with a grace she had never realized he possessed, keeping two tasloi busy while Jaheira worked a spell. The magic’s effects were immediately apparent as a bolt of lightning crackled down from the cloudless sky and struck a spider moving to attack Imoen, who was busy returning fire at a few tasloi archers. The air began to stink of ozone as the spider experienced something akin to a seizure from the bolt, but despite severe burns on its exoskeleton, it still advanced on the would-be wizard. Jaheira, however, was not finished, and neatly impaled the overgrown creature with her spear.

 

Alexandria mentally slapped herself for looking around as something sticky landed on her. An ettercap shrieked as the silk net neatly wrapped itself around her, and she fell to the ground hard, the impact knocking the wind out of her. Her assailant chattered and ran over, opening its mouth to reveal a maw of sharp teeth, with two large and ominous-looking fangs. The tiefling struggled to free herself from the net, but she couldn’t even manifest her mind blade-neither of her hands was in a position for the blade to cut the net, unless she wanted to stab herself in the process.

 

From her vantage point on the ground, she could only watch as the ettercap charged. But as it ran near, an armored figure interposed itself between them, a large shield and gleaming long sword at the ready. Ajantis set himself to endure the ettercap’s charge, shield up and blade at the ready. The impact rattled the knight, but he quickly riposted, leaving a deep stab wound in the misshapen humanoid’s belly. The ettercap didn’t seem to have felt the blow-it attacked in a frenzy. Ajantis’ response was as straightforward as Alexandria had come to expect of him-a powerful shield bash that crashed into the creature’s attack and causing a telltale snap of breaking bone as one of the ettercap’s arms got in the way of the attack, then another brutal thrust of the sword into the creature’s thick neck. Blood sprayed in a grotesque fountain from the wound, but if anything, the ettercap only grew more desparate, shrieking and biting Ajantis on his sword arm. Both tusks pierced his mail bracers, and the paladin cried with pain as the sword fell away from him.

 

Seeing Ajantis injured and disarmed lit a blaze in Alexandria’s eyes and her mind focused to a razor’s edge as she sought a way-any way-to free herself and help him. The answer came in a form that in hindsight she might have expected, but it was extremely convenient time nonetheless. Two shards of a brilliant viridian energy blazed into her hands, and she quickly cut herself free of the net. They weren’t much more than daggers, but they were enough. A mental shift of focus, and the one in her left hand disappeared, the right-hand dagger growing back into her mind blade’s familiar scimitar shape. Webbing still clung to her face and hair, but her arms and legs were free, and that was enough.

 

A cry of rage, a slash of the ethereal blade, and the ettercap slumped onto the ground, minus its head. Rather than pick up his sword, Ajantis only continued to stare at the wounds the ettercap had left on his arm. She could only see two bleeding holes in his plate armor, but there was a horrified expression on the paladin’s face as he looked up to her.

 

“Ettercap venom. Deadly, and fast acting. I’ve already lost sensation in my arm.â€Â

 

There was no way in hell Alexandria had pulled a stunt like she had only for Ajantis to die to some gods-damned poison! No cost was too high.

 

With that unspoken-perhaps not even fully conscious-thought, a half-slumbering demon sniffed the air expectantly in Alexandria’s soul. She could sense the power in the void-the power to banish Ajantis’ poison. It wouldn’t be enough to cure the venom-at least, not without giving entirely over to the void, which Alexandria adamantly refused to do-but it could delay the poison, long enough for Ajantis to receive proper healing from Jaheira. Accepting the void once again would not be without a price of sorts, she knew, but for Ajantis’ life, it was an acceptable price to pay.

 

Ajantis himself never noticed the flicker of resistance on Alexandria’s face, but she took his arm and energy flowed out of her and into him. He gasped as the power did its work-sensation already began to return to his arm, but the sensation of the tiefling’s power was like no magic he had ever felt before. He knew from personal experience that healing effects from potions and the like gave a warm, soothing sensation, while divine magics always had a slightly off sense-rather like a hit on the funny bone. But whatever power Alexandria had called upon was something else altogether. It was cold. Very, very cold.

 

His face was a mixture of surprise and gratitude.

 

“You saved my life, my lady.â€Â

 

“But that’s the second time you’ve saved mine, so we’re not even yet.â€Â

 

Ajantis nodded and turned to attack another tasloi. Something else grabbed Alexandria’s attention. It was another spider.

 

But no ordinary spider-she hadn’t even heard of a spider like the one that approached her. It was the size of an average horse, and had a metallic look to it. The spider’s exoskeleton resembled a suit of armor, and joints in the spider’s eight legs looked more like carefully articulated mechanical features. And each leg ended in a sharp point that looked more battle-worthy than the end of Jaheira’s spear. Rounding off its arsenal were its first two limbs, which it held above the ground as it advanced. These two limbs flattened out near the tips, and resembled nothing more than swords. Lovely. Plain old giant spiders were bad enough, but now there were apparently armored sword spiders as well.

 

“Now that’s just not fair…†Alexandria said to herself.

 

“I got your back, sis!†Imoen shouted, sending an arrow at the sword spider. The tiefling winced as the arrow glanced off the monstrosity’s exoskeleton.

 

Alexandria decided to let the armored spider come to her. It advanced cautiously, as though expecting a trap. Its first swing of its forelimbs was swifter than the soulknife expected, and she danced out of the way, noting its motion. The spider was fast, but it didn’t seem that agile-the harder exoskeleton was also heavier, and moving around in a steel-like carapace was harder than moving in one of chitin. It swung again, but Alexandria continued to move backwards… only she didn’t. Her back encountered resistance, and she cursed as she realized she had lost all sense of the terrain-she had backed right into a tree.

 

She dropped to the ground again just in time-the spider’s blade-like limbs scythed through the air about where her forehead would have been, and as it was bit deep into the tree trunk. Alexandria slashed at the nearest leg while the creature struggled to free its blades, and felt stiff resistance from the hardened exoskeleton. She slashed again, hacking away at the leg until the fourth blow separated spider from sword-like appendage entirely. The creature reeled backwards, freeing its other limb, then reversed its motion with surprising speed, speartip legs falling around her.

 

Most missed, stabbing deep into the hard soil, but one pierced the center of her foot, punching clean through steel and flesh alike, and pinning her to the dirt. Alexandria rolled as far away as she could, but felt stabbing pain as her foot, disgustingly, slid upwards on the leg that had impaled it, leaving dark red blood staining the tip of the arachnid’s limb. Her blood. Somehow, the sight of it was energizing-a sense of giddiness pervaded Alexandria, and she ceased struggling to escape. She doubled over, doing a sideways sit-up in the dirt as more speartips rained down, this time joined by the arachnid’s stinger, and lashed out with her mind blade. Whether it was the energy filling her or whether the spider’s exoskeleton simply wasn’t that hard near the tip, she severed the limb, leaving about a foot and a half of iron-hard spider leg sticking through her foot. The mind blade flickered out of her right hand and into her free left hand, when Alexandria’s world was shattered by light.

 

A massive boom tore through her and sound vanished from the world. The air stank of electricity, and the spider almost levitated into the air as it spasmed. Lightning danced between its limbs and across its exoskeleton in bright arcs, etching black scorch marks everywhere it touched. Alexandria rolled across the ground as the spider died, consumed by the bolt of electrical energy. She wasn’t entirely certain why the sword spider was so much more vulnerable to the spell someone-presumably Jaheira-had cast, but if the spider had somehow managed to integrate actual iron into its exoskeleton, it would explain why the beast was cooked alive by the force of the spell.

 

Alexandria looked around, once again enjoying an unceremonious view from the dirt. The battle appeared to be over, but there wasn’t any sound-sound had disappeared when the spell had struck. Jaheira was looking directly at the tiefling and mouthing something, but Alexandria couldn’t hear anything. Taking a healing potion from her belt, she pulled the spider’s severed leg-tip from her foot, and gasped with pain. At least, she made the reflexive breathe of a gasp. She couldn’t hear a thing, not even the swig of the potion as she downed it in one gulp, watching the wound in her foot heal over.

 

Standing up, she saw Jaheira was trying to pantomime something-she pointed at her ears. Alexandria shook her head, and the druid nodded, then cast another spell. Sound abruptly returned to the world.

 

“I thought you might have been deafened by the spell, child. I am glad it was not a permanent injury-that healing spell could not have restored your hearing otherwise.â€Â

 

“Well, thanks, but why did you target the spell on the blasted thing in the first place? Couldn’t you see I was under it?â€Â

 

“Yes, but that spell is not entirely under my control. The lightning may strike any enemy near where the invocation was made. I… I thought I had killed you, child. If the sword spider had still been connected to you, it is entirely possible the spell would have harmed you as well. I am proud of your resourcefulness.â€Â

 

“Resourceful indeed. And a superb warrior for someone so young.†This was an oddly familiar voice-low and feminine.

 

The wounded adventurers turned to look around them, and standing in a circle were seven individuals they recognized. After all-they had only met each other two days ago. Jaheira’s fellow druids, who had given the adventurers directions to this area, and their leader, the woman who called herself Faldorn. She was the one speaking now.

 

“Truly, I am impressed. You and your companions are a formidable force to have survived that battle. The actual ambush was supposed to occur sometime tomorrow, but your little outburst sped up the plan a little.â€Â

 

The implications of Faldorn’s words raced through Alexandria’s head.

 

“May I ask why you wanted us to die?â€Â

 

“It is your right, or so you might think. You and your sister are abominations, Alexandria-you are crimes against all that is natural.â€Â

 

“Me and my sister? What are you calling Imoen an abomination for?â€Â

 

“You mean you don’t know?†Faldorn laughed. “Hasn’t Jaheira told you?â€Â

 

“Told me what?†Alex asked.

 

“I would like to know what I am supposed to have told her as well.†Jaheira cut in.

 

“Tell her, Jaheira. Tell her what that Gorion of yours knew. Galvarey has told us, of course.â€Â

 

“I know nothing of Gorion’s work, Faldorn. He wished to keep his business a private matter, and Khalid and I respected his wish. What is going on, Faldorn? Why are you attempting to murder two innocent girls, and why did you intend MY death? I am a druid!â€Â

 

“A druid, yes, but a fool. Sometimes sacrifices must be made if nature is to be made pure, Jaheira. You should understand that. There is so much at stake here-Alexandria and Imoen will upset the balance, and drastically so. I can tell you all about this after they are dead.â€Â

 

“No! I will not let you harm them, Faldorn. What are you doing?!â€Â

 

“Preserving nature, Jaheira. When death comes for a deer in the woods, it does not know why-it does not know the part it plays in nature’s plans. It does not know it is dying for a higher cause-a cause in which innocence means nothing. I take no pleasure in ordering your death, Jaheira, but you leave me no other choice. My brothers and sisters, guardians of nature and servants of the Shadow Circle… slay them all!â€Â

 

Alexandria threw herself at the nearest druid, a woman in leather armor. She completed a spell, and the charging soulknife was enveloped in a cloud of stinging insects, biting at exposed skin. Despite the distraction, Alexandria forced herself to focus, reforming her mind blade and swinging low at the druid, aiming to cut across the belly. A wooden staff stopped the blade, and the mind blade didn’t bite into the wood as she would have expected-the druid made a feral smile as her staff displayed little more than a scratch from the blade, then flipped it sideways and drove the end of the staff at Alexandria. Not particularly eager to fall to the dirt again, she sidestepped and slashed upwards across the druid’s side. The hide armor she wore absorbed most of the force, but blood did begin to stain the leather. With the druid’s staff out and guard open, Alexandria drew her fist back for a mailed punch while recovering her own blade, but something impossibly hard smashed into the back of her knees.

 

The force of the blow dropped Alexandria to her knees while the druid prepared to strike again with her staff, which Alex now strongly suspected was enchanted with a shillelagh spell-she had seen Jaheira use the spell often enough. She bent over backwards as the staff swept over her in a blow that would have stood a fair chance of taking her head off, and moved like a coiled spring, rising to her feet and thrusting forward with her blade. The druid moved out of the way with alacrity, but hadn’t seen Alexandria’s real plan-she had split her blade again into two small daggers, and one stabbed into the druid’s armpit, taking advantage of the convenient lack of armor there. While the druid recoiled, Alex reformed the blade into its scimitar form and jammed the end of the blade upwards through the druid’s exposed throat and into her head. The shadow druid collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.

 

The rest of the battle ended quickly. Weary as the adventurers were, they were hardened veterans of battle now-even Imoen demonstrated she had learned a few tricks on the road, momentarily blinding a druid with a handful of dirt she had scooped up, then slashing his throat with her short sword. Jaheira herself had engaged Faldorn, and the two women appeared equally matched, Faldorn adeptly fighting with a shillelagh and Jaheira with her spear. However, Jaheira had one last trick to play-a final stroke of lightning had roared down and struck the shadow druid.

 

Faldorn was alive, but just barely. Burns covered most of her body, and her face was covered in blood. Jaheira stood over the fallen druid, her expression cold, in sharp contrast to the anger that still burned in Faldorn’s eyes.

 

“Faldorn, why did you attack us? I would never strike down a fellow druid in anger.â€Â

 

“And that is why you are weak.†Faldorn spat, along with a fair amount of blood. “Your place as a druid was at my side during that battle.â€Â

 

“No, Faldorn. My place is with the balance.â€Â

 

“Balance? There is no more balance anymore, Jaheira. *Cough* You cannot stop what is coming to the Realms… slaying them was the only way.â€Â

 

“Why? You are dying, Faldorn-this is no time for games.â€Â

 

“It is… too late for games… Alaundo…†Faldorn choked out.

 

The fallen druid’s body shook one last time, then fell still as her dying breath escaped her.

 

Jaheira closed Faldorn’s eyes.

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Chapter XXI: Crush Depth

 

 

“Alaundo? The prophet?†Ajantis asked.

 

“Yes indeed. But that also begs the question of what relevance Alaundo or his writings have to our situation.â€Â

 

“Alexandria. Imoen.†Xan addressed. “You grew up in Candlekeep. Are you familiar with any of Alaundo’s writings?â€Â

 

“Of course we are.†Imoen responded. “The monks were always chanting some prophecy or another-you wouldn’t believe how many different prophecies he made.â€Â

 

“I would, actually. Alaundo the Seer, most favored of Savras, never made a false prophecy, though many of those prophecies are lost, even to the scholars of Candlekeep. Evereska recognizes well over two hundred prophecies he made-some trivial, some not. The problem is that one of those prophecies evidently concerns us, and fatally so. One of those prophecies will be our doom.â€Â

 

Alexandria shook her head, thinking. She had had many of the endless prophecies burned onto her brain, her mind sometimes playing them back and forth in the rhythmic chant of the monks. But none of the lines she could think of seemed to have anything to do with their situation.

 

“I guess that means we have something else to worry about, but not now. We have more immediate problems than a dying druid’s whispers. Faldorn mislead us-we have no idea where the mines are.â€Â

 

“Not quite, child.†Jaheira responded. She was looking through the burnt remains of the items Faldorn had been carrying, and was unfolding what looked like a map. It was charred in many places, but it appeared to be a map of the Cloakwood. Immediately standing out on the map was a large red circle. There was writing next to the circle in a language Alexandria couldn’t recognize, and some of the words were illegible, but Jaheira studied it intently.

 

“This place on the map… its note is written in druidic, a secret tongue we are not allowed to teach outsiders. The wording cannot be fully deciphered, damaged as the map is, but I suspect this may be our destination. If not, then it is at least worth investigating.â€Â

 

“Why? What’s it say?â€Â

 

“The druidic tongue does not translate easily to common, child, but the markings indicate danger and a wound in the earth. I believe this might be what we seek.â€Â

 

“Can’t hurt to take a look, I guess, but the sun will be setting in another hour or so. We’re in no condition to fight another battle. Let’s see if we can find a spot to make camp.â€Â

 

 

It didn’t take long. Jaheira found a path that wound down the cliffside and into a small cave. Confirming it was empty, the adventurers moved in for the night. But for her part, Alexandria left the cave early in the evening, finding a secluded part of the cove, well concealed from view, where she sighed and stripped off her armor and clothing, then stepped into the placid water.

 

The sea washed away all manner of things that had been clinging to Alexandria-dirt, grime, sweat… and blood. She hadn’t realized how much had splattered on her, past her armor-her face in particular was covered in the red-brown crust. Some of it belonged to her enemies, but some belonged to her. As the tiefling bathed, she could feel new scars on her body-a neat circular scar on the top of her right foot with a matching scar beneath, courtesy of the sword spider. A thin scar below her left ear from a wound she hadn’t even noticed. And the smell of her travels clung to her-it was a smell of adventure and battle, of dust and blood. How jaded had she become, to not even sense such things?

 

“It is not an option at this time, child, but salt water is not the best to cleanse yourself with.â€Â

 

Jaheira’s voice carried across the isolated cove, followed by a soft splash of water. Alexandria was always a little intimidated by the druid in situations like this-strong and honed as the tiefling’s body was, she would always tend towards bulkiness, while Jaheira carried herself with a liquid grace. Alexandria could never begin to approach the stately elegance the elder woman carried. But for once, she was glad of Jaheira’s presence.

 

“To cleanse the body is one thing. But to cleanse the soul…â€Â

 

“To cleanse the soul is not an easy task, no matter what water you have available.â€Â

 

“What’s happening to me, Jaheira? There was a time when I almost fainted at the sight of blood and thought the stables of Candlekeep smelled bad. Now I regularly bathe in blood and don’t even notice when I smell worse than the manure pile outside the walls.â€Â

 

“You are maturing, Alexandria. Some spirits are never meant to be locked behind walls of stone. Gorion always knew Candlekeep could not hold you forever, so he did the best he could to prepare you for what you would inevitably seek.â€Â

 

“Then what am I seeking? All I’ve been finding is death.â€Â

 

“No, child, you have been finding much more than that, if you would only step outside of yourself.â€Â

 

“How do I step outside of myself?â€Â

 

“Allow yourself to float in the water, Alexandria. Do not think, do not act. Let go of your body and of sensation. Let yourself go.â€Â

 

“I… I’ll try.â€Â

 

Alexandria closed her eyes and gave herself to the water, letting it hold her and take her. One by one, the things of the world faded away. The protests from her tired muscles disappeared, then the soreness of her feet, then the rest of herself. She drifted on an ocean of nothingness. She could feel the sea, both water-based and otherwise.

 

The top layer was chaos-filled with crashing waves and spray. Frustration at the increasingly murky and ominous situation she found herself deeply involved in, weariness of the battle and intrigue, gratitude to Jaheira for the role she played in her development, even the mixture of interest, nascent affection, and lust she had for Ajantis… the day’s fading light danced across it all, changing swiftly and almost at random. It all ran at and near the surface, boiling across her soul as though whipped up by a storm.

 

She pushed herself down into the sea, entering a region where the light still shined, but dimly-more a diffuse glow from above than anything else. Here she found her sisterly love for Imoen, her unease at her role in what had happened and what was continuing to happen, her irritation with her step-father for the secrets he kept, her pride in her mental gift and skill with the mind blade… these things all ran deep in Alexandria’s soul. They saw the direct light less frequently, but still surfaced on occasion and were no strangers to her mind.

 

But she could sense something deeper. Something so far down that it almost lay beyond conscious thought. There were depths to this final part of herself, she sensed. The parts that she knew where black as ink, but in truth they were only the shallowest plains in the abyss. She realized that she had been in these depths before, but never intentionally, never of her own will. Whatever this part of herself was… it was waiting for her. There was a malevolence to it, a hunger she could feel all the way from the surface on occasion.

 

“What’s the matter?†She called into the abyss, uncertain of whether the words escaped her mouth or not-she had completely lost herself in the ocean. “Are you too afraid to come into the open?!â€Â

 

It was then that she realized her mistake-her terrible mistake. At the heart of this abyss lay a void. A void that had taken her into its unknowable reaches once before, and nearly consumed everything that she held dear. The same chilling laughter that had accompanied her dreams before sounded in her mind now, and the void reached out to her, drawing her down inexorably…

 

 

Alexandria’s head swam in visions. She saw a gathering of three supremely evil men-a tyrant, a necromancer, and an assassin. She could feel their ambition-their desire for the power of the gods. Together they destroyed an entity with the spark of the divine and stole its power for their own. Then the endless fields of the dead-endless ranks of skeletons, wights, shadows, banshees, vampires, wraiths, liches… the three fought through them all, fighting and winning. Then the castle. The castle of bone. And within, the great throne, and its occupant. First the three battled amongst themselves, then the game of bowling, and finally that of knucklebones. The laughter in her mind reached a fever pitch as the visions took her… elsewhere…

 

She returned to the world she knew, still lost in the tides of the void. She saw a prophecy, words unknown but meaning unmistakable. There was an urgency in the void, tempered by cold disposition and calculating mind. From it was birthed a determination-to cheat death and rewrite the course of destiny. She saw countless atrocities carried out across the Planes, foul and depraved acts that sickened her to the core. But none of it was accidental. Everything, every drop of blood spilled did so towards an end. Every death was calculated, every act part of a plan. But then a young man with a red sword that glowed with power… and oblivion…

 

Vision returned, but this time she did not seem to be inside anything-she was floating in the air in a dark building. Collapsed on the floor of a cage was… her. Alexandria’s dream self was beyond weary-she was beaten. The tiefling groaned as she slowly rolled onto her back, and a flicker of energy appeared in her hand, but it dissipated before it could form. Then her vision shifted. She saw Khalid, forcibly restrained on a table as he fought tooth and nail to escape, but to no avail. Then a figure in the shadows raised a knife high and began to work on him… she saw Imoen, naked and helpless on an elven bed, befouled and desecrated. But as always, each atrocity was a carefully weighted act, each violation performed with cold, methodical precision. She saw Ajantis, covered in blood and filth as he lay trapped in a cage, praying desperately to Helm for strength. Jaheira, cradling her husband in her arms. Xan, watching it all occur, each act pushing him further and further into the endless pit of despair. A high, cold voice echoed out of the abyss.

 

“Do you see? DO YOU SEE?â€Â

 

“NO!!!†Alexandria screamed.

 

 

She felt strong hands on her as she thrashed, abruptly returned to the water. It was Jaheira, struggling to keep the flailing young woman under control. Alexandria opened her eyes, saw the luminous gray eyes, and she stilled herself. There was a surprisingly open expression on Jaheira’s face, care and concern finally in the open.

 

“By Silvanus, what happened, child?â€Â

 

“I… I saw things. Horrible things.â€Â

 

“Can you tell me what you saw? It is almost daybreak, Alexandria-you did not seem to come out of your trance, even with the aid of my magic.â€Â

 

“Blood. Death. Murder. Jaheira… what is happening to me? This is not natural.â€Â

 

“No, it is not. What it is, I do not know, but I pray we will be able to find out.â€Â

 

“No. I… I don’t want to know what’s happening.â€Â

 

“Yes, you do. You cannot fight what you do not know, and it is clear to me, at least, that there is something terrible happening. In you, in the Realms… Faldorn was correct about one thing. There is something deeply amiss in the balance, something unnatural. Gorion was perhaps one of the most powerful diviners and seers to have lived for quite some time-it is why he chose to live in Candlekeep, home of Alaundo the Seer. But even he, with all the resources of the Harpers and Candlekeep at his disposal, and his own great skill and power, could not determine what would happen in what was then the future and now the present. All he could sense was that this would be a time of tremendous upheaval and change, but a time so complicated, so dependent upon countless decisions made and yet to be made, that all efforts to divine what would happen were in vain. This is the time we live in, child.â€Â

 

Alexandria looked down at herself, considering herself without armor, without blade, without adornment of any kind. She seemed pitifully unprepared for the kind of upheaval Jaheira spoke of. But she could not dismiss a sense that had been nagging at her for some time-a tiny part of her that wondered if she was truly meant to do great things. It wasn’t ambition, but the part of her that always wondered if she would become a great person, a heroine and a woman of great fame. She couldn’t say for certain, but it was starting to look like that part of her might just be right after all. But what price would she have to pay for glory?

 

“Good to see you awake, sis.â€Â

 

Alex snapped her eyes upwards. Sitting on the rocky beach was Imoen, Xan’s spellbook open before her and motes of light dancing around it.

 

“Imoen… how long have you been here?â€Â

 

“Ever since you fell into that trance. I don’t know why, but I felt a tug of some kind on me, felt like something important was happening. Jaheira told me what you did, and I thought I might try it myself. Didn’t do anything for me, but you’ve always been a little different.â€Â

 

“That I have been, for good or ill. You’ve been here all night?â€Â

 

“Yep. She hasn’t said it outright yet, but Jaheira’s been here, too. We’re worried about ya, sis.â€Â

 

Alexandria impulsively swam over to the shore and hugged Imoen. That Imoen still cared was important to her.

 

“Well, thanks for ruining this perfectly dry change of clothes.â€Â

 

“Remember who you’re talking to, Im. I know you, and you’re incapable of keeping a set of clothes clean for more than a few hours.â€Â

 

Imoen giggled. “True, that.â€Â

 

Imoen’s amusement brought another dark shadow across Alexandria’s mind. She remembered what the vision had shown of Imoen, remembered what had been done to her in the vision. Her sister’s brightness and cheerfulness was doomed to turn into shadow, just as Alexandria’s lingering cheer was in a precarious position. Whether those visions would actually come to pass, she didn’t know, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that they would.

 

“What’s the matter, sis?â€Â

 

“Oh… it’s nothing.â€Â

 

“Try again.â€Â

 

“Imoen, Jaheira… I saw terrible things. Some were of the past, but some I think lie in the future. The visions I saw… I think they’re what will happen to us. To you. To me and everyone around me.â€Â

 

“Nonsense, child. Why would your presence alone be the harbinger of such things?â€Â

 

“I don’t know. But like you said, something terrible is happening. I think I saw something of what lies ahead, saw the horrors in store for me. For us all.â€Â

 

“Even if your suspicions are correct, child, that leaves but one question for you. What will you do?â€Â

 

Alexandria took a deep breath.

 

“I will fight it. I will fight it with every fiber of my being, with every bit of willpower and strength I possess. I have never bowed before fate, destiny, or anything else that would determine my path for me, and I have no intention of starting now. Imoen, you’re my sister. Jaheira, you’re my dear friend. I will fight this not just for my sake, but for yours. For Khalid, for Ajantis, for Xan. For everyone involved and who will become involved in this. I don’t know what role I’m playing in all this, don’t know if I ever will know.â€Â

 

Jaheira beamed at Alexandria, and even Imoen grinned as Alexandria finished her declaration.

 

“But I do know what is good and what is evil. The void in my soul, the storm approaching the Realms… those are evil. Whatever comes, whatever price I have to pay, I will pay it.

 

“I will fight.â€Â

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Chapter XXII: Notes of a Dirge Foretold

 

 

“Another one, attempting to attack us from the rear!†Xan shouted.

 

“I’m on it!†Alexandria responded.

 

The wyvern banked as it skimmed above the trees, clearly aiming to kill Imoen and Xan, who continued to fire arrows and spells at the three wyverns kept busy by Jaheira, Khalid, and Ajantis. Wyverns may not have been the most intelligent of creatures, but they were not stupid.

 

Alexandria waited for the wyvern to emerge from behind the trees, mind blade at the ready. When it did, she hurled her blade upwards at the incoming reptile. The whirling azure blade hit, but didn’t do any significant damage. Still, it did what Alexandria needed it to do-it got the wyvern’s attention. It banked and swooped in low and fast. The tiefling gauged the arc she would need, and lobbed a vial of lamp oil with a flaming wick into the air, then threw herself to the dirt as the wyvern swept overhead, grasping talons attempting to seize the soulknife.

 

The maneuver worked. Sort of. Alexandria evaded the wyvern’s attack, and the left wing of the beast smashed apart the vial in midair, spreading flame over it. Unfortunately, only a small amount of the oil splashed on the wyvern, with the rest falling to the ground near Alexandria.

 

Write that up as one of my less-than-intelligent moves…

 

The wyvern didn’t seem to mind the small patch of flame much. It came about, and Alexandria moved to get out of the way, but found her path blocked by the same oil she had tried to use as a weapon.

 

“Gods damn it.†She cursed.

 

That was also the last thing she got off. Surrounded by the fire from her errant throw, Alexandria made a deliciously easy target for the flying beast, and it seized her as it swooped past. She heard cries of alarm from the rest of the party, but Alexandria struggled as hard as she could in the wyvern’s grasp, and felt a solid thunk as the creature’s stinger-tipped tail attempted to sting its helpless prey, but intersected the soulknife’s heavy backpack instead.

 

“Alexandria! Are you alright?!†A voice shouted from below.

 

The tiefling responded by freeing one of her hands from the wyvern’s talons and manifesting her mind blade, stabbing into the creature’s leg. It shriek and turned towards the ground, where Alexandria saw an incredible sight. Khalid was rising smoothly through the air, both blades at the ready. He set himself in midair to receive the wyvern’s charge, an act that under other circumstances would seem comical. But there was nothing in Khalid’s eyes save hardened determination.

 

As the wyvern charged, it also released its talons, dropping Alexandria into freefall. Her descent was abruptly slowed however, as Xan quickly uttered a feather fall incantation. From her airborne perspective however, she saw the wyvern crash into Khalid, whom she saw now had been levitated into the air by another of Xan’s spells. There was no artistry or grace to the battle of half-elf and wyvern as both plummeted to the ground-it was a purely close-quarters fight, and Khalid quickly abandoned his swords, drawing daggers from his baldric for the close range fight. He worked the small blades overtime, slipping blade-tips between scales and piercing armored hide.

 

It was far from a one-sided battle, however. The wyvern’s stinger struck Khalid repeatedly, injecting what Alexandria knew to be a powerful venom into the half-elf’s system, and even from her distance, she could see Khalid’s furious attack begin to falter. A cry of rage sounded from the ground, and Alexandria turned to see Jaheira readying a long, thin spear she couldn’t recall the druid carrying before. The elder woman tensed herself, preparing to throw the javelin the instant her target came back into range. When it did, she hurled it into the air, catching the wyvern in its side, right where its left wing joined the body.

 

The wyvern shrieked again, but the wounds it had accumulated from Alexandria, Khalid, and Jaheira were too much. It crashed into the ground, still carrying Khalid in its clutches.

 

Jaheira immediately ran over to the fallen wyvern, spear at the ready and what Alexandria could now see to be a quiver full of javelins on her back. Khalid groaned in the beast’s clutches, but the wyvern shrieked at Jaheira and attempted to snap at her with its jaws. The druidess simply held her spear high, then rammed it down into the fallen wyvern’s head, piercing its eye and stabbing the spear-tip deep into the creature’s brain. Another long wail and many spasms later, and the wyvern finally laid still in death. Jaheira immediately set to work pulling Khalid free, and Alexandria pitched in, hacking off the wyvern’s stinger-tipped tail with her mind blade. She could see that the tip was streaked with blood.

 

After a few minutes of frantic work, Jaheira finally pulled her husband from the wyvern’s clutches. He had been badly injured-his plate mail did little against the wyvern’s attack, most of the claws and stings having neatly found the gaps in the metal plates at such close range. Khalid’s chest rose and fell, but sluggishly, and his breath came in slow, rattling gasps.

 

“He is badly poisoned.†Jaheira reported tersely. “Alexandria, I require your dose of the antitoxin as well.â€Â

 

The tiefling nodded and tossed the glass vial over. After a spell to mend the more mundane wounds on Khalid, Jaheira opened her husband’s mouth and poured the contents of the vial in, along with another vial she had been carrying. Alexandria hovered anxiously in the background-Jaheira’s expression was an unspoken warning against coming between her and Khalid. The open love and fear on her face spoke for her.

 

For a moment, Alexandria wondered what it must feel like, to love someone so deeply, yet face the possibility of them dying. The soulknife had loved Gorion, and loved Imoen, certainly, but those were familial loves-the love of a daughter for her father, even if she had known for some time that he was not her true father, and the love of a girl for her sister, loves brought about through long exposure, commitment, and faithfulness. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to truly fall in love with someone else her own age-a contemporary, an equal. Yet love, from what she knew, also brought with it costs she felt unwilling to pay-being tied to one person, no matter how good, was a mistake.

 

Alexandria shook her head to clear her thoughts-the rest of the battle had finished while Khalid fought the wyvern, with a total of three of the beasts dead. Recalling the sizable bounty on wyvern heads, the soulknife manifested her mind blade and began hacking away at the neck of the fallen wyvern. The scaly hide was resistant to her blows, and the bone beneath even more so, but after a minute or two of incessant chopping, Alexandria removed the severed wyvern head and wrapped it in a burlap cloth before sticking it in her backpack. The head was fairly heavy, but Ajantis had already collected the other two wyvern heads.

 

“I must say.†Xan stated, brushing a bit of blood from his robes. “Ajantis, you appear to take an unholy delight in tempting fate.â€Â

 

“Is that so?†The knight responded, a wry grin on his features. “A paladin does not bow before fate, and if Beshaba wishes to bring us harm, I suggest she try harder next time.â€Â

 

“I dare say she will. And one day, she will succeed, no matter how brave and valorous you are.â€Â

 

“Oh, I already know when Ajantis is going to fall a little.†Imoen piped up, grinning at the paladin. “How many knights can claim to have been kissed by a tiefling without drawing their sword?â€Â

 

“Imoen…†Alexandria warned.

 

Imoen’s grin went from ear to ear, but the sound of coughing behind her saved Alexandria from having to respond. Color had returned to Khalid’s features, and he was slowly sitting up, supported by Jaheira. The druid’s face was stern.

 

“Khalid, you are such an idiot! Next time the child makes a tactical decision appropriate for a diseased shrew, you stay on the ground and fight! No more of this heroic nonsense!â€Â

 

“Of… *cough* of course, my dear.†Khalid responded weakly, a smile already working its way onto his face. “Just like-like last time.â€Â

 

“Khalid, you magnificent imbecile…†Jaheira leaned in and kissed him. “Every now and again, you remind me why I married you.â€Â

 

“I-I would hate to disappoint you, my love.â€Â

 

“Just promise me you won’t let yourself die on my watch-you hear me, Khalid?! I will *never* let you hear the end of it!â€Â

 

“I will-will try my best, my dear.†Khalid laughed weakly.

 

Slowly, the half-elves attempted to come to their feet, but Khalid collapsed before he made it most of the way up.

 

“Is the antidote not working, Khalid?â€Â

 

“I think it is wor-working fine, my dear. But I think I may need some r-rest for it to work through my sys-system.â€Â

 

“Silvanus damn it! I wanted to get a move on to that mine today, but we’ll have to wait because of you and your idiot attempt to be a hero! According to Faldorn’s map, we should be close to the mine now-we will set forth at dawn.â€Â

 

Alexandria nodded mutely-she wasn’t foolish enough to try arguing with Jaheira with the druid in this state, and none of the others were, either.

 

 

The adventurers concluded their post-battle activities quickly, and Jaheira immediately began searching for a safe place to rest before the party’s assault on the mines. She found a cave along the central ridge that ran through the Cloakwood, and after a careful search for any creatures already using the cave, signaled the others to come in. Khalid had to be half-carried by Jaheira, but she set him down near a magical fire Xan quickly conjured up, also casting an illusion spell to disguise the encampment.

 

The others set to their usual activities, Xan in particular examining the wyvern stingers and venom glands he had gathered, and digging out his alchemy equipment. But Alexandria approached Khalid, lying by the fire, somewhat uncertain of what to say.

 

“Khalid-I want to thank you for saving my life-both today, and when we were at Nashkel.â€Â

 

The half-elf smiled, though there was a definite tinge of embarrassment. “You h-have nothing to thank me for. I-I trust you would do the same for me.â€Â

 

“I certainly would, but this is the first time I’ve ever thanked you. I know we haven’t exactly spoken much over the last month or so.â€Â

 

“You are r-rather like my wife. She-she seldom consults me, and prefers to simply p-plow through whatever stands in the way of g-good. Y-you are both rather alike.â€Â

 

Alexandria shook her head. “You and Jaheira are both Harpers, and she’s a druid, to boot. I’m no Harper, and I’m certainly no druid.â€Â

“You would m-make an excellent Harper, I think. You are-are everything we believe in, in y-your own way. Gorion would be proud of your actions, Alexandria. P-perhaps not the way he would have liked y-you to turn out, but he would be proud nonetheless.â€Â

 

“Why-how did Father hope I would turn out?â€Â

 

Khalid sighed, a frown creasing his features. “Jaheira and I knew Gorion for many years-we adventured together a long time ago, before you. I think he wanted nothing more than to live a peaceful life in Candlekeep, and raise you as an obedient daughter, also content in a peaceful, secluded life.â€Â

 

“He wanted me to live my life in Candlekeep? But he encouraged me to explore my gifts when I first started manifesting my mind blade-it makes no sense.â€Â

 

“Gorion had his reasons, Alexandria. What those reasons were, neither Jaheira nor I ever knew, but I think he was trying to protect us-and you. Gorion’s letters were always sad-he spoke much of duty and destiny. He spoke of those things much during his adventuring days as well. But I think in the end, he wanted to live the rest of his days in peace, after a lifetime of adventure and danger.â€Â

 

“Wait a minute… Father was an adventurer? An active one?â€Â

 

“Yes indeed-he was quite a powerful diviner, and always welcome among the Harpers. I think he wanted to take you into the Harpers, someday, when you were old enough.â€Â

 

“That sounds just like Father… always trying to guide my life. I don’t want to be guided.â€Â

 

“Gorion was a good man, Alexandria, and I believe he had his reasons for what he did. Whatever those reasons were, he told not even Jaheira.â€Â

 

Alexandria studied the ground briefly. Another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place, but she still couldn’t get much out of it. So much she had taken for granted now appeared to be nothing more than a careful plan. As always, though, she appeared to have no recourse but to go along with the flow. She decided on an abrupt change of subject.

 

“Jaheira… you love her very much, don’t you?â€Â

 

“Of-of course I do! I could not imagine being without her! Why-why do you ask?â€Â

 

Alexandria blushed, and made a discrete check-Ajantis was busy with his sword and a sharpening stone on the other end of the cave, but she kept her voice low nonetheless.

 

“Can I ask you what it feels like?â€Â

 

Khalid also blushed furiously, but understood the question. “I do not think you are in love with Ajantis. Love is a difficult thing to describe, and everyone has a different definition of it. Jaheira has hers, wrapped up in nature. Ajantis no doubt has his, which he doubtless defines in honor, duty, and all that he believes in. Such things as love have no universal definition, Alexandria. What it means to a person is often defined by their other beliefs, but there are always a few similarities. You breathe because they do.â€Â

 

Alexandria did not respond, as she began to think to herself. Hardly had she begun when Khalid laughed and resumed talking.

 

“Do not worry about love, Alexandria. You are young-it is nothing you should be in any hurry to find. You will know it when it comes.â€Â

 

“I take it you’re talking from experience?â€Â

 

Khalid blushed even harder than before, and Alexandria chuckled as he struggled to respond. She grinned at the rather embarrassed half-elf.

 

“I was just teasing, Khalid.â€Â

 

“Oh-oh that’s alright. I w-was worried what Jaheira might think.â€Â

 

“About what?†A female voice interrupted. Both Alexandria and Khalid looked up-Jaheira was standing next to them, an imperious frown not quite able to hide a hint of amusement to her features.

 

“Er-nothing, my dear.â€Â

 

“That is good. Khalid, I must borrow your blades-Xan has been working on distilling the wyvern venom for use on our weapons, and he would like to apply a base to your swords to prevent the venom from easily wearing off.â€Â

 

“I s-suppose there’s a certain irony in that. You are welcome to them.â€Â

 

“Good. Ajantis was most stubborn about poisoning his blade, though he eventually bowed before common sense. Alexandria, if there is anything you come away from tonight having learned, it is that it does not matter how reluctant you are to do the right thing, or what your reasons for doing the right thing are, so long as you do it. All that matters in the Balance is your actions, not your justifications.â€Â

 

“That makes sense, I guess. I assume you do not wish to envenom my mind blade as well?â€Â

 

“Unless you have discovered a way to keep it permanently manifest since we last spoke.â€Â

 

“Not quite there yet, Jaheira.†The tiefling responded with a grin. “But further down the road… who knows?â€Â

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