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Biographer's Notes: Valygar


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Beyshaliban wanted to have a link to this story in the read-me for Corthala Romantique mod, since it explains Leonora DeValenzzi a bit :( So here it is. I am afraid that like all of my old stories it is unedited and well... includes a velvet Mary-Sue. Yeah, it has purple eyes and green eyes and unexplainably in love kind of scenario. It has a few brighter points, me think, and is interesting as a historical reference... perhaps. Originally the story was posted on Attic in 2002 under the same name/title. And.. yeah, I try v. hard not to write like that any more. In short it's horrible.

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1. Demons


Age: about 10.



“Master Valygar! Master Valygar!†the governess voice is half-desperate. Valygar sneaks onto the stairs to the second floor of the mansion and hides behind a column. The governess walks by, touching the boys shoulder with a wide, noisy skirt. It smells of artificial flowers and cleanness. Valygar is so sure of his disguise that he touches the silken skirt. He likes how it feels and he likes not being caught.



Valygar smiles as Miss Abigail continues down the corridor, still crying “Master Valygar!†Now it's almost too easy to fool the shrewd spinster, and he pities her. But he cannot stay behind the column forever: Miss Abigeil is going to look into his father's study and into the library and then turn around at his parent's always locked bedroom doors and walk back. Then she'd surely spot him.



Valygar slides sideways, towards the stairs, touching cool wall with his back. Miss Abigail suddenly turns, and Valygar stands still, his hand searching the wall instinctively. He had underestimated his opponent. Miss Abigail listens intently, but he holds his breath, he closes his eyes and waits. Soon he hears the measured beats of governess' heels. Miss Abigail walks into the study and he should run. But the wall behind his back gives, and he falls down. Valygar rolls away from the quietly closing secret door and tries to figure out his surroundings.



He had never seen this room before. Valygar knows that their house keeps secrets of many generations of mages and he wonders what he had just discovered. High chanting voice touches his ears. He turns to his belly and his jaw drops down. His mother, Abbesina Corthala stands in front of a small rounded brazier, chanting frantically, throwing some powder into the multicolored flame. Valygar watches, mesmerized as sweat starts pouring down her high proud forehead, making her ebony skin to glisten. His mother is beautiful he realizes for the first time in his life. But he hates the thrilled and angry expression on her face at the same time. The flame builds up and Valygar cannot understand how a small brazier can hold it. He feels some evil presence, but he is unable to run away, for he does not know how to open the devious door. And he is too scared to run few moments later when a face, the ugliest face is visible in the flame.



Flames should burn, Valygar knows it, but for some reason the creature in the fire does not act as if it's uncomfortable. The flame washes its wide, hairy torso, each flame stroke giving it a shape, as if drawing it. Valygar sees two bat wings protruding from the flames arching over the creatures head. “Demon…†Valygar knows it from pictures in large yellowish tomes hundreds of which are filling his house.



The demon jumps off the brazier and watches the floor intently. Valygar guesses that he searches for smallest imperfection in the magical circle, the only thing that holds him back. Valygar prays that the circle is proper, for his mother and him are surely doomed if it's not, if the creature can break free of it and start a bloody raid on the Material Plane.



“Kardamon, the circle is perfect and you know it, “ Abbisina's voice is out-wordly, and it rings with such a power that Valygar does not recognize it. Valygar cannot distinguish if the demon laughs or barks and to his horror it points straight at him and growls at his mother:



“Starting to coach your pup early in the arts?â€Â



Abbesina turns and Valygar tries to rise to his feet and run towards her, to shield her from the demon. But the mage's face twists and she yells: “Out, Valygar! Get out of here!†Valygar's eyes fill with tears, but he wipes them off furiously and pounds on the wall with his fists. His mother comes to her senses enough to say a code word and open a way out for him. Valygar is finally back in the hall.



He sits on the floor, trying to regain his breath and then walks softly downstairs. His father is sitting in the large common room and studies some scroll intently, making notes in a large book, resting on his knees. Valygar walks by, then stops and asks his father: “Is my mother a drow?â€Â



Andreas Corthala lifts his head from the scroll and looks at his son in amazement. “Is my mother a drow?†repeats Valygar stubbornly. Andreas leans forward and takes his son by his shoulders: “No, of course not, my boy. Your mother is coming from Rasheman, that's why her skin and yours is dark. But she is a human. Drows are elves, and they look way different…†Valygar does not want to listen to his father's calm voice. He interrupts persistently: “Why then she talks to demons?â€Â



“Demons?†Andreas searches his son's face inquisitively and lets go of him. “Sit here Valygar, I need to talk to your mother.†He walks off quickly and runs upstairs. Valygar remembers his pale stunned face in every little detail. Few moments later the boy hears his parents' angry, loud voices from the second floor. He should be used to it by now, but he starts to tremble and jumps to his feet, pressing his ears tightly with his hands to stop the shouts from penetrating and biting on him.



Valygar runs into the yard and climbs the tallest apple-tree in the garden. He stretches along an old, twisted branch and looks down on the world. He feels a bit of a god here, but he cannot keep his glee for long. The boy fights sense of guilt. He cannot figure out what he did wrong and neither he can accuse his parents. Finally he places the blame on a demon and feels better. Nothing he had seen in his life is as ugly and as revolting to him as the demon. Valygar thinks that when he grows up he would kill any that comes his way.



The governess circles the garden, her voice now strained and Valygar is remorseful. He slides down the tree trunk and walks towards Miss Abigail. His full lips curl up into an innocent smile: “Miss Abigail, I am so sorry. I had played outside with other kids and forgot about the time.†Sharp glance of the governess' gray-blue eyes pierces the boy, but she cannot see past the angelic facial mask. “Now look at yourself, Master Valygar!†exclaims she instead, pointing at his ripped and dirty shirt. She gets a hold of his ear and leads him into the house. Valygar stoically takes the punishment, for it relieves his guilt a bit.

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2. A Basketfull of Strawberries


Age: about 16.


Valygar cuts his way through the reeds and finally sees the dead bird. He picks it up, retrieves his arrow and throws the prey in his bag. That should do, decides Valygar, weighing the bag in his hands. One cannot take more from the nature than he needs. The boy easily climbs up the slippery bank, his bare feet drowning in the silky wet muck. He wisely left his boots behind and now he picks them up and walks to a place where the bank covered with grass is undercut by the bending river. Valygar sits there for a while, bathing his feet, squinting at the large sun and enjoying the touch of clean cool stream no less than he enjoyed the mud few moments ago. Umar Hills is the only place he feels that he belongs to.



She walks quietly, but fooling Valygar is almost impossible. Unless, like today, he is in the mood to let her win. A village girl closes on him and with triumphant cry places her palms over his eyes. He pretends that he is surprised and unsure who that might be. “Merella?†asks Valygar after an appropriate pause and a number of “hmmmâ€Â, “ehh†and “ahemâ€Â. In truth he can distinguish this smell of summer and freshness and the shape of those hands out of thousands.



Today there is something new added to her scent: wild strawberries. Merella laughs merrily and releases her hold. Valygar turns around and sees a small basket hanging from her wrist, covered with few leaves. “Was out picking strawberry, Merella?†asks he casually. “Yeah,†says the girl, sitting down by him. “Is there anything you do not know, wise one?†Valygar cannot hold a smile, which makes his wide face almost handsome. “Nothing smells stronger than a basket of wild strawberries in the hot day like that.â€Â



Merella leans towards the water and throws handful into her face. It is a hot day and she had been out in the sun since early morning picking berries. When she turns back, her reddish fluffy curls are all wet and her chicks, lips and nose glistens brightly.



“Been hunting? Whom for this time?†Merella asks and points at his bag. “Old Janison and Kerra,†Valygar feels slightly embarrassed, but then he remembers that it's Merella who's asking not some pompous lord. “I promised to help to chop wood to Janison, so I guess, I must get going,†Valygar admits with a touch of real sadness.



“Help? Meaning that Janison is gonna tell you village rumors, while you are chopping enough wood to last him through the winter?†Merella's amber eyes shine as she looks at the boy. She thinks that he had grown taller and wider in shoulders since she had last seen him. In fact he is…manly. Yes, that's it, he had lost boyish shyness and both his voice and face are harder, surer. That by some reason makes her to feel defensive. But she relaxes in a moment. It is Valygar after all, a funny misfit from a rich family, from Athkatla. It is Valygar she knows as long as she can remember.



Merella feels somewhat responsible for Valygar's wellbeing, as she feels responsible for anyone coming through her small village. Another year or two and the local ranger is going to ask the villagers to accept her as his successor. She decides: “I will go with you and see that Janison won't work you to death. I figure you have a long ride back tonight?â€Â



Valygar nods with displeasure. His parents commanded him to be back home by tomorrow morning. “Well, then let's go.†Valygar obeys but he is secretly laughing at the girls commanding attitude. Merella is but a year older than Valygar, but he knows that she thinks him to be a pup of a noble.



“So, why is that you had come today?†asks Merella.


Valygar turns somber. “I'd be gone for couple of years Merella. Wanted to see the place, before leaving.â€Â


“Gone?†she almost stops. “Why?†for Merella Valygar is a part of Umar Hills and Immensvale.


“Military garrison…†spats Valygar. “They gave up on making me into the wizard and now surrender me to some silly training.†Merella knows that “they†means his parents. “Uhm, at least you do not have to be locked up with scrolls anymore.†Valygar stretches as if he just got up from endless useless study and says. “Yes, at least. If I be as useless in the garrison, may be they leave me alone…†Merella asks: “What would you do then?†Valygar answers firmly: “Live here. Help you. You'd need help if you become a ranger protector.†Merella thinks about it for a second. “Yeah, that would be good.†She indeed thinks it a good thing if she could share some responsibility, like old Gardany does now with her.



Kerra's wrinkly face lights up as she sees kids walking into her yard. She takes the birds from Valygar and does not want to hear about Merella leaving without eating something. “You must have been out since sunrise, my dear,†says she, “and none is gonna feed you properly at home.†Merella sighs. That's true, for her father and brother's are all in the fields and her mother must have already gone to bring them the noon meal. But Merella is no idle lass and she goes off to bring water from the well.



She goes back slowly, loaded with heavy bucket and passes by Valygar. He has no shirt on, his muscles are articulated by his unusual dark skin, his long curly hair are spilled freely on the neck and shoulders, his arms working tirelessly lifting and dropping the axe. Merella stops and watches for what she thinks is just a short moment. Valygar suddenly impales the axe deeply in the wood and throws hair away from his eyes. He walks lightly towards her, and takes the bucket. She laughs: “No end to your chores! Common, give it back! I can perfectly do that.†Valygar shakes his head: “I know, but what if I just want to help you?â€Â



She cannot find anything to say to that so she splashes Valygar with ice-cold water and runs. Few strides take Valygar to her side and he catches the girl in his arms. He holds her tightly, not able to hear what she says, his blood pumping loudly in his ears, his gaze fixed on her features. No she is no beauty, her round face covered with freckles, her nose and mouth too large… But love of life is in her amber eyes; wide, open smile is exactly what this mouth is made for; and the cloud of red curls is always messed up, as it should be.



“You are so beautiful…†Valygar holds her and feels that she leans closer to him. “You are a terrible liar, Valygar,†but she smiles and he cannot do anything but to kiss this large smiling mouth. “And you are terribly silly too, Valygar,†adds she, but is reluctant to leave the ring of his arms. “You will return, will you?†asks Merella at last and Valygar immediately answers “Yes.â€Â



They go back to the house, him carrying the bucket, and share meal with the old couple. Valygar spends another half-hour putting away the chopped wood, while Merella is helping old Kerra with dishes. Kerra sighs: “Merella, the lad has a heart of gold, and he is surely a pleasure for my old eyes to look upon, but my dear, he is not for a girl out of Immensvale. He is Corthala…†“I know that,†answers Merella firmly. “I know.†Still she watches the road to Athkatla long after Valygar is gone, riding hard to return in time to his parent's house…

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3. A Cloak of the Stars


Age: About 18



Valygar pulled on the reins, slowing his horse… He'd rather let it fly, but his father travels with him this time and Valygar obediently matches his pace. Valygar sighs under his breath: they are so close, yet so far. He remembered every turn of this dusty road, and sometimes he even recognizes boulders on the sides. Many times Valygar saw himself riding this pass in his dreams, while standing a night watch or walking through the streets of other small cities… And the road always ended at the doorstep of a tiny wooden cabin, at the bare feet of a laughing girl, smelling of summer and strawberries.



Valygar is deep in his vision, and he is not aware of his father's gaze. Andreas shakes his head lightly: this wide shouldered, well-built lad is so unlike him! A warrior in Corthala's family! Andreas chuckles, yet he is proud of his son's easy bearing and unyielding cheerfulness of youth. But when Andreas looks into Valygar's brown eyes he recognizes Corthala's curiosity and persistence. No mage, yet true Corthala, may be even more so than Andreas.



Andreas suspects that this journey to Umar Hills has some significance to his son and he senses Valygar's impatience. What does that the ranger whom Valygar is apparently hoping to ask to be his mentor means to him? Andreas says quietly: “Son, your horse is going to hate me if we'd hold it back for another three hours. Go ahead, I'll catch up with you in the tavern in Immersvale, and we'd go visit distinguished Merella next morn. I am afraid I would be good for nothing tonight anyway.â€Â



Valygar is not sure if this course is appropriate. He reminds his father of the danger on the roads for a lonely traveler and states that he'd not leave his father without a protection. Andreas laughs: “Sword is not only defense against bandits, my boy. Should we meet vile people, I might fall more than you, my young lion. Of course I am concerned about your safety, but it seems to me that you shall be all right on your own for a while. †Valygar does not need more arguments. He shrugs and trying to keep his face from showing his mounting excitement cheers his horse.



Andreas, tilting slightly in his saddle, looking so clumsy and useless on his mare, laughs and coughs, watching dusty clouds swirl all over the road for few moments. Valygar is out of sight almost immediately, hidden by yet another turn of the old badly kept trail. “Well, the way he rides is definitely not inherited from my family…†and Andreas slows the mare's pass to almost crawl. The horse watches its mate's disappearance and neighs enviously. Andreas gives her a pat: “Slowly and steadily, my dear… slowly and steadily.â€Â



Evening dawn greets Valygar as he rides through Immensvale. He does not slow down for a second, rushing past the village, past the fields, past the clouds swelling with the redness over the shadowy hills of Umar. He rides along the river, downstream…



The wooden cabin comes into view and Valigar slides out of the saddle to the ground before the horse stops and runs the last stretch of the road ending at the still warm from the fading sunlight doorstep. Valygar stops abruptly, closes his eyes and tries to catch his breath and presses his forehead against the door. He tries the knob, but strangely the cabin is locked. Troubles in Umar? Valygar feels nervous, yet his keen ears catch voices inside. He walks along the side of the cabin, hoping to knock on the window.



The male's body almost covers hers, yet Valygar can catch a glimpse of reddish hair spilled on the pillows. And he can see the hands, which shape he remembers so well, resting on male's neck and shoulder. Valygar stifles a cry, then forces himself to turn around. Slowly, as if his body is beaten and weathered he tries to climbs his horse. Then he leaves his fruitless efforts and moves towards the doorstep. He places a small package there and then returns to Immensvale walking his stallion.



“I shall return to the army.†Valygar's says to Andreas as soon as the mage steps into the Immensvale's tavern. Andreas nods and orders couple mugs of ale. Finally he lifts his tired face of the foamy liquid and asks with a concern: “Are you sure, Valygar? If Merella does not need your help, there are always other rangers who would be eager to coach you, I am absolutely certain…†Valygar's twisted and bitter smile worries Andreas. “I shall return to the army,†stubbornly repeats young Corthala and mutters: “Merella has no need of my help, indeed…â€Â. Andreas percepts way more than Valygar is willing to divulge. He says calmly: “If you wish to return to Athkatla, son, than let's do so immediately, while the horses are still unsaddled and we have not yet turned our minds to rest and sleep. Besides, in the night time we have a better chance to encounter bandits and see which one of us is better in a fight.†Grateful glance from Valygar compensates Andreas for his fear that he would not be able to sit for few days after that tiring journey.



They depart, Andreas amusing himself with listening the locals to whisper of queer city folk. Valygar is silent for many hours before he asks: “Why did you marry my mother?†His father is smiling, Valygar can distinguish that from the special soft tone of his voice: “Because Abissina is the most beautiful and wonderful woman I ever met, and because I love her…†Valygar comes to a halt. He never considered his parent's relationship as loving. With a cruelty of a youth he bluntly asks Andreas: “But does she love you back?†Andreas says quietly: “In her own fashion, yes. But you must understand that her calling is strong and she loves the arts above all else. However I am contended to share the close second with you in her heart…†Then Andreas cannot help but note: “You are growing, son and asking questions of a person who tries to deal with matters of heart. Is there a woman?†Valygar laughs aloud, and catches up to his father: “No. No woman. And will never be!†To his displeasure his voice sounds hotly and too high. Andreas chuckles. Who would believe words like that coming from a youth?






Merella kisses him as he walks out of the door. She is about to return back to the cabin and prepare to her night's patrol, when she notices a package by her bare feet. “What is that?†asks the man. “Who brought it? Does my sweet girl have a secret admirer?â€Â. Merella unwraps the packing cloth. A cloak of midnight blue is inside. Silvery strands are woven into the soft, rich fabric. “Marvelous…†whispers Merella. “Hey, you make me jealous! Let this admirer know that if he ever come close to you, he'd have to deal with me…†Merella answers sadly: “Do not worry, he would not. I'd walk with you to the village, sweetheart, “ offers she suddenly and before he can answer goes ahead, the beautiful cloak still in her hands.






“Yes, Merella, Corthalas, both old and young came by, they had some ale and were gone after that. Queer, ei? But being mages from Athkatla, they do stranger things be me guess…†Merella absently nodded to the tavern's owner musings.



“Rare thing…†the mage was intrigued. “Called them Cloaks of the Stars, elven thing. Will create you darts of great power, dear, every day.†Mage's daughter, the unhappiest girl in the whole of Immensvale had the greatest time in weeks with Merella visiting, showing the strange gift. She clapped her hands and looked at Merella with excitement: “Oh, Merella that will so suit you! You are the best with darts in the whole of Immensvale! Who gave it to you?†Merella said slowly and quietly: “One old friend…â€Â

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4. A Decent Fellow


Age: About 24



Yet each man kills the thing he loves,


By each let this be heard,


Some do it with a bitter look,


Some with a flattering word,


The coward does it with a kiss,


The brave man with a sword!



Oscar Wilde



The rider looked as if he did not leave the saddle for few days, his cloak stained with dirt, his face tired and unshaven. The horse barely run, and Valygar leaned towards her neck, patted her, and whispered: “Please, please, we are almost there…†He felt guilty: the noble animal was exhausted, and it's cruel to prod it on and on… But Valygar wants to see his father. According to brief note from Abyssina, Andreas was taken seriously ill. Valygar is on the road since he received the letter, but he is afraid to come too late. He had to cross Amn to get to Athkatla and he almost wished that he did not push away the gift of magical arts, which was offered to him by his family… If he could only teleport himself to the mansion in the Government District, if he could only… How very typical of his uncaring mother not to offer him this option! One spell, one stupid, short incantation and he will be home in mere minutes. But magic is reserved for grand occasions in his family…



Frustrated, Valygar prompts his horse again… The animal stumbles and falls, taking Valygar, who is too tired to react in time, down. Valygar drags himself form underneath the horse and continues on foot, not uttering a word of protest. He walks slowly, limping, but he makes it to Athkatla's gates. “Fatherâ€Â, whispers Valygar, “my father…â€Â



The house and the garden look so small, as places always are when one was away for long. Valygar falls against the front door, then knocks. To his surprise, Countess Corthala herself, answers.



“How is father?†Valygar barely manages to ask. He is tired and he is almost hopeless.



“Better, much better, my dear son…†Abyssina says quietly. “And he'd be absolutely well, when he hears about your arrival. He loves you so, Valygar. You would stay with us for a while, would not you, darling? You had grown so much…let me see you…â€Â



Valygar is puzzled by these words. He had grown? But he is too tired to try to understand his mother. In fact he is not sure he'd ever be able to understand Abyssina. “Where is my father?†asks he weakly, avoiding his mother's embrace. “And why the lights are off?â€Â



Without answering, Abyssina turns towards the staircase and calls: “Andreas! Valygar is here!†Valygar meanwhile searches for the chandelier. His hands tremble, and terrible foreboding is in his mind. The light, shivering, unsteady, takes on the end of one candle, Valygar lights all six and he finally can see the man, descending the wide staircase of the Corthala's house. Or what was a man once. His father's face is still recognizable, but it's spotted and disintegrating, and deadly greenish…



Valygar yells in protest, in terror, in disgust. He turns to his mother: “What have you done, witch? What have you done?†and he leans against the door, his eyes burning with an unknown sensation. Tears stream down his cheeks…he does not care. “Why? Why? Could not you let him go in peace?â€Â



Abyssina watches her son, collapsing against the door and appeals to him, in a dramatic, ringing voice: “I am trying to do things right, do not you see? I had been neglecting my love all my life. I had been so blind! But Andreas means everything to me, everything… We are together and nothing shall separate us, not even death…â€Â



Her voice turns into a hiss and it sounds like “deathsssssssssssâ€Â. Valygar looks at his mother closely, guessing already at what she had become… Abyssina's dark skin somewhat hides the paleness of undeath, of the absence of the lifeblood in her…but there could be no mistake. Valygar turns and tries to open the door, to get out of the place he once called home, to get away from monsters, he once called his parents.



Harsh laugh tells him that his efforts would not be successful. He hand on his sword's hilt, Valygar slowly turns to face Abyssina. Her fangs are bared and she is twitching with rage: “You shall not go anywhere, my bold child! You shall stay with us.†Valygar yells as loudly as he can, and drops a heavy coat rack down onto Abyssina, and rushes past her for the stairs. His father's zombie blocks his pass. “No,†prays Valygar, “Gods, no. Please, father, please do not make me do this…†The zombie extends skinny clawed hands towards Valygar, guttural sound coming from its deformed mouth dripping with yellowish saliva.



Valygar swings… His sword plunges down his father's shoulder, tearing it apart. Valygar retrieves his blade, now all covered in greenish, slimy goo… He stops thinking – he cannot afford thinking if he wants to live. As in a dream, he hits the zombie, breaking its ribs. His second hand works furiously with the sword's hilt to break zombie's scull. It cracks open, pouring stinking liquids all over Valygar's road stained clothes. The zombie falls to Valigar's feet, weird unlife granted by his wife, now stolen by his son… Valygar pushes the body away, like a kid tired of a game, would push aside a doll.



To his relief Valygar can see that the door shudders under heavy blows of the city guard. He cries for help, but his cry is short lived. Abyssina attacks. Energy surge, born from rage after seeing his father turned into a zombie, now leaves Valygar and he is just as drained and exhausted, as when he first stepped over the threshold of his house. Abyssina gains on him, and with a terrifying strength throws her large, heavy son against the wall. Valygar's head hits the stone, and he faints for a second. When he comes to himself, Abyssina is ripping of cloak from his neck. He wiggles away, pressing his palm against her face with all his might, while trying to find a silver edged dagger, his only weapon which can do any kind of damage to a vampire.



The door finally gives and three guards rush in. They see a furious vampire clawing a downed man. Vampire gazes at them with shining, red eyes and shrieks. Guards back up in terror. The dagger flashes in the victim's hand and Valygar strikes blindly, hitting his mothers shoulder, face, neck… He is beyond consciousness, beyond reason. He strikes and strikes… Until there was nothing to strike, but a violet fume.



The two guards start searching the house, and their triumphant cry signifies that they found the vampire's body and staked it.



The guard's captain leans over the unconscious young man and calls to him. “Hey, son, wake up… It's overâ€Â. Valygar groans and the Captain watches the terror in his brown eyes to go away. They are now filled with tears. “Oh, son. You got yerself into a trouble here… Can you talk? See, son, I have to file a report…†Valygar nodes and tries to sit up, propped against the wall. Captain feels for the battered youth.



“You look like a fine enough fellow… What in Nine Hells were you doing in this accursed place?â€Â



“It's my home,†answered Valygar absently, “I am Valygar Corthala, those were Andreas and Abyssina Corthala, my parents.â€Â



The silence hangs in the room, and one of the guards invokes name of Helm. The old soldier finally shakes his head: “Listen, Valygar: you came home and found your parent's dead. Killed by unknown person or persons… You called us. Since the day was on the hot side, we did not keep the bodies and cremated them. End of story. Right, boys?â€Â



The junior guards nodded theirs heads in full agreement. Valygar slowly lifted himself of the floor and in the same absent voice said: “Thank you…â€Â



“Hey, boy, do you have a place to go? Relatives mayhap…well, other relatives than those…†the Captain pointed vaguely in the direction of the stairs.



“No. I am the last Corthala. The only one now, I guess…†Valygar suddenly threw his head back and laughed.



“Then, for Helms' sake, go get drunk, Valygar.†Valygar was gone muttering something under his nose.



“What did he say?†asked a younger fellow. ““Yet each man kills the thing he lovesâ€Â…poetry, Gary, that's for them nobles to figure out…†Gary was unsure: “Noble? Is he a noble? Looked like soldier to me…†The Captain smiled: “Corthala is an ancient family, good name, but bad reputation.†He saw wild curiosity in his men, and providing that they had unpleasant duty of cleaning the zombie of the floor and burning two monstrous corpses, Captain was eager cheer them up with a tale: “Aye, bad… All of them were greedy for sorcery… See, how it turned out… But the young Corthala, that very Valygar, by rumors is a decent fellow… “

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5. A Merry Widow.


Age: About 24.


Leonora De Vallenzzi, wild mage, 10/16/14/19/16/12. Natural eye and hair color: unknown. Special ability: create scandals. Marital status: a widow. Found in Athkatla.



“Yes, Sir. I wish to leave the army.†Valygar looks at the official tiredly.


“Count Corthala, I understand that the tragic circumstances of your parents death effect your judgement now. Why won't you give it another thought? You had been an exemplary officer and…â€Â


“Sir, the financial affairs of my family require my immediate attention. I cannot carry such a serious obligation as serving Amn's military and take care of my estate, “ Valygar cuts the pointless conversation short. That's it. He is no more a soldier. In fact he cannot define himself as belonging to any social category or profession. A count without inheritance, a noble without a family, a soldier without an army, a murderer without a crime. Valygar Corthala, the man who killed his parents and walked away unpunished.






The room is jam-packed. The scandal surrounded his parents death, though not as much of a scandal if it could have been. Valygar stands in the middle of the brightly-lit platform and hears endless meaningless words. Finally he cannot stand it any longer.



“So, count, “ Valygar can swear the man almost giggled…â€Ânow that you are a single representative of Corthala family you surely would wish to make closer connections in the society… We have heard many flattering things about you… A brilliant young officer and an interesting man. By the way did I introduce you to my youngest daughter, Louise? Louise, cherie, I was just telling to Count Corthala how lonely must be his life in this grand mansion of Corthala, now that Andreas and Abissyna are so tragically gone… Louise is a very understanding and kind person, my dear count, she was shocked, absolutely shocked when she heard this terrible news about you parents, right Louise?â€Â



Valygar grins at Louise. Darn, the girl must be in a desperate situation if her family is ready to settle for ill-famed Corthala. Indeed Louise looks like a mockery of words “youngest daughterâ€Â. Another day, Valygar might have taken pity on her, but he is too angry at the falsehood and his heart is empty.



“Can you cook?†asks he in a loud and clear voice.



Louise's eyes widened and almost reached the size of normal human eyes. “Cook?†asked she as if meaning of the word escaped her.



“Yes. “ affirms Valygar. “Cook.†By that time the whole gathering watches them, the general conversation becoming quiet. “You see, cherie, I am in no position to keep mansion or servants. In fact I am broke. By the way…†addresses Valygar everybody, making sure that they hear over the tingling of glasses and whisper of the small talk, “By the way, since you are all here, I invite you cordially to the auctioning of Corthala's possessions which would be held in two weeks. Appraiser told me that the most interesting for general public would be Corthala's library… I intend to leave the society and move to Umar Hills as soon as the sale is over and the creditors are paid of. “



He paused for a moment and then turned back to the unfortunate youngest daughter. “That's why, ma chere Louise I asked if you can cook. I am going to hunt for food, Louise and I except that my woman will take care of turning it into my dinner.â€Â



Valygar crossed the room, almost running away. He was stifling, he was desperate for air.



The woman walked out of the tight ring of young nobles and set out to intercept him. Her walk was unsteady and she was clearly drunk. She threw a tall glass she was holding on the floor and barred Valygar's way. Outrageous… Her dress was outrageous, some insane combination of violet and red. She was outrageouse from head to toe: her face was powdered excessively to achieve snow-white shine, her hair were died purple and covered by silver net incrusted with amethysts and pearls. On top of it few artificial beauty marks said to anyone who can read their cocotte language “I am waiting, but not for you…†In short, one had to be blind not to notice her, entirely devoid of the sense of smell not to feel her aggressive perfume and be dead to miss her presence.



She radiated some barbaric, primitive attractiveness, and Valygar felt sick from what he saw in men's glances trained on her. Still he was not sure that his was way different. In the deep silence she applauded and said in a low, capriccios voice: “This snobs…and I bet my wedding ring on that, did not tell you a single sincere word of compassion. Let me do it then.â€Â



Her long fingers brushed a twisted lock of hair from his forehead. “Valygar, I am really sorry for what have happened to your parents…†somewhere beneath thick layer of paint on her eyelashes Valygar saw a true sorrow and an intimate knowledge of his circumstances.



He was drowning in the viscous, bitter smell of her perfume and champagne. Valygar stood in his tracks staring at the woman until he heard someone chuckle and say under his breath: “Leonora found her new toy…†Valygar shuddered and brushed past the drunk woman.



Being attracted to Marquise Leonora De Vallenzzi was the last thing he wanted.



With amazing speed Leonora slipped through the door, following him and gripped tightly to his elbow. Even more amazingly, the slow, unsteady steps gave way to brisk walk immediately. If Leonora was ever drunk, she was no more.



A man run after then and pleaded: “Leonora… You cannot leave me like that…†Leonora turned abruptly, forcing shocked Valygar to follow her. “Dear Klod… Since the moment I saw you I had this strong and deep feeling about you… The feeling I can only describe by words “I do not careâ€Â… Cannot you see I am busy, showing Count Corthala around the city and kindly get lost? “



“Count is from Athkatla…†mumbled the stunned noble. “He is may be from Athkatla, but I doubt he knows where is my house and the exact location of my bedroom in it,†parried Leonora. Klod sighed unhappily and dragged himself back to the patio.



Valygar gasped and tried to get rid of the annoying female. “Leonora… I appreciate the thought…But I rather stay alone tonight.â€Â



“Alone? Not a chance Count. You are planning on drowning or hanging yourself… have guts to do it in my presence or give me that night to show you around…†Valygar tried to object, but she only laughed. He could not even start guessing how did Leonora know his intentions. He gave up finally and followed the woman obediently, his thoughts amiss and all the scandalous rumors about Marquise De Vallenzzi he ever heard on his mind.

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6. A Night Out

Age: about 24.



Leonora walked in this wavy smooth way which is so difficult for a male to match. Valygar blushed when their hips touched yet again. Marquise's left hand was tightly wrapped around his elbow and with her right she was trying to undo the net restraining her hair. Valygar heard few gem encrusted pins falling to the stones, with tender ring. Valygar bowed to pick one up, but Marquise pulled him along. “We do not have time for it, lover…†laughed she shaking her head, letting heavy purple waves to roll down her shoulders.



“What color are your hair?†suddenly Valygar was really interested. Marquise twisted a lock around her finger and looked at it: “Purple…†“I mean, naturally?†insisted Valygar.


“I wish, I remembered…†shrugged Leonora.



They were finally in front of a large mansion, and to Valygar's surprise, they did not enter, but stopped by the gate and Leonora gave a loud whistle. Few moments later a manservant appeared and bowed low to the Marquise. “Pierr, would you kindly bring horses from Count Corthala and myself…†Pierr measured Valygar up with a quick and expressionless gaze and then disappeared with a quiet “Yes, Seniora...â€Â



“Horses?†Valygar got an impression that the night with Leonora is going to be full of surprises. Marquise meanwhile was taking off her shoes, holding on to him for balance. She was finally done and stood about three inches shorter then before in front of him leaning her head to one shoulder looking at him quizzically.



“Can you ride Valygar?†asked she after a pause. “Well, if you help me into the saddle of a half-dead mule, I might hold on for my dear life and ride for a kilometer or so…†Valygar replied not bothering to hide a sarcastic smile… “Good.†His wit did not impress Leonora, “tall man often make lousy riders. I am glad you are an exception.†Valygar started to open his mouth to enlighten her on what he thinks about that opinion, but the servant re-appeared with the horses and all Valygar could do is to prevent his mouth from being open too wide for too long. The pair was gorgeous and of the breed he had not seen before. Small noble heads on swan necks, light body and lean, dancing legs… Valygar could not even imagine that a creature of such a perfect beauty and balance can be ridden upon.



The manservant cooed over Marquise, wrapping her up in a cloak… Suddenly Leonora flew up into the saddle and Valygar figured that the purpose of the high side cuts on her dress might have not been showing off her perfect legs.



Leonora looked at him impatiently: “Catch up to me if you can…†and rode off. Valygar was in the saddle in a moment, chasing the torch Marquise had lit up to help them see in the falling darkness.



“Where are we going?†asked Valygar of Marquise. “I told you, I'd show you around,†came a short answer. They left the city and Leonora let her horse fly. Suddenly she moved into the forest, following a tiny trail. Then she stopped abruptly.



In dancing light of the torch Valygar saw a small clearance by the hillside. A stream breaking from underground somewhere at the midslope, run downhill and the water was diverted into a small round basin adorned by a statue of a simply dresses female riding a unicorn.



“Mielikki's shrine…I thought you might be interested in seeing it…†said Leonora quietly. Valygar walked towards the basin collected cold clear water in his palms and drunk. The peace of the place make him feel whole again.



He heard Leonora's horse starting to walk. “Are you leaving?†asked Valygar.


“Yes,†answered Leonora firmly. “While the night is still young I need to find someone to warm up my bed.â€Â



Valygar approached the woman and stroked her bare knee. He looked up with his dare, sarcastic eyes. “What, I am not honored after all? You found my riding skills unacceptable? Or am I too tall?†asked he angrily.



Leonora leaned towards him and took his face in her palms. Quickly her tongue touched his lips forcing them open, engaging him into a slow sensual kiss. Valygar lifted his hands, embracing the woman's waist, ready to take her down from the horse. But Leonora moved away.



“Listen Valygar.†Her voice was harsh. “You can follow me now…and tomorrow you'd wake up Leonora's page. You can stay with her,†she pointed in the direction of the statue, “and sort out what you are and where you want to go from here. When you'd become Valygar Corthala, a man able to handle Leonora's love, come back… You know where my house is in Athkatla.â€Â



Valygar stepped back, shaking his head at the unpredictable Marquise. “Well, go ahead, the night might grow too long for you to find a replacement…â€Â



Marquise raised her brows mockingly: “Oh that's what the anger was about? I shall spend this night alone then, reading a book as a respectable woman. I promise you the whole week of being good and respectable if that makes you feel better. Cannot promise you more.â€Â



Valygar laughed at that: “How do they allow you in the society, Leonora?â€Â



“You did not get it, did you?†Leonora snorted and started on her way towards the trail. “I am a widow. A very rich widow. I can do what pleases me. And I entertain their stupid snobbish little world."



Then she ordered: "Return the horse anytime or keep it.“



Valygar shrugged. He knew Leonora for few short hours and he did not doubt that boredom was unheard of by anyone Marquise chooses to associate with.

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8. A Note


Age: about 28



A tall hooded man walked the streets of Athkatla. His step was light, and he did not have to look around. The man was very familiar with the city, yet felt ages passed since he had last walked through its massive gates. He navigated his way through the maze of narrow and dirty passages and dead ends leading towards the district called Slums. It fully deserved its name. Recently, the ever-dirty face of this neighborhood was broken by rather strange object. People in Athkatla called it a Sphere and that was the best description one could manage indeed for a round and shiny thing. The Sphere. The tall hooded man stood in silence in the crowd permanently attracted to the sight. So the rumors were true. Lavok had arrived.



Valygar slowly walked away, looking around cautiously. In his pocket was a short note, which read:



Count, I presume you have heard of the Sphere's landing. I caution you from coming to Athkatla. I pray that you are not on your way already. Very powerful people are interested in opening the Sphere. And your blood is the key to it. You know very well how those people would obtain Corthala's blood. It is not planned for Corthala to survive the process. Please, Count, I beg you to hide for once in your life.



The paper on which the note was written smelled of the bitter, viscous perfume. Those smell he sometimes imagined overcoming the blooming orchards or vigorous drying grasses in the fall. The smell of a crazy woman, a sorceress. Even without that Valygar would know who the anonymous author was. It felt strange to the ranger that someone cared if he lives or dies. Yet he hoped for it during all these wonderful, peaceful years of his apprenticeship. Why else would he read these sentences over and over searching for any sign of Leonora. He wished that the letter would end with oblique “yours very truly†or “sincerely yoursâ€Â, yet she skipped even that meaningless bit of intimacy.



Valygar decided to stay overnight in Athklatla and let himself into a small house he still (only his estate caretaker knows why) owned in the Bridge District. He called for his manservant, and old chap who refused to leave, when the rest of the Corthala's peoples where let go. By agreement with Valygar he lived in the house, keeping it clean and renting it whenever possible. Mostly on hourly basis. The rent was his salary. Valygar made as much noise as he possibly could, hoping that for at least one night the place was empty and he won't have to drag himself to an inn.



Amazingly it was empty. Valygar praised his good luck…but his merriment was short lived, once he had noticed a glimmer of light appearing in all four corners of the room. His back pressed against the wall, Valygar pulled katana from its sheath.



Mages materialized, and the tiny room was immediately filled by tingling magical energy. He hated the feeling…



One of the new arrivals addressed himself to Valygar in a squeaky and rather unpleasant voice. “Valygar Corthala, Cowled Wizards seeks your assistance in the matter of great importance. Lavok Corthala had come to Athkatla again. He wields powerful knowledge…â€Â



“I would assist in one thing only: destroying every piece of dark knowledge my evil ancestor possesses. “ Valygar scanned three mages, equipped by battery of spells and already coated in glowing spheres of all sorts. They did not come to negotiate with him, they came ready to fight. Then he will show him a fight! To Valygar's dismay an outline of yet another portal was showing in the air right beside him.



“ I was told, you would be uncooperative, ranger. But we are prepared to deal with that. Do you think you can fight three wizards, boy? What harm can your pitiful katana…â€Â



Valygar roared: “You have to kill me to use me. I refuse to help anyone who is hungry for Lavok's knowledge.â€Â



“Very well…†sighed the wizard and all three attempted to start casting. But the first word which escaped the lips of each of them was “Leonora…†In mid-flight towards the closest adversary Valygar caught a glimpse of unbearably bright and impossibly tight scarlet dress. And matching scarlet hair. He did not have time to study the details of Leonora's clothing, but he was certain it was all embroidered with silver and black dragons and a large dragon pin was holding together her intricate hairdo. Valygar repeated after the wizards “Leonora…†and his katana fall on the stupefied wizard.



Without any effect, except he got an evil cackle out of the spellcaster. Valygar hit again and again, as the words of enchantments were filling the room, stinging him and speeding his hand… How he wished to cut down the traitorous woman instead, how much he hated her voice and her entranced gaze fixed on him.



Leonora let the spell out and Valygar was prepared for pain…yet none came. Instead, the line of blood appeared on his adversary followed by furious and dirty words. The feline jolted from behind Leonora and brought another wizard down. Protection or not, he could not ignore two hundred pounds of muscle mass falling right on top of him. The remaining wizard's spell however brought Valygar into darkness, his eyes and head swollen with unbearable pain, his movements erratic. Valygar's victim was chanting, while the ranger tried to re-orient himself. Through the pain he heard clear mocking voice:



“Three against one? That's the way of cowards, Naderin. Now the odds are more to my liking.â€Â



“Woman… Never give a task of importance to a woman. You are going to pay dearly for this, Leonora. Spellhold is full of the likes of you…†Leonora laughed and her voice was full of gathering energy as words flew from her tongue. Naderin started his own spell.



Valygar could finally focus on his prey. The crooked smile on the mage's face told Valygar, that he had protected himself from enchanted weapons, such as his Bleeder. But the ranger knew his way around it: he hit the caster's face with the heavy hilt, breaking few teeth and damaging lips, making it impossible to pronounce spells properly. The wizard growled, spitting blood and bent under Valygar's furious blows. He raised a curved staff attempting self-defense, his hands weak and pathetic compare to Valygar's mighty frame.


The white tiger kept on top of the other mage, squeezing air from his lungs, clawing at his face, growling lowly and angrily, since he could not draw any blood from the prostrate figure. But the mage had been already bluish of face and twitching uncontrollably.



Leonora's enchantment was over and the mage at the receiving edge of it looked scared…but some jolly sparkles showered him making no apparent damage. He laughed watching Leonora being thrown back into the wall by the blast of her own untamed magical energy. He was approaching slowly towards her a dagger high in the air, yelling: “Been playing with wild magic, stupid woman? Wild magic will always fail you, silly cow! “



He stopped his advance suddenly peering at the narrow blade which sticking from his chest. “Wild magic may be, but the blade would not†said Valygar with grim satisfaction shaking the dead man from his katana, like someone would shake dirt of his clothes… Valygar gave the tiger a quick look and seeing that the animal was in some savage triumph rolling over its victim, which ceased breathing quite a while ago, directed himself towards Leonora, who was still propped against the wall.



The ranger lifted her roughly to her feet and shook her violently: “been spying on me for your friends, you…â€Â



Leonora gave small whimpering sound and her hand rose weakly to her face. Her feet were seemingly unable to support her and she started falling away from Valygar. In a moment his rage was gone replaced by fear and some sweet tingling feeling…before he started to remember that he was dealing with Leonora…too late.



A cold sharp blade was pressed against his neck, shiny and narrow just like the woman's eyes. “Swallow what you were about to say. Step back, “ commanded the wizard. With curiosity the ranger watched the waves of bright hair falling in delightful disorder around the most beautiful face in Amn. Headpiece was in fact a crosspiece of a dagger.



Valygar obeyed but spat: “what's now? Are you going to escort me to the Sphere, lovely Cowled…â€Â



“Fool!†yelled Leonora, “bastard†added she after a short pause, “do not ever mix me with Abyssina. Now name a place outside Athkatla from where you can start running for your life.â€Â



“Did you kill your husband?†Valygar was watching her coldly.



Leonora slapped him on the face: “Are you mad? I am about to spend the rest of my life in Spellhold seeing your dead body in my nightmares, and you are interested in my past…darling…?â€Â



There could be no mistake: the sensual, nasal pronounce was exactly the same…unless Leonora forgot his name and… “Place, you fool, place? Or I shall send you to the place of my choosing. It will be safe, but may not be pleasant.â€Â



Valygar felt something heavy to sat on his foot and looked down to find the curled up tiger. Yet its ears were standing up and Valygar did not doubt that one wrong move and he'd share the unfortunate wizards' fate.



“Umar Hills…†managed he at last, too confused by all these happenings.



Leonora nodded and started opening the portal. Valygar who was reared by mages knew that nothing is more vulnerable, then a wizard who holds the portal open. He decided to take his chances. Valygar shook the tiger of his feet and strolled towards Leonora:



“I believe, that I owe you something…†and with that he leaned towards her and slowly, deeply kissed her lips… Leonora's eyes were sparkling with rage, yet she did not move, still holding the portal open. Not willing to tease the mage further Valygar dived into the portal head first, praying that on the other end was Umar Hills, not Nine Hells or Icewinddale, or another terrible place…

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9. A Shadow


Age about 28.


Your name had changed since


Your eyes lost their color forever


A drunken doc told me


That you are no more


And a fireman showed me a report


Saying that your house was burnt…


But I want to be with you…


(from a foreign song)



The Shade's Lord body hit the ground, pierced by arrows, ripped apart by bullets, broken in by a club and sporting many wicked cuts from twin katanas. Behind a despoiled altar broken to pieces was still smoking from Aerie's lightening bolt and Aerie was still stuttering and leaning onto Kelsey who was whispering something comforting into her ear. The day was long and included slaughtering a fair size dragon, in fact the first dragon any of them had met before. Well, any but Jan, who of course insinuated that his Uncle Aladin was the infamous dragon slayer in Cormyr and he, Jan had been out helping him for a while. Melirinda coolly noticed that Jan must be at least 900 years. Kivan smiled and asked: “What Lirin, you think he is an elf in disguise?†Melirinda replied in even cooler tone: “No, I just add up all the relatives he had told about and gave him 1 minute to meet each…â€Â



A strange sound came from kneeling Valygar. A sob? Kneeling, he watched hypnotized as the fallen shade was filling with flesh, taking shape of a half-elven woman. She was still breathing, the air coming from her lungs with terrifying, whistling sound.



“At last…freedom from his domination…†the words were half-legible, and both Melirinda and Aerie exchanged a sad glance: the woman was beyond healing due to the fact that her soul was almost consumed by the hungry shade. “Valygar…†the ranger put his palm underneath her weakening neck, leaning to the side, like a flower's stem. Blood trickling from her mouth colored his wrist. “Valygar…I am sorry…†He could not possibly talk past the lump in his throat, but the cinnamon eyes were excepting his words. “It does not matter… There is nothing I can forgive you, there was never a fault, Merella…†Merella spent her last strength to smile at him: “I knew you would say that…†The faint smell of strawberries was in the air.



Kivan walked lightly towards Valygar and lifted him of the ground. “Do not look. Or you will remember her like that. She would not like it, she'd prefer you think about her as she was in life, not in death.†Then he led Valygar away and made him to sit down by a small lonely figure. “We will bury her…†Kivan told quietly and joined Kelsey who started digging a grave by an altar of old-forgotten god.



Melirinda was helping Aerie to prepare the dead ranger for the burial, thinking that it was an inappropriate moment to explain to her companions how insignificant death is in the endless cycle of life… She sighed. Druids often are perceived as cold hearted because of their calmness in the face of death. Yet she knew that Valygar why Valygar was hurting, why Aerie was crying (for once), why Kivan hugged her tightly but briefly, why even Jan was silent and Kelsey's movements were way too accurate for such a simple task as shoveling dirt. The only thing she could not understand was why the world suddenly was blurry…



Valygar gave a quick glance to the tiny female, and he suddenly realized that she was crying… Her face was static, no sound came from her open mouth, yet large tears rolled down her cheeks, one after another, dropping and soaking her cloak. The halfing felt his stare and made a proud move upward with her chin.



“What? What are you staring at?†Valygar shook his head: “I was not… I just feel that some giant hit me on the head and I am unable to concentrate on anything. I must stare somewhere… I am sorry if I offended you…â€Â



Mazzy suddenly lost her edge and look at the human twice her heights and four times her size with trust. “I lost my friend…my lover. His name was Patrick. He was a troubled kid, a funny sort… But I liked him a lot. We read together the books of old, going into all sorts of tricks to earn a gold piece a two for another tome. He…he ran away from home to become a sailor or some such and I could not let him do it on his own. Patrick was too…irresponsible. He needed someone to look after him, to keep him on the right track… And now he is dead and I am alive. It's just so unfair…he loved life by far more than I do…â€Â



This time Valygar stared at Mazzy: “You know, Merella was my childhood friend too. But it was me, who was a troublesome kid, running away from his family. And I think she felt responsible, yet she never followed me, like you followed Patrick. And now she is dead. And she did love life by far more than me… “



Mazzy sobbed. Then she got up and said: “I am going to build a small monument to my fallen companions and to Patrick… We can inscribe Merella's name on it too…†Valygar shook his head: “I am sure the village will put something in a memory of the one who served their protector for so long and died defending them. But I will help you…â€Â



In fact the whole group joined in and soon an altar was clean of blood, blessed an carried the names of all Mazzy's companions who fall at the hand of the evil Shade Lord. “Valygar…†asked Mazzy tentatively, “I do not know how you deal with grief, but I am going to travel to Tethyr. On the road pain diminishes… Do you think you'd want to come along? I am a knight and with a squire like you…â€Â



Valygar smiled at that weird attempt to gain his friendship, while treating him as a subservient being. He wanted to mention his last name, but then he thought it to be petty. “Mazzy, I have other obligations…†that was all he said before shaking the brave halfing's hand and wishing her good luck. Melirinda thought for a second to ask Mazzy along, but the group's balance was already shifted… Still she watched with respect the brave female to continue her travels. If only Mazzy did not have the heart befit to a paladin…

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10. A Masquerade


Age: About 29.



He just turned twenty-nine. It did not bare any significance to Valygar, yet he was twenty-nine. The twenty-second day of Tarsakh was a week ago, so he rather was twenty-nine years one week old. The ranger pushed a small cobble with a toe of his boot. It jumped few times and then hit a stone wall. Count Corthala stood mesmerized watching the little cobble laying helplessly by a gate. He bowed and scooped it up. It was gray and unattractive, but its roundness comforted Valygar's palm. He sighed and finally looked up at the doors of the mansion. He could hardly believe that he stood in front of Leonora's place. Or rather palace.



Melirinda asked him if he'd consider entering the Sphere. DeGranier hoped that his relative stashed some coin and she could get a hold of some. The druid was becoming increasingly nervous, since money were accumulating too slow, and the days were passing too fast. He said “yesâ€Â, partially because he wanted to get rid of Lavok, partially because he believed that some items of value could be found in the Sphere, and that would help to pay the passage to the Spellhold. He still wanted to finish the nightmare, but he was not sure if he wanted to face his last existing (for surely it was not a life) relative. Valygar wished to live as in opposite to death. And nothing contained as much life and the joy of it as Marquise DeVallenzzi. So there was logic after all in coming to her gates…



Valygar knocked with a mallet and the manservant appeared. To his surprise Valygar remembered his name. To his astonishment Pierr recognized him as well. His face did not shift, his eyes did not widen, but he said in colorless polite voice: “Would Senior Corthala prefer to await for Seniora or there would be a message?â€Â



So much for him hoping to find the fiery woman at home alone on the night like this. “Night like what?†interrupted Valygar his own musings. Busy fighting a laughing bell, singing “a night for joy, a night for loveâ€Â, Valygar suddenly heard his own loud voice, an equal share of venom to civility, inquiring of Marquise's whereabouts that night. Pierr informed Valygar of the Greengrass ball at Jeeves Estate Marquise was attending. Valygar expressed his gratitude to Pierr and warmly wished him goodnight. But Pierr gave Valygar a sort of appreciative look, and then announced that Valygar's clothing was inappropriate for Jeestev's party.



At first Valygar wanted to explain that he is not attending any such party, but then he realized that he does. He simply had to see Leonora. So he inspected his suede pans, shirt and a leather jerkin and surely it looked just what Pierr called it - inappropriate. The only joyous sight for a wealth-watcher were two katana's hilts, beautifully crafted and richly adorned with gemstones. Pierr made a sign to Valygar to follow. The ranger shrugged and obeyed.



After all he might wait for Leonora. And her…hmm companion for the night, she most likely would be bringing along. Valygar was pretty sure, that he would be able to throw out anybody this lady can possibly find among the partying nobility. In fact he was almost happy at the thought of hurting someone daring to touch his Leonora. At that he had to stop thinking. Leonora was not even his friend, let alone his lover. “His†was even funnier word to use in respect to Marquise. Leonora was possibly deceptive, terrible, evil, annoying, crazy female, but she was not a possession. She was not a prize. She was…she was wilderness, an unknown entity, unpredictable, dangerous, self-serving , yet she was the only one he wanted.



Pierr returned and gave Valygar a huge black roll of fabric. “What?†Valygar felt like an idiot. And Pierr treated him as such. Patiently the servant explained that Jeeves give a masqueraded party and that if Senior Corthala leave his cloak and put on the cape and the mask… Also Pierr suggested leaving at least one katana behind, but seeing the dark flame in the male's eyes produced couple of bands which would do for making peace knots… Valygar extracted some hope from Pierr's certain believe that Corthala would be back to the mansion that night.



The cape was long enough to cover tall ranger and its hood was wonderfully deep. “What I am suppose to be?†asked Valygar looking at a full-face mask, black, with some decadent zigzag pattern and feathers. “An assassin, Senior Corthala, †Valygar scanned Pierr's features, but there was not a trace of smile…



Lights, music, noise… Valygar was breaking through the buzzing, swirling dancing and courting couples and groups, feeling that a walk through Nine Hells would feel refreshing… Yet he forgot all his displeasure as soon as he spotted a tall slim figure wrapped loosely in dark-green silk and veils. Her hairs were some insane strawberry blond and diadem, necklace and earrings sported a city or two worth of the emeralds. She danced somewhere in the middle of the huge room, and Valygar slowly made his way towards Leonora. It was an impossible venture, people shifting and moving around him, Leonora being carried away with the music, some females hanging from his elbow or his neck from time to time… Some males were shouting at him and patting his back, or trying to swing at him… Valygar was seriously considering pulling out his katana to clear a pass to Marquise, when she faced him. It was a brief, very brief moment, but Valygar soon noticed that Leonora was making her way in his direction. She was by far the most apt to it from the two of them, so the ranger stopped and waited, watching the bright green dress to move closer and closer.



Leonora finally was within reach and he grabbed a hold on her hand pulling her away from the man dressed in some weird pretend armor and having a flower bunch hanging quite coyly from his ear. From time to time the flower knight was doing an elegant swirl with his head, letting the flowers fly back. It would be a charming and seducing thing to do for a young girl…



“Anomen, love,†sang Leonora “please, I am yearning for you, but first I need one more drink…†The man looked truly surprised: “One more? Truly, My Lady your sturdiness is admirable… but how can a knight leave a Lady alone among this carnage?†Leonora kissed him and pointed to Valygar: “This noble stranger would look after your Lady, Sir Delryn….†Anomen was not quite convinced, but Leonora made an unhappy face: “It does not befit a paladin like you to be so uncourageous…†Strange, but this uncomplicated ruse set Anomen in motion. He was gone in a search of a drink while Leonora dragged Valygar in opposite direction.



Another man steeped in and looked at Leonora: “Leaving already? Need someone decent to accompany you?†This man's glance made Valygar to find the hilt of his katana instinctively. This noble was not drunk, his eyes were cold and angry and he looked at Marquise hungrily. Leonora laughed in a happy stupid kind of laughter. “Yes, I do and I found him… Sorry dear, but Leonora's third rule is: always choose a tallest one from the number of options available… “ and she kept on laughing. The angry man, who was of an average height mainly due to his heels barked something in response and stormed away.



Finally they made it to the quite part of the garden and Leonora fall against a large tree trunk. He lifted her mask and took her face in his hands. Her voice sounded exhausted when she spoke to Valygar. “Idiot…†Valygar slowly traced the outline of her décolleté: “I love the way you dress…†“Fool…†answered Leonora. “But I hate this white stuff you have all over your face and neck…†Leonora chanted and made a small twist with her wrist. Valygar ducked just in case.

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10. A Tiger's Claws


Age: About 29.


It took Valygar few moments to realize that lightening did not strike him and no fire burned him, except the inner one… Nothing happened… When he dared to look back at the Marquise, a young and collected face he caught a glimpse of once, was what he saw. Dark brown hair framed it.



Despite her anger, Marquise laughed at Valygar's obvious surprise. “I do not believe it! Abyssina Corthala's son has no idea of small appearance enhancing magic…†Valygar suppressed disturbing thoughts about Abyssina… Indeed, how come he never was surprised by the fact that his mother's looked like a girl a day short of twenty?



“Enhancing? Spoiling more like… Now when I am not afraid to get poisoned by all this paint…†Valygar did not finish, kissing hotly Leonora's naked shoulders, walking with his lips up to her neck and stopping at the large emerald collar. He finally gave up trying to avoid the elegant intertwine of gold and gems and undid the lock. For a moment he stood thinking of what to do with the piece of jewelry, until Leonora took it from his palm and casually slipped it into his pocket. Her hand did not leave his body though, sliding around his waist, stroking his back gently.



“Valygar…†whispered Leonora as the pulsing touches of his lips resumed their methodic climb towards her face. The ranger smiled: “You do remember my name, ladyship? I was intending to change it to Fool Corthala to have a pleasure of you calling me by it…†Leonora shook her head in disbelieve. “Valygar, you recklessness scares me. I wish you to be alive, do not you understand?†Valygar nodded and whispered: “Then kiss me Leonora…â€Â



She did. Valygar was almost frightened the way this one felt. No teasing or fighting was left in both of them, it was passion alone, passion long restricted by distance and mistrusts that connected their lips. “Leonora, do you really like this dress?†Valygar's fingers gripped the fabric tightly, and he pulled the embroidered edge before Leonora could master an answer. The sound of breaking silk brought Leonora back to reality. She swayed back and caught Valygar's hands.



“My house is protected from magical prying…†Valygar laughed: “Are you afraid of what a couple of wrinkly wizards might say of the immorality of young people nowadays?†Leonora said gravely: “That is the least of my concerns. You had been acting like…†“An idiot?†suggested Valygar, undoing a fistula on the collar of his cape and pinning the top of Leonora's dress together with trembling fingers.



Leonora pressed her warm palm against his mouth: “I do not want a single word out of you before we are safely inside…†Valygar touched her skin with his tongue, and when she immediately removed her hand from his face, chuckled: “I guarantee you that… You are the talkative one, Marquise,†he inspected his handiwork critically, and was unsatisfied with the results. The cape moved from Valygar's shoulders to Leonora's and the couple escaped Jeestev's Estate by prosaically climbing over a low garden wall.



“Why did not you just teleport us? You are good at that as I recall…†inquired Valygar catching Leonora, when she jumped down from the top of the wall. “I am afraid I would not be able to concentrate long enough to cast a complicated spell with you around…†and she stayed for a moment longer then it was necessary in his arms. “Tell me again that you mind me coming back to Athkatla, foolish woman…†grumbled Valygar. Leonora sighed, her despair and tenderness fighting over her expressive face.



Pierr met them at the door and disappeared immediately after letting them in. “Now are you going to give me the tour of your house you have promised me five years ago, Leonora?†wondered Valygar. “Of course. The mansion has 243 rooms and I intend to show all of them to you in full details,†parried Leonora. Valygar lifted her off the ground and asked for the directions to… But before he could pronounce his destination a loud roar came from upstairs and great white tiger made an impressive entry. Up close the animal looked even larger then Valygar remembered and its bared fangs and wrinkled nose demonstrated his feeling towards Valygar clearly enough.



“Keep going, I'd talk to Tai-Shen, “ instructed Leonora.





-What is it Tai-Shen?


-This male, mistress. He had already landed you into troubles.


-Dear, when was I out of troubles?


-Not like this. He will be the death of you, Mistress. Cowled Wizards would find out sooner or later that you are siding with the man.


-You know I am not so keen on living… I had been seeing dangerous men before.


-Before they were prey, Mistress. This one is a hunter.


-You are a hunter yourself, Tai-Shen. I thought you'd like to see one among my men for a change.


-Not among, Mistress. The last man Leonora loves…it's him is not he?


-You are cross that he is not a druid who can shapeshift into a tiger, are not you?


-That's too. But the main thing, I am worried, Mistress. And so is Pierr…


-At least Pierr is friendly.


-Pierr is a coward. I do not like this man. I act honestly. Mistress, let me kill him or let me chase him away.


-That's enough, Tai-Shen. His name is Valygar.


-Valygar Corthala, I know. You need not but a slightest hint, Mistress…


-Defend me against my true enemies, Tai-Shen, Valygar will not harm me…


-As you wish, Mistress.




Leonora closed the door of the bedroom. The heavy plop and resigned sigh came from outside… “Your familiar…is staying there?†Valygar asked hesitantly. “That's coming from a man who did not mind the whole of Athkatla watching…†answered Leonora sharply. “Touché.†Valygar sat down on the edge of the bed and run his fingers through the dark twists of his hair. “Leonora, I have to tell you something. In about four hours my companions will be starting out. I should be back by then. And if I will be alive I will be returning… I wish I could return before you will wake up, but I do not know what's going to happen.â€Â



Leonora sat by him and pulled his hands away from his face: “You are planning to enter the Sphere, do not you?†Valygar eyed her for few moments and nodded gravely. Leonora kissed his temple. “Very sweet of you to worry about me waking up alone. But there is no need for that. I will come with you.â€Â



Valygar's heart sunk. Leonora watched his stiffening face and shouted: “Do not you be thinking what you are thinking! Do not even dare!†Painfully, bitterly Valygar asked: “Leonora, what exactly did your assignment include?†Leonora laughed hysterically: “Listen… Oh, no you are not capable of reasoning, are you?†Then Marquise said very coldly: "My assignment included watching over you and protecting the last Corthala. If you wish to know I refused the bonus part of bearing your child if you'd keep up your ways of abstinence…â€Â



Valygar heavily replied: “Smart of you, Leonora. Saved you a failure. I would never allow any woman who is not my wife to bear my child…â€Â



“Really? Then I am glad you did not entrust this credo of yours to Suna Seni, Valygar. She would have made a terrible wife.†answered Leonora hotly.



“I will break your scrying ball, wizard!†yelled Valygar, the room spinning around him. “Oh, do calm down. Even Suna's brains were enough to realize that a Corthala's baby meant life-long attention of Cowled ones if not a Spellhold… So the child was never born. And I have a dozen of the scrying devices, you are welcome to break any or all of them if you wish.â€Â



Valygar remembered Suna Seni, a likable rogue, a carefree friend of a few months… It all was a part of the same ploy, the same game. Game where he was a pawn and none cared for his feelings. He looked up at Leonora. “May be it does not matter? May be you shall come along. What am I protecting? A couple of old scrolls and a pile of bones? Fine. I'd provide Lavok with a new fresh body and a suitable bride in one shot. Let's go. Let's go right away! After all you like your man older, do not you? How about few centuries…â€Â



Leonora hit him so speedily and so hard that he went flying to the floor. At the same moment the door was shuttered into small pieces and a white shadow cut through the air. Valygar managed to roll aside, avoiding the tiger's first hit. He lifted his hands and crossed them over his face, hoping to survive a blow of the huge paws… The blow did not come. As Valygar slowly put his hands down he saw Leonora and the tiger exiting the room. Leonora turned and in a harsh, unsettled voice said: “You should learn to distinguish your friends from your enemies.â€Â



Valygar begged: “Leonora… I know so little about you. I need to understand if I love or hate you, I cannot live doing both any more. Please, tell me that all you have done for me was not contracted out by the Wizards….â€Â



“You should have got your answer long ago…†Leonora replied quietly.


“I need to hear it from you,†Valygar lifted of the floor and walked towards Marquise. He kneeled and kissed her hand. “Tell me this Leonora, please.â€Â



“Very well. I swear to you, Valygar, that while our first meeting was rigged up I have not plotted against you afterwards.†Valygar embraced Leonora's knees, hiding his face in the folds of the black cape and his strong frame shook violently.

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11. A cage for Fireflies


Age: About 29.



Leonora lowered herself slowly, until her face was level with Valygar's and looked at him with her dark-violet attentive eyes, she repeated: “I swear…†and gently kissed the ranger's forehead. Valygar hold her close as if she was the last fraction of the collapsing world, whispering hotly into her ear: “I love you, I love you…I cannot come up with any other words…†She pressed her finger across his mouth: “no other words are necessary…†Only later it occurred to Valygar that there was a of course a bed in the bedchambers, a few steps away…



Exhausted, yet complete, as man gets after being close with a woman he deeply loves, Valygar leaned over his lover, expressing his gratitude in a kiss. The night had fallen and the darkness surrounded the couple. She laughed fingering the strings on the collar of his shirt: “You were overdressed for the occasion, Valygar…†Shyness in her tone told him what he was seeking to know and he had never been so sure of the love of a woman before. “Too late, Leonora… And my hopes that you could use that dress as a skirt proved false also…it's an unlucky dress.†Leonora raised herself from the black cape: “Much you know about luck, my sweet seamstress. You need to get some sleep, we aren't get much time left…†pause was lingering forever before she finished finally with “my loveâ€Â.



Valygar sat up dizzied by her last words and then got himself out of the shirt, smiling as he threw it aside…too late indeed. Leonora came back from a boudoir adjacent to the bedroom, carrying what he thought to be some sort of a magical device in each of her hands. They were cylindrical sources of faint bluish light, so subtle, that Valygar rather guessed than saw her nakedness. A soft buzzing sound reminded the ranger something very natural. He approached Leonora and to his surprise she hold to cages made out of light thin twigs, produced of some plant unknown to Valygar. The cages were full of fireflies… “Wondrous thing…†Valygar took one of the cages from Leonora. When he moved, the soft light fell on Leonora's body. Suddenly he felt as if all air had left his lungs…he hoped for a moment it was just a peculiar shade, but the way Leonora stepped back from him defensively, Valygar knew, that his guess was true. Scars, faint, almost invisible, covered Leonora's abdomen and back, never climbing as high as to be revealed by a décolleté… The cage snapped in Valygar's hand and the fireflies scattered all over the room.



“Who?†Valygar squeezed his head with his palms desperately trying to get rid of painful images…



Leonora opened the window, letting the insects to escape. “He is dead, †she said coldly. “Now, that returns us to the only question I had not answered yet. If I killed the one you had so generously called my husband…whom as you have earlier suggested I preferred over younger men.â€Â



Valygar tried to say something, but Leonora continued in the same removed and cold voice: “ I have never said “yes†to becoming his wife and I have never signed a paper saying I am… my kindly aunt and uncle did it for me. So do you think I would be less stubborn in giving him my body, than in giving him my hand? Beating me into half-consciousness was the only way, which he had done with pleasure. If my parents were alive and raised me in a noble family, I should have killed myself. But I grew among grim and sturdy peasants, whose everyday life was survival and who knew death all too well. So lived and my sole goal was to carry on the life of “no†to anything and my only ambition was to destroy my torturer. He laughed at my first attempts to kill him. And he was teasing me, saying that I was his eight's wife, and when I'd die, he'd marry even younger and more beautiful one, because that's how it has been with all of his previous unions.



I had a friend… a shadow of a friend, another torture toy, my so-called husband, Darrion, had. Only my friend was worst off, since Darrion did not have to showcase him every so often to the society… This friend told that I have no hope to kill Darrion. He told me that Darrion is a mage of a great power, of great connections and that he has some elven blood in his veins, which most likely would give him longer life, than that of a normal human…



At first I was desperate. Then a terrible thing happened. On one of our social outings, I had been sitting as usual in the farther-most corner of the room when one of those boys who read too much books for their own good spoke to me… You cannot believe how hungry I was back then for someone speaking to me… We were engaged into some meaningless but funny conversation when Darrion noticed. He was enraged. The boy told him that his intentions in regards to his daughter were honorable and other such nonsense … Well, Darrion hit me, yelling that the bitch is his wife, not daughter… Before I could lead him away, the boy slapped Darrion demanding satisfaction…



I spent a week begging Darrion to let it go, but my humility was rewarded by the boy's head… I went numb. I stopped resisting, I stopped saying “noâ€Â, I stopped saying anything at all. And then I noticed that he grew bored with passive victim. The hope leaped. I continued the pretence, which gave me a degree of freedom. I spied on Darrion…I became to know every minute detail of his dealings.



Have you ever heard “Noone crosses the Shadow Thieves and lives?â€Â. That's true. Darrion thought he was smart and succeeded to cover up his scam, yet he did not count on his submissive wife to have a heart to heart talk with Aran. Darrion was dead the next morning and I was free.



She knew that Valygar would not ask, but she felt the question hanging in the air… “Aran's gratitude can be scarier than his wrath…†she said quietly referring to her aunt and uncle's sudden death. Then she added, “Aran taught me a lot“ in response to yet another question he would never have asked.



Valygar walked up towards her and kissed her hair: “If I only have met you earlier…†Leonora sighed: “The only difference I am afraid would be that I'd get your head as a present…†Valygar shook his head: “No. I never was the one who reads too many books for his own good. I was the one who fought in every skirmish he could get himself into.†They stood embraced by the window and watched the stars to appear… “Stars are too far away from mortal fools…“ noticed Leonora. Valygar smiled: “One of my friends calls his lover a star, so he has one very close…†The ranger kissed tears away from Leonora's face: “We are too happy together at present to let the dead and undead to disturb our peace… Come with me.†Leonora followed the only path offered by his arms opened for her.



Leonora lit few candles, and threw a large tome on the bed. Valygar rolled over to his stomach and watched her settling onto the pillows, a bunch of bookmarks and a quill in hand… “What are you going to do?†inquired he sternly. “Study, you silly ranger…what else,†snapped Leonora. “Two hours Leonora, you have no chance to memorize…†Valygar remembered: there was a chance, but it would exert incredible toll onto the mage later. “Do not do that, you are going to wreck yourself… †he tried to take the tome over from her. â€ÂYou lay down and sleep. I can survive couple of rough days, but I surely would not survive facing Lavok without extra spells, “ answered Leonora firmly and returned the book to her knees. Valygar curled by her side, placing his cheek on her shoulder and drifted off to sleep listening to the quiet voice reciting words of dangerous spells and gentle whisper of turning pages. He felt safe and secure. Ten generations of Corthala could march through the room unnoticed by their last representative on Toril's face in that hour.



Leonora woke him. She was dressed in embroidered robes, few wands and a beautiful dagger attached to her belt. Marquise also carried a shoulder bag and a staff. Tai Shen stood by her side. Valygar got a feeling that Leonora was no novice to adventuring. “It's time…†said she apologetically. “Then let's not keep Lavok waiting. The tea he is preparing for us would go cold…†grinned Valygar, excitement flowing through his veins. Leonora handed the ranger his shirt and kissed him: "I love you, Valygar Corthala." He was finally ready to enter the Planar Sphere.

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1. Companions



Do not trust, do not be afraid, and do not ask


Or your heart will know no rest


Simply out of curiosity do not give your love


To someone of a different taint.


Kivan Ashenbow



Valygar gave another sidelong glance to Leonora. “Where, “ wondered he, “where did the passionate woman I knew only an hour ago, went?†Tai-Shen, gliding softly by Leonora did not add any friendliness. Valygar understood that the coldness of Marquise was due to her magical trance. The mage, of course was prepared to cast at every second, paranoid from the moment they set their feet outside her palace. At times Valygar felt eyes trained on him as well and gripped tighter on the hilts of his katanas. Still he was unhappy of Leonora removed behavoir. The ranger pondered for a while on agreeing to have the mage along, afraid that the corrupting power of the arts might take Leonora from him, like it took Abyssina and Andreas before.



But ther was no way he could ask her to stay behind. He would have to trust the Marquise. The answers to so many questions and to so many fears were forthcoming in a short nick of time. Valygar and Leonora left few dark streets behind and found themselves in front of the “Copper Coronetâ€Â. Faint light came from the quarter-open doors of the tavern. Two dark figures lingered there. Valygar and Leonora exchanged troubled glances, but then Valygar recognized the couple and stayed his nervous companion from throwing a fireball and identifying corpses later.



The melodious voice broke the silence of the night:



“Do not cry, Melirinda,


our life is a blast


let then care for dignity


we shall care for love…



Leonora chuckled: “So these are Kivan and Melirinda?†Valygar nodded his consent, wondering all the while why Melirinda was crying. Melirinda shook her head, and Kivan took her face into his palms now rather whispering, than singing:



Let them roar like dragons


Let then haul like orcs,


We are only mortals


Even if demigods…



Am I forgiven, Lirin?†Melirinda sighed and said quietly: “Kivan, I still do not think you should have rushed out and proceed with attacking the first bandit you have run into. World is probably the better place without him, but I doubt that such an impulsive if poetic justice was called for…†Kivan pleaded: “Lirin, I was so scared. Please, do not walk away when I am asleep. I lost all control over my actions when I could not find you…†Melirinda's figure merged with Kivan's, mumbling “silly…â€Â



Valygar and Leonora glanced at each other and Leonora suddenly asked in a loud, clear voice: “Say, Valygar, is Kivan an elf?†Valygar winced and came up with a brilliant “Yes, Leonora…â€Â, rewarded with a sharp elbow (reinforced by stone skin) connecting on his ribs. The ranger figured the meaning easily enough: “Must I do all the dirty work, they are your friends after all.†Aloud Leonora graced Valygar with an interesting observation, which (to his displeasure) was most probably derived from her personal experiences: “Make good lovers those elves…â€Â



Reddish glow of infravision lit Kivan's face: “Thank you for the vote of confidence, My Lady…†said he bowing. And then he addressed himself to Melirinda: “Valygar is here and from my best judgement his actions were not stupid ones. Valygar, would you please come closer, so that our leader can see for herself that you are not locked in a mortal combat with a relative of yours…â€Â



Valygar chuckled: “We are not late, are we?â€Â



“No,†even in the darkness it was apparent that the druid was blushing from the tone of her voice. “I was restless, and since I did not want to wake up anyone else," (and she gave Kivan a bent eye) "I went downstairs and chatted with Hendak, who mentioned that you never checked in, Valygar. I went towards the Sphere, half convinced that you, dare-devil, are settling your old scores on your own… But the doors were still locked, and I went back just in time to see Kivan interrogating some thug regarding my whereabouts…â€Â



To everybody surprise Leonora has spoken urgently: “Seeing, that four of us arrayed for a battle, I suggest we go to the Sphere immediately. I can feel that we are watched by unfriendly eyes and it is not a good idea to delay the entry for another minute.â€Â



Melirinda looked at the woman attentively before replying: “I would not go against Lavok without a mage, we should wake up Kelsey, Jan and Aerie.†Valygar embraced Leonora's waist and said with a shadow of embarrassment in his voice: “Leonora is a mage, Mel.†Kivan and Melirinda gave Valygar the same quizzical look, which he dismissed with a shrug: “She is a mage,†repeated he defensively. “That solves the problem,†Melirinda agreed quickly. She kept her face very serious, repressing a sarcastic “Oh, I see…†Instead she mused: “Let's just hope that Lavok Corthala had not set up too many traps around his place…â€Â



Leonora nodded: “Yes, there is a risk…Pier?†Kivan went very stiff and Melirinda felt muscles on his arm to tighten when a man stood forward from a shadowy corner of the alley. The rogue wore dark cloak and that's all any of them could have told, if asked to describe him. “Pier is a friend of mine and he is as skilled in traps and locks removal as one can wish for…†announced Leonora, ignoring Valygar's suspicious look. Pier bowed shortly to everyone: “Seniora DeVallenzzi, Senior Corthala, Senior Ashenbow…†and then separately he gave a respectful bow to Melirinda, recognizing her as a leader of the group: “Senioritta DeGranier…â€Â



Melirinda liked both strangers and she was immediately fond of Tai Shen, so she gave the command to move towards the Sphere. “This Pier… He is…strange. Melirinda, there was nobody by this corner before…†cautioned Kivan. “It was a very dark corner, Kivan…†objected Melirinda. “Yes, it was, but I was searching the street in the infrared spectrum… I saw no sign of him, until he came out…†Melirinda shrugged: “Leonora must have teleported him or something… Kivan, I do not know, what is it with you lately… Soon you will stop trusting yourself.†Kivan startled. If she only knew, that the last person he could trust now was himself. He tried to distract Melirinda from the dangerous line of thoughts: “Talking about Pier, did you notice that he called you Senioritta? Do not you think Seniora would sound better?†Melirinda bit her lip and replied after a pause: “I love you Kivan…†and pressed on.



The most hated voice laughed into Kivans ears… “Did you really hoped that the Bhaal's daughter would marry a pathetic whiner like you, pointy-eared scum?†Kivan's body was shaken by another blast of the evil laughter within. “I must say you have quite a taste, ranger… I wonder if this one is just as cold as Deheriana was, though may be she was just putting up a show for your sake…â€Â



Kivan knew that he could not kill Tazok again. He jailed Tazok, when he opened the half-ogre's chest and ripped away the evil heart after the encounter in Windspear… Yet Melirinda was right, he also jailed himself, by committing to carrying around the heart of his worst enemy. Kivan knew that one day his mind and soul would be eroded away. But until that day the elf was prepared to endure the torture to prevent Tazok's re-appearance in the world in another mortal form. Tazok read his thoughts and mocked him: “You would not last long against me, pointy-ears. And then I shall be free again. Someone would want me alive again sooner or later, because I am strong and I am a loyal servant to the stronger ones. You are nothing… You are nothing…â€Â



The group was climbing the stairs to a small house, half-destroyed by the Sphere, where it landed. Kivan summoned forth all his will and blocked away Tazok's voice. Leonora attuned to any emanations of magical energies, felt the evil aura around Kivan. “Geas?†pondered the mage looking at the blank, pale face of the Sylvan elf. Marquise decided that she would speak to Kivan to find out the nature of his curse. But there was no time at the moment.



Valygar touched the door lightly and it opened on its own. The light coming from the Sphere drowned the group. They stood for a moment in indecision, each feeling the doom of the place. Valygar made an inviting gesture: “Do come in, my friends. Let's meet the ancestors.†He was the first one to step over the threshold.

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2. Meet the Ancestors



“Well, the hall looks like a hall…†Melirinda tried to relieve the tension as the group walked the narrow corridor, “Now it's getting amusing…†Indeed after squeezing through a hobbit-like round door, they saw another three.



Pier glided towards the wall and tapped gently with his long sensitive fingers each lock. “The leftmost one…†announced he the verdict finally. He bent low, pressing his ear against the door and stroked the metal surface again with his palm. “No trap. But something is within.†And he stepped back from the door producing a short bow from the shadow of his cloak and nodding to the fighters to go ahead. Mistrust was in Valygar's heart, yet the ranger rotated the handle and pulled the door open, preparing to withstand any pain a trap might bring.



Nothing happened…Valygar walked in first and found himself in a small room, really cramped because of a rather upset clay golem. “Mel,' called Valygar, lazily parrying few thunderous hits of the creature, “one of your special friends…†Melirinda was there in an instant, her staff cutting the air with a whistling sound. The glowing red end of the staff left beautiful ornaments hanging in the mid-air for mere seconds. Kivan immediately joined Melirinda,wielding a light warhammer. Valygar nodded his approval and avoided dulling his katana on the golem.



Instead he kept an eye on Pier who scavenged through four containers, accompanied by Leonora. “A key!†exclaimed the mage. “looks like Lavok have habits of a commoner, leaving a key under his doorstep.†Valygar squinted: “I hope that does not matter that he is out shopping…†Pier grinned in responce: “That would be a pity indeed… Would not you mind holding this masterpiece for a moment, Count? It's rather heavy,†and Pier passed a huge and ugly tube shaped to resemble a monstrous arm, twice the size of a normal human's. “That's not Lavok's?†smiled Valygar. “No, dear, the competition is not THAT stern,†Leonora shook her own hands in disgust, because they were all covered in black powder, then she carefully rolled few scrolls in a tight tube and stuffed them into a scroll-case.



“Would Senioritta DeGranier want me to pack coal along as well?†Pier was bent on formalities. Melirinda gave a quick look over her shoulder, while making an almost complete somersault and approved: “Sure, just grub it all. My experience had been that when in mages' tower, anything can come handy, no matter how useless it seem.†She completed her phrase with a heavy blow on the clay golem's head, which coincided with Kivan's hammer blasting a hole in the monster's side. Well, former monster's former side. “Terracotta floor…fancy…†smiled Kivan and to his full happiness Melirinda's eyes set on him were warm.



After it became apparent that the room had nothing more of interest, the party stepped through the next door…which promptly shut behind them. Motion… The Sphere came into motion. The five companions exchanged troubled glances, while Tai Shen simply roared.



“Excuse me My Lady, does your tiger have appropriate training to appear in public without a leash?†asked one of the three heavily armored persons occupying the room. Their glistering armor reminded Melirinda of Anomen and she blushed. “You see, the Sphere had traveled again, and since all hope is lost that it will take us to our own world, we'd want pleasant and joyous company…†Leonora restricted Tai Shen from demonstrating joyous times his way to the knights and assured them in her familiar's good nature. Valygar thought her opinion to be slightly optimistic. The knights amicably made some small talk with Melirinda and warned her of many terrifying halfings next door.



Laughing softly at the knights' fears of halfings, Melirinda and her friends proceeded walking over a bridge peculiarly decorated with sculls and bones …when the first three enraged and incredibly fast creatures attacked them, yelling ferocious battle cries. Leonora chanted, while Valygar and Melirinda stayed the charge, and the archers fit their bows. Leonora's spell covered the beserker-halfings, slowing them down, and giving everyone the time to adjust to the cultural shock of the encounter. Not for long. More halfings poured onto the bridge and few spell-casters lingered behind. Leonora, without pausing for breath started another desperate chant, aiming it at an enemy mage, glowing already with magical defenses. Both Kivan and Pier listened carefully, waiting for the moment, when Leonora's spell will make the halfings vulnerable to their arrows.



“I will never…†gasped Valygar taking another hit on his hip, “will never underestimate halfings abilities in battle… Remember Mazzy?†Melirinda gave a quick glance to a stain of blood enlarging and than diminishing with on Valygar's clothes and praised the day they got attacked by an insane kensai-mage, whose katana was now in Valygar's hand. Even vicious halfings were unable to hurt the lightly armored ranger fast enough to bring him down. One of the most mysterious powers of the beautiful weapon was its healing ability.



The arrows rained finally, taking down few casters in a blink of an eye and soon the bodies of the unlikely opponents littered the floor. Wary, the party stepped over them, continuing their search for Lavok in complete silence. They should have figured out earlier that jokes were tasteless when visiting a lich.



The path led the companions towards a weird looking machine, built around a golem. The arm they had picked up earlier definitely belonged to this monster. All that was missing was his (or was it her?) head. Leonora hissed: “I hate golems.†Then she sighed and added:†But if we can re-vive this one, it can be beneficial.†Melirinda looked at the mage: “Why, Leonora?†Marquise knocked on the golems' body, obtaining a hollow sound and finished her thought: “this one looks like a guardian type. He might go patrol and lead us to his boss…†“Lavok…†said Valygar quietly. Melirinda shrugged: “Leonora, you seem to know more about Golem Building than any of us, so if you see anything which might help us to bring this to life, let us know and we'd do it.†Leonora nodded her agreement. “Seniora, I think I have found something which might help you,†with a low bow Pier gave Leonora a huge tome, the top page of which read “Golem Building Manual.†Leonora dusted the thing off, and leafed towards the end, towards the blank pages titled “Notesâ€Â. To her delight they were not blank, but covered by calligraphic handwritten words. “Uh-huh!†exclaimed Leonora. “There are furnaces in the next room, they power up the machine…†“Coal!†yelled the foursome in unison and they rushed through the door, glad that at least some tasks are easy.



Pier threw a chunk of coal into the furnace and tried use a fan to get the fire going, but the sudden strike of roaring flame made him to jump away, covering up his eyes. The flame had stepped out of the furnace. Weapons were trained at the fire elemental in a blink of a second, yet Leonora's chant came faster and an ice cone focused on the creature of fire. It shrieked and shuddered violently, spitting the fumes and boiling water, and diminished in size rapidly, until only a pool of water was left were it was standing. The fire now burned peacefully, just like an oven in a tavern, and the companions looked around, hoping to find the head.



“Stop!†Pier's voice was untypical agitated, as he went down to his knees and cut few thin translucent strings: “If this passage was trapped…†started he, “then it might lead to something of a value…†The logic was undeniable and they followed Pier into the darkness. Kivan shook his head: for a human Pier oriented himself remarkably easy in the dimly lit hall. And Pier's hands, slender agile hands with long nimble fingers reminded the elf of his own kin's, rather then a human's.



The passage led to a great room full of gears and otherworldly things. It also contained a monstrous head… Loaded with this strange trophy, the group has returned to the machine. Leonora put the notes on the floor and talking quietly to herself, re-attached the arm and then the head. Then she pulled some levers and pushed something, made a pendulum to swing… The golem moved and stepped out. It was a tense moment, everyone gripping their weapons, ready to defend themselves. But the monster pronounced in a squeaky voice: “Intruders… Must defend the Master,†and rushed past the astonished companions, bursting through the closed doors… The quintet followed the suit… The golem was bashing on an globular monster with incredible amount of eyes attached to stocks of different length and thickness – a beholder… As far as Melirinda and her friends were concerned, the longer the golem and the beholder were preoccupied by each other, the better. And anyway they had no time to spare on the fight. Like a hunting dog, which picked up a trail of a deer, Valygar raced down the hall and they were hard pressed on keeping the pace with the gigantic ranger.



Another door, flew off its hinges and it became apparent that the instinct and the call of blood did not fail Valygar. In the middle of the room, on the top of an intricate staircase stood the lich.



“Lavok!†cried Valygar and charged.

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3. Leonora's Choice



Insane laughter greeted the young Corthala as he approached a weathered mummy of his old forgotten relative. Lavok's thin fragile body was hold together by paper-thin and half-transparent skin, his face differed little from a scull, and his robes did not hid the deterioration of his body frame. But the leaving dead emanated power and madness, a combination, which could make any man fearful… But the burning spirit of Valygar Corthala carried him through the fears…it carried him through the fireball exploding at his feet to the very top of the staircase and he faced Lavok squarely.



The women's chants filled the space, resonating of the empty walls, raising above the roar of fire and the lich's taunts. Leonora's voice, clear, heavier and lower one made Valygar's heart tremble, and he felt stronger than ever. He needed that ferocious wild mage to do the battle with him. Her support proved that his charge and his fury were not senseless. Now he had no doubt that destroying Lavok was not a deed dictated by his childhood nightmares. He felt that he has the right to demand satisfaction from Lavok for despoiling Corthala's family.



Melirinda's chant came and coated Valygar with the soft soothing blanket of fire protection. Leonora's took some of the mages' protection down. Still Kivan's enchanted arrows were dissipating as they touched the glowing which surrounded the mage. Valygar made few swings, distracting the mage, and did not even cringe as an acidic vapours descended upon him. He gave Lavok a wink and kissed the hilt of his katana: “you can bathe me in acid if you want to, wizard.†Pier, however thought differently, as he suddenly whined and dropped off to the ground from behind the Lavoks' back.



Tai Shen paced the base of the staircase protesting loudly the wizard's spell. Suddenly Valygar's vision clouded for a brief moment and then he was sorely hurt and unable to move. The wizard must have tricked the time. But his advantage did not last for long. A swarm of buzzing insects interrupted his triumphant laughter. And two arrows penetrated whatever flesh was left on his carcass. Tai Shen squeezed past Valygar and pushed the wizard lightly with his enormous paw. Lavok went rolling down, and Valygar whose legs finally headed his command went right behind.



The ranger's katanas flew up in the air poised for the last strike, when suddenly a tired voice left the broken form's lips. “Valygar… The evil spirit had left me…†Valygar swayed astounded. The edge of Celestial Fury stopped a hair width short of the lich's neck. “The Sphere has traveled again. You need me to tell you how to get back to the Material Plane…and that's all I want too… I want to die at home…†Valygar's face showed signs of inner struggle. The rest of them stood in silence. “what sort of trickery…†started Valygar angrily. “No trickery, son. Look at me: do you think I want to keep on leaving like that? Would you want to? No you do not…I can see that you took a different rout than so many of us… You did not let your life to slip away from you for the sake of illusion of power and greatness. I am proud of you, my descendant.â€Â



Valygar thought it to be a dream. Lavok who was welcoming his choices? Lavok who said that chasing the rewards of arcane studies was not worth it?



“Prove your sincerity. Tell me how to get the Sphere back to the Material Plane,†inquired Valygar harshly. Lavok coughed and for a moment it seemed that he would not speak ever again, yet he continued in the same tired used up voice: “Son, the Sphere had used up the power source… You need to find a demon's heart for it to travel back to our world.†Valygar grinned sarcastically: “Demon's heart? Do you suggest I summon one? I am no conjurer, Lavok.†Lavok suddenly smiled and for a second Leonora thought that she saw some faint semblance to Valygar in the inhuman features. But Marquise has reminded herself, that she saw semblance of Valygar in the flames and in the clouds, in musical tunes and in the heroes on the old paintings… “No, Valygar, you are no conjurer. But you are a hunter. We are in Nine Hells, where demons are common, as you can guess…â€Â



Melirinda looked at the lich and told Valygar: “Can be fun. And I do not think we have much choice other than to trust his word. The great demon safari is on.†She turned and led the party outside of the Lavok's quarters. Valygar glanced at the lich before leaving the room: “Beware if you had lied…†Leonora shook her head and answered for the lich: “It was the truth…†Valygar wondered how did she know.



Even those who had heard thousands of descriptions of Nine Hells would not be prepared to walk it for the first time. There is no darkness and light, just red glow. The dirt is hot and fluffy like the mischievous byproducts of the mighty explosions of the mountains flowing with fire. But no multitude of such mountains would comprise Nine Hells. In Nine Hells the visitor is submerged in the lava itself, and he floats through it and he breathes it. But when the first shock wears off, certain troubled souls might find the sight attractive. However not even the worst villain can keep a smile on his face in Nine Hells. Paranoia, suspicion and pain drown every being, and it's simple to loose one's mind. Both Kivan and Valygar became drowsy and intensively unhappy as the phantom of evil embraced them. Tazok's voice started picking up the strength, just illegible muttering at first turning quickly into a stream of insults. Kivan recited an ancient song praising Seldarine, and a momentary relief came to the ranger.



Leonora run few steps up a small hill and called for Valygar. He turned and looked. The female was standing with her face uplifted and her hairs were suddenly free and shone red. Leonora extended her arms towards the ranger and chanted hungry frightening words. The wind suddenly swirled by her feet, making her robes to flow backwards, making her to look as if she was naked and shameless. She seemed to grew in size and the shining coated her.



Valygar thought: “That's how I die…†yet he was unable to move or to take his eyes away, mesmerized by the vision of power and beauty the Marquise had become. What is given from goodly gods is not enough for a woman to become truly irresistible. A pinch of Hell is needed as well.



An angry growl came from not so far away. Leonora smiled: “The demon is coming towards us now.†Melirinda shook her head: “Did you call him?†Leonora nodded and answered shortly: “Yes. No demon would ignore a mating cry of a succubus…†Valygar swallowed. May be his heart could power the Sphere?



Melirinda touched the ranger's shoulder lightly and he knew that the druid had just warded him from the deadly gaze of the approaching denizen of the Hell. He could never remember the details of the following up battle, his whole being desiring the wild mage. When the demon was dead and Pier ably removed a beating heart from its chest. Kivan looked away and did not react to the gentle touch of Melirinda's lips. She cursed the day they went to Windspear yet another time. The druid embraced her lover and gently walked him back to the Lavok's humble home. It never occurred to any of the five companions before that they would be happy to enter the Sphere.






To get to the Sphere's heart, they had to open a warded door. There was a sort of ornament on the floor and nobody doubted that it was the ward. Pier, Leonora and Kivan studied the yellow runes painted on the bright blue floor of the room. They talked it over between themselves and agreed that the runes were ancient elven and that they were numbers. Finally they managed to decipher the puzzle. Each of them took a position near one of the four runes on the floor. Pier went to his knees by the northern rune and pressed the base of it. The rune lit up. The trio had exchanged a satisfied gaze and Kivan repeated Pier's action with the southern rune, which glowed in its turn, then Leonora activated the eastern rune. Melirinda and Valygar got the game, but let the trio to complete it by pressing the last, western rune. The light filled the room and the door had opened to their delight. In improved moods they descended the stairs…mechanical noises were unmistakable and they were about to start their journey home. Just one more room separated them from the Material Plane.






Leonora saw him first.



“Greetings Tolgerias…†said she.



“My dear Marquise…†Tolgerias bowed mockingly. “I thought you smarter than trying to cross Cowled Wizards… It's so unlike you to choose the loosing side…â€Â



Leonora answered quietly: “I sided with my love. One who does that always wins.â€Â



Tolgerias laughter was more like barking: “Leonora DeVallenzzi speaks of love? You are growing old my dear. Stop this farce, Leonora. If you join in with me now, I'd be merciful on you…â€Â



In the same quiet and convinced voice Leonora said: “You were my mentor Tolgerias, and I respected your knowledge. Yet there is nothing you can teach me neither of mercy nor of love. Try to harm him…†and she nodded towards Valygar, “and I will fight you.â€Â



Tolgerias hissed: “Foolish female…†Then he announced loudly: “Marquise DeVallenzzi, seeing that you would not repent I have no choice. For participating in a conspiracy against Cowled Wizards and for use of prohibited uncontrolled magical energy you are to be confined to the Spellhold. So declare I Tolgerias the Grey…†and he began chanting. Valygar, Melirinda, Pier, Tai Shen and Kivan tried to run, to shield the Marquise or to attack the mages, but the tunnel of magical energy created between Leonora and Tolgerias was impenetrable. Leonora's eyes were closed and her lips were moving.


“What! You are resisting? You think that if you force me to come with you, your pathetic companions would stand a chance to survive? You are out of your mind, Leonora. Four fighters are no match to three battle mages…â€Â



Leonora did not answer, her concentration at its highest… “Oh, have it your way, stubborn cow, it will change nothing… I will be back in a second, do leave me a piece of action, lads “ asked furious mage of his amused companions and with that both Leonora and Tolgerias disappeared through the magical portal.

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