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The Shades of Shadows


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A new toy of mine, this one is actually likely to get finished.




A torch whooshed through the air, hot tongues of flame hungrily licking the darkness and sizzling drops of oil taking flight from the burning rags. The sword followed, no less deadly, but so cool and slick and silent compared to the messy fire, decapitating the monster. It lived long enough to scream in that unbearable shrill voice. Norman wished that the padding under his helmet were thicker.


Ten steps, maybe twelve to the shimmering barrier hiding the exit… The exit to safety…


The torch found a maw of a ghostly wolf; it would have burned the lolling tongue crisp, if it was not made of transparent steaming matter. Another shade whirled away, split to its waist by a powerful sword blow. Norman wailed himself, feeling his shoulder twisting out its socket as his sword and his arm were sucked into the vortex inside of the torn monster. Aerie’s fingers, nails turned bluish from cold, touched his back, and the elven girl struggled to keep up with him, singing her spell. If only he could cover those slender fingers with his palms to warm them as he had done once, on that unforgettable night… No…I cannot think of it just now… The pain was gone as abruptly as it came, and Aerie fell behind him, like a leaf blown past by the wind. Haer’Dalis’s voice broke for just a second, before taking up a new verse with a renewed strength. It was a triumphant battle lay, but it sounded to Norman’s ear as a love song. A triumphant love song.


Five steps to the barrier… and three shades.


An arrow fringed with flames fell down from somewhere over his head into the gray outline, and Norman’s cracked lips smiled – Imoen. The arrow gave him a moment’s break and he used it to find Imoen with his eyes. The rogue perched herself on a once plump column, now eaten away by the devastation of the temple. She smiled at him – a mischievous, dare smile, that finally came back to her, after the horrible days in Spellhold. She is truly back and she is my sister… nothing else matters. Even Aerie.


Another arrow fell.


“Fall back, Norman, fall back!â€Â


He obeyed, without questioning or looking. It seemed that Jaheira would never lose that sort of influence over him. More than love, stronger than trust, deeper than friendship. He did not regret it when a ball of flames hit the floor a step ahead from where he was just standing and broke into a rapidly expanding ring of flames.


“Edwin, you idiot, you could have killed him!†Jaheira screamed and Imoen shrieked on top of her lungs in horror. But the scream was replaced by relieved laughter immediately when she saw that Norman outran the wave of shimmering scarlet.


“That wingless monkey was supposed to tell him to retreat; is it my fault that my superior plans are thwarted by weeping willows capable of speech only when they need to complain?â€Â


“I…†Aerie stumbled, “I told… Norman…â€Â


“She did,†Norman said calmly. She did, and I was too busy with jealousy… Would have served me right if Edwin dropped the fireball on my head. The flames fell, clearing the space in front of the shadow wall.


“Sun gem!†Norman commanded. Silence. He turned towards Imoen, as did all the others. The rogue wedged herself between the column and the wall, halfway up to the ceiling. She held her bow in a tight squeeze between her round knees, where her new suede pans already went baggy from being stretched in all directions, as the agile rogue jumped and crawled and kneeled and bent. With an uncharacteristic taught expression on her face Imoen was digging into a small bag at her belt. Finally, in a whisper, she said: “It is gone… the sun gem is gone….†Blush crept up her cheeks, and Norman felt a sharp jolt of pity – nothing is so painful to a thief as a robbery. But he had no time to console Imoen.


He turned and run calling for the rest to follow. In the whole dungeon there was only one place still safe from shades. So Norman led them there, into a large room, its floor covered by square terracotta tiles, the sort you see in every other courtyard of Amn. A letter of a Common tongue was inscribed on each red tile. Once it was gilded, but now the gold was all but wasted with time, and the letters looked black. Norman suspected that the initial purpose of the room was ceremonial, for the puzzle was too simple for a trap. He motioned for his companions to cross the room, himself standing guard at the entrance. Aerie’s slim figure glided across the floor, her tiny feet in flopping oversized sandals stepping gingerly from letter to letter, reading the gigantic inscription.




Norman wandered if Aerie was lithe and quick enough to walk the room at random without sparking a column of flames that would strike anyone stepping on the wrong tile… One by one the company made it to the safety of the two small rooms and settled there. Norman tried to school his face, to avoid showing his exhaustion and disappointment, just like Jaheira, who walked from companion to companion checking their wounds.


Imoen poured out the content of their backpacks and bags on the floor, searching through it, aided by Haer’Dalis and Aerie. Edwin tried to distance himself from the company, sour-faced and every inch of his stiff back saying that he had fallen in with these village idiots by mere chance and would be gone from them as soon as the opportunity presents itself. But it was a lie, Norman knew. Edwin had nowhere to go. Whatever he had done in the past half-a-year had put him on the hit list of the Red Wizards of Thay – or at least on a hit list of one of the numerous secret factions within the organization. He needed Norman.


“It is not here…†Imoen mumbled, almost tearfully, interrupting Norman’s flow of thoughts.


“Then we shall rest and fight our way back to the entrance tomorrow,†Norman said in a tone that brooked no argument.


Aerie looked about her with a sigh. Such was her expression that Normal felt how the dark stone walls crowded her, and drew life from her slim figure.


Edwin produced a small flask from under his robes and took a long seep. Unexpectedly, he then turned to Aerie and extended the spirit to her: “Drink this, monkey; I am in no mood for listening to your sighs and sobs all night.†Aerie backed away from the wizard, but Haer’Dalis propped her forward. “I think our fairest wizard is right, my dove. It will calm your nerves.†Edwin's lips twisted at the hint to his ordeal with the Netheril scrolls, but he said nothing. Jaheira took the flask from Edwin and sniffed at the liquid, then nodded assertively. “If it won’t calm your nerves, it will sure to make you sleep.†Imoen giggled, good mood returning to her. “Can’t be that strong!†and she playfully took the flask from Jaheira, “I'm gonna drink it all up and won’t even wince!†Edwin mumbled something under his nose, with “macaque†being the only audible word. Imoen laughed even harder and proffered the vessel to Aerie, who finally stepped forward and took the flask. She coughed hard after just one swallow and thanked Edwin in a tiny voice.


“She did not even look at me…†Norman thought bitterly, laying down and turning to face the wall. Jaheira came and put an extra cloak over him, but it did not take away the age-long coldness of the stone floor and dusty air. Still he tried to empty his mind of everything groping for some sleep.


An adventurer should eat and sleep whenever he can…


Norman came awake with a start, which was not unusual at all. In fact it was good that the sword he grabbed for was not needed. A sound that woke him was that of someone crying, not of the attacking orcs or shades or vampires or… some other monsters that awoke him in the past. But, in a way, the subdued sobs and hiccups as someone was choking on air, laboring hard to push it through a tightened throat was no less terrifying than the foul battle cries he was accustomed to.


Haer’Dalis sat cross-legged, clutching Aerie to his chest, unmoving but for his lips, that opened and closed with the same desperate articulation that one sees on a fish lifted from the sea to a ship’s deck. Large drops of water pooled in the corners of the elongated blue eyes before sliding down the eyelashes and making their way down the scarred cheeks toward the chin. Tears lingered there for a while before dropping down on Aerie’s upturned forehead. So clumsy Haer’Dalis was at it, that Norman realized that it had been a very long time since the scald cried. Perhaps he had never done it before…


But then Norman understood why the bard was crying and he did not care for Haer'Dalis' tears any longer. Aerie looked serene, her porcelain skin near translucent, her hair hanging from Haer’Dalis’s arm like a curtain, her eyes staring into the ceiling. Aerie looked still and the soft glow, that to Norman’s eye always surrounded her, went out.


“Dead,†Norman knew with sudden certainty, “Aerie is dead…†The fighter screamed then, and the shadow wolves answered from the depths of the dungeon with otherworldly howls of their own, full of human pain.

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Jaheira raised from her blanket roll as fresh and businesslike as if she were not sleeping before Norman’s scream. With the same cool manner she pried Haer’Dalis’ arms lose and freed Aerie’s body from his embrace. But as her hands dove beneath the corpse and emerged back with no trace of blood; as she touched and investigated, a concerned frown creased her forehead. Finally she said just one word: “Poisonâ€Â.


That was enough for Haer’Dalis to shake off his stupor. The tiefling jumped to his feet, his eyes flashing dangerously. Before Norman knew, the Entropy was out of its sheath and trained at Edwin’s throat. The Red Wizard moved his chin carefully away from the blade’s point. “I drunk of it too…†he said cautiously.


“Not after her,†Haer’Dalis echoed Norman’s thoughts, “and you forbade anyone else to drink, while encouraging her to take a sip. I was wondering about your sudden generosity yestereve.â€Â


“I might drink of it now, if that should convince you, “ Edwin suggested.


“And I am to believe that you have not taken an antidote?†Haer’Dalice parried.


“There is only one way to find out,†Jaheira said dryly and pushed Haer’Dalis back away from Edwin. “Give me the flask, wizard. Any antidote will wear out as the day turn, but the poison will not. And if you did that…†she nodded in Aerie’s prostrate form direction, “It’s only suitable that you should suffer similar fate.â€Â


“That will not return Aerie back…†Norman said and licked his lips. Jaheira had not done it even for Khalid. “I… We need her back, Jaheira, if we are to get out of this accursed dungeon. Punishing Edwin could wait.â€Â


“I did not do it, you fool!†Edwin screamed. “If you ask me,†he continued in a calmer voice, with soothing, dangerous undertones, “There were two in our most pathetically inadequate party who applied themselves to the purpose common to breeding-obsessed monkeys and ill-born men: competing over the attentions of the wretched girl. So one of them might just have decided that if he should not have her nobody else would. Or another might have discovered that someone else lifted her skirts while he was not looking… “ Norman and Haer’Dalis both turned to the wizard growling.


“Am I hitting too close to home?†Edwin sang innocently.


"Or maybe our cold blooded druid could not stand the sight of our handsome paladin-boy sighing after the girl, not her?"


“Give me the flask,†Jaheira said evenly.


Edwin shrugged and if Norman did not watch him cautiously he would not have noticed the shade of fear on his face. “I can do so, O she-bear, but being forced by our leader’s exceptional stupidity to spend night in this excruciatingly uncomfortable place, I have consoled myself as I might… And I am afraid that there is not much left...â€Â


Edwin quickly produced his flask and upended it. There was but one drop of crimson that tore itself from the rim with a visible effort and splotched the floor. Like blood…


Edwin giggled unsteadily: “Now, what are you going to do now, my righteous paladin? Or have your precious Torm already abandoned you for your… hiccup ...your foolery?â€Â


“I have not come even close to the flask yesterday, and if the poison was indeed in wine, it got there before Aerie drunk of it. And who says that you did not poured out the content after you poisoned Aerie? Haer’Dalis and I… we both loved Aerie. You hated her.â€Â


“And that’s exactly why I would not have poisoned her. Is not that obvious?â€Â


“ What about you, my precious bard? Did you indeed loooove Aerie or was she growing too demanding? Was she perhaps pregnant and wanting you to take care of her bastard? To marry her? Have not you perhaps fed her a choice morsel dipped in that very special sauce?â€Â


Haer’Dalis growled and threw himself at Edwin, the blade making a high arc in the air.


“Noooo!†Imoen screamed and dove head-first clutching to Haer’Dalis’ feet. Entangled, the bard fell, but not before a lightening bolt burned his throat out.


Edwin leaned against the wall, his hands shaking and still steaming from the hastily made spell. He said tearfully: “A man must defend himself from planar assassins, no? Would not you agree that the murderer convicted himself? Such viciousness could only be produced by guilty consensus….†And to Norman’s horror Edwin sobbed.


“He, indeed, is drunk,†the warrior realized, “he did drink the wine.â€Â


“Jaheira…†Norman pleaded, but there was no need. With a heavy sigh the druid went to her knees and closed her eyes, deep in meditation. He could only hope that she was praying for enough bliss to restore the two misfortunate lovers to life. It somehow felt wrong and unfair to give life back only to Aerie. Besides, she would need Haer’Dalis to raise the child, and Norman felt bloody sure that he would ascertain that the Tiefling would not ran away from it.


IF it is Haer’Dalis who is the father of the child… Hades! I do not even know if there is a child!


Troubled, Norman went to take a look at Edwin – and found him curled up in a corner, no more alert than a bundle of red rags.


Imoen put her hands around Norman: “Ya need some sleep big bro. Dontcha worry, Jaheira is going to take care of everything.†He kissed her sister lightly on the brow and then, on some ancient instinctual love that a man has for his kin, he hugged her tightly and found that he was unable to let go. So they lay to sleep that night shamelessly entwined as two lovers would, but he thought, listening to Imoen’s misty breath touching his cheek, that it was the highest form of innocence.


Imoen woke first and gave Norman a playful slap on his ramp. Norman sat up groggily and peered around. Aerie’s and Haer’Dalis’ bodies laid in the farthest corner of the room, neatly covered with blankets. Despite these precautions, sweet smell of decay touched his nostrils. He wrinkled his nose and called for Jaheira. Soon it will be too late…


To his surprise the druid did not respond. Norman and Imoen walked over to were the woman lay and after a short hesitation Norman shook her on the shoulder. Limply, the body rolled toward him, opening an ugly red wound – ear to ear – to their view. Imoen made a choking sound behind him and vomited noisily on the floor.


Then she touched him on the shoulder. Edwin occupied the fourth corner of the room. Before him lay another flask, some of it content still damp on the floor. The leather pouch shone with the angry red glow on his belt. Three giant steps took Norman over to Edwin and he took the man in a bear hug, prohibiting him from moving, while Imoen opened the pouch with trembling fingers. She threw it on the floor as if it could bite at her or burn her fingers. Sungem. It was red now, not orange, but it was the sungem.


Before thinking, Norman snapped Edwin’s skinny neck. The wizard twitched once in his mighty hands and then died, not ever coming out of his drunken stupor.


Without talking the brother and sister rushed out of the room.




From tile to tile. Away. Away from this accursed place…


The shimmering wall dissipated as soon as the sungem was close to it. Norman and Imoen stepped into a large round chamber. Right in the middle there towered a huge shape of a sleeping dragon. Norman edged close to the wall, away from it. And then he caught a gleam of an opening eye to one side of the dragon’s head, from under the leather wing. The monster started uncoiling its neck…


“Imoen!†Norman whispered, “the warding stone…â€Â


A clicking sound and echoes came in response. A stone jumping up and down on the stone floor tiles and ricocheting off the walls. A stone thrown as far away as possible by a strong hand. In disbelieve Norman turned away from the dragon raising on his hind legs, to look at Imoen.


“You killed them all…†he whispered in disbelief…


His sister nodded and giggled, her eyes as mad as they were when he saw her in Spellhold.


“Gotcha, bro!†she exclaimed with delight, “GOTCHA!â€Â


And then she began transforming into a huge shape, covered with plated steel and spikes, ugly and huge and terrible; She cut off one entrance to the room. The roaring dragon was between him and the other one. Norman did the only thing he could to save his honor. He draw his sword and pressed the cold hilt against his forehead, showing the two monsters that he was ready to do the battle.


That he was ready to die.




The dragon’s claw dug under the fallen human’s chin and pulled on the straps of the open-faced helm. It fell off then and rolled to the wall, hitting it with a hollow sound. Blond curls, almost white from the sun where they were not marred with blood, spilled on the floor in semicircle. The humans would have called this boy’s face noble, with its tall forehead, pronounced nose, crooked to one side and square chin. The rosy blush of youth still struggled with the stubble pushing through it. Two and twenty of short human years, at a glance. He had seen the boys just like him, and girls besides. And those younger than him, or older. Elves, dwarves, halflings, even gnomes. Redheads, brunettes, greenheads. The dragon winced. This one put up a good fight - he would have won, if not for that strange shape that took his side and then fled laughing. The dragon did not chase the shape. One of the sword blows cut through his armour almost to his shoulder blade, hurting him deeply. And there were food at last after fifty or so years of hunger. “Good fighter... †the dragon reflected crushing the skull between his massive jaws. “But not good enough.â€Â



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