An Aah! Megami-sama / Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon / Ranma ½ crossover story
by Jeffrey Vasquez
Disclaimer: All characters and settings are used here without permission. "Ah! Megami-sama" (or "Oh My Goddess!") was created by Fujishima Kosuke, and is licensed to Kodansha and AnimEigo. "Ranma ½" was created by Takahashi Rumiko, and is licensed to Shogakukan Inc., Kitty, Fuji TV, and Viz Communications Inc. "Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon" (or "Sailor Moon") was created by Takeuchi Naoko, and is licensed to Koudansha, TV Asahi, Toei Douga, and DIC Entertainment, L.P. "Forgotten Realms" was created by TSR. Inc. and is owned by Wizards of the Coast.
All original characters, places, and other creative wonders belong to me. Please drop me a line if you want to use them. (email@example.com)
Foreword: Your patience is greatly appreciated. I don't know if any of you are actually interested in what's going on in the background, but for what it's worth here's a brief rundown of why this chapter has taken so long.
As is the case with many Fic authors, life has a rude tendency of invading the creation of fantasy. The status of my writing has been a bit on the erratic side, but not forsaken by any means. There have been so many things happening lately, that it's been hard to keep up. One of the greatest events has been the formation of Brier Row Studios — an online publishing house for new talent. I've decided to go pro and hopefully inspire some of my friends in the Fanfic community to do the same. My first project, "Psalm of the Sentinel" can be found here: (http://www.baegtobar.com) I'll be posting more information on the other projects that I'll be working on for Brier Row as things unfold. For those of you that are interested in joining the Baeg Tobar Project, feel free to email me.
As for Progeny, Realms, and Splitting Heirs each of the current chapters have suffered through a number of rewrites and numerous not-so-cosmetic changes. The end result will hopefully be something pivotal and entertaining for you the readers. I am attempting to organize things so that I can get you all something on a more regular basis. The current delay is just too much, even for me. At any rate, I thank you again for sticking with me!
As always, C&C is appreciated. Flames are generally mocked with great relish. Here's hoping that you enjoy!
He didn't know where he was in the confines of the black cube, but the void he found himself drifting in felt very familiar. It wasn't a comforting familiarity, but rather something more… Well, it was like an annoying sense of déjà vu; a memorable sensation that he couldn't actively place. The impression was preferable to the off-kilter sense he'd been feeling before. This whole situation had buried the needle on his Weird-o-Meter's rather jaded scale.
In all the years since the damned nekoken training, he'd never held it together when the cat was set free — not that he could remember, anyway. There was always the detached sensation of being elsewhere, but he'd never been able to remember exactly where. Now, though, he was here and he was fully aware. He wasn't totally certain as to why things were different this time around, but he had at least an inkling of the reason. It had taken him what seemed forever to come to the realization, but now that he'd uncovered the tidbit of truth, things were starting to fall into place and he wondered how he could have ever missed it.
He knew this place to be a prison. This was where he held the nekoken, or at the very least the memories of the nekoken. As it stood, he could still feel the ghostly wisps of the fear and pain lingering at the edge of his awareness, and he understood the power of the technique a little better. In a way, it was very Zen — escaping to that perfect moment while embracing the freedom associated with an indomitable part of his soul, to become the action rather than acting. It was, after a fashion, a step along the road to enlightenment — not to mention controlling the damn technique.
The fear was just the catalyst to reach this normally inaccessible well of power.
So many supposedly wasted hours, in innumerable shrines and temples across the orient, had finally come into sharp focus. He understood the theories that so many of his teachers had been trying to get him to understand, small jigsaw pieces that were finally making a picture, all due to that one missing piece finally finding its place among the rest. Havara-Sensei would be dancing around the shrine if he could have been with Ranma at the moment of epiphany.
The young martial artist laughed at the image of the severe and stoic man hiking his robes around his knees and doing a jig in the middle of the shrine proper.
The effect this had on the utter darkness of the surroundings was drastic. The dreariness lightened from pitch black to a dark gray, and Ranma could see a number of other objects floating in the void with him. They were indistinct blobs, bobbing along in the murky haze, seemingly unaware of his presence. He counted three, but the gloomy fog couldn't hide the impression that more were drifting in the darkness with him.
He needed more light, and after a moment of considering the effect his laughter had had on the gloom, he was certain that he could eventually disperse the void altogether. He tried laughing again, but it was forced and there was no true humor in it. He tried yelling at it, but his voice only echoed back at him. He tried commanding the darkness away, but in the end it remained inert.
There was no telling how long he experimented. It could have been minutes, hours, or days for all he knew. There was no way to measure time in this place. His failures began to slowly take their toll, and his mood began to become more frustrated. With this depression and despair the darkness began to creep in again, obscuring all but one of the floating blobs in the distance. His irritation had reached the point of exasperation, and the void around him seemed to roil with an agitation that mirrored his mood. This should have been a clue for the young man, but his curiosity had shifted entirely to the floating blob not too far off.
Ranma's attention span had never been all that great outside of the martial arts, so he missed more than a few subtle clues that might have helped him escape his supernatural prison, as he tried to discern the nature of the floating shadow. Without realizing his actions, the fog around the object began to thin, revealing a small, female form curled into a tight ball.
Concern and uncertainty immediately overshadowed any other emotion in Ranma's heart. He didn't know who this girl was or how she had come to be here in this place. He vaguely remembered the presence of two women when he had been outside the dark cube. They had been fighting over something, but this girl's slim form and delicate features looked nothing like the images in his mind's eye. She didn't feel anything like the impressions he had of the other two either. He squinted, trying to discern more about the figure from afar, and then something very odd happened.
One moment he was a solid thirty meters away from the young woman, and the next he was right beside her. It didn't really shock him as much as he thought it should have, though. This whole place seemed more like some whacked out dream than a real place, and so weird things were bound to make more sense than they normally would — yet another significant clue that the young man allowed to slip past him.
As he drifted near the form of the young woman, Ranma was amazed at the fragile beauty before him. In all his short life, he had seen a number of beautiful women, many of them during his travels, but this exotic young woman was something else entirely. Her creamy white skin and bluish-white hair wasn't so extraordinary. What really struck him were the woman's pointy ears, chiseled features, and slanted eyes, which made her seem otherworldly. With all the obvious clues, he wondered if this woman was an elf, or at the very least, of elven descent. He'd seen enough manga and anime to recognize the archetype. The question of her race wasn't what bothered him, though. The fact that she was here, in this place; that was cause for worry as far as Ranma was concerned. Why was she here and how in the world did she get here?
Upon first examination, there seemed to be no visible contusions or broken bones, so Ranma was certain that the woman hadn't undergone any physical damage. In fact, now that he was close to her, he could tell that she wasn't in any real distress at all. She looked to be sleeping peacefully, undisturbed by his presence or proximity.
Ranma was uncertain if he should wake her or not. Drifting alone in this weird place, however, was not something that he found enjoyable. So, with great care and trepidation, he reached out to gently nudge her. As his fingers touched her arm, his vision was filled with a sudden blinding light that left him seeing spots. He felt an unfamiliar tingling coursing up and down his body, and a flood of memories not his own began flashing through his mind's eye.
Seven hundred and sixty-three years worth of experience and knowledge violently lodged itself into Ranma's mind. So too did the image and personality of Eilendindril Fuenin, one of the select few that had the honor and privilege to give her life in order to lay the magical foundation of the Mythal that would protect the city of Myth Drannor.
Ranma, awash as he was in the life of this elf woman, could only drift through the ever-lightening grey void that had once housed his greatest fears. Time blurred further as he relived the life of the she-elf. He didn't even realize that he had come upon a second floating body, this one a male half-elf named Rhistel Amlathudra. Two hundred and thirty years of love and peaceful exploration beneath the trees of Cormanthor, blended with Eilendindril's life, merging to become something else entirely. Memories meshed, personalities fused, and were then absorbed into Ranma's spirit.
And thus it went, from floating soul to floating soul. The knowledge, ambitions, and fears of hundreds were all unwittingly consumed, male and female, child and elder. All walks of life were represented. The spirits of the ancient elven homeland settled upon him, bound to his soul by the magic of the great Mythal of Myth Drannor. He didn't truly understand what the Mythal was beyond the fact that it protected the people housed within it. He couldn't comprehend how he had come to become tied to it either. In the end, all he knew was that it was a part of him now and with it came a number of souls that had made its protective magic possible. And as he touched each of these floating bodies, drifting in the ether with him, a new set of experiences was experienced and the young man that was Ranma Saotome became something more than he had been. It would take eons for his mind to openly access and accept all the things he was taking into himself, let alone make use of the knowledge and wisdom he had suddenly gained.
Until then, the spirits and souls of the elves would rest here, in this peaceful sea of darkness. He would remain Ranma Saotome, dream of past lives, and occasionally do something rather odd and unnatural… even for him.
As the young martial artist drifted through the void of his subconscious, he came upon a magnificent monument that dwarfed the skyscrapers of Tokyo and Hong Kong by an incredible amount. The mountainous plinth was divided into two colors: a luminescent white marble that seemed to glow with a silvery blue light, and a matte-black onyx that seemed to suck the growing light from the void around him. Eight bright stars circled the light side, dancing in a smooth pattern, while gouts of purple fire erupted in violent arcs from the dark side. Large chunks of broken marble and onyx ringed the mammoth obelisk, orbiting the object like a small asteroid belt. A pair of different colored stones would collide every once in a while, resulting in a massive explosion that fragmented the surrounding debris even further.
Ranma, lost as he was in the memories of others, was only vaguely aware of his approach to the baseless spire. It wasn't until he impacted with and absorbed a small chunk of marble, that the young martial artist became fully aware of his situation. Power and a deluge of knowledge unlike anything he had yet experienced coursed through his mind, shaking him free of the stupor he had been in. It was too much for his mortal mind to handle and Ranma felt like he was going to explode. More of the small debris hit him, adding to the strain. He fought desperately to maintain a hold on his identity as thousands of concepts bludgeoned his ego.
Throughout the battle of will, he continued to drift closer and closer to the massive stele. The nearer he came to the massive edifice, the larger it became, growing from the size of a large skyscraper to the size of a small mountain, and on to the size of a large mountain range.
It continued to grow, causing his eyes to bug in alarm despite the battle he was waging within himself. As he coasted near a planet-sized chunk of black onyx, he struggled hysterically, narrowly avoiding a collision. And still the obelisk grew, dwarfing him and everything around him. He knew there was no escaping the imminent impact with the edifice. There was no way that he could avoid the damn thing!
Worse, he felt something actively starting to pull on him… No, it was two somethings. He could feel their individual pulls, one from each end of the plinth. Their draw, for the most part, was equal in power, but he felt himself listing more towards the white marble, if only barely.
His speed increased drastically as he continued to streak towards the monument, gaining more and more momentum the closer he came to the object. He struck more of the small asteroids and was forced to exert all his will on just remaining Ranma amidst the deluge of memories, ideals, and information. He repeated his name like a mantra and worked through the Shuyo no Ippo — the first steps — clinging desperately to the foundation that the Art had become for his life and his identity. The Shuyo no Ippo was the first kata his father had ever taught him, and at the moment it was his only anchor to his personality. When he finally passed through the field of floating stones, Ranma had moved on to the second and third kata; repeating everything he had learned from them and reminding himself of everything that made him who he was. He relived every memory he could dredge up, good and bad, drowning out the excess as best he could.
The structure grew in size, filling his vision to the point of excluding all else. In the back of his conscious mind, Ranma knew that if he were to come into contact with the obelisk he would absorb whatever knowledge, power, or memories the thing held. There was little hope that he would retain his identity should that happen. Yet he could find no way to escape the magnetic pull that drew him towards the object.
He growled and struggled against the inevitable, but with each passing moment he became more and more filled with panic at the thought of touching the thing. All around him, the void reflected his fear and frustration in the form of a mighty tempest. Winds blew, lightning flashed, and thunder boomed. Many of the small asteroids were driven together, setting off a blistering chain reaction of explosions behind Ranma. Stones pelted him, sending more distracting tidbits of archaic knowledge through his mind.
"I'm Ranma Saotome," he growled. "Heir to the Saotome Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu. I like food. I like dogs and the colors white, blue, green and red. I'm seventeen years old. I like helmthorn berry wine and Kasumi's sukiyaki. I like… I like to dance the sebra beneath the stars during Shieldmeet and… and…." The list continued, in spite of the growing speed at which he was now traveling, with only a few unusual additions sporadically added here and there. He knew that he'd never experienced some of the things he had mentioned, but he continued trying to anchor his identity anyway. The alternative, in light of his current predicament, was unacceptable. The wind swept passed his ears, making his skin feel like it was going to be torn off. He screamed into the maelstrom, raging against the pain
"I'm Ranma Saotome! Goddess of Magic and Loss!"
Something wasn't right about that, but he didn't stop to think about it.
"I live in the Gylonaglym, born of House Llundlar, and am the heir of Dweomorheart." He knew that wasn't right. He closed his eyes and madly searched his mind for something, anything that he knew to be familiar. The problem was, he couldn't discern anything specific. The thought of Nerima brought to mind a number of apartment buildings built in the boughs of a great tree. The thought of the Tendo home brought to mind a giant castle, floating on a sea of clouds, bound together by eldritch spells and populated with all manner of shadowy creatures.
Desperation seized him and he tried frantically to remember the faces of people he knew, although when he did visualize these people, he knew that the images were wrong. His mother and father had never looked that happy standing side by side. Besides, there was no way in hell that his Pops had ever been that skinny! And since when had his Mom ever been an elf? Kasumi, likewise, didn't seem to match the picture in his mind. The idea that she would have wings and was surrounded by a nimbus of pure white light, while it fit, didn't make an ounce of sense. How in the world could she cook and clean without those massive wings getting in the way?
Likewise, since when did Nabiki have shadowy skin and that evil little smirk? Sure she was opportunistic, but he'd never tagged her as evil before. More images and faces drifted in and out of his mind's eye, chaotically jumbled with half-remembered identities and personalities. While thus distracted, he didn't realize that directly in front of him, sandwiched between the two opposing colors, was an area of overlapping grey that was growing dangerously close.
By the time he finally came out of his funk, the smooth, hoary ground was rushing closer and closer. There was no time to divert his course even if he had the power to do so. Terror, unlike anything he had ever felt filled him.
"I'M RANMA SAOTOME, DAMMIT!" he roared, just as he came in contact with the obelisk.
There was no explosion, no sense of pain or discomfort. In fact, Ranma was surprised that he was standing in one piece, and his mind was beginning to clear. Memories of family and friends began to sort themselves out and realign with what felt right. Shampoo was no longer a sultry elfmaid from House Tymdraskylur. Ryouga was no longer an upstart priest of Cyric intent on killing him. Akane's face brought images of foul cooking and sweet smiles, rather than a sense of loss and a need for vengeance.
The young martial artist found himself weakly sitting down smack-dab in the middle of the overlapping gray area between the two types of stone. Relief washed over him as he began to remember who he was and what had happened. For the first time in his life, he knew a moment of true clarity and peace as he looked out over the immense strip of gray granite. It seemed to go on for as far as the eye could see, stretching infinitely into the distance on all sides of his vision. He sat, relishing the feeling of finally finding his center and of knowing, without a doubt, what made him… him.
After a time he finally stood, secure in himself once again, and examined the area around him. The rough granite surface was speckled with black and silver minerals that sparkled in the light of the now quiet sky above him. The storm that had once raged unchecked was gone and a comforting half-light lit the sky. An infinite number of stars dotted the void now, and Ranma found contentment in just staring up at them. More time passed before he rolled his head side to side, more out of habit than any real need for relief.
"What now, Saotome?" he mumbled, looking out over the endless expanse. He could already feel the boredom tickling the edges of his mind.
Sighing to himself, he scratched the back of his head.
He knew that the white marble area had been on his right when he'd been falling. Maybe, since he'd landed without absorbing anything, he could safely go exploring. He had little hope of finding anything constructive, but it was something to do. He had taken only one step forward, moving in what he thought was the direction of the marble half of the plinth, when an explosion of purple fire erupted from beneath his feet.
"GYAH!" Ranma jumped in reflex, launching himself high into the air. His pant legs were aflame with dark fire. Surprisingly, there was no heat or pain associated with the eldritch blaze. The sensation that he did get from the flames left him puzzled.
Who in their right mind would feel such a desperate, grasping jealousy from a bonfire? Then again, no one had ever mistaken Ranma for being in his right mind. It was just crazy that a fire would feel scared that he would walk away from it…. He was reminded of Kodachi immediately and shivered at the all-consuming need that the girl represented. He landed and slowly stepped back to his starting point, watching as the flames began to die down. They didn't leave him completely, but the overwhelming anxiety that had gripped him from the flames was subdued.
Shrugging his shoulders, he looked behind him, in the direction of the onyx half and made as if he were going to take a step along that path. Even quicker than the purple flames had sprung up, a silvery blaze circled him and barred his course. Rather than the jealousy he had been expecting, all he felt from the flames was an intense concern for his wellbeing and an overwhelming sense of love. Dark images began drifting to the surface of his mind, each showing a life more horrible than the last. The silver flames began to move towards him, forcing him back a step.
He felt more than recognized the idea that he was at a crossroads; two opposing sides pulling his strings in different directions. It was all very common territory for the martial artist and it sparked a memory of something that had happened before entering the great black cube. There had been two crazy chicks fighting over him, trying to claim him for their own. The whole image made him growl. Why couldn't people just leave well enough alone? Why wouldn't they let him be for once? Ranma closed his eyes and tried to reclaim the peace he had been enjoying but the flames, and all the associated emotions that went with them, persisted.
"Fine," he declared stubbornly. "You want me ta choose? Well, I choose this." Ranma spun in place until he had dislodged the purple flames. He positioned himself directly between the two small fires, the silver on his right and the purple on his left, and then he began to walk.
"Confucius always said ta follow the Middle Path, so I'm gonna follow the Middle Path. You want me, then ya gotta come ta me." He began walking dead center between the two opposing pulls, ignoring the way that both flames seemed to flare angrily. The moment that he began walking a thunderous noise shook the area and the plinth shattered beneath his feet. Colors mixed, shifted spectrum, and literally battled each other. Ranma however walked on, uncaring. The conflict lasted for a long while, with neither side gaining the upper hand; and still Ranma walked onward. He wasn't exactly certain when it drew to a close, but at the end of it all, there was no black, white, or gray. The plinth was gone, save for the path that he walked, and the gray slowly darkened to a deep indigo.
Ranma ignored the changes, intent on walking forward until he finally came to a giant wall of dark blue crystal, glittering and glowing with billions of tiny lights. It rose upward, dwarfing him the closer he came, but unlike the plinth, the wall did not fill him with a sense of terror or loss. This was a haven for the pig-tailed boy, a place of safety where he was in control. Ranma took two steps forward and cautiously reached out to touch the barrier. After all that he'd experienced here, discretion was a sign of wisdom, and Ranma learned from most of his mistakes. The instant his fingertips brushed the surface an infinite ocean of power rushed into him.
He panicked, fully expecting to have his identity washed away, like he had been experiencing before. To his surprise, the exact opposite took place. He felt centered again, and for the first time in his life, truly in control. Large towers began forming all along the wall, and behind it a massive castle, quite a bit larger than the Imperial Palace, rose from the mists of the void. A grand gate opened in the wall, allowing him entry into the main courtyard of the fortress. He stepped through the gate and a feeling of security washed over him giving him the sensation that, for the first time in his life, he was truly coming home.
Mystra looked up sharply from her receipts as she sat before Kihon'i. Shar turned her head frantically with a growing look of dread, to look at something very, very far away. Something intangible had just gone out of them, leaving both goddesses feeling emptier than they had been a moment before. It was but a miniscule amount of their power as such things were measured, but even this lessoning of their influence was disconcerting.
Neither goddess looked at each other, or their hostess for that matter. They simply gated from the beach where Elminster's tower now stood, without so much as a goodbye or by-your-leave to Kihon'i. Had either of them taken a moment to politely excuse themselves, they would have fared so much the better in the long run. The resulting vacuum left by their swift passing upset the oversized umbrella and the table where the audit had been taking place. This in turn upset the large glass of iced tea Kihon'i had been drinking, dumping it into her lap. In their defense, both their spirits had been tainted by a very chaotic mortal, which was why Kihon'i wasn't slapping both with all manner of nasty injunctions and severe penalties. Instead, the copper-skinned goddess simply took out a cellular phone and pushed a button that began dialing a very, very long telephone number. She waited patiently for the other end of the line to pick up, wiping the excess ice and tea from her lap, while tapping her golden pencil on the edge of what was left of the glass table she had been sitting behind.
"IT IS I."
The trouble with contacting a truly "Elder" deity lay in communication. The idea that there is a god of gods isn't a new one, but the whole Eternal Round thing can be confusing, even for an entity such as Kihon'i. So whenever she had to deal with the big bosses, she always found that they tended to use small, yet very explicit sentences. At first it seemed patronizing, but the more she thought about it… Well, it made sense. She was still a toddler in the eternal scheme of things, while beings like Lord Ao were something akin to the great-great-great-grandparents of the multiverse.
"I thank you for your attention, Lord Ao. Protocol demands that I call and report." The procedure wasn't so much for Ao's benefit, as it was for hers. He obviously already knew what had happened and in turn laid out the plan to deal with the situation long before he had enlisted her services. The call was more a matter of common courtesy and an opportunity to learn, than anything else.
"Do I have your official endorsement, or will this be a Departmental reprimand?" In response to her query, a tablet of black stone, streaked with ivory and jade, materialized before her. With a wave of her hand the tablet shrunk to the size of a young child's hand and affixed itself over the goddess' heart.
"YOU ARE SANCTIONED. LET THEIR CHASTISEMENT BE MEMORABLE."
"How much are they going to forfeit?"
"THE BOY SHALL CLAIM MY DUE."
"And the offense to me?"
"There are others looking at the boy, from what I hear. How should I proceed?"
"THEY ALREADY HAVE MY BLESSING. LET THEM WEAVE HIM INTO THEIR DESIGNS AS THEY MAY. HOWEVER, THE LAWS GOVERNING THE THREE WILL REMAIN. DEATH SHALL NOT COME TO THEM THROUGH ANY INFLUENCE — DIRECTLY DIVINE OR OTHERWISE. THEIR STAY WILL BE SHORT, THEREFORE ANY PERMANENT BINDINGS MUST TRAVEL WITH THEM WHEN THEY LEAVE. THE THREE ARE AGENTS UNTO THEMSELVES AND SHOULD BE AFFORDED THE APPROPRIATE RESPECT."
"I take it that these third parties have been made aware of these provisions?"
"Wonderful! Less paperwork for me to fill out in the end." Kihon'i paused in her thoughts and nodded. "Looks like everything is in order, so we're done here then. If there's nothing else, then I'll submit my initial report and be on my way."
"SO BE IT."
The Isle of Lantan
"HAH! WHAT DID I TELL YE?" Duncan roared ecstatically as he pointed to a shaking and bouncing series of metal tubes and doodads suspended by chains from the shop's rafters.
Bertrold smiled at the triumphant grin plastered over his friend's soot- and sweat-streaked face. The noise of the monstrous contraption was terrible, even with earplugs, a set of earmuffs and three thick woolen scarves tied securely around his head. The dwarf clapped Bertrold soundly on the shoulder just as the machine belched a thunderous cloud of greasy black smoke. Sam, Duncan's kindly wife, jumped at the sound and wrinkled her nose at the smell.
The young displaced human that made the project's survival possible stood to Sam's left rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Bertrold was amazed that he seemed unbothered by the incredible sounds that his "eenjeen" was producing.
"WILL IT ALWAYS BE THIS LOUD?" Bertrold 's voice was already going hoarse from use. Another explosion of soot and sound made him jump right along with Sam. Young master Keiichi shook his head, and rubbed an oily finger under his nose leaving an impromptu mustache along his upper lip.
"NEED TO WORK MORE ON FUEL MIX — MAYBE ADD MUFFLER TO CUT DOWN NOISE!" The young man moved over to the engine and turned an odd lever, effectively silencing the machine. Bertrold 's ears rang in spite of the sudden absence of noise.
"BAH!" Sam and Keiichi winced at Duncan's booming baritone. "THE MIX IS PERFECT!"
"Is no good! Too much water!" Keiichi's voice barely cut through the ringing in Bertrold 's ears, and it didn't seem to even faze Duncan.
"WHAT? SPEAK UP, BOY!"
Keiichi sighed and tiredly shook his head. He was smiling though, which meant a great deal to Bertrold . In a little under ten days, the pair had made incredible progress. They had worked tirelessly, scrabbling together scraps from the previous failures. It was amazing how driven Duncan had become. It was driving poor Sam to worry for her husband's health, and poor Master Keiichi's as well. Still, if it had gotten them this far in such a short amount of time, more power to them! From the way that Duncan talked, this single invention was going to have Bertrold swimming in gold.
Speaking of gold….
"Master Keiichi." Bertrold began divesting himself of his protective gear even as he approached the human. It amazed the gnomish merchant when the young man turned politely at the sound of Bertrold 's approach. He had fully expected to have to shout. "Master Keiichi."
"Yes, Mister Bertrold?" he asked earnestly.
"Begging your pardon, lad, but have you had the opportunity to look into that matter we spoke of last week?"
It was a hard effort to hide his anticipation when the young man nodded his head and beckoned him towards the eastern wall of the shop. He paused a step behind Keiichi as they approached a large, oddly shaped, blanket-covered lump set against the wall. It was short by human standards, no taller than Keiichi's waist, with a strange contour.
"Is only a… how you say…?" The lad wracked his brain for a word. "Mudel…."
"Model," Bertrold corrected, attempting to keep from wringing his hands impatiently.
"Model…" Keiichi seemed to roll the word around in his head, trying to memorize it. Bertrold nudged him lightly to remind him what they had come here for. The young human blinked and then nodded in embarrassment.
"Sorry." He bobbed his head and then carefully removed the blanket, revealing a compact machine of unknown purpose.
A circular flat stool that Bertrold had once seen in Duncan's study sat in front of the small rectangular wooden table. Immediately beneath the table was a flat, foot-sized piece of metal that had a long bar welded to the side facing the wall. A pair of unremarkable, round fence posts ran from the floor to the bottom of the tabletop. Attached to the post on the right was a large iron wheel from one of Duncan's earlier experiments, which in turn was secured to another bar that ran parallel with the bottom of the table. Atop the table was an oddly shaped piece of metal, with a long arm that seemed able to move up and down. And attached to this arm was a small head with a stout sewing needle fixed firmly in place.
It was the simplest and crudest design that he had ever seen, but he immediately sat on the stool and began working the pedal. The head with the needle, moved up and down like a metallic woodpecker; rising and dipping into a small circular hole that had been cut into the table top.
"Is not finished," Keiichi protested. "I no have time to make it look nice."
Bertrold held up his hand, silencing the young man. The gnome had a fairly good idea of its purpose, but he wanted to hear it from Keiichi's mouth before going any further. "What's it used for, lad?"
"Is… how you say?" Keiichi looked at Sam with a hopeless sense of frustration and beckoned her over. She happily excused herself from her bellowing husband and nudged Bertrold off the stool where she began working the pedal.
"Isn't it wonderful?" she said excitedly. "I helped Master Keiichi with the idea!"
"Truly marvelous, Sam," Bertrold deadpanned. The metal woodpecker's head bobbed even more furiously. "Just what is it?"
"It's an automated seamstress," she said proudly. Bertrold 's eyes slowly took in the contraption anew. "The thread spool is mounted here and threads down the head into the eye of the needle. The needle can be changed out for working on different types of materials. Once I got the hang of it, the speed in the tests alone was triple what I could sew in a week's time! And just imagine it, Bertrold ! No more sore, pricked fingers!"
"And it works by foot power," the gnome murmured. "Simple and elegant. No mess. No loud noises, or whistles. No filthy coal pots or risk of fire! HAH! This beats Fushingold's 'Automatic Tailor' hand over fist!"
Piles of gold began to mount behind Bertrold 's eyes. This little machine was going to make him a rich gnome… Well, richer than he already was. All that was needed was a little refinement here and there; small things to make the machine more friendly and attractive for a wider audience, something that Bertrold knew would be necessary. The current design was too primitive to hold any weight with the gnomish market. He needed to get Duncan on board to fancy things up a bit and it would be ready for a debut at market in no time. Then he could start to recoup some of his losses and still have enough left over for this "iron horse" of Duncan's. A little gold went a long way with dwarves, so a generous incentive wouldn't be too much of a stretch to pad both the Steelwater and Morisato purses.
"Well done, lad. Well done." He patted Keiichi's arm absently and lost himself in the plans for his new "Handless Seamstress". The tailors and dressmakers of Waterdeep wouldn't know what hit them.
The Yartar Road
Usagi stood before the behemoth, the smell of decay heavy in the air between them. The darkness within the room was battled valiantly by the small glowing stones that she had enchanted, but the weak light still cast hideous shadows on the cavern walls around her. She felt the oppressive weight of the earth above her and longed for the freedom that only the open sky could provide.
The monster shifted impatiently before her, looking for an opening in her defenses to exploit. Usagi's heart began to pound erratically in anticipation of the attack. All around her the shadows moved of their own volition, and the voices of the dead whispered their lamentations to her. She tried desperately to close out their cries of regret and demands for justice, to no avail. It was all she could do to keep from dropping the Moon Scepter from her trembling fist.
The monstrous creature before her recognized her fear and chuckled — a sound that seemed more an animalistic growl than anything remotely human. She knew that it was going to make its move at any moment, and somehow, deep inside her heart, she knew that there would be nothing she could do to stop it this time around. She could feel the dread power wafting off of it and knew that she was too weak to fight it off.
[YOU HAVE STOLEN WHAT IS MINE, DAUGHTER OF MYSTERIES.]
The cries of the dead rose in volume at the sound of the voice, and the shadows on the wall flickered, allowing the lights from Usagi's magical stones to catch the gruesome carnage behind the beast. She tried to find her voice, to cry out that she hadn't stolen anything, but she couldn't find the air to even mumble. Her throat clenched, as if someone were choking the words off just before they could find utterance. She fought against the pressure, valiantly pushing against the terror that constrained her.
"…no…" she whispered hoarsely. She pushed against her dread, thrashing against the sudden realization that this was another dream. It had to be another dream, for she knew that she had beaten this foe once already. More words formed and died on her lips, stillborn thoughts and protestations.
[YOU CANNOT DENY WHAT HAS BEEN WITNESSED BY SO MANY. YOU STOLE THEM FROM MY KEEPING. YOU PILFERED THEM FROM THEIR RESTS AND TORMENTS. HEREIN YOU ARE HELD TO ACCOUNT FOR YOUR THEIVERY, AND A RECKONING WILL BE MADE. BY LORD AO'S DECREE, THE BALANCE MUST BE MAINTAINED.]
"…No…" Usagi felt her anger rising against the nightmare, and used it against the power that was keeping her silent. "…I… di… I didn't steal anything from you!" The last was forced out with every ounce of her considerable will backing it.
Accompanying the words was a flood of power unlike anything Usagi had safely channeled in her short life. The event was reminiscent of the Galaxy Cauldron, but the moment was fleeting, unlike the sensation she had experienced at the Well of Stars. When she had faced off against Galaxia, there was a sensation of being on the cusp of eternity, teetering on the edge of complete oblivion. But this… this was best described as a brush against something much, much larger than even the Galaxy Cauldron, a well of power so deep and frightening that Usagi was certain that she would be unmade by it. Still, she grasped that power and channeled it outward, towards the shadowy figure. She was tired of being attacked. She was tired of being hounded for doing what her heart told her was right. Ultimately, she was just plain tired of being a target for people who thought they could intimidate and control her. She knew what she stood for and it was past time that she attacked first for a change.
Light flared and she screamed, feeling for all the world as if her insides were being flash frozen and burned up at the same instant. She felt the universe lurch and skid sideways and then she came abruptly awake to Ulin's frantic shaking.
Faces stared down at her; brightly lit faces. That was odd… there was light everywhere, even though Usagi knew that it was still night, or at least early morning. She felt oddly detached from the world around her too, as if she were outside herself looking in.
She cast her eyes about frantically, hoping to find something to focus on and regain some of her tenuous control. The faces hovering next to Ulin wore the same fearful expression that Usagi saw on her friend's pale jade countenance. It made the displaced princess uncomfortable to find herself under their weighted scrutiny, so she directed her attention elsewhere, in the hopes that her benefactor and the curious onlookers would take the hint and leave her be.
Off to her right, amidst the trees, she noted a tall and imposing figure standing in the shadows, on the very edge of the light. His face was handsome, albeit a bit aloof, and he wore brightly polished plate-mail armor that covered evenly tanned skin. His hair was black and his gauntleted hands rested on the pommel of an incredibly deadly looking sword. Were it not for the weapon and the dark, abyssal eyes staring through her, Usagi would have been comforted by his rugged beauty. Unfortunately, the man's presence served to only set her nerves further on edge. She turned away from him, looking for Ulin's familiar face and perhaps a comforting smile… anything to escape the warrior's frigid, damning gaze. Yet wherever she looked, he was there floating on the edge of her vision and awareness.
As she turned away again, a somber, sonorous, voice echoed quietly on the wind.
[ALL RETURN TO MY EMBRACE AT ONE POINT OR ANOTHER. EVEN ONE SUCH AS YOU, DAUGHTER OF MAGIC. YOU CANNOT FIGHT MY INEVITABILITY. RETURN THEM TO ME. RETURN THEM, OR MAKE RECOMPENSE, SOUL FOR SOUL… I CARE NOT WHICH.]
The light slowly evaporated, leaving Usagi and those around her wrapped in a shroud of shadows. She collapsed against Ulin's shoulder tiredly and attempted to regain control over her quaking body. There was no doubt in her mind that she wouldn't sleep any more; just like every other night she'd faced these nightmares over the last month and a half.
Fifty-five days had passed since the Silver Princess had risen from the tomb of Goruch's Mines. Fifty-five days of nigh aimless wandering looking for food and shelter in the wilderness. Fifty-five bloody days of the same stupid, creepy dream, each and every night without fail. The weight of leading the refugees was starting to take its toll on Usagi's spirit.
After almost eight weeks of slowly walking towards Ulin's "Silverymoon", she was emotionally fatigued, and it was quite evident that these people she'd somehow become responsible for weren't going to quietly disappear like she had hoped. No, they continued to look to her for guidance and protection, regardless of whether she had the answers and or power that they needed. With the rising of the sun each morning, Usagi felt more and more like a fraud stumbling helplessly in her attempts to give everyone the confidence they needed to survive until she could find a place that would take them in. Day in and day out, she tried to remember how she had come to this particular juncture in her life. Sadly, the answer remained the same… day in and day out.
It all boiled down to Love and Justice. Never had those two words ever seemed so damning or repulsive. Never had they inspired anything remotely close to true regret in her heart. Still, while she might whine and moan, after it was all said and done, she knew that she wouldn't go back and do things any differently. She'd always followed her heart, no matter how hard the path became or how much it hurt.
Sighing to herself, she silently waved those gathered around her back to their beds. Ulin, Shandri Dunhill, and a few others remained annoyingly close, but Usagi rolled onto her side and tried diligently to ignore them, pretending to go back to sleep. For over two hours she remained awake, listening to the sounds of the night. People slept fitfully throughout the camp, and the Watch called out to each other every ten minutes to ensure the safety of those that rested, and somewhere above and behind her an owl hooted.
Usagi still hadn't gotten used to roughing it, but she could readily acknowledge the beauty of the wilds. There was something incredibly free about sleeping beneath the stars. If she ever got home, she knew that she would miss the simple pleasure of the wind gently brushing through the trees, or the lonely cry of a wolf in the distance. Perhaps she could convince some of the girls to take a weekend to go camping when she got back… Well, if she ever got back.
Thoughts of home inevitably brought Usagi's mind back to other, more pressing concerns.
The dream began to creep back into the displaced Senshi's mind, leaving her feeling uneasy and agitated. She couldn't escape the notion that this was more than a nightmare. The frequency of the visions could not be discounted, nor could the dark message they contained. Up until recently, the dreams had been fleeting. She'd rarely been able to recall them with any clarity. Now, however, the message was all too vivid and memorable.
Usagi rolled onto her back and closed her eyes, seeking whatever fleeting comfort she could find in the quiet of the cool night breezes that swept through the camp. The voice had always said that she would have to pay a price for what she had taken. And while Usagi didn't have Rei's training in interpreting dreams, it didn't take a genius to guess what the mysterious voice was getting at.
She sat up slowly and looked out across the glade where the company had set up camp. Seventy-two men, women, and children had followed her away from Goruch's mines, some of whom were sick, lame, or elderly. The group's numbers had swelled over the weeks to reach one hundred and twenty-eight.
There were in total thirty-two able-bodied men that had taken up the call to protect the camp. Forty-seven healthy women had proven without a doubt that they could hold their own in a fight, and had bolstered the camp's morale. Out of the remaining forty-nine members of the camp, twenty were children under the age of twelve, nineteen were between the ages of twelve and fourteen, and the other ten were adults that were sick, crippled, or too old to do more than swing a cooking spoon. Add to this number Ulin and Usagi, and the total number of refugees maxed out at one hundred and thirty souls — all of whom looked to Usagi for guidance and leadership with an unnerving sense of… piety. Like she was a goddess or something. The whole affair creeped her out.
Had it not been for Ulin and Shandri, Usagi would have been swamped by the constant petitions of the people that had attached themselves to her skirts. More than that, they had become the lifeline that secured her against the loneliness that constantly threatened to overwhelm her.
Ulin was a great buffer, fending off the more mundane issues and Shandri had been her constant shadow, quietly deflecting the demands when Ulin was otherwise busy. Ulin weathered the angry complaints and demands with surprising patience, while Shandri diligently worked behind the scenes to gently smooth troubles over before they ever got out of hand. The only times that the pair allowed people to bother Usagi was when a dispute grew too heated and needed to be settled by someone with more authority than they had. Although Usagi did try hard to make herself available to the rest of the members of the camp — often times surprising an individual or a group with her presence.
The role of judge and jury had been, and still was, a very uncomfortable affair for her. Truth be told, she hated it worse than doing homework. The fact was, that Usagi looked forward to Ulin's demanding magic lessons over playing Judge Judy any day of the week. However, the Genasi had pointed out early on that the people respected Usagi's authority more than they respected the sorceress, and therefore it was Usagi's job to mete out justice, regardless of how uncomfortable it made the young woman feel.
So far, it hadn't been anything truly serious. She'd had to rule on a dispute between a man and a woman over a blanket; in the end, Usagi had gotten so frustrated over the bickering of the adults that she had scolded them for being children and then gave the blanket to another family altogether. Happily, four nights later Usagi learned that the man and woman had ended up sharing a blanket and were now very much in love.
Many of the children came before her as well to be scolded for picking fights, taking things from the other children, or for wandering too far from the protection of the camp. It was weird finding herself in a more motherly role — moreso because she found herself repeating the same things her mother had said to her time and time again.
The thought of becoming her mother caused her to giggle, which inevitably turned into tears as thoughts of home overwhelmed her. She pushed the depression down, barely silencing her sobs as one of the night watch passed near. She noted with some irony that it was Viet Lackman, the young man that she had first encountered in the mines. He looked out over the shadowy line of bushes tiredly, with one hand on the pommel of his very polished short sword, watching for any hint of danger. The sight of him looking so haunted and determined helped Usagi push away thoughts of home.
It had been sheer luck that the group hadn't run into anything truly dangerous out in the wilds. The loveable Conner Hennley, a man of fifty-some years, had pointed out a number of potentially dangerous signs throughout their trek southeast. From what she could gather, Conner had been a woodsman before his enslavement by Goruch. He'd been teaching Viet throughout their journey, showing him all manner of tracks and woodcraft. Usagi had been secretly fascinated the few times that she had been close enough to listen in, but hadn't gotten up the courage to join the lessons. After all, how would it look if the almighty "Silver Princess" were to ask an old man to teach her too?
Usagi sighed and slipped out from beneath her blankets. It was obvious that she wasn't going to get back to sleep tonight. She stretched stiffly and began walking through the small groups of slumbering bodies, cataloging the dangers that she had heard Conner and some of the other men discussing with Ulin. They had crossed behind a patrol of Uthgart barbarians, whatever they were, two weeks into their travels. The tracks and the fresh signs of passage were met with no little concern amongst the refugees; most of them had apparently heard stories or had some knowledge of the Uthgart, which only added to the anxiety of the situation. They had spent three days walking in silence, stopping only when the sun touched the horizon. By some miracle of circumstance, they had encountered no hostilities from the barbarian tribes… even if they did come upon their handywork.
The hamlet of Moerstead had been at one time a healthy community of over five hundred. That apparently changed when the town elders offended an Uthgart shaman. The hermit, according to the stories told, cursed the town with a vicious magical plague because of some careless hunters who killed a deer sacred to the Uthgart. The illness attacked the healthy adults first, boiling their minds with high fevers and hallucinations. The next to fall victim were the elderly and the infirm. The plague was vicious in that its victims didn't die right away – they lingered for days until a suicidal madness took them. The only ones physically untouched by the plague were Moerstead's children, but Usagi could see the emotional toll that the suffering had caused. She didn't waste time trying to find the shaman, but instead called upon the power of her crystal again. The healing that took place was no less miraculous than her last feat, and in the end the group's numbers swelled again. Ulin and Mister Blackhammer had disappeared for a day, and upon returning to the town, assured everyone that the shaman wouldn't be troubling the community any more. Usagi knew in her heart what had probably happened, but refrained from asking outright. She had enough nightmares already. She didn't need to add to them. Knowing the truth of Ulin's confrontation was only asking for another mountain of guilt.
Some of the original group chose to stay in Moerstead to build new lives for themselves, but a large number of the town's citizens forsook their homes in order to follow the "Silver Princess" to whatever fortune she could help them find. Even after all this time, the whole event left a nasty taste in Usagi's mouth.
A week out from Moerstead, while following a game trail, they came into a clearing and were confronted by a rather large black bear. A number of men had mentioned something about bear stew, but before they could so much as raise their homemade spears, the bear had disappeared into the brush. The hungry men started after it immediately, but Usagi had called them back. It was one thing to have to eat Thumper or Bambi, but the thought of eating Winnie the Pooh just made Usagi's stomach lurch.
From that day forward, the group had been blessed with odd happenings — small stacks of deadwood along the trails that they had been walking, a pile of freshly caught fish and rabbits on a rock that were encountered by the scouts, and on one very peculiar occasion they came upon a rather large number of hemp bags filled with clothing and much needed supplies. Conner had said that these gifts had come from some nature-friendly benefactor, an elf or a ranger perhaps, something that Ulin guardedly concurred with. In any event, Usagi made it a point to leave little thank you notes and small gifts of her own when ever they encountered the blessings of their mysterious benefactor.
Outside of those incidents, though, things had been very quiet for the group. Too quiet, according to Ulin. The sorceress had spent every night furthering Usagi's lessons in magic, pushing Usagi to learn small spells and how to use Weavesight, to see how magic flowed and recognize how it was being used. In the last week, Ulin had insisted that Usagi learn how to set wards in order to alert them of danger, and the added security allowed almost everyone to rest a little easier. Unfortunately, the magical wards didn't protect against nightmares or hallucinations.
Usagi passed one of the other guards, Nam Holling, and waved. He nodded and smiled silently then returned his attention to the perimeter of the grove. She moved closer to the slightly balding man, but he held up his hand and shook his head. Usagi understood the man's rejection; he didn't want to be distracted. Apparently Ulin wasn't the only one that feared the idea of their luck running out. The majority of the camp seemed on edge about the uneventful progress they'd made. Happily, they were nearing another township. If things went well, then they wouldn't need to worry about the other shoe dropping. All she had to do was convince the town elders to take in the refugees, and then convince the refugees to stay in the town instead of following her all the way to Silverymoon. The young woman sighed and drifted onward through the grove, looking more like a ghostly apparition than a living person.
She looked over the faces of the children as she passed, bending down every once in a while to pull up a blanket or comfort a whimpering voice. She kissed each of their heads as she finished, before moving onto the next child. Each of their names were on her lips as she passed, and she was comforted to notice that more than one motherly woman cracked an eye when Usagi drew near.
In her mind's eye she saw the warrior again, dressed for battle in his polished armor, with sword drawn. She could feel his oppressive hand hovering over the camp, waiting for the inevitable confrontation.
If he wanted her to pay a price for these innocents, then she would. Whatever the cost, she wouldn't let him have them back. And if he pressed her, as so many enemies had in the past, then she would take the fight to him.
She would fight him and win.
There are places, throughout the vastness of Faerun, that hold sway over the fates of men, elves, and beasts alike. These places do not respect the whims of morality, nor do they pay heed to the subtle conventionalities of life and death. They exist as they always have: above the judgments of gods and mortals. They are what they are, and for good or ill they serve all equally.
One such place, in the heart of the fabled ruins of Myth Drannor, has served many over the centuries. Some of these masters were benevolent and others diabolical. The Pool of Radiance cared not who used its power. Its magical waters continued to flow, regardless of who attempted to harness them.
To describe a Pool of Radiance, one only has to imagine a raw nerve of magic, exposed and unrefined, for all to access and influence. The power that the pool offers is great, yet those bold — or stupid — enough to make the attempt to yoke such potential, more often than not, found their desires and dreams consumed by the pool. Their minds, bodies, and spirits were quick to follow. Some have said that tapping the pool is like trying to drink an ocean in one large swallow.
Over the years, agents of varying moralities have knowingly and unknowingly corrupted the purity of these places of power, some for the betterment of all and others for the purposes of destruction.
Khindristryx stirred as a soft, multicolored light danced in the Pool beneath her. She had spent over four decades patiently undermining the former occupant of this large chamber; laying her plans long before her prey had even thought of obtaining the powers of the Pool. She had manipulated allegiances, scuttled trust, and sown seeds of discord amongst the ranks of Pelendralaar, the Red Death's faithful. The doubly-deceased dracolich had never imagined that the sanctity of his lair played host to an unwitting traitor. Khindristryx thought it poetic irony that the same buffoon that had overseen Pelendralaar's "ascendance" was the very instrument of the undead dragon's undoing.
That had been a little over three months ago, and the effort had paid off quite well in terms of profit and power as far as the former green dragon was concerned. She had since undergone her own "ascendance" into lichdom, and destabilized or absorbed the entirety of Pelendralaar's forces. Nothing was more satisfying to the new dracolich than a well-executed plan, especially when it involved such a pompous enemy as Pelendralaar. Ilthylandrinimus had been avenged, and his horde reclaimed. All that remained for Khindristryx to concern herself with was consolidating her forces and executing the secondary phase of her plan — subjugating the fabled lands of Myth Drannor and returning them to their natural splendor. Such an undertaking wouldn't come easily or cheaply, and in the end it would more than likely take a century or two to clean the rabble from her new domain.
Yet even before Pelendralaar fell, Khindristryx had been busy laying the groundwork for the next phase of her plan. When it became apparent what the former red dragon had been planning, it took little effort to cultivate the necessary allegiances amongst the inhabitants of the cursed elven city to overthrow the ambitious tyrant.
The Baatsu were easily swayed to her promises and could effortlessly be played against the Tanar'ri with little in the way of repercussions for her own holdings. Their bloodwar would eventually see the end of their foul presence within a year's time, if properly managed. The demons and devils cared little for the machinations of dragons and men, which made them straightforward to manipulate. A promise here, a word of warning there, and their attentions were focused well away from her interests.
Something in the borders of Myth Drannor was already stirring them against each other, and if rumor was to be believed, it was hunting the Infernals with great prejudice. The identity of the hunter or hunters yet remained a mystery, but the power necessary to kill so many of the Infernals had to be respected. Regardless of who or what was destroying the Baatsu and Tanar'ri, Khindristryx knew that she would have to tread carefully lest she draw too much attention to herself. Few that hunted demons and devils loved the undead, therefore the dracolich had adopted a deportment of patient observation, rather than actively pursuing more information. She knew that she would eventually have to investigate this unknown element, lest it disrupt her carefully laid web of intrigue. Until then, she would consolidate her assets and build her contingency plans.
The Cult of the Dragon, at least those members that remained in Myth Drannor, were hers, heart and soul. In their eyes, the testimony of her divinity was Pelendralaar's downfall. They had easily shifted their prayers and favor to Khindristryx, worshipping her with a fervor that was altogether insane. They made for good agents and fodder, but beyond that she had yet to fully explore their usefulness. Up until now, she had simply used them as intermediaries between the different power groups in and around Myth Drannor. They had gathered sketchy information about the demon hunter, but it seemed all but impossible for a lone she-elf to cause that much damage. Still, the undead dragon had heard any number of strange and unbelievable tales in her millennial life span. What was one more?
Khindristryx shook her head and smiled at the reckless imaginations of her minions. The very act caused the rotting flesh on her snout to flap and sag disgustingly. Truly humans were a bleating folk, able to inspire such greatness in one breath and in the next send the whole race into a mad and frothing frenzy of fear and paranoia. It was a wonder to her that they had survived the ages as well as they had.
Unlike the imprudent Pelendralaar, Khindristryx held no pretentious belief that she was a goddess — not yet, at least. That status, while within her reach, was years away from fruition. Realizing this and accepting it rendered any effort to usurp or undermine the dracolich through the Cult of the Dragon doomed from the outset.
There were other enemies to be leery of besides the Infernals and the mystery that hunted them. The rogue elements of the drow and the treasure-hungry mercenaries from outside the borders of Cormanthor held little concern for her at the moment; her pact with the Deepspawn saw to it that Myth Drannor was fairly swarmed with monsters to bog down and challenge any foolish enough to enter the cursed city. However, the unpredictability of such guests was not something to dismiss out of hand. Too many of her kin had fallen prey to the unnatural luck of a treasure hunter or gloryhound. All it took was one lucky soul to undo the carefully laid machinations of centuries. After all, no plan was truly foolproof.
That thought alone set her sharp mind to turning back to the mysterious devil hunter again. Perhaps it was time to look into the matter with more than a passing interest. Then again, the Infernals could just as easily fallen prey to something else within Myth Drannor's borders. The Phaerimm were the most likely culprits. They were a force to be reckoned with, and they were no one's fools. If there were any contingent to truly be feared, it was these creatures. They were the solitary reason for the longevity of her plans; without them in the picture, Myth Drannor could be hers in under a decade.
Alien by even a dragon's standards, Khindristryx had learned to use extreme caution when dealing with these ancient threats. After watching a squad of Tanar'ri systematically wiped out before her eyes, she thought it prudent to adopt a "wait and watch" policy with them as well. She hoped that eventually the Phaerimm would lose their interest in Myth Drannor and move on. The conical monstrosities were magical geniuses and masterful strategists, intent on destruction when roused. Khindristryx could openly concede that these beasts were superior to her mentally, if only because of their numbers. One, she felt confident she could handle. Two would be difficult, but not outside her reach… however there were a total of eight Phaerimm floating about the city, searching for their lost treasures.
Khindristryx desired to rule Myth Drannor and all of Cormanthor, and she held little doubt that out of all her neighbors, the Phaerimm were the greatest threat. She would need a great deal more power and a number of solid plans and contingencies primed, if she were to face them all and survive, which meant that the other distractions in her new realm needed to be dealt with first. Perhaps she could covertly pit some of these nuisances against the Phaerimm to dwindle their numbers a bit more to her favor.
She wasn't foolish enough to hold a great deal of faith in the idea that these dread foes would be undermined so easily. It would take a great deal more than demons and drow to remove these menaces from the picture. No, the key to truly defeating the Phaerimm, and in turn gaining all her desires, was held in the pool beneath her. That much was obvious. All that she needed was time to put it to proper use. Time, however, was not a commodity that she had in great reserve. Especially considering the way that the Pool of Radiance was resonating.
Something powerful had come to Myth Drannor, something that could upset the fragile balance of things and irreparably destroy Khindristryx's newborn power. Whether this entity or power was her mysterious demon slayer or something else entirely, she could not know. The dracolich shifted her rapidly rotting bulk across the stones of the chamber's scarred floor, and watched as the Pool of Radiance became even more agitated.
What was coming? Or rather, what had already arrived in her new kingdom? Khindristryx sent her will into the Pool and immediately found herself fighting it for dominance, an occurrence that had happened all too often of late. An ocean of power immediately threatened to scour her from the face of the earth, but she fought against it. She clawed her way to dominance, biting and slashing the raging torrent into submission. As she gained her tentative control over the powers of the pool, she cast her awareness along the Weave, looking for the source of the resonance.
Darkness surrounded her for a time, and she felt the immensity of the void dwarf her utterly. Few things can come close to humbling a dragon, but even these mighty titans have their limitations. Khindristryx relished the feeling, not out of any sense of masochism, but for the realization that there was more for her to achieve. Being small gave one purpose.
She allowed herself a moment to bask in the limitless expanse, before again focusing her will on the Pool. She needed to know how to defeat the Phaerimm and uncover what new authority had come to Myth Drannor, threatening her rule. Even as the question was posed, the black void around her was sundered.
A great rumbling shook the emptiness and the black expanse before her split in twain. White light spilled forth, bathing her… blinding her. Her fragile control over the Pool was shattered, and she felt her awareness being yanked back. She roared in pain as the light burned the rotting flesh from her bones. Her spirit fled back to the Pool's chamber with all possible haste. As she was retreating, Khindristryx chanced one last look into the light and trembled.
Looking back at her was a single great eye, the size of the entire world. Its massive black iris, surrounded by a stormy gray ocean, contracted to focus on her. The dracolich could bear no more and fled with all speed back to the relative safety of her palace.
With the connection to the Pool severed, Khindristryx lay spent before the magical well. The flesh that had hung rotting from her bones was little more than ash now, piled beneath her in a gritty blanket across the smooth stone of her perch. The primal rock that served as her bed bubbled in places. Her bones were no longer bleached ivory, but now were blackened and burnt, a testimony to her insatiable curiosity. She had no strength to lift even her skeletal foreclaw from the superheated flagstones, let alone berate the fool Bodvyn that knelt fearfully at the far western entrance to her sanctuary.
"Speak, priest." Those two words alone weakened the dracolich further.
"The Dread Lord Bhezmit of the Black Gut Legion and High Commander Ulron of Garganon's Fifth Column have arrived for an audience with you, oh Divine One."
Khindristryx's echoing hiss made the priest cower. "Slack their thirsts and their lusts, Bodvyn. Be free and generous with the slaves and prisoners," the dracolich whispered tiredly, "with apologies for the delay that I must impose upon them. Tell them each that I have grave news for their ears only."
The undead dragon shifted irritably, drawing as much strength as she could from deep within herself. It was going to take all of her cunning and skill to divert these two from noticing her weakness. The priest remained prostrate, waiting to be dismissed.
"Keep them ignorant of each other… but not too ignorant. I may have to enact a few of my plans more rapidly than originally intended." The man nodded, but otherwise did not move. "Go quickly, priest."
Khindristryx ignored the man's rapid retreat in favor of improvising plans within plans. She was never one to miss an opportunity to gain power… especially one that would accelerate her plans a hundred-fold. But how does one defeat a god when surrounded by so many powerful enemies?
The dracolich growled in frustration as she looked to the maelstrom that the Pool of Radiance had become. An idea sparked on the fringes of her mind and began to grow rapidly.
Of course! It was so simple. Like all of her plans of late, the Pool was the key. It would be a tasking endeavor to accomplish; one that could just as easily be her undoing should she misstep. Her only consolation was the fact that she was certainly not the only one to notice the approach of this powerful being. She would have grinned had she still had the flesh to do so. Things were coming together even more rapidly now.
If a god truly walked the forests of Cormanthor again, then the undead dragon needed fodder to weaken it, while she subsumed control over the Pool of Radiance. Pelendralaar had already laid the foundation, and it was Khindristryx's hope that she could finish what her predecessor had started before gaining the full attention of her powerful adversaries. There was no margin for error here. One blunder would mean the dracolich's second death. Still the alternative was too delectable to pass up.
If the beast still retained her lungs, she would have sighed. It looked as if she would be becoming a goddess after all.
Ranma-neko roused from her nap and stretched languidly before bathing herself. The Blight Tongue had visited her dream, which meant that the Flame Tongue was dead. There was no way that the Flame Tongue would let the Blight Tongue enter its territory otherwise. Ranma-neko sharpened her claws on the stone of the cavern walls, ponderously. Great slabs of stone were sheared away beneath her languid attentions. She yawned and then licked her paw, weighing her goals for the day.
She would play with the Burning Ones and the Black Hearts. They needed to be dealt with once and for all. The black almost-men she would leave alone for now, but the Blight Tongue also needed to be dealt with. The question was who to play with first?
Purring, she left the cavern she had laired in and caught a scent on the air. The Burning Ones were close by, as was a pack of Black Hearts. Ranma-neko grinned. She would play with them a bit and then take them to the grumpy see-through-she. If anyone needed to play more, Ranma-neko knew that it was the grumpy see-through-she.
Keiichi sighed and wiped his brow as Sister Maerdith Toulin scribbled something down in her everpresent journal. Her fingers were stained brown and black from ink and there was a small smudge on her forehead, just above her right eyebrow. Keiichi smiled fondly, remembering the numerous times he had seen Megumi in a similar state. Sister Maerdith was fast becoming a fixture in Keiichi's life as she quietly sat in the background studying her notes and scribblings. Keiichi returned the large iron hammer to its hook on the wall and scooped up a black, stiff-bristled broom from near the door of the shop. The woman was homely, but by no means unattractive. Had she taken the time to address her appearance, she would have given Sayoko a run for her money. In a way, she reminded him of a lot more confident Sora. Thoughts of home washed over him and he felt a sudden pang of homesickness.
He looked up to see Sister Maerdith looking at him over the rim of her spectacles.
"What for?" He bent his head and began sweeping, as much to occupy his hands as to hide his sadness.
"For taking the time to answer my questions." The woman allowed her chin to drop into her hand as she leaned over the book in her lap. "Your world is so fascinating. The technology, public schools…" She glanced at her notes. "… refrigerators, airplanes…. It seems idyllic."
Keiichi shrugged. "Is all good."
"'It is all good,'" she corrected.
"'It's…'" Keiichi amended with a sad smile.
"You miss it, don't you?" The rhetorical question was directed more to herself than to Keiichi, it seemed. She had somewhat of a guilty expression on her face that only enhanced her likeness to Sora in that moment.
"I miss someone," he said after a moment,"very much. But this place is… How you say? Nice? Good? It make I want to see everything."
"'It makes me want to see everything,'" she corrected again. "You're mixing up your pronouns again."
Keiichi nodded and closed his eyes, trying to make sure that he corrected the mistake. He was never any good with languages. They always seemed to become jumbled in his head. Sister Maerdith seemed to sense this and smiled.
"Think of it as a mathematical formula. Certain parts are plugged in to achieve a desired end. It's a linear process and you just have to learn the different rules. Don't worry, it will come in time."
Keiichi nodded and smiled again before returning to his sweeping. Sister Maerdith went back to scribbling for a moment, leaving Keiichi to wonder over what she was currently writing about. Was she writing about him, or what they had been talking about before? It took him several moments to realize that he had stopped sweeping and was staring at the strange symbols that she was scribing into the book. Her hand was sure and steady, very unlike his handwriting.
"Is something wrong, Master Keiichi?"
He blinked and then blushed when he realized that he was gawking at her. "No. I'm sorry to stare… is just… how do you say? I was asking what you write?"
"You were wondering what I was writing?" she clarified.
"Yes." Keiichi nodded.
Sister Maerdith pushed her glasses up to rest more comfortably on the bridge of her nose and then rolled her neck.
"It's actually a history of your stay here. Something of a practical biography that Father Ellosin has asked me to chronicle."
"You are writing about I… I mean… me?" At her nod, Keiichi felt very self-conscious. "But I am no one. I am just a normal person."
"You are hardly normal, Master Keiichi. Not in this world… nor, I suspect, in your own."
This set Keiichi back on his heels for a moment. She did have a point. How many people could say that they were personally involved with a goddess, let alone had personal connections to more than one? He shook his head and smiled.
"Can you tell me more about your life with her?"
Keiichi pondered her request for a moment before beginning to describe some of the more… tame adventures that he had experienced with Belldandy and her sisters — Sayoko's trouble with Mara, the arrivals of Urd, Skuld, and an edited version of Peorth's visit. Maerdith listened patiently without interrupting until finally, with half the afternoon gone, Keiichi finally quieted. "I wish I could hear her voice."
Maerdith laughed bitterly.
"Why you laugh?" he asked defensively.
"Forgive me, Master Keiichi, but you are spoiled."
Keiichi blinked and looked at the ground self-consciously. "How so?"
"Do you have any idea what I would give to hear Ohgma's voice? To speak with him as you converse with your Belldandy?" Her face took on an almost bitter cast as she looked at him. "It is wondrous to me that he deems me worthy enough to answer my prayers, let alone grant me the endowments and spells that he does." She shook her head and smiled longingly. "You are a truly blessed man to have been given the gifts that your goddess so lovingly bestowed upon you. Please forgive me if I point out that you are acting like an ungrateful child."
Keiichi frowned, somewhat upset with the frankness of her assessment. Maerdith snapped her book shut and stood, cutting off his protests.
"I have watched you very carefully these last few days Master Keiichi. Not once have you prayed to your goddess. Not once have you given her thanks for your life and health, or offered up a sacrifice in the hopes of receiving the direction that only the Divine can provide. Instead you mope and tinker, without thanks or recognition of the aid others give you. How do you expect to get home? Will you wait for her to do all the work for you? Is that how you show her your love? Is it any wonder then, that she has not contacted you? You, sir, are a thoughtless child because your actions declare you as such. It is up to you to seek her favor. Not the other way around."
Keiichi's frown deepened and his hands clenched the broom tightly against the harshness of Sister Maerdith's blunt words. Sadly, he couldn't discount her points.
"Please forgive me, Master Keiichi." Maerdith tucked an errant strand of loose hair behind her ear. "I spoke out of turn."
Keiichi didn't know what he could say to this and sighed. What did he know about praying? The only times he'd ever been religious were during festivals and holidays which, upon looking back on things, seemed incredibly disrespectful to Belldandy and her sisters. Maerdith was right. He was acting like an ungrateful child. Keiichi's brow furrowed and uncertainty welled in his heart. The words of Ty Binder filled his mind again— 'How can a man, who has truthfully proclaimed to love and be loved by a goddess, not be religious?'
"I…" He paused and scratched his bare cheek in order to hide his shame. "I am… how do you say? Not knowing how to pray to Belldandy."
Maerdith stared at Keiichi as if he were pulling her leg. "You are serious!" she exclaimed. "You really have no idea?"
Keiichi shook his head ruefully, and set his broom aside in favor of sitting on a stool near the doors of the shop.
"Well, now. This is unexpected." Sister Maerdith tapped her quill against her chin ponderously. "How did you communicate with her when you were separated? Or better still, how was it that you called upon her the first time?"
Keiichi scratched his head and shrugged. "I call her on the phone."
Maerdith immediately started flipping through her journal, looking for a reference. "This was the form of long distance communication, right?"
Keiichi nodded and Maerdith sighed.
"Is this the only way that people in your world contact their deities?" Keiichi's brow furrowed thoughtfully.
"No… I think they go to church and make offerings at temples."
"Neither of which you have at your disposal here," the priestess admitted. "Well, Master Keiichi, there is only one bit of advice that I can offer you."
Maerdith began packing the rest of her belongings in silence, leaving Keiichi to wonder if she was going to finish her thought.
"You must build a shrine to honor your goddess and exercise a little faith. Call upon her name daily until she deems you worthy of an answer." Ty Binder's words echoed in the woman's voice— '…exercise a little faith.'
Keiichi had been dodging all thoughts of the discussion he'd had with Binder or whoever he was for weeks now, but here faced with his words again, Keiichi couldn't escape the ideas set forth during that conversation. 'One of you is divine by birth. One divine by chance. But one of you can be divine by design.'
"Divine by design…" he whispered.
"I'm sorry?" Maerdith paused at the door.
No… nothing." Keiichi waved her off. "Just wondering what I saying should be."
"That's 'what I should be saying', Master Keiichi." The Oghmite shook her head. "Try not to worry about the words, so much as the true meanings behind them. Let your love guide your voice and you cannot fail."
Keiichi watched the priestess leave without really seeing her. He sighed again and looked heavenward. He had absolutely no ideas about where to start or how one should about building a shrine to a goddess. In the end though, he was Japanese, and had watched his relatives honor his great aunt and grandfather on certain holidays. He wasn't sure if Belldandy would appreciate something like that, but it was at least a place to start.
The Yartar Road
"Has she spoken to anyone today, Master Blackhammer?" Ulin spared another worried glance at her charge from the corner of her eye. Usagi sat alone before a fire that she had built with her own hands, far from the rest of the camp. The change was startling, to say the least. Physically she had changed little, and outside of the almost metallic silver sheen to her hair, the girl was just the same as before. There was a tangible aura about her now that was hard to define, though. It was peaceful and yet palpably unsettled.
"Same as yesterday…" The gruff dwarf from Mistobar followed Ulin's eyes to the lithe young woman and shook his head. "…not a word to anyone. Not even the li'l ones."
Ulin sighed and reclined against the large trunk of a Leatherleaf.
"She did crack a smile, though, when little Juil brought her some flowers, and if yer asking meself, that's more'n we've seen since the nightspooks stopped comin'. She's on edge, she is. Like she's waitin' fer the hammer to fall. Still, a smile's an improvement over a dark cloud o' worry by anyone's measure." He took a pull on his pipe and let out a nice fat ring of lazy smoke into the night.
Ulin ran her hand through her dark, cropped hair and made a sound in her throat that was reminiscent of stones grinding together. She wasn't sure what she was frustrated with more; the fact that Usagi had returned to her silent brooding or that Ulin had no idea why the girl had retreated from the rest of the world. That wasn't true. She knew the dreams were at the heart of the problem, but Usagi refused to share them with anyone.
"Well, is it an improvement or not?" the dwarf growled matter-of-factly. Ulin tossed the dwarf a sidelong glance that was flat as slate and as hard as granite. He sat solidly, unmoved by the stare.
Ulin relented and took a deep cleansing breath. "I'm sorry, Master Blackhammer."
"Fer what, lass? Carin' fer a friend?" He chuckled. "Aye, there's something to be sorry for."
Ulin shook her head and smiled softly. That's what she loved most about dwarves. They were direct, brutally blunt, and made no apologies about what they were feeling. Ulin wished that she could be as stalwart in her feelings. Sadly, all that she felt these days was unsettling guilt. She picked up a stick from the small fire that they had made and prodded the coals.
"I suppose that you are right. We should take pleasure where we can. We're less than a day's walk from Hemmerling, and will be speaking with their Gentlemen's Council in the morning. I should be happy that we are making such steady progress. But at what price? She is changed, Master Blackhammer, and I wonder if it's at all for the better."
Ulin looked at her young friend across the way and let her head droop.
"These dreams of hers have taken a dark turn, and she wakes every night drenched in cold sweat and crying out in a fearsome rage. Half the camp can hear her defiant bellowing, and yet no one can give me the answers that I need. Why does she wake screaming 'I did not steal them'? And why do I hear her calling out the names of so many within the camp? Three nights ago, the entire camp woke to her floating seven feet in the air, surrounded by silver flames, rebuking this invisible enemy of her dreams. It is disquieting. Now that the dreams have suddenly stopped… I wanted to help her, Master Blackhammer. I wanted to give her hope, but all that I have brought her is pain and suffering."
"Yer heart's still wantin' to help her, I'm thinkin'. So quit yer bellyaching and get to it!"
"And just how do you propose that I accomplish this wondrous miracle? I try to keep the pressures of the camp from touching her, but even that seems a poor trade for all that she has suffered so far. I cannot return her to her home, nor can I fathom this new burden that she carries."
Ulin stabbed her stick full into the fire, causing the ground to tremble a bit from her anger. The dwarf looked momentarily troubled, but he squared his shoulders and closed his mouth around his pipe to keep from saying anything.
"How, in Mystra's holy name, can I help someone, when I don't know what the burden is?" The jade-skinned Genasi tossed her hands in the air. "No one will tell me what happened. No one will explain to me where all of these people came from. From the ragged and dirty state of their clothing, they had to be prisoners in the mine, and yet no one seems to know each other. The fact that many of these people seem to be wearing burial rags from a hundred years ago makes even less sense. It's as if some mad group of refugees raided a cemetery." She swept her arm out to encompass the large encampment. Over twenty campfires blazed throughout the area, each boasting between two to five occupants.
"No one will explain why they all but worship Usagi, and she will not confide in me how she is so changed, both physically and spiritually. So I ask again, what would you propose that I do to help my friend when I cannot see the root of the problem, Master Dwarf?"
Garl Blackhammer shifted uneasily and eyed the woman across from him. But, like every other time that she had confronted him about the event at the mines, he refused to speak. Ulin could see a need in him to talk about it, but all he did was stroke his beard nervously and steal glances Usagi's way.
"Oh, for the love of Moradin! Answer me!"
Invoking the name of the dwarf's god probably wasn't a good idea, but Ulin was past caring for subtlety. The sorceress wasn't certain what had caused her patience to snap. Most of the earth-touched were a patient lot and very slow to anger, but Ulin had something of hairline fault in her temper that had, on more than one occasion, left her raging like a volcano. Normally she wasn't so flappable, preferring to react ponderously rather than brashly. But Usagi's condition had stretched Ulin's nerves thin; she had taken it upon herself to help the displaced youth and up until now, her every effort had been nothing short of one disaster after another. Which was why, in her frustration and impatience for an answer, she reached across the fire, seized the dwarf by the beard and dragged him across to all but sit in her lap until his fat nose was pressed firmly against her dainty one.
Something in her eyes must have shaken the dwarf, for she saw fear reflected back at her. She was about to push the issue further when she felt a delicate weight on her shoulder. It was firm, yet tender at the same time. The sudden sense of peace that washed over her was sign enough that Usagi stood at her back. She reluctantly released the dwarf, and let her chin drop to her chest weakly. Her leg still throbbed in spite of the herbs she ate and drank, as well as the multiple healings that Usagi had given her. After a silent moment, Usagi's hand left her shoulder and Ulin heard her friend's steps retreat back to her fire.
"I apologize, Master Blackhammer. I should not have abused your person in such a manner." Ulin could not meet his eyes. The last thing that she was expecting from him was laughter, though. Anger, yes, but she was unprepared for his mirth. "Is something funny about my apology, Master Blackhammer?"
Garl waved her to silence and shook his head. "I'm not laughin' at ye, lass. If ye were a dwarfmaid, a bit o' beard tuggin' like that would get ye kiss and a bit of a tickle. Not to mention a nice, fat marriage proposal to boot!"
Ulin snorted and then laughed herself. It lasted only a moment though, before her attention was again, inevitably, drawn back to Usagi. Garl stood in the corner of her eye and moved to sit beside her. The silence stretched long between them, all but consuming the noises of the night beneath its weight. The dwarf squirmed a bit and tugged at his beard a lot, but finally he breathed deeply and spoke. "Ye have to understand, lass. What happened back at the mines was… well… it's still a bit hard to understand. Even fer those o' us that experienced it firsthand."
Ulin remained silent, patiently letting the dwarf speak. The door was open, and the last thing she wanted was to have it shut in her face.
"I'd been stuck in that hole fer almost five years. That goblin-kissin' bastard Goruch done stole me mine, and brought in the children so that I wouldn't kill 'im and escape." Garl spit into the fire, causing it to hiss. "The children brought the parents, and they weren't prepared to deal with the numbers o' chickin' lizards that Goruch brought to bear. He'd set the lot of us to pullin' the ore, all the while feedin' us just enough rotten meat and worse to keep us alive and working. I had friends die in me arms, lass." He pointed over to another cook fire at a man that sat silently staring up at the stars through the open spaces in the trees.
"Stedd Greycastle had his head squished by a cave-in." Garl's finger drifted to a stout woman and a portly man surrounded by a number of sedate children. "Kerri Thimble, over there, fell to Goruch's monstrous lust and Juhn Reedhold died trying to save her." The stubby finger passed over a half-elf turning a spit. "Taeghen Amalith got himself skewered by a faulty ceiling beam, and Jhessith just beyond him… she done killed herself when she found Goruch's eyes on her one night. He didn't even get the satisfaction of opening the cell door, let alone touchin' her. She done saw him coming and took up a sharpened bit of stone and shoved it into her brainpan." Garl mimed a sharp jabbing motion at his right temple.
Ulin swallowed, but said nothing.
"We all sang for her afterwards and were happy to endure the lash for Goruch's shame and anger of the next few weeks. There's lots of people here that I don't know, but it ain't hard to guess where they come from. Moradin's Hammer, lass! I was about to enter the halls o' the Mountain King meself, when I heard the sweet song o' her voice." Garl's eyes drifted inevitably towards Usagi, and settled upon her. "Me chest was crushed flat by a nice chunk of stone, and I could hear the sounds of hammers ringing off anvils and me kinsmen chanting the Cadence. But then I feel her, quiet-like at first. But even then she was bright as a forge fire and as warm as me Mum's bosom… and it only got more beautiful the stronger her song became."
His voice fell to little more than a whisper and Ulin, as close as she was to him, had to strain to hear his words.
"'Come back to us,' she said." He dropped his eyes and looked at his hands. "'We cannot abide the day without you.'"
The sorceress looked at Usagi numbly, uncertain of how to digest the dwarf's tale.
"She called to me an' I came back to her. I forsook me kin, and me final rest fer her, and I'll be damned if I know why." The dwarf sighed and pulled on his pipe again. The sweet smelling, blue-gray tobacco smoke drifted from the bowl in a graceful dance.
"Are you afraid that they won't welcome you back?" Ulin dared ask.
The dwarf shrugged his shoulders and stared off into the night. "I turned me back on me father's fathers. That's the type of sin that stains ye fer good."
"I'm sorry for your loss." Ulin laid her hand over his forearm. To her surprise, he patted it companionably and smiled.
"Me grandfather, Baroundyn Blackhammer, told me that fer good or ill we set our hammers to the anvil. Once yer committed to shaping the metal, there's no sense in stoppin' until ye see what's wantin' to be made. Fer good or ill, I'm tied to her. Just like you an' everyone else in this here camp." He smiled again and shrugged. "She called to us, and we came. We might as well see where she's going to lead us."
Ulin smiled and nodded her head. "You're a wise dwarf, Master Blackhammer."
"Bah! Ye'd best be wise and stop callin' me 'Master'." He squeezed her hand and smiled, causing his thick black beard to expose his top lip. "Me name's Garl, an' I'll be expectin' that ye use it, lass."
Ulin returned the gesture. "Thank you, Garl." She wanted to say more, but the dwarf stood abruptly.
"Bah! Women an' their 'thank you's'."
The sorceress watched as the dwarf scooped up a large rooty club he'd been carving on lately and stomped off into the shadows of the night. He paused by Usagi's fire and offered a quite word to her before moving on his way again. For a moment Ulin's eyes met Usagi's. There was a sense of longing between them — a need to be comforted and to comfort in turn, but also an uncertainty of just how to answer that need. Ulin lay awake for many hours contemplating the dilemma with no success.
There were places on Toril that beings of intelligence knew well enough to stay away from. In some cases, these beings of intelligence were forced beyond their control to enter such dangerous environs. All others that dared enter the ruins of once fair Myth Drannor were… how does polite society put it? "Just plain wrong in the head."
Zuieez V'heron wouldn't necessarily call himself mad — not yet, at least. But entering the crumbling confines of the once proud capital of his cousins, alone and with very little in the way of magic to protect or defend himself… Well, he didn't feel that it was one of his brighter moments. It had taken all of his cunning and resourcefulness to survive the last several weeks, which was saying quite a bit. He had dodged and skulked, intimidated and blustered, and murdered with abandon, all to stay one step ahead of Kelemvor's Scales; and somehow, against all odds, he had succeeded, even if only barely. Thus he lay, cut, bruised, and broken in some places, in a small clearing near a pool of clear water fed by a small stream. He was no closer to his original goal than when he had started this foolhardy quest, and his frustration continued to mount at his failures. All attempts at claiming his goddess had fallen to naught.
During the first week of his hunt, he had seen her bleed, as freely as any mortal, after a fierce battle with a pack of demonic hellcats. Their ghostly luminescence had slowly faded as she stood triumphantly over their brutalized bodies, but Zuieez had seen the transience of his goddess and yearned to leash her. Looking back on it, it was a moment of pure prideful stupidity, but an attractive trap to fall prey to nonetheless. She was powerful, to be certain, powerful, but mortal. And that, he had hoped, would be her undoing.
Over the next four weeks he hunted her, looking for a way amidst the elven ruins to claim her power as his own. It was on the seventh night of the second week that he stumbled upon a cache of spells in an abandoned tomb in the Polyandrium, the second great burial ground for the fallen heroes of Myth Drannor.
To say that it was dangerous magic was an understatement. The scrolls contained a terribly old elven magic that, according to the accompanying text, should have bound this woman, regardless of her plane of origin, to Zuieez body and soul. The price of such power was dear in both body and spirit, and taken three sleepless weeks just to decipher, let alone prepare to cast. Multiple pacts with demons and devils had been made in order to gather the necessary materials and insight, but still the cost of power had been higher than even he had anticipated. He had been forced to give his left eye and three centuries of his long life to gain the catalyst for the spells, but to what end?
Was even the promise of such power worth the price? Zuieez wasn't so sure. Of what use was power, if you didn't live long enough to wield it? Would this goddess even be powerful enough to win back his soul from the demonic brokers he'd dealt with? For the first time in his long life, the drow was filled with regret and uncertainty over the course he'd chosen. Yet, there was little left for him but to follow through with his plan. Now he sat here with his back against a large walnut tree, hoping for a miracle while fingering the spell focus that had been grafted to his body. The small gem-encrusted bracer reeked of power. Each of the eight jewels had something of the goddess trapped within their hearts: two hairs captured in amber, and six droplets of her divine blood sealed in pink diamonds. All he had to do now was find her and enact the spell, then all his dreams would come true!
The soft sound of leaves rustling overhead drew the drow's eye upward into the shadowy branches of the trees surrounding his small camp. Zuieez cautiously fingered the elegant longsword he'd pilfered from some long-dead elf lord's tomb and began mumbling a spell under his breath. The babbling of the nearby brook resounded in his ears as he stretched his senses, looking for the attack that was certain to come. And come it did, but not from any angle he had been anticipating.
There was a light impact atop his head, and then a second later a forceful blur launched his head backwards against the bark of the tree, stunning him. The spell on his lips was lost and Zuieez blindly scrambled to his feet waving his sword in an intricate whirlwind of death that would keep his attacker at bay until his eyes cleared. He immediately began casting another spell over himself, one that would protect him from non-magical weapons. He felt the magic take affect even as his vision cleared.
What he found before him caused his stomach to clench in a knot and his knees to wobble like one of Ghaunadaur's oozing children. It was her! Fully healed and drinking from the brook not eight yards away! He began casting immediately, with little preamble, triggering the layered webs of spells within the bracer that would chain her to him. To his amazement, rather than run or evade, she simply sat and watched him with open curiosity as he unleashed the powerful magic on her. What happened next though, would haunt Zuieez to the end of his days.
A pale violet beam of energy lanced toward the crimson-haired goddess, ripping and rending the ground as it closed toward its target. The nude form simply cocked her head and waited for the energy to come to her. Zuieez could only stand there, dumbfounded and bewitched by the moment. The spell had struck, and his redheaded goddess simply batted and played with the eldritch energies like a cat! The drow's heart soared with malicious glee as the spell web calmly sank into her body. For an instant her eyes glowed with silver flame, but otherwise there was no outward sign of success or failure.
The spell had to have worked! It had entered her body, just as the text said that it would. But the final manifestation had not happened. There should have been at the very least a golden nimbus present. He should have been able to feel her presence in his mind as well, and yet… he did not. Zuieez drew himself up and called on what little confidence he had left to him to command her as he had his demonic minions of late.
"Hear me, Nameless Goddess! Kneel before me, for I, Zuieez V'heron, now command you!"
Instead of heeding his mandate, the naked figure ignored him. She bent to the brook again to drink and then calmly began to groom herself, licking the back of her hand and rubbing it over her head and face.
Frustration and rage filled him! He knew he had cast the spell correctly!
"KNEEL! I COMMAND YOU!"
She paused long enough in her grooming to glance at him beneath her wild bangs and twitch her nose.
He tried to command her obedience again. And when that failed, he tried again and again and again. He knew he must look the fool, jumping and stomping in the mud, screaming his damned head off for who knew how long. In the end it didn't matter, though.
She finally grew bored with his tantrum and meandered over to a tall shadowtop. There, as casually as you please, she stretched languorously against its trunk, maintaining her image of a cat. The sight of her nubile form set his blood afire with need and desire.
He watched in amazement as she shredded the age-old giant with claws made from silver flame on her left hand and black lightning from her right. The mighty tree toppled with a crash, and his redhaired goddess casually leapt away into the branches of another tree.
Zuieez felt suddenly, terribly, lost. An emptiness unlike anything he'd ever experienced welled within him. Soon after came the despair.
He had thought himself patient. Most of his race was, by necessity; and yet here he was, scrambling for ways to capture this redhaired goddess for his own. It was no longer a matter of personal power to him. It was both a principle and a need… a challenge to be proved and a means of self-preservation. His life and soul were on the line. He had to succeed!
Even if it meant destroying her.
After all, if he could not possess her, then no one would. The real question now was, could he truly destroy her? In each confrontation they had, she would look at him and those stormy blue eyes would swallow him whole. He could tell that she was toying with him and it was confounding. He did not enjoy feeling like a mouse.
Her divinity was a paradox, for he had seen her bleeding from wounds time and again. Her numerous battles with the inhabitants of Myth Drannor had been terrible and devastating to the area and the combatants alike. Every attempt on his part to prove that mortality to himself had failed, though. The poisonous bloods that she consumed had no effect; the traps her enemies set were sprung with cunning and ease long before they could harm her, and any confrontation was evaded, ignored, or brutally countered.
She was indomitable. He had spoken truly that first night upon seeing her. She was a goddess. And perhaps that was the distinction. Mayhap he was approaching her from the wrong position…. Perhaps supplication would gain him the power he sought, where domination had failed. He balked at the thought in disgust. He had thrown off the yolk of one matriarchy. He did not intend to fall prey to a second, no matter how alluring it might seem.
But, as the hours grew, his aversion to that notion slowly fell before the reality her power. Zuieez knew his limitations. He was no archmage with access to large stores of power and knowledge that would aid him in destroying or chaining the goddess to him. Nor did he have the luxury of time necessary to become that powerful. His commanders would send out others to search for him the longer he was away, especially considering his long silence. If they didn't find him, the dark denizens of this hellish place eventually would. His luck could only hold out for so long. That only left him one foreseeable option. Worship.
She had proved time and again that she was a force to be reckoned with. If he could not beat her, then his only course was to join her. At least she would help him survive. He forced himself to meditate on the thought of bowing himself before this demigoddess throughout the rest of the day and well into the night.
The distinction between the religion of the drow and this robust goddess was readily apparent. One set had been forced upon him socially at every turn — first by the Spider Kissers, and then by the minions of the Masked Lord. However, this… this was something that he could choose to do for himself. There was no one forcing him at dagger point to follow this path… outside of himself, that is. His own stupidity had led him to this impasse. There was no one else to blame. Yet, by accepting responsibility for his folly, he felt liberated. In spite of all of his folly, he had a chance at freedom. All he had to do was swallow his pride and throw himself at her feet. Hopefully she would be merciful and save his hide from the debt he had accrued.
It was an opportunity, which if exercised correctly, would lead him somewhere unknown. Such a thought, while intoxicating, was very much terrifying as well. Would she care, or would she simply walk away from him as she had after he had cast his spell? What would she ask of him? Did it really matter in the end?
The questions lingered, plaguing Zuieez day and night for another ten days. He wandered, surprisingly unhindered, throughout the tainted woodlands of Myth Drannor, weighing the value of his life. What he found in the end was awe-inspiring, at least for one who had been raised little better than a slave. Plain and simple, it was freedom.
On the tenth day of his reverie, the drow smiled, losing himself to the wonder of his discovery and thoughts of his goddess. He would have to find her, the sooner the better. Perhaps she would favor him, and let him touch her…. He shivered at the thought and nearly lost himself to the daydream. Something in the air kept him wary, though. It was as if the atmosphere were charged with something unnatural.
The first truly physical sign that something was amiss came in the form of a leaf falling on his nose. Zuieez closed his eyes and plucked the offending object from his face. When he opened his eyes, though, he found himself staring at his redheaded goddess.
His heart rejoiced and he felt tears coming to his eyes! Had she heard his silent prayers and secret desires? Was this a sign of her acceptance? He stared at her, worshiping her with his eyes.
She knelt, panting, in all her feminine glory, barely three feet away. A fierce smile grew on her flushed face as she returned the drow's stare. Sweat clung to her like dew and the air around her seemed charged with energy. The sight of her made the drow want to chase lightning and howl at the moon. He could feel his loins stirring and he relished the sensation. He was alive and his new goddess had accepted him! He would live for her and relish every moment and experience she blessed him with. After barely an instant, she turned and sprang away to a low branch overhead and balanced there impossibly for a full minute before taking off again.
It was another sign. Rapture filled the drow's soul and it wasn't until he felt the next physical sign that he knew something was truly amiss. The ground trembled and the forest fell silent. The hairs on the back of Zuieez V'heron's neck prickled and he felt the sudden need to run. It was a signal he had become very intimate during his stay in these cursed lands, and so he gathered his weapons and pack as quickly as he could and did just what his body was telling him to do — follow his goddess.
Lucky for him. For not a moment later, a riotous mob of demons, devils, various clergy and members from the Cult of the Dragon, a group of adventurers, and a series of Elven Ghosts bore down on his small glade.
Perhaps this was a test. If he could keep sight of her and avoid death until she ended the test, then he would pass. If he failed, well, he was obviously not worthy of her. Zuieez cried out with rapturous joy — or perhaps terror, he wasn't exactly certain — and tried his best to keep the crimson blur in his sights.
Ranma-neko was glad that the little black "he" had decided to finally join her fun. He hadn't been enjoying himself lately and she was tired of watching him brood. She had to make sure that she kept sight of him, though. It wouldn't do to have one of her only real playmates getting squished by so many of the tainted ones. Ranma-neko sighed and slowed her pace.
She was going to have to end her latest romp sooner than expected. They had been corrupting her land and spirit long enough. Maybe she would challenge the fiery Black Heart first. His stink was almost as bad as rotting Blight Tongue, and his pack had been tainting the rivers near her home this morning.
Yes. She would be rid of fiery Black Heart first, and then she would focus on the Burning Ones. They were much stupider and would be easy kills. After they were done, she would approach the Blight Tongue. Her pack was much larger, and they were attacking the worldblood. The sooner she dealt with those creatures the better.
It was going to be a busy day. Ranma-neko sighed and shook her head. Tomorrow, she was going to find a nice sunny rock and be lazy. No hunting the twisted ones, no playing with silly cubs.
Oh! Look! There was the grumpy see-through-she. Time for Ranma-neko to invite her to play….
If Braerindra, the last of House of Calauth, could curse her fate, she would have. Being a Sentinel of the Coronal House and the Coronal Person had long since lost its appeal — pointedly, because both had died long ago. She had watched as the Armies of the Khov'Annilessa, the Trio Nefarious, lay waste to her beloved city.
The nycaloths and their demonic armies had pressed siege against her homeland and driven her people away. Yet she remained, alone and unremembered, guarding a patch of soil and sod filled with little more than wormfood from the hands of despoilers. Still, this was the life she had chosen for herself and she was determined to endure it to the end. She missed the days of old, though. She missed Eltargrim and Josidiah. She missed Elminster and those rare few others that had visited her in her long vigil. Their memories were becoming fleeting now, and Braerindra knew that what little was left of her mind was slowly collapsing under the weight of her eternal vigilance.
She still remembered her charge, though, and executed it diligently, much to the dismay and hatred of those few demons and treasure hunters that tried to breach her protectorate. The only entity that had dared approach her of late was that poor, insane, redhaired elfmaid. She would come and stare at Braerindra for hours on end, neither crossing the Sentinel Ghost's threshold nor approaching the guardian.
It was frustrating to be subject to such a mockery. Nothing pained her more than to see the blood of her people reduced to such a mindless state. Braerindra snorted as best as a ghost could, and rolled her ethereal eyes at the sight of an unruly mop of bright red hair.
"Speak of the devil and she appears."
The guardian spirit sighed and contemplated the feral elfmaid. There was something incredibly… off… about the child. She had a power about her that dwarfed anything Braerindra had ever encountered. And yet, the child, although feral, still seemed all too mortal in spite of the power that slept within her. Perhaps she was a demigoddess, or a powerful sorceress that had fallen prey to a bad spell or curse. The watch ghost shook her ethereal head and set the mystery aside. The ghostly sentinel knew her questions wouldn't be answered anytime soon, but she had all of eternity to uncover the truth, or at least until the elfmaid decided to stop visiting her grove.
Braerindra suddenly blinked at a tremor that rippled through the fine web of magics that she commanded. Her ghostly eyes widened in horror at the horde of evil fell upon her position. Demons and devils alike entered the grove, followed closely by a mismatched group of drow and humanoids, all of them screaming and cursing in their attempts to reach their redhaired prey. To her surprise, the maid sprang behind a number of broken columns and then scurried rapidly around yet another small mountain of rubble, finally turning and positioned herself in the shadow of a large stone that had once been a part of the Coronal's favorite gazebo. The catlike elfmaid crouched low to the ground and stilled suddenly, waiting patiently until her target maneuvered itself into the proper position.
Braerindra watched in silent approval as the maid literally pounced on the lead Cornugon as it cleared the ruined slab and slashed at the demon's throat with her closed fist. Magic flared in the Sentinel's ghostly mind, and the Cornugon's head fell clean from its shoulders. The maid bounced on, clearing another pile of rubble as her kill slowly fell to the ground. The Cornugon's body writhed, fighting its inevitable demise and thrashing all within range with its fiery whip. The body exploded soon after, taking many of the small mob's number with it to the grave.
The maid hadn't lingered idle while her first foe perished. She had maneuvered herself into another strategic position and pounced on the confused throng with wild abandon. She slashed mercilessly into the left flank of the damned, sending body parts, acidic blood and all manner of gore flying in all directions. And all the while, her face bore a wild, carefree smile. Middling and minor demons fell left and right, scored by the maid's magical talons. Her feral hissing and yowling spurred the Sentinel to act, as the first of the horde was finally driven over the threshold of her protectorate.
Braerindra stepped forward and unleashed her magic upon the disorganized group of infernals, humans, and drow. Demons and devils alike fell to her holy spells and her mighty sword. Chaos reigned. Infighting exploded amongst the Tanar'ri and Baatsu, and the human cultists and drow followed suit.
It was bedlam. Magical traps that had lain dormant for centuries exploded to life, rending body and spirit alike amongst the host of evil. Braerindra had no concept of how long the battle had lasted, but in the end the advance had been broken and the redhaired girl had moved on, taking one or two of the remaining host with her. The others looked around at the destruction and quietly left, rather than continue the fruitless quest for the feral elfmaid's life. Braerindra couldn't blame them. The Sentinel looked at the blasted, burning earth and the bloody carnage surrounding her and shook her head.
At the very least it hadn't been a boring day.
In the weeks since the engine test, Keiichi had moved on to working on the frame and suspension while Duncan "prettied up" the sewing machine. In the time that it had taken Keiichi to finish all the calculations and drawings, Duncan, Sam, and Bertrold had taken the finished product to some place called Waterdeep. Upon their return, Duncan had orders for fifteen machines and a grin a mile wide. It was nothing next to Bertrold 's though. The gnome looked positively ecstatic.
Between the two projects, the shop was constantly busy. Duncan and Bertrold had hired a skilled, yet very shy young gnome by the name of Ruthart Gambool to help fill the sewing machine orders while Keiichi worked on the frame of the "Iron Horse". The orders were filled in record time, and had been shipped to Waterdeep with Bertrold seven days past, giving Keiichi, Duncan, and Ruthart the extra time they needed to finish the last of the touches on the "Horse" before their patron's return. Duncan seemed overly eager to surprise Bertrold with a working model before his return in two days time. It had been a grueling task, reminding Keiichi of his days with Ootaki and Tamiya. In the end though, the satisfaction he felt made the long nights worth it.
The day of truth arrived clear, bright, and beautiful. Sister Maerdith arrived early to help Sam with breakfast and chores so that they would have extra time to spend watching the test, while Keiichi, Duncan, and Ruthart made some last minute checks and adjustments to the "Iron Horse" before the trial. As the morning wore on, Sam was forced to serve breakfast in the shop in order to get "her boys" to eat something substantial. It was a tough task to pull them away from the last-minute touches they were making, but the heavenly smells of Sam' rolls won over the trio in the end.
"How far do you want to go?" Keiichi asked as he popped the last bit of cinnamon roll into his mouth. Sister Maerdith had been pleased at the improvements that his grammar was making. Keiichi was happy too. He hated sounding stupid.
"Depends, I guess," Duncan said. The lack of commitment in his voice betrayed his nervousness. "Let's see how she handles between here and Grinder Street."
Keiichi nodded and motioned for Ruthart to open the shop's main door. The young gnome jumped from his stool eagerly and ran to the sliding door with barely contained excitement. Keiichi and Duncan finally made their way out of the shop, carefully pushing the Iron Horse over the hardpacked earth of the stableyard. The weight was extremely heavy, even after Keiichi's innovations of creating a hollow frame. They had been unable to find a suitable material for the wheels, so in the end Duncan had crafted metal and wood rings to fit on the outside of the spoke rim. Keiichi had made a last minute addition in the form of a sidecar, just after Bertrold had left for Waterdeep, in order to aid in the bike's balance and stability.
As the pair moved the primitive motorcycle out of the stableyard and onto the main road, a crowd began to gather. Keiichi saw a number of familiar faces from the temple of Ohgma, including Learned Father Ellosin and Brother Evandur. Young Lord Ferin Gullywarden was there too, as were his henchmen, standing next to a wealthily-dressed gnome bearing a golden symbol of Gond hanging prominantly from a chain over his heart. The gnome laughed at something Ferin said and shook his head.
Keiichi turned his attention back to Duncan and Ruthart, focusing his attention on navigating the bike into position. The pair bowed their heads and began to murmur a prayer to Gond.
"BEST TO GET ALL THE HELP YOU CAN WHILE YOU CAN, EH STEELWATER?" Ferin's voice echoed above the noise of the crowd. A slight wave of laughter rolled through the crowd.
"MAYBE HE'S PREPARING HIS SOUL, JUST IN CASE."
Keiichi didn't know whose voice that was, but it lit a fire in his belly. It garnered more laughter through the crowds this time, but Keiichi ignored the mocking as best he could in favor of listening to Duncan's gruff prayer.
"Oh hallowed Wonderbringer, we yer servants and friends come to ye beneath the eyes of the sun, to honor ye and ask fer yer blessings on our craft. I thank ye humbly fer bringing me wife Sam and me new friends Keiichi and Ruthart inta me life. They've helped bring this dream ter bear this fruit. May our actions and its function bring ye future glories and further the Craft. Function above Form."
Keiichi waited for the "amen" that never came. Duncan simply reached into the sidecar and pulled out two metal helms with padded interiors that Keiichi had asked him to craft. He handed one to Keiichi and then pulled the other over his own head. More laughter came from the steadily growing crowd, but by this time, Keiichi didn't hear them. He looked heavenward and whispered his own little prayer.
"Bell-chan, if you can hear me, please let this go well for Duncan. He's worked hard for this."
Duncan slid into the sidecar and Keiichi straddled the bike. With a wave and a grim smile to Sam, Maerdith, Ruthart, and surprisingly an out of breath Bertrold, Keiichi kick-started the engine. There was a great "BANG!" that caused everyone in the crowd to step back, but when the engine didn't explode Sam and the others began to clap enthusiastically. Keiichi looked down to Duncan and smiled at the manic grin the dwarf had plastered on his face. The sound of the engine reverberated up and down the street, drawing even more people to watch the spectacle unfold. Keiichi's smile soon surpassed Duncan's. It had been ages since he'd felt a powerful motor beneath him.
He gunned the engine and engaged the clutch, which in turn caused the wheels to tear into the hard packed dirt. The Iron Horse roared, and upon finally finding the traction it needed, shot down the street. There was a mighty cheer from the crowd, but even that could not drown out Duncan's surprised cursing. Keiichi just whooped for joy and increased his speed, completely bypassing Grinder Street altogether.
The Yartar Road
Usagi watched the modest group walking down the road towards the main encampment. From the serious set in Ulin's face and the set of Conner's shoulders, the first round of negotiations with the mayor of Hemmerling hadn't gone very well. They'd set up camp on the outskirts of the town in a thick stand of trees near a modest river. The refugees had spread themselves throughout the grove, making impromptu tents and lean-tos in order to shelter against the occasional rain that had cooled the growing heat of summer. And in spite of their numbers, the camp remained relatively clean and well organized. Ulin had commented early on that they needed to make the best impression possible, if the negotiations were to be successful.
Behind Ulin's company rode the Hemmerling delegation, looking all very stoic and important. The man she assumed to be the mayor rode a well-muscled brown horse with white socks. The animal and the man had much in common from Usagi's point of view. He, like the horse, was large and barrel-chested, with tanned skin and sharp eyes. He had the look and manner of a veteran warrior, as did the small contingent riding around him. Usagi let her eyes drift over each face in turn, until she'd found the other two people she'd been looking for. Shandri and Viet trailed the procession, but seemed more interested in stealing glances at each other than anything else. Usagi couldn't help but smile at that. At least the day wouldn't be a total loss.
As the procession drew near, Usagi and a few members of the camp drifted out to meet them. Faim and Marcus, an elderly couple, stood to her right while Heb shadowed Usagi's left flank. Faim and Marcus were two of the many that had followed Usagi from Moerstead, while Heb had been with Usagi since the mines. The thin man spoke very little and tended to brood quite a bit, and whenever Usagi drew near he would all but run from her presence in fear and shame. She was certain that he was having trouble dealing with everything that had happened since the mines, and was content to allow him his space. Someday he would stop running, and Usagi knew that she would make her shoulder available for him when he did. Usagi was drawn from her contemplations as the procession finally drew close.
Ulin took a deep, albeit discreet, breath before making introductions.
"Mayor Raelin Thistlebuck, it is my pleasure to introduce you to the Lady Usagi Tsukino, the leader of this camp."
Usagi shot Ulin a hidden glare as she bowed to Raelin. The action seemed to unnerve the men from Hemmerling for some reason, but Usagi ignored their reactions in favor of trying to remember the speech Ulin had made her memorize before going into town.
"It is an honor to welcome you to our camp, Mayor Thistlebuck. We offer you safety and protection during your visit, and hope you will draw comfort from our hospitality." She bowed again, hiding a sudden attack of nerves.
"It pleases me to accept your hospitality, Lady Tsukino." The man's voice was, if anything, deeper and richer than Usagi had expected; so too was the warm smile he wore. It seemed incongruous with the attitude Ulin was displaying. The group dismounted, allowing Shandri and Viet to lead the horses to a picket line nearby.
"May I offer you and your men refreshments?" Usagi motioned Faim and Marcus forward to a table of saplings that had been lashed together and propped on four short but thick stumps. It was a very traditional Japanese set up, having a number of thick pillows that Ulin had conjured surrounding the short table. A tea service and a meager lunch of fish, berries and nuts were laid out for their guests.
The setup didn't seem to impress the majority of the delegation from Hemmerling, but the group settled themselves without comment. Tea was served and small talk was quickly exhausted. Usagi could feel the conversation taking a more serious turn, and she felt anxiety well up within her — moreso when Raelin Thistlebuck fully turned his attention to her. He, along with a number of his party, had been stealing glances at her throughout the small meal, but tried not to make too much of them. She knew he was sizing her up, and she didn't like the feel of it at all. On the other hand, his attentions were preferable to others.
One of Raelin's company, a fat man by the name of Rodbury Hearthman, did little to hide the lust in his eyes every time he glanced her way. There was also another man that set her nerves on edge for an entirely different reason. Olin Breambur's eyes never left Usagi throughout the initial pleasantries, and whenever she looked in them, she could feel a malevolence hidden just beneath the surface. For not the first time, Usagi wondered at the wisdom of continuing these negotiations.
Usagi lifted her gaze from her plate in response to Raelin Thistlebuck's voice. "Please, call me Usagi." She smiled brightly, trying not to shiver.
"Mistress Usagi… in light of the time, I think it best that we move on to matters of business. The road home is long for some us, and I'd feel better if these men were back home before dark."
"I completely understand." Usagi set aside her teacup and folded her hands at the edge of the table. "I assume, from the look on Ulin's face, that you will be unable or unwilling to give us leave to settle our group in Hemmerling."
This humble, yet blunt tactic derailed Raelin's thoughts completely. He simply nodded.
"I can understand your hesitation. I think my family would feel uneasy if a large group of strangers suddenly showed up on our doorstep. We will just have to look elsewhere."
Raelin looked extremely uncomfortable. "Please don't think us unkindly…."
Usagi waved her hands. Ulin had explained that this would be the most likely outcome, and it had given Usagi more than enough time to formulate a response.
"Not at all! We don't want to upset your community any more than we have." Usagi paused thoughtfully and then smiled sweetly, turning on the charm full tilt. "Could we possibly trouble you for some supplies and permission to pass through your town?"
Rodbury Hearthman spoke up before Raelin could answer. "Supplies don't come free, Mistress Usagi. I'm certain that you can appreciate that everyone's got to make a living."
Heb, who had been standing discreetly at the edge of the gathering, began to fidget. Usagi noted that his eyes were narrowed and that his hands kept reaching into his sleeves.
"Of course, Master Rodbury. We wouldn't dream of looking for charity." Usagi strained to remember this part of Ulin's coaching. "We don't have much in the way of currency, but we do have skills and labor to trade."
"I'm sure you do." Rodbury licked his lips hungrily, looking Usagi's body up and down. Raelin opened his mouth to call the man on his offensive behavior, but Heb beat him to it. A well-balanced throwing knife imbedded itself into the table in front of the fat merchant, drawing everyone's eyes momentarily. The distraction was enough to allow Heb to slip through Rodbury's strongmen and place the blade of his second dagger at the man's throat.
"HEB! NO!" Usagi was on her feet instantly, eyes wide with panic. Ulin was already preparing a spell that would hopefully paralyze Heb before he could finish his stroke. It proved unnecessary though. The moment Usagi spoke Heb's knives disappeared up his sleeve and he backed off. His eyes never left Rodbury, even though four large men bearing steel now encircled him.
"I'm so sorry, Master Rodbury!" Usagi was panicking, but the fat merchant seemed even more shaken. He kept dabbing his throat, and Usagi noted that his fingers came away red. She looked to Ulin frantically, uncertain what to do. "I can heal Master Rodbury's wound…."
"There is no need for an apology, Mistress Usagi." All eyes turned to Raelin. "Rodbury was out of line and your man called him on it. I think the prick he received was duly earned. Perhaps now he will learn his place."
"I hope this won't hurt our friendship, Master Raelin."
"A man protects the honor of a Lady. It only shows that you are well loved by your people. On the contrary, it should be us begging your forgiveness." Raelin glared at Rodbury darkly, but the man was still in shock and took no note of the Mayor's words.
"That's not necessary…." Usagi kept stealing glances at Ulin, looking for guidance, but the Genasi's attention was pinned on Heb. The poor man looked torn between running away and driving his dagger into Rodbury's back. She motioned for the man to come to her and was surprised to see that he obeyed her summons. The growing tensions relaxed immediately.
"It is necessary, Mistress Usagi. Rodbury's comportment was inexcusable and he will find a way to make amends."
This statement finally broke through the merchant's addled brain. "You've no right, Raelin!"
Raelin ignored Rodbury's outburst. "You will make amends, Hearthman — a formal apology here and now, as well as personally seeing to Lady Tsukino's needs. If you cannot swallow your pride, then the town council will seize your store and your lands as payment for your offense." Raelin looked around to the other men in his party and all nodded as one.
"I will not apologize to this little girl when I've done nothing wrong!" Rodbury protested.
"Hold your tongue, Hearthman! Your offensive comportment and innuendos have jeopardized the safety of our community!"
"We wouldn't have…" Ulin squeezed Usagi's knee and shook her head, cutting off further comment.
"I refuse!" It was obvious that Rodbury thought Raelin was bluffing.
"That saddens me, Master Hearthman." Raelin motioned to the men guarding Rodbury's back, who in turn seized his arms and dragged him away from the table. The fat man kicked, screamed, and threatened. Raelin turned his attention back to Usagi and calmly continued as if nothing had happened. Usagi felt sick inside.
"Please forgive the people of Hemmerling, Lady Tsukino. I extend my humblest apologies on behalf of Rodbury Hearthman, and offer up his holdings as restitution for his gross breach of etiquette."
Usagi immediately started to decline the offer, but Ulin beat her to the punch. "On behalf of Lady Tsukino, we humbly accept your apology, Lord Mayor, and extend our own apology for the unfortunate events that have happened here. We will aid in the coming harvest of summer wheat and present our services to anyone else who stands in need of our skills before moving on."
Raelin nodded and extended his hand to Usagi. She accepted the gesture, but glared at Ulin discretely when Raelin and the rest of his company stood to leave. Ulin brushed the look aside, motioning Usagi to stand as well.
"We thank you for your generosity, Mistress Usagi. It would please me greatly if you and your retainers would join us for a feast later in the week."
Ulin had to nudge Usagi to focus her attention back to the Mayor and his retinue.
"That would be wonderful, Master Raelin." Usagi bowed to the group again.
"Excellent. I will leave Marcus here to show you to your new estates." Usagi tried very hard not to frown. "We can finalize plans for the feast tomorrow, perhaps."
Usagi nodded as the group took their leave then, with Rodbury Hearthman under close guard. Conner took Marcus in hand, leading him to a small campfire nearby to talk while the word about the move was quickly spread among the camp. When they were safely out of sight, Usagi spun on Ulin before she could escape.
"What the heck was that about, Ulin?"
"We'll discuss it later, Usagi." She started to turn away, but Usagi pulled her up short.
"No. I don't think so. We'll discuss it now! Why did you accept his offer?"
"It was restitution, Usagi."
"Because Hearthman was being a pervert? That's not a crime! Sure, he was a creepy little jerk, but that didn't mean he had to be punished so severely." Ulin sighed and shook her head.
"You miss the point, Usagi. Hearthman was punished because he jeopardized the community with his offense."
"What do you mean, 'jeopardized'? Did they really think that a bunch of men, women, and children were going to come in and wipe them out? That's just stupid!"
Ulin shook her head again. "I think that there is a history here that we are unaware of. Be that as it may, Raelin knew that we didn't look like a threat, but your fame has somehow outpaced us. The 'Silver Princess' is known to these people, and some of the rumors being whispered among the townsfolk have obviously reached Raelin's ears."
Usagi blinked. Rumors? "What are they saying about me?"
Ulin grinned impishly. "Each story is wilder than the first, but it is certain that Raelin is being cautious for the sake of his community. To some you are a goddess or the child of a goddess. Others believe you are one of the Seven Sisters and that this camp is an enchanted army marching north to join with Alustriel and Silverymoon to secure the Silver Marches. I heard one boy whispering to his sister that you were a beautiful witch, come to steal all the little girls away from the town to feed to your pet dragon."
Faim and Marcus snickered, as did Shandri and Viet. Usagi stuck her tongue out at them.
"You mean that they're scared… of me?" Usagi tried to wrap her mind around the concept.
"I wouldn't say that, Usagi. Raelin is erring on the side of caution. From what I gather, he was an adventurer prior to settling in Hemmerling. He's seen his share of oddities, and rather than endanger those he's sworn to protect, he's doing what he thinks is best for the community. He eliminated a powerful rival of questionable morals, placated your honor and need for charity by giving us Hearthman's lands, and resolved the situation so that his people aren't in any danger."
"I still don't like it, Ulin. It doesn't feel right. We wouldn't have done anything to the people of Hemmerling."
"Perhaps you wouldn't, but can you honestly speak for the rest of the camp? If Heb felt compelled to act, what would some of the others done? No, I think Raelin was right in dealing with Hearthman as he did. The man was positively vile."
"What do you think will happen to Mister Hearthman? I don't like the idea that he doesn't have a home or a way to feed himself."
"Something tells me that he will be fine, Usagi. Men like Hearthman are resourceful."
"Are you sure?"
"I still don't like this. What are we going to do with an estate?"
"Not 'we' Usagi. You. Raelin gave the estate to you. Do whatever you want with it. Depending on the size, we have a place for the rest of these people to live now. If that's not what you want, sell it to someone, give it away, or burn it to the ground. It doesn't really matter."
Usagi sighed and shook her head. The pair started walking back to the camp.
"I can't deal with this."
"Welcome to life, Dear Heart. It only gets harder from here on out."
"Promise me something?"
"I'll do my best."
"Talk to me before you go accepting any more apologies for me."
Ulin laughed and nodded. "As you say, my Princess."
"That's not funny, Ulin." Usagi glowered. "I'm not your ruler."
"As you say, your majesty."
"I mean it, Ulin," Usagi groused.
"Am I to be fed to your dragon then?"
"I can't." Usagi matched Ulin's impish grin.
"Oh, and why is that?"
"You're my dragon!" Usagi gave the jade-skinned sorceress the red-eye before hiking her skirts and running, Ulin hot on her heels. The busy camp was filled with a great deal of laughter as children immediately joined in the fun.
Keiichi and Duncan jabbered excitedly with Bertrold as they wheeled the Iron Horse into the shop. The afternoon sun was hot and the shadows were growing long. Ruthart, who had been the last to receive a ride in the sidecar, had a dazed look on his face. Every once in a while he would steel glances at Keiichi, before looking back at the Horse in awe.
Everyone that had been a part of the project had gotten a chance to ride in the sidecar, and only Sister Maerdith seemed less than enthused with the innovative contraption. Duncan had been so excited that he'd demanded that Keiichi tour the town until they had drained the fuel tank dry. Sam had ridden double with her husband, relishing in the freedom his dream gave. Overall, Keiichi felt pleased with their achievement, but he also felt that the speed could be improved. They'd barely reached and sustained thirty kilometers an hour after the initial run, which meant that the fuel mixture could stand to be tweaked. He had little to no experience with fuel chemistry outside of the auto club, but that didn't mean he wasn't willing to learn. In the mean time, Keiichi was trying to talk Bertrold into funding a utility vehicle.
"Well met, Builder Steelwater." The smooth voice jarred the group from their thoughts. Keiichi immediately recognized the well-dressed gnome from earlier. He wore official saffron-colored robes, with cogs and gears decorating the hem and sleeves. His face sported a neatly trimmed and oiled black goatee and mustache that curled back on themselves. Keiichi was immediately reminded of Sayoko's snobbish accomplice, Aoshima Toshiyuki. "I believe congratulations are in order."
"Evening to you too, Artificer Mostana. What can we do fer you?"
"I simply came to pay my respects and to get a closer look at the wondrous machine you've crafted."
"My thanks fer your respects, Artificer, but I can't be takin' all the credit here." Duncan patted Keiichi and Ruthart on the shoulders warmly. "Master Keiichi and young Ruthart here are just as worthy of your praise, and Master Bendlebranch financed our efforts."
"Is there no room for Gond in your praise, Builder?" More than one face scowled at the implication made, but beyond a slight frown Duncan didn't seem all that phased by the dig.
"Gond is the heart of every creation I make, Artificer. I give him every glory and all the honor. He gave me the inspiration, and the means ta bring it ta life."
"As you say. All praise to Gond." Mostana's smile became, if possible, even more oily than before.
"All praise to Gond," Duncan, Sam, and Ruthart echoed.
Mostana approached the Iron Horse, gently nudging Ruthart out of the way in order to gain a better view of the engine. His eyes drifted between Keiichi and Sister Maerdith, causing Keiichi's skin to crawl. He immediately knew that this priest was going to make life difficult for Duncan.
"I must confess that I am a bit confused, Steelwater. This curious design was not submitted to the Patent Office, nor do I see any documentation for the project or official offering. Pray tell, where are the symbols of your praise?"
"The symbols of me praise are in me heart, Artificer. The project's been documented from the start, and me plans for the Horse are secured in a safe place. As fer filin' the patent, we ain't had the time. When Gond's spirit falls on you, you don't pause to play with the bureaucracy. You act." Duncan's face became harder and harder with each word, and by the end Keiichi could see Duncan's fists trembling.
"As you say," Mostana said smoothly. "However, that does bring up the issue of the offering. I cannot believe that you were too busy to completely ignore tradition."
"We were working on two projects at the same time!" Ruthart exclaimed. Keiichi was surprised at the young gnome's sudden display of backbone. It was clear from the look on Duncan's face that the boy had put his foot in it.
"Two projects, you say?"
"Aye." Duncan growled. "Young master Keiichi developed the Handless Seamtress, and I was helping him along."
"Ah, yes." Mostana's eyes swiveled to Keiichi, who immediately squared his shoulders. "A brilliant display of primitive craftsmanship. I've heard great things coming out of Waterdeep about this… Handless Seamstress of yours. I am puzzled though, Builder Steelwater, where are the plans, patents, and offering for this creation?"
"Master Keiichi ain't a Gondar, Artificer."
"But you are, Builder Steelwater."
"That doesn't mean that I'm going to steal his thunder!" Duncan growled. "It was Keiichi's innovation. I just prettied it up some."
"The fact that you were involved in the creation of the project is grounds for submitting the creation to the church." Mostana said smoothly, looking all the while at Keiichi. "Any friend of the faith, regardless of their… beliefs or affiliations, would happily help a friend honor his god."
"Keiichi's helped me honor me god just fine, Artificer. I'm not going to pressure him or rob him of his creation."
"It seems that your priorities have been misplaced, Builder Steelwater. You haven't even made the second offering. Does this mean you've completely forsaken tradition in the heat of Creation?"
"Me priorities ain't your concern, Mostana. When the project's perfected, then I'll make a second. Anything more's a waste of time and materials."
"Some would say that it is a sign of the truly devoted."
"Others say it's a sign of the truly stupid," Duncan growled.
"Are you questioning my faith, Builder Steelwater?"
"Are ye questionin' mine, Artificer?" The two squared off for a moment, neither giving ground until Keiichi started to step forward. Haroun looked the young man over critically and pursed his lips.
"I expect to see the plans in the Patent Office by the end of the week, Master Steelwater."
"You'll get what I give ya, when I give it, Artificer. Not a moment before," Duncan growled.
Keiichi and the others gathered in the shop shifted uncomfortably.
"NO! You 'see here', Haroun Mostana!" The black-haired gnome's curly mustache bristled as Duncan drove his stout finger into the priest's chest. "I ain't one o' yer toadies ta be orderin' around! Ye done run'd me outta th' temple fer being a dwarf. Ye took me ideas half-baked fer yerself an' ruined ‘em afore I had th' chance ta perfect ‘em like they should'a been. Ya come an' insult me guest and friends with yer prattle. Ya even tried tellin' me how ta worship me god!" Each point was driven home roughly, leaving Haroun massaging his chest. "Now get yerself from me shop! I got more important things ta occupy me time than listenin' ta the likes o' yerself spoutin' hot air."
When Haroun didn't immediately move, Duncan veritably exploded. "Ya fool peacock, are ye deaf as well as dumb? I SAID GET!"
The oily gnome squeaked as the dwarf lunged at him bodily. He scampered back a few steps awkwardly and fell flat on his bottom, much to the enjoyment of those gathered. Keiichi reflexively snorted a laugh at the sight, but quickly turned away and pretended to study the seat of the Iron Horse. He could easily feel the blistering gaze that Haroun pinned him with, but didn't acknowledge it in the least.
"You'll regret this, Steelwater!" Haroun growled. "I promise you that!"
"The only thing that I'm ta be regrettin' is not kickin' yer teeth in, Mostana. Ye made me say it twice, but if I have ta say it a third time…" Duncan brandished his fists. "…I ain't gonna waste th' air ta be getting' me point across!"
Haroun scrambled from the workshop as fast as his puny legs would carry him. Keiichi laughed when he was certain that the gnome was gone.
"You made him run like a rabbit!" The young man skipped his palms across one another quickly, imitating Haroun's rapid departure.
"Aye, lad. That I did," Duncan said heavily as he slumped down on to a stool at a workbench. "But at what cost?" Sam drifted over and rubbed her hands up and down Duncan's arms. The dwarf let his face fall in his hands tiredly and then ran his fingers through his hair.
"This is… how do you say…? No good?" Keiichi asked, pulling another, shorter stool up beside Duncan.
"No, lad. No good at all." Duncan wasn't sure how he could explain to the boy what he was feeling at the moment, let alone the complexity of life within the Temples of Gond. He had, after years of segregation and abuse, finally said what needed to be said. Sadly, he'd said the words in anger, and to the wrong person, no less! The gnome that needed to hear his speech wasn't Haroun Mostana. If anyone needed to hear the words, it was the First Artificer Flindel Gullywarden. Now, Duncan wasn't certain he'd ever get the chance. There might be a chance at the Festival of Creation, but he'd have a hard time getting Gullywarden alone.
Myth Drannor was a place of conflict. The trapped forces of the Infernal armies made certain that the once beautiful lands remained deadly for any who dared trespass. A being needed a great deal of power and luck to survive here, but for many the rewards outweighed the numerous dangers. The Phaerimm were one such group. Unfortunately, the luck of one of their number had apparently run out. The fact that it was being hunted by one of its own mattered little. More often not, greater threats and treachery came from a being's own peers, rather than from the land round about Myth Drannor.
X'Xili'Shick, twisted its body away from its opponent's spell, barely avoiding the chain lightning that danced through the small alley it had flown into. X'Xili'Shick had underestimated Thuruolep's preparedness and was now paying the full price for its misjudgment.
To describe X'Xili'Shick and its opponent, Thuruolep, one only had to imagine a large green cone-shaped body and a sea anemone for a head. Four spindly arms protruded at four cardinal points beneath a maw of needlelike teeth. Its tail ended in a wicked, poisonous barb, and a palpable aura of magic and evil intent surrounded them. Even to the most jaded of eyes, these creatures would look alien and fearful. Most people in the Realms had no idea of the existence of the Phaerimm, which was exactly as it should be. As a race, the Phaerimm weren't ready for their existence to be common knowledge yet. Had the rest of the Realms any clue that these creatures still existed, there would be little effort wasted in seeking them out and destroying them with immense prejudice.
Thus X'Xili'Shick and the other Phaerimm within the boundaries of Myth Drannor had taken great care to keep their presence a secret. But considering the number of combating interests within the dead city, that secret was certainly a well-known fact by now. Such was the key cause for this conflict between X'Xili'Shick and Thuruolep.
X'Xili'Shick had told the rest of the Phaerimm in their company that it was time to strike against the Sharn, their sworn enemies, and free the rest of their kind from their prison beneath the Anaurach. It had put forth its reasons, saying that surely the surface races knew of their presence now, and if they were to succeed, they needed to move quickly before they lost the element of surprise completely. After all, the small group of eight had gathered more than enough magic to accomplish this feat.
While X'Xili'Shick's position was sound, the others in the conclave had accused him of cowardice and sedition. Thuruolep had been the chief voice among X'Xili'Shick's enemies and as such was given the honor of putting the upstart in his place. X'Xili'Shick on the other hand, was not intent on backing down or being chastised by the others. He knew he was right, and he was committed to winning this confrontation to prove it.
Luck, it seemed, was on the side of the insubordinate Phaerimm, appearing in the form of a naked redhaired elfmaid leading a small handful of Infernals, drow, and a few Dragon Cultists into the midst of their duel. Magic flew with chaotic abandon and destructive spells tore into the ruined surroundings of the plaza that X'Xili'Shick had drawn his opponent to. The Palace of the Coronal stood menacingly above the conflict, shrouded in mists and looking for all world to be an ancient judge, waiting to pass a heavy sentence upon those desecrating its land. To the surprise of the Phaerimm, the agent of that verdict seemed to be the fiery elfmaid that was viciously tearing into the remnant of the Infernal war party.
A Vrock was literally split in twain and a Zovvut's pale, three-eyed head was sheared from its shoulders and fell to the ground in a number of bloody sections. The lone Baatezu left among the remaining mixed Infernal band, a large black armored Malebranche, charged forward with its wickedly barbed trident held ready to run its opponent through. The elf leaped incredibly high and landed lightly on Thuruolep, using X'Xili'Shick's opponent as a shield and a perch.
X'Xili'Shick watched gleefully as the devil took flight in response to its prey's dodge. Unfortunately, Thuruolep was able to get a spell off before the Baatezu impaled it. The flood of acid pouring from the Phaerimm's wounds and the point-blank explosion of the fireball consumed the devil's upper body, leaving it little more than a molten slag of twisted black metal. Its wings were pitted so badly that there was little hope that it could have remained aloft even if it had survived the initial attack. Thuruolep, while badly wounded, was not dead… curse the luck.
The elfmaid wasted little time in waiting for her living shield to recover from the Baatezu's attack. She tore into the abomination with mystical talons, eviscerating X'Xili'Shick's enemy with vicious abandon. The doomed Phaerimm's telepathic scream echoed throughout the heart of Myth Drannor, alerting a number of other entities of its demise. The commotion drew the rest of the Phaerimm company from the safety of the sidelines, forcing them to commit to the battle in order to destroy this new threat to their sovereignty. Demon, drow, and dragon-sworn all fell into the bloody bedlam centered on an elf-witch who fought with such power and ferocity that any who dared approach fell dead at her feet.
The magic that she wielded was more powerful than anything X'Xili'Shick had ever experienced. She seemed to absorb spells directed at her, and any physical attack was either dodged or swatted away with little effort at all. More troubling still were the conflicting energies that arced up and down her lithe form. There was no mistaking the telltale signs of both the Shadow Weave and Mystra's Silverfire. The true mystery was how this elf had come by these abilities. Even as X'Xili'Shick pondered this odd paradox, the subject of his speculation blazed into being before his mind's eye. For the barest of instants, the Phaerimm's mind touched hers and was swallowed by a sea of stars. Unlike his enemy, X'Xili'Shick did not have an opportunity to cry out as Ranma's shadow-covered hand literally shredded his body and spirit.
Khindristryx watched the battle from the safety of the pool chamber, as she had so very often over the last few weeks. The waters of the pool itself served as a focus for her scrying. Once she had learned of the elfmaid's presence from her priests, she immediately settled in to watch this being and weigh her potential threat. At first, she thought the redhaired menace to be a wild elf Beast Channeler; intent on revenging herself on those that had tainted this once beautiful land.
Upon further examination, and as the current battle had progressed onward, the dracolich had watched in awe and horror as the elfmaid decimated any opponent that dared approach. An idea of just who — or rather what — this small being was settled home and left the former green dragon nervously clawing at the stone along the edge of the pool. Had the skeletal monstrosity still had a stomach, it would have quivered in fear. The petite elf's body was wreathed in silver flames and black lightning danced around her eyes and mouth. The Phaerimm's numbers had been whittled from eight strong to three, before she allowed them to retreat in order to focus on the Death Slaad that one of the Tanar'ri had summoned.
The elf raked her fist across the air, leaving a trail of silver flames in the wake of her motion, and across the field of battle the Death Slaad exploded in a pillar of hoary fire. The Tanar'ri that had gated in the beast broke from the battle and started running towards the Coronal's Palace. It had taken all of four steps before the maiden had pounced on its back and unleashed a storm of black and purple fire. The gore dredged up by her assault sent black blood flying like rain across the flagstones of the plaza. Wherever the blood fell, the ground hissed and popped under the potent corruption of the acidic demonic blood.
Khindristryx watched in fascination at the ferocity of the moment, and then it was over. She urged the magic of the pool to get a closer look at the naked elf. The image blurred and soon re-established itself on the face and torso of the comely figure, revealing the oddity of the symbols of three goddesses branded over her heart: Shar, Mystra, and Selune. It was one more mystery to add to the overall enigma of the elf, and one that the dracolich didn't have time to ponder at the moment.
The feral warrior lifted her head to the remaining combatants, her eyes glowing with a very familiar light. The dracolich hissed fearfully as she was once again faced with a pair of stormy eyes that threatened to consume her. The look was unmistakable. Had she still retained her lungs, the dracolich would have gasped in fear and surprise; as it was, a tremor of terror rattled through her bones.
The elf turned her head just so, and Khindristryx knew that this goddess-made-flesh was aware of her scrying. The former dragon reflexively backed away from the pool at the toothy smile that split the elfmaid's face. There was a flash of silver and the dracolich roared in pain. Four burning lines of argent fire flared across her snout and right eye, scorching the hardened bones painfully. The tainted Pool of Radiance roiled below her, consuming the scryed images and filling the room with a rotten, sulphuric smell.
Khindristryx growled and scored the stone floor of the poolroom with her great claws angrily. She had heard of the powers of spellfire and the whisperings of the even more potent silverfire, but never in her long life had she thought that such power could challenge her undead might regardless of what the tales said. She roared and let loose her breath weapon in her rage. A group of priests rushed into the chamber to investigate the disturbance and were unlucky enough to fall prey to the dracolich's noxious, acidic cloud. The corrosive gas literally ate away at her minions, leaving little in its wake save the echoes of the priests' screams.
Her anger and fear were consumed in the haze of fiery pain, and the undead dragon thrashed throughout the room attempting to ease the lingering agony of the elf-witch's attack. The suffering of the wound finally subsided, but left Khindristryx dazed for a number of minutes more. She hissed hatefully at the pool and immediately surveyed the damage to her skull. Four parallel, blackened gouges reached from the base of the right jaw and climbed the entire length of the skull.
The palace shook beneath an incredible blow and Khindristryx returned her gaze to the pool, noting that the magical water had suddenly become unnaturally smooth and silent. The mirrorlike surface once again became a window into the battle-frenzied courtyard. Dust and debris fell like a curtain over the plaza, obscuring the sight of what had caused the destruction of the easternmost tower of the palace. The still bodies of the dead littered the fitted-stone courtyard and pools of black, red, and green blood collected a fine sheen of grit and white stone powder. A flash of red hair leapt from one of the billowing clouds of smoke and dirt to engage a Phaerimm that had retreated to a higher, and obviously to its mind, a safer altitude.
In an amazing display of power and agility, the elfmaid bounded from toppled stone to tree limb to broken wall, rapidly closing the distance between her and her opponent. Khindristryx stared at the odious form of the elf and growled. There was no doubt in her terribly warped mind that she would eventually have to face off against this goddess made flesh. The only questions were how soon the confrontation would come and how to defeat her. There was no time to develop a cunning plan, and from the looks of things, even less time to lay any suitable traps. It would be a battle of power, brutal and destructive. From the way that the stones shook, the conflict would happen sooner than later. The dracolich needed an immediate source of power. Something that would overwhelm her opponent the instant she set foot into the palace.
The Pool of Radiance once again went unnaturally still and smooth, drawing the undead dragon's thoughts back to it. Khindristryx marshaled her will and began to submerge her mind in the magic of the pool. The limitless depths of the pool immediately began assaulting the dracolich's blighted soul.
Elsewhere in Myth Drannor
Elminster and Valor had ridden on the switchback trail, zigzagging back and forth in a dizzying, if not wholly frustrating, series of loopy circles for the entire five and a half tendays that they had been following this young Ranma Saotome.
They had been in and out of so many groves, and fought more than one party of drow to a standstill. Valor, coming from the city of Ched Nasad, had very little problem dealing out death and mayhem to her kin. Though she made no mention of it, Elminster's reluctance to engage her kin surprised her a great deal. She didn't voice her concerns, but they must have been apparent on her face, for she heard Elminster simply mutter something about seeing enough killing to last a hundred lifetimes, and left it at that. While she agreed with the premise of his argument, she was never one to shy away from "preventative maintenance" where her kin were concerned. Still, the times that they were faced with unavoidable confrontations, Valor could freely admit that she much preferred Elminster's way of handling things. Esaurius' Gentle Laxative was a hilarious enchantment, especially when used to break a charge of dour-faced dark elves.
The drow aside, Valor could tell that Elminster was circling wide of their goal; brushing against the borders, if you will. It was as if the old wizard was trying hard to delay the inevitable. Valor didn't completely understand his reasons, but considering young Ranma's choice of hunting grounds, she could appreciate Elminster's hesitation. Myth Drannor was not a place to be traveled lightly.
The pair had already faced off against an unhealthy number of obstacles besides the drow, and though she was loathe admitting it, there were fouler things under the heavens than her black-skinned cousins. All things considered, Valor supposed that they were making better time than had they attempted to directly cross through the cursed lands.
"All my life…" Elminster's voice broke through her ponderings as he nudged his horse nearer to her own. "…I found myself wishing for a companion who knew the value of silence. I must say however, that I never imagined a female, such as thyself, to be quite so miserly when it came to conversation."
Valor smiled at the jibe, causing a wicked looking scar at her temple to pucker.
"Do not misinterpret my observations, Fair Valor. Your restraint has allowed me time to ponder this new and unusual course that my life has taken."
The drow's smile softened, but she held her tongue, waiting for the wizard's patience to wear thin. Normally, this ploy would have had little effect on the gray-bearded wizard. However, the stress of the current circumstances had yet to abate, so it was little wonder that someone as controlled and poised as the great Elminster of Shadowdale would feel a little frayed.
"Are you not the least bit interested in what we're about?" the wizard demanded.
Valor could tell that he was used to dealing with people who had little patience and a great need to know as much as they could about the situations that they found themselves in. Valor had accepted the fact that life's mysteries would reveal themselves in their own due time, regardless of how hard she tried to speed things up. Her smile held more than a twinkle of mischief when she finally looked up to the mage. "Is it time for me to know?" She weighed him with little more than a quirked eyebrow and the perception that perhaps she already knew a little more than she was letting on.
She had perfected the art of the bluff in her one hundred and sixtieth year, thanks to her dealings with Bregan D'Arthe. Few could make you second-guess the truth more than Jalaxle, and the orphaned Valor had been an apt pupil in more things than one. Not only had he taught her to watch for the right moment, he had also taught her to see the drow for what they really were… a dying race. She credited him with planting the seeds that eventually drove her from Ched Nasad. The thought that he had been the one to sell her out to the priests of Vhaerun had crossed her mind more than once. Valor was intent on repaying the debt a hundred-fold some time in the future. She had already spent seventy years refining the plan; a little longer, and she was certain that she would be ready to implement it.
Elminster coughed and knuckled his mustachioed upper lip with a quiet smile, again drawing her from her meandering thoughts. "I cannot tell you, lass, just how refreshing it is to dialogue with someone of thy wit and humor. Aye, it is times like these that I can hardly see the Drow in thee."
"Thank you, Magister. One aims to please."
The wizard coughed gruffly and snorted derisively. After another moment of silence, Elminster's countenance turned serious. "Herein is the true question, lass. It is not a matter of whether it is time for thee to know, but rather, art thou brave and foolish enough to want to know?"
"I have learned to fear questions of choice, master wizard."
"As well you should, my dear Valor. For it is these questions, more often than not, that force us to change the most."
"Will I change greatly in the asking, then?"
"In the asking…? No. It is generally what comes after the asking that is usually troubling and distasteful."
The pair entered a small grove and dismounted.
"Will having knowledge of this situation lead me to great discomfort?"
"Undoubtedly." El tethered his horse to a low branch and began searching the pockets of his robe for something.
"Will my life be in danger?"
"What then are the gains to balance out the perils?"
El paused in his search to look fondly at the drow. "Thy wisdom astounds me, Fair Valor. Would that all the poppycock fools that set out to see the wide world stop for a moment and ponder the consequences of their actions as thou dost."
Valor shrugged and continued on, keeping her silence.
"Now then, to the gains." El scratched his beard as. "I really can't say one way or another. Adventure most assuredly." The sour expression on the wizard's face made it quite plain what he thought of that notion. In turn he pulled from one of his deeper pockets a tiny, but extremely detailed, iron tower and placed it at the center of the clearing. He tapped it thrice and muttered a whispered word, then stepped back as the small carving began to rapidly grow. He and Valor waited patiently for the magical building to stabilize, having grown to some thirty feet, before leading the horses into the construct.
"Is there aught else to be had besides adventure?" The drow lead her horse into one of six stalls on the lowest floor, and set about feeding and brushing her mount. The Archmage followed her lead.
"Aye, I hope so. This Ranma fellow seems to be a very special lad with a unique destiny to fulfill. Undoubtedly, we would play some small part in that destiny. In turn, I'm sure we'll learn a thing or two ourselves along the way — maybe even see something new."
"Knowledge is always a worthy prize." The drow looked to her patron thoughtfully. "I believe I will stay the course, if it pleases you."
"I could not hope for more pleasant company, lass."
They finished bedding the horses, and closed up the tower against potential enemies before climbing the stone stairs that magically floated down from the ceiling. "Now then, if you wouldn't mind fixing us some dinner, I've a spell or three to cast. Once we've eaten, then we can see about weaving some real magic."
Valor, like so many of Elminster's female companions of the past, was uncertain just what to make of that statement. In the end, she supposed it didn't matter. Wizards were strange folk, and Elminster of Shadowdale was among the strangest she'd ever known.
On the outskirts of Hemmerling
Grrlixi was what one would call an educated gnoll. By grace of an abnormality in his vocal chords, the eight-foot-tall beast had come to learn languages with ease. The common trade tongue and a few of the more common languages throughout the north were rather easily picked up, thanks to his previous master.
The eccentric wizard Irnae, a native of Calmiport, had been obsessed with good form and etiquette. As such, when he came across Grrlixi, the spellcaster readily saw potential in the young monster. Grrlixi didn't disappoint his master, and soon had learned to read and speak many of the human languages that his master knew.
His writing, though crude, was legible, and his table manners were exquisite. Irnae had been well pleased with his accomplishment, and had given Grrlixi the prominent place at his right hand. The gnoll was eager to pay his master back for this kindness, and thus furthered his liege's interests amongst the goblin races.
Towards the end of Irnae's life, Grrlixi had gathered a sizable army together through cunning and diplomacy; some said that it was the greatest goblinoid army ever assembled. Unfortunately, Irnae died shortly after the first skirmish with a local township, and the army fell apart soon after.
What was Grrlixi to do? For a time, the gnoll lived off of the riches of his former master, that is until the Zhentarim and the Red Wizards of Thay had learned of Irnae's death. Their agents and mercenaries were sent to plunder the mage's tower, and those foolish enough to stand against the raiders lost their lives. Those that followed Grrlixi lived, but lost the comforts of their home. The Zhentarim set up an outpost in the fortress, and the goblinoid band was effectively tossed out on their tails. So Grrlixi took up the noble, time-honored occupation of banditry. It wasn't the glorious battle for his master that he had envisioned, but it paid the bills.
He'd found himself some former packmembers, namely his mate and some cousins from up north, and a few rather brutish human outcasts from the local barbarian tribes. Once he'd organized them into something resembling a band, they'd set out to plague a little stretch of road just west of the moderately sized trade town of Hemmerling. It was some one hundred forty miles northeast of Yartar, and consequently one of two major stopping points between Yartar and Everlund. The second stop was the town of Tradesburrow, which was another hundred and fifty miles north along the Everlund Road, just south of the Rauvin Crossing. It was a known haven to a number of Treehuggers and Rangers, which tended to make banditry a bit more hazardous to one's health. Thus, when Rodbury Hearthman had approached the gnoll bandit, Grrlixi had grinned with pleasure.
Hearthman had offered to act as a sponsor and middleman for the bandits, passing them juicy tidbits here and there in the form of competing merchants or wealthy travelers. He'd also opened up his expansive forested estate to hide Grrlixi's band whenever the constable was out and about. They in turn would share a portion of their take. It had been an unpleasant surprise for Grrlixi to find Hearthman at the mouth of the abandoned mine, bruised and bleeding.
He had mobilized the band, telling them of a fat catch looking to take over his property. This, of course, upset the robbers quite a bit. Grrlixi didn't mind moving on, but the majority of his group wasn't quite ready to give up their hunting grounds. Which was why the group was here, patiently waiting in ambush along the stretch of road leading up to Hearthman's estate. The last lights of dusk had just passed beneath the horizon, leaving the night dark and moonless.
Hark! Was that the sound of children singing and laughing? What could more readily grace his tender ears, but the sounds of fools waiting to donate to his ready cause! It was yet another potential opportunity for wealth, and all he had to do was kill one slip of a girl. He motioned for his companions to step lively, and soon their group of fifteen split into three smaller parties of five and began loping towards the sounds of song in the distance.
"THEY DONE IT!"
Keiichi and Sam looked up from their evening tea as Duncan stomped through the kitchen door slamming it with a bang. Keiichi had seen the dwarf upset a time or two, but this… fit… was something new altogether. His dear friend was enraged.
"DAMN THAT HAROUN MOSTANA TO THE BLACK FIERY PITS THAT SPAWNED HIM! AND DAMN ME FER A FOOL AS WELL!"
Sam immediately leapt from her chair and took her husband's neatly bearded face in her hands. To Keiichi's surprise, Duncan seized up and calmed. After a moment, he noted tears beginning to leak from the stout dwarf's eyes. The intimacy of the moment combined with Duncan's emotional state made Keiichi terribly uncomfortable — so much so that he stood from his chair, intent on giving the couple their privacy.
"Sit yerself down, lad. The sad tale I got involves both o' ye."
Duncan sighed heavily, earning him a kiss on the forehead from his wife. The dwarf trudged over to the table and settled himself heavily into his customary chair at the head of the table. His wife poured him a fresh cup of tea and added a liberal splash of brandy to the cup in turn. When Sam had freshened Keiichi's cup and finally settled herself next to her husband, Duncan shifted uncomfortably, obviously looking for the right words to broach the bad news. Keiichi felt the weight of Duncan's troubles begin to settle over him after a moment, but waited patiently for his mentor to speak.
"After our celebration, I got an itch ta go an see the head o' me order. High Builder Maverly is an honest man, mind. He was the one that introduced me to the Wonderbringer and afterwards convinced me an' Sam ta relocate ourselves here, from our hearth in the Small Teeth Mountains near Imnescar. Maverly and me, we went way back. He knew me sire and had done a lot of business with me family, buyin' ore and having special parts crafted for his creations. I'd travel down ta his small chapel in Imnescar for the Festivals and ta deliver his orders. It weren't too hard ta fall in love with all the gadgets and boobobbles that the priests built."
Duncan laughed and shook his head at some long off memory. "I remember seein' this wild contraption, built by some fool ta dig ore from the ground. It was shortly after Sam and I had been wed, see, and I got real angry about the machine. It was like a mosquito bite smack dab in the middle o' me back. Ask Sam, I ‘bout drove her mad fer two…"
"Try four, Dear." Sam smiled innocently as she sipped her tea, earning a snort from Duncan.
"…four weeks. I couldn't get the idea outta me head that this fool's machine was gonna go inta someone's mine and end up killin' a bunch of people 'cause o' shoddy workmanship and a gross sense of ignorance. Well, it done drove me so mad that I finally confronted Maverly over the issue." Duncan sipped his tea and brandy and shook his head.
"What did he say?"
"He told me, with a grin mind you, that if'n I didn't like the design then I should create somethin' better instead o' whinin' about it. Well, I told 'em flat out that it was a load o' rubbish and he knew what he could do with it. Then he done looked me square in the eye and laughed! Called me a coward, mewling calf, an' all sorts of unmentionables."
Keiichi's eyes grew wide. "What happened then?"
"I broke his knee, busted his nose, and broke his jaw in three places…" Duncan's grin was irreverent, and Keiichi was surprised to note that Sam was smiling and nodding, like she fully approved the action! Keiichi wasn't entirely sure how to deal with that idea. Thankfully Duncan's story drew him away from that line of thinking. "…and, while the old crackpot was healing up, I went out and designed me a better digger. It was so good, in fact, that I won the Festival of Creation, a hefty prize, and me first patron. Soon afterward, Maverly inducted me inta the priesthood, and when he got called back to Lantan, he asked me an' Sam ta come with him. That was nearly twenty years ago."
Duncan sighed heavily again and swallowed the rest of his drink in one mighty gulp. "I got meself sidetracked, but at least now you understand what type o' man the High Builder is. He honest and faithful and true — an odd sort of combination fer a human, in me experience. No offense."
"None taken." Keiichi grinned.
"Well, I went ta him ta lodge a formal complaint about Mostana's conduct and pesterin'. But as I'm getting' there, who should be comin' outta Maverly's office, but the little rat himself. Well, Maverly asks the little blighter, ta wait while he an' I have a little chat… a chat that turned inta me shoutin' and hollerin' like a madman, an' all the while, Maverly's sittin' calm as you please.
"I ain't going ta go inta details about what was said, but I came ta find out that Mostana issued a complaint o' his own, claimin' that me Iron Horse is a tainted abomination that should be scrapped and slagged."
"He didn't!" Sam gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh, Duncan! Tell me you didn't…!"
Duncan lowered his head shamefully.
"I did. It took four of the burlier acolytes ta separate me fist from his throat."
"That ain't ta say that the little bumkisser didn't get a few of his own licks in." The dwarf pulled his collar open to reveal an ugly purple, black, and green bruise just below his collarbone. "Once the acolytes had me down on the floor, Mostana pulls one of the ornamental wrenches from the wall outside Maverly's office and nailed me good. That's when the High Builder got Jhurra involved."
"Jhurra?" Keiichi asked.
"Maverly's Gondsman. It's an artificial man o' sorts. Like a mechanical golem, ya might say…." Keiichi wasn't totally clear on the picture, but it sounded like a robot. Images of Banpei immediately drifted through his mind. "Well, Maverly was pissin' fire at that point. He sent down an official reprimand ta the High Artificer himself, namin' us both in the report while we sat there and watched him draft it. The Artificer sent back an immediate reply, givin' Maverly the authority to excommunicate us on the spot if he felt the need. That was certainly a wake-up call fer the two o' us, an Maverly wasn't content to let us off with a slap on the wrist this time.
"See, Keiichi, me an Mostana go way back. He's a no-talent charlatan from Calimport, with more love fer gold than fer the craft. The only reason he's made it as high in the clergy as he has, is because of the gold his contacts bring ta the church's coffers. Ever since we met, he an' I've hated one another. Well, Maverly flat out told us that he was sick of it and said that one of us was going to go this time. He said that he wasn't going to be the one ta decide, but that he was gonna let Gond be the judge. We got till the Festival of Creation to prepare an entry for special consideration. The High Artificer will present the creation to Gond on the morning of the Festival. Whoever wins favor, stays in the priesthood. The other will be excommunicated, and banned from Lantan for life."
Sam's eyes immediately began to tear up.
"How do I fit into this?" Keiichi asked quietly. Duncan's face drooped and his eyes sought out his empty cup.
"Part of the charges Mostana brought against me named you as a 'dangerous heretical influence to the Church', one that should be driven from Lantan and branded an enemy o' the faith."
"What does that mean?" Keiichi was certain that he didn't want to know.
"By now, everyone's heard the name o' Keiichi Morisato, Beloved of Belldandy. Especially after the success o' yer sewin' machine. The fact that ye worship a foreign goddess, an' have outdone a lot of the clergy with yer first creation… Well, son, it doesn't sit well with most folks. Mostana wants you judged alongside me, meanin' that yer gonna have ta create something as well."
"Me? But that's crazy!"
"I don't like it meself, Lad. Mostana's already throwin' all o' his weight behind this. There's no way around it. If we want ta keep our home, then yer gonna have ta compete too. Mostana said that if'n ye didn't, then it was a clear sign of unsavory intent. I told the little bastard that you weren't the type ta walk away from a challenge."
"DUNCAN!" Sam was thoroughly scandalized. "How could you? Keiichi is our guest, you had no right to speak for him in this matter." Duncan looked ashamed.
"Don't worry, Sam. Duncan was right to say what he said."
"No he wasn't, Keiichi! It's his damn fool pride, shooting his mouth off without thinking." Sam glared at her husband and crossed her arms over her chest.
"It's alright, Sam. Really." Keiichi smiled at her. "Belldandy always said that the goddess of Luck always smiles on those who give their all. I know we'll win Gond's favor. All we have to do is come up with something suitably incredible and put our hearts into it. Besides, what type of friend would I be, if I let a little rat like Mostana to rob you of your home?"
"Yer a good lad, Keiichi Morisato. A good lad."
Keiichi blushed, but smiled all the same. "What are friends for? Now. Tell me about the rules to this competition…."
Mystra arrived outside the gates of Ranma's soul-fortress beside Shar. The bastion was impressive, reminding her of the mighty palaces of the Jade Emperors of Kara Tur. There was an undeniable strength about the building that reflected well on the young man's potential. The goddess of magic couldn't help but be impressed with the subtlety of his weavings. It was too bad that she would probably have to destroy it in order to reclaim the power he'd taken from her. She looked to Shar's incarnation and noted a similar reluctance playing out on her adversary's face.
"You have overstepped your bounds, mortal!" Shar's voice echoed against the castle's walls. "Return to me what you have stolen and I will let you live to serve me!"
Mystra shook her head. After having lived the young man's life through his memories, the Lady of Mysteries knew that Shar had just tossed the challenge gauntlet at Ranma's feet. She didn't know how she was going to approach the boy, but she knew that this was not the way to do it.
"Did you not hear me, boy?" Shar planted her fists on her shapely hips arrogantly. "I command you to heed me, or face destruction!"
The gates of the castle opened slowly, and Ranma appeared. She could feel his confidence flowing from him in waves.
"Who couldn't hear you, with that big mouth of yours flappin' nonstop? Nag, nag, nag. You're almost as bad as Kuno."
Mystra couldn't help but laugh at the corresponding image that his comparison brought to her mind's eye. She ignored the glare that her long-time foe sent her. The boy had no idea who he was facing, but the Lady of Mysteries had to admit, he'd hit the nail on the head. Petty, delusional, vengeful, insane… that was Shar all right.
"How dare you!" Shar seethed.
"Look lady, I don't know what's got your panties in a twist, but I really don't care. You got a bone ta pick with me, fine. Let's get on with it. If you're just going to flap your gums all day, I got better stuff ta do."
Shar's body erupted into a corona of purple flames. Mystra started to step in front of the boy, but Ranma simply ignored the display of power by buffing his fingernails on his shirt.
"I will make your suffering last an eternity!"
Ranma opened and closed his hand, making it repeat Shar's vow in a high-pitched squeak. Shar screamed and launched a gout of violet fire at the boy. He calmly dodged the strike, flipping over Shar's head to tap her in the back of the neck. The goddess of loss retaliated with another strike, but Ranma had somehow moved in front of her and tapped her nose.
The goddess of darkness sent thousands of tiny tendrils lashing out at her opponent, only to have them all dodged or knocked aside. Mystra could feel Shar's attempts to siphon back her power, and was surprised that her attacks were being thwarted.
"GIVE ME BACK MY POWER!"
Mystra conjured a comfortable chair for herself and began taking notes. Ranma had complete control of the battle from the very beginning, and she wondered if it had anything to do with the fact that they were in his mind. It made a certain amount of sense. He was lord here, and thus they would always be at a disadvantage. If this was truly the case, then she was going to have to bring Ranma to Dweomorheart in order to reclaim the power he'd taken from her.
Ranma seemed to disappear and reappear behind Shar again, only this time, he smacked her shapely bottom. "Come on! You can do better than that! You're leaving yourself wide open!" Shar screamed and flared her flaming aura, but Ranma was already moving. He landed next to another figure that had just appeared near the gates of the castle. "Why do all the cute ones got to be so damn violent?"
"I wish I knew."
Everyone looked at the new arrival and blinked.
"Laraethian!? What are you doing here?" Shar demanded.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" He grinned impishly.
"Actually, I would." Mystra conjured a table complete with tea service and snacks, and settled herself back into her chair. Ranma appeared almost instantly at her side with puppy-dog eyes and a pleading smile. Mystra giggled and nodded, letting Ranma attack the snacks.
Shar's aura boiled.
"Mystra, darling! How are you, dear?" Corellon Laraethian, Lord of the Seldarine, patted Ranma on the shoulder as he passed, conjuring a chair for himself as well.
"I've been worse. And you?"
"Same old stuff, really. Kicking Gruumsh's arse every so often, trying to convince Ellistraee to settle down, pushing for divorce from Loth, etcetera, etcetera."
Mystra nodded politely. "What brings you here, of all places?" Mystra noted that Ranma's eyebrow quirked at the question.
"A little business actually." He patted Ranma on the shoulder. "This young warrior has been cleaning up Myth Drannor, and I just wanted to say thank you."
Ranma looked up from his feast long enough to raise an eyebrow before shrugging and going back to eating. Mystra rolled her eyes and looked back to the elf god across from her.
"Pull the other one, Laraethian. You're scheming. I can tell." Ranma frowned as he bit into another chicken salad sandwich. "Are you looking to add a little more power to your portfolio?"
"Mystra! You wound me! I'm here with a pure motive. Young Ranma has been doing us a great service. He deserves a reward!" Mystra looked at the elf god askance, but grinned knowingly.
"What's the catch?" Ranma growled, blocking another bolt of power from Shar with the reflective surface of the platinum tea tray. There was a great explosion and everyone turned to see Shar's smoking body laid out in a rather large crater. Ranma shrugged and looked back to Corellon expectantly.
"That's a very good question, Ranma."
Mystra shivered at the sound of the new voice. She looked up to see Kihon'i appear behind Ranma. She handed him and Corellon small cards and offered Mystra a predatory smile. "Mystra dear, you and Shar left so suddenly that we didn't get a chance to conclude our business."
The young man and the elf god blinked, looking up at the new goddess with more than a little bit of trepidation.
"There was an emergency, and…" The goddess of magic stammered. Kihon'i waved Mystra's excuse aside.
"I know. I know. Ranma here, represents a terrible threat to the Weave and you are here to set things straight. Shar's pissed because Ranma's influencing the Shadow Weave, and Corellon here wants to fill a long-overdue vacancy in the pantheon."
"Ha! I knew it!" Mystra crowed, pointing an accusing finger at the elf god. Shar took this moment to stumble up to the table, a little charred around the edges, but for the most part intact. She pulled two very deadly looking short swords from somewhere and began swinging. Her movements were rather clumsy, or at least that's the way Ranma made her look — something that surprised both Mystra and Corellon. He dodged and batted away her strikes absently as he drank his tea. He blocked another flurry of blows and then finally disarmed her with a twist of his wrist. She blinked incredulously and then just as suddenly found herself flat on her stomach with Ranma sitting in the middle of her back eating another sandwich. Mystra was certain this wasn't meant to add to Shar's humiliation, but she made a note to frame a poster-sized print of this for Selune.
Kihon'i cleared her throat. Shar paused in her rant about what she was going to do to Ranma's entrails over the next couple of millennia and looked up. Her eyes bugged and her black, starry skin seemed to polarize, becoming a white with tiny black stars.
"Indeed." Kihon'i smiled in a way that looked very much like a shark. "As fun as this has been to watch, we've got business to finish up."
"Now then. We'll start with you Shar, since I've got your attention. For the number of infractions and abuses of your power and station, I'm afraid the penalties are going to be rather stiff. First and foremost among your infractions concerns Mister Saotome here."
"WHAT!" Shar bucked and kicked, trying to displace Ranma, but was unable to get any leverage. "If anyone should be punished, it should be this little maggot!"
"Hey! What did I do?"
"You know the rules, and you were warned from the outset, Shar."
"He stole from me!" Shar protested.
"How the hell do you figure that, you crazy psycho!?" Ranma countered. "I don't even know you! How the hell could I steal anything from you?"
"Mister Saotome, please." Kihon'i paused and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "The infraction of which you speak was not theft. It was an improvisation on the natural laws governing the Weave and Shadow Weave. The fact that Ranma absorbed a portion of your essence was an unintentional accident. However, the fact that you and Mystra took advantage of the situation to perpetuate your little dispute was not. Your continued aggressions against Mister Saotome with the intent to destroy him have further condemned you. As such, you will forfeit control of the power Ranma has absorbed as compensation."
Shar literally exploded, throwing Ranma into the outer wall of his castle. Her body reformed, taking on a more menacing avatar. She stood some twenty feet tall, and her lithe, feminine form was covered in black, razor-plated armor. In one fist she gripped a whip of black flames, and in the other a wicked looking khopesh. She towered over Kihon'i, radiating enough power to cause the mindscape to boil beneath her feet.
The sword rose and fell with a blinding swiftness that Mystra could hardly follow. To her surprise though, the sword shattered the moment it came in contact with the goddess. Kihon'i looked up at the goddess of loss and shook her head. She pulled a small pendant from her dress and tapped it, causing the stone to grow. Mystra paled and swallowed hard upon reading the decree on the tablet. Ranma arrived and picked up another sandwich, scratching his head in confusion. Corellon whistled and shook his head.
"Her badge, Ranma," Mystra whispered.
"You mean she's a cop?"
"After a fashion." Kihon'i smiled.
"Reap what you've sown, Shar. Understand though, that the price you're going to be paying just went up and you've no one to blame but yourself." She paused and tapped the tablet for emphasis. "Maybe you'll learn not to go against official agents of the head office next time."
The Hand of Ao looked over at the confused Ranma and smiled.
"Shar's been a bad girl and broken a few laws, Ranma. Because of that, she's going to have to make amends. If she doesn't… well… it's not something that we like to think about."
"Ouch. So what's she got to do? Go to jail?"
"No. She's going to be giving up control of something very close to her heart."
Shar looked up in panic at the declaration and fell to her knees. "You can't!"
"By your own hand and Ao's word, I already have. The Shadow Weave is no longer yours." She gestured to Ranma and the boy's body was wreathed in black lightning. Ranma looked like he was about to scream, but he held it in.
When the transfer passed, the young man fell to his knees opposite Shar. "What the hell was that?!" he panted.
"We'll go over everything after we're done here." Kihon'i patted his shoulder and looked up to Mystra. "Are you going to fight Justice too, or will you walk the same path as your predecessor?"
The goddess of magic shook her head and motioned for Kihon'i to continue.
"Good. As with my initial ruling for Shar, you will forfeit the power that Ranma accidentally absorbed. How you fit him into the scheme of things is up to you, but understand that Lord Ao's decree is still in play. I've taken steps to have someone start his education, but from here on out he's going to be on his own."
"And when he leaves?" Mystra was uncertain how she felt about this turn of events.
"Lord Ao made it very clear that it would be his choice. The mantle can go with him, or he can pass it off to someone else."
Mystra looked at Ranma again and sighed as she felt the loss of power become permanent. The boy was glowing a light silver now, and looking very uncomfortable. Lord Ao had taken some drastic measures here, and she had to wonder if it would balance the scales or tip them in her favor. In the end Mystra knew that it was going to take a great deal of time to sort the whole mess out, and she couldn't fault anyone but herself for the loss. Her only hope was that she could make friends with Ranma. The last thing she needed was to make an enemy of someone that had suddenly been elevated to become her near equal.
"Now then, we're running low on time, so we're going to have to wrap this up quickly. Corellon, you're up." Mystra looked up as the elf god pulled a silver torque from his cloak and moved in front of Ranma.
"Ranma Saotome, for services to the elves I offer you this gift. Will you accept our gratitude for saving so many lost souls from the clutches of Myth Drannor?"
Ranma blinked and shrugged. "Uh… sure… whatever." The Lord of Elves gently placed the torque around Ranma's neck and smiled. Ranma smiled back uncertainly. "Man, this is one whacked dream."
"It's no dream, Ranma." Corellon patted Ranma on the shoulder. "Welcome to the family."
Mystra shook her head in awe and amusement. She started to explain things, but the sky above the gathering was torn asunder. Everyone looked up to see a pitched battle being fought, and then Ranma screamed. The last thing that Mystra saw before being thrown from the mindscape, was the body of a Phaerimm tearing something from Ranma's soul.
Ranma-neko danced around the lightning and fire that the Twisted Ones threw at her. The night sky was alight with angry lights and deafening explosions. She could sense that her enemies were trying to trap her, and could feel their unnatural minds trying to break her. She couldn't conceptualize the mental attacks, but she did know that the Twisted Ones were deadly opponents. She felt them trying to tame her, to collar her and she fought them tooth and claw. These two were quite different from their fellows. They were smart enough to keep her at a safe distance, out of the reach of her claws and her teeth. They kept her moving too.
Every time she landed on something, fire would attempt to burn her, or ice to freeze her, or the earth to consume her. They pushed her relentlessly, refusing to allow her a moment's rest; all the while they attacked her body and her mind in tandem. But despite their attacks, Ranma-neko didn't leave them unscathed.
It was a harsh battle that neither side was gaining any ground in. At least until the third Twisted One made its presence known. She felt something akin to tangle vines snarling her body mid-leap. She couldn't see or smell them, but that meant little since she could feel them. Her back paws were bound and something had pinned her front legs close to her chest, but she was still able to roll with her impact on the large flat stone field beneath her.
They were cunning; she had to give their pack credit for outsmarting her. That didn't necessarily mean that she was going to roll over and show her throat to them, though.
She lashed out viciously, raking her claws through the air and shredding and gouging the pair that had drawn close to finish her off. Her teeth came down on the invisible vines and began worrying them. She watched the third Twisted One some distance away as it rolled and spun in a frantic dance. Its paws were clawing at the air, leaving odd arcs of light in their wake, and it seemed to be growling in a strange way. She didn't understand the behavior of the Tainted, but she could feel the vines finally giving way beneath her teeth. The air was thick and charged with energy, but Ranma-neko did not stop to assess the sudden change in the environment.
She burst from her bonds and immediately launched herself at the abomination. Her body impacted heavily, driving the creature up and over the palace proper with a flurry of strikes that tore incredible gouges in the creature's body, as well as the area surrounding the combatants.
The Twisted One screeched as she finally severed one of its remaining paws, but not before it completed its nefarious work. Ranma-neko blinked and noted something strange happening within her. First there was a light tug, and then a solid yank on the core of her being. Something sharp and painful struck her and caused her to yowl in agony. There was no concept for the exquisite torture in her limited and feral vocabulary. However, deep within Ranma's soul a daunting black prison shattered. There was a moment of clarity as the spirits of cat, human, and deity knew one another, and then the cat was literally torn from Ranma's soul. The once-feral martial artist watched numbly as a ball of energy that looked vaguely feline rocketed toward a shimmering necklace in her opponent's severed hand, falling to the courtyard below.
Ranma's pain climaxed, sending her mind into a chaotic dance.
It was the most unbearable experience she had ever felt. She couldn't even find breath to scream. Her blood was aflame, consuming her from the inside out and the heart of her identity started to splinter and come undone. She screamed in anguish and frantically reached out to the ki around her. The lines were tainted and sickening, but she seized them with little regard for the damage it might do to her in the long run. The most important thing now was to keep herself intact. A darkness surged through her, making her want to vomit but it kept her spirit from finally shattering. It was like drinking directly from a sewage pipe though, and it was all that she could do to hold on until the mystical attack was finally repelled.
What little control she'd maintained was swept away in a torrential flood of power that literally burst from every pour in her body. Ranma finally found voice for her pain, and it echoed for miles around the dead city of Myth Drannor.
"Will you please at least tell me about your dreams?"
Usagi walked on beneath the dark shapes of the trees, pretending not to hear Ulin's question. The questions had been coming nonstop since the group had begun walking and the displaced Senshi was incredibly tired of the pestering. There were times that she thought Ulin could teach Luna a thing or two about nagging!
"You can ignore this all you want, Usagi. It doesn't change the fact that you haven't been eating well or sleeping through the night since we left the mines. There is something terribly wrong, but I can't help if you will not share what ill you are carrying. Are you troubled about Goruch's death?"
The young woman stifled a mighty yawn at the mention of sleep, but chose not to acknowledge Ulin's query. Instead she turned her attention further up the line of refugees to the stumpy figure of a round-shouldered dwarf and their guide, Marcus.
"How much further to the estate, Mister Marcus?"
Ulin's face soured and the air filled with the distinctive smell of brimstone and ash.
"So be it, Girl! If you are woman enough to ignore my offer and my counsel, then you are woman enough to solve your own troubles. You can rot for all I care! Let your dreams consume you from the inside out! See if I concern myself about your health and wellbeing ever again!" The Genasi hissed as she spun on her heel and stomped through the crowd, towards the back of the line. Usagi watched her go with some regret, but it was tempered by a healthy dose of frustration as well.
"Not ta be puttin' me nose where the hornets are buzzin' Mistress…" Garl Blackhammer moved quickly to fall in step with Usagi. "…but I'm fer thinking that the Earth Sister was aimin' ta be helpin' ye."
Usagi sighed as she turned to look down at the stout dwarf. He sported a large, wickedly rooted club that looked very much like a miniature tree, save for the very detailed faces that Garl had carved into the wood. He shifted the weapon so that it was resting over his right shoulder, and a soft smile, which seemed totally at odds with the rest of his stony face, grew as Usagi looked for the right words.
"I know, Mister Blackhammer. But there are some things that she can't help me with." The dwarf snorted and knuckled his mustache. "She's got more than enough to worry about without having to add me to the list."
"Beggin' yer pardon, Lady. But if it pleases you, me name's Garl." He nodded matter-of-factly and scratched his beard nervously. "And if ye'll pardon me nose again, I'd say it's fair obvious that yer at the top o' her list."
Usagi shot the dwarf an icy gaze through narrowed eyes that should have frozen him in place. Had he been paying more attention to her rather than the tree line, he might have been properly cowed. She started to say something in rebuttal, but immediately found herself bereft of breath and flying. She hit the ground in a roll that left her feeling very dizzy and disoriented. The air seemed incredibly still for an instant, and then screams began echoing up and down the forested road.
Usagi caught one last glimpse of Garl Blackhammer pulling his club down into a very menacing position, before her vision was obscured by running bodies and clouds of dust. She was forced to scramble to her feet to avoid being trampled, but once standing all that she saw was bedlam.
Men, women, and children were running every which way, being chased by large wolfish shadows and other armored figures brandishing weapons. Usagi could see Shandri standing valiantly against one of the towering monsters in order to protect four little girls. She had no weapon and already one arm hung limp and bloody at her side.
Usagi started to go to her aid; one of Ulin's newly taught spells already leaving her lips. Once she had let loose the magical darts (that strangely enough looked like tiny pink hearts), she started running towards the girls. She had taken less than five steps, when she was brought up short by the image of the man from her nightmares blocking her path.
[COMPENSATION MUST BE MET, DAUGHTER OF THE WEAVE.] His voice was cool and placid, like the still waters of a lake in late autumn. [NOT EVEN YOU CAN STOP THE HANDS OF FATE. THE BALANCE WILL BE MAINTAINED.]
Rage and frayed nerves fought with Usagi's pent-up terror. It was a familiar feeling. She'd felt it when facing Beryl. She'd weathered it when facing Wiseman. It had been there when she had confronted Galaxia. But there was something else that had been present in all those instances as well. Determination.
The armored man brought up his sword in salute to her as she let the fires of her spirit surge forth. Her traveling clothes disappeared in a shimmering cascade of power, being replaced by a gown of the purest white.
"I know you now," she said calmly… more calmly than she truly felt, at least. That well-known sense of detachment settled over her as she felt her power gathering. "You are the end of all things."
He nodded to her once in acceptance.
"I must fight you." Her voice was steady in spite of her sweaty palms.
[YOU CANNOT.] It was stated as a fact and punctuated by a woman's scream.
"I will fight you." She felt her anger beginning to boil in her throat at the sight of a man, Kern Deffin, fall to the ground with an arrow protruding from his throat.
[HOW CAN YOU HOPE TO WIN?] There was no amusement in his voice, nor did he patronize her. Usagi noted with some surprise that he seemed to have had this discussion many times before. That thought alone made her angrier than she had ever been in her life.
"I will win because I have to!" She growled. "DO YOU HEAR ME? BECAUSE I HAVE TO!"
A silver wave exploded outward from her person, augmented by the power of the Silver Crystal pendant hanging about her neck, bathing the small battleground in argent fires. The heat of conflict was stolen from aggressor and defender alike, leaving everyone staring dumbly at one another. An unnatural peace settled over the glade. Wounds healed. Fatal attacks were reversed, and the monstrous wolfmen that had been loping to the kill became… something else completely. The armored man before Usagi had not moved however. In fact, he looked intent on approaching the wobbling Usagi to lend her a hand. Some how she managed enough strength to straighten and glare at the warrior she had named Death.
[YOU MAY FIGHT, AS MANY DO. BUT A PRICE MUST BE PAID, SILVER PRINCESS, FOR THOSE YOU HAVE WRONGLY TAKEN AS YOUR OWN.]
"…what's the price you're asking…?" She croaked.
[THE SCALES MUST BE BALANCED, SOUL FOR SOUL — EITHER THIS, OR A PURE SOUL FREELY GIVEN TO FILL THEIR VOID.]
Usagi trembled a bit at the finality of the figure's words. People and creatures alike had come to circle the tableau out of fear and curiosity. The young woman looked up and smiled at Ulin with all the love that she could muster, before stepping forward and opening her arms.
"I offer myself then, on their behalf, if it is an acceptable trade."
The specter of death simply stared back at her for a moment. His hesitation did not last though. His hand reached forward and took Usagi's. The moment her skin and his touched, there was a massive explosion that threw everyone to the ground. The deathly warrior and Usagi alone stood, but they were trapped in a column of shimmering energy.
[IT HAS BEEN DECREED FROM THE BEGINNING, NO DIVINE HAND SHALL PREVAIL OVER THESE. HEAR THESE WORDS, KELEMVOR. HEAR THEM AND OBEY.]
There was another explosive blast, but this time the deathly warrior was consumed in an implosion. Usagi found herself thrown from her feet to land in a heap near Shandri, sapped of her strength. All that she could muster was a small smile of victory.
The bodies of the dead, mortal, elf, and Infernal, littered the clearing haphazardly. Braerindra had never thought she would be glad for something as gruesome as this to decorate her grove. Nor would she have ever envisioned a day when watching bodies decaying would be a welcome respite from the boredom of eternal servitude. She sighed a ghostly sigh and looked up to the gathering storm clouds blocking out the stars above her eternal post.
Something on the edge of her perceptions tugged at her… pulling at the magic that anchored her to the grove. The tug became a solid pull, filled with urgency and panic that tore her free from the geas. From her seat on the stone bench at the center of the grove, Braerindra felt the mystical chains binding her snap and for the first time in uncounted centuries, she was free. She heard the sound of ultimate suffering echoing throughout her once beautiful home and followed the undeniable draw to its source.
Ranma fell, wreathed, like a tiny star, in black lightning and silver flame. She plummeted into the palace proper, unconsciously burning and blowing away the stone and mortar that attempted to bar her path. As she limply looked heavenward, she could see a writhing, conelike shadow descending rapidly in her wake. Its remaining two appendages glowed with power and a fierce chanting filled the air.
On some level Ranma knew what was coming. The gestures and the patterns that were being drawn in the air were familiar to her. She could feel the chaotic energy… her energy… building. She knew that the spell being cast would open a maw of chaos, ripping the air and the surrounding area to shreds, and she would be at the center of it all; most likely flayed alive… if she were lucky.
She wanted to puke, and her limbs felt like they were melting from the inside out. She'd never felt anything like this in her waking life. Hell, not even the nekoken was this painful. She knew that she was crying, and on some level she was glad that she was a girl at the moment.
It was so hard to concentrate. What had she been thinking about? She'd lost her train of thought. Not that it really mattered. Damn. She felt like she'd faced Taro, Ryoga, Herb, and the frickin' pervert all at once. All she wanted to do was close her eyes and die. Sleeping forever was sounding really good about now.
Who was she kidding though? She was Ranma Saotome. That lame excuse for a windsock had just opened a can of whoopass on her and here she was, wanting to throw in the towel. Rat-bastard was worse than the panda when it came to taking cheap shots.
As she fell she could sense somewhere deep below her, a well of more power… pulsing in time with her erratic heart and swirling with the chaos that had become her soul. The wild, tainted force called to her, yearning to be used… begging to be cleansed. The sudden buzz in the back of her head drove away the pain, pushing it back and veiling it behind a flimsy veil of numbness. She wasn't sure whether it was a late dose of adrenaline kicking in or what, but she grinned all the same. Never let it be said that Ranma Saotome didn't give as good as she got.
Thoughts of burning herself out never entered Ranma's mind as she embraced the bedlam. She opened herself up to the lifeblood of the world once more, tapping into the limitless well and drawing its power to her. She screamed defiantly as the power washed over her and through her, scouring away tiny bits of blackness as it went. The corona of fire and lightning exploded outward, melting and disintegrating the stone, mortar, and anything else that happened to get in her path. She could have sworn that she'd seen someone's startled face disappear before her, but she couldn't be certain.
Something powerful on the fringe of her consciousness attempted to wrest control from her and she immediately began fighting this new opponent with everything she could muster. There was no doubt that she could not afford to lose this new battle, for more than her life was at stake. Her very soul was on the line.
The Phaerimm's spell went off above her, just as she punched through the ceiling of a large chamber deep within the bowels of the Coronal's Palace. Ranma twisted and faced her original opponent as the air about her literally exploded with malevolent energy, ripping and tearing into her body. She reflexively began to absorb the magic, pulling it into her. The effort itself was incredible and she almost faltered. The entity on the fringe of her mind surged forward, but somehow in her desperate thrashing she managed to hold it at bay. The strain was too much, though, and Ranma was barely able to maintain consciousness, let alone bleed off the continuously building energy.
She screamed again, straining her voice until all that came out was a raw growl. Something snapped in her as she hit the surface of the soiled Pool of Radiance, and her world was suddenly bathed in a bright azure flare.
Keiichi carefully stepped over a large root in the deepening darkness and moved into the grove he'd selected for his altar. Brother Evandur had been ecstatic to hear that he wanted to learn more about the proper forms of building and consecrating an altar. At first it seemed an odd request coming from the consort of a goddess, but after Keiichi had explained that he'd never really needed to build a place of prayer before, Evandur understood his dilemma.
Looking back on their discussions, Keiichi had known some of the process instinctually, but even coming from a society as steeped in ritual and tradition as the Japanese, he was still a product of modern society and had to admit ignorance in what it took to build an altar. Evandur had read a number of texts to him, allowing Keiichi to take his own notes and helped answer questions when he'd had them.
The first step was obviously finding a place for the altar. Evandur had cited that the location was probably more important than the actual edifice, simply because it had to be a place where the symbols of his goddess were at their strongest. It had taken Keiichi days to find the perfect spot. At first he'd thought of using a small corner of the shop, but upon reflection, he felt that was more suited to Skuld than to his Belldandy. He'd taken to going on long walks in the mornings until he literally stumbled upon this small grove just northwest of the town's border. It was private and had an opening in the canopy of trees that allowed for a spectacular view of the sky. It reminded him of the many times that he had encountered Belldandy singing to the trees and animals that lived near the shrine. It was just the type of place that he'd find her in, if he'd been at home.
The second step was selecting materials to build the altar. Evandur went into great depth about the power of symbols and their importance in worship, but Keiichi couldn't fathom what types of materials Belldandy preferred. He pestered Evandur for ideas until the man began pestering him in turn for physical descriptions of the goddess. In the end, he had remembered some of the stories he'd heard Urd spin about "the old days" and how the Norns were always associated with the roots of Yggdrasil, and upon searching his grove, he'd found an ancient ash tree with a number of exposed roots. He'd also come across some symbols in a dwarven text of Duncan's that reminded him of the runes he'd seen the goddesses use from time to time. He couldn't remember which one was Belldandy's and so, he decided to carve them all into a large stone trapped in the roots of the tree at Duncan's suggestion.
The next step, dressing the altar, was something he was familiar with. He'd maintained shrines in his home as a little kid, and so he went about town looking for things that he knew Belldandy would love; a beautifully embroidered linen tablecloth, a fresh cutting of flowers from Sam's flower garden, and a sweet smelling incense were all purchased for his altar. Now Keiichi knelt humbly before the tree and gently laid them all out at the base of the stone he'd carved the symbols in.
Last but not least, Evandur had said that he needed a personal sacrifice… something that was important to him, to prove his sincerity and dedication to his goddess. Of all the memories to jump to his mind, the time Urd had made all his hair fall out stood out the most. So, very delicately, Keiichi took up his knife and cut a lock from his head and placed it at the center of the linen cloth.
Keiichi closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He didn't know what to expect from this, but Evandur said not to look for signs and whatnot. After all, prayer was supposed to be more a test of his faith, than a test of his goddess' love.
He bowed his head and closed his eyes; starting tentatively, uncertain what words he should use.
"Uhm… Belldandy-chan, I don't know if you can hear me or not… shoot, I don't even know if I'm doing this right…." A feeling of complete foolishness and great anxiety overwhelmed him, forcing him to his feet. He began to pace nervously before the altar. Evandur had suggested that he try and visualize her in his mind, and simply talk to her as if she were there.
"Dang, I miss you, Bell. I don't know what happened to get me sent here, or how I'm supposed to get home, but I'm doing my best to keep busy and not think about being stuck in a place so far away from you. I've been making friends and helped one of them finish a project he's been struggling with. I'm sorry I haven't done this before now. You know… praying and all. It wasn't something that occurred to me might help. Another friend of mine, Sister Maerdith, chewed me out for not showing more gratitude to you. Heh. It's just like me to get wrapped up in things and forget to call you."
Keiichi knew he was babbling, but a sense of serenity washed over him as he poured out his soul to his long-lost goddess. The moon rose and fell again, but Keiichi hardly noticed. He told of his experiences to date, laughing at the memory of arriving buck-naked in the middle of a religious ceremony. He spoke of the excitement over the sewing machine and the Iron Horse, and he expounded on Duncan's problems with Haroun Mostana.
"How can I help him, Belldandy?" He ran a hand through his shaggy hair and threw up his other in frustration. "I don't want him to get in trouble because of me. He and Sam have been so good to me… I just… I just…."
Had he been less absorbed in his thoughts, Keiichi might have been able to step over the root that caught his toe. By the time he realized he was falling, it was too late.
Pain lanced through his skull from where his forehead impacted the side of the stone in the roots. His head swam with dizziness as he struggled to right himself against the small boulder. A damp, sticky, warmth trickled down into his eyes and dribbled onto the stone. He raised his fingers to the wound and saw them come away red in the waning moonlight. He leveraged himself against the stone, smearing blood across three of the carvings he had made in its surface.
As he turned away, the runes began to glow beneath his fingers.
A wispy cloud of glowing white smoke began to rise from the stone, and was soon followed by two other tendrils, one gold and one red. He watched in awe as the smoke began to form into bodies.
The gold cloud solidified into a kind, elderly woman. Her hair was white, and her skin was evenly bronzed. She was slightly hunched over and wore a simple gray silk dress. Her glowing, mischievous eyes were very familiar to Keiichi, however.
Her voluptuous body was gone, replaced by a form that reminded Keiichi of his grandmother. The old woman winked at him and inclined her head to the white cloud that was solidifying to her left. His eyes traveled up the figure, afraid to hope. By the time his eyes finally settled on Belldandy's timeless face, Keiichi was holding his nose tightly. Her blush only heightened her beauty. His own face was flushed at the white silk dress the mature woman wore. It reminded Keiichi of something from Urd's wardrobe.
"…Belldandy… gorgeous…." The goddess before him blushed even more.
Keiichi sighed from the dirt his head had been buried in. He waved at Skuld as he extricated himself and marveled at the changes in the girl before him. She was no longer a cute twelve-year-old. She, while younger looking than Belldandy, had the body of a mature young woman. She was dressed in form-fitting armor with a plated skirt that showed off her muscular legs, and carried a wicked-looking warhammer slung over one shoulder.
Keiichi could only stare in humility at the women before him. Power unlike anything he'd ever felt before wafted off of the three, making him feel tiny and insignificant. He started to talk, but stopped when the goddesses began to speak in unison.
"WE ARE COME, MORTAL SON OF ADAM, FROM ACROSS THE VOID AT THY BLOOD'S CALL."
Keiichi trembled in fear and awe at the way their voices intermixed with one another. The echoes of eternity danced in his ears, and for the very first time, he understood just who and what the sisters were.
"URD, NORN OF THE PAST, GODDESS OF DREAMS LONG FORGOTTEN."
Keiichi looked to Urd and noted that her body began to reshape itself into a more familiar form. The simple gray dress was replaced with something even racier than Belldandy's.
"VERTHANDI, NORN OF THE NOW, GODDESS OF PRESENT NEED."
Unlike Urd, Belldandy's form and attire did not change, something Keiichi was secretly grateful for.
"SKULD, NORN OF THE FUTURE, GODDESS OF THINGS TO COME."
Skuld's body didn't change either, but her warhammer seemed to grow a bit larger, and if possible more menacing.
"BE AT PEACE, BELOVED OF THE NORNS, AND SPEAK THY HEART."
Keiichi blinked at that and looked at each goddess in turn. Tears were in their eyes, and he noted that his vision was becoming blurry too. He wanted to run to them and embrace them, but he felt uncertain if it was something a mortal could do. Belldandy giggled and answered the question for him, bending down and kissing away the wound on his forehead. A tingling raced through his body and he felt incredibly refreshed.
"Hello, dear. How are you?"
Keiichi enveloped her in a hug and kissed her passionately.
"Oi!" Skuld groused. "Stop molesting my sister, pervert! Our provisional visas only give us a little bit of time here, so tell us what you want already!"
"Give them a break, Squirt. Let love run its course." Urd poked her sister in the side of the head.
Keiichi finally broke the kiss and tried to organize his thoughts enough to ask the questions that had weighed on him over the last few weeks. "I didn't expect you to come… I mean, I didn't know what to expect, but you being here wasn't one of them. I just figured that you couldn't reach me."
Belldandy's smile faded a bit. "We wanted to Keiichi, but there are rules that had to be observed first. We couldn't cross over until someone called upon our names and offered a proper tribute. We would have been here sooner if it had been possible."
Keiichi smiled and stroked Belldandy's face lightly. "I've missed you so much. My dreams haven't done you justice."
Belldandy blushed more and turned for his benefit, causing his eyes to bug. Skuld made a gagging gesture with her finger and rolled her eyes, earning a slap upside the head from Urd for her trouble. When Keiichi's gaze started to wander over Belldandy's form, Skuld's hammer fell again in retribution, smacking him in the face.
Belldandy frowned at her little sister as a snickering Urd pulled out a little mirror for Keiichi's benefit. The word "Pervert" was branded across his forehead in bright purple letters. Abashed, Skuld waved her hand and wiped the mark away, but Keiichi was still the recipient of her glare o' doom. Urd helped Keiichi to sit up again, and settled across from him while Belldandy snuggled up behind him. Skuld settled herself on one of the roots and began tinkering with a gadget.
"Okay, Keiichi-chan. Listen up. We've got a lot to do and only a little time to do it in. So sit back and pay close attention."
He nodded as Urd motioned for Belldandy to lead off the discussion.
"There was an event at the System Operations office that ended up pulling you and two other people from Earth into this world." Belldandy began stroking his hair, holding him close.
"You mean there are two people from our world trapped here too?"
"Don't interrupt," Urd scolded. She nodded to Belldandy to continue.
"Yes. They are very nice people and I will try to tell you more about them if there is time. However, there are more important matters to discuss. The Ultimate Force is currently working to fulfill your wish, but in order to do so, you must be here for a time. Unfortunately, we are forbidden to directly interfere with this test."
"Test? What test? How do I pass something that I haven't even studied for?"
Belldandy took his face in her hands and looked him deep in the eye. "You are a very special man, Keiichi. A promise was made and the Powers of Heaven are moving to make them reality. Have faith and all will be well."
"Belldany's right, Keiichi. You've got what it takes to Ascend."
"URD!" Skuld hissed. "You can't say anything about that!"
"Duh! Squirt, if you'd take a peek, you'd see that someone's already spilled the beans to him."
Skuld's eyes closed tight in concentration only flare open furiously an instant later.
"What'd you do that for?"
"Did you see what he wanted to do to Belldandy on his birthday last year!?"
Skuld and Belldandy blushed scarlet. Keiichi managed to groan in pain from his place in Belldandy's lap.
"Yeah, so?" Urd closed her eyes and smirked. "It's not like he'd ever have the guts to go through with it."
"But… but… that's so gross!"
"You only think so now, Squirt. Wait a few years."
"WHO ARE YOU CALLING SQUIRT, YOU OLD HAG?!"
Keiichi closed his eyes and sighed, attempting to ignore the familiar bickering.
"Bell-chan… how am I supposed to do this? How do I become a… a… you know?" Belldandy kissed him lightly and hugged him close. Even though she was nearly transparent, she felt as real as she ever had. He could almost smell her….
"To me, Keiichi, you are already divine." She tapped his nose and bathed him with her love. "Have faith in yourself. We know you can do this." She waved her arms wide and both Urd and Skuld stopped their squabbling. Urd gave him a thumbs up and a wink, while Skuld snorted and smacked him over the head with an incredibly thick book.
"Since you bled all over the altar like some creepy fanatic, I gotta give you something." Skuld growled. She smirked as the large tome dropped painfully into his lap. "You asked for help with your friend's problems, so here. This is my notebook from Primary School. It should give you some ideas." She frowned and put her hands on her hips menacingly. "But! I'm taking it back in ten days! And you better not read any of the private stuff either!" The small goddess of the future slapped her hammer in her hands in order to show how serious she was.
Keiichi nodded and swallowed hard.
"My turn! We might not be able to aid in your ascension, but no one said that we couldn't help you fit in here a little easier." Urd grinned and shoved Skuld out of the way with her hip. With a mighty flourish, she produced a large bottle of a bright, incandescent blue-green liquid. "Here you go! Drink up!"
Keiichi eyed the bottle in his hands and grimaced. "What's it do?"
"It's an Urd Super Potion™" The goddess of the past declared triumphantly. "Just what you need in a time like this!"
"You didn't answer my question," Keiichi deadpanned.
"A little bit of this and a little bit of that." Urd smiled and waved dismissively, but said no more. Keiichi sighed and looked at the potion with trepidation. When Urd's foot started tapping angrily, Keiichi sighed and downed the entire contents in one massive gulp.
It was like swallowing a Maltov cocktail with a blueberry cordial chaser. Keiichi's eyes began to water and he felt something… distinctly odd. Urd's grin became very serious as she began ticking things off on her fingers.
"Don't swim for an hour or you'll sink like a rock. Open flames and you are not a good idea for at least forty-eight hours. Be sure to eat lots of greens and carrots over the next two months to get your coloring back, drink lots and lots of water, and… sorry about the hair."
Skuld, much to Keiichi's astonishment, swept him up into bone-crunching hug and told him to hurry home. Urd kissed him on the forehead, causing a tingling sensation to course through his body, and then stepped back next to her little sister. He held the empty bottle out to her but she didn't take it.
"But what's it do?" Keiichi whimpered as Urd and Skuld slowly disappeared. He sighed in defeat and allowed himself to relax against Belldandy. The Norn of the Present smiled compassionately and wrapped her arms around his chest.
"I too must give you a boon for your blood, Keiichi," she whispered coyly. "Will you accept my gift as well?"
Keiichi stroked her face lovingly.
"Your love is the greatest gift I could ask for."
Belldandy's eyes were bright with tears of joy as she embraced him tightly. When she spoke again, her voice was filled with power and authority.
"TO YOU, I GIVE ALL LOVE!"
Keiichi felt something within him change. He wasn't sure what it was, but he knew that he wasn't the same man he had been an hour ago. The air seemed crisper, the sky seemed bluer, and everything seemed so much more… real. A warmth settled deep in his heart and the entire world seemed at peace.
"Thank you for coming," he whispered. He could feel the weight of time over them and knew that she would be leaving soon. "Can I call you again sometime?"
"I will always hear you, Keiichi-chan." She kissed him passionately, with a fierceness that chilled him. When their lips broke from each other, she was crying.
"Wherever you are, my dearest Keiichi, I will see you. Wherever you go, I will walk with you. I may not be able to act on your behalf or speak to you directly during this trial, but I will never forsake you. Always remember that the Ultimate Force is working on your behalf." He reached up and brushed away the nearly transparent tears. His lips found hers again, and his heart ached for the moment to last forever. Sadly, she was starting to fade. "Come home soon."
"I will," he said fervently. Sunlight began to filter in through the treetops, and then she was gone.
"Somehow, I will." Keiichi sat in the grove for a very long time, basking in the peace that Belldandy had given him. He remembered too late that he had many more questions that had been left unanswered, and it wasn't until an hour later that he noticed the color of his skin. He must have been right about the blueberry cordial, for his skin was a luminescent bluish purple. When he felt his scalp, he began to weep.
Khindristryx strained as the elf-witch pushed her away yet again. The air around the dracolich was supercharged with the ambient magical energy that was rolling off the maiden from the Phaerimm's spell. There was no time for subtlety or finesse. Already the small glowing star was falling into her sanctum. The undead dragon scrambled for purchase as she clutched at the power of the well. Her mind was already aflame, and there was little doubt that her body was burning as well. There was no turning back from this, and she doubted that even the magic binding her to the phylactery would be strong enough to keep her spirit tied to this plane should she fail to gain control of the pool.
Khindristryx felt her body disintegrate as the power of the pool suddenly consumed what was left of her mortal body. She attempted to jump to the corpse of a lesser red that she had lured to its death, but as she had theorized, the pool held her fast.
Panic set in as the dracolich realized her folly. Such was hubris, to realize at the final moment of one's life the idiocy of recklessness. Something hit the surface of the pool and the power spiked incredibly. The dracolich silently roared in impotent frustration as her soul was totally consumed by the sudden instability in the magical flows of the pool.
Ranma hit the pool with enough force to send, for a lack of a better metaphor, the liquid magic splashing throughout the chamber. He felt his body shifting uncontrollably between male and female. He would have cursed had he the strength, but the taint of the pool immediately set about poisoning his system even more than tapping the dead land's ki had, but he absorbed it willingly anyway. Something in him relished the darkness and welcomed it, even as another, equally alien part of him attempted to reject it. A new battle began, only this time it was at the center of his soul.
Darkness sought supremacy over the Light, and Chaos sought to dominate Order. Ranma, ever the focal point, was caught in the middle of the spiritual tug of war. He thought he heard female voices screaming at him, but the familiar tug of war was not imaginary. Fatigued and beyond conscious pain, Ranma floated amidst the magic, drawing it in and filtering it through his unstable soul, harnessing it to keep him alive when he knew he should be very, very dead.
Something shifted as Ranma tried to seize command over himself once more. He was so sick of being fought over. He was fed up with people trying to control him. He was his own man, damn it, and he wasn't going to lose control of his life again. It was time for him to make the calls, and damn anyone who thought differently!
Enraged, yet completely focused, he reached deep within himself and seized the opposing forces, resolutely holding them at bay. More power flowed through him and he felt his flesh burning anew. It felt as though a sun had been born inside his chest, and then something else within him… twisted. Magic mixed with magic, threading together until it was no longer unique streams, and Ranma felt his blood turn to ice. It felt as though his body was going to explode and freeze simultaneously, and he reflexively sought to release the pent up power that coursed through his system.
He screamed, and Myth Drannor screamed with him as the Pool of Radiance exploded in a bright flash of darkness.
The Phaerimm, for all its cunning and intellect, could not escape from the chamber in time. It felt the buildup of power and knew that there was no way that it would be able to gain control over of the mystic well before it went critical. It tried to teleport, with no success. Likewise, its Dimension Door spell failed — blocked by the chaotic maelstrom of magic tearing the area apart. The creature was left a single recourse, flying out the way it flew in. Even now, it could feel the waters churning and boiling uncontrollably beneath it, like a tiny angry sea. It cursed its all-around vision as the initial wave consumed the chamber.
Suddenly, without warning, the energy within the belly of the palace collapsed into a small four-foot sphere of azure tinted blackness. Large tendrils of cerulean energy lanced off and struck the walls of the chamber, grounding the magical energy as it finally went critical.
The air itself seemed thick with wild, unpredictable magic that caused the Phaerimm to tremble even as it sought to escape the inevitable doom. It had almost made it to the outside of the Palace when the sphere shrank further, becoming a pinprick of glowing blue light. A sudden scream of ecstatic release ripped through the area, pushing the abomination up and out into the stormy night sky. Elated, the Phaerimm felt safe at last, until the Pool of Radiance exploded into a forceful geyser of blue light, immediately consuming the unnatural entity and everything within a four-mile radius of the palace. The geyser punched heavenward, incinerating the clouds as it went.
Then, as suddenly as it began, the magical energies reversed themselves. The shockwave from the sudden reversal leveled the land in a perfect circle for ten miles from the epicenter. A great, circular wind sprang to life in and around the ruined city, kicking up a dark cyclone of ash and debris over a mile wide. Had there been anything alive to witness the event, they would have observed countless multitudes of elven spirits swimming in the current of the winds, inexorably being drawn to the center of their once proud capital and into the soul of a young man that floated at the heart of the magical maelstrom. They would have witnessed the climax of the phenomenon, and been privy to a most unusual gathering of entities. The gods themselves had come to witness the advent of something new and unique among the pantheons of magic and elves.
The heavens heralded the event with a shower of stars that exploded into the ruins of the once-fair Myth Drannor, and truly the foundations of the earth trembled beneath their rain. The clouds opened and added their tears as testament to the final passing of a noble dream of unity and prosperity. But even among the ashes of death, a new hope was born.
Ranma Saotome, he who would be known among the elven peoples as Glauenthiel, The Well of Souls, was born. The Hand of Change had risen, and the foundations of the world would truly shake with his passing.
Elminster's portable tower
Dinner had come and gone. Breakfast had come and gone. It had neared mid-morning before Elminster was finally ready to cast his spell. He and Valor had both donated a vial of their blood to tie themselves to the Quest spell; and while much of the enchantment was beyond the drow's understanding, Valor knew that no matter where on Toril Ranma Saotome went, she and Elminster would be able to follow.
The Old Mage led her to the pinnacle of the tower with the spell focus, a small mirror etched with the likeness of Ranma's face, and set about triggering the numerous spells he'd cast on it the night before. The balustrade was bathed in a pulsating light that shifted colors sporadically from the focus. A pair of luminescent blue stars rose calmly from the mirror and orbited the wizard and his scribe. Valor watched the glowing ball of light spin closer and closer to her, in tandem with Elminster's star, eliciting a tingling sensation to dance across the surface of her skin.
All at once the magical lights paused before the hearts of their targets, then shot forward with the speed of a bullet into their bodies. At that same instant, not all that far away, the target of the spell became something more than either Valor or her patron had ever expected.
The drow screamed as something in the magic affecting her changed. Had she been more aware of her surroundings at the moment, she would have heard Elminster mimicking her. Indeed, all across Faerun, those in tune with magic felt yet another change sweep through the Weave. Sorcerers in particular felt the shift most intimately, and in their minds and hearts came to feel the birth of a new god of magic. A name came to their lips readily, even if they didn't understand what the word meant. And that name was Ranma.
Usagi gasped and sat up abruptly. The sheets of the bed she found herself in were covered in sweat, and her body was aglow with a silver nimbus. Beside her bed, Ulin was in much the same disheveled state. There was a question on her lips, but Usagi brushed her aside in order to dress.
"What are you doing?" Ulin demanded.
"I'm going to help him!" Usagi countered.
Usagi frowned at the silly question. "Ranma, of course!"
"And who is this Ranma?" Ulin had crossed her arms, and watched Usagi expectantly.
"Ranma is… is…" Usagi rubbed her temple anxiously.
"What does he look like?" Ulin pressed.
"Tall, yummy tush…" Usagi closed her eyes to get a better picture.
"…Dark hair pulled into a tight little braid…" Ulin finished.
Usagi stared at the jade skinned woman blankly for a moment before nodding. "How…?"
"He was in my dreams, too." Ulin frowned slightly and then shrugged. "I suspect that he was in a number of people's dreams, waking and asleep."
"But why? I mean, what does it mean?"
"Who can say?" Ulin shrugged again. "I believe that it's safe to assume that he's a fairly powerful individual, perhaps even a new force among the gods of magic. If that is the case, then we will hear more about him in our travels."
"But what if he's not? I mean, what if he's hurt?"
"Even if we could help, do you know where he is?" Ulin placed her hand on her friend's shoulder and Usagi shook her head. "Neither do I. So we'll just have to offer a prayer for him and hope it's enough."
Usagi nodded and allowed the silence to stretch between them.
Ulin waited for a long time before breaking the quiet. "I'd like to apologize for the things I said before the battle. I… I was afraid that I had lost you."
"I'm sorry, too." Usagi looked out the large window and sighed. "I guess I wasn't ready to talk about the things that have been bothering me lately."
"A great deal has happened," Ulin conceded. "But that doesn't mean you should carry the burden alone."
Usagi nodded. "It's hard, though. Some of the dreams I've been having are scary and strange."
"It comes from the stress of leadership."
Usagi shook her head and tossed her nightgown over a large chair. She dug in her saddlebags until she found a blouse and skirt that weren't too dirty. She was going to have to do the wash today… if anyone let her.
"It's not that, although it might be part of it." She sighed and sat back down on the bed. "No. It was more real than that. I… I… Oh, who am I kidding, you'll probably think I was crazy. I think I'm crazy!"
"No one will think you're crazy, Usagi. Not after seeing you fight Kelemvor himself."
The displaced Senshi looked up at Ulin blankly through her silver bangs. "Kelemvor?"
"The Lord of Death. We saw you face off against him during the attack."
Usagi fairly leapt from the bed again. "Ohmigosh! The attack! Is everyone okay?"
Ulin caught her by the shoulders before the frantic girl could get past her, and eased her back to the bed with a comforting smile. "I would say that everyone is more than okay. In fact, I can assure you that not one life was lost in the conflict, on either side." Usagi's anxiety deflated. "That does bring up another topic for discussion."
"Yes. Something… miraculous… happened on the battlefield, Usagi." Ulin paused, obviously looking for the right words to describe the event. "Everyone stopped when you and Kelemvor faced off. We watched you defying Death." Ulin, unable to contain her emotions, began to cry. "You were so beautiful… radiant, even! And when you gave yourself up in ransom… a blinding silver light flashed from your heart. The light swept over the battlefield mending wounds, reviving the dead, and burning the evil from our attackers' hearts. You changed us. I can't explain how, I just know that you did."
The Genasi looked up, eyes filled with tears and fear. "What is this power that you have? Are you a goddess made flesh?"
Usagi swallowed and shook her head frantically.
Ulin bobbed her head. "I wanted to be angry with you, because it seemed that you had burned something vital from everyone on the battlefield. It felt like you had stolen our ability to choose right from wrong."
Usagi was speechless. What could she say to these questions? It had always been a silent fear in the back of her mind, ever since learning of Crystal Tokyo. She'd never spoken of her fears and reservations to the other Senshi, and now… when faced with this…. She wasn't sure how to react. "I… I'm sorry…. I didn't mean for this…."
"Shhhh." Ulin placed a long jade finger over her friend's lips. "I've been thinking about it quite a bit over the last few hours, and I've come to a realization." She paused looking Usagi square in the eyes. "Nothing was taken from us. You simply showed us our evil and offered us forgiveness for our crimes and petty faults. We chose to accept your offer, and were remade into something better. We still have the ability to choose, but why would someone want to walk away from something so wonderful?"
"What about the monsters? Those wolfman things."
"The Gnolls accepted your offer as well, and came away changed like everyone else." Ulin smiled warmly. "They are calling themselves the Loras now, and have asked to see you at your earliest convenience."
Usagi groaned. People were going to start treating her even weirder now! Darn it! Why couldn't she be a normal average teenage girl? What had she done to deserve being a superhero and a magical princess? How come she had to get sucked into all these stupid adventures anyway? She hated this!
"Don't worry about it too much, Little Princess. Your dragon will guard you." Ulin stroked Usagi's head and kissed her hair.
Usagi simply cried tears of frustration. "I don't want this, Ulin! I don't want to be the 'Silver Princess' or 'Sailor Moon!' I just want to be plain old Usagi. Why can't I just be like everyone else?"
"There is nothing wrong with that desire, dear heart. But this is a part of who you are. There is nothing that says you have to be the 'Silver Princess' or this 'Sailor Moon' persona you detest so much. You do not have to embrace the expectations of others. You define who you are, but you must learn to accept all aspects of yourself. If you cannot, I fear that you will destroy yourself from the inside out."
Usagi paused thoughtfully, and nodded.
"Be at peace, Little Princess. You will find your own path. I don't know where this destiny will lead you, but rest assured that I will be by your side every step of the way. I will see to it that you live to fulfill your life's purpose… even if it costs me my own life."
Usagi looked up at Ulin sharply and something in her heart lurched. A promise freely given… a mantle knowingly assumed… the conviction of Ulin's declaration was answered by the Ginzuishou as it floated from the center of Usagi's heart. Power immediately flooded the room, lifting Ulin from the floor. She cried out in ecstasy as the magic of the crystal endowed her with the power to make good on her promise.
When the magic faded, Usagi looked down at Ulin's armored body and blinked. Her new clothing was very reminiscent of Galaxia's armor, but there was a harder edge to the whole ensemble. The silver metal was thin and flexible, with etched runes and gems decorating the trim. An odd rune flared to life on the Genasi's brow and a pillar of light shot heavenward. Usagi could think of only one thing to say, when faced with the newest of her Senshi.
The Plane of Shadow
Shar raged and her world tore itself asunder. Her anger knew no bounds, and those tied to her through faith and magic suffered her wrath. Those that had the ability fled her realm. Those that could not were consumed by her fury.
"I WILL RECLAIM WHAT IS MINE!" It took a small eternity for her wrath to play itself out, and to Shar's surprise it was replaced with a indescribable hunger. "I will reclaim what is mine, Ranma Saotome."
Shadows boiled to life around her throne, forming themselves into the likeness of a handsome young man. "I will make you mine, and you will pleasure me. I will see you willingly serve my cause, and through you, I will take back all that I lost, and whatever power you happen upon."
Shar's laughter echoed chillingly throughout the Plane of Shadow. And throughout the scope of her influence, the images of a young man and a young woman were imbedded into the minds of her most faithful servants. The Lady of Loss buried an obsessive need to capture these people in the hearts of her followers, and laughed again at the thought of bringing Ranma to kneel before her.
Mystra appeared in the main throne room of her court, amidst an unusual, albeit not unexpected gathering of gods. Azuth, Savras, and Velsharoon stood in uneasy company as Mystra ascended the steps to her throne in silence.
Mystra held up her hand as Azuth approached.
"Hold your peace for the moment, Lord Azuth. We await the arrival of a few more guests before we proceed."
The Patron of Mages nodded and stepped back to his place next to Mystra's throne. After a moment, four distinct lights flared, announcing the arrival of the Moon Goddess Selune, Kelemvor the Lord of the Dead, Corellon Laraethian the God of Elves, and the Elven Goddess Sehanine Moonbow.
"Ao's Peace be upon all. Be welcome to my realm and rest assured in your safety." The gathered deities bowed respectfully to the Mother of Magic. "My thanks for coming with such haste."
"How could we not?" Corellon smirked. "Young Ranma poses something new and exciting for everyone here."
"I wouldn't have phrased it so, Lord Coronal." Azuth frowned. "But the sentiment is accurate enough. The Weave has been tainted by this boy's touch, and already the ramifications are being felt."
"More than you know, Spell Lord," Mystra whispered. "More than you know."
"Are you unwell, Lady?" Velsharoon's skeletal grin did nothing to hide the demigod's hopes for a positive response. The opportunity for power was always attractive, especially to one of Velsharoon's standing.
"Your concern is duly noted, Lich." Mystra's smile was frigid. "Sadly, I must disappoint you with my answer. I am fine, and the Weave will settle with time."
"What is to become of this Ranma character, then?" Savras asked.
"Can you not see the outcome, Savras the All-Seeing?" Azuth taunted.
"I see many outcomes, Lord Azuth. Some are favorable, and some not… especially for you." The god of seers grinned nastily.
"Enough bickering!" Mystra's patience was thin, and she had no desire to deal with infighting. "Ranma will declare his own path, as he has so ably demonstrated. To ease the strain on the Weave, I have given him dominion over sorcerers and those that naturally channel magic without the aid of book, scroll, or artifact. Beyond that, he will forge his own trail."
"You have given him a large portfolio, Lady of Mysteries," Selune said.
"Ao has granted him dominion over the Shadow Weave." Everyone save Corellon hissed in surprise. "His portfolio reflects Ao's trust."
"Methinks it reflects more than that." Kelemvor snorted. There was a thin veneer of jealousy hidden behind his smile. Mystra's eyes narrowed.
"I did not ask for your opinion, Lord Kelemvor. Should Ranma look for my company, he is welcome to it — in any form he desires," Mystra said proudly. "Have a care that your words do not tempt me to finish the oh-so-recent beating my daughter gave you." The Lord of the Dead backed away with a smile and hands raised in defeat.
"The reason for this meeting is not to discuss bedmates and consorts. It is to establish an understanding of Ranma's place among us." Mystra turned to the elven deities. "Your gift was generous, Corellon, incredibly so. However, I do not understand all of the subtleties behind it. Could you explain how he will impact the rest of us?"
The Lord of Elves bowed gracefully. "There has been a vacancy in our pantheon crying to be filled for eons. Too long have the souls of our bastard children wandered without guidance or representation. Lady Moonbow has many worshippers among the half-elves, but her other duties have always taken precedence. She has seen young Ranma's heart and feels that he will be the perfect patron for these wayward children. The fact that he has acted as a repository for the souls trapped in Myth Drannor has gone a long way to aiding Sehanine find peace as well. We are thus granting him a secondary responsibility as her attendant, to aid in gathering lost and restless souls."
"Will this not conflict with Lord Kelemvor's domain?" Velsharoon asked.
"No. Although he may impact your interests quite severely, Lich," Sehanine growled. "Ranma will be my attendant, and act as a guide and protector to those souls that cannot find their way to me. He perchance may work in tandem with Lord Kelemvor, should he so choose, but his primary responsibility will remain our half-elven children."
"And his magical aspect?" Azuth asked pointedly. "How will that interact with your pantheon?"
"As he is an attendant to Lady Moonbow, he will become an aide to me as well. I look at young Ranma as a bridge, rather than a division between our two pantheons." Corellon bowed to Mystra, who returned the gesture.
"As it should be, Lord Coronal. We are, and always shall remain, friends and allies. May this new opportunity be fruitful in furthering that end." Mystra paused a moment, looking troubled. "I cannot but be concerned how Ranma will receive the news of his divinity, though. We did not have the opportunity to explain ourselves to him, and he is now closed to us."
"Might I remind you, Lady," Azuth interjected, "that he will have to appear before Lord Ao at some point, before his divinity is sanctioned. Until such has occurred, he will simply be an extremely powerful mortal."
"Immortal," Corellon corrected.
"As you say, Lord Coronal."
"This will happen in due course. In the meantime, it is obvious that Ranma will need looking after," Selune said.
"The Auditor…" Mystra frowned slightly. "The Auditor has assured me that he has been taken in hand, and judging by her choice of mentors, I cannot disagree."
"Who was chosen?" Selune asked.
"Elminster of Shadowdale."
Corellon and Sehanine smiled and nodded at the choice. The Archmage had helped found Myth Drannor, and had been a good friend to the elves over the years.
"How will this impact your plans, Selune?" Mystra asked.
"It changes a great many things, but not terribly so. My children still seek him out, and I will approach him myself if need be. Perhaps together you and I can convince him to aid in hampering Shar's interests."
Sehanine frowned. "This brings up another matter altogether. If young Ranma is now Master of the Shadow Weave, how will Shar respond?"
Selune shrugged, but it was Mystra that answered. "Who can say with her? She will not tempt Ao's wrath, I am certain. That doesn't mean that she will simply leave the Shadow Weave to Ranma."
"No," Selune agreed. "Shar will most likely attempt to seduce Ranma, luring him to her camp through subtlety and false promises. Once there, she will slowly strip him of his power. There are many loopholes in Ao's Decree concerning Ranma and the other two. Shar will undoubtedly try to exploit those to her benefit."
"She will have a devil of a time seducing him, that is certain!" Mystra laughed. There were many confused glances until Mystra opened her mind and replayed a few select memories for those gathered.
"Hanali is going to enjoy playing with this one," Sehanine smirked impishly.
"There is no doubt." Mystra smiled knowingly.
"If I may be so bold…" Azuth interrupted. "I am seeing a pattern that must be acknowledged and respected in our planning."
Mystra motioned for him to continue.
"Ranma is a bridge between the elven pantheon and the human pantheon through his dual calling. He is also a bridge between the Light and Dark, by virtue of his dual command of the Weave and the Shadow Weave. It is my belief that Lord Ao is using Ranma as a buffer between the hereditary oppositions."
"Interesting insight, Azuth." Mystra nodded. "I wonder how the others will fit into the grand scheme of things."
"The Norns are active in their champion's life here," Selune said, drawing many stares and a few surprised gasps. "He is already starting to shake things up among the Gondar."
"Good." Azuth snorted. "It's about time someone did."
"He will be a force to be reckoned with…" Savras' voice took on a dreamy quality.
"What do you see, Savras?" Velsharoon asked.
"He is the keystone. At some point he may well become as powerful, if not more so, than our dear Ranma."
"And what of Serenity?" Selune asked.
"Ask dear Kelemvor. My daughter challenged him and won," Mystra said with a wicked grin. The Lord of the Dead shook his head and smiled.
"She has tamed my heart. I have never met a soul so pure." He smiled wistfully, and looked out into the ether. "I pity the fools that dare to challenge them, should those three ever join forces."
"Indeed." Savras shivered.
Zuieez bent his head against the wind, squinting his eyes the best he could against the rain that kept obscuring his vision. He had seen the flash of light and felt the heat of the explosion from where he had finally come to rest after watching his goddess battle the evils of Myth Drannor. The primal struggle against the impressive powers of the infernal horde and his kin was more telling than anything that he had seen her do.
The drow had seen a great many things in his life, but none had been more magnificent than what she had shown him. She was the Unbreakable One. The Crimson Death. She had faced the denizens of true evil and wiped them from the face of Toril. It had made him question the very core of his morality. He knew, in that moment, that he would have to choose the path that he would walk for the rest of his life. Would he embrace her love and follow the righteous path of redemption that she had so obviously opened to him? Or would he shy away from her offering and hold to the cowardice and treachery that he had been taught since birth?
The stars fell from the heavens before him, striking the ruins of Myth Drannor with a vengeance. They tore into the earth, creating a number of small basins that were quickly filling with water.
The vista was an epiphany, filled with symbolism.
She didn't want him to change completely… at least, not all at once. He likened his soul to that of the earth before him. The power of the heavens would destroy one's weaknesses and replace them with life-giving strengths.
The whole event was incredible, not simply for the things that had happened to Zuieez, but for the simple miracle of a cold-hearted, murderous drow finally seeing beyond the self-consuming treachery that ruled his life.
He laughed and spun in the rain joyously. His heart soared on the winds, and in his blind happiness he didn't notice how close he had come to the edge of a cliff over looking the field of pools. He cried out to his goddess and professed his undying love for her, promising to serve her forever more.
His foot slid in the mud and before he knew what was happening he tumbled into the air. He never had a chance to curse his luck, or even to think about the unfairness of it all. All he knew in that last brief moment of his life, was that hitting water from a great height really hurt like the Nine Hells.
The water that broke his body flared to life with powerful magics, and subsequently consumed his soul. The pool boiled and frothed for a moment, then all was still.
And so it was that Fendrellinor, the Pools of Sorrow, claimed their first tragic story. Hours would pass after the divine storm ended and a sparrow would drink from the pool that would later be known as Dodrowsendi, the Spring of Drowned Penitent Drow. Its magic would change the bird into the Voice of the Pools. Thus the first holy site to Glauenthiel, the Well of Souls, also known as Ranma Weave Bender, was created.
The more things change….
To be continued.
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