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 1/2" 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 belong to me. Please drop me a line if you want to use them.
Foreword: Thanks again for all of your comments! They've kept me writing. C&C appreciated. Enjoy!
The world fell away and Ranma was left floating in eternity. He felt small, weak, and completely exposed. All of his secrets, all of his faults, and all of his dreams were laid bare for the universe to see. He saw himself for whom and what he was… a petty, willful, little child. But, even amidst the harsh reality of this truth, he felt loved in a way that he had never known before.
He watched his life play out around him. Every moment of damning weakness and every moment of praise-worthy sacrifice was remembered, up until this very moment — and then the universe went pitch black.
He lingered there, floating in the void, wondering if he had died and been judged. If he had, then this was certainly not the good place. If there was a hell, he supposed this would be it: a place of nothing. No light, no sound, no company — just the awareness of an eternal never-ending darkness and the memory that there had been, at one time, something more.
He was uncertain how long he drifted alone in the darkness, but the loneliness and fear were starting to get to him. He was panicking, remembering the pit and the sounds of the night from his childhood. Tears wanted to come, but he held them in. He wasn't a kid any more, and he would face this like a man, no matter how scary this was.
It was then that he saw a pinprick of light off in the distance. It grew slowly, enveloping him in a bright warmth that made him feel strangely complete.
"WELCOME, SON OF ADAM." The voice was soft and loving, filled with an undertone of paternal delight and unconditional love. It was the voice he'd always wished Genma would use.
"Are you God?" he whispered.
"I AM WHAT I AM, SAOTOME RANMA. ONE TRUTH AMONG MANY."
It wasn't an answer that Ranma readily understood, but that in and of itself clarified the nature of the voice for the displaced martial artist.
"Am I dead?"
"NO. WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE?"
"I don't think so," he admitted nervously.
"THAT IS GOOD."
"Can you tell me what's going on? I mean, why I'm here and all?"
"I CAN. ARE YOU CERTAIN YOU WANT TO KNOW?"
"I think so. Yeah."
"YOU'VE BEEN GIVEN AN OPPORTUNITY THAT FEW EVER RECEIVE."
"You mean all that stuff about me being a god and shi… er… uh… all that stuff?"
"YES. THAT." There was a bright smile hidden behind the voice's deadpanned reply.
"But I can't be a god. I mean I'm just a guy… a nobody!"
"YOU ARE HARDLY 'NOBODY', RANMA. YOU HAVE BEEN JUDGED WORTHY OF THE POWER AND RESPONSIBILITY YOU HAVE BEEN GIVEN, AND THAT FACT, MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, MAKES YOU SOMEBODY SPECIAL."
"But I don't want to be a god! I got enough crap… I mean… stuff ta deal with in my life already!"
"WANT RARELY HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE RESPONSIBLITIES ONE MUST CARRY, RANMA. YOU ABOVE ALL OTHER KNOW THE PRICE OF DUTY."
"You got that right…." Ranma mumbled under his breath.
He paused for a moment trying to think things through. Numerous run-ins with Nabiki and Shampoo had taught him to be careful, but they also taught him not to just roll over and give in where there might be a possibility of negotiation. If there was a way for him to get out o this, then he was going to take it. He cast his mind over the conversation again, looking for loopholes.
"Wait a minute! What do you mean, duty? I certainly don't remember accepting any duty to no one!"
"DID YOU NOT YOU ACCEPT CORELLON LARAETHIAN'S GIFT?"
"Aw, crap! That sneaky bastard!" Ranma slapped his hands over his mouth quickly and hoped that he hadn't offended.
He wasn't a very religious person, and given the way that the gods were playing with his life he wasn't exactly certain that he wanted to be, either. Then again, this… being… was saying that he was going to be a god, presumably whether he liked it or not. Ranma guessed that sooner or later he'd need to find religion… if it didn't find him first. Still, it wouldn't do to tempt fate any more than he already had by shooting his mouth off.
"So by accepting the gift, I accepted the responsibility that went along with it?" Ranma frowned. "But I didn't know what he was giving me. That's got ta count for something!"
"TRUE. UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES, YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO RENOUNCE THE GIFT — OR PASS IT ON TO ANOTHER. HOWEVER, THAT DOES NOT CHANGE THE FACT THAT YOU HAVE CHANGED THE NATURE OF MYSTRA'S WEAVE, OR THAT YOU HAVE TAINTED SHAR'S SHADOWS WITH YOUR LIGHT. IT WAS BY AND THROUGH YOUR ACTIONS, SON OF ADAM, YOU CHOSE THIS PATH."
"What do ya mean that I chose this path?" Ranma demanded angrily. "I didn't ask ta be a god! I didn't know that any of this would happen!"
"IGNORANCE CANNOT CHANGE YOUR RESPONSIBILITY FOR BRINGING YOURSELF TO THIS POINT. THIS PATH IS YOURS, RANMA."
"Well, I don't want ta walk this path any more! How do I get off?"
"THERE ARE MANY ROADS TO TRAVEL, AND ALL START WITH A SINGLE STEP."
"I don't need Zen koans! Tell me how I can go back ta bein' normal!"
"DEFINE 'NORMAL' PLEASE."
Ranma was certain that the entity was smiling at him.
"You know damn… er… I mean, 'darn' well what I'm gettin' at! I want ta go back ta bein' like I was."
"YOU CAN NEVER MOVE BACKWARD IN TIME, RANMA. THE PAST IS SET IN STONE. YOU CAN ONLY MOVE FORWARD. EVEN THEN, ALL ACHIEVEMENTS HAVE THEIR PRICE, ALL JOURNEYS DEMAND SACRIFICE. TO FORSAKE YOUR DIVINITY WOULD REQUIRE YOU TO ABANDON YOUR ART."
"Whaddaya mean 'abandon' my art?"
"YOUR ART IS AT THE HEART OF YOUR GODHOOD. IT WAS THE VEHICLE THAT SET YOU ON THE PATH YOU NOW WALK. THROUGH YOUR ART, YOU TAPPED INTO MYSTRA'S WEAVE AND SHAR'S ANTITHISIS. BY THE POWER OF YOUR ART YOU CLEANSED MYTH DRANNOR. IN ORDER TO BALANCE THE SCALES, YOU WOULD HAVE TO FORSAKE THIS PRACTICE."
"There ain't no way I'm givin' up the Art! I've sacrificed too much for it already!"
"THEN YOU MUST ACCEPT THE CALLING THAT YOU HAVE ASSUMED."
"C'mon! Gimme a break here! Can't ya just take the power back or somethin'? There's got ta be a way around this!"
"NO. TAKING THE POWER BACK WOULD LEAVE A VOID IN CREATION THAT YOU NOW OCCUPY. THE HONOR WAS GIVEN TO YOU, AND NATURE HAS MOVED TO ACCEPT YOUR PLACE AND POWER. THERE ARE, HOWEVER, MANY CHOICES YOU COULD MAKE THAT WILL ALLOW YOU THE FREEDOM YOU SEEK. THE QUESTION REMAINS, ARE YOU WILLING TO PAY THE PRICE FOR THAT FREEDOM?"
"Oh, fer cryin' out loud! Just tell me already! What do I gotta do ta get out from underneath this?"
"WHAT WOULD YOU DO TO FILL THE VOID YOU WOULD LEAVE?"
"I don't know… there's gotta be someone else that can do the job."
The world shifted, and the light changed to become an ancient temple floating in a maelstrom of opposing forces. It was maddening to try and catalogue everything, from the impossible architecture to the strange elemental storms that raged around him, so Ranma chose to focus on the massive stone tablets floating above an altar at the center of the temple. Near the altar, a number of shadowy figures stood looking up at the tablets. The majority of them were female, not that gender really had any meaning in a place like this, but Ranma noted one or two that looked… or rather… felt… more masculine. The closer Ranma came to them, the more familiar a number of them became. Two women in particular stood out. Both had dark hair, but that was where the resemblance ended.
"Oi! I know you! You were in that crazy dream I was just having!" He blushed deeply at the rather… nice… memories of all that had happened in that dream. Man, Akane was going to kill him!
One of the women stepped forward. She was beautiful, if one could use that word for someone so perfectly proportioned. Her dark hair danced in a silent breeze, and her radiant skin glowed in the light of eight silver stars that orbited her head.
"It was no dream, Ranma Saotome." She smiled lovingly at him and he felt suddenly chill. Echoes of memories danced in his mind… things about her that he knew weren't there before. He felt connected to this woman, as if she were a part of him that had been missing for a very long time.
"Who are you?" he whispered.
"I am the Weaver, the Road Ascending, the One True Way. I am the Mother of All Magic, the Lady of Mysteries, the Breath of Creation." Her smile changed slightly, becoming… well… more mysterious as she stepped closer. "I have many names, but I am most fond of Mystra."
"Mystra… Huh." Ranma shifted uncomfortably. "Well, Mystra, I guess I owe you an apology for, you know, messin' with yer weaving and all. I don't know how ta fix what I did but, I mean, I ain't cut out ta be a god. You know?"
Mystra smiled and trailed her fingers over his cheek affectionately. Ranma shivered at the sudden excitement that little touch caused in him.
"IT IS NOT PERMITTED."
If anything could be considered a wet blanket, that statement was. Not only that, but it pissed Ranma off to no end.
"What?!" Ranma roared at the chaos above him. "Why not? You said that I had to find a replacement! Well, she's as good as any here!" The voice above him did not answer, but Mystra stepped forward drawing his attention back to her.
"It is the price that I must pay for my own folly, Ranma. I broke Lord Ao's law, and therefore I must embrace the consequences for my actions. Part of that is giving up the power that you now possess."
"Well, that sucks," Ranma groused.
He looked around the crowd until his eyes fell on the other woman that seemed familiar. She was tall, maybe seven to eight feet, with a lithe and powerful dancer's figure. Her skin was jet black, and Ranma could have sworn he saw tiny fields of stars twinkling back at him. The costume she wore left little to the imagination, and the subtle sensuality that she exuded made Ranma blush.
"What about you? You want the job?"
She looked hopeful and started to nod.
"SHE IS FORBIDDEN."
"Man! You ain't helpin' me here!" Ranma growled.
Why was it that it was always so easy to get into trouble, but so damn hard to get out? He scanned everyone and shook his head. The woman black-skinned woman looked both angry and sad at Ao's declaration. The glare she leveled Ranma's way reminded him of Akane for some reason.
"Well, shoot! Is there anyone here that can take the job?"
No one spoke or moved forward, leaving Ranma to hang his head in defeat.
"Well, suppose that would be just too easy, now wouldn't it?" He sighed and then squared his shoulders. He looked up into the maddening maelstrom and shook his finger at it. "I sure as heck ain't gonna take this lyin' down! You hear me? There's gotta be someone out there besides me that can do the job."
"I'm certain there is, Ranma." Mystra slipped her hand in his and lead him over to the tablets. "In the meanwhile, you will just have to carry the burden until you find someone worthy of assuming the mantle. Who knows, maybe the life will grow on you."
"Fat chance." Ranma sighed and looked up at the "sky" again — it was an ocean of water now. He wracked his brain for a solution, and his mind drifted to all the other crap he'd been saddled with. On the one hand, the idea wasn't so bad. As a god he didn't have to worry about honor pledges, curses, fiancées, or any of the fat Panda's garbage. On the other hand, he also had no idea how to be a god. What if he screwed up?
"Fine. You win. But I don't want no freebies here. Can ya put some sort of whammy on me that'll let me grow inta this power until I find someone ta take over for me? I need ta be able ta do this slowly, otherwise I'm gonna go nuts trying ta take it all in." Ranma frowned. "Hell, it might already be too damn late for that."
Ranma reflexively slapped his hand over his mouth again. Mystra coughed at his side nervously and looked as if she wanted to slip away from Ranma's general vicinity. He felt a sudden tingle of anxiety shoot through his body and shivered a bit.
"SO BE IT."
Ranma sighed involuntarily, thanking whatever powers that be for not being smited… or smote… or whatever they called it.
The raging torrent flowing through him slowly calmed. It was as if a dam was suddenly erected to hold the immense power and awareness at bay. He hadn't even realized the power had been there until it was restrained. He still felt stronger than he should have been, and he knew it would take a lot of time to adjust to this new level. That, in and of itself, was one of the only positive things to this whole mess — he didn't need an incentive to train, but any excuse to get stronger was readily embraced.
"So, what do I gotta do between now and the time I find my heir?" He scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "I mean, I know there's gotta be more ta all this than just a power-up."
The golden-skinned goddess, Kihon'i, waved her hand and a smaller set of tablets appeared before the larger ones.
"Here are the rules that you need to abide by."
"I ain't much for reading right now." Ranma rubbed his temple. He had a headache the size of Honshu and just the thought of reading made him want to puke. "Can ya give me the rundown?"
"Basically, you're in charge of certain aspects of Reality. Lord Ao's set it up so that most of the stuff you're responsible for will take care of itself until you grow into your role. However, there will be some things that you will need to address personally."
"First off, you're going to be responsible for answering the prayers of your followers."
"Prayers? Followers? Since when do I have followers?" Ranma blinked. "Whoa! Whoa! You mean I'm gonna have people making shrines and temples to me, and pesterin' me fer crap all day long?"
"Not right off the bat, no." Kihon'i smirked. "It's something that you'll work into."
Ranma sighed in relief.
"Good. I don't want people ta pray ta me! That's just creepy."
Mystra laughed and patted his arm.
"Until you manage to find an heir, Ranma, you are a god. Gods need worshippers to live. So, if you want to live, you need people to pray to you."
The martial artist turned god threw his hands into the air. This just kept getting better and better.
"Aw, man! This sucks!"
"Do you know how many people would love to change places with you?" Kihon'i asked incredulously.
"Can ya give me a list of names?" Ranma asked hopefully.
"Trust me, none of them would do the job half as well as you." Mystra smiled, and Ranma noted that one of the other gods… a silent, pointy eared man with gold hair, smirked and nodded his agreement. Ranma narrowed his eyes at the elf god and growled darkly, fingering the silver torque around his neck. Shadowy memories started to solidify and crystallize in his mind. The weird dream that wasn't a dream came into focus, and the conversation outside of his "castle" took on a whole new light.
"You son of a…! You didn't tell me this was my ticket to godhood!" Ranma stabbed a finger at the silver torque and a blue nimbus erupted around his body. Mystra quickly placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and moved in front of him to draw his attention away from the suddenly sweating elf god.
"We didn't have time to give you all the details, Ranma. You were pulled away from us before we had a chance to explain what was involved in the gift."
Ranma snorted and looked back at Corellon suspiciously before nodding. "Whatever."
"It's not as bad as it seems." Mystra took up his hand and smiled demurely. "If you'd like, I will help you adjust."
Ranma looked into her dark eyes and swallowed at the beauty and mysterious promise he found there. The memories of the dream… or whatever it was… rose unbidden in his mind's eye, causing him to blush uncomfortably. As far as "first times" went, it hadn't been anything like he dreamed of. For one thing, he was still alive and in one piece.
Damn it all! The other girls were going to kill him!
He shook his head and tried to push the memories of the experience aside, which was harder than it seemed. Damn it, he needed to get back on track here. He was sure that there was more to Mystra's offer than just wanting to help. He wasn't sure he was all that opposed to the idea either, and that scared him. Rather than follow those ideas any further, he focused instead on her next words.
"I've already placed your symbol in some of my temples. You will hear the prayers of the faithful, and after a time you will become used to their petitions."
He nodded and sighed.
"Is there anything else I gotta know about?"
"Of course there is, but you wanted to grow into it. Right?" Kihon'i smiled and tapped the Tablets of Fate, causing them to glow for a moment. When the glow faded, a miniature replica floated before her. She stepped forward and pushed the tiny stones into Ranma's chest. The young god's eyes bulged.
"Whoa! I know… a lot."
She placed one hand over his heart and patted his cheek with the other.
"Well, we aim to please. It's all in here now, sport. Good luck!"
"No joke," he whispered. "Man, that was weird."
Mystra and some of the other gods laughed.
"LET IT BE UNDERSTOOD."
He felt, for the first time in his life, as if someone trusted him implicitly.
"YOU ARE NO LONGER RANMA SAOTOME, SON OF GENMA AND NODOKA. YOU ARE NO LONGER A PART OF THE MORTAL WORLD. UNTIL SUCH A TIME AS THE MANTLE IS PASSED ON TO YOUR HEIR. YOU ARE AND WILL FOREVER BE A CHILD OF AO. YOU ARE BOUND TO THE LAW, AND THE LAW IS BOUND TO YOU. HONOR THIS CALLING AND YOU SHALL FIND JOY AND FULFILLMENT."
Ranma watched as many of the gods and goddesses cheered and applauded him. It was both weird and kind of nice to be recognized in this way, but it still left Ranma feeling awkward and embarrassed. Faces blurred as the other deities welcomed him with slaps on the back and kisses on the cheeks. Invitations of all sorts were extended and a few of the whispered ones left Ranma blushing like there was no tomorrow. One by one the other deities faded from view, until only Mystra and three others lingered. The overwhelming presence of Lord Ao also retreated, leaving Ranma feeling strangely empty. It was one more curious sensation among a multitude of curious sensations.
The black-skinned goddess sauntered over, eyeing Mystra and a white-haired goddess hatefully. Ranma had been around enough attractive women in the last few years, not to mention being one himself from time to time, that he'd become somewhat desensitized to the female form. However, the black-skinned goddess made Shampoo, Nabiki, and Miss Hinako look like the Old Ghoul. The way she moved made his whole body tingle in anticipation of hinted promise, and the roll and sway of her hips sent shivers up and down Ranma's spine.
He'd heard the saying about the deer and the headlights, but up until that moment it hadn't really made any sense. Now though, Ranma felt he knew just how the deer felt when faced with mortal danger. It was a deadlock as his fight or flight instincts worked overtime against his newly-awakened libido.
As the Dark Goddess seemed to mold herself against Ranma's side, Ranma noted that her body was both warmer and more inviting than he expected. Her eyes were cold and distant though, which was enough of a turn-off to keep Ranma from falling to his knees before the goddess.
"Welcome to the family, Ranma," she purred. Her fingers traced interesting little designs over his chest.
"Th-thanks." The young godling swallowed hard, trying hard to control the flood of ideas and images pouring through his mind involving the goddess pressed against him.
"Not ta be rude or nothin', but can you…" He swallowed hard and gently gripped her wrists. "…can you please stop? I mean… we ain't even been properly introduced!"
Not that this had really been an issue between him and Mystra, but still! He wasn't going to be a pervert! The Dark Goddess laughed. It was a deep, velvety tone that promised pleasure on so many forbidden levels it was indecent. Ranma shivered again and began chanting the suppression mantra Guru Thammadi taught him when he was thirteen. It wasn't really working all that well, though. Maybe the Soul of Ice? The Light in the Void? Gah! Something had to work!
Pops in a Speedo. Pops in a Speedo. Pops in a Speedo.
Wait. The goddess was talking again. Ranma focused in on the words, hoping that they would distract him from the sensations the deity's wandering hands were eliciting in him.
"…am the Night. I am the Dark Goddess. I am known to many as the Lady of Shadows and Loss, but you… you may call me Shar."
"Uh… yeah." Ranma squeaked and tugged on his pigtail nervously. "Nice ta meetcha, Shar."
"Perhaps I can tempt you to visit me? We've much to discuss now that you control my Shadow Weave."
Ranma grinned uneasily and nodded, trying to ignore the possessive look in the goddess' dark eyes.
"Sounds fun," he squeaked.
"Undoubtedly. I can guarantee that it will be a dream come true."
Ranma wasn't so sure about that, especially considering how hungry Shar sounded. He closed his eyes as she lightly trailed her fingers up Ranma's chest, throat, and chin seductively. Years of inhibited hormones and a seriously repressed libido continued to battle for dominance with Ranma's imposing sense of self-preservation. It was a much longer conflict than normal.
"Leave off, Shar." A cool, commanding voice cut through Ranma's pleasurable haze. "There are others who wish to offer welcome to young Ranma."
Shar glared hatefully at a very familiar white-haired woman. The woman's matronly smile did not waver under Shar's reproachful glower. The goddess of night looked back at Ranma and drew close, her lips barely brushing his ear. Her breath was warm against his neck as she wrapped a shapely leg around Ranma's thigh.
"A bit of advice, love. Be mindful of those who welcome you with soft smiles and false promises." Shar slowly disengaged herself from his side, pressing herself closer before fully retreating. "Every god and goddess has their own agenda, and would seek to use you for their own personal gain."
"You chief among us, Shar," Mystra growled from behind Ranma.
"You wound me, Mystra!" Shar sneered.
"If only it were so."
Ranma fidgeted. This was starting to feel all too familiar.
"Perchance, the Mother of Magic is jealous?" The Dark Goddess started forward, wrapping her arms around Ranma possessively. Mystra's eyes narrowed dangerously, and Ranma felt a cold tingle build under his skin.
"Release him, Shar! He is not your toy!" Mystra demanded. The black-skinned goddess grinned seductively at Ranma.
"Perhaps he would like to be?"
The martial artist turned god shook his head violently, causing Shar to frown.
"No? Then maybe I could be your toy…." Ranma shivered at the way the goddess started nuzzling his neck. "I can think of a number of games you could play with—"
Shar's voice was suddenly silenced and Ranma felt her arms go slack. He blinked as she was forced to step back by a long, very deadly-looking blade pressing against her nose. It glowed with a silver light and seemed to hum coldly.
"It is clear that Ranma is not interested in your offer, dear Shar." Ranma followed the length of the blade back to its owner and was surprised to see a very serious Corellon Laraethian staring down at Shar.
"Mind your business, Elf Lord!" Shar hissed.
"Ranma is my business, Lady of Loss." The father of elves cocked his head and smiled fiercely as he lowered the long sword from Shar's nose. "As the newest member of the Seldarine, his interests and well-being are my own. So, I would kindly suggest you follow lovely Selune's earlier suggestion and leave well enough alone."
"If he wishes me to stop, all Ranma has to do is ask. He doesn't need you or anyone else to fight his battles for him." Shar smiled coyly at Ranma and winked before turning back to the elf-god.
"That is true. Ranma can speak for himself." The Coronal of Arvandor turned to Ranma. "So, Ranma. What say you? Do you want to dance in the sheets with the Lady of Loss?"
"Um… well, that is…"
Damn it all! Why did this crap always happen to him anyway? He was sick of being put on the spot like this, and the fact that the black-skinned chick was like some unholy mix of Shampoo and Kodachi was creeping him out. He sighed and shook his head. He knew from experience that she wasn't going to be the type to quit just because he asked her to. It really didn't matter what he said in the end — she had the same possessive look in her eyes that all his fiancées had at one time or another. Screw it. He didn't need this crap right now. Best to just be up front and get the pain out of the way. Maybe he'd get lucky and she'd take the hint right off?
"Look… Shar. I appreciate the offer and all, but now's not the best time."
"You are rejecting me?" Shar's eyes narrowed.
"Now, don't go puttin' words inta my mouth!" Ranma felt the goddess' anger building and winced. No matter how nice he tried to be about these things, everyone always went off the deep end. "You're pretty cute and if I wasn't dealin' with so much other crap right now… Well, I just don't think it's gonna work out, you know?"
Ranma's thought was cut off as Shar's eyes flared with a crimson light and her skin went completely black, blotting out the tiny stars.
"You refuse the gift I so freely offer?" Shar growled.
"Um… Well, yeah… for now… I guess." Ranma scratched the top of his head. Jeeze! What was with this chick? Was she hard of hearing or something?
"So be it, fool!" The goddess of loss narrowed her black eyes and flared with power. "Deal with your troubles, and while you do… you may deal with this as well!"
Ranma wasn't sure what she did, but he knew it hurt. There was an energy spike and then a tearing sensation within him. There was no time to scream as he saw himself literally split in twain. Under any other circumstance, he would jump for joy at the sight of his female half being separated from him; but there was something terribly wrong about how this was being done. He was losing a part of himself… an important part of himself.
"Let this loss be a lesson to you, Ranma Weavebender! Perhaps next time you shall not be so inclined to spurn the advances of Shar!"
He reached for his female half, desperately trying to hold himself together against the inevitable. But, for all his power, and all his skill, he wasn't quick enough. A portal of black lightning opened beneath both halves of him, and he felt the world explode with pain. His voice found purchase at last, and he cried out in agony as he watched the petite, pointy-eared redhead vanish before him.
He struggled and fought against the undeniable pull as long as he could, reaching out to Mystra and the blonde elf as they vainly tried to anchor him. As his fingers slipped from the hands of the goddess, he heard her calling to him, telling him that it would be all right, urging him to seek out his other half.
The portal closed, and then there was nothing but absolute darkness again.
The arrival in Everlund along the Evermoor Way was shrouded in a steady downpour. Dreary as the weather was, the group was happy and upbeat due to the fact that they were over halfway to their destination. Civilization also meant warm beds and warm baths, which was a big plus. They could already hear the bustling sounds of the Bell Market in the distance, and the pulse of the merchant city was already settling in Usagi's bones. Shandri and her family could only look out the windows in open wonder, while Feldrin yawned from her dappled gray mare as she rode beside the coach.
They had no sooner made their way through the southeastern gate, when a brightly glowing, fiery sparrow zoomed into the carriage's window and alighted on Usagi's outstretched hand. She squawked and tried unsuccessfully to rid herself of the magical bird, before realizing that she wasn't getting burned. With a sigh and an embarrassed laugh, she looked at Ulin for direction. The Genasi's face had gone an interesting shade of green alabaster, which worried Usagi to no end.
"What do I do?" Usagi whispered,
She was afraid to move for fear of setting off some crazy trap spell like the ones Ulin had been telling her about for the last day and a half. When Ulin didn't answer, Shandri screwed up her courage and kicked the sorceress in the shin, much to her mother's dismay and outrage. The only thing keeping Matron Dunhill from unleashing hellfire on her daughter's backside was the flaming sparrow preening itself on her Lady's fingers. Ulin blinked and looked at Usagi's terrified face for a moment. She shook her head and tried to put a comforting smile on her face. It didn't do anything to settle anyone's nerves in the least.
"That would be from Queen Alustriel. State your name and official title for the construct, and it should play its message."
"Sh-should?" Usagi whimpered.
"Either that, or it will explode and we all die a flaming death," Ulin deadpanned.
Shandri squeaked and her little sister started to cry. Usagi wanted to join her, but closed her eyes and tried to calm herself. She wanted to erect a shield as Ulin had taught her, but didn't know if the close proximity of the spell would set off the magic. She looked at the other in the coach and called for Stedd to stop at the first available opportunity. Once the carriage had stopped, Usagi urged everyone out and asked Ulin to cast a very power shield around the coach to protect bystanders if this was something dire.
Shandri fought to stay in the coach with Usagi, but the Lady of Hemmerling pulled rank on her handmaid and ordered her to protect her mother and sister. Tears flowed down the girl's cheeks as she followed Usagi's command, leaving the young woman alone in the coach. Once she was certain that all of her orders had been followed, she took a deep breath and plunged ahead.
"I am Serenity, Lady of Hemmerling, known to some as the Silver Princess."
The fiery sparrow chirruped once, causing Usagi to nearly jump out of her skin. As it was she cried out and scrunched her eyes shut. When nothing untoward happened and all her body parts were still connected properly, she opened her eyes to see the sparrow finishing morphing into a very familiar-looking woman.
"Mother?" Usagi whispered.
"Greetings to you, Serenity, Lady of Hemmerling, Silver Princess of the North. I greet you, sister, from the throne of Silverymoon, with warm tidings from the heart of the Silver Marches. Your coming was foretold to me, and my court makes ready for your imminent arrival."
By this time, seeing that the threat was over, Ulin herded everyone back into the carriage while the pleasantries were being exchanged. She silenced everyone, in order to better hear the language of Alustriel's message.
"As you are hearing this, you are most certainly in, or near, the city of Everlund. I have taken the liberty of arranging accommodations for you and your retinue at Moongleam Tower, under the care and protection of Moonlord Eaerlraun Shadowlyn. Upon your arrival to the city, please send word ahead that he may make any final preparations for you and your company. He bears a letter and vital information for you. Please reply as soon as convenient and let us know of your intended arrival date. I am yours eternally. Alustriel."
The image of the beautiful woman bowed once before disappearing in a flash of flame. Usagi looked at Ulin with more than a little concern. The Genasi bit her lip and fairly ignored the stares everyone was giving her. Her normal confidence seemed to return abruptly and she seized the opportunity that the silence provided to work furiously. She dug into a satchel at her feet and pulled out some parchment and the travel desk she had used quite often in teaching Usagi to read and write. She scribbled a hasty note and secured it with rose-colored wax, pressing Usagi's seal in the spell-heated wax to make everything official. She stuffed the note into a lacquered scroll-case and held up her hand to forestall any of the questions that were already bubbling forth from Usagi and Shandri.
"Viet!" The young man appeared at the coach's window.
"You are to go to Moongleam Tower and deliver this to the Moonlord Eaerlraun Shadowlyn himself. No one else may open it or touch it. Tell them it is magically sealed against intrusion if you have to. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Lady Ulin." Viet bowed crisply as he took the scroll-case in hand.
Usagi watched it disappear into his cloak and, just as quickly, the young man vanished into the misty rain at a gallop. Ulin fell back into her seat, damp and completely lost in thought. It took another jostle from Shandri to pull the woman back to reality.
"Ulin, what is going on?" Usagi demanded. "What has got you so worried?"
Ulin bit her lip again and bowed her head in thought. She absently began toying with her hair, but made no immediate move to answer Usagi's questions.
"Ulin." Usagi tried to make her voice sound firm.
"Please, my Lady. There is much to sort through here and I am doing my best to make sense of it. There were some troubling things in Alustriel's message. Things that concern me."
"Like what? Talk us through it."
Ulin sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose.
"What is the first rule of statecraft?"
"Nothing is ever as it seems," Usagi answered.
"Correct. Alustriel's message, like anything political, has more beneath the surface than it actually says. There are a hundred ways to interpret the words she used, but if we misinterpret their meaning…."
"With one of the Seven, you can be certain of it. Maybe not from Alustriel directly; the tone of her response wasn't what I would expect from her if she considered you a threat or an enemy."
"But if not from her, then who?" Shandri asked in a quiet voice.
"Everyone else, child. Everyone else."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Usagi demanded. She already hated politics, and now that she was starting to see them from the inside out, that sentiment was only growing.
"It means, dear heart, that Alustriel might not want to hurt, defame, or kill you, but her enemies most likely will."
"This sucks!" Usagi pouted.
Ulin shrugged. "Such is the politician's life."
"This is insane. I never wanted to be a politician! All I want to do is go home!" Usagi tossed her head against the back of the padded bench seat and rubbed her face. "Okay. Give it to me straight. What does her message really mean?"
"I came in at the end of your titles. Was there anything else said prior to that?"
Usagi shook her head.
"No. Just my name and the titles."
"Good." She tapped her chin with the quill she had used to write the note to the Moonlord. "She used some very odd language that leads me to believe that a much larger game is being played here, and you are a very prominent piece on the board."
"How so?" Mrs. Dunhill asked.
"She called Usagi-chan 'sister' — an intimate form of address reserved for equals. It is obvious that the events in Hemmerling and the mines have outpaced us. She greeted you from the 'Throne of Silverymoon' and with tidings from the 'heart of the Silver Marches', making the missive officially a political greeting."
Ulin took a moment to close her eyes and then began to scribble out something on her parchment.
"The next part was the clarion call of trouble. She made it known that someone had already told her of your coming. The question is who told her, and how did that person know of our intent?"
"Your family?" Usagi suggested.
"It's possible. Poor Hevig was certainly in a hurry to leave." Ulin grinned at Usagi, who could only blush and grumble at the memory of the Harpell whose bed she had woken in oh so long ago. "One of my relatives might have called ahead, but this was prior to the events at the mines and in Hemmerling. Something tells me that this goes beyond my family."
"Who else could it be?" Shandri asked.
"There are plenty of possibilities, and therein lies the problem. You have the Harpells, for one. They have just as many eyes and ears in the North as the Zhentarim. They have deep ties to Silverymoon as well. The issue at hand goes much deeper than who alerted Alustriel of our 'imminent' arrival. She's preparing her court to receive you as she would a foreign queen. This, in and of itself, is going to make the people of Tradesburrow a bit nervous when it gets back to them."
"Why?" Usagi demanded. "I mean, I'm not going to do anything to them."
"You know that, and we know that, but they do not. With Alustriel's apparent backing, the lands of Hemmerling and the surrounding wilds may very well become your kingdom."
"Oh, this is just great! We need to send someone back to Tradesburrow. We need to tell them that I'm not interested in becoming their queen!"
"We'll go ahead and send someone back with a message. But you must be prepared for the idea that it might already be too late."
Usagi sighed and began to rub her temples. "Can this get any worse?"
"Of course it can." Ulin smiled mirthlessly. "Alustriel has also arranged for us to be placed under the protection of one of Everlund's most powerful defenders. This alone gives more credence that the Silver Marches are backing your non-existent bid for the area surrounding Hemmerling."
"It also means that we're in some sort of danger," Usagi pointed out. "Right?"
"Dear heart, we've been in danger since the initial meeting with Mayor Thistlebuck and the late Master Hearthman. With Kelemvor's defeat and the death of Olin Breambur, your notoriety is growing by leaps and bounds. Now you understand why I've been insisting that we train and study so hard. It's also why I didn't make a fuss when the Loras insisted on accompanying us. You are already gaining enemies in high and low places, based solely on rumors alone."
Shandri's sister clung to Mrs. Dunhill.
"I am sorry if this all seems frightening, but now you understand why I am so worried by Alustriel's message. The ramifications of this missive alone are staggering, and there is most certainly more to all of this than we currently know or comprehend."
"The letter this 'Moonlord' person has."
Ulin nodded. "Think carefully, though. That was not all that she said he had for you."
"Vital information. She said he had 'vital information' for me."
"I'm glad that you were listening." Ulin rubbed her temples and looked out into the rainy cobblestone streets of Everlund. Usagi pondered the woman's posture, and while there was certainly enough to worry about, the Silver Princess knew that something else was bothering her mentor and friend.
"There's more to this, isn't there?"
"Why do you say that?" Ulin didn't look away from the rain.
"Because of the way you reacted to Alustriel's sparrow. You knew it was from her, but you were still afraid."
Ulin shrugged. "A cautious cat lives to eat fish another day."
"Did something happen between you and Alustriel?"
Ulin didn't answer right away. "The Seven Sisters and I have not always seen eye to eye." The Genasi smiled softly. "Let us leave it at that."
Usagi was not going to let it go at that, especially since this might come back and bite her in the butt if she didn't prepare for it beforehand. She giggled mentally. Listen to her! Usagi Tsukino, preparing and thinking ahead for once… who would have thought? If only her friends could see her now. She doubted that they would recognize the girl she had been in the woman she was rapidly becoming. She sighed and looked back to Ulin intently. "Will you tell me about it?"
"Another day perhaps." Ulin began toying with her hair nervously.
"Before we get to Silverymoon, at least?"
Ulin shifted in agitation and nodded curtly.
"Good enough." Usagi patted the jade-skinned woman's leg and smiled encouragingly. "So, where do we go from here, Moongleam Tower?"
Ulin shook her head.
"No. Lord Shadowlyn needs time, and we need money."
"Money?" Usagi asked. "What for?"
Ulin looked at Usagi like she had grown a new head.
"You don't expect us to go to dinner dressed as we are, do you?"
All the girl's eyes lit up with glee.
"You mean… we get to go… shopping?" Usagi asked reverently.
"What else would I mean?"
Usagi and Shandri squealed with delight and bounced in their seats.
"Before we do, however, there is something I need to ask Mistress Dunhill."
Shandri's mother looked away from her daughter and upon seeing Ulin's stoic face, her own smile vanished.
"In light of the danger, Mistress Dunhill, I would be remiss in not offering you the opportunity to return to Hemmerling with young Dinah."
Usagi nodded her head emphatically. "Yes, Mrs. Dunhill. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if you or Dinah were to get hurt."
"I thank you for your concerns, my Lady Serenity. Lady Ulin. But, where my Shandri goes, we'll go. We're all the family each other has, and I'd like to be close to my daughters." The finality in the woman's words left no room for argument.
"I understand your sentiments." Ulin looked at Dinah pointedly. "What about you Dinah? Are you going to go with us too?"
The little girl only grinned widely, showing off the wide gap in her smile.
"Well, then it is time to get some other things settled. As you are staying on, I am going to put you to work. Mistress Dunhill, you are now the Matron of Hands. You are responsible for all of Lady Serenity's personal needs: baths, food, clothing, dressing, etcetera, etcetera. You are granted the power to hire handmaidens and other help as needed, and you can expect that the servants of those we will be staying with will look to you for information regarding Lady Serenity's tastes and requirements. Any handmaids under your banner are your responsibility and not only reflect on you, but on your Lady as well. I will be helping you screen them, to ensure that we do not hire on any assassins, but those that are hired are under your authority."
Everyone swallowed nervously at the thought of murderers disguised as servants trying to kill Usagi.
"You will, of course, be paid a monthly stipend and have room, board, and clothing wherever we travel. It is a great deal of responsibility, but I am more than confident that you are qualified for the position. Are you willing to pledge your services to the noble House of Serenity?"
Silea Dunhill bent forward in the coach and took Usagi's hand and kissed it.
"I swear on the name of my late husband, and in the name of Tyr, that I will serve you faithfully, Lady Serenity, until you dismiss me or until I breathe my last."
Usagi could only look on in shock at the declaration.
"Do you accept this humble servant into your employ, Lady Serenity? Do you promise to uphold the terms stated and promise to protect this woman and her children as if they were your own?"
"I promise." Usagi nodded and Silea Dunhill smiled at her daughters.
"Now then. Shandri Dunhill. You have already given your pledge to our Lady, protecting her with your life and assuming the station of Senshi in her court. I now name you her Lady-in-Waiting, and bid you to act as her personal shield at all times. Do you accept?"
Shandri mirrored her mother's earlier declaration and shared the tears in Usagi's eyes when the Silver Princess accepted her.
"Lastly, we come to you, Dinah Dunhill." The little girl's eyes were wide and animated as she scooted forward on her seat, waiting for Ulin to speak. "I name you my aide. Will you help me keep Lady Serenity awake during her lessons?"
Everyone chuckled as Dinah nodded.
"Will you make certain that Lady Serenity eats all her vegetables and gets enough sleep at night? Will you help me make sure that she gets to where she needs to be, and help me keep her House in order?" Ulin looked at her seriously. "This means that you will have to lead by example — eating your vegetables, bathing regularly, and getting enough sleep. After all, if we don't do it, how can we expect others to?"
Dinah looked scared for a moment but Usagi's hand on her knee washed the concern away.
"We will help each other, how does that sound?" Dinah nodded and repeated the words her mother and sister had spoken. Usagi gathered her into a warm hug and kissed her cheek. She was surprised that the gesture was returned with just as much intensity.
"We are settled then. We will tie up the other loose ends as time permits." Ulin thumped on the carriage's roof and called out to Stedd Greycastle to head for the Bell Market. It was time for shopping, and pity any who stood between the women and that goal.
The time leading up to the Festival of Creation was fast dwindling. Keiichi, through the diligence of Sister Maerdith, had confirmed many of the suppositions concerning the Norns' gifts to the young man. He didn't need to sleep any longer, or to eat as much or as frequently as others, and his wounds healed incredibly fast. He could read just about any language set in front of him, excepting the language of Mystra. He had been confused about that until speaking with Father Ellosin, who pointed out that the language of magic was guarded by the Goddess of Mysteries herself, and could only be learned through her blessing and great personal study. Keiichi accepted the explanation and moved onto more important things. Namely, eating his carrots and green veggies.
The carrots made some serious strides in making his blue coloring diminish, to which he was extremely grateful, even considering the large greenish-orange splotches that were replacing the azure hue. Sure he looked like a huge, polka-dotted rag doll, but it was better than looking like an overgrown Smurf. The greens were having a serious affect on his hair growth after the first full week of eating, forcing him to cut his rapidly regenerating, shoulder-length hair every three days just to keep it out of his eyes. After the fourth haircut, Keiichi had stopped bothering with it. Instead, he just pulled it back into a ponytail and went about his business. It eventually stopped, or at the very least slowed to a more natural growth pattern, which relieved Keiichi greatly.
In pondering the madness that was Urd one evening, Keiichi had come to the realization that the Norn of the Past wanted to ensure he ate healthy, if for no other reason than to placate Belldandy's worries. It made it easier to accept all the new strangeness about himself and the many setbacks that came because of the Norns' gifts. Their concern, however overwhelming, was comforting — which was something sorely needed as the days grew longer and his attention was invariably drawn back to the mountainous problem of his Ascension.
The thought of becoming a god, in word and deed, seemed so alien to him. In truth, the whole concept seemed downright blasphemous when he really thought about it. He was a mortal, and a fairly pathetic specimen at that. Urd, Belldandy, and Peorth…. Shoot! In light of recent events and revelations, even Skuld seemed so far above him in power and understanding that just entertaining the prospect of someday being their equal was laughable. He was a microscopic organism, when compared to the complexity and depth of their existence. It really put his wish, and subsequently Belldandy's acceptance and love for him, into perspective.
More often than not, the topic of his Ascension left him feeling empty and depressed. He'd stopped studying the new notes after the fifth day, mostly because the concepts presented were so far over his head that he had little hope of ever understanding them. So, in order to fight the mounting frustration, Keiichi threw himself into the creation of his "Multi-environmental Transforming Automated Transport" or "METAT" for short.
Working with his hands made him feel better, and he always seemed to have more energy than he knew what to do with. So, the strides he made in the first week after Skuld collected her book were phenomenal. He'd all but finished the design and construction of METAT's main drive, and the frame for the exoskeleton. Had it not been for the onset of mental fatigue and the sudden two-pronged assault from Sam and Sister Maerdith concerning his eating habits, he was sure that METAT would have been up and running by now.
The intervention of the women forced him to slow his pace more than a bit, but he couldn't fault them. He knew that he was so close to burnout that their intervention was actually welcome. It didn't hurt that Sam insisted Keiichi come for dinner every night either. Good food was always welcome, even if you didn't need to eat.
Keiichi looked over at Ruthart, who had become something of a minder and assistant for Keiichi. Sister Maerdith and Sam were both unable to watch over him every hour of the day, so Ruthart had been nominated for the job. Keiichi had to admit that the young gnome was doing a great job so far — he'd made himself all but indispensable. He watched over Keiichi like a hawk, anticipating his needs and keeping Keiichi's workshop well stocked and in good working order.
Keiichi looked over at the young gnome walking beside him and smiled. It was hard to find good friends, but apparently, Keiichi was unusually blessed. As they neared the Steelwater home, a feeling of dread washed over Keiichi. Thick black smoke rose over the rooftops, painting a nasty smear on the golden clouds dotting the evening sky. With a shared look of concern between him and Ruthart, Keiichi began running.
The ring of the fire brigade's bells and the charge of imminent tragedy hung in the air as the pair rounded the final corner and took in the furious inferno that was the Steelwater home. Water pumps and bucket lines were everywhere; some working on the house and workshop, others soaking the nearby houses and businesses. Keiichi could only stare in terrible wonder at the sight, unable to comprehend the devastation that had befallen his dear friends. Ruthart tugged on his sleeve urgently and Keiichi responded by running to a stout gnome that was issuing orders to the teams trying to contain the blaze.
"Are the steelwaters all right?" he shouted over the roar of the flames.
The heat and intensity of the blaze was already affecting him. The gnome nodded and pointed to a water wagon on the other side of the bucket line. Sam was sitting on the ground, covered in soot and ashes, weeping as she watched her home go up in flames. Seated next to her was Sister Maerdith, consoling her as best she could. Keiichi scanned the crowds, watching in wonder and amazement at the organized chaos of the firefighters. Their tools were just as loud as the growl of the flames, and the water being pumped out of them was ingenious. Keiichi's mind began breaking down the systems and improving upon them before he caught himself and began looking for Duncan again.
When he finally found the dwarf, he was holding the end of a high-pressured hose all by himself, trying to save what he could. Keiichi wasted no time in running to his friend's aid. He picked up the slack of the taut hose and helped secure it. Ruthart joined one of the bucket brigades and began tossing water on the flames. The battle wore on for the better part of two hours, until Father Ellosin finally arrived on the scene. The priest called upon the might of Oghma to create a concentrated pillar of spiraling wind that sucked the flames high into the air and distributed them among the clouds.
Keiichi marveled at the powerful display, as did many others, but most of the people present could do little but try and hold their balance as the winds tugged and pulled at them. The sudden lack of oxygen to fuel the fire caused the blaze to gutter and die, but the fire marshal urged everyone to continue wetting down the area, so that the flames did not rekindle themselves. It was sometime before the inferno was finally put out, and during that time Keiichi just happened to catch a glimpse of Haroun standing on the edge of the crowds smiling in deep satisfaction. The manipulative little bastard was smug and more than pleased about the situation, which sent up all sorts of red flags in Keiichi's mind, but there was little he could do at the moment to confront the Gondar priest. Little fires continued to crop up here and there among the smoldering coals of Duncan's house, forcing Keiichi's attention back to the job at hand.
There would be time for retribution later. Right now, Duncan and Sam needed him.
The night came and went, leaving the fire brigade and the volunteers exhausted. The Steelwater home was a complete loss, leaving Duncan and his wife homeless — something that Keiichi intended to remedy. Ruthart was sent ahead to prepare a room in the workshop for the couple as soon as the markets opened, leaving Keiichi to succor his distraught friends. He strode over to where Duncan and Sam were huddled against a hose wagon and knelt before them.
"Ruthart is getting a room ready for you at my place." Duncan nodded blankly. "I'll send Sister Maerdith to pick up some clothing for you as well. Is there anything else you need right now?"
Duncan shook his head numbly. Keiichi motioned to Bertrold and Sister Maerdith to help the pair back to the workshop cavern, while he turned to have words with the fire marshal.
A week had past since the fire, leaving a pall over the seaside cavern. Duncan had locked himself in his room and refused food or drink. Sam said he had begun a fast to regain favor in Gond's eyes, but Keiichi knew that the dwarf's faith had been seriously shaken. He didn't know how or why, but he could feel it.
The sudden sense of empathy that he had for his friend began to manifest itself late in the week, as Keiichi began to miss meals too. By the tenth day, he had locked himself in the workshop just as Duncan had retreated to the solitude of his room. The state of things made everyone worry, but Keiichi's mind had but one focus. Finishing his entry.
It wasn't that he wanted to win the competition. Well, that wasn't exactly true. He wanted to win, but more for Duncan's sake than his own. Which was why, after ten days of non-stop work, the Multi-environmental Transforming Automated Transport was complete… or at least as complete as Keiichi could get it. The body and engine were done, as well as the outer plating. The only finishing touch to come up with was the A.I., and that would take some serious programming to pull off.
He'd already made some strides in reading Skuld's notes on "Coding for Creation," but he hadn't the time to put a proper computer together. This was a conundrum, especially considering the fact that he only had one week to go before the Festival of Creation. He had installed manual controls in the METAT, but somehow he didn't think that would cut it for the competition. He'd seen a number of Gondsmen trudging around town behind their Techsmith masters, and while the METAT was far superior to these clockwork men, they had something that Keiichi's creation did not: a semblance of life.
Given more time, he was certain that he'd be able to work out the code and develop a fully integrated artificial intelligence; unfortunately there was no more time. He needed a solution and he needed one now.
"What to do? What to do?" He sighed. "Come on! Think, Morisato!"
A loud, urgent, banging on the large double doors of the workshop interrupted Keiichi's thoughts. The feel of the rapping was panicked and Keiichi found himself leaping from his worktable in a rush. When he opened the door, Sam greeted him with tearstained cheeks, and beside her was a familiar face that Keiichi didn't think he'd ever see again. He ignored Kerden Blowbutton in favor of comforting Duncan's wife.
"Sam? What's wrong?"
"Oh, Keiichi! It's Duncan!" she sobbed. "He won't wake up!"
Keiichi brushed between her and Kerden and rushed through the caverns to his friend's room. He passed through the glass-roofed cavern that served as Sam's new gardening room and then through the freshwater grotto that supplied water to their home. By the time he reached Duncan's door, his concern grew. Ruthart was standing outside the door with his face in his hands and his shoulders shaking. Dread filled his heart as he passed the threshold and came upon a tearful Sister Maerdith chanting prayers to Oghma over a very still body. Without thinking he shoved Maerdith away and checked the dwarf for a pulse… and found none.
"How long has he been like this?" He demanded. Maerdith scowled at him and did not answer. Keiichi grabbed her shoulders and shook her. "HOW LONG?"
"Just a couple of minutes…" she whispered.
He wanted to feel sorry for his actions, but he didn't take the time. He tilted Duncan's head back to clear the airway and began CPR immediately. Breath. Pump the blood. Breath. Pump the blood. Breath. Pump the blood.
"BREATH, DAMN YOU!" Keiichi roared.
He slammed his fists down on Duncan's chest with a loud "thump" that startled everyone in the room. The dwarf gasped, drawing in a deep breath, and rolled to his side and began coughing. Keiichi supported his friend, cradling him against the hacking coughs that rocked his body.
"Ruthart." Keiichi motioned his shaken apprentice into the room. "Help me get him on the bed."
They lifted Duncan carefully and with Sam's help, slipped him under the covers. Everyone looked scared for Duncan and somewhat awed by Keiichi's action of bringing the dwarf back from the dead. Keiichi feigned not to notice the attention directed his way by Ruthart and Kerden, focusing instead on Sam and Maerdith.
"He's going to be sore and hungry. We need to watch him and make sure that he gets water. Call me if his situation changes."
"Me situation's already changed." Duncan's voice sounded like tumbling gravel, but it was still one of the sweetest things that Keiichi had heard. He smiled at the stoic dwarf and settled on the end of the bed.
"Are you through with all this drama? Some of us have work to do."
Duncan laughed and ended up slipping back into another coughing fit. By the time it had run its course, Sam was already pushing a wooden mug of water to his lips. He sipped slowly and nodded when he had his fill. The tension in the air relaxed considerably and after a few happy pats on the shoulder, Sister Maerdith and Ruthart left. Keiichi convinced Sam to go cook something up for her husband, leaving Keiichi and Duncan to talk. Kerden, unbeknownst to the pair, sat just inside the door wringing his hands and biting the end of his curly yellow beard.
"So when are you going to join me in the shop?"
"I doubt I'll ever set foot in a shop again." Duncan sighed and shook his head. "Gond has forsaken me."
"Nonsense!" Keiichi protested. "That can't be true."
"It is," Duncan contested. "I've been prayin' since the day the challenge was set. I've made every sacrifice, and performed all the rituals of inspiration known to the Gondar. In the end the answer is always the same: silence."
"Why not use the Iron Horse? With a little polish and a new cushion for the seat, it'll be good as new."
Duncan shook his head.
"What about your Gondsman? We were able to salvage it from the fire."
The dwarf shook his head again.
"It needs to be somethin' new and unique. Somethin' that Mostana ain't seen yet and that ain't been tainted by fire."
"Why? That doesn't make sense."
"To prove that I still have Gond's favor, lad. Somethin' that I most certainly find meself lacking these days."
"I can't believe that Gond would have abandoned you." Keiichi ran his hands through his hair and shook his head. "Besides, you've already submitted your entry designs. Won't deviating from the plans count against you?"
Duncan shrugged and allowed the silence to thicken around them. His voice was laced with emotion when he spoke again.
"Maybe Mostana was right. By getting' yer help, instead of going to me knees, I offended me god."
Keiichi felt horrible at the thought that he'd hurt his friend in such a way, but Duncan kicked him in the hip with his heel.
"Don't ye be assumin' nothin' Keiichi Morisato. The sin's me own and there's none to blame for me predicament but meself."
"That is not entirely true, Builder Steelwater."
Keiichi and Duncan looked up at Kerden Blowbutton in surprise and disapproval.
"What're ye on about, Artificer!" Duncan growled. Another coughing fit came over him as Kerden stepped closer to the bed. When Duncan's fit was over, the gnome sighed and pulled up a chair by the bedside.
"I am an Artificer no more, Builder Steelwater." Kerden hung his head. "By my own actions have I forsaken the Church and been claimed by another."
"I don't understand," Duncan confessed, urging the gnome to continue. Kerden looked at Keiichi with evident shame before speaking.
"I attempted to steal from good Master Keiichi, and in so doing I was punished and claimed by one of his goddesses until restitution has been made."
"What would possess ye to do something so foolish?" Duncan hissed.
"Haroun Mostana came to me with promises of wealth and glory and, in my greed, I followed him in the hopes of either winning over Master Keiichi or taking his secrets for our own."
"Thief!" Duncan growled with disgust. "And ye call me heretic!"
"I have already been to High Builder Maverly with my crime, and my name has been stricken from the records of the Church forever," He said sadly. "But I did not come to speak about me; I came to give you a warning."
"A warning?" Keiichi asked.
"Yes. When Artificer Mostana left you that day, Master Keiichi, he was incensed. Your loyalty towards Builder Steelwater drove his anger to new heights. He vowed to win the competition at any cost, to punish you and Builder Steelwater, going so far as cursing Master Duncan's altar, confounding his prayers, and… and setting fire to his workshop."
Keiichi was glad that Duncan was still weak from his ordeal and not eating. As it was, the young man had to almost tackle the dwarf in order to keep him from throttling the frightened gnome.
"Ye knew! Ye knew, ye bastard son of an orc, and ye did nothing to stop him!"
"Duncan calm down!" Keiichi struggled with the dwarf, but had little success in soothing his ire. "Hear him out! He has to have a reason!"
Kerden, for his part, did his best to stay in his seat, although he was visibly shaking at the murderous glare Duncan was throwing him. By the time the dwarf finally exhausted himself, Keiichi was spent.
"Tell me true. Did ye know, aforehand, or did yer knowledge come later?"
"Aforehand, Builder." Duncan began to growl. "But I did not sit idle!"
He lifted his tunic slowly, revealing a number of nasty bruises along his ribs and arms. "I tried to stop Mostana's hired hands from setting the blaze, but I was not enough to overpower them."
This seemed to appease Duncan somewhat, but he was still leery of Kerden. "Did ye report Mostana to Maverly?"
"I did." Kerden nodded. "A Silent Inquisition has been called, but I doubt they will find anything steelclad before the Festival of Creation. My testimony alone will not suffice, as you well know. A minimum of three witnesses is required to implicate a clergy of Rank."
"Aye. It will be all but impossible for that oily bastard to be implicated. He's too damn cunning to leave us any breadcrumbs."
Kerden nodded his agreement, but said nothing more.
"I guess we can expect to be next, then?" Keiichi asked.
"I am assuming so," the gnome admitted. "That is partially why I came."
"Partially?" Duncan asked.
"Yes. I was hoping to find sanctuary here with you." He looked pleadingly at Keiichi, and all but got on his knees to beg.
"How can we trust ye?" Duncan growled. In response to his question, a fiery rune blazed at the center of the gnome's forehead. "By the Wonder Bringer! What magic is this?"
Keiichi grinned. "The mark of Skuld."
"I am Hers, now and forever, Master Keiichi. And She has commanded me to watch over and protect you."
Although the admonition made him feel uncomfortable, Keiichi nodded. "If Skuld sent you, then I don't have a problem with you staying."
"Are ye sure that's wise, lad?" Duncan didn't bother whispering. "What if it's a trap?"
Keiichi smiled. "Master Blowbutton has seen Skuld's divinity, Duncan. If he's playing us, then I feel sorry for him. Skuld doesn't like it when people take advantage of her."
Duncan sized Kerden up through narrowed eyes, looking for any deception. "Fine. I'll abide by yer trust in the goddess. But mark me, Blowbutton! Step outta line just once, and ye'll be kissin' me biggest wrench!"
Kerden swallowed hard and nodded. "I understand completely, Builder Steelwater."
"Good." The dwarf crossed his arms and huffed.
Sam made her appearance then, carrying a tray of food fit for three dwarves. Keiichi took that as a sign for them to go and motioned for Kerden to follow him. He closed the door behind them and the pair walked through the grotto and the greenhouse cavern. Keiichi led the gnome to the kitchen where Ruthart and Sister Maerdith sat drinking tea.
"…brought him back from the dead! Surely that has to mean something!" Ruthart's quiet voice was urgent and defensive, and for some reason it made Keiichi unsettled to hear him speak. Maerdith, facing the door as she was, saw the pair enter and chose not to respond to the young gnome's words.
"How is he?" she asked.
Keiichi smiled. "Weak and grouchy."
"On the road to recovery then." Maerdith grinned.
Keiichi nodded and motioned for Kerden to sit in one of the empty seats as he collected two more teacups. He settled himself opposite the gnome and to the right of Maerdith, allowing Ruthart to pour for them.
"Kerden has some news to share with you." The gnome looked pained at Keiichi's veiled command, but nodded his acceptance. "Once he's done explaining things, could you set him up with a bed for the night, Ruthart?"
"Yes, Master Keiichi." The reverence in the young gnome's voice grated on Keiichi's nerves.
"We'll need to see about opening up a few new caverns after the Festival's over, too." He sipped the sweet Andilmyne tea that Maerdith favored as he pondered his next course of action. "After you've gotten Master Blowbutton settled, I want you to see about cleaning up the Iron Horse. Take note of any thing that needs to be replaced or restored, all right?"
"Yes, Master Keiichi."
"As it stands, Duncan is going to need all the help we can give him during the coming week. With that in mind, Kerden, would you be willing to lend a hand in putting together whatever creation Duncan comes up with in the next few days?"
"It is the least I can do for you and Builder Steelwater, Master Keiichi."
"Good." Keiichi turned to Maerdith. "Could you, by chance, invite Bertrold over for breakfast tomorrow? I have a feeling that he should be made aware of some things too."
"Of course." Maerdith nodded.
"Thank you." Keiichi sipped his tea, mind racing.
The oddity of being so assertive wasn't lost on him. It seemed so out of character for him to be this demanding. But, in light of their current situation, someone needed to step up and get things rolling for Duncan. There was no way that he was going to allow Haroun Mostana to get away with everything he'd done. They were going to win this stupid challenge honorably and honestly, without stooping to his level.
"I've got to figure out a way over the last hurdle of my entry, so I'll leave you to it, Kerden." He turned to Ruthart and Maerdith. "I just want you to know, in spite of what Master Blowbutton has to say, I trust him completely. I hope that you can extend him the same courtesy."
The reactions of the three were mixed, but Keiichi didn't bother cataloguing them. He had too much to do and not enough time to do it. As he was leaving the kitchen though, a thought occurred to him. "When Sam gets a moment, please have her come to my shop, would you?"
The trio nodded. Keiichi made his way back to his workshop and closed the doors behind him. He stared at his mammoth creation on the shop's large worktable for a time before moving over to the tall stool that he had tipped over in his haste to leave the room. He righted it and sat down, propping his elbows on the counter top of the smaller worktable where he did all of his detailed work. His mind began to sort through everything he had gleaned from Skuld's notes, trying to piece together a solution to the problem of the METAT's artificial intelligence.
Each and every elucidation he came across was too complex, too time consuming, or lacked the proper materials to pull it off. He needed a computer but, even with the gifts Belldandy and her sisters had given him, there was just not enough time to pull it together. The more he thought and pondered, the angrier and more frustrated he became. This irritation quickly rose to become an ill temper, until at last Keiichi slammed his fist onto the counter top. The force of the blow caused a number of items to jump and topple, spilling the contents of jars and small boxes all over the workbench. This angered him even more, causing him to slam his fist down on the tabletop again.
A sharp pain caused him to hiss and immediately clutch his hand. The feel of warm blood trickled through his fingers alerting him to the deep cut he had inflicted upon himself. He sorted through the contents of the workbench and the workbench's drawers, looking for a rag. When he came upon a small cloth covered bundle, he began to unwrap it straight away. Blood had already soaked through a large portion of the linen by the time he'd exposed the bundle's contents.
He was surprised to see the small pearlescent egg Skuld had given him, nearly coated in his blood. The small artifact had completely slipped his mind. He tried his best to clean the egg, but only managed to spread the blood around more. He sighed at the thought of having to wash it off. It was just one more thing to accomplish. He started for the large double doors, still lost in his thoughts, when the egg began absorb the blood and glow softly. As he was passing the METAT's head, Keiichi was startled out of his reverie by Sam's distraught voice.
"Keiichi! Your hands!"
He squawked and squeezed the glowing egg in his still bloody hands. The slippery egg shot out of his grasp like a bar of wet soap, causing Keiichi to dance as he juggled the fragile artifact back and forth. He spun and twirled in an agile ballet of panic, almost catching the egg several times. He crowed in triumph as his hand once again closed on the glowing ovoid, only to trip over his own tangled feet at the last critical second. Time slowed as the egg once again sailed free of his grasp. Up and up it rose, tumbling end over end in a doomed arc that ended at the center of the METAT's forehead. Keiichi watched in horror as the egg shattered into a million tiny pieces of light that floated and drifted on an unseen breeze.
Keiichi could only watch in great disappointment as the minuscule shards slowly settled on the surface and inside of the METAT's head and upper torso. He hung his head and breathed a deep and gloomy sigh. As he pushed himself to his feet, Sam gasped. He looked at her with concern, but she just pointed back to the METAT with a shaky finger. He followed her gaze and took a step back as his creation began to glow.
He could feel the Seraphic Engine come online and from the way Sam was rubbing her arms, she felt it too. As the secondary systems began to charge, Keiichi noted that one of the METAT's hands began to twitch. Small debris began to lift from the tables and floor throughout the workshop and Keiichi could feel his hair standing on end as a very strong electromagnetic field rose in the room. Excitement and concern began to run through him and he motioned Sam to move back towards the door. He'd seen "Robot Carnival" enough times to know that one didn't stand directly in front of a creation that was waking up for the first time. He had no intention of being crushed by his own hard work before he'd had the chance to pay Mostana back for the grief and pain he'd caused.
No, that wouldn't do at all.
The METAT sat up slowly and swung its legs off the table with an agility that both surprised and pleased Keiichi. He watched as the huge, humanoid robot lifted its hands and slowly examined them, opening and closing its fingers in a way that seemed very… well, human, for lack of a better term. Heated air vented from a number of valves at the neck and beneath the "rib cage", ruffling Keiichi's clothing as he drew closer to his creation. The movement drew the METAT's attention, making Keiichi pause in his slow advance.
The sound of more heated air venting caused Sam to cry out in alarm. The robot slowly shifted its gaze to the dwarf woman, eliciting another whimper from Duncan's wife. The noise generated by the activation brought the trio from the kitchen, causing the METAT's head to swivel away from Sam and move to the door. Maerdith screamed and backed out of the room as Ruthart and Kerden moved forward into her place. Both looked upon Keiichi's marvel with awe and wonder.
"It's all right." The young man spoke softly, drawing the robot's attention back to him.
There was an echoing, digital quality to the METAT's voice that made Keiichi grin. He wanted to jump and dance, but the image of the little mad scientist getting squished in "Robot Carnival" kept his feet firmly planted on the ground. Instead, he satisfied his excitement by laying his hand on the leg of the robot. He smiled up at the highly polished, featureless faceplate and sighed.
"I name you Kazukiichiro…."
"Yes. My first, shining son."
Keiichi looked up at his fifteen-foot metallic child and couldn't help but thank Skuld. What an incredibly miraculous gift! This was better than A.I. — it was nothing short of magic! He looked back at his friends and beamed with joy. He couldn't wait until Duncan was up and about… he was going to freak!
Keiichi laughed brightly.
Top that, Mostana!
Phaele Aligaurde, High Dweomerkeeper to the Temple of Stars, felt at a loss before the altar. The priestess had spent her days locked away from the local populace of Daerlun and the rest of Sembia, praying and meditating on the mystery of the new god. Her prayers to Ranma had yet to be answered beyond a number of troubling and confusing dreams that left her an emotional wreck afterwards. She couldn't understand the symbolism of the pit or her increasing fear of all things feline. After experiencing three nights of constant terror from the indistinct images and sickening sounds of suffering cats, Phaele was steadily growing more and more frustrated.
Maybe her god was trying to impart his will to her… or maybe teach her his doctrine through the dreams. She felt that the second was probably the safer interpretation, but the experience was so personal that it left her second-guessing herself. She wasn't the only one to have them, and a number of sorcerers and half-elves in the Temple had experienced the same dreams she had. The dreams were just as contrary to the others as they were to her.
On one hand they had the pit and the cats, and on the other they had the dreams of fighting. Most of the time the fights were unarmed and contrary to her lack of experience, she felt supremely confident. The constant rush of fighting battles and the subtle joy of training herself in a new technique left her feeling powerful and satisfied that there was nothing she couldn't do.
Perhaps the dreams were a premonition of the future. If so, was he warning her about a trap? Would she someday fall into a pit of feral cats? No, that didn't match with the emotions she'd felt. She'd felt small and helpless. Maybe it was the current status of Ranma's church? It was small and surrounded by feral dangers? It was a sketchy interpretation, but one that made a lot of sense — especially when taking into account the not so subtle hostilities that the dreamers were being confronted with.
That feeling had allowed her and the other dreamers within the Temple of Stars to weather the criticism of their peers. They had come to a consensus of recording the dreams, and an unofficial sect of Ranma was forming. The followers of Azuth and some of the more traditional clergy of Mystra were demonstrating an increasing amount of… irritation… towards the fledgling faith. The friction was starting to really take its toll on the Temple of Stars. Her father had gone a long way to smooth things over with the body of Mystra's followers here in the Temple of Stars, but the Keeper of Mysteries could only do so much. If something didn't happen soon to placate the concerns of the other faiths, there was no doubt that things would escalate to open conflict.
This was why the High Dweomerkeeper found herself kneeling in the holy of holies praying for deeper understanding of the dreams. As she had been the one that received the personal visitation from the god, everyone was looking to her as his official voice.
Phaele sighed and refocused her thoughts on understanding these many visions. If Phaele were to embrace the idea that the visions were a metaphor for the current status of the church, then all the battle and training dreams were a warning for the followers of Ranma to prepare. It didn't really explain the erotic dream she'd had last night about the woman who could have only been a representation of Mystra, but that was something that could be pondered later.
Yes. That felt right. She had never backed down from the many challenges and various enemies in her dreams, and she had never stopped preparing herself for the next battle. For all their symbolism, that seemed to be the core message. Life would always bring conflict but, through constant training and an undying will to win the struggle, there was no challenge that could not be overcome. Fighting unarmed and as both male and female could be seen as a universal need to rely on one's self and to constantly adapt to new situations. Some of the other dreamers were interpreting that last concept literally.
A number of sorcerers were already developing classes in unarmed fighting based off of their dreams, while another small group was researching spells and artifacts that would allow for the gender switch. They had also started crafting new garments based off the clothes pictured in the visions. Others had pretty much come to the conclusion that all cats are evil and therefore needed to be destroyed. This wasn't going over too well with many of the wizards and sorcerers with cat familiars. Phaele wasn't sure how to feel about the gender-swapping, and she was indifferent towards the cats, but the unarmed combat and the soft silks were something that she was really starting to enjoy. Her father had even sanctioned the idea by making the classes mandatory for the senior clergy of Mystra, if for no other reason than to keep the denizens of the temple healthy and fit.
With the overall mystery of the dreams somewhat resolved, Phaele turned her thoughts to the next problem: executing her god's will.
"Oh, Lord Ranma! Please hear the pleas of thy servant! Teach me what I need to know to fulfill thy will."
Of all the things that Phaele Aligaurde expected, a portal opening above the altar was not it. Nor was the sound of a screaming female voice or the body that followed it. The High Dweomerkeeper of Mystra had no time to move as the petite yet busty young woman shot from the magical tear at great speeds and bounced off the altar, to crash into her. Stunned and winded, Phaele could do little but lay where she was and listen to the heartbroken sobs of the redhaired elf girl pressed against her chest.
It took time to maneuver her body into a more comfortable position, and even more time to sort out the mumbled whispers that were hidden behind the girl's tears. Her face was well hidden behind the girl's long, beautiful red hair, but the priestess could see something glowing on the petite figure's forehead. By the time Phaele had the girl repositioned in her lap for a better look, the girl's words had become a mantra.
"He's gone! She took him away!"
"Who is gone, child?" Phaele began rubbing small circles up and down the girl's back. The action caused the tears to stop abruptly. The girl lifted her head for the first time and pulled her hair away from her face, to look the Dweomerkeeper in the eye. The very familiar blue eyes seemed to swallow her, but it was the glowing symbol on the girl's forehead that made Phaele's breath catch in her throat. It was only half of the sigil she'd come to meditate on daily: a white seed or tear drop shape with an indigo half circle along the inner curve of the right edge. She didn't understand why the sigil was broken, but the more the redhaired elf girl babbled, the clearer the picture became. It was then that she remembered whom she was holding. With a great scrambling lurch, she moved away from the figure and immediately began to prostrate herself in a low bow.
"Lord… er… Lady Ranma! I am thy servant!" Her eyes never left the floor and her forehead was pressed to the floor, but Ranma refused to let her stay that way for long. A pair of soft, delicate hands grabbed Phaele's face in her hands. The intensity of those stormy eyes made the priestess feel so terribly small.
"She broke me, Phaele. Shar took him away from me and I want him back!"
"Who did she take?" the Dweomerkeeper whispered weakly.
"My male half!" The edge of panic in the redhead's voice was terribly unnerving. "Oh, gods, she broke me! What am I going to do? I feel so empty!"
Phaele did the only thing she could think of and drew the busty elf girl into a tight hug and comforted her the best she could. What else could she do for the distraught avatar of her god? The dreams that had plagued her sleep took on a whole new meaning now. The pit, the battles, the training…. Her god had been battling other gods, which meant that Shar had dealt Ranma a terrible blow and somehow split his divinity. Heaven was at war, and there was no doubt that the war was now spilling over into the mortal realm.
Was this to be another Time of Troubles or Faerun? Mystra guard and protect! Phaele hoped not!
"What am I going to do?" Ranma's wail was so heartwrenching that the priestess seized the first comforting thought that came to her and ran with it.
"Find him," Phaele whispered fervently. "We will find him. Together."
"You'll help me?" The young elfmaid seemed totally surprised at the offer.
Phaele nodded. Was this some sort of test of her fledgling faith? If it was, then Phaele was fully intent on passing. What else could she do? Ranma had chosen her out of all the worthies in the Temple of Stars. That honor was not something to ignore or set aside. The redhaired girl smiled brightly and giggled as she hugged the Dweomerkeeper affectionately.
"Thank you, Phaele. It's nice to know I have a friend right now."
The sorceress felt tears well in her eyes. She passed the test! Her god… er, goddess, had not only come to her, but she named her friend! A feeling of such perfect fulfillment filled the priestess as she returned the hug. She had found her place in life, and it was in the service of Ranma. She would still honor Mystra, but Ranma would now be the focus of her devotion. With one last squeeze, the avatar pulled away and grinned excitedly.
"Come on, Phaele! We've got work to do! We got to find my male half and put me back together!"
The petite redhead jumped from Phaele's lap and pulled the sorceress to her feet. The sudden shift in emotions was staggering, but Phaele did her best to roll with the avatar's sudden explosion of girlish enthusiasm.
"What then?" Phaele dared ask. The enthusiasm seemed to bleed from Ranma's face as she looked towards the altar. Her voice was hot and filled with a passionate assurance that made her words seem less a stated goal, and more a foregone conclusion.
"We're going to make Shar wish she had never been conceived!"
Fendrellinor, The Pools of Sorrow
Elminster was familiar with many forms of magic. He knew the subtleties of wizardry and the power of sorcery. He had tasted godly magic and fallen prey to wild magic, yet in all his days, he had never known magic quite like this. It was the magic of chaos and the power of chance magnified to the obscene.
He had fallen, and in a vain attempt to deny the inevitable, he grabbed handfuls of the moist loam that decorated the sides of the pool he was falling towards. His futile hope was to avoid being submerged in the water. Sadly, the springs wouldn't be denied.
The loam tore free, showering the pool with a spray of mud, dirt, and roots. Elminster cried out in denial and terror, even as his eyes tracked the flight of the sparkling necklace he had freed from the earth. His arms swept back, looking for purchase, but the pool seemed to grow to become a lake. His senses burned in the presence of the excessive magic he was caught in.
He felt the hand clutching the necklace hit the water first, and the energies saturating the spring exploded. He reflexively took a deep breath and held it, finally accepting the inevitable and praying that the change wouldn't be something too unnatural. Maybe he could be a woman again… that was fairly safe… right? Assuming he didn't drown here to make a new pool.
Now that would… how did the phrase go again? Ah, yes!
Now that would really suck!
Oddly enough, he felt himself submerge, but didn't feel the wet sensation associated with a dunking. If anything, he felt like his body was suddenly super-charged with static electricity… somewhat like the feeling he had when casting a chain lighting spell. The sensations intensified markedly, and he found himself cataloguing the experience in that very clinically annoying way that he'd come by during one of his many apprenticeships.
By the time he'd finally gotten around to opening his eyes, the wet feeling arrived. Unfortunately, it was one of the most uncomfortable wet feelings he'd ever had and it gave the archmage ample incentive to leave the pool. His feet found purchase on the muddy bottom of the spring and with a great push, Elminster shot out of the pool.
The fact that his leap topped some thirty feet was noted. The sight of another pool rapidly getting closer made Elminster's foggy mind scream with an icy panic that bordered on hysteria. The mage offered up a quick prayer to Mystra, begging her forgiveness for whatever slight he'd done her and asked that this watery grave would send him speedily to her side.
The prayer, such as it was, wasn't answered by the Lady of Mysteries, but by an auburn-headed blur that impacted the Old Mage in the ribs hard enough to bruise. The wizard's savior rolled with the tumble, and somehow ended up sitting on Elminster's stomach. A quick, but by no means complete inventory was made.
Two arms. Check.
A head and face. Check
Two legs. Check.
Elminster almost jumped up to dance with glee! He wasn't a woman! He was still a man! He was still… Wait a minute. El let his hand drift down to inspect his lower anatomy and winced.
Damn it all! He was a woman! A woman without breasts!
"Damn ye, Ranma! Ye rat bastard!" El hissed. "Ye've turned me into another Lina Inverse!"
The wizard opened his eyes stoically, contemplating the price of pulling off a Dragon Slave with Ranma at ground zero. Sure Mystra wouldn't be happy with him bargaining with a Mazoku, but he was sure that he'd find a way to earn her forgiveness. It might take a millennium, but it would be worth it, right? Upon seeing the grinning and purring form of an auburn… furred… little girl sitting on his… grr… her… stomach, Elminster couldn't help but think that the Dragon Slave just wasn't going to cut it. The fact that she was a six-year-old female version of Ranma — albeit one with a swishing cat tail — was not lost on the addled wits of one of the world's most powerful magic users.
Giga Slave. All the way.
"Oh, nine bloody Hells!"
Upon seeing the new body Elminster was now sporting, the Old Mage knew that even the Giga Slave wasn't enough punishment. El was going to have to come up with a whole new level of destruction and pain, just for the pigtailed freak! It had been a long time since he had done any spell crafting, but for this….
Just look at him! His beard was gone! Little Mister was gone too! Alrassa was going to be so disappointed! All because he'd been turned into a… a….
"I'm a magical catgirl!" Elminster wailed.
And he was, complete with a trendy little pink costume with lots and lots of petticoats, copious amounts of hearts, and completely inappropriate amounts of fake jewelry to match. Valor the winged cat landed on El's chest and calmly smirked. Yes, smirked! Of all the indignities….
Thus it was that Elminster of Shadowdale wept… well, like the mewling little magical catgirl he was. Zuieez, the Steward of the Pools, scooped the pair of catgirls and the slightly cramped Tressym into a warm cuddle, and somehow produced a pair of rather large, skewered emerald trout from thin air. The auburn-haired Ranma tore into the treat immediately, but El did his… her… best to ignore the craving so that she could keep crying. The little magical catgirl lasted all of thirty seconds before the yummy smell of fish reminded her that she'd missed lunch.
Moongleam Tower was a formidable fortress, built by a master dwarf engineer named Hobbin Axewhetter. The black stone that the tower was built from was unknown on the surface, having been quarried in the Underdark and brought to Everlund via a secret trade route. The fortress sat on one of Everlund's highest knolls and was made up of four very tall and narrow towers that were joined by a thick circular wall that surrounded a central courtyard. It was made to be Everlund's last line of defense, in the event that the walls were breached, and had stood for over two hundred years against orc armies and dragon raids alike.
It was a rather impressive sight to see, looming over the houses and shops of Everlund. The golden light of the setting sun caused the stone of the tower to glisten in the remnants of the day's rain. Likewise, the light streaming through breaking cloud cover made the fortress darker than midnight and seemed terribly forbidding to Usagi as the carriage drew closer and closer to their destination.
"Creepy." She shivered in her new navy-blue gown.
Ulin had given the ladies and men alike a make-over that would have anyone back home drooling with envy. The clothes were a bit plain — navy trousers and white shirts for the men, and white dresses with navy vests and trim for the women, all without Usagi's new heraldry, which was to be embroidered during the rest of their stay. She had not asked how much had been spent on the clothes, but judging from the grimace on Ulin's face it had been a lot. Usagi's wardrobe accounted for the greatest dent in their funds, having gotten five new dresses under great duress. The nine separate dressmakers they visited were ecstatic with the business and free-flowing gold, even if the time frame they had to work with was limited.
The new weapons for the men had cost quite a bit too, but in light of everything that was hanging over their heads, Usagi wasn't about to scrimp if it meant the difference between life and death for her boys. She sighed and looked at the jewelry that she had planned to sell. They had drained three of Hearthman's accounts dry, with the aid of a mind-numbing stack of documents that Ulin had produced on request. How she came by them, Usagi didn't know, but in the end they had gotten what they needed and still had a bit to spare, according to Ulin. How much, Usagi didn't care to know.
Now they were here, at Moongleam Tower, about to have dinner with this Moonlord fellow and learn more about the significance of Alustriel's earlier communication. Passing through the fortress' main gate felt like being swallowed by some great monster. The Silver Princess hated the feel of it. In contrast to the exterior, the interior of the tower felt a little bit warmer. It was still stark by anyone's judgment, but the guardsmen standing at attention along their path and the other human elements made a great deal of difference in breathing life into the tower. The coach began to turn in a wide circle, and Usagi caught a glimpse of the man she supposed was their host.
Eaerlraun Shadowlyn was a willowy man, dressed in a tunic of brown velvet that offset his blonde hair and tanned complexion nicely. His legs were long and powerful, as evidenced by the delicious way the dark leather breeches played off his muscles. He wore a long sword at his hip and a dagger tucked in one boot. He moved with an economy of motion that she had seen in a lion once. It was deceptively lazy, but graceful and powerful nonetheless. Usagi caught Feldrin eyeing the man up and down appreciatively and grinned mischievously. If nothing else, Usagi was happy to have found something to tease the ranger about.
"Greetings to you, Lady Serenity. I am Eaerlraun Shadowlyn, Lord of Moongleam Tower, and in the name of the Elders of Everlund and her majesty, High Lady Alustriel, I bid you welcome to Everlund." Shadowlyn bowed deeply to her as Heb helped her from the carriage.
"Thank you, Lord Shadowlyn, for opening your home to us." Like her encounter with Raelin Thistlebuck, Ulin had harrowed Usagi all afternoon on how to greet their host and what needed to be said. "Please accept this token of our gratitude."
Taeghen Amalith, a man with obvious elven heritage in his past, stepped forward with the gift that Ulin and Feldrin had chosen for the occasion. The small lacquered box had been polished to almost a mirror finish, and the Moonlord accepted it with grace and a warm smile.
"May I?" He asked. Usagi nodded her head, somewhat worried. She hoped he liked it. That in and of itself brought her mind to what she was going to give Alustriel when they reached Silverymoon. Her worries were tabled for a moment as her host opened the box.
Eaerlraun Shadowlyn was a renowned ranger of no mean skill, and the hunting knife they found in one of the smithies was of great quality. Decorated with a moon motif, it seemed a fitting gift for the Lord of Moongleam Tower. Under Ulin's direction, Usagi had enchanted the blade to emit a beautiful silver glow that would not fade at the mention of her name. It had taken her a number of tries, but the simple enchantment took and Usagi had beamed with pride at the accomplishment.
The Lady of Hemmerling watched her host carefully lift the blade from its box, testing its weight and smiling. Now came the fun part.
Eaerlraun almost jumped from his skin as a glow flared to life around the blade of the hunting knife. The silver radiance lit up the courtyard immediately surrounding Lord Shadowlyn, like any torch would. Looking into the surprised and smiling face of her host, she knew that they had done well.
"Lady Serenity." The light winked out, bringing a smile to Eaerlraun. With slow and deliberate movements, he pulled the dagger from his boot and casually tossed it to one of his guardsmen. Usagi's gift immediately replaced it. "Thank you for this wondrous gift."
"We hope it serves you well, Lord Shadowlyn." She gestured to her company and bowed deeply to her host, as was Japanese custom. This seemed to take the man by surprise again, as he awkwardly returned her gesture.
"I am certain it will." He gestured for everyone to follow him as he ascended the steps to the northern tower. "Rooms have been prepared for your stay, and dinner will be served at your earliest convenience."
Usagi blushed as her stomach growled loudly. Dinah sniggered from her place at Ulin's side, as did Feldrin, causing Usagi's blush to deepen even more. Shandri scowled at her sister hard enough to peel paint, quickly silencing the little girl's giggle fit. Feldrin took a bit longer to calm. Eaerlraun smiled down at Usagi comfortingly.
"I think we should make our way to dinner first." He motioned for one of the tower's servants to come forward. The rather plain woman would have been lost in any crowd, but Usagi felt that something was off about her. "Uma will show your attendants where you will be staying, while we head on to dinner."
Usagi looked to Shandri's mother apologetically, but the woman was already moving forward to Uma's side. The look was not lost on Eaerlraun, who watched the interplay carefully and with hidden interest. Silea and Dinah Dunhill moved off to a separate entrance with Uma, leaving the rest of the party standing on the steps leading up to the north tower. Eaerlraun offered Usagi his arm and led the way, while Shandri, Feldrin, Ulin, and two other men from the tower followed the pair into the tower itself. Viet somehow appeared at Shandri's arm before she had passed through the door, surprising her. As the honor guard dispersed, the only ones left in the courtyard were Stedd, Taeghen, Heb, and a few of Moongleam's staff who were helping unload the carriage.
The furnishings weren't extravagant, but they weren't poor either. Usagi felt that they were tastefully comfortable, which seemed to reflect the overall character of the Lord of the tower. Paintings of woodland scenes and a number of antlers and other animal trophies lined the walls at varying intervals. A statue here and there of some creature or another gave the whole place a very masculine feel. Usagi kept her mouth shut, taking it all in, and trying to learn more about the man as Ulin had been teaching her to.
"I trust your trip was well, Lady?" Shadowlyn asked.
"Yes, thank you." Usagi could smell wonderful scents wafting on the air from somewhere near by. "We were a little surprised by Alustriel's message, but looking forward to a nice warm bed all the same."
At the mention of Alustriel's message, a brief shadow crossed Eaerlraun's face. It was barely a flicker of concern, but it was gone an instant after it had been noted. Usagi wasn't sure if she had seen right, but chose to play her hunch anyway. She'd already been embarrassed by her traitorous stomach, so making a fool of herself wasn't as big an issue as it had been.
"Is there something wrong, Lord Shadowlyn?"
Eaerlraun looked down at Usagi appraisingly for a moment, and then sighed. "I am afraid that there are a great many things wrong at the moment, milady." He paused long enough to open a pair of large wooden doors and then took up Usagi's arm again to lead her and her companions to a large table filled with food. "Let us sit and sup for a bit before talking about dark tidings, shall we?"
He seated Usagi first, pulling out her chair and helping her to get settled. Ulin and Feldrin's escorts followed suit, as did a very watchful Viet. Usagi was proud that the young man was a quick study in being a gentleman. The sight left Usagi feeling homesick for Mamoru, and more than a little troubled that she hadn't thought about her prince in a very long time. More disturbing still, was the image of a stormy-eyed, dark-haired face that seemed to superimpose itself over Mamoru's.
"To new friends."
The toast brought Usagi out of her reverie in a rush. She hastily lifted her cup and repeated Eaerlraun's words. Everyone drank, and then servant's bustled to and fro, serving the guests. Usagi had never eaten a meal served in courses before, and felt slightly out of place. As the soup came and went and the next course was laid before her, Eaerlraun asked for introductions. Usagi nodded to Ulin, who quietly returned the gesture before standing.
"Ulin Shemzarida Hashpida Harpell, my Lord Shadowlyn. I serve my Lady as her counsel and advisor." The Genasi bowed to Eaerlraun, who raised his cup to her.
"Your name is known to me, but the tales of your beauty scarcely do you justice."
Ulin smiled and inclined her head. "My Lord is too kind."
"Not at all. Truth is truth, milady." Ulin bowed again and reclaimed her seat. Eaerlraun leaned back as the next a servant refilled his cup. "And from all that I have heard, you are as powerful in sorcery as you are beautiful."
"Power is relative, Lord Shadowlyn. And magic is the Harpell heritage, Mystra be praised." She pressed her palms together and bowed her head. "Both are at your disposal during our stay under your care."
Usagi nodded approvingly, then looked to Feldrin who stood and bowed a little bit more stiffly than Ulin.
"Feldrin Avenry, milord."
"Of Dunnel's Brotherhood?" Eaerlraun asked with a raised eyebrow.
"The same, milord."
"You're a bit far afield." The Lord of Moongleam Tower nodded appreciatively, looking at the young woman with a more critical eye than before.
"I'm searching for news on the whereabouts of my father, milord."
"And how goes your quest, ranger?" Eaerlraun's eyes followed Feldrin as she sat down again.
"I've not had much luck, milord," Feldrin admitted.
"Your father was a good man and I owe him a debt that cannot be repaid." This revelation set Feldrin back. She looked at her host with undisguised curiosity. "If time permits, I will share with you the tale. And you may be assured that if there is any way that I can help you in finding him, I will happily lend my aid."
"I would be most indebted to you, milord." Feldrin bowed her head gratefully.
"So, are you simply traveling with Lady Serenity then?"
"No, Lord. I have taken up service with the Silver Princess."
Usagi cringed at the mention of that title.
"You have a worthy addition to your House then, Lady. Feldrin of Tradesburrow has a sharp eye, and few can match her bow work."
Feldrin grinned. "I can think of a few, milord. You among them, from all the talk spilling from Dunnel's mouth."
Eaerlraun laughed. "Dunnel is a fountain of exaggeration." Feldrin toasted him and nodded. "But if you truly wish to satisfy your curiosity, we can find time to draw a few."
"I'd like that." Feldrin nodded as Eaerlraun turned his attention back to Usagi.
"Now, then, Lady Serenity. Who be these two twinkling young stars that are so lost in one another's eyes? The one I know if only by his determination and unwavering service. His beautiful lady is, however, a new and welcome face."
Shandri blushed and lowered her gaze to her plate. Viet seemed to sit a little straighter and smiled broadly under the half-elf's praise. Usagi grinned and leaned closer to Eaerlraun.
"The young man is Viet Lackman, a defender of Hemmerling. And his love is my lady-in-waiting, Shandri Dunhill."
"He fought in the Battle of Hemmerling?" Eaerlraun looked surprised.
"Yes, milord," Ulin interjected. "He gave good measure of himself."
"Be careful, Mistress Ulin." Shandri poked Viet in the side. "Any more talk and Viet's swelling head is likely to explode." Everyone laughed as the young man pouted.
"Peace, young warrior. Peace." Eaerlraun held up his hands and shook his head. "Know this truth here and now; it is a woman's duty to humble us, lest we become overconfident and foolhardy. Love her all the more for it."
"HERE! HERE!" Feldrin cried out, raising her cup in another toast.
Laughter and more toasting followed as Eaerlraun introduced his men, Bolo and Fhyme. It took two more courses before the discussion returned to the topic that brought Usagi and her entourage to Moongleam Tower.
"I am afraid that the information I was given to pass on is not pleasant." He sighed and swirled the wine in his cup. "Word has reached us from Nesme of an uprising in the Evermoors."
"An uprising, milord?" Feldrin looked worried.
"That is not a strong enough word for what happened in Nesme, Eaerlraun," Bolo said. The middle-aged man was broad of shoulder and wore his thick, curly brown hair in a ponytail. "Massacre is closer to the mark."
"Massacre?" Usagi gasped.
"Nesme was overrun." Fhyme quietly sipped his wine and cracked his neck. Where Bolo was tall and broad, Fhyme was short and thin. He reminded Usagi of a Korean gymnast she had seen once.
"No." Feldrin shook her head in disbelief. "What of the Riders?"
"Some escaped, but many of them fell when the trolls attacked." Eaerlraun laced his fingers together and looked to Usagi. "Most of the inhabitants were driven from the town and hunted by the trolls, and by the time we learned of their plight, many had been overrun and killed."
Usagi felt the tears welling in the corners of her eyes as she imagined the loss of life. She might not have known what a troll was, but a monster was a monster, and she'd had more than her fair share chasing her in the past to know what the Nesmians must have been feeling.
"That is indeed a tragic tale, Lord Shadowlyn," Ulin said, "but how does that impact us?"
"Ulin!" Usagi chided. "How can you be so… so cold about this?"
"Peace, Lady. Mistress Harpell is right to ask." Eaerlraun covered Usagi's hand with his own. "Nesme is far from here and has little impact on the roads that you will travel to reach Silverymoon. The only reason to mention it is to illustrate the point that all is not well in the North."
"This was not an isolated incident then?" Ulin asked calmly.
"No, it was not," Shadowlyn admitted. "The High Lady herself went to Nesme's aid, but not before Mithril Hall itself was besieged by an army of orcs unlike any other in the history of the North. Their numbers were estimated to be in the tens of thousands, and accounts have it that the bastards have allied themselves with Frost Giants."
"I assume that the dwarves drove them back?" Feldrin asked. She hated orcs and giants with a passion, and that was readily apparent to any that looked her way.
"Not without losses. It was thought that King Bruenor Battlehammer himself had fallen to their might, but those tales were recently disproved by the High Lady." Usagi felt lost and it must have showed, because Eaerlraun patted her hand. "The North is soon to be embroiled in a very nasty war, and while Everlund may not be directly affected, Silverymoon will undoubtedly feel the press. The High Lady felt you should know of events in advance of your coming to her city."
"And what is the current status of this army?" Ulin asked.
"Entrenching itself in the shadow of Fourthpeak and all around the mountains of Fell Pass."
"The trolls were a part of this army then?" Ulin asked.
"There is evidence to support this theory. It seems too convenient that the trolls would attack in such an organized fashion."
"It doesn't match with their usual stupidity," Feldrin said.
"And what track will the Silver Marches follow?" Ulin asked. "Are steps being taken to aid Mithril Hall?"
"I have yet to speak with the High Lady at length, but the elders have made it clear that we are to begin preparing our own defenses and securing supply lines between here and Silverymoon. Citadels Felbarr and Adbar will not let Bruenor face this threat alone. If there are orcs to be killed, you can rest assured that there will be a dwarf there to do the killing."
Feldrin, Bolo, and Fhyme laughed at that, but Usagi couldn't see where the humor was.
"Sundabar and Silverymoon are on war footing, and will most likely be training everyone they can get their hands on. With winter coming soon, you can be assured that the orcs are doing the same." Eaerlraun sighed. "Come the spring thaw, you can rest assured that the Rauvin and Surbin will run red with the blood from the battles sure to take place in the Frost Hills."
Ulin looked to Usagi with some concern. The silent question was asked and immediately answered. There was no hesitation in Usagi's determination to go on to Silverymoon.
"How soon will the passes be closing, Lord Shadowlyn?" Ulin asked.
"So you intend to head onto Silverymoon, then?" The half-elf asked.
"Yes," Usagi said determinedly. "As soon as possible."
"That is good to hear. Your presence in the city will bolster the morale of more than a few frightened people." Eaerlraun said with a warm smile. "The last major caravan of the season will be leaving within the next two tendays."
"How long will the trip take?" Usagi asked.
"Barring any poor weather, and depending on the size of the caravan, the trip averages approximately three to seven days."
Usagi nodded and looked thoughtfully at Ulin. Eaerlraun drew her attention back to him as he rang a small silver bell. A young man entered bearing an ivory scroll-case. Eaerlraun thanked him and handed the case to Usagi.
"The High Lady asked that I give this to you before you left. It is magically sealed, as is Alustriel's custom with private communications."
"Thank you, Lord Shadowlyn," Usagi said distractedly.
"Please, Lady Serenity. I think we are beyond the need for titles. Call me Eaerlraun."
"Then it is only fair that you call me Serenity, Eaerlraun." She smiled.
He raised his cup again, and everyone else followed suit. "To new friends."
The week had been hard on Keiichi and his friends, but not in a bad way. Kerden spent the first two days of his stay at the cavern, building a shrine on the small promontory everyone had taken to calling "Keiichi's watch". Bertrold had stopped by and was scared speechless when Keiichi introduced him to Kazukiichiro. The young inventor hadn't had a chance to truly test the limits of his creation, but the METAT was demonstrating itself to be a fast learner by picking up words and phrases to communicate its desires to Keiichi. This excited everyone to no end, most especially Maerdith, who began teaching the METAT every afternoon.
While Kazuki's vocabulary and ability to speak were speeding along at breakneck speeds, his mindset still reflected that of a small child. It was extremely curious and had taken a special interest in the garden once it was able to gain access to the cavern. It had taken only a single day, under Keiichi's direction, for the robot to raise the cavern's ceilings to accommodate the METAT. Duncan complained about the noise, but Sam and Maerdith insisted that if he didn't like it, then he should get out of bed and go somewhere else. From the moment Kazuki activated, Sam was merciless in her brow beating of her husband. She nagged and begged, and demanded and cried — anything to convince Duncan not to give up. By mid-sun on the second day, Duncan exploded like a volcano. He clambered out of bed in a rage, put on his boots and trumped out to the beach. He got down on his knees and prayed from lunch until dawn the next day. The stubborn dwarf poured out his heart and soul to his god, but received no answer.
Keiichi could only smile at the memory of Duncan's rage. The dwarf's words still rang in his ears.
"I gave ye me life and all me heart! I stepped away from the gods of me father and me father's father! What have ye given me in my darkest hour of need? SILENCE! If ye won't answer the prayers of yer flock and if ye ignore the injustice done to the faithful, then to the Nine Hells with ye!"
He spat on the ground three times and trudged into the cavern and drafted Kerden into helping him clean up and drag his Gondsman up to Keiichi's Watch. Kazuki ended up taking over even before they'd crossed the cave's entrance. Once the Gondsman was placed upon the altar, Duncan and Kerdan kneeled before Skuld's shrine. With equal fervor and just as much faith, the dwarf prayed to Skuld, offering up his heart to the Goddess of Dreams Unrealized. Sam, while shocked and uncertain at the act, followed her husband's lead. They had scarcely begun to pray when the water beneath the promontory glowed and started to churn. Skuld made her appearance in style and grandeur, humbling Duncan, Kerden, and Sam.
The Norn of the future squealed in delight at the sight of Duncan's and Keiichi's creations and immediately began cooing over them. Kazuki wasn't sure how to take the excited goddess and quickly returned to Keiichi's side to escape "Auntie Skuld's" affections. Duncan and Sam weren't exactly sure how to take her either, until Skuld decided to put on her "Official hat". Keiichi didn't stay for the rest of the wondrous visitation. It just didn't feel right, intruding on the trio's experience with Skuld.
By the time they came back inside, Sam and Duncan were teary-eyed and overjoyed. Kerden was all smiles too, but none would say why. Keiichi and Maerdith refused to pry, and Ruthart was too busy with dinner to do more than congratulate the trio on whatever had happened. Their quiet support could not have prepared them for the sight of a clockwork dwarf walking in behind them. It was barrel-chested and carried a massive war hammer over its right shoulder. The wide brimmed cap that sat on his head was reminiscent of Banpei, but to Keiichi's surprise, the clockwork dwarf was able to remove it like a regular hat.
The metal was a curious mix of silver, gold, and what Keiichi had come to recognize as electrum. There was platinum and mithril gilding as well, which etched out a number of runes and decorative patterns all over the exterior of the mechanical dwarf.
Keiichi — indeed everyone who saw Dreun — couldn't help but feel happy that Duncan had found something, or rather someone, to believe in again. The week passed quickly as the group worked hard to prepare their entries for the Festival. The greatest challenge was finding a secluded place to test the abilities of their creations. Haroun sent his spies to follow the group wherever they went, so it became something of a game to uncover and distract the nosy henchmen of their opponent. They teamed off and swapped practice days, allowing Duncan to test and refine his performance one day, while Keiichi took his turn the next. In the meanwhile, Kazuki and Dreun learned tirelessly.
Keiichi limited himself to taking a nap for no more than an hour each day, even with both Sam and Maerdith harping on him. The rest of the time was spent teaching the mechanical "children" the basics of communication and social interaction — and while Dreun couldn't talk like Kazuki could, he and Duncan had an empathic bond that got his messages across just fine.
Duncan and Maerdith would take over the lessons when Keiichi slept or was working with Kazuki, and by the end of the week they had made incredible strides. The night before the festival, Kazuki and Keiichi passed a particularly important milestone. It was an event that changed Keiichi's life almost as profoundly as that wondrous day he ordered for take-out.
"Good night, Kazuki-chan."
Sefaril Kalavir and her sister Aelin clung to the body of the mage's husband, Maric. The wound was mortal, a poisoned bolt to the right lung. Maric had done well by the wound, killing ten of their attackers before being shot, and now the orcs only outnumbered their group four to one. With her spells exhausted and her sister's novice status in magic, the only things keeping the murderous horde from slaughtering the pregnant woman and her family were Ethalliandra Brestalda and Ked Moonson. The wandering pair had joined the Sundabaran caravan that was heading to Daggerdale as guards.
If the love of her life had not been bleeding to death in her arms, she would have been glad for their presence. All she could feel at this moment was the fear associated with the loss of her husband and the inevitable death of her unborn child. She prayed to whatever gods that might be listening, begging that she would be able to remain with her family and find the happiness and peace in the next life that she was being denied in this one.
In answer to her pleas the very air seemed to split and tear, opening a portal into a place of darkness. Angry black lightning filled the air above the defenders with the smell of ozone, and occasionally blasted an orc into ash. The atmosphere escaping the hole in reality seemed to leak a storm of emotions: rage, despair, and desire. The feelings held a semblance of her pain, only deeper and more refined. Sefaril couldn't place the focus of the desire, even had she been in the right mindset to try. The emotions were all so overwhelming that she was having trouble separating her own heart from the pain that was being pressed on her.
An enraged voice howled like a tempest from the portal, causing more of the orc horde to abandon their attack. Those that remained were either too stupid to recognize the danger they were in, or too afraid of losing face before their commanders. Regardless, the remaining orcs set themselves up in a surprisingly organized defensive ring, with their weapons bared, when a black-haired figure fell from the portal.
It was immediately apparent to Sefaril that the figure was male, though he was moving too fast for her to recognize much else. The moment his body hit the ground, he was rolling to his feet and settled into an unarmed defensive stance that resembled the ones that Ethalliandra and Ked were using. From her position, she could see his face and the expression he wore made Sefaril shiver with fear.
His stormy eyes glowed with power and a strange, seed-shaped symbol blazed in the center of his forehead. The emblem was literally aflame with indigo fire, but it was a cold fire that chilled the air around him. His eyes fell to Sefaril and Aelin, and then passed over Maric's pale form. His eyes narrowed at the sight of the wound on the elf's side and closed completely after he looked at Sefaril. She wasn't notably pregnant yet, but from the way his anger grew colder still when he turned his attention on the orcs, she could tell that he knew she was with child.
When he struck, there was no mercy. He refused to listen to pleas for clemency and none of the orcs present left the field alive. Sefaril had been a part of many battles along side her husband. She had even met Maric on the battlefield in Cormyr, so she wasn't squeamish or easily disturbed by the sight of extreme violence. This though, wasn't anything near what she was used to. The man moved too fast for the eye to follow, and where ever he appeared an orc would die in an extreme fashion. Some would explode, others would fall apart, and one or two had simply fallen over screaming in agony sporting no visible wounds.
By this miracle, had they survived, but Sefaril couldn't celebrate. She could feel her husband fading and she wailed as he slipped away. The poison had locked his jaw shut, and made his body stiff. He tried to speak anyway, but the soft sounds that he managed to create were nothing more than grunts.
"Maric! Stay with me! Don't leave us!"
She knew she was going to pieces, but couldn't restrain her panic. Her baby needed its father. She needed her husband. They had been through so much together — from the racial prejudice that had come from a human woman loving an elf, to the many battles and wars that they had fought. She felt her panic ease as a hand came to rest on her shoulder. She looked up into the stormy blue eyes of the half-elven man that had saved them. There was no compassion there, but there was understanding. Their savior turned his attention to Maric and settled on the bloody ground beside him.
"I can't heal you." His voice was flat and emotionless. He paused or a moment, cocking his head as if listening to something and then nodded. "I will protect them for you. Yes. As if they were my own."
Sefaril looked at her husband's face and watched his features relaxed.
"Go, Maric Kalavir." The warrior's voice was quiet. Not soft, by any means, but quiet all the same. "Sehanine awaits you." There was a lengthy pause as the warrior looked at Maric intently. "Don't worry about them. I'll send them to you when it's time."
Sefaril's husband nodded with difficulty and tried to lift his hand to his wife's cheek. As his arm started to fall, the warrior's hand blurred and caught it. Sefaril pulled it to her lips and kissed the palm tenderly, before placing it on her pregnant belly.
Maric took one last deep breath and smiled. Sefaril watched the light leave his eyes and knew that her husband was gone. Ethalliandra quickly began to gather their scattered belongings from the wreckage of the caravan, and check for other survivors. Sefaril couldn't bring herself to care. The warrior finally motioned for Aelin to care for Sefaril, then stood and lifted Maric's body into his arms. He passed the body to Ked Moonson and then gently lifted Sefaril into his arms.
It wasn't a command, but there was little room for disobedience. The group made their way into the thick pines alongside of the caravan road. The only sound beyond the song of nature was the quiet weeping of Aelin and Sefaril as they mourned. The pregnant woman couldn't even bring herself to look at their savior, let alone thank him for rescuing them. All she could do at the moment was feel the sharp emptiness of her loss. The half-elf didn't seem to care one way or another. He simply walked deeper into the pine forest.
She wasn't certain how far they had walked. Time had little meaning for her at the moment. But when they did stop, she found herself at the crown of a tall, barren, hill that overlooked the road. It was a beautiful view, one that Maric would have loved.
"Set the body there."
The warrior pointed to a place at the center of the hill as he eased Sefaril to the ground. Aelin rushed to her sister's side and clung to her as Ked moved to do the warrior's bidding. Ethalliandra came up behind Sefaril and supported the pregnant woman's back with her own body. There were other survivors from the caravan with them, but the mourning widow ignored them in favor of looking between the dark-haired half-elf and the body of her husband. They watched as their dark-haired savior motioned Ked back and started pacing around Maric's body. He finally stopped and frowned, narrowing his eyes at the body in deep concentration. He lifted his arms and cupped his hands, palms facing one another, over his heart, and began taking deep breaths. Then something in the air changed.
It was a subtle weight at first, a pressure that steadily grew into a notable tingling. Maric's body began to glow in the fading light of evening, and Aelin gasped as the dark-haired man began to move in a fluid dance of grace and power. Gone was the causal destruction they had witnessed before, and in its place was a subtle… nurturing… series of movements that left one breathless.
The warrior didn't stray far from Maric's body as he circled the hilltop, and every once in a while he seemed to blur. It wasn't until Maric's body was fully buried that Sefaril sensed the magic of the area begin to bend around the man. She expected him to stop once Maric was interred, but he didn't. She couldn't really tell what he was doing or why, but the magic continued to bend and weave with his every move. It wasn't until Ethalliandra gasped and pointed to the ground where Maric's body had been, that the mage finally understood.
A sapling was rapidly growing at the center of the warrior's dance. It continued to grow larger and faster with each circuit, mimicking the man's quickening pace. His body was now glowing indigo, much in the same way that Maric's had done earlier. The light was oddly comforting in the growing shadow of the large tree. She couldn't place the type of tree that was entombing her husband, she'd never been that good with woodcraft. But its massive trunk and thick branches were fitting all the same. Maric would have loved to climb and nap among its branches.
The small group of survivors watched in awe as the massive tree finally stopped growing. The sun was now beneath the horizon, and Sefaril could see stars in the darkening sky. The branches of the majestic three hundred and fifty foot tree blocked many of those stars. Yet rather than feel disheartened, Sefaril felt safe and secure. It was as if a piece of her husband was watching over and sheltering them. The dark-haired warrior ended his graceful dance and settled on one of the thick, man-sized roots.
"You died honorably, Maric Kalavir." His voice was quiet, but carried with it a sense of immense power. "You gave your life followin' the Code, protectin' those that couldn't protect themselves."
He placed his palm against the trunk of the tree and bowed his head. His voice became a whisper that still carried on the rapidly cooling air.
"I honor your sacrifice. Rest easy and know that I will protect your family, just like I promised."
Sefaril felt something wash over her. It was a blanket of warmth and peace that made her feel… not happy… secure. Her world had been changed irrevocably, but it wasn't such a dark place any more. The man lifted his head and stared into the shadows of a large skirted pine across from Sefaril and her companions sat. His eyes glowed white for a moment, and then his body relaxed.
"We'll camp here and heal up. Once everyone is fit to travel, we'll decide what we need to do or where you want ta go." He pointed to Ked and another man. "Gather up some extra hands so we can go find some blankets and stuff."
Sefaril found his eyes drift to her, but he seemed to be looking beyond her.
"Get a fire started and keep her warm until I can find something for her." Sefaril felt Ethalliandra nod at her back. "The rest of you sit tight and watch for trouble. If you see any more of them oinkers, call out real loud and we'll come runnin'. Got that?"
Sefaril didn't see, but could imagine the rest of the survivors nodding to him. She felt Ethalliandra and Aelin shift places as the elf woman and another figure left to collect firewood. Still, Sefaril couldn't take her eyes from the half-elven man walking towards her. Even with the light sheen of sweat on his face and the pain hidden behind his stormy eyes, the mage could feel his power. The sigil on his brow flashed, and his gaze turned away from Sefaril for a moment to look towards the Southeast.
"There you are."
She noted the corners of his mouth turn up slightly, and she finally saw a bit of his humanity break through his hard, stony exterior. He was a pillar of strength, which is what she needed now more than ever. Just by looking at him, she knew that his promise to Maric would be fulfilled. When his gaze fell on her again, the stoic mask was back in place, smooth and unrelenting.
"You and yer baby're gonna be all right, Sefaril Kalavir. And when the time comes, you'll move on ta be with yer husband. I don't know when that'll be, but between now and then yer gonna live for the baby." He rested his hand on her shoulder. "You live for the baby, and I'll take care of the rest."
It was a promise between them. One that Sefaril could readily agree to. The message was clear; Maric might be absent, but he wasn't gone. The love of her life might be gone, but that didn't mean her life would be without love. She had a reason to live, and she had a little more than seven months left to grieve and prepare before Maric's child came into the world. Sefaril hugged the man awkwardly and whispered her thanks for that he had done for her. The man simply nodded and patted her shoulder. He didn't smile, but his eyes seemed to relax a bit as he stood to leave. He took a step away before she found the courage to snatch up his hand.
"What is your name?" It was a breathless question that caused the man to pause. He scratched the base of his braided pigtail absently as he looked down on her.
"Ranma. Ranma Saotome."
A gasp and the clatter of wood falling to the ground made Ranma spin in place and settle into a solid defensive posture. Sefaril followed his gaze to where Ethalliandra stood gaping at the dark-haired warrior. To the mage's astonishment, the Moon Elf fell to her knees and pressed her forehead to the grass. Ranma growled and stalked over to the prone elf.
He lifted her to her feet and whispered something to her that made her lovely eyes bulge with disbelief. She nodded shakily and began to collect the firewood as the man stalked off towards the group that Ked had gathered. The large man started to fall to his knees, but Ranma blurred again and caught Ethalliandra's companion by the arm before he could get too far. Another whispered discussion had the bear of a man nodding rapidly, and then the group was gone, marching back the way they had come.
Sefaril pondered the interaction as a way to stave off the gnawing heartache that was waiting to assault her. She even went so far as to ask Ethalliandra about it, but found her question brushed aside as the woman had Aelin light the fire with a cantrip. As she settled back into her thoughts, she noted an oddly-shaped shadow in the branches of her husband's tree above her. It wasn't a figure. Not exactly. Nor was it a trick of the light. It was something unnatural that had moved against the light of the glowing fire. She was certain of it. The mage wished that Onuli had survived the battle. Her pixie familiar would have been able to investigate the oddity.
By the time the scavenging group returned, thoughts of the creature had fled as Sefaril fell into a troubled sleep. Whenever her dreams would turn dark or troubling, a majestic black horse would appear and drive the nightmares away. The pain of her loss might still be there, but the presence of the wild stallion brought her great comfort. It was something that she would come to cherish in the days ahead.
On the road to Silverymoon
Alustriel's letter was doubly surprising once Usagi had gotten the opportunity to read it. With the amount of drink she and her companions imbibed the night of the dinner, it had taken a full day, and the aid of a mysterious gift, for Usagi to completely recover. Between the vomiting and the nasty headaches, she vowed to Ulin that she never wanted to drink alcohol again. Silea Dunhill appeared soon after this declaration, carrying the foulest smelling concoction Usagi had ever had the displeasure of experiencing. The scent alone drove the Silver Princess into another vomiting fit, but after finally getting the nasty potion down her throat, most of her hangover disappeared.
She spent the afternoon drinking water and eating baked crackers, while Ulin gathered information about the Everlund Pass and preparing everyone to leave. Feldrin took the opportunity to learn more about her father from Eaerlraun, but refused to talk about their closed-door sessions. Viet was in the same boat as Usagi, but Shandri had come out of the evening's festivities without so much as a headache. She envied the girl's stamina long enough to learn that she had only sipped where everyone else had guzzled. It was a hard-won lesson, but Usagi vowed to mimic her the next time she was pressed into another formal dinner. It wasn't until late afternoon of the day after the dinner that she got around to opening Alustriel's rather unusual letter.
It wasn't so much a letter as it was an itinerary, laying out a schedule for personal time to be spent with Alustriel herself. She introduced herself and spoke at length about her sisters who would be joining them, informally introducing Storm and Sylune through descriptions and a small section where the women had taken the opportunity to write their own notes to Usagi. Alustriel ended the strange letter with a request to know how many people would be accompanying her and gave her instructions on how to reply — detailing out the fiery sparrow spell the High Lady had used to contact Usagi with upon arriving in Everlund.
Upon reading the letter, Ulin had looked at Usagi as if the girl had grown another head. When asked about her reaction, Ulin had skillfully evaded Usagi's questions and returned to her preparations. The second day after the dinner was spent in the company of Eaerlraun, Feldrin, Viet, and Shandri. The Lord of Moongleam Tower gave them a tour of Everlund and introduced them to a number of fairly important people, none of whose names Usagi could remember by the time they had returned to the tower. On the evening of the second day a small package arrived at the tower for Usagi, with a short note that simply said: "This trifle pales in comparison to your radiance."
Upon reading the message, Usagi blushed at the realization that it had come from a secret admirer and it took the combined efforts of Shandri, Dinah, and Feldrin to get her to open the present. The pearly white stone was spindle shaped and looked very costly. Usagi had examined it closely and soon realized that it was magical, not through any detection of her own either. She had no sooner placed the stone back in the small box lined with black velvet, than the curious artifact rose into the air and began orbiting her head. Once the stone was safely circling her head, Usagi was surprised to note that the residual ill effects of her dubious drinking experience finally disappeared.
When Ulin returned later that night, she stumbled into a wall upon seeing Usagi's gift and began demanding to know where she had come across the magical stone. The Genasi's already worried expression became truly troubled after reading the note. And when learning the use and apparent value of the Ioun Stone, Usagi became concerned as well. Whoever sent the gift to her (benevolent, as it might seem) was either rich beyond sense, a powerful magic user, or a combination of the two. Usagi's first thought was of the stormy-eyed pigtailed boy in her dreams. But upon reflection, she knew that it wasn't him, even if she didn't understand the reasons backing that knowledge.
So it was that, at dawn on their third day in Everlund, Usagi had placed the stone in a pouch and hung it around her neck. The mysterious admirer would no doubt make himself known in time, but only on his terms. Until then, she would have to focus herself on the trip to Silverymoon. With preparations complete, it was time to be on their way.
Ulin pulled everything together in a miraculously short amount of time in deference to getting Usagi to Alustriel as soon as possible. The extra dresses and clothing would be sent to Silverymoon with the last caravan, in care of Alustriel, and those clothes that were finished were carefully packed away. The sorceress had even made it a point to buy gifts for the High Lady and her sisters, much to Usagi's surprise. This of course pretty much gutted the rest of the available cash reserves gained from Hearthman's estate. Any more purchases would have to wait until funds started coming in from the mines and the sale of Hearthman's pricey art collection. Ulin had a little bit of money squirreled away for emergencies, but nothing that would cover any major expenses.
Once everything was packed, the group took their leave of Moongleam Tower and Everlund. Their numbers had grown by three, as Eaerlraun had insisted that Bolo, Fhyme, and another man named Aerven see the group to Silverymoon. The Moonlord pressed a large sum of gold into Ulin's hands to pay the way of the extra hands, and invited all to return someday.
The first day out from Everlund they made wonderful time, snaking their way through the Nether foothills on the winding trail that marked the road to Silverymoon. The Nether Mountains loomed to their right, and to their left lay the ancient forest known as the Silverwood. Bolo and Aerven told tales of Turlag the Treant, the guardian of the Silverwood, that night over dinner. Dinah had been enthralled in the stories and fought going to bed, until Ulin reminded her of the promise she had made. Shandri's sister had pouted all the way to her bedroll, and from the way the child wiggled it was a long time before she fell asleep.
The second day was warm, but Fhyme pointed out the clouds gathering in the higher parts of the Nether Mountains and called for rain in the next couple of days. Their pace slowed some as the trails seemed to get steeper and more winding the further along they went. Usagi pestered Ulin to tell her more about Alustriel and why she was so nervous about the woman, until the Genasi finally broke down and gave in.
She pulled Usagi aside and privately regaled her about her first and last meeting with the High Lady of the Silver Marches, over thirty years past. They had met at a Mage Fair in a little demi-plane off the Beastlands. Usagi had no idea where that was, and Ulin didn't think it important enough to elaborate, so she ignored the reference. DelRoy Harpell, who was speaking at a symposium with Ulin acting as his assistant, had introduced her to Alustriel. One of Ulin's cousins had thought it would be comical to prank Ulin, and gave her a rather potent alcoholic beverage "to settle her nerves". Ulin, smashed out of her gourd, dropped a crate of experiments and visual aides that DelRoy had brought for the lecture. One thing led to another, and then… well, Ulin just hoped the High Lady was forgiving. It was well known that the woman had an incredible memory. In her defense, Ulin had been drunk at the time, and DelRoy's potion wasn't supposed to dissolve Alustriel's dress like it had, nor was it supposed to turn the High Lady's skin that fetching plum color.
By the end of the tale, Usagi was clutching her sides and howling with laughter. She continued to laugh long after Ulin left in a huff, and woke on the third morning sore and still giggling. She apologized to her friend, and tried her best to ease her fears about meeting up with Alustriel again. It didn't seem to help much, especially as Usagi couldn't help but giggle every time she looked at Ulin.
The third day out was a bit windy, and held the scent of rain. But, much to the group's pleasure, none came. The way became a bit more difficult for the travelers, with steep inclines and precarious turns along cliff sides that paced the Rauvin River over a hundred feet below. This switchback slowed their pace quite a bit, but Bolo assured Usagi they would make it to Silverymoon by the morning of the fourth day at the latest. She idly wondered if he had factored a midday battle with giants into his estimate.
The boom of another boulder exploding overhead kept the group pinned down beneath a large overhang. The carriage had been abandoned after the first boulder crushed two of the four horses that were pulling it. The other two were injured and from the looks of things would have to be put down. Aerven was seriously injured before everyone could make it to the overhang, and in that moment Usagi was grateful for the gift of the Ioun Stone, if for no other reason than it was going to save the man's life. Across the way, Feldrin, Bolo, and Ulin were pinned down by another barrage of stone. She looked at the frightened faces of Silea and Dinah and seeing that they were here in mortal danger, was seriously upsetting Usagi a great deal.
"This is ridiculous." She growled. She stood to her full height and held her locket up high above her head. "MOON ETERNAL POWER, MAKE UP!"
She ignored the shocked and uncertain looks on the faces of her new friends as the magic settled into place. Her only thought was getting Silea and Dinah to safety. She idly noted Ulin, Shandri, and Feldrin scrambling after her.
Each of the women called on their magic in turn, flooding the area with enough power to give the giants above pause. The boulders stopped long enough for Sailor Moon and her Senshi to get into the clear. Rather than being terrified as she usually was, Sailor Moon buried herself in the anger she felt towards the giants for endangering a mother and her child. She did not dodge the large, car-sized rocks as they fell around her. They didn't seem to be coming close to her so she just ignored them and looked up to the positions of the towering behemoths. There were five of the creatures. Their stone-gray skin and bald heads made it difficult to see them, but their constant movement gave them away.
The vicious smiles on their faces only made her more and more upset. The thought that they were purposefully enjoying this pushed her over the edge. Something in her snapped and Sailor Moon disappeared in a blinding flash that caused all of the giants to cry out in fear and anger. When light returned to normal, the Silver Princess stood regally at the center of her Senshi. The giants raised their boulders again, intent on smashing this sorceress before she could cast any spells.
"STOP THIS!" The roaring sound of her voice caused the walls of the small canyon to rumble.
One of the giants was hit in the head, and subsequently squished, by a hut-sized boulder that had come loose from above him. Serenity neither noticed nor cared at the moment, as all of her attention was on the leader of the band. The giant in question was over fifteen feet tall and was over seven feet wide at the shoulder. His huge muscles looked as if they were carved stone, rather than flesh. Serenity, by the presence of her power alone, seemed to tower over the monster.
"Why are you attacking us?" she demanded. Her voice didn't shake the stones this time, but she still seemed extremely dangerous.
"Um…." The leader of the giants looked to his companions, who all shrugged. They had all faced humans before, and never once had any of those battles played out like this one was. They just didn't know how to deal with this pretty little woman. Her impatience getting the better of her, Serenity began tapping her foot and her frown became a scowl.
"Come down here." When the giants didn't immediately obey her, her eyes glowed and the crescent moon on her forehead blazed with power. "Come down here, NOW!"
To the amazement of everyone involved, the four remaining giants hastily complied with the command. Serenity noted that the Loras were now stalking the high ground, waiting for her signal to pounce. She shook her head and waved them away, before turning her attention back to the giants. She placed her hands on her shapely hips and scowled up at the leader in a pose that was the picture of an incensed woman.
"Did you know that we have a child in our company?" The demand was made in her best imitation of an extremely cross Ikuko Tsukino. The lead giant shook his head. "How would you feel if I started throwing big rocks at your daughter?"
The giant scratched his head, obviously perplexed. "Fine, I guess."
"Fine! What if I hurt her!" Serenity demanded.
"That's just silly! A rock hurting Dolga's daughter!" The giant laughed. His companions joined in until Serenity stomped her foot, making the ground tremble with the blow.
"And what if she threw fire or lightning?" Ulin asked calmly. "What then?"
This seemed to grab the monster's attention. He looked angry for a moment, until he saw the still burning crescent moon on Serenity's forehead. He hung his head and shuffled his gargantuan feet.
"I'd be upset," he admitted.
"Upset? Upset! You killed two of my horses and injured the other two! Not only that, but you hurt one of my friends really badly!" Serenity's voice became very outraged. "You'd best go apologize to everyone right now before you see me get really upset!"
The party members were astonished as the giants followed through with Serenity's demand. One by one they made their way to everyone, apologizing and begging forgiveness. Every once in a while they would look back to Serenity who was, by this point, blazing like a small star. When they had finished, they returned to her side and averted their faces, unable to look at her.
"Since you killed our horses, you are going to help us go the rest of the way to Silverymoon." The giant looked up sharply, but quailed beneath the fiery stare Serenity shot his way. "Now then, there were five of you. Where is your friend?"
"You squished ‘im," Dolga said petulantly.
"WHAT?" Serenity looked back at her Senshi in fear. "Take me to him!"
This took the giant leader by surprise. "Uh, why?" The bewilderment expressed by the giant was echoed between the Senshi and the rest of Serenity's group.
"So I can heal him!" she said in exasperation.
"You want to heal Broan?" Dolga asked incredulously. This was unheard of. It just didn't happen. The giant looked down on Serenity with open confusion. "Why?"
"Because he's hurt." She wanted to scream. All of this stalling was pushing her frayed nerves to new heights. She started up the rocks towards the position where she had seen Broan last. Everyone watched her blankly, radiating disbelief. The Silver Princess ignored them all, hiking her dress up over her knees and ran to the rocky slope. It took the giants a moment to realize that she was serious, and once they did, three of them sat down on the ground while Dolga took two steps and gently scooped Serenity up onto his shoulder. Ulin and Feldrin bristled, but Shandri held them back as the giant began picking his way up the rocky mountainside.
It didn't take them long to make it to Broan's side, and one look at him told Usagi that she was too late. He was there, the dark-haired man she'd fought outside of Hemmerling. He stood next to Broan, waiting for her to arrive. Dolga stopped the moment he saw the armored figure standing next to his kin.
"Death." The sound of Dolga's reverent, if not fearful, voice reminded the Silver Princess of tumbling stones.
"Set me down." The icy tone of her voice left no room for argument. Dolga did as he was told and stepped back a fair distance. She didn't pay much attention to him as she strode forward to the already cooling body.
"Well met, Serenity Silverhand." The man's voice was warm and companionable, nothing like she had ever associated with Death before. "I'm glad that we could meet again so soon."
"I wish that I could say the same," she said evenly.
If Kelemvor was offended, his smiling face did not show it. Even if he had been, the Silver Princess wouldn't have cared. She only had eyes for Broan's bloody head and wide, staring eyes.
"You have taken him," she accused.
"It was his time."
"I want him back," she demanded.
"You cannot have him." Kelemvor's voice was quiet but firm.
"What do you want for his soul?" she asked bluntly.
The armored man shook his head sadly.
"Why not?" she yelled. "This being died because of me! At least give me the opportunity to set things right!"
"This is right, Daughter of Mysteries." Kelemvor crossed the intervening space and laid his hands on her shoulders. She tried to free herself not out of fear, but out of growing anger.
"IT IS NOT!" She pounded on his breastplate, but he drew her close. Tears of frustration were rolling down her cheeks and still she pounded against him. The ringing was thunderous as she instinctively channeled the power of the Ginzuishou through her fists and after a time, small fist-sized dints started to appear on the ornate breastplate. Kelemvor didn't seem to notice the damage as he began to softly stroke her back.
"This was Broan's time, Serenity. Whether by accident or design, it was his moment to move on to the next great mountain — to join his grandfathers and their grandfathers. Would you rob him of that joy?"
The Silver Princess only wept in response. All she could think about was the cold, empty sense of loss that Broan's family would be feeling.
"Death is a natural thing, Daughter of Mysteries. It is the prescribed end of all life, the great inevitability. Why do you fight it so?"
She didn't answer right away, trying to sift through and center all of her emotions into a coherent answer.
"Because it makes people suffer."
Kelemvor chuckled. "If that is true, then why do you not battle as fiercely against life as well?" Serenity just looked up at Kelemvor blankly. "Life is the definition of suffering, Serenity. Everyday is one more battle in a constant war against suffering. Mortality's struggles are defined by the suffering they overcome. Death is not the end of suffering, but it is a respite from the struggle."
She looked at the cooling body of the giant not far off and sighed. "I don't understand."
"You will, in time." He kissed her forehead.
"What if I don't want to?" she asked.
"What you desire is not necessarily what you need. You will understand death's purpose in time." He dried her tears with his thumb. "Until then, go with my blessing and think on my words." He released her and looked up at Dolga.
"You will see her safely to her destination, Dolga, son of Fergol. Do this and your life will be long and fulfilling." The consequences of not doing so were quite obvious. The giant nodded and trembled in his overlarge animal-skin boots.
Kelemvor turned away and began walking up the rocky slope. Before he disappeared around a massive boulder, he paused and looked back at the Silver Princess.
"I do not wish to be your enemy, Serenity Silverhand." He grinned widely. "Your mother would be cross with me if that happened."
Serenity watched as the god of death disappeared around the large outcrop. She didn't hear his boots fading in the distance or the echo of his armor clanking together. He was just… gone. She felt the power leave her, and with it gone Serenity became Usagi again. Only this time, a little less of Usagi returned while more of Serenity remained.
The void of loss hit her like a freight train. She looked at the body of Broan and the angry tears she'd gotten under control broke free again. She wept, barely taking note of Dolga kneeling beside her. She didn't hear Ulin or Shandri or Feldrin come up behind her, or register their warm embrace. All she saw was the dead body of Broan, with its brains splayed out all over the ground and a small lake of blood pooling beneath the body. It was a nightmare come true. Accident or not, she had been the cause of it. She had been the angry one. She had been the one intent on hurting those who had hurt and endangered her friends. She was the responsible one because she had the power to avoid the consequences altogether.
She grabbed hold of Dolga's massive, dangling hand and let the sorrow flow. She kept whispering apologies over and over, much to the giant's surprise and discomfort. She cried until fatigue finally overtook her and sleep came. It wasn't a refuge though. The dreams still came, and with them the guilt came too.
Klauth had laughed until he felt he was going to die. His Silver Princess, scolding giants as if they were hatchlings! The symmetry of the moment was beautiful. The death of the Stone Giant had been priceless as well. All in all, it was an event like no other, one that brought back feelings he'd not felt in years. Yet, when his beloved realized that the stupid creature had perished, her behavior confused Klauth greatly. Rather than being proud of the kill as any dragon would, she had felt concern. Then there was the one-sided conversation she'd had. That had been worse than confusing, because Klauth knew that someone was really there. The fact that the dragon's scrying was being repelled, made it apparent that the being was well-versed in powerful magic.
He could guess the topic of discussion between his Silver Princess and this mysterious invisible figure, but not the reasoning behind it. A kill was a kill. It was an obstacle to over come, and by doing so, his beloved was the triumphant one. Why was her victory tainted with tears and remorse?
The ancient red dragon shifted his wounded bulk and growled in frustration.
Wait. Remorse? Could she actually be feeling compassion for a Stone Giant? Was such a thing possible? Old Snarl watched the scrying mirror, judging her actions and body language carefully. When the young woman latched onto the other giant's hand and began apologizing, Klauth's fears were realized. How could she feel remorse for killing a giant?
The question would worry the dragon for a very long time. But, when the answer finally did come to him, the Silver Princess just became all the more precious to him.
The Festival of Creation was a festival of great import on the Isles of Lantan. It was a showcase of talent and ideas, wherein great minds celebrated their industry and honored the Great Maker, Gond. In closest terms, it was much like a Magefair… with just as much noise and weirdness.
There were booths displaying all manner of technological gadgets and doohickeys that were supposed to make life easier — assuming you survived the experience of using the items you were purchasing. Wandering debates on steam power versus wind power and floating symposiums proudly demonstrating a new tool or technique, swept people up and deposited them in front of some new distraction. Children rode automated rides or watched as Techsmiths pitted their Gondsmen against one another in wrestling matches.
It was a bright celebration of ingenuity and progress.
Most who came were suitably impressed by the opportunity to see the new creations of their fellows, even if they were jaded veterans of the Festival. But one Gondar priest amongst the throng was neither impressed nor excited about the coming of this day. Haroun Mostana was nervous, and rightly so. Despite all of his efforts to the contrary, he had been unable to prevent Duncan Steelwater and that thrice damned Keiichi Morisato from confirming their participation. The crowds, upon hearing that the competition was still going forward, came out in droves — even the Builders Council and the highest members of the church were on hand to witness the event.
The fact that the dwarf was still participating after all that Mostana had done to ensure his forfeiture was more than disconcerting. It was distressing. The gnome wasn't sure whether the dwarf was just displaying the dogged stubbornness of his race, or proving that he truly had the favor of Gond. The Wonderbringer alone knew that, since the destruction of the Steelwater's home and shop, Haroun hadn't been able to cast a single spell to save his life. His prayers and petitions had been unanswered and his attempts at penance were being ignored. It didn't matter how much gold or supplies he donated to the church, nor did it seem to matter how charitable he was to his neighbors and friends. Gond was silent and that, above all else, was what had the Artificer on edge.
The only bright spot in all of this was the judges' panel that High Builder Maverly had called in to officiate the controversial match. Two of the judges were gnomes that Haroun had greased long ago, and the other three were, at best, neutral towards him. There was only one judge among the three that Haroun hadn't been able to approach, and not or lack of trying either. The burly gnome with the red beard simply stared at Haroun with a frigid glare and walked away.
There was no real opportunity for Mostana to sabotage the entries, but that didn't mean that he couldn't pay someone else to do it. The Artificer arranged for his demonstration to be held last, and had found ten very enterprising apprentices to make some last minute changes to the testing range that his challengers had requested.
It wasn't that he lacked faith in his entry. No, he was certain that the Solar Cannon would be well received by the panel and by his god. War was profitable, and this invention alone would certainly make the church quite a bit of money… if only to keep the weapon off the fields of battle. No, the reason for rigging the course had more to do with the desire to see these two upstarts humiliated in front of the entire community. Mostana hungered to see Steelwater shamed from the island. In the distance, he could see a large, covered wagon being pulled by that damnable Iron Horse of theirs. Haroun snarled and swept through the crowds towards the proving grounds.
Yes, indeed. He would see Duncan Steelwater weep and beg for mercy before the day was through.
The Shadovar held up the Rod of Shadows and motioned his servant forward.
"What have you discovered, my pet?"
The feminine shadow held out her hands to her master, and at his nod she kissed him. The sights, sounds, and experiences of the creature's spying poured into his consciousness. It was all there, from the waylaid caravan, to the heroic death of the elf, to the opening of the strange portal. The Shadovar swallowed hard at the slaughter of the orcs and the sight of the memorial seemed to unnerve him even more.
"This is a Power," he whispered. Shaken, the Shadovar agent said nothing to the Shadow Servant as he took his leave, yet it followed him loyally to the portal stone anyway. The Princes would be informed, and they would make the decision on how to proceed. He simply hoped that they would allow him the blessing of being assigned to some task far away from this Ranma Saotome. He had no desire to die anytime soon.
Alustriel spent the days following the events in Velprintalar, scrambling to prepare her castle to receive their very special guest. She and the other sisters had poured over the words their goddess had spoken, looking for the deeper meanings and a greater understanding of the mystery Mystra had set before them.
Alassra began casting auguries the hour after Mystra's presence fled, and hadn't stopped since. The girl's splotchy past was filled with great tragedy and constant struggle, and what little the Simbul had been able to learn of this Silver Princess surprised and astonished the Seven. It wasn't everyday that you learned the true fate of your mother.
Laeral and Sylune chose to focus their efforts on the present, scrying much the same as a smitten red dragon was for information on the current doings of this Silver Princess. Not only were they impressed, they fell to the same trap as Old Snarl; only with different results. They missed out on the events in Everlund Pass, and the current image in their scrying pool was of a sleeping girl with long silver hair, much like their own.
"She's so young and cute!" Laeral gushed.
"Much cuter than you ever were." Sylune grinned.
"I was never cute." The Lady Mage of Waterdeep stuck her nose in the air petulantly. She was beautiful, not cute! Her sister Storm snorted from her position opposite Sylune.
But it was Alustriel that drove the nail home, as only a sister could. "I think we can all agree to that."
The High Lady of the Silver Marches stuck her tongue out and held her nose, as if warding off a nasty smell. Laeral threw a very offensive gesture her sister's way, causing Storm and Sylune to giggle. Alustriel blew her sister a loving kiss and then turned her attention back to the scrying pool.
"We can't let the others get to her just yet." Storm looked on the girl with a soft smile.
"Most certainly not!" Sylune agreed.
"Can you imagine the corruption?" Laeral pressed the back of her hand against her forehead and feigned swooning.
"Aren't we the pot calling the kettle black?" Sylune grinned irreverently. All the sisters laughed. They hadn't had this much fun in ages.
"Qilue wouldn't be so bad," Storm said.
"True, but we want to have room to corrupt her ourselves." Laeral wiggled her eyebrows.
"To say the least!" Alustriel and Storm cheered.
"Besides, what good is dancing naked beneath the full moon while waving a sword around? The Eighth Star needs to be weaned on the milk of Intrigues, Magic, and Mysteries!"
"I'm sure that we can fit an intrigue or two into her itinerary, dear sister," Sylune deadpanned.
Alustriel opened her mouth to deliver her own pithy comment, but she was interrupted by a quiet knock on her chamber door. With standing orders not to disturb her, Alustriel knew that whoever was on the other side of the door must have pressing need to interrupt her scrying. The High Lady banished the image in the pool and crossed the room in a swirl of cloth. She opened the door slowly and was greeted by the weathered face of Taern Hornblade, the High Mage of Silverymoon. The man bowed deeply at the waist to his queen, but the grim expression on his face didn't falter.
It rarely did, Alustriel noted with some humor. "Taern?"
"Forgive the intrusion, milady. But, there is something outside the Blacklar Gate that requires your attention."
Alustriel returned to her scrying pool, and with a wave of her elegant hand called up an image of the gate. The sight of four Stone Giants standing behind a horseless carriage and flanked by a small company of riders caused her to raise an eyebrow. She looked at her sisters, who only shrugged. The jade-skinned woman arguing with the gatemaster was very familiar to Alustriel. She and her sisters had been watching her since leaving Velprintalar. Another gesture brought the sounds of the conversation into the scrying room.
"…annot explain what I do not understand myself, Gatemaster Yuleth! They insisted on accompanying us out of the Pass, and I am not one to argue with a giant intent on protecting me. I say again, and will continue to say it until it takes hold, we are here at the High Lady's invitation. At the very least send word to her of our arrival."
Laeral murmured something about the green woman having "good sense not to argue with a giant" before being hushed by her sisters.
"Word has already been sent to the Palace, Mistress Harpell. However, I still cannot allow you entry into the city as long as they are in your company." Gatemaster Yuleth pointed to the squatting behemoths behind the carriage. Alustriel waved her hand again, silencing the pool and causing the image to disappear.
"It seems that Ulin is getting a little frustrated," Sylune noted. "How long will you let her stew for your ruined dress?"
"It wasn't the dress that upset me," Alustriel groused. "It took over four months for my skin color to return to normal."
"Surely the Shining Lady isn't so petty?" Laeral asked with a wry grin. Alustriel snorted and stuck her tongue out at the Lady Mage of Waterdeep. A discreet cough from Taern brought the women back to the problem at hand.
"Let us go, sisters," Alustriel offered her arm to Sylune, who took it eagerly. "We must greet our guests properly."
The four silver-haired women swept pass Taern, each kissing the stoic man on the cheek as they passed him. Once free from the scrying room, Alustriel called on her magic to teleport the group down to Blacklar Gate.
Ulin was reaching the end of her rope with the man in front of her. She knew he was just doing his job, but this was ridiculous. He wouldn't let anyone in until he received word from the Palace, and everyone was getting hungry. The giants were getting restless, which had a rather alarming effect on the guardsmen along the wall. A number of weapons were being openly brandished and she counted at least three practitioners of the Art on the wall above the gate itself.
She had purposely avoided waking Usagi in order to give the girl a long needed rest. The events on the mountain had obviously distressed her, and Ulin vowed to deal with this problem without involving her Lady.
"Gatemaster Yuleth, report."
Ulin's eyes bugged and her stomach turned to stone at the sound of that voice. The soldier before her snapped to attention crisply and saluted Alustriel as she and… Oh, sweet Mystra preserve and protect! That was Storm and Laeral! It seemed two of the Seven were visiting Silverymoon. Ulin was dead. She just knew it. Sighing, she curtsied deeply to Alustriel as the woman stopped before her. The Gatemaster rambled on about the giants and the oddness of the party before him, but Ulin ignored everything except holding her bowed position.
If she were going to die, then at the very least she would die with some dignity. She waited to be turned away, or worse, but what she received instead was Alustriel bowed down next to her, looking intently at the ground.
"Do you see something particularly interesting on the cobblestones, Ulin Shemzarida Hashpida Harpell?" The woman's smile was beautiful and warm.
"No, High Lady," she whispered.
"Then by all means, please stand. That looks terribly uncomfortable."
Ulin scrambled to her feet and smoothed her skirts.
"Now then, you seem to have brought some very interesting guests to Silverymoon." Alustriel stepped past the Genasi and walked straight up to the tallest of the giants. She smiled openly, and held her hands out in a gesture of peace.
"Greetings, good friend! I am Alustriel, High Lady of the Silver Marches. It is my pleasure to welcome you and your companions to Silverymoon." This brought a few quiet gasps from the wall, but no one made a move to contradict their ruler's words.
Dolga seemed a bit uncomfortable with the greeting but nodded his head to her. "Dolga."
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, friend Dolga." Although her voice was slightly raised, Alustriel was as gracious towards the giant as she would be to any visiting dignitary. "Might I ask what business brings you to our fair city?"
The giant pointed to the horseless carriage with one mammoth finger. "Jeruul told me to protect the Silver Lady, so I'm protecting the Silver Lady."
"Jeruul?" Alustriel asked.
"Death." Storm supplied from her position near Ulin.
"Death told you to protect this group?"
The giant nodded. "Told me to get her where she was goin' safe and sound." Dolga jerked his thumb to the city and shrugged. "Told me that if I did, he'd let me live a long time."
"Well, that seems like a fair bargain indeed," Alustriel admitted. "Do you intend to enter the city then?"
To the relief of everyone present, Dolga shook his head.
"Nope. Just get her here safe, and leave." He paused and narrowed his eyes at Alustriel. "She is safe here, right?"
"I will protect your Silver Lady with my own life's blood, good Dolga. You have my word."
"You ain't lyin' ta Dolga, is you?" The other giants started to shift causing the defenders of the wall to shift as well.
"What oath shall I take to show my sincerity, friend Dolga?"
The giant scratched his bald head thoughtfully and shrugged. "Can't think of none." He stood to his full height, and his companions followed suit immediately. "You just keep her safe. If we hear she's hurt, we'll be back."
"I would expect no less, good friend Dolga."
Alustriel bowed to the giants and they promptly turned away. Their long stride shook the ground a bit as they began making their way back to their homes in the Everlund Pass. Once they were well on their way, Alustriel turned back to the gathered crowd. More than a few were staring at her in awe and admiration. The High Lady poked her head into the carriage on her way back and smiled at the sleeping form of Dolga's Silver Lady. Her head was in the lap of the elder Dunhill girl, just as Shandri's sister mirrored Usagi in the lap of Silea Dunhill. She welcomed the two women to Silverymoon and stepped back before they could answer. Once she was back near the gate, she called out to her Gatemaster.
He saluted crisply. "Milady!"
"Please gather a team of horses and have this carriage, along with the rest of Mistress Harpell's group, escorted to the Palace. Be gentle as you work, there is precious cargo in that coach."
"Yes, milady. Will you require anything else?"
"For the time being, just an opportunity to express my gratitude for your diligence, Gatemaster." She smiled and laid her hand on his shoulder. Yuleth saluted again.
"No gratitude necessary, High Lady. My life is yours to command."
The soldier began barking commands to his subordinates the instant Alustriel let him go, and in no time a team had been assembled and tethered to the carriage. Ulin watched the orderly hustle and bustle get underway and came away from the experience with a greater respect for Alustriel and her city. She was so intent on the spectacle that she never noticed the High Lady arrive at her side.
"Shall we go, Mistress Harpell?"
Ulin nearly jumped free of her skin at the sound of the woman's voice so close to her ear. Her heart was still in her throat when she answered the woman.
"To the palace, of course." The ruler of the Silver Marches slipped her arm through Ulin's, as did her sister Storm. Laeral and the other woman joined Alustriel on the woman's other side and closed the circle in a chain of linked arms. "We've much to prepare before your Lady arrives, I should think."
"Prepare?" Ulin was feeling faint. Arm in arm with living legends often did that to a person.
"Oh, dear yes," Laeral said. "There's the feast, and picking out an appropriate dress, and choosing an appropriate escort."
"We mustn't forget that!" Storm grinned.
"I should think that the more pressing need is figuring out a way to break the news to Serenity," the other woman said pointedly.
"News?" Ulin's mind was awhirl and she was starting to develop a headache.
"Yes, darling." Storm patted Ulin's hand. She looked at the Genasi thoughtfully and then cocked her head. "Tell me, Earth Sister. How do you think we should tell Serenity that she is our sister? Would it be better to just come out and say it, or do you think we should ease her into the idea?"
"Sister?" Ulin's eyes rolled up into her head and she passed out. The last thing that she heard before succumbing to the darkness was a reproving cluck from the unknown woman.
The air was supercharged with anticipation as Keiichi and Duncan pulled up to the proving grounds. He could already make out Father Ellosin standing with and speaking to a number of older gnomes. Evandur Thistlebeck, the Seeker of Oghma that had cared for him after his first shocking encounter with Sister Maerdith, stood beside High Builder Maverly. His large "Santa" belly was shaking like Jell-O at something the Gondar priest had said. It was a positive sight in Keiichi's mind.
"Are we there yet, father?"
Keiichi glanced around nervously; trying to make sure that no one was near enough to hear Kazuki-chan's "whisper" or see beneath the canvas tarp as the METAT vented steam. Luckily, no one was within a hundred feet of them. Considering the amount of whistles, clangs, and hoots, Keiichi doubted that anyone would have looked their way twice. Still, he wanted to make a proper entrance. Yet like any curious and impatient toddler, Kazuki was getting beyond annoying with his repetitious questions.
"Yes, Kazuki-chan. We're finally here."
"Can I come out now?"
"Not yet, son. We have to wait for them to tell us they're ready for us." He tried to make his voice patient, but it came out with a hint of exasperation.
"But, faaaatheeeer! It's so hot in here!"
The idea that a one-point-five-ton mechanical colossus could whine in a five-year-old voice left Keiichi feeling both proud and distraught. Was this what it was going to be like for him and Belldandy when they had kids? The brief image of his radiant goddess holding a baby and smiling down at a little girl made Keiichi's heart flutter. He could already see Kazuki-chan holding a little giggling boy high in the air while he tinkered with some new vehicle for an exhibition race.
"It won't be much longer, Kazuki-chan, I promise." He waved to Ruthart and pantomimed drinking a glass of water, then pointed to the wagon. The young gnome nodded and came running. "Ruthart's going to give you some water while I go and get things moving. Be good and stay in the wagon until I give you the signal, okay?"
It didn't take long for Keiichi and Duncan to find High Builder Maverly and Haroun Mostana. The former hadn't moved from his spot, while the latter was chatting with a number of the officials near the judges' table. The sight of the greasy little gnome carrying on with the clergymen left a bad taste in Keiichi's mouth, but he did his best not to let it bother him. If the jerk wanted to curry favor with the priests, let him. They weren't here to win favor with the Church of Gond anymore.
They were here to show these bigots that the Wonderbringer wasn't the only god of creation in town anymore. He doubted if anyone would recognize the runic standard on Druen's shield but, in the event that they did, Duncan had already made it perfectly clear how he was going to respond. He was proud of his new affiliation, and, one way or another, these people would know that Duncan Steelwater and his family belonged to Skuld now.
The opening ceremony was terribly longwinded, and Keiichi couldn't help but look back to the wagon and wince as it rocked and creaked grumpily. Many took this to mean that Keiichi and Duncan's creations were unstable and pointedly gave the wagon a wider berth. A red-bearded gnome, wearing the navy blue sash of a judge, finally stepped forward and belted the pontificating Master of Ceremonies soundly.
"We all know what we're hear to see and why, you great wheezing bellows!" He pointed to Duncan, Keiichi, and Haroun. "You're each here to win the favor of Gond, so get on with it! My belly is sitting on empty and I would like to see more of the Festival!"
The crowd roared with laughter and approval at the usurper's commentary.
"Steelwater. You and your friend asked to demonstrate your entries in tandem, is that correct?"
Duncan and Keiichi nodded.
"Well, get on with it then! Gond is waiting to be impressed!"
And impress they did. Keiichi whistled shrilly three times, marking the signal for Kazuki-chan and Druen to make their debut. Ruthart and Kerden leapt from their cover and ran as fast as their little legs would carry them, causing the crowd to gasp in anticipation and a little fear. It was fully expected that the wagon was going to explode based on the speed that the wagon-handlers were running. Once the pair of gnomes were sufficiently clear, the massive wagon groaned and buckled as the canvas cover shot high into the sky and lost itself in the sun. The crowd "ooh'ed" as the giant tarp topped fifty feet and opened up blotting out the light of the Sun for an instant to reveal Kazuki-chan in all his polished glory. Cradled in his arms was a smaller, but no less impressive Druen.
The METAT and the Banpei Guardian fell like stones. But, rather than smashing into the ground as everyone expected, powerful counter-thrusters fired at the last minute allowing Kazuki-chan to touch down relatively softly. Keiichi turned his attention from the amazed crowd, to the mixed expressions of the judges. Most wore looks of awe and envy of the highly streamlined designs of the automatons. Keiichi had to admit that the pair looked stunning. Their armor was polished to a high sheen and the actual designs were so alien and futuristic in comparison to the traditional Gondsman or Golem.
Keiichi had drawn heavily on a number of anime mecha from his youth and recent memory for Kazuki-chan's look. Macross, Fight! Super Robot Life (Transformers), and a host of others had influence in the design. But the METAT's final look was a generous amalgamation of Unit 0 from Neon Genesis Evangelion and the YF-21 AVF "Omega One" — with a more automotive feel, rather than an aeronautical bent.
Druen, on the other hand, was just as impressive for the simple fact that he looked so life-like. Were it not for the slight whirring that accompanied every step, many bystanders would have simply thought the creation to be an oddly armored dwarven warrior.
It was obvious that the crowds were not only suitably impressed with the entries — based on the cheering, they were growing to like them more and more with each step.
There were two individuals however that stood out among the crowds for their decidedly different reactions: Haroun and the redheaded judge. The expression on the latter was completely neutral, giving away nothing at all, beyond a slight narrowing of the eyes, about what he may or may not be thinking, while the former looked pale and completely unnerved by the showing. Keiichi grinned and stepped forward as Kazuki-chan placed Druen on the ground. For once he was glad of all the stupid club promotions he'd been saddled into. If nothing else, they had given him the skills needed to work an eager crowd.
"Ladies and Gentlepersons. I would like to introduce you to Kazukiichiro, the first Multi-environmental Transforming Automated Transport." The crowd clapped enthusiastically.
"What can it do?" The red-bearded gnome demanded. Keiichi's grin grew wider if at all possible.
"Kazuki-chan, what can you do?"
If the METAT could blush it would have. Venting steam wasn't a bad thing, but the way the crowd laughed made the large sentient mecha shuffle nervously. Haroun and his companions were rolling on the ground laughing, while other hecklers were making crude jokes about farting golems.
"What else can you do, Kazuki-chan?" Keiichi called out confidently, ignoring the jibes and cat-calls from the crowd.
"I can do… THIS!"
With another, much smaller, leap the METAT began to rapidly change shape. Gone was the humanoid figure, and in its place was a large, tank-treaded vehicle. Kazuki's engine revved powerfully as Keiichi ran across the field to jump into the driver's seat. Duncan and Druen weren't far behind him, buckling themselves into the passenger seats. Once everyone was seated, Keiichi took control and began putting the METAT through its paces.
Looking back on the events, Keiichi and Duncan felt somewhat grateful for Haroun Mostana's underhanded tactics. His traps, pitfalls, and the small hive of attack drones were unexpected challenges that added a bit of spice to the practiced routine. Kazuki-chan and Druen ate up the chance to show off for the gathered crowd.
The quartet eagerly tore up the hill towards the first obstacle with the wind whipping through their hair, organic and metallic alike. The wet sandtrap seemed both innocuous and safe at first, but that all changed when a buried explosive triggered prematurely at Kazuki's rumbling approach. The unexpected detonation had Duncan cursing up a storm, but Keiichi didn't slow or pause in the least. Kazuki-chan had been built to adapt and overcome any and all challenges, both anticipated and unforeseen. A quick shift of gears had the tank treads retracting, and the smaller track guides made room for four very large fans and a huge propeller at Kazuki-chan's aft. Keiichi engaged the fans pointing them down towards the ground to give them lift and then powered the propeller to push them forward. As the METAT navigated the minefield, Druen took the opportunity to safely detonate the mines. Keiichi wasn't sure how the Banpei Guardian was finding them, but chalked it up to Skuld's intervention again. Regardless of the how and why, Keiichi had to admit that the explosions made for a heartpounding show.
He'd have to thank Mostana after everything was said and done.
Once he was sure they were clear of the minefield, Keiichi engaged another lever, prompting the fans and propellers to retract. Four spiked wheels replaced the fans and soon, they were tearing through the turf beyond the sand trap without breaking stride. In the background Keiichi could hear Sam giving a blow-by-blow description of the multi-purpose uses that the METAT had. Not only was it a method of travel, it was an agricultural tool as well.
The maneuverability course loomed before them as the topped another artificial hill. This test required Kazuki-chan to slalom through a small forest of tall iron posts in a rapid speed display of agility. Keiichi grinned and gunned Kazuki-chan's engine, well aware that Duncan hated this part the most. In answer to his father's desires, the METAT gracefully swished and swerved at breakneck speeds, like a professional skier, through the first of the metallic columns to the cheers of the crowd. It wasn't until they had made it a third of the way through that Druen got another opportunity to show off.
Another explosion rocked the field ahead of them, and with a great creak and a groan, the heavy iron posts began falling in on themselves. The domino effect was expertly planned to block Kazuki-chan's progress, and had they been driving the Iron Horse there was little doubt that the demonstration would over. Duncan simply smiled and motioned for Druen to get to work. The mechanical dwarf jumped from his seat and calmly walked over to the toppled posts and, with a display of strength that awed the spectators, Druen pulled the half-ton pillars out of Kazuki-chan's way. The evidence of the crowd's murmuring and pointing made it clear that none of their Gondsmen could have performed the task alone. In fact it had taken six of the stout mechanical Gondsmen to carry and place just one of the posts.
It was here that Keiichi deviated from their original routine a bit. Once the way was clear, the Banpei Guardian motioned for the METAT to pull forward a little ways through the debris and stop. Keiichi and Duncan then hopped from the METAT and helped Druen attach a thick towing cable to a number of the posts, making a small train from three of the columns.
In no time at all Kazuki-chan began dragging the posts; slowly at first, but quickly began picking up speed again. He didn't match his previous speeds, but Keiichi was proud that his creation wasn't exactly plodding along either. Duncan took the opportunity to wave at Haroun smugly as they passed the judges' bleachers on the way to the water crossing. Keiichi could almost feel the hatred poisoning the air as they approached the stone ramp leading into the small artificial pond. As soon as they rolled onto the ramp, the ground beneath them suddenly stopped being stone altogether, and the quartet found themselves mired deeply in a smelly, sticky, sludge. Without hesitating, Keiichi engaged another transformation, retracting the wheels and allowing Kazuki-chan's arms and legs to extend. With a winning grin, he looked at Duncan as the METAT lifted itself out of the mud and spider-walk to the water's edge. The crowds roared at the triumph.
Before they settled into the water, Keiichi deployed a balloon of puncture resistant fabric. The balloon filled rapidly, forming a floatation ring around Kazuki-chan's frame. The crowd bellowed with pleasure as the METAT sped around the small pond like an oversized, hyperactive metallic duck.
They were in the home stretch now, and from the sounds of things they made a good showing of themselves. Duncan slapped Keiichi on the shoulder as they drew close to the opposing ramp. Yet, it wasn't until leaving the pond that their progress took a turn for the worst.
Kazuki-chan and Druen, being made of a number of different metals as they were, made excellent conductors. It was one of the only design flaws that Keiichi hadn't thought to work around. After all, how often would Kazuki-chan be out in a thunderstorm? The weakness was a matter of inexperience rather than true oversight, and Keiichi soon found himself regretting that lapse.
Kazuki rolled onto the ramp and was just clear of the water when Haroun's final treachery struck. The lightning trap was particularly cunning, and it was blindly tripped by Kazuki-chan's tank treads as he rolled out of the pond. The flash and boom was deafening, but it still wasn't as loud as Kazuki-chan's scream. Duncan and Keiichi joined him briefly as the electricity traveled up through the METAT's chassis.
Druen, while a good conductor, had been designed to circumvent Kazuki-chan's weakness. The important parts that allowed him both mobility and active thought were well insulated and that, more than anything else, saved the lives of his friends and creator. The Banpei Guardian worked quickly and shot a long metal cable from his forearm and into the earth beneath him and grounded himself, before he leapt from the back seat and clamped one metallic hand onto the under carriage of Kazuki-chan's frame, completing the circuit.
He drew the electricity to him and channeled it into the soil where it wouldn't harm anyone. Once the danger had passed, he gently pulled Duncan and Keiichi's stunned bodies from Kazuki-chan and laid them out on the grass. Once free, the METAT transformed into a "battloid" configuration and hovered protectively over his father and "Uncle Duncan" while he and Druen waited for help to arrive. Well-meaning people rushed from the stands to check on the pair, but were brought up short by a very upset pair of mechanical defenders.
Druen had pulled a large shield from his back and produced his mammoth war hammer. The Banpei Guardian planted himself before the bodies, while the METAT's hands folded back into his forearms and were replaced by a screaming buzz saw and a wickedly spinning drill. Small amounts of electricity still coursed up and down their bodies as they set themselves to meet the charge of the crowd. A sense of protective anger hung in the air between the pair and the mob of concerned bystanders pulled to a stop well outside of their reach.
Sam, Ruthart, and the rest of Keiichi's and Duncan's supporters shoved and elbowed their way through the crowd until they were at the front. Sam wasted no time in running to her husband's side, but the others waited until Druen waved them forward. The injuries were serious, but after a few judicious healing spells from Sister Maerdith and Father Ellosin, Duncan and Keiichi were back on their feet.
Haroun Mostana was sick with envy as the demonstration played out before him. He had never had the dedication to make himself a Gondsman. And yet, in an obvious display of divine favor, Duncan Steelwater had somehow managed to create one in the limited amount of time he had after the fire destroyed his shop. As each trap was not only circumvented, but also soundly defeated with style and aplomb, Haroun began to realize that he'd been outclassed.
His fears of failure only grew as Morisato's talking abomination turned itself into a boat.
The Solar Cannon was a formidable weapon, but this… this thing… was something else entirely. Jealousy burned the remnants of his shattered pride as the gnome watched Morisato's invention make landfall. That resentment became sadistic glee as his trump card was played and seemed to be successful. He hoped one of them died, fried to a crisp by the electricity.
Mostana's satisfaction and hopes died as Steelwater's Gondsman defeated the lightning trap. Terror gripped Haroun's heart as his enemies were healed. What was he going to do? They would investigate the traps! There would be an inquisition! Gond's Anvil… there were spells that would be cast… spells that would inevitably lead the investigators back to him! He needed to do something!
Need is the mother of invention, and as the desperate gnome cast about for a way to save himself, his eyes fell on the Solar Cannon. A "misfire" would obliterate the evidence and Mostana's enemies in one fell swoop! It wasn't a perfect plan, but it was all that the panicking priest could think of. There would obviously be consequences that followed, but he was certain that he could spin them with a few promises and padded pockets. Haroun would have to act quickly to silence his sabotage crew, though. If they couldn't prove anything, he couldn't be punished — and with no evidence or voices to speak against him, he would survive and reclaim any confidences he lost here today.
His stubby legs pumped hard towards the Solar Cannon, and with all eyes on the spectacle of Morisato and Steelwater, it was child's play to sabotage his own creation. A little misdirection would sow the seeds of doubt and confusion. After all, if he were being "framed" for a crime he hadn't committed….
Haroun smiled devilishly and looked to make sure no one had seen his actions, before he smashed his head on firing mechanism to bloody his head. Unfortunately, he knocked himself senseless in the process and never got to see the outcome of his plan.
The crowd wasn't sure what happened. The overall actions played out so quickly that few had a clear picture of the sequence of events. One moment Duncan was arguing with one of the judges, and the next he was yelling at Druen and Kazuki to shield the crowd while pointing to Mostana's massive Solar Cannon. Kazuki grabbed Druen and jumped, easily clearing the crowd and placing the pair in the firing path of the cannon as it began to glow and hum. The mob, upon seeing the danger they were in, did what mobs did best — it degenerated into a mindless mass of stampeding stupidity and blind panic.
Amidst the chaos, Keiichi could see Kazuki-chan lift Druen into the air. The Banpei Guardian brandished his tower shield in what many thought was a pathetic attempt to stave off the inevitable. That was all the thought that Keiichi had time for as he threw himself bodily across Sam and Maerdith, knocking them to the ground. There was a flash of light and a wave of force battered the crowd, but the expected heat never came.
Keiichi chanced a look at his mechanical son and the brave little Banpei Guardian. He could only smile as the ridiculously large shield with Skuld's rune on it, smoked and glowed. The ground before the pair was nothing more than scorched, boiling earth. Above and behind the motorized pair, Keiichi saw the majestically shimmering form of Noble Scarlet, Skuld's angel, pointing something towards the cannon. The weapon began to glow ominously again. Keiichi wasn't about to see if his mechanized son could survive another blast.
"KAZUKI-CHAN! TAKE OUT THAT CANNON!"
The METAT dropped Druen to the ground and shot forward at an incredible speed. With a mighty punch, the cannon's aim was redirected skyward and another blinding light lanced from the focusing crystal. Druen soon joined Kazuki-chan, and the pair didn't give the cannon another opportunity to fire. They systematically began tearing the cannon apart piece by piece, beginning with the focusing crystal. By the time they were finished, Mostana's creation was little more than a scrap heap. And to later rub copious amounts of salt in the Artificer's wounded pride, Druen saved him from being crushed as a giant piece of the cannon fell on the spot he'd been lying.
It was in the aftermath and confusion of the Solar Cannon's demise that the red-bearded judge strode forward and angrily stabbed a finger at Noble Scarlet.
"YOU THERE!" The cute angle pointed to herself and raised an eyebrow. "YES, YOU! TELL YOUR MISTRESS THAT SHE'S BEEN SUMMONED TO AUDIENCE WITH GOND!"
When Nobel didn't move, the bearded gnome stamped his foot, causing the ground to shake and tremble.
"NOW! YOU BRAINLESS PIECE OF FLUFF! BRING ME THE NORNS NOW!"
"And why would Gond summon a Norn, let alone all three, to audience?"
Keiichi wanted to grin in spite of the frigid tone of Urd's sultry voice. He turned his eyes to the source of the voice and saw a wonderful sight. A familiar crone stood next to the focus of Keiichi's dreams, and beside Belldandy's peerless beauty was Skuld. All three were dressed for battle. Noble Scarlet peeked out from behind Skuld's armored shoulder, while Holy Bell and World of Elegance flanked their goddesses. Keiichi ran to Belldandy and kissed her passionately, trying to ignore the feeling of cold chain mail beneath his fingers and the spear shaft that pressed against his back. Kazuki-chan rumbled over and stood behind his father, as Keiichi joined the Norns in facing off against the red-bearded gnome.
"You've over stepped your privileges!" The "gnome" stabbed a finger at Skuld.
"And how do you figure that?" Skuld demanded. "Your twisted little pawn was going to kill not only your people, but my servants as well! If you thought I was going to just sit back and let them die, then you're stupider than you look."
"Skuld." Belldandy's reproach was a token effort at best, but Skuld refused to amend her words.
The red-bearded gnome's body began to shift and change, becoming more human with each passing moment. The small hammer at his waist grew with him, becoming a warhammer that just about equaled the menacing weapon that Skuld held in her hand. It was evident to all just who this being was, and almost everyone in attendance of the strange meeting fell to their knees in supplication or veneration to the God of Smiths. The only person that refused to kneel was Keiichi, which made Gond's teeth grind in anger.
"What servants?" Gond growled.
"That would be us, Wonderbringer."
Keiichi was surprised that Duncan had gathered the courage to speak, let alone stand. The fact that Kerden, Sam, and Druen stood at his back was even more surprising. Gond seemed both surprised and shaken by the admission.
"I KNEW IT!" One of Haroun Mostana's supporters cried out triumphantly as his friends did their best to revive their leader. The self-righteous gnome stabbed his finger at Duncan accusingly as Mostana was groggily pulled to his feet. "STEELWATER IS A HERETIC!"
The fool found himself silenced and bound by an absent-minded gesture from the Lord of Smiths. The redheaded god watched Duncan and his companions join Keiichi and to his surprise, Skuld embraced each with open love and affection — even Druen. The goddess of the future held Samril Steelwater protectively and glared at the Wonderbringer. Duncan looked at the Smith Lord, not bothering to hide his feelings of betrayal.
"Why?" It was a simple question, but one that Gond was sure he didn't want to answer. "Why did ye forsake me and me kin, after all I've sacrificed in yer name?"
"He was afraid. He was afraid of the ideas that Keiichi might give you."
Urd's form shifted from the bent crone she had been, into a more mature version of her usual guise. The slinky, platinum, chainmail bra and black leather skirt did nothing but accentuate everything the goddess of the past had to offer. The glare Gond threw her way made Keiichi shiver.
"Gond fears nothing!" The Lord of Smiths boasted. "It was a test of faith — one that you failed, Duncan Steelwater!"
"That is so lame!" Urd pointed a wicked looking handaxe in Gond's direction while clenching a deadly-looking dagger in her other hand. "How can you live with yourself while hiding behind such a pathetically weak excuse? Don't pretend to blame this on your petitioner, Gond! I am the Empress of Days Long Past, The Lady of Memory! I can see through all of your lies!"
The crowd began to murmur behind Gond. Some of the more fervent of his faithful vocally jumped to his defense, while others seemed uncertain. The memories of the Time of Troubles were hard to forget and tales of godly hubris were still passed down. However, it had always been someone else's god whose ego damned them.
"It was you that failed Duncan Steelwater, not the other way around." Belldandy's voice, though quiet, cut through the murmuring with no trouble at all. "You saw the duplicitous heart of Haroun Mostana, yet you stood by while he ran rampant amongst your flock. This one servant has poisoned the faith of so many within your assembly, all in the name of wealth and influence. Was he the test of faith you speak of, Gond? If so, then there have been many here that have suffered for their faith. Where was your blessing for them? What support from you did they receive?"
The crowd began to murmur again.
"Am I not here now?" The god of smiths waved his hands and those who had been duped by Mostana in the past were suddenly dressed in flowing silk robes and adorned with all manner of wealth. "Do I not bless them for their suffering and their loyalty?"
"Even now, you use poor Duncan for your own purposes." Belldandy shook her head sadly. "He suffered most of all for a test that was not even meant for him, and yet that suffering remains unanswered."
Gond scowled at the accusation and the sudden rise in doubt he was feeling build in his followers. The trouble was, the Norns were right. Mostana was the test he had placed within his flock — the serpent amongst the fruit so to speak. The truth of the matter was, Mostana wasn't Steelwater's test of faith, but one for Danactar the High Artificer. Danactar was meant to see the injustice of Mostana's abuse of Steelwater and act or the good of the church by instituting a new code of conduct for the clergy.
The question was, did he accept this chastisement from the Norns or give his worshippers a show of strength to rebuild their wavering confidence? One look at the trio firmly disabused him of the idea to resolve this with force. The Norns were the Keepers of Life and Fate for man and god alike. To confront them in combat was not a smart thing to do. Luckily, the choice was taken from him.
"You should be grateful that they stepped in to protect Keiichi Morisato when you didn't, Gond." The voice was earthy and when Gond spun to confront the newcomer, a very familiar badge of authority greeted him. It was hard to miss it since it was forcefully being pressed against his nose. "As it is, you've allowed things to become a right mess."
"Ki-chan!" Belldandy handed Keiichi her spear and embraced the Celestial Auditor in a warm hug.
"What are you doing here, Kihon'i?" Urd cocked her hips. "I thought you were going to be tied up with Bhalomor for another three or four centuries."
"Divine Intervention." The Celestial Auditor grinned. "Lord Ao bought my contract and hired me on as a consultant, but got upgraded to Personal Assistant for Lord Ao. As a neutral party with no real interests here in the Realms, I'm the ideal Voice."
"Reconstruction?" Urd raised an eyebrow.
"Something like that." The goddess stole a glance at Keiichi and grinned impishly.
"So, what's going on?" Skuld asked. "Why are you here?"
"I'm here to remind Gond about a few of Ao's more recent decrees and the consequences of not taking them seriously."
Gond paled. It was a strange sight for the petitioners gathered to see their god looking nervous.
"You remember the Decree, don't you?" The goddess' voice changed, becoming deeper and more masculine. The weight of authority in her words brought mortal and god alike to their knees. "‘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. AND THE THREE ARE AGENTS UNTO THEMSELVES AND SHOULD BE AFFORDED THE APPROPRIATE RESPECT.'"
Gond was openly trembling now, and stealing glances at Keiichi.
"You do realize, of course, that…" The Voice of Ao smirked. "…had Skuld not intervened, you would be in serious trouble right now. Shar and Kelemvor have already been reprimanded for ignoring the Decree."
"What happened?" Gond's voice squeaked.
"Shar lost the Shadow Weave and Kelemvor got his butt handed to him by Mystra's Eighth." Kihon'i smiled. "You're really lucky, you know. Not only were you saved by Skuld-chan's timely intervention, Lord Ao is letting you off with a warning."
Gond, unmindful of the image he was giving his faithful, seemed to deflate with relief. Kihon'i smiled and turned her attention back to the Norns.
"Now then, since you three have started collecting a following, you've got an appointment at Cynosure."
"Registration and orientation?" Urd whined. Kihon'i nodded and grinned. "Fehk! I hate cross-dimensional paperwork!"
"Not to worry, sweet Urd. Things are still a little more… Medieval here."
"And that's supposed to make me feel better? There's no indoor plumbing and no television! You know what that means? I can't watch my soaps!" Urd groused. "And that's not the worst of it! Do you realize how long it's been since I've had to play the Crone? I hate playing the Crone!"
"If the shoe fits…." Skuld grinned impishly.
"Shut up, spore!" Urd began charging a spell and Skuld pulled a nasty looking gadget from out of thin air that pulsed ominously.
Keiichi winced and began looking for a place to hide. Whenever the pair fought, Keiichi was inevitably the one at ground zero. To his relief, Belldandy stepped in and literally diffused the pending fight with nothing more than a frown.
"We are not at home, sisters," she chided, gesturing at the mixed crowd gathered around them. "Behave yourselves."
Urd and Skuld nodded sheepishly and stepped into the background as Belldandy turned her attention back to Kihon'i.
"I apologize for my sisters, Voice of Ao." Her demeanor was formal and filled with the proper respect. "We, the Sisters Fate, will abide by all the Laws and Decrees set down by Lord Ao."
"Apology accepted, Verthandi Life Weaver. Your vow will be recognized and honored in good time. For now, let me be the first to welcome the Queen of Present Needs to Toril." Kihon'i bowed deeply. Belldandy returned the gesture with equal respect.
"On behalf of the Norns, I thank you."
Keiichi was ecstatic at the invitation being extended. If he understood everything correctly, Belldandy was able to be here now! She wouldn't be so far away! He looked between Duncan and the new goddess, and couldn't keep the grin off of his face.
"Don't get any ideas, Mr. Morisato." The Celestial Auditor's serious countenance destroyed his good mood. "Just because your soul mate has permission to be here doesn't mean that she will be at your beck and call. She and her sisters will have work of their own to do. In order for her to stay here, she and her sisters are going to have to cultivate their own following. If anything, your trials just got even harder."
Keiichi looked at Belldandy with longing and saw it mirrored there in her eyes.
"Now then, Gond. If I'm not mistaken, you have a contest to judge."
The Celestial Auditor stepped back and pulled Urd aside and began some long overdue gossiping. The Norn of the Past squealed happily and started clapping at something that the Voice of Ao had said, but quieted immediately as Belldandy looked her way. Keiichi shook his head and watched Skuld step behind Duncan, Sam, and Kerden. He wasn't left alone either. Belldandy drifted over to her love and threaded her fingers with his, as Gond strode over to them.
"Duncan Steelwater. Haroun Mostana. Keiichi Morisato. Stand forth to be judged." Gond's voice echoed and a bit of his Divine Mantle pushed to the fore, causing the trio to fall to their knees.
Up until this moment the whole exchange had seemed fairly… Well, Keiichi supposed "mortal" was the only word for it. Later, upon pondering the events of this day, Keiichi would wonder why the deities decided not to be more "godly" in front of the gathered crowds. Those questions were for later though; presently, all that he understood was that something had changed in Gond's approach. He seemed infinitely bigger than he had a moment before. It was exactly like the time, not so long ago, that Skuld had put on her "professional" hat.
"Your wonders were impressive." Keiichi chanced a glance back to Kazuki-chan, and grinned at the sight of Belldandy holding one of his mechanical son's large metallic fingers. "Each, in its own right, set a standard to be aspired to."
Gond looked at Keiichi pointedly, and the young man shivered as he felt his soul being examined. He felt small and uncertain as a tiny portion of the god's power came into play — not as tiny as the Norns made him feel, but it was close enough. Had he been able to look, he would have seen his companions experiencing the same. Gond retracted his presence and gave them time to compose themselves before continuing. Duncan and Haroun had tears running down their faces, but their expressions were nothing alike. Duncan seemed extremely confused and uncertain, while Mostana's face was filled with abject terror.
"Standard or no, I see that I have been remiss in teaching my children. Herein is a new lesson for my faithful: Creation alone is not grounds for greatness. Intent and application must be taken into consideration as well. Thus, today I judge in accordance to the rationale behind each of these creations, and let those judged be held accountable for their intent."
Gond looked out on the gathered congregation and let a little more of his divinity spill forth. At the end of his display, there was no doubt that this was the Wonderbringer standing in judgment.
"Keiichi Morisato, your wonder is, by far, beyond anything Toril has ever seen. The making of golems, and the animation of such, have been known for thousands of years. Golem Masters have created majestic fabrications. They have bound souls to their creations and even given them the semblance of life. Yet never, in the history of Toril, has there been a golem such as Kazukiichiro. He is truly your son — a product of blood, brought forth through your love and your spirit. He is unique, in that he has the agency to live as he desires. He was not meant to be commanded, but to have the freedom to explore all that life has to offer."
Keiichi looked back at Kazuki-chan and smiled proudly. Belldandy beamed up at the METAT and patted his massive metal hand affectionately.
"Your creation was not brought into this world for petty reasons. You were driven, not only by the love and gratitude you had for your friend, but also for the benefit of the world around you. Kazukiichiro was to be your companion and champion in this world, and his design reflects that. His usefulness is not tied to any one task. You gave him the abilities to become what he needs and desires to be. For that, I name you the winner of this challenge."
Most of the crowd roared with pleasure, the Norns and his friends chief among them. Gond smiled indulgently and held up his hand for silence. The crowd obliged and the god looked at the Celestial Auditor nervously.
"The charge of being a heretical scourge to the people of Gond is rescinded. For your achievements, you have not only my respect, but also my admiration. You have taught us all a valuable lesson in loyalty and responsibility. As such, I name you a friend of the church and bless you to find sanctuary and aid in all of my houses should you need it." He reached into his robes and pulled out a modest sized, golden medallion and pressed it into Keiichi's hands. "Show this to any of my clergy, and your needs shall be met. All that I ask is that you share some of your wisdom and knowledge wherever you stay, so that all may benefit."
Keiichi was totally blown out of the water by the blessing, and could only nod in shock. The god moved on to the next in line without any hesitation.
"Duncan Steelwater. For the charge of heresy, I judge you… guilty." The crowd began to murmur, some in anger and others in satisfaction. Haroun Mostana looked positively ecstatic. "You have forsaken your vows to me and willingly turned from the guidance of the church. You have taken up another faith and, as such, I excommunicate you until you repent your decision and renew your vows. It is my hope that you will find it within your heart to return to us. Should you do so, your dedication and sacrifice will be rewarded."
Duncan looked up at his former god, and the expression of betrayal was plain. "No."
"No?" the Lord of Smiths echoed. "Are you certain?"
"No, Great Wonderbringer. I know what I'm about." Duncan looked back at Skuld and Sam. Both smiled at the dwarf encouragingly. "I gave ye me love and faith, and was repaid with treachery. My place and heart belong to the Goddess of Moments to Come. She heard me when ye would not. She succored me and mine, when ye failed us. I will not repay her kindness with treason."
Duncan stood and walked to Skuld and Sam, and was immediately smothered in welcoming hugs. Gond looked torn between anger and despair. Keiichi knew he was wrong, and knew that the god understood his failure as well. Gond had failed the dwarf, but it was obvious from the deity's expression that a god did not apologize. Apparently, it just wasn't done. The very idea that a god owed a petitioner an act of contrition was repugnant, regardless of circumstance. Keiichi shook his head as he watched the Smith Lord pondering. It was evident that the Wonderbringer wasn't sure how he should proceed. He was in an obvious pickle; the disrespect shown to him couldn't be ignored — no matter how justified it might have seemed. Keiichi could see that Gond was going to make an example of Duncan, before the dwarf's ideas poisoned his community any further. The sad thing was, Gond was going to spread Duncan's poison further and faster than the dwarf ever could.
"You deny my mercy, Duncan Steelwater. You deny my faith. Such cannot and will not be tolerated in Lantan." The god looked to his High Artificer and motioned the elderly gnome forward. Danactar stumbled from his place in his haste to obey and knelt before his god. "Let the heretic's name be stricken from the roles of the church forever. Though he is not an enemy, neither is he our ally. Let him, and any who would follow his example, rely on this new goddess for their sustenance."
Keiichi, along with a number of others gasped. Gond might as well have banished Duncan, Kerden, and in no small way, Bertrold and Ruthart, from the sanctuary of Lantan. There was no way that they would ever be able to eke out a living on the island now. The community wouldn't support them. Many of the citizens and faithful of Highden stared at the god in disbelief, a great deal of their expressions mirrored Duncan's earlier sense of betrayal. These people were friends and family, but now they were pariah — spiritual lepers that would be forever shunned.
"I can't believe you!" Skuld's voice rose above the troubled murmuring. "You sorry sack of…!" Skuld continued venting her thoughts on what she thought Gond was and what he could do with himself, heedless of the fact that Urd had covered her mouth.
Her hammer was out and cocked, ready to swing at the Smith God's thick skull. Had it not been for Belldandy and Kazuki-chan, a holy war might have broken out then and there. Keiichi thought it still might, considering the long string of explicatives that were escaping Urd's hand. He was both shocked and surprised that Skuld knew of and could invent some of the muffled phrases that were slipping through Urd's fingers. Belldandy was blushing furiously and Urd… Urd wasn't sure whether to be proud of her baby sister, or to take notes.
When all was said and done Belldandy silenced Skuld with a very serious frown, and once the goddess of the future had gained enough control she was released. Although, Kazuki-chan did hover close by just in case.
"I must apologize for my sister, Lord Gond. Her heart is large and her mercy is larger still."
Keiichi rubbed a phantom knot on his head and wondered, if that was the effects of her 'mercy', what Skuld's 'justice' felt like. He was glad he didn't know.
"Your Justice is yours to extend as you see fit," Belldandy continued. She veritably floated over to the gathering of confused and upset Gondar. She knelt before a small halfling girl and caressed her cheek lovingly. "Yet justice upheld without mercy is tyranny, Lord Gond. Surely you can see this?"
"All I see, Lady of Moments, is that you and your sisters are sticking your noses where they do not belong." Gond growled. "I will not be told how to reward and punish those that have declared themselves to my service. They are mine, and will serve me as I see fit. I will reward them, according to their service, as I see fit."
Belldandy shook her head sadly. "They are not yours, Lord Gond." She stood from the halfling girl and cupped the cheek of an old man standing nearby. "They are their own."
A tension in the man's face seemed to ease and his stooped body stood straighter and stronger than it had a moment before. She kissed his brow and smoothed what little hair he had left affectionately.
"Their agency is immutable, and it is that precious gift that they give to ones such as we. It must be honored, nurtured, and loved. We, as their gods and goddesses, have a greater responsibility to them for this gift. When they are downtrodden, we must champion them. When they are attacked, we must defend them. And when they falter, it is our duty to forgive and teach them where they erred, so that they might grow and progress. To do anything less is an injustice that cannot, and should not, be forgiven."
"You will not speak to the Wonderbringer so callously!" Haroun Mostana leapt to his feet, nearly frothing at the mouth. Keiichi could see the madness take root behind the gnome's eyes, and moved to block his progress. The need to protect Belldandy, even after he remembered that she really didn't need it, was overwhelming.
"Is it callous to speak the truth, Haroun Mostana?" Belldandy cocked her head to the side innocently. She looked to Gond pointedly. "Your servant tries to redeem himself in your eyes, Lord Gond. And as he does, proves my point better than mere words can convey."
She looked out over the gathered congregation and smiled. It was like the dawn after a long and dreary night. Gond's face could have cooked an egg for all of the hot anger the god was feeling.
"Divinity and mortality are tied to each other. One cannot survive without the other."
"YOU WILL BE SILENT!"
Gond's avatar grew to tower menacingly over Belldandy. Keiichi gathered his courage and stood his ground as her defender before the angered god. Kazuki-chan followed his father's lead and took on an aggressively defensive position to Keiichi's right. The young man looked between his mechanical offspring and the god, and knew that the Lord of Smiths could squash them both like bugs. In spite of that knowledge, Keiichi stood his ground defiantly. There was no way in hell that Keiichi was going to let his love stand alone before the angry deity. He felt Skuld position herself on the other side of Kazukiichiro and could almost sense the cocky defiance that laced her words.
"Why should she?" Skuld sneered sweetly. "Are you afraid that your followers are going to finally see through you, maybe start thinking for themselves and realize that you're really a pompous and selfish ass that could care less about their needs and desires?"
"You will be silent, Norn, or I will silence you!" Gond's avatar summoned a set of banded armor around himself and brandished his hammer threateningly.
"The cat's already out of the bag, Gond. You might as well accept it." Urd examined her nails disinterestedly, ignoring the blustering god. "Swallow your pride and move on. The only omnipotent and omniscient being in this branch of Existence is Lord Ao. Mistakes, while not common among the gods…"
Keiichi snorted, earning himself a glare from the Norn of the Past.
"…As I was saying… while not common, they still happen. Accept the fact that you wronged Duncan Steelwater and make amends, before it's too late."
"I will not! Steelwater pledged himself to me! He is mine to do with as I please! They are all mine, to live and die at my whim! I am their god, and they are my hands in this world, creating for my pleasure!"
The words, spoken in anger, sent a chill through the gathered crowd. There was no love or appreciation in Gond's tone, only petulant anger. Gond, sensing the sudden shift in the demeanor of his faithful, turned to face them. His fiery anger sent a wave of terror through the Gondar.
"You are mine! Do you hear me? MINE!" His voice thundered, causing the ground to tremble and rock. Many within the gathering immediately fell to their knees and began begging their god's forgiveness for their doubts. It was a sickening display for Keiichi, one that made him turn his head in time to see Kihon'i walking forward. Gond's declarations fell silent at her approach, and everyone gathered was quite shocked when she hauled back and slapped him.
"Did the Time of Troubles mean nothing to you?" Her voice was quiet, yet still held more power and authority than Gond's screaming. Urd closed her eyes for a moment and shook her head.
"He sealed himself away here on Lantan and spent his days building stuff, while everyone pampered him. I'd be surprised if the jerk learned anything at all."
The Celestial Auditor shook her head in disgust. "This is your last and only warning, Wonderbringer. If you don't reevaluate your relationship with your supplicants, I'll haul you before Lord Ao myself. He's already stripped one pompous, self-serving idiot of a portion of her influence. I've no doubt that I can present him with another worthy of such attention."
Kihon'i turned her attention to the Gondar and spread her arms wide. "You have been wronged this day, your faith demeaned and your trust abused. In the name of Lord Ao, God of Gods, I hereby release you from your service to Gond the Wonderbringer. I dissolve all pacts and all bonds to this being. You are free to serve whom you will, how you will."
She pointed to the Norns and, surprisingly enough, to Keiichi. The young man shifted nervously and tried not to look uncomfortable.
"See these worthies, and know that they will honor your love and dedication. If you would have them, they will not lead you astray."
The Norns bowed deeply to the congregation and Keiichi reluctantly followed suit. In a display that rocked the community, one non-gnome petitioner after another took their holy symbols and tossed it in the dirt at Gond's feet. Some of the gnomes, even those ranked highly among the faithful, followed the example of these first few. Sides quickly polarized, and Keiichi was surprised when Ruthart came to stand before him.
"I'm not a god, Ruthart." He said honestly. Ruthart smiled benignly and knelt before the young man.
"Maybe not yet, Lord Keiichi. But someday, when your quest is done, you will be. Of that, I have no doubt." A handful of others, seeing Ruthart's example drifted cautiously towards the pair.
"Why do you kneel before this man?" An elderly gnome asked. Ruthart looked up at the old gnome and smiled even more.
"This is no mere man. He is a man who will become a god. I have seen his miracles and know his heart is pure." Ruthart looked back at Keiichi with open adoration. "I have learned more and done more in his service than I ever did under Gond. He named me friend and I have seen his dedication to those he calls friend. Thus, I freely pledge myself to him, with only the hope that he will let me stay near him to share his journey and to learn at his feet."
Keiichi blushed and hurriedly lifted the young gnome to his feet. "I am no god. I'm trying to make myself worthy of her love." Keiichi protested, motioning to Belldandy. The beautiful goddess was at the center of a huge crowd of mixed races. "If that means I have to become a god someday, then that is what I will do. But I expect that day to be a long way off yet."
"If we follow you, will you protect us?" A young human woman asked.
"Well… of course! I mean I'd rather you not follow me at all, but if you do I'll do my best to take care of you." Keiichi scratched the back of his neck.
"Will you teach us how you built your golem?" Another gnome asked eagerly.
"I can show you how I did it, but Kazukiichiro is special. I doubt that I could re-create him, let alone teach you how to do it yourself." The gnome's eager expression faltered and Ruthart quickly stepped in to appease the handful that had gathered nearby.
"Kazukiichiro is unique. But that is not all Lord Keiichi can teach us! I have seen him streamline a forge and create materials that open a whole new world of opportunities! You've seen his inventions! Think of the impact we can have on the world around us! His technology is a magic all of its own, and his name will be synonymous with progress and innovation in a way that Gond's never was!"
"How can you be so sure?" The old gnome demanded.
"It's already happening!" Ruthart countered. "What news have we heard from the markets in Waterdeep and Amn? His name is lauded for his creations. His inventions do more than kill! They offer comfort and they build up rather then destroy. How many of Gond's creations can say the same?"
"It seems that his golem did a fair amount of destruction today." The old gnome pointed to the cannon with a frown.
"To save lives! What other purpose did Mostana's 'Solar Cannon' serve, beyond a weapon of death? Kazukiichiro destroyed the cannon in order to preserve our lives — yours included, Master Dunwater. Can you deny that?"
The older gnome shook his head.
"Lord Keiichi helped Master Steelwater when the rest of the community mocked him. He not only made the Iron Horse work, he made it work better! He has named me friend, and I honor that by pledging myself to him. He might be a man today, but I look to the future when he will shed his mortality and become something more. If I follow him and help him in his quest, what will I become by virtue of being at his side and sharing his burdens?"
"Are you saying you want to become a god, Ruthart Gambool?" The old gnome accused.
"Of course not!" the young gnome protested. "I'm saying I want to be a better person! I want to be someone that helps make this world a better place! I thought that the path to that goal was through Gond, but it wasn't. Gond doesn't care about our dreams, or us for that matter. We've seen that already. I've seen the type of person that Lord Keiichi is, and I want to be like him. Which would you prefer? A god who uses you to further his own ends, or a friend that will walk with you and help you realize your dreams?"
The small crowd looked at Keiichi, who in turn was looking at Ruthart with a slack jaw. The young man sought out Belldandy and found her smiling at him encouragingly. She blew him a kiss and then turned to Kazuki-chan, motioning the METAT over to her.
"Is he telling the truth, lad?" The old gnome asked bluntly. "Will you walk with an old gnome and help him realize his dreams?"
Keiichi weighed the gnome and chose his words carefully.
"If it is within my power and if your goals won't hurt others, then I will do everything I can to see your dreams become a reality." He smiled and placed his hands on the elder's shoulders. "As for walking with you… I'm always looking to make new friends."
"That's all I needed to hear, lad." The old gnome patted Keiichi's hand. "If you'll have me, then I'll follow you for however long my body allows me."
"I would be honored to have you, Mister…." Keiichi offered the gnome his hand and was surprised at the strength in the old codger's grip.
"Owan Dunwater, Lord Keiichi."
Keiichi nodded. "Just call me Keiichi, Owan. I'm not a lord."
"Not yet, lad." Owan grinned. "Not yet, but soon."
Mystra watched the scrying pool alongside her fellow gods and goddesses. Members of the Seldarine were present at Arvandor's Looking Pool, watching Ranma's fragmented journey with mixed pleasure. Sehanine and Hanali cooed over Ranma's female form as she integrated herself into the day-to-day activities of the Temple of Stars. Erevan Ilesere, the elven god of mischief, and Labelas Enoreth, the Coronal's Sage, were drying tears and clutching their sides at the sight of poor, poor Elminster and little Ranma Neko. Corellon and Selune did not share their mirth, as they watched the male Ranma's battle with the orc warband play itself out again.
Mystra took it all in and let the tears flow at the suffering of her dearly beloved friend. With a snarl of hatred towards Shar and a healthy dose of wild magic that left both Erevan and Labelas purple with orange pinstripes, the goddess of magic spun and stalked away from the pool, intent on doing she knew not what. She found her way barred by concerned Azuth and a very nervous Savras.
"Where do you intend to go, Lady Mystra?" Azuth's voice was cool and even, in spite of his concern.
"My business is my own, Spell Maker," she growled. "Stand aside that I might be about it!"
"With all love and respect, Great Lady, we cannot do that." Savras cringed as Mystra's fiery gaze settled on him.
"Cannot, or will not, Seer?" Mystra's tone was volatile at best. Everyone else in the pool's grove could feel her ire rising.
"Action in favor of the Weavebender or against Shar will have disastrous results for the Weave," Azuth cautioned. "You must see that."
Mystra stepped back and searched the ebb and flow of Toril's magic and saw the imbalance almost immediately. In places, such as the City of Shade, the Underdark, and Thay, the Weave had constricted to a trickle. Other places, such as Aglarond, Daerlun, and surprisingly enough Halruaa were all experiencing a magical renaissance — especially in the intuitive disciplines like sorcery. Everything was just as unsettled as Mystra felt.
"This love you hold, as pure and noble as it is, cannot be," Savras ventured, gaining courage from Azuth's bold logic. "At least not until the Weavebender has grown into his power and accepted his station. His mortality and the imbalances it brings with it will continue to taint you and the Weave until the very fabric of Magic itself is unraveled."
Mystra glowered at the god of seers and then turned her attention to Selune. Hope was evident in her eyes, and the desperate emotion was broadcast to all in attendance. Many looked away, unable to watch the goddess of magic's heartbreak. Love was such a rare emotion. True love was something miraculous, even to the gods. It was evident to any who cared to look that Mystra was deeply in love with this fledgling deity.
"Can you not see how much he has already changed you?" Azuth asked pointedly. "A year gone, your perspective was greater than it is today. Magic was becoming balanced again and you had put aside the memories of your humanity."
"They are right to be concerned, my daughter," Selune's matronly voice was filled with understanding and warmth. "That is not to say that you cannot love him. You will just have to find a new way to do so. One that will not put all of Creation at risk."
Mystra sighed and felt her heart twist in her breast. Their reasoning was sound and their logic totally without flaw. Should she follow her heart to Ranma, the Weave would suffer. It had taken her great effort to finally restore a semblance of normalcy to the Weave after the Time of Troubles, and even there she hadn't fixed everything yet. Who could say what would happen if she intervened on Ranma's behalf at such a crucial juncture in his development?
She could. He would become dependant on her, and her ideas would unduly influence his sphere, causing magic to stagnate. There were other, darker possibilities as well. But at the moment, the goddess of mysteries was having a hard time seeing open warfare between the magical pantheon and Shar as a bad thing. Still, such a course might cause others to side with the goddess of loss, which would inevitably lead to open warfare between the gods in a way that would make the Time of Troubles seem pleasant.
That would not be a good thing.
"What would you suggest?" She sighed in defeat. Ao's blood, her heart ached!
Selune waved her hand over the pool, changing the view to an image of a sleeping young woman in a carriage.
"You've an eighth daughter with a great capacity to love. Could she not carry this part of you, as you have entrusted your other daughters to do?"
"Think also of the Weavebender's intentions." Azuth placed a strong hand on Mystra's shoulder. "He has every desire of forsaking his godhood. Given the chance, would he stay here with you or return to his own world?"
"He doesn't know how I feel for him!" Mystra protested.
"Do you really think that would make a difference in the end?" Azuth's quiet bluntness cut like a very sharp sword, but she couldn't fault his cold logic.
Mystra, more than anyone else knew that, love or no love, Ranma would not forsake his honor. He would indeed return to his world, if only to resolve the conflict on his conscience. Still, a little more certainty before committing herself to a set course would not be remiss. Ranma had done a wonderful job at surprising her thus far, and she wouldn't put it past him to pull another unexpected move on her. She looked to Savras expectantly. True, she had the power to look herself, but at the moment she lacked the courage. The Divine Seer closed his many eyes and shook his head in frustration.
"The Wild Horse bends probability like grass in a strong wind. There are many paths and choices he could make, but they are just as dependent on the choices you and others make. I cannot give you a stronger answer than that, Lady of Mysteries."
Mystra nodded. It was more open-ended than she liked, but the answer didn't surprise her one bit. For all the Order he tried to maintain within himself, Chaos danced around Ranma like an excitable puppy. It would be next to impossible to predict his course… as it had been since the godling had first arrived here. Perhaps he would return to his world, knowing of her love. If he did, it might inspire him not to forsake Toril altogether. One way or another, she would have to make her feelings for him plain.
The goddess of magic nodded her head again and looked down at her youngest daughter. And if he did choose to return to Earth and remain, then, at the very least, a part of her might well go with him. She looked to the other gods one last time before calmly leaving the pool's grove. She had an appointment in Silverymoon to keep.
Keiichi watched as the crowds finally began to disperse. The Lantanese government had gathered around the leadership of Gond's church and began debating heavily, while Gond looked on with mixed interest. Their discussions carried loudly as the government fought over the fate of those that had abandoned the Lord of Smiths in favor of Keiichi and the Norns. In the end, there was no real doubt what the outcome would be. Lantan was claimed by Gond, and his influence was deeply rooted.
The Council voted then and there, in the middle of the proving grounds. The majority passed the motion to exile all those that refused to worship Gond, and would subsequently close Lantan's borders to those not of the faith. Outnumbered and afraid, the minority faction joined those that would be driven from the Isles and found themselves welcomed warmly by the Norns. The only thing that kept the Gondar from degenerating into a vicious mob were the majestic forms of the goddesses and the clergy of Oghma.
It was a sad sight that made Keiichi want to cry. Families were divided, lifelong friendships were sundered, and a community was destroyed. And he felt completely responsible for it. Had he not had Belldandy at his side, Keiichi knew that he would feel lost.
"This is my fault," he whispered. "I should have left the moment that Mostana challenged Duncan."
"You may have been the catalyst, beloved, but the choice was still theirs." Belldandy took his face in her hands and forced him to look her in the eyes. "Change is wrought with pain, but only we can make it suffering. Look at these wonderful people, my darling Keiichi. They are following their hearts."
"Yeah, but where are their hearts taking them?" he countered.
"That is where we, as those they have chosen to follow, come in. It is our duty… no, our honor to guide them to a greater happiness."
"How do I do this, Bell? How do I become what you need… what they need?"
Belldandy leaned in and kissed him thoroughly. The sensation was, for lack of an appropriate word, heavenly. When she pulled away, her thumb trailed gently along his bottom lip.
"All journeys begin with one step. All great buildings are made with small bricks. You have within you a brightness of spirit, a power that is all you. This power will grow little upon little. It will be unlocked by all of your small choices. Let our love guide you, and let your love for those around you drive you. True love will sustain you in the darkness. It will uphold you, as it already has, during all of your challenges. Believe in that pure love and there is nothing that you cannot do."
"Am I worthy of that love?" Keiichi asked self-consciously. "I'm just a man… and a pretty pathetic one at that."
Belldandy, in response to his fears, kissed him with such passion and emotion that a wave of love spread out from them, washing over those nearby. When she broke the kiss both she and the love of her life were crying.
"Out of all beings throughout the vastness of Creation, I chose you. I find you worthy of me. If anything, it is I who feel unworthy of you." She smiled and looked down at his hands held tightly in her own. "After all the hardship you've had to face because of me, you still love me."
Keiichi pulled her to him, unable to find words to express himself. It was in this position that Kazuki-chan found them. The moment was broken, but the afterglow lingered.
"Yes, Kazuki-chan?" Keiichi answered patiently.
"We're all packed."
"Who told you to pack?" Keiichi asked. The METAT pointed a giant finger at Belldandy.
"Mommy said that we were going on a trip."
Keiichi grinned at the growing blush on Belldandy's cheeks.
"'Mommy' huh?" The Norn of the Present bit her lip self-consciously, but her fears were wiped away by a gentle kiss. "I really like the sound of that."
"I'll just bet you do, pervert," Skuld's voice hissed from behind the couple. Keiichi stiffened and waited for his punishment. To his wonder, Skuld merely punched him lightly in the arm.
"How else do expect them to make you 'Auntie Skuld', squirt?" Urd's catty grin could have been described as "shameless" at best.
The Norn of the future looked up at Kazuki-chan and squealed with joy. It wasn't until she started mumbling about "upgrades" and "enhancements" that Keiichi started to really worry. Those concerns fell by the wayside as Duncan and Sam arrived in the company of Bertrold, Kerden, Ruthart, and Sister Maerdith. For the first time since coming to Toril, Keiichi felt as though he was among family. Looking between Belldandy and Kazuki-chan, that feeling grew even more. He had something to grow for. He had something to fight for. No matter what the future held for him, he knew what he wanted. He might not feel worthy of Belldandy's love, but he was going to do everything in his power to become worthy.
No matter how long it took.
Usagi woke in a strange, yet deliciously comfortable bed. The covers were warm and she found herself in a light cotton nightgown that she didn't remember putting on. Worrisome as that was, what concerned her more was the fact that she had no idea where she was. The last thing she remembered was Broan's body and crying on the mountainside.
She pulled the bed curtains aside and peeked out to better judge her situation. The room she found herself in was larger than both her old room and her parents' room back home; and as she looked around cautiously, she was surprised to see a beautiful woman, with dark, flowing hair and radiant skin, sitting near an open window. She wore a simple, yet elegantly cut strapless indigo dress that seemed almost black in the glowing, golden light of evening. A filmy, web-like shawl was wrapped around her shoulders and held together by a jeweled broach in the shape of an eight-pointed star. Usagi was enthralled by her beauty, and couldn't help but feel plain when compared to this woman's voluptuous magnificence.
"Are you feeling better, Usagi?" The woman turned away from the window and smiled at the girl peeking out from behind the bed curtains. Usagi only nodded. "That is good to know. I have had my own encounters with Kelemvor in the past and, while not all of them were pleasant, I am rather fond of the brute."
"You're talking about that man in the armor." Usagi ventured.
"Yes." The woman stepped away from the window and crossed the length of the room to stand before the bed. "Do you mind if I sit with you?"
Usagi shook her head and pulled the drapes open, so that the woman could sit on the bed with her. Once she was settled, the woman took a moment to study Usagi intently leaving the young woman feeling very small. As cliché as it sounded, it was as if the woman was reading her soul or something.
"You've so much of your mother in you," the woman whispered. Usagi was surprised to see tears forming in her companion's eyes.
"Yes. Elue was and yet remains a magnificent woman."
"Um… no offense, but I think you're mistaken." Usagi bit her lip, and smiled uncomfortably.
"Oh, and why do you say that?" The woman's smile went a long way to easing Usagi's growing nervousness.
"Well, it's just that I'm not from around here."
"That is certainly true." The woman nodded. "Azabu-Juuban is a very long way from Silverymoon, after all."
"How… How do you know about that?" Usagi shifted, all her previous discomfort returning with a vengeance.
"You'd be surprised about the things that I know." The woman's smile became extremely mysterious, hinting at secrets, but revealing nothing. "Suffice it to say, daughter, that I know your history better than you do."
Usagi felt her discomfort shoot through the roof.
"Who are you?" she asked. The woman smiled and pulled her silky black hair over one ear.
"I've many names, Usagi. Just as you are gaining many names." There was a twinkle of merriment in her eyes as she ticked off Usagi's titles one by one. "Serenity, Princess of the Moon Kingdom. Sailor Moon. Neo-Serenity. The Silver Princess. The Silver Lady. The Lady of Hemmerling. Kelemvor's Bane. Serenity Silverhand. The Eighth Star. Silvermaid."
Usagi frowned petulantly as each title was named. All she wanted was a name to call this woman, and here she was making fun of her.
"You will gain more as time moves forward, just as all my daughters have. Just as I have." The woman's grin softened. "But I did not answer your question, did I?"
Usagi shook her head slowly.
"It is not my way to give away secrets and with good reason. One of my names is Lady of Mysteries, and others have been known to call me the One True Way. However, I am, and always shall favor being called mother."
Usagi just looked at her blankly, uncertain of how to take the woman's loopy answer.
"What should I call you?" she asked tentatively. This seemed to please the woman greatly.
"Very good! The key to unraveling mysteries is finding the correct questions to ask." The woman patted Usagi's knee. "While I wear this face, you may call me Midnight."
Usagi grinned skeptically. "You have more than one face?"
"Of course, child."
Usagi was astounded as the woman's form shimmered for a moment to become her mother Serenity. She shifted again to take on the appearance of an old gray-haired woman, and then again to become a silver-bearded man. The shifting continued on and on until Usagi started to get nauseous. At the end of it all a symbol, constituting eight stars orbiting a watery/fiery image, etched itself out of silver flame in the air above the bed, leaving the young woman disoriented and confused.
"I have as many faces as I need, in order to interact with those that worship me." The woman's voice was just as rich as before, but somehow, it was filled with even more mystery.
"You are a kami," Usagi whispered. There was a feeling of benevolence backing the power before her, and she bowed her head to the mattress in reverence of the entity.
"Yes." It was such a simple and straightforward answer, yet it left Usagi hungering to know more.
"Did you bring me here?"
"Can you send me home?" Usagi felt hope welling in her heart.
"I have the power to do this." The voice grew a bit sad. "Are you so anxious to leave this place?"
Usagi frowned at the loneliness in the voice coming from the flames.
"Yes, and no," she admitted. "I've made a lot of new friends here, but I miss the friends I have back home too. It's not that I want to leave, either — it's just that I have other responsibilities back home that need to be taken care of."
"Crystal Tokyo," the voice said matter-of-factly. "Not so unlike Alustriel's dream. You could learn much from your sister."
"Sister? I don't have any sisters. A bratty brother, yes… but sisters? No way." Usagi frowned. The symbol shimmered again, resuming the form and shape of Midnight.
"On the contrary, Usagi. You have seven sisters."
"How is that possible? My mother wasn't married before, and she would have said something about seven other daughters to me."
"I am not speaking of Ikuko Tsukino's daughters. I am talking about the children of Elue Shaundar, the woman you know as Serenity Silverhand, Queen of the Moon Kingdom."
"Queen Serenity had seven other daughters?"
"Yes. Before she was sent from this world, Elue housed my power for a time. During our brief co-existence, she became pregnant with eight children. Six were born from her on this world, the seventh was taken from the womb and given to another, and you, the eighth child, were taken with Elue when she was forced to leave this world."
Usagi looked pole-axed. It was like learning you were adopted… only worse.
"Why did she have to leave?"
"My power had weakened her body. It was just too much for one person to hold, and she grew sickly. Rather than lose her, I sent her away so that she could have a chance at living out the rest of her life. When she left, she took a piece of me with her in her womb and another that she crafted into a mighty artifact."
"The Ginzuishou," Usagi whispered.
"So why tell me this?" she asked curiously. "I thought you didn't like to give away answers."
Midnight smiled and shrugged. "If you are intent on leaving us, I would at least like you to know of your origins."
"And if I choose to stay for a while?"
"Then I will close my mouth and let you learn the rest on your own."
"You mean there's more?"
"There is always more, daughter." Midnight winked at Usagi. "Always."
Usagi worried her lip and scratched her cheek.
"Do you still wish to leave, Serenity?" Midnight asked.
"Someday…" She looked at the window hesitantly. "Perhaps."
"Then there is little doubt that someday, perhaps, you shall." Midnight's smile was warm and loving, and filled with unconditional acceptance. "For now I am content that the Eighth Mystery is returned to Faerun."
"Not another one!" Usagi rolled her eyes and flopped back on her pillows. Midnight laughed richly. After her laughter died down, she allowed herself to fall to the bed on her side and stared intently at Usagi again.
"What is it?" Usagi finally asked.
"I would like you to become one of my Chosen, as your sisters are."
"Does it require me to defend love and justice?"
Midnight laughed and shook her head. "No, I am afraid those virtues belong to others." The dark-haired woman rolled onto her back and pillowed her head in the palms of her hands. "No. As my Chosen, you would house a portion of my power and act as a guardian of the Weave."
"The Weave?" Usagi tossed Midnight a pillow.
"The Essence of Magic in this world."
"This will affect my chances of going home, won't it?" Usagi asked thoughtfully.
Midnight surprised her by smiling. "It was my hope that this would someday become your home."
"I don't mean to be rude or ungrateful, but I can't just abandon the Earth. People are counting on me! I have responsibilities and obligations." The goddess did not respond, instead she simply settled herself to listen to Usagi.
"I mean, I'm their princess and we protect the whole planet." Usagi took a deep breath and began ticking off points on her fingers. "Then there's Crystal Tokyo and my mom and dad, and Shingo, and getting Minako and Makoto boyfriends, and Mamo-chan! Oh, man! Mamo-chan's got to be going nuts! We were destined to be together, you see, and now that I'm here… do you think he'll forget me? Will he find someone else?"
Midnight shrugged. "The heart is a fickle thing, whether it beats in the chest of a man or a woman. What do you think will happen?"
"I… I don't know." Usagi could already feel the tears building in the corners of her eyes. "If he thought I was dead… if they thought I was dead… they would try to move on. And it's already been so long!" The tears were falling freely now and Usagi felt herself gathered into a warm, loving hug. She gave herself over to the urge to cry and wrapped her arms around Midnight's waist. "It was supposed to be different. Everything was perfectly fine! I was happy!"
"Destiny is as fickle as the heart, Usagi. It is not a power or a force that dictates our lives. It is a journey that is made up of millions of tiny decisions day in and day out." Midnight rubbed the small of Usagi's back comfortingly. "If it is your desire to return to the place of your birth, I am certain that one day you shall. But the happiness that you seek to claim may not await you."
"What should I do?" Usagi clutched the soft fabric of Midnight's dress in her fists.
"I cannot tell you, daughter." Midnight stroked Usagi's hair. "I can counsel you. I can tell you what I would have you do, but what you should do, I cannot say. Agency is such a precious gift, and not even the Divinities have the power to thwart it." The goddess of magic pushed Usagi to arm's length and began to wipe her tears away. "The tasks that I will set before you won't be easy to bear, but neither will they be without merit."
"What types of things do you want me to do?" Usagi asked. Her voice seemed very small and distant.
"Only those things that you are best suited to. Love. Protect. Aid those who are in need. I will give you a part of myself to guard and nurture — a part of me that is very precious and dear. I would have you learn about magic in its many forms and to help it thrive in this world as your sisters do. Beyond that, there is only one other thing that I would have you do."
She waved her hand and a shimmering image of a very familiar stormy-eyed young man sprang to life between them.
"Ranma?" Usagi whispered. "I've dreamed about him!"
"Handsome fellow, isn't he?" Mystra smirked at Usagi's blush. "He is much like you in many ways: a noble heart and a loving soul, who lost in a world not his own. Torn from the life that he knew, he was brought here just as you were and now must endure the many changes that circumstance has thrown at him."
"He's trapped here too?"
"Yes. And I would have you help him to deal with his troubles."
"Who better, daughter?" Midnight's smile was wondrous to behold. It was open and loving, and so full of confidence. "You and he share much in common. He is alone on this world, as are you. He is tied to magic in ways not so unlike you. He has a desire to protect the weak and the innocent from harm. And most importantly, he needs a good friend."
"How would I find him? I mean, the world is a pretty big place."
"Your paths will cross soon enough. All that I ask of you is to be his friend. Protect him from the bitterness that solitude brings, and give him a shoulder to lean on. Guard him from those that would exploit him and from those that would see him dead. Will you accept this first and most important task, daughter?"
Usagi left the bed and walked to a set of balcony doors. She opened them after a moment and stepped out onto the terrace that overlooked a magnificent city. Thoughts and fears danced in her mind and in her heart, and she found herself wrestling with the familiar feelings of obligation and desire. Midnight came up behind her and Usagi felt the woman's strong arms wrap around her waist from behind.
"What troubles you, daughter?"
"I'm scared," Usagi admitted.
"Of not being able to see my friends and home again." She sighed and leaned her head back against the taller woman's chest. "Of being trapped here."
"Are you afraid that I will keep you here against your will?" Usagi frowned and turned her head away. "Look at me, child."
Usagi turned and looked into the eyes of the goddess. Twin pools of stars looked back at her, and she felt herself falling into them.
"You are my daughter. Flesh and spirit. I would never enslave you or hold you where you would not wish to be. If I did, I would not be worthy of your love, nor would I have the right to call myself your mother."
Usagi laid her head over Midnight's heart. It was odd, but there was no heartbeat… only the undeniable warmth of love and acceptance. Usagi let herself bathe in the sensation, taking strength from it.
"I can't turn my back on someone who needs my help," she said at last. "But it feels like I'm betraying a sacred trust. It feels like I'm walking out on my friends."
"What would they have you do if they were here now?" Midnight whispered softly.
"They would want me to follow my heart."
"And what is your heart telling you to do?"
Usagi looked into the depths of Midnight's eyes again. Eternity stared back at her and she was overwhelmed at what she saw reflected there. As separate and superior as this entity was from her, Usagi saw herself in Midnight's eyes. She could not deny her kinship to the goddess, nor could she turn her back on that tie. There was no doubt that this was the path that she had to take. It would get her home.
She was certain of it.
But the price she would be forced to pay would be incalculable. Was she strong enough? Something she hadn't felt in ages bloomed in her heart and mind. Hope for the future and an unquenchable thirst for life filled her. She smiled brightly up at the woman and said the only thing that she could possibly say in that moment. "I accept, mother."
There had been few times in recorded history when the Mother of Magic had truly wept. Each could be counted on one human hand. Yet, each time she had, it had been for the faith and love so freely offered her by those she considered her children. "You will be changed by this."
Usagi nodded bravely.
"It will break you and reshape you. You will weep for the mountain of pain you bear and cry out in ecstasy for the pleasure you will feel. You will become a new person, without losing who you were. Are you truly ready?"
Usagi bit her lip and looked away, but nodded her head nonetheless.
"Oh, my brave, devoted daughter." Midnight's tears burst into tiny rivers of silver fire on her cheeks. "Know the love of thy mother."
Her lips brushed Usagi's forehead and the world burst into a ball of incandescent flames — the flames of renaissance.
Usagi screamed and shot into the evening sky like a rocket. High over Silverymoon a new star exploded to life, heralding the rebirth of the Eighth Sister. From as far away as Mithril Hall, her advent was seen and recorded by the sages. A sense of love and peace washed over the lands surrounding Silverymoon. And in the dying light of day, the lame and infirm leapt from their sickbeds, the beloved dead returned to life, and greater signs and wonders befell the Silver Marches. Yet those select few that were close enough to witness the fires of the small star, remembered one event with clarity: all could see a horse, white as the driven snow and as wild as the wind, dancing on its hind legs in the air around the Eighth Sister.
To be continued.
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