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Order of the Sword & Rose
Quindros Xydorith wakes slowly, as he often does.
He grew up in a comparatively safe place. His own parents, uneasy as they sometimes were with the knowledge of what he is, would never have harmed him as he slept. Even as an adventurer, he has always had his tireless brother to keep watch; and, while he will wake completely and suddenly at the right words in the right tone, there has been no such warning this morning. Right now he is aware only of the warm pile of quilts and sheets, the soft pillow against his clean-shaven cheek, and the firm warmth of another, smaller body curled up tightly against his spine. Sleeping nude might seem romantic, but down here and at this waning time of the year, it's too cold. Both of them have linens on.
After a moment he recognizes the feeling of something light and elastic against his face, like a cobweb. His brother Veldros is presently in his most corporeal phase, light as air and hard as armor to the edge of any weapon. Quindros moves fractionally, verifying that the shadow twin is also stretched around the other person in the bed with him. He evidently is. Quindros feels him stretch and adjust around Shurjra as she uncurls and turns to insinuate herself in closer so that she can whisper in his ear. The mass of white hair that is normally bound up slides silkily around her, brushing his skin as it mingles with his own loose dark hair.
“Hrmph,” Quindros says, and rolls carefully onto his back so that he can kiss her on the cheek. “Getting there. Did you rest?”
He feels her nod against his shoulder. Quindros drags his arm away from his side, tucking it around the drow carefully. He is a middle-sized man, but beside Shurjra he always feels enormous. He blinks his eyes open. One everbright lights the laboratory now, showing him a dim, red view of the stone ceiling. It curves down into a mossy wall beside the iron bedstead without the intervention of a corner. This sizable cul-de-sac was not originally built as a residence, but as a maintenance area for a section of sewer tunnel that is now disused. Quindros sleepily recalls the hours of work it took to get the smell out.
A thin area of membrane vibrates near Quindros's ear.
“HhhI will ghho and read?” Veldros offers helpfully, a ghost of a whispered voice. There is a pile of books on the empty crate that serves as a nightstand, and a comfortable rocking chair a few feet away, always facing away from the bed. The compromise that conjoined twins have used since the beginning of time is made that much easier by the fact that the umbilical that connects the daelkyr half-blood with his shadow twin can stretch nearly ten feet.
He can feel Shurjra quickly shaking her head. Veldros makes a soothing noise, a gentle static not-quite-purr that Quindros never heard him make before they met Shurjra Baen'rett. Quindros gives her a reassuring squeeze.
“I think we'll just stay here for a minute,” he says. “Shall we do that, rogue?”
Quindros pulls the covers up more securely around both of them as he glances around the laboratory. The cul-de-sac is spacious, but the ceiling is low. Everything is as he left it when he crawled into bed last night: the little dining table and chairs on the bright rag rug; the everbright stove they fixed together after they found it mouldering down another tunnel; the sink with its tangle of plumbing covered by a curtain around the base; the other curtained enclosure that holds the little shower and sanitary facilities they spent so much time and care plumbing in; and the yards of mismatched benches and shelves that a wizard needs for research and practice.
The curtains are made of gray cotton with a minimal floral print. Shurjra chose them, the most domestic thing he's ever seen her do. She brought the weapon racks that stand near the bed, and the mats and the target that she uses for her own sort of practice. Quindros did not ask where from.
One small round door is the only access to this place. There was one other, but it is now choked with stone and rubble, left open just enough to admit the free flow of air. Traps and wards cocoon the space, within and in the surrounding tunnels. It is the safest a wizard and a rogue together could make it.
And Shurjra has not left it in almost a week. Before that there was just the one visit to the Phoenix. She has not wanted to go anywhere since the wizard Caladhain forced her to steal a helm from the home of the cleric Xyries Chorster. No evil person could enter the cleric's house. Shurjra could. Caladhain lay in wait for her outside the laboratory's entrance and ensnared her with the spell Dominate Person. Afterward he simply left her on the cleric's rooftop. He did not care who knew what he had done. And Shurjra confessed all that she had done to the cleric, fled silently back to this safe haven, and has not left without Quindros and Veldros since then.
That is not like her. Quindros has never claimed the right to know where she is all of the time, but he has always known what sort of work Shurjra does when she is out alone. They work together more than alone now, and he has always urged that for that very reason. She argued at first that she was just as safe on her own, but even someone very stubborn has to acknowledge that while a good assassin can command a high price, a rogue and a wizard can sometimes earn even more together.
Practical considerations are more apt to persuade her than emotional ones in every area except one. Quindros has always known this. He doesn't know quite why he and Veldros are the exception. He has been afraid to ask, afraid that if he looked at the thing too closely it might disappear. It's not a rational thought, but it's there. It's there even in the very sane moments like this one, when he is fully rested and his eyes see nothing that isn't really there.
And now his rogue, the person whom he has seen run out onto a ceiling beam with just a knife in her hand to get at an enemy mage, this person will not leave the laboratory without him, will not voluntarily let him out of her sight.
“Shurjra,” Quindros says, into the top of her hair. “I need to say something.”
“This thing that happened, that Caladhain did. It didn't seem like it upset you that much when you were captured the first time.”
Firm head shake.
“Why was this so much worse? He didn't chain you up or make you wear the helm.”
Shurjra is silent, but Quindros can feel her tensing up beside him. He rubs her shoulder, trying to soothe her. Veldros makes that sound again: Vrrrlrrrrlrrrrl.
“Before he waited in ambush,” she says into Quindro's ear. “Used poison and a dagger. It was the sort of attack I would expect from a colleague.” A small hand with hard fingers kneads at the flesh of his upper arm, as if reassuring herself that he is there. “This time he was inside my mind.” Shurjra's voice drops to a hiss of furious loathing, but Quindros is listening. He can hear the undercurrent of fear. “I fought him but I could not disobey him.” He feels the quilts shift, and he knows she is reaching up to touch the chafe scars at her throat, where the Collar of the Fanatic once rested.
“Kshhhhbasstard,” says Veldros.
“You mean like before,” Quindros says. That ugly thought has occurred to him. He did not know Shurjra while she was the Banelord's thrall. Arachan d'Lartil saved her from that, broke the Collar and freed her and welcomed her into his family. It is the only truly kind act Quindros has ever heard of Arachan performing, but then, an unwanted son-in-law is not apt to see a father at his best.
Quindros gives her another squeeze. “They've caught him, remember. He'll never do it again.”
“But they will try to cure him,” Shurjra says, her voice barely audible. “And then they will let him go.”
“Only if they succeed,” Quindros says. “You know the cleric. Would she be part of this if they were going to just turn him loose to do what he used to do?”
He feels Shurjra shake her head again.
“She is not a subtle woman, wizard. She might be deceived.”
“We won't be,” Quindros says. Veldros adds his assent, a vibrating hiss of dire promise.
“Wizard,” Shurjra whispers, shivering once. “He is more powerful than you are. He is almost like the Elder. I am no mage, but I can tell this. He would demolish your wards like a strong man does cobwebs.”
“He won't hurt you again,” Quindros says. “He won't be allowed to.”
There's a derisive snort from Shurjra, almost immediately echoed by another one from Veldros. Quindros is opening his mouth to expound further on this theme when he realizes what that means.
“You're not afraid he'll hurt you,” he says. “You're afraid he'll hurt me.”
Quindros rolls over to face her, gathering her in close. Shurjra relaxes just a little, encircled by familiar arms and a familiar aura and the thin, diaphanous armor that is Veldros.
“Shurjra,” Quindros says quietly. “My very own rogue. There is no wizard, however powerful, who can remain in contact with my mind long enough to give orders. Do you remember what happened when you tried to talk to me through your father's crystal ball? Did you think that was because you aren't a wizard?”
“Well, it isn't. The same thing will happen to anyone, arcane or psion, who tries to make that kind of contact with me. I can't help it. Veldros, either. We are wombwarped. We will always be of unbalanced mind.”
Shurjra winds her arms around him and squeezes hard. Quindros woofs in comical protest as he hugs carefully back.
“Easy! I still have to breathe, you know.”
“You relieve me, wizard,” Shurjra says.
“Good. And you're probably the only person who would ever feel that way about being told I'm basically insane and always will be, rogue. Breakfast?”
“Yes,” Shurjra says. She tucks her head against Quindros's chest for a second, reaching up to tangle her hand in his dark hair. “But first I want Veldros to go and read a book for a while.”
The caravan is nearly ready to set out. It's not very impressive, as caravans go. There are a couple of wagons pulled by mules, one by a couple of grumbling hired ogres, and two pulled by hill giants. The giants stand placid in their traces, looking around incuriously at the travelers who go on foot. There is a human girl on the shoulder of each, whispering in their ear, the employee of some clever local entrepreneur (as the giants are themselves). It is early morning, humid but not yet hot, and the little group stretches out over a few yards of ground outside the Southernmost gate of the city of Stormreach. A dusty road winds off into the green jungle ahead. Colorful butterflies flit here and there even at this waning time of year. It's never really winter in this part of the continent, not until Risia lies very near this plane.
Ondranar Valaesyri, sometimes called Palerose, stands beside a giant's foot with his knapsack on his back. Gray-white almond eyes survey his fellow travelers sideways, never directly. Most look like the more desperate sort of tinkers and peddlers; only the most prosperous have more goods than they can carry on their backs, and these have presumably rented space in the wagons for what they are bringing. One or two glance at the elf with amusement or curiosity. He is dressed more conservatively than is his wont, in leather harness and shoes and cotton traveling robes. It's the pale green color of the robes and the floral embroidery on all of the above that probably draws the eye. The ribbon that secures his tail of crimson hair matches the fabric. A pair of dull steel rings hang from his pointed ears, swinging slightly as he looks around.
There are guards, of course. They are freelance, because that's what the merchants who chipped in for them were willing to pay for. Ondranar Palerose recognizes some as ex-Deneith mercenaries, hardbitten human men with flesh like tanned leather and quick, sharp eyes. They are not young. Probably they retired out of the House and just went on working, needing to pay their bills and not ready to spend their golden years fishing or gardening. There is an alert drow sorcerer whose very aspect breathes fire, smoke rising occasionally from his fingers as he stalks around the perimeter of the caravan. He wears no symbol of Vulkoor, but that is not surprising. They are traveling toward Sulatar territory, and Ondranar suspects he is of that tribe himself.
There is a single halfling among the caravan's guards. The body inside the dark, fitted leather armor is undoubtedly female, albeit sturdy and hard-muscled, but there's not much else to be told under the spike-topped helmet that surmounts her head with a crown of spines. A pair of greatswords are strapped high up on her shoulders, one ordinary weapon and one seething with frost. She is looking around at the caravan, trying to see; she is tall for a halfling female, but that only puts her at about three and a half feet, nearly two feet shorter than Ondranar. As he watches she gathers herself and bounds straight up, easily clearing the nearest human's height. She has plenty of time to look around on her way back down. She doesn't fall very quickly, suggesting she has at least been prosperous enough to purchase herself a pair of feather falling boots. The other mercenaries pay her no mind. It's obviously not the first time she's done it.
The master of the caravan, deputy of the small merchant cartel responsible for organizing all of this, is taking a final turn around the caravan, making sure everything is ready. She looks more akin to the mercenaries than to the travelers, a dwarf with darkly tanned skin and narrow little eyes. She wears a long chain shirt over her robes. There are axes on her back as she passes Ondranar, long braid twitching down her broad back. It occurs to the elf to wonder what sort of dwarf a Sulatar would voluntarily trade with more than once. He watches with interest as she strides back up to the front. Most dwarves have that same short-legged rolling gait. Not many have that air of absolute self-assurance, of blusterless certainty. She looks exactly the sort of person you want to see in front of you on your way into a jungle full of hostile beasts and men.
There's a harsh call from up front. Wheels start turning. Ondranar adjusts the satchel at his hip one more time - it won't do to have his spellbook chafing him over the long day's walk - and starts off as the giant foot beside him lifts off the ground.
The halfling mercenary ends up trotting along beside him, looking around alertly at the foliage as they move down the road. A tail of brown hair sticks out from under the helm in back. All he can see of her face is an occasional glimpse of a large, limpid brown eye in a face full of scars. At one point she glances up at him.
"Are you a wizard?" she asks. She has the kind of voice one expects from a halfling female, high-pitched and cheerful.
"Beg pardon?" says Ondranar.
"I said, are you a wizard? You got one of those big books, an' sorks don't carry those. And you got no armor on and I don't see any weapons."
"Several people here have no weapons, Miss," Ondranar points out mildly.
"Hee! I'm not a miss, I'm a barb. I'm Gracenys. And yeah, but not all of 'em walk like they oughta be carrying. You do. Slinky."
"Very astute of you." Ondranar grins down at the halfling. He sees a flash of teeth behind the helmet's grille as she grins back. "I have a pair of rapiers, but I generally store them elsewhere until I wish to summon them. Blades are not my first recourse."
"Ha, see, I knew it," Gracenys says. "What's your name, Mister Wizard? I mean, not like I'm gonna remember it, I'm real bad with names, but we're gonna be walking for a few days and I figure I'll probably pick it up sooner or later."
"My name is Ondranar, and I am very pleased to meet you, Gracenys." Ondranar sweeps a decorative bow highly inappropriate to their surroundings, then scampers a few steps to catch up to the hill giant and avoid the wheel of the cart he is pulling. He hears the barbarian's high-pitched giggle.
"I'm going to like you," she says cheerfully. "You're funny. I like people that are funny. Especially on long walks, which are kinda boring. I been on this run a couple times, you know. To wherezitsname, Ob - ?"
"Obsidian City," Ondranar supplies helpfully.
"Right, there. We don't get attacked by stuff all that often." She looks around at the jungle again. "If we do, you stay on that side of me, okay? I'm fine with people shooting stuff over my head, but it's easier to tell who I oughta hit and who not that way."
"So noted," Ondranar says.
"Great! I can tell we're going to be friends!" Gracenys gives a little hop as she trots along. It's a short one. It only raises her to Ondranar's eye level. "How come you're going to Ob - Orb - where we're going? You don't look like you have stuff to sell."
Ondranar smiles back. At least it looks to be an entertaining trip.
"I have not," he says. "I hope to find a place to set up a second home."
"What, around a bunch of drow who worship fire? You tired of living?" The halfling turns and peers worriedly up at him. There is certainly nothing in Ondranar's appearance to suggest this, but he doubts the halfling would perceive it if there were.
"No, no." Ondranar waves a slender hand. "I will leave the caravan at Obsidian City and press on into the jungle. There are ample ruins throughout the continent, land that belongs to no one. I hope to find some tower intact and unoccupied. I need some time to think and study."
"You can do those things in Stormreach, can't you?" Gracenys asks. The spiked helmet pivots as she turns to look around again.
"I could, Gracenys, but Stormreach is a very populous place and I presently require solitude."
"Oh. Okay." Ondranar is not completely sure she recognizes the word solitude, but if not, she is apparently able to guess from the context. "You want me to stop talking, then?"
"Not in the least," Ondranar assures her. "We will be in Obsidian City soon enough. Talk as much as you like."
"Ha, see, I knew I was gonna like you," Gracenys says.
The caravan winds on into the jungle, leaving behind a little cloud of dust.
The airship has been in the air for days now. It is a sizable craft, reasonably well-appointed but not luxurious, with a big enough hold for a small cargo and enough snug cabins to carry ten passengers plus its crew comfortably.
Provided no one is claustrophobic, that is. Keterexia Aradren Sinismont, only daughter and second child of the house that rules that rich and insular little city at the base of Breland's Graywall mountains, spends much of her time wandering abovedecks. She is closest to her native element here, to the air that winds through her corporeal body with a presence more substantial than flesh, and she has trouble sleeping below. The imprisoned elemental that powers the ship is not suffering, is probably barely conscious in the human sense - she tells herself this firmly - but she can feel it revolving within its constraints. It saws at her nerves. So she walks, pacing to and fro on the deck, quiet booted feet on the wooden boards.
She stayed in Sinismont for weeks and weeks. That may not be long enough to explain her blue-black hair growing down to her jaw. But that is hardly strange compared to the other changes, the ones not visible to the naked eye. Dren (she has always thought of herself as Dren) is largely at peace with the blood of the great wyrm that flows in the veins of every son and daughter of Sinismont. This was not the case when she came to her brother, weary and uncertain of herself and in constant, painful flux. The birthright of air came to her late in life. She can only be glad this tiresome second adolescence is now over. The fact remains that, grateful as she has been to Frin, she could not stay. Her widowed stepmother seems to have him well in hand, and Dren is confident that the two of them will be making a truly scandalous announcement any day now.
While she was away from Sinismont, she missed it. When she was away from Stormreach, she found that she missed it even more. Her city of birth is largely a human community, without the amazing variety of species and peoples that coexist in Xen'drik. And, while a singleton of noble birth and good fortune is apt to receive the attentions of the opposite sex, she could not interest herself even a little in the hidebound sons of her late father's friends and colleagues. One could not possibly suppose them interested in her for her own sake.
Dren has a handsome enough face for normal purposes - that's the word people usually use of that curved beak of a nose and determined chin, handsome - and a trim enough figure. But she is thirty and two now, and scarred, and to see younger and fresher creatures passed over because they are less rich brings her no pleasure. To wed a noble of Sinismont is to doom one's self to the life they lead, the pliable dagger of sharp words, the subtle negotiations that pass in notes and glances. Dren is not, at bottom, a subtle woman. She has never been at home in that world.
She revolves these things as she walks. Sometimes the wind blows her hair about, and sometimes it seems to move when there is no wind at all. Other passengers see her there, straight-backed and brisk in her woolen robe and leather tabard, and some take her for a guard or crewman. Therefore it is not altogether surprising when a balding man in a linen tunic comes sprinting up from the hold, red-faced, and makes a beeline for the compact human in her practical boots.
"Beg pardon, Ma'am, but the golem's loose, Ma'am, and I don't know what'll happen."
Dren turns to look sharply at the worried man. "Loose? It wasn't in restraints, Sir. Has the mage lost his hold on it?"
"He must've! I don't know. I think he might be dead. He wasn't looking good. I scarpered as soon as I saw him. It took a swing at me, missed by a hair. I don't know how long it'll stay down the hold, Ma'am. I'm just a steward! Can't you help?"
Dren appears expressionless as she considers this. If the man notices the hem of her robe stirring, he probably doesn't connect that with the total lack of breeze around them.
"I'm no wizard," she says after a moment. "I might be able to put the thing down, but I can't command it. Isn't there an artificer or anyone of the sort on board?"
The man shakes his head vigorously, producing a quiver of jowls.
"Merchants and musicians. There's a bard, but he says he can't do anything with it. Hurry, won't you? It was smashing crates."
Dren sighs. "All right, then. Show me the hold, Sir. I'll see what I can do."
The man leads her to a door and a short stair. Dren hears it click firmly shut behind her as she starts down. A few everbrights on the walls provide a warm, steady light. The stair is narrow, meant to provide access only to people. There will be a larger hatch in the outer hull for loading goods.
She hears the sound of wood splintering as she reaches the bottom. The hold is just about big enough to hold a dance for five couples, provided they all get along well and the band isn't too large. It is mostly filled with crates and barrels, or it was. Now they are thrown about, some smashed to splinters, their contents scattered. Bales of silk and velvet are draped among the ruins and stained with spilled beer. Grains crunch underfoot.
In the midst of all this chaos stands a ten-foot humanoid form made of dull clay, stamping at a barrel-hoop with an enormous, roughly-formed foot. The golem's body is rounded and nearly featureless, just a few surface carvings suggesting a rough undergarment and wrist decorations. The proportions are almost toddlerish, thicker than an adult human or elf. It turns its earless head at the sound of Dren's approach. Fires burn in the round sockets. A lipless mouth gapes as it emits a rumbling growl.
"Do you understand me?" Dren asks. It's just possible that the thing is sentient, that its seemingly mindless fury has real and justifiable cause. She knows that constructs have been known to spontaneously acquire consciousness. But the golem shows no sign of having understood. It rumbles again as it turns toward her, abandoning its careless destruction to focus on a more interesting target.
"If you don't attack, I won't harm you," she says, trying once more. The golem's only response is a flail of a fist bigger than Dren's head. She ducks just in time as it whistles over her head. Then she steps inside its grip, lays both hands on the thing's enormous body. There are no magic words, no symbolic gestures. There is only the lightning bound and then let go. Lines of white light crackle and dance over the golem's body.
There is a stink of burning and a sound of cracking clay. The golem's roar shakes the floorboards. Dren tries to avoid the flailing fists again, but this time she feels the stunning impact as a shard-studded fist catches her left arm and side. She is aware of her feet leaving the ground, and then of the pain. Dren clenches her teeth around a gasp as she hits the top of her arc and starts to fall downward toward a splintered pile of wood. This might be the end of it for a normal person, but Dren drifts downward with dreamlike, feathery slowness, as if she has no weight. She has not been able to fall since before she ever left Stormreach the first time. She twists away from the wreck and has her feet under her in time to see the golem start to turn. Bits of it are cracking and falling away. Even the weakest release of her energies can hurt a thing made of earth, of the element opposite hers.
Which is a mercy, because I can't let go a real lightning bolt in an airship made of wood. She can think through the pain. Once a soldier, she is not automatically weakened and horrified by the awareness of her own blood staining her clothing.
The golem swings again. This time the movement sends it off balance. Dren actually feels the airship tilt as the construct thuds to one massive knee. She darts in to seize the nearest massive arm, seeing her opportunity, and lets go the power again.
The golem's growl turns into a high, weak whine. Then it collapses into powdery fragments. Dren stumbles back, coughing and waving away the dust.
"Are you all right? Hold still, I'll heal that," says a voice. Dren nods, squinting through the motes, and feels the charge of positive energy as she hears a voice raised in song. The language is Aereni, of which she knows only a few words.
The pain is gone for one blessed second. Dren starts to step forward, to thank the young elven bard who stands there with his lute in hand, but then it comes back with a jolt. She stifles a gasp as she clutches at her arm.
The voice trails off. The elf is peering at her, pushing back his loose yellow hair. His eyes are the same color.
"That's not supposed to happen," he says. "I'll try it again."
The second attempt has the same result. The wound reopens a second after it closes. Dren can actually feel the flesh tear itself open as blood begins to flow.
"No good," she says. She keeps her voice level. It's not his fault, after all.
"You need a real cleric," says the elf unhappily. He slings the lute back onto his back. "I'm afraid it's cursed, and I'm too new at this."
"Well, never mind," Dren says. "We're not so very far from Stormreach now, are we? See what you can do for the wizard. I can dress this in my cabin."
"Are you sure?" says the elf doubtfully. The golem's broken knuckles have left long scrapes down the human's arm and side, shredding her robe there, and he can see the scratches bleeding more than the depth of the injuries seems to warrant.
"Quite sure," Dren says firmly. It doesn't hurt so very much. She's felt worse. "I'll just go and ask the steward where the nearest cleric is to the airship spire."
"All right, but I don't think I can do much for this wizard," says the elf. He is now over past a pile of broken barrels, throat bobbing as he swallows. "It, er. There's not much left of his head."
"Pity," says Dren as she turns toward the stairs. "House Lyrandar won't be able to dun the irresponsible bounder for the damages."
She does dress the wounds as best she can, tying gauze from her pack around her body and arm and padding them with the remains of her torn robe. She puts on another, looser robe over the dressings. The bleeding does not stop. She can feel the padding growing heavier and damper as the airship glides sedately into port. She receives the steward's thanks courteously and inquires where the nearest cleric might be found.
"Oh, we're close to King's Way," he says. "There's a Vassal there, Xyries Chorster. She helped me when I had a box land on my leg one time. Bit stiff, but she'll get it healed up for you all right. Can I send someone with you? I don't know what we would've done if that thing had bashed a hole in the hull."
"No, thank you," Dren says firmly. "But I'd be very grateful if you could see that my things get to my room at the Phoenix. I bespoke it by mail and Cog promised faithfully to hold it for me." She sent a significant advance payment to secure it, but there's no reason to go into that.
"Oh, absolutely," the steward nods quickly. "Well, I won't keep you, Ma'am. You be careful."
"Thank you, Sir, I will," Dren says, and goes briskly off down the gangplank. The humidity hits like a wall after the cool breezes of the upper atmosphere. Dren shakes her head at it, then regrets it for the dizziness it causes. She does not list toward the injured side. People are watching, and some of them may not be friends.
She remembers how to get to King's Way. It's getting harder to lift one foot and put it in front of the other, but she will get there. It's not so very far.