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Order of the Sword & Rose
Aluatris (Part I)
The King’s Forest lay resplendent in the myriad of orange, red, yellow, and brown that bespoke the changing seasons as nine elves rode on horseback towards it. Bright sunlight illuminated the field, warm and comforting despite the slight autumnal chill. They had set out from Sharn the previous morning and by now the sky-scraping towers were already all but invisible behind them.
Aluatris was near the front of the party, thanks to her stubbornness and her fiancé’s influence within House Phiarlan. Garbed for war like the others, she bore on this day a fine set of chainmail beneath an enamelled copper breastplate emblazoned with gold swirls. A grey-green cloak was draped over her shoulders. Her long chestnut curls were held back with a plain brown headband and tucked behind her ears. In all, a marked step down from her usual ladylike appearance but, she’d grudgingly acknowledged, a necessary evil in light of what lay before them.
Gently, she urged her mount forward. Riding up astride Fredric, she asked softly, “Where do you expect they’ll be?”
Her fiancé shrugged. “Hard to say. If we’re lucky they won’t know we’re coming for them. Once we are below the King’s boughs, Dael will send out scouts.”
Normally on such an outing Fredric would be commanding the Phiarlan forces, but today he’d deferred leadership to his second-in-command to keep a closer eye on Aluatris. It irked her slightly that, as she saw it, Fred thought she needed chaperoning, but given that she was only accompanying him on the mission out of concern for his safety, it was hard to complain.
Before long they crossed the threshold into the woodland and dismounted. When they came upon a clearing, the elves stopped to set up camp. Aluatris tied her mount to an oak even as three of the Phiarlans set off in search of the Dhakanni. So far there had been no sign of the hobgoblins, but they would be around. Somewhere.
“The trees here are quite a sight, aren’t they?” Fredric’s voice reached her a few seconds before he did, flopping down on the earth beside her.
“Some of the nicest ones I’ve seen, for sure.” Aluatris replied absently. Here, now, on the edge of adventure, her nerves were starting to get the better of her. “I have to wonder, though, if it isn’t just an effect of the leaves. Will things change in the winter?”
“My, my, aren’t we philosophical today…”
Fredric peered more intently at her and frowned slightly. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”
Aluatris stared back at him defiantly and asserted “yes” even as a voice at the back of her mind screamed no.
“I don’t want to sit by forever. I’m doing this—if nothing else just to prove I can.”
Raising his hands in surrender, Fred conceded the point. He knew when he was going to lose a battle. Which, with Aluatris, was often.
Just then, the first scout returned. Dhakanni warriors had been spotted a few miles east. Aluatris drew her bow and took a deep breath.
The game was beginning.
* * *
Thrumming filled the air as Aluatris sent another arrow at the hobgoblin. With an unpleasant squelch it buried itself in the creature’s flank, joining the missile in its belly. To her surprise, he still did not fall. By then he was upon her. With a snarl, of pain or anger she wasn’t sure, he raised his club. Reacting instinctively, Aluatris sprang from her hiding place in the bush and conked him over the head with her bow.
That time he did fall.
It was the only one of the Dhakanni she had managed to take out on her own, but she was still proud of her victory. For an aristocrat unused to having to defend herself from anything other than the occasional hippogriff dropping, even one hobgoblin was an impressive feat.
Corpses littered the forest floor. It was a gruesome sight, but in that moment Aluatris found a strange beauty in it. Adventuring appealed to her but part of her always doubted she could do it. Now she knew, with a bit of practice, she could.
She was scavenging for salvageable arrows when Fredric found her.
“Good, you’re all right.”
“Was there ever any doubt?”
He smiled at her. “Of course not, but I’m still glad to confirm it.” His gaze wandered to the hobgoblin with the welt on his forehead. “Nice work,” he chuckled.
Aluatris returned his smile as she placed her findings in her quiver and wiped the grime off on her breeches. Then she looked around again and her smile faltered.
“A shame all of this was necessary though. To think… hobgoblins, so close to our cities!”
Fredric nodded grimly, his own smile disappearing in a flash.
“The Dhakanni are getting restless. We haven’t found any traces of prolonged encampment so they must be on the move. I fear it won’t be long before they march on Sharn. They won’t stand a chance against the city’s combined forces, of course, but it will still be hell.”
Aluatris reached for his hand and searched his face until he locked eyes with her.
“And if they do – march on Sharn, that is – will you fight?”
Something flickered in his eyes—Fear? Sadness? Regret? She knew the answer long before she even considered the question, and the worry squeezed at her heart. Of course he would. Even if he wasn’t a Phiarlan Commander, he would go to war out of desire to protect those he loved, to protect his future—their future. Still, the answer hit her like a hammer.
“Of course. Ialor si ael.”
Until the end.
Aluatris (Part II)
Dusk is beginning to settle over the land as she trudges towards an indistinct lump at the edge of her vision. Leaves crunch gently underfoot. Trees surround the clearing, shimmering with hoarfrost. It might have been a beautiful scene, once.
If it weren’t for the smattering of corpses.
Dream-like, she continues, gliding across the intermittent distance like some spectre of mourning. Logic screams at her to turn around, to turn her back on this sight that can never be unseen. She has never been a particularly logical woman.
A body now lies before her, or at least that’s what she believes it to be. Blackened, corroded flesh makes it hard to be certain. They said the acid had done too much damage – that he’d been burned beyond recognition. Beyond hope of resurrection.
There is a grim sense of satisfaction at beholding this nightmare—they say seeing is believing. So, too, is there a profound feeling of horror. But most of all there is grief.
She drops to her knees beside the remnants of what was once a man, too overcome with emotion even to cry. What use would it be, anyway?
A gust of wind tears through the battlefield and the body, fragile, disintegrates. Desperately, she reaches out a hand. But she can’t hold on to him, the pieces are too small; the wind carries them away. Away from her. Torn away. She hates the wind, but it’s not the wind’s fault, not truly. The damage had already been done.
He was gone.
With a start, Aluatris returned to reality. The field mirrored that in her vision, but there were no corpses here. Kneeling, shrouded in a simple black robe, she appeared almost a shadow. Before her stood one of many tombstones erected here in honour of the soldiers that fell protecting Sharn from the Dhakanni invasion.
FREDERICK THURANNI D’PHIARLAN
“Only from the shadows can there emerge light”
“So hold on to hope for the dawn after the night,” she finished in a throaty whisper. It was a phrase Frederick has used many times in life to help Aluatris cope with his absences, and one she held onto now in the hopes it would help her get through this greatest of separations. Hope was hard to come by for a spirit in mourning.
Aluatris rose to her feet and placed upon the headstone a pale lily, enchanted to resist the deepening cold by some magic of her godmother’s devising. Once upon a time, she had planned on decorating her wedding with lilies. Instead, they had become an offering to the dead. Dead love.
With a small sigh, she turned her back on the makeshift grave and regarded the city of Sharn. Its massive towers cast a long shadow that hovered ominously over her.
Sharn. It had been her home for her entire life, but it no longer felt like a sanctuary to her. It felt like a prison. All around her were memories of her loss, ghostly relics of a happier time. Haunted. She felt haunted by her past.
I have to get out of here.
Row upon row of dreary grey buildings composed the ward of Clifftop. Despite its architectural monotony, a vibrant crowd mulled the streets, granting the adventurer’s quarter an air of eccentricity. On her way, Aluatris passed numerous shops offering services as varied as their clientele. At last she reached her destination, an unassuming little edifice the window of which proclaimed in peeling gold letters the “Clifftop Adventurer’s Guild.”
Inside, a surprising number of long, rectangular tables dominated the small space. Orangey everbright lanterns hung from the ceiling that cast a passable imitation of firelight. Large, deteriorated maps hung on the far wall. The smell of stale smoke hung in the air, along with the low murmur of whispering voices.
Two of the tables were surrounded by parties of adventurers, both deep in conversation and huddled over some map or sheet of parchment spread over the tabletop. Everyone in the room besides her was clad in full armour, and armed as if for an imminent battle. Already Aluatris felt out of place in her fine dress.
“…should be in Stormreach by the end of next week,” one of the men at the nearest occupied table was saying. A scar along his jaw line suggested he had experience in the field, and he spoke with the authority of one accustomed to a leadership role.
Momentarily forgetting her manners – she had always been taught it was rude to eavesdrop – Aluatris found herself moving towards their table.
“And from there,” exclaimed a woman with a short mop of auburn curls, pointing her finger to a point on the map labelled ‘Stormreach’ and dragging it along a winding path towards a small patch of jungle, “it should only be a few days’ march to—”
Upon noticing the unfamiliar figure of Aluatris hovering by their table, the woman cut off and turned narrowed eyes upon the elf.
“Can we help you with something?” inquired the man who had first spoken, flatly, and Aluatris had the feeling he did not wish to offer her any help whatsoever. Up close, she realised he had quite a severe look to him, and his voice certainly matched.
“Possibly. I -- Were you discussing a voyage to Xen’drik?”
In the same uninviting tone as before, he toyed, “And if we are?”
“I might be interested in accompanying the five of you and exploring the continent for myself,” Aluatris responded, maintaining her graciousness fabulously well in light of the man’s blatant lack thereof. “I’ve seen my fair share of Khorvaire, but I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the Shattered Land.”
The man snorted. “What do you think this is? Vacation? If you want some cushy sight-seeing expedition, you’d best run along and search elsewhere.”
Wanting to prove he had misunderstood her intentions, Aluatris softly intoned the word “Hypnotism.”
“Cute,” sneered the man, evidently unaffected, his voice oozing condescension, “But you’re gonna need better than that if you want to make it out there. The wilds of Xen’drik are dangerous, lady. They’re a place for adventurers and soldiers, not for spoiled barons’ daughters to play with their toy swords.”
Aluatris fumed at this remark and for the first time ever had a genuine desire to hurt someone. “You don’t know anything about me,” she says, matching his disdain with equal amounts of venom, “I could make my way on Xen’drik just fine.”
“Whatever you say, lady. Now if you don’t mind, we have important things to do.”
As Aluatris stormed out of the guildhall, she had already made up her mind. She was going to go to Stormreach and prove the world wrong.
I can do this.
Her father was less-than-thrilled with the idea, but he understood that it was her choice to make. “If the weather continues to be this fair, the airship could probably get you there in two days,” he suggested, “It would be much quicker and more comfortable than any of the boats you could take.”
Aluatris shook her head. “I can’t keep relying on your money, father,” she explained, “I’m a warrior now. Or at least, I’m trying to be. I have to make it on my own.”
“More and more like your mother every day,” Lyrus said fondly, smiling sadly at Aluatris. Though the thought of losing her dismayed him, it pleased him to see that Aluatris was inheriting her mother’s fighting spirit.
What exactly he meant by that comment, Aluatris wasn’t sure, but she was quite certain it was a compliment. She pulled her father into a tight embrace. In her heart, she knew this was what she wanted, what she needed, but she still hated to go.
“It’s not forever,” she assured him, “I will be back. I just… can’t be here right now.”
“Take as much time as you need.” Lyrus implored, “Just promise you’ll be careful.”
A scream tore through the silence of the night. Aluatris bolted awake. The storm had broken out a few hours ago, but until now there had been no reason to suspect there was anything to it. Emerging from her cabin below deck, she could hear the wind howling.
“What’s going on?” she asked the first sailor she encountered.
“Look!” he responded, pointing to the west.
The sight that befell her was stupefying. Patches of water all around were freezing, creating a sort of slush through which they were presently sailing. Closer inland, more of the sea had solidified, and a great sheet of solid ice surrounded the shoreline.
A massive shadow flew overhead, and thunderclaps shook the air.
For a time, The Comet continued making steady progress through the slushy Thunder Sea, and it appeared as though it might make it through Shargon’s Teeth and onwards to Stormreach without significant problems. Then a gale unlike anything Aluatris had ever experienced before slammed into the ship and knocked it off course. Everyone clung to railings, masts, anything they could get a hold of, to avoid being sent flying off into the cold waters below.
Another, lesser, gust blew in from the west and pushed them back the other way. Before long, wind was buffeting them from all sides, tossing the ship around as if it were made of paper. Aluatris was beginning to think The Comet would be torn to shreds before they ever got out of this storm when, as suddenly as it had come, the windstorm broke.
Calm set in, and Aluatris contemplated going back to bed. It seemed the danger had passed. Shadows passed through the sky, but she paid it no mind. Probably just airships resuming their voyages.
The last things she remembers were a wave of searing cold and a fearsome growl.
Aluatris (Part III)
Shae Lias was quieting down for the night when Aluatris arrived in the designated meeting place, a shaded alleyway nearby her favourite restaurant, The Oaks. In the shadows cast by the eponymous tree-walls, she awaited her enigmatic informant, wondering not for the first time if she was a fool for agreeing to this. He did not leave her waiting long.
Short, wiry, and light of foot, his approach completely eluded her until he stood directly before her. He was garbed head-to-toe in black, a shadow given shape, and an up-pulled cowl veiled all but his mouth. A clearer justification for Aluatris’s misgivings there could not have been.
“Who are you?” Aluatris demanded as soon as she caught sight of him, “And how do you know who I am?”
Beneath the hood, a twitch of his lips revealed the man’s amusement. “Patience, Aluatris. If you do not recall, I offered so kindly to help you in your search.” He paused to let his words sink in, and then continued calmly, “I am a friend—or rather, a friend of a friend; that is all that matters.”
Shifting her stance, Aluatris felt a slight but reassuring pressure against her right thigh: the slender blade she had sheathed beneath her dress. Months on Xen’drik had taught her to be prepared for the worst.
She narrowed her eyes at the man. “If that were true, you would not require such secrecy. You insult the faith I have put in you by cloaking yourself so. Feel free to leave if you do not wish to aid me. I require no alliance with cowards or lairs.”
The man chuckled. “The lady knows how to play. Very well, then.” With one deft movement he drew back his cowl, revealing a shoulder-length fall of pale mauve hair; two cold, grey eyes; a face that was comely, if not particularly handsome; and a swirling Mark of Shadow. “I am Elorick, of House Phiarlan, and a former associate of your dear Fredric.”
“So you know why I have returned to Sharn?” Considering what he already knew of her, Aluatris saw no reason to maintain any secrecy of her own. A week of discreetly probing any potential leads had lead to one dead-end after another. This Phiarlan was her only chance of discovering what caused Fred’s death, she knew, and if she wished him to be honest with her it was imperative she reciprocate.
Elorick nodded. “You wish to discover how he died. It just so happens that my house has taken an interest in why. Now, what do you know of his brother?”
“Merrith?” It struck her as a curious question, which was reflected in her tone. In her mind’s eye, she could see him: tall and dark of hair, he shared much of his elder brother’s good looks, but they were distorted with a smug arrogance that Aluatris so despised. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
Eyes twinkling, Elorick responded cryptically, “What indeed… He seems a sneaky sort, don’t you agree? Always scheming and getting up to no good.”
The irony of the comment almost made Aluatris laugh. One Phiarlan calling another sneaky was like a crow calling a raven black. Not only a Phiarlan, she reminded herself. Upon his death, Fredric’s seat on the Phiarlan’s councils and position as peacekeeper between the houses Phiarlan and Thuranni had passed to Merrith, and by right of birth, the brothers were full members of both houses. Doubly sneaky.
“You kin are all masters of stealth and duplicity,” Aluatris acknowledged with a disarming smile. “It would seem to me Merrith is not exceptional in that regard.”
Elorick sighed and shook his head. “Is that all? Surely in the years you courted his brother you got to know him a little better than that.”
This stranger’s thorough knowledge of her past unnerved Aluatris, but there was nothing to be done for it. Even if she wanted to walk away, Elorick stood between her and the only exit from the alley, and could choose to bar her path if he so pleased. She had no choice but to trust him.
Reflecting on what she knew of Merrith d’Thuranni, Aluatris elaborated, “He was ambitious to the point of greed. He was always trying to escape from Fred’s shadow. Merrith envied his brother, always had.” She searched Elorick’s face for some reaction to what she was saying and came up empty. “What do you want from me?”
“I want to help you see.” Elorick cut off suddenly to examine his clothing, which irritated Aluatris. Perhaps he was doing it on purpose. When he resumed speaking, he was toying with a platinum ring around one finger. Aluatris kept herself alert for signs of magic, but detected none. It was mere fidgeting. “Merrith did have one thing Fredric never had, did you know? Where his brother received a lordship and a powerful position, the Phiarlan lords gifted Merrith with a dagger. A Phiarlan heirloom—quite valuable. Poison strong enough to bring a strong man to his knees, and acid to corrode anything it comes in contact to ruins. An assassin’s dream…”
All at once, Aluatris felt the air rush from her lungs, and she clutched at the wall to keep from falling. Images swam through her brain as seemingly innocuous details and memories flowed together to form a horrifying, undeniable truth. She saw a dead cat on the floor, its corroded flesh sheering off before her eyes, and Merrith standing over it, clutching a dagger and laughing like a fool. She saw a body in a field, burned beyond recognition, disintegrating as she touched it…
Forcing herself back to her feet, she looked Elorick straight in the face and forced him to lock eyes with her. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“We do not take the murder of one of our scions lightly.” His voice was ice, displeased but detached. To him, it seemed to Aluatris, this was just business. For all she knew, it was. Night had fallen, and with it had come a slight chill. Aluatris shivered.
“It grows late,” Elorick announced, nodding curtly by means of adieu, “Have a pleasant evening.”
With that he was off, bounding away from her with surprising rapidity and blending into the night before Aluatris fully registered he had gone. It took another moment before the shock wore off. Anger took its place.
His own brother! It was such an awful suggestion. And yet… Are you truly surprised? You said it yourself, he always envied Fred. The glory, the power… the girl…
She turned her gaze towards the heavens and vowed to herself that she would bring Merrith d’Thuranni to justice, no matter the cost. Someday, somehow, he would pay.
Aluatris (Part IV)
Aluatris stared at the letter as if it were a snake poised to strike. It sat on the table before her, neatly folded and seal unbroken, beside her customary wineglass. It had come to her in the bank, clutched in the hands of a portly dwarven guard garbed in Kundarak orange. This atypical manner of delivery gave her pause, but it was the familiar signet that unnerved her most.
Embossed in the deep olive wax, so dark it was almost black, like the colour of a bruise, was the feline face of the Thuranni displacer beast, encircled by the hydra heads of Phiarlan. Merrith’s sigil.
Taking a deep breath, Aluatris gingerly picked up the parchment and unfolded it. As her eyes scanned the message’s contents they narrowed in suspicion—and worry.
He’s come to Stormreach! And wants to see me. He couldn’t know that I suspect him… could he? She chewed her bottom lip nervously. Given the man’s influence in the elven houses, it was likely he had a number of spies, any one of which could have overheard her conversation with Elorick. What else could he want?
Understanding came to her as she cast her gaze down to her dress, an eye-catching ruby garment with layered skirts and a deep neckline the pale sash across her torso did little to conceal. He wants me. She ran a hand through her auburn waves and smiled weakly. I can use that.
Time had flown while she contemplated the spymaster’s message and already the Phoenix was beginning to fill with familiar faces. Glad for the distraction, Aluatris shoved the letter in her pack and made to join her friends.
If only it were so easy to shove away the thoughts.
Leaning against her pillar, with her feet hanging out over the pit, Aluatris sat with her friends in body but not so with her mind. Laughter and cheer abounded the group, but she would have none of it. Try as she might to enjoy herself, always her mind drifted back to Merrith and his ominous presence in Stormreach, and she was only vaguely aware of any conversation that was to be had. Noting his friend’s uncharacteristic melancholy, Hoch must have asked a half dozen times if she was feeling alright, but always she insisted she was fine.
Aluatris had never been a good liar.
At last she resolved to pay Merrith a visit and see how much he suspected. Hoch may not have the power to help her talk to the dead, but she could talk to the living. Not needing to feign distraction, Aluatris announced that she was going to take a walk to clear her head. She prided herself on her clever stretching of the truth.
With that, she strode from the Phoenix, making a conscience effort to maintain a slow, calm pace. Once she passed the doorway to the tavern, she abandoned her pretence and accelerated her pace. All the way through the marketplace and the Phiarlan enclave en route to the Bogwater Tavern where Merrith was staying, Aluatris did her best to stay off the main paths and often glanced back over her shoulder. A few times she thought she saw movement and glints of silver and gold from behind, two pursuers ducking out of sight, but she chalked it up to paranoia and continued on undeterred.
Up the ladder to the second level of suites she went and onwards to the fourth door to her left. She hesitated before knocking. There was no hesitation in Merrith’s answer.
“Miss Songsteel,” he said when he beheld her, “Such a fierce name you’ve made for yourself.” He laughed his harsh laugh, and Aluatris very nearly walked away. You’ve come too far to stop now, she told herself. “Please, come in.”
Hoch and Eopia ascended the ladder just in time to see the door behind their friend slam shut.
“Are you sure he’ll come?” Aluatris massaged her temples in a fruitless attempt to calm her turbulent mind. The past few weeks since her confrontation with Merrith had all happened so fast that her brain had a hard time keeping up. So many plans had flourished and died that she was relieved an end was finally in sight. Still, the current plot was far from flawless, and all the potential pitfalls set her on edge—even more so than she already was since coming to the conclusion Fredric was murdered.
Elorick simply nodded; if he was at all bothered by events, it did not show. “Positive.”
As capricious as the Phiarlan was, Aluatris was glad to have him as an ally. Despite Hoch’s counsel, Sunky’s connections, and Ja’ick’s wild schemes and vigour, only Elorick offered her a real chance of exposing Merrith for the traitorous bastard he was.
“So we’re going to bring him down peacefully?”
An unidentifiable mixture of emotions flashed across Elorick’s usually emotionless face, and he regarded Aluatris curiously. “Ideally… But I wouldn’t let my guard down for a second. There’s no telling what Merrith might do if he believes we know his secret, and I have authority to take him out if the situation goes badly. Pray for the best, but prepare for the worst.”
Her stomach twisted uncomfortable at that, but Aluatris nodded. “I know.”
“Pai byr thaes,” Elorick assured her. Do not fear. Aluatris thought he sounded almost sympathetic when he said it; maybe he wasn’t as cold as he let on. “It will be neither the first nor the last time I’ve dealt with a dangerous criminal one-on-one.”
Without even considering the ramifications of her words, Aluatris blurted, “You won’t be alone.”
Smiling crookedly, Elorick said, “No, I suppose not.”
After that, silence fell over the pair for a long while. Looking up through the open roof of the Bogwater Tavern, Aluatris could see the sun setting. It was a curious feeling being on the edge of glory, she thought, simultaneously afraid and exhilarated. The last day before all this madness came to an end was drawing to a close.
Aluatris (Part V)
True to its name, the firewhiskey burned its way down her throat. Aluatris found she welcomed the sensation; it was like a holy pyre, purging her of her sins and burning away all the things she wished she could forget. At least, that was what she told herself. In truth, it was merely alcohol and a misplaced attempt at distraction.
For days now she had been feigning well-being, but the dark circles around her eyes were beginning to betray her. Aluatris’s mind was plagued day and night with nightmares of mocking laughter, a cruel man, and blood. You brought this on yourself she wanted to say.
But whether she was talking to him, or to herself, even she wasn’t clear.
The dark and troubling thoughts were pushed aside by the sound of Hoch’s friendly voice as he appeared at the top of the ramp. “Need company?”
“I don’t need it…” Aluatris smiled weakly up at him. “If you must go, then go. I’ll be fine.”
Of course her thinly veiled bluff was pointless with Hoch; he knew her better than that. Arms crossed, he leaned against the wall and frowned. “What’s troubling you?”
Aluatris shrugged and pushed her empty bottle away. “I’ll tell you later.”
“That won’t do and you know it. Come on now.” A lock of blond hair escaped from Hoch’s signature topknot and fell across his face, and Aluatris could see his blue eyes searching for what her words were hiding.
“It was just that necromancer from earlier,” she lied, referring to the lunatic woman who’d joined their get-together that evening. “Something about her… it just wasn’t right!”
With a shrug, Hoch assured her “a lot of necromancers are like that.”
“I haven’t known a lot of necromancers.”
“I’ve killed quite a few of them. What was she saying?”
Just reflecting on the occurrence was enough to get Aluatris flustered again. “Kept rambling on about this freaky book, and how she was cursed, and how she hid in this vampire’s lair and thought someone was watching her. She’d been mumbling to herself for like an hour before we finally got her to even introduce herself.”
“Is that all? I wouldn’t worry about it.” Clearly Hoch was less perturbed by the mad rambling than Aluatris, which frustrated her. Yet his calmness was contagious, for which Aluatris was begrudgingly grateful.
Acknowledging that he wasn’t going anywhere until he got answers, she sighed and slumped down in her chair. “Well, I guess that wasn’t everything.”
“Of course not.” Hoch grinned and pulled up a chair across from her.
“But the other thing… It’s just silly girl stuff… You wouldn’t want to bother yourself about it.”
“Silly girl stuff?” His voice dripped with so much doubt that Aluatris got the distinct impression her lie wasn’t cutting it. It seemed she would have to try harder to satisfy his curiosity. “If it is bothering you, then I will listen.”
Aluatris chuckled nervously.
“Lin was pestering me yesterday about you,” Hoch added, as if justifying his concern. “That overinflated sense of ego tried to order me to not get you hysterical. What was that about?”
At this, Aluatris’s laughter stopped abruptly. “She did what? Why?” During her conversation with Mehilindra the other night, her anger and borderline hysteria had been far fresher, and she had been less cautious about hiding it. She cursed herself for her carelessness now.
“She seemed to think I knew something that happened to you yesterday.”
Aluatris shifted her gaze towards the entrance of the back part of the Phoenix, looking momentarily thoughtful, as if expecting said elf to meander in to the tavern and explain herself. “Really…? That’s odd of her.”
“She’s odd in general. Thinks a little too highly of herself. But she was very concerned about you for some reason.”
Doing her best to remain calm and conversational, Aluatris shrugged, “I can’t imagine why. I was a little distracted I suppose, but otherwise fine.”
“Distracted with all this ‘girl stuff’?” Hoch wondered sceptically.
“Exactly! Distracted with girl stuff.”
The elder elf eyed his friend sadly. “Fine.”
Looking upset, he got up and made to leave. Aluatris could hardly blame him, but her desire to protect her secret prevented her from feeling overly remorseful. A few tears fell down her face, which she quickly but discreetly wiped away, hoping Hoch didn’t notice. Of all people, he was perhaps the one she wanted to disappoint the least.
Shaking his head, Hoch said, “You know, you can learn things from others’ actions. I can take the hint. You can talk to Lin, but not to me… I understand.”
Coolly, surprising herself with the sudden venom, Aluatris retorted, “I didn’t talk to Lin!” Then, more gently, she added “I just… have… a lot to think about.”
“Okay,” Hoch conceded, sounding anything but. “Think about it all you want.”
Aluatris took a deep breath before saying “Hoch, sit down. Please.”
“Don’t tell me what is bothering you if you don’t want to Aluatris.”
“I do want to. I just…” Tears welled up in her eyes all over again, and her voice cracked piteously as she spluttered, “I don’t know what to do Hoch!”
His temper having been settled by this refreshing honesty, Hoch lifted her chin and looked into her eyes a moment. “How may I help?”
“I don’t know… if you can.” She replied, helplessly, as Hoch retook his seat.
“Is this still about your trip to Sharn?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, magic stone, a twin of which he’d given to Aluatris when she’d proposed her heinous trip to him weeks ago. In the haste in which things had played out, she’d never told him that those plans had fallen apart. “I’m still carrying this.”
Pulling out her own stone, Aluatris managed a small smile. “I have mine too… although I can’t really remember how to work it.” Good thing too, or he’d probably be in Sharn hopelessly looking for someone who wasn’t even there.
“It is simple,” he explained, “Just hold onto it and concentrate on the stone. It does the rest of the work. You might want to remember; it may help you.
“If that is too tough, just give it back.” He added, grinning playfully. Leave it to him to joke at a time like this, thought Aluatris with an internal laugh.
“I see. Anyway, I never went back to Sharn. I…” At this point she started looking determinedly at the wall, the table—anywhere but at her best friend, “I dealt with things in a different way…”
“Did you now?” Hoch paused, watching her attempts at evasion. “You know it is obvious you are not looking at me. Am I that terrible to talk to?”
Aluatris shook her head and replied very softly, “That’s because I wish you didn’t have to know.”
Hoch grabbed her hand gently and looked at her, and for a moment she almost felt comfort. “Hey,” he told her, “It’s me. The dumb elf who almost got himself killed.
“…But I didn’t, because my friends were there for me. Let me return the favour.”
How I want to! There was no avoiding it now, she knew that. Aluatris lifted her eyes up to meet Hoch’s and almost immediately regretted it. There were the eyes of one of the most important people in her life, seeing the innocent little girl who could never be capable of the things she did. It pained her to think of having to shatter that belief. What would he think of her…?
“I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t mean to. Things just got out of control, Hoch.”
Noticing the panicked look in her eyes, Hoch squeezed her hand gently. It saddened him to see such a strong woman looking so defeated. Gently, he asked, “What happened, Aluatris?”
Biting her lip, Aluatris held her silence, fighting between her desire to confide in someone and her fear of judgement. It weighed on her to keep such a dark secret bottled up where no one could find it—almost worse than everyone knowing what she did was having no one know, and having to suffer in silence. Still, revealing it to Hoch was a terrifying prospect. He was the first real friend she made after arriving in Stormreach what felt like an eternity ago, and by now he had become the closest thing she’d ever had to a brother. She didn’t want him to know what she’d done, the type of person she’d become. Surely he’d hate her—how could he not? And yet… considering what happened with him and his father, he might just be the one person who wouldn’t hate her, who could understand…
Slowly, hesitantly, she began her story. “You’re the only person I can talk to about this. The only person who’s been there, who knows what it’s like.”
On the verge of the point of no return, she took a deep breath. Here it goes…
“Hoch, I killed him.”
To her relief, Hoch’s eyes softened in sadness and understanding. “I’m sorry Aluatris. I really am.”
Aluatris nodded and breathed a sigh of relief. So he doesn’t think I’m a monster. Emboldened by his support thus far, she added the worst detail of all: “And part of me enjoyed it.”
Hoch frowned at this. “No you didn’t. You may have felt bliss for your revenge, but I hope you didn’t really enjoy it. I wish you stayed away from him.
“So, if you didn’t go to Sharn, he came back here? And you didn’t let me know?”
“I didn’t want you to worry about me.” Aluatris sighed, “I see how well that worked out…”
“You didn’t want me to worry? So you think I can leave this place tonight and not think about what else you are not telling me about?” Hoch shook his head. “I used to think that hiding things was the best action to take. But it only hurts those that care about you more.”
“Hoch…” Aluatris fought to keep her voice from trembling too much, “What do you want me to say? ‘Sorry’? Because I am. I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you sooner. But we had a plan. I thought he was finally gonna get what he deserved. I didn’t think… Well, that’s it; I just didn’t think.”
“We had a plan?”
Aluatris almost smiled at this. It had always been his belief that everything he said went in one ear and out the other with her—which, to be fair, was true more often than she’d care to admit. “You know, I do listen to you sometimes. I realised I couldn’t come after him without thinking things through first.”
“I thought the plan was in Sharn. How did it get moved up here?” Disappointment crossed Hoch’s face as a sad thought occurred to him, “And if it was here, you could have had some friends close.”
A little unsure herself, looking back, she shrugged. “Elorick moved here, and he helped me come up with a scheme to take him down. With non-violent intentions, mind you.”
Confusion chased away the look of disappointment. “Who is Elorick?”
“A representative of House Phiarlan who knew Fred. He was with the expedition against the Dhakanni.”
She gave Hoch a serious look, hoping it would help her words sink in, “If I thought for one moment that I would’ve needed protection, I would’ve had you closer.”
Hoch sat back in his chair, pensive. “At least someone you could trust was there I gather.”
“Someone I could— well, not exactly.”
Obviously this was not the reassuring answer Hoch was hoping for. He took a deep breath and shook his head once more. “You’re a big girl, Aluatris. I should respect your decisions. Sorry I am being a brat about this. At least you are safe.” He frowned.
“You’re not being a brat,” Aluatris assured him, flashing him what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “You’re being a friend. And probably a better friend than I was.”
“Should I assume the body was disposed of? Or will the city guard come looking for you.”
“The body was disposed of for sure. I should have no trouble from the local guard, but I don’t know how well his house will take it. Thankfully, they should have no evidence against me.” What she didn’t mention was why – how the body was corroded, killed by the same acidic dagger Merrith had used on his brother – a fitting revenge.
“I wouldn’t count on that,” suggested Hoch, “House Thuranni doesn’t have a very good reputation for trustworthiness. I would almost bet he was watched somehow.”
A moment’s hesitation, thought, and then, “Neither does House Phiarlan, mind you…”
Aluatris gazed about the loft, as if resolution were lurking in the shadows, and yawned. “Whatever happens happens. I don’t have time tonight to worry about who may or may not have been watching.”
“You ‘don’t have time’?”
“Unlike you, I have human blood in me,” Another yawn proved her point. “And I need some beauty rest.”
“Hmm… Well they watch their own more than they watch their marks. We should have someone look into this and see if there is any news.”
Eager to steer the conversation away from this topic, Aluatris rose to her feet. “Hoch… I could really use a hug right now.”
Happy to comply, Hoch wrapped his arms around her and squeezed tightly. “I’m glad you are safe,” he whispered.
“Thank you…” she responded, taking comfort in the embrace, “For being there.”
Vaguely, Hoch opined, “But I wasn’t there…”
Then he was gone, down the ramp and headed home for the night, leaving Aluatris alone with her thoughts. Acceptance. It was all she could hope for, really, and more than she’d expected. She could live with that.
I’m not a monster.
Talking about it, justifying why it was necessary, had made the act seem less evil, less monstrous, less hypocritical. Merrith had acted out of jealousy and rage—that was murder. Aluatris had done only what circumstances had required her to do to save herself and Elorick. Self defence. He had it coming to him.
You brought this on yourself. Now she knew.
Already she was starting to come to terms with it. She didn’t like what she had done, but at least she could say she accepted why she did it.
As she walked down the steps and across the street to the Fellowship guild hall, she let her eyes roam the crowd. Stormreach was a city of many cultures, populated by pirates, adventurers, merchants, and all manner of people. On this wild continent they all led a dangerous life to one degree of another. Like that man over there. His boot bulged a little oddly around the ankle, probably a dagger, tucked away to be inconspicuous. Most likely he’d killed with it before. Every day scores of kobolds were being killed in the sewers; Aluatris herself had participated in it before. What made their lives any less valuable, or Merrith’s any more important that his death caused her so much grief? It couldn’t even be his humanity, for she’d killed humanoids before, on the job.
No one, most likely. The thought was staggering. Killing Merrith didn’t make her a murderer, she realized, it made her normal. It wasn’t despicable; it was life. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that, but one thought came back to her that put her thoughts to rest and allowed her sink into reverie confident in the knowledge that this hadn’t changed who she was at the core:
((This scene represents one of the most fun times I’ve had roleplaying, but also one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. I’d like to once again thank everyone who was a part of Al’s life and mine during this period, with special thanks to Hoch, whose participation made this chapter (and the previous two!) possible.))