Alyndria dropped her weapons and clutched her wounded side, staring around her in horror as the fallen monsters, all slain, transformed themselves into human shapes.
Reeling with the knowledge, she forced herself to take stock of her companions. Nalia was walking wounded, and crouching over another prone figure. "Aerie?"
"She's gone," Nalia whispered, brokenly, tears streaming down her face.
Alyndria felt her chest seize. /Oh no, not another... please no, not another on my conscience./ "She doesn't look too badly hurt, I think... we can raise her, well, I can't, I don't have the spells yet, but Anomen, or Viconia..." She looked around for the two more experienced healers only to find them stretched out with the rest.
Khalid was beside Viconia, trying to coax her to drink a potion as the Drow railed weakly. She met his eyes, and saw a hollow pain that mirrored her own.
"My... lady?" A watery coughing sound alerted her, and she looked down, seeing Anomen on the ground a few paces away - she had assumed him to be another dead knight.
"Anomen!" She rushed to him, heedless of the gore spread out around him. "Are you..."
"Put a few spells in me and I'll live," he murmured, somewhat dazed from loss of blood. "What about the others? They need healing..." He tried to get up, but Alyndria pressed her hands on his chest, forcing him to stay down.
"You need healing first, if you're going to be any help to us," she said.
"You're right... I..." Caught in the act of settling down again, he suddenly sat bolt upright, setting his wounds bleeding anew. With haunted eyes, and a face that was even whiter than before, if it were possible, he surveyed the carnage before them. "Helm's beard! What have we done?"
"Anomen, calm yourself, I need to heal - " She tried to push him down again.
"A most foul ruse has been played upon us!" He struggled against her in agitation - even weakened as he was his strength easily overpowered hers. "Innocents are slain! The lifeblood of the Order stains the ground. What have we done?"
"Shhhh..." She placed her hands against his chest in a calming gesture and finally got him to lie back on the blood-soaked turf. Lifeblood of the Order indeed, most of it, at least in this area, looked to be his. "Something is most assuredly wrong with this situation. What happened?"
"It was all an illusion! These are paladins and knights of the Order of the Most Radiant Heart." He turned his head, as if to avert his eyes from the tragedy, only to face another dead knight lying nearby. Likely he was the foe he had been fighting when he struck the deathblow that dented the left side of the man's helm, and a good portion of that side of his face. But judging by the state Anomen was in, his erstwhile foe had obviously put up a good fight. A low, ill sound escaped the squire's lips, and Alyndria prayed he wasn't going to be sick - she wasn't sure if she was strong enough to roll over a man of Anomen's size, let alone a man of Anomen's size decked out in full plate. "I know this man, Ajantis. He was a noble man but now is dead by our hand."
"Ajantis?" Alyndria followed Anomen's stricken gaze and felt the burning in her eyes become liquid, and wished her helm had a visor. She swallowed harshly. "As did I, Anomen." Ajantis... they had met briefly, and spent time hunting ankhegs outside of Baldur's Gate. Like Anomen he had an overdeveloped sense of ceremony, but also like Anomen he was - had been - a good man.
"Aye, I had heard Ajantis speak of you." Anomen choked and a few flecks of blood appeared on his lips, and stained his beard. "You know what we must do then?"
/Heal you, you damned fool, that's what!/ She was surprised by the vehemence of her thoughts, but managed to keep them inside. A healer did not help a patient by railing at them, however much they deserved it. "Obviously, we must make amends," she replied in a patient tone, though inside the monumental nature of the task overwhelmed her. "But how shall we do so?"
"There is only one option open to us. We must track down the one who played this foul trick upon us and extract our stolen honour from his cursed hide." Another fit of coughing racked the squire, who was clearly upsetting himself with his vitriolic words in his weakened state.
"It would seem a wise course of action," she allowed. "Anyone who would do such a thing isn't likely to be someone we can redeem. But first, we must have our strength back."
"Alyndria..." Khalid called hesitantly. "I gave Viconia my last potion, and while it worked, she still has a long way to go, and she's too weak to call on her healing powers. And Aerie..." He lowered his head.
"I know." The weight of the whole situation seemed overwhelming, but she would face this problem as Gorion had taught her, breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces. She regarded the severely wounded man in front of her. "Anomen, I must have your strength back, first and foremost, so that you can help me."
"I am in your capable hands, my lady," he replied shakily.
Taking a deep breath, Alyndria centred herself and called upon the mercy of the gods, channelling the energy into Anomen. Repeatedly she cast her spells, from the strongest, to the weakest, until she was drained of all except the Bhaal healing, and that she didn't want to touch unless absolutely necessary.
Warm hands clasping hers pulled her out of her trance, and Anomen sat up, breathing deeply and clearly. "I am well, my lady, thank you. Shall I see to Aerie?"
Alyndria shook her head. "Viconia first, she is in pain. Aerie is..." She bit her lip.
"I understand," said Anomen, his brown eyes gently regarding her.
"I have a little magic left," she said, gratefully remembering the two extra healing spells she'd locked into a spell trigger the previous night - magery was good for something after all. "I'll see to Nalia."
"Who will see to you?" Anomen asked, nodding at her side, and the blood still running down her armour. "I can..."
"Triage, Anomen," Alyndria interrupted, wearily. "You've travelled with an army, you know how it has to be done..."
"You're right, of course," he agreed stiffly, getting to his feet. Alyndria hoped she was just imagining the tone of hurt in his voice. /Triage,/ she reminded herself, even as her heart sank.
She got unsteadily to her feet as Khalid came towards her. Her eyes scanned him avidly, and a wash of relief swept over her that he appeared to be the only one unscathed of all of them. Once again experience carried the day.
"You're injured," he fretted, "you should apply some healing to that - "
"Nalia needs help first," she said, shaking her head, and nodded towards the crumpled bloodstained yellow form that was hunched over Aerie's lifeless body. "I don't think she's seen anyone die in battle before..."
Alyndria remembered a time when she had been like Nalia, not so long ago. They had been approaching Beregost when a troupe of hobgoblins had caught them unawares. She had shouted at Imoen to stay back, to fire arrows and leave the close quarters fighting to Khalid and Jaheira, who were plainly more experienced. But Imoen, being Imoen, had thought she had a better idea, and had slunk through the shadows, determined to bury her short sword in the back of the leader. Unfortunately he was the one who surprised her, spinning around and spitting her on his sword before she could even blink. The look of astonishment on her face had been almost comical - until she fell and didn't move.
The rest of the hobgoblins were dispatched and Alyndria had run to Imoen's side, only to find lifeless eyes staring wide open at the sky, much as Gorion's had been when they had returned to place him in a shallow grave before the wolves got him. She had been distraught, and had made the rest of the trip to Beregost in a grief-stricken haze, only to find that, after a stop at a Temple, Imoen was restored to her, safe and sound, with no memory of her passing. How many times since then had her friends fallen only to rise again. Death had begun to seem almost unreal to her. Until Jaheira. The power to raise the dead was a gift from the gods, and they bestowed it or withheld it at their whim.
Shaking her head, she gave Khalid a watery smile which he didn't see, lost in his own thoughts, probably in a similar vein to her own.
"Nalia?" she approached the young mage who was bent over, clutching her right shoulder. A whimper was her only answer. It was difficult to discern whether it was physical pain or mental anguish that afflicted her more.
Alyndria coaxed the redhead to sit up. "Come on, let me see where you're hurt..." She prepared to release the spell trigger.
"Why?" The question stopped Alyndria short.
"Why..." Nalia whispered. "First my father, then her... I know it has been such a short time, but she was so, I don't know, she seemed so... comfortable... to be around. I was getting... used to her. I have seen so much of the lower classes and their suffering, and I know it's wrong of me to complain when I have been so privileged, but it's just not fair..."
"Of course it's not fair, Nalia," Alyndria agreed soothingly. "Your feelings are normal. Even I don't know why the gods do the things they do... except I feel, when bad things happen, it isn't necessarily the will of the gods - well, of most gods. We have the ability to chart our own courses, and sometimes, often, we may choose wrongly. When this happens, the gods are waiting, like loving parents, for us to confess our hurt to them, for us to allow them into our lives to help and comfort us."
"What about Aerie? I know with my father, he was so badly hurt..." Her voice dissolved into a sob for a moment before she controlled it.
"She seems whole enough," Alyndria said cautiously. "When Anomen is finished healing Viconia we'll see. In the meantime, let me take care of that shoulder."
Biting her lip, Nalia nodded.
Alyndria triggered the stored spells with a few whispered words and watched as the wound slowly closed over, leaving smooth pink skin. Nalia shuddered as the healing energy washed over her, a frisson of involuntary reaction at proximity to the divine.
"Forgive me, my lady for interrupting, but we are finished, and I can now offer you a Drow in good repair."
From Anomen's side, Viconia gave a low chuckle. "I still find it odd to see a humble male with powers that a Handmaiden would envy. I suppose it is to make up for your other, more inferior qualities."
Anomen scowled at Viconia, but miraculously didn't rise to the bait. Of course he was tired. They all were - a long journey, coupled with such a disheartening welcome was hardly an auspicious beginning to their quest. "I am ready to attempt to raise Aerie."
Alyndria looked thoughtfully at the Helmite, and then at the dark priestess nearby, her face still smeared with the blood of her healed injuries. "Viconia, do you have any spells of raising?"
"I do, abbil, as Shar in her dark wisdom has seen fit to grant." She paused when she saw Alyndria look down at Aerie. "You're not suggesting that I - " she sputtered, "this pathetic weakling - she could not keep herself alive, so let her stay dead."
"How can you say that?" Nalia exclaimed bitterly.
Alyndria clenched her fists on her thighs. "I know you would not be you if you did not make a token protest, Viconia, but you will do this, won't you? For the one who saved your life?" She pressed her advantage shamelessly. "Twice?"
She looked at Khalid and saw the understanding in his eyes. /He knows,/ she thought in relief, /he knows why it must be her./
"Very well," the Drow relented ungraciously, "I suppose it is some comfort that if you will not heed my wishes to leave her to rot, that I can assume that neither would you listen to her pleas if our circumstances were reversed."
Alyndria nodded. "I will stand by what I said before. Everyone deserves a chance."
"Fine then," Viconia spat. "All of you, cease your prating that I might address my Goddess."
And she did so, in the harsh, ululating, hissing tones of the Drow tongue. Alyndria didn't speak a word of it, and for all she knew, Viconia might be calling down a spell of destruction upon Aerie's mortal remains, but she forced herself to remain quiet as the Drow continued to pray, a strange, dark violet light illuminating her dusky features in an eerie incandescence, and the harsh, blood red eyes drifted shut in the ecstasy of communion. The sheen of sweat gleamed on her face, and perhaps something more, beads of moisture running down, they could have been tears...
The same violet light began to gather in Viconia's palms as she pressed them down on Aerie's lifeless chest, and at once the Avariel gave a ragged gasp.
As Viconia was recovering, Anomen was already chanting, sending the power of Helm into the frail, weakened form, fanning the flame of life, healing her injuries. One after another the Drow and the man cast their own magic upon her, light and dark, coming together in perfect balance, gradually restoring Aerie to her former self.
Shaking, Aerie sat up slowly staring down at her torn robe in horror, rent asunder down the left side in the sword cut that had ended her life. She touched her chest, and her hand came away wet with her own drying blood. "Alyndria?"
A huge sniffling sob came from Nalia's direction, startling them all as the yellow clad mageling wept in relief.
"Nalia?" Aerie turned kindly to the younger redhead. "What's the matter?"
"We thought we lost you," Alyndria said, her own burgeoning relief expanding euphorically in her chest. They were all safe, they would all see another day. "But you're alright now. Viconia raised you."
"She made me do it," Viconia said hastily. "If it were up to me you would still be staring blankly like a dressed and roasted swan at a feast."
"I imagine I would," responded the Avariel, with pursed lips as the surveyed the Drow coolly, before returning her attention to the weeping heiress, stroking her hair and offering whispered reassurances.
"What goes on here?" called a new voice, and a middle-aged man dressed in a leather tunic emerged from a stand of bushes. "I've seen many a strange thing in my time, but the events of the past few moments tops them all. Who are you that can change shape so readily, and why have you slain these beasts that become men?"
Getting to her feet, Alyndria offered Aerie a hand and helped her up, feeling the sting in her own injuries, forgotten amidst the urgency of treating the others.. "It appears that we have been tricked into killing these knights!"
"That is the conclusion I've come to," said the stranger. "Though the priests of Helm will not believe what has happened. They will seek justice, and only your heads will suffice."
Alyndria nodded at his estimation - she had expected as much. Perhaps she would get to see an Amnish execution after all, and from a far closer perspective than she could ever have wanted. "That is dire news indeed. What do you suggest that we do?"
"I suggest that you take sanctuary with me until you can discover how this unfortunate event came to pass."
She gave him a level look, and something in his eyes told her she should trust him. "I shall be honoured to accept your hospitality."
"Follow behind me. My cabin is but a short distance South of here. I will meet you there."
Alyndria turned to follow him when a hand on her arm forestalled her.
"My lady," Anomen said, kindly, despite his own strained thoughts, "I do believe you are forgetting something." He indicated her injuries.
"They can wait."
"Punishing yourself is not going to help matters," Khalid told her, as firmly as his stutter would allow. "All of us were deceived by the appearance of these knights, and it seemed they were deceived by our appearance as well. Let yourself be healed, my dear, there is no reason to let yourself suffer when all of us are fine."
"Fine..." she echoed, unconsciously, her mind still on the bloody sight of the clearing. Killing a group of knights was about as far from her ambitions and dreams as it could get. They were certainly not fine. Poor Anomen was most definitely not... "Fine," she said more firmly. "Go ahead, Anomen." She sighed as she felt the fleeting peace of divine healing knit her torn flesh and broken skin. It was something, at least, she supposed, that they all still had their spells, and the Gods, unlike man, could see the truth and not punish them for what had obviously been a very serious misunderstanding.
"There," Anomen stepped back, the soft blue glow draining from his hands. "How do you feel?"
"Ready to find out what is really going on here," she decided. "I don't like being deceived."
A short time later, the group rested in Garren's comfortable cabin. Garren himself had proven sympathetic to their plight and had returned to Athkatla to intercede with the Orderon their behalf, leaving his son Taar, a helpful youth, to watch over them.
"Well, there isn't much to be done for it now," Alyndria decided, striving to focus even as her thoughts filled of the interesting young knight that had helped them to hunt ankhegs just south of Baldur's gate.
"How can you be so calm, my lady?" Anomen asked, his tone nakedly agrieved.
"I'm not really so calm, Anomen, but little is to be gained from lamenting the injust fate that has thrust this situation upon us. I prefer to do something constructive. There is still light enough for us to fullfill another promise." Alyndria looked at Khalid who nodded in understanding. "I know it isn't much, but perhaps freeing some dryads from imprisonment will begin to atone for the stains against our souls."
"Dryads?" Anomen looked at her curiously.
"Some fellow prisoners from Irenicus' dungeon," she explained, "we promised we would try to free them, and we are just in the right place now to do it. Taar?" she turned to Garren's son, who was busily stirring some soup over the fire. "You know these areas fairly well, correct?"
The youth nodded.
"Is there a fairy grove nearby? I know such things are not always made plain to ordinary folk, but..."
To her surprise, Winspear's sun blushed to the roots of his reddish hair. "I have seen the grove."
"Probably from a lot closer than you should," Khalid guessed, a note of unexpected humour in his voice along with the everpresent stutter.
The boy regarded the half-elven fighter quizzically. "How would you know?"
"My wife is... was...", Khalid's voice caught briefly on the word, "a Druid, and she was often in communion with the spirits of Nature. Faeries can be dangerous, you know, for while they're beautiful and generally harmless of intention, they can cause a great deal of accidental harm by simply failing to realize the world works differently for them than it does for the rest of us." For some reason his eyes drifted towards Alyndria's and in his gaze she found herself unexpectedly caught and ensnared.
Taking a deep breath of woodsmoke-scented air, she looked away, blushing nearly as much as Winspear's son, who coloured sill more deeply at Khalid's gentle, chiding concern. She found herself drawn back in her mind to the dream she'd had, where Khalid and Jaheira became parents - she remembered the joy his eyes contained as he cradled his firstborn child in his arms. He would have made a wonderful father, she was sure of it. She bit her lip, and forced her mind back to the present, away from the realm of might-have-beens too painful to contemplate.
"My father doesn't know I've been going, you won't tell him, will you?" Taar asked.
"Do you promise to exercise some judgement?" Khalid returned, arching one dark brow.
He nodded, and Khalid gave him a gentle smile. "Very well. Your secret is safe with me."
"Thank you," Taar replied, gratefully, "and I'm sorry, about your wife."
Khalid offered the boy another, weaker smile, but didn't reply. What was there to say, really?
Alyndria hastily took over. "So where is this grove?"
"Just a short walk east," Taar said, "I could show you."
"That won't be necessary," Khalid rose to his feet and reached into his tunic, pulling out the leather thong upon which Jaheira's wedding ring still gleamed. Alyndria had not known that he had attached the small drawstring bag containing the Dryad's seeds to the same cord and had been wearing it next to his heart ever since. Of course it made sense that he would so want to protect a sacred charge that Jaheira would have wanted him to complete.
Alyndria rose to her feet. "Do you want company?" she asked hesitantly. "You probably shouldn't go alone, especially if whatever cast that illusion on those knights is still about."
"Yes..." Khalid admitted, "company would be wise."
"I'll go with you then," Alyndria decided. "The rest of you can stay here, unless you have any objections. We've all had quite a shock, and we probably shouldn't be doing too much running around until Garren has come back with some information we can work with."
"Agreed," said Nalia, who was feeling somewhat better. She had on a spare tunic and pants as she repaired a tear in her robe. Aerie sat nearby, engaged in a similar pursuit. They had all taken turns bathing and taking care of laundry a little earlier in the creek, washing off the grime of travel and blood of battle. She smiled at the comfortable domestic scene the pair presented. Viconia, meanwhile, was lounging on her bedroll, which she had spread out on the floor, looking indolently bored, and Anomen was praying to his god so dejectedly that Alyndria really hoped he would get some sign of comfort.
It did bother her, what happened, it bothered her quite a lot, but the sad thing was that it was not really much of a shock. It struck her that she was almost used to her life getting put out of sorts by major conflicts, challenges, obstacles and inconveniences. You just had to take what came to you, and do what you could to make, if not something good out of the situation, at least something moderately less bad.
She turned to Khalid. "Well, then, shall we?"
The fighter nodded and together they left the cabin
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