The darkness enfolded her like a warm cloak, like a blessing. Here she was safe... no one could see her... here alone her cursed crimson eyes proved they had some worth. She could see farther in the dark than any human, and, thanks to her heritage, farther even than most surface elves. The red limned shapes of other beings in the dark warned her when one was getting too close, and allowed her to keep her distance.
Quite sure now that she wouldn't be interrupted, Eshcarna ducked into the shadows near the outer curtain wall and wiped her eyes angrily, then cursed as she realized that she'd left her harp behind. Imoen would take care of it, though, she knew it, knew it with an absolute certainty that a person like her should never have about anyone. She asked herself again what she had ever done to deserve such a dependable friend, and the answer was always the same: nothing.
One of the guards was wandering closer to her hiding spot, and she shuddered. What if she were challenged? Asked to remove her hood? She'd left her weapons behind as well, and there was no one to speak for her. People typically didn't ask questions of a drow. Why, if she exposed herself to him she could be free of this mortal burden before dawn, before the hateful sun arose to send its light like daggers to pierce her sensitive eyes.
She abandoned her hiding place, but it was not to court death, no, she simply fled like a shadow, making her way towards the drawbridge, crossing its expanse, and escaping into the woods beyond. She didn't stray too far, just far enough to see anyone making their way in or out of the inn. No one came.
Good old Imoen, she had probably held her father's nosy friends back with some excuse or other about Eshcarna needing time alone, and Xzar and Montaron were unlikely to follow, except, most likely, if they'd decided to put a permanent end to their association with her, though she doubted that would happen. They had seen her eyes, and the wizard, in a period of lucidity, had rightly divined what she was, and the look that had passed between him and his miniature sidekick suggested that they were well pleased with the discovery, a pleasure that was just as insulting to Eshcarna as the displeasure of anyone else. Again she had been judged solely on assumption.
The sound of an owl hooting nearby made her look up for a moment. Oddly enough, and it was something she had never admitted to anyone, not even her beloved Gorion, she had always been a little afraid of the dark. Sure, she could see any living thing approaching way before it saw her, but it was the unliving that had truly been disturbing. That was long ago, now, she would have welcomed the chance to pit herself against any number of creatures of darkness. Fear was a weakness, and she could afford no weaknesses in this world.
The thought galvanized her, and she began to walk further into the forest, forgetting her lack of armament. She was further from home than she had ever been in her life, perhaps she could scare up something interesting that she could play with, after all.
She followed the perimeter of the inn, within view of the roadway that encircled the keep, but keeping to the woods where none would spy her. Whatever she came upon, she intended to have the advantage.
Or so she had thought.
They spotted each other at the same moment. Three hulking hobgoblins dressed in helmets and leather armour, armed with bastard swords that were nearly as big as she was, versus one small half-drow, armoured, but unarmed. The logical choice would have been to run, but Eshcarna wasn't feeling very logical at the moment.
She wasn't a complete fool however, and so the first thing she did was try to incapacitate them with her magic. As yet she didn't have the command of many spells, but she did have some inherent magic thanks to her unique heritage, and she called upon it now. Drawing power from a hidden place inside herself, she deepened the darkness around the three hobgoblins, until even the moon did not give them any hint of light by which to see. Then, she concentrated still more deeply, sending a wave of dancing colours and lights towards the floundering creatures, who appeared to be brawling amongst themselves, each thinking that the other was the enemy they had just spotted. Suddenly there were three, muted thuds, as the massive creatures fell to the ground, stunned unconscious.
Immediately Eshcarna waded into the artificially deeper darkness she had created, her powerful infravision having absolutely no trouble discerning the three comatose forms of her adversaries. First things first, she required a weapon, and so she gripped the hilt of one of the hobgoblin's swords, trying to prize it from his grip. She tried for a few minutes, then swore as he continued to hold it fast, so she moved on to the next hobgoblin, and the next, having similar bad luck with each. Well, that was no good.
Taking a deep breath, she cast the only arcane spell she had committed to memory, Larloch's Minor Drain, and had the satisfaction of seeing one of her adversaries wither and twist as a portion of his life force was removed from him, and transferred to her. Unfortunately not enough to kill him, and gradually the three hobgoblins began to stir.
Frantically Eshcarna looked around for some sort of weapon, a rock, a tree-branch, anything, then screamed, a scream that quickly turned into a gurgling gasp as one of her adversaries sat up and neatly ran her through with his sword.
She fell to the ground, clutching her abdomen, blood pouring hotly from between her fingers, its glow lighting up the darkness. The pain vanished quickly, to be replaced by a strange and pleasant euphoria. Was this death? It was every bit as wonderful as she had hoped...
Her contemplation was suddenly interrupted by a familiar voice. "Carnie, nooooo!"
The sound of an arrow, then another, whistled past, both burying themselves with surprising accuracy in the chest of the hobgoblin who had stabbed her. He fell, dead, and probably would have crushed the last of the life out of her rapidly weakening form if he'd landed just a little more to the left.
An incoherent battle scream, and the compact, leather clad body of Montaron ran hurtling past her to throw itself at the nearest standing hobgoblin, neatly hamstringing him, then slitting his throat with a great smile of relish as he lay prone on the ground.
There was a rattle of splint mail and she saw Khalid charge in to finish the last one wordlessly - battle cries were probably something he would naturally want to avoid - but competently, despite eyes that looked nearly as wide with fear as her own had been, just moments before.
"Foolish child," muttered a rough female voice, as Jaheira settled onto her haunches beside the fallen half-drow.
"Is she going to be alright...?" Imoen asked from the other side, tears pouring down her cheeks, leaving slightly dimmer tracks to Eshcarna's elfsight.
"Yes, she will be fine," the Druid said brusquely. "Give her that potion while I prepare a spell."
"No..." Eshcarna turned away when Imoen would have offered her the familiar blue drink. "I don't want anything. I just want peace..."
"What?" Imoen drew back for a moment as the words slowly sank in. "No... No! You heard her, she can save you, drink!"
"It's kinder this way, Im, I'm better off... Half-drow are..." Eshcarna coughed. "Abominations."
"You... you... stubborn, selfish, cuss!" Imoen exclaimed in disbelief, but she would not be swayed, and a determined frown creased her brow. "I'm not going to let you leave me, you hear!" She tried to force the bottle past Eshcarna's lips, but the half-drow clenched her jaw resolutely, refusing to open her mouth, even when Imoen pinched her nose, cutting off her last supply of oxygen. "Damn you!" the young thief swore. "Khalid, c'mere! Now!"
Hesitantly the warrior approached, crouching beside Imoen and looking at her worriedly.
"We gotta get her mouth open somehow!"
"I d-don't know," Khalid told Imoen, frowning. "I d-don't want to hurt her."
"She's *dying*, genius!" the pink clad girl shouted, anger and fear making her uncharacteristically harsh. "Break her damn jaw if you have to, it'd serve her right!" At Khalid's look of horror, she defensively added, "Well, we wouldn't *leave* it like that, we can always get it fixed at the temple later..." Imoen trailed off, continuing to frown at her stricken friend.
Outrage filled Eshcarna, but she was only able to put up a weak struggle, one that was soon overcome by Khalid's superior strength, and Imoen's superior cunning. Somehow they managed to get her mouth open long enough to pour the potion in before holding it closed again as she sputtered and writhed. She knew the battle was lost, however, when the healing energies called up by Jaheira's repeated chanting were finally released into her once dying body; after a long pause, she finally swallowed the potion.
Imoen smiled gratefully at Khalid, and the warrior blushed, but they were both surprised as the now healthy half-drow sat up, and, in one efficient motion, delivered an equally healthy spray of spittle into the dusky face of her would-be saviour, then stumbled to her feet. "Oh yes, you all can congratulate yourselves mightily, but you'll get no thanks from me!"
"Child, cease this foolishness at once!" Jaheira shouted, getting to her feet and looking between her shame-faced husband and Eshcarna, shaking with outrage.
"Very well," Eshcarna replied, her face and voice suddenly expressionless. "Thank you all," she gave the group a mocking, courtly bow. "For NOTHING!" Turning sharply on her heel, she marched back towards the inn, not caring whether the others followed or not.
Later, in the room she shared with Imoen, she lay on the bed, cleaned up from her ordeal, watching as the thief slowly brought in piles of the new equipment that had been salvaged from her attackers. Three suits of leather armour, still in reasonable condition, three bastard swords, and three helmets, as well as an assortment of gems and jewellery.
"None of the rings have any enchantments," Imoen said, examining each in turn with a practiced eye. "Do you see anything?"
"Who cares?" Eshcarna rolled over onto her side, away from Imoen's efforts to cheer her up, which were marked by an entirely too false gaiety. "We'll sell the lot tomorrow. Right now I can't be bothered."
"This ring has someone's name engraved on the inside..." A garish, orange and yellow metal ring was suddenly shoved into Eshcarna's face, almost making her go cross-eyed. "See? J - O - I - A, Joia, it must have belonged to someone named Joia."
Eshcarna rolled over again. "Probably an unfortunate victim they left to rot somewhere with her throat cut and her skirts thrown over her head..."
The bald assessment was apparently too vulgar even by Imoen's colourful standards, because the thief walked around the bed to face the half-drow again, hands on her hips, an expression of shocked horror on her face. "Carnie, that's..."
"Probably what happened," she interrupted. "And don't call me Carnie."
Imoen plunked herself into a chair and drew up her knees. "Coulda happened to you," she muttered.
"Well, it didn't..." Eshcarna replied, in annoyance. "Because someone was *kind* enough to come to my rescue." On her lips the word "kind" sounded like the vilest insult. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, though, what Imoen had just said planted a seed of genuine concern. The idea of death didn't bother Eshcarna, but there were other things that could happen beforehand that could make the journey to the ultimate destination far less pleasant.
Eshcarna was, technically at least, still a virgin, but she'd had quite a few experiences about Candlekeep which her foster father, thankfully, knew nothing about. The chief instigator of those experiences had been none other than the Keeper of the Tomes himself, and they had begun at an early age. At first Ulraunt had gulled her with promises of friendship and magical teachings, but instead he had taught her more about herself, and about him, than she had ever wished to learn. Knowledge was power, however, and eventually she had learned enough to begin turning his teachings against him. She represented a dark lust he had once believed he could never fulfill, and when she realized this, he became her slave. Though she had no liking for any of the things they had done, she came to manipulate him very well, and exacted at least part of the price from him he had originally offered: teachings of magic and access to the most secret tomes of Candlekeep. But despite his promises of still greater rewards, she had always managed to hold herself just slightly aloof, withholding the last bastions of her dignity, and though she could see that every day his resentment of her grew in the face of her continued refusal to submit, she knew that he also feared her, certain she would turn on him at a moment's notice.
And so it was that no man had ever breached her body, torn that little scrap of skin that they all seemed to want so much, only to delight in destroying. What Eshcarna knew of sex was disgusting to her, and, having no illusions that penetration would be any improvement, had vowed that no one would get that satisfaction of her. But that had been before, in the shelter of Candlekeep most variables were tightly controlled, but out here was the great unknown, where any number of unpleasant possibilities could manifest themselves.
She had nearly died tonight, and it was only a stroke of fortune that they hadn't gotten still more from her than her worthless life. Not that she considered her virginity of much worth either, save as something for someone else to boast over. A dreadful number of the songs and poems she had read in her studies were filled to brimming with sordid lusting after maidenheads and self-congratulatory paladins securing fair virgins to wife. Perhaps it was a way for men to delude themselves into thinking that if they bedded an innocent girl she would have no way to realize their dismal prowess as lovers. Of course they were all fools if they believed that, because, among the more valuable things her times with Ulraunt had taught her was that actions always spoke louder than words.
The half-drow regarded Imoen and felt her sense of dread increasing. She too would need protection, because she was even more innocent, and, more terrifying still, far more trusting than Eshcarna ever was, or ever would be.
Across the room, she saw the subject of her thoughts was preparing for bed, splashing water over her face and scrubbing at her teeth with a peeled willow twig. Unselfconsciously Imoen stripped off her tunic and pants, then reached for her nightgown. From a purely aesthetic perspective, the young human was really quite pretty, her form was lush yet slender, unlike Eshcarna's own, which the reluctant bard considered at best lanky, if not downright skinny.
"Huh?" The admission was enough to make the human stop in her tracks, her nightgown still clutched in her hands.
An idea was beginning to form in Eshcarna's mind. "I said you're right, Im, it could have happened to me. I was careless, and I'm... I'm glad it didn't."
"Are you feeling okay?" Imoen asked, as she pulled the nightgown over her head, peering wide-eyed through the neck hole for a moment before donning the garment completely. "That's the first smart thing you said all night. And I always get worried when you start talkin' like that."
"Im, I want you to do something for me."
"Uh oh," Imoen sat down on the bed.
"Im, this is really, really important to me... you always said you'd do anything for me, right?" Eshcarna sat up, moving closer to her friend.
"Anything except let you die," Imoen said, picking up a pillow and whacking the half-drow pointedly, the playful gesture not quite masking the deep disturbance that she obviously still felt about events earlier that evening.
Eshcarna allowed herself to fall back from the force of the blow, landing on the soft mattress. "I'm serious, Im. And no, it's not about dying... it's about a fate worse than death."
"You always said life is a fate worse than death," Imoen accused.
"No, no, no, this is different, alright, just listen. Please?"
"Okay, you're saying please, now I'm really scared," Imoen laughed, but, true to her words, there was a faint uneasy tone beneath the playfulness.
"Okay, okay..." Imoen got up and untucked the covers on her side, fluffing her pillow and then climbing into bed. "So what's this big thing that's got you so worked up?"
"Well, I was thinking about what you said, and I don't want it to happen to me."
"What, dying?" Imoen gave her a baleful glance. "Coulda fooled me."
"No, Im, being raped."
"Aww Carnie..." Imoen snuggled close, daring to wrap a comforting arm around her friend's waist, "that's not gonna happen. We've got strong friends now, and you're gettin' better with your spells and your sword and stuff..."
Eshcarna threw herself from the bed. "You can't see the future, Im, how do you know?"
"I just know, that's all," Imoen replied defensively.
"No, Im, you don't know. You have no way of knowing."
With a long suffering sigh, Imoen rolled her eyes and made the same argument she always made. "Not everyone sees the world like you do, Carnie, some of us have this really special thing, it's called hope." Obviously she did have hope, or she wouldn't have kept trying to convince Eshcarna that she should have some too.
Inevitably, Eshcarna made the same reply. "Some of us are more innocent than others, Im." Imoen was a very smart girl, though misguided in so many ways, but deep down, despite her efforts to educate the other girl, Eshcarna never wanted to see her lose the gleam in those brown eyes, not for anything in the world. In her darkest moments she sometimes wondered if the gods had not played some horrible trick on them both, she with her darkness, Imoen with her eternal optimism. Sometimes it seemed as if they ought to have been one person, combined, instead of two that were such complete opposites. "Now I'm asking you, will you help me or not?"
Imoen sat up warily. "With what?"
"With keeping safe," Eshcarna replied.
Imoen placed her hands on her hips. "Well, of course I'd do that, you bufflehead! What the heck did you think I was doing with Khalid back there? Torturing you for fun?"
Eshcarna didn't answer, but went to her backpack, pulling out a beautifully worked golden belt that gleamed with a deceptively innocent lustre.
"Ummm... what is that?" Imoen asked slowly, warily.
"I think you know," Eshcarna replied, walking back towards the bed. "You're the only one left I can trust, Im."
"Are you saying...?" Imoen's eyes were wide as saucers. "You can't mean... you want me to... Eshcarna, that thing is *cursed*!"
"As curses go, it's actually quite harmless..." Eshcarna replied conversationally, moving cautiously around to Imoen's side of the bed, still holding the golden belt. "I read about this thing, I never thought I would actually see it. The Duke of Lobelahn chopped off his poor jester's head for giving it to his lover, but imagine his grace's surprise the next day when the priest came and removed it from his former lady, and returned her to her womanly charms without breaking a sweat. Unfortunately the jester's head had been on a pike since the previous afternoon, though, and the birds had stripped it of all the flesh, which meant that he couldn't be raised. So I guess in the end the joke was on him.
But we," the half-drow continued decisively, "are not going to have a problem. There is a temple right here at the inn. For that matter, if my spell-casting was a bit more advanced I could remove the curse myself."
"No," Imoen skittered, crablike, over to the other side of the bed as Eshcarna got closer. "Nuh-uh, nope, no way!"
Eshcarna frowned. "What happened to 'Well, of course I'd do that'?"
Imoen had the grace to blush. "I didn't realize what you meant," she mumbled self-consciously.
The half-drow sighed. "Am I really that ugly, even to you?"
Brown eyes glared at her. "I don't know why you keep fishing for compliments when you just end up throwing 'em all back. Didn't I always tell ya you were pretty? Even though you're too mean to yourself to see it. I just..." Imoen raked her hands through her hair. "I don't think this is right, that's all..."
"You forced me to do something I didn't want - was that right?" Eshcarna pressed.
"That's different, and you know it!" Imoen surprised them both by shouting. "Wouldn't you make me live even if I wanted to die?"
"It is different, Im," said Eshcarna. "You have lots of things to live for. All I have is you."
"And I'm not good enough apparently," Imoen replied, tears forming in her eyes.
"No, that's not it... but Im, you could find friends anywhere you want, anywhere, I'm sure of it. I don't want to leave you alone, but I think you'd be okay... I'm different, if you're gone, I'm gone too... I swear it, Im."
"But I'm not gone!" Imoen suddenly burst into tears. "I'm here, and right now I'm alone too," she sobbed, burying her face in her knees. "Do you think Puffguts could get me back into Candlekeep if I showed up at the door and begged? He couldn't. I made my choice when I left, you're all I have too. You have to stay, Eshcarna, you have to! Promise me..." Raising her head, she lunged across the bed, grabbing her friend's arms. "Promise me, and... I'll do whatever you want, whatever I have to if it will make it easier for you..."
"Promise!" Eshcarna found herself shaken until her teeth rattled. "Promise me, now!"
"I promise," Eshcarna said, trying to pull Imoen's arms away.
"Uh uh, not good enough!" Imoen kept her hands on the other girl's shoulders and regarded her sceptically, stray tears still pouring down her face. "I know you, you'd break your word if you thought it suited you, yes, even to me."
"But, Im, you know I care..." The half-drow began.
"You care about yourself more!" Imoen seemed on the verge of tears again, but she swallowed, regaining control. "But I know there is one thing that will stop you, one thing that will keep you from talking your way out of this promise some day. Swear it to me, Eshcarna, on Gorion's grave."
"You're not talking yourself out of this one. Not this time." Imoen's eyes held hers, and though they were only a simple brown, and watering at that, they still managed to possess a great deal of fire. "Say it!"
"On my father's grave," Imoen prompted.
"...on my father's grave, that I will not kill myself..."
" - or refuse help from people who are trying to keep me alive," Imoen added.
"...or refuse help from people who are trying to keep me alive. Is that good?"
Imoen shook her head. "...or take risks to deliberately put myself in danger for as long as you're alive, Imoen.' Say it!"
"...or take risks to deliberately put myself in danger for as long as you're alive, Imoen."
"Alright," Imoen said, getting out of bed and stripping off her nightgown. "Put it on." She squeezed her eyes shut, the last of her tears escaping from underneath her lids.
Her hands shook as, with only the briefest of hesitations, Eshcarna placed the belt around Imoen's waist, fed the strap through the buckle, and fastened it. Suddenly a blinding white light exploded forth, and she closed her own eyes, throwing up her arms to protect herself with an oath. There was a long silence afterwards, too long. "Imoen?" She tried opening her eyes, but all she could see were dancing lights and pulsing afterimages. "Im... I think I'm blind..."
Wordlessly, someone took her hands in their own and lead her to a chair, they were large hands, larger than they should have been. Then the presence moved away, and she could hear the sound of candle after candle being blown out, until she was sure the room had to be dark.
The floor creaked as the presence came back towards her, and she opened her eyes.
A single, solitary light had been left burning, behind her where it wouldn't hurt her over-sensitized eyes. Eshcarna had a hard time tolerating light at the best of times, but after something like this she preferred as much darkness as possible, and even though the person that stood before her now looked almost like a stranger, the consideration shown for her condition was among the first things to show her it was not.
A good foot taller was Imoen's male self, with a gawky, almost gangly build, but one that was broad across the shoulders and lightly, though very nicely, muscular in all the right places. Imoen had been so feminine it had been hard to imagine how her features would translate to a male's, but the adaptation was effective, to say the least. His/her full sensuous lips now had a sculpted quality, underlined by a broader, firmer jaw. Heavier brows, and a strong forehead accentuated eyes that were the only thing that truly remained unchanged, still glimmering with tears that filled Eshcarna with something all too close to shame.
"I'm sorry..." she whispered.
"No..." Imoen cleared his/her throat, his/her voice cracking briefly before settling into its new, deeper timbre. "No," he/she tried again, and gave a little half smile. "You're not."
"I suppose..." Eshcarna said, feeling suddenly shy, even though she knew it was still Imoen, only the outer features had changed, not the person inside. "How does it feel?"
"Weird..." Imoen laughed, a rich, soft tenor that had Eshcarna wondering suddenly what a duet would sound like, but that wasn't the reason for this, no not at all. "How do I look?"
The young man before her smiled, not at all put off when words were not forthcoming. "That bad, huh? Well, this was your idea, you know, so don't blame me." The impish grin set the half-drow more at ease - it was definitely Imoen in there.
She was still staring, unable to force herself to move.
"You know," Imoen brushed away a stray strand of hair hanging in front of his/her eyes, "we don't have to... I can go to the temple now, wake up the gnome lady, and we can forget this whole thing ever hap - "
Eshcarna pulled off her tunic, and, before she changed her mind, dropped her pants as well.
The young man before her blushed violently, then suddenly looked downwards, aghast.
"It's okay." The half-drow murmured, suddenly finding herself in familiar territory. "That's supposed to happen."
Imoen didn't seem at all assured, in fact, his/her voice cracked again. "And I'm supposed to... to... with *that*?" A waving gesture held a world of indiscretion and alarm.
"Uh huh." Eshcarna found herself grinning in spite of herself. Imoen usually had something to say about everything and it was quite amusing to see her, er, him, at a loss for words for once.
Though only briefly. "Are you *crazy*?"
"I think so, Im," said Eshcarna, "you've been telling me that all along. Come here..." She hugged her friend close, amazed at their new size difference, her head now only coming up to Imoen's shoulder. "How does that feel?"
"Nice..." Imoen agreed hesitantly, then gasped as Eshcarna reached between their bodies.
"I'll make this very nice for you... you won't be sorry." And she proceeded to show Imoen everything that she had learned from Ulraunt.
She had expected her efforts to have a similar effect, and they did to a certain degree, except that Ulraunt had never been so appreciative, or so sensitive of her. To him she had been a thing that existed to give him pleasure, to Imoen, she was still a person, and somehow, the things she had once forced herself to do, that she had always thought were so degrading, they became, strangely... could it be that they were beautiful...?
But what was truly beautiful was the sight of Imoen in his/her new, borrowed form, crumpled weakly against the pillows, sweating and breathing hard. And Eshcarna was satisfied, because she had done what she had set out to do, which was to push her friend beyond the point of no return.
At last Eshcarna allowed herself to rest, at least physically, while inside she was trembling, with fear, but also with gratitude that Imoen really would help her in this way, and prevent at least some of what she feared. She lay back on and closed her eyes tightly, feeling the unfamiliar warmth of a body shifting over her own. "Do it, Im, now. Show no mercy, and it will be the greatest mercy anyone has every shown me. Make me bleed," she whispered, "you're the only one I would bleed for..." She kept speaking as Imoen pressed closer, as though her words could shield her from her apprehension, "...the only one who deserves it, the only one who is worth it..."
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