Chapter 79: Fragments
Ember was in Candlekeep, standing in front of the library door, but it was not the Candlekeep she remembered.
This Candlekeep was barren. No trees hugged the walls. Not a single blade of grass grew on the grounds around the library. The water in the pools had been replaced with gaping holes into the void that echoed the black, empty sky above.
"Do you remember these doors?" a familiar voice asked; Imoen was standing beside her, still dressed in the rags she'd worn in the dungeon, her eyes fixed on the library door. "I remember, I think... Yes, this was home for so long, but it is too late to go back. They wouldn't have you now. They wouldn't have me. Had no use..." Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head. "Someone else does. He wants something. I don't know why. Those in the cowls don't even know. Why don't I know?"
Ember opened her mouth, but when she tried to speak, no words came out. Imoen didn't seem to notice, and wandered off towards a barren patch that used to be covered by sweetmint and ivy. A robed figure - was it a statue? - stood there, staring straight ahead with lifeless, unmoving eyes. Ember's heart wrenched as she recognized her foster father's face.
"Do you remember Gorion? Or the others?" Imoen asked. "I think I do. They were the guidance, and there was much more to learn, but it is too late now. They are so far away..." She seemed to sigh. "Memories should stay, but he digs deeper... pushes everything aside..."
The statue of Gorion shattered, leaving only small piles of rubble behind. Ember screamed, soundlessly.
Imoen walked onwards, perfectly calm and quiet. Ember followed her to another statue that stood where Ember's favourite tree should have been. The statue was of a tall, hulking man, dressed in spiked armour and holding a massive sword.
"Do you remember Sarevok?" Imoen asked. "Or any other? They sought your death, and mine. They seemed so important at the time, but I don't remember them at all. Something else is more dangerous... Closer..."
The statue of Sarevok exploded, scattering tiny fragments around Ember and Imoen.
Imoen turned to look at Ember. "Do you remember ...me? I can almost see... I want to, but I..." She lowered her head. "Too late. You will come too late..."
Still looking down, Imoen turned into a stone statue.
"She resists," a cold, calculating voice said behind Ember. "She clings to her old life as though it actually matters. She will learn."
Ember turned to face Irenicus.
"This is a portrait of what has happened, and what may happen. Do you cling to the past, or can you see through the pain?" Irenicus asked. "You feel the potential within, don't you? Will you cringe from what you know you want? What you can take as your own?"
It's not him. This is a dream, and the taint is wearing his face. It has to be. Glaring at the masked face of her tormentor, Ember willed her tongue to speak. "You have no idea what I want!"
"That matters not. You know what you want. It is you, after all, which has brought us to the dream," Irenicus stated. "Nothing is real. Yet." He raised a hand and pointed at Imoen.
The last thing Ember saw before the void swallowed her whole was the statue of Imoen, rapidly eroding away in a cloud of glittering dust.
Sitting bolt upright in her bed, Ember clutched her chest and breathed in deep sobs. Just a dream. Just like before. Telling herself that didn't help; she hadn't really expected it to. She blinked a few times, wiped wetness from her face with the back of her hands, and tried to calm herself by entering a light meditative state. Meditating in a city was far from ideal, but there were enough weeds, birds, insects and rodents around to let her connect lightly with nature even here; it was not long before she felt grounded again.
She did not, however, feel able to fall asleep again. The dream, and Imoen's insistence that she'd come too late, had instilled in her a sense of urgency that she really didn't need in the dark hours before dawn, but expelling that feeling was far more easily said than done. She peered out the window; the sky was still black, with the faintest hint of brightening over the rooftops to the east. Morning was still far away.
Might as well do something useful. With a weary sigh, she pulled on her clothes and tied her hair back with a leather thong, then headed down to the common room of the Copper Coronet. Hendak's men had retrieved a chest full of documents from the slaver building before sealing off the secret tunnel last night, but nobody had cared to look through its contents yet. The chest stood where the former gladiators had left it, just outside the entrance to the makeshift armoury. Ember opened it, pulled out a large sheaf of documents, brought them to closest table, and sat down to read.
By the time Minsc came bounding down the stairs looking for her, Ember had leafed through several stacks of papers. She'd discovered that the criminals of Amn were far less careless with their letters than those of Baldur's Gate; aside from the notes sent by Lehtinan, who had signed everything with his full name, and several mentions of captain Haegan, the now dead taskmaster, there were no names written anywhere. Their main suppliers were never named, and the middle man who arranged the group's purchases would only sign with an ornately written capital 'R'. Times and dates were mentioned, but meeting places were never described as anything but 'you know where', and, occasionally, 'the compound'. The documents spelled out, clear as day, what the slavers had done, but there was nothing that intimated where or who their accomplices were.
"Little Ember's room was empty," Minsc said as he approached. "Boo was worried!"
Ember pushed the papers aside and managed a small smile. "I had a... I dreamed about Imoen and couldn't sleep afterwards. I didn't mean to worry you."
"Minsc doesn't like bad dreams," the large ranger said somberly. "They take you places where no amount of buttkicking will help, and they make you forget all about the friends and hamsters that are there for you when you wake up."
Ember looked at him. "That's... a very good way to put it."
"Don't be sad. Boo says we'll get little Imoen back soon, and then we will all be heroes together, you and Boo and I and Imoen, and our new friends, too!"
Our new friends... "I hope you're right," she said, and glanced towards the stairwell. Were the two men who were still up there truly her friends? Anomen was a squire in the Order of the Radiant Heart, just like Ajantis had been. She remembered perfectly well how strongly Ajantis had felt about her murderous tendencies back when he still travelled with them, and could only imagine how any member of his order might feel about travelling with the offspring of an evil god. As for Yoshimo, he had told them stories about working as a bounty hunter. There were no bounties on her head now that she was aware of, but might he one day turn against her for money?
It didn't matter what they might think of her, she decided. Both men had pledged to help find Imoen, both men seemed to take their honour very seriously, and she and Minsc did need their help. Still, it'll probably be easiest for all of us if the matter doesn't come up.
"Minsc," she said, "I need you to do something for me. Don't let Yoshimo and Anomen know what I am."
"But don't our new friends already know little Ember is a druid?" Minsc asked. "Boo is confused."
"Well, yes, but they don't know that I am one of Bhaal's children, and it's probably best if they don't."
"Ah, Minsc understands now, I think! Boo won't tell them, either."
Ember smiled at him. "Thank you," she said, and put away the slaver's documents. The sun would rise soon, and it was time for her and Minsc to go greet it.
When the small group entered the bridge district around noontime, they were stopped by a lieutenant Aegisfield from the city guard. A brutal murderer was on the loose, he warned them; there had been a string of vicious killings lately, and a new victim had been found that very morning. Someone was killing paupers, often in the alleys where they slept, and he did so as painfully as possible. "He flays them... alive," the lieutenant said.
"Minsc is outraged!" Minsc cried. "I will not tolerate actions such as this! Tell me where this evil villain is so I can let him feel my blade of Justice!"
"No, stranger! I won't have you go looking for trouble," Aegisfield said. "I have more than enough on my hands with trying to keep the streetwalkers and beggars safe!"
"You needn't worry on our part, lieutenant," Yoshimo said.
"We would gladly aid you in any way possible, though," Ember added.
"Hrm..." The lieutenant gave her a thoughtful look. "There is Old Rampah, I suppose. He may have seen something, but he won't speak to anyone from the guard. If you are that eager to be of assistance, seek him out and see if he will tell you anything. It is not too hard to find him; he is old, gaunt, and is usually dancing around a pile of rags."
"Dancing?" Anomen asked incredulously.
"Yes, dancing." Lieutenant Aegisfield sighed. "If you learn anything, be sure to let me know. Farewell!"
The bridge district was far from the largest area of the city, but it had several narrow streets and hidden corners, and after searching for an hour, the small group had seen no trace of Old Rampah.
"Did he not say that this dancing beggar would be easily located?" Anomen asked irritably.
"Maybe he doesn't feel like dancing today," Ember said, peering down a narrow alley. Nobody was there.
"Coo! It's good to be seeing ye once again, me lady!" Gaelan Bayle stepped out from behind a crate at the far end of the alley.
Ember sighed. "We don't have the money yet, Bayle," she said.
"Oh, I imagine ye don't, me lady, but the fee ain't what brung me here. There is someone that wants to hire ye for a task, if ye be willing."
"What kind of task?" Ember asked.
"Interested, eh? Come to me house at sundown, an' he'll tell ye all about it. Oh, and ye be looking for Old Rampah? Ye can find him near the Farrahd estate." He bowed, waved, and vanished into the shadows at the end of the alley.
"My lady, is that the man who demands twenty thousand for your friend's rescue?" Anomen asked. "He strikes me as a scoundrel."
"Yes, that's him," Ember said, "and I can't say I disagree, but he's all we have."
"Scoundrel or not, he may have led us to Rampah, no?" Yoshimo said. "Why don't we go find out."
"Very well," Anomen said, sounding slightly exasperated. "I know well where the Farrahd estate lies. Follow me."
The Farrahd estate was a large building made of yellow sandstone trimmed with white marble that looked like it belonged in Calimport rather than Athkatla. Several beggars and street vendors stood at the base of its massive walls. One of them, an old man with a flowing white beard, was waving his hands around as he tottered back and forth over a rag pile. Ember moved slowly towards the man.
"Rampah?" she asked gently.
The beggar froze. "Who's dat? Who's pokin' old Rampah? What sa want?"
"We just wanted to ask you-"
"I ain't done it!" Rampah shrieked. "Wasn't me! I swears. You ain't takin' me in to no guardhouse! Walls are bad!"
"We're not from the guards," Ember said.
"Not from the guards? Then I talk to you. What you want?"
"What do you know of the murders here?" Yoshimo asked.
"Nothin. Not a thing."
"Don't know nothing. Guards kept us away. They know all I know. That's it," Rampah said. "But... hehehh... but I got something they don't. They be blind, but I saw it, and now it's mine!"
"What did you find, Rampah?" Ember asked.
"Not telling. You want? You gotta buy. I found it, right near a body. It's mine, so you gotta pay. You pay... fifteen gold!"
At least it's not twenty thousand. Ember handed him the money. "Now, what is it that you found?"
The beggar grabbed a scrap of thick, grey hide from his rag pile and thrust it into Ember's hands. "IT'S NOT HUMAN FLESH!" he shrieked. "Don't you think it is, because it's NOT! Them bodies be flayed, but this ain't theirs!"
Ember backed away, clutching the piece of hide. "Thanks, Rampah. We'll be going now."
"Rampah dance!" the beggar muttered, and started twirling around. "Dance, Rampah, dance! Dance in the flesh! Huuuuluckaluckakucka LAYYY!"
The small group left the beggar as quickly as they could.