Chapter 88: Images of Home
Three days after destroying the Shade Lord, the group arrived back in Imnesvale. Ember and her companions stayed there for two days, just long enough to attend Merella's funeral. The ranger was lain to rest in a bright forest glade near her cabin; according to Valygar, it was a spot she had grown fond of since she'd arrived in the village. The funeral was quiet, with few speeches and little ceremony, and Valygar shoveled the dirt over her grave himself.
With the shadows gone, the village seemed to be slowly drifting back to normal. This far from the forest and the temple, the threat had been subtle, and there were no tell-tale signs that let the villagers know with absolute certainty that the problem had been dealt with; all they had was Valygar's word, and even as much as they trusted their Lord and protector, it would take a while for their hearts to fully stop expecting someone else to turn up dead or missing. Still, even as the villagers mourned their dead, their eyes held a hopefulness that had not been there before, and every single day that passed without a grisly discovery seemed to help set their hearts at ease, a little at a time.
The dead man in the woods was finally identified, thanks to Minister Lloyd; he recognized the man's signet ring as one belonging to a young noble from Waterdeep who had passed through the village several months ago in search for the Umar Witch. Arrangements were made to send the ring to his family, along with a letter detailing how he'd been found; the letter made no mention of the very real possibility that he might have not only died, but been taken by the Shade Lord.
In the two days that they spent in the village, Ember and her friends got some much needed rest, and prepared to continue onwards to Trademeet. The town was Mazzy Fentan's home, and they were to escort the halfling back to her family; once that was done, they'd look for signs of Rejiek the skinner murderer in the area, and, with any luck, they'd be able to acquire some new gear as well. Valygar had instructed them to mention his name to several of the town's merchants, and Edwin eagerly and repeatedly pointed out that Trademeet was one of the best places in the area (even if it still couldn't even dream of comparing with the bazaars in Thay) for acquiring both equipment and information.
On the evening before the group's departure, Valygar summoned them to his cabin to collect their pay. "Are you all set, then?" he asked as they arrived.
"I think so," Ember replied.
"Good. How is Mazzy?"
"Our small friend is sleeping, back at the inn," Yoshimo said.
"Boo is not surprised that she is so sleepy," Minsc announced. "That kind of heroing can make any man or hamster tired, even one as large as Minsc!"
"Indeed it can," Valygar said. "Mazzy endured much. I should have listened to her... it was obvious that the Shade Lord would want the target he had already chosen. She might have suffered less, had I not thought I could usurp her role."
"You meant well," Ember said. "I don't think we would have done any better than we did. And she was prepared for it, even if we weren't."
"Perhaps. Come, my friends." Valygar led them into the rough yet comfortable cabin, and presented Ember with a small pouch of gemstones.
"Thank you," Ember said, and opened the pouch. A smile spread across her face at the sight of the contents; the gems were easily worth over three thousand. Over halfway there, Immy!
"Your assistance was invaluable. I have some items for you, as well." A stack of documents lay on a table; Valygar picked them up and handed them to Edwin. "I hope you will use these wisely, mage."
"There could be no doubt about that," Edwin sneered, and leafed through the spellscrolls. "(I know this... and this... and this... what good are they if I already have them in my spellbook? ...Wait.)" The wizard fell silent, and the sneer on his face softened. "Yes. Yes, they will be set to good use."
"There is more." Valygar retrieved a beautiful set of leather armour from a cabinet, and handed it to Ember. It was made from very dark leather, decorated with ornate carvings of leaves; as Ember ran her fingers over its surface, she felt the distinctive warmth that she'd learned to associate with magical items. It was the finest set of leathers she had ever seen. "It was to be a gift for Merella," Valygar said. "She was a good friend... a good person. I think she would appreciate my giving this to you."
"I'll be honoured to wear it," Ember said quietly.
Trademeet was just far enough away from Umar Hills that it could not be easily reached in one day. Taking it easy for Mazzy's sake, the group camped for the night in a secluded glade that lay two thirds of the way to the trading town. It was a peaceful place, far from the area that had suffered under the Shade Lord's influence, with a slowly trickling stream and several large, sheltering trees.
As they slept, Ember dreamed of Candlekeep again. She was standing in the main chamber of the library, surrounded by a myriad of extremely lifelike statues, all carved from cold, hard granite. The chamber was utterly silent, and she knew that every room on every floor of the building was empty; in this library, there were no living, breathing acolytes to leaf through books or to copy down manuscripts with the faint scratching sounds of pen against parchment. There was only one other being in the entire library, possibly even the entire keep or the entire world, and he stood by a pulpit just in front of her. Irenicus was about to start his next lecture.
"Life... is strength," her captor intoned. "This is not to be contested; it seems logical enough. You live; you affect your world. But is it what you need? You are... different... inside."
He gestured at one of the statues, and it came to life. A heavy-set woman with strong arms, greying hair, and hands callused by years of work, looked around the library.
"This woman lives and has strength of a sort," Irenicus said. "She lost her parents to plague, her husband to war, but she persevered. Her farm has prospered, her name is respected, and her children are fed and safe. She lived as she thought she should." The woman stood up straighter, bearing herself with a distinct pride.
"And now, she is dead."
The woman's body crumbled, as though she were made of sand that had suddenly become too dry to stick together.
"Her land will be divided, her children will move on, and she will be forgotten," the mage continued disinterestedly. "She lived a 'good' life, but she had no power. She was a slave to death." Irenicus looked straight at Ember with his piercing blue eyes, which were just as horrible and cold as she remembered them. "I wonder if you are destined to be forgotten. Will your life fade in the shadow of greater beings? You are born of murder, the very essence of that which takes life. You have power, if you wish it."
More statues came to life around her. Irenicus pointed at some of them, and they crumbled to dust and ashes, but the rest just stood there, silently looking around at each other. One by one, their gazes came to rest upon Ember. Their lives were in her hands, and all she had to do was...
"No!" she shouted. "I want none of this!"
"Your horrors hold no interest for me."
"Your interests matter not; not when your actions affect so many others than yourself. You will come to realize how little choice you have." With a wave of his hand, Irenicus summoned life into yet another statue. It was Imoen, looking confused and defenseless and somehow dangerous.
But this is Imoen! How could she be a threat to me? Ember found herself fighting a strong urge to raise her hand against her friend, to destroy her with as little thought as one might give to removing any insignificant obstacle in ones path. How could she possibly stand in my way?!
"You will do what you must, become what you must, or others will pay for your cowardice."
"I said no."
"You *will* accept the gifts offered to you," Irenicus stated. He raised a hand and pointed at Imoen. Her body shattered in a cascade of golden sparks that faded away to blackness, taking the dream with them.
"My lady! Are you well?"
"What..?" Still reeling from the dream, Ember looked up. In the faint glow from the remains of the campfire, she could barely make out Anomen's concerned face.
"You cried out in your sleep, my lady," the cleric said quietly, "and judging by your countenance, you are clearly shaken."
"Just a dream," Ember said automatically.
"Shall I fetch you anything? Some water, perhaps?"
She watched him as he walked to the campfire, placed a fresh log on it, and exchanged a few words with Yoshimo, who was on watch. The Kara-Turan nodded slightly in her direction as Anomen fetched something from their gear and headed towards the stream. Before long, the cleric returned to her, carrying a freshly filled waterskin.
"Here, my lady, drink from this."
"Thank you," Ember said, and took several deep sips from the skin. "I woke you up, didn't I? I'm sorry."
"Ah, you need not apologize," Anomen said, and ran a hand through his hair, as if trying to straighten it. "Observe how none of the others stirred at all; unexpected noises at night will often startle me awake where others continue their slumber. I... I acquired this trait in my childhood, and I fear it is a habit that has proven impossible to eradicate."
"Such a trait must be very inconvenient at times," she said with a smile. The cleric was meticulous to the point of obsession about his grooming, even on the road, and she couldn't recall ever seeing him with stubble on his cheeks and sleep-tangled hair before.
"Aye, it can be, especially during campaigns," Anomen confessed. "I choose to consider it a good thing, seeing as no creature can sneak up on a light sleeper."
"That's a good way to look at it, I suppose."
"Do you wish to speak of your dream?"
"Not really," Ember said hesitantly. "I dreamed that Irenicus was at Candlekeep, in the library, lecturing me about... something." But it wasn't really Irenicus, and I know perfectly well what it was lecturing me about.
The Helmite winced. "A most uncomfortable juxtaposition, I imagine."
"It's not exactly how I'd like to think of home, no."
"Would you tell me a little about Candlekeep? Whenever one hears mention of the keep, 'tis always about the splendours of its library. I would be glad to learn how it was to be raised in such a place."
"Well... it was peaceful. Quiet. I was the only child there until Imoen arrived - I think I was five or six, then - but I rarely felt lonely. I learned how to entertain myself, and Gorion always spent a lot of time with me."
"He was your foster father, was he not? What was your relationship with him like?"
"We were very close. He made sure I never felt alone, even before Imoen came. He read for me at night until well past the time I'd learned to read for myself - I don't think it'd be possible to grow up in Candlekeep and not learn that! - and whenever he could, he'd take me on short outings into the woodlands around the keep, just so I'd get a change of scenery. He always encouraged me to do good, and did his best to teach me how to." She sighed. "He was a kind and patient man, and a great mentor. I miss him."
"I see. I must admit, my lady, that I am rather jealous of you. I would have given much for my father to be my mentor in such a fashion. He..." Anomen paused. "Ah, well. It matters not. The hour grows late, my lady. You should get some more sleep; we've a long day ahead of us."
"I can try," Ember said, and handed him back the waterskin. "I feel a bit better now. Thank you."
A smile crossed the cleric's face. "You are most welcome. Sleep well, my lady. I shall go and relieve Yoshimo of his watch."
They exchanged goodnights, and Anomen went towards the campfire where Yoshimo was sitting. Ember nestled deeper into the blankets of her bedroll. She really did feel better; talking about Gorion had chased away the worst memories of the dream. It had almost been like before, when she and Kivan had talked at night. Except that Anomen doesn't know. But that didn't matter, she decided, and closed her eyes.
After all, there was more than enough stuff that she didn't know about him, either.