Chapter 94: Skin Deep
The shack where Tiris and Raissa had been held offered no clues as to where she might have been taken; it was empty but for two chairs - one of them broken - and a couple lengths of rope. The sparse woodlands around the building were crisscrossed with paths, all of which had been used recently; the light of torches and magelights were not enough to let the trackers discern which tracks were the newest, and the only clear set was on the trail where the skinless man had chased Tiris. Lord Coprith took the only option available to him; he split the assembled crowd into groups, then had them fan out and search every path in the surounding area.
Ember and her companions headed southeast, following a meandering path that Minsc claimed had been used many, many times lately, even if he couldn't tell by whom. "Acts of righteousness would be so much easier if evil would stain their footprints!" the large ranger proclaimed.
"Or, we could just wait until daylight rather than mill around aimlessly in the dark and trample every clue there ever was!" Edwin grumbled. "(Foolishness prevails around me, as usual.)"
"The girl might not have until daylight," Ember pointed out. Peering into the gloom ahead of them, she saw a flicker of light; it vanished, then reappeared an instant later. "Hey, look!"
"Torchlight, and the bearer is moving towards us," Yoshimo said. "Why not be polite, and go to meet him?"
The torch wielder turned out to be a sallow-faced man in leather armor, with a large sword strapped to his back. "Hold!" the man shouted, reaching for the hilt of his weapon. "I would know what manner of creature you be!"
"We could ask you the same question," Ember replied.
"Ha! Fairly said! You have not attacked me, a lone victim, so it is unlikely that any of you are the creature I seek, anyway. I am Darsidian Moor, and I hunt a creature known as the Skin Dancer."
"And we seek to rescue a woman named Raissa, who was kidnapped by a murderer and a man without skin," Yoshimo said.
Moor frowned. "I do not know of a murderer, but the creature you describe is none other than my quarry. And if he has this woman in his possession, then we must move quickly! I have found several signs of the creature's presence, and I suspect its lair is not far off; if we hurry, we may surprise it yet. Follow me!"
The stranger led the group further along the path, deeper in to the forest, only stopping here and there to talk quietly with Minsc about the tracks the two of them spotted on the way. Before long, they arrived at a clearing with a cottage in the middle. The cottage windows were dark.
"Let us proceed with caution," Darsidian Moor whispered.
The front door of the cottage was locked; Yoshimo carefully picked the lock and pulled the door open. The rest of the group quietly followed him into a spacious room with woven rugs on the clean-swept floor and a large woodpile beside the fireplace. There were vegetables in a basket on the table, fresh water in a pail by the door, and a dark stain on the floor in one corner. Edwin hovered his magelight over the stain; it was dried blood. Ember's heart began to race. Had the skinner been here?
A loud sceam came from somewhere just outside the cottage, followed by several thuds and crashes.
"Treachery! Where are they?" Minsc shouted, already running towards the door.
"Where is Darsidian Moor?" Yoshimo asked. The stranger was nowhere in sight.
Around the side of the cottage stood a large shed, sharing one wall with the cottage itself. The door to the shed stood wide open, and a torch lay in the grass just outside, burning fitfully. Darsidian Moor stood in the middle of the shed, his sword raised and covered with blood. Two bodies lay on the floor, and a young woman with brown curls sat huddled in a corner, shivering.
"You have come!" Moor panted. "I decided to check around the house... The creature was about to kill the maiden, here, and I was forced to intervene."
One of the bodies was easily recognizable to Ember. "That's Rejiek Hidesman!"
"And that appears to be his wizard accomplice," Yoshimo said. The wizard was dead; a large cut almost bisected his torso. His eyes were already glassy, and his face seemed oddly puffy and yellowish, almost as if he had some kind of disease.
"That one is the Skin Dancer," Moor said. "His human companion is still alive. We must kill him now, while we have the chance!"
"Yes! Kill him, please!!" the woman pleaded in a hoarse, raspy voice as Minsc helped her to her feet. She looked pale and unwell, with deep shadows under her eyes.
"He appears incapacitated." Anomen said. "We should take advantage of this, and bring him before the authorities."
"Do not stall!" Moor cried. "You must kill him before he rises! I do not know how powerful he truly is!"
"You did not even know he had a part in this. Have you ascertained, then, in these few moments, that there are no others involved in their foul actions? Nay, he must be questioned ere his sentencing!"
There was something very wrong about the whole situation, Ember decided. She did not like Moor. She did not like how he'd shown up out of nowhere, she did not like how neatly he'd guided them to this place; she didn't even like the apparent ease with which he'd killed the skin dancer. And the girl wasn't even gagged. Why didn't we hear a sound out of her as we approached?
On the floor, Rejiek Hidesman stirred and murmured something incoherent.
His voice was that of a young girl's.
No longer quaking and shivering, the woman shoved Minsc aside and grabbed an axe that hung on the wall. "Fool!" she shouted at Moor, her voice far deeper than before. "I knew your plan was doomed to failure! I should never have gone along with it!"
"You're Rejiek Hidesman!" Ember shouted.
The tanner raised the axe and swung it at Ember. She dodged away and raised her borrowed staff to block the blow, then jabbed at his waist. Moor's voice rose in a chant that sounded uncomfortably like a horror spell; Anomen shouted a few words, and a strange calm fell over Ember. Moor's spell struck her moments later, but instead of sending her senses reeling with terror, the spell washed over her, doing no worse than sending a shiver down her spine before it dissipated.
Bolts of energy flew through the room, slamming Moor sideways into the wall. Yoshimo moved silently along the wall behind the tanner, who was flailing wildly with the axe and snarling like a feral beast.
"Justice has found you, evil skin stealers!" Minsc roared. "Come, Boo, we go for the eyes!!" He brought his blade down on Darsidian Moor's neck just as Yoshimo stabbed the tanner. The skinner murderer of Athkatla and his accomplice fell dead to the floor, still in skins that were not their own.
"I have never met with more dishonourable foes," Yoshimo said, looking down at the dead tanner with disgust.
On the floor beside Ember, the girl in the tanner's skin sobbed loudly. "Oh gods, help me," she wailed, and crawled towards the dead tanner. Reaching around the tanner's neck, the girl began to pull her own skin free from the body.
"Look away," Ember told the others, and stared stiffly at the doorway. "Raissa, what have they done to you?"
"They turned me into one of them!" the girl cried. "He took my skin like it was some kind of coat, and made me put his on... Ahhh, I c-cannot believe I am doing this!" The strange, unpleasant sounds of skin being pulled and stretched ceased. "I... I have my own skin back, but it's not me anymore! I... I..." She screamed.
Ember turned back towards Raissa. She sat on the floor, hugging her legs; her skin had a yellowish hue and looked vaguely rumpled. It was no more a part of her than the thin shift that she'd put on over it was.
"Little Ember? Minsc is confused, and so is Boo," Minsc said meekly. "We gave evil a swift buttkicking, but it wasn't hard enough. How do we kick it out of this little girl?"
Anomen kneeled beside the girl and hesitantly put a hand on her shoulder. "Surely there must be something we can do for you?"
"What can be done?! I can feel that magic, that evil, growing inside of me! I can't live like this!" She stared at the cleric and grabbed the collar of his tunic. "I can't!"
"You will not," Anomen said in an odd, quiet tone. "I... I will help you."
The girl sank back on her knees, tears streaming down her face. Anomen placed a hand on her chest, drew a deep breath, and started to pray.
It was a prayer unlike any Ember had ever heard before. Healing ran through it, but there was more; something deeply bonded to life itself, to growth and restoration, was echoed in the cleric's hurried, desperate chanting. A faint, white glow began to build around the girl, swirling around her limbs like some ethereal mist as Anomen chanted. Nobody moved.
The white mist brightened and flooded into Raissa. The girl gasped. Her skin smoothed out, losing its folds and wrinkles and yellowish pallor, and regained a healthy, pink glow.
Anomen crumpled to the floor.
The sun was high in the sky before the cleric stirred.
"Good morning," Ember said, standing up from a chair by the window. It was a beautiful day outside, and sitting there had let her enjoy the gentle breeze while she waited for him to awaken.
"My lady! Er... good morning," Anomen said, blinking his eyes to clear them. There were large, dark circles under them, but his face was nowhere near as pale and haggard as it'd looked the night before, when Minsc had all but carried him back to the inn. "Have you been here long?"
"Since around sunrise. The Waukeenar high priest told me to let you sleep as long as you needed to, after a spell like that. He said Helm would understand."
Anomen slowly nodded, but still looked unhappy about having missed his morning prayers. "The young maiden... how does she fare?"
"She is alive and well, thanks to you," she smiled, and sat down on the edge of the bed. "It seems that the tanner and the wizard planned on taking the identities of the young couple, so that they could stage their own deaths and escape for good. When Tiris escaped, they were forced to improvise. They murdered the owner of that cottage and stuffed him inside the wizard's skin - that's why that body looked so odd - and the wizard then pretended to be hunting himself, in order to find someone to witness their fake deaths."
"The wickedness of men never ceases to amaze me," Anomen said, shaking his head in disgust.
"It was a brave thing, what you did for Raissa. Restoring her like that... I've never seen anything like it."
A faint blush rose in the cleric's cheeks. "You are too kind, my lady. Truth be told, I was far from certain that my skills would be enough to let Helm grant me such a prayer; nevertheless, I was compelled to make the attempt. She... she reminded me of my sister, Moira. They are of the same age, and have similar countenances. I looked upon the stricken maiden, and saw my sister in her stead. It... it was not to be endured. I had to do something."
"You love your sister very much, from the sound of it."
"Aye, very much indeed. She is the one thing of my family that I miss. I would gladly take her away from our father's house, but even had I the means to do so, I know she would refuse to leave."
"She stays to take care of him, even at his worst, and will not hear otherwise. Moira, you must understand, can be very stubborn," he said with a small, sad laugh, then fell silent. "Where are our comrades this morning?" he asked.
"Minsc is being fitted for some leather armour, and Yoshimo's gone with him. Edwin is... I think he said something about spell vendors," she said. "Speaking of companions... there is something I have to ask you."
"Yes, my lady?"
"I spoke with Mazzy last night. She's offered to help with Imoen's rescue, at least for a while, but she doesn't want her presence to cause you discomfort."
"Indeed," Anomen murmured.
He looked out the window, his jaw clenching and unclenching. "I cannot lie to you, my lady," he eventually said. "However, I would not have my sentiments hamper your quest. She is a skilled warrior, and... and she is righteous, in her own way. If I can work with the Thayvian, I can work with the halfling. I will not cause dissent."
"I am glad to hear that. Thank you, Anomen." Ember stood up and moved towards the door. "I'll have some food sent up, and then you should get some more rest."
"As you wish, my lady."
"And when you feel fully recovered, you can come with me to talk with Raissa's father. You see, he's the blacksmith guildmaster, and once you're well enough for it, he wants to fit you for a suit of plate mail."
The cleric's face was an image of astonishment. "Plate mail?"
"Yes. As thanks for for saving his daughter." She couldn't keep from grinning any longer. "I think it's enchanted, too."
"This... this is... By Helm!"
"You've truly earned it," she said with a smile, and left the room.