Happy Halloween everyone! Trick or treat? *smile*
Warning: at the beginning of this chapter, there’s a nasty flashback regarding Imoen’s time in Jonjon’s dungeon. Feel free to skip that part if that makes you uncomfortable
…I got demons inside me so I'm faced with a choice
Either try to ignore them or I give them a voice
And it's keeping me up at night
Worried it's not alright
Holding back things you don't know…(Mike Shinoda, “Crossing a line”)
Imoen woke up gasping for air, drenched in cold sweat, the sound of screams still fresh in her mind and without thinking, she knocked on the door to Jaheira’s bedroom. "Imoen? Child, what’s wrong?", the druidess asked, worried at seeing the younger woman so pale despite her illusionary dark complexion. "I...Can I come in? I don’t want to be alone now".
She let her in and they sat side by side on the large bed, "Do you want to talk about it? Did you have a nightmare?". The young thief shook her head, trembling like a leaf in the wind, "I wish it were a nightmare! No, it was...They were memories. Of the dungeon". The Half-Elf wrapped an arm protectively around her shoulders, hugging her close, "Ssshh, it’s all right, child, I’m here. You can tell me everything".
Imoen took a deep breath and then she let her words come out in a rush, like a river breaking the dam and sweeping away everything in its path. Irenicus never harmed her physically, she said: he had told her something about “awakening her darkness” and needing to “prepare her mind for the procedure”, so he had no need to experiment on her body.
But she was forced to watch while a clay Golem snapped Khalid’s neck and then the wizard dissected his dead body; she saw Dynaheir being beaten to death by the same Golem; a Shadow Thief being dissected alive; another one being drowned in boiling oil and more victims being killed in other equally gruesome ways, worse than any nightmare she could have ever had.
And with each death she witnessed, she felt her disgust and horror lessen further, while in turn something else seemed to grow inside her soul, a sort of morbid delight, a desire for more. She thought nothing could be worse than that, but she was wrong...
Irenicus’ dungeon under Athkatla
"Ah, you are awake. Good", the Elven wizard looked at the pink-haired thief as she groggily tried to stand. "Please, I don’t want to see anything else...", she begged, pressing her back against the bars of her cell, but he shook his head. "I won’t make you watch anything today. You are ready for the next step", he gestured to his Golem servant and the creature took her out of the cell.
"Next step? I...I don’t want to!", Imoen tried to break free of the golem’s grasp, but it was too strong for her and she had no choice but to follow Irenicus to the “experiment laboratory”. When they got there, she looked at the table and saw that someone already lay there, someone she knew all too well.
"No...", she didn’t recognize her own voice, so small and broken with fear and horror, "No, please, no, don’t hurt her...", she sobbed, trying to avert her eyes: on the table for the dissection, naked and fully awake, lay Margaret Dawn. Jon calmly took a filleting knife up from a smaller table nearby, "I will not hurt her today. You will", he said.
"What? Never!", the young thief snapped, but he just ignored her and forcibly placed the knife in her hand. "You will", he repeated, bringing the blade down, until it touched the Painbearer’s arm, "You know you want to. Do not hold back". "I don’t want to!", she shouted, but she felt that dark hunger growing inside her, like a monster slowly waking up in her soul, "I...I...Meg?", she turned and looked at her friend’s face, desperately trying to suppress the urge to cut, to maul, to hurt.
Meg’s eyes were soft and sad, "I know, Immy. It’s not your fault". "Meg...I’m so sorry...", Imoen cried and still, her hand pressed the knife deeper and down the forearm, opening a long cut into the soft flesh of her best friend. "I know. Don’t cry, Immy, it’s okay, I know", the Ilmatari murmured, ignoring the pain as best as she could.
Her tone was warm and soothing, bringing back to the pink-haired girl old memories of the times when she had run to Meg’s room after a bad dream and the young priestess had comforted her with motherly tenderness. But the affection she felt at remembering those moments was not enough to quell her raging bloodlust.
"I cut and cut and cut...First with the knife, but then he...He gave me a saw...And then a chisel...I saw her beating heart, Jaheira!", Imoen wailed, hiding her face into her hands and crying desperately, "I hurt her so badly...And still she came to save me, after...After all that...". The druidess rocked her gently, suppressing a shudder, "Of course she came to save you, Imoen: she loves you and she knows it was not your fault. Irenicus was the one guiding your actions".
"No, it wasn’t his fault, not for that. I...I wanted to hurt someone, to see the blood run, to hear the screams of pain". "Blame your Taint, then, not yourself. I know you and I know you’re not cruel and evil". "Ain’t I?", Imoen looked at her hopefully, drying her cheeks with a trembling hand. "Of course not, child! I know this and Meg knows this too".
She nodded, "Okay. Can I...Can I stay here with you? I don’t want to be alone". "Sure", the Half-Elf smiled softly and they slipped under the covers, the young Human tucking herself to her side. "Jaheira?". "Yes, Imoen?". "Don’t tell them. She has forgiven me, but the others...". "They will not hear a single word about this from me", she promised, "Now sleep, child".
The rest of the “night” passed without further trouble and after “breakfast”, the party went downstairs, where a slave was waiting for them with a message from Phaere: she wanted to see them at the city gates in two hours. Meg snorted, "Great, more errands. It nearly feels like we’re back on the Sword Coast", she grumbled under her breath as she led her companions to the meeting point, "I wonder what she wants us to do".
"Probably to kill something", Jaelryn replied, her neutral tone hiding her anger at the thought, "We’re mercenaries, remember, Mistress Veldrin?". "As if I could ever forget it". Phaere stood on the same platform where they had met Imrae the previous day and Solaufein stood next to her, his arms crossed on his chest. "Veldrin, you’re here and sooner than I expected", the Drow woman said with a small smile.
Veldrin bowed, "We didn’t want to waste your precious time, Mistress Phaere. What service do you require of us?", she said and heard Solaufein make a muffled noise of disgust. "Do you have no pride at all, Veldrin?", he exclaimed, but Phaere spared her from having to answer. "Shut up, male: she is obviously wiser than you, so hold your tongue, or I’ll have it removed from your mouth!".
He gritted his teeth, but nodded, "Of course, Mistress". "Good. Now, Veldrin, an Eye Tyrant...You know what an Eye Tyrant is, don’t you?". Meg nodded, "They are also known as Beholders". Phaere’s smile grew wider, "Exactly. You have more knowledge than most mercenaries, I see". "I have been taught that knowledge can be a useful tool, Mistress, so I made sure to learn as much as possible about the inferior races, to be able to better submit, or destroy them".
She was honestly impressed by those words, "Indeed. You are full of surprises, my dear Veldrin. We will talk more about this later. For now, the Beholder has come to our city to smuggle some Adamantite and its Spelljammer vessel is going to arrive in half an hour. The Matrons want it dead and it is up to us to kill it". Solaufein blinked, "Us? You will join this mission, then?".
She nodded, "So I will. Just like old times", she added, a cruel smirk twisting her lips, "Bring me to the docks now, male. Veldrin, you will meet us there". The warrior obediently cast a teleportation spell, vanishing along with her and leaving the party behind. Imoen huffed, "Bah, more killing, I knew it". "A Beholder is not an easy foe", the Painbearer noted, "Alton, wield the Shield of Balduran and wear the cloak we took from the corpse of that enemy...
You know, that woman", she added, referring to the real Veldrin Zauvirr, "They will protect you from the monster’s rays. Elkantar, cast the protective spells against petrification and stunning on us all, including yourself. And cast also a “Luck” spell on Alton, while you’re at it: we need all the advantage we can get". After making their preparations, they hurried to the docks, just as the Spelljammer was docking.
The Beholder was tougher than they had expected, but even if they were badly beaten, the adventurers survived the encounter, thanks to Solaufein’s and Phaere’s help and Imoen and Yoshimo even managed to snatch some Adamantite from its ship without being noticed. All in all, not a bad day, but it had been a close call for Margaret Dawn, who had thrown herself in battle with unusual ferocity and recklessness.
As soon as they were back to their quarters, Jaheira grabbed her arm and pointed to the couch, "Sit down, child". "Okay, but...". "Shut up and listen: I have noticed you acting quite thoughtlessly in battle and I don’t like it. Now I want you to tell me: is this because the loss of your soul is damaging your mental faculties, or are you doing it on purpose?". "Well...", the Ilmatari bit her lower lip, "I guess it’s because I’m stupid".
"Do you find it funny?". She sighed, "No, sorry. I just...I need to fight, see? Or rather, the beast needs it and I can’t ignore it, not completely at least. It’s like a raging fire inside my body and much as I try to quell it, it’s so strong...And it grows stronger and stronger with every fight I face". Imoen sat beside her and wrapped and arm around her shoulders, "I know what it feels like, sis.
I felt it too...", her voice cracked and her half-sister hugged her, stroking her hair. "Shush, it’s okay, Immy, it’s all in the past". "I’m so, so sorry...I didn’t...". "Don’t cry, it’s all right, it’s not your fault that our sire was such a bastard. Come on, cheer up, little sister: everything will work out for the best, you’ll see". "Promise?". "Promise. On my life", Meg smiled.
"Okay then. I love you, sis". "Me too, pixie, me too. Now, how about we rest a bit and then we have some food brought here? I’m sure Drow have sweets too". "Sounds like a plan. I’m on". Drow did have sweets indeed and the adventurers enjoyed a delicious meal in peace for once, savoring both the food and the quiet.
Edwin let out a satisfied sigh, nearly drowning in the soft pillows of his armchair, "Well, Drow may be one of the most despicable races of Toril, but they know their business when it comes to luxury (Not that it compares to my homeland, of course, but still, it’s not bad at all)", he commented as he sipped some red wine. "Yeah, they are not that bad in this department", Imoen agreed, stuffing her mouth with pastries, "This tastes sooooo good!".
Her half-sister laughed, "Judging by the way you’re devouring it, we could have guessed it easily enough, pixie", she joked, then sobered, "You know, I was thinking...Maybe we should pay a visit to the market, see if they have something useful. Drow have access to every kind of magic tools, after all and I want to make good use of this free time we have. Who knows when that bitch will call upon us again", she added with a snort.
Jaheira examined the two-handed sword with interest, her keen eyes fixing on the runes etched into the long, silvery blade, "This sword could be useful to us, Mistress Veldrin", she addressed the Ilmatari, "What do you think?". Margaret Dawn frowned, "It’s enchanted, but I have no idea what these runes mean. Elkantar, this is your field of expertise, tell us what it does!", she ordered, grabbing the Thayan by the arm and forcing him to stand beside her while pointing to the weapon with her free hand.
His lips pressed so tightly that they paled, but he bent and examined the blade, his long fingers absentmindedly tracing the carvings, "It is enchanted to turn Ogres to stone and it can also cast a Fireball centred on the creature which gets hit with it. Mistress Veldrin", he added quickly, remembering his role. "Bah, we don’t need it then.
What about this dagger?", she then pointed to a dagger with a strange reddish blade, which seemed made of ivory rather than steel. "It was made from a Red Dragon tooth and it still retains some of its fire inside the blade. Besides, the runes etched into the hilt make it return to the wielder’s hand after it’s been thrown", the Red Wizard explained and was pleased to see that, despite her face being impassive, her eyes were alight with interest and curiosity, as they always were when he was teaching her something.
"Well now, this is something we can make good use of! It’s for you to wield, Ilivarra. And this spear...". The druidess cut her off, "Mistress Veldrin, I think the spear I am wielding now is good enough for our needs", she said in a carefully humble tone, trying to hide her disgust at the mere thought of touching the darkly enchanted weapon on the counter. "So be it", the Painbearer nodded and then, to her friends’ surprise, she haggled fiercely over the price of the Firetooth dagger, until the merchant agreed to give her a thirty percent discount.
As they were approaching another stall, Yoshimo fell into step with her, "Mistress Veldrin, may I speak?". "Yes". "Where did you learn to haggle like that? It was worthy of a Sembian native". Her lips curved into a small, warm smile, "Sarry taught me. He was the foster son of a powerful and rich Sembian merchant, so he learned a lot about trading and haggling.
And he shared his knowledge with me, saying that sooner or later it could come in handy", she explained, keeping her voice low as not to be heard by anyone else. "I see. He was a wise man indeed". "He is perfect, in every way. Nobody can measure up to him", her shoulders sagged a bit with sadness, but she straightened them immediately, "And now shut up and get back to your place in formation, male!", she barked and the Kozakuran bowed deeply and obeyed without another word.
They found more useful items to buy, including rare scrolls and potions which made Edwin’s and Imoen’s eyes sparkle with joy. Satisfied with their purchasing, they went back to the tavern, but before they could go upstairs, a voice they knew all too well called out. "Veldrin, how fortunate that you’re here!", Phaere smiled in what was supposedly a friendly way, approaching the party, "I was going to watch a fight in the pit and I have two seats reserved in the gallery.
Will you join me?". "With pleasure, Mistress Phaere", Meg smiled back, though she would have rather eaten a whole bowl of the mud-and-grass pudding Imoen tricked her into tasting when they were seven, claiming it was chocolate and mint, "You can go, I will join you later", she told her companions and they were more than happy to comply.
The Drow woman led her to the comfortable armchairs and sat down, "So, my dear Veldrin, do you like pit fights?". "I do, Mistress Phaere, if the fighters are worthy", the Ilmatari replied cautiously, "The battle is between two of our kin, isn’t it? It would not be a real challenge otherwise". "Obviously! Don’t worry, you’ll enjoy yourself".
Truth be told, Meg didn’t enjoy herself in the slightest: it was all too obvious that the fight was unbalanced, one of the combatants was tall and strong, clearly an experienced warrior, while his adversary was young and slender, probably a beginner. It didn’t last long, but it was still too long for her tastes and when the winner beheaded the younger one and raised his sword with a triumphant smile, she couldn’t help jumping to her feet and shouting at him.
"Do you take pride in killing a child? Why don’t you take on someone your own size, coward?". The whole tavern went silent then, all eyes turning on her. The man in the pit glared at her, "You dare to insult me?". Rats in a basket! Oh, well, no way to avoid this, so I can as well put up a good show, she thought, "I call things as I see them and if you take pride in besting one who is so obviously inferior to you, then you are a spineless worm!", she stated.
Phaere was watching her with a mixture of amusement, surprise and what looked strangely like admiration, "You want to challenge him, Veldrin dear?". "I...I do, Mistress Phaere, if you will allow me to". She clapped her hands, like an enthusiastic child, "Oh, yes! Go and show that male his place! If you win, I could even choose you as my champion". The Painbearer reluctantly walked to the entrance to the pit and introduced herself to the announcer, who gave her a wide smile and let her in.
"Hear, powerful females and proud warriors! Veldrin of Ched Nasad will now face the mighty Lesaonar of the First House!". Lesaonar smirked as he regarded her, noticing her slender frame and her mace, "You think you can best me, female? I am the strongest warrior of my House and nobody has ever managed to defeat me in combat". "It doesn’t surprise me, considering that you challenge only children and weaklings", she sneered, making him clench his fists in fury.
"How dare you! I will show you the error of your ways!". "We’ll see". They fought hard and she realized quite soon that she had made a terrible mistake in not keeping her mouth shut: the Drow man was stronger than her by far and more than one blow hit home, leaving behind several injuries, Hells! This bastard’s gonna slice me like a sausage! The Slayer chuckled inside her mind, You seem in straits, little Goddess. Do you need a hand, pardon, a claw? Yes
What?, the creature started, taken off balance. I said yes! Give me your strength and do it NOW, you imbecile, or neither of us will see tomorrow!, she growled, her enchanted mace largely missing the head of her opponent. In response to her demand, she felt the strength of the Taint spread through her body like liquid fire, chasing away both pain and fatigue and her lips twisted into a feral grin: now she had the upper hand.
Her blows became faster and stronger, hammering mercilessly on Lesaonar’s sword and on his body, until he lost his grip on the hilt and a well-placed kick to his left ankle had him falling down on his knees. Just before she could deliver the final strike, he raised a hand, "Wait! I surrender. You are the best of us", Lesaonar said, his voice hoarse and strained by pain, "I gift you my sword: I am not worthy of it anymore".
Do not listen to him, little Goddess! Kill him! Margaret Dawn hesitated, split between the desire to kill and her conscience and at last she lowered her mace, relaxing, "Keep your sword, male, I don’t need it. And keep your life too, you aren’t worthy of staining my weapon with your inferior blood", she spat, turning on her heels and exiting the pit, the exhaustion kept at bay by the Taint returning in a rush and making her stagger for a moment.
Phaere was waiting for her near the entrance, smiling broadly, "Excellent! Oh, my dear Veldrin, that was wonderful! My mother will be pleased to know of this". "I am glad that my actions pleased you, Mistress Phaere. Now, with your permission, I will go to my quarters to rest: it has been a long day". "Of course, of course, have some rest. We will talk another time".