II. Taking Sides
He came over the horizon one day, walking out of the great desert, marching steadily and tirelessly across the great barren expanse that was rarely tread, which led to Kara-Tur far to the east. It was not known from whence he came or why. Minstrels would try in vain to place him among the characters of their extensive lore. No known political exile, escaped criminal, traveling vagabond, or wandering warrior of days past seemed to fit him well enough. His improbable martial arts prowess surely could not have been the product of a mundane and trifling earlier life, nor was it satisfactory to suppose that, becoming what he would, he could have never before been of consequence or at least meant to be. His abilities were too great, too honed. Perhaps he was still seeking his intended objective. Or perhaps he was not meant for a specific purpose, but rather as a weapon to serve someone, something, some credo or some cause, as the chance arose.
First appearing in the deserts east of Amn, he walked always quickly and straight as an arrow towards his objectives. He spoke little, only to inquire as to locations, names, and news. He would give his name only as Kan and volunteered no other information. He would walk straight into crowded taverns, towards the table of some evildoer and, without a word, draw his katanas or merely thrust out a quivering palm and slay the villain, cleanly, quickly, and without a word. He would then leave. Guards weren't sure what to make of it, whether they should be allowing it, but it certainly made their jobs easy, and they weren't about to get in his way.
Bards, struggling for news in the remote desert settlements, quickly spun quite a tale of Kan. Always taking the quickest path to the nearest evil, they would say, he would draw Truth and Clarity and, glowing white and gold, they would ricochet arrows, deflect blows, and seek the hearts and necks of enemies, if the ripples of force he sent through the air with his fists and feet did not crush and slice them into pieces first. They said he could even slice through armor and flesh with his bare hands and feet. The only thing the embattled gangster bosses of the area could find to save their own skins was to put as many evildoers as possible in Kan's way to occupy him and slow him down - slightly - and run in the opposite direction as he sliced and kicked his way towards them. Eventually, rid of evil in the desert towns, he continued walking west, towards Amn.
Deep within the labyrinthine caverns of the lone mountain Ith, surrounded by his captains, bodyguards, and chaotic festivities, Cyran slouched in his bone throne. Dressed in solid black, the kensai-mage wore a suit of trolls' hide which lent him their regenerative constitution, a Cape of Leaping which nearly allowed him to fly, solid obsidian bracers that had been specially crafted for him, and Boots of Speed. His wild blonde hair spilled over a headband bearing a purple gem that extended his ability to see and dominate the thoughts of those around him. He wore onyx rings and a reptilian belt which enhanced his self-serving charisma, dexterity and strength. And he wore a jade necklace which was an endless spell trap, absorbing incoming magic and feeding it to his mind. His left hand deftly spun knucklebones around its fingers while his right held a human skull, which he was raving at madly as his troops devoured food while watching enslaved dancers and musicians perform a lively recreation of the day's battle.
"Yes outsmart them today by leagues did we today," Cyran muttered, "foolish Amnish generals almost take pleasure out of victory yes almost all of Amn will be destroyed or enslaved soon yes march to Athkatla soon we can yes only one more stronghold in way yes indeed many to be killed in Athkatla" The bards-in-bondage acted out heroic Cyran soldiers and clumsy Amnish, drawing cheers and laughter from the easily entertained troops. "the lies are spread throughout Amn many rally to our cause yes join us for fortune and freedom they think yes," Cyran cackled, staring intently at the black sun stained into the skull's forehead. "the priests of lies draw them with promise of liberation yes Amn the council of six who are they now what kind of secret is that secret because corrupt now who wants that don't like Amn soldiers at your bar brawl join us yes try to steal get caught no like join us yes lathandar helm talos priests not like your god say you heretic join us yes want to use magic in the street fight for us use your sword or dagger or spells for us yes use them do anything."
A frightened, shaking slave girl served Cyran a goblet of wine, and without looking up, he reached for its handle but grabbed her neck instead "yes join us we say lies lies lies freedom is slavery yes" the girl collapsed as her neck broke in Cyran's grasp and still staring at the skull he tried again and caught the goblet this time "soon we will rule Amn all dead or slaves or believes the lies yes then i have enough kills yes i will have enough kills." Cyran's head wizard, without daring to interrupt him, approached the fallen slave alongside a Cyric priest. This necromancer, himself raised by Cyran's priests once before, was Onyx's old foe Xzar. After laborious research at Cyran's impatient direction, he had perfected a process of raising the dead in such a way that they returned to life in body, but psychotically reversed, whatever goals they had in life now twisted to those of Cyran. The Cyric priest raised the slave and Xzar began frying her mind with horrible thoughts emanating from his fingertips. As she stood again and shook out her neck, one of Xzar's bodyguards unshackled her. She politely took Cyran's finished goblet and left, no longer shaking with fright and now going about her business with a new resolve.
"The solution is simple. Allow myself and my former adventuring companions to head Amn's next battle. I hate to say it, but our generals are lazy buffoons." Nalia was speaking to the other five members of the Council of Six, who were squabbling and blaming each other for the latest defeat at Cyran's hands.
"Nonsense! They are esteemed paladins all! How dare you question their integrity!?" lashed out one of them.
"I did not question, I asserted, and not their lack of integrity, but of competence," Nalia sighed.
A third member cut in, "Your adventures may have been the favorite of every bard in the city, but even if we could attribute it to your abilities - not the Bhaalspawn's - hacking your way as a small adventuring party is very different from coordinating a large battle, and you have no experience or training in such matters."
Nalia responded, still calmly, "aside from the fact that I am nearing Elminster in power and could handle Cyran's battlemages alone, I do know how to coordinate others, and my companions Onyx and Minsc have both proven themselves in leading victorious skirmishes since our adventuring."
A fourth council member, Eroanne, the only one Nalia had ever known to be reasonable, spoke up. "Our avariel ambassdor has informed me that Onyx lead the winged elves to victory against a horde of cloud giants only a week ago, coordinating a full force of warriors and spellcasters."
"Giants are stupid, these Cyricists are not," spoke a fifth.
"Cloud giants, for your information, are much more intelligent than any of us save Nalia," informed Eroanne.
The fifth retorted, "Your nerve! Perhaps they have some intelligence - for giants - but these Cyricists are a different matter. Why, they use thieves en masse in battle, and they have been poisoning our population with propaganda and heresy and drawing many to their cause! We have that issue to deal with as well."
"Then let us," said Nalia, "I for one think we could dissuade the weight of the rumors by revealing our identities, and as you know I believe we should do that anyway."
"But," hissed the sixth, a bearded figure with a hood low over his face, "they like it this way! They believe it precludes us from corruption.....not that any of us would be corrupt that way, mind you."
"Some of are as it stands," spoke Eroanne, "and I think we all know who." Nervous and angry looks bounced around the table and Nalia sensed much. "It is precisely the secrecy that makes it so easy, " she continued her thoughts, "moreover, the anonymity gives some of us the idea they have a license to do whatever they please without consequence."
"But do you really think the public would approve of that controversial Bhaalspawn commanding our forces? Do you want controversy?" asked the third rhetorically. "It is precisely the secrecy that makes...unpopular.....decision like that possible."
"Unpopular? That couldn't be further from the truth. I think the public would very much approve of a general Onyx," offered Eroanne, suppressing a giggle. "He is the rising star of the Most Noble Order of the Radiant Heart, as well as a warrior responsible alongside Nalia and the others for protecting Amn and our elven neighbors from various cults, monsters, vampires, criminals, wizards, and the like. He has a very heroic reputation. And he is sooo charismatic."
"Many blame him bring those troubles here in the first place!" protested the fifth. "Can we, much less the public, trust a man like that?"
"I think the public would trust him and Nalia more than it trusts us! Can you blame them? I'd love to see the four of you put your own lives in each other's hands." Haughty, cynical glances shot around the table. "Remember that if the Cyricists succeed, your own skins will share of the fate of our population's."
"Well, perhaps it's worth a try," admitted the third, "we're not winning any battles we way we're currently doing things."
"You have a point," admitted the second.
"Very well," hissed the sixth, seeing he was now outnumbered, "but only under the condition that the Council retains cred-,er, responsibility and authority, for all our forces. Do not disappoint us, Nalia."
"It's settled then", said Nalia, "and just in time. According to our intelligence, the next battlefield will be one I know well - de'Arnise Keep."
At his own wedding, Onyx tried to focus on his immediate surroundings. When that meant the beautiful Aerie, he usually found this easy. Troubled, he tried to divine the forces at work. Someone or something was seeking the throne, but he did not know who or what. Could it be a powerful new cloud giant? Or one of their gods? There had been other movements their kind recently. The most intelligent of the giant races and ever scheming, such a move was well within their abilities of they had a leader or deity powerful enough to seize the throne. Or those slaving raiders - weren't they Cyricists? - that had been clashing with patrols outside the tows of eastern Amn?
Onyx, and all in Paradise, did not yet know they had mobilized into an organized force that had annihilated one of Amn's entire armies.
Cyric had his eyes on the portfolio of Bhaal, Onyx knew. He remembered confronting the Prince of Lies in his pocket dimension once. The Insane God had been more that a little annoyed at the prospect of him taking Bhaal's place, and no doubt he was devising the means to seize it for himself. Of that there was little doubt. The only question was how. He could sense evil around him and on the land below, but not amongst the deities or across the planes. How he could use a visit from Solar, who had guided him through his bewildering race to the throne. Some news from the pantheon of gods would be most useful right now. Or even some news from down below, he realized. He had not heard anything since he had come with Aerie to visit her people. Yet in that time, he had sensed movements in the evil below. As he had become a more and more powerful paladin, his evil detection abilities had grown considerably, but he found that up among the clouds, though further from everything, he could yet sense it better. Whenever he looked down over Faerun now, it was like a giant game board below. But he did not yet know who the pieces were. He needed to find his enemy. And his allies.
Onyx returned to the present, to the wedding. In addition to Aerie's extended family and their friends, much of the royalty and nobility of Paradise were in attendance, as were most of the Order of Righteous Light. The avariel of course were of course quite familiar with Onyx and party's adventures, particularly preventing the destruction of their fellow elves in Suldanesellar. Every bard in Paradise had been spinning tales their exploits, and of Aerie and Onyx and the love that blossomed between them during their odyssey. Every avariel had heard of Aerie's torment in and rescue from the circus, her journey to vampirism and back, and now of her return with Onyx to Paradise.
The great plaza of Paradise was packed with citizens for several blocks in every direction. Onyx stood in the middle of the plaza amidst a retainer of the Order's finest paladins. He was dressed in a typical groom's outfit for avariel nobility. Typical save that the design had had to be modified for him, an exceptionally tall and strong human. Smaller and lighter than even most elves, the avariel had little muscle mass and thin bones, but they made up for it with grace and skill.
Trumpets blared, and a court announcement gave a needless introduction as Aerie appeared, surrounded by a retinue of her sisters and cousins. Onyx found it suddenly easier to focus as he looked upon his bride. In spite of her nonexistent wings, her dress fit her perfectly, and she looked more beautiful than ever in an extravagant avariel bridal gown. As they met in the center of the plaza, were married by the high priest of Paradise, and kissed, Onyx found one moment of unabridged happiness and peace.
Their union, it would later be said, was blessed by the presence of Aerdrie Faenya and Baervan Wildwanderer both.
II. Taking Sides
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