Minsc drew his greatsword and ambled down the bridge toward the djinn, seemingly oblivious to the strangeness of their surroundings. "Chingare, atche! Stop!" the Hunter called, grimacing as her own echoing voice told her over and over to halt as she darted after Minsc. Snagging the greatsword's sheathe, worn slung between his shoulder blades, the Hunter hauled Minsc backward as she passed him and positioned herself before him with her arms outspread to stop his forward gait. "What mean you this, 'We are on a quest'?"
"A quest of a great and noble kind! The little boy outside, his mother is trapped within this tent of carnival evil! Minsc and Boo promised that we and Amistry would save her! And we will, right, Boo?" Minsc conferred with the hamster sitting contentedly on his shoulder.
"No. No. No. No," Linvail said from behind Minsc, shaking his head to punctuate his denials. "No. We're not going to do this garbage. We're leaving, now."
The Hunter pointed with her chin to the solid marble wall that stood in place of the tent flap they had just entered. "Would you have the ability to walk through walls, then"
Glaring, Linvail went back to the wall and put his hand against it. The irritation on his face became surprise, then concern as he pressed hard against the marble. "No, no, no," he muttered again. The Hunter heard the slick whisper of his hand sliding over the wall's smooth surface, then the crack of his knuckles when he punched it. "This is a circus! It's just a circus! All the information, everything I've been told, says this is nothing more than a circus with a bad opening act!"
"You would do well to calm yourself, lest we come to believe that the cralis lo the tshorave narkano has naught but the courage of a beardless boy," the Hunter said, making the Shadow Thief's face turn a dark shade of red. In truth, though she would not show it nor react upon it, this sudden imprisonment worried the Hunter, especially since Minsc himself seemed so unconcerned. After having seen him react so emotionally over small troubles yet throw himself into battles where titans would fear to creep, she was starting to believe that perhaps the big warrior's sense of danger was a bit off kilter. She watched Linvail pace before the wall and considered her dwindling options. "I give," the Hunter finally sighed and said to Minsc, "tell me what is known."
Taking breaths between each sentence like a small child relating a fairy story, Minsc said, "The little boy said his mother came inside yesterday when the sun set and she never came out! And then the soldiers came! And then they told everyone to stay away, because the evil circus tent had eaten everyone within! And Minsc and Boo promised that we and Amistry would find the little boy's mother, because mothers are very important!"
When the sun set, the Hunter thought dismally. She had sent Rakeh here yesterday well after sunset. Hoping fervently that the boy had simply taken the coin she had given him and run off, the Hunter drew her bastard sword and looked at Linvail, who stood beside Minsc rubbing his bruised hand. "He has the right of it, to go back we must go forward," she said, gesturing for him to follow her, "so then, avas."
The men stayed close at her heels as she led them across the bridge, though Linvail grumbled continuously about heads rolling for providing him with such gross misinformation. As they approached, the floating djinn guarding the palace entrance continued to stare over their heads, seemingly oblivious to their presence. But when they stood directly before it, its head dropped, and a great and terrible smile appeared on its swarthy face.
"Aha!" it said in delight, like a child preparing to choose a plaything. "I see wayfarers have come to amuse Kalah! You must answer a riddle, naturally, ere I will allow you to pass this bridge. Are you ready to hear it?"
"That depends. Why would I want to pass over this bridge?" Linvail stared hard at the djinn with narrowed eyes, as if trying to look through it.
The djinn snorted. "Because it is symbolic of your progression to enlightenment and understanding, fool!" It looked at the Hunter. "Are you ready to answer my riddle?"
"I would know who it is who plays this tune before I would set my feet to dance it," the Hunter replied.
"Kalah does not reveal himself to those who are not worthy!" the djinn said, swatting the air before the Hunter as if trying to kill an insect. It looked at Minsc. "You, then, proud warrior. Are you ready to begin? Excellent!" Minsc nodded eagerly as the djinn recited, "A princess is as old as the prince will be when the princess is twice as old as the prince was when the princess' age was half the sum of their present age. How old, then, are they both?"
The djinn surely had spoken only gibberish, for its words were so convoluted that the Hunter could not properly translate them in her head from Common into Romany to even guess at an answer. She looked at Linvail, hoping that he had an answer, but the thief grimly shook his head.
"Ah, you are most correct," the djinn purred, startling them both, and bowed before Minsc. "The mighty Kalah respects those with a most agile and quick mind. Proceed with my blessing." The gleeful look on the djinn's face faded as it straightened up, like a puppet whose strings were no longer being manipulated. It floated to one side of the bridge, allowing them enough room to pass through the arched doorway curtained in red velvet, which led into the great palace.
"What was that all about?" Linvail asked Minsc. "I didn't hear you answer him."
Minsc took the hamster off his shoulder and gave it a smacking kiss on its tiny head. "Minsc did not answer him, but Boo did! Boo is the smart one!"
The Hunter arched an eyebrow in surprise but merely shrugged when Linvail looked at her. "Ches tut jin a tachiben vec vyzvedeti ..."
" ... ask a drunk, child or fool.'" he answered, finishing the Romany proverb. "I remember. He's all three, but what's his rat?"
"Wiser than us three," the Hunter replied. She shrugged again. Then, with one hand outstretched before her, the other gripping the hilt of her bastard sword, the Hunter moved forward through the curtains.
The few steps they took to travel through the doorway took them from the black night of an abyss into a pleasure dome of a Calishite decor. Smoke hung heavy in the air, obscuring the Hunter's vision as she stopped in the doorway and looked around the dimly lit room. Brightly colored rugs and plump, tasseled silk pillows littered the smooth marble floors. Sheer veils draped the columns supporting the high ceiling, upon which were painted scenes of men in women in various states of undress engaged in erotic practices. Exotic animals paced in the corners, ignored by a stunningly beautiful man and woman lounging on pillows at the other end of the room. And in the room's center stood a giant ogre dressed in clean rags that jumped when it saw the Hunter.
"Who are you?" the ogre cried, its voice oddly high and as melodious as a songbird's. It ran forward several paces and stopped short, as if it had reached the end of an invisible tether. Concern and fear shone in its tiny, piggy eyes. "Oh whoever you are, you must flee this place at once! He ... he's killed everyone else who has come into this place ... a-almost! Oh, please run!"
"Oooooh," Minsc said from behind her, starring at the creature with jaw-gaped surprise. "Never has Minsc heard a monster speak with a voice so pretty!"
The ogre grimaced and looked down at its hands, wringing them so hard the Hunter feared it would pull them off. "I ... I'm not a monster, I'm an elf, a winged elf! Or at least I was." It stepped forward again but stopped suddenly again. "This ... this covering you see," it gestured to its body, "this is some kind of illusion, but if you believe in it then it becomes real! Oh please, please believe me! Now go before something happens to you, I beg of you!"
"If this is an illusion, it's one like I've never seen," Linvail said as he pushed his way past the Hunter. The ogre, still quivering and wringing its hands in distress, didn't move as he approached. "Tell me, beast, who is behind all this?"
"K-Kalah. Oh, I don't know what he's done, exactly, or how ..." The ogre looked imploringly at the Hunter. "I ... I don't know what he's done to the tent or with the others who have come in, but their deaths are real! You must run!"
Linvail grabbed the ogre by the back of his head, hauling it backward and drawing his short sword in one smooth, swift movement. "I've had quite enough of this," he growled into its ear, his blade at its throat. "I've had a very long day for so early in the morning, and getting trapped in what should be nothing other than a second-rate circus is doing nothing to improve my mood. Tell me the truth, beast, and tell me now!"
"Please, p-please, I'm telling you the truth!" the ogre whimpered. "It was Kalah, it's Kalah who did it all! He ch-changed everything into, into chaos, into what you see! I didn't do it, I can't do anything! I only work here with my Uncle Quayle. Please!"
"Tshorave," the Hunter said in a low voice.
Linvail ignored the Hunter's warning and pressed his blade against the ogre, whose face was screwed up in fear. "Kalah? That's a gnomish name, isn't it? Do you think that I'd believe a gnome is capable of all this? Don't lie to me!"
"Quiet, dhampir, I know what I'm doing!" Linvail snapped. He glanced up and saw her look of disapproval. "Don't tell me you trust it! Haven't you learned any caution in your old age?"
"I did not live to the length of these years by attacking all I found strange to me," the Hunter replied hotly. "You-"
"Leave her alone!" the cry interrupted the Hunter's words, and she jumped back as a large, green spider leaped upon Linvail's back. Its forelegs locked around Linvail's throat, trying to strangle him, but the thief did not break his grip on the ogre. "Let her go! Aerie, run! Run!" the spider cried. The Hunter blinked hard. The spider was shouting, and as if that wasn't impossible alone, it was doing so in a very familiar young boy's voice.
Still holding the short sword to the ogre's throat, Linvail reached back and struck the spider hard with his fist. As one, the Hunter and Minsc leaped forward, the Hunter to grab the spider and Minsc to grab Linvail's wrist before it could move to slash the ogre's throat. The Hunter yanked the spider from Linvail's back with such force that nearly fell over.
"Let go! Let me go!" the spider whined, struggling madly in the Hunter's arms. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that Minsc had wrestled the ogre out of Linvail's grasp and was holding it behind him.
"Calm yourself, bar, or shall I leave you to this place?" the Hunter told the spider as she gently dropped it on the floor.
"Lady!" The spider that was Rakeh flung himself back into her arms the moment she let him go and hugged her so hard she lost her breath from the force of it and surprise. "I don't believe it, you came back for me! Hey, leave her alone!" Before she could push him off her, Rakeh bounced away from her and scuttled again toward Linvail.
Desperately, the Hunter lunged for the boy, hoping that her grip would find some purchase on his slick spider's body. Her hand closed upon what felt like a headful of matted hair, though she saw nothing except her fist on his spidery back. He hollered indignantly as she used his hair to haul him backward. "Enough!" she shouted again. Keeping one hand on what felt like Rakeh's shoulder, the Hunter put the other on Linvail's. "This ends, now, or would you fight me as well? We would do better to fight the illusion that surrounds us!"
The Shadow Thief knocked her hand away. "What do you think I'm trying to do? I know that we're trapped in an illusion. I can see it around its edges, but I can't see through it, and it's giving me a headache like you wouldn't believe." He jabbed the short sword at the ogre -- Aerie -- and said, "I don't like being controlled. I want answers, and I want the right ones."
"But I-I've told you!" Aerie cried. She peeked out from under Minsc's arm, the uncertainty and terror on her face an odd look for an ogre to wear. "It was Kalah! All his ... his minions, they say they serve him, so I know he's behind this."
"Impossible," Linvail snapped.
"Why do you say this?" The Hunter let Rakeh go, and he stood beside her clutching her coat with two of his spider's legs. She tried not to shudder, remembering the small, filthy street urchin who was her kinsman that was trapped within the spider's form.
"Because this is Amn," Linvail replied, as if that settled the matter. "You saw the Cowled Wizards, dhampir. They regulate magic, so strictly that sometimes it's difficult for even us to use it. Which is why," he gave Aerie a piercing look, "I find it hard to believe that there could be a gnome this powerful in Athkatla without my having heard of him. Or that a gnome could have gotten this powerful at all."
"Gnomes are wonderful illusionists!" Aerie straightened up, a small spark of anger quashing her timidity. "They're the best in all of Faerun! My Uncle Quayle does marvelous things with his illusions, not horrible, mean things like this! And he's a thousand times better than Kalah ever was!" Some of her indignation drained away as took a moment to think about what she had just said. "Th-that's right," she said slowly. "He, he's not as good as Uncle Quayle. He shouldn't have been able do all this."
The Hunter watched Linvail, ready to go for her sword again if he threatened the ogre, but the Shadow Thief lowered his weapon, the expression on his face grim. "Not the answer I was hoping for, but it'll do," he muttered, then told the Hunter, "From mad wizards to mad gnomes in the space of an hour. Let's try to do better with Kalah than we did with Irenicus."
"I can help you!" Aerie said before the Hunter could answer. "If ... if you release me from my chains, I can help you stop him!" She scrabbled about for something on the floor, then straightened and moved her arms as if cracking a whip. The Hunter heard a metalic rattle snake across the floor. "The chains are invisible, covered by the illusion. And and they prevent me from casting my own spells."
Minsc stared at the spot on the floor that Aerie had manipulated, then looked at Aerie, a puzzled frown on his face. He picked up Aerie, who clung to his broad shoulders, and carried her back a few paces. Her left leg was yanked backward by something unseen. "This is definitely evil! Chains that you cannot see are worse than chains that you can! Minsc knows all about being chained," he told Aerie sympathetically as he set her on her feet.
"They have the key," the spider that was Rakeh said, pointing across the room at the lounging man and woman. "I've been trying to get it away from them. But they keep hitting me with it." He pointed to one of his legs, and the Hunter saw a deep bruise had spread across it. "It's a sword. Her key, I mean, it's a sword."
"He's been so nice, he's been trying to help me since he got past the djinn outside," Aerie said, smiling sweetly at Rakeh, again an odd expression for her ogre's face. "He's the kindest little boy. You must be very proud of him."
Rakeh groaned and looked away, clearly embarrassed but pleased with Aerie's praise. He sneaked at glance at the Hunter, who merely arched an eyebrow at him.
Minsc held up his sword. "We shall take this key-that-is-a-sword away from people who hit little spiders that Amistry likes, and set Aerie the-ogre-who-is-not free!" he proclaimed, his voice echoing off the marble walls.
Linvail and the Hunter exchanged exasperated glances before Linvail motioned for them to follow him and began walking toward their foes. As they moved, the Hunter asked Rakeh, "Tell to me this how it was you entered this place. A djinn, it asked a question of you, yes? I am curious what was the answer."
"Yeah," the boy answered. "But I couldn't answer it so it gave me another, and I answered that." She could not see his grin of pride but heard it in his voice. "It was a riddle, and I'm great at riddles. 'The poor have it and the rich want it.' It's nothing. I mean, I'd know that pretty well, right?" The spider's body quaked, and the Hunter realized the boy had shrugged nonchalantly.
The Hunter shook her head. "O matoten, o dinilo or chav tom pooker tuti," she murmured, again thinking of the Romany proverb she had shared with Linvail earlier.
"What's that mean?" Rakeh asked, tugging the Hunter's leather coat to again get her attention. "What did you say?"
The Hunter pried her coat out of the boy's grip and handed him her spelled short sword. "It means that we now have all the things that are needed for success. Now. Stand and watch, and use this to strike if you must. You have done much to help your friend in this place, we cannot disappoint by letting them escape. Are you ready? Kushti. Avas."
Chingare, atche! -- Warrior, stop!
cralis lo the tshorave narkano -- King of the Shadow Thieves
avas -- let us go
tshorave -- thief
bar -- brother
kushti -- good
dhampir -- vampire
Ches tut jin a tachiben vec vyzvedeti
O matoten, o dinilo or chav tom pooker tuti:
"Wouldst thou know a truth or mystery,
A drunkard, fool, or child may tell it thee."
Memento Mori: 14
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