In the desert, Kan sat upon a prayer mat, meditating. In his mind, he was standing on an endless plain, a blur of fists and feet. Perfect in every calculation and technique. Now his thoughts moved to the land of the continent around him. He could sense the evil beings across the land, their locations and numbers. He felt a large presence within a lone mountain far away, and another up on top of a mountain range, the tallest in Faerun. This cloud of evil was moving. Towards a cloud of good high in the mountains. Kan sprang up from his mat, grabbed, rolled, and packed it away all in midair, and then his feet hit the ground again and began carrying him towards the mountains.
Valygar stealthily crept down a hall within Mount Ith. He had discovered much and now needed to escape, lest the information die with him within these cursed halls. He had to get the information back to Nalia in Athkatla.
Valygar had once accompanied Onyx and the others through his ancestor's plane-hopping sphere while they had been working to soil Isaea Roenal's name and rescue Nalia from his clutches. He had also braved Bodhi's lair with the party to retrieve the vampiric Aerie. Sharing a mutual distaste for Athkatla nobility, he and Nalia had formed a bond during his short stints in Onyx's company. Following her appointment to the Council of Six, she had cleared his name in Athkatla and recruited the stalker to serve as her spy.
He had now acquired intelligence that Cyran was planning his next mass attack on de'Arnise Keep, and Nalia had been grateful for the news. He had returned to discover the details of their planned attack - the attack was now only a week away - and had discovered that and much, much more. Keeping to the shadows and eavesdropping on the ramblings of Cyran and Xzar, as well as peeking at the maps and charts in their strategy chambers, he had not only discovered their exact attack plan, but another arm of their fiendish machinations as well. He had overheard Xzar ranting about how he had scrambled the mind of the cloud giant king Klaongar and been telepathically controlling him, ordering him to attack the avariel. Valygar had heard of the cloud giants' recent failed attempt. And now he had to get the information to Nalia who could get it to Onyx and the avariel. Another attack was coming, a far larger siege on Paradise. Timed to coordinate with Cyran's attack on de'Arnise Keep.
"Friends, thank you for meeting me tonight in this urgent matter," Nalia addressed her former adventuring companions. "As you know, I have wanted us to coordinate the next Amnish effort against the Cyricist army, and have finally convinced the buffoonish council in the matter. Furthermore, Valygar recently informed me that the Cyricists are in fact planning to attack de'Arnise Keep in six days. Minsc, you and Valygar - he should return again soon - will coordinate our rangers, and Imoen and I our mages. Keldorn, you will command our forward paladins and fighter-mages, and Anomen, you our clerics. Mazzy should be returning to Athkatla soon. I have spoken with her before in this matter, and she will marshal our fighters. Jaheira, I trust we finally have the support of the druids of the grove?"
"The Cyricists have become too great a blight and Grand Druid Cernd has deemed they threaten the balance. We will join you," Jaheira proclaimed self-righteously. The druids had until Amn's recent defeat been unwilling to take sides against the Cyricist raiders, who had until then been seen as a minor evil on the fringes on Amn. Cyran had taken great care to hide his army's growing strength before that battle, knowing it would slow opposition such as the druids. Jaheira, no longer a Harper, had visited the grove, now headed by Cernd, many times since departing from Onyx's company. She had welcomed the time alone with her thoughts on the road between there and Athkatla, and had a philosophy now much closer to the druids' than to the Harpers'. She and Onyx had not parted on good terms.
He had become increasingly self-righteous and puritanical as he slew thousands of evil foes across Amn, Jaheira thought to herself. Ignoring me, he had become increasingly absorbed with Aerie before and after their victory over Melissan, to the point of neglecting his friendships with the other party members. Especially the tenuous one with me. I blame Aerie, who constantly took great pains to turn his attention away from me. I could sense the little avariel witch's scorn of me under that innocent, blandly pleasant visage. And Onyx, deeply absorbed with her after completing their ordeal, never seemed to notice the wingless runt's scheme. How that paladin could be so adept at detecting evil but so clueless at detecting her games, I will never understand. Aerie and I could not help but sense each other's confrontational thoughts when around each other. Why the former circus freak had to be so overprotective, I don't know. I wasn't trying to steal Onyx from her, I just wanted him to acknowledge his other friends who had been through so much with him.
Imoen had shared Jaheira's exasperation and Onyx's unbalanced attention and affection. Jaheira sensed the mage's thoughts now and Imoen responded in kind.
And I'm his own sister, Imoen thought. We never really got the chance to talk about, y'know, being brother and sis and all, since we were running and fighting so hard. Seemed like we never stopped to camp, and when we did it was all Aerie, Aerie, Aerie. Always bothering him with this whine or that concern. Oh Onyx, I'm so afraid, oh Onyx, I'm hurt, oh Onyx, do you think I'm ugly, oh Onyx, I'm pregnant. Sheesh. Rarely space for concern for li'l ol' me, who spent so much time with that psycho Irenicus! Boy, I was pretty frazzled after that. I'm okay now, y'know, but I'll never again be that carefree girl strolling with you and Onyx up and down the Sword Coast.
Imoen's finger traced over the scar that ran down her face between her forehead and cheek. She showed Jaheira thoughts from their youth. Standing in tall flowers, waving as strong coastal winds blew around her, fiddling with a gadget and watching a young Onyx trying to graduate from a short sword to a long and hack at a hapless tree. Standing beside him with a short bow and taking pot shots at that same tree while he hurled axes she'd stolen from a barn. Sitting on a hillock they liked to go and watching the sun set over the Sea of Swords, talking or just sitting in silence. Y'know, I think we sorta knew we were brother and sister all along. In our bones. We sure always acted like it. And in our conscious minds, after finding out about Onyx's heritage and realizing I had come to Candlekeep in much the same way at the same time. I think Onyx began to realize it too. He told me so, on one of the rare occasions we did get the chance to talk after ya guys rescued me. I just got back from Candlekeep again, y'know. Read through near the whole library. I found Gorion's hidden journal, and I think I found something out. We also have the same mother. We're twins.
Their thoughts faded as Valygar burst into the room, panting heavily and nearly collapsing. Minsc rushed over to hold up his fellow ranger, and Nalia began invoking the sweat off his face. "Cyran - wizard Xzar - controls could giants," he panted. The party members gasped at the mention of that dead necromancer's name.
"Catch your breath, swift stalker," Nalia offered, conjuring a glass of water. He gulped in down in one second and continued, regaining his composure.
"I have the details and tactics of the assault on de'Arnise Keep, six days hence," Valygar informed them. "And the cloud giants, through their king Klaongar, are under the direct influence of the dark lord Cyran. The resurrected Xzar is telepathically controlling the king and they will move against the avariel on the same day as the Cyricists attack us at the keep. That other skirmish Onyx put down was only a small war party. Now they'll face Klaongar's army. He and the avariel must know what I know of their plans to lay siege to Paradise. Please tell me that the avariel ambassador is still here."
"Your speed has saved us," Nalia told him. "He plans to return to Paradise at dawn."
As dawn broke again in Paradise, Onyx awoke from blissful dreams, his bride beside him. Exhausted from the night's revelry after their marriage, Aerie slept soundly still. Onyx walked again to the end of the room and looked out their the windows, past their balcony, over the land below. The evil below was not moving at the moment, and the large concentration of it sat still on the edge of Amn, but it had been growing in size. He concentrated harder and tried to see more than just its where, but its why. What purpose it served, where it was moving to, and who was behind it.
Looking the other way, across the nearby mountaintops, he again saw the cloud of evil he knew to be the nearest cloud giant city. He saw no large movements - he had had his mind on it since the first raid - but tried to focus on its microstructure. Was it buzzing about more than usual, its pieces moving more amongst the cloud? Was it up to something? He thought he had sensed the last attack was more than a random pillaging raid, but he could not be sure. Regardless, he had taken to assuming it was such and attempting to foresee what would come next, and when. He could not.
Only a rare sorcerer or the most powerful druids had been known to gain an inkling of foresight, and he had none. As such, he had to observe the game board as it stood and try to infer the implied next moves, but he could not. Where are you when I need you, Solar? he wondered. You always let me know enough that I could infer the right path, by following my moral code. Here, it cannot guide me as I am for the moment a bewildered bystander. You saw of things in motion and inferred what might come. Or the grove? Could - would - one there - see what he needed to know, would they recognize the severity of the evil and find it unbalancing enough to give me the information to confront it? Cernd? Jaheira?
As Jaheira ran through his mind, Aerie's sweet dreams turned to nightmares of old fears and things that might have been. She awoke, frightened and pawing Onyx's empty side of the bed in vain - as she had in her dream just now. Here in the waking world, Onyx was merely across the room, and in a flash was back by her side, holding and soothing her.
"It makes all the difference having you alongside me, husband," she cooed, holding onto his arm.
"Forgive me, my love, I was for a moment ignorantly enjoying the beauty of the radiant dawn, which is yet pale and dim in comparison as I enjoyed just before and enjoy now the beauty of my bride," Onyx said out loud. He had taken to saying aloud only such quips of love to her, ironically more obvious than most of the things that he left in his thoughts for her to divine. He kissed her forehead gently and stroked her golden hair, trying to keep his mind on hers and off other matters and persons.
"Oh Onyx, I shall never tire of hearing your comforting voice say such things," she giggled and kissed him. The knight spoke a few more such things and they tarried for awhile before Onyx left briefly to order breakfast from one of the servants. He was gone longer than expected, and Aerie began to wonder if he was helping slice food with one of his swords or some such nonsense as he was occasionally prone to. She then sensed worried thoughts coming from her husband downstairs. As she threw on a robe and prepared to go down, Onyx burst in, already gearing up. His news, the news that Valygar had given Nalia and the others, as well as the news of Cyran's first major victory over the Amnish, which no one in Paradise until this hour knew, flooded through her mind. Onyx held her as she staggered, overwhelmed at the monumental developments below - and at their altitude as well.
He began thinking, the royalty of Paradise is doubtless informed of this already and the Order and the other professional societies must be as we speak. It is imperative that we go before them before the tide of opinion goes against what must be done. Before they fall to quarrel over the validity of information gained through an untrustworthy human politicians and originating from a lone ranger. Onyx gazed out the window again, furious with himself that, though the clouds of evil now made sense to him, he had not seen more earlier.
Aerie spoke. "My love, you have done all you could. There is plenty of time to prepare still, and I like thinking that perhaps it was meant for us to have our wedding without the burden of this news."
You're right, my bride, Onyx realized. I too am grateful we had the chance to marry in peace. Though perhaps it would have been nice to do so after crushing this evil.
"Oh Onyx, it seemed like we were always planning like that, only to have yet another evil spring up as the last one fell. Go before them if you must, but my people know how to defend themselves. They will both anticipate and fend off the cloud giants - as they have many times in the past."
There is more to it than that, Onyx thought. They are under the influence of another, greater evil and we do not know what surprises they may have in store.
"Our adventuring companions on the ground will deal with them, love, and the avariel will repel Klaongar's goons. Help them to strategize if you wish, but we are vast and number and even your single powerful sword will not be needed. Please, my huaband, the father of my unborn child. Go not to the front lines for once. We are guests here, not soldiers. Enjoying our first days of marriage. Relax and enjoy yourself. And me." Aerie parted her robe slightly, and Onyx struggled to contain himself as he ran a hand over her cheek and down her side.
"At least stay within the walls, my paladin. If a few do get through, don't you want to be there to defend me?" Batting her eyelashes, she gave him that irresistible wide-eyed look that had first enamored him of her with its innocence.
Paladins were normally known for taking the back lines in a battle, to protect spellcasters and, in sieges such as the upcoming one, royalty and other civilians. This was a consequence more of their being less expandable and often of higher social bearing than conventional fighters, than of the tactical use of their spellcasting or other back-line functions. Onyx, in his large-scale battles to date, had however pioneered the aggressive use of paladins. Perhaps growing out of the cavalier's lionlike courage and disuse of missile weapons outside the throwing axe, he believed that the presence of holy warriors served to strike immediate fear into the hearts of evil opponents and give good an early advantage. Their abilities to heal themselves quickly, draw upon holy might, and hold, smite, or cause wounds to enemies also made them destructive forces to be reckoned with.
Most of all, he had learned as an adventurer the essential tactic of quickly penetrating to an enemy's back lines and disrupting spellcasters and dispelling their enchantments. This often decided a battle and, as in the last cloud giant raid, Onyx was always eager to spearhead this daring, dangerous charge himself.
But the avariel had many experienced paladins and fighter-mages, which were perhaps even more adept at surviving behind enemy lines and confronting their wizards - especially when opening instant dimension doors to the enemy's rear - and Onyx decided that perhaps they were well prepared to handle the onslaught. Onyx still wanted to brief the paladins and fighter-mages on a few obscure tactics and tricks. If they even apply to a flying army, he thought. Though, specialized in fighting dragons and demons, the cavalier was quite familiar with the mechanics of a flying enemy, he was used to the concept of flying allies. Maybe I am out of my element here and might as well stay back. And, weighing the personal value of staying back as Aerie's personal bodyguard, ready to slay any who came near her or even carry her to safety as necessary if her awesome spellcasting didn't blow the intruders to bits first, he decided this was one time to man the rear.
"Oh thank you Onyx!" Aerie yelped, hopping into her husband's arms. "You've made the right decision. You don't know how much your concern means to me!"
I may not have your extrasensory powers, but I think I have a pretty good idea, Onyx thought. I just hope I have as good an idea of what we are soon to face.
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