By Deverian Valandil
The Strength of her Convictions
[ 6:00 ]
Bryn slowly backed away from the dangling spider, sending a nervous glance over his shoulder and wondering if he could reach the roof door in time.
“That's right, kid, try to run. You won't get far, I have enough web to ensnare you eight times over,” laughed the creature.
The boy turned and broke into a run for the door. On reaction, the spider snapped its head forward and let loose a thick mass of webbing, which entangled Bryn around the legs. He tripped and fell forward, knocking against the door with his head as he fell.
As soon as it creaked open, sunlight flooded into the stairwell from across the eastern horizon. When the sunbeams touched the spider, its fur began to hiss and smoke. Screeching in pain, the nocturnal beast fell from the ceiling and hit the ground on its back, flailing its legs around in the air in panic.
The creature made a futile attempt to cover its eyes with its forelegs, but the front limbs had already become scalded into blackened crisps. In seconds, the creature's entire form was charred as if it had been tossed into a smithy's furnace.
Bryn covered his nose and struggled to keep from throwing up as the rancid stench and smoke wafted off of the spider's corpse. He reached down and with some difficulty, ripped the sticky webbing off of his legs. Wiping his hands off on the wall, he carefully moved around the smoking creature, then made his way back down the stairs, away from the burnt remains of the Night Parade beast. [ 6:05 ]
* * *
The Shield Knight in the platinum mask was bound to the wall of the dark room by magical chains. Verskul stood nearby, now garbed in a robe the colour of dark blood.
“The Maiden specifically instructed you to refrain from hiring outside parties for the summit assassinations,” said the liche, his voice bearing an unnatural hollow echo, “Not only did you defy that order, you failed in your mission.”
“We are not fools. Why should we risk the wrath of the combined Sword Coast nations when we might deflect the blame on an independent rabble of sell-swords?”
If Verskul had lips, he would have sneered. Acquiring the services of the Knights of the Shield had been Lorelei's idea, and the logic behind her proposal had seemed sound at the time. The liche grimaced inwardly; trusting her had been yet another failing of his mortal shell. It made little difference, however. Verskul knew what this day's outcome would be, one way or another.
“Where are these mercenaries now?” he demanded.
Krevis suddenly opened the door and barged in, “Verskul, one of the prisoners has escaped, and Lorelei–”
“I did not summon your presence!” Verskul raised a hand at Krevis, and a gale of wind rushed through the room, hurling the man back outside and slamming the door shut behind him.
Platinum-mask spoke evenly, “Three of the mercenaries are already dead. The fourth was felled by a shot in the chest from your own henchman,” he gestured at the door that Krevis had passed through.
“I see. And what of the prisoners you captured?”
“How do you know of that?”
“We are not fools either. The enchantments that the Maiden placed upon your warehouse included one that would let her eavesdrop on your conversations. You had two prisoners whom you sent to the Ducal Palace . Are they dead as well?”
“The guard was killed in the infernal crystal blast. I… do not know of the Tethyrian envoy's fate.”
“Then he may spread word of our plans to others at the summit?”
The liche's burned skull swayed from side to side, “You were to operate in secrecy and cut off all loose ends. If any learn of what I am doing, my mission will be in serious jeopardy,” Verskul waved his hands and began to cast a spell.
“Wait, what are you doing?” the Shield Knight's platinum mask suddenly began to glow and sizzle. He reached up to yank it off, but the scalding metal had become sealed to his face, and he only succeeded in burning his hands.
Verskul looked on in stoic silence as the room filled with the stench of burning flesh and the sound of agonized screams. [ 6:14 ]
* * *
Lord Siron peered out down the hall as Sir Treysen directed a pair of clerics in removing Chancellor Thinder's charred remains.
“And so the mighty fall,” Siron turned and saw ambassador Elsina approach, “I will confess that the Chancellor's death does little to draw tears from my eyes.”
Lord Siron stared at the Waterdeep envoy for a moment, “He blackmailed you as well, didn't he?” the Athkatlan took her silence as an affirmation, “Then we have a common concern. Thinder claimed that he would reveal damning information were he to die an untimely death.”
“Perhaps we have no choice but to accept whatever consequences befall us.”
“Or perhaps we could use this turn to our advantage,” Siron lowered his voice conspiratorially, “With Thinder gone, we are free to pursue our own ends. What if we were to lead this navy proposal? If we continue the project in the Chancellor's name, his associates may choose to work with us rather than expose our secrets.”
“And without the Chancellor reaping his share of the profit, we might stand to gain much wealth and power,” Elsina mused.
The Athkatlan ambassador nodded, “Perhaps we should have a word with ambassador Korrien. I shall speak with you anon.”
With that, Siron stepped off with a smile on playing across his face, already beginning to push the recent encounter with his undead daughter out of his mind. There was still much to be done. [ 6:19 ]
* * *
Selena sadly stared at the ceiling, resigned to her fate. She could no longer feel anything, which was perhaps fortunate since the stab wound in her abdomen would have caused immense pain. At least it would be over soon.
No, wait. I must have strength , she thought to herself, Believe the convictions of my faith in Tyr, for my deliverance is at hand. Death is but a doorway, time is a window. I am prepared to move on .
A noise from the door suddenly drew her dazed attention, and the dying elf could make out two figures wearing black off in the distance. Was she hallucinating? Was this some frustrating trick played by her mind in the face of death?
“Derrick Curaten? We're here from the Baldur's Gate Taxation and Collections Board, and we have – what in blazes?!” The tax collectors stared at the dying elf, lying amidst the mess.
One of the collectors kneeled beside the cleric, examined her wound, and touched her neck, “She's alive, but I don't think she's going to make it.”
“Slllff…” Selena managed to croak out, staring at the antidote on the shelf up above.
“Did she just say ‘sloth'? Is she drunk as well?”
“No, wait. I think she said ‘shelf',” the collector looked up at the merchandise on the shelf overhead, “Well, she's either asking for a Calimshite rash ointment, or an antidote potion,” the tax collector retrieved the curative, then she carefully poured the contents into Selena's mouth.
Slowly, Selena's vision began to blur, and she could feel a faint warming sensation in her fingers and toes. Perhaps it wasn't her time yet. The day had only just begun. [ 6:26 ]
* * *
Derrick squinted into the darkness. He was navigating a very old, labyrinth-like stone building, with precious little lighting save for the tiny shafts of sunlight coming in through cracks in the ceiling. In the centre of the ceiling was a huge centre-frame in the shape of a large skull made of black glass, blocking out the sun.
“No more hiding, Lorelei!” he shouted as he weaved through the stone passageways, “This madness has gone on long enough.”
“Do you know what this place is?” the Maiden's impassive voice echoed from all sides, “It is an abandoned temple of Myrkul , the one-time god of the dead. A fitting place for our final encounter.”
“Myrkul was destroyed years ago in the Time of Troubles,” Derrick yelled into the darkness, hoping to keep her talking so he could follow her voice.
“And yet much of his power and influence still linger,” Lorelei replied, “Where do you think the Sigils of the Fallen come from? Long before the god of death was killed, he hid a small portion of his raw, necromantic power in the two Sigils, with the vain hope that one of his followers might use them to raise an undead army and fuel his cause.”
Derrick could hear her voice echoing a bit louder down one particular direction, and he quietly moved in pursuit.
“The dead god's plan never came to fruition, but the power still remains locked away in the artifacts. That is why my master seeks the Sigils. Verskul died yesterday at my hand, but it was not just to make you lead my henchmen to the thieves' guild,” she lightly touched her forehead, “The true reason was so he could be raised as an undead liche. For only one who has already shuffled off the chains of mortality has the ability to wield the Sigils' power.”
Why is she telling me all this? Derrick wondered as he peeked around a corner and into a clearing at the middle of the building. Around the bend, Derrick saw the Maiden with her back turned to him, standing at the middle of a wide sacrificial circle that extended to the opposite walls of the temple.
Very slowly, Derrick unhooked the dragon-wand from his side and aimed it at the mage in green. Closing his eyes for a moment, he focused on the magical energy within the artifact, and prepared to release the spell within.
That was when the dragon-head began to let out a loud growl. Derrick's eyes flicked open, and the Maiden simply turned to face him, yet she made no move to avoid the stream of fire. But instead of striking her, the flames seemed to blast around her form, leaving no mark of their passing on her skin or clothing.
She shook her head at him, “You think I am not immune to my own magic?”
Derrick stuffed the artifact back into his tunic and instead brought the dagger from Rombis' corpse to bear, “This is where your evil comes to a close, Maiden. Even your own father has given me leave to stop this madness.”
“Yes… once more this chamber will serve as a place of judgment,” she extended her arms and rotated full circle, “Now think of all the death, all the pain and suffering that has been stirred in my wake. Think of your own son, and know that should I emerge the victor, I will claim his heart as my trophy over your failure.”
Seething with anger, Derrick drew his arm back and charged with full fury at the undead mage across the sacrificial circle. Lorelei sluggishly raised her hands and began the motions for a spell, but Derrick reached her before she could finish. He snatched one of her bony hands and knocked it to the side, disrupting her casting gestures.
Next, he thrust the dagger into her gut and twisted it roughly. Any mortal man would have faltered and collapsed from the shock. Lorelei just reached up and threw her veil to the ground, giving him full view of the hollow stare in her dead, white eyes.
For a split second, Derrick glanced again at the sun tattoo on her face. Something immensely important was nagging him about the symbol…
Lorelei punched Derrick between the eyes with her free hand, sending him reeling back in pain. He clutched his face, feeling as though he'd been hit square on with a hardwood club. The ex-thief stumbled back and noticed a few shards of light on the ground, seeping in from cracks in the ancient glasswork on the ceiling.
“Pathetic,” declared the Maiden, “I thought you were a killer. Yet you fight like an invalid. Do you not realize that your son's life will be forfeit should you perish?”
Questions began to seep into Derrick's mind: Why isn't she attacking? Why does she keep trying to goad me into combat? How can I defeat her?
Panting and tired, Derrick glared up at her forehead. Even on the verge of defeat, he couldn't take his eyes off the tattoo. That tiny little… sun.
He glanced up at the black glass ceiling. Sunlight, the bane of the undead. Lorelei had removed her opaque protective veil earlier, and Derrick realized that he had the answer to one of his questions.
Derrick reached into his tunic and drew the dragon-wand, “All the death that has been doled out by your hand and all your mindless hatred have put you on this path,” he thrust his arm directly up at the ceiling and began to focus on the wand's magic, “ This is your end, Maiden.”
The dragon-head began to let out its low, telltale growl, and Lorelei spread her arms and tilted her head back.
“Yes…” she whispered.
The growl continued, but Derrick suddenly hesitated. She wasn't trying to attack or escape, or even hurl one final threat or curse. She was… expecting her end.
“You want me to kill you…” he said in surprise.
“More foolish words have never been spoken. I want to kill you .”
“No, I think that's it,” everything started adding up in Derrick's mind, “You've had a dozen opportunities to kill me today, yet every time you've either let me escape or ordered that I be kept alive.”
“We needed you to lead us to the thieves' guild.”
“But even after I did that, you still didn't kill me, even when you had me in captivity.”
“I ordered the wererat to slay you!” Lorelei spat.
Derrick held up the silver dagger, “But before that, you planted this weapon on Rombis' body for me to find, didn't you?!” He stared at the dragon-wand, “Back at the tower, you even hesitated before blasting me with this wand, giving me time to dodge the spell…”
Lorelei's cheek twitched, but she said nothing. Her facial expression remained unreadable.
Derrick pointed at her tattoo, “When you showed me your face, I didn't recognize that mark on your forehead at first. But now I know why it was familiar. My wife had been a scholar of religious history. She once showed me a series of holy symbols of Lathander, god of light and new beginnings… that tiny sun tattoo was one of those symbols.
“Before I came here, your father called you a ‘blasphemy' to his religion. That's why you want to die, isn't it? Even after being raised as an undead, you still have the strength of your convictions as a Lathanderite. You see yourself as a blasphemy.”
“Death is the only real justice in the world,” Lorelei murmured as she held up her hands, “Every day in this wretched, false existence brings me nothing but pain and torment.” She looked up and stared Derrick in the eye, anger rising in her voice, “You owe me nothing but death. Think of all the wrongs I have committed against you and those around you. Rombis, Orwin, Cerdan, Jena , Bryn… They all cry out for vengeance. Come and end my life as you did once before.”
Derrick glared at her. The woman was responsible for so much death, yet for the first time today, he was feeling something other than anger toward her. It was pity.
“I think I finally understand what this is all about. You believe that by dying, you'll be granted the one thing we all desire: absolution. Forgiveness for what you are, and what you've become.”
For a fraction of a second, he thought he saw a tear forming at the corner of her pale eye. But no, it must have been a trick of the light.
“Well, I can't give it to you,” Derrick lowered his dagger, “No more killing, no more wanton hatred and destruction. I am responsible for starting this cycle of murder six years ago. Now I have to be the one to stop it here,” he threw his weapon to the ground, “And no further.”
Lorelei closed her eyes, “Fool. You know not what you do by leaving me alive.”
“No, I know exactly what I'm doing… for the first time in a long while. If you want to die, do it yourself.”
“I cannot. I am bound by magical geas that forbids me from committing suicide. Ever since I was raised from death, I am forced to serve my master, the very wizard who had me kidnapped six years ago.”
“Then fight for your freedom, Lorelei. Tell me what his plans are and how I can defeat him.”
She shook her head, “Now that he has transformed into a liche, you will be hard pressed to defeat him. He has a terrible creature at his disposal with the power to set the city aflame by noon today. But I do not know how he will do this; there are many things that he never saw the need to tell me.”
“You must know of some way we can stop that from happening. If you truly desire absolution, this is your path. Help me.”
Lorelei was silent for several heartbeats. At last, she opened her eyes, “Very well. I will do what I can, for the remainder of this fateful day.”
Without warning, the glass ceiling suddenly shattered, and shards of black glass rained down amidst beams of glaring sunlight. Derrick barely jumped back in time, avoiding the jagged pieces.
Lorelei, her veil still removed, widened her eyes in shock as she was touched by the sunlight, and her scarred flesh burst into grey smoke and dust. The ashes fell off her skeleton and drifted to the floor in clumps as Lorelei collapsed, reduced to nothing more than a pile of bones and dusty green robes. Now she was just another memory lost to the shadows.
Hearing a guttural chuckling from behind, Derrick scrambled to his feet and spun about to face the newcomer. Krevis, carrying a large crossbow that had been pointed at the ceiling, had a sadistic grin plastered over his face, “That was weak, ‘No more killing, no more hatred!' ” he said in a whiny imitation of Derrick's voice, “That was real weak. And here I thought there'd be some guts in vermin like you.”
The ex-thief dived for the silver dagger on the ground, but Krevis casually drew his green wand and summoned a portal in the ground beneath Derrick as he landed.
Krevis lowered the wand as his opponent fell through, then went to check on Lorelei's remains.
“Looks like I win after all, Maiden,” he grinned, looking down at his jeweled bracelet to see that the third gem had now cracked, “I'm sorry I didn't stretch it out a little longer. It would have pleased me to hear a scream or two. Ah well,” he sifted through the pile of ash and clothing, then removed the Sigil that Lorelei had been carrying, “Looks like I'll have a bigger hunting ground soon enough.” [ 6:47 ]
* * *
Selena used her last healing spell to ease some of the pain in her stomach, then swallowed another healing potion to repair the wound. The numbness in her legs was just starting to fade, but at least she had regained the ability to move freely.
“Are you certain you don't want us to return you to the Temple of Tyr ?” asked the tax collector.
“There is no temple left for me to return to.”
“But surely there is some place where you can receive some aid?”
Before she could reply, the door chimed and someone marched inside the store.
“I finished my part of the list already. What's taken you so long?” Captain Atamir said to the elf, “And what in the hells happened here?”
“I was attacked by a madman who was ransacking the shop, looking for something. He left me for dead…”
“Yes, but what of the owner? Have you found him?”
The cleric narrowed her eyes at him, “It would be customary for you to show concern for an injured person's well-being.”
The tax collector intervened before the Captain could respond, “Guardsman, this store is owned by a local merchant named Derrick Curaten.”
“I see,” said Atamir, “And where is he now?”
“I can't say, sir. With all the ruckus going on here, I wouldn't be surprised if he had already skipped town.”
“Alright, I'm going to check this ‘Curaten' fellow's records. In a few minutes I'll be heading back to Greyhelm Tower to check how my officers are progressing.”
As the Captain brushed past into the back room, a second tax collector entered from outside, “Cleric, I've brought you an extra horse to use, if you think you need it.”
Selena took a deep breath and carefully stood, leaning on the countertop for support, “Thank you.” The elf glanced down and saw the broken hourglass lying on the floor, its streams of sand scattered across the floor. She had an odd premonition that even with her recovery, her time was somehow running short. She looked up at the window as the sun hovered low on the horizon of a red sky.
There was still much to be done. [6:53]
* * *
Bryn walked freely through the bright streets, tired but relieved that his ordeal with the nocturnal monsters was now over. He was down the street from his father's pawnshop, and when he saw the two horses out front, he became worried that Ayva might still be around. Taking a place near a parked wagon, the boy peered down the road and waited, wondering if he should risk moving closer.
After a few minutes, a poorly shaved guard and a red-haired elf emerged from the store, each looking rather worn and weary. Shuffling alongside the wall, Bryn came closer and peeked inside the store window, then widened his eyes when he saw the mess within.
Bryn turned and saw that both the guard and the elf were staring at him.
“Stay away from that building,” Atamir said, “It's owned by a murderer, and seems to have attracted a variety of dangerous people today.”
Bryn nodded and turned away, pretending to be playing some imaginary game.
The Captain turned back to Selena, “As I was saying, I don't need any help from you or your Order. I can hunt this ‘Derrick Curaten' on my own.”
“It would be prudent for you to seek guidance on the matter first.”
“Bah. Are you going to follow me or not?” he said as he mounted his steed.
“Yes, but please do not ride so fast. I'm still weak, and I don't wish to risk falling off and breaking my neck.”
As they set off on a slow trot, Bryn discreetly moved to follow them. His father obviously wasn't at the store, and probably wouldn't be returning any time soon. If this guard was going to look for Bryn's father, he might as well tag along. [6:57]
* * *
Holding up the black amulet, Krevis watched the burning angel glint in the dim light. He held out the Sigil of the Fallen, and a pair of blackened skeletal hands carefully took the artifact.
“Yes…” Verskul hissed as he ran a sharp finger along the face of the Sigil, “Now my plans may finally come to fruition.”
Krevis scratched at his pale hands, “Lorelei is dead. Derrick killed her.”
The liche's hollow eyes showed no sign of concern, “Then he is more resourceful than I originally believed. An admirable trait.”
“What'll I do with them?”
“You may take whatever action you wish. I must make preparations for the casting ritual.”
The man in the patchwork armour nodded absently, “Yeah, great. Casting your grand spell might attract the notice of the town guard and the various city guilds and temples. But hey, that'll just give us more people to kill! ‘Course, if word of your attempt reaches the ears of your enemies, that's a whole other story…”
Verskul raised a dismissing hand, then paced toward a massive, bolted door in the back of the room. The liche reached out and began to unclasp the locks, “They will do no such thing, for their eyes will be directed toward a more pressing concern.”
The door opened, and the liche stepped through into a wide room with a large pit in the base of the floor and an open skylight overhead. Verskul was magically strong enough that he could stand in the sunlight without taking harm.
Down in the pit, lay a massive brown and scaly dragon-like beast, held in place by chains atop a nest. As soon as Verskul stepped to the edge overlooking the pit, the wyvern's head shot up and blew a plume of smoke from its nostrils.
“I return, Razor-Wing, now heed my call,” spoke the liche, “The time has come for you to deliver flaming death and reign fear from the skies once more.”
The wyvern's lips curled back to reveal an array of jagged teeth. It reared its head back and let out an ear-splitting screech that echoed through the air. At long last, it was time for the beast to hunt.
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