Skin of Glass

The Fields of the Dead

Three days had passed since Misara and the others had fought the undead creature. The three women had travelled hard, covering a great deal of distance in that time. They were well out in the Fields of the Dead, passing through the rolling hills of the vast grasslands. They passed by small, walled holds, as well as the occasional Sheppard's cottage. Along the trail were the larger settlements, villages and even towns.

Two nights they had spent under the roof of an Inn. Misara had sought out storytellers and scholars, such as they were, and asked for tales of local ruins. She would then spend time pouring over the maps she had had drawn in Candlekeep, marking them up and filling the margins with notes.

The third day found them racing towards a village called Hill Crown, a place to spend the night, and a place where Misara hoped to find more information.

Rowan pulled Rose Thorn to a stop as she came to the base of a large hill. Misara, a little behind her, slowed Iron to a walk and moved up to stop beside her. They had been riding by fields for a short time, and now above them was the walled village where those that tended those fields lived.

"No one was in the fields," Rowan said.

"I noticed." She had known little of farming when she had left Evermeet so long ago, but years of living and helping those who lived close to the land had taught her the basics. There should have been people preparing the soil and planting seeds.

"Something has happened," Olpara said, having ridden up behind them.

It was a statement of the obvious, but Misara said nothing to that effect. "Someone has set another trap."

"It could be a coincidence," Rowan suggested.

"I don't think so. It just does not feel like it."

"We could avoid it," Olpara said. It sounded as if she was just making a suggestion, but there was a hint of something under her tone that belayed the calm façade she tried to project.

"If the people of Hill Crown have been harmed, will be harmed, it is because of me," Misara said. "I can't just walk away from that."

Rowan nodded. "We have to find out what happened."

"I don't like walking into obvious danger," Olpara said.

Misara wanted to suggest that the halfling wait up on the bottom of the hill, but held her tongue on the matter, remembering what Rowan had said to her that night at Candlekeep.

"It will be alright," Rowan told Olpara. "And we could use an extra set of eyes as well as your magic."

For a few seconds Olpara was silent. "Alright," she said.

"Let's go. It will be twilight within the hour. I would rather we do this in sunlight," Misara said as she pressed her heels against Iron, urging him forward.

A stream ran down from the crest of the hill, passing under the walls. There was a bridge along the trail and the horses' hooves drummed on the wood as they crossed. There were fields planted on the hill, and irrigation channels had been dug out from the stream. After they crossed the bridge Misara spotted a woman lying in a channel, screened by tall, spring grass.

"Hold," she called as she swung off her horse. Drawing her blade as she moved forward, Misara looked about, making certain there were no dangers around. She stood near the prostrate woman and leaned forward to see to her condition. Suddenly the woman sprung to her feet, looking almost as if she were jerked upright.

In her muddy hands she held a shovel, and with that makeshift weapon she tried to dash Misara's brains out. Misara swayed back and lifted her sword in a smooth arc to meet the shovel. The sharpened steel cut the shovel in half, sending the steel head spinning off to land in the field.

That did not deter to muddy woman for she continued to swing about with her truncated weapon, teeth barred, eyes opened wide, the whites startling against the dark skin and dirt on her face. Misara reached up and grabbed the shaft of the once shovel and pulled it to the side, jerking the woman off balance and then off her feet. As she hit the soft ground with a 'thud', Misara released the wood and drew her holy symbol from where it hung about her neck.

A few quick words in elvish completed a prayer that would turn some undead, but it had no effect on the woman. The woman regained her feet with a jerking motion. Misara was preparing to take more adverse measures, when Rowan suddenly jumped behind the woman.

Misara expected her to attack from behind, which was a useful tactic, however unnecessary in the present situation. Instead of attacking Rowan seemed to be grabbing at the air, calling out a prayer to Sune as she did so. Then there was a flash of light, and Misara thought she saw something in the air.

The woman stumbled forward, her eyes rolling up in her head as she fell forward. She landed face first in the mud at the edge of the channel and did not move again.

"It was a thread," Rowan said.

"A thread?" Misara asked, looking away from the woman to Rowan.

"When you tried to turn her, I was trying to sense evil, I saw it, like a thread, connecting her to something in the village. Or I thought that was it." She held up her hand. "It flashed for an instant, and then was gone."

"Is she alright?" Olpara asked.

"I don't think so," Misara said as she reached down and turned the woman over. She was obviously dead. On examining her Misara found a deep wound in her chest. The blood that had stained her dress had been hidden by the mud.

"Something was controlling her," Rowan said. "Through that thread."

"Or web," Olpara said.

"Or a puppet's string," Misara added as she straightened. "There are probably more like her."

"It's horrible," Rowan said.

"We'll likely have to kill a few of them before we find the puppet master," Misara told her, her tone full of distaste. "I want whatever it is to pay for this."

"Agreed," Rowan said, striding towards Rose Thorn.

Misara looked about again, then climbed up upon Iron's back, the horse having walked over to her.

They continued towards Hill Crown, each of them alert, scanning the area around them. The gate was wide open. The village was silent. The far off sound of a waterwheel echoed loudly in their ears.

All three of the horses appeared uncomfortable as they passed through the gates, but only Olpara's gave her any real problems. Rowan reached out and grabbed the reins of the nervous horse, calming it slightly with her presence. Misara moved ahead of both of them.

She rode straight down the wide path that led directly to the village's central square. Somehow she knew that that was where they would be waiting. It was the sort of twisted sense of theatrics she suspected they were dealing with.

She heard Olpara let out a small gasp when they came to the centre of the village. There had to be about fifty villagers, standing there, holding a collection of farming and kitchen implements, as well as some swords and axes. And amidst them stood a tall figure, swathed in chains.

She knew the creature; she had seen others like it before. A kyton. Misara slid of Iron's back, slapping the horse across its hindquarters, sending him running off. She drew her sword and strode towards the kyton, unmindful of the villagers that surrounded it.

A young man, hardly old enough for the stubble that covered his chin, moved forward, a pitchfork in his hands. She grabbed the makeshift weapon's wooden shaft, yanked it and its wielder around in a circle, and sent him flying back the way he had come. Several villagers were knocked off their feet by his rapid passage.

She parried a clumsy sword blow from an old woman, kicked the grain flail from the hands of a tall, broad shouldered farmer and slapped the flat of her blade against the head of a woman with a battle axe.

The movements of the villagers were stilted, often slow. Whatever was controlling them was doing a bad job of it. She punched a young woman in the face and then was standing face to face with the kyton.

The chains that surrounded it began to writhe, several lashing out like whips, razor sharp barbs appearing on the end. She waded into them, blocking them with her blade, careful not the cut any free. Several snaked around her to hit at her back, but the blows were glancing and her armour stopped them from causing any serious hurt.

Dropping her shoulder, she slammed into her foe, driving the kyton back, away from the villagers. She reached up, grabbed a handful of chains on its chest for leverage, and prepared to drive her sword through it. As she looked up she found herself looking into Lindra's face.

It was a trick she had seen from other kytons, and she did not pause as she thrust her sword right through it. That it had dared to take her daughter's face only fuelled her anger. She spun it about, using her grip on it and her sword's hilt to lift it above her head. She hurled it, head first, through the window of what looked to be the local tavern. It crashed through wooden shutters and the sound of wood breaking suggested that it had made very hard contact with the furniture within.

"Misara," Rowan cried.

Misara shifted her stance slightly, turning so she could watch the villagers and the Inn window at the same time. "The kyton is the real threat," she called to Rowan.

Rowan had dismounted and was wading into the villagers, using her shield and the flat of her blade to clear her way. Misara could not see Olpara, but assumed that the halfling was following behind and close to Rowan.

Misara stepped forward, grabbed one of the villagers and tossed the man away, clearing the last one out of Rowan's way.

"Lead the way," Rowan said.

Misara turned and ran towards the Inn she had hurled the kyton into. She leapt past the broken shutters, landing in the dark interior. The kyton was picking itself up off the floor, its chains slithering about it. It turned a hate filled gaze on Misara. The chains began to flail about it.

It did not speak but simply charged her. Misara feinted to its left, spun to its right, cut deep into it, and let it stumble into Rowan's path. Rowan slammed her shield into it, knocking it back, and then slashed at it.

The kyton stumbled away from the sword blow, regained its balance, and stood up straight near the centre of the Inn. "Enough!" It bellowed, it voice like chain links sliding over one another. The chains lashed out from its body, but Misara, Rowan and Olpara were not the targets.

The chains wrapped around two of the support beams, constricted on them, edges of the links, razor sharp, easily cut through the wood. With a crack the two beams gave in.

Misara had no time to do anything but scramble for one of the windows. The upper floor was starting to come down. She reached up, catching the sagging beam of the window. For a moment, and she needed only a moment, she held the beam up as she vaulted through.

She hit the ground, rolled to her feet and turned back to the Inn. The top floor came down, destroying most of the first floor, and likely anyone within it, raising a huge cloud of dust. Misara watched, and waited. A glint of light to her side, a hint of movement, caused her to spin about, raising her blade in time to parry several chains.

The kyton came out of the dust, running right at her.

Rowan grabbed Olpara and went out the window that she and the halfling had just entered through. She found herself among several of the villagers and was forced to lay about herself with her sword; her shield arm was holding Olpara. Finally she cleared free of the knot of enslaved and likely dead villagers and placed Olpara down.

"Are you okay?" she asked the halfling.

"I'm, I'm fine," she replied, sounding shaken.

Rowan nodded. "Let's find Misara." She looked about. "That way." She pointed with her sword, indicating an area currently clear of villagers.

Olpara went off at a run in the direction Rowan indicated. Rowan followed close behind, ready to deal with threats as they arose. The villagers she had knocked down, in some cases cut down, had leapt to their feet in the jerking manner she had seen before. They came running up behind her.

She turned to attack quickly, to slow them and then ran again. Olpara was climbing up the side of tall, three story house, easily scaling the outside wall. Rowan knew that she would not be able to follow the halfling, so she put her back to the wall and prepared to meet the oncoming wave of villagers.

They came at her, jerky, awkward movements, but with force behind them, and often a great deal of strength. She pushed them back, doing her best not to simply cut them down, not quite willing to accept they were all dead, or more to the point, not willing to take the chance.

It was not very difficult, but they had numbers, and she suspected that given time that would tell.

"Rowan, I'm sending a rope down," she heard Olpara call from above. A moment later a rope slithered down, the end landing on the ground near her feet. With the flat of her sword and with her shield she drove the villagers back. With a little space about her she quickly sheathed her sword, then grabbed the rope and began pulling herself up. She placed her feet against the wall to help her climb, walking herself, her armour, and her other gear up the wall.

She felt hands grabbing at her, and something heavy hit her side, but none of that slowed her. Within a few seconds she was out of reach of her attackers. With a little help from Olpara she was soon pulling herself up onto the roof.

"We're safe up here, I think," Olpara said.

Rowan turned around and looked down at the milling villagers below. A few picked up rocks and other small items to hurl up at them, but their aim was simply horrible. "As safe as any place. We can't stay here though."

"I was afraid you would say that," Olpara said softly.

Rowan did not acknowledge her companion's words as she looked about. The houses were not close enough, nor numerous enough, that she and Olpara might travel any distance by leaping rooftop to rooftop. Still, they could avoid the largest mob of villagers before they had to drop back to the ground.

She led Olpara across the roof, a leap down to a lower roof, and then back to the ground. They then ran towards the livery stable, entering the building and closing the doors to buy themselves some time.

"Did you see any sign of Misara as we were running?" Rowan asked Olpara as she barred the doors.

Olpara shook her head.

Rowan put her back to the door, looking into the stable. Something had killed the few horses within, rather violently, and for no reason she could fathom, except for cruelty. She closed her eyes as she thought about what to do next.

"Rowan," Olpara said, something catching in her voice. "You better look at this."

She opened her eyes and looked down at the halfling, and then in the direction the halfling was pointing. One of the dead horses was beginning to twitch, its legs kicking at the air, as if it was trying to stand, but did not know how to use its body. From the sounds around them it was not the only horse doing so.

"Okay. Run."

They ran across the hay-strewn floor and up the ladder to the second floor where bales of straw were stored. Rowan tossed a few bales outside so they had a soft landing spot when they jumped.

Again villagers soon beset them, and Rowan was still unwilling to simply hack them apart. As she and Olpara fought she would reach out when she could see the strange threads. As before they would flare when she touched them, making them visible for a moment, and when she did one of the villagers would fall to the ground, not to move again.

It was not a very effective way to battle them, however, and Rowan was considering other options when she spotted the stone structure of what she suspected was a shrine, or small temple.

"Over there," she called to Olpara, and then began to fight her way to the building. The farmers of such villages often set up shrines and temples to Chauntea, and she believed that she and her companion would find sanctuary in a building dedicated to such a goddess.

They reached the building without too much difficult. The symbol carved above the door, a blooming rose in front of a sunburst of grain, was indeed that of Chauntea, but when Rowan forced the doors open and entered she knew immediately that the temple was no longer ground sanctified with the power of the Grain Goddess.

A great deal of blood covered the floors and walls, that and other things smeared across murals and the small altar in the middle of the room. Seated upon the altar was a creature shaped like a woman, but she had four arms, each stretched out from her body, hands wrapped in threads that stretched away from her and disappeared.

She was one of the more beautiful creatures that Rowan had ever seen, but for her sickly white skin, and her black eyes. Those black eyes were turned towards Rowan and seemed to be boring into her. A smile tugged up at the corners of full, red lips.

"Ah," it said in a voice that was high and clear, "I have visitors."

Rowan took a step back, somehow greatly disturbed by those words.

"Should I let my toys take care of you?" it asked.

Behind her Rowan could hear foot falls on the stone steps that led to the door.

"Or maybe I should indulge in my more violent desires?"

For a moment the creature did nothing, then she spread her fingers, and the threads seemed to evaporate. Behind her Rowan heard a sound, as if several bodies had fallen the ground. Puppets with their strings cut, she found herself thinking.

"Your deaths will be most unpleasant," the creature said as she stood, her tall frame seeming to unfold as she rose up from the altar. "I will however enjoy them greatly."

Misara was pushed near her limits. Chains lashed and slashed about her, seeking ways past her defences. Her sword seemed a blur as she spun it about to keep the chains away from her. Even so, she managed to counterattack, finding gaps in the shield of chains to exploit.

"I will strip your skin from you bones," it said, striking out with a barrage of chains.

Misara shifted to the side, avoiding the brunt of the chains, and used her sword to turn others. Several struck against her armour, with bruising force. One razor tip managed to pierce the fine mesh of elven chain over her right thigh and she felt the warm, wetness of her blood begin to spread out under the padding.

Of course she was not the only one bleeding. The kyton bled from a large number of wounds. Misara had no doubt that that concerned the creature, for normally a kyton's wounds would quickly heal. The blessings on her blade frustrated it in that matter.

There was a rapid flurry of exchanged blows, each combatant picking up a number of new, minor wounds in the process.

"I will find everyone that you care for and kill them!" it screamed.

Misara slid smoothly into a hole in that whirling shield of chains and hacked it across the abdomen with her blade. The kyton talked far too much.

It was a telling blow, easily the direst inflicted in the entire melee. The kyton almost fell in its attempt to get away from Misara and her blade. She did not give it time to recover, but followed it, using her wrist to direct the sword, peppering it with quick blows. They did little real damage, but the kyton was completely overwhelmed by them.

When it finally tried to take the attack to her, to break her forward momentum, she was ready. She feinted to its already wounded side with her sword and then kicked it hard to its opposite side. Such a blow would have easily broken the bones of a mortal creature. The kyton was made of sterner stuff, but it was knocked away from her none the less.

It was at that moment Misara knew she had won part of the battle, for the kyton turned and ran, limping slightly as it did. She had, for the moment, broken its spirit to fight. She used the back of her gauntleted hand to wipe at a trickle of blood running down her face and then set off in pursuit.

A sword of fire had sprung up in each of the baatezu's hands, and the four-armed creature leapt from the altar, charging Rowan. So fast did it move that it was almost on top of her before Rowan could prepare of the attack.

Four swords crashed against her shield and sword, the force and the heat of those blows forced her to give up ground. She was quickly put on the defensive, almost reduced to hiding behind her shield.

It was strong, and fast, but she did not think much of its skill with the swords. It might be trying to trick her, but she did not think that was the case. Its ability to manipulate the bodies of the dead suggested that it did not often need to fight.

Rowan took a chance; she gave it an obvious opening. No one trained long with the sword would go for such an inelegant ploy. The baatezu did; three of its swords slashed in at the opening to Rowan's side.

She shifted and dropped her shield to intercept the glancing blows. Beating the remaining blade up and out of guard, Rowan stabbed her sword into the creature's chest. The blade did not bite as deep as she would have hoped. The wound did not bleed as much as it should have.

It moved back from her, wary now. The wound, as paltry as it was, had worried it. That would help Rowan, and give her an edge. She hoped.

When it came at her again she blocked its rain of blows, feinted towards its open face and then dropped the tip of her sword down, the tip scoring a line across its throat. It growled at her, and its fighting became more defensive. She took that space for a prayer, entreating Sune for protection from the evil beast.

When it moved forward to attack once more it was brought to a stop by the holy-energy surrounding Rowan. It hissed at her, recoiling as if burnt. For the moment she could hold it off, hold it off in hopes that Misara might come, or that she might be blessed with an epiphany of how to deal with it.

"Hiding behind the power of your god," the baatezu said, and then spat. "Coward."

Rowan smiled. "A power you can't stand against. Your words are empty."

It snarled, then shifted it attention away from Rowan, to something behind her. A smile crossed its face and it began moving.

Olpara, Rowan thought. The creature was going to attack her. She spun about, ready to defend the halfling. Olpara had pushed herself up against the wall, near the door, her eyes opened wide with terror.

As soon as Rowan attacked the creature-a vicious slash across its back that left only a minor wound-the shield that protected her was dispelled. The creature spun around, four swords lashing out. Two slammed against her shield, driving her back. Another almost knocked the sword from her hand. The last one hit her side, its edge turned by her mail, but the heat transferring through to burn her.

For a time Rowan and her opponent traded blow after blow. They were nearly evenly matched, her skill against the creature's strength, speed and reach. And yet Rowan knew that she could not last. Already she could feel the burn beginning in her muscles, could feel her breathing beginning to speed up. It had not yet begun to slow her, but it would. She had to end the battle soon.

Lifting her shield in front of her she spoke a word. A tremor ran through the shield, and then it began to glow. The creature, which had been moving towards her, slowed slightly, made momentarily uncertain.

And then the glow intensified a thousand fold; the creature was bathed in bright, white light. It screamed, for where the light fell it's skin turned red, and in some places blistered. It backed away, throwing its arms over its face to protect it.

Rowan pushed forward, even as the shield's light began to dim. She slammed the shield against the creature, the last few motes of light on it brought into direct contact with the baatezu's skin. There was a sizzling sound, though it was nearly lost in the screams.

Pulling the spent shield away she followed up with a slash across the beast's shoulder, cutting one of its arms free of its torso, the blade continuing to cut deep through the burnt flesh. Rowan turned the blade, pulled it free, moved back, and set her defence.

The creature did not seem intent on attacking. While it was obvious that its burns pained it far more than the wound it had taken, it stared down at its severed arm with rapt fascination. The flaming blade in the hand of the severed arm sputtered and then went out.

It looked up from its lost appendage to Rowan. The look on its face was almost comical, but Rowan was in no mood to laugh. She fully expected a powerful rage to follow the moment of confusion.

Before that happened, however, a large object came flying through the doors. There was the sound of chains rattling together as it hit the temple floor. Rowan recognized it as the kyton, though the last time she had seen it, it had had its head.

The Baatezu turned to look at the open door. Rowan shifted back and looked as well, careful however not to lose sight of her adversary.

Misara came through the doors, limping, her armour stained with blood in several places, gleaming sword held in her hand. She looked around, and then started walking towards the baatezu, lifting her sword, looking as if her wounds hardly bothered her.

Something about Misara seemed to capture and hold the baatezu's attention. Rowan, not about to pass up the advantage, leapt forward, swinging her sword out in a wide arc, putting as much power into the blow as she could manage. The edge of the blade caught the creature low on its neck.

A moment later the creature's head, with its beautiful face, hit the floor, bounced, and rolled towards the altar. Its body remained standing for a few seconds, and then fell to the floor, landing in a tangle of limbs.

Misara stopped and looked at the body, then at Rowan. She grounded the tip of her sword on the temple's floor. "Good work," she said, and then collapsed to her knees.

Beneath his robe a brass disk grew warm. Jaztar pushed his chair back from his desk and reached under his robe to bring forth the disk. He did something to it and it opened like a clamshell; within floated motes of different coloured lights. Each one represented a creature he had summoned, in one way or another.

He watched as a dull yellow light flickered, and then went out. Sertasus. Sertasus had been defeated, banished back to the hells. That was going to cause Jaztar some trouble. He thought it was just surprise he felt at first, but after a moment he realised there was fear as well.

Defeating Sertasus would be no small feat.

He had thought that the kyton could deal with Misara. Had thought Sertasus and Egantar would be enough. Was he wrong? It had been twenty years since he had last faced the Paladin; twenty long years. In that time he had become smarter, wiser, more cunning; it helped offset the lost speed and strength that age had stolen.

The problem, he thought, was that Misara was twenty years smarter as well, but just as fast and strong. If she tied him in with the attack, if she came after him...

His train of thought was derailed as another mote of light, that representing Egantar, winked out as well.

Both of them dead, and so quickly.

It was difficult to accept.

After a moment he mastered his fear and disbelief.

Egantar was a powerful creature, but prone to foolish mistakes. It was quite possible that such a mistake had ended its life.

And Sertasus, as powerful as it was, liked dealing out pain far more than receiving it. A truly skilled opponent could easily manage to unnerve Sertasus, and quite likely Misara was that skilled. That did not mean she would be Jaztar's doom.

He would watch, and if it appeared she might come after him, then he would react, but for the moment Misara was not his primary concern. More immediate was that two powerful devils had been destroyed on the material plane, and likely they would blame him for that.

He snapped the brass device closed and returned it to under his robes. He would have to be careful in his dealing with such creatures for the foreseeable future.

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