Sembia (25th of Eleint, 1366 Dalereckoning)
It was sunrise...though, on a day with such heavy overcast, it was difficult to tell. They traveled north, which he knew only because the jungle had given way to desert; a rocky, mountainous expanse of lifeless sands. It was cold, very cold. He held Oki's egg tightly against his body, terrified that it might never hatch if it couldn't preserve enough heat. He'd wrapped it in a linen sheet, thin enough not to smother, perhaps too thin.
In the cart, one of several, he sat numbly beside what remained of his tribe. The few warriors had been slain by the Elves, and those that remained had been rounded up and bound in iron. Those that had fought had been whipped, severely. They lay belly-down, their backs flayed.
He hadn't fought. World Serpent forgive him, he hadn't fought. He hadn't been able to bear it, with Oki's still cooling body beneath him, her only offspring in his hands.
It had only been one egg. Only one.
He hated himself for not being to provide more. In his age, his seed must have been weak.
And he hated himself for not saving her.
Ryuu hissed, and their captors nearest him tensed. He gave no further indication of his anger, and they lost interest.
Lost and alone, he stared into the distance, wondering what would be.
Haidée tensed, startling awake.
Ryuu's blood memories left her dissociated; in these first moments, she found herself uncertain if she was herself, or a little more of him.
Then, as before, everything settled, but the memories burned in her mind. She knew she would never be able to forget.
She looked over to Esmer's bed, which was unoccupied, and sighed, troubled. They had spoken little; they had only known each other for days, after all. The awkward silences had not been broken yet. Haidée wondered if they really would, with things as they were...
Nothing for it, she threw off the blankets of her bed, opposite to Esmer's, and climbed out, leaving aside her rough leathers, clad in a tunic and a pair of woolen leggings. Also ignoring her clogs, she eased open the door barefoot, and peered outside.
The room opposite, where Ryuu and Alexander had slept, was quiet. Her master was likely studying his spell book. Not wanting to bother him, she went downstairs, into the main area. It was mid afternoon, judging by the hue of the sunlight peeking through the shuttered windows. She avoided those fleeting rays, to sit at the bar. The proprietor, an elderly man with a shaven face and sad, drooping eyelids studied her intently, before proffering a tankard and filling it.
"Oh, no, please, I-"
"On the house, lass." he replied hastily, "Need a few women to brighten the place up. Keeps the patrons' focus away from brawling, you see."
Nodding sheepishly, Haidée peered about the taphouse. A few sellswords, and day laborers. Rowdy lot. There was a good deal of gambling, a few jeers directed at the barmaid, but they seemed subdued. A few looked her way, puzzled at her eyes, and quickly looked away.
"And those eyes of yours do the job too." he chuckled, though there was a tenseness to it, "Tell me truly, are you one of them Half-Drow? You have a certain look about you."
Blinking, Haidée gave no reply, careful to hide her claws in the rim of the tankard. She took a draught of the ale, and it tasted different then yesterday, more nutty. It was definitely better quality.
She forgot these things; her eyes, a deep maroon, certainly helped her to stand out in a crowd, and her pale, ashen skin as well, most likely. It would do not to walk about so brazenly.
"Well, whatever you are, you're welcome here." he assured her, "Odder sorts about, like yer lizard friend. What's his story, eh?"
"I'm still finding that out." Haidée replied honestly, "Everything has been happening so quickly. I'm a little unmoored, I think".
He nodded, though he didn't understand the full of it, "True enough; pretty thing like yourself joining an adventuring band. You never think to just settle down? That other fellow, with the golden hair, seems a good sort."
"That cannot be." Haidée replied sadly, "I was engaged to him, actually. But what I am...I can't have that life."
"Does it have to do with the eyes?"
He nodded again, troubled, "Well, it is what it is. Doesn't mean you can't find a happy medium. Ever think to enlist?"
"I don't think..." she started, laughed, "I don't think that would work out either. I'll find my place, I'm sure. These people, my...friends, they are good company."
"That's well enough." the barkeep said, "You just keep well enough. Well enough?"
"Well enough." Haidée replied, "Thanks for the talk. I needed it."
"Never you mind. I-"
He tensed, and Haidée turned to see Ryuu step down the stairs. If her presence had unnerved the other patrons, his approach left the taproom silent, pensive.
"I miss something good?" he asked, curiously, and she shook her head, "No, M-...umm, Ryuu."
They had agreed she not state his honorific in public. It drew attention.
"When should Esmer and Alexander be returning?"
"Soon enough, I'm sure. Come, they still have a few hours yet, and I wanted to test that spell rod and your own capabilities."
"No wizardry in my house." the barkeep replied sternly, and Ryuu huffed, "I was thinking the back alleys. Nice and isolated. And dark, just how I like it. Let's go."
Esmer, trailed by Alexander, who had found him after spending a few hours of repairing his mail-backed brigandine, studied the merchant stalls for what they sought. He haggled when he could, his tongue honed by years of backbiting at his family's behest, and sought better deals when he could not. He palmed the holy symbol the priest had given him last night; a preventative measure against his engaged, estranged Haidée from feeding on him while he slept, deeply troubled but dedicated to the moments they spent together.
Over the last three hours, he had procured rations, packs, cloaks, flint and iron, and everything Ryuu felt they would need for a long excursion. Now he needed arms, and armor, and he'd saved as much as he could for it. He'd sold their original swords.
He passed a weapon stand, and turned back, eyeing the wares. While he was not a practiced warrior, his family had been possessed of an excellent Weaponmaster, who had passed on what to look for in a quality blade.
The first item that caught his eye rested nearest to the peddler, a heavily muscled smith with dark-lidded eyes. Most likely, it was his prized work, fetching the highest price. It was a falchion; thicker, single-edged, and slightly curving, as much an axe as a proper sword. Its hilt was woven metal, and it had a thick, flat cross guard that curved at one end, the better to protect the knuckles of its wielder.
"I like it, but it's not really meant to be used in conjunction with a shield." he noted, "And it would tire me out, swinging such a short blade. I'd overbalance, so used to a broadsword."
Then again, because Ryuu had advised a shield didn't necessarily lock him into the decision, even if it was to be bought with the Lizardman's coin.
The next blade he noted was thin, double-edged, and possessed of a basket hilt. A rapier, it's benefit was blinding speed and precision. He'd found himself quite able to master it, but if they were fighting undead, he would need something with more cutting power.
"I'll stick to what I know." he decided, and, with the permission of the seller, he took hold of a bastard sword with a cross guard and round pommel, eyeing its steel for quality. Noting the distinctive blood groove and the thin lines down its length, indicative of the ore being folded several times before forging separately into the softer edge and harder spine, he nodded, satisfied that it wouldn't shatter when pitted against another weapon. He could use it with one hand or two, in conjunction with a shield or not, in tight quarters or on an open field.
Bickering for a price, but not too strongly, for he respected this man's work, Esmer walked away with the bastard sword at his belt, and the steel rapier for Haidée. Being a...what she now was, speed and precision were her best attributes, and if Ryuu was teaching her spells too she could easily manage having such a light weapon. He also bought a kite shield, of thick maple lined and reinforced with steel plates, and a pair of daggers, weighted for balance.
Alexander had declined replacing his Morningstar, which of modest quality, was nonetheless sanctified, and irreplaceable. His priestly robes, tattered in some places, however, had been modified. Bereft of its long sleeves and flowing skirt, it was more a tunic now, the better to allow freedom of movement. And he had bought a new pair of boots, reinforced with thin armor plating, as well as a pair of fingerless gauntlets and a pair of greaves.
"I was not invested in adventuring when I came here." the priest pointed out, noticing his scrutiny, "I will better keep pace and defend myself like this, and my garb is still recognizable. Not that I really need it to be."
Nodding, Esmer stopped at an armor stand, and immediately purchased the finest leather greaves, bracers, and a pair of enameled dwarven breastplates with the remainder of Ryuu's gold. A pair for him, and a pair that required mild tailoring to fit Haidée's exact proportions. He tested the metal, mostly bronzed steel with the pommel of his new sword, and smiled.
"Matching armors...I bet the lizard will find that positively hilarious. I'm buying them anyway."
"This should do." Ryuu noted, head uplifted to study the shadows above and mark the course of the sun over the next hours.
At no time would its light fill this particular stretch of alley.
Refuse littered the ground. It stank of piss and rotten food.
No windows above though. Nobody would try and empty a chamber pot or anything like that.
He sat down, cross-legged, and Haidée did the same, "Now then, your first spell. Aside from the bats. And the fog. And- oh, whatever."
He held up a pebble, "I want you to burn it, until it melts."
She waited for him to elaborate.
He kept her waiting a time, then sighed, "You have more than my memories, girl. You should be getting my knowledge of magic. Can you speak fluent Draconic yet?"
"Korth!" Ryuu snapped. smiling as she tensed and unwittingly retorted "Where?"
"Danger." He replied, "Korth means "danger" in draconic. What are you going to manifest onto this stone?"
She blinked, "Ixen."
There was no uncertainty.
"Yes, Ixen, the better to valignat, to burn, Er Vorel Thurirl."
Having studied his spell book beforehand, the symbols required still burned at the forefront of his mind, and he expertly carved them into the dirt between them. He gave her a hundred count to concentrate, and then obliterated the runes with a swipe of his hand, "Your own spell book can wait. For now, this will do fine, so I can monitor you. Now take that rod I gave you and use it."
He planted the pebble right over that same space, and rested his head in his hand, as it balanced elbow on knee with his crossed legs.
The girl drew the rod, its surface gleaming even outside of an immediate source of light, and pointed it towards the pebble.
"Ixen." she rasped, the "x" sound ending in a reptilian "sss"
"Remember." Ryuu reminded her, "This isn't a passive ability, like the bats. This power comes from the weave. Mystra's weave. Think of it like plucking a thread from a great tapestry, and drawing its length into your own weave."
She blinked, then squinted, repeating the word for fire in his native tongue.
"Draw the thread. Make a new arrangement. Slowly. Deliberately. Mystra is the source, but you are its focus, the rod, the amplifier. The stone will burn. The stone must burn."
She hissed, her eyes flaring red.
"Ixen!" she rasped, and the rosy crystal at the tip of the rod did the same.
The pebble began to smoke, as did the soil beneath it.
"The energies will linger until you break focus, or release them willingly." he noted, "Pull the thread harder. More insistently. It will come to you."
She gritted her teeth.
Small embers crackled around the stone, as the residual combustible elements in the soil ignited.
But still the pebble did not melt.
"Draw the thread..."
Veins, dark and starkly defined against her pale flesh, thickened about her eyes. He could feel her blood mingling with the magic of the weave. The rosy crystal darkened, black like onyx, threaded with crimson.
He grinned. What a fascinating development.
The embers darkened, turned a deep, crimson red, before blackening altogether. The shadows of the alley deepened, becoming more menacing. The pebble flared red, and then disintegrated.
Haidée started, then shrieked, as the altered rod smoldered with crimson flame and inky shadows. She dropped it, crawling backwards, and its flame died instantly. The gem, however, retained its new nature.
"What did I do?" she asked, and Ryuu rose, and collected the rod.
"You corrupted the rod." he explained, studying it intently, "I thought this device could amplify certain magics. But you, my dear, altered its fundamental enchantment. With your vampiric blood, it has been re-enchanted to amplify shadowflame, the mating of fire and negative energy unique to undead that replaces the life-spark during their transformation. That was what you cast, melding arcane and blood magic. Impressive."
"Vile." she spat, shaken, "I could feel the evil in it. If that had hit a person..."
"The flames would have penetrated flesh to sear the soul. Those slain by it would be nearly obliterated, their husk animated into a temporary minion, like a Ghoul but burning apart from within."
"Evil is a state of mind, girl." Ryuu retorted, "I was turned by a necromancer, and her knowledge passed to me. If you have the tools to save who you will, and destroy who you will, without wishing it, is it really evil to use them? What if that Ghoul had turned to your father too? Would you decline the tools to save the ones you love because they sicken you, or frighten you?"
He chuckled, "A wise warrior fears his blade, for fear of the fact that he might have to use it to protect what he fights for. Shadowflame is your blade, it seems. You can use it, or you can't, but either way, you will live with the consequences."
"I feel sick." Haidée moaned, downcast.
He could have none of it. He leaned down, and forced her head up by the chin.
"Just lets you know you're still alive, my dear." Ryuu said, smiling, offering her the rod, "I want to see what else you can do. Two more spells, a little less offensive in nature, yes? Then we can go check and see if the boys are back yet. Take comfort in the fact that you won't be using these powers on the living again anytime soon, because I prefer applying my talents on the dead."
Sirahani waited in Aurgloroasa's court, amid the risen spirits of dwarven dead. Her host was meditating atop her heap of treasure, more a mountain, really. Glimmering jewels, finely polished and enchanted arms and armor, even the cloven crown of the last king of Thunderholme, sat piled atop each other. Wasted, in her opinion, for Aurgloroasa was far too massive to make any use of any of it, the treasure serving as no more than a sitting cushion.
Aurgloroasa took no notice of it, or her scrutiny. A wayward adventurer might have assumed the dragon to be dead, with its shriveled, mottled coat of scales, hollow eye sockets, and tattered, ruined wings. But Aurgloroasa had conquered death as Sirahani herself had, and more. Re-created through the most powerful acts of necromancy, the Dracolich had made herself immortal and nearly invincible, her soul ripped from her body and stored in a phylactery.
Immune to even the most powerful psionic and illusionary abilities, and many forms of sorcery besides, Sirahani knew she stood no chance against such a monster. None save perhaps a demigod or an army could make such a claim.
So she had come to negotiate, to form a pact of mutual gain, or to bribe the use of the Dracolich's crypt for a short time. While certainly powerful, Aurgloroasa was not the only necromancer to reside in this cursed tomb at one time or another. Aurus' research was here, she was certain. If this wasn't his main site, it was certainly one of his select secondary facilities. The place was a fulcrum of dense negative energies, swarming with subjects and remains to use as materials. One site would lead to another. If this forgotten dwarven keep didn't have what she sought, it could certainly lead her to it.
But dragons were prideful creatures. The cost would be great, but she would suffer it.
She had a god to dethrone and a god to elevate.