Prelude and Chapter 1
(28th of Flamerule, 1491 Dalereckoning)
The being that was once and would be again drifted through clouds of astral mist and tenebrous motes of sparkling energy amid an infinite darkness, the visual stimuli reminiscent of the cosmos surrounding Abeir-Toril, now soon to be merely Toril. He considered the thought and found it equally appropriate and humorous...
For Guardian now roamed the Fugue Plane; the crossroads of the realms, where mortal souls went to their gods and devils to receive their judgment, and ultimate punishment or reward, a place, quite poignantly, nearly as infinite as the outer reaches of space. A few of the former never made it to their destination.
He took no pleasure in preying upon them, these wicked beings, but while he perceived and interpreted, he lacked the immediacy of a truly sentient being to lament his actions.
Guardian simply knew he needed to grow stronger, if he was ever to leave the Fugue Plane himself.
The notion of it consumed him, riveting him to his task, in acclimating to the weft and flow of astral energies. They too, he could absorb at will, courtesy of the unique magic absorbing aura that Kaileena, his ward and so much more it seemed, had unwittingly passed to him.
It had sufficed, for a time...
But now, he was nearly ready. Nearly ready. A small sacrifice, that a soul might return to the living, rather than leave it.
“Soon, my Little Fox.” he whispered, “Soon, we will meet in the flesh. In the flesh, ...and of your flesh.”
Teneth’s Festhall, Suzail, Cormyr
(29th of Flamerule, 1491 Dalereckoning)
Kaileena couldn’t see the sunrise, but she felt it, intuited in the faint song echoing through the thick walls of Teneth’s Festhall. A song that was not of sound, but heard by all who worshiped there regardless.
She rose, blinking, her forked tongue tasting the air confusedly. In her bed; a quality feather-down affair with a wooden frame and curtains, she was alone. Pity.
Saddened, but in a distant sort of way, for it was her place at times, she pulled herself out and removed the sheets, folding them neatly and placing them in a basket in the closet. The stains of her recent attentions would need laundering.
Drawing fresh ones, she set her bed and closed the frame curtains, ignoring the dryness in her mouth, not to mention the unpleasant aftertaste. Her client had drunk heavily last night, and insisted she do the same. Her slight frame didn’t handle ale very well...
Outside the door there was hot water for the tub, fine porcelain, another luxury they all enjoyed. Kaileena didn’t know how the staff knew when she, and all the others, woke, but the water was always hot, as if it’d just been set there.
Smiling, she set the bath, leaning back into the bowl of the tub, and relaxed for a time.
Her room was lavishly decorated with furnishings and artwork, purchased by the earnings of her profession. She’d developed a particular fondness for butterflies, and a few of the paintings reflected that, including a watercolor of a Moonlight butterfly, a massive Outsider species composed of living magic. Its pale green, luminescent body seemed to burst with multicolored sparkles captured perfectly by a master artist, and its helix spiral horn seemed to catch the light like polished mithral.
It had been an eventful time since she had come halfway across Faerûn, to find her new home in Lady Gaelyse’s employ and in Sune’s embrace. Ironic that becoming a dancer and... Kaileena laughed. She still shuddered at the word, as it evoked such negative imagery; a coinlass, had proven to be the most enlightening and empowering act in her life.
And her profession offered much in the way of gossip. Travelers, some from as far away as the Sword Coast, had spoken of floating cities and ghost armies between quaffs of ale and, well...sessions of lovemaking.
People, whole villages, disappearing overnight. Wizards gamboling madly in the streets, slinging spells freely from their fingertips. That all the otherworldly parts of Toril, parts not of Toril that had appeared during the Spellplague, were disappearing. The world splintered apart. Earthquakes and Volcanic eruptions had dotted Toril’s surface for months, until everything just...calmed.
They had called it The Sundering.
So much had happened. Most of it bad, but...a few things in which to rejoice.
Shade was crumbling, and with it, the greatest threat to Cormyr and the other free nations. Its ruler had been slain by Elminster himself, like in the chapbooks.
The return of gods not seen since the Spellplague. Some good, like Mystra. Others...
She held her body to herself, suppressing a shiver. The water was as warm as ever, but suddenly it felt cold.
That had been...four years ago, and seven since she’d first stumbled into Suzail. In the midst of all that chaos, Cormyr had held. Her adoptive people had held. Despite a magically-augmented explosion rocking Teneth’s from its supports, it had held as well. Despite an army from Shade invading Suzail days after that.
Kaileena squeezed herself tighter; she had stayed with Zolin in the Abbey of the Dawn, his place of worship, while the festhall had been repaired. He’d held her close, when the bells had rung throughout the city. And not once, through that day and that dreadful night, had he let go. When she’d heard cries through the streets, she’d been sure that the Shadovar and their Sembian puppets had stormed the gates. That she, and her people, were going to die.
But the cries had been those of triumph. Shade had been repelled, its armies smashed against Suzail’s gates. The Cormyrean retaliation had reclaimed Archendale soon after. By the winter of the following year, the Sembians had been pushed out of the Dalelands.
And then everything had gone back to normal. Teneth’s, damaged but very repairable, had been fully restored, and with the money they brought in with their worship to Sune, even improved. She’d survived with it, and she’d grown with it.
Zolin had grown too; his already muscled frame looked just a little thicker, denser. Those boyish green eyes had hardened. He didn’t smile as often anymore, especially when she wasn’t around. He looked more a warrior now, more able to defend Suzail from some new threat that besieged it. And to that, she knew she needn’t not wish him luck, for he had a measure enough already.
Scrubbing herself off, Kaileena dried herself and, still nude, began a series of rhythmic stretching exercises, designed to force vigor from weary muscles. A useful trick in her profession, though she’d taught Zolin a few as well. A few snickered at that, but so be it.
Despite her tiredness, she kept her breathing shallow, in through the nose, out through the mouth. By the time she’d completed the basic routines, she was winded. As her contortions grew more intricate, involving two or three of her limbs and even her tail being pulled into complex arrangements, she struggled for air. But still she kept her breathing steady, holding in her panting as her body’s pores opened, but no sweat emerged. She assumed she didn’t possess sweat glands.
With her body tested to be fit, Kaileena did the same with the rest of her. Body, mind, and spirit. She treasured each, and every morning, she exercised each.
After Guardian, her familiar spirit, had been killed by her former Yuan-ti master, Kaileena had found herself able to directly access the natural forces through intense concentration, and with the peculiar, magic-eating nature of her flesh. Whether it was tectonic energy, Mystra’s newly restored weave, or something else altogether, she couldn’t say. In using this method to charge her growing array of spells, she had grown from a warlock to a magi, an ancient and rare type of practitioner.
What a perfect match to Kaileena herself, she who knew not of her own people.
Visualizing herself as a great “tree”, Kaileena spread her “roots” into these outside energies, and attempted to draw them in through those roots, drinking greedily from the soils of the metaphysical. Any who might have observed her during this time might have noted a slight distortion in the air; a rippling pattern like a heat wave. The energy came to her quickly, denoted by a flare of tenebrous, heatless purple embers across her body, and she quickly closed off the flow of power, lest it overwhelm her. Her body, as any physical medium, had its limitations, though she intentionally stressed and taxed it in an effort to increase its durability.
Holding out her left hand, palm up, Kaileena willed that energy to collect in the space above it, and then to slowly orbit a central point directly above her index finger. She could feel a distortion in the air, like the kiss of wind, and an audible hum. Faster, faster, that energy circled, forming a perfect sphere around an already minuscule center, compressing it into a space so small it wouldn’t even be detectable by the naked eye. The outer shell itself was no larger than her closed fist.
Opening her eyes, Kaileena observed the sphere, colorless but visible, its surface shimmering with motion yet perfectly smooth. Willing it forward, Kaileena took an experimental swipe with her hand, and the sphere followed it’s trajectory while advancing halfway across the room, making a deft pass before resettling atop her hand. Had it impacted a solid object, the surface of the sphere would have ruptured, causing the compressed air inside to sublimate violently.
With this spell, its invention an accident, actually, she could punch a hole through a wall of solid brick, fell a tree, or hurl an armored soldier a bowshot through the air, his breastplate lethally impacted.
While she never planned to use this ability in that context; she was no Battlemage, after all, it never hurt to have something she could call upon to protect Teneth’s and the ones she loved. Malakas had taught her, albeit unwittingly, that though it made her sick, sometimes it was necessary to fight to protect the things that mattered most. And the explosion before the Sembian attack, that had nearly killed them all, had taught her that danger could strike at any moment, delivered by anyone.
With her mind readied for the new day, she moved to her spirit.
Smiling away such unpleasant thoughts, for this was her favorite morning proclivity, Kaileena knelt before a small idol resting on a platform at the foot of the bed; a smaller replica of the statue in the room she was first initiated in. It was carved of pale marble in the likeness of a beautiful, curvaceous woman, her hair reaching down almost to her ankles, a dollop of garnet set in the amulet at her neck. Sune, the Lady Firehair, goddess of love, beauty, and women. And coin lasses and lads.
Kaileena smirked, but leaned in, and planted a tender kiss at the idol’s feet. She spoke in Nihongo, her native language, of the previous day’s events, and as every morning, of her gratitude of life’s bounty and both Sune’s and Gaelyse’s kindness.
She spoke also of the matter that had been troubling her.
It wasn’t right. Kaileena told herself again and again that it wasn’t; this was her home now. There was nothing for her in Teikoku, her birthplace far, far to the east, beyond even Thay and across the Great Ice Sea. It ached just thinking of leaving Teneth’s even for a short time, and the contradicting urges threatened to tear her apart.
She asked Lady Firehair for guidance; would Gatsuyu be safe if she came back? Would she ever know who or what had sired her? Had raised her, before that fateful night, when her adoptive father had found her in the woods?
She stilled, sighed. Sune would keep her counsel.
So instead, she prayed for spells; divine-inspired magic. No warpriest like most in Suzail these days, she prayed for spells of healing, spells of coercion, and spells of comfort. The divine energy flowed into her, bypassing her magic absorption.
Planting another, firmer kiss on the idol’s feet, Kaileena garbed herself in a gauzy, sleeveless robe, belting it with a thin cord, and wrapped a golden scarf about her neck and shoulders. Though other festhalls and brothels offered more scandalous uniform, Teneth’s was a temple just as much as it was a pleasure house, and the garb suited.
She also wore a small pink mother-of-pearl bead, set in delicate gold trim and hung by a thin chain about her neck, matched by a similar specimen hanging by a horn nub on either side like an earring. Zolin’s gift to her, when they had first struggled with the notion of each other. She’d been so nervous, then. So uncertain.
Her hand idly brushed the bead as she went upstairs, to the main area. She couldn’t contain a small, warm smile.
Zolin waited for her at their usual table, right by the stage and slightly off center from the doors. It was very quiet that morning; the actors and dancers hadn’t taken to stage yet, and the minstrels were still setting up.
As was courtesy every time he came inside, he’d disrobed and scrubbed away the grime of his work in the bathing area beyond the entrance hall. He’d forgone shaving the last few days, and the attendant had been nice enough to do it when he washed. Lass had been awfully rough, though...
He didn’t wear robes, like the rest. They let him keep his armor, if only because he assured them he would stay perhaps an hour in the main area. Nothing more.
He ran a hand over the smooth irritated skin lining his neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, more belonging to a devilish rogue than a paladin of Amaunator; God of Sunlight, Time, and Law. Still, he enjoyed the exotic affectation, and Kaileena seemed to like it. When she was teasing him, she’d stroke it while she sat on his lap.
Kaileena. Just the thought of her settled him. When his peacekeeping patrols across Suzail, and lately, into the countryside, became tense, stressful, and even dangerous, he would picture her face, alien to most but the very epitome of beauty to him, and the world wouldn’t feel so grim.
Outlaws, marauders, ...Sembian spies. He could face them all with Kaileena waiting for him. He depended on her support just as much as he did Amauntor’s. Their brethren faiths, for Sune was a goodly god, if a bit misunderstood, made their union all the more appropriate in his eyes.
And there she was, eyes only for him. He returned the gaze, as she stepped gracefully around gamboling couples and staff. Her approach always drew a few glances, curious or confused, but he paid them no heed, for he only had eyes for her in turn. She sat on his lap, and kissed him, deeply, gingerly, her mouth tasting of herbal leaves. He knew she chewed them in the morning, and wasn’t surprised. She leaned into him, equal parts seduction and familiar compassion, and he caressed her, pressed her against him.
“And good morning to you too.” he jested, smiling. How vibrant, how full of life, those violet eyes of hers seemed when they settled on him. She smirked, difficult for most to tell, for her face did not register emotion as openly as a humanoid’s, “Isn’t every morning a good one in Cormyr?”
Odd thing to say.
“Thinking of leaving again?” he asked plainly, to which she shrugged. They didn’t have the time to not be honest with each other. He had his duties and...well, she had hers.
“I’m haunted by the things I left behind.” she admitted, looking away and resting her head against his chest, under his chin, “This is my home now...but I want to...set things right. I cannot explain, I-”
She sighed, “I don’t like the thought that everything wrong that happened can just be...left as it is. I’m stronger now. I know how to fight, thanks to you and Guardian.”
That was true enough; he’d taught her some basic techniques at the grounds over by the citadel, mostly of footwork and parrying. But that wasn’t what she meant and he knew it.
He nodded, “If that’s what you decide, I’ll support it. On one condition.”
She pulled away, and looked up to him, a question in her eyes.
“I’ll accompany, of course.”
She blinked, “But your-”
“We’re technically at peacetime, after all.” he explained, “They won’t miss one recluse paladin. And I’ve wanted to see this Teikoku place. It isn’t on any map I’ve seen thusfar, and from what you describe, it’s a very different land.”
“Hopefully, it’s still there...” Kaileena half-jested, “With the Sundering and all. I kind of wondered, you know...”
Maybe Teikoku, or the space that it inhabited, was actually part of Abeir, the world that had fused with Toril on and off over the ages. He’d heard of stranger things.
And that was actually part of the reason, he knew, that she wanted to return to Teikoku. To see if her brother, her last remaining family, was alright.
“Well, I’m sure we’ll find out. When were you thinking to go?”
Again, she shrugged, “I don’t know. I don’t feel right about it. Lady Gaelyse has been so generous and it doesn’t feel right just leaving like that.”
“You said it yourself. You don’t plan to stay there.”
She nodded, “I guess. I need to think about it a little more.”
As if on cue, a server approached the table. A new addition, one he didn’t recognize. She inclined her head gracefully, “Anything I can get you two?”
“Natali.” Kaileena replied, “Umm...some of that almond bread please. And some cinnamon butter.”
“Something to drink?”
“Oh, gods no.” she stammered, “And tell Markur I’m sorry I threw up that ale. It was nice, really, just a little too heavy for me. Water or milk, please.”
“I’m sure he understands. And you, sir?”
Zolin had to consider, then shrugged, “Whatever the soup is. I’m not really that hungry yet. I’ll take an ale though.”
The music picked up. A woman played a lyre while the percussion set a rhythmic beat.
“I like this one.” Kaileena noted offhandedly.
“I can stick around for a little longer, so we can listen.”
“Mmph.” she replied, satisfied, and he settled in for the song. Work could wait a while yet, for both of them.
The next morning, they met in the training grounds near the Citadel of the Purple Dragons, the center of military operations and defense for Suzail and Cormyr. They wore tunics and leggings, loose and plain, to allow ease of movement and, in his case, soak up the sweat he’d rather keep off his brigandine if he could help it. He wore clogs, and she wore tied sandals, more accustomed to open footwear. He’d never managed it comfortably, himself.
“The usual routine?” he asked, drawing a wooden approximation of his sword; long, straight, and possessed of a basic cross guard. In his other hand he wore a circular shield about the size of a wagon wheel. Kaileena, aversive to physical weapons, wore a buckler on her right hand, and flexed her left in preparation for spell craft.
She closed her eyes, and a look of contentment filled her. The air seemed to shimmer about her body, and draw inward. She’d already meditated to gather her strength, as she needed to daily, for her body vented magic over time, no permanent medium by any means. It required as much preparation as ritual magic, but he admitted to himself that her methods were far more simple and direct.
No wonder the War Wizards had been pressuring her for her secrets.
Holding out her hand, Kaileena’s tongue darted out, tasting the air several times, before her muscles went rigid, and her eyes narrowed in concentration.
The wind picked up, swirling around her, then her hand, and a ball coalesced atop her palm.
They didn’t spar with her concussive sphere. Too dangerous. Instead, she only concentrated her spheres into solidity; a battering weapon not unlike a bolo. The second sphere, which began to orbit her body, served as her first line of defense, the buckler, her second.
When she gave him a nod, Zolin leaned forward, assuming an offensive stance, before lunging forward with his wooden sword in an impaling strike.
Kaileena batted the weapon away, sidestepping the inevitable swing of his shield, and backpedaled, willing her spheres to widen their orbit, forcing him to parry or retreat.
All offense, Zolin swatted one sphere and ducked under the other, and Kaileena yelped, parrying with the bucker as she drew her spheres back to herself. Leaning forward, as if to plow right into her, Zolin gasped as one sphere popped behind him, and reappeared in her hand. He parried it, while blocking the other with his shield from behind, all the while twisting aside in one clean movement. The guards watching them murmured approval.
Now more wary, they circled each other, respective weapons raised. A few beads of sweat streaked his brow, and she was panting gently. Like a dog, she couldn’t perspire.
They closed again, traded blows, and disengaged, moving in slow, overlapping circles gradually towards the wall. Neither scored a solid hit.
Chapbooks liked to regale of epic battles between skilled opponents, atop war-torn battlements and lofty halls, lasting for hours, neither gaining supremacy until one last great flurry of motion proclaimed one or the other the victor. In reality, most individual combat lasted only a few seconds, speed and dexterity determining the bout with one or two clean hits. So that she could last even this long spoke volumes of what he’d been able to teach her.
Still, as Zolin allowed her the next strike, one orb leading and one close to her body, and twisted his sword around one orb, directly into the other, he flipped the blade even as he advanced another step, planting its tip into her buckler and knocking her hand backward, destroying her sure footing. As she stumbled back, her concentration wavered, causing her spheres to teeter uncertainly, and he planted another strike, more solidly, into her underbelly, scoring the first victory.
“Not good enough yet.” Kaileena cursed, rubbing her belly, “Its hard accounting for my size and lack of reach. If I could just form another sphere and coordinate it...”
Two was an excellent strategy, and a distinct advantage; she could defend and attack with virtually the same hand from two different angles, all the while having a second hand to defend. Three would be a difficult task, and make her a viable opponent, especially if all three were concussive spheres. And that damned cutting one could put a rent in almost any sword.
“You will get better.” Zolin assured her, “You already have. Again?”
Kaileena nodded, “I have a few hours yet, and this seems a more constructive use of your time than a meal or entertainment. You look antsy.”
True enough; peacetime had left him restless, and the exercise was a welcome reprieve from patrol.