Apart from one quick ranting post I haven’t really touched my LiveJournal over the past few days. The small gaps between sleep and work have been entirely taken up by writing. Here is the result; the next chapter of Tabula Avatar. This is a strange time to post it, I admit, but I’m going to be trying to set up a new Network for the house this afternoon and I could easily end up losing my Internet connection in the process. So, just in case, I’m posting now. 8,500 words. Rating R. Previous chapters are HERE.
Summary: AU from some point during Tabula Rasa, when the crystal doesn’t get broken but instead falls into the hands of The Trio. They insert the trapped memories into the computer game ‘Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn’ and the Scoobies join the Bhaalspawn and her companions on a quest that leads them into deadly peril. When we left our heroes they were trapped on a sinking ship…
“Well, uh, it is yellow,” Tara said.
“And it’s a submarine,” said Willow. “Kind of, anyway.”
Xander tapped the hull. “It’s made of wood.”
“Not exactly bloody Stingray, is it?” Spike ran a hand along the yellow-painted planks until he came to one of the hoops that bound them in place. Slightly further on was a porthole of heavy glass set in a copper surround and he bent to stare through it. “Reminds me of the sub that some geezer built in the American Civil War. Saw something about it on the Discovery Channel. Or was it the History Channel? Whatever.”
“Ah, yes, quite,” said Giles. “I believe I see the resemblance. I must admit that it isn’t quite what I had in mind.”
“We are under the water?” Sorkatani took Spike’s place at the porthole and peered out. “Wow. Totally cool.”
“And she thinks that I’ve changed,” Imoen muttered under her breath. “Huh.”
“Astounding,” said Jaheira. “I never doubted that your magical songs would save us, a’mael, but this is beyond anything that I could have imagined.”
“Uh, not that I want to spoil the moment,” said Buffy, “but hey, if this thing is made of wood, then those Shagging things can make holes in it just like they did to the ship. We’re not out of the woods yet, people.”
“Don’t worry, Buff,” Willow said. “This is a relatively small cylinder. I can protect it in ways I couldn’t do with a great big ship.” She half-closed her eyes, waved her right arm in a circle, and then uttered three phrases in a language that only Giles recognized. “Okay,” she said, “that should do it.”
Giles put his finger to his glasses. “Remarkable,” he said. “Was that a spell that you learned on Earth?”
“Uh, no,” Willow replied. “I found it in Wanev’s spell book. Why?”
“It was in Sumerian,” Giles told her. “Where did he find it, I wonder? Have there been others from Earth who have crossed into this world before us? Sorkatani mentioned something, I think, but I can't place it.”
“His notes said it was a spell from some place called Unther,” Willow informed him.
“Fascinating,” Giles breathed. “I remember now. Unther and Mulhorand. I had forgotten all about it. I must remember to look into their history once we get to somewhere with a library.”
“Uh, not to rain on your parade,” Buffy put in, “but how are we gonna get anywhere? I don’t see any engines. I think this sub is pretty much batteries not included.”
“Ah. Yes, indeed, that could be a problem.” Giles looked around the cabin and his gaze fell on two raised seats with pedals and gears below them. “Aha! I have the answer. It is pedal-powered.”
Buffy pouted. “Don’t tell me. I’m gonna have to do the pedaling.”
“Actually,” Giles mused, “I would think that it would work best if the pedaling team were of roughly equal strength. Spike and Sorkatani are perhaps the best matched.”
“Of course,” Sorkatani assented. She moved away from the portal and made for the pedals.
“Aye aye, Cap’n,” Spike chuckled as he followed suit.
“Uh, what about steering?” Xander wondered. “Is that thing back there a tiller?”
“It would seem so,” Giles said. “Are you volunteering to be the helmsman?”
“Aye aye, Cap’n,” Xander said, grinning. He put his hand up to his shoulder and wiggled it as if it were a small animal. Willow sniggered. Tara smiled broadly. Dawn giggled. Even Sorkatani smiled.
“There should be some way of making it go up and down, ‘cause hey, submarine,” Willow said.
“I suppose there must be some kind of ballast tank,” said Giles. “Ah, that seems to be a pump. I suggest that Buffy look after that. It doesn’t look particularly efficient and I suspect that considerable strength will be required.”
“Okay, I’ll man the pumps,” Buffy agreed. Before she could do so the ship lurched. “What was that?”
“Those shark-men things are back,” Anya reported from the porthole. “Lots of them. We’d better get out of here.”
“Which way?” Xander asked.
“We were going east, but the closest land is to the south,” Jaheira answered. “I recommend that we make for land as quickly as possible.”
“Okay, but which direction are we pointing?” Xander heaved on the tiller. “Hey, it won’t move.”
Buffy left the pumps and joined him. She added her strength to his and failed to move the lever. “Those Shagging things must have jammed it,” she deduced.
“Uh, how long will our air last?” Tara voiced a thought that had already occurred to some of the others.
“I can refresh our air as long as necessary,” Jaheira assured her. “We shall not suffocate.”
“Or starve,” Viconia added. “Creating food and water is not a problem.”
“Going stir crazy might be,” said Willow. “Giles, if you start singing ‘Cabin Fever’ I’ll get kinda cranky.”
“Which reminds me,” said Xander, “does this thing have toilets?”
“Ah.” Giles walked the length of the cabin, peering at all the devices and furnishings, and shook his head. “It would appear not. I seem to remember that such refinements did not appear in submarines until the very end of the nineteenth century.”
“Bummer.” Xander shook his head. “Let’s hope we’re not in here too long or it could get kinda… unpleasant.”
“I was on a submarine once,” Spike reminisced. “Got kidnapped by Nazis in 1943. Got loose and ate the buggers. Ended up stranded at the bottom of the sodding Atlantic for bloody ages.”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right.”
“It’s true,” Spike insisted. “Angel rescued me. Wouldn’t make up any story where that git saved me, would I?”
“Oh, shut up and keep pedaling,” Buffy snapped. She abandoned the jammed tiller and returned to the pumps.
“Well, I want to know what happened,” Dawn said. Spike beamed at her and continued his narrative.
“I’ve pumped out the tanks completely,” Buffy reported a couple of minutes later. “We don’t seem to be going up.”
“The shark-men are clinging to the hull,” Anya observed. “They must be holding us down. I think they’re taking us somewhere.”
“Maybe down to the bottom so that the water pressure flattens us,” Xander suggested gloomily.
“We weren’t all that far from land,” said Willow. “We have to be over the continental shelf. It won’t be too deep. The spell will protect us.”
“It won’t run out, will it?”
“Nope. I can keep it going indefinitely,” Willow assured Xander. “Uh, as long as I can stay awake, anyway.”
“Show me the spell,” Imoen suggested. “I could take over while you rest.”
“Great,” Buffy muttered. “We’re not gonna get squished, we’re not gonna suffocate, we’re not gonna starve – we can live happily ever after in a wooden box at the bottom of the ocean.”
“Need I continue pedaling?” Sorkatani grimaced. “If our course is dictated by the sahuagin there seems little point.”
“Perhaps so,” said Giles. He adjusted his glasses. “Although, if the sahuagin are indeed taking us somewhere, we may as well get there as quickly as possible.”
“What, you think they’re taking us to their leader?” Xander’s eyebrows arched upwards.
“Well, that is fairly traditional,” said Anya.
“And then what?” asked Buffy. “We sit in here and stare out through the porthole at the King of the Shark People? It’s not like we can get out and talk face to face. If they can even talk.”
“Water breathing, water breathing,” Willow muttered. She took out a spell-book from her pack and began to riffle through the pages.
“He may know the Silent Tongue,” said Viconia. “I believe that sometimes the drow encounter the sahuagin. If so I could indeed talk to him through the glass. An unlikely chance, true, but not impossible. Merely a million to one against.”
“Hey, million to one chances crop up nine times out of ten,” Willow said, with a smile that was reflected on the faces of Giles, Tara, and Spike.
“No, only one time in a million,” Viconia said. “That is what a million to one against means, abbil.”
“It is said that the underwater cities of the sahuagin often contain air,” Sorkatani said. “Or so I have read. Few ever return from such a place and so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the tale.”
“We can but hope,” said Giles. He crossed to the opposite side of the cabin to Anya and looked out of the porthole there. “If only I could think of some song appropriate to the situation.” He fell silent, as did most of the others, and for a while there was no sound apart from the squeaking of the pedals and Spike’s voice as he continued the account of his adventure in the U-boat.
“Hey!” Buffy interrupted Spike as he neared the end of his story. “Angel wouldn’t do that.”
“He did, Slayer,” Spike stated. “Turned that Lawson bloke, Lawson fixed the engines, and we made it to the surface. If he hadn’t done it we’d still be bloody down there.”
“You’re lying,” Buffy insisted. “Angel wouldn’t have vamped someone while he had his soul.”
“Well, he could have let me do it,” Spike said, “but no. Had to do it himself. Not that there was time for any discussion. Lawson was sodding well dying, Slayer, did you miss that bit? And he volunteered. Bloody heroic of him, if you ask me. Saved the other sailors, saved Angel and me from being stuck there, and got the Allies a Type XXI U-boat prototype a year before it was due to enter service. Think the Nazis panicked about that and started playing around with the design ‘cos in the end the Type XXI pretty much missed the war altogether. Good thing, too. Had bloody tons of batteries, could stay underwater for eleven days, would have been a bit of a bugger for the convoys.”
“Absolutely fascinating,” Giles said. “Do go on, Spike.”
Buffy rolled her eyes and turned away. There was, however, nowhere to go and nothing else to do. She sat down on a ballast tank and resigned herself to listening to Spike’s tale.
The submarine banged and scraped against rock. It was pitch black outside. Spike and Sorkatani had stopped pedaling after the bow of the vessel had crashed into a hard obstacle with sufficient force to send the standing members of the group tumbling to the deck. Now the sahuagin were solely responsible for the sub’s onward progress. It seemed that they were maneuvering it through an underwater tunnel.
Suddenly there was light at the portholes. Dim, green-tinged, but definitely light. The submarine lurched and then bobbed rapidly upwards. Willow lost her balance and fell. Minsc caught her before she hit the deck. The light brightened. The water against the portholes turned to foam and then cleared. A wavy line could be seen half-way up the glass. Above the line the light was much brighter.
“We’re on the surface,” Anya declared. “It looks as though Sorkatani was right about the shark-people’s cities.”
“Definitely of the good,” said Buffy. “We can get out of this ship. And Xander can go to the bathroom.”
“Hey, I’m not desperate,” Xander said. “I can hold on a while longer.”
“We’ll probably have to fight all the shark-men, and you’ll fight better if you’re not keeping your legs crossed,” said Anya. “There’s no point in waiting.”
“I didn’t ask about rest rooms because I needed one,” Xander said. “I was just thinking ahead.”
“Will you drop the subject?” Buffy grimaced. “All this talking about bathrooms is making me need to go.”
Giles slung his guitar over his back. He had been teaching Viconia ‘Shadows of the Night’ to fill in time during the underwater voyage. He went to a porthole and peered out. “I believe that we may not be pitched into immediate battle,” he said. “I would interpret the attitude of the sahuagin as indicating deference rather than hostility.”
“They were plenty hostile up on the ship,” Xander said. He joined Giles at the porthole. “Hey, you could be right, Spellsinger. It kinda reminds me of the Ewoks when C3PO got up out of the net trap. Not so much with the bowing and chanting, maybe, but something like. Maybe they think we’re gods.”
“Their god is a giant shark,” said Sorkatani. “They may be impressed by this vessel rather than us. I will be ready for combat if the need arises.”
“Me too,” said Buffy, “but we might as well get out anyway. It’s not like they’re gonna go away if we keep hiding in here until we really, really, need to pee.”
Communication with the King of the Shark Men was proving to be almost as difficult as in Buffy’s hypothetical scenario of them miming at each other through the porthole. He spoke no human language that they recognized and the sahuagin language of hisses and clicks was impossible for a human even to pronounce.
“We could have done with a Tongues spell,” Buffy said. “I don’t think Charades is gonna work.”
“Sorry,” Tara apologized. “I didn’t think that I would need one.”
“Hurry up, Senityili,” the sahuagin king snapped, suddenly speaking in what seemed to the Scoobies to be English and to the native Faerûnians to be the Common Tongue. “I grow tired of listening to these surface-dwellers jabber.”
“It is done, oh King Ixilthetocal,” a staff-wielding sahuagin answered. “Speak and they will understand you.”
“If such strange beings are even capable of understanding,” said the king. “Well? Do you understand me, monsters?”
“Monsters?” Buffy rolled her eyes.
“We understand you, king of the sahuagin,” Sorkatani said.
“Good, good.” The king was eight feet tall and had disturbingly pointed teeth. “High Priestess Senityili claims that you are the Chosen of Sekolah and can rid our city of a great evil.”
“I’ve been called the Chosen One,” Buffy admitted.
“I also,” said Sorkatani. “Although mainly by people who were trying to kill me,” she added under her breath. Her hand was resting lightly on the hilt of Celestial Fury.
“You look remarkably fragile to be capable of much ridding of evil,” the king went on.
“Hey, ridding the world of evil is what we’re all about,” Buffy protested.
“We shall see. Guards! Take them to face the two-headed monster. If it kills them, Senityili, then that proves they are mere ordinary surface-dwellers. If they survive, on the other hand, then we shall give them the chance to win their freedom.”
“Two-headed monster?” Buffy’s eyebrows rose and then she shrugged. “Hey, not like I haven’t been there, seen it, killed it, and got the T-shirt.”
The king had no eyebrows but he still managed to convey that he was frowning. “Senityili, your spell seems to be faulty. I will listen to this no longer. Guards, take them away. I shall go and examine the strange craft in which these creatures arrived.”
The two-headed monster was, as Buffy had guessed, an ettin. It lasted no more than ten seconds against them. Buffy smashed its knee-caps with the Hammer of Thunderbolts, Sorkatani slashed open one of its throats as it toppled, and Spike latched on to the other neck and drank his fill.
“Should keep me going for a while,” Spike said, wiping his mouth. “Don’t fancy eating those shark buggers. Not without chips and a deep fat fryer, anyway.”
Giles choked back a laugh. “I hardly think that they would be an adequate substitute for cod,” he said. “Ah. I don’t believe that this world has discovered fish and chips. They do have potatoes but I have only seen them boiled. Perhaps there is scope for us to introduce a new culinary innovation.”
“You’ll have to wait until we get out of this particular frying pan,” said Buffy. “Okay, shark guys, take us back to your leader. Let’s hear about this evil he wants us to Slay.”
They had to wait for some twenty minutes before the king returned. “I could not make sense of your yellow craft,” King Ixilthetocal told them. “It just went straight to the bottom and stayed there. It does not move.”
“Oh, crap,” said Buffy. “We left the hatches open.”
“So, surface-dwellers, you have agreed to do as the king wishes,” said High Priestess Senityili.
“I am reluctant to serve as an assassin but it seems that we have little choice if are to leave this place,” said Sorkatani.
“Especially now he’s sunk our sub,” Buffy added. “It seems pretty simple. We kill this rebel prince, bring back his heart, and the king shows us the way out.”
“There is another choice,” said the priestess. “The king is insane.”
“Well, he went for a trip in a submarine without closing the hatches,” said Buffy, “which is definitely not big with the smarts, but then he can breathe under water so I guess it doesn’t prove anything.”
“You have seen little of him,” went on the priestess. “It will not be apparent to you but it is true. He kills his own people at a whim. He sends out warriors to attack warm-blood ships that are no threat to us when we face constant threat of attack from drow and the vile heretic kuo-toa. The people of the City of Caverns dwindle in number under his misrule.”
Buffy bit back the ‘and we should care exactly why?’ that fought to issue from her lips. “And the prince would be better?” she asked instead.
“Exactly,” said the priestess. “Prince Villynaty understands what the city needs. That is why he rebelled against his father and is now in exile.”
Viconia had noticed something that had passed most of the others by. “You said that you face threat of attack from the drow. How can that be? My people do not breathe water. Surely you are safe from them here under the sea.”
“There is a shaft that connects the City of Caverns to the Underdark,” Senityili revealed. “We cannot seal it for it provides the air without which working metal is impossible. It offers the drow a gateway and at times they attack. There was a time in which they occupied half of the city. King Ixilthetocal’s father rallied our people and drove out the drow but they left many traps behind. That part of the City of Caverns is still dangerous to us. That is where the prince has made his base; not only to protect himself from the king, but to protect the city from the drow.” Her facial expressions were unreadable to the humans but something about her posture gave the impression that her eyes would have been narrowing, if that had been possible for them, as she turned to stare at Viconia. “Your people.”
“Fear not, shark person, I am an exile from the realm of the drow,” Viconia told her. “I am doubly under sentence of death should I return. And my home city of Menzoberranzan is far from the sea and we know the shark people not. I cannot even recall the name for you in our language.”
“I do not fear,” said the priestess. “You are of the party of the Chosen of Sekolah. You shall help to restore the City of Caverns, as was foretold, and that you are drow is of no importance.”
Viconia sniffed. “It is of importance to me, shark person.”
“Did the king send the raiders who attacked Baldur’s Gate?” Sorkatani asked.
The priestess made a gesture with her forearms that was probably the equivalent of a human shrug. “The names of your cities on the land are difficult for me to recall. He sent a warband to attack a nearby city, yes, but I think it is called by a shorter name.”
“Velen would be the closest, if we are still near where the ship sank,” said Jaheira. “Or perhaps Murran.”
“The name had two sounds,” Senityili confirmed. “None of the raiders returned. A waste of sahuagin lives.”
“Are you saying that the prince will live in peace with the humans?” Buffy stared at the priestess, trying to read her expression, but she could not be sure of her interpretations.
“Probably,” said the priestess. “I cannot speak for him but I can say that attacking your land-dwelling kind would profit us little. He must repopulate the city, in any event, before thinking any thoughts of war. I shall counsel him to refrain from attacking your kind in the future. That would be only fair repayment, if you aid us, and I am sure that he will see the wisdom of that course.”
“We shall see what the prince himself has to say,” said Sorkatani.
“So, what, you want us to go kill the king?” Buffy asked.
“Not yet,” said the priestess. “You would at once be attacked, not just by his guards but by all the inhabitants of the city, and the prince’s forces would join in that attack as they would not know that you had done the deed on their behalf. First you must meet with the prince.”
“Right. So we trot up to his hideout and, hey, say ‘We come in peace. Take me to your leader’?”
“Exactly,” said Senityili.
“Note to self; sarcasm doesn’t work with a Tongues spell,” Buffy muttered. “Uh, and he’s not gonna be just a mite paranoid about a bunch of, uh, surface-dwellers walking up to his place? It’s not like humans are frequent visitors here, right? He’s gonna think we’re invaders.”
“He will have spies within the king’s forces,” Viconia said, “if he is worthy to rule. Thus he will know that the king sends us forth to slay him. He will attack us at once.”
“I can give you a token,” said the priestess. She turned away and opened a hatch atop a blood-stained altar. From it she withdrew a hollow globe-shaped structure of green coral. “This orb will show him that you come from me.”
“So you keep in touch with him,” Xander deduced. “Couldn’t you just, like, tell him we’re coming?”
“I shall do what I can,” Senityili replied, “but my opportunities to send messages are limited. There is always a chance that they would be intercepted. My life would be immediately forfeit if that happened; and if I sent a message such as you suggest, and it fell into the king’s hands, then you also would be slain. Or, if you were successful in defending yourselves against his attack, you would inflict terrible losses upon our people.”
Giles raised his eyebrows. “A very logical decision.”
“Of course.” Senityili’s head bobbed up and down. None of the humans could interpret the gesture. “Will you do as I ask?”
“I guess so,” said Buffy. “At least we’ll talk to the prince before we make a decision. If he’s as reasonable as you make out then, yeah, we’ll back him against the king.” The others nodded agreement.
“Then,” said Senityili, “I shall tell you how to gain admission to the prince’s stronghold.”
The City of Caverns was made up of a network of walkways standing slightly above deep channels of seawater. Tall buildings, their architecture surprisingly sophisticated and at times even beautiful, rose above them. At the apex of the domed cavern roof was an artificial sun; a globe with, presumably, multiple Continual Light spells cast upon it. If it had not been for the ever-present motif of scales and sea creatures it would have been impossible to believe that the city was the home of an apparently primitive and savage species that was humanoid only in outward shape.
Buffy gave voice to that disbelief after a brief but intense three-cornered fight against a rebel incursion and a squadron of the king’s troops who had apparently not been warned about the presence of surface-dweller guests in the city. “Hey, how come a bunch of shark people could build this city anyway? It’s, uh, pretty impressive.”
“Perhaps they did not,” said Sorkatani. “There were other civilizations in the seas before the time of the sahuagin. They may have merely taken over something that already existed.” She retrieved a crossbow from one of the bodies, examined it briefly, and then tossed it aside.
“Yeah, that would make sense,” Buffy said. “The shark men are just too icky to come up with buildings like these.” Her attention was distracted by a cloak of shimmering cloth that bedecked a sahuagin corpse. “Ooh, shiny!”
“Actually, I found the High Priestess to be a rather sensible, ah, woman,” Giles said. “Quite intelligent. If she is truly representative of their species perhaps they could indeed have constructed this metropolis.”
“You are assuming that her words were true and not false promises to manipulate us,” said Jaheira.
“They were true, abbil,” Viconia said. “Unless she had the forethought to cast Undetectable Lie, that is.”
“As she may well have done.” Jaheira drummed her fingers against the shaft of her spear. “My inclination is, however, to believe that the High Priestess is a creature of honor. In so far as that is possible for such a being, at least.”
“I liked her,” said Tara.
Xander’s eyebrows arched upwards. “Uh, you did notice that she was a cannibalistic shark monster, right?”
“She’s a shark monster but I didn’t see her eating anybody,” Tara said. “Or even hear her talk about eating anyone, unlike Spike and his sahuagin and fries joke.”
“Well, Spike’s a cannibalistic vampire monster,” Xander reminded her. “Uh, no offense meant, Spike.”
“None taken,” Spike replied. There was a grin on his face that vanished as he spotted something ahead. “Hang on. Tripwire, twenty feet in front.”
“I’m on it,” said Dawn. She advanced, bent down, and secured the ends of the wire so that she could safely cut the middle part.
“This must be the part of the city that the drow occupied,” said Buffy. “Stay alert, everybody. Hey, Giles, can you summon up Bagpuss? I think this cloak is magic.”
“Ooh! Some big people have come to play.” A shrill, childlike, voice squeaked out from the platform ahead of them.
“And not that stodgy overgrown shark-king,” a second voice chimed in. “He’s no fun. He won’t play our games. These big people might.” The two speakers, or squeakers, were imps. The little demonic beings fluttered towards the party. “Hello, big people. Do you want the drow treasure?”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “Well, duh,” she said. “Is there any other reason for us to be here?”
“If you want the treasure you have to play our game,” one of the imps told her.
“Don’t tell me,” sighed Spike. “We have to chop down the tallest tree in the forest with a sodding herring. Why does everything in this sodding world have to turn into a bloody quest?”
“It only seems that way,” said Sorkatani. “Most denizens of Faerûn will go their whole lives without ever have to, how did you put it? ‘Travel to the Forest of Trees, pull the Sword of Slicing from the Stone of – something – and slay the Dragon of Sodding Great Teeth’ in order to be able to purchase a mug of beer. It’s because you’re traveling with me that you get dragged into all these quests.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, jabbress,” Spike told her. “Okay, titch, what’s your game?”
The imps’ game proved to be somewhat less taxing than Spike’s prediction. The adventurers were required to match a series of objects to their owners. As the owners in question were celebrities of Northern Faerûn, and totally unknown to most of the Scoobies, it might have been difficult had the group members from Earth been alone. As it was, however, Sorkatani completed the task without even needing to pause to think.
“You could have at least pretended to consult me,” Imoen moaned, as the imps opened the treasure chest and dispelled its undead guardian. “It’s like I don’t have a place in the group any longer.”
Sorkatani stared at her. “What do you mean?”
“Willow’s better at magic than me, Anya and Dawn are better with locks and traps, and almost everyone can fight better than I can,” Imoen said. “You don’t seem to need me anymore.”
“How can you say that?” Sorkatani’s eyes opened very wide. “You’re my sister.”
“You didn’t even know that until a few days ago,” Imoen pointed out. “I’m not your real sister, anyway, just half at most. Like Sarevok.”
Sorkatani’s lip trembled. “You are my friend, Imoen. We grew up together. Fled from Candlekeep together. Fought the Iron Throne together.”
“Grew up. Fled. Fought. All past tense, Sorkatani. You’re just not acting as if I’m your best friend any longer.”
The trembling of Sorkatani’s lip grew more noticeable. Her eyes glistened with moisture. Then she straightened her shoulders and her mouth became a tight line. “Fine. Have it your way. Dawn and Buffy are my best friends now. Are you satisfied? Vith’os!” She spun on her heel and marched off to where Willow and Giles were examining the contents of the chest.
Imoen was prevented from following her by Jaheira’s hand closing on her shoulder. “Foolish and petulant child,” Jaheira scolded. “I shall make allowances for the torments you suffered at the hands of Irenicus and not turn you over my knee as you deserve. How dare you speak thus to Sorkatani after what she has been through?”
“What she’s been through? What about me?”
Jaheira’s eyes were cold. “You were imprisoned and harshly treated. She had to cut off the head of the man she loved.” Her grip slackened and her eyes softened as she saw Imoen’s lower lip quiver. “I know that you feel out of place in this group now, Imoen, but you must adjust. You have not lost Sorkatani yet but if you push too hard you will push her away. Give her time.”
The byplay had passed unnoticed by most of the others. They had expected the chest to hold the Tooth of Sekolah, a magical key in the form of a shark tooth, which would open the doors that barred the surface path to the rebel prince’s lair. The underwater route used by the sahuagin would be impossible for them without sahuagin assistance. Instead of the artifact, however, the chest had contained only a cloak and a pair of boots.
“Decent bit of kit,” Spike said, after Bagpuss had identified the items, “but not what we were looking for.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of a walkway that led away from the imps’ platform. “Guess that must be where the real stuff is.” He narrowed his eyes, brought his hand up to shade them, and peered into the deep shadows that obscured the path’s far end. “And the real guardian. Bloody great thing like a beach-ball on steroids with a sodding enormous eye. One of those Beholder things, right?”
“Crap,” said Xander. “Those things are tough. And I don’t have Carsomyr.”
“We have the Cloak of Mirroring,” Willow said, referring to the shiny cloak that they had retrieved from the body of a dead sahuagin cleric. “Bagpuss reckons that it reflects spells. It should work on the Beholder eye-rays, right?”
“I believe so,” said Giles. “Finding out could be rather, ah, hazardous.”
Sorkatani marched up to him. Her fists were clenched and her eyes were blazing. “Hazardous, you said?”
“Ah, yes,” Giles confirmed. “Death rays, petrifaction, painful and disabling wounds. All are distinct possibilities.”
“But important, right?”
“Most certainly,” Giles said. “We must retrieve the Tooth of Sekolah or we shall have to send Spike through the underwater tunnel on our behalf. And, honestly, would you be happy about relying upon Spike’s negotiating skills?”
“O-kay,” Sorkatani snapped. “Imoen wants to feel needed. Well, as she doesn’t happen to be shagging anyone right now, she can sodding well do this.”
“She does possess a suitable skill set to investigate the guardian, being both mage and thief, and the Cloak of Mirroring should in theory give her adequate protection,” Giles said. “Your decision, however, appears to be based on emotion rather than logic. Is that, ah, wise?”
“I think you’ve been hanging with Spike a little too much,” Buffy added. “Cool it, Tani.”
Sorkatani deflated slightly. “Perhaps you are right. She just made me so mad.”
“That’s what sisters do,” Buffy said.
“Then she should make me only half mad,” said Sorkatani. She folded her arms.
“I’ll do it,” Imoen said from behind her.
“Yes, I did. I’m sorry for what I said, Sorkatani.”
“It’s okay.” Sorkatani sucked in her lower lip and bit on it. “I’m sorry too.”
“Heya, I don’t mind if you get mad at me sometimes,” Imoen said. “Right, what’s this thing you want me to do? Checking out that path along there? I can do that.”
“There appears to be a beholder guarding the way,” Giles warned her. “We believe that the Cloak of Mirroring would provide protection from its eye rays but I must confess that we are not absolutely certain.”
“I’ll risk it,” said Imoen. “I’m dying anyway, according to Irenicus, so it’s not like I have all that much to lose.” She gave Giles a slightly shaky smile.
“Ah. I have a hypothesis about that,” Giles said. “He said that both of you would fade away and die without your souls. Remember, however, that he was an elf before his transformation. A being with a life-span measured in millennia. After his soul was taken from him he began to age as if he were human. He may have made an extrapolation from his own case that was not valid for your circumstances.”
“So I might live out a normal life?”
“I see no reason why not,” Giles said.
“Well, that’s a relief,” Imoen said. “Except that I still feel sort of hollow inside.”
“And yet I feel perfectly well. Even stronger than I used to be, if anything,” Sorkatani said.
“Pretty sure you really have got stronger,” Spike put in. “Was always a fair bit stronger than you, about as much as you were stronger than Minsc, but now I don’t think there’s that much,” he held up a hand with finger and thumb almost touching, “to choose between us.”
“Hmm. Fascinating,” said Giles.
“You can find out with some arm-wrestling some other time,” Buffy suggested. “Right now we have to decide who tries out that cloak on the beholder.”
“I’m still volunteering,” Imoen stated. “It sounds like a job for a mage thief. That’s me. Checking things out is what I do best.”
“Okay,” Sorkatani agreed, “but be careful.”
“When am I ever not careful?” Imoen took the Cloak of Mirroring from Buffy and slipped it over her shoulders.
Sorkatani rolled her eyes. “Should I start with when you followed Gorion and me into the wilderness and make a list of every time from then until now?”
Buffy squinted up at the spherical creature. “This is the first time that I’ve ever met a beholder who wasn’t trying to turn me into a statue, or blast my head off,” she said.
“We Spectators are unlike the other beholder-kin,” the guardian explained. “More intelligent, if I say so myself, and much less psychotic.” It blinked its large central eye. “And, in my case, absolutely bored to tears. I’ve been stuck here for forty years with no company except occasional rampaging sahuagin and those exceptionally irritating imps. I’m delighted to have some civilized company.”
“Stuck here?” Sorkatani raised her eyebrows. “How come?”
“As I told your charming friend,” the spectator said, “I was summoned and bound to servitude by a drow wizard. He commanded that I guard this chest.” The creature used its four mobile eyestalks to point towards the container in question. “The terms of a summoning contract bind me for ninety-nine years, or until the task is completed, or until the summoner releases me from the duty. As a sahuagin thrust a spear through him, some ten minutes after he completed the ritual, that release is hardly likely to be forthcoming. I’m here for the duration. Fifty-nine more years.”
“Is there a way in which we could release you?” Jaheira asked.
“Only by killing me,” the spectator replied, “and even after forty years of playing tic tac toe with a pair of crazy imps I’m not quite bored enough to be willing to die. I’d fight back. You seem to be rather accomplished adventurers, and you might well be able to slay me, but I’d take at least one or two of you with me.”
“We do not attack peaceful beings,” said Sorkatani. She sighed. “Yet we really need to obtain an artifact from within the chest.”
“I’m afraid I can’t permit that,” the spectator told her. “Sorry, but those are the rules.”
“Wait a minute,” said Anya. “You’re bound to protect the chest, right? That’s what the wizard said?”
“Exactly,” the spectator replied, bobbing in the air. “Weren’t you listening?”
“Oh, I was listening all right,” Anya said. “Perhaps you weren’t. He said that you must protect the chest. Not the contents.”
“Ah.” The spectator blinked. “I see what you mean. No, he said nothing about the contents. I can’t allow you to open the chest, however.”
“But you could open it,” Anya said. “You could let us take whatever is inside and we wouldn’t even need to touch the chest itself.”
“Hmm. Yes, that would satisfy the terms and conditions,” the spectator agreed. “I’d need some incentive to go along with your plan, however.”
“You have suffered forty years of boredom, I think you said?” Giles swung his guitar into position. “That’s where I come in. Let me entertain you.”
Buffy held aloft a leather bag. “Okay, your king-ness, here’s the heart you wanted and, can I say, it is majorly gross.”
The sahuagin king clapped his hands together. “Mmm, I detect the delicious scent of a rebel’s ichor. Excellent, excellent. The prince is dead, long live the king.”
“Then we are free to depart now?” asked Sorkatani.
“Yes, yes,” said the king. “I’ll send a minion to show you where the shaft to the Underdark lies.”
“Thanks,” said Buffy. “Uh, we’d like to say goodbye to High Priestess Semi-whatever first, okay?”
“Hah!” exclaimed the king. “That won’t be possible. Her acolyte was caught sneaking around near the rebel camp. Trying to warn them that you were coming, probably, and so I sentenced her to be sacrificed to Sekolah. Senityili wasn’t very happy about that and so I had her sacrificed too. It keeps things tidy. Baron Thelokassyil has been pestering me to install Tlyysixxous as Royal High Priestess, anyway, and now he can have his wish.”
Buffy grimaced. “Crap. You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Do not presume to tell me what I should not have done, surface creature,” the king growled.
“No, you really shouldn’t have done that,” Buffy repeated. “The prince didn’t ask us to do his fighting for him. Just to keep you distracted while he moved his men into position to attack. But now you’ve killed someone who we kinda liked, so…”
“I told you that the surface beasts could not be trusted,” hissed the king’s chief advisor.
“Treachery!” the king snarled. “Baron Thelokassyil! Kill the surface creatures. I want their heads on my plate for the feast tonight.”
The baron leaped at Buffy. She swung her hammer and smashed him to the ground.
Sorkatani drew Celestial Fury and struck. An attacking guard reeled back with green blood gushing from a severed arm.
Willow raised a hand and pointed. A bolt of lightning shot forth from her fingers, struck a guard, and jumped onwards to another. It sparked from sahuagin to sahuagin, injuring all that it touched, and leaving two of the guards dead on the ground. Tara used a Hold spell to freeze a sahuagin warrior in place. Minsc brought Lilarcor down upon the head of a charging guard and hewed it in twain.
Viconia summoned down a Flame Strike and turned one of the guards into a pillar of ash.
Spike rammed his rapier Namarra through the chest of a sahuagin who tried to grapple with him. As he was pulling the blade free the king jumped forward and thrust with a long spear at the center of Spike’s back. The spear point pierced through the Armor of Deep Night as if the dragon-hide reinforced leather was mere tissue paper and penetrated all the way to Spike’s heart.
“Things go well on the surface,” the Matron Mother said to Irenicus. “Their outer defenses have fallen. We have driven half of their army into the outer reaches of the forest and the rest have fallen back into the city. The time will soon be at hand for you to add the power of your spells, and your sister’s matchless physical might, to the assault.”
“As you wish, Matron Mother,” Irenicus replied.
“We have taken our first captives,” the Matron Mother continued. She clapped her hands and half a dozen drow warriors entered the chamber dragging two elf prisoners.
“These two rank high among the darthiir scum, Matron Mother,” one of the warriors said. “What is to be their fate?”
“Their presence sickens me.” The Matron Mother turned to Irenicus. “What say you? Is it worth interrogating them, or shall we feed them to your sister?”
“Joneleth! What are you doing with these monsters?” one of the elves burst out. “You are one of us.”
Bodhi appeared at the top of a flight of stairs that led into the audience chamber. “He was,” she said. She didn’t bother to use the stairs but entered the room with one thirty-foot leap. Anomen and Tanova descended behind her in a more conventional manner. “Ellesime put an end to that.”
“Bhuraedhi?” The elf’s eyes widened as he stared at her. “You are with them too?”
Bodhi rolled her eyes. “Well, yes, obviously,” she said. “You really are an idiot, Riluaneth. I remember now why I only fucked you once. Oh, yes, and you were pathetic in bed.” She turned her gaze away from the elf and addressed the drow leader. “Greetings, Matron Mother. Did I hear you say something about giving these fools to me?”
“Indeed so. Drain them dry, Bodhi. The sight should prove entertaining.”
Bodhi glanced briefly at the elves and then back at the Matron Mother. “If it’s all the same to you, Matron Mother, I shall let my followers have them. I’m looking for something more permanent. New recruits for my band. It’s quite difficult to turn elves. They usually just die. Not that I’d want to be saddled with those two permanently in any case.”
“Give them to your minions if you wish,” the drow ruler assented. “As long as there is plenty of blood it makes no difference to me.”
“You are a vampire!” Riluaneth exclaimed. “But how? What happened, Bhur…” His words were cut off as Tanova seized him and, after a nod from Bodhi, plunged her fangs into the elf’s throat.
Anomen took hold of the other elf’s shoulders but hesitated before following Tanova’s example. “I’d rather eat a female,” he complained. “Biting another man seems a little… unnatural.”
“You’re a vampire, Anomen,” Bodhi snapped. “We’re supposed to be unnatural. I’m not telling you to kiss him. Just rip his fucking throat out.”
Anomen obeyed. Blood spurted forth in a scene gory enough to satisfy the Matron Mother’s desire to witness carnage.
“My apologies, Matron Mother,” said Bodhi. “Good help is so hard to find. I am seeking intelligent recruits. Are there any amongst your people of whom you would like to rid yourself? A drow vampire might be an interesting addition to my family.”
“Hmm. Perhaps,” the Matron Mother mused. “Solaufein? No, he is competent and useful, although annoying. We have some drow captives for whom I have no particular use. Outcasts from another city who were foolish enough to seek shelter here. I could spare one of them, if you wish.”
“I would be most grateful, Matron Mother,” said Bodhi.
“Very well. I shall give orders for one to be sent to you.” The Matron Mother turned to Irenicus. “That was indeed a pleasing spectacle. I found it… arousing. Come with me to my bedchamber.”
“If that is your desire, Matron Mother,” Irenicus replied.
The drow woman laughed. “You seem to lack enthusiasm. Almost I am offended. Nonetheless, I shall take you to bed. It will be interesting to see if I can make a dent in that rigid composure of yours.”
“Very well, Matron Mother,” Irenicus agreed. “I shall endeavor to give satisfaction.”
“You did far more than you were asked, surface people,” said Prince Villynaty. “You may keep the king’s weapons, and those that you have taken from the guards that you slew, and I shall give you as much gold from the Royal Treasury as you can carry. I shall equip you with ropes, to aid with your descent into the Underdark, and with whatsoever supplies you require.”
“Thanks, Prince,” said Buffy.
“You have my gratitude,” the former prince, now king, went on. “I knew little of the humans of the surface but you have taught me that they have bravery and honor. I shall remember this and the humans will not suffer attacks from the City of Caverns in the future.”
“I thank you also,” added the new Royal High Priestess, “on behalf of our people and of my late mother Senityili.”
“Your mother was a great woman, Sallinithyl,” Sorkatani replied.
“Indeed. I shall try to live up to her,” said Sallinithyl. “Fare you well, humans.”
“Are you quite recovered now, my Spike?” Viconia asked, as they departed from the sahuagin court.
“’M fine now, love,” Spike assured her.
“I was afraid for you,” Viconia went on. “Fear laid iron claws upon my heart. I do not wish to lose you.”
“Felt the same when they told me what bitch-features did to you back in Spellhold, ussta ‘che,” Spike told her. He grinned. “You really did a number on that king bloke. Bloody impressive.”
“Wrath filled me, and I called upon Shar for Righteous Magic,” Viconia said. “Against such power, and with the Flail of Ages and Mauler’s Arm in my hands, he stood no chance. Great was my fear, great was my fury, and great was my relief when I saw you rise once more to your feet.” She shuddered. “You came so close to death. An inch or two deeper, so that the wood of the shaft made contact with your heart, and you would have been dust. I would have lost you forever and my world would have become empty.”
“Yeah, well, he didn’t quite stab deep enough,” said Spike, “and you made sure he didn’t get another chance. Bloody hurt, though.”
“It is indeed a mighty weapon,” Jaheira put in. “The enchantments that it bears eclipse even those of the spear that was hidden within the carpet in the labyrinth. It is a weapon to rank almost with Celestial Fury. Yet it disturbs me that it inflicted such injuries upon you. The spear from Spellhold wounded Willow most grievously. I would not wish another such event to happen. If you share my concerns, Spike, I shall put it aside and continue to use the Spear of the Unicorn.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it, Jaheira,” Spike told her. “You didn’t have it when it stabbed me. Just keep tight hold of it, abbil.”
“I shall do so,” Jaheira promised. “My intention is to use it upon Bodhi, of course, but I shall not do so unless I have strength enough to ensure that she is not able to wrest it from my grip.”
“So, down into the Underdark we go,” said Buffy. “Uh, any chance we could raise the sub, dry it out, and go out by the sea route instead?”
Giles raised a finger to his glasses. “I doubt it,” he said. “Now that the interior has been flooded there will certainly have been extensive damage. The water is supposed to go on the outside. Even if we could get back out through the tunnels, with the assistance of the sahuagin, there would be too great a risk of ending up unable to steer or propel the craft forward. No, descending into the Underdark and pursuing Irenicus and Bodhi that way is really the only option open to us.”
“And once more dread fills my heart,” Viconia said. “The prospect is not welcome to me.”
“Hey, it can’t be that bad,” Buffy said. “We’re pretty tough. We’ll make it.”
“Do not speak lightly of what you do not know,” said Viconia. “It is a realm of terror. On the surface world we are hunters. In the Underdark we will be seen as prey. Many and terrible are the foes that await us there; and the greatest danger of all will come from the drow.”
“So, you are of House DeVir?” Bodhi raised her eyebrows. “Do you know Viconia DeVir?”
The captive drow curled his upper lip. “A name that shames us. She was my aunt, sister to my father, before her cowardice and weakness disgraced us all.”
“Cowardice? Weakness?” Bodhi’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “You drow must have exceedingly high standards. I could happily spend hours thinking up insulting terms to describe her but those are two words that would not have come to mind.”
“You know her?” It was the turn of the drow’s eyebrows to climb high.
“I killed her,” Bodhi said, “but she came right back again. Next time I’m going to rip her into shreds and feed them to some suitably ravenous beast.”
“Good,” said the drow. “My father was turned into a drider because of her. The stain of her dishonor lay upon us all and when Matron Ginafae angered House Do’Urden our doom was sealed.”
“In that case I have good news for you,” Bodhi told the drow. “What’s your name, by the way?”
“Zarbalan DeVir,” the drow replied. “Son of Valas, and grandson of Matron Mother Ginafae.”
“Well, Zarbalan, you can have a chance to get your revenge upon Auntie Viconia,” Bodhi told him. “Won’t that be nice? Oh, and now the bad news. First I’m going to kill you.”
Alex watched the adventurers say their final farewells to the sahuagin and make their preparations for their descent into the Underdark. He drained his cup of coffee and glanced at his watch.
“I’d best be going,” he muttered to himself. “I don’t want to keep Stephanie waiting. This seems like a pretty good place to do a Save.” He clicked on the Options icon and selected Save Game. He watched for a moment, as the Save progress indicator crawled slowly around the golden death’s head symbol of Bhaal on the screen, and then jumped as the game suddenly minimized itself and vanished from the Desktop. In its place was an unfamiliar text box headed ‘Baldur’s Gate II – Shadows of Amn’ and carrying an ominous symbol; a yellow triangle containing a large black exclamation mark. It was followed by a message that he had never seen before.
Save game failed, do you wish to quit? [Yes/No]