Here’s the next chapter of ‘Tabula Avatar’. I posted the last couple of chapters at rather odd times of day and received far fewer than usual comments; my guess is that some regular readers missed them. If that includes you then you can catch up on previous chapters HERE.
6,900 words. Rating R. This chapter is the ‘Tabula Avatar’ parallel to ‘Seeing Red’.
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 about to enter the Underdark and the computer game was having technical problems…
“Yeah, you did the right thing,” Warren said. “Thanks, Alex.”
“Can you fix it? ‘Cause hey, if you can’t save the game, they’re on their own. No second chances and, man, the Realms make the Hellmouth look like Sesame Street.”
Warren sucked in his lower lip and bit on it. “Well, first I have to find out what went wrong. I’d guess at running out of disk space but we added a new disk just before we left. It can’t have run out that quick. Maybe one of the disks failed. At least we have everything backed up.”
“The Realms are tough but so are the guys,” Jonathan reassured Alex. “They have weapons that make the stuff in Randy and Joan’s weapons chest look like biplanes compared to an F-16. They’ll be okay.”
“The trouble is a lot of the bad guys have super-cool weapons too,” Warren pointed out. “I’ll feel a lot better if we can get it fixed.” He frowned at the PC.
“Hey, you said you started to save just when they were going down to the Underdark, right?” Jonathan queried.
“That’s right,” Alex confirmed. “It seemed a good time to do it.”
“There’s an Auto-Save exactly at that point, isn’t there?” Jonathan said. He raised a hand to his chin and stroked it thoughtfully. “Maybe both saves ran together. It’s a million to one chance, dude, but you know they crop up nine times out of ten. Conflict city.”
“Good thinking, Batman,” Warren praised. “You could be right. I hope so. I have enough to do without having to spend time on this.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Alex, “that reminds me. Congratulations, guys. I should have said that before but I was kinda worried about the other versions of the Scoobies.”
Warren grinned. “Don’t worry about it, Alex, I understand. Thanks. It’s cool, huh? We’re not going to sign the contract until our lawyer checks it out – hey, like I could ever have imagined myself saying something like that – but it’s looking good.”
“We so have to party,” said Andrew. “Fame and fortune are at our fingertips.”
“I keep thinking that I’m going to wake up and it’ll have all been a dream,” said Jonathan. He had already gone to the PC and now he clicked on the ‘No’ option from the error message. The game expanded itself and images of Buffy, Sorkatani, and company filled the screen. “Well, it hasn’t crashed. Let’s see what happens when the Auto-Save tries again.”
“I swim in memories in such a place as this,” Viconia said. “Most unpleasant memories.”
“If you wish to talk of them, I would gladly listen,” said Jaheira.
“Me too,” said Spike. “Goes without saying.”
“I do not so wish,” said Viconia, “not at this time. Perhaps later.”
“This place is just too darn creepy,” Imoen muttered. “I really want out of here.”
“You and everyone else,” Buffy said. She squinted into the distance. “This infravision thing wigs me out. Everything looks weird.”
“Yeah, it’s like we’re Predators,” Xander remarked. “I wasn’t expecting it to be so dark. I kinda thought there would be, like, glowing fungi making just enough light to see by.” He shook his head. “I guess that’s ‘cause it’s like that in games and the movies.”
“There are lights in the cities, and along frequently used trails,” Viconia informed him, “and such fungi as you describe exist in some places. Much of the Underdark, however, is simply… dark.”
“And our nifty magic flashlights can be seen from way further away than they light things up,” Willow moaned. “Like, a sign saying ‘humans coming through’ that all can read from Rivendell to the mouth of Anduin.”
“Heroes coming through,” Minsc corrected her.
“From where to the mouth of where?” asked Imoen.
“Don’t worry about it, Imoen,” Buffy said. “I don’t get half the things she talks about either.”
“Hmm. Our vision in the darkness is still inferior to that of the native creatures,” Giles said. “I believe that I can enhance it, however, but the snag is that my song will also give away our presence.”
“I think that is a risk worth taking,” Sorkatani said, “as long as the duration of the effect is much longer than the song.”
“That didn’t work too well when you tried it in the sewers under the Temple District,” Buffy reminded Giles. “It worked for you, and Xander, but not for the rest of us.”
“That is true, Buffy,” Giles admitted, “but I have grown in mastery of my craft since then. I know what I did wrong and I am quite confident that I can be more successful this time.”
“Okay, Giles, hit it,” Buffy told him.
“Very well.” He brought his guitar to the ready and struck up his tune.
“I know you deceived us, now here’s a surprise,
We know that you have ‘cos there’s magic in our eyes,
We can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles
“The City of Caverns,” Jonathan said, moving the mouse pointer into position over the folder, right clicking, and displaying Properties. “The Underdark. The Elven Temple ruins. The Underdark Exit. Small Teeth Pass. North Forest. The Forest of Tethyr.”
“Go back through them again,” Warren said, punching numbers into a calculator, “only slower this time.” Jonathan obeyed. “Well,” Warren said, after he completed his calculations, “that accounts for most of the increase. There’s still… wait a minute… sixty-five gigs unaccounted for.”
“Didn’t Minsc meet up with a guy from Calimshan?” Andrew suggested. “Maybe he’s gone home.”
“One conversation in the market-place wouldn’t turn someone into a carrier,” Jonathan said. “Would it?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Warren. “All I know is that if the game’s growing fast enough to fill a new hard drive in four days then there’s no way we can keep up.”
“Irenicus and Bodhi must have spread it into the Underdark,” Jonathan said. “If the other big jump came from Galvarey in Tethyr then maybe there won’t be any more spurts for a while.”
“I hope so,” Warren said. “If it keeps growing exponentially…” He shook his head. “We’re running as fast as we can just to stand still. Changing over to RAID-0 has covered it but that means no redundancy. We have to get a dedicated server with a big array of disks.”
“Once we get some real money we can afford it,” Jonathan agreed, “but not yet, dude.”
“I know.” Warren scratched his chin. “We’ll leave things as they are for now. Let’s take the contract over to the lawyer, dudes, and see what he says. And then,” a smile slowly spread over his face, “I’m going to call Katrina.”
“Cor der noror rrin doth samman?” Carlig challenged. He kept his eyes trained on the drow woman, who was at the front of the approaching party, and hefted his axe ready for combat if necessary.
“Udos ph’naut dosst ogglinnar, duergar,” the drow replied, using her own language as was only to be expected from one of her arrogant race, “jahl lil waela lueth waela ragar brorna lueth wund nind, kyorlin elghinn. Usstan uil Viconia. Xun dos telanth l’xanalress de l’rivvin?”
Carlig raised his eyebrows. Why would a drow want him to speak in the tongue of humans? Certainly there were humans in her entourage, as the enormous height of one of them had made obvious even at first sight, but they would of course be slaves and of no consequence.
“Aye, I do, Malla Viconia,” he answered her respectfully, in the language that she had requested, “but why would you…” His voice trailed off as he took more notice of the other members of the drow’s party. Never had he seen slaves so well-equipped. They wore dragon-scale armor, matching that of the drow herself, and he could tell at a glance that they bore enchanted weaponry of great might. And could that be a surface elf among their number? Perhaps a half-breed, he guessed, but even so no such slave would ever be permitted to walk unchained and armed.
“Carlig! She bears no House insignia,” his assistant hissed, “and look at her companions!” His voice lowered slightly. “She is outcast.”
“And you are ill-mannered,” the drow responded to the overheard remark.
“Your pardon, Malla Viconia,” Carlig apologized. “Mordin simply wishes to be sure I know who I’m dealing with. It is not often that those not directly associated with a House pass this way.”
“Very seldom. They do not live long,” put in his bodyguard Finderlig.
“Excuse his bluntness, please, Malla Viconia. I am Carlig, a trader of sorts, and if you have coin perhaps we can do business.”
“Perhaps, Carlig,” Viconia said, “but I am not the leader of this party.” She moved aside and gave way to two young human females. One was dark of hair, clad in armor of dragon scales, and with two swords at her waist. The other was fair, wearing no armor save for dragon-skin wrist guards, and at her hips hung a sword and a massive war hammer.
Carlig’s eyebrows climbed towards the crown of his bald head. For a drow, and a female at that, to give precedence to mere humans was quite outside his experience. “Greetings,” he said, and then dredged up from the recesses of his memory the courteous term for addressing female surface humans, “ladies.”
“Greetings,” the dark-haired one replied. “I am Sorkatani.”
“And I’m Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” said the fair one. She did not look to Carlig as if she was capable of slaying the dreaded neck-biters, being slim even by the standards of humans and no taller than a drow, but perhaps she had come upon one wounded and recuperating in its coffin. Anyone with a wooden stake could slay them in that state.
“What do you have to trade?” the dark one asked. “We have spare weapons that we would like to sell, or to barter, but the coin that we have is from the surface lands. Or from the bottom of the sea.”
“Gold is gold,” said Carlig. He focused his gaze on the hammer at the fair girl’s side. It was an impressive weapon indeed, of dwarven make unless he missed his guess, and undoubtedly far too heavy for the girl to wield effectively. “I would offer you a good price for that hammer.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “You want to buy the Hammer of Thunderbolts? Sorry, no can do. Well, not unless you have something totally awesome to offer me in its place.”
“I am sure that I could find something more suited to one of your stature,” Carlig offered.
A smile spread across the face of the dark girl. “You think that Buffy’s not strong enough to swing the hammer, right?” Her smile was mirrored on the faces of the other members of the group and a couple of them even broke into open laughter.
The fair girl grinned and unhooked the hammer from her belt. “Hey, I never thought of that,” she said. The hammer seemed to leap into the air. She twirled it around, flipped it behind her head and under her arm, tossed it into the air and caught it as it came down, and whirled it in a figure-of-eight pattern at such speed that it became almost invisible to the eye. “Funny, it doesn’t seem to be a problem,” she said, and brought it to a halt. She hooked the weapon back onto her belt. “So, what have you got?”
Carlig realized that his mouth was hanging open and closed it hastily. “Nothing that can match such a weapon, I am afraid, Malla Buffy,” he told her, “but I have an exceedingly fine selection of magical scrolls.”
“Hey, cool!” A new voice spoke from an apparently empty space. The air seemed to part and a red-haired human girl appeared. She held a mage’s staff and wore robes. “Come on, Immy, let’s take a look.”
“We also seek information,” said the dark-haired one, Sorkatani, as the mage and another girl began to examine Carlig’s scrolls. “We’re chasing a bunch of other surfacers.”
“We see few denizens of the surface here,” Carlig told her, “but there have been two such groups in this area lately. A wizard, human, with a couple of companions at his side.”
The entire group spun as one to face him. Eyes that had been crinkled at the corners with smiles were suddenly narrowed and hard. “Tell me more,” Sorkatani said. Her voice was like ice.
“He was just a wizard,” Carlig told them. “Courteous enough. He traded some scrolls with me and then moved on.”
“How long ago?” hissed the drow Viconia.
“Perhaps fifteen days, as the surfacers count time,” Carlig said. “He went north, and then we saw the flashes of spells and heard the clash of swords. He fought a drow patrol, I think, and they overcame him. A spell was cast and he disappeared. I suspect that he was Imprisoned.”
As he spoke he saw the adventurers relax. “Those were not the bastards we’re looking for,” said a young man among them. “I guess we can go about our business.”
“Imprisonment is a dreadful fate,” one of the two girls who were examining the scrolls commented. “There are some scrolls of Freedom here. Maybe we could release him. I bet he’d be grateful.”
“Sure thing, Immy,” said Sorkatani. She fixed her eyes on Carlig once more. “You mentioned another group of humans?”
“Well, not humans exactly,” said Carlig.
“Bloody neck-biters,” Finderlig chimed in. “And one human mage.”
Again the entire group froze. The very temperature around them seemed to drop. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been resting a hand upon Carlig’s trestle table. Her grip closed on it with such force that the petrified mushroom wood cracked and splintered. “Irenicus and Bodhi,” she said. “Okay, which way did they go?”
The tone of her voice carried so much menace that Carlig found himself unable to reply immediately. Suddenly he no longer doubted that she truly was a Vampire Slayer.
Finderlig was less sensitive to the atmosphere. “They went into the drow city,” he revealed. “Walked right in and were treated like honored guests. Must be up to no good, those ol morogh dark elves wouldn’t have greeted them like that otherwise.” He gulped suddenly. “Your pardon, Malla Viconia.”
“Granted, duergar,” said the drow woman. “Tell me, what city is that?”
“It is called Ust Natha,” Carlig told her.
“I know it not,” Viconia said. “What House is First there? Who is their leader?”
“House Despana,” Carlig informed the drow. “The Matron Mother is named Ardulace.”
“I am truly impressed,” Matron Mother Ardulace said. “You are still in control after experiences that would have reduced any other jaluk I have known to mere whimpering jelly.”
“I trust that you are satisfied with my performance, Matron Mother?” Irenicus rose from the bed and picked up his breeches from the floor.
“I think that you have earned the right to call me Ardulace,” the Matron Mother said. “Not in public, of course. Oh, yes, I am indeed very satisfied.”
“I am pleased, Matron – Ardulace. I am afraid, however, that you will have to content yourself with this one night. I must go.”
Ardulace trailed her hand up from her groin, over her stomach, and to her breast. She ran a finger around a nipple and then put it into her mouth and sucked on it lasciviously. “Are you sure?”
“I am afraid so, Ardulace. We cannot allow the elves of Suldanesselar to have time to regroup and gather their forces. This is the moment to press home the attack.”
“Oh, very well,” Ardulace said, pouting. She propped herself up on one elbow and watched as Irenicus dressed. “Tell me, Irenicus, why do you wear those strange guards over your ears? You did not remove them even to fuck.”
“They do not cover any part of my body necessary for our activities,” Irenicus replied.
Ardulace sat up. “A witty retort, and said with admirable control, but I still sensed pain behind them. I know how to recognize pain, Irenicus, few have inflicted as much as have I. What did the darthiir do to you?”
Irenicus tugged his breeches up to his waist and turned to face her. “I think that you can guess. No, I will not remove my headgear and show you.”
“And I will not demand it,” Ardulace replied. “Go forth, then, and wreak your vengeance upon the darthiir. Farewell.”
“Farewell, Matron Ardulace,” Irenicus bade her. He finished dressing and left the room. In a nearby chamber he found his sister waiting.
“Did you have a nice time?” Bodhi asked.
Irenicus scanned the room to detect any signs of secret spy-holes or Clairaudience spells before replying. “It was something that had to be done in order to keep the drow woman contented,” he told Bodhi. “I took little pleasure in the deed.”
“Oh, come now, everybody likes fucking,” Bodhi teased.
“Not everyone is as obsessed as are you, dear sister,” Irenicus replied. “Only my revenge matters. Come, Suldanesselar awaits.”
“You have my most heartfelt thanks,” said the mage. “That was a most unpleasant experience.”
“You’re welcome,” said Buffy. “Hey, what were you doing down here anyway?”
“I might ask you the same question,” said the wizard, “but that would be churlish when you have done me so great a service.”
“It’s no big deal,” Buffy said. “We’re chasing an evil wizard and three vampires. We’re going to kill them. Last we heard they had gone into the drow city, which is a problem ‘cause we don’t think the drow will exactly welcome us with open arms, but we’ll figure out a way of getting to them eventually.”
“Ah. I would volunteer to assist you but I doubt that I could be of much help. It was the drow who condemned me to my grim incarceration.” The wizard frowned. “I don’t even know why. They seemed, if not exactly friendly, at least neutral at first. I took care to bring few possessions down here, so that I would seem not worth the trouble of robbing, and they did not attack until I gave them my name. I must have contravened some local custom unknowingly.”
“And what is your name, mel’zar?” Viconia asked.
The mage looked at her askance for a moment. “I suppose that if you had evil intent towards me you would hardly have bothered to free me. My name is Vithal.”
“Vith’al?” Viconia’s lips curled up. She seemed to be fighting against some urge for a moment, successfully at first, but then a snigger sounded from Dawn and Viconia lost her inward struggle. She broke into open laughter, followed by Dawn, Spike, Willow, and Sorkatani. Giles, Jaheira, and Tara managed to restrain themselves.
“What is so amusing?” the mage asked. Confusion, and even a trace of anger, could be read in his expression.
“You, ah, don’t speak Drow, do you?” Giles kept his face straight for long enough to get the sentence out, broke into a chuckle, and then recovered.
“No, I don’t,” Vithal admitted. “I had a Tongues spell ready in case of need, but the group that I encountered spoke the Common Tongue and I did not use it. Why?”
“Your name means ‘fuck well’ in their language,” Jaheira told him. “They would think that you mocked or insulted them.”
“Oh.” Vithal grimaced. “It seems that I did indeed unwittingly contravene local custom through no fault of my own.”
“That is so,” said Jaheira, “although they may have intended to attack all along and merely seized on the first pretext.”
“Hey, Viconia, do any of our names mean anything, uh, dumb in Drow?” Buffy asked.
“Had such been the case, jabbress Buffy, your sister would have doubtless informed you long before now,” Viconia replied. “She speaks my tongue almost as well as do I.”
“Damn, and I know about six words,” Buffy lamented. “I guess she got all the language skills in the family.”
“Xander’s name, when pronounced after the fashion of Spike and Giles, means ‘foolish but cheerful youth’ in the tongue of the duergar,” Viconia revealed.
Buffy snickered, as did Willow. “They got you there, Xan,” Buffy said.
“Curses,” the wizard Vithal muttered. “My Book of Rituals has gone. I cast it down when combat began. Without it I cannot complete my mission.”
“No doubt it was taken by the drow that defeated you,” Sorkatani said, “and you have lost it forever. Can you obtain another copy somewhere else?”
“Perhaps,” said Vithal, “but finding that one took six years of searching, from Luskan to Calimport. It will not be easy to replace. Still, perhaps it is not yet lost beyond recovery. I had passed a group of svirfneblin mere moments before I met the drow. It is possible that it was they who found the book after the battle. If so I may be able to retrieve it from them. The deep gnomes are not evil. A payment in gold should suffice.” He gazed speculatively around the group. “That would leave me with only the problem of protecting my avenue of return. The warriors that I hired for that purpose fell before the drow. If you would assist me in their place I could recompense you for your time and trouble with spell scrolls.”
“Can I ask what spells?” Willow put in.
“Abi-Dalzim’s Horrid Wilting,” Vithal said. “Simulacrum. Incendiary Cloud.”
“Cool,” Willow said. “I vote we help you.” Imoen nodded enthusiastic agreement.
“We must know more of your mission first,” Sorkatani said, “but I am willing, as long as it is not in the cause of Evil.” She cast an interrogative glance at Xander.
Xander shrugged. “I can’t help you there, Tani. I’m getting all kinds of, like, low-level background Evil vibes that are screwing with my powers. Everybody shows up as kinda Evil down here. Even you, and Buff, and hey, even Tara. Even Minsc.”
“Minsc, and Boo, Evil?” The giant ranger’s eyebrows shot up. “Truly this place is strange. I would have to plant a boot up my own backside.”
“Okay, I guess the first step is to look for your book,” said Buffy. “The, uh, dark dwarves said there was a Smurf-whatever village over that way. Let’s check it out.”
“Well, we’ve signed the contract,” Warren announced. “We’re not rich yet, but hey, if the game sells well we will be.”
“That’s great,” Willow exclaimed. Similar expressions came from Tara, from Joan, from Randy, and from Umad.
“So now you can pay Rupert back the money he loaned you?” said Anya. “Excellent.”
“Hush, dearest, that’s hardly my first priority,” Rupert said. “Congratulations, Warren, Jonathan, Andrew.”
“I guess it’s party time, huh?” said Alex, grinning widely.
“Sure thing,” Warren confirmed. “Not tonight. Katrina can’t make it, and I guess you guys have college stuff to do, so we’ll wait until the weekend. Saturday, at the Bronze, and everybody’s invited.”
“Hey, you can’t wait that long,” Alex said. “You have to do something tonight. Come over to the Bronze and I’ll buy you a beer.”
“Why not?” Warren grinned. “I fixed that thing with Baldur’s Gate, at least for now, and I could use a break. Right, dudes?”
“Yeah, we’ll hit the Bronze,” Jonathan agreed. Andrew smiled and nodded.
“We’ll call in too, after patrol,” said Joan.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” said Randy. “Buy you a drink as well. To Pirates and Plunder!”
“The wizard’s book? Certainly we found it, and brought it back to our granitehome, for we thought him gone forever,” the svirfneblin chieftain said. “Take it back you may, and freely, for we have no use for it.”
Vithal took the book from the gnome’s hands. “My book, and undamaged. Thank you, sir, and accept these fifty gold coins as a token of my gratitude.”
“Most gracious you are,” said the gnome. “Little of surfacers know I, for down here you come not, but it seems you are a fair and honest people. Aid I would ask of you. We are not the richest of granitehomes but pay you what we can we will.”
“We’re not all that interested in reward,” Buffy said, “but we could use some information. We’re chasing somebody who went into the drow city. You wouldn’t know a way in, would you? Other than walking up to the front door, knocking, and getting sliced into salami, that is.”
“The beauteous lady could help you,” the svirfneblin said, “but hidden her cave is. For the way there my price is that you give us the aid that we need.”
“Another ‘Forest of Trees’ quest,” Sorkatani said, glancing at Spike. “Tell us of this task, then.”
“Deep we delved,” began the gnome.
“And woke the Nameless Fear,” Willow cut in. “Yeah, I can guess.”
The gnome frowned at her. “Indeed so. A beast of terror. One quarter of our granitehome lies now deserted for fear of the beast. Our warriors perished in attempts to slay it. Rid us of this evil and you shall receive the gem that will show you the way to the abode of the fairest lady.”
“So, what is this ‘beast of terror’?” Imoen asked. “I hope you mean an Umber Hulk, or a big spider, and not something… otherworldly.”
“Its name is not known to us,” said the gnome. “Wings it has, and claws, and horns.” He made a crude sketch on a slate with a piece of chalk. “Like unto this is its shape.”
“Oh, no, a demon,” Imoen said. “I was afraid of that.”
“A tanar’ri,” said Sorkatani. “We have slain many such.”
“You have?” Imoen stared at her. “I missed out on a lot.”
“Excellent,” Willow said gleefully. “I need a demon heart for the upgrade to Celestial Fury. Let’s go, guys. Uh, anyone know a good preservative spell?”
“We shall assist you with your mission once we have slain this beast,” Sorkatani told Vithal. “That would be quicker than going with you and then returning here.”
“Then I will help you fight the tanar’ri,” Vithal offered. “There is little point in me merely standing aside and waiting. The sooner it is dead, the sooner you can turn your attention to helping me.”
Sorkatani smiled at him. “Thank you, Vithal. That would be a big help.”
“Yeah, thanks, Vithal,” said Buffy. “Okay, guys, saddle up. It’s demon-Slaying time.”
Vithal shook hands with each of the group in turn. “Farewell,” he bade them. “You have my sincere thanks. I wish you all the best in your own undertaking and I hope that my scrolls will be of service to you.”
“Oh, they will be,” said Willow. “Incendiary Cloud will wipe the smirk off that bitca Bhodi’s face. Crispy fried vampire!”
“Long as you watch where you’re casting it, abbil,” Spike said. “Don’t want to be the crispy fried vampire in question.”
“Farewell,” Vithal said again. He drew a circle in the air, stepped through it, and was gone.
“Fuck well,” said Spike.
Dawn giggled. Buffy shot Spike a death glare. Giles tutted and sighed.
“What? Was just feeling sorry for the poor bloke,” Spike said. “Though, it could have been worse. Suppose his name had meant Fuck Badly?”
“Oh, crap.” Warren’s hand clenched around his beer glass. He raised his other hand, pointed briefly, and hastily lowered it out of sight. “See that guy over there?”
“Who, the big guy with the pretty girl?” Jonathan frowned. “He looks vaguely familiar.” He turned to Lisa. “Uh, when I say pretty, I’m comparing her with the average girl in the street. She doesn’t hold a candle to you.”
“Frank somebody,” Warren continued. “Asshole jock. He used to make my life a total misery back in High School.”
“Maybe he’s grown out of it,” Alex said. “Don’t let it bother you, Warren.”
“I can’t help it,” Warren said. “I see him and I remember it all. Jerks like that were why I wanted to be a super-villain.”
“Yeah, I get that, but what you’ve done instead is better,” said Alex. “In a few weeks’ time you can drive past him in your Ferrari and watch him turn green.”
Warren laughed. “I don’t know about a Ferrari. An Aston Martin, maybe.”
“That would be cool too,” said Alex. “I’m going to the rest room.” He pushed his chair back and stood up.
“I’ll get the drinks,” Andrew volunteered. “Same again?”
“Maybe I’ll have a martini, shaken not stirred,” Warren mused. “No, just kidding. Another beer, dude.”
“I’m on it,” said Andrew. He headed for the bar. Across the room Warren’s old enemy rose and made for the bar too.
Warren grimaced and looked away. He concentrated his attention on Jonathan and Lisa. They talked for a minute, Warren’s mood lifting, until a crash of falling glass attracted their attention.
Their footsteps echoed in the stone tunnel. Around them the blackness lay, seemingly impenetrable, pierced only by the light from the magical gem.
“And I thought that the Underdark outside was too darn creepy,” Imoen muttered.
“Creepy to the max,” Dawn agreed. “But hey, it’s worth putting up with some creepiness if this ‘beautiful lady’ can get us into the drow city. Get us in alive and not all tied up, that is.”
The others remained silent. The gem light revealed the foot of the flight of steps. They descended to that point and then the darkness was gone. They were in a massive vaulted chamber.
In the center of the chamber lay a dragon.
“Hey! You spilled my drinks, you asshole.”
“You crashed into me,” Andrew protested. “It was your fault. And you’ve spilled my drinks.”
The jock, Frank, glared at Andrew. “I know you,” he said. “Tucker’s faggot kid brother, right?”
“I’m Tucker’s brother,” Andrew confirmed. He looked up at the huge jock and gulped. “Okay, we’ll call it quits on the drinks.”
“Not so fast, faggot,” Frank sneered. “You owe me for two beers and two Tequila Sunrises.”
“Like hell,” Andrew retorted. “You bumped into me. I was just minding my own business. You should have watched where you were going.”
“Listen, asshole, just pay for the goddamn drinks, you get me?” Frank put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder, casually to all outward appearances, and squeezed hard. “I don’t want to have to hurt you.”
“Leave him alone!” Warren kicked back his chair and stood up.
“Wait, Warren, Alex will be back in a minute,” Jonathan urged his friend. He glanced anxiously towards the rest room but there was no sign of Alex. “He’s way too big for you to take on.”
“I don’t care,” Warren growled. “Let Andrew go, creep.”
“Who’s this, your boyfriend?” Frank released Andrew’s shoulder, giving him a shove as he did so and sending Andrew staggering back, and turned to face Warren. “Isn’t there a gay bar in Sunnydale for you to go to?”
“Well,” said Warren, advancing to within arm’s reach of Frank, “judging by your unhealthy interest in my underwear back at gym class, you’d fit right in there if there was.”
Several bystanders laughed. Frank flushed. “I remember you,” he said. “The comic book guy. The crybaby.”
“Hey, yeah, that was me,” said Warren. “I wonder why I used to cry? Oh, yeah, because there was this small-time sadist who used to get his kicks out of tormenting me. Well, guess what, asshole, I don’t cry any more. But you’re still picking on anyone smaller than you who you think just might be gay. What are you compensating for, Frankie? Huh?”
Frank snarled, drew back a massive fist, and swung a right hook at Warren’s jaw.
“I am Adalon, the guardian,” said the dragon. “My duty is to guard the gateway, as it has been for centuries.”
“That would be the gateway to the surface, right?” Buffy narrowed her eyes. “Hey, if we could get out that way we wouldn’t need to go into the drow city. We could skip right by it and head Irenicus off at the pass.”
“Silence, worm!” boomed the dragon.
“Hey, don’t talk to Buffy like that,” Xander growled.
“Sheesh, and I thought silver dragons were supposed to be the good guys,” Buffy commented. “Who died and made you Oscar the Grouch?”
“I am no longer as tolerant as others of my kind,” Adalon told them. “A great crime has been committed. The balance that has existed for hundreds of years has been shattered. I can no longer honor my commitment. You will assist me.”
“Speak on,” said Sorkatani, “and we will listen.”
“Silence! No interruptions,” commanded Adalon. “This is of great importance. I will tell you when you may speak.” The girls exchanged eye-rolls but obeyed the dragon’s command. “The drow respected the agreement for centuries, out of fear of me, and only the occasional small group would slip out on raids. There was no war. Until the two that you seek, Bodhi the Vampire and Jon Irenicus, came. They made a deal with the drow to tip the scales against their elven enemy.”
“Go on,” Buffy urged, ignoring the dragon’s hiss of anger.
“The price that they paid was to neutralize me,” Adalon continued. “They pierced my veil of darkness, entered my lair, and stole my eggs.”
“Uh-oh,” Buffy said, still oblivious to the dragon’s demand for silence. “And if you go out to do any gate-guarding they smash them, right?”
Adalon sighed. “You are correct. A threat against which I am helpless.”
“Boo shakes with disbelief,” Minsc cried. “Such a crime will not go unanswered.”
“You must retrieve them for me,” said Adalon. “Do this, and I will reveal a safe escape route from the Underdark; one that emerges close to where Irenicus plans his next move.”
“Yeah, right,” said Buffy. “What’s the population of Ust Natha?”
“There are thirty-two thousand in Menzoberranzan,” Viconia said. “I know Ust Natha not, but I would be surprised if its people numbered less than twenty thousand.”
“And we’re supposed to take them on? Who do you think we are, Superman and the Justice League of America?”
“We will do what we can,” Sorkatani offered, “but we will not throw our lives away.”
“I do not expect you to storm the city,” the dragon said in a more measured tone. “I can give you a way to enter the city unsuspected.”
“Invisibility isn’t going to cut it,” said Willow. “Somebody always bumps into you. The next thing you know they’re casting True Sight and Invisibility Purge all over the place.”
“I can transform you into the likeness of drow,” Adalon revealed.
“And that would work fine until I opened my mouth,” Buffy answered. “We have one real drow and a couple of quick learners. How many of us speak Drow well enough to pass for one?”
“Dawn and Tara for certain,” Viconia declared. “Spike, Jaheira, Willow and Sorkatani have a good chance in most circumstances. Giles would need a little luck. The rest of you could not even pass the city gates.”
“I have magic that can remedy that deficiency,” Adalon assured them. “Greater than a Tongues spell. It will grant you full knowledge of the language for as long as you remain within the Underdark.”
“Cool,” said Buffy. “Now we’re cooking with charcoal.”
Sorkatani shook her head. “Language or no, Minsc is never going to pass for a drow,” she said. “He is more than a foot taller than any male drow and twice as heavy. No glamour could hide such a discrepancy. If you polymorph him into the full likeness of a drow his skill with weapons will be impaired. No drow could wield Lilarcor.”
“I managed, and I’m only that size,” said Buffy. “Although, yeah, the super-strength helps.”
“Even with that obstacle overcome, and with a spell to give him knowledge of Drow beyond ‘abbil’ and ‘jabbress’, his manner of speech would still betray him,” Sorkatani went on.
“Maybe I could get him to yell ‘Good, meet my sword! Sword, meet Good,” Willow suggested, and then shook her head. “Like that’s going to work.”
“My witch makes fun of me, Boo,” Minsc complained. “I can be, how do you say it, subtle. I could shout ‘Sword, meet the enemy! Enemy, meet my sword!’ Would that not do?”
“That’s great, Minsc,” said Tara, “but I don’t think it’s quite drow enough.”
“Minsc must, then, be a rivvil slave,” said Viconia. “A warrior of such great might could have gained some degree of privilege, perhaps, if his owner was a member of a high ranking House or a fighting society.” She shook her head. “Such an owner would be known throughout the city. We could not impersonate one of such stature.”
“I think I’d better be a human slave too,” said Xander. “The two-handed sword thing applies to me as well, and I don’t want to be five foot nothing.”
Giles screwed up his eyes and put a hand on top of his head. “I don’t think that I would get away with it either,” he said.
“Yet the difference is not so great that you could not cope if the dragon changed your size by the necessary amount,” Jaheira said. “Too many slaves would be suspicious, even if we can come up with a rationale to explain Minsc and perhaps Xander.”
“My glasses would attract attention,” Giles pointed out.
“You do not need them,” Jaheira said. “Since you sang of seeing for miles you have looked over them at all times.”
“Ah, yes, now you come to mention it, you are quite correct,” Giles admitted.
“Without the insignia of a House we would simply perish in a more prolonged fashion,” Viconia told the dragon. “We were attacked by a drow patrol as we made our way to this cave, and we slew them, but to attempt to take their place with the insignia of the dead would be futile.”
“True,” said Adalon, “but that is not my plan. The city has sent forth many warriors to attack the elves. So many, it would seem, that they have left themselves vulnerable to their enemies in the Underdark. To fill the gap they called upon the city of Ched Nasad to lend them mercenaries. The group from Ched Nasad passed close by and I risked a brief excursion to intercept them. I have their weapons, their armor, their insignia, and their mercenary contract.”
“Ched Nasad,” mused Viconia. “The City of Shimmering Webs. It has ties to Menzoberranzan and I have been there more than once. I could act such a role and so, with my tuition, could the others. Of what House were those you slew?”
“See for yourself,” said the dragon. She raised a claw from her hoard and deposited a black back-pack, made from the hide of some unknown subterranean creature, at Viconia’s feet.
“The Company of the Flickering Flame,” Viconia read out from a paper that she found within the pack. “I know of them. A fighting society known for their training in strength and love of close combat.” She turned towards Minsc and narrowed her eyes. “Our wild barbarian could have gained a place in such a company, perhaps, if he had served his mistress well and proved himself.”
“Mistresses,” Tara said, and then blushed.
“I see the only one name mentioned,” Viconia said, after searching through the pack. “Veldrin. That, then, must be the name adopted by one of us. Have you more of their belongings, tagnik’zur?”
“Only what you see, and some weapons and armor,” the dragon replied. “It is enough, surely?”
“It may suffice,” said Viconia. “The plan may not be as foolish as I first thought.”
“Yeah, it’s a million to one chance, but it just might work,” said Willow. “And don’t call her Shirley.”
Warren dodged. Between instinct, adrenalin, years of watching martial arts movies, and months of watching Buffy training Sorkatani in unarmed combat in the game world, he managed to make the correct move and sway aside enough for Frank’s fist to pass harmlessly an inch from his chin. Then he struck back.
He didn’t even need to think about what he was doing. Years of frustration and resentment guided his fist. He struck Frank squarely on the mouth with everything that he had and the bigger man toppled backwards. Frank landed on his ass and slumped down, clutching his hand to his face, and moaning.
Warren winced. Something in his fist had cracked under the impact. Maybe he’d broken a finger. It didn’t matter. Frank was down and out of it. He’d won.
“Wow, Warren, that was…” Andrew began, and then his eyes widened. “Look out!” he called.
Warren spun around. The chair aimed at the back of his head by one of Frank’s buddies caught him on the side of the head instead. There was an ugly crunching noise and the chair leg shattered. Warren dropped like a stone.
Alex raced to the scene three seconds too late and wrenched the chair from the assailant’s hands. He punched the man in the stomach and doubled him over. Andrew dropped to his knees beside Warren. Jonathan and Lisa ran to join him.
“Christ,” Alex gasped. He turned to face the bartender and shouted, “Call the paramedics! And the cops! Now.” His face paled as he looked down at his unconscious friend.
A trickle of blood began to run from Warren’s ear-hole and there was a visible depression in his skull.
• ‘Cor der noror rrin doth samman’ = (Duergar not Drow) ‘Who goes there, friend or foe?’
• ‘Udos ph’naut dosst ogglinnar, duergar’ = ‘We are not your foes, duergar.’
• ‘jahl lil waela lueth waela ragar brorna lueth wund nind, kyorlin elghinn’ = ‘but the foolish and unwary find surprises and among them, waiting death’
• ‘Usstan uil Viconia.’ = ‘I am called Viconia’.
• ‘Xun dos telanth l’xanalress de l’rivvin?’ = ‘Do you speak Human?’.
• ‘mel’zar’ = ‘mage’.
• ‘tagnik’zur’ = ‘dragon’.