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Tabula Avatar Chapter 59

Belated happy birthdays to novichok74 and diachrony; happy birthday to sistercuervo.

This chapter was hard to write. I had intended it to be entirely from an external perspective, looking at the characters from outside the group, and I tried to do it that way but it didn’t work out. I re-wrote a couple of sections several times before giving up and zooming in on Buffy. The first draft of the chapter included an extra scene, dealing with Yoshimo’s meeting with Shar, but when I opened Word tonight to write that scene I saw that the word count was at exactly 7,500. I took that as an omen and left it there.

Previous chapters can be found HERE; you might need a refresher after the gap of two months since the last chapter.

Summary: AU from some point during Tabula Rasa, when the crystal didn’t get broken but instead fell into the hands of The Trio. They inserted the trapped memories into the computer game ‘Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn’ and the Scoobies teamed up with the Bhaalspawn and her companions on a quest that took them into deadly peril.

When we left our heroes Buffy and company were impersonating mercenaries in the drow city of Ust Natha. They are disguised as drow (except for Minsc, who is still human, and Xander, who is disguised as a duergar or dark dwarf) and have all adopted aliases. It should be easy enough to see who the aliases refer to but, just in case of confusion, I’ve provided a glossary of the aliases as a footnote.

This chapter is 7,500 words. Rating R.

Tabula Avatar

Chapter Fifty-Nine

Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to lust
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to us…

The fighting pits stood empty and neglected. The tavern’s patrons had eyes only for the pair of musicians who performing upon an improvised stage. Szordrin, master of the beast fights, and Sondal, supervisor of the dueling cage, were swaying along to the rhythm like everyone else. Even some patrons of the lust chambers on the floor above were wandering down, drawn by the music, some of them still engaged in making adjustments to their clothes as they joined the crowd.

Phaere’s lips were curled in a sneer as she made her way through the throng. As the daughter of the Matron Mother of the city’s premier House she was an important personage in Ust Natha. The tavern’s occupants should have scurried aside to open a path for her through the crowd. They didn’t. She had to force her way through. Her imperious demands of “Out of the way, worm!” were ignored or greeted with glares and growls of “Hush!” Delegating the task of clearing the way to her attendant male was a dismal failure. The pathetic fool cowered back from any who showed anger at his attempts to make a path.

“You useless excuse for a flunky,” Phaere snarled, “get out of my way.” She overtook him and shoved aside a woman who barred her progress.

The woman stumbled, turned around, and fixed Phaere with a furious stare. “How dare you lay hands upon me, upstart child!” she spat out. “I should have you disemboweled.”

Phaere ignored her and thrust forward into the gap that had opened up. Her attention was fixed on the table near the stage at which sat those members of the Flickering Flame who were not performing. They were her objective and the reason for her visit to the tavern. She paid no attention to the woman whom she had barged out of her path.

“Should I cut her throat, Matron Mother?” one of the woman’s attendants offered.

The Matron Mother pursed her lips. “No, Ardulace would object, perhaps violently,” she said. “If Phaere should lose her favor, however… Now, hush.”

On the stage the male bard, Gelfein, was playing a complicated series of notes while the female, Veldrin, contented herself with beating out the rhythm upon her tan-tan. Phaere glanced at them briefly. Gelfein was a skilful musician, she had to admit, and very attractive for an older man. She was not here to be entertained, however, and she paused only for a moment and then, as Veldrin began to sing once more, Phaere pressed forward once more.

With love we sleep
With doubt the vicious circle
Turn and burns
Without you I cannot live
Forgive, the yearning burning
I believe it's time, too real to feel
So touch me now, touch me now, touch me now
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to lust…

Phaere had no difficulty in locating those for whom she sought. Their enormous human fighting slave, even sitting down, was easy to spot at a distance through the crowd. She headed that way and soon saw the other members of the Flickering Flame, sitting at the tables in front of the stage, with some personages from Ust Natha society mingling with their group.

Talabrae, Matron Mother of House Godendar, and her current paramour. Evelintra, ruler of the small and weak House Zaughym, whose friendship with Talabrae gave her a disproportionate amount of influence – at least for the moment – and a couple of members of her household. And Solaufein.

He was sitting beside Qilafae. Very close to her, touching her even, and as they lifted their goblets to drink their hands moved in unison. Phaere clenched her teeth tightly together. This was infuriating, even intolerable. Tormenting Solaufein, who had been plunged into such delightfully amusing depression when she had cast him aside, was her favorite occupation. It would all be ruined if he had found someone else.

It was doubly infuriating that the person in question was Qilafae. Rumor had it that the Nasadran was a fighter without equal, other than perhaps her compatriot Dynefryn, and so simply killing her was not really a viable option. Nor was having her executed; Ardulace valued the services of the mercenaries too highly and would refuse any such request. No, Phaere would have to be subtle. She could amend the instructions for one of the forthcoming missions, perhaps, to make it much more hazardous. Yes. That idea had possibilities.

It would have to wait for another time, however, as the current mission was ridiculously straight-forward. She forced a smile onto her face and addressed the mercenary leaders. “Greetings, Dynefryn and Qilafae. I have work for you.”

- - - - -

The gates of the city closed behind them. “Gnomes,” Solaufein said, as they walked out across the elevated walkway that led to the caverns of the Underdark. “This task is meaningless. Why does she wish us to slay gnomes? They are no threat to the drow.”

“It sure made Evelintra mad,” Qilafae said. “I thought she was going to strangle Phaere.”

“Indeed so,” said Solaufein. “Trade with the svirfneblin is House Zaughym’s main source of income. Perhaps that is the very reason behind this insane mission.” He shook his head. “In some places there are svirfneblin cities that hold thousands of warriors, mages, and clerics controlling the elemental spirits of the rocks. Worthy foes, they would be, if it came to war. Here? Granitehome is little more than a village. A couple of hundred miners and traders with no more than a handful of fighters worthy of the name. There is no honor in fighting such a foe. Indeed it would hardly be ‘fighting’ at all. With thirteen such warriors as yourselves at my back it would be simple massacre. It disgusts me.”

“You don’t have to come along,” Qilafae suggested. “Go back to the city and leave it to us. It’s not like we’re going to have any trouble.”

Solaufein shook his head. “No, Phaere’s command was specific, and backed by the word of Matron Mother Ardulace. I must obey, even though I detest the necessity.”

“Why?” Qilafae exchanged a glance with Veldrin. “You’re not part of House Despana, right? How come she gets to give orders to the Male Fighters’ Society? Ardulace is the head of the number one House, I know, but that doesn’t make her the boss of you.”

“In normal circumstances you would be correct, yes,” Solaufein agreed, “but she has claimed emergency powers because of the war and a majority of the Matron Mothers went along with it. In matters deemed to be related to the security of the city her authority is, for the moment, held to be supreme.”

“The fools!” Veldrin tossed her head. “She will abuse that power. Who decides what is and what is not a matter of security? Her, is it not?”

“It is,” Solaufein confirmed. “Evelintra told me that she and Talabrae warned the other Matron Mothers that they were placing themselves in Ardulace’s power. Ardulace countered by saying that their words verged on treason, and that only unity could ensure victory against the elves, and the assembly was swayed.”

“Bloody idiots,” Urlzaqh the vampire muttered.

“True,” said Solaufein, “but it is done, and cannot be undone, and so I must obey.” He sighed. “There is nothing for it but to carry out the orders, even though they are the product of gross stupidity, and wipe out the svirfneblin patrol.”

Qilafae’s lips curled up into a smile that lit up her whole face. Solaufein couldn’t help but notice how attractive she was when she was not looking at him with scorn. “Hey, I have a better idea,” Qilafae said. “Let’s not, and say we did.”

- - - - -

“I guess it must be about the first time anyone was ever glad to get attacked by two hundred goblins,” Buffy said, as she pulled her new chain-mail hauberk over her head. “All the blood and fireball smoke made for pretty convincing evidence. Of course the down side is that we’re all covered in blood and stinky smoke.”

“It will wash off,” Sorkatani said, gesturing toward the steaming bathtubs. “As you say, it was corroborative evidence that fooled Phaere completely. Getting a little dirty is a small price to pay.” She laid her dragon-scale armor on a bench and took off her shirt.

“Hey, remember back when we first met, and we fought some goblins?” Buffy frowned. “They gave you a hard time, and there were only a few of them. We just went through a whole army like they were nothing.”

“We were but poorly equipped then,” Sorkatani said, “and you were unused to this world. As for me, I had been confined in a cage and tortured. Every muscle ached. I tried to hide it, for I did not wish to reveal my weakness, but my mobility was significantly impaired.” She flashed a grin at Buffy. “Anyway, I’ve never been all that good with a straight sword. With scimitars, katanas, and falchions I am expert. Longswords, not so much.”

“Maybe, but I still think you’ve improved a whole lot since then,” Buffy said. “Me too, I guess, in fact all of us are way tougher than when we started.” She took off her pants, bent over a tub, and dipped her hand into the water to test the temperature.

“Zander would say we’ve gone up levels,” Willow remarked, “and, hey, he’d be right.” Tara nodded agreement.

“Indeed we have all learned much,” Sorkatani agreed. “It is just as well, for the Underdark is testing us to the utmost.” She stepped into a hot tub. “At least there are moments of comfort between the fights.”

Buffy sighed with pleasure as she followed suit and sat down in the hot water. “Yeah, there is that. This place might be, like, a totally evil dictatorship, but they sure know how to do bathrooms.”

“That’s because women run the place,” Willow commented. “If the men were in charge the city would be all shiny gadgets and cool shit but nobody would ever pick up the damp towels.”

“There are inns run by men where the bathroom service is reliable,” Jaheira pointed out, “although I will concede that the innkeepers there have wives who may be responsible for reminding them to keep the water hot and the towels dry. Remember, also, that the drow have slaves to perform all the menial tasks and wreak harsh punishments upon them if things are not to their satisfaction.”

“I guess the hot and cold running slaves are the down side of the hot and cold running water,” Buffy agreed. She raised a leg from the water and applied soap. “It’s a shame. You know, if you ignore the giant spiders wandering around in the streets, and the random acts of violence, there are a lot of things about this city to like.”

Willow’s lips twitched upward at the corners. “Such as, the men?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Most of them are pathetic losers with a nasty streak,” she said. “Although,” she paused and began to soap her other leg, “some of them are okay.”

“Like Solaufein?” Willow pressed.

“He’s not so bad,” Buffy conceded. She lowered her leg again. “He wants to take me out on a date.”

“You should totally go for it,” Dawn advised her. “He’s hot.”

“Drow males are expected to become highly proficient in the arts of the bedchamber,” Viconia added. “You would find it an enjoyable experience, I am sure.” She frowned. “A word of advice. Do not present yourself to be taken from behind. It would be extremely unusual for a drow. Enough so that it would arouse suspicion. It is regarded as… submissive.”

“And the guy on top position isn’t? Weird. Anyway, I so wasn’t planning on fucking him on a first date,” Buffy said. She grimaced at her own words, which had come out in much cruder terms than she had intended to use in Dawn’s presence, but the language’s lack of subtlety in sexual matters had betrayed her. Oh, what the hell, with Viconia and Anya around there wasn’t one whole lot of point in trying to shield Dawn from conversation with adult content. “I wasn’t thinking further ahead than maybe some kissing.”

“I can’t see us being here long enough for you to take it slow,” Willow pointed out. “Go for it, Qil. Seize the day.”

“I’m tempted,” Buffy confessed, “but I so don’t see any way that we could have a long-term relationship.”

“Just go for it anyway,” Dawn advised her. “Don’t worry, sis, you’re not setting a bad example for me. I can see the special circumstances, and hey, you totally deserve to have a little fun. And there is, like, ten times more sparkage between you and Solaufein than there ever was with Anomen.”

Buffy sighed. “I guess you’re right,” she admitted. “I liked Anomen, I was, well, fond of him, but, yeah, there wasn’t so much with the sparkage. That doesn’t mean that I don’t miss him.” She reached to the floor for a jug of hot water to rinse her hair. “I’m going to kill Bodhi for what she did to him. Well, and for one whole lot of other things too, but mainly for Anomen.”

- - - - -

Bodhi kissed Anomen, long and deep, and then pulled away. “The sun will be setting soon,” she said. “We should get dressed.”

“As you wish, my lady,” Anomen said. He rose to his feet and bent to pick up his clothes. Bodhi sat up and planted a kiss upon his cock, causing it to twitch in response and begin to rise and grow, and Anomen uttered something between a grunt and a moan.

Bodhi chuckled. “I sense you would not be averse to another bout of love,” she said, “but, alas, there is no time. Get dressed.” She turned away from him and reached out to retrieve her underclothes from the ground at her side. Her eyes fell upon the most recent recruit to her vampire band.

The young drow lay on top of a naked elf girl, slowly thrusting into her in a desultory fashion, his fangs clamped on to her breast. She was whimpering faintly and making feeble movements that could have been either a cooperative response to his thrusts or else futile attempts to get free.

“Zarbalan, stop playing with your food,” Bodhi scolded him. A smile played upon her lips.

Zarbalan pulled back from her breast. “I crave pardon, Matron Mother,” he said.

“Oh, I’m not annoyed,” Bodhi told him, “but we have to go soon. It is almost time to launch our assault upon the city. Hurry up and finish her off.”

“At once, Matron Mother,” Zarbalan said. He opened his mouth wide and plunged his fangs into the girl’s throat. He gulped down blood for a moment and then pulled back. The elf flopped to one side, eyes staring sightlessly, as Zarbalan withdrew from her and stood up. “I don’t think I was going to come again anyway,” he said. “It wasn’t as much fun once she stopped fighting and screaming.”

“At least it was quieter, and less distracting to me,” Bodhi said. “I love the sound of elves screaming as much as the next vampire but not necessarily while I’m fucking.” She slipped her arms through the shoulder-straps of her bra. “Get dressed.”

“An odd garment,” Zarbalan commented, as Bodhi put her hands behind her back to fasten the bra. “Surfacer wear, I presume? I saw none such when I was last upon the surface, although that was long ago, and I was too busy trying to stay alive to have much contact with surface females. The fastening seems awkward. Why does it not fasten at the front?”

Bodhi shrugged. “It is a garment from another world, brought to Faerûn by our enemies, and I don’t think they have spread far from Athkatla as yet. I assume that the fastening is meant to be done by maidservants. I am flexible enough that it causes me no problems but perhaps I shall have it done by minions once we are back in Athkatla. We shall have to create minions as fast as we can anyway, to increase our numbers, for no doubt Sorkatani and Buffy will be pursuing us and we are too few to prevail against them without my brother’s assistance.”

“They are indeed formidable,” Anomen agreed.

“Right. So, we don’t fuck around,” Bodhi said. “No games, no raping, just kill when we have the chance. We don’t take them all on at once, at least not before we have a large number of minions, but we pick them off one by one if we can. If there are more than three of them – no, make that more than two of them – we just run. Don’t even try to fight. They’re just too fucking dangerous.”

“They must be fearsome warriors indeed to withstand your might,” Zarbalan said.

“Too fucking right,” Bodhi agreed, “and that includes your aunt, even though you seem to think that she’s a weakling, so don’t you take any stupid chances. I did, after we’d taken them prisoner, and it cost us. I was so full of power that I thought that I could beat them easily. I was wrong. We lost Lassal, Valen, Tolgerias, and all our minions. I must confess that it was mainly because of my over-confidence. Well, I won’t make that mistake again.”

“It is good to hear that you have learned caution, sister.” Irenicus entered the shaded glade, ducking his head as he passed under the edge of the awning that protected the vampires from any stray sunbeams that penetrated the overhead canopy of leaves, and Tanova followed at his heels. Irenicus halted and raised a sardonic eyebrow at Bodhi. “I was expecting to have to drag you away from your pleasures, as usual, but I see that you are already preparing yourself. I am impressed. Have you learned responsibility as well, at long last?”

“I thought that it might be me who had to drag you away from your pleasures,” Bodhi countered, her gaze flickering to where Tanova leaned against Irenicus with her head against his shoulder.

Irenicus rarely smiled, a supercilious sneer being the closest he came in most circumstances, but the smile that came to his lips carried genuine warmth for once. “It was not easy to arise from our bed,” he admitted. “Only the knowledge that my revenge is almost at hand gave me the impetus to tear myself from Tanova’s arms.” He raised a hand and caressed the Amulet of Power, formerly Tara’s, which adorned his neck. “This was a valuable find indeed.”

Bodhi grimaced as she pulled on her boots. “They had a treasure trove of magical items and we took only a mere handful. Curse our lack of forethought. I didn’t even think to acquire a pair of their dragon-hide boots.” She stood up and put a hand to her hip. “I lost my favorite sword to them, too, and the ones of theirs that we took are useless to me. Overall I lost out. Still, I am glad that you and Tanova were able to find a little happiness.”

“The amulet was not necessary,” Tanova put in. Her tone indicated that she was probably pouting beneath her veil. “I love you, Jon, I would never harm you. See, I have drawn no blood, even though you had the amulet.”

“I know that you would not do so willingly, my dear,” Irenicus said, “but I could not be sure of what you would do in the heat of passion. Perhaps I was wrong and we have wasted much time.”

“Time that we shall never get back,” Tanova said, with an edge of bitterness in her voice. “Unless…” She drew in a deep breath and then reached up to her face and removed the veil. “Do not do this thing, Jon, I beg you. Would your revenge not be satisfied by pillaging the city, massacring the inhabitants, and handing Ellesime over to the drow to be a slave? Come with us to Athkatla, my love, and forget about godhood.”

Bodhi paused in the middle of fastening the buckles of her leather armor. “Listen to your wife, Joneleth,” she urged. “Come back to Athkatla with us. Help me take over the Shadow Thieves, and you can take over the Cowled Wizards, and we’ll rule the city. Power enough for anyone, surely? With your help I could take Spike prisoner and rip from him the secret of how it is that he can walk freely under the sun.”

“Oh, I know that,” Anomen put in.

Irenicus shook his head. “My mind is made up. I am half-way to godhood and I shall not stop now. Why should I not achieve what three mere human adventurers achieved only a few short years ago? I am sorry, Tanova, but you shall not sway me from this course.”

“I feared as much,” Tanova said. She fastened up her veil once more.

Bodhi turned to Anomen. “You know Spike’s secret? Why did you not say so before?”

“I did not think that it was of any importance,” Anomen replied.

“Fool!” Bodhi hissed. “With that vulnerability removed I would be invincible.”

“Forgive me, my lady. It is not something we could use,” Anomen said. “Spike comes from another world, with a different sun, and the rays of this sun do not harm him. In his own world he must shun the daylight as do we.”

“Interesting.” Bodhi stared into space. “Very interesting. If our sun does not harm him, then logically it is probable that his sun would not harm us. If we could travel to his world it would lie at our mercy.”

“They sought for a way to return, when they first came to Toril, but without success,” Anomen told her. “They are content here, now, and seek no longer. I doubt if we would be able to go there.”

“Perhaps not,” said Bodhi, “but I shall watch for any such opportunity. Joneleth, your aid would be invaluable in this project. Will you not reconsider, or at least delay your own mission for a while?”

Irenicus shook his head. “I have a limited window of opportunity. If we do not strike now this army that we have assembled will dissipate. Perhaps, though, I may be able to aid you in this matter once I have Ascended.”

Bodhi rolled her eyes. “I won’t hold my breath.” She grinned. “Although it wouldn’t do me much harm if I did. Very well, then, my brother. The sun is almost down. We can begin the assault on Suldanessellar. Spike’s world can wait until another time.”

- - - - -

“I don’t know how long I can take this sitting around waiting,” Katrina said, “hoping every day that he’s going to wake up, and then he doesn’t, and the same the next day. I want to do something, anything, to help. Jonathan’s idea might be all kinds of crazy but it just might work. I think it’s worth a try.”

Tara bit her lip. “If only I was as good at healing magic as the other me is, but I’m not, and I don’t know how to find anyone who can do healing spells outside of the game world. Putting Warren into the game is the only way to get at that kind of magic.”

“I thought you’d just shoot me down straight away,” said Jonathan. “It’s a crazy idea, I know, but it’s the only thing that I could think of that has any chance at all.”

“I don’t think it could do any harm, even if it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to,” Willow said. “Hey, maybe just putting him into the game and taking him out again will, like, kick-start him into consciousness even if the spells don’t carry over into this world.”

“I say we go for it,” Katrina said. She held up the magic crystal. “I don’t like the idea of breaking the crystal to release his memories. I think I can come up with an electronic method.”

“You’re the expert,” Jonathan said.

“I think ‘expert’ is putting it a little too strong,” Katrina said. “I didn’t even know magic existed until a few weeks ago. I do know about magnetism and data storage. It should be enough. Breaking the crystal can be the fall-back position.” A shaky smile played on her lips. “At least it gives me something constructive to do.”

“You think Warren will be okay in that Athkatla place?” Willow asked. “You said it was tough going even for Joan, I mean Buffy, at first, and hey, Warren isn’t any kind of super-hero. He’s just a normal guy.”

“He was a hero that night in the Bronze,” Jonathan reminded her. “Yeah, it would be dangerous for him to be there for long, I guess, but we should be able to get him in and out quick enough that there isn’t any problem. We drop him in close to a temple, with plenty of gold and a letter telling him what to do, and then we pull him out right after the priests cast the spell. Even if he wants to, like, go exploring, we don’t give him the chance.”

“We’ll take things slow,” Willow said. “I don’t want things to go wonky the way they did when the other me cast the spell in the first place. No more mind-wipes and multiple copies of us. I’m pretty sure I can focus it through the crystal. Precision targeting instead of area-of-effect.”

“The way to beat Murphy’s Law is not to leave any openings for things to go wrong,” Katrina said. “It works in engineering. It should work for magic too. We don’t rush this, we do everything properly, and we make sure we get it right first time.”

“I’m good with that,” said Willow. “I’ll start reading up on the spell right away.”

“I’ll work out a template for Warren’s character,” Jonathan said, “and pick out a spot in Athkatla where we can drop him in without attracting attention.”

“Maybe we should wait until Buffy’s group gets back there,” Tara suggested. “That might be safer than putting him into the city all by himself.”

Jonathan shook his head. “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said. “They’d start asking questions and they might find out that they’re inside a computer game. I don’t know how they’d react. They might get pretty mad with Warren. Anyway, they seem pretty happy there these days, and I don’t think we should mess things up for them.”

“I agree,” Willow said. “If they did start wanting to come back here then, hey, what would happen to us? No, it’s best if they don’t find out. I say we do it Jonathan’s way.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Tara said.

“So, the other versions of us are still doing okay?” Willow asked.

“Well, I haven’t been watching them all that closely,” Jonathan said. “I’ve been thinking mainly about Warren. I’ve looked in on them a few times, that’s all, to see if they’ve finished with the Underdark so that I can finish that part of the mod for BG2. Warren would want me to get that done.”

“He would,” Katrina agreed. “I’ll give you a hand with it, if you like.”

“Thanks, Katrina, that would be cool. Anyway, yeah, everything seems to be going well for them,” Jonathan went on. “Giles is bringing Rock and Roll to a whole new audience.”

“Is everything still good with the other me and the other Tara?” Willow enquired.

Jonathan swallowed. “Uh, yeah, everything’s good for them,” he assured her, deciding not to mention that the two girls were now sharing their bed with Minsc. He swallowed again and sought for a topic to distract Willow from any further questions along those lines. “Hey, want to hear about Buffy’s new drow boyfriend?”

- - - - -

Solaufein was of high enough position within the Male Fighters’ Society to qualify for private chambers instead of sleeping in barracks like the rank and file. The furnishings were functional rather than luxurious. A bed, an armoire, a chest, a weapon rack, and a couch. The dyed black pelt of a greater quaggoth, a trophy of a lone hunt, served as a rug to protect bare feet from the chill of the stone floor. The couch was just the right size for two people, lovers perhaps, to sit pressed against one another and to embrace.

“Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” Qilafae said, as Solaufein moved his hand from her waist to her thigh. “I can’t promise anything long-term. As soon as we finish the job we set out to do we’re out of here. No matter what happens between us I can’t change that. I have… commitments elsewhere that I can’t break.”

“I understand,” Solaufein said. “You have a rare sense of honor.” He touched the tips of his fingers to her cheek. “It is one of the things that I admire most about you.” His touch turned into a caress. “Perhaps you will return after fulfilling those commitments. Even if you do not, Qilafae, then I will remain the richer for having known you.”

She gave him a flashing smile that seemed to light up her face, displaying open and unguarded pleasure in a manner that Solaufein had seldom seen in Ust Natha, and allowed him to guide her forward until their lips met. The kiss was tentative at first but deepened as passion flared between them.

Briefly they drew apart and then began again. Tongues entwined. Hands explored, fondled, caressed. Fingers manipulated buttons and pulled to unfasten bows.

“Yep,” Qilafae said, drawing back from the kiss for a moment, “I totally was right not to wear the chain-mail.”

- - - - -

“Where is Qilafae?” Phaere frowned at the mercenary band. They sat at table, eating a meal that she presumed was the breaking of their fast, and all were present save for the woman who was perhaps their mightiest fighter.

“She slept elsewhere,” Dynefryn replied. “No doubt she will return soon.”

Phaere could not prevent a hiss of annoyance from escaping her lips. “She sleeps with Solaufein?”

“Perhaps,” Dynefryn said. “It is no-one’s business but hers.”

The mercenary leader’s discretion was in vain. Even as she was speaking one of the others, Qilafae’s sister if Phaere remembered correctly, said “Yep, got it in one.”

Phaere hardly needed the confirmation. It was hardly likely to have been anyone else. “Matron Mother Ardulace has a new task for you to perform,” she announced, trying to keep her emotions from showing on her face. “It is important but not, as yet, urgent. Once Qilafae returns you are to report to the Matron Mother at the Temple of Lolth. Just Dynefryn and Qilafae, that is. There is no need for your subordinates to attend and, of course, your fighting slaves would not be permitted entry. You will be given your orders then.”

“We’ll be there.” Dynefryn’s reply was curt and to the point.

Phaere sensed insolence in Dynefryn’s attitude but decided to let it pass. For the time being these mercenaries were too valuable to discipline as they deserved. There would be a time later when she would teach Dynefryn respect. The lash of a tentacle rod on those slim flanks… “Indeed you will,” Phaere said, a smile coming unbidden to her lips at the thought, and she turned and walked away. She had a chance to get rid of the irritating Qilafae permanently, without Ardulace suspecting a thing, but she would have to act quickly. All it would take was a word in the ear of a member of House Auvrindar and Qilafae would be no more.

- - - - -

Phaere leaned on the rail and looked out across the city. She had a perfect view of the Male Fighters’ Society headquarters. It would have been nice to be closer, true, but too risky. Her involvement must not be suspected. This adjacent walkway was the best compromise as a vantage point from which to witness Qilafae’s downfall.

She would not be able to stay here for long, unfortunately, and it would be very frustrating if it took place after she had gone. Already her bodyguards were fidgeting, although they had not dared to speak up to question her, pathetic males that they were. She could only hope that… ah! The door of the Male Fighters’ Society was opening. Yes! There was Qilafae. Phaere smiled and stood up straight.

Qilafae had set aside her chain-mail and wore a gown of black silk, figure-revealing and ideal for an assignation with a male, but offering no resistance to penetration by an envenomed blade. The deadly war-hammer was nowhere in evidence either; in its stead Qilafae wore a sword belted at her waist. Phaere’s smile grew broader as the team of four assassins moved into position surrounding Qilafae and launched their strike.

Two grabbed for her arms as the other two went in with their daggers. One struck from behind, the other from in front, perfectly synchronized. It couldn’t fail.

And yet it did. Qilafae spun, wrenching the assailants who had grabbed her arms around with her as if their resistance meant nothing, and the dagger-men’s attack was ruined. A leg scythed out and swept the legs out from under one of the males grappling with her. She tore her arm free from his grasp, seized the other one, and whirled him around to smite a knife-wielder. The two males went down in a heap on the walkway.

Qilafae leapt upon the remaining knife-man, caught his weapon arm, and brought her other hand across in a blow to the male’s neck. He collapsed as if he had been struck with a mace.

The others were scrambling to their feet. Qilafae kicked one with such might that he was sent flying through the air. He went over the edge of the walkway and plummeted into the depths.

Two mail-clad swordsmen emerged from the Male Fighters’ Society doorway. They fell upon the assassins who had assaulted their commander’s guest. Their assistance was hardly needed. Qilafae had already defeated her foes and she had done so without even drawing her sword.

Phaere scowled, stepped back from the rail, and walked away.

- - - - -

“An eyestalk from a beholder Elder Orb,” Ardulace said, “the blood of a kuo-toan Prince, or cerebral fluid from an illithid Elder Brain. I must have one of them if I am to perform a ritual that is vital for the successful prosecution of the war.”

“Okay, right. Does it matter which one we get?” Qilafae enquired.

“I do not believe so,” Ardulace replied.

Phaere seized her opportunity to increase the odds against Qilafae and spoke up. “Why take chances? Surely for such warriors as these it would be a simple matter to acquire all three.”

Her mother directed a cold glare at Phaere. “I suppose that it would minimize the chance of errors such as the one that you made when I gave the task to you,” she said. She turned back to Dynefryn and Qilafae. “I am told that you of the Flickering Flame are fearless and skilful warriors equal to any challenge. Dare you prove it by facing all three sets of foes?”

Qilafae shrugged. “Sure, why not? Of course it’s going to take us, like, three times as long, but if that’s not a problem for you, then hey, we’ll do it.”

Ardulace frowned. “Time is not of the essence but I would not wish too long a delay. The war… goes well. Nothing is amiss.”

Phaere saw Dynefryn and Qilafae exchanging a glance that spoke of skepticism.

“That’s… good, I guess,” said Qilafae. “Okay, we’ll get to it. No problem.”

“There is something that could make our task simpler,” Dynefryn said. “There is a way in which we could get the job done quicker and conserve our resources for use against your enemies. We just need a few expendable bodies to serve as living shields against the beholders.”

“I can spare you no troops,” Ardulace said. “They are needed on the battle front. I can ill afford for any to fall against the devourers or the floating eyes. If you wish to purchase slaves for the purpose that is your own business. I will not increase your pay to cover the expenditure.”

“Normal slaves would be of little use,” said Dynefryn. “They would perish, or be turned to stone, too quickly to be serve much purpose. It would be different if they had magic resistance to prolong their survival. I am informed that you have drow captives, refugees from some fallen House, in your custody. They would serve the purpose admirably.”

Qilafae, whose brow had been heavily creased as her colleague spoke, now beamed in one of her annoyingly broad smiles. “Hey, yeah, great idea.”

Ardulace frowned. “I had planned on sacrificing those members of House DeVir. Still, your idea has practical merit, and I can always find other sacrificial victims. Very well. You have my permission. I shall write an order for their release into your custody. Equip them at your own expense.”

Once the mercenary commanders had departed, bearing Ardulace’s writ, the Matron Mother turned to Phaere. “You have acted contrary to my wishes, daughter, and I am displeased.”

Phaere felt her heart pound in her chest and fought to maintain an impassive expression. “In what way, mother?”

“The attempt upon the life of the hammer-wielder Qilafae was at your instigation, was it not?”

“Qilafae may have come up in conversation with one that I know in House Auvrindar,” Phaere admitted, “and I did mention that she had gone alone to visit a certain male, but this was mere gossip. The use that they made of that information is not my responsibility.”

“Oh?” Ardulace’s lip curled. “You claim stupidity rather than malicious intent? A poor defense. I shall accept it for the moment. Make no further such errors. You have put me in a difficult position. The support of House Auvrindar has been useful to me recently but now their losses make them vulnerable. House Godendar eyes the position of Third House covetously.”

“And Talabrae is outspoken in her criticism of your policies,” Phaere said. “I see. Are you going to protect Auvrindar by acting against Godendar?”

Ardulace pursed her lips. “Not yet. Talabrae has been parsimonious in the extreme with her provision of forces to the war front, the treacherous bitch, and consequently she has almost as many troops within the city as have I at this time. Once the demon lord is under my command, perhaps, I might strike at her directly. For the moment I shall content myself with removing one of her allies.” She bared her teeth in a wicked smile. “There’s a vacancy just come up for a drow sacrifice. I know the perfect candidate.”

- - - - -

“All done,” Willow reported. “We’re screened against scrying, clairaudience, we’re even covered against somebody pressing his ear up against the door.”

“What about somebody drilling a hole up through the floor and sticking a periscope through?” Spike suggested.

“Oh.” Willow bit her lip and looked at the floor. “I didn’t think of that.”

“Really, Urlzaqh, this isn’t a ‘Pink Panther’ film,” Giles said. “I hardly think that is a likely scenario.”

Spike grinned at him. “Well, yeah, but you can’t take anything for granted in this place.”

“Damn right,” Buffy agreed. “Like, it would have been nice to be able to go on a date without being jumped by a bunch of assassins. They were pretty good, too. If they’d started off invisible they might even have got me.”

“Had they lurked invisibly outside the Male Fighters’ Society they would have been detected and challenged,” Viconia said. “They were of House Auvrindar, I take it?”

“I didn’t ask,” Buffy said, “and they weren’t wearing any insignia. I guess you’re right, though, I can’t think of anyone else who’d be after me. We haven’t gotten anyone else pissed at us, have we?”

“The wards that Vyll’ae cast would warn us if anyone pierced floor or ceiling to spy upon us,” Imoen said. “We may talk safely.”

“Good,” Buffy said. “Okay, planning time, people. I think we might have found where they keep the dragon eggs.”

“In the temple?” Giles put a finger to where his glasses normally would have been. “A logical choice, I suppose, as an alternative to the Matron Mother’s own residence. I take it that you saw something definite rather than this being simply a guess?”

“There was a side door guarded by two golems and two drow soldiers,” Buffy said. “I know it’s not exactly like the churches back home but it still strikes me as kinda suspicious.”

“I concur,” Sorkatani said. “The guards wore House Despana insignia rather than that of the temple. The eggs are there.”

“The question is, how do we get them?” Buffy wondered. “It would be tough to sneak in, get past the guards, and steal them. I think burglary is out.”

“Hey, I’m pretty good, and I have the Boots of Speed to get me out of there fast if it goes wrong,” Dawn volunteered. “I’m up for giving it a try.”

“My combination of stealth and magic makes me the best for such a mission,” Imoen said, her lips set in a pout, and she fixed Dawn with a hard stare.

Sorkatani shook her head. “I agree with Qilafae that it would be perilous in the extreme,” she said. “Only as a last resort should we risk it.”

“If we attack the place, well, there are a dozen priestesses and about fifty temple guards,” Buffy mused, “and hey, Matron Mothers and High Priestesses are usually plenty tough. No way could we take them all out before someone raised the alarm and blew our cover wide open.”

“We would have to fight our way out of the city through twenty-two thousand enraged drow,” Sorkatani said. “A suicidal task, even for us.”

“Less, my commander, for three thousand are on the surface fighting the elves,” Viconia said, “but still insuperable odds. Even Gelfein’s ‘Swords of a Thousand Men’ would accomplish nothing.”

“Temple of Lolth,” Giles muttered. “Hmm. ‘In the Temple of Lolth’… Perhaps… no, teaching Veldrin the Ofra Haza part would take too long.”

Buffy raised her eyebrows at Giles, decided that he wasn’t going to elaborate on his cryptic utterance, and let it pass. “Okay, we can’t take them by force, we can’t steal them, but we have to get those eggs. Ideas, guys?”

“We need to scope the place out,” Xander said. “Kinda hard to make plans when most of us haven’t seen the target.”

“I will not attend a service at the temple of… that goddess,” Viconia stated. “I feel that it would be similarly unwise for Micar’lae to do so. Or, indeed, Jhaelirae.”

“And I wouldn’t be welcome anyway,” Xander said. “Bummer. I guess we’ll have to go in blind.”

“We don’t have to do it now,” Buffy said. “I vote we do Ardulace’s dumb ‘Forest of Trees’ quest to pick up monster body parts for some ritual. We bring them back, we all turn up together, and maybe she’ll be happy enough that she won’t think to stop the non-drow coming in.”

“An excellent suggestion,” Giles said. “We might spot an opportunity to act there and then, or, if not, then we can carry out valuable reconnaissance.” He waggled a finger at Buffy. “That has nothing whatsoever to do with painting, sculpture, or man-powered flying machines,” he continued, “as I am sure you know perfectly well.”

“Yeah, I knew all along,” Buffy admitted. “Okay, so we’re good with the monster hunt? Good. And, hey, there’s a side benefit,” she added. She withdrew Ardulace’s writ for the release of the House DeVir captives from a pouch and handed it to Viconia.

Viconia raised her eyebrows. She unrolled the scroll and began to read. Her eyes widened. “Thank you, my commander,” she exclaimed, and she threw her arms around Buffy and kissed her soundly.

“Hey, no need to get so excited,” Buffy protested. “Anyway, it was all Dynefryn’s idea.”

Viconia planted another kiss upon Sorkatani. “Thank you,” she said. “Let us, then, release my relatives from captivity. I shall wear a full-face helm, for were they to recognize me it could bring disaster down upon us.” Her smile was replaced by a frown. “There may yet be trouble even once they are free. I am under sentence of death and this may take precedence over gratitude for their release.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Buffy opened her eyes wide. “I guess not. Oh, well, we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. Let’s get ready to move out. This could be a tough mission. Beholders, and mind flayers, and those psycho kuo-toa fish-men. Oh my.”

Continued in CHAPTER SIXTY

Glossary of Character Aliases

• Qilafae = Buffy
• Dynefryn = Sorkatani
• Gelfein = Giles
• Zander = Xander
• Auniira = Anya
• Vyll’ae = Willow
• Micar’lae = Tara
• Urlzaqh = Spike
• Veldrin = Viconia
• Dhaunae = Dawn
• Jhaelirae = Jaheira
• Tallin = Minsc
• Iimzyne = Imoen

Tags: birthday wishes, birthdays, fic, tabula_avatar
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