Speaker-to-Customers (speakr2customrs) wrote,

Tabula Avatar Chapter 60

Here is the next chapter of ‘Tabula Avatar’, posted hastily because I have to go to work in literally moments. I was going to do some birthday greetings but there is no time! Previous chapters can be found HERE.

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 6,865 words. Rating R (at least).

Tabula Avatar

Chapter Sixty

“So we are to have an honorable death in battle.” The leader of the House De’Vir band accepted the sword from Sorkatani and belted it at her waist. “I thank you, Dynefryn of the Flickering Flame.”

“You do not have to die,” Sorkatani told her.

“We are to run, then, and you will hunt us for sport?” The drow woman snorted. “I am tired of running. Slay us if you will, or let us die under the eye beams of the beholders, but we will not run.”

“We’re not going to hunt you,” Tara said. She handed a sack to one of the other female drow. “Take this. Food, water-skins, and blankets. You’ll need them.” Willow passed a similar sack to one of the males.

“We don’t hunt people,” Buffy confirmed.

“Here is better armor than the poor stuff that we gave you in the city,” Minsc said, swinging an enormous sack down from his shoulder and setting it down in front of the nearest drow male. “There is not enough to go around, alas, but it will be a help.” The drow frowned at the sack, touched it with his foot, and then attempted to pick it up. His efforts were in vain, the sack remaining obstinately on the ground as if it had been nailed there, and he opened it up and pulled out a cuirass of plate. His brows furrowed as he stared at the armor.

“You go to great effort to lull our suspicions,” the leader said. “It is wasted. If you are arming and equipping us merely to prolong your entertainment when you slay us, why not simply say so? I am not fool enough to think that we could prevail against you. Even in our cage we heard of your exploits.”

“Look, I guess this must be hard for you to believe, what with all the ‘all trust is foolish’ thing, but we really aren’t going to do anything to you,” Tara told her. “We’re not going to make you fight the beholders either.”

“Although, hey, if you feel like giving us a hand, we won’t say no,” Willow added.

The drow folded her arms. “Your vampire fattened us for his table,” she said. “I know not why you bother with this charade.”

“That was the fucking charade,” Spike said. “Couldn’t say I was getting you fed and cleaned up ready to let you go, could I? Would have spoiled the whole plan.”

“He arranged for you to be fed at my request,” Viconia said. She removed her helmet. “Hello, Nathrae.”

Nathrae’s mouth gaped and her hands fell to her sides. “Viconia? It cannot be. You are long dead.”

“I am alive, Nathrae, and plan to remain so. I intend for you to remain alive also, despite the manner of our parting, for you are my kin. I could not ignore your plight.”

“Viconia,” Nathrae repeated. “It is Viconia.” She stood still for a moment and then dropped to one knee and bowed her head. “Matron Mother,” she said, “command us. House De’Vir!” Behind her the others followed her lead and went to their knees. “House De’Vir!”

Now it was the turn of Viconia’s mouth to gape wide open. “Matron Mother?” she echoed. “Why do you call me that?”

“You are the only surviving daughter of Ginafae,” Nathrae said, “last of the blood royal. You are the rightful heir and I acknowledge you as our Matron.” She cast a quick glance over her shoulder. “As do we all. To walk apart from House and Queen is to walk into the grave. We are yours.”

“Bloody hell,” Spike gasped, “I’ve been fucking royalty.”

- - - - -

“Pleasure… or pain,” Phaere crooned. “It’s your choice. Pleasure, or pain.”

The youth trembled and writhed in his bonds. “I don’t know what you want,” he sobbed. “Please, stop hurting me.”

“Stop? I’ve hardly started.” Phaere touched a red-hot iron to the boy’s nipple for a fraction of a second. “Your mind would crack if I did to you even a tenth of what the Handmaidens did to me. I’ll show you, later, if you don’t tell me what I want to know.” She thrust the iron back into the portable brazier and left it there. “If you’re cooperative it will be much less unpleasant.” Her hand moved down his body, fingertips trailing over his belly, and reached her target. She caressed, teased, fondled. “Much more pleasant.”

He squirmed and gasped. “No, please don’t,” he pleaded.

Phaere raised an eyebrow. “You would rather have the hot irons? Strange boy. Still, it’s your choice.”

“No, don’t hurt me,” he begged. “No hot irons.”

“Then talk,” Phaere commanded. “Tell me what I want to know.”

- - - - -

“It grieves me that we were not in time to save my brother’s son,” Viconia said. “Valas lost his life saving mine. I would have repaid in some small measure the debt that I owe him, if I had the chance, but alas it was not to be.”

“I doubt if it was by chance that…” Sorkatani began. She chopped herself off short in the middle of the sentence and closed her mouth tightly.

Viconia turned and stared at her. “You believe that it was because he is my kin that Bodhi took Zarbalan? Then I brought death upon him.” Her lips tightened. “My grief is doubled.”

“We were all to be slain in any event,” Nathrae reminded her. “There is no blame upon you, Matron Mother.”

“Perhaps.” Viconia’s lips tightened. “I am already pledged to rip out Bodhi’s black heart. I shall have Zarbalan in my mind, as well as the fallen comrades from this group, as I do so. I remember him as a small child, telling him stories as he sat as my feet… but I must put that from my mind. Dwelling upon memories would be a weakness that our deadly foe might exploit. We must strike without mercy.”

“No hesitation, no tears and no hearts breaking, no remorse,” Giles quoted.

“Well chosen words, my mentor,” Viconia agreed. “We have other tasks that we must complete first, however.”

“I think we should hit the mind flayers first,” Willow suggested. “That way I can fire off as many spells as I like and get them all back with Spell Trap when we take on the beholders.”

“Good thinking, Bat-girl,” Xander praised.

“Yeah, I’d go with that,” Buffy said. “Make with the Pink Floyd, Gelfein, and let’s get moving. We have a brain to catch.”

- - - - -

Spike tossed aside the ogre’s corpse. “That’ll keep me going for a good while,” he said, wiping his mouth. He aimed a desultory kick at a dead mind flayer. “Wouldn’t want to have to drink those things. Probably taste like slugs.”

“No doubt,” Sorkatani said, wrinkling her nose as she cleaned ichor from the blade of Celestial Fury. “Let us see what the ogre was guarding.”

“Treasure, I hope,” Anya said. She rifled through the ogre’s pouches and came up with a key. “Jackpot!”

“I think we have enough treasure, Aun,” Xander commented. “We must have enough gold to buy a medium-sized castle.”

“Not when you divide it between thirteen,” Anya pointed out, “and we’re going to give some of it to the House De’Vir people. We can always use more treasure. Oh. It’s only prisoners. They are hardly ever exchangeable for goods and services.”

“We must still release…” Sorkatani began, and then she caught sight of the occupants of the cell. “Oh. Githyanki.”

“Drow,” said one of the githyanki. “Gloat over our predicament while you can, female, but against…” He broke off in mid speech and stared at Giles, who was keeping a steady refrain going from his modified version of ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, protecting the group from the mental powers of the mind flayers. “I know you. You were on the ship that we attacked and you sang of not backing down.” His forehead creased. “You are not drow.”

“Damn,” said Buffy. “Busted. Just as well Veldrin’s family didn’t come in with us.”

Sorkatani bit her lip. “I have no love for these githyanki, but I would not leave my worst enemy at the mercy of the illithids.” Her lips curled up slightly into a half-smile. “Well, perhaps Irenicus and Bodhi, but none other. Release them.”

Anya opened the cell door. “I hope this will stop you chasing after us for that stupid broken sword,” she said.

“I am Simyaz, the Sword Stalker,” said the githyanki spokesman. “It is my sworn duty to pursue you to the ends of Toril, and beyond, to reclaim the holy Silver Sword.” He dipped his head slightly. “Although in the circumstances I am prepared to declare a truce until we are out of the stronghold of the Devourers.”

“Hey, we didn’t steal the sword, and we’re not even all that interested in it,” Buffy said. “It’s a nice blade, yeah, but it would need a lot of work to be any use.”

Giles changed his tune for a moment. “The time has come, a fact’s a fact,” he sang, “It belongs to them, let’s give it back.” He played three hard chords and then went back to his anti-psionics Pink Floyd song.

“That’s cool with me,” Buffy said. She swung her pack down from her back, rummaged through it, and pulled out the scabbard holding the githyanki blade. “It was just taking up space. Here. Take it.”

Simyaz accepted the scabbard, tilted it to slide the blade inside partly out, and examined it. “The Silver Sword,” he breathed. “Vlaakith be praised.” He slid the blade home. “When a miscreant who has stolen a Silver Sword surrenders the precious thing it does not exempt them from retribution,” he said, “but you gave it up willingly, from a position of strength, and I deem that your reparation is made. I shall take no further action in this matter.”

“Well, that’s… big of you, I guess,” Buffy said. “I guess you’ll be, what, flying off on your astral plane now?”

“The Astral cannot be accessed from within this stronghold,” Simyaz replied, “else we would have fled their captivity long ago. We must leave physically, through the doors, before we can depart this plane.”

“Oh.” Buffy ran her fingers over the grip of the Hammer of Thunderbolts. “We have a slight problem there. The door closed behind us when we came in and we can’t get it back open.”

“Just a temporary glitch,” Willow piped up. “We’ll get it done, don’t worry.”

“The door will not open while the Elder Brain lives, unless he wills it so,” Simyaz said.

“Oh, that’s neat,” Buffy said. “Problem solved, people. We came here to kill the Brain anyway. Although,” she added, “I can’t help feeling sorry for Pinky.”

- - - - -

“Well done, Phaere,” Ardulace praised. She glanced at Phaere’s hands, grimaced, and turned to a minion. “A cloth for my daughter, at once!” The servant hastened to obey.

“Thank you, mother.” Phaere took the cloth and started to clean the blood and semen from her hands. “It was a simple enough task.”

“But an inspired choice of subject. I can use this information to totally discredit Talabrae and the anti-war party. We have a perfect scapegoat to blame for the reverses.”

“Reverses?” Phaere frowned and tossed the stained cloth to the servant. “You have kept that news close indeed. Even I have not heard of them.”

“As yet they have had little effect,” Ardulace elaborated, “but more serious consequences loom. The city of the surface elves fell, as we expected, but Irenicus double-crossed us. He has sealed off the city. Screened it magically, somehow, so that it is hidden from that part of our army still outside. There is nothing that they can do but fall back.”

“How many were inside?”

“Perhaps a third of our forces,” Ardulace replied, “including all of the rakshasa and the golems that Irenicus provided. We had driven the elf army from the field, and forced it away from the route to the city, but it is still substantially intact. Now it is well positioned to fall upon our army’s rear, or block its retreat to Ust Natha, and in numbers that match ours. The potential for disaster is high.”

“Unless you can save the day with the aid of the demon. I see.” Phaere frowned. She had put together a plan to slay her mother and usurp her position. To do it whilst keeping her hands clean, and preserving plausible deniability, would require her to put a degree of trust in the Flickering Flame mercenaries. Not ideal. Also, if Phaere moved too soon, she could end up being blamed for any catastrophe that befell the army. Better to let her mother handle it. If all went well with the demon, and her mother grew in power and prestige, well, there would always be another time for a coup. If Ardulace failed Phaere could seize the moment and step in, if not to save the day, then at least to place the blame. For the time being she would act the part of a loyal and dutiful daughter.

“Before I can safely summon the demon I need the offerings that the mercenaries are to provide,” Ardulace said. “I hope that they are up to the task.”

“They seem competent,” Phaere assured her, “and they are certainly ferocious and skilful fighters. Even should they fail, and I doubt that such will be the case, they will no doubt weaken our hostile neighbors sufficiently that a small force should be able to complete the task without difficulty.”

“If such proves necessary, then that small force shall be led by you,” Ardulace warned.

“So be it,” Phaere said.

“In the meantime,” Ardulace said, “there are some executions to carry out, and they provide a perfect opportunity to kill two bats with one stone.” She licked her lips. “It will be a delightfully gory way to desecrate the purity of that disgusting Holy Sword.”

“It would, mother, but I think that you have forgotten something,” Phaere said. “It is impossible for any of us to wield the sword.”

“Ah, my daughter, you still have a lot to learn,” said Ardulace. “There is a way around everything.” She strode across the chamber to where an upright structure was concealed by a cloth throw. Phaere had assumed it to be a statue, no doubt of Lolth, to be unveiled at some forthcoming ceremony or holy day. Ardulace seized the cloth and, with some difficulty, pulled it free. “Behold. The perfect instrument of execution.”

It was a sword. Its hilt was set into a hole drilled in a block of stone, wedges of fossil mushroom wood holding it firmly in place, the blade pointing vertically upward. That blade was huge, longer and broader than any drow weapon, and the point of the sword was as high above the floor as a standing drow could reach with arm outstretched to the full. Behind it blocks of stone had been arranged to form a flight of steps.

Phaere nodded approvingly. “A most ingenious way of utilizing a Holy Sword, mother. I look forward to seeing it in action.”

“And so you shall,” Ardulace promised, “very soon. Take a company of guards and perform the arrests.”

“As you command, mother,” Phaere said. She turned away, and walked toward the temple exit, with one final glance over her shoulder at the Holy Sword.

The sword stolen from Xander. Carsomyr.

- - - - -

Sorkatani cut away the last of the eye-stalks from the dead Elder Orb and put it into her pouch. “A task well done,” she said, “and at little cost. Irenicus was a fool not to take the Staff of the Magi when he had the chance. Without it this would have been a hard and brutal struggle, and even the Cloak of Mirroring might not have been enough to get us through it without loss.”

“If I still had Carsomyr we could have gotten through it without a scratch,” Xander said. “It’s not like it’s even any use to him. I wonder what they did with it?”

“Probably chucked it down a crevasse,” Spike said. “Think you’ve lost it for good, mate.”

“Yeah, probably,” Xander agreed. “Bummer.”

“Daystar too,” Buffy said. “Hey, you never know, we might, like, find them by accident.”

“A slender hope,” said Sorkatani, “but it is possible. Even without them we are as well equipped now as we were on our arrival at Spellhold. More so, even.”

“Indeed so,” Jaheira agreed. “This sling is a worthy addition to our armory.” She took the magical weapon from Giles, who had just identified it with the aid of Bagpuss, and examined it briefly. “There is little to choose between it and my Sling of Seeking, but I think that I shall stick to what I have. Tara?”

“It’s much better than mine,” Tara said. “Thanks.” She hung it on her belt and put her previous sling away in a pack.

“Okay, that’s the beholders dealt with,” Buffy said. “Just the coat toes to go.”

“The kuo-toa,” Sorkatani corrected her. She frowned. “We have wiped out the illithids and the beholders, save only for any who are away from their settlements, and broken their power in this area perhaps beyond recovery. If we do the same to the kuo-toa then we will leave Ust Natha as sole power in this part of the Underdark.”

“There is the dragon,” Jaheira said, “but she interferes not in their affairs other than barring their passage to the surface. It will leave the svirfneblin as the only targets for drow aggression.”

“So, what, you think we should leave those goggle-eyed fish creatures alone so that the drow have somebody to fight?” Xander tilted his head to one side and half-closed an eye. “Where do they come on the whole Good/Evil line?”

“They are not actively evil, from what I have heard,” Sorkatani told him, “but they are violent and fiercely territorial. They will attack innocent travelers who trespass in their domains without giving them a chance to explain themselves.”

“Like they did to us, even before we got the disguises,” Buffy said.

“I still don’t think my deity would be too happy about me getting involved in a massacre,” Xander said. “Can we give that one a miss and just go with what we have so far?”

“We would lose face,” said Viconia. “If we wish to arrive back at Ust Natha as conquering heroes, and be invited back to the temple where the dragon’s eggs are probably held, we must defeat all three foes and present Phaere with all the body parts she demanded.”

“She specified the blood of the kuo-toa Prince,” Anya pointed out. “There was nothing said about us having to kill him. Maybe we could make a deal.”

“Don’t want to rain on your parade,” Spike said, “but, take it from me, it’s not easy to make any kind of deal involving somebody giving up their blood. ‘Specially not royalty. ‘S going to end up as a fight. Unless somebody sneaks in and offs the bugger all quiet-like.”

“They have keen senses,” Jaheira warned, “and even invisibility may not be enough to avoid detection.”

“I’d give it a go,” Spike volunteered. “Long as I had the Cloak of Non-Detection, that is.”

Sorkatani frowned. “I do not wish to order an assassination,” she said.

“As Auniira said, there was nothing in our instructions to say that we had to kill the Prince,” Giles reminded them. “We only have to obtain some of his blood. Who could be better for such a task than a vampire?”

Spike bowed theatrically. “The Big Bad is at your service.” He stood up straight and tilted his head to one side. “Hmm. Not going to be easy. Can’t just drink his blood, it’d get all mixed up with the ogre I ate earlier.”

“Eww,” Dawn said, wrinkling her nose.

“They haven’t invented – bugger, they haven’t even got a word for them in this language,” Spike went on. He mimed operating a hypodermic syringe. “Would have to knock the bloke out, cut him, and drain some into a bottle. Not going to be easy, but I’ll give it a shot. Long as he isn’t sitting on a bloody throne with guards all around him, that is, wouldn’t stand a bloody chance of getting away with it then.”

“Will you attempt it?” Sorkatani asked.

“Yeah, why not? You lot had better be close at hand, though, so you can bail me out if everything goes arse over tit,” Spike said.

“There are forty of us, counting the House De’Vir contingent,” Sorkatani mused. “It would be impossible to lurk near their cavern unnoticed. Still, we would be a formidable force to challenge, and if we fort up in some nearby cave and make no overtly hostile moves then the kuo-toa might leave us alone. Let’s check the place out, guys, and see how it shapes up.”

- - - - -

Minsc peered at the carvings on the floor of the chamber and the man-high statues that occupied niches in the walls. “This smells of Evil to me. Boo agrees. Look at his little whiskers quivering!”

“These are not the deities of the kuo-toa,” Sorkatani said. “They worship the Sea Mother, a goddess in the shape of a lobster, and these look more like representations of demons.”

“Especially that one,” Buffy said. She pointed at a monstrous ten foot high statue at the far side of the room. “Totally gross.”

Sorkatani followed her gaze. The figure had two heads, resembling those of baboons, and tentacles instead of arms. A stone altar stood at the statue’s feet. “The Lord of Demons, ruler of the lowest plane of the Abyss,” she said. “I shall not say his name. Evil most foul. This must be an abandoned temple to him. No doubt the kuo-toa slew the cult that worshipped here.”

“Good for them,” said Buffy. “Hey, Urlzaqh, you ready for your secret mission?”

“Sure thing,” Spike replied. “Remember, if you lot hear me yelling for help, come running, okay?”

“We will,” Buffy promised. “Good luck.”

Viconia wrapped her arms around Spike and kissed him with both passion and tenderness. “Take no foolish chances, beloved,” she said. “Come back to me with all your parts intact.”

“Sure thing, love,” he said. Viconia released him and stepped back. Spike turned to Willow. “Okay, Red, go ahead and cast your mojo.”

- - - - -

“My babe died at my breast because I had no milk,” one of the House De’Vir females told Viconia. “My heart broke. I understood then what you had meant.”

Anya grimaced and walked away from where Viconia was having a surprisingly easy time justifying to her relatives her decision to defect from the worship of Lolth.

“There is treasure here,” Anya said to Sorkatani. “I can smell it.”

“What, incense, spices, and perfumes?” Sorkatani grinned as Anya rolled her eyes. “Just kidding. I know what you mean. The only way there isn’t going to be treasure in a deserted evil temple is if someone else has already looted it. Of course, that could well have happened, so don’t get your hopes up.”

“I don’t think they have,” Dawn put in. “There’s a riddle in the carvings and I think I’ve cracked it. You have to make a sacrifice in front of the statue to summon the guardians. Then you kill them and loot their treasure.”

Sorkatani pursed her lips. “Or they kill you and take your weapons and equipment to be part of the treasure for whosoever eventually defeats them. I do not like the idea of making a sacrifice on an altar dedicated to the most fell of all demons.”

“I heard he’d been imprisoned by the gods,” Imoen said. “One little sacrifice isn’t going to summon him. Not in person.”

“I still don’t think it’s a good idea,” Sorkatani said.

“So, ask,” said Imoen. “Get Micar’lae or Veldrin to do an Augury spell.”

“Okay, okay,” Sorkatani said. “You’re going to keep on about it until I say ‘yes’, aren’t you? I might as well agree now. Micar’lae, did you hear what we were talking about?”

Tara was sitting nearby in a huddle with Willow and Minsc. She looked up at Sorkatani’s words. “I did,” she said, “but I don’t have it memorized. Sorry.”

“What’s an Augury spell?” Buffy asked.

“A divination to determine whether an action will bring good or ill upon us,” Sorkatani explained.

“Hey, why don’t we do that all the time? It could have saved us one whole lot of trouble,” Buffy said.

“The action must be within half an hour and the answer often comes in cryptic form,” Sorkatani told her. “Also, it is not wise to pester the gods. Do it too often and the answers will become more and more misleading. Once in a while will do no harm, however, and I think this might be a suitable occasion.” She went across the chamber to Viconia’s group.

“I am sworn to pursue our enemies and they have gone to the surface world,” Viconia was explaining to her kin. “Taking you with us would cause many difficulties. However there are two Houses in Ust Natha that I believe would take you in, if I so requested, and accept you as full members.”

“A short time ago that would have been the sum of all our hopes,” Nathrae said, “but now my dreams are of the restoration of House De’Vir.”

Viconia paused before replying. Sorkatani took the opportunity to interrupt.

“Veldrin,” she said, “Iimzyne, Auniira, and Dhaunae want to summon the guardians of this temple so that they can be slain and their possessions looted. I’m not so sure that it’s a good idea. Iimzyne suggests that we cast Augury to settle the question.”

“Of course, my commander,” Viconia said. “It will take me a few minutes to prepare.”

“No rush,” Sorkatani said. “I wouldn’t let them do anything before Urlzaqh gets back anyway. Thanks.” She left to return to the others.

“Your comrades are obviously aware of your true identity, Matron Mother Viconia,” Nathrae commented, “and yet still they call you ‘Veldrin’.”

“A spell,” Viconia said. “We could not risk our imposture being discovered through a careless word and have taken precautions to guard against slips. The real Veldrin is dead.”

“Of course,” Nathrae said. “So you may be about to battle demonic guardians? I ask that we be allowed to play a part in this fight. Thus far all that we have done is to guard your rear.”

“Do not dismiss the task so lightly, Nathrae. It was truly important to us,” Viconia said, “for no-one likes to be attacked from the rear.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Nathrae said, with a broad grin on her face. “That handsome vampire of yours could attack my rear any time.”

“Somebody mention me?” Spike’s voice sounded close at hand.

Nathrae jumped. “I did but jest,” she said hastily.

“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” Spike said. “I’m back, still got all my bits, got the blood, and I nicked some good stuff off the Prince while I was at it.”

“Then cancel your invisibility that I may greet you properly,” Viconia said.

“No, wait.” Sorkatani had reversed her course when she heard Spike’s voice. “If we have a fight coming up it might be useful to stay invisible for a while.”

“What, you plan on still being here when the kuo-toa find that their Prince is tied up, gagged, and stuffed in a closet?”

“Hopefully not,” Sorkatani said. “Explain it to him, Veldrin, and prepare your spell. I’ll gather the others.”

- - - - -

“A typically cryptic answer,” Sorkatani said. “Now you see why we don’t do this as a regular thing, Qilafae.”

“Yeah, it’s not exactly plain,” Buffy agreed, “but I’d read it as meaning that it isn’t anything we can’t handle.”

“And that there is extremely valuable loot,” Anya said. “Let’s do it. And, like Urlzaqh says, before the kuo-toa find out that their Prince has been mugged and come looking for payback.”

“Very well,” Sorkatani agreed. “Prepare for battle.”

“Okay, buff up then, people,” Buffy ordered. “I’m guessing they’ll be able to cast Fear, ‘cause hey, demons, so the Tom Petty song’s probably a good idea, Gelfein, okay?” Giles nodded and poised his fingers over the strings of his guitar.

“I heard your request to play an active part in the fight, Nathrae,” Sorkatani said, “but I am afraid I must decline. If the kuo-toa fell upon us as we battle demons we would be in a very awkward position. I ask that you guard our rear yet again.”

Nathrae frowned and turned to Viconia.

“I owe Dynefryn my life, and more,” Viconia told her kinswoman, “and her commands are law to me. Obey her also.”

“As you command, Matron Mother,” Nathrae said. She gathered her clan together and began to organize them in a formation guarding the entrance to the cavern.

“A blind venomous serpent doesn’t seem much of a sacrifice,” Imoen grumbled. “I hope it works. I still think we should have used Monster Summoning to call up a goblin or something.”

“I will not allow any sentient being to be sacrificed to demons,” Sorkatani said, “nor any harmless animal. If the serpent does not work then we call off the whole thing.”

“Oh, all right,” Imoen moaned. “Everybody ready? Here goes.” She tossed the snake onto the altar.

A red flash of light lit up the cavern. The snake writhed, stiffened, and turned black. A smell resembling roast chicken could be detected by those nearest to the altar. Carvings on the walls blurred, moved, and turned into three-dimensional shapes.

Five humanoid figures emerged from the walls and came out into the chamber. Taller than men, clad in plate armor, and with helms obscuring their faces. They attacked instantly, without even a moment’s hesitation, lashing out with two-handed swords.

“Demon knights,” Sorkatani announced, recognizing the fiends on sight. She lashed out at the nearest with Celestial Fury. Her katana strike glanced harmlessly from the armor and the demon struck back.

Sorkatani brought up her parrying sword Malakar to block the return strike. The power of the demon’s blow was immense. Sorkatani reeled under the impact and the demon struck again. This time Sorkatani was knocked from her feet and she fell to the floor. She rolled across the stone flags, avoiding the demon’s attempt to stab down at her, and came to her feet five yards away.

Minsc whirled his sword Lilarcor through the air and smote the demon knight a mighty blow across its back. He met with no more success than had Sorkatani. The demon spun around and delivered a powerful return strike. Minsc was sent flying through the air and crashed to the ground. The breastplate of his Doom Plate armor was dented and gashed.

One of the other demon knights had drawn a Symbol of Fear. Giles’ song neutralized its effects and the spell was wasted. Another had more success with its opening move, a Symbol of Stun, freezing both Dawn and Anya in place as they tried to move in for backstabs. Imoen discovered that they had ample protection against spells as her lightning bolt came straight back at her. She was wearing the Cloak of Mirroring and the spell rebounded yet again. The reflected spell glanced off at an angle and hit Tara.

Buffy had more success. She smashed the Hammer of Thunderbolts into the chest of a demon and felled it. Before it could recover Jaheira pounced on it with the Spear of Impaling she had acquired in the Sahuagin city. She drove the weapon through the demon’s armor and pinned it to the ground.

Spike turned visible as he seized a demon from behind and rammed his sword into its side. The demon that had felled both Sorkatani and Minsc, a creature obviously far stronger than the others, caught hold of Spike and dragged him away from his victim. A skeleton warrior, summoned by Viconia, rained sword blows down upon the demon knight but they failed to penetrate the gleaming suit of full plate armor worn by the demon and were ignored. The fiend raised its sword and took aim at Spike’s neck. Spike’s attempts to tear himself free were in vain and he was helpless to avoid the threatening blade.

At that very moment the kuo-toa launched their attack upon the party of drow who had invaded their territory and assaulted their Prince. A volley of crossbow bolts was immediately followed by a charge of spearmen. A wave of kuo-toa warriors crashed into the defensive wall formed by the House De’Vir drow. Spears thrust out, swords stabbed, and maces crashed down. The drow line held.

Buffy leaped on the demon that was poised to slay Spike, caught its arm, and halted the sword blow before it could fall. They wrestled for a moment. The demon’s strength was great, obviously exceeding that of Sorkatani or Spike, but it couldn’t quite match Buffy. It did have size and weight on its side and the struggle ended up as a stalemate. Spike was able to wrench himself free as the demon concentrated its strength against Buffy. A fatal mistake. Spike rammed his rapier through the demon’s visor and into its brain.

Xander cut the legs out from under one of the remaining demons with the Sword of Searing. Willow stripped away the magical protections from the other with a Ruby Ray of Reversal and Imoen promptly incinerated it. Viconia, who had been holding back her most potent spells because of the fiends’ Spell Turning, and who had been in an agony of terror for Spike when his demise had appeared imminent, turned to the rear and unleashed a Fire Storm upon the kuo-toa. A score of them burned. The survivors turned and fled.

“They’ll be back,” Spike predicted. “Bloody loads more of them where those came from.”

“Then we shall leave before they return,” Sorkatani said. “Strip the bodies of the demons quickly.”

“Nice armor,” Buffy commented, as she examined the corpse of the demon knight that had felled Sorkatani and Minsc and had nearly killed Spike. “I wonder how come this one was so much stronger than the other ones? It’s wearing a belt. Giant strength? That would be cool.”

“Take it and let’s go,” Sorkatani said. “Bagpuss can check it out later.”

- - - - -

“Neat,” Buffy said. “A Girdle of Frost Giant Strength. The thing we needed to complete the Crom Faeyr super-hammer.”

“Explains why the bugger was stronger than me,” Spike remarked. “So, who gets it for now?”

“It would add to our strength, Urlzaqh, but not by a great amount,” Sorkatani said. “I would say that bestowing it upon Tallin or Zander would be the most efficient usage.”

“Tallin got the armor,” Buffy said, “although that was only fair considering the demon mangled his old stuff. I’d say Zander.”

“Cool,” Xander said. “Look out, here comes Super Dwarf.”

“I concur,” said Sorkatani. “The sword is a mighty one also. Again the choice is between Tallin and Zander.”

“I can’t handle a two-hander at this size,” Xander said, “so that means it goes to Tallin.”

“I have Lilarcor, and I am content,” Minsc said. “Not only a sword, but a friend.”

“Point,” said Buffy, “and he has that cool immunity to Confusion too. So, what, we sell the new one?”

“Keep it until I’m back in my real body,” Xander suggested. “We can make a decision then.”

“Sure thing,” Buffy agreed. “Urlzaqh gets the Bracers of the Blinding Strike, of course.”

“I stole them, I get to keep them,” Spike said.

“It was certainly worth our while fighting the guardian demons,” Anya said. “The only thing is that it was my idea and I didn’t get anything out of it.”

“Aun,” Xander said, shaking his head, “that’s not what it’s about.”

“I picked up more than just the bracers,” Spike said. “Nicked a load of gold and jewels off the Fish Prince while I was at it. I’ll chuck them in the kitty.”

“That’s more like it,” Anya said, beaming. “There’s another thing. We still haven’t been paid by House Despana for our ‘mercenary’ work, and we’ve certainly earned a reward. Let’s hope Phaere has something good for us when we get back to the city.”

- - - - -

Phaere met them as they came in through the city gates. She wasted no time on pleasantries. “You have them?”

“No problem,” Buffy said. “Brain goop from a devourer Elder Brain, eyestalks from an Elder Orb, and blood from a prince of the kuo-toa. All present and correct.”

“I am impressed,” Phaere said. “I see that you have preserved the lives of your expendable slaves, too, or most of them.”

“We’re keeping them,” Buffy said, her tone unyielding. “They pulled their weight.”

“Very well,” Phaere said. “We found suitable substitutes for the sacrifice. Keep them if you wish, but you must feed and house them at your own expense. It matters not to me.” She turned to the guards who manned the gates. “Lock the doors. None may leave or enter the city until Ardulace so commands.”

“We obey, mistress Phaere,” a guard answered. The gates swung shut, bolts were rammed home, and keys were turned in locks. “None shall pass.”

“Now I must take these items to my mother,” Phaere said. “The time of the ritual nears. Go to the tavern and find something to occupy yourselves until I next call upon your services. Fight, or fuck, or what you will.”

“Hey, wait up,” Buffy said. “Don’t we get to come to the temple and see the ritual? We did all the hard work.”

“No,” said Phaere, “it is not for mere hired mercenaries to participate in such a ceremony. The temple will be barred to the entry of all save the priestesses and the highest ranks of House Despana. You may not come.”

“Speaking as a hired mercenary,” Anya put in, “isn’t it about time you actually paid us?”

“She’s right,” Sorkatani said, as Phaere turned a cold glare upon Anya. “You have promised much, but not delivered.”

“Very well,” Phaere said. “Your point is valid. Here.” She unfastened a pouch from her belt and tossed it to Buffy. “Gems to the value of twenty thousand gold. Take it and be content. Farewell.” She signaled to a mage who stood behind her. He cast a spell, the air swirled and shimmered, and Phaere and the mage vanished.

“Bummer,” said Buffy. “I’d counted on us getting invited to the party. Looks like we’ll have to do it the hard way. Come on, guys.” She led the way into the city proper.

They made their way onto the platform that housed the city’s main marketplace. A familiar figure was there, sitting near the market stalls, with two grim-faced guards of her household standing at her side. She stood up and approached as Buffy came into view.

“Talabrae,” Buffy remarked, as she saw the Matron Mother. “She doesn’t look too happy. I wonder what she wants?”

Talabrae’s eyes were bloodshot, so much so that the whites were almost indistinguishable from the red irises, and her lips quivered as she spoke. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I… Qilafae… I’m so sorry.”

“What have you done?” Buffy grabbed the Matron Mother by the shoulders of her armor. She could smell a sour taint on Talabrae’s breath. Vomit. “What did you do, Talabrae? Answer me!”

“Do? I did nothing.” Talabrae lowered her eyes. “Nothing. They killed my best friend in front of me and I did nothing. I stood and watched as they impaled her. She begged me for help…” A choked sob came from her lips. “She never failed me. The truest of friends… but when she needed me I failed her. The shame… I despise myself.”

Buffy released her grip and took a step back. “Evelintra? But… why? Who killed her?”

“Ardulace,” Talabrae answered. “She found out that Evelintra worships… worshipped Eilistraee.” Her mouth twisted into a distorted travesty of a smile. “She thanked me for denouncing my friend… but I did not. I had always taken pains not to ask Evelintra about such things, always closed my eyes to anything I should not have seen. I did not betray her… but I could not deny it, there in the Temple of Lolth before my goddess, and my friend… died thinking that I… I had…” Tears trickled down her cheeks. “I am defiled.”

Buffy ground her teeth together. “I was kinda expecting I might have to kill Ardulace anyway,” she said. “This is just one more reason.”

“I had reason enough already,” Viconia put in. “She fed Zarbalan to Bodhi. Ardulace must die.” Spike growled out an obscene agreement.

“I share your grief, Talabrae,” said Sorkatani, “yet your tale does not explain why you greeted Qilafae with ‘I’m sorry’. What else transpired? What are you not telling us?”

Buffy grabbed Talabrae’s shoulder again with force enough to deform the armor’s adamantine pauldron. “Solaufein,” she hissed. “What has happened to Solaufein?”

“He had the courage to act when I did not,” Talabrae said, “and he tried to save her.” She looked into Buffy’s eyes and her lips trembled. “They… they killed him.”


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: fic, tabula_avatar
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