‘Storm of Zehir’ is a huge let-down after the previous games. The plot is sketchy, there is much less interaction with characters, and a big part of the game is filled with tedious and repetitive tasks. The few dungeons are far too small and the outdoor encounters are formulaic. Yet its very imperfections have inspired me to write fic, which ‘NWN2’ and ‘Mask of the Betrayer’ never did, after engaging in a lot of discussion on the Bioware/Obsidian boards about certain moral dilemmas within the game.
It's set within the ‘Tabula Avatar’ universe, rather than the canon Forgotten Realms, but five years on from where we are in that story – and it does contain one rather large TA spoiler. Buffy will make a cameo appearance in a later chapter but it’s not really a BtVS crossover - more of a crossover with ‘Stargate SG-1’, in fact, as it's the sequel to ‘Debt of Blood’.
It doesn’t require any knowledge of the ‘Storm of Zehir’ expansion (not that many people have played it, after all, not even melancthe as far as I know) and anyone who has read ‘Tabula Avatar’ shouldn’t have a problem following this story. The central protagonists are Original Characters (a requirement in the game) but I think that I’ve probably set a new world record for the heroine who is least like a Mary Sue. I’d be interested to hear what you think…
Summary: Shar’s turn away from Evil has upset the cosmic balance and a new dark god is rising to fill the gap. A young priestess is sent on a perilous mission to a nightmarish jungle land where she must face primitive savagery, sophisticated corruption, and the horrors that lie in her own past.
A Plague of Serpents
Chapter One: Fragile Thing
You see her now, all tired and worn
She never thought her life would come to be so cold or so alone
She walked in the light
Fought bondage for love
She said I cast off the chains that I was born with but it never was enough...
(Big Country, Ships)
“You are Kelleth Gill the ranger, I believe?” The speaker was female, her accent that of Neverwinter, her voice pleasant of tone. “Recruiting companions for a voyage to Samarach in Chult?”
“That’s me,” Kelleth confirmed. He set down his goblet, leaned back in his chair, and ran his gaze over the woman who stood beside his table. Human, slim of build and fairly tall, clad in scale armor and with a mace belted at her hip. Probably a priestess. Her armor was covered by a purple tabard with a picture printed on the cloth; the faces of a human male, a drow female, and a dwarf, and below the images was the legend ‘The Rupert Giles Experience’.
“I’d like to join your group, if you will have me,” the girl offered. “I have some experience in adventuring, I am a skilled healer, and my goddess has commanded that I travel to Samarach.”
“I certainly have a vacancy for a healer,” Kelleth said, “but I’ll have to know a little more about you before I make a decision.” The girl’s face was obscured by the helm that she wore, its nasal guard and cheek pieces hiding everything except for her eyes and mouth, but he could see piercing blue eyes and guessed that she’d be young and pretty behind the mask. He smiled at her. “I like to be able to see who I’m talking to,” he told her. “I’d appreciate it if you took off the helmet.”
“Of course,” said the girl, “but you will probably ask me to replace it immediately.” She pulled the helmet from her head and a mass of long blonde hair fell free.
“That’s…” Kelleth began, and then he saw her face. She was young, certainly, but no-one would call her pretty. A score of pockmarks and scars disfigured her skin. The centre of her forehead was tattooed with a purple triangle containing three yellow-orange teardrop shapes. He could feel the smile freezing on his lips. “…better,” he continued, trying unsuccessfully to conceal his reaction.
“You almost managed to say that as if you meant it,” the girl said. She smiled, showing even white teeth, and poised the helmet over her head. “I know I’m not a pleasant sight. Should I put the helm back on?”
“I… no,” said the ranger. He took a deep breath and managed to return his expression to a passable facsimile of his normal smile. “I can… judge you better when I can see your whole face.”
“And the verdict is…?”
“Well, we do need a cleric,” Kelleth said, “and you have the air of a competent one. The problem is your affiliation. The tattoo on your brow is the mark of Talona, is it not?”
“It is,” the girl confirmed. “I am a Young Venom in the priesthood of Talona.” She fixed him with a steady stare. “I fail to see why that should be a problem.”
Kelleth’s eyebrows climbed. “You are a priestess of the goddess of disease and poison. I’m a follower of Eldath, the Lady of Singing Waters, the Mistress of Peace. I would think that some conflict of interests would be fairly inevitable.”
The girl shook her head. “That will not be the case. I am charged with assisting you to the best of my ability no matter what the situation. As long as you give Talona due respect, and acknowledge that disease can lay low the strongest, there will be no conflict. Your mission is the important thing.”
“My mission?” His eyebrows ascended further. “I’m putting together a small group to watch over a writer on a trip to an exotic foreign land, to make sure that he doesn’t get eaten by leopards or whatever while he’s gathering local color, and that’s pretty much it. A simple bodyguard job. I wouldn’t even say it qualifies as being a mission worthy of the name. Have you, perhaps, confused me with someone else?”
“I don’t see any other rangers called Kelleth around,” the girl responded. Her lips parted in a broad smile. “Do you?”
Kelleth made a show of glancing around the tavern room and then looked back at the priestess. “Good point,” he said. This girl might be a worshipper of a goddess who delighted in human suffering but she seemed to have a sense of humor. He used a foot to push out a chair on the opposite side of the table. “Take a seat,” he suggested, and the priestess sat down and laid her helm on the table. “What’s your name?”
“Chantry,” she told him. “Chantry Linton.”
“Okay, Chantry,” Kelleth said, “Explain to me, if you will, why my little voyage would come to the attention of your goddess. Is Volothamp Geddarm far more important than I thought? His Guides are interesting and useful, and I was impressed by his biography of Sorkatani and history of the Bhaalspawn Wars, but I don’t see how that would make him significant enough for his well-being to matter to a deity.”
“I don’t think it’s Volo himself who’s important,” Chantry said. “I got the impression that he only matters as a way of getting you to go to Samarach.” She shrugged. “I could be wrong. High Priestess Sumia didn’t give me all the background. I’m fairly low down in the hierarchy.”
Kelleth shifted in his seat. “The thought that I might have some sort of mystic destiny makes me rather uncomfortable,” he said. “I just want to stay alive, do a bit of good for the world, and make enough money in the process to support myself. I’ll leave the Destiny thing to people like the Knight-Captain, or Drizzt Do’Urden, or Sorkatani.”
“As Sorkatani is dead, and the Knight-Captain missing presumed dead, I see your point,” Chantry said. “However I don’t think you are any kind of pre-destined hero, fulfilling a prophecy, or anything like that. I think you’re just somebody in the right place at the right time.”
“Wasn’t that the case for the Knight-Captain?”
Chantry shrugged again. “Perhaps, although I gather there was something mystical about her birth. If you do have a destiny you will not be able to fight it.”
“Hmm.” Kelleth picked up his goblet and took a sip of his wine. The thought of Destiny was not a pleasant one but, as Chantry had said, there was little or nothing that he could do about it. He put the matter aside. “So, that is why you wish to join this expedition. Now persuade me that I should employ you.”
“You’re going to a tropical jungle,” Chantry said. “It will be crawling with disease-carrying insects, venomous snakes, spiders, centipedes, and probably worse things. I’m immune to disease and highly resistant to poison. I won’t fall sick and be out of action when you need me.”
“Immune to disease?” Kelleth’s gaze rested on the plague marks on Chantry’s face. “Then those…” He chopped himself off short and felt his cheeks flaming with embarrassment at his lack of tact. He should have kept his deduction, that the scars were the result of a Talonan initiation ceremony, to himself rather than starting to blurt it out. “Sorry.”
“There is no need to watch your words with me, Kelleth,” Chantry said. “I’m used to it. You wonder about these marks? I had no immunities then. I was not yet a priestess of Talona when I contracted the Wailing Death.”
Kelleth rocked back in his seat and clenched his teeth. The Wailing Death had killed more than a tenth of the population of Neverwinter. Almost no-one who had been infected had survived. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“Why apologize? It was not you who brought the plague,” said Chantry.
“That wasn’t…” Kelleth began. He stopped. If Chantry was sensitive about her appearance then anything more he said would only make things worse; if she really was as unconcerned as she claimed then no harm had been done. “I agree that you could make a valuable contribution to my group,” he said instead. “I take it that you have skills in combat as well as in healing?”
“I can fight,” Chantry confirmed. “Not as well as you, if what I have heard of your deeds in the Shadow War are correct, but I shall not be a liability in battle.”
“I did no great deeds,” Kelleth said, “but I held my own. I can hit what I aim at with a bow and I can handle a sword as well as most men. Very well, then, the job is yours if you want it. I must warn you, however, that the pay is not generous. Our expenses will be covered but little more. I hope to earn something on the side through hunting, if time allows, and if so you will receive a share.”
“The money is of little interest to me,” said Chantry. “The Church has provided me with funds for my passage and the necessities of life. I won’t turn down pay, or a share of goods or treasure, but it’s not what counts.”
Kelleth closed his left eye and pursed his lips. “I had thought to recruit only two party members, Aysgarth the Mage and one other, but if you have funds for your own passage I could afford to take on a third companion. A rogue, I think; no doubt the jungle will be full of pitfalls and arrow traps.”
“A wise decision,” Chantry agreed, “if, that is, you think that you can find one who won’t steal all our possessions and run off leaving us stranded and penniless in the jungle.”
“There is a halfling rogue in town who I have worked with before,” Kelleth told her, “and he has always been trustworthy. Thorpe Underwood.”
“Oh? I’ve never met a halfling who I’d trust with a bent copper piece,” Chantry said, “but I will bow to your judgment. Hopefully it will not result in me ending up weaponless and unarmored in front of a charging panther.”
“Whatever possessed you to take on that girl?” Aysgarth asked. The young wizard poked the brim of his pointy hat with a finger, tilting it back on his head, and looked up at the ranger. “A Talonan Venom? Evil and ugly. The worst of both worlds.”
“I don’t think she’s evil,” Kelleth said. “She’s a very well-mannered young lady, in fact, and she seems to have a sense of humor. I rather liked her.” He unbuckled the belt that held his rapier’s scabbard and hung the weapon from the brass bedstead.
“She was pleasant enough, I grant you, but surely you could have found someone equally pleasant in manner but more pleasant to look upon,” Aysgarth went on. “A priestess of your own deity, for instance, or a Lliiran.”
“None such volunteered,” Kelleth said, “and Chantry did. We need a healer. We have one, and I think a very skilled one, and I’m not going to turn her away merely because she has scars on her face. This is not a pleasure trip.”
“Indeed so,” said Aysgarth, “but neither is it a vital mission on which the fate of Faerûn depends. There would be no harm in making it as enjoyable as possible. Ah, well, better a Talontar than a flighty and brainless Sunite.” He leaned his wizard staff against the wall and took off his pointy hat.
“Better almost anyone, apart from a Cyric worshipper, rather than a follower of Sune,” Kelleth grunted. He sat down on his bed and began to pull off his boots.
“Perhaps so,” said Aysgarth. “At least a Talontar will not fly into a panic if she breaks a nail or is marked by the sting of an insect.”
“I have the impression,” Kelleth said, “that Chantry will stand firm at our sides if we face lions, or wyverns, or even the giant reptiles of Chult.”
“You could well be right,” Aysgarth agreed. “A more desirable quality than being good to look upon. It is greedy of me to want everything in one package.”
“It will be no different than if I had recruited a male priest,” Kelleth said, “except that there will be some need for privacy when relieving ourselves or bathing.”
“If, that is, there are any rivers not infested with crocodiles in which to bathe,” said Aysgarth. “Very well, then, I shall treat her as if she was a male comrade and stop my petty complaints. Unless, of course, she slips some deadly poison into our breakfast.”
Chantry hung her scale armor on the stand, stepped back, and began to strip off her clothes. Her gray-green Talonan shift, that by custom could not be replaced until it fell apart completely, was faded and threadbare. She pulled it over her head, set it down on the bed, and unfastened her lacy black Anya’s Secret ‘Joybringer’ bra.
It was a luxury room, a single, not because Chantry was extravagant but because inn patrons usually objected to sharing rooms with a Talontar. There was a dressing table and even a mirror. Chantry caught sight of her reflection as the bra fell away and exposed her breasts.
At first sight an onlooker would have thought that she had seven nipples. Five of them were, in reality, massive pockmarks. A score of smaller marks were scattered across the skin. Below her breasts, firm and shapely but made ugly by the scarring, more pits and blemishes covered her belly all the way down until they disappeared under her panties.
Chantry clenched her fists. “So horrible,” she whispered. “No man will ever desire me.”
She thought of the tall ranger, lithe as a panther, with his ready smile and kind eyes. Broad shoulders, arms corded with muscle from endless hours of pulling a longbow, slim hips and long legs. Hands calloused from use of bow and sword yet gentle and deft. A good man and strong. And yet, like any other man, if he was here now and saw her in her state of undress he would recoil in revulsion.
“I will never have a husband,” Chantry bemoaned. “My fate was sealed when I fell victim to the Wailing Death.” Or perhaps before that, when the other acolytes at the Temple of Sune had fled the city in terror or hidden themselves away, and Chantry had chosen to stay and do what she could to tend the plague victims. Until she had caught the disease herself. Disfigured and dying, and rejected by her goddess of beauty, she had been brought back from the brink of death by a priestess of Talona. There were times, many of them, when Chantry wished that she’d just been left to die.
“I must accept it and endure. I have my goddess and that must be enough,” Chantry told herself. “I will never have a family. My vocation, and my duty to the Church, is all that I will ever have. I will always be alone.” She slipped off her panties, donned her shift once more, and climbed into bed. She blew out the candle, curled herself up under the covers, and tried to get to sleep.
She sniffled for a while. If she’d been a different sort of person she might have cried herself to sleep but that wasn’t her style. Instead she gave rein to the frustration and anger that she’d been holding back during the evening, when she’d been taking care to act pleasantly for the interview, and began to think about ways of killing people. Her tears dried. She finally drifted off to sleep, a contented smile on her face, in the middle of a hypothetical plan to replace the inn’s stock of horseradish with an equally fiery sauce made from aconite.
Disclaimer: ‘Storm of Zehir’ is the property of Atari, Obsidian Entertainment, Wizards of the Coast Inc., and Hasbro.