A Plague of Serpents
Listen now, there’s no time to explain
I’ve been here such a short time, I will be here again
If you hear my voice in the darkness, if you hear my words in the rain
Don’t be afraid, it only says you did not wait in vain
(Big Country, Made In Heaven)
The ground was grey, flat, and featureless. It stretched away to infinity, without even a visible horizon, in all directions except one. In that direction lay the City of Judgment. Of the buildings in the city only one, a high tower seemingly made of smoked glass, was visible. The rest of the city was hidden behind an encircling wall, higher than the city walls of Neverwinter, made up of irregularly shaped slabs.
Chantry shuddered. The Wall of the Faithless. The grim place where those who worshipped no god were interred, conscious but immobile, as bricks in the Wall until their souls were eaten away to nothing by the vile moss that formed the Wall’s mortar. A terrible fate that might have been Chantry’s, if Sumia had not pulled her back from the brink of death; for those rejected by their god, as Chantry had been rejected by Sune for the heinous sin of losing her beauty, counted as Faithless.
She turned her back on the dread Wall. There was, however, nothing else at which to look. Only the empty plains. The City of Judgment was the only place departed souls could go unless they were collected by servants of their deity. Or were resurrected.
Chantry hoped that Kelleth and the others would win their fight and have her Raised. She did have a reason to believe that it would happen; the crazy elf woman’s vision, about Chantry being tortured by a Yuan-ti Abomination, couldn’t come true if she stayed dead. That was… reassuring, in the weirdest possible way, although Chantry didn’t really trust prophetic visions.
The matter of resurrection was out of Chantry’s hands. There was nothing that she could do, for the time being, other than wait. Unfortunately patience wasn’t something Chantry possessed to any great degree. Her boredom threshold was so low that it could walk under a weasel without stooping. It might possibly be as long as ten days before she was collected by an agent of her goddess, unless she was resurrected first, and there didn’t seem to be anything to do here. She wondered what worldly goods she’d brought with her into the afterlife; she’d had a couple of books in her pack…
She saw something moving, out of the corner of her eye, and turned to look. She forgot about reading material and stared. Figures were materializing out of nowhere. Men, clad in sea-boots and long coats, seeming to drop out of thin air and land on the ground. The rain of men went on for several seconds and then, when her count reached eleven, stopped. The first thing each of the men did, after landing, was to put a hand to his neck and rub it.
“Arrr, shipmates,” exclaimed one, “where in the Hells are we?”
“Well, seeing as how they were hanging us, matey,” another answered, “I’d say we’re in the Realm of the Dead.”
“Arrr, that be certain sure,” said another. “We’re in the Nether World. And I doubt anyone will be Raising our corpses this time. We’re here to stay.”
“Bugger!” growled a bearded man. “Stay forever in this grey flat land with no sea? That be cruel and unusual punishment, shipmates. There has to be something better than this.”
“And indeed there is, me hearties,” a female voice chimed in. Chantry jumped. She hadn’t seen the woman arrive but suddenly, out of nowhere, there she was. An extremely tall woman, maybe over six and a half feet, with pure white skin and hair of a dark blue-green shade. She wore britches and high wide-topped sea-boots, a coat with golden epaulettes on its shoulders, and a tricorn hat topped with a feather plume. A cutlass hung at her side. “I’ll be taking ye to port, lads, and there be taverns a-plenty there. Ale, and wenches, and hearty shipmates. And when ye be tired of life ashore, mateys, I’ve a fleet of fair ships for ye to sail. Wide seas and fair winds.”
“Arrr, that’s more like it,” one of the men said in approving tones. “And you’re a comely wench, if a bit tall, and I’ll be hoping to see you in one of the…” He broke off as one of the other men elbowed him sharply in the ribs.
“Ye’ve no respect, Feegyn,” hissed the second man. “D’you not know who that is? Forgive him, your Majesty, he’s a bit slow.”
“Majesty?” Feegyn’s eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. So did Chantry’s; it had just dawned on her who the woman must be. Feegyn dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “Sorry, your Majesty,” he said. “I meant no offence.”
The woman – no, goddess, Chantry realized – threw back her head and laughed. “None taken,” she said, “and call me Admiral. Or perhaps,” she added, suddenly changing form into a blue-skinned, white-haired, woman dressed after the style of Ophala from the Moonstone Mask, “call me Madam. Or then again,” and she transformed again, this time into her traditional aspect of a woman’s torso atop a pillar of water that substituted for legs, “using Your Majesty is perfectly correct.”
Umberlee, the Bitch Queen, goddess of the sea. Chantry’s jaw dropped further. She saw the dead pirates going down on their knees and wondered if she should follow suit. She was fifty yards away from the goddess, and not one of her worshippers, but perhaps at least some sort of genuflection might be in order. A curtsey wasn’t appropriate, as Chantry was in full armor, and so she dipped in a formal bow.
It was something of a surprise to her that she could even see Umberlee. She had been taught that newly-arrived souls in the Realm of the Dead could only perceive agents of their own deity; a protective measure to ensure that they couldn’t be misled, and taken away, by hostile gods. The only exception was for the devils that were permitted, by agreement with Kelemvor, to bargain with those destined for the Wall of the Faithless and to offer them an alternative, marginally less grim, fate. Other deities should, according to accepted theology, be invisible to her. There must be some sort of arrangement between the Bridesmaids that they could act as each others’ agents; maybe Umberlee would collect Chantry, as well as the pirates, and drop her off at the Palace of Poison Tears on the way to Fury’s Heart… no, to Port Fury, Chantry corrected herself, as she remembered the new name of Umberlee’s citadel on the Blood Sea.
Actually, Chantry mused, it would be more interesting if the journey was the other way around. It would be fascinating to see Umberlee’s realm. Rumor had it that what had once been a bleak and barren rock, in a storm-tossed and shark-infested sea, was now a vibrant and thriving community modeled on Spindrift Town in the Pirate Isles. Chantry would like to see it for herself – and it wasn’t likely she’d get another chance. A once in a death-time opportunity.
And it wasn’t an opportunity Chantry would get in this death-time. A voice spoke behind her.
“Greetings, Chantry Linton.”
Chantry turned around and saw a woman, no taller than herself, clad in a coat of fine white cloth over a crisp linen shirt and a knee-length charcoal-grey skirt. A strange device was looped around her neck; a long cord, or perhaps a flexible tube, with an odd disc-shaped object at one end and at the other something shaped like an elongated pair of pincers. Her face was as badly scarred as Chantry’s own; this, then, must be the emissary of Talona.
“Greetings, my Lady,” Chantry said, dipping her head respectfully.
“You will be Raised shortly,” the woman said, “and so it’s not worth me taking you on to Poison Tears Teaching Hospital, but perhaps we might talk over a coffee?”
Chantry nodded. “Thank you, ma’am, that would be pleasant,” she said, still unaware of the identity of the one to whom she was speaking, and then something occurred to her. “Poison Tears Teaching Hospital?”
“I gave the Palace of Poison Tears a new, more appropriate, name.”
“You gave…” Chantry dropped to her knees as realization struck. “Forgive me, Majesty, I did not know.”
“That is understandable, Chantry,” the goddess Talona said. “There are as yet no portraits in the temples showing me in my present guise. Something that I shall rectify in the near future. Arise, Chantry Linton, my High Priestesses need not kneel before me. And you may call me… Doctor.”
Chantry opened her eyes very wide and looked around. One second she had been on the featureless plain outside the City of Judgment, the next second she was… somewhere else. Inside a building, a tavern of some kind, but not one she had ever seen before. The furniture was unfamiliar in style, chairs with tubular frames of polished metal and tables topped by sheets of smooth glass, and everything matched with a precision seen only in the houses of the wealthiest of lords. The pleasant scent of coffee filled the room. At the innermost side of the room was a long counter, staffed by serving maids, and on the wall behind the counter was a circular sign bearing a device unfamiliar to Chantry; a stylized picture of a woman, in stark black and white, surrounded by a green ring bearing a legend in white letters.
“One Caramel Macchiato for me,” Talona called out to the serving maid, “I think an Espresso Macchiato for my guest, and whatever is Egeria’s usual. She’ll be joining us shortly.”
“Coming right up,” the server responded. “One Caramel Macchiato, one Espresso Macchiato, and one Espresso Con Panna.” She was a winged female of human size, probably a Celestial of some kind, and she was wearing a plain black button-less shirt emblazoned with a portrait of Eilistraee, against a background of the moon, and the legend ‘The REAL Moon Goddess: accept no substitutes’. She pulled levers, resulting in hissing noises and plumes of steam, and began to fill beautiful glass cups with coffee.
Talona took a seat at a table and Chantry, still somewhat stunned by the way her goddess was treating her, followed suit. Then something that Talona had said earlier sank home.
“Uh… uh… Your Majesty… uh, Doctor… did you say ‘High Priestess’?” she stammered out.
“I did,” Talona confirmed. “You’ve been promoted. You’ll still be answerable to Sumia, who is the second-highest ranking of all my priestesses in Faerûn behind only Lady Doom Thalaera Indlerith, but you may give orders to all others of my clergy within Neverwinter and Samarach. You may style yourself Most Debilitating Holiness. And I will grant you your own personal demon servant.”
Chantry would have bowed low but that wasn’t possible when sitting at the table. She had to restrict herself to bowing her head. “You honor me greatly, Your… Doctor… but I cannot believe I deserve this promotion.”
Talona’s lips curled up in a wry smile. “You came very close to losing it when you killed Finch. That was most definitely not in accordance with my will.”
Chantry’s mouth dropped open. “B-but he was a Sunite,” she protested. “He would have won converts to her abominable faith. You know how persuasive bards can be; look at what the Rupert Giles Experience, and Sharwyn, have done. Finch has the reputation of being not far behind them in skill.”
Talona clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Exactly,” she said. “The plan was to convert him. We can’t do that now he’s dead. I had hoped he’d be Raised; I Neutralized your poison, personally, before the village priest cast his spell. Unfortunately you can’t Raise someone who doesn’t want to come back and Sune no doubt surrounded him with scantily-clad and willing babes to keep him content. He refused to be resurrected, not surprisingly, and he’s hers permanently now.” She fell silent, merely staring at Chantry, as the Celestial serving-wench brought a tray of coffee-cups to the table.
“I’m sorry,” Chantry said, miserably. She had let down her goddess; that Talona was being so nice to her, and had promoted her regardless, just made it hurt worse. “I had no idea.”
“I know,” said Talona, “and that’s why I’m forgiving you. Now, forget about it, and drink your coffee. Egeria will be here any – ah, here she comes now.”
Chantry had heard tales of the Right Hand of Shar, including hearing from Sumia of Egeria’s appearance nude and dripping wet at the battle against Queen Morag of the Sarrukh, but she’d never expected to see Egeria for herself. She turned and saw seven feet of leather-clad winged female striding into the coffee bar. And not alone; Egeria was accompanied by three other striking women. The unmistakable figure of Eilistraee, a silver-haired ebony beauty matching Egeria in height; a slim and graceful girl with blue and green hair, clad in a gown of green silk and with bare feet, who Chantry did not recognize; and a powerfully-built woman of about six foot eight, wearing the green and brown leathers of a Ranger, whose hair was red-brown and curling over her shoulders.
The latter woman waved to Talona. “What’s up, Doc?” she called.
Talona rolled her eyes. “Yes, very droll,” she said. “Ei mitään oikastaan, Mielikki. Tervetuloa. Are you joining us?”
“Later, perhaps,” Mielikki replied. “Complete your business with your petitioner first. Nähdään myöhemmin, Egeria.”
Chantry realized that she was gawping, open-mouthed, and hastily shut her mouth. She didn’t want to look like an idiot, or a naïve country bumpkin, in front of her goddess. Yet this was astonishing. Astounding. Yes, it was official dogma in the Reformed Church of Talona that their goddess had ended her centuries-old feud with Mielikki, but Chantry had always believed that it was simply a matter of Shar commanding both of them to cease hostilities – she could hardly have had two of her bridesmaids at each other’s throats, after all – and the less powerful goddesses gritting their teeth and acquiescing. What she had just observed told a different story. That had been friendly banter; Talona and Mielikki might not be as close as, say, Shar and Eilistraee, or Lliira and Waukeen, but certainly they weren’t bitter foes barely tolerating each other.
Being dead was certainly proving to be an interesting experience and she would have astounding tales to relate to Volo back at Crossroad Keep. Perhaps, she feared, too incredible to be believed; even if Volo believed her, his readers would undoubtedly assume that he was making everything up.
Egeria took a seat, beside Talona, at the same time as the serving maid arrived at the table with a tray holding three cups of coffee. The cup that was placed in front of Chantry looked much like any other coffee, except that the surface was strangely frothy, but the other two cups were… exotic. Talona’s beverage was topped with a creamy froth decorated with a spider-web lattice of golden brown. The glass cup given to Egeria contained dark coffee with a hefty topping of whipped cream floating on the top like an iceberg in the Sea of Moving Ice.
Chantry had a thousand questions that she would have liked to ask. How was it possible to drink coffee when you were dead? Was this place open to everyone, after death, or was she only being admitted because she was in Talona’s company? Were Talona and Mielikki really friends now? And how was Egeria going to drink her coffee without her upper lip becoming covered in a thick layer of cream? She didn’t dare ask anything, however, and so she waited to be addressed.
“Recount to us what transpired in your dealings with the followers of Zehir,” Talona commanded, “and all that you have learned about them. We are bound by rules in this matter and, although we know all that has occurred, we can only act on what is reported to us by our mortal agents.”
Chantry obeyed. She described the first encounter and then paused to take a drink of her coffee as Talona and Egeria engaged in a discussion about her report. Handling the cup while wearing her mailed gauntlets was awkward and so she slipped them off… and then froze, staring at her hands, horrified.
“What is wrong, child?” Talona asked.
Chantry’s hands went to her face. Yes, the pits and scars were still there. “I… thought… I’d be restored to my former self in the Afterlife,” she said. “If I have to face an eternity like this… how will I bear it?”
“There will be no such need,” Talona assured her. “You will not be restored immediately – Lord Ao forbids such things, lest suicide become seen as the easy option for mortals who have suffered permanent injury – but I shall see to your restoration when I am allowed.”
“Thank you, my Lady,” Chantry said, wondering what Talona meant by ‘when I am allowed’. She took a drink from her cup of coffee. It was very tasty, better than any she had had in Neverwinter, although not quite up to the standard of Sa’Sani’s private stock of Chultan coffee.
“Now continue your report,” Talona commanded. “Your companions will have you Raised before too long, and we must be finished by then, and Egeria will be giving you a message to convey to Light of Heavens.”
Chantry dipped her head. “Yes, my Lady – Doctor,” she assented. “Right, when we caught up with Luaire in the Chokemist Caves…”
Chantry opened her eyes and was surprised to see the crazy elf lady looking down at her. Well, that explained why it had taken them much longer to Raise her than she had expected. And brought a disturbing possibility to mind.
“Is Umoja alright?” she asked.
“I am fine, Chantry,” the druid’s voice answered, and Umoja came into her field of view with Yushai padding at his heels. “I could not use your scrolls of Raise Dead and so Kelleth rode to Crossroad Keep to bring back a cleric.”
Chantry nodded. That made sense. The alternative would have been to carry her body back to the Keep and, as horses wouldn’t tolerate the presence of Yushai and Silent Stalker, they’d have had to do it on foot. “It hadn’t occurred to me that you wouldn’t be able to use the scrolls,” she said. “Is everyone else alright?”
“There were injuries,” Umoja said, “but nothing I could not heal.”
“He saved our bacon,” Thorpe put in. “We were losing until he burst in with the animals.”
Chantry climbed to her feet and looked around. Yes, everyone was there and with all their appendages attached. Kelleth’s armor was gashed in a couple of places but that was all. There were two people present who weren’t part of Kelleth’s band; the crazy elf lady, of course, and also – unexpectedly, and very conveniently – Light of Heavens.
Professional courtesy, however, dictated that Chantry should thank the crazy elf seer for her resurrection before she did anything else.
“You are welcome,” the elf – Chantry had never gotten around to asking her name, and couldn’t be bothered to do so now – replied. “I have been paid for my services. And it shows that even death cannot save you from your destiny.”
“Uh, right,” Chantry said, feeling like backing away slowly while faking a smile. “Thanks, anyway.” She moved on to the more agreeable task of greeting her friends.
“How are you feeling, Chantry?” Kelleth asked. “Are you up to travelling?”
“Well, I could do with using the privy, and I wouldn’t say no to a hot bath,” Chantry replied, “but I can wait until we get back to Crossroad Keep. For the bath, that is, not the privy.”
“We’re not going straight back,” Kelleth said. “It would make more sense for us to continue on to Neverwinter.”
Chantry pursed her lips. “I would have thought we headed quite a way east of the road to Neverwinter, but you’re the expert.”
“We did go more east than north, yes, and indeed we’re not much closer to Neverwinter than is Crossroad Keep,” Kelleth admitted, “but it would be a waste of time to go back to the Keep and then set out again. I brought the pearls, and a set of instructions on what we’re to do with them, so we’re all set. We can cut across to Thundertree, stay overnight there, and then go along the Thunder Trail to Neverwinter.”
“Like I said, you’re the expert,” Chantry agreed. “That’s fine with me. I can bathe either here or at Thundertree. It’s not urgent; there are self-cleaning cantrips on my armor.” She turned to Thorpe. “Did we pick up any good stuff here?”
“Nothing in your line,” Thorpe answered. “Some good saleable stuff, and a few pieces I can use, but… oh, wait, the fiery bint had a pair of Boots of Striding that’ll probably fit you.”
“Excellent,” Chantry said. “They’ll make these damn treks through the forest more bearable, as well as meaning I can take more punishment in a fight before I pass out. I take it we found Khelgar’s gauntlets?”
“We did,” Kelleth confirmed. “I didn’t take them with me when I rode to the Keep – just in case anything happened to me – but Light of Heavens will be taking them back.”
“Speaking of which,” Light of Heavens said, glancing at the slim Earth timepiece on her wrist, “I’d better be going. We’ll have a reward waiting for you when you get back from Neverwinter.”
“Thanks,” said Kelleth. “I’d be happy with just a couple more lessons from you. I used that move you showed me against the toughest of the bodyguards and it worked like a charm.”
“It usually does,” Light of Heavens said, “but there is a counter. I’ll show it to you later, and teach you what to do if someone uses it against you, but right now I really must go. So if you’ll just hand over the Ironfist gauntlets…”
“Wait a moment,” Chantry said. “I have a message for you.”
“Oh?” Light of Heavens arched an eyebrow. “Let’s hear it, then.”
“It’s… private,” Chantry said.
“Oh?” Light of Heavens said again. She glanced around. “Okay, we’ll go into that back room.” She led the way and Chantry followed.
“You’ve just come back from being dead, and you say you have a message for me, so I’m guessing you’re on a mission from a god,” Light of Heavens said, once they were in the room and had closed the door, “even though you’re not wearing sunglasses.”
Chantry tilted her head to one side and narrowed her eyes. “Pardon?” she said. “My message is indeed from a deity, or at least a demi-deity, but I don’t understand the reference to sunglasses. I lost mine in the shipwreck in Chult and I haven’t found anywhere I can buy a replacement pair yet.”
“Just a cultural reference from somewhere else,” Light of Heavens said. “I should have brought Joy with me. She’d have gotten it. Just forget I said anything. A demi-deity, you said? Egeria, maybe?”
“Indeed so,” Chantry confirmed. “I met her while I was dead. We had coffee together, strange as it may seem, in a celestial tavern named Sharbucks.”
Light of Heavens burst out laughing. “Sharbucks? You so have to be kidding, right? No, you wouldn’t know about Starbucks, so it’s Shar who’s doing the kidding. Okay, what did Eggy have to say?”
“Eggy?” Chantry’s jaw dropped. Light of Heavens was calling the Right Hand of Shar, one of the most powerful non-deities in existence, by a disrespectful nickname.
“I mangle names,” Light of Heavens said. “It’s a thing. She doesn’t mind – hey, you should hear what she calls me. I was her unarmed combat instructor. Come on, what did she say?”
Chantry managed to close her mouth, swallowed, and took a deep breath. “Uh, yes. Right. She said that she’s arranging for someone to repair the portal and they should be at the Keep within a few days.”
Light of Heavens grinned. “Excellent!” she exclaimed. “I was worried that I might have to go trekking off to the Voice of the Lost at short notice. But there has to be more to it than that. Like, there’s no way the portal repair guy coming is some big secret.”
“Indeed so,” said Chantry. “It is only the rest of the message that I was told was for you, and for your sister, but that Khelgar was on no account to hear. Although it was so incomprehensible to me that I think it must be in some sort of code.”
Light of Heavens’ expression turned serious. “Okay, let’s hear it.”
Chantry complied, her forehead furrowing as she concentrated on repeating the message as accurately as she could, and at the end she asked “Did you really understand all that?”
Light of Heavens grinned at her. “Sure thing. Hey, it was me that made up most of the nicknames. The thing is, I’ve used some of them in front of Khelgar and he might catch on to what it’s about. That could cause problems ‘cause he’d want to get involved and, well, Nasher wouldn’t like it. And if we told him he couldn’t come along he’d get all upset.”
“Which implies that the message is about the Knight-Captain,” Chantry deduced, “for there is no-one else with such a strong claim on Khelgar’s loyalty.”
“Yeah, you got me there,” Light of Heavens admitted. “I know she’s alive, I know where she is, and I’ll be joining her as soon as I get the word. And, yeah, I’d love it if Khelgar could come but I’ve been told it’s a no-no. So he’s not to hear anything about it. ‘Kay?”
“My goddess told me to obey Egeria’s commands,” Chantry said, “and she told me to tell only you or your sister. I will say naught to anyone else.”
“Great,” said Light of Heavens. “Thanks. Now, I’d best be going. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.”
“I learned a few interesting things while I was dead,” Chantry told the others, as they made their way through Neverwinter Wood toward Thundertree. “For instance, I found out why that Tear of Selûne exploded.”
“Oh?” Aysgarth turned his head to stare at her and, as a result, he stepped off the path and almost crashed into a tree. “Tell me more.”
“Zehir,” Chantry said. “He has an immense spelljammer ship, nearly half a mile in length, equipped with energy weapons like the one we found but much bigger and more powerful. It passed near Journey’s Legg and the neogi sent out Deathspiders to attack it. They were wiped out and Zehir’s ship then destroyed their home base.”
“If I remember my lessons correctly,” Aysgarth said, “Journey’s Legg was eight miles across. It was destroyed?”
“Totally vaporized,” Chantry confirmed. “There were no survivors.”
Aysgarth grimaced. “A good thing in itself,” he said, “for the neogi were hideous monsters and vile slavers, but I shudder to think of a weapon that could cause such destruction.”
“My goddess warned me that Zehir’s vessel could reduce all Neverwinter to rubble and cinders with but a single blast,” Chantry said. “Also it carries more than a thousand soldiers all armed with those energy staffs.”
“Hmm,” said Kelleth, “such numbers would more than make up for the inaccuracy of the weapons. The army of Neverwinter could not hope to stand before them and survive.”
“I hope nobody expects us to fight them,” Thorpe said. “Being incinerated by the soldiers of an alien god isn’t the way I’d planned to die.”
“Oh? What is?” Chantry enquired.
“Heart attack after spending six hours shagging three beautiful Halfling maidens,” Thorpe said, “at the age of a hundred and thirty-eight.”
Chantry rolled her eyes. “Well, if these aliens – Jaffa, the soldiers are called – incinerate you at least it will be sparing three maidens an unpleasant experience.”
“Yeah, it will be terrible for them, losing me like that,” Thorpe said, “but it’s the way I want to go.”
“I, too, do not plan on dying for many years,” said Aysgarth, “and the thought of taking on impossible odds is not a pleasant one.”
“There is help coming,” Chantry assured him. “We only have to do what we can.”
“That is good to know,” said Umoja. “What is this help and when may we expect it?”
“That has not been revealed to me,” Chantry replied, “only that we will know it when we see it.”
“Light of Heavens?” suggested Kelleth.
“I don’t think so,” Chantry said. “She has her own mission and I don’t think it’s anything to do with ours.”
“She’s a bit… odd, that Light of Heavens girl,” Thorpe commented. “I’d heard she came from Amn but I’ve known quite a few Amnians, from when I lived in Baldur’s Gate, and none of them talked like her.”
“I had heard that she was a Celestial,” Aysgarth said, “but it is plain that she is human.” He turned his head to look at Chantry. “Her speech is full of expressions that I have otherwise heard only from you. ‘Okay’, for instance.”
“It means ‘yes’, or ‘very well’, or ‘everything is fine’,” Chantry said.
“I know perfectly well what it means,” Aysgarth said, “having heard you using it for the past three months. But how came you to adopt it into your speech?”
“From being a fan of the Rupert Giles Experience,” Chantry said. “I thought it was an Amnian expression. Sharwyn says it, too, and she spent some time in Amn.” Her brow furrowed. “Although… I think I heard Colonel O’Neill say it, once, so maybe it’s really an Earth word.”
“There’s a lass from Amn working at Crossroad Keep, I think,” Thorpe said. “Runs the iron smelting plant. Maybe we could ask her about Light of Heavens when we get back.”
“I think that probing into Light of Heavens’ background might be an extraordinarily bad idea,” Kelleth cautioned. “She’s the best fighter I’ve ever seen – and I saw the Knight-Captain in action once, remember.”
“She told me that she taught unarmed combat to Egeria, the Right Hand of Shar,” Chantry said. “I have a feeling that I might know who Light of Heavens really is – but I’m not going to say a word. I don’t want her to rip my arms off and beat me to death with them.”
Five arrows hissed through the air. One struck the elf seer in the shoulder and pierced her mithral hauberk. She cried out in pain and swayed in the saddle.
The other four were aimed at Light of Heavens. She left her horse in a rolling dive before they reached her and the arrows swished through empty space.
“Hey, that’s not nice,” she said, slipping her war hammer from her belt. “What did Soraevora ever do to you?” Her right arm blurred as she threw the hammer into the undergrowth. When it magically returned to her hand its head was red with blood.
“She is a traitor to the Elven cause,” one of the attackers answered, as he emerged from the cover of the trees. He was a Sun Elf, pale of skin and fair of hair, and he was armed with longsword and shield. “She returned from Evermeet to work alongside humans, and dwarves, instead of striving to drive them out of lands that rightfully belong to the Elves.” Two other Elven warriors, a man and a woman, came out to stand alongside him.
Another salvo of arrows flew out of the trees. Four this time; three aimed at Light of Heavens and one at Soraevora. Light of Heavens sidestepped, avoiding two of the arrows with casual ease, and snatched the third out of the air before it could strike her. The other arrow would have hit the seer but struck an invisible shield and bounced off harmlessly.
“Don’t tell me, you’re the Eldreth Veluuthra,” Light of Heavens said. “This world’s version of the Ku Klux Klan, only with less cross-burning and pointy white hoods and more pointy ears. Racist bigotry quotient about the same.”
“We are indeed members of the Victorious Blade of the People, human,” said the spokesman.
“Sworn to secrecy, right? So there’s not much point in me taking you alive to ask questions,” Light of Heavens mused. “I’m not big on torture. I guess I’ll just kill you.” She threw the hammer again, aiming at the place from which one of the arrows had came, and this time there was brain matter on the head when it returned to her hand. “Eww! Gross.”
“By the bow of Shevarash, this one is deadly!” the spokesman exclaimed. “Laethir! Irtani! Neutralize her, quickly.”
The plants at Light of Heavens’ feet rose up and grasped at her ankles. Simultaneously a cloud of greenish-grey vapor billowed up with her at its center. Her horse whinnied, tossed its head, and trotted a few paces away from the cloud before coming to a halt once more.
Soraevora, who was in the middle of healing herself, rushed the spell and almost lost it. She managed to complete the spell successfully and was about to cast a Dispel Magic on Light of Heavens when she realized that the human woman was laughing.
“Permanent Free Action,” Light of Heavens said, walking forward and ignoring both the Entanglement spell and the Cloudkill, “and I’m immune to poison. You have no idea who I am, have you? Otherwise you’d have brought more than five archers, two spellcasters, and three swordsmen. You’d have brought an army.” She dodged another two arrows during her speech without even missing a beat.
“You are Light of Heavens, lackey of Khelgar at Crossroad Keep,” said the Eldreth Veluuthra spokesman. “You rarely leave the castle and so you must be on some important mission. What more do we need to know?”
“A lot,” Light of Heavens said, “but it’s not like you’re going to find it out.” She hooked the hammer onto its belt sling and quickened her pace. Her left hand went to the scabbard of her sword, tilting it forward, and her thumb pressed up on the sword’s crossguard. “The lesson today is… how to die!”
“The city is under martial law,” said the guard officer at the Neverwinter city gate, “and only citizens of Neverwinter may enter without a pass. A temporary pass may be obtained by donating two hundred nobles to the city defense fund.”
“Two hundred nobles?” Kelleth exclaimed. “That’s two years’ wages for a farm laborer.”
“Or a domestic servant,” Chantry added. “You cannot be serious.”
“Oh, there are separate arrangements for people who come looking for work on the reconstruction projects,” said the officer, “but that doesn’t apply to you, does it? You’re adventurers.”
“I am a citizen,” Kelleth said. “Born in Phandalin, and I served in the Neverwinter army in the Shadow War.”
“And I’m Neverwinter born and bred,” Chantry said, “so just open up the gates and let us in.”
“Can you prove it?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Dulin,” Chantry said, “you’ve been to my house. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
“Bonna’s sister? Chantry?”
“That’s right,” Chantry confirmed, “and you’ve seen me since the Wailing Death so you’ll know why I’m not taking off my helmet. Open the gates and let us in.”
“You may enter, of course, Chantry,” said Dulin, “and so may the ranger, if he can prove his origins. But what of the others?”
“I am a citizen, Neverwinter born,” Aysgarth declared. “Here is my graduation certificate from the Academy.”
“It’s a bit… stained,” Dulin said. “It might be a forgery… and, as the Academy burned down and all the records were lost, there isn’t any way of checking it.”
“We were in a shipwreck,” said Aysgarth. “I don’t know what else I can produce. I have no living family in the city; my father was slain when the Githyanki attacked the City Archives, and my mother didn’t return after the city was evacuated. She went to live with her sister in Waterdeep.”
“I’m not a citizen,” Thorpe said, “but I’ve lived in Neverwinter for three years. I came up with the Lords’ Alliance fleet at the end of the Luskan War and I stayed on. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Dulin. “And what about the remaining member of your group? Somehow I doubt that he is a citizen of Neverwinter.”
“Indeed I am not,” Umoja admitted. “I am from Chult.”
“Therefore a pass is necessary, unless you wish for only the citizens to enter,” Dulin said, with a slight air of triumph. “Two hundred nobles, please.”
“Oh, you mean two hundred for the whole party, not each?” Kelleth said. “That isn’t quite so bad. Very well, then, we shall pay.”
“I had better warn you,” Dulin said, “that there are restrictions on travel within the city. Some sections are off-limits to non-citizens. The residential area of Blacklake District, the Peninsula District, and the Beggars’ Nest are all out of bounds.”
“What? I live in Blacklake,” Chantry complained. “I was going to invite Umoja to stay with me. Are you saying that’s not allowed?”
“I’m afraid so,” Dulin told her. “The boundary has been set at the line between the Theater on the Lake and the Temple of Lathander. Only citizens may proceed down the hill from there. And your house is at the bottom of the hill.”
Aysgarth turned to look at Chantry. “The lakeside properties are rather exclusive,” he commented, his brow creased in a slight frown, “and expensive.”
“I had noticed,” Chantry said. “Don’t worry, if I invite you around for dinner I’ll tell my parents not to make you use the servants’ entrance.”
Kelleth opened his mouth to say something, glanced at Chantry, and then read something in the set of her shoulders that warned him that making his intended remark would get his head bitten off. Instead he took out a money pouch, tipped a heap of five-noble coins into his palm, and counted out forty of them. He handed the gold to Dulin without comment.
Dulin stamped and signed a pass, gave it to Kelleth, and then signaled to his men. The gate swung open.
The air within the metallic ring that was the Stargate known as The Voice of the Lost shimmered as an incoming portal formed; the minor vortex of a local transit rather than the more spectacular display of an interstellar wormhole.
Sharwyn Laummyr stepped through holding a double-sword poised for action. She scanned her surroundings, saw no-one in the vicinity, and lowered her weapon. She walked across to the DHD and pressed down on seven of the symbols. The ring rotated, the chevrons locked, and the vortex billowed out with a ‘kawoosh’.
Sharwyn stabbed down with the double-sword, impaling the earth near the DHD and holding the weapon upright, and then released the shaft so that she could open her pack. She took out the device given to her three years before by Jack O’Neill; a ‘GDO’, he had called it, and he had warned her not to attempt to travel to Earth without sending a signal with the GDO first. She operated it, as he had shown her, and waited until a light on the device’s display showed that the signal had been received and acknowledged.
Sharwyn replaced the GDO in her pack, reached for the double-sword, and then hesitated and took out her guitar before retrieving the weapon. She walked to the Stargate, clenched her jaw and swallowed, and then stepped through.
The journey through space was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. It lasted only a few seconds and then she found herself standing on a flat platform at the head of a sloping metal ramp. A number of guards confronted her, training the Earth weapons called ‘guns’ in her direction, and beyond them stood a man whose bearing was that of a military officer.
“I’m on another planet with you,” Sharwyn sang, as it seemed particularly appropriate to the occasion, and then she addressed the Earth people.
“Lower your guns, I am not here to do you harm,” she said, the translation amulet at her throat converting her words into English. “I am Lady Sharwyn Laummyr and I wish to see Colonel Jack O’Neill, or his leader General Hammond.”
The officer came a step closer. “Welcome to Earth,” he greeted her. “I’m afraid General O’Neill and General Hammond are no longer here. I’m Major General Landry and I’m in charge of the SGC now.”
Sharwyn smiled on hearing the news. “Jack’s been promoted? That’s great. Well, not great from my point of view, of course, but great for him. Please send him my congratulations.”
At that moment some people well known to Sharwyn arrived in the large bare room. Samantha Carter, Teal’c, Daniel Jackson, and the Drow ranger Cierre. They were accompanied by a woman who had not been with them during SG-1’s visit to Faerûn.
After greetings and introductions were concluded Sharwyn was escorted to a place the Earth people referred to as a ‘briefing room’. Once there she stated the reason for her visit.
“The Goa’uld have discovered Toril,” she told them. “They are invading by stealth. Their leader uses the name Zehir but my divine mistress tells me you know him as Anubis. He is a demi-god.”
“Uh-oh,” said Daniel Jackson. “I thought we’d seen the last of him. But she’s going to kill him, right? She said she would.”
Sharwyn shook her head. “She is barred from so doing,” she told him. “He uses only the powers of a mortal of his kind. For her to attack him directly, while he sticks to that rule, would provoke conflict with the gods of other worlds and would thus incur the wrath of Lord Ao. She cannot risk that, not at this time, when so much is at stake.”
“So much at stake?” Daniel queried, frowning. “More than letting your world be overrun by the Goa’uld?”
“Yes,” Sharwyn said. Egeria, acting as Shar’s messenger, had commanded her to say nothing about the Betrayer’s Crusade, and its implications, and so she did not elaborate. “I can say no more at this time.”
“I take it that the help you want is military?” General Landry asked.
“Indeed,” Sharwyn answered, with a glance aside at Teal’c and a brief smile. “It can be summed up by something I said to SG-1 shortly after I met them for the first time.” She shifted her gaze to Sam. “Load up on guns and bring your friends.”
Mielikki and Talona's Finnish phrases:
Ei mitään oikastaan = Nothing much
Tervetuloa = Welcome
Nähdään myöhemmin = See you later
Author’s Note: the last section is a reprise of the concluding section of Debt of Blood; if you haven’t read that story you’re going to be somewhat confused by forthcoming events in this one.
Light of Heavens (whose true identity you all should have guessed by now, if you’ve read Tabula Avatar) quotes from Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost and from I Don’t Like Mondays by The Boomtown Rats. Sharwyn quotes from Another Girl, Another Planet by The Only Ones and Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana.