I haven’t mentioned this before but the ‘Tabula Avatar’ series won 2 awards in Round 31 (April-July 2015) of the Sunnydale Memorial Fanfiction Awards. I don’t know who nominated me but, if it was anyone on LiveJournal, thank you.
And now on with the story.
Buffy looked down at the pool that occupied the central position in the indoor garden. “I can see a staircase going down, under the water, but it just goes to the bottom of the pool and stops,” she said. “It’s not like the pool needs stairs for getting in and out, seeing as how it’s not much bigger than a Jacuzzi, so the staircase has to be the way onward.”
“Maybe you just need to walk down it,” Xander suggested, “and it’ll turn out the bottom of the pool is just an illusion. Kind of like an Indiana Jones leap of faith.”
“Feel free to try it out,” Buffy said. “Me, I’m not getting my boots wet unless I have to.”
“It’s not like water will damage dragon leather,” Xander said. “Although if it was an illusion the water would be pouring through so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree.” Twin streams of water ran down channels into the pool but they were quite insufficient to have kept it filled if the bottom had been illusionary. Instead the water exited through small gratings set into the sides and, presumably, was recycled back to the incoming streams.
“Tree!” Willow exclaimed. “There was a tree back in the lobby. It could be like that thing druids do where they walk into one tree and walk out of another one somewhere else.”
“That only works if one knows the exact location of the destination tree,” said Jaheira. “Perhaps, though, the tree does have something to do with it. It bore enchanted nuts. Some act as healing potions, like more powerful versions of Goodberry, but the others bear a dweomer that I do not recognize.”
“You could try throwing them in the pool,” Xander suggested.
“No,” said Anya, “I think it’s something to do with those statues.” She pointed at two stone figures that stood at each side of a nearby fountain. “Their poses don’t look right, somehow, but I can’t see any way to make them move. The right arm on one of them is on a pivot but nothing happens when you turn it.”
“Let me take a look,” Imoen said. She went over to the fountain, closely followed by Dawn, and the two of them scrutinized the statues. “They look as if they should be holding something, although I cannot guess what,” Imoen said. “I would deduce that inserting the missing items in their hands will open the way forward.”
“That one looks like he’s playing an invisible trumpet,” Dawn declared.
“A what?” Imoen said.
“A small brass horn with finger-operated valves to change the note,” Giles explained. He joined the girls and took a close look at the positions of the statues. “Ah, yes,” he said. “They are, indeed, positioned as if playing musical instruments. A simple horn in this one’s case, I would say, as there is no sign that either hand is doing any fingering. And the one with the movable arm is posed as if holding a harp. I suspect that the key to open the stairway is musical. Somewhere there must be instruments that fit the statues.”
“Bugger!” said Spike. “There was a stone harp in one of the houses where we did hostage rescue. Never thought to pick up the bloody thing. Looks like we’ll have to traipse back through the city.”
“Hmm.” Giles raised a hand and stroked his chin. “Irenicus must have passed this point without the instruments. He does have the advantage of being a native of the city, and so he is likely to have prior knowledge, but I think we should be able to replicate his feat.”
“His feet?” Xander frowned. “If he put them in the statues’ hands he must have done the splits like Jean-Claude Van Damme.”
“Bigger feet are better for kicking the backside of Evil,” said Minsc. “We do not need the feet of the wizard.”
Giles rolled his eyes. “Really, Xander,” he said, “I’m sure you know what I meant. If he passed the barrier by magic then we can too. And I believe I have it worked out. Spike, do you still have the harmonica?”
“Yeah, ‘course I do,” Spike said. He fished the instrument out of a pocket. “All present and correct.”
“Excellent,” said Giles. “In a moment I shall want you to blow a single blast of the lower notes on its scale. I’ll give you the signal by nodding.” He raised his guitar and began to play and sing.
“Someone’s knocking at the door
Somebody’s ringing the bell
Someone’s knocking at the door
Somebody’s ringing the bell
Do me a favor
Open the door
And let ‘em in…”
He nodded to Spike, who blew hard on the mouth organ, and simultaneously Giles played a chord that was not part of the Paul McCartney song. The result was immediate. The incoming water streams were shut off, the bottom of the pool parted, and the water formed a whirlpool and drained away. In seconds the pool was dry and revealed that the spiral staircase now extended downward out of sight.
“Once more into the breach, dear friends,” Giles said, and the party entered the empty pool and descended. The staircase went down a long way, further than the two hundred and sixty steps that had climbed from the forest floor, and they expected that it would lead them to some underground cavern. Instead they passed through a doorway and found themselves standing on the branches of a tree.
An impossibly massive tree. The branches were as broad as the trunks of the trees on which Suldanessellar stood. The trunk was so wide that its curve was almost imperceptible; it rose far above them, its top too high to be visible, more like a modern skyscraper than a living organism that had grown from a seed. And none of them could see any sign of the ground below.
“Wow,” Buffy said. “This is like what a sequoia wants to be when it grows up. Did we get turned around and go up instead of down?”
“We are no longer in Faerûn,” Jaheira declared. “This, I deem, is the Life Tree. The link between Arvandor and the Prime Material Plane. As close to the realm of the Seldarine as it is possible to get without either dying or Ascending.”
“I’m guessing that by Ascending you don’t just mean climbing higher up the tree,” Buffy said.
“Rising beyond the physical form,” Jaheira said, “and becoming a higher being like Egeria. Or even becoming a god.”
“That has to be better than trying to become a sixty-foot giant snake demon,” Buffy said. “I never could figure out why Mayor Wilkins thought that would be so great.”
“Hail, adventurers,” a female voice addressed them. “I beseech you to aid me. Joneleth – Irenicus – has overcome all the forces of Suldanessellar and imprisoned me. Without your help I, and the whole city, will suffer a terrible fate.” The source of the voice was a translucent, ghostly, figure. It appeared to be a young and beautiful Elven woman, clad in pale blue robes, wearing a crown of feathers on her head.
“Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” Xander quoted in an aside to Willow.
“Yeah, and she’s even a hologram,” Willow agreed.
“You would be Queen Ellesime, I take it,” said Sorkatani.
“I am,” the translucent figure confirmed. “Joneleth has imprisoned me in a cage of corrupted magics, near the center of the Tree, but I have been able to project my image this far. And you… you are the Child of Bhaal, are you not? The one from whom Joneleth boasted he had stolen divine power?”
“I am,” Sorkatani confirmed. “He took Imoen’s soul for Bhodi and mine for himself.”
“He was certain that you would not survive to reach Suldanessellar,” Ellesime’s image said. “Without your soul, he said, you would either sicken and die or be so weakened that Bhuraedea – Bhodi – would slay you with ease.”
“Yeah, well, he had that backwards,” Buffy said.
“Then you slew Bhuraedea?” Ellesime’s image asked.
“We did,” Buffy said. “Staked and dusted.”
“It is strange that Irenicus thought I would die without my soul,” Sorkatani mused, “considering that he had managed perfectly well without his for some considerable time. Imoen indeed was weakened, it is true, but I seem to have coped without ill effects.”
“Probably something to do with the spirit of the First Slayer,” Buffy said. She turned back to Ellesime. “It was your idea to take away their souls, right? What on Toril did you think you were playing at, doing something that stupid?”
“They had, by their actions, cast themselves out from all Elvenkind,” Ellesime replied. “It seemed fitting that we should make that irrevocable. And I… could not bring myself to order their execution; Bhuraedea had been my friend and Joneleth… more than a friend.”
Buffy’s brow creased. “There’s something wrong there,” she said. “I could list Bodhi’s bad qualities from now ‘til Christmas – uh, Mid-winter Fest – but I have to admit she did have some good qualities, and one of them was loyalty to her friends.”
“Indeed so,” Sorkatani agreed. “She would not have turned against you without at least some cause, real or imagined.”
The image of Ellesime lowered her head. “I declined Joneleth’s proposal of marriage,” she revealed. “After that Bhuraedea was… hostile.”
Buffy nodded. “Yeah, that would explain it,” she said. “So, what did they actually do that was so bad?”
Ellesime hesitated. The projected image was not clear enough for all of her facial expressions to be easily readable but she appeared to be biting her lip. “It is a matter only for the Elves,” she said.
“Oh, get real,” Buffy said. “Look, what I know about Surface Elf culture could be written on one of Boo’s front paws but it’s obvious even to me that it has to be something to do with this tree. And that he’s trying to do it again.”
“If we are to stop him we need to know the details of what he is attempting,” Sorkatani said. “Otherwise we might fail or even make things worse.”
“Yeah,” Xander added. “We’d never have stopped the Mayor’s Ascension if we hadn’t found out that his big plan involved eating the whole Graduation class, and that his invulnerability would end once the Ascension started.”
“I’m glad to see that you are, at last, recognizing the importance of research,” Giles remarked.
“I’ll hit the books if I have to,” Xander conceded, “but it’s much easier if people will just tell you things. So, Elf lady, spill. He’s trying to Ascend too, we’ve worked that out, but not the version that means turning into a sixty-foot demon snake.”
“He seeks to become a deity,” Ellesime revealed, “using the spark of Bhaal and the divine power of the Life Tree to fuel his Ascension.”
“Got to admit the man doesn’t lack ambition,” Xander remarked.
“It was his ambition that led to his downfall,” Ellesime said. “He chafed at the limitations on magical power that are imposed upon Elves and complained bitterly that it was unfair that mere humans, such as Elminster and Halaster, could perform alone feats of magic that Elves could only duplicate by gathering many mages together in conclave. He sought to transcend those limits by stealing power from the Life Tree. This brought much harm to the people of the city before we could stop him.”
“Let me get this straight,” said Willow. “He committed… I guess you’d call it sacrilege… because he wanted to be able to get as high in magic as humans can. And you punished him by… turning him into a human. Do you see the fatal flaw in this plan?”
“Born and bred in the briar patch,” Tara said, incomprehensibly to the Faerûn natives, and indeed to Willow and Anya, neither of whom had heard the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. “You gave him pretty much what he wanted.”
“He despised humans,” Ellesime replied. “I thought that transforming him into one might teach him that they have worth, and perhaps he could learn humility.”
“And that worked out so well for you,” said Buffy.
Boo, from his perch on Minsc’s shoulder, squeaked loudly three times.
“Boo! Such language!” Minsc exclaimed. “I am surprised at you. But, yes, the Elf queen was very silly.”
“What did Bodhi do?” Buffy asked. “It must have been more than just cheerleading from the sidelines if you took away her soul.”
Ellesime’s image frowned, obviously perplexed by Buffy’s words, but she answered the question anyway. “He needed the sacred tokens to open the portal into this place. She stole them for him, and killed a guard who caught her in the act. Then she fought against us, barring our path, when we sought to pursue and apprehend Joneleth. She slew three more before we could subdue her.”
“Okay, that was pretty bad,” said Buffy, “but couldn’t you have thrown her in jail?”
“We do not have jails,” Ellesime said. “We have little crime, unlike humans, and no way of imprisoning anyone for longer than a cooling-off period after a brawl. We could never have kept someone as formidable and cunning as Bhuraedea confined for long. We would have had to use the spell of Imprisonment – and that is far crueler than execution. No, I decided that severing her connection with Elvendom, by having her soul removed, was the only viable option. I believed that the resultant shortening of her life-span would give her a greater appreciation of the value of life and, perhaps, she would repent once she began to show signs of age.”
“Only she didn’t bloody age, ‘cos she got herself turned into a vampire,” Spike put in. “No soul so she didn’t have a sodding thing to lose. And usually a new vampire gets pushed around by their sire for the first century or so, which is a right pain, but when your brother’s an Archmage you don’t have to worry about that. Bet the poor bugger who sired her got incinerated the moment she rose from the grave.”
“Yeah,” said Willow. “Why didn’t you just, like, send them into exile or something? Maybe with the sentence to be reviewed in, say, fifty years if they kept their noses clean?”
“We feared they would merely plot revenge and… come back with an army,” said Ellesime. She shook her head. “As, of course, they did. My judgement was wrong, I see that now, but it is done and cannot be changed. I can only hope that you can stop Joneleth before he does irreparable damage.”
“That is what we are here to do,” said Sorkatani.
“Yes, well, if everyone has quite finished criticizing Queen Ellesime,” said Giles, “then perhaps we might move on to doing something constructive. What exactly is Irenicus doing, and where, and what defenses does he have?”
“He is drawing power from the Tree of Life into himself,” Ellesime said. “When he first attempted to do so he ripped power directly into himself. It was too much for him to handle, and it overwhelmed him, and when we had overcome Bhuraedea and reached Joneleth we found him weakened, almost helpless, and we subdued him with ease. This time he is being more cautious, even though he is stronger and perhaps able to cope with the power all at once, and he has attached three parasites to the Tree to extract the power and feed it to him gradually.”
“Trickle-charging,” said Xander. “Sensible, I guess, except that it gave us the time to get here.”
“What are these parasites?” Jaheira asked.
“Some kind of fungus magically transformed and enlarged to suit his purpose,” Ellesime replied. “They have guardians to protect them; elementals, I believe.”
“Elementals, my dear Watson,” Spike muttered, causing Giles to smile briefly before sighing and delivering a reproving frown.
“We’ll deal with Irenicus first and then get rid of the parasites,” Buffy declared.
“That will not be possible,” Ellesime told her. “The energy that they send to him forms a shell of force around him that shields him from all attacks. You must dispose of the parasites first before you can touch Joneleth.”
“Fungus, huh? We’d best watch out for spores,” said Xander. “We wouldn’t want them to spread and regrow. Fire and acid, I’d say, but we’ll need to be careful with fire seeing as how we’re in a tree.”
“Indeed so, Xander,” said Jaheira. “It is good that you show respect for nature.”
“Well, I’ve got to admit self-preservation was my number one thought,” Xander said. “Nobody wants to be a thousand feet up in a burning tree.”
“My Flail of Ages is ideally suited both for the destruction of these parasites and the slaying of elementals of all types,” Viconia said.
“I’ve got the Blade of Searing,” said Xander. “We gave the Stonefire axe to Korgan but we’ve still got Frostreaver, right? That’s got an acid charm as well as the freezing.”
“I have two Melf’s Acid Arrows memorized,” said Imoen. “And several Fireballs, of course, but, as Xander says, it would not be advisable to use such a spell when we are in a tree.”
“Death Fog is probably overkill,” Willow mused, “but, hey, better overkill than not enough kill, right?”
“Can Irenicus launch attacks from within the bubble that surrounds him?” Sorkatani asked Ellesime.
“I cannot be certain, as nothing has happened that would have caused him to do so,” Ellesime replied, “but I believe that the barrier is impervious in both directions. It appears to resemble a larger, self-sustaining, version of Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere. And when I first managed to project my image beyond my cage I tried to plead with him. He did not react at all and I do not think he was even aware of me.”
“Then it should be safe to take a look, to assess the situation, before we plan our attack,” Sorkatani said.
“Yeah, some reconnaissance would be good,” Buffy agreed.
“You will not be able to reach him, or the parasites, straight away,” Ellesime warned. “He has severed the branches that gave access to the area in which he has made his base.”
“Damn,” said Buffy. “I’d better get to designing a man-powered helicopter.”
Xander laughed aloud. Giles and Willow smiled. Everyone else looked blank.
“Reconnaissance… Renaissance,” Xander explained. “Buffy likes to pretend she doesn’t know the difference.”
The rest of the Earth contingent nodded their heads in understanding and Spike grinned. The Faerûn natives, whose history had no equivalent of the Renaissance, remained uncomprehending but accepted this as just another Earth in-joke.
“What is a ‘helicopter’?” Sorkatani asked.
“A flying machine,” Buffy said, “a little like the one that’s on display in Waukeen’s Promenade. Funny thing, I can visualize Da Vinci’s drawings well enough that we probably could build one for real. Trouble is, it would take about a month and I don’t think it would really fly anyway. Maybe I can jump across with a rope.”
“No problem,” said Willow. “Give me time to swap spells and I’ll Dimension Door us across the gaps.”
“That will not be necessary,” said Ellesime. “The Tree will regrow the severed branches if prompted to do so. You will need to return to the entrance chamber, in the palace, and obtain nuts from the tree therein.”
“We already have the nuts,” said Jaheira. “I sensed that they bore a strange dweomer and, somehow, they seemed to volunteer themselves to be picked.”
“That is good,” said Ellesime. “You must place them where the branches have been severed.”
“We will do that,” said Jaheira. “It would be helpful if you would lead us in the right direction.”
“Certainly I shall…” Ellesime’s image flickered. “Curses! The… … is runni… out…” Her voice broke up, and went silent, and the image faded and disappeared.
“Bloody typical,” Spike grumbled. “Just when she was going to do something useful her batteries run down.”
“Perhaps if we hadn’t wasted so much time scolding her she might have been able to guide us before she ran out of power,” Giles said.
“We’ll do what we usually do,” said Xander. “Blunder around at random until we hit the right path.”
“Actually I think I can do better than that,” said Giles, unslinging his guitar and running his fingers across the strings. “Let’s see. The important part is in the chorus but I think I’ll begin with the second verse.” He played a series of gentle notes and then began to sing.
“Before me, a stallion pulls like the moon
Sun through the trees tells me I’ll be there soon
The wind cries, ’cause she saw me crying
About the times I find myself lying…”
He changed from gentle strumming to blasting out power chords and his voice changed, too, becoming louder and harsher.
“I must have fallen by the wayside
The wheels crack beneath my foolish pride
Give me a sign in your direction
And show me the road to your soul…”
A beam of sunlight pierced the canopy of leaves and shone directly on Sorkatani. She stood still for a moment, illuminated by the light, and then smiled. “This way,” she said, confidently, and began to walk forward “Follow me. We will be there soon.”
“It seems to have worked,” Giles said, slinging his guitar back over his shoulder. “I really must teach that one to Sharwyn. Her voice would be a good match for that of Julianne Regan. It’s a shame that neither ‘Tuesday’s Child’ nor ‘December’ would be feasible here, in a world where the days have no names and the names of the months are very different from those of Earth.” He joined everyone else in following behind Sorkatani as she led the way along the colossal boughs.
Shar had split herself into ten avatars. Seven of them were interviewing petitioners who had had their memories wiped; explaining the current situation of their forgotten loved ones, restoring the memories of any who so wished, and arranging reunions with those loved ones in all cases where that was possible. One avatar was reading books on philosophy and ethics, borrowed from a somewhat reluctant Oghma, and garnering ideas that she would use in her revision of her Dogmas. Another was watching Eilistraee as she instructed Egeria in sword-fighting techniques.
Eilistraee had brought the deceased Drow swordsman Solaufein with her to the Palace of Loss and he was sparring with Yoshimo, pitting Drow dual-wielding techniques against the kenjutsu arts of Kara-Tur, with Eilistraee explaining the moves to Egeria. Shar was taking mental notes herself; she was skilled with her twin short-swords, certainly, but the Goddess of Swordfighting outclassed her – as, to be fair, she outclassed all the other deities – and Shar was eager to improve.
The tenth avatar was scrying on Sorkatani, Buffy, and their party.
“Yes, teach it to Sharwyn,” Shar agreed with Giles, although of course the scrying was one-way and he could not hear her. “The snatch you played was very pleasant and it would be good to hear the whole thing, especially with your full band. Earth must be a fascinating place, with such a huge store of songs, as well as the remarkable technology apparent in your wristwatches and hinted at in some of the songs. I really must find a way of visiting there some time soon.”
She watched as they made their way along the tree’s mighty branches. ‘I don’t understand why the Seldarine have done nothing,’ she mused, keeping her thoughts silent just in case Eilistraee overheard. ‘Lord Ao’s injunctions against interference with mortal affairs cannot apply in this instance, when Irenicus is conducting a direct attack upon Rillifane Rallathil, and they could claim the right of self-defense. It is almost as if Corellon Larethian does not care that the Seldarine god of Nature could be replaced by… whatever Irenicus would represent. It is as I heard Giles sing, as he worked upon the song he intends for Eilistraee; With all the callous Elven gods who stood and watched it all go on… His reference was to the events of the Crown Wars, and the Descent, but it is equally applicable to the present situation. I’m sorry, Eilistraee, but your father is a poor excuse for a deity. The Elves might as well worship a stone idol. I… shall do better.’
She focused on Viconia and bestowed upon her a boost to her magic resistance, enhancing it to the point that the chances of a harmful spell having any effect was almost non-existent, and empowered Viconia’s spells so that they would have the maximum possible effect. She sensed something about some of the other members of the group, looked more closely, and detected that a similar enhancement had been applied to Tara and to Jaheira. Mielikki, too, was taking a personal interest. Shar smiled.
‘I really must make a point of getting to know Mielikki better,’ Shar resolved. Then, just as she was about to withdraw and go back to observing at a distance, she sensed something else about Jaheira. Her eyes widened. ‘She has not told Giles of this,’ she thought. ‘I wonder if she has realized yet or if she is still unaware?’
Jaheira glared at the gap where a section of branch had been severed. “Such wanton destruction and defilement of nature cannot be tolerated,” she said. “Truly Irenicus is a vile creature.”
“I wonder how he cut through the branch?” Willow wondered. “I’d thought maybe a Mordenkainen’s Sword but this is so thick that would have taken days, even Hasted, and I can’t see Irenicus getting sweaty with a saw or an axe.”
“So didn’t need that image,” said Buffy.
Jaheira cast down a nut and, at once, a fresh branch sprouted from the tree and began to grow across the gap at amazing speed.
“I see how he did it,” Xander said. “A Disintegrate spell.”
“How do you know?” Willow asked, frowning slightly. Of all the group Xander was the one she would have thought least likely to have an insight into the workings of magic.
Xander pointed across the gap. “See that? The cut section didn’t fall to the ground, it’s tangled in the other branches and still hanging there. And it’s a good ten feet shorter than the gap we have to cross. He didn’t chop through the branch, he blasted a big chunk of it into dust.”
“I believe you are correct,” said Giles. “A fine piece of deductive reasoning, Xander.”
“I’m not just a pretty face,” Xander said, “and I’ll add ‘not even a pretty face’ before Fang Boy says it.”
“Bugger, you take all the fun out of it,” Spike said, grinning at Xander.
The new growth reached the other side of the gap and the party moved on. Before long they reached the first of the parasites. It was an odd-looking thing, a brown conical structure topped by a spherical blob resembling a head, with four long curved antennae projecting from the body. The main body stood about eight feet high and the antennae were some ten feet long.
“Looks like a cross between a limpet, a Dalek, and a TV aerial,” said Spike. “Don’t see any sign of any elemental guardians. Should we chop it to bits right now?”
“I suspect the guardians will appear as soon as we attack,” Sorkatani said. “I propose that we inflict some minor damage upon it, to summon the elementals, and we eliminate them at once. The parasite, however, I would leave intact until we have completed our reconnaissance.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Buffy said. “Everyone agree? Okay, get ready to smash elementals. Xander, you do the damaging. On three. One, two, three!”
Xander ran the Blade of Searing along the side of the parasite, carving a shallow slice, the sword cauterizing the edges of the gouge and producing an aroma of frying mushrooms. And, as Sorkatani had predicted, three Fire Elementals materialized and attacked. They lasted about ten seconds as the gang fell on them with swords, axes, flails, staves, and maces. No spells, Willow and Imoen were holding back their resources for Irenicus, but they weren’t needed.
Tara spent a moment healing a few minor burns, the only injuries that had been suffered, while Willow conducted a closer scrutiny of the parasite.
“It’s definitely transmitting something,” she said, “but I can’t quite make it out. Spike, can you hear anything?”
Spike’s brow furrowed. “Yeah, now I come to think of it, I can,” he said. “A sort of high-pitched whine. Like Dawn when she gets told – ouch!” Dawn had punched him on the shoulder. “Just pulling your leg, Nibblet.”
“I wouldn’t worry about working out exactly what it’s doing,” Buffy said, “seeing as how our aim is to stop it. But, like Tani said, we should leave it for now. Let’s look for the next one.”
“Give it another prod,” Spike suggested, “just in case a fresh bunch of the elemental buggers pops up every time it’s damaged.”
“A good thought,” Sorkatani agreed. “Indeed Irenicus might have arranged the defenses in such a way.”
He had not, and a further slice along the parasite’s flank produced no reaction. They moved on, repeating the process at a further two parasites, slaying Air Elementals at one and Earth Elementals at the last. The organic energy transmitters were unguarded and vulnerable. And, at last, they found Irenicus.
The mage stood on a flat platform near the tree trunk, unmoving, inside a shimmering hemisphere of magical energy. He showed no reaction at all to the arrival of his bitterest enemies.
“Evil, meet my sword!” Minsc yelled, and brought Lilarcor down in a mighty stroke. It stopped dead at the barrier and the impact almost jarred it from Minsc’s hands. “Oops! I forgot,” Minsc said. “Boo says I should have known better.”
“Well, that confirms that the force field is impregnable,” Willow said, “at least to physical objects.” She spread her fingers, pointed a hand at Irenicus, and fired off a Color Spray; the least powerful offensive spell in her armory and, normally, not something she would use on anything more dangerous than a goblin. “And to magic,” she added, as the colored rays fizzled out as they hit the shield. “Not that I expected anything else. So, I guess it’s time to kill the magic mushrooms.”
“No, wait,” Anya said. “Before we do that let’s rig the odds in our favor. That barrier won’t let anything through, but it’ll disappear when we kill the fungi. So, we can work with that. We balance an anvil on the top and, when the force field goes ‘poof!’, the anvil drops on his head. Or a piano. Or a zulkir.”
“The musical instrument is a zulkoon,” Sorkatani corrected her. “A zulkir would be one of the eight archmages who rule over Thay.”
“Whatever,” said Anya. “As long as he was heavy.”
“We don’t have any of those,” Xander said, “but I know where there’s a majorly heavy piece of wood. And I think I can do better than just balancing it over the top of The Wizard Formerly Known As Joneleth’s head.”
It took more than an hour of hard physical labor. Hauling up the huge branch had taken everything they had. Even with three of them having super-human strength, and two Giant Strength belts and Gauntlets of Ogre Power for the others, they’d had to resort to Strength spells, potions, and Draw Upon Holy Might before they’d been able to raise the massive weight. Once it was securely on the level branches Willow had taken a leaf from Irenicus’ book and blasted it in two with a Disintegrate spell. After that moving the two sections, and hoisting them up on ropes, had been much easier but still had taken a great deal of effort.
Now it was complete. Two colossal logs, parallel to the ground, were suspended from pairs of ropes looped over higher branches. They rested against the sides of Irenicus’ force barrier ready to swing inward and down, catching the wizard between them, the moment the barrier went down. The suspending ropes were crossed over each other so that each log, if it could swing freely, would be on the far side of Irenicus and thus he would remain crushed between them even after the initial impact.
“That’s going to ruin his whole day,” Spike commented, looking over their handiwork approvingly. “Crush him like a pair of nuts in a vice.”
Xander winced and shuffled his legs. “That’s the general idea,” he said.
“He’s going to have Contingencies cutting in the moment the shield goes down,” Imoen said. “I expect he’ll be warded against pretty much everything. We’ll need to hit him with some removal spells.”
“Start with Secret Word,” Willow said, “and work up from there. Breach, Pierce Magic, Ruby Ray of Reversal, Khelben’s Warding Whip, and Pierce Shield.”
“The last three are out of my range,” Imoen admitted. “I have Secret Word, Breach, and Pierce Magic memorized, though.”
“You do those, I’ll hit him with the Seventh and Eighth Levels,” Willow said. “And Xander can whack him with Carsomyr.”
“And then everyone piles on and hits him with everything we’ve got,” Xander said. “Sounds like a plan.”
“It is almost time to read the protection scrolls,” Sorkatani said. “I think, perhaps, Spike should deal with the parasites. We are only guessing that the Rapture of the Father spell will not affect him. If he is on the far side of the tree then we can be sure he is safe.”
“Rather be ripping the bugger’s throat out,” Spike said, “but somebody’s got to mash the mushrooms and it might as well be me. Lend us the Blade of Searing, mate? If I use Vicky’s flail I’d probably knock myself out. Dunno how she does it. That triple-ended thing would confuse Bruce Lee.”
“We both have talented girlfriends,” Xander said. “Only mine’s more with the crazy plans, based on cartoons, that somehow let us pulverize dragons and wizards. Yours is more with the out-and-out smiting.”
“And many other things, abbil,” Viconia said. “Let us delay no longer. The sooner we slay this plithus iblith, the sooner I can celebrate by taking Spike to bed and fucking him senseless.”
“My thoughts exactly,” said Anya, “only of course with Xander instead of Spike.”
Xander passed the Blade of Searing over to Spike. “I’d never realized how alike our girls are,” he said. “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this. Go trash some toadstools.”
“Deal with two of them first,” said Buffy, “and then come back and report to us. We’ll hold fire on reading the scrolls until you’re on your way to kill the last one.”
Spike nodded. “Waste two of the blobs, pop back here and report, go kill number three. Got it.” He sped away at full vampire speed.
“I should have thought of this way earlier,” Buffy said, “but, the anti-magic scrolls, they won’t, like, wipe out my tattoos, will they? Or, even worse, take away our Slayer powers?”
Willow shook her head. “It’s okay, Buff, I had a long talk with Ribald Barterman when we bought them. It’s only temporary effects they’ll cancel out. What’s left of the Strength spells and potions will go, and anything like Barkskin would go ‘poof!’, but permanent things like the tattoo magic and the Slayer-y-ness will stay. They won’t affect things we’re wearing, like bracers and rings and belts. The versions you’ll be using would disrupt us casting offensive spells, which would be a big drawback, but we got a different type for me and Imoen. We won’t be totally a hundred per cent protected, but almost, and we’ll be able to cast out. I figured the trade-off was worth it.”
“I guess so,” Buffy agreed, “but keep back, so he targets the rest of us first, just in case. Okay, scrolls out, everyone, and wait for Spike.”
A few minutes later Spike was back. “Two down, one to go,” he announced.
“Excellent,” Buffy said. “Go slice and dice the last one and we’ll start reading the scrolls.”
Spike scurried off and the rest of the gang read the scrolls that would, for a short time, protect them from all magic. The next minute seemed, to the waiting adventurers, to crawl by. And then…
The bubble vanished and the sections of branch began to swing, inexorably, inward and down. Spells flared, automatically, as the Contingencies predicted by Imoen activated but Irenicus had time only to widen his eyes and start to say “What…?” before the logs struck him. An instant later the barrage of spells from Imoen and Willow began to strike home. The massive logs obstructed the path of the others getting to Irenicus; Xander stretched over and stabbed at the wizard with the tip of Carsomyr, Minsc followed his example from the other side, and Jaheira lunged with the deadly spear that had nearly slain Spike in the Sahuagin city. The rest of the gang couldn’t get near enough to deliver any blows and had to stand, fingering their weapons, waiting for an opportunity to act.
Irenicus… did nothing. No deadly spells seared forth to strike back at his attackers. One of his arms appeared to be trapped against his chest; with the other he seemed to be pushing against the front log, with no effect whatsoever, and that was the only move he made.
Giles raised his guitar, intending to see if a chorus of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer would bring a silver hammer crashing down upon the head of Irenicus, but he stopped with his fingers short of the strings. “He can’t breathe,” he said aloud, in wondering realization. He could see Irenicus’ eyes bulging and his face was beginning to turn purple. “No doubt he was shielded against every conceivable weapon… but not against the compression effects of a ton of wood pressing against his ribcage. He can’t breathe.”
Buffy leapt up onto one of the logs and ran along it until she was within reach of Irenicus’ head. She brought the Hammer of Thunderbolts down in a vicious strike. A second later Sorkatani emulated her move and attacked with Celestial Fury. Irenicus rocked under Buffy’s blow, convulsed as the shock from Celestial Fury pulsed through him, and then went limp. The two Slayers hit him again and, this time, their attacks had a visible effect. The wizard’s skull-cap split in two and fell away to reveal a massive depression in his skull. Then Jaheira rammed her spear into his neck and it penetrated so deeply that the point emerged from the far side.
Buffy held back her next strike. “I think he’s… dead,” she said. She bent over and peered at where his ears, previously always hidden by his peculiar headgear, were now exposed to view. “Just like we thought,” she said. “Perfectly normal human-type ears. Except for the blood oozing out of them.”
Xander shook his head. “I don’t get it,” he said. “All the things he did and what he was ashamed of was his ears?”
“They were a visible symbol of his transgression and punishment,” Sorkatani said, “as if he had been branded. No doubt he shaved his body hair as well.”
“I can see he shaved his chest,” Buffy said, “but – eww! – so not volunteering to check the rest of him.”
“I guess that’s it,” Xander said. “I wonder why he didn’t just turn himself back into an elf?”
“The mages of Suldanessellar will have gone to great lengths to make that impossible,” Sorkatani said, “for otherwise the punishment would have made little sense. Not that it made a great deal of sense anyway.”
Spike raced up, sword at the ready, but lowered it as he saw the others now standing around doing nothing. “Looks like I missed all the action,” he said. “The bugger’s dead, then? Right, let’s loot the body.”
At that moment the two logs lurched and Buffy and Sorkatani both staggered. They looked down and saw that the body of Irenicus was crumbling away and turning to dust. The logs swung inward through the vacated space. They met, bounced apart a short distance, and then swung back to touch each other and remain still.
Sorkatani leapt down from her log. “The Bhaalspawn essence,” she said. “Irenicus has met the same fate as Sarevok. I did not expect that.”
Buffy flipped herself up and over in a flashy gymnastics dismount. “So, do you have your soul back?” she asked, on landing.
“No,” Sorkatani said, “I feel no different. Perhaps the anti-magic scroll has barred it from returning. This may be for the best. I am free of the taint of Bhaal and the Slayer Spirit seems to have filled the void, preventing me from suffering the ill effects that afflicted Imoen.”
“Maybe it’ll come back when the scrolls wear off,” Buffy suggested. She looked down at the pile of dust under the logs. “Does anyone else feel that this is one big anti-climax?”
“Yeah,” Dawn said. “I never even got the chance to do anything.”
“And the thousands of danter we spent on those scrolls was a complete waste,” Anya moaned.
“Well, the bugger’s dead and gone,” Spike said. “Think this calls for a cigar. I’d offer them round but I only have two left.” He extracted one from a pouch and tried, unsuccessfully, to strike a flame from his lighter. After several attempts he gave up and used the Blade of Searing to light the cigar. “Think I’m out of lighter fuel,” he remarked. “Hey, Red, think you can make me some more?”
“Sure, when we get somewhere with an alchemy lab,” Willow said. “Until then you’ll have to use the sword to light your next cigar. Or I could use a Burning Hands spell.”
“Not sure I want one of those going off that close to my face,” Spike said, “but ta anyway.” Xander extended a hand and Spike passed the sword back to its owner.
“Well the battle’s done, and we kind of won, so we sound our victory cheer,” Giles sang. “Where do we go, from here?”
“We should find Queen Ellesime and then return to Suldanessellar,” Sorkatani answered. “She must be somewhere close at hand.”
“Yeah, caught a glimpse of her when I was on my way back,” Spike said. “She’s heading this way.”
It didn’t take long for the Elven Queen to join them. “So it is over, and Joneleth is dead,” she said. “He will never find redemption. Yet this means that the city is safe once more. There is cause both for sadness and for relief.”
“If you’d wanted him to find redemption maybe you shouldn’t have taken away his soul,” Buffy said.
Giles prodded the bridge of his nose as he reflexively adjusted the glasses he no longer wore. “Please, don’t start all that again,” he said. “I think we said all that needed to be said on that point when we were speaking to her hologram.”
Xander stared at Ellesime. “Hey, haven’t we seen you somewhere before?” he said. “And I don’t mean the see-through version. It was…” his brow furrowed, “…in Irenicus’ mad scientist lair. The room with the glass chambers. She was the crazy lady who said Irenicus had made her and attacked us.”
“She was a clone of Queen Ellesime,” said Sorkatani.
“Joneleth made a clone of me?” Ellesime screwed up her mouth. “That is… disturbing.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the kind of bloody stupid things people do when they don’t have souls,” Spike said. “Never works out well.”
After the rather anti-climactic death of Irenicus Shar had been losing interest in continuing her scrying. She would have abandoned it, and turned the attention of that avatar to other things, had she not desired to see how the captive Drow in Suldanessellar were treated. Then Spike’s remark caught her attention.
‘Spike has no soul,’ she mused, ‘and thus will have no after-life. Therefore when Viconia dies she will not be able to spend eternity with her lover. That is… unacceptable. Yet restoring Spike’s original soul is not feasible, as it will be linked to the alternate version of him that still, according to Tanova, resides on Earth. The Red Wizards of Thay have been experimenting with the creation of artificial souls; perhaps the acquisition of one of those, and imprinting it with Spike’s personality and memories, would be a viable way out of the dilemma. I must consider this further.’
The benefits that she had bestowed upon Viconia had been dispelled by the anti-magic scrolls; she felt mild annoyance with herself that she had not anticipated that outcome, inevitable with hindsight, but was gratified that Mielikki had made the same mistake. She resolved to rectify the oversight, and this time make the benefits permanent, once the scrolls expired. With that in mind she continued to watch, although with diminished interest, as the group left the Life Tree and accompanied Ellesime back to Suldanessellar.
“I see no problem with your executing those of the Drow who are guilty of rape,” Sorkatani told Ellesime. “I am sure that Talabrae, Nathrae, and Chaldiira would execute them anyway if you did not.”
“They would,” Viconia confirmed, “and in no merciful fashion.”
“The rest, however, should be returned to Ust Natha,” Sorkatani continued. “If you do otherwise you risk another war.”
“We defeated them this time,” said Duke Elhan. “Why should we fear another attempt, now that Irenicus is dead, as is the dragon, and their Rakshasa allies are slain or fled back to their native realm?”
“What you faced was only a tithe of Ust Natha’s strength,” Sorkatani warned. “The war was unpopular and several of the Houses held back most of their troops. If you enrage them by executing four hundred helpless captives the city will unite against you – and Ust Natha is twice the size of Suldanessellar, and their women, unlike yours, are almost all warriors or battle priestesses. The army that would march against you would be over three times the size of yours. And, now that he is free of Ardulace’s meddling, Commander Durgloth would be a far more dangerous opponent. They do not want to fight you. If you provoke them, needlessly, you will lose.”
“The prisoners were promised quarter,” put in Sir William Reirac. “To go back on that word would be shameful. The Order of the Radiant Heart could not march upon you, here within Tethyr’s bounds, but we could make your shame known to the world.”
“They are in the right, Elhan,” Queen Ellesime said. “Hand the Drow captives over to the authorities of Ust Natha.”
Elhan frowned. “This whole affair came about because you showed excessive mercy to Joneleth and Bhuraedea,” he said. “I do not wish to make the same mistake again.”
“No, the seeds of trouble came earlier than that,” Ellesime contradicted him. “When I turned down Joneleth’s proposal of marriage, and you declined Bhuraedea’s application to join the army.”
“She did not meet the minimum standards with the bow,” Elhan said.
“Because she was only five feet tall,” said Ellesime, “and her swordsmanship made up for that. It is not surprising that she became resentful after she was runner-up in the city fencing championships and you still rejected her. But it is too late to change those decisions and we have to live with the results. Hand over the Drow captives, as our rescuers advise, and avoid another pointless war.”
Elhan sighed. “I will obey, my Queen,” he said.
“I’ll teleport over and let Talabrae know,” Willow said, “and she’ll send an escort to collect them. Maybe do the hand-over at the camp where we first met you?”
Buffy was taking no active part in the negotiations. Sorkatani, Viconia, Willow, and Jarlaxle could represent the Drow point of view better than she could. She sat with Artemis Entreri, with whom she intended to share a celebration later along the same lines as that planned by Spike and Viconia, and ate curry and rice.
The city’s supplies of fresh food had been depleted during the Drow occupation but the stores of dried and preserved foodstuffs had meant there had been no imminent danger of starvation. Giles’ spellsinging had been neutralized by the anti-magic scrolls but he played along with Sharwyn and she was able to conjure up another Vindaloo feast; enough for at least a hundred people. Many of the Elves had shunned the strange, spicy, food but others had found it to their taste. Edwin had fallen upon it with great enthusiasm, saying that it reminded him of some of the foods in his homeland of Thay, and for some – probably British – reason both Giles and Spike found it majorly funny that Edwin liked curry. And then Giles had followed it up by teaching Sharwyn another song that had produced a range of candies and desserts; crème tangerine, Montélimar nougat, coffee dessert, cherry cream, apple pie, coconut fudge, and truffles.
At the moment Giles, Sharwyn, and Korgan were performing songs to entertain the Elvish children. The song Giles had played to dispel the Rakshasas’ invisibility, a cheerful ditty about cuddly woodland animals, had gone down particularly well and now they were playing something called Lovely to See You; that, too, was proving very popular. Jaheira had illuminated the guitars with Faerie Fire and the children were watching as if entranced.
“Truly Giles is an extraordinarily talented bard,” Artemis commented. “Never have I encountered one with such an extensive repertoire of songs, none of which I had heard before, and the food that he conjured up was delicious.”
“Sure was,” Buffy agreed. “Speaking of which, pass me another slice of apple pie. A fight always leaves me feeling two things, and one of them is hungry.”
“And what is the other?” Artemis asked, as he handed her a plate of apple pie.
There was a popping sound and the plate dropped to the ground. Where Buffy had sat there was now empty space.
Simultaneously Sorkatani winced and doubled up. “I think I feel my soul…” she began, and then she too vanished.
All around people began to stand up and look around. The band stopped playing in mid-verse. “Buffy! What…” Dawn cried, and vanished in the midst of speaking. Imoen disappeared in the act of casting a defensive spell.
“The scrolls have expired!” Willow exclaimed. “Irenicus must have set something up… but I can’t work out what it could have been.” She cast Stoneskin upon herself, to be ready in case she was teleported away into a perilous situation, but she remained where she stood.
For a few moments all of those who had been present at the death of Irenicus held their breaths. Then, as it became apparent that whatever had happened had only affected the two Slayers and their sisters, the others began to relax.
“I shall commune with Shar,” Viconia declared. “She may be able to tell us what has befallen our abbin.”
Giles beat her to it. He strummed out some chords and began to sing.
“Where did you go to, my Buffy
When you were teleport-ed?
Show me the things that surround you
I want to see where you have fled.”
He lowered the guitar and stood for a moment, gazing at nothing, and his face paled. “Oh, dear gods!” he exclaimed. “They are in a large circular chamber, apparently underground, illuminated by jets of flame. All around are hideous, demonic, statues and the whole place positively reeks of evil. They would appear to be… in Hell.”
Songs performed by Giles in this chapter are: Let ‘Em In, by Paul McCartney & Wings; Road To Your Soul, by All About Eve; Where Do We Go From Here?, from the ‘Once More With Feeling’ soundtrack; Where Do You Go To, (My Lovely)? by Peter Sarstedt; and, not quoted but mentioned or implied, Vindaloo by Fat Les, Savoy Truffle by The Beatles, and Nice To Be Here and Lovely To See You by The Moody Blues.