"Perhaps he would have yielded more information had you been there to glower at him?"
They sat across sides of the small stubborn campfire, rising walls of rough canyon rock all around. In the soft glow of the flames, Arkhöd's otherworldly eyes shone.
"Perhaps." When his reply came, it was low and rumbling.
Zalamandra's tail curled and uncurled itself rapidly, a sure sign she was growing agitated... but not with her companion. The fey'ri had performed her first task well, had even gotten some coins out of the old man for her trouble, but not anything more tangible regarding the lich Alokkair... and nothing at all regarding their true quarry: the half-demon Arturus.
"Perhaps", she said finally, looking at him, "We ought welcome our unwelcomes..."
Arkhöd shifted slightly, and then his great shaggy head snapped up and back as he stood. In the distant dark, faint callings could be heard. He turned to glare at the winged elfling, who had gained her feet as well and was already nocking an arrow.
"Perhaps I would have your superior hearing were I to eat those delicate ears of yours."
The fey'ri's quick smile flashed at him and the sounds of her companion's deep laughter wreathed them both as they prepared for battle. They did not bother to kick dirt over the small fire, nor did they seek to hide themselves among the stony walls of the canyon.
They were not afraid of men, not -these- two.
As the first of them noisily crested the rise, led by a bright plume upon his helm, he saw the cause of the little firelight and stopped to stare. The next one coming had a bit more wits to him, and turned back to shout.
Chuckling at the irony, Zalamandra watched as she allowed Arkhöd a first exchange, calmly waited as her huge companion lumbered out to meet them.
Not that she could have held him back.
* * *
Saltarello nearly dropped the wide-bodied lute he'd been holding as Ayo's accusation cried out from an otherwise empty chamber all about himself. The bard smiled tightly and stood, glancing only a moment to where a set of leathers and a riding cloak were laid out upon his bed. The broad crimson slashes of the 'Z' embroidered upon the latter fairly glowed in the lanternlights.
Chuckling, he set the instrument down gently and then spoke a single word.
As the bard's spell unraveled concealing magics in his bedchamber, the Red Wizard's apprentice was revealed clutching to a hand crossbow and glaring at Saltarello over its loaded bolt.
He chuckled again, and did not seem surprised in the least at the intrusion.
"So you care for disguises as I do?" The bard reached out with one finger and set it upon the tip of the bolt, slowly turning the weapon aside. "Well I might congratulate you on your own preference, did I know far less than I do of Thay's blood-colored custom."
Something in the too-thinly-veiled insult spoke to Ayo then, and the mage knew he had been foolish to try to follow Saltarello invisibly, to say nothing of brandishing physical threats.
After a moment, he scowled and shut his mouth tightly, spun about and marched out of the bedchamber.
Saltarello watched him go, let his eyes linger upon the trail of red silk as Ayo stormed out but quietly shut the chamber door behind himself.
After another moment, the bard laughed long and loud.
A shallow titter escaped from beneath the bed, then, followed by a naked arm that bore long twisting bladescars.
"Milady, you make a wondrous 'neath-bedruffle-companion, I must say."
The bard danced forward and bent at the waist gracefully to extend an arm to Thora Telmarch, who took it and pulled herself out and to her feet. Her undergarments bore no dust at all for the experience, which spoke highly of Tantamoon Estate's quality. Saltarello slid his hand in a gentle caress up the swordwoman's arm, jumped from scar to scar, and finally paused at the nape of her neck.
"Perhaps you ought wear that turned about... for now."
She did not look at her cloak but instead enclosed his hand within her own, dragged him into a rough embrace.
"Perhaps you ought have these off... for now."
A thin eyebrow arched at the large woman's forthrightness, and then rose even more as bardic finery was all but torn from flesh and thrown in pieces all about.
Yaran slid the tiny panel shut and held his laughter tight within his throat, the many years of his disciplined training nearly undone by the one amusing sight. The elf slipped quietly back along the narrow corridor that wove between the chambers of the guest wing, where even the hidden places were paneled in fine darkwood.
He'd known he was taking chances, and rather fearful ones, culling together these roughshod folks... but he could not allow the truth to be known: Yaran Tantamoon was an excellent judge of character, and it had nothing to do with the powers coiled within his mind. He knew that his master would brook nothing but success from him, no matter what it was that was spoken to reassure him of anything else.
Yaran stopped suddenly in the secret hallway, a sharp sound coming to his delicate ear.
He turned calmly and made for the little door that led through to the pantry and the kitchens beyond. Someone was ringing the gatebell, the one reserved for armed riders outside gates, not visitors or pleasant callers. Behind him, there was a loud banging flurry, and Yaran easily imagined 'Saltytongue' and Thora Telmarch scrambling to reclothe themselves.
"'...amid woes and worries, even, doth sweet love arise...'", he sang the old verse softly to himself as he threaded his way through the larder, the words becoming a sprightly humming when he'd gotten to the stoneworked kitchen. At the late hour, none was about save the tousle-haired choppingboy, and he looked up smartly from the piles of leeks and onions to stare.
"To the armory lad, and quickly."
Now the house was coming alive with sounds of folk dashing back and about upstairs and down, and someone had begun calling loudly for Yaran to show himself.
The handsome sun elf sighed softly and went to meet Vilurk before the man shouted himself too hoarse for spellcasting.
* * *
"What is there of value left, in all... that?"
Zalamandra peered intently, perched atop Arkhöd's massive shoulder and held in place by her companion's gigantic hand firmly to her naked hip. Daemonfey though she was, even her eyes were no match, however, for those that glowed softly alongside.
"Something... dark. Deep."
His voice was a gentle but terrible sound, like a rockfall just as it came down to greet you.
The fey'ri glanced down at Arkhöd, but the creature's face was impassive. Unreadable.
She fluttered her silky wings once, and slid down to the ground. Even as her hands moved take up her bow and blade, Zalamandra's tail snaked up to tap sharply on the underside of the quiver low on her back. An arrow popped itself up at the trick, and the fey'ri reached back to grab it and nock it.
"Something dark and deep, eh? Sounds like a good place to have our morningfeast."
Already, she was padding lightly down the mountain berth, towards the massive city gates that once must have been grand but now led to a rambling ruin of a road. The humans that had assailed them must have come from there, she mused.
Arkhöd watched his companion for a long breath.
To his gaze, the fey'ri seemed so careless and free... even he understood the unnatural pairing that had resulted in what she was, just as the Generals of his home had made him what he was.
Those terrible pale eyes flickered.
The city was not completely ruined, and parts of it were burning here and there. Whatever had befallen it was still continuing. Ongoing. Possibly would go on and on. The thought of enemies flinging themselves at each other endlessly caused him to tighten his grip upon the massive curving blade he favored, made the bunching of muscle along his arm cause the bracer there to give a loud and protesting sound.
Zalamandra turned back at the sound, saw him and gave him a ticklish smile.
Arkhöd went to meet her and tried to put thoughts of home from his mind.
* * *
Something had gone very wrong.
No, that was not a strong enough word for it.
That's it. Something had gone -cataclysmically- wrong.
"Am I boring you, master Tantamoon?"
Yaran's eyes took in the dark-helmed priest, coils of paralyzing energy holding the elf in an awkward half-dash of partly entering the chamber and partly looking shocked. He'd been met in his own foyer by an armed party of Zhents, two of them holding Vilurk's arms to stillness while another held a curving blade to a dwarven throat. Pell, for his part, looked mightily displeased.
After a brief introduction, Thora and Saltarello were joined to the little party. The last, Ayo, was dragged in senseless and left moaning feebly upon the floor.
"I believe I asked you a question."
The elf shuddered once in the grip of the priest's spell, but his powers were not Art and could not undo what held him fast.
"N-no one... else... here", he managed.
None of them looked to where the estate household had been rounded up and summarily executed. Thankfully, two of the Zhents stood blocking that corridor, and the bloody scene beyond.
The priest reached up and removed his helm, revealing graying hair and pleasant sea-green eyes.
"You do realize we gave no permission for this moot", he said calmly, slowly stepping in a lazy circle about the paralyzed elf, "And we certainly gave no authorization for emissaries to be dispatched to one of our holdings."
Yaran struggled silently against his bonds.
"When were you going to inform us of these events, that is what I wish to know."
The elf's eyes lit up and both Vilurk and Pell turned shocked eyes to see.
The priest had stopped before Thora Telmarch, who shrank away from the armored Zhent a hair or two.
Saltarello saw and snarled and spat. "You- you blackhearted WH-" The gauntleted hand that struck the bard left him both voiceless and bearing a terrible purple mark along his jawline.
Thora stood her ground.
"I was not prepared to make a report yet." She grew visibly angrier with each word, and that made her bold. "I was not expecting my liege to interrupt my mission, nor to shed blood in a house that held no enemy of mine."
"Ya picked a fine time t' grow a backbone fer dat arse o' yers!" Pell Granfaulke had found his voice.
Vilurk's eyes narrowed, though he did not resist the hands that held him firmly in place.
"Indeed. How many coins was it that bought that tongue of yours?" The Red Wizard could not help but glance at Saltarello, how scowled through teary eyes but could not yet speak for the magic that had stolen his words.
The lull in hasty retorts and bitter words that followed then was not altogether natural.
The priest sensed something amiss, too late, and turned to bark something.
Darkness spiraled down from where it clung to the corners of the foyer ceiling, and not a few mouths screamed. There was a terrible sound of fabric tearing... splitting... then a series of metallic ringings as though weapons were being slapped together. The blackness was not pure, however, and in the hazy dimness the confusion-wrought-by-Art showed its work: zhent soldiers had run each other through with spear and sword, one headless and two dead but held up by weapons pinning them to lovely darkwood walls. The last lay on the floor, curled about a blade stuck up from his middle.
A bright purple flash bloomed then, filling the foyer and sweeping the remaining darkness and haziness away.
Yaran leaned against something, saw it was a zhent pinioned upon spear, and stood up and off it.
The priest's pleasant eyes bugged as he struggled in the coils of what appeared to be a giant mauve tentacle, oozing something slick and slimy as it tightened and bulged about the Zhent's neck.
Something gave a sharp snap.
The sluggish tentacle curled forward, then reared back, flinging the lifeless priest into one of the large entry doors.
Vilurk had scrambled into a corner, near to Pell, and gibbered there.
The tentacle writhed slowly amid the ruin of the Red Wizard's apprentice, shifting its bulk back down toward the gore and attaining a semblance of humankind. Along the mauve pock-marked flesh where a head might have been, dimples indicating eyes and mouth sank in suddenly.
"The One Who Lurks thanks you for such a rousing playalong", it burbled weirdly, causing the fine hairs of those present to stand on end, "But the hour grows late for such amusements."
A dwarven curse sounded loudly then, for few things gave fear to the stout folk who delved the deeps than such creatures.
A second 'face' emerged to glare at Pell.
"This moot is ended", it burbled softly.
Yaran acted then, for foolishness or not, and ran a slim brown hand into the neck of his tunic to touch at the tiny silver emblem there. The little harp-and-moon gave up its power to him, and dulled, and Yaran's eyes burst into purplish fire to match that of the gem now glowing above them.
Saltarello, too, turned and ran the stiletto he kept for emergencies just under Pell Granfaulke's arm, into the soft crease. It pumped something far more deadly than any poison then, for the Calishite bard had been supplied with this particular weapon, just in case. The dwarf screamed shrilly as negative energy shot through his broad chest, seizing his heart and making it dance.
The tentacle writhed then as a second will forced its way into the mind of the creature and contested there.
Vilurk shook his head slowly in denial of what had his apprentice had come to... had... birthed before them, and darted for the doors now stained with the zhent priest's life. Something glinted softly in the air before him as he got one open, jammed suddenly on the black-armored corpse before it, and-
Thora Telmarch, slayer-on-the-moors and fabled mercenery swordwoman, hauled up hard on the metal garrote. The ends bit sharply into Red Wizard flesh, and Vilurk was yanked up and back with a muffled shriek. As she twisted and pulled, Thora snarled a curse upon the Red Wizard, vowing to at the least snuff him out before-
Wreathed in purple fire shot from eyes and brow, the giant tentacle writhed and moaned as Yaran tore at the innards of its intellect, noting dryly that the creature was not even all that bright. The elf saw clearly that it had been planted into Ayo some time ago, a larval thing meant to grow and watch at the doings of a particular conjuror in distant Thay... it had been intrigued by Vilurk's modest double-dealings, however, and equally interested in the sun elf's psionic powers.
Yaran grinned as he stood facing the tentacle, savagely tearing at the thing's mind now.
Vilurk gave one final heave, trying in vain to say some fell word or other, one hand clawing at his throat, the other reaching vainly for the open door...
Thora reached down and plunged her shortblade deep into the Red Wizard's back, just in case.
Something glittered there, to the sun elf's third sight, like sunlight dappling a pond...
"No!" He managed to shout just as the tentacle bulged and shot for the woman, several faces opening upon that side of itself to simultaneously echo Yaran's intent.
The Red Wizard's last breath left him, arduously, and as it did some long-carried contingency sparked in one of the many pouches bundled in his girdle.
The estate detonated with a single massive blast, shearing through all three levels and the cellars below too. Licks of fire rose to greet the dawn as burning wreckage began to rain down all across the countryside. A farmer had been up early to draw from his well before the cows were milked, and so chanced to see the horizon light up as a second sun of purple light and orange fire blossomed from behind the hills. He watched in awe as the swelling fires coughed and smoked and dimmed almost immediately...
A smoking bit of something slammed down into the earth before the farmer, part of it blackened and the rest of it glowing softly with heat.
He glanced up and saw that a piece of flaming roofing had landed atop the bales near the barn, and yellow flames danced upon it. Cursing, the farmer tossed the bucket of water he held onto the bit before him and ran down to refill it at the well.
Smoking and hissing, the hot metal ring of iron showed part of a word, briefly. The metal sang out in protest against the sudden cold dousing and then snapped.
Half-way across the realms, the iron ring's twin likewise twitched angrily a moment and then cracked with a shriek.
* * *
In the distance, against the backdrop of black mountains, the purling darkness began to split into orange and pink. Two figures made there way along their base, down a ruined road that led back behind them into the trees.
Much toil and spoils had found them in the open streets of the city beyond, too much to wrangle out a clear outcome. Both had been tested against high spells and fierce bladework, and both had survived to learn something by it.
"Dawn comes", Zalamandra said softly, gesturing with the bag of trinkets she'd gathered as they'd gone.
Arkhöd looked and saw.
"Perhaps we can sell thes-" The fey'ri gave a little strangled shout then as the far and distant Art leashing her gave a little heave and shattered.
She staggered, breathless, and looked to her companion.
The massive lion-headed creature was bent over as well, hands nearly disappeared beneath his shaggy mane. After a moment, Arkhöd righted himself.
His hands came away with pieces of jagged metal.
"Dawn comes", he said finally, his voice low and rumbling, "And it is a new day."
Zalamandra said nothing.
She knew the look of freedom when she saw it.