The war was over — so it was said. The destruction of Saradush had been a mere taste of the chaos which came later. The nations had panicked: legions of war marched across the land determined to end the Bhaalspawn threat. Any village suspected of harboring a Saradush survivor was razed, torched to the ground with its screaming inhabitants still inside. Those who fled met death by the sword. The armies of the Five obliterated the landscape as they fought to claim Bhaal’s empty throne. What survived the fire giants’ passing fell to drow hordes; those that escaped earthly demise met their death from draconian skies.
Eventually the armies retreated. Soldiers limped their way back to shattered homes with shattered minds, and their nighttime screams became routine. Some joined the refugee bands which roamed the countries; others never truly left the war behind. Make-shift guerilla squads carved out viciously-defended territories and became the very brigands they’d once helped route. Huge swaths of land had been blasted and charred beyond recognition and beyond restoration; once-fertile fields now so magic-tained that even the dirt itself was diseased.
Already people drew their calendars from it. Marked dates from it. “It” — not “the Bhaalspawn conflict,” not “the war.” Just “it,” and it was understood. There was no longer a “Time of Troubles” nor a “Great Iron Shortage.” The roll of years had lost its meaning. There was only “before” and “after” — before the Five had shattered the Realms, and after the last had died. Nothing else mattered to the maimed survivors who now struggled to continue day to day.
And in the end, when it was over, the Throne of Murder had lain empty still.
It was a cold day. Since the end all of the days had been colder, the skies darker, the days shorter. No one really knew why, but Imoen had her suspicions. Magical contamination, she thought, but some disagreed. Had the Bhaalspawn been able to alter the world’s very orbit, its tilt, its distance from the sun? Had the gods withdrawn and abandoned the lands in disgust? She’d heard every theory imaginable, but some were hard to believe, even with all she’d seen.
She paused in her labors and drew her ragged coat more tightly around her. Once, before, she’d had the wealth of kingdoms: rare magical artifacts, literally more gold than her sacks could hold. Now her heavily mended cloak with its fur-lined hood was one of her better pieces of clothing — valuable, in this strange half-winter. The nanny goat raised her head from the sparse grass and bleated softly. It brought a sigh and affectionate smile to the red-head’s tired lips.
“I’m almost done, girl,” she promised, giving the goat a gentle rub between her short nubby horns, and finished the last of the milking.
Pail full, Imoen rose and gingerly walked back to the house. It was a shack, really — a remnant of a guardhouse that she’d found standing firm amidst the rubble of a once-proud estate. But it was solid, and within contained the meager furniture scrounged or crafted by now-calloused hands. Over time and with care it had become home, complete with a fenced-in yard made from the fallen stones. In the front lay a modest vegetable garden, and in the rear lived the nanny goat and two young kids. The billy had been slaughtered after breeding season to provide much needed meat and skin.
Once inside, she placed the milk into the cold-box. It was one of the few luxuries she’d managed to salvage after the war. A simple chest enhanced with magic — an enchantment to chill it, and another to bind the spell, resulting in a magic version of the ice-box without the need for ice. It kept foods longer, and those extra days of storage often made the difference between going to bed happy and going to bed hungry. Before closing the chest she retrieved one of the scrawny apples that lay within. The cold seasons had killed much vegetaion and stunted what survived.
With another sigh, she closed the cold-box and crossed to the front room and the curtainless window there. The glass was cracked and shattered, mended by the limited magic which was left. Outside in the garden a lone figure moved slowly, stooped at the waist and hidden within a long brown robe. Steadily the person worked the rows of plants, pruning here and plucking there, tucking fruit and produce into a small clay jug and examining the leaves with care. Imoen watched for several minutes, as she often did, letting her mind wander in the comfort and familiarity of routine.
The figure stood, placed their hands to the small of their back, and carefully stretched their muscles. Imoen pushed herself away from the window and tossed the apple into the air, catching it again as she walked out the open front door. The cloaked gardener didn’t hear her approach, and it was the fond memory of childhood antics which brought a brief, mischievous smile to the mage’s lips. That kind of play was before, though. This was after.
“Hey.” The word was soft, barely spoken. The other turned, eyes darting upward reflexively from beneath the cotton hood. One of those eyes was clouded white, marred by the long gash which ran from hairline to the upper lip. The other was violet and pure.
“I am almost finished.”
“Do it tomorrow.”
“It will be colder tomorrow.”
Imoen’s storm-grey eyes flickered skyward, where the ever-present clouds hung against the horizon. Her weather sense was not as keen, but she had no doubt that the chill would come.
“I’ll help then.” It wasn’t a suggestion.
With four hands the last two rows of the garden went quickly, and the sun still hovered above the horizon when it was done. Many of the plants were suffering, but they would last a while yet. Perhaps longer, with some luck. Imoen had been studying the few magic tomes she still possessed, drawing on her knowledge of the arcane arts to try to master the elements, to guard the small homestead from the worst of nature’s wrath. It wasn’t easy and had provided little results after months of frustrated attempts. It would have been easier with a druid around. Jahiera…
A soft touch under her chin brought Imoen back before she drifted too far. It was too easy to get lost in the past, and too common to wake up screaming. She gave the dark-skinned woman a small, nod. “Thanks.”
Viconia nodded back. “Let’s set the table.”
The drow discarded the dirty brown cloak and hung it on a nail above the window. At one time they’d hated each other, the Sharite priestess and the young thief-mage. At one time they’d marched together only because of Jeric’s leadership, trading snide quips and insults like others traded coin. A working relationship, held together by necessity and a common debt to the man who’d saved their lives. It had barely held together even with that. Imoen hadn’t been the only one who’d hated the drow.
Now she shrugged off her own coat and hung it up as well, and quietly went about setting the table for dinner. It was hand made, obviously from trial and error, with mismatched legs and an uneven surface. But it worked, and the two mended chairs made for a semblance of civilization. Imoen laid out the plates and utensils, while the pale-haired priestess poured their drinks from a chipped clay pitcher. Life was different now.
Dinner was a simple vegetable soup with the last thin strips of dried meat left over from the butchered goat. From now on there would be no more meat, unless they found another source. Cheese cultured from the nanny’s milk served as a side dish. Water was the drink. They ate in silence until the meal was done.
“Maybe we should move.”
Viconia regarded Imoen with her one good eye. “Don’t be a fool.”
“We don’t have enough food, Vicky,” Imoen stated flately, stirring her soup with her spoon. “We can barely feed us and the goats as it is.”
“Food will not magically appear if we go elsewhere.”
It was a jibe, but it was a jibe at both of them. Viconia’s goddess had abandoned her after the war, and the priestess’ powers had vanished as well. Most magic users experienced similar effects. What was left was cantrips, tricks, minor charms. Arch-mages reduced to milking goats. Scarred, half-blind healers.
Viconia had been lucky. The wound could have easily killed. The pocked and jagged flesh had healed, taking her sight with it; the remainder of the cut had been carved across her chest by the barbarian’s double-headed axe. The vain seductress had died that day. Aerie’s desperate efforts had revived her, but she’d lingered at death’s door for over a week before it was clear she would survive. The scars were permanent, though, and the drow’s provocative dress had been replaced with heavy robes and shielding hoods.
Imoen’s scars weren’t physical.
“What’re we gonna do then?”
“We will survive,” she responded simply. “As we always have.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I’m tired of surviving. I want to live again. This is boring.”
The mis-matched eyes rolled skyward. “You are always bored. Tell me, would you rather be bored or dead?”
“I get a choice?” she quipped sarcastically.
“By Shar, you are even more annoying that most humans.”
“You love me anyways.”
Another roll of the eyes. “That, rivvil, is going too far.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She ran with the joke, as she always did, using her humor and impishness to deflect the gloom of life around them. She gathered up the now-bare dishes and began to rinse them in the wash basin. “I don’t see you building your own house, so you can’t hate me too much,” she tossed over her shoulder.
As she set the second dish aside to dry, Viconia’s warm hands accosted her from behind. Imoen pushed the utensils out of the way and tried to turn around, but firm pressure denied her. The hands traveled upward, taking the plain green cloth of Imoen’s dress with them, until the fabric was bunched around her hips. The rough weave of the other woman’s clothing scratched against her exposed thighs.
“I would be a fool to strike out on my own. And you would be a fool to let me.”
Imoen closed her eyes and leaned forward, resting her palms on the stone counter. One dark hand found its way beneath with hand-made shift and caressed the hidden skin. She relaxed to the touch, enjoying the warmth and life that it promised. “Well, it makes the chores go faster, I s’pose,” she conceded. “And you can sew.”
The second hand slid knowingly between her thighs, evoking a tremor of lust and hot curl of need. The drow’s mouth caressed her shoulder with uncharacteristic gentleness even as the questing fingers became more insistent. Imoen moaned in pleasure. Viconia took it as an invitation to lead her to the bedroom.
It wasn’t love, but it didn’t need to be. In the after, you took what you could.
They were waiting for them. A score of drow warriors, armed to the teeth, with Sendai at their back. They came at night, when they had the greatest advantage, and managed to get past Minsc’s watch. In the chaos of the battle and the clash of blades, Imoen had begun casting. Sunray would light up those dark bastards and teach them the dangers of attacking Bhaalspawn. She was almost done with the chant, fingers weaving the magical energy, when a familiar form fell beside her where she was crouched behind a tree.
Jahiera had fallen in the melee, but not so injured that she could not get up. Imoen continued her chant with her eyes on her friend, desperately trying to finish in time. The chant caught sensitive half-elven ears, and for a split second the druid’s attention was on the mage, not the fight. A split second, that’s all it was. And then she was gone. A great hammer whistled through the air and, with a wet crunch, obliterated the woman’s face. It exploded like a ripe fruit, showering Imoen with fragments of bone and gore. The last three words of the spell died unfinished on blood-spattered lips. It was just a split second. Not even time to look away.
Imoen awoke in a clammy, cold sweat and with her breath heaving. Viconia had pulled the girl’s head onto her shoulder and held her gently there, cradling her softly. Once it’d been a nightly chore. Now it was needed perhaps once a week.
Gradually her heartbeat slowed and the terrified paralysis faded. Imoen pulled Viconia closer to her, shuddering, seeking the safety of her touch: that she was real, that she was here, that she was alive. Instinctively her hands drifted to the dark chest, tracing the scar tissue in a morbid assurance that it was truly healed. Viconia submitted to the ritual silently, even when the touch explored the jagged line of her face and the blinded, milky eye.
Finally Imoen lay her head back against the pillow and stared at the ceiling above. She started counting — something she’d started after they’d bested three of the Five, when their group was down to four. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four… The repetition, the rote, the routine, it had helped keep her sane in the darkest times of the war. It helped keep her sane now. Twenty-three one-thousand, twenty-four one-thousand, twenty-five… She was up to one-hundred eighty-seven before sleep came again.
The next day was colder, but work still had to be done. Wood had to be chopped for the fireplace, clothing mended, food gathered. They went out together shortly after dawn, wearing piecemeal leather armor under their coats. It was heavy and stiff, but it afforded protection, and more than once someone had accosted them, thinking the two small woman would be easy prey. No one made that mistake twice. It’d been easier to defend themselves in the beginning, though, before the magic had become so weak.
The walk across the De’Arnise courtyard was routine, and out of habit Imoen cast her gaze at the tumbled walls and ruined gates. It hadn’t been her first stop when she’d fled the mountain lands. Not even her second or her third, although maybe it should have been. But Trademeet had been sacked and Mazzy rumored to be dead. The townspeople of Umar had chased her from the town with clubs and swords, screaming that she was a witch. Valygar’s passionless brown eyes had watched in satisfaction as the taint of magic was driven from his lands.
Next she’d limped into Athkatla, seeking out allies old or new. Someone, somewhere – anyone, anywhere. The city was under martial law and the skirmishes between the Thieves’ Guild and the city guard had erupted into a full scale war. A strong pro-human movement had arisen, and non-humans quickly learned to leave or lay low. Those who didn’t tended to die. The Jansen house had been deserted.
And there in the graveyard, she’d found Viconia. The drow had returned to haunt with the dead, finding a home among the corpses. They’d exchanged a few half-hearted insults, but neither had the will or energy to turn away a familiar face. The blow that stole her sight had stolen much of the woman’s venom as well, and Imoen was just too tired to care. They’d paired up, Viconia shared what food she had, and they sat together silently for hours. A few days later, it was decided: find the De’Arnise heir.
Finding her hadn’t been hard. She was standing outside the main gate of the keep, arms spread to the heavens as they approached. But before they’d crossed half the yard, they’d known something was wrong. The keep itself was damaged and charred, with remnants of bodies and equipment littered about — a fairly recent battle, before decay and wild animals could steal the bodies away. Not unexpected; a castle was a valuable resource in a war-torn land. But as Nalia stood unmoving as they approached, it was clear that De’Arnise had lost.
Her naked body was lashed upright spreadeagle against rough wooden planks. She’d been savagely raped and beaten, bitten, clawed, and cut. Tortured. The rings had been ripped from her fingers and earrings yanked from her ears. How long she’d been there couldn’t be said… but long enough.
They cut her down without speaking, wrapping the body in Viconia’s cloak. They took her back to the safety of the woods and buried her there, in a shallow hand-dug grave. And then they’d planned.
Imoen’s thieving past served her well, and careful spying revealed two dozen armed men now calling the keep home. Careful attacks upon roaming watchmen reduced the number to twenty before anyone suspected that wild animals were not to blame. The armor and goods harvested from the bodies served well enough, mis-sized and crude as they were. Perhaps the men were common thugs, perhaps men-at-arms turned soldiers-of-fortune. Whoever they were, wherever they’d come from, they weren’t prepared for the two small women who’d battled through Hell itself.
Traps, tricks, and treachery took out six more. Their knowledge of the keep’s secret passages and hidden defenses let the women move unseen throughout the castle and gave rise to rumors among the survivors that it was haunted. A few minor illusions and some carefully orchestrated magic assured them that it was. One by one the men were found murdered by the vengeful spirits, and when their group of twenty-four had become a group of eight, they fled their ill-won home.
Imoen and Viconia left as well. The keep was well-walled, but too large for a mere two to defend. There were too many points of access, too many rooms to search… too many memories to find. But the surrounding lands held promise, and they’d discovered the lone guardhouse near the rear of the property. Harvested furniture and goods from the keep — what hadn’t already been stolen or smashed — served to clean it and make it liveable. It was small, solid, defensible — and any passing bandit would likely focus on the keep itself as their goal.
The bulk of the chores — a small basket of wild herbs and roots, four loads of firewood — were completed and hauled back to the house by noon. The wood was always the worst, having to carry it in bundles on their backs for a mile or more. They were both stiff as they shared another apple and a loaf of dry bread. Viconia took care of the household cleaning while Imoen once more studied her books in the high noon light. If she didn’t find a way to help them, they’d have to leave come winter. There simply wasn’t enough food.
The first winter they’d been together had been the worst. Before they’d stolen the goats from a distant farm, too late in the year to plant anything with a hope it’d grow. Viconia had suggested how to save them, as unpleasant as it was. She had no problem with it, of course, but that was Viconia — practical and matter of fact. But people hated the drow with even greater vehemence after the war, after Sendai’s hordes ravaged the country, and between that and her damaged face, she could not be the one to do the work.
So Imoen had. They returned to Trademeet and camped among the colorful Rom tents. The old woman who’d read their palms was gone, but her descendants had remained. And for the winter Imoen sold herself — to the Rom, to the travelers, to anyone who had coin or food to trade. Viconia’s lingering magic and skill with herbs kept her disease- and child-free, and the dark woman’s calm words when Imoen cried at night had helped to ease the humiliation. The red-head hadn’t really appreciated her before that winter, hadn’t understood how strong she really was. Viconia had survived by whoring herself — survived longer than a winter. She’d survived by doing even worse. And just like the battles, just like the stealing, it had to be done. Between life and death, you did what had to be done.
Imoen ran her fingers through her hair in frustration. She didn’t want to do that again.
When the house was clean she put the books away and returned to the woods, alone this time. Viconia would tend to the animals and garden while Imoen took her short bow and quiver to hunt. Game had been non-existent for the last month, but she had to try. As usual, she came back empty handed at sunset.
They lay together again that night.
Viconia had been the first one to mention sex — to demand it, a few months after they’d returned to the guardhouse from Trademeet. Her insistance was violent, aggressive; white teeth bared in ferals growls as the two fought each other in primal rage. Imoen had drawn blood across black skin and doubtlessly left bruises on the dark flesh as she’d struggled. But Viconia had taken her roughly, throwing her against the thin mattress, shoving her fingers inside her. It’d been surprising, shocking, but nothing worse than what had been done in the winter past. Somehow the violence of anger became the violence of need and the pain of the drow’s invasion became a sharp and bitter pleasure. She’d clenched her nails into onyx shoulders and screamed when release finally came.
That release was what they fought for now. Sex was always a release, a way to vent the sorrow and frustration, and a way to forget the past for a time. The more the world pressed in, the more violent it became, and tonight they snarled and struggled like animals. When it was over they lay together intertwined, white skin on black and fire mixed with snow. Muscles thrummed with giddy pleasure and beads of sweat dampened the sheets.
Imoen turned the drow’s face towards her and softly kissed her lips. Her touch was gentle this time as she caressed the woman’s heavy breasts and shifted to settle herself atop her. Viconia’s slim fingers curled in Imoen’s hair as the human’s mouth slowly made its way down her body, across her navel, to the juncture of her thighs.
Once it had been “making love” when Imoen had shared a bed. It could be gentle, no doubt, and the tenderness of Viconia’s touch and the consideration with which she cared for the mage might pass for true love. But neither of them held illusions in their relationship. It was necessity, not affection.
Jeric had been the worst. Imoen’s Bhaalspawn brother had descended into madness. When, she couldn’t be sure. It’d started with Irenicus, but it was hard to name exactly when “growing eccentricities” had become outright insanity. Perhaps in the Pocket Plane. Perhaps when Jahiera died. Perhaps before.
But it was at the Throne of Murder when suddely they’d realized, the two that were left, what a danger Jeric truly was. Melissan was dead, her demons defeated, and the Solar had offered forth the mantle of their dead father, should they want it. Jeric wanted. Jeric craved. The lust and madness in his eyes when offered those dark powers had shaken Imoen to the core. But she’d said nothing.
Aerie had. She’d objected, taking hold of Jeric’s arm, trying to reason with the raving fighter. It’d been a fatal mistake. The warrior snarled and grasped her arm, crushing the bones with an audible crunch. He’d began ranting about how she’d betrayed him, about the avariel desiring the Throne for herself. Aerie’d tried to free herself, screaming in fear, as Jeric forced her backwards, snarling and spitting his rage.
Imoen looked at the impassive, uncaring Solar. Its duty was to serve, not to intervene. And she’d started chanting.
Taking Jeric down by force was impossible. Any spell strong enough to kill him before he retaliated would have charred the wingless cleric as well. But with magic, sometimes force wasn’t necessary.
The first spell washed over him as he pushed Aerie to the ground and began slamming his fists into her head. Imoen began chanting again even as her friend pleaded with her to help. She’d ignored her. She’d ignored her and kept chanting, because she wanted to live, not die. She’d given the blond up as a sacrificial lamb, knowing full well what that meant.
Aerie was dead before the second spell was finished, and Jeric rose to deal with his sister. The black rage and madness on his face made his intentions clear.
Once, she’d been too late. Once, the chant had never finished and she’d spent weeks obsessively washing herself, trying to scrub away the blood of a fallen friend.
That day the spell completed, and four misty, cage-like walls manifested in the astral and began to close around her brother.
“You think you can hold me?” he challenged, raising his sword.
Normally she couldn’t have. But Aerie’s death had bought her time for the first spell, Greater Malison, which made the second all the more effective.
“I’ll kill you, you little bitch! You can’t have my throne! I’m the god of murder! I am!”
The Imprisonment enveloped him. Imoen stared numbly at the spot where he’d vanished until the Solar spoke.
“It seems you are victorious,” it said in its melodic voice. “Will you claim the Throne yourself?”
“No.” She answered softly, shaking her head. “It’s his. They can rot together.”
Imoen’s animated shouts brought the drow out of the guardhouse, wiping her hands against the front of her cloak. The young mage’s face was beaming, a smile nearly bigger than her head. The dark elf quirked an eyebrow at the unexpected display. Good cheer was rare these days.
“Go over there,” the red-head ordered, pointing out away from the house. Viconia followed with an irritated snort and dutifully walked out of the garden. She was about five feet past the last row of plants when a sudden chill and gust of wind lashed against her.
The chill faded as the former Sharite neared the house again. Curious, she returned to her former position. There seemed to be an invisible line that separated the cold, exterior winds from the mild calm in the garden. She cast a glance over at the exuberant girl.
“I did it!” Imoen shouted, literally jumping in excitement. “I did it! It’s small, just a bubble really, but it encloses the whole front yard. I couldn’t make it large enough for the back, but our garden will be okay, and we can bring the goats to the front if it gets really bad. Vicky, I did it!”
Viconia smiled and took off her cloak, letting it fall to the ground.
For the first time in months, it was warm.