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It was a typical night in Lianth.
The evening was balmy, a light breeze freshening the spring warmth, and spreading the smell of renewal, the earth being tilled and the tulips beginning to bloom. Schneider idly played a little game of kicking a stone along as he walked down the street. He was thinking of nothing in particular.
Then, he straightened up with a start as he saw them. There-- walking right down the street! Edyric and Algol Demonstar! Instantly alert, Schneider slipped into the all-concealing shadows and strained his ears to hear.
"....sure this will work, Algol? What if the Sewer Tour interferes?"
"Not a chance. None of them are even in Lianth. Unless you count, haha, the jester!"
"Oh," Edyric said, laughing as well, "I was afraid it might be someone dangerous. Like maybe Wifty Garbonzo." The Web members shared a good guffaw.
Wifty Garbonzo?!? Schneider thought angrily. I'll show them who's dangerous! As the two arch-villains passed by, he stepped out behind them silently, and plunged his short sword into the back of Demonstar's neck. Algol fell in a bloody, lifeless heap to the ground. Edyric screamed.
Little did she know that Schneider had learned a bit of magic since they had last fought. A quick Hold Person spell and the evil archer was helpless, a look of utter fear molded to her face. "Not so tough without your mind-raping girlfriend around, are you, bitch?" Schneider let her get a good look at his blood-stained sword, to let her savor the terror of what was to come, before opening her jugular.
Wifty Garbonzo, indeed!
Feeling very self-satisfied, Schneider resheathed his sword and resumed his stroll. That would teach the Web to mess with him, all right. He hadn't gotten far before he spotted a hobgoblin. Walking right down the streets of Lianth, unafraid and unashamed! One of the monstrous slavers that had abducted him as a child. Horrid memories of his parents' deaths, the beatings he had received, all came rushing back to him. His rage swelled.
"Hey! Yeah, you, you ugly bastard! Where do you think you're going?!?"
"Are you talking to-- whoa!" Bolas wrapped around his legs (a shot that would have done Pluvious proud); the hobgoblin dropped clumsily.
Schneider ran up and kicked him in the head. "So, you like beating kids, eh?" Another kick, right to the guts. "That give you a real thrill?" This time to the crotch. The monster was wailing in pain, now. "Not so tough against someone who can fight back, are you?" Another kick to the head. And another.
This wasn't Rimbor, and Schneider was damned if he'd let slaver filth operate in his city.
He was feeling good, now. It was a great evening in Lianth! A spring entered his step and he continued his walk merrily. Fear not, Lianth. Schneider was here.
He passed the park and heard a voice, quietly singing. A sweet voice. Curious, he moved closer, and then he saw her. A buxom young lass, sitting under an apple tree, softly singing a folk song as she stitched a pattern onto a bolt of cloth. She was pretty. What the hell, Schneider thought, a little carefree sex might be a nice capper for the evening.
It had been a few years, but for a while, just after the Tour disbanded, he had become quite the prodigious lover. True, his conquests had lacked the beauty and class of Faraker's women, but he had nothing to be ashamed about. He'd proved once and for all he didn't need Khyrisse Starshadow.
He'd been careful to never have any woman attached to him for long. Love was the deadliest emotion one could ever feel, it ought to be avoided like a plague. (And damn Roxanna DeLaMattrie for trying to make him feel otherwise.) He had done a good job of the method Faraker once mockingly described as 'hose and dispose.' The only time he had even come close to slipping up was with Cordelia.
She had a plain face and a smile that lit up a room. She had laughed at all of his jokes, taught him how to command a sailboat (her father a fisherman, she loved sailing on Lianth Bay) and was enraptured by his tales of the Sewer Tour's exploits. After four weeks she had used the L-word, and after 6 weeks Schneider realized she had really meant it. After seven weeks, he abruptly ended their relationship.
Yes, she had been hurt, and confused. It hadn't been pretty, the way she cried and begged and cursed him, but he hardened his heart and told himself that he had taught her a very valuable lesson about life. And that he had been a more merciful teacher to her than Khyrisse had been to him.
Why had he thought of Cordelia just now? He quickly put her out of his thoughts and focused on the woman in front of him. "You have a lovely voice," he said, stepping out from behind the apple tree.
"Oh," she said, a bit startled, "thank you. Hey, I recognize you! You're that guy, Schnauzer, right?"
"Schneider," he answered, sitting down beside her.
"Right. I saw your act once. You were really funny."
"Thank you. And might I say that your voice is most enchanting."
"Oh, thank y-- mmmph." The unexpected could be powerfully attractive, Schneider knew from experience, so he wasted little time and clamped his mouth over hers. He closed his eyes. Something-- something about the way she kissed. Something... familiar? He opened his eyes and was shocked.
"Uh, what? My name's L-- ooph!" Schneider punched her so hard her eyes crossed.
"What? You hadn't had enough of toying with me? Was that it?!? Dammit, goddess or not, I am not going to put up with this shit anymore!" Angrily springing to his feet, he palmed a vial from his belt pouch and threw it at her. It shattered and she began to cough as the fumes wafted up into her nostrils. Then he cast Burning Hands, and suddenly the girl was a blazing pyre.
It was difficult to say which was worse, the shrieking or the stench. Both were indescribable.
Schneider watched until both had died out. He wasn't so merry now. Something was wrong.
An audience! That was what had been missing from the evening. That and some good old fashioned comedy.
He set off to go create some.
Lurso gently helped Miirap into a chair, then changed the sheets on his bed. With equal efficiency, she helped him back into bed, arranged the pillows to try to best comfort him and pulled the blankets up to his shoulders. She knelt beside the bed, invoked the Bringer of the Gift six times, prayed for Miirap's recovery-- as she did every night, hopeless as this was-- then kissed him on the forehead and put out the light. Hopefully it would be a good night, and he might awaken with terrors only once or twice.
Such nights had been unfortunately rare since Talitha's departure.
Lurso had first met Talitha on their first day at seminary together. They had been roommates, trained together for their futures as members of the sisterhood. They had studied together, prayed together for the Reunification of Pysyri, practiced their use of the Gift together. The day when Talitha mastered Energy Containment had made Lurso as proud as if she herself had achieved this difficult power.
They had also gotten into more than a little trouble, resulting in more than a little time saying penance and scrubbing the floors in the church or the dorms. This had been mostly Talitha's fault, but in truth, Lurso hadn't minded. She had grown up an extremely serious girl, concerned almost entirely with academics. She had shown early promise with the Gift, and it was a given from age six that she would pursue a life as one of the Sisterhood-- the clerics of Pysyri. This had garnered her much respect amongst her peers-- but few friends. Until Talitha. She had first kissed a boy because Talitha had literally dared her to do so. She still remembered the day during break when some of the seminary students had gone swimming. Several classmates teased her about her fear of jumping into the lake from a ledge that must have been twenty feet above the water. She never would have done it-- humiliated though she was-- had not Talitha gone with her. They plunged into the water after a breath-stealing drop, literally hand-in-hand.
Talitha's skill with the Gift, her unshakable devotion to the Goddess, her buoyant personality, all had won her many friends and supporters among the Sisterhood. She probably should have been a leading candidate for a high priestess position. But though popular, Talitha was far from a wise politician. She spoke her mind with brutal honesty, and didn't give a rat's ass who might be offended, for reasons of dogma or social nicety. A Sister of Pysyri was dedicated to learning truth, she often said, not burying it under obfuscating haze and foolish social ritual.
Lurso thought of Talitha's words often after she met Miirap-- and after meeting Defense Minister Talakan.
The olive-skinned government official had been seeking those with the Gift to aid in a secret project in the war against the kiljhacs of Cynystra. One that would bring the barbarians to their knees, he vowed in a very self-satisfied manner. (An impression enhanced by the way he attempted to mispronounce his own name to mean "he who should be worshiped." Lurso found him distasteful immediately.)
Miirap was fourteen then. An eager young lad who showed some talent for the Gift. He said he wanted to be a cleric of Pysyri when he grew up. (For the Sisterhood-- despite its name-- did have a few male members.) He was so confidant, so trusting in the Goddess. "Together, we can probably do anything!" he had told Lurso before setting off with the military officials for the gestalt. She prayed for his success. If only she had known.
When he had been found, he was alive. Not all of the participants in the gestalt had survived-- and they were the lucky ones.
Miirap's lovely, violet-haired body would not stop trembling. He was left unable to speak, incapable of feeding himself, walking, even controlling his own bodily functions. His sleep was regularly disturbed by nightmares that made him awaken, shrieking at the top of his lungs-- sometimes for hours. Occasionally he would try to bite people, or randomly vomit.
His beautiful mind was decimated beyond belief. No thoughts save chaotic instincts inhabited his brain. Telepathic probes located no trace of who he had been. Psychic surgery proved pathetically ineffective. "What could they have attempted to do?" Lurso said, shivering in unabashed fear as she looked at him. The government refused to disclose any information, but the Sisterhood could not be held in check for long.
"Tarqar vi Dir?!?!" Talitha had shouted, fists clenched in rage. "What did that madman of half-bestial ancestry think he was doing?!?"
The tribunal that the Sisterhood had convened was the most rancorous church assembly Lurso had ever seen. Talitha claimed that Minister Talakan had known full well what would happen to those who tried to use the Gift to awaken the monster, and demanded angrily that he be sentenced to death. Others insisted that with Talakan not present, there might be facts they didn't know, and urged a stay. Still others, including more than one of the high priestesses, said that they should trust the government's intentions. Talitha accused them of sacrificing principle and commitment to Pysyri in favor of political expediency. One of the high priestesses pointedly attacked Talitha's patriotism. Things degenerated from there. In the end, tempers still simmering, the stay had been granted until Talakan could speak on his own behalf.
Talitha had insisted that Miirap, whose parents had perished in the war, be kept in the church, and tended to his many needs herself. Others whispered that perhaps Talitha was suffering from excessive hubris, but here Lurso defended Talitha steadfastly. Talitha herself suggested that Miirap might teach some of the Sisterhood something. For her own part, Lurso thought the lesson had something to do with humility, with the dangers of power.
Miirap was not easy to care for, but over the following months, his condition improved a little bit; he passively accepted his care, at least, but only from Talitha. Lurso was still terrified of him, and prayed almost daily that the Goddess have mercy and never reduce her to such a wretched state. This only made her feel callous and guilty. Anguished, she confessed her feelings to her old friend.
"Spend some time with him," Talitha said. "Help me feed him, say your evening prayers in his room, anything."
"I, I don't know if I can. I lack your courage, Tali."
"It's just another ledge to jump from," Talitha replied gently. And so, on occasion, she accompanied Talitha in her care of the invalid. These days turned out to be few. A miracle occurred.
The Reunification happened. After thousands of years, what was six became one again. Pysyri was whole once more.
There was celebration, prayer, reflection among the Sisters. The full histories of the Goddess, how she brought the Gift to the Diari, the Psychic Wars, were recited in all their glory. Only one part remained untold-- what had led to the Reunification?
The tragic end to the war, and the completion of the wall, forestalled these questions, but they resurfaced soon enough. There were no answers forthcoming from the Sisterhood's leaders. Finally, Talitha herself entered a deep oracular trance in an attempt to commune with Pysyri and discover the truth. Lurso regretted that Talitha did so for the rest of her life.
The answer, Talitha announced gravely, was that Pysyri had been reunified through the efforts of a kiljhac-- one with the Gift! What a blasphemous horror, the other sisters cried, fearfully crossing themselves. An impossibility is more like it, Lurso declared. (Really, the others should not be so credulous!) She, and the others waited for the high priestesses to declare Talitha's findings to be nonsense, as of course they must be. It pained her greatly to see Talitha's determination lead her to such humiliation.
But no denials from the high priestesses came. When pressed, they merely pursed their lips in silence. More and more people came to the realization that Talitha was correct. Lurso begged her friend for forgiveness for doubting her; "forgiven and forgotten," Talitha said with a laugh.
No one was certain what to make of this revelation. Certainly, a kiljhac with the gift was an abomination-- should such a being not be killed if ever encountered?
Are you demented? Talitha would reply in an insulting retort. Have you forgotten what this kiljhac achieved? That we owe him a great debt for the Reunification?
Some agreed with Talitha, Lurso suspected, but few dared voice any sentiments in that regard, save Talitha herself. She made shocking statements accusing the elders of nigh-heretical suppression of the truth in the name of a politically motivated dogma. Controversy and heated debate began to swirl beneath the calm-- but increasingly uncalm-- surface at the church.
One night, Talitha came to Lurso's room and announced something quite terrible. She was going to leave Diaria for the land of the kiljhac, seeking the one responsible for the Reunification. She had to know more about him, had to formally thank him, as an official representative of Pysyri. Lurso felt steel grip her heart. Talitha had gone mad. She begged her not to leave. What of the horrors of the filthy barbarian lands-- they would destroy her body with disease and her mind with depraved thoughts. Talitha had always been incredibly stubborn, and insisted that her fate was set-- she would seek out the man whose name roughly translated as "the thinker."
Tears streaming down her face, Lurso begged her not to go. Talitha hugged her and Lurso wanted the embrace to never end. "Please, Lurso," Talitha whispered, "promise me you will take good care of Miirap."
"I swear by the Goddess I will."
"Thank you. I love you, my sister." And then, Talitha was gone.
Taking a deep breath, Lurso steeled herself and entered Miirap's room. It took a courage she hadn't known she possessed. She twitched in fear at his screams. She was nauseated and repulsed at first when she had to clean up his excrement, which he freely ejected in his own bed. Sometimes she thought she would never develop Talitha's patience in getting him to eat, lacked the physical strength to carry him on his daily walks, thought her sleep schedule would never adjust to the frequent disruptions he gave it.
But she proved herself wrong.
At first, absent Talitha, Miirap was worse than ever and Lurso cursed Minister Talakan on a daily basis. But he got better, and while still mute, unthinking and physically helpless, Miirap improved over the next five years. She even began to have hope that he might speak again one day. She found spiritual power in saying her prayers beside his bed while holding his hand. She asked the Goddess to let some of her thoughts, her deeds, strengthen Miirap. She began to be affectionate, even protective, of the boy. The others gradually began to respect her dedication to him as altruistic, and some even saw her as the torch-bearer for Talitha's zeal, tempered by a less stinging tongue.
If only I did have your faith, sister, she thought.
One night, Lurso had a dream.
She dreamed that she was walking through the streets of Ekyarn, and an incredible unease had gripped the entire city. Before her eyes, two total strangers began a vicious fistfight. Wild rumors were circulating-- that the Cynystrans were preparing to besiege Diaria again, that the gods were dead, that the Emperor was dead, that the whole world was coming to an end. Madness. She had to get back to the temple. The Sisterhood would have to find what was causing this unease and stop it. Certainly, thousands of years of Diari civilization could not be easily stripped away. It took her a long time to find the church-- she actually got lost! Wasn't that always the way of walking in dreams? In her dream, the church was almost abandoned. Where could everyone have gone? She went to her room, and found herself unable to stay still. She paced frantically. Miirap began to weep and wail and just wouldn't stop. He began to irritate her. She just couldn't think with him making such an unholy racket. Finally, she could stand the noise no longer and slit his throat just to shut him up.
When she woke up at the foot of Miirap's bed, drenched in his blood, she realized that it had been no dream.
Then, the nightmare really began.
No sign of civilization anywhere within a hawk's sight, they made camp in an open field under the stars. The grass was soft as eider feathers, the evergreen trees spread a glorious perfume for any who cared to draw breath. The timeless stories of the constellations danced in all their glory above them. And yet, it was a long time before Phillip Ino noticed any of this. All his mind and body was absorbed in one thing, Nora beside him, and below him and above, until it was as though the same blood flowed through each of their veins.
"I think I'll just keep you here forever," she finally said.
"Yes." Her hands caressed his neck and the small of his back. "I'll hold you and sustain you and protect you forever."
He laughed. "Oh, I'm such a delicate flower, am I?"
"Yes," she answered, laughing also and pausing to kiss him on the shoulder. "You're too loving and too wonderful for a world like this."
"How do I ever survive?"
"Because I'm here. I'll never let anything bad happen to you. I'll keep you safe in my heart always."
"Do you love me that much?"
"Of course." The two moons glowed their approval.
One of them had actually tried to leave. That was when Phillip Ino really got angry.
Stupid goblins. Nothing but two-legged vermin. If they weren't ready to serve him as the new ruler of this kingdom, then they simply had to be cleansed. No great loss for him, or for Nora-- he could find her other subjects to rule. And no great effort for him and his Other to cleanse.
Phillip Ino knew the ways of goblins all too well. And elves. And the little folk. And orcs, ogres, giants, the trollborn, the t'skrang and a dozen other humanoid races. As he and Nora had traveled the many lands of Ataniel, the spousal warriors for justice, they had encountered many nations and tribes of strange beings. But Phillip had always been able to communicate on their own level. As often as steel and fire and water had been necessary, he was able to find solutions to the problems that plagued the lands they traveled. "The greatest negotiator since Alain MacLir," one Bryttain had called him, once.
But he grew tired of people, human or otherwise. Tired of their pettiness, their stupidity, their whining and their weaknesses. What right had they to expect his aid? How dare they impose their self-created difficulties upon Nora? Enough with clever logic and soothing words; why couldn't they just shut up and do what they were told?
Here, in the catacombs under Lianth, here was a place he and Nora could begin anew. It might not look like much, at first. But it was vast, as vast as the city above, at least. He had the artifact. He had a kingdom of their very own that could hold a lifetime's worth of adventure and wonder. He had a society of servants who should have been able to perceive their inferiority, their place (namely, doing whatever he commanded), even with their tiny brains.
How pleased Nora would be! He thought of her remarkable, muscled body, with legs up to there, and could barely contain his excitement. Ah, tonight she'd be positively begging him.
Then, in shameful cowardice, one of them had tried to flee his august presence. His Other had charred the flesh from its bones in seconds. If they would not serve him, they would serve just as well as examples!
In the end, the goblin king had begged for mercy, begged him to spare the lives of his few remaining subjects. It was a mercy which Phillip Ino did not grant. What reason had he to do so? There would be other to enslave for his needs or desires. It didn't really matter who. Any who opposed him would perish. Anyone.
Nora would be arriving soon. He could feel it...
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