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Chapter 5. Gathering Shadows

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Chapter 5.1 No Place Like Home

Orion sets down his glass of wine and flips over a leaf in the book he is reading, one he found in the Blue Alley, A Short History of Waterdeep, the City of Spendors. The current chapter tells of Ahghairon, a wizard who made himself Lord of Waterdeep by slaying the Warlord who ruled the city. The book speaks glowingly of Ahghairon's rule, his fairness and the prosperity of the town under him. "Imagine that, Nicodemus. A benevolent dictatorship."

The cat in his lap purrs and rolls over on its back for him to rub its belly. He strokes its black fur absent-mindedly as he continues to read. The cat is a familiar companion, a creature summoned by him in a magic ritual. In all respects it appears to be a normal cat, except for its two pale blue eyes that seem to possess an almost human intelligence. It attacks his hand playfully, biting at his thumb.

The wine begins to go to the mage's head, making him drowsy. He closes the book and sets it beside the wine glass, then picks up the glass and takes another sip. Leaning back comfortably in the chair, he gazes appreciatively at his surroundings. No longer living in the cramped quarters of Madame Garah's boarding house, he has taken a house in North Ward where Watch Alley runs south from Farwatch Tower to Black Dog Alley. It's not large, but a fair bargain for the price. The owner is a lord who lives in a villa outside the city. The moneylender, Ultas Maernos, helped him find it, and handled all the negotiations for him.

The house is a small cottage with an enclosed garden off the east side. With winter fast approaching, the herbs and flowers in the garden have died and gone to seed. The cottage is divided into two halves, a sitting room and sleeping room on the north end, and a kitchen and dining area on the southern end. The kitchen is on the east side with a door that gives out into the garden. A fireplace in the sitting room keeps the cottage warm, and another in the kitchen provides him a place to cook meals. Below the house is a small cellar and a jakes that drains into the city sewers.

He was able to pay in advance for the first six months' rent using money from the sell of items taken from the Blue Alley on his last trip. Some of the items turned out to be surprisingly valuable. The small wooden box had contained a metal box with a will-o-wisp inside it. He managed to sell the creature to the mage Jannaxil Serpentil on the advice of Alek Lentner. Jannaxil turned out to be an urbane old man with a slimy personality. He was a poor negotiator. His eyes had lit up at the first mention of the odd monster, and his obvious eagerness to acquire it probably cost him a few hundred gold more than he might have paid if he had kept a cooler head. Orion chuckles at the memory.

Most of his time during those three tendays since rescuing Nallana was spent on researching the Tome of Shadows and copying spells from the guild library into his spellbook. He's had very little spare time, but he has managed to visit Nallana a few times at the Temple of Beauty. Her growing friendship with Dhaera has helped her greatly. It's possible to see now the great beauty that must have attracted Keilier to her in the first place. She is still gaunt from her years of hunger, though, and the strain of her horrible memories still shows around her eyes. Her attitude towards Orion has been a mixture of gratitude and shyness. She seems reluctant to get close to him.

Dhaera's behavior has also been odd. The priestess has grown almost cold towards him. At first, Orion thought she was just grieving because the attempt to return Gavin from the hereafter had failed. He had been dead far too long, and his spirit would not heed Ssaeryl's call. Instead, they held a funeral for him and then interred his remains in the City of the Dead, in a special tomb for the faithful of Sune.

Lately, though, Orion has begun to realize that there is more to Dhaera's coldness than grief. She seems to be developing an active dislike for him. He still sees her, because she insists on being around when he visits Nallana. She hovers over the girl protectively as if he might do something to her. It has begun to be irritating. His offer to help Nallana return to her home in Daggerford has been rebuffed by Dhaera on several occasions. "She is still to weak to make such a trip," the priestess insists. "She cannot travel before the spring after the snows have melted." Nallana has accepted this complacently. She seems to be happy where she's at for the time being.

Chapter 5.2 A Family Reunion

Orion crouches in the dark alley waiting for the guards atop the cemetary wall to pass. He absent-mindedly strokes Nicodemus's fur, while the cat purrs and rubs its face against his hand. The footsteps of the guard patrol echo softly in the still night, growing louder and then fading away. Moving forward quickly, he unhooks his rope from his pack. Shaking loose a few coils, he gives the grappling hook on the end a couple of swings and tosses it up on top of the wall. It clangs slightly when it hits, and he winces at the noise. The grappling hook and top five feet of the rope are visible in spite of the invisibility spell that enfolds him. If anyone were to walk past now, they would see the short length of rope seeming to hang from the wall.

He draws the rope towards him slowly until the grappling hook catches on a parapet. Testing it to make sure it will hold his weight, he reaches down and picks up his cat, tucking it safely inside his jacket. Nicodemus meows anxiously and digs his claws into the mage's chest. "Shhh-ouch! It's alright, Nicodemus. We'll be over in just a moment." He begins to climb hand over hand until he reaches the top and lies down for a moment, panting. Nicodemus peers out from inside his jacket reproachfully. Regaining his breath, he lowers himself down the other side of the wall, and shakes the rope until the grappling hook drops and he can recoil the rope.

The inside guard almost surprises him. He hears footsteps crunching on the gravel path and freezes. The light from a lantern flashes over him and one of the guards glances in his direction. His eyes slide across him, unseeing. The lantern moves on down the path. He puts the rope into his pack, and unties the straps holding his staff to the pack. Gripping it tightly, he makes his way across the cemetary, cutting between the tombs and ducking through shrubs. At last he reaches the other side, and waits for the guard to pass once again, headed south. A few moments later, he is standing in front of the doors of the black tomb. The carved demons seem to come alive in the shadows, twisting and writhing over the tarnished surface of the ancient brass doors. Orion presses his hand against the doors, seeing if they will open up.

A dizzy spell comes over him, and he suddenly finds himself standing in a wide room dimly lit by a flickering torch in a sconce to his right. Across the room is a hallway with open doors. In the shadows of the room, something is moving. Nicodemus hisses, and his ears flatten against his head. A shuffling noise and low moan. The movement draws closer. It is all around him.

Orion bolts for the doors, quickly glancing inside to make sure there are no other threats before turning around to face the zombies from the cover of the doorway. He grips his staff in both hands, prepared for battle.

The zombies shuffle into the light of the torch, ten of them all together. They form two lines, making a path from the entry door to the hallway door. There they stand, rigid, almost as if at attention.

Orion looks at the Zombies, then down to Nico, "I think you scared them. Come on, let's see what other strange things await us." He turns and investigates the hall behind him.

With a suspicious glance at the zombies, Nico turns his back and rubs against Orion's legs. The young mage looks down the hallway before him. It's about twenty feet long with two doors on either side. At the far end, another torch casts a faint light, and an archway opens into blackness.

Orion puts his ear to the first door on the left. All is silence beyond. He tries the handle but it is locked. Shrugging, he steps forward to the next door on that side. He tries the handle and again, it's locked. He glances at the archway, the blackness beyond is absolute. His eyes cannot penetrate it. From out of the darkness comes a dry rasping voice, "Welcome, my son."

Orion looks into the Archway, "Son? Do we know each other, I cannot see you...and I don't recognize the voice..."

"Son... grandson... great-great-grandson... It is all one. Thou art of my blood, for the shadows hath called thee to me. Step forward, and gaze upon thy sire."

Orion walks through the archway slowly. Nicodemus meows anxiously, and the sound echoes in the shadows around them.

A low light springs up, parting the darkness and making a path across the room beyond. The shadows encircling the light hint at a vastness beyond, but before him is only a narrown path of light leading to a raised dais on the far side of the room. Upon the dais a throne, and sitting on the throne a robed, skeletal figure with bright red lights where his eyes should have been.

Orion approaches the throne, and bows his head down in respect of such an obviously powerful being. "The shadows have called, and I have come to heed that call."

A dry chuckle comes from somewhere in the chest of the seated figure. "What dost thou seek, my son?"

"I seek the power to find and destroy those that took my parents away from me."

"Revenge...." The word comes out slowly, savoringly. The piercing red lights bear down on Orion, studying him. "Very good. And what else?"

Orion looks up, and for the first time in a long time, thinks about what he would want were he to ever succeed in avenging his parents. "I want to become a powerful, respected...even feared...Wizard. I want to shake the world from the Spine of the World up to the gods themselves."

The lights seem to glow brighter, and the dry parchment of the creature's face crinkles slightly around the lipless maul of its mouth. "Indeed! The fruit falleth not far from the tree..." He rises and steps down off the dais to study Orion closer.

"Hast thou ever wielded absolute power over another soul, my son...?" He studies the young mage. "I do not think thou hast. Observe!" He claps his bony hands together and in a commanding voice says, "Come forth!" From out of the shadows of the tomb twenty zombies shuffle forward, wearing meager shreds of tattered clothing, their rotted flesh hanging grotesquely from their bodies, bones and muscles obscenely exposed to the view of the world.

He turns to the nearest one and places his hand on its head. "Inside the head of this creature once burned the light of reason. It directed his actions, turned him this way and that. He could supply his own wants and needs, make his own decisions; now he is but an empty vessel. He moveth only at my command. "Raise your arm!" The creature raises its arm. "Wave at my guest." It waves in Orion's direction. "Smile." It smiles, and two loose teeth fall out of its head. A dry chuckle escapes the lich's mouth. "Now, THINK!" The zombie merely stands there doing nothing.

"Ah. There, thou seest. We hath reached the limits of earthly power. The one thing I cannot command my creature to do is to use his mind. Thus it is with the living too. When one holdeth the power of life and death over another person, that person's judgment is replaced with one's own. The people I ruled became like zombies, their eyes dull and lifeless, their limbs moving only as I commanded.

"Of course, there were a few who could not be so easily conquered." His hand moves again to stroke the dank, scraggly hair of the zombie next to him. "He was one such. I tried to break him, but he insisted on doing his own thinking right up until the very bitter end. And it was a very bitter end for both of us, though I dare say, more so for him. I had killed the one man in my kingdom worthy of my respect. The rest were sheep-with a few wolves hiding behind veiled eyes waiting to stab me in the back. This was the only man who had the courage to stand up in front of me and speak out against the power I wielded over him.

"As his reward, I tortured him to death. I animated his corpse after I killed him just to show him that he could be commanded, but I knew even as I did it what a hollow, foolish gesture it was. The thing within him that had resisted me had fled this world. It had gone beyond my control. This was all that I commanded, mindless flesh."

The lich pauses, the red pinpoints of light in his eye sockets seem to stare off into the distant past. "Dance for me, Vardath." The zombie begins to shuffle around the room, turning slowly in an obscene mimicry of a waltz. "Thou shouldst have seen him when he was alive. Such grace!"

Coming out of his reverie, he turns back to Orion. "Is this what thou seekest, my son? Is this the power that thou wouldst wield? Take a father's advice and flee from it!" A hollow laugh seems to emerge from his chest. "But I do not command it! No, no! Be thy own judge, by all means. Create thy own hell on thy own terms."

Orion turns this over in his mind, looking at the lich with a mixture of awe, respect, reverence...and a hint of disgust. "I do not believe that is the kind of power that I desire. Though I wish I had the ability to control the living, I know it is impossible. Your advice about ruling through fear I will take into great account. I want enough power that I will never be helpless again."

The lich seems to contemplate that for a moment. The light of his eyes dims, and he bows his head in thought. When he speaks again, his voice has a far away quality. "In the ages past, I raised a tower on the High Moor south and east of Waterdeep. It sitteth on a craggy outcrop north of Ebenfar. It hath fallen into ruin, but might still be repaired. There are chambers beneath it warded with spells to keep out intruders." He utters a word in a language that Orion does not recognize. A small stone appears in the palm of his hand. "This is a token that will allow thee to enter without triggering the spells of warding. Take it. Thou may'st claim the tower as thy own. Thou may'st find creatures already living in it. Kill them, or make them thy own, as thou seest fit."

Orion looks up in disbelief, then moves forward to take the token, "Sire, what is your name?"

"My name... ? I was called by some the Shadow Lord, in memory of the Shadow King, Verraketh Talembar. I gave myself the title of King of Ebenfar. In the days before I acquired my power, though, I was simply Balen Calendir."

Orion looks around, "Sire, this tower, does it hold your spell books?" Nico gets bored with the conversation, and feeling a little uneasy about the zombies disappears into the shadows.

A dry laugh like the sound of rustling parchment comes from the lich's throat. "Spell books, is it? My spell books are my own... thou may'st find older tomes there from which I copied spells, though." His mouth splits in a gaping grin, showing cracked and broken teeth blackened with age. "Thou wilt find a portal there... a gate to an ancient library in the north country. If thou canst figure out how to operate the portal, thou may'st visit the library. It was run by priests of Oghma in days past. Other things thou may'st find there..."

Orion, deep in thought, looks up, "Sire, why do you stay in this tomb, when you still hold so much power?"

A sigh like the rustle of dead leaves comes from the lich. He turns, steps back up on the dais and sits down wearily. "The world is dead to me. There is nothing more that I want from it."

"Then why not come and stay at this tower with me, once I have restored it, at least there you will have company, and be able to roam around without having to cause a scene or anything."

"Two wizards in one tower... is one too many. Only one can rule, and that would be me." The red light flickers brightly for a moment, and then dims again. "It is thy tower now. Take it and rule by thy own hand."

Orion laughs, "Point taken. At least allow me to visit you again, your advice has already helped me much, and I am sure I could use it more in the future."

"Yes... come back to me when thou hast need. The hours are long, and the memories are not altogether pleasant. In the end, one only hath oneself to live with... "

Orion begins to leave, but turns back to the lich and asks hesitantly, "Then... why prolong the unpleasantness, sire?"

The lich's eyes flash into fire and he leans forward abrubtly as if to lash out. "Unpleastantness? Fool! Thou knowest not what thou sayest! Dost thou think one gets as powerful as I did alone? Deals were made! Bargains were struck..." The flame in his eyes dies suddenly, leaving only embers. "While I cling to life, I postpone the awful day of reckoning..." He turns in his throne to look away from the young mage. "Leave me now..."

Bowing deeper than when he first came in, Orion prepares to leave. "Thank you Sire. If ever I can be of service to you, do not hesitate to call on me. May you find some peace in your rest." He ends his bow, and begins to gather his things, slipping the key and stone into his belt pouch. Looking into the shadows, he calls out, "Nico, let's go." Nicodemus slips out of the shadows and falls in step as Orion walks out the way that he came.

As he passes through the door, the light behind him goes out and from the darkness he hears the lich whisper, "Don't forget to return... when thou hast need."

Chapter 5.3 The Priestess of Shar

"I finally received a reply to your inquiry from your benefactor. I'm afraid it is somewhat cryptic. He says that the two of you will meet when the time is right. I don't know what that is supposed to mean." Ultas gives Orion a helpless shrug. The two are sitting in the moneylender's office. "I wish there were more I could do for you on that score, but I am bound by my oath."

Maernos beams, "I'm glad you are happy with it. It seemed the perfect thing for a young mage of independent means. You have done very well for yourself these past few months."

Orion turns that over in his head, "Yes...it seems strange that my life seemed to move so slowly before, and now it is ever changing, and with greater speed than ever. Had Sir Mysterious not stepped in and helped me, well..who knows where I would be now."

"Yes, indeed. You were quite fortunate there... but perhaps fortune is not the right word. The gods make their plans and mark those who they chose to serve them by bestowing what, from the mortal perspective, seems like mere luck. I think the gods have chosen you for something special." He smiles kindly at the young mage.

"Well we will have to see what they have in store for me then! And whether or not I agree with them!" Orion laughs heartily at the thought of defying the gods.

Maernos's smile is more strained as he changes the subject, "Speaking of the gods, I have spoken to my acquaintance in the Sharran cult. She is eager to meet with you at your earliest convenience. She went so far as to suggest a time and place, if it is convenient for you... the Dripping Dagger, tomorrow after sundown? I am to send a message to her letting her know if you will be there, or not."

Orion nods, "I'll be there."

"Very good. I will have the message sent."

Orion stands up and shakes Maernos' hand, "Thank you Lord Maernos, if there is anything I can do to repay the kindness you have shown me, please let me know."

Maernos stands too, and returns the young wizards' handshake warmly. "You were most helpful to me in recovering that helm. If ever I need someone to perform another such job, I know who to ask." He smiles and walks Orion to the door. "May the gods always smile on your path."

Orion walks out of the moneylender's office, giving Brisbane a curt nod before walking out of the building. Once out of the office, he heads to his small cottage.

***

The next evening, Orion steps through the door of the Dripping Dagger, and looks about. The place is only half full, and there are still plenty of empty tables. He gets a glass of wine from the bartender, and finds a place to sit.

Nicodemus hops up in his lap and begins to purr, while Orion pulls a book out of his pack and begins to read. It is the history of Waterdeep. The Tome of Shadows is at home under lock and key. He wasn't sure whether to trust the Sharran not to try to take it from him.

"You are Orion." It is a statement, not a question. Orion looks up to see a woman with long dark hair, boyishly dressed in typical adventuring garb. "Come with me." She gestures, and begins walking towards the stairs.

Orion closes the book, and puts it in his pack, as he gets up he tosses a few silver down on the table and follows the young lady. Nico quickly falls in step beside him.

His quick impression is that she's a moderately attractive woman in her late twenties, somewhat severe of expression. She walks deliberately towards the stairway, and pauses only briefly to make sure he is following before continuing up the steps. At the top is a narrow hall that runs the width of the building, before angling back past another set of stairs going up, and cutting through the center of the inn. She passes two small doors on the right that look like closets, and opens the third door with a key. It lets into a room with a single bed, and a small table and chair in one corner. She pulls the chair out and motions for Orion to sit, then sits down on the edge of the bed. Coming straight to the point, she says in a clipped tone, "You wanted to know more of the Dark Goddess... ?"

Orion takes a seat, and Nico sneaks off to a corner in the room, his attention held fast by a small bug on the floor. "I am. I feel...that there is much misinformation that we hear about Lady Shar. I recently discovered a book that spoke of an entirely different weave of magic, under her control...and it gave a very interesting view of how the world was created."

The woman's face remains impassive. "Did you bring this book with you?"

Orion shakes his head, "No. I wasn't sure what to expect at first, I'm sure you can understand my caution. This book called out to me, and I value it greatly."

"It called to you?" She seems mildly curious. "What voice did it use? That of a woman?"

"No, it was not a woman, it was many voices...male...female...they were in unison and they said, 'It is he, the one foretold'. They called me the 'Master of Shadows'...."Orion looks at the girl, still a little confused about the entire ordeal.

She returns his gaze woodenly, her gray eyes boring into his. "Tell me more about the contents of the book. You say it spoke of the world's creation. What was the story?"

Orion recounts the beginning of the tome, in as much detail as he can remember. The woman stares at him intently as he speaks. When he has finished, she rises and pours a glass of water from a pitcher on the table beside the bed. "Are you thirsty?" She hands him the glass. Orion takes the glass and toys with it absentmindedly, but doesn't drink from the glass yet.

She pours a second glass for herself, and sips from it as she sits back down on the bed. "It does sound as if you've discovered a holy book of Shar. That it called to you is significant. It suggests that the Mistress of Night has chosen you to serve her. You have experienced some loss in your life?"

Orion's face contorts with emotion, "My mother and father died making sure that I could escape...whatever killed them was coming for me. I was just a child...there was even another body in the house that is buried under my name..."

The girl's expression changes almost imperceptibly to one of empathy. "That is indeed a terrible tragedy. Shar is also known as the Lady of Loss, for she takes pity on all those who have experienced such painful events in their lives. Two boons she is able to grant them: forgetfulness... or revenge. Which do you seek?"

Orion's eyes burn with anger, "I will never forget my parents' sacrifice. Revenge is the only answer for me."

There is a slight glint of admiration in the girl's eyes. "I do not wish to judge those who chose either, but in my opinion, revenge is the more noble of the two." She settles back a little on the bed, and regards him appraisingly. "How long has it been since the death of your parents?"

"Almost ten years now....after they died I lived on the streets for a few years..."

"And have you found any clues to the identity of the murderer?"

Orion shakes his head, "No. I have not been able to find anything. I don't even know where the extra body came from. My most recent time has been spent studying with the guild in waterdeep, honing my skills so that I will be ready when the time comes."

"So many years... the trail will have gone cold. My Mistress can help you though. She sees all that lies hidden under darkness. She knows the secrets of the world, as well as those we keep within our hearts."

"If she can help me get my revenge...then she will have done me more good than any other god has."

"The gods have needs of their own, though, and when they grant us favors, they invariably expect something in return."

Orion chuckles, "Of course, it is only fair."

The eyes of the priestess smile in appreciation, "This year marks a special occasion. The night of the Feast of the Moon will see Selune's cursed face eclipsed in darkness. Sharrans everywhere will celebrate the night with revels and sacrifices to the Dark Goddess. You may join us, and participate. We will consecrate you to the Goddess, and she will grant you your boon." The girl rises and her gray eyes seem to catch fire. For the first time a smile touches the corner of her mouth. "The murderer of your parents will be revealed to you, and you will be set upon his path to wreak your vengeance upon him."

Orion smiles back, "Then I am one step closer to having a good night's rest. Where should I meet you at for the ceremony?"

"Meet me outside this inn on the morning of the feast day, and I will take you to the appointed place. Much secrecy is required, so we do not maintain a permanent temple. All dark places are holy to Shar, and in those we meet to worship her and hide our secrets from the eyes of the world."

"Two months seems such a long time to wait... I am eager for the hunt to begin."

"Patience. Revenge is always best in anticipation." She rises and crosses the room to the door. "For now, enjoy the days in contemplation of how you will make him suffer."

Orion rises and calls, "Come, Nico." The black cat leaves his prey and comes out from beneath the bed with dust clinging to him. Orion bends down and scoops him. Turning to the priestess, he says, "I can wait. I just hope he does not die before I get to him."

The priestess opens the door, and replies, "Shar will preserve him for you. Go now, with the blessing of the Goddess... until we meet again." Orion steps out into the darkened hallway, and the door clicks to behind him.

Chapter 5.4 The Priestess of Sune

"What do you wish to speak to me about, Orion?" Dhaera looks at him through her soft black lashes. The two of them are sitting on a bench inside the temple. Light filters in from the clerestory windows. They are screened from view by a vine-covered trellis. The sound of a waterfall spilling into a small pool nearby echoes in the vaulted roof above. The scent of flowers is everywhere, but it comes heaviest from the priestess sitting next to him.

"Why have you been acting so strangely towards me?"

She looks away from him. "Is that all you wish to know? I wonder that you needed all this privacy to ask such a question. It is because I do not trust you."

"Have I lied to you?"

"No, you have not."

"Have I broken my word to you?"

"No, you kept your word, and I am still grateful for that."

"So then, what makes you think I am untrustworthy?"

She turns back to him, and her brown eyes reveal an astonishing intensity of emotion, "Because you do not love."

Orion shakes his head, "That's not true! I love a lot of things, I love Nico, I love magic...." He pauses. "I loved my parents..."

"Yes... you loved your parents..." she touches his cheek tenderly, "but you have given yourself over to grief, and it has pushed out all else. A cat...? Power...? What about other people? Would your parents have wanted you to close yourself off this way?"

Orion shrugs, "Dhaera...it would be nice were it so cut and dry. People want me dead, powerful people. People more powerful than me. I cannot just go around loving everyone I meet."

The priestess looks at him sadly. "I don't understand why you think so. Your parents were killed by thieves, brigands. Only one of them even survived the fight. Has there been an attempt on your life since then? I don't mean to hurt you, Orion, but this fear of yours seems exaggerated."

Orion looks at Dhaera with a flash of anger, "It was no thief that killed my parents. They were powerful Magicians themselves. There has been no attempt on my life because the fool thinks he succeeded. I am dead, I am even buried in the city of the Dead. Were they to know I was alive, they would be after me then. I was the target when my parents were killed, not them. "

Dhaera turns away from his anger. "I am sorry. I don't know... perhaps you are right. Is it worth living without love, though, to protect yourself? There are many people in the world who hate the Church of Sune. The see us as vain, shallow, hedonists. Some would even seek to destroy us. We do not hide in fear of such people though. We hold onto our love of life and beauty, and wear it like a badge of honor. We do not surrender it out of fear."

"Perhaps that is best for you, as Sune still has many allies, and you are relatively safe in this church. Live a day on the streets, and you will learn that everything you are open about is something you risk losing. This is my way, for the time being. When I am ready, the world will know who I am, especially my enemies."

She turns back to him diffidently, "You think it is only because I am protected within this Church that I have the luxury of being able to love? You think me... pampered?"

"You have nothing to fear from me Dhaera. When I came here, I came here to help you. I did not ask for a reward, I didn't do it on the condition of loot. I had already been in the alley once, and scoured it for everything I could. I had no reason to go back to that dungeon other than to free an imprisoned girl, and help another find peace. If I was short or rude, it was out of my wish to get in and out of that place as quickly as possible. I did it not for love, I did it for compassion. I felt your loss, and did what I could to put you at ease. I do not see why getting my bills paid or enjoying the challenge makes me any less trust worthy."

"Perhaps that makes you better than me... I have never had to pay bills, or struggle for survival. It is easy to feel love if it costs one nothing. To feel compassion when one is under seige by life... that is something more." She rises, head bowed. "I will think on what you have said, Orion. I am sorry for having been out of sorts with you. Do not give up on love though. Grief cannot be the whole of one's life." She bends down and kisses him on the forehead. "Goodbye."

Orion stands, and bows slightly to Dhaera, "Farewell Dhaera, if you need anything don't hesitate to get in touch with me." With that he walks away.

The dark-eyed priestess stands watching him until he has gone, then she turns thoughtfully towards her quarters.

Chapter 5.5 By Land and By Sea

Orion stands outside the Dripping Dagger huddled in his black cloak, waiting for the priestess of Shar to arrive. A carriage approaches, pulled by two black horses walking with a high stepping gait. The windows of the carriage are covered by black curtains. The driver is a burly fellow with a scar across one cheek. Orion steps back to give the carriage a wide berth. It pulls in towards him though and comes to a halt with the door right in front of him. The footman jumps down, and with a brief salute pulls open the door of the carriage. Inside sits a beautiful woman dressed in a black gown and cape, trimmed with purple satin. It takes Orion a moment to recognize her as the priestess of Shar. "Enter," she commands him in her clipped tone.

The young wizard steps up into the carriage, and sits down across from the woman. "That is quite an improvement on the last outfit I saw you in."

"My priestly vestments... I do not wear them openly in the city." She pulls back a curtain, and peers out. "We will be leaving the city. The meeting is... in another place. I must ask you not to look out of the windows. You are not allowed yet to know the secrets of the church. If you disobey in this you will be slain." She says the last without emotion, not as a threat, but as a frank admission.

Orion smiles, "That shouldn't be too hard, the view in here is much more lovely."

The priestess glances at him with barely perceptible astonishment, then turns her face away coldy. "I am a priestess of Shar. Do not throw compliments at me as though I were one of Sune's strumpets."

Orion looks back at her coolly, "I did not know that promising your life to Shar meant disregarding your own beauty, however apparent it may be in your ritual garb. Forgive the intrusion, Mistress."

"Of course," she replies without rancour.

Orion sits back in the seat on his side of the carriage, and thinks to himself that it's going to be a very long ride. The priestess of Shar also leans back, and seems content to ride in silence.

The carriage passes through a city gate, and heads out into the country. Orion is not certain, but he thinks they are going south. Once or twice, he seems to hear the not-too-distant sounds of the ocean away on his right. Not long after passing through the gate, he hears the sound of horses approaching, and the carriage is surrounded by riders who fall in with its pace. "An escort?" he ventures to the priestess.

"Yes."

Getting nothing more, he resigns himself to a period of insufferable boredom and closes his eyes, letting his head rest against the side of the carriage. He dozes for awhile, huddled in the bare warmth of his cloak while the sun rises. Occasionally, momentarily awakened by a bump on the road, he surprises the priestess gazing at him intently with some strange emotion heightening the color of her cheeks. If he were more romantic, or if she had not gone out of her way to slap him down so hard, he might fancy that it was love. She does not start and blush when he returns her gaze, though. Her eyes simply slide away slowly, as if not ready yet to reveal a secret that they hold from him.

The ride seems interminable. The hours of the morning pass slowly, but at last the carriage turns down a rough track off the main road and after jostling along for twenty minutes or more, pulls to a halt. After allowing the dust to settle, the footman opens the door and offers his hand to the priestess. She steps out of the carriage, regally, followed by Orion, seemingly forgotten for the moment.

Orion looks around at his surroundings. He is on a hill overlooking the ocean. A cold sea breeze carries the smell of salt spray, and the sound of crying gulls scavenging the beach below for food. An inn sits atop the hill, nothing more than a thatched cottage made of wattle and daub. A sign out front bears the image of a large-bosomed woman with plump red cheeks, and beneath it, in white letters, the words: "The Fisherman's Wife."

On the slope leading down to the beach are several houses, shacks really, with nets strung up on poles drying in the sun. Few people are out on the beach in the cold wind. Fishing boats are drawn up on the dunes, away from the surf line. The sound of many voices comes from inside the inn.

A hard-faced captain approaches the priestess, leading his horse. "You and your men will remain here with the carriage," she tells him. "Stay the night at the inn, and we will rejoin you tomorrow afternoon. Make sure the men are sober when we return." Turning to the carriage driver, she continues giving orders, "See to the horses, and then get yourself something to eat from the kitchen."

She walks towards the inn, followed by the footman and Orion. A fat, bearded man in an apron steps out of the front door, and looks in astonishment at all the people in his yard. He seems discomfitted by the sudden appearance of customers at this time of year. Bowing to the priestess, he begins to apologize. "I'm sorry your Ladyship. We're not accustomed to getting guests this late in the year, and--

She cuts him off in mid-sentence. "Do not trouble yourself. All I require is a bite to eat, and then we'll be leaving. If you could be so good as to allow my retinue to camp in your yard while I take ship from the bay, I will collect them tomorrow and be on my way."

"Why, bless ye miss. There's no ship leaving this harbor today. It's the Feast of the Moon--not to mention what the waves will be kicking up something fierce out there in this wind."

"Father!" a voice calls to the innkeeper from the corner of the cottage. A young boy runs up, out of breath. "Father, a boat just made Smuggler's Point, and it's a-headed into the bay."

The stunned innkeeper looks at the dark-haired priestess as if she conjured the ship up with her words. He turns to the young boy, and barks out orders. "Get some of the men down to the beach with a boat, and tell your ma to start preparing food for these folks." He turns back to the priestess bowing, and says, "Come on in Miss. My mistake about the ship. We'll see to whatever ye need." He stands aside and allows her and the other two to pass, bowing at the footman and Orion as they walk by. "Yer lordships. G'day to ye both."

The two men walk past the innkeeper without responding, and he follows them in, bustling about to find them a table. The local fishermen look on in stoney silence while the innkeeper fusses around making the new guests comfortable. A few of them are displaced by the newcomers, and yield their chairs without complaint, taking positions along the wall where they have a good view of the proceedings. The priestess does not appear to notice them at all. She removes her cloak, passing it to the innkeeper, and then waits for the footman to help her with her chair. Orion smoothly interposes himself, and pulls a chair out. He looks to the priestess, "M'lady, please allow me to get your chair." He then motions for her to sit, his hand on the back of the chair and smiles to the priestess. She sits down automatically without glancing at Orion.

When all are seated, the innkeeper asks them what they wish to drink and then hurries off to fill their orders. Looking across the table at Orion, the priestess asks, "Have you ever been in a boat before?"

Orion nods, and looks down, "The last time I was on a boat was with my parents, on our way to Waterdeep. It's been many years though..."

"You may want to go easy on the food, then," she says flatly. "It will be a rough trip, but there will be more to eat once we arrive."

Orion shakes his head, "I'm not hungry anyways. Just something to drink will be fine."

The innkeeper returns with their drinks, and a plump, red-faced woman comes up behind him with platters of ham, roast chicken, stewed potatoes and black bread. The footman eats heartily while the priestess makes a light meal of the ham and bread. Orion watches her and sips his wine.

An hour passes in silence. The other guests huddle around their tables and in groups along the wall, quietly speculating about who the young lady is. Near the end of their meal, the innkeeper approaches the priestess deferentially, and says, "Milady... the gentlemen down at the boat say they would be pleased to see you aboard as soon as you are ready."

The priestess stands abrubtly. "Very well. Bring my cloak, and we shall be off. Thank you for the meal." She pulls a handful of silver from a purse at her waist, and places it in the man's hand. "See to my men, and there will be more when we return."

The innkeeper touches his forehead with a knuckle, and bows, "Yes, Milady. There's a path down to the boats through the back door here. Take care on the path, it's a bit rough."

The priestess brushes past him, followed by Orion and the footman. The path is laid with posts to protect it from erosion. The three descend carefully down to the beach, past the fishermen's hovels, the hanging nets, and the up-ended boats. The smell of fish permeates the air, clinging to the area in spite of the freshening breeze. It reminds Orion of his days as a street urchin in Waterdeep's Dock Ward.

At the surf, several men stand ready with a rowboat to take the three passengers to a ship anchored in the bay a few hundred yards off shore. They hold the boat steady while the footman lifts the priestess over the gunwales and sits her down on one of the bench seats. He hops in after her, and Orion wades out and climbs clumsily into the boat. Then the men hop in and shove off with their oars, fighting against the incoming breakers. Rowing in sync, they reach the ship offshore quickly. A line is lowered for the priestess, and she is hoisted aboard carefully, the men making a great fuss to keep her from banging against the side of the pitching ship. The footman grabs hold of the side, and clambers aboard easily. Orion mutters an incantation, and scrambles up the side of the ship as easily as an insect. The seamen waiting to help him up, watch in amazement and then surrepticiously make a sign with their hands to ward off enchantment.

Once aboard, Orion has to grab hold of the rigging to keep from falling down. The ships pitches on the waves like a colt. He sees the priestess being helped below by a couple of the sailors and the footman. She stops at the gangway and turns to gesture towards Orion. He makes his way stumbling towards them, and they go below to a small cabin in the bow of the ship. The priestess sits down on a benchlocker, and braces herself against the motion of the ship. Orion takes the bench opposite her, and the footman remains standing.

The sailors nod to the lady, and take their leave. The others are left alone in the cabin, the only sound being the metalic scrape of the anchor chains against the bow as the anchor is drawn up. The Captain shouts his orders, and the men bound about the deck as the ship makes way and tacks out of the bay, bucking the incoming tide. The only light in the cabin is from a rusty lamp hanging from a beam above their heads, and what sunlight filters in through two portholes on either side of the ship.

The sunlight is fading by the time the lookout cries, "Land ho!" Orion's breakfast is in a bucket on the floor, and he is lying on the bench, clinging to it, while the ship tries to toss him into the floor too. The footman has gone up on deck to suffer with the crew instead of in his ladyship's presence. The priestess has remained upright in her corner, pale but still composed.

The pitching motion of the ship lessens, and Orion finds himself able to sit up. A loud splash by the bow signals that the anchor has been dropped. The footman knocks and enters, bowing to the priestess. "We're here, Milady."

She rises, and follows him up the gangway with Orion bringing up the rear. Up on deck, he can see that the ships lies at anchor in a sheltered inlet. The sun is setting behind a craggy island, it's last rays catching the reefed sails of the small sloop. A boat pulls towards them from a narrow beach at the base of a cliff. They soon find themselves deposited on the narrow strand in the shadow of the towering cliff at the mouth of a dark sea cave. The sailors, pulling at their oars, are making their way back to the ship. The priestess turns to Orion, and smiles at him for the first time on their journey. "Come, Orion... now is the time for you to meet your fate."

Chapter 5.6 The Grotto of the Dark Goddess

"We go forth in darkness. I will lead the way, for it is given to me as a priestess of Shar to see where others do not." Orion looks, and in the darkness the priestess's eyes look like two black orbs. "Follow closely, and do not stumble."

She leads the way into the cave. Orion and the footman follow, their feet sinking into the wet sand. Further in the floor turns to rock, but becomes slippery with seaweed. Orion slips and nearly falls, clutching at the walls of the cave for support. The passageway turns sharply to the left and begins to slope upward. The priestess pauses for a moment. "There are stairs here. They are steep and wet, so be careful."

Orion gropes in the darkness for the first step. Planting his foot firmly he begins to climb. The priestess and footman above him are moving quickly, and he can hear their steps drawing away from him. He does his best to keep up, but in the absolute blackness he must search with his foot for each step, and test his weight before pulling himself up to the next one. The walls are smooth, and slick with damp and mildew. He is doubled almost forward trying to keep his weight from pulling him backwards into the abyss below.

The steps go up and up, straight as an arrow through the living rock. The force of the earth below him becomes a living thing trying to pull him down into the darkness to smash him on the rocks below. He fights against it, fights against the fear creeping over him and pushes himself upward. Even in the cold damp the sweat runs down his brow, and covers his body beneath his robes. He hears the priestess call down to him, "Come, Orion. You are almost there.

Looking up, he sees a dark shape silhouetted by a lighter darkness, and above the dark shape a single point of light, a radiant star. For the briefest moment, Orion thinks of Dhaera, but then brushing the image aside, he covers the last ten feet of stairs, and finds himself standing beneath the night sky next to the priestess of Shar. She sweeps her arm out towards the night shadows behind her, and says, "Welcome to the Grotto of the Dark Goddess, Orion. My name is Lorelai, Nightcloak of Shar. Here, in ages long past, has Mistress of Night been worshipped by her devoted followers. Tonight, we shall sing her praises, and you shall call upon her on your behalf."

The stars shine out brightly in the blackness above, and allow him to make out vague shapes. The ground rises up to a wide flat rectangle framed by a ring of rock, like jagged black teeth against the navy blue sky. Dark pillars in two rows run the length of the rectangle, their cylindrical shapes standing out against the sky. Between the two pillars, a raised area whose length cannot be measured in the darkness.

A cloaked figure steps out of the darkness and speaks to the priestess. "I have brought the staff, Mistress." He hands her a staff of oak with four prongs at the top, and nestled in the prongs a crystal that catches the starlight, and breaks it into tiny particles of light. Lorelai speaks a word in a language Orion does not recognize, and a dark, purple light pulses in its center, throwing the objects around him into relief.

The cloaked figure who brought the staff, looks at the young wizard from inside a pointed black hood with two slits for his eyes. The dark robes he wears hang shapelessly down to his boots, but the figure within is unmistakably that of a man. He is tall, and when he greets Orion, he speaks with a familiar accent, something out of the distant past. "So, Orion. You have made it here at last. I always knew someday you would." They have spoken only once before in his life, but Orion could never forget the voice of the man who brought him up out of the gutter and placed his feet on the path to power. Before Orion can speak, the man sweeps away with that same aristocratic bearing that the young mage remembers so well.

"Yes, it is him." The priestess answers the thought in Orion's mind. "You may speak to him after the ritual, if you wish. The time is nearly upon us, though, and we must hurry. See! Above us Shar has blotted out the face of Selune! She will soon be at her zenith!" Orion follows the gaze of the priestess, and sees in the sky above an orb of darkness blacker than the sky around it.

The priestess mounts walks towards the plateau, with Orion and her attendant following. The mount upwards by steps cut into the rock. Reaching the top, Orion can now see that the shape between the pillars is a long rectangle of black marble, about three feet high with a set of steps at this end. At its base on either side, stand two lines of black-robed worshippers with more at the far end standing in a mass. As Lorelai ascends the staircase, follwed by Orion, the cultists begin to chant. Orion realizes that they are speaking in the language of ancient Netheril, and he recognizes the words:

    Shar rules the Shadows!
    Shar rules the Night!
    Keeper of Secrets in Darkness!
    Foe of the Ruling Light!

The verses are repeated over and over. Nervously, Orion walks on behind the priestess until she stops before an irregularly shaped stone in the center of the platform, laid flat and resting on two stone supports about waist high. The surface is scooped and cut to form a spout that points towards a bronze basin at the head of the stone. The stone is neither marble, nor volcanic, but of some substance alien to the planet of Toril.

The priestess plants the staff in a hole beside the stone, and raises her arms into the air. Purple light blazes from the crystal, and illuminates the entire plateau. The chanting begins to rise in crescendo. Overhead, the darkened moon moves towards its zenith. Lorelai turns to the young wizard and says simply, "You have a dagger."

Befuddled, Orion stammers, "Y-yes... it is here." He fumbles within his robes, and draws a dagger from his sheath, the one he received from Keilier Twistbeard. He begins to offer it to Lorelai but she steps to the side, leaving him standing at the head of the stone. Looking beyond the marble platform, he sees the crowd part to form an aisle, and two shapes walking towards him. As they mount the steps on the other end of the platform, he realizes in a brief moment of horror what he has been brought here to do...

***

Out of blackness, Orion awakes. His bed rocks gently, and a voice seems to sing to him from far away. Coming to himself, he realizes that he is in the bow of the ship, lying on the bench locker wrapped in furs. He sits up quickly, and tiny flashes of light explode in his brain. He grasps his head, and sinks back down into the furs. How did he come to be here?

He forces his mind to remember, working backwards from his most recent memories, to reconstruct what happened: The journey by ship over open water to... Waterdeep harbor; that's where he is anchored. He parted with the priestess--what was her name? She had lured him onto the rocks... No, that's not right. He could not remember her name. They had parted at the anchorage in the bay. She went to the village for the carriage and left him to journey by boat. He was sick. He looks at the deck below, and the overturned bucket with its spilled contents, and his empty stomach gives a spasm.

Before that, back at the island... What had happened? He pushes his mind back, beyond the reveling--something there, but go beyond--beyond the incredible thing that had happened. The last clear memory: He was standing in front of the rock, and the two figures were approaching. A man in black robes, and he was leading someone--no something. A black ewe.

It had been a black ewe. It was beautiful, and had looked at him sadly as if it knew what was going to happen. Its feet had been bound... No, it was walking; its feet couldn't have been bound. The black-robed man had laid it upon the stone--maybe that's when its legs were bound. Everyone was chanting. All eyes were on him, and he knew what he was supposed to do.

His hands shook as if palsied. Never had he taken another life, and this seemed such a cold-blooded way to do it. A voice whispered to him, "It's only a sheep. It is nothing." He steeled himself, mastered the shaking in his hands. He gripped its black curly wool--so soft--in his left hand, and pulled back the ewe's head exposing the throat and the throbbing vein. Oh, gods! How it had bleated! Almost he couldn't do it, but the voice whispered to him, "For your mother and father! You must avenge their deaths!" He put the blade to its white throat, and still his hand would not make the final cut. In a seductive tone, more alluring than anything he had ever known, the voice had purred, "Power... power beyond your dreams..." With a sudden effort of will, he forced his hand to make the downward stroke.

The blood had poured forth like a fountain, splattering the stone, forming a pool and flowing over the black rock into the basin. The chanting had become exultant. It echoed from the jagged rocks around them. The struggles of the ewe ceased, and he turned loose of the hair, patting it softly before he stepped back. His hands were drenched with blood, the dagger dripped with it. A chasm was opening up inside of him, a bottomless pit and he felt himself about to fall down into it.

Suddenly, the priestess had stepped forward, lifting the staff and plunging the crystal into the basin of blood. Black smokey shadows drifted out of the basin, swirling around and forming itself into tentacles. The tentacles squirmed like snakes with their heads in the basin, their tails whipping about in frenzy as they drank the ewe's lifeblood. They took on substance, and a pulsing purple glow appeared in the center, rising up like the moon, bringing the tentacles with it until all could see. Strangled cries rose from the crowd. No longer chanting, they spoke with the voices of their hearts crying out to the Goddess their deepest emotions.

Orion stood frozen on the cold stone, half of him terrified, the other half deeply fascinated by what was occurring. The long tentacles began to grope, as if searching for something on the ground. The wizard knew that it was him, had to be him. His was the hand that had brought this power into life, and it was searching for the one who had invoked it. Eagerly, he stepped forward, holding up the dagger, his bloody hands. "I am here!" His voice was unhesitant, strong. The tentacles seized him. Pulling him up high above the heads of the crowd. The worshippers gasped in awe.

Purple light limned his body, suspended in the air above the grotto. The sea's horizon surrounded him like the edge of a great dome. Above him the night sky flickered with starlight. Spidery strands of light seemed to connect the stars in all directions, but between the fragile strands all was in shadow. In the center of the shadows was a purple glowing ring, and in its center a disk of utter blackness that gave substance to the shadows and made them live.

Now the tentacles began to pulse with energy. Purple lightning flowed along their length, wracking his body with spasms, flowing into him in waves of ecstasy. Within the blackness, a woman danced, her body covered in black and purple veils of sheer gauze. She was more beautiful than any mortal creature he had every seen. Her movements were strong, and sure. Every motion of her body seemed to move in his body, as if the two of them moved together, uniting in an orgiastic ritual mating. His mind reeled as his body exploded. He seemed to shatter into pieces. The people below could see nothing of him but brilliant beams of purple light flashing out in all directions.

The spasms began to slow. His mind flowed back into itself. Slowly he was drifting back towards the ground. He longed to reascend the heigths, but the woman in the blackness was gone. The tentacles set him down upon the marble platform, lying prone, too weak to stand. They began to pull back, up into the disk hovering in the sky, superimposed over the darkened moon. He watched them leave him, one by one. The last one passed briefly over his face, and left him with a clear vision: A city on a wide, rolling plain beside a sparkling river. A man, haggard and destitute, walking into a tavern. The face of the man turns toward him momentarily, and he recognizes the man from his dreams, the man whose life he is one day destined to take.

Lorelai had helped him up off the cold marble. Her eyes were bright, and her manner was kind, solicitous. She had helped him down from the platform, followed by the eagerly talking crowd. He had heard his name on everyone's lips, and he had smiled. She took him to a stone chamber in the caverns beneath the grotto, and helped him to clean himself. There she had given herself to him, amazingly warm after the coldness of the previous day. She had made love to him with a religious fervor, serving him as if she served her goddess through him; kissing him as if he were an avatar of the goddess herself.

Afterwards, they had joined the feasting. He had seen the faces of the people there. Some had surprised him, but none could he now remember, save one: his benefactor. His name was gone, but the face remained. Finally, he had been able to ask his question: "Why?"

"Nothing happens in this world without a reason," the man had replied. "We are all of us playthings of the gods. My footsteps were guided to you that night by the hand of the Goddess. I knew it the moment you conjured those shadows. She has given you power, and a great destiny. I am only glad to have played a small role in it."

They had dined at the table together, and he had spoken of great things afoot in the city of Waterdeep, of plans to break the tyranny of the Hidden Lords. Orion had listened, and tried to answer wisely, though he knew little enough about the politics of the city. When they had parted, the man told him simply that they would meet again at a time of the Goddess's choosing. At that time, they would be allies in her service, and would strike a blow together to free the city of the oligarchs who dominate it.

At dawn, they left the cave and joined the sailors on the little strand of beach beneath the cliff wall. The eastern sun cast its raise down on them as they climbed wearily into the boat. The priestess had gone back into herself, relapsed into silence. Nothing seemed to remain between them of their union the night before. Once aboard the ship, he had fallen into a coma-like sleep, waking only to empty his stomach of the contents of the feast, and then again when the priestess had taken leave of him. That is when she had explained that their paths were parting.

"You will not see me again in the city for some time. My work there is through for now." She left his life as she had entered it, without emotion or ceremony. He thought for a moment of the contrast between her and Dhaera, but the memory of Dhaera was painful to him, and he thrust it aside. He had chosen power over love.

Gathering himself together, he steals above to the deck of the ship. Blinking in the bright light of a fading afternoon, he speaks to the captain who quickly orders four men to row the young mage to the wharf. He walks home slowly through the streets of the city, climbing the slopes of Mount Waterdeep up from the harbor to his cottage in North Ward. Entering his house through the garden door, he is greeted happily by Nicodemus. Picking up the cat, he hugs him to his breast and strokes his cheeks. "Hey there, Nico. I'm home."

Chapter 5.7

The voice comes out of the darkness, "Thou hast returned to me, my son, smelling of blood and power. Thou causeth my spirit to stir at the memories of war and strife. Snow blankets the North and the hordes doth creep down from their lairs and crowd in upon the civilized lands. I sense... the approach of great deeds." A narrow slant of light suddenly illuminates the center of the darknened chamber. The lich rises and steps down from the dais where his throne rests. "What is thy desire?"

Orion bows to his ancestor, "Sire, I will be leaving the city this Spring. I am gathering a small band of adventurers to help me clear out the tower, and will soon be on my way to claim my own throne."

"Thou hast the ward key still?"

Orion nods, "I am ready. I also found the identity of he who killed my family. He is south of you---my tower, and he will be my next target."

"Ah, yes... sweet revenge." A rattling sigh comes from the lich's chest. "There is nothing more precious than a hatred gently nursed over many years until it can blossom in the fullness of its time. What plans hast thou for this man? He hath offended thee too greatly for a single moment of violent murder..."

Orion laughs, "Yes. I have thought long about what I would do to this man. I would like to bring him to visit you for a little while to be honest. Then after he's properly shaken up take him back to the tower to pay him back for years of sadness. Too many ideas...."

"The Netherese had a saying: revenge is a dish best served cold. I would add that it is a dish better in the anticipating than in the tasting. When it is done one is left empty. I miss my hatreds. They did give purpose to my life. The man must die though... but bring him not to me. It is for thee to do. If thou dost not scare him in thine anger, then he shall not fear me either." The lich gives a hollow chuckle.

Orion laughes along with the Lich, but then, changing the subject abrubtly, he asks, "Sire....what do you know of the Shadow Weave?"

The lich's laughter dies, and the red light in his eyes flares brightly as he studies the young mage. "I know that mastery of it is in thy blood. I know that it gives one great power over shadows, darkness and death." The weight of his gaze seems to bear down on Orion. "I know also that if one would wield it, one must supplicate the Dark Goddess and serve her ends... Why dost thou ask?"

Orion nods, "It is my power now."

The lich nods, and continues to stare intently at Orion. "What didst thou to earn such power?"

Orion shakes his head, "I can't remember too clearly. I think I killed a lamb, but nothing else has been asked by her."

"A lamb..." The lich turns away slowly and stares into the darkness. "My son... Shar doth not give such power for the killing of a lamb. Without doubt that which thou didst slay was as innocent as a lamb, but a lamb it was not."

***

The sound of the nearby fountain sounds musically in Orion's ears. The smell of flowers brings back the memory of his last conversation with Dhaera. "Do not give up on love," she had said. "Grief cannot be the whole of one's life." He looks back down at the note in his hand.

My dearest friends,

When you read this, I will have left the Temple of Beauty for Sune knows how long. I am leaving Waterdeep. I wish to experience the world first hand, and not hide myself behind walls any longer. How can there be love in the world, if the priests of love hold themselves apart from everyday life?

I hope you will follow my example. As I have resolved to bring Love to the world, I would that you might resolve to bring yourselves to Love. It is never too late.

Love, Dhaera

"I would have sent for you when she first disappeared, but... I was not sure that you would want to know. I had the impression that the two of you did not get on well. There was a lot of tension when you would visit. Then also, it was not too long after the two of you spoke privately that day that she left. I thought perhaps you had said something to her."

"You blame me for her disappearance?"

"No... not that. She was very impressionable, and idealistic. It was in her nature, but perhaps something you said..."

Orion changes the subject, "It was silly of her to run off like that. Has anything been done to find her?"

"The Church has sent out people. It is thought that she headed south. They have not been able to pick up her trail."

"Hopefully, she reached a town and will hole up for the winter. To be out on the roads with the snows already starting to fall..."

"Yes, I have been thinking I should follow her."

"You can't do that. You're not well yet. Dhaera said so herself. You must wait until Spring, and then I will take you south to Daggerford. Perhaps we will find her there, or at least, find some news of her."

"I will wait, if you promise to take me south with you. You said something about going down the Trade Way."

"Yes, but once I reach Dragonspear Castle, I intend to head into the wilderness of the High Moor. If she's traveled south of Daggerford, she will most likely be making for Baldur's Gate, or perhaps one of the towns upriver along the Chionthar. She will not be in the High Moor."

"Yes... but I will go on from there alone, if necessary, or join a caravan as a guardsman. I can still wield a sword. I am not as helpless as you might suppose, and my strength is returning."

Orion looks at the woman dubiously, but something in her manner makes him think that perhaps she might be more formidable than he thought. Still... "I can't leave you alone on the edge of the Fields of the Dead, Nallana. If you will agree to join my group, then you can travel south of Daggerford with us, but only if you promise that you will not leave us unless you find someone else with whom to travel."

Nallana considers this for a moment. "Very well. I will promise."

Orion quickly adds, "And as a member of the group, you must sign the contract."

"As long as it does not prevent me from leaving the group, assuming I can find someone to travel with."

"No... you can read it before you sign, but it is nothing like that. The only stipulation is that you cannot leave with treasure acquired by the group."

"I do not care about loot," she retorts. "I just want to find Dhaera."

Orion holds his temper in check. "I would also like to find her, but I have another more pressing matter. We can search for her together until we reach Dragonspear Castle, but at that point I must turn aside."

Nallana's reply is cold, formal. "Yes. I understand, and I promise not to get in your way."

Orion rises from the bench to face Nallana, and makes a helpless gesture with his hands. "Don't worry, Nall. She is probably in Daggerford, and by Spring will have repented of her foolishness and be on her way home."

Nallana is unable to hold onto her anger in the face of her greater anxiety for Dhaera. "I hope you are right, Orion," she sighs.

He pats her on the shoulder reassuringly, and smiles. "You'll see. We'll find her in no time."

***

Orion advances through the darkness, his eyes piercing the shadows easily. Sensing his presence, the man shrinks back against the wall in terror, hiding his face. "Who are you? What do you want of me?"

"I want you to die... slowly."

"Why? Who are you?"

"Look at me! Look at my face!"

"No! I don't want to see! Why do you want to kill me?"

"You killed my parents, you bastard!"

"I didn't! I never killed anyone!"

"Yes! It was you and your friends! Look at my face! Look into my eyes before I take your life, you coward!"

The man's shoulders shake with terror. He sobs like a woman. Disgusted, Orion strides forward and grabs his shoulder to spin him around, "Look at me, damn you!"

As if in slow motion, the figure on the floor rotates towards him. The face turns by degrees: a soft red cheek, a wide brown eye, an upturned nose, two red lips, all framed by black curls, as soft as lambs' wool. Dhaera. Her eyes are filled with tears, and she looks up at Orion sadly. "Why did you kill me, Orion?" Blood trickles from a cut on her throat.

Orion sits up in bed, throwing the covers off. His breath comes in ragged gasps. "It wasn't Dhaera, dammit! I wouldn't have killed Dhaera!" The shout is muffled by the shadows gathered around him.

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