~Dealing with Deities~
“So, what do we owe you,” Angel asked the gnomish tinkerer as they flew over the bustling metropolis of Waterdeep. The Lantanese spelljammer was required to land in sea and sail into the harbor, as Waterdeep didn’t allow for landing craft in the city limits.
“The stories have paid for a lot thus far, but…” she trailed off, her pink hair seemingly shaking as she pondered the possibilities. “I do feel I might need something a little more tangible that I can bring back. A gadget perhaps?”
“Unfortunately, we didn’t bring anything like that,” Angel said. “Anything like that would quickly run out of power, so it would just be a hunk of junk.” He looked at the other two vampires for help. Spike shrugged helplessly, and Dru just kept talking about the moon serving drinks. Whatever that meant. Angel looked back at the gnome. “Sorry, can’t think of anything else.”
“Mass production,” Oz said quickly in his particularly succinct fashion. Angel looked at him like he was crazy. Oz nodded sagely. “Mass production.”
“That’s…actually a really good idea,” Angel said. The gnomish woman looked at him confused. “It’s more of a concept than a gift. Basically, you get a whole bunch of workers. Each installs their own part into something before passing it down the line. Production goes up, and things can be built in bigger numbers. Don’t know if it’s possible for magic stuff.”
“Production line,” Oz said with an affirming nod. Angel gave him a look. “This is my helpful voice.”
“And yet it looks so much like your normal voice,” Angel said.
“Xander used that line before,” Oz replied.
“Someone hand me a stake.” Angel said. It was Oz’s turn to give a strange look. Angel shook his head. “If I’m using the same lines as Xander I’d better kill myself before I start dressing like him.”
“You could use some more color,” Oz argued.
They then fell into an in-depth discussion about how 20th century factories worked. Sadly, this payment would be nearly useless, as, well, thanks to a certain Blackcloak, Lantan already had
mass production. That done, they went on to discuss what Sunnydale would want long term.
“Spelljammers,” the entire Sunnydale 4 said in unison. Even Dru knew the budding nation would jump at the chance.
“Even if they’re derelicts with no atmosphere, or magic or whatever,” Angel said. “Just bring them and Sunnydale will give you something in return. Raw materials are wanted, needed even. Any old scraps of wood, metal and the like.”
“You want our refuse?”
“No, just some of it. Glass and metals, even if they’re broken,” Oz said. “Beats making new ones.”
“What about weapons?”
Oz shook his head. “Niche market. Not many people would buy them – Buffy, Giles, Drizzt, the SCA and the occasional evil cult, but for the most part, no.”
“Unless you learn how to make guns,” Angel pointed out.
“Oh boy, Slayer’d be real pleased you teachin’ the locals how to make bloody guns,” Spike said with a sarcastic grin. Angel just glowered back.
“I do know of a few derelicts,” Falan said. “Be a bit difficult to get them all the way to Sunnydale, though.”
“I don’t know of anything else that would work,” Angel said.
“Well, you’ve told me enough,” Falan said. She handed Oz (who was seen as the responsible one) an amulet. “That can contact me if you need some help. I won’t answer if I’m busy.”
“Magical walkie-talkie. Awesome,” Oz said. “We’ll call.”
“Please do,” she said a moment before she wandered back to her Spelljammer. The Sunnydale Quartet looked about at the towers and streets of Waterdeep.
“Stop, thief!” a guard called out. Spike turned to see a short fellow running ahead of a pair of well armored guards. The bleached vampire shot his arm out and clotheslined the runner, with his elbow hitting the small person’s throat. Pain seared through Spike’s brand and the vampire pitched forward, his hands clawing at the brand as he bit off the scream that threatened to fly from his throat.
“Bloody thief’s an innocent,” he snarled, clutching the brand as if his hand could stop the burning pain. His entire body shivered in pain.
“And yet he’s being chased by the guards,” Angel said.
“You’ve got an impeccable grasp of the obvious,” the short fellow said, clutching his wounded neck. “Alas, they will not see it that way.”
By this time the guards had approached, swords drawn, looking more like they were out for blood than justice or serving the peace. The little fellow turned to them. “I can assure you, good sirs and lady, I am purely innocent of the allegations put against me. Give me but a minute and I can prove such. There is no need to carry such steel.”
“Yeah right, damn thief,” snarled the one on the left. He resembled a Mickey Rourke that had let himself go. “Like I’d believe a halfling’s word!”
“So nice to know racism is so universal,” Oz said in his sarcastic tone. It was remarkably like his normal tone and no one knew that he was joking. Angel and the h
alfling gave him a look. He shrugged. “That was my sarcastic voice.”
“Thank you for explaining,” was the halfling’s tired response. “I can assure you, my dear fellows, that I am but a simple cleric, passing through upon this late hour.”
Angel turned to the guards.
“Look,” he said placatingly. “He said he didn’t do it.”
“Then why’d he run?” demanded one of the guards.
“I’d run if someone was chasing me with naked steel,” Oz put in.
“Huh,” said one of the guards with a ponderous look. “I never thought of it that way.”
“Hey! Keep your head in the game,” the other one said.
“Relax, man,” the pondering guard said.
“Woman, actually,” said the other guard, the one that looked like a Mickey Rourke that had let himself go. Oz, Angel, Spike and the ponderous guard looked at him/her curiously. “Let’s just say you shouldn’t put on any girdles until you have a wizard look at them, even if they’re a perfect fit.”
Drusilla and the cleric nodded sagely in agreement while the four others still looked confused.
“Well, good sir and lady, while I may be a halfling, I can assure you that I am most certainly not a thief,” the short shoeless cleric replied. “However, I can prove my innocence if you would only give me a chance. And indeed, I would have done so had you not been chasing me with naked steel.”
“And what might this be?” inquired the ponderous guard. The cleric held up his holy symbol.
“This is also a key to that mausoleum, but only for those of my order,” he replied. “If you were to take me to the temple, the high priest will vouch for me.”
The two guards looked skeptical. Spike snorted and rolled his eyes.
“There’s no bloody reason to start chasing the squirt again,” the vampire grumbled. “Hurts you none to go have a chat.”
“Fine,” said the surly involuntary transsexual. “But if you lie, this won’t end well.”
“I speak the truth,” the cleric replied with all honestly. He turned to the Sunnydalers and smiled, giving them a slight bow. “Go to Selûne’s Smile. And, goddess willing, you will find all your answers you seek.”
And with that he turned and started walking between the two human guards.
The three vampires and werewolf stared after the trio with bemused and confused looks on their faces.
“Magical spaceships, hobbit priests, gender-bending belts,” Spike said as he fumbled for his last cigarette. He didn’t light it, just tucked it into the corner of his mouth. “This world is bloody fucking nuts.”
Oz nodded in silent agreement.
“I want a beer,” the blond vampire snarled as he cracked his neck.
“Root beer,” Oz said for himself.
“That stuff will give you cancer,” Angel pointed out.
“So you’ve said,” Oz replied, having not changed his mind.
“What do you mean you’re after me?” Xander asked, taking a half step with one foot so he created a smaller target to the archers. He saw Vierna and Amy step back to match him, a ball of flames already growing in Amy’s palm.
“The time for talk has ended,” Fzoul replied, motioning for his men to go forward. Crossbows were up and they took a step forward as one. The blond man glanced at Buffy who glared back, though she was still weighted down by the weight of her weapons. It was like everything had suddenly gained twenty pounds. She could even feel the weight of her clothing. She glanced up at the creature that gazed upon her with its baleful eyes and pulled her arms underneath her. She straightened her arms underneath her as if practicing push-ups and pulled her legs forward, underneath her body.
Xander felt tired, as if sleep was needed immediately. Amy, spotting the opposing mage, waved her hand and the robed individual burst into flames, screaming in horror. Fzoul raised an eyebrow and waved a hand, canceling the magical effect, but made no other move. The Baneite mage snarled in pain as he stood up. He snarled out a cursed phrase and green arrows flew towards the still standing trio.
“Down!” Vierna snarled, ducking under the magical projectiles which splattered on the side of the still upright tent, sizzling, but otherwise unable to damage the enchanted fabric. The former cleric grabbed her amulet around her neck and swore a command phrase. Her clothing shifted into a black metallic suit of form fitting armor as she charged the mage, narrowly dodging the bolts flying from crossbows. One hit her in the shoulder, but shattered harmlessly against her enchanted elven chain.
Xander specifically stood in front of Amy as she chanted a prayer to Hecate, and fired off three rounds at the eye tyrant staring down Buffy. It roared in rage as the bullets pierced its tough hide, forcing it to wince. All at once, Buffy’s strength returned.
She jumped, her sword back in her hand as the Beholder opened its central and peripheral eyes, only to realize that she was no longer cowering before it. One of the smaller eyes caught sight of her as she reached the peak of her jump and had just powered up its disintegration ray when the sword sliced right through the eye ball and stalk. The magical ray had barely enough time to send her already dirty clothes to tatters that barely clung to her body. A sliver off her arm oozed blood from where the skin had been destroyed with the shirt. The beholder howled in rage and pain, now bleeding and down one eye. It spun around as Buffy went in for another strike. The anti-magic field failed to catch her off guard this time and she let the sword fly from her hand, slicing off another eye.
“I really liked that shirt!” Buffy snarled, feeling somehow less weak than before, though the eye was still trained on her. She reached behind her to the small of her back and pulled out a familiar sharpened stick.
An archer took the moment to aim at her. Buffy barely flinched as she flicked it off course with a simple gesture. The crossbow bolt flew abruptly upwards before arching behind the Slayer, piercing a swordsman sneaking up behind her in the collar bone. She punched backwards over her shoulder, sending the Baneite sprawling. Distractions disrupted, Buffy charged the offending abominable aberration, Mr. Pointy firmly in her grasp.
Xander, meanwhile, was on his last clip. Amy was still a half step behind him, using his body as a shield as she worked her magic, allowing it to form a shield over the both of them. Xander’s pistol hadn’t been a series of one-hit kills, but five of the archers were writhing on the ground, wounds seeping with blood, their black leather armor useless against the firearm. Amy stepped out from behind Xander and fired a blast of fire that hit the ground and sprung up as a wall of fire, cutting off the charge of the rest of the swordsmen.
Fzoul frowned as he saw his crack troops decimated by a bunch of children and an abandoned cleric. The blond Chosen of Bane said a prayer to his patron deity and bestowed a mighty curse upon Xander as the boy was firing off shots at his men. He smiled darkly as the curse made the boy fumble as the recoil from the gun made the weapon fly from his hands. The Baneite leaned his head back as he stood before them, calling on Bane’s Righteous Might to smite his foes. His limbs magically enhanced with strength, Fzoul Chembryl sent one fist flying at the boy, sending him sprawling to the ground. Almost without thought, he countered Amy’s next spell with one of his own, and kicked the boy who now knelt before him with enough force to lift him off the ground. Xander gasped as the man’s foot impacted his solar plexus, suddenly finding it difficult to even gather the strength to take another breath. Amy flew backwards as the back of Fzoul’s fist impacted her face, the spiked gauntlet leaving nasty red tears across her skin.
Vierna, having just crushed her first few opponents with her mighty flail, turned back towards her teammates to find them not so well off. As Amy flew back from Fzoul’s blow, the dark elven maiden charged forward, her flail swinging in a circle. She saw an opening as the Chosen of Bane bent down to heft Xander up from the ground and hit the cleric in the back of the knees, one of the least well protected spots due to the joints. She spun around, pulled a dagger out of her belt and slashed out at the man’s neck which was now exposed. She should have hit, he was wide open, but the blade skittered across his neck as if it were armored instead of flesh. Fzoul turned his head and glared at her, his blue eyes seeming to glow with rage and indignation.
Vierna was good at indignation. Hell, she was raised
on it as a noble daughter of Menzoberranzan. Indignation and superiority were bread and butter to her for years, decades even. But she had spent the last few months with people who used anything to win and had learned one lesson quite well: the greater the pride, the easier it was to use it against them. She spat into his glaring eyes before pulling up her flail in both hands to smash right into his head. The Chosen of Bane went down, but crossbow bolts narrow missed Vierna’s ear, preventing her from following up on her attack. She looked up and saw Buffy doing surprisingly well against the beholder.
Buffy herself didn’t think she was doing well at all. The ugly eye-thing had managed to dodge, barely, her attacks at its central eye, leaving gashes from Mr. Pointy on the eyelid, near each side and along the toothy maw below the huge orb. She kicked it as it blinked, her strength returning for just a second, allowing her to kick a few more teeth out. Her strength was noticeably more improved as the anti-magic field blinked on and off. Each time she dodged out of the way, or forced it to protect its eye, her strength was less weakened the next time its focus returned to her.
One of the eyestalks turned towards her and she dove down, out of the way, rolling along the ground, only to come up on one knee, Mr. Pointy now in her off hand, and her sword firmly returned to her grasp. That was when she realized that she had placed herself in the perfect crossfire between the archers and the beholder. The eye tyrant turned towards her once more and she jumped, allowing the crossbow bolt aimed at her back to fly beneath her. The bolt, magically ensorcelled by the mage into a flaming projectile, flew directly into the beholder’s central eye just before it opened once more. The aberrant abomination screamed in pain as its massive orb was blinded; sickly, inhuman blood gushing from the wound. Buffy landed on her feet like a cat, tossing Mr. Pointy into the air, before springing up again, pulling the flaming bolt out of the eye and tossing it backwards, catching an archer in the throat. She caught Mr. Pointy just as she jammed the sword into the beholder. It screamed once more, shuddering in death throws as she impaled it onto the ground. She reversed her grip on the sword and allowed the aberration to slide off, its corpse hitting the ground as it never had in life.
Buffy turned on the archers that were still taking potshots at them. Her face was a mask of rage as she ran forward, knocking arrows and bolts out of the air with sword and fist almost as if they were stationary targets. Her arm arched and the blade dug deep into an archer’s chest. His companions, seeing this, broke as one, running backwards, occasionally tripping over their own feet as they watched the blood-soaked Slayer striding towards them. She dispatched one, then another before turning back to where Fzoul was positively trouncing her companions.
Vierna was sent sprawling backwards by Fzoul’s profanely empowered fist. The cleric’s power trailed after the blow as unholy dark energy seemed to seep out of the wounds that now decorated his face by Vierna’s enchanted flail. With his other hand he grabbed a struggling Xander by the neck and tossed him after the fallen dark elf. He turned on Amy, who was struggling to regain her footing.
“You will serve BANE!” he snarled as he called on the tyrannical power of his Patron. Amy screamed as she felt her mind dominated by Bane’s power. It seeped through the skin, flew into her lungs with each panting breath she took. It surrounded her and filled her until there was only Bane’s will through his mortal servitor. She looked upon Fzoul Chembryl and waited for instructions. He nodded in Buffy’s direction. “Kill her.”
Resistance was futile.
Amy turned her magics on the Slayer who had been her friend, teammate and partner. For the first time since she had truly come into her power she called not on Hecate, the Olympian goddess of magic, crossroads and the moon, but upon Bane. The Lord of Tyranny. The Black Hand. Lord of Darkness. She begged for his gift like a toddler begging for a sweet.
And Bane answered, filling her with power. His
Fzoul glanced around and realized he was nearly alone, his swords men run off by the witch’s spells and his archers by the Slayer’s might.
“Enough! I tire of this pointless combat,” he growled out as he mentally cursed his minions’ incompetence. He reached down with one bloodied gauntlet and grabbed Xander by the scruff of the neck, simultaneously checking to make sure he was still alive. To ensure his power was complete, the Chosen Cleric spoke to Bane and Bane replied, as spell after spell from Amy set Buffy running to escape. A portal opened before the favored cleric of the Lord of Darkness. With one last glance to make sure his opponents were occupied, he dragged Xander’s unconscious body through the Gate Spell, allowing the connection to collapse behind him.
“Amy! What happened to you?” Buffy demanded as she dodged another ball of dark power thrown her way. It impacted with the ground not far from where she had last stood.
“I SERVE BANE NOW!” The enchanted witch declared as she called upon another sphere of black flames. But before she could let it fly, Vierna suddenly appeared before her. The dark elven maiden pulled her fist back and punched the witch in the stomach with all her might, forcing the spellcaster to forget the words of her next spell. The energy she had been gathered exploded, searing Amy’s hand.
“What are you doing?!” Buffy demanded as Vierna shoved her steel covered hand into the witch’s mouth to keep her from speaking.
“Fzoul cast a spell on her, dominating her will,” Vierna replied, hauling the witch to her feet without removing her hand from the girl’s mouth. The was a grinding sound as Amy tried to bite the elf’s finger’s off to no avail.
“How do you know that?” Buffy demanded, still unwilling to trust Drizzt’s sister.
The dark elf stared at her with equal parts aggravation and determination.
“I know these spells especially well,” Vierna said. “They were used quite commonly in Menzoberranzan. They were a show of dominance, of power, even of social status. Oh gross
! She’s licking
“Well, you’re the one who stuck your fingers in her mouth,” Buffy said unsympathetically. Vierna threw her an indignant glare.
“She’ll be an enemy for days
at the very least, months if I’m right about Fzoul’s power and experience, you bimbastic human
,” Vierna snarled as she stomped on Amy’s toe to distract her from attempting to escape.
“What the hell does ‘bimbastic’ mean?” Buffy snarled.
“Bimbastic: to act in the manner of a bimbo,” Vierna hissed as she dragged the witch kicking and screaming into the tent.
“Hey! Don’t ignore me!” Buffy said. The former priestess glared at the Slayer.
“Go make yourself useful and go search the bodies for some clue as to where the asshole Baneite took the male
!” Vierna commanded, shutting the tent flap behind her with a snap. Buffy, standing outside, clenched her fists and howled in rage, grief and pain. She ran up and gave the beholder corpse a kick worthy of any soccer champ. The many eyed ball flew up, beholder juices glistening in the light of the newly risen moon, and trailed off into the distance before finally vanishing behind a grassy gnoll. The camouflaged gnoll ranger, seeing the tiny girl punt a beholder, decided there was safer prey in other places. Oblivious to the observer, the blonde Slayer screamed again; a wordless, shrill sound that never the less perfectly conveyed her meaning and emotion.
She made her way over to the lines of corpses and found one still moving. The archer hadn’t been as severely wounded as he had pretended and allowed his fellows to think him dead. He rolled a corpse off his pinned body only to look up into the hazel eyes of a very, very displeased Buffy Summers. He couldn’t understand her words, but knew they promised pain. He tried to crab walk backwards, but was stopped by a fist to the face which broke his jaw.
Buffy dragged the silent and now unconscious prisoner into the tent. Amy was gagged and tied to the central pole of the tent with her hands well above her head. She had been stripped except for her underwear and glared angrily at Buffy, obviously snarling something at her through the gag.
“What did you do to her!” Buffy demanded of the dark elf.
“We couldn’t trust that she wouldn’t have some additional spell components for incantations that didn’t require words, so I removed the possibility,” Vierna explained dismissively. She raised one alabaster eyebrow at the man Buffy dragged behind her. “You broke his jaw
“Yeah,” Buffy said, dropping the unconscious male on the ground.
“The entire point of taking prisoners is so they can talk! He’s useless to us, you-”
Buffy’s glare stopped her rant in mid-insult.
“Stop,” Buffy commanded. “Right now I don’t fucking care. Shove a healing potion down his throat, or don’t, I don’t care.”
She turned and stomped out the tent flap and into the crisp early evening air. She went back to the battlefield and did something she never thought she’d do again: stripped the corpses. Buffy had to admit that, after her mistakes with the DuLac cross and similar events, evidence was needed to get a complete picture. She undid clasps, belts and buttons. She searched mouths for hidden poisons and weapons with a disgusted look. She piled up the dead bodies away from the tent and the gear in a second pile. They were quite large and she grumbled at the thought of having to touch them again. It wasn’t for lack of experience with dead bodies, but more of just aggravation piled upon aggravation. She stomped back into the tent and grabbed the bags containing their food supplies. Angrily, she turned one of the bags of holding inside out, dumping it into the second before stomping out again, absently watching as Vierna hogtied and gagged Amy and their other prisoner. Outside once more, she stuffed body after body into the bag of holding, only then realizing that if she was going to do that, she hadn’t needed to strip them in the first place.
Infuriated by her mistake, she screamed in rage, pain and aggravation, the sound echoing off the hills and mountains. Mobs of emus started at the sound, wargs cowered in fear, traders making the dangerous way through Turnstone Pass shivered and cowered closer together around camp fires, all hoping that the owner of the voice wasn’t after them.
The gnoll ranger shivered at the noise. He hadn’t believed the rumors about the new human nation, but he was starting to think there was something to them. Well, he’d heard that Icewind Dale was nice this time of year.
Far from the High Temple of Bane, the spires of Waterdeep, and the airships of Halruaa, there was another fortress of might and magic. Ancient beyond living memory of most creatures native to Faerûn, the elaborate caverns of the eastern Nether Mountains were not created by the most recent inhabitants. Indeed, they were thousands of years older than even the Ancient Wrym who held court in the ancient fortress of Dragondoom. For over a thousand years the Morueme Clan of blue dragons terrorized the eastern reaches of the Nether Mountains. Led by the patriarch Nahaunglaroth, the blue dragons had feasted on any being unfortunate enough to be caught in the open, be they beast, animal or mortal. Their servants, an ancient clan of hobgoblins, tall, intelligent and ruthless goblinoids, existed almost civilized in a small town at the base of the mountain. For nearly an era, the Blood of Morueme had ruled the skies and the hobgoblins of Doomspire served their every whim.
Unlike many other hobgoblin tribes, those of Doomspire knew little of the outside world. They were not near any village or city, nor situated on a common trading route, nor were they as nomadic as most goblinoids or orc-kin, so the only “peaceful” outside contact was with the orc tribes that occasionally traded with the village. Cities and the like were legends spread by the human slaves brought by those same orcs.
The slaves had tilled the ground, built the houses while the hobgoblins tended the rothé. So it had been generation after generation. For over a thousand years, the hobgoblins of Doomspire had served the great azure wryms. It was said that the sun set, the sun rose, and the Blood of Moruene were fed. Outside was pointless, as it had nothing to do with serving the Blood. The clan even began worshiping the dragons as something more than the already great beasts they were. As the centuries passed, the traditional goblin deities prayers were spoken less and less until the religious ceremonies were little more than lip-service. There had not been a true cleric or shaman in Doomspire for generations. All that changed with the coming of Sunnydale.
The explosive force of the city’s arrival reached to the east as well as the more populated west of the Silver Marches. The Blue Dragons, well protected by the peaks and ridges, felt the magical power, but suffered no initial ill effects and returned to their magical studies and feasts. Those would be felt later. Doomspire began to feel the effects as game became sparse and their draconic masters’ bellies rumbled. The herds of rothé, tended for centuries, panicked and spread out. Passes were choked with rubble shaken loose by Sunnydale’s arrival. Valleys filled with stagnant water, and disease ran rampant.
It was not long before the Blood of Morueme became unsettled by the diminishing frequency of the tribute they had been so long accustomed to. As many had done in the past, the masters put the blame on the servants and demanded a different kind of sacrifice when no other was available. Doomspire first gave slaves, and at first only the weak or infirm. Game did not increase or return to familiar paths, and so the least skilled of the slaves were next to go. When things still did not improve, so went the rest of the human slaves down draconic gullets. Then went the ogres and Dire Wolves. As the months passed, the expendable dwindled and vanished, and Doomspire had no option but to give up their own kin. The population went from over six hundred before Sunnydale’s arrival, to five hundred, to four hundred and continued until they were barely half their original number.
Only then did the Blood of Morueme realize that the fault did not lie with their servants, but was of other origins. Calling upon magics best left forgotten, delving into the hidden secrets of the universe, the dragon clan understood the events of Sunnydale’s arrival. Their magics explained the history of Acathla and of other hidden secrets of the Hellmouth. Being arcanely inspired, covetous, and possessing more than a little draconic arrogance, Nahaunglaroth and kin left the lair of Morueme’s Cave and attacked the city.
They did not return to Dragondoom.
Unused to being without masters, but feeling relief at the lack of sacrificial demands, the hobgoblins of Doomspire used the subsequent months to expand and regroup. Rothé, sheep and goats, domesticated, wild and feral, were gathered back into herds along the mountain sides. Terraces were rebuilt and new crops planted. The possessions of the dead were spread out among the living, and their domiciles used for animal husbandry. Roads were built to travel passes clogged with debris, utilizing the ancient hobgoblin traditions of stonework and mining. Homes were repaired using what little carpentry knowledge the survivors possessed, which was not much. Their human slaves had traditionally been the labor force for such things, and had also been the first to be sacrificed to their masters. Without the constant work of serving, there was time to transform the community into something that could better serve. The population began to rise once more, with no demands of sacrifice and the screams of tiny hobgoblin spawn echoed through the mountain village.
They hoped that their masters would be pleased at the improvements. If only the masters would return.
It had been months after the departure of the Blood of Morueme. Many were wondering if their masters had been so displeased that they had abandoned the servants. It was winter, particularly wet and nasty. While not as cold as in years past, the temperature hovered around freezing, rising above and dipping below, and the winter winds brought not the expected and needed snow, but biting ice that slicked the stones, stabbed through clothes like formless invisible knives, and made even the mighty rothé ill.
That was when she
The wind had been particularly harsh that day, surging through the valleys below Dragondoom like the great serpents they until recently served. Rain like draconic jaws sinking through a rothé calf, fell from the skies. The few hundred or so inhabitants of Doomspire hunkered down in their village, sheep and rothé hides wrapped around them, and the pit fires burning. The winds thankfully took the smoke from the roof vents, but it was little comfort.
Then, in the midst of the winter storm, it ended.
The air stilled.
The rain ceased.
Though the air was still raw, a few brave hobgoblins looked out their doors.
Selûne was bright, but was sinking, the Tears following her behind the mountain peaks, as the sun rose in the east. Clouds, no doubt those which so recently were overhead, faded into the horizons
It was a child who first spotted her.
At first she was but a tiny spot on the horizon, growing so slowly as the sky brightened. Some time passed, none were sure how much, before they realized the figure seemed to be human, a woman no less. However, the hobgoblins of Doomspire knew
without doubt that no human could walk on air itself.
Seemed to be, for she walked on air as if it was solid land, one foot in front of the other, something the residents of Doomspire knew only their masters, great lords of the air, could do. The clothes were strange, unlike anything they had seen from their former human slaves, nor of the orc traders. A heavy blue coat that was opened in the front, but hung down to her ankles, she had a thick covering over her torso that was thick like a ewe’s hide, but had patterns none had seen before and was hide of no animal they knew, while her leggings were obviously light and thin, practically useless in such a clime.
But as the sun peaked through the mountains, it was her hair that attracted their attention. Long and straight, so unlike the ruddy brown mats and dreads of Doomspire, her hair glowed with the color of blood in the dawn light. Her top was the color of lush mountain moss and her leggings the color of their masters’ scaly hides.
She paused, looking up at Dragondoom with a squinting pensive expression.
They had seen that look before.
The size and form were different, but the casual disdain, the acceptance of their servitude were unmistakable.
Their masters had arrived once more.
Hope returned to Doomspire.
Willow squinted in the morning light as she tried to track the magic calling to her.
She never even noticed the village below her as she climbed the invisible stairs of air to Moruene’s Cave.
It would be weeks before they dared present their master’s new form a gift. They were just pleased that the Blood had returned.
Just before dawn, the elders of Doomspire marched up the ancient stone steps, the firmest of the middle age behind them, bringing gifts of gold discovered in the rebuilding of their city; gifts of food from freshly slaughtered sheep; gifts of decorations made of their master’s original and new forms sewn on scraped and tanned hides of Rothé and goat. Ewe’s milk was fermented into a powerful draught and loaded into great casks, hauled one by one up the steps by a team of eight stout Hobgoblin warriors.
Careful not to wake their tumultuously tempered master, they prepared a feast in the hopes that their master would never abandon them again. The sun crept into the mouth of the cave, magically warm all year long, and shown into the great windows of the Bloodlair, ancient sleeping area of the blue dragon clan.
The sun fell on the two Willow’s faces. The last few weeks after their encounter with Shar and other deities had been difficult. There was an issue with deific encounters that most mortals never considered. Mortals, to deities, were at best pets, tools for others, and ants for most of the remainder. Just as most humans cannot tell one ant from another, so did the Deities in their glances at the Willows. They looked the same. They smelled the same. What was the point at differentiating between them?
And so the Willows were having a bit of an identity crisis. It was not infinite, nor was it a war between them, but the memories each shared were at odds with those each possessed from the splitting point. Until Acathla, they had been the same person. After that, their lives took very different turns.
Both had dated Oz.
He had abandoned them both to deal with his curse.
One remained on Earth while the other survived in Aber-Toril.
Both felt the pain of that. It was not betrayal, but a parting.
They had dealt with it in very different ways.
One had moved on, found another love, only to lose her a few short years later after a tumultuous roller-coaster of a relationship.
The other had thrown herself into her studies, ignoring the need to pull back and think closer on the ethics and responsibilities.
Now, after walking under the uncaring eyes of deities, they were trying to figure out where one ended and the other began.
“Tara?” one said.
“Yes,” said the other. Or maybe it was the first. The connection had been momentary, but had, for that single moment, been perfect.
“She was amazing, wasn’t she?” one said sadly.
“She still is,” the other replied, thinking of the other Tara.
“I didn’t mean-” both said in unison. In the ancient fortress, they paused. Too often they had fallen into unison.
“Why this place?” one asked.
“I came here-”
“Or did I?” asked the other.
“I did,” said the second. She had been known as Dark Willow, a name she had sadly earned with her actions. Something she regretted. “We may know all the other knew, like we experienced it ourselves, but we are not the same person.”
“But,” Willow the Red protested before cutting herself off.
“My mistakes are not yours,” Dark Willow stated. “They are mine to make up for. Not yours.”
“I know, but-”
“You’re still mostly the lime-green sweater Willow, the one who saved Xander each year, the one with the yellow crayon, the one who was teased mercilessly by Cordelia,” Dark Willow said. “You’re the one who went out of her way to do the right thing when it needed to be done.” She paused and looked out the ancient stained glass doors at the morning light. “I’m the one who nearly destroyed the world in grief and rage.” She turned and spun on her slightly younger counterpart. “Don’t become me. Do not walk in my shadow, follow my path. That’s why I had to save you. I’d kill the gods themselves if I felt it would take back what I’ve done.”
“You mean Buffy, Tara, Warren...” she trailed off.
“Yes, raising Buffy from the dead, playing with the mind of the love of my life,” Dark Willow admitted as she turned back to her counterpart. “Torturing Warren. Losing control of my grief and anger. I do not regret killing him, only how
I did it.”
“I guess I can-did you hear that?” Willow said, looking at the stained glass doors.
“There’s something moving in the entryway,” Dark Willow said as the two stood up. Willow reached for a stake, but the other shook her head. “No, you’ve got the knowledge, us it! Learn from my experiences and
my mistakes, but don’t dismiss either one!”
Willow nodded and raised her arms and threw the doors wide open with a burst of will and magic.
The hobgoblins, momentarily stunned at their masters’ sudden appearance, fell to the floor almost as one, genuflecting before their masters.
“Masters,” the village chief, an old, muscular hobgoblin, said as he raised himself to one knee. “We thank you for returning. We have provided you with a feast in your honor.”
Willow turned to Dark Willow with an accusatory look.
“I’m actually just as confused as you are,” she admitted.
Weeks passed. Then months and eventually winter turned into spring and then into early summer. The Willows spent the time sorting out the village below and the caverns above.
“It’s been bugging me, but I finally remembered where I saw this architecture,” Willow said, waving a hand around the gigantic, cavernous room. The ceiling was curved upward, carved out of bare rock, but was supported by manufactured columns, ornately carved by some ancient hand. Stairs connected the various chambers, too small for a dragon and even a hobgoblin would hit his or her head on the ceiling. However, they were perfect for humans. Most other chambers were connected at later times, no doubt by the Blood of Morueme in the later centuries of occupation.
The dragonlairs had evidence of human sized buildings within those massive chambers, but long since demolished to make way for piles of precious metals, hills of sapphires and arcane trinkets.
“This was built by the same people as the vampire-filled city Buffy found,” the elder Willow replied. “Yes, I saw the similarities myself.”
“I read something in one of the books in the back caverns about lost empires,” the younger Willow explained. “It’s hard to imagine how old this region is compared to California. Hundred year old buildings were set up for historic preservation. The buildings in this cave system are thousands of years old, if I understand the calendars correctly.”
“What if we asked the-” elder Willow gave a sharp nod to the entrance.
“I don’t like them serving us,” younger Willow said not for the first time. “We’re not their masters. We’re just us.”
“And they might try to kill us if they think otherwise and learn the truth,” Elder Willow countered, also not for the first time. “We’ve been teaching them more about farming and construction. Things they never knew before, at least not the way we know.”
“But a well fed slave is still a slave,” Younger Willow argued. “It’s not right that they would keep serving us like this.”
“If they chose to rise up we might be forced to kill them all, Willow, you know that,” Elder Willow stated. “But this is not the issue at hand. Should we return these to Sunnydale?” She nodded to the walls lined with tomes of magic and lore.
“A pile of knowledge isn’t any good unless you use it,” Willow the Younger said.
“What if we expose the villagers to Sunnydale so they stop thinking of themselves as slaves and us as masters?” Elder Willow pondered.
“But you just said-”
“Yes, but they’re too isolated, unable to understand what has changed or what they could become,” Elder Willow explained. “But if they start to learn what freedom means, then we ‘free’ them from themselves?”
“Oooo! Then we could tell them the truth and they won’t try to kill us!” Younger Willow exclaimed.
“It’s an idea. Also a possible way to get rid of all this gold and gems,” Elder Willow said, nodding to the accumulated wealth.
To call the dragon’s hoard “wealth” would be a bit of a disservice along the lines of calling the Palace of Versailles a quaint cottage with a nice garden. Dragons, all types, be they the noble Gold, the playful Bronze, the malicious White or malevolent Red, coveted gold, silver, gems and monetary wealth in physical form, sleeping on it like a dog on their favorite rug, but more possessive of it than Ebeneezer Scrooge before his undead visitations. Some, like the Blue Dragons who made up the Blood of Morueme, coveted arcane knowledge as much as wealth and it showed in Dragonspire. There were cabinets of scrolls and a hoard of magical weapons stored in wooden barrels like one would store umbrellas by the door; enchanted trinkets of all sorts were piled up in corners. In each lair were massive piles of gemstones and precious metals, the dragons’ fading spells having kept their hoards from the tarnishes of time. Those piles were more like small hills, mounds that glittered in the enchanted lights lined along the walls with eerie patterns of light and dark. There wasn’t a home in Sunnydale that could compare for size; only a few of the larger public buildings were comparable in size to the combined hoards.
The original walls of Dragonspire, where they still remained after the Draconic “renovations,” were painted with gold so thick it did not chip. The lights were gemstones larger than Willow’s head, enchanted to shine with a pale blue-white light similar to that of the sun. Ostentatious did not begin to describe Dragonspire.
“Anything arcane we will set aside, but we’ll take the gold and gems back to Sunnydale,” Elder Willow explained.
Three days later, at breakfast, the Two Masters explained their new plan. The chief of Doomspire had to agree that with their changed forms, the sleeping arrangements could not be the same. He remembered once, as a child, attempting to sleep on coins as the Masters did and found it quite unpleasant. He hadn’t that many coins, so supplemented with river rocks, but the effect had been the same. He agreed instantly to the plans to arrange for transport of the useless metals. Too soft for digging the earth or armor, the yellow coins looked pretty, but were mostly useless. The gems. While baubles are pretty, and nice on occasion, most of those were far too large to be useful.
It should be noted that Doomspire worked on a barter economy, with no need for coinage of any sort and therefor had not the same appreciation of it as a monetary society would. Their wealth was in the herds and land, not in useless metals and gems.
“I will begin with the construction of the carts,” the chief said. “We are short of wood, so it may take some time.”
“What if you just built a few, and we pick up some more in Sunnydale?” Elder Willow suggested. “You could bring back things you need for the village, like wood, and, um, potatoes. There are a lot of potatoes that will grow well here.”
“As the Willows command,” he said. Willow and Willow had been quite opposed to being called “Master” all the time, but having their name used as a synonymic title was not much better. Unfortunately, it was as best as they could. The hobgoblin villagers had taken their every request as a command, much to the Willows’ disgust. The two redheaded witches tried to change things, but still this was taken as a series of commands.
“And since it’s spring, you should be extra careful,” Willow the Younger instructed. “I don’t want any of you getting hurt or anything.”
“Any of you who accompany us,” Elder Willow put in. “How goes the mining?”
They had discovered a large amount of iron ore in the local bedrock. It had been used by Doomspire to a limited extent for tools and the like, but it was blacksmithing as a minor side skill, rather than an actual occupation. Hobgoblins, like their cousin races, were miners of some skill, though not as precise as Dwarves, their greater strength made them quite industrious and successful. They had been known to dig mine shafts for long distances just in case they found what they were looking for. In the areas of Doomspire, they had used this skill for their stone masonry supplies. With the coming of the Willows, their refinement of ore increasing greatly as the Willows added their limited knowledge of metallurgy to the skills of the citizens of Doomspire. Both Willows felt a bit guilty for using the natives, but hoped that they were doing the right thing.
The Hobgoblins of Doomspire would never be the same.
The iron, now being worked in a smelter heated by a collection of fire enchanted weapons, was slowly turned into a poor quality steel, though still better than what the Hobgoblins had made previously which was steel only by accident from the coal they traded for in previous years.
Forms were made of the more heat resistant soapstone found on other slopes.
While neither Willow knew much of engineering, they had once, as children, spent a few weeks in the White Mountains with their parents. While it would not be quite the same, the new paths worked along the same idea as the Cog Railway up Mount Washington, a steep, slow route to ship things.
Rothé hauled carts down the winding trails as hobgoblin workers carved a straighter path beside it. Rails were placed on it, supported by hobgoblin stonework. They avoided valleys and other physical obstacles, though most had already been moved by the villagers after the Blood vanished.
The rails were designed with stone steps between them instead of wooden ties, as this allowed the hobgoblins to hitch rothé to the primeval train and prevented slippage. Rough iron wagons linked together with equally rough chains slowly rolled down the hillside railway, guided by the massive rothé, some in front, some behind. The two rothé allowed them to control the speed of the trains, preventing them from sluicing down. This had been developed after one near fatal accident that still cost one hobgoblin worker a foot. That hobgoblin had since been working as a sorter in Dragonspire proper and would separate the various coins from each other and had started on learning his numbers from the Willows. Manual breaks were installed in the form of a rough metal bar that pressed against the wheel and rail, sending up sparks and only worked before the cars gained speed and downward inertia. Still, it was better than nothing.
Periodically along the rails were sections of double tracks which allowed a cart to go upwards as well as continue down. The switch tracks had been more error and quite a trial, but eventually worked, allowing for more than one wagon to work the rails at a time.
A second village, named Willow’s Rail in honor of their new masters, had been built at the bottom, stocked with beds and surrounded by fences built of stone. The fences, constructed of same stone used for the rail steps, kept the rothé contained and kept the giant birds out. There were only fifteen men and women in the lower village, but they were proud citizens of Willow’s Rail. The buildings were fitted dry stone construction, with sod roofs on wooden beams (having saved all wood they recovered from the clogged mountain streams). They worked well, that is, if one didn’t mind the occasional burrowing animal falling from the ceiling. Still, they kept the rain outside and the buildings warm or cool depending on the need. Cooking was done in a separate building that also housed the well, though most water was hauled from the nearby mountain stream that traditionally followed the mountain trail.
It was hard, rough work and everyone took part making it happen. The Willows worked hard teaching skills such as first aid and tried to make sure that fewer accidents happened. The chief made an impressive foreman and architect, designed the pathway down the mountain. The elders helped organize the rest of the villagers into labor units and made sure that everything was done right.
Though it was not a long stretch, Doomspire far below the peak of Dragonspire proper; it took months to complete. There was not a person in the village who was not proud of what they accomplished. It was early summer when the Willows were ready to head out into the grasslands below. What they found was not what they expected to find.
“Emus?” Willow the Younger asked in shock.
There must have been fifty of them, scratching around in the dirt as the fathers taught the younger generation about what was tasty and what was to be avoided. Several were hunting some large chubby rodents similar to prairie dogs or woodchucks.
“Emus?” Elder Willow asked in confusion.
“They are quite good eating,” pointed out one eager to please hobgoblin child, only to be hushed by her parents.
“How long have they been here?” Willow the Younger asked one of the elders.
“Since before we repaired the cobblestones,” the Sub-Chief in charge of Willow’s Rail explained. “They have tough hides, good for leather, and the feathers are quite useful. They produce an oil superior to rothé, which we use for our lamps.”
“They can be farmed,” Willow the Younger pointed out. “We had farms in Sunnydale.”
“But how are there so many?” Elder Willow pondered. She shook her head. It wasn’t really important. She turned back to the Chief, Sub-Chief and Elders. “Stay healthy when we are gone. Have some kids. If you want to continue working on the rail road, feel free. You know where we’re going, so just aim in that direction.”
Sunnydale, still perched high in the foothills south of the ancient mountains, stood out like an emerald on the western horizon.
“Don’t forget to boil your water first,” Willow the Younger reminded them. “Less disease that way. And have lots of kids. Not you guys specifically, since you’re all probably too old, but you in the general sense, because there aren’t a lot of you and more would make you stronger. And don’t forget to cook your meat all the way through and-”
She was cut off by Elder Willow pulling her towards the rothé wagons waiting ahead. As the two vanished into the distance, the Sub-Chief turned to the Chief.
“The Masters talk a lot more than I remember,” he commented.
“I noticed that too,” the Chief agreed. “The Elder Willow calls it babbling.”
“General, we’ve had a break-in at the prison island,” a lowly Lt. in the SSDF reported. General Hennessey turned towards the younger woman, a native half-orc who had joined up in the last year. She’d successfully passed the officer’s courses offered at the university with work towards a degree in Earth Sciences, something the general recalled she was planning on continuing later on. Her skin was paler green than most of her mother’s side and she was quite a bit shorter than the average orc, something that had been a problem when dealing with some of the full blooded orcs that had joined up recently. She’d been added to the rotating security teams that patrolled the outlying areas of Sunnydale that were out beyond the few places with roads.
The prison island was a pretty primitive place at this point, even more than a year after they’d arrived. Originally just a small mountain, it had become an island after the arrival of Sunnydale, with the valley Sunnydale had landed on being plugged up by the transported land itself. With nowhere to go, the mountain river water had quickly filled the remaining valley, turning the ravaged bit of dirt and rock into the only peak in Lake Sunnydale. It had remained so for some months until the army of Hellgate Keep invaded. There were nearly a hundred Tanarukk still alive after that battle and Sunnydale had no treaty requiring them to send Hellgate Keep’s army back to them intact. Sunnydale at that point had still been surviving on aid from nearby nations and city-states, and had only been given one suggestion as to how to deal with the demonic orcs: kill them. The Mayor, not being one to let anyone tell him what to do in his city, had decided to send them to this desolate bit of dirt, rock and grass, all greater vegetation having been blasted away in Sunnydale’s arrival.
The Prison Island, as it soon became known, was a harsh place to live in the early days. Everyone lived in tents, there were no walls or structures. The Tanarukks, then still programmed into loyalty to their demonic masters, were given no weapons other than those improvised from farm equipment. With the help of the newly arrived Hippie-Xander (as the dimensional clone of Alexander Harris became known, something that the young man didn’t totally disagree with), the Tanarukk warriors became farmers, or warrior-farmers at least, turning the treacherous landscape into a series of terrace farms that dotted the east-south-and west sides of the island to catch the maximum amount of sunlight every day. The north side was turned into a series of thatched stone buildings that actually resembled rural Ireland if not for the fact that the doorways were twice as wide and several feet taller to accommodate the new occupants. Water was brought up from the late to irrigate the beds by a series of hand pumps that each Tanarukk took turns working. Native edible plants were grown and thrived under the attention with rice being grown seasonally in the warm waters of geothermal vents around the island’s shores. The tubers, berries, leafy greens and native squashes were quickly becoming staple foods for the prisoners supplemented with sheep raised on other islands. Heating was almost unnecessary due to the planetouched orcs’ ability to manipulate fire, allowing even a tiny spark to grow into a healthy warm fire with little effort.
Hippie-Xander’s efforts were so successful that the Tanarukk prisoners actually grew more than they consumed, and ended supplying food and seed stores for gardens and farms in the city proper. As the months passed, the officials in Sunnydale hoped to have the Tanarukks move off the island to help train others in their farming techniques, but the demonic orcs refused, choosing to stay on the island, effectively turning the prison island into a colony.
It wasn’t long before others were sent to the prison island. These prisoners were used to a different lifestyle than the Tanarukks and almost instantly caused trouble either from refusal to work, or rage at being housed with the orcs. Major Henningsvær, the SSDF officer in charge of the island, made it quite clear that “if you don’t work, you don’t eat.” It was perhaps a bit harsh, but it worked and even McGristle learned when he got hungry enough. Oh, he made a few escape attempts, but his nautical knowledge was not enough to allow him to pilot the Svolvær to shore, or even allow him to raise the anchor and since he never learned how to swim, he had no other choice but to submit.
Eventually, people would finish their sentences. Jack O’Toole received a 2 month sentence after some theft and vandalism. Others would only be there for two weeks or so. Punishment in Sunnydale no longer had a fine, since money was not as important as it once was. The value had changed and more physical punishments had greater positive effects. When a person’s sentence was up, they would be brought back onto the mainland via the Svolvær where they would resume their normal work. Ironically, it was considered one of the most humane prison systems in northern Faerûn.
Eventually things fell into a pattern. There were a few moments of excitement, like freak storms or Tanarukk births (very few due to the small number of Tanarukk women), but things tended to even out. The Tanarukks acted as prison guards, Hippie-Xander would help with the development of new crops and farming techniques, the prisoners would farm alongside the planetouched orcs, and Major Henningsvær would act as overall Warden.
All that changed when simultaneous attacks by Fzoul’s Baneite army hit the dock, the small town on the north side of the island and the three towers. The dock was a smoldering ruin, the Svolvær having only escaped because it was returning several of Sunnydale High’s finest repeat offenders back to the mainland.
Men and women in black chainmail appeared through portals opened to allow them entrance to the island assisted by black robed clerics and mages. All bore the same black fist on their chests. What shocked the guards most of all was not their appearance, which was startling enough, but their armaments: each and every one of them was armed with rifles.
One of the reasons that guns so easily overtook earlier technologies was the simplicity in learning how to use one. When the colonists arrived in the Americas and started trading with the Native Americans, firearms became the weapon of choice within a generation. It took decades to become truly proficient with a bow and arrow, generations to be truthful, but one could use a gun with little experience and only a few weeks of training. And so it was with the Baneite soldiers, armed with rifles that, while not top of the line or power, still allowed them greater reach and destructive potential. The guard post on the southern peak of the island was the first to fall, the hardwood walls looking more like kindling than siding, stained red with the blood of those inside.
The soldiers marched across the fields, crushing underfoot any crops that were in their way. Two more guard posts fell the same way, bullets to those stationed there and fireballs taking out anyone in the structure. At the third guard post, things changed as the word got out. While the troops advanced, early warning on the radio gave later posts more time to prepare. As the black clad invaders marched over the hill in a line, they were a perfect target for the more experienced and trained SSDF troops. While they had magic and their deity’s favor, Baneite military tactics weren’t very advanced beyond “stand in a line and shoot.” This would prove to be rather fatal for the first wave of Baneite fighters.
The second wave didn’t even bother looking at the bodies of the first and fell the same way. Unfortunately for them, the SSDF got off a message to HQ and to the other posts. Reinforcements arrived from the other posts, flanking the invaders into a crossfire. The casualties were felt on both sides, though as soon as the SSDF organized, successive casualties were weighted much more on the Baneite side. Parties were organized and started marching forward and it wasn’t that hard to backtrack to point of origin. Just barely on the edge of the water, a shimmering portal spun, looking like nothing so much as a ring of spiraling shadow and darkness. Testing with a stick and string, it was quickly revealed to be a two way portal. Taking precautions, the SSDF soldiers strung five grenades together, pulling the pins and tossed them in. Only moments after they took cover, the portal sputtered and let out a gasp of smoke and shrapnel, shuddering as its stability degraded and finally collapsed.
“We’ve closed the portal, sir,” the team leader reported via radio.
“Scour the island,” was the command. Further orders were to find out what the hell they wanted.
Casualty lists were made; maps of the attack compiled; security concerns were strengthened. It would be three days before they discovered that Hippie-Xander was missing.
“I want to know what the hell happened!” Joyce commanded a day after the attack. She had been dealing with meetings, press conferences and questions about where the hell her daughter was during all this. “Who, what, why, when and how. Talk to me.”
“Who: Fzoul Chembryl. ” General Hennessey reported as he stood up at the front of the briefing room, pointing to a map of the island. “We were warned that he, and Bane, had set their sights on Sunnydale, but we didn’t expect this kind of attack. He sent in soldiers for a sneak attack that left at least 25 dead, fifteen wounded, just at the guard posts, but they torched the launch and burned a number of the thatched roof houses in the village. We know some of the prisoners and guards are missing, but there’s so much to sort through and the island still has plenty of places to hide, so at this time we don’t know the full extent of the casualties or survivors.” He frowned, the lines on his dark face creasing, making him seem a decade or more older than he was. He changed to another slide, this one of the spot with the portal. “They were organized, trained and much better armed than we expected.” He paused to hold up a rifle. “What: Guns. I’ll give him this, he’s smart. This isn’t a replica of one of our modern arms, but something closer to what were used in the Spanish-American war. More accurate than those used in the Civil War, but nothing compare to the advances in the later decades of the 20th century. Even so, they’re balanced, light, easily reproduced and even more easy to use.”
“We should have known that our technology would spread,” Giles commented. “It was rather arrogant of us not to anticipate this action.”
“I agree,” the General said with a frown. He set the rifle back down and held up a spent cartridge. “The one thing that saved us is their lack of understanding of firearm warfare. Their tactics were crude, very similar to those of the Civil War. Big armies, standing in a line, trying to kill the others. It was a standard of most armies until about the end of WWI.”
“That was a bit different, wasn’t it?” Alan asked. The General shook his head.
“They dug trenches, but the basics were the same as previous wars for the most part,” he explained. “It’s a tactic that does little but get a lot of people killed on both sides, but it’s an extension of the old battles from Medieval times when they were still fighting with pikes, arrows and swords. It took millions of casualties in WWI for us, Americans, to realize the folly of it. That’s why in later wars the tactics changed. Radios changed things as well since groups could be smaller and further apart from each other. Mobility is the modern tactic of choice.”
“Fzoul Chembryl has shown he isn’t an idiot,” Joyce put in. “Does this mean we can expect a change in tactics?”
General Hennessey thought about that for a moment. But Maggie Walsh spoke up first.
“It’s possible,” she said. “We don’t know all that much about him. We have hearsay and reports of previous actions, but not enough to have really created a full profile as is usually the case for situations like this. He’s proven himself smart and cunning enough to take advantage of our blind spots. That much is true, but he’s dealing with soldiers who are probably very new to rifles and their previous tactics are ingrained in them. I think we’re in more danger from former adventuring groups taking up his cause.”
“Adventuring groups?” Alan asked.
“It’s a rather odd cultural phenomena common across most cultures of Faerûn,” Walsh explained. “Small groups who take it upon themselves to raid undead filled tombs, hunt monsters, and complete ‘quests’ of various sorts. Their skills are diversified between stealth, combat, magic and such, but they also tend to have superior teamwork. From what I’ve learned in my latest study, something my people have been working on for a few months, they are the closest that the locals come to our version of special forces.”
Heads turned to the locals. Kellindil nodded. “It is quite common, actually. While racial tension exists between many races and nations, adventurers tend to overcome that. They’re usually a tight-knit group if they’ve lasted any time at all. I know we were with Dove,” he said, looking to Fret, who smiled in agreement. “Not all of them are very nice. If I remember my history correctly, the Dead Three were once mortal adventurers until they supplanted the previous deity of Death, Jergal, who now serves under Myrkul, the current human deity of Death.”
“Bane, Lord of Tyranny; Bhaal, Lord of Murder; and Myrkul, Lord of Death,” Fret explained. “All once human, and evil even then, if legends are correct. The attained apotheosis at the end of their adventures. Jergal’s portfolio – the aspects of a deity’s existence – were split up between the three of them. Bane breaks them; Bhaal delivers them; and Myrkul keeps them. The Dead Three.”
“So, if Fzoul is the chief minion of Bane, and Bane was an adventurer, we can expect Fzoul to send in adventurers to muck up our works,” Joyce summed up.
“True, but I believe it will not be the deciding factor,” Kanyr Vhok said from the back of the room, shocking the others since they never even knew he was in the room. The reaction amused him a bit, but he pushed onward quickly. “He might be able to train a few elite groups of soldiers in more adaptable tactics, but I think the others will have their old habits pretty well ingrained. The most are probably going to be experienced amateurs. This is a war of fanatics, though I expect a lot of unwilling conscripts on their part. They’re going to be hungry, desperate. But that’s just the basic troops. You can expect a lot of magical support from the clerics. Bane tends not to have many practitioners of the Art, so arcane power should be less common.”
“Ah, good you’re here,” Joyce said. “What’s the situation of his spies?”
“Operation Mushroom is working well,” he said with a toothy grin. At the confused eyes of the locals, he explained. “Kept in the dark and fed shit. We’re handing misinformation on a regular basis as well as starting plenty of rumors for them to pick up from other sources. I’ve stepped up on tracking them. They always have one of my people around them at all times.”
“Your people?” General Hennessey asked with a raised eyebrow.
“They’re very good at their job,” was the only reply. “Each Baneite agent has a magical mirror for communication. The non-Zhents have been pretty smart and fixed them in makeup kits so it doesn’t look strange for them to carry around a mirror.”
“So those spies, they’re women?” Chase asked.
“Only when they want to be, Mr. Chase,” Vhok replied. “They’re quite good at their job. Not as good as me, but very good.”
your job?” Walsh asked.
“A little Mission Impossible, a little MI:5, a little BPRD,” he answered with another toothy grin. He turned to the head of the Initiative, Rupert Giles, and as the cambion spoke the other cabinet members did so as well. “To be elaborate, the agents are demons or devilkin. Succubi if demonic.”
Giles’ face hardened.
“Succubi are rather rare on Earth, since almost all our demons are the product of inbreeding with humans and other demons,” he began. “Succubi, on the other hand, are somewhat minor true
demons. However, I suppose calling minor is a bit of an error considering that even minor True Demons have more power than most others. They can shift form into anything of a vaguely humanoid shape from orcs to humans. Gender has little physical meaning to them. While popular culture would have them be separate, Incubi and Succubi are actually the same creature. Each one chooses their sex for themselves and gender is only a function of their personal preference.” He pulled off his glasses and gave them a good cleaning as he leaned back in his chair and summoned up any memories he had on the subject. Of course, considering his ill spent youth, there had been more than a little focus on succubi. “Contrary to popular culture, they do not need to have sex with others to kill, but as little contact as a quick kiss can weaken or kill. The longer they have contact, the easier it is to kill. They have many magical abilities, focusing mostly in misdirection, illusions and ensnaring mortal minds.”
He paused a moment to slip his glasses back on. “They can speak any language like a native. Have a certain ability towards mind-reading. They are, in fact, quite possibly the most dangerous infiltrators we could have.”
“And what Mr. Giles has not mentioned, this is all before they start on other pursuits, since they can focus their energies towards a variety of trades,” Vhok put in. “Baby succubi have all those powers. Experienced succubi can be powerful mages or clerics in their own right. Some even choose martial or stealthy trades.”
He leaned back and cracked his neck sharply as he glanced at his audience. This was so much more pleasant than his debriefings back in Hellgate Keep. His mother, a marilith of no small power, was never very pleasant, and always wanted more than he had.
“Fzoul’s agents are similar, though my suspicions are to devilkin, rather than demons, or perhaps a few dopplegangers here and there,” Vhok explained. He grinned at the slightly confused looks of the Sunnydalers. “Demons are beings of chaos, Devils, however, are obsessed with order and control, which fits much better with Fzoul’s patron.”
Joyce looked to Giles for confirmation. He straightened his glasses.
“Yes, most of the stories we have of contracts are with devils and devilkin,” Giles explained. “Faust is one such example. It is a case of the, forgive the expression, Devil is in the details. Anyone who survives making a contract to a true devil is no doubt very powerful with a sharp attention to detail.”
“Such is the case we have here,” Vhok cut in. “Judging by how well they’ve done thus far, I’d venture a guess they’re at least a few centuries old each. I am not, however, quite sure of the type of devil Fzoul has contracted. One at least, has shown some skill at the arcane outside of their own supernatural abilities.”
“The Zhent, on the other hand,” Vhok explained. “Is a bit different. He doesn’t even really know he’s a spy for Fzoul. He thinks he’s still working for Mr. Peris’ boss. Those reports are instead going to Fzoul on the other end. He’s human, between thirty-five and fifty, a skilled trader and spy. He’s been working hard to make contacts with other ne’er-do-wells in the city.” He flicked a remote at the projector, popping up a rather familiar face. “Our dead former-Detective Stein. He was not happy with the change in leadership or the loss of his position. With the purge of the vampires and other hostile demon groups, he was lacking funds, since he was paid quite well by certain groups to look the other way, or explain away certain activities. At one point he was being paid to put pressure on Madame President’s daughter. That is no longer the case.”
“What have you done with him?” General Hennessey asked gruffly.
“He’s been replaced. His death from a combination of alcohol and cold weather last winter was fortuitous,” Vhok explained, grinning at the shocked looks on his fellow government officials. “Fzoul isn’t the only one to have skilled shapechangers, telepaths and mages on staff. ‘Stein’ is now in an undisguised location. He has been pumped for information and replaced by my best agent.”
“If he’s dead then how-” Chase asked before suddenly going a bit green as he realized what the man meant. Giles glowered at the secret agent, who just grinned as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
“What has he handed off?” Joyce asked, steepleing her fingers as she leaned back in her chair. She wasn’t pleased by news of the walking dead, but at the same time if the information helped keep her city alive, she was willing to ignore this instance of necromancy.
“My agent is quite sure that he is the leak that supplied Fzoul with firearms,” he replied. “We were very strict in the restriction and regulation of firearms because we didn’t want this to happen. Stein, on the other hand, decided he knew better, traded all he knew about guns, written notes mind you, for a rather small bag of gold. Honestly, it wouldn’t even buy a good suit.”
“Why didn’t you bring this up before?” Hennessey demanded hotly.
“We knew there was contact, but the replacement only found out the details three hours ago, when better details were demanded,” Vhok explained. “It wasn’t until the subsequent interrogation that we discovered the source of the leak. I had to work fast to find out exactly what had happened.”
“Any other leaks?” Hennessey asked, not pleased, but understanding of the situation.
“Oh, many, however, only one is of any significance,” Vhok explained. “For the many: every time we talk to a local about what life is like in Sunnydale, we give information away. The best agents take a little bit here and a little bit there, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They put them together and get the bigger picture.”
“And the other problem?” Joyce asked.
“Jack O’Toole,” Vhok explained. Giles groaned at the familiar name. The O’Toole boy had been quite a problem for some time.
“Let me guess,” Giles asked flatly. “He’s been stealing things and selling them?”
“Precisely,” Vhok agreed. “He has just enough mystical knowledge from his necromancer grandfather to have an eye for magic. I would be surprised if his skills extend beyond the necromantic sphere, and minor aura reading – he’s none too powerful – but could probably cast a few spells if need be. He steals books, scrolls, enchanted items, and sells them to traders. Unfortunately, he only gets caught about half the time. Judging by his past actions, I think a simple explanation is that his black market operation could make him a traitor, which calls for the death penalty; he should keep his sticky fingers in Sunnydale. Instead, we should use him to send false information.”
“And his grandfather?” Joyce asked.
“Was left behind when Sunnydale arrived,” Vhok answered quickly.
“Good,” Joyce said with disgust at the thought of a necromancer lurking around. She turned to Hennessey. “Getting back to the original topic, Where?”
“We don’t know,” he replied. “Fzoul knows the region better than we do, local assistance aside. We also know that he’s using portals to launch his attacks, so that tells me he probably has a specific base of operations somewhere. We don’t know why he hasn’t just sent his minions right into the center of Sunnydale, because that is where we’re weakest. It’s the hardest place to move troops to quickly.”
“I can actually answer that,” Peris put in, holding up a hesitant hand. Joyce waved for him to continue. “Lord Manshoon’s Black Cloaks have attempted many times to open up a stable portal between Zhentil Keep and Sunnydale, but have always failed. In fact, almost all attempts at magical teleportation into the nation, city or otherwise, have failed.”
“When have they succeeded?” Joyce asked, her lips going rather thin in displeasure at the news.
“The first that I know of was when my team attempted to assist during the invasion from Hellgate Keep,” Peris explained. “My mages have stated that they felt like they were allowed
in by something that time. Similarly, they have attempted the spell since, and instead of a similar result, the spell was magically successful, but the targets went nowhere.”
“That is... troubling,” Giles muttered as he pondered the mystical implications.
“And the second?”
“The attack at the prison island,” Peris answered quickly. “I would like to say that in my defense, I was holding two covers at the same time. I am a Harper. I am also the Ambassador to Sunnydale for the Zhentarim. While my past actions are not, perhaps, honorable, they were done to protect my cover and therefore my life. I did not know at the time that Lord Manshoon was aware of my allegiance all along.”
“You were useful to him, so he kept you as long as you continued to be so,” Vhok clarified. “You were a tool. You still are, though your use has changed. Manshoon stands to gain a vast amount from our battle with Fzoul. We win, we take out one of his major competitors in his organization. We lose, he learns what mistakes we made so he may not make them himself. By aiding us, he gains. It’s simple economics to him.”
“Right,” Peris said in nervous thanks. “I don’t know how the portal opened on the island. By the standards the Black Cloaks had been used to, it shouldn’t have worked.”
“So something changed,” Giles pondered. “It’s possible Fzoul opened it himself. Having the additional backing of a greater deity is one possible explanation. I can’t know for sure without more information.”
“Our isolation, while a hindrance for trade,” Hennessey explained, “is otherwise our greatest advantage. We’re hard to get to. Even with portals, they’re going to have to set up somewhere. An army moves on its stomach. He has to feed his people. He has to transport his people and food to the army. Unless those portals are open for long periods of time, he won’t be able to simply open one up and send an army through. From reports it was only big enough for a horse or three men side by side to march through.”
“So unless he can make a huge portal or keep one open for a long time in a hidden place, we’ve got protection from anything but smaller hit and run attacks, am I right?” Joyce asked. Hennessey and Vhok nodded.
“From what I know about him, he’ll probably save his elites for later and just send conscripts or others he considers useless,” Vhok explained. “If there’s a specific mission, he’ll send elites, but otherwise he’ll save them for later on.”
The president nodded before turning to her cultural adviser.
“Miss Tendo, how is the situation on the ground?” Joyce asked.
“People are tense,” Nabiki Tendo replied. “This is a small population compared to what we were used to. Just about everybody either knows someone who was killed or wounded, or knows someone who does. While 25 dead might not seem much back on Earth, it’s a big deal with a small population. People are starting to really divide on the subject of war. Some people, especially those 40 or older, are worried about a draft.”
“It might come to that if things get bad enough,” Hennessey admitted. “We’re growing, especially with the enlisted orc troops, but they’ve got habits that need breaking and retraining. I don’t know if they’ll be ready in time for an actual war and I don’t want to sacrifice them or seem like I did, because that’s just going to hurt the current situation between us.”
Joyce and a few of the others nodded, understanding the tenseness of the situation. The Shaman of Ilneval wasn’t present as he was giving his daily blessing to the troops with the base chaplain and rabbi. It was an odd custom that looked like it was going to stick around.
“The Norwegians are of two minds about this,” the Asian woman continued. “They pride themselves on their peaceful nature. One of the greatest sources of pride for them is that Nobel chose Oslo for the Peace Prize. On the other hand, memories of the Nazi atrocities committed during their occupation of Norway are pretty strong. We have two known survivors of the Norwegian Resistance and almost all of them have at least heard stories of the war. An added bonus to them is that a lot of the adults have military training, at least a year of it, from the mandatory service they’re required to have. Many are considering the situation but haven’t really taken a side.”
“The Chinese groups are a little different,” Nabiki continued, flipping to a new page of her technomagical pad. “The pressure to conform has created some tension. While most are appreciative that Cantonese is offered in school as an elective now, they still want to hold onto their cultural identity. Those from the PRC are still demanding Mandarin be mandatory, even though they’re almost the only speakers of it and are outnumbered five to one by Cantonese speakers. They are especially resentful of the pressure to assimilate because of their national status and the vastly different culture they came from. I haven’t heard much about the attack either way from them.”
“The Japanese groups are rather confused about it all,” she continued. “We are from a culture that had to endure the unendurable, and we’ve grown up in that cultural atmosphere. Only three of us actually remember the American occupation or the war, but the culture clash is still being felt and there are many who see this situation as another occupation. Most don’t agree, but there’s a vocal minority demanding a bit more separation from Sunnydale. The most vocal are members of the Uyoku Dantai, a collection of right wing extremist groups in our native Japan. Though many of them supported the United States during the Cold War, subsequent changing diplomacy created distrust of Americans in general. They’re known for announcing their political beliefs from vans and megaphones to get their message across. We don’t have vans, but megaphones are much more common. Add to the fact that we, as Japanese, are still quite insular in terms of race and nationalism, I expect these groups to be rather troublesome in the long run.”
“What have they been saying?” Joyce asked.
“Since the attack, they’ve been suspiciously quiet,” Nabiki Tendo replied. “But earlier, they were quite outspoken against your election, ignoring your landslide, because you are a white woman. These are ultra-right-wing radicals. They called your appointment oppression and communism. This isn’t held by most Japanese citizens, but their message was being heard. As for now, I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see how they react to the attack.”
“Are you still having the problems with language?” General Hennessey asked. The woman frowned.
“The informality of Americans is difficult for us to understand,” she admitted. “Even myself, and I consider myself quite liberated for a Japanese woman, have trouble with the change from our culture, where honorifics are very important, to a culture where little kids call the President by her first name to her face. This is especially a problem in the high school, though younger kids are adapting better.”
“What is the problem in school?” Vhok asked honestly curious as he’d had his own culture shock to deal with.
“Americans use first names,” she explained. “In Japan, that’s only for very close friends or lovers. Even siblings use honorifics for older or younger sibling. A boy calls a girl by her name without an honorific, that boy is saying they’re lovers. Or at least making the claim. It’s a presumption that’s very rude and even worse when a teacher uses a first name. However, Americans don’t see it that way. You are who you are. You have a name, everybody uses it. They don’t understand the presumption in the way they speak.”
“Is this going to be an ongoing problem?” Joyce asked.
“It is a problem right now. It is culture clash,” the woman explained. “However, I do not know if it will continue. Like I said, the younger children are becoming quickly accustomed to the American way of speaking, at least in school. It's a problem, but not one that I foresee being a long term problem.”
“Anything else we should know?” the president asked.
“Political parties are trying to find their identities,” the woman explained. “Right now, there’s a lot of condemnation of the attack and anger, but there aren’t really sides in this, not yet. I think it will be a little while before the parties stand up and say ‘this is what I believe in.’”
“So that’s what’s been happening,” Joyce said. “Now where do we go from here?”
Xander woke up in pain. This wasn’t much of a surprise considering he’d just taken an iron boot from a magically enhanced fanatic to the gut, but was a surprise was waiting up to see himself.
“Uh, hello, me,” he said, looking at his counterpart.
“Hello,” the other Xander said, holding a soaked rag to his forehead.
“Yes,” the other Xander said quietly. Neither Xander said anything for some time.
“How many?” the first asked as he painfully pulled himself up into a sitting position. Hippie-Xander gave a deep sigh.
“I don’t know,” Hippie-Xander said. “I know at least five died protecting me even after I asked them not to.”
“You were just going to let them take you?” Xander asked in horror.
“It’s not worth it for them to die just to protect me. I’m only one man,” Hippie-Xander replied. “The needs of the many are greater than the needs of the one.”
“Sometimes the needs of the one are more important for the future needs of the many,” Xander countered. “You didn’t fight? Not at all?”
“I’m not you, Xander,” Hippie-Xander replied calmly. He pulled his legs under him and rested his hands palm upwards in his lap. “My parents weren’t your parents. Sure, we might look exactly alike and have identical genetics and finger prints, but I’m not you.”
“I get that, I mean, bad-Buffy wasn’t like my Buffy,” Xander agreed. “But there had to be some similar starting point.”
“Contrary to popular belief, my world didn’t diverge at Halloween, Xander,” Hippie-Xander said. “My parents turned to Buddhism when they were trying to deal with their anger and drinking. They recognized the problem when I was a kid. I grew up Buddhist. I might have had a greater change on Halloween, but I was Buddhist long before that.”
“Think of how I feel, seeing your parents, seeing how everyone looks down on them,” Hippie-Xander replied. “I don’t criticize you or them. I just want you to understand.”
Xander paused, looking at his dimensional double. Hippie-Xander, as Xander had mentally labeled his counterpart, wore an orange robe and sported a shaved head, dark with stubble. He didn’t have any of the minute scars Xander recognized in the mirror. It didn’t look right, either. It wasn’t the head wound, but like looking in a funhouse mirror, seeing aspects of his counterpart that just weren’t right. Moles and lines were out of place. The ears looked wrong. It wasn’t really
that different, Xander just wasn’t used to looking at himself other than in a mirror.
Unlike the other Scoobies, Xander had intentionally avoided his double. The others, even Elven Giles, had come into conflict with their usual version. While Buffy and Drizzt had the most dramatic opposites, Xander didn’t want to risk that happening to him. So, in perhaps not the wisest of choices, Xander avoided the problem.
“Where are we?” Xander asked.
“I was dragged through a portal,” Hippie-Xander replied. “A fortress – warmer, dryer. I think we’re at a lower elevation as well.”
“So we could be anywhere?”
“I believe so,” Hippie-Xander replied.
“Not anywhere,” echoed a familiar voice down the stone hallway. Footsteps clanged against the stone floor as Fzoul’s steel clad feet strode purposefully down the hall to their cell. “Here. In secret, the High Temple of Bane.”
The two boys looked up to see their captor standing tall in his black armor, flanked by a quartet of guards in faceless black plate.
Xander settled in for the subsequent Big Bad rant, but was disappointed it was not forthcoming. Bane’s Chosen looked down on him with interest, seeing the lack of fear rather odd.
“So...” Xander said. “Monologue?”
Fzoul looked at the young man as if he were crazy, being so relaxed in his presence.
“No monologue?” Xander asked, glancing to his counterpart.
“Does not look like it,” Hippie-Xander said. Xander looked back to his captor.
“No monologue?” Xander asked in a bit of shock.
?” Xander asked again in confusion.
“What is this ‘monologue’ of which you speak? I am no
actor,” the man snarled as he waved his hand, the black armored guards stepping forward to open the cell door. The guard on the left pulled out a large ring of keys and started looking for the correct one. “I am the Chosen of Bane! The Dread Lord of Tyranny! I have served my Divine Master for longer than your puny mind could comprehend. I am his hand that reaches out to do his bidding, crushing those who would dare defy His power! And you DARE call me an actor?”
Xander just nodded and relaxed. That was the monologue he’d been looking for.
“You Fool!” Fzoul snarled, taking Xander’s nod for a positive response to the question. “I am here
! On the verge of bringing His full power to the mortal world, his presence to impress His will upon the scum of Faerûn. You will be integral to His presence!” The cleric turned to his guards. “Take them. I want to know everything. Keep them alive. Keep adepts on hand should the interrogations become a bit too... enthusiastic.”
He spared Xander one last glare of fury and spun away, his cloak flaring out behind him. The Xanders watched him go as the guard continued to search for the correct key to the cell. By the time it was found, the clanging footsteps had long since vanished down the hallway. Grinning, he watched as the lock turned and the rusty hinges squeaked as the door swung outwards. One guard took a step in and grasped Xander’s dimensional clone by one hand. Xander flashed a grin, stood up and pretended to allow them to take him.
“There’s something you should know,” Xander said warmly, glancing briefly at the nasty iron club in the man’s steel gauntlet. It was almost as long as Xander’s forearm and spiked slightly on one end, a simple ring on the end, no doubt to be tied to a belt. As soon as one got close, he pulled up his hand and pointed a single shot Derringer at the guard’s helmet. “You should have searched me better.”
“Bang,” Xander said a moment before pulling the trigger. The armor was useless as the bullet flew straight and true, through the eye-hole, though it did not exit the back of the helm. The other guard started forward, letting go of the other Xander for a second, only to spin and fall forward, his legs flying out from under him. The armor clanged against the stone floor in a heap.
“A Buddhist I may be, but I am not a complete pacifist,” ‘Hippie’ Xander explained as he stepped out of a Kung Fu stance. “My Sunnydale was not so different from yours before I was whisked away. Though I wish to preserve life as much as I can, self-sacrifice is not always for the greater good. I also have no interest in being tortured.”
“Right,” Xander agreed as he reloaded, before pulling a new bullet from the heel of his boot. Cordy had called him paranoid, but well, he was right, she was wrong and inside Xander was doing a little happy dance. They might have been dating, but Cordelia Chase was still the same girl he and Willow grew up with. His counterpart blocked a club strike with a single hand before reaching out with a foot and letting the attacker fall. Xander stepped on the neck of the first guard his counterpart downed and took aim, but his opponent was a bit too far away.
“We’re going to have company soon,” Hippie-Xander said nodding to Xander’s gun.
“Well, I only have two boots,” Xander replied. “I also wasn’t expecting this to happen.”
“And you’ve been kidnapped how many
times?” his counterpart asked.
“That has nothing to do with this!” Xander protested. His counterpart grabbed the club and blocked a swing from the fourth guard. He snuck in and struck twice at the guard’s wrist. There was a snap as it broke, the club falling free. The dimensional Xander grabbed it before it could hit the ground and swung both clubs together, hitting joints all along the body, slipping into those points the place armor could not cover.
Xander whistled in amazement. His counterpart shrugged as his opponent fell to the floor. The Buddhist reached down, pulled off the guard’s helmet and punched him once in the face, knocking him out.
“Simple self-defense,” his counterpart said calmly as he rifled through the downed guards. He pulled out the keyring, some gold and a rope belt. Turning the clubs around, the Buddhist Xander slid the rope through the hoops on the end.
“Rope?” Xander asked. “Why are you tying rope to the clubs?”
“I’m a fan of Bruce Lee movies,” his counterpart replied as he cinched the knots tight. He stood up and held the improvised weapon before him, one club in each hand, the rope stretched tight between them.
“Nunchucks?” Xander asked.
“Nunchaku,” his counterpart corrected.
“Nunchucks,” Xander said with a serious nod.
“Nunchaku,” his counterpart replied with a shake of his head. He sighed as Xander was about to continue the pseudo-argument, but cut in. “How many bullets do you have?”
“Um... seven,” Xander replied before glancing nervously down the prison corridor. “I need an axe.”
“They’ve got knives,” His counterpart suggested, pointing to the downed guards with one end of his new weapon.
“I’m not good with knives,” Xander said. “But I’m better with them than with nothing.”
“We need something to call ourselves,” The dimensionally displaced Xander commented as Xander rifled through belt pouches and other accoutrements. “I mean, if I call you Xander, people will just think I’m a crazy guy talking in the third person.”
“I’ll call you Baldy,” Xander quipped quickly.
“That makes you Hairy,” his counterpart quipped back. Xander thought about it, but shook his head.
“No, don’t like it,” Hairy Xander argued.
“Then you shouldn’t have called me Baldy.”
Buffy and Vierna had no idea where to go. Xander had the last working compass (the emu invasion having smashed the other one); their late leader had kept the aerial photographs they used as maps in her fly rod case, which had disintegrated when she had; their Baneite POW still had a broken jaw; and Amy was in no mood to assist and only she knew the password to the computer. Vierna had volunteered some of her other talents, but Buffy drew the line at torturing friends, even if they were dominated by an evil cleric.
“We can’t even sight in Sunnydale since those Druids put a forest between us and it,” Buffy complained.
“If you think this is any more pleasant to me, you are much mistaken,” Vierna replied with a sneer. She cocked her white eyebrow from behind her sunglasses as they attempted to get their bearings. The drow maiden glanced about the rolling hills and sharp line of fresh trees. It had been an indignation she never thought she would be forced to do, but they had given the druids a funeral of sorts. She knew little of surface traditions, but she suspected the tradition of using the dead to fortify armies with “canon fodder” was not applicable, so there was little she could do to help in sending them to Silvanus. Buffy had considered digging graves, but they had no shovels beyond a small collapsible spade used for digging latrines. Even a Slayer would get tired using that for proper graves.
Instead they had stripped the druid corpses and laid them out in lines. Together, they had built a cairn for each body with as large stones as they could find and carry. The Sunnydaler and Drow had said something of a prayer over the cairns, before finally planting a shrubbery at the head of each. Afterward they did the same to the dead Baneites, though without prayer or much respect. It was a quite a surprise to their mute captive who had never thought a heathen would do anything but leave the corpses out for the scavengers.
Buffy, having learned something of burial rituals from her years of Slaying, buried the Baneites face down. She didn’t cut off the heads like Vierna suggested, but at least this way they’d be digging the wrong way if they turned into the living dead.
“What about the tree person?” Buffy asked.
“What about it?” Vierna asked testily.
“Too big to bury or cover with rocks, so what should we do?” Buffy asked.
“Drag it to a riverbank and stick its feet in some mud if you feel so strongly about it. It’s a plant after all,” the Drow maiden said dismissively. Buffy, however, did exactly that. This feeble attempt at burial ended up saving the treant’s life, but that’s a story for another time.
They’d rolled up the tent, tied Amy and the POW up with rope and gags, and started vaguely back in the right direction for Sunnydale. Vague in the idea that they went east. But travel can be difficult in a forest. Far off features are more difficult or impossible to see and one can walk right up to an animal but only spot them when you were already far within their personal space. In the past few days they had run into deer, more emus and even had a tense encounter of a different sort.
Buffy paused as she heard a deep, rumbling chuckle. Turning quickly, her axe and sword in hand, she came face to face with a worg. Worgs are huge wolves that were larger than most humans. Nearly two meters in length, they weighed in at nearly 150 kg and their shoulders were level with Buffy’s chest. Far from mindless beasts, they had their own language of barks, growls and noises one would expect from canines, though the smartest of them could understand and even sometimes speak humanoid languages.
Vierna set her jaw. This was not the pack they’d encountered on the first leg of their expedition and not all would be as well fed as that pack had been. Grrr-Argh had been a powerful and magnanimous Alpha Female. The massive male before her had scars of battle across his snout and fangs that had surely seen plenty of use.
“Four little ones alone in the woods,” it said, mouth opened in a canine grin, but it was not simple amusement.
“They can talk?” Buffy demanded.
“Oh, little snack,” the grizzled male rumbled as he flicked his tongue over his jowls, “of course we can talk. Beasts we may be, but mindless we are not.”
“Not liking the pet name, floor rug,” Buffy replied as she flexed her muscles.
“Should I used your title, then, oh Slayer?” the massive wolf inquired with a dark chuckle. Buffy tensed more and Vierna gaped in shock. “Oh don’t be surprised, Fallen Priestess.” It chuckled before turning all its attention on Buffy. “Your little village has shaken things on many levels. Your hunt has been quite entertaining. I loved your battles against the demons of Hellgate Keep; baiting and stalking the undead until you erase them with a bit of wood or steel is a constant source of amusement; your challenge against Bane might be another. He would force all to conform, but nature should be wild and free.”
“Look, buddy, that’s a little creepy, you knowing all those things about me,” Buffy replied, ready to spring at the first hint of violence.
“While I’m sure a battle with you would be ferocious and entertaining, watching you hunt Bane’s little tool should prove more so,” the worg stated, salivating almost as if he was looking at a big juicy slab of beef. “Eyes are on Sunnydale. We’ve known your little settlement would change everything in the Realms. How? Well, not even Mystra kept the Sphere of Time from when she was Mystryl. Change, but only time will tell who is the fittest, who will survive. Will it be your controlled Chaos? Or will it be Bane’s chaotically-inspiring Control?”
“I’m not letting that Fizzy-Tool guy win,” Buffy stated flatly.
“We shall see,” the wolf replied with a noncommittal tone. “While those of Silvanus are worried about the plants, the foals, the song birds, and the cute little bunnies; I
am not. You have thrown everything into disarray. It’s delightful. The old balance is in the past and everything now must change again. Those that ruled the grasslands, the forests, the deserts, now must compete with the new. Not even I can say who will prove weakest of the Silver Marches now. You, who clogged the River Shining with mud, have changed everything
. It is wonderful
“Are you here to ask me to do something? Give me some kind of advice?” Buffy asked.
“Just to give you, the greatest of mortal hunters, My warning,” the worg replied. “Never slay the pregnant or the young unless already dead. Never let disease run unchecked. Thin the herd of the weak. Leave only the fittest.”
“The strongest are probably going to get killed if they attack me,” Buffy said.
“Then you will have proven the strongest to be unfit,” was the simple reply. “Keep entertaining Me. You’re a lioness that looks like a lamb. Prove your fitness in the new realms. Spread your fitness to the next generation. I look forward to your Hunt.”
And with that the worg turned, one silent, massive paw in front of the other, and vanished into the thick underbrush without a sound. The four travelers gaped after him as the other worgs similarly vanished. They glanced away as a sudden breeze picked up. Light flickered through the trees, briefly illuminating the forest floor. Buffy glanced down and saw a pair of brown gloves at her feet, right where the worg had stood. She bent down and picked them up. Leather and blackened metal, they were lighter than they looked. Slipping a hand in, she realized they fit perfectly.
The wind died and the four stood back up. Vierna squinted at Buffy.
“You said you didn’t know worg,” the drow maiden accused.
“I don’t,” Buffy protested.
“Then how else did you speak with the worg?” she demanded.
“It was speaking English.”
“I speak worg, and that one had an accent even I
could barely decipher,” Vierna stated, her eyes narrowed in accusation. “But it was not
“It totally was. Told me to hunt and not kill kids and stuff,” Buffy protested. She turned and her ears just faintly caught the sound of a howl off in the distance. She pointed in the direction. “That way. Come on.”
“This isn’t over,” Vierna warned as she pushed Amy and the prisoner forward with her flail.
The rothé-pulled wagons had rolled over the recovering grasslands for the better part of a week when they encountered a forest. Now, one would normally see a forest first in the distance, especially on the treeless grasslands of southern Turnstone Pass, so when they rose out of a gully to find what appeared to be an ancient old wood forest, it was quite a surprise.
“Let’s camp in here,” Elder Willow said to her rothé herder guides. The previous day they’d seen nothing like it, but there was a calming aura over the area that felt so comforting and familiar. She glanced to the sides and noticed the one of the hobgoblins fidget in her seat. The rothé herder’s pulse raced and she could only take shallow breaths.
“Are you okay?” Willow the Younger asked a moment before the middle-aged hobgoblin tossed the reins up in the air and fled. “Wait!”
The hobgoblin didn’t appear to have listened as she ran full tilt.
“What is going on?” Elder Willow asked, looking to the other Hobgoblins who were showing similar behavior. A moment later they bolted after the other one.
“Frankly I’m surprised they lasted this long.”
The Willows turned as one to see a shortish man leaning up against a tree. He was dressed in a tunic like many of the more wealthy traders who made their way to Sunnydale, but his long hair was white and his chin had just a bit of a beard that gave the impression of just being trimmed. He had a mandolin in his hands, his backpack and staff nestled in the roots on the ground.
“What did you do to them?” demanded Dark Willow, her eyes starting to fill with blackness as she called up her arcane might.
“Relax, it was nothing I’ve done. It’s this place,” he said waving a hand to encompass the wooded glade. “None who have consumed the flesh of humans, elves or dwarves can stay here. They’re quite devoted to you, so I expect you’ll find them outside the Mythal.”
“Mythal?” Willow the Younger asked as she focused on something other than the eating of sentient beings. Had she been from anywhere else but Sunnydale she probably would have been sick, but awareness of vampires gave her a bit of a steel spine when it came to cannibalism.
“Ancient Elven magic,” the man explained. “This is the lost city of Myth Glaurach, the City of Scrolls.”
“And that would be why we couldn’t see it until it was right upon us?” Dark Willow asked.
“Precisely,” the man said with a warm smile. He strummed the strings of his instrument. “Your red-furred friends aren’t saints. They served dragons for generations, the Blood of Morueme. Those dragons hoarded knowledge, hiding it, adding more to it. The Red Flayers, your pet hobgoblin tribe, served them, kept slaves; even ate those slaves.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Dark Willow demanded.
“I thought you should know,” he explained. “You’ve done great things for them. You’ve changed their destiny. They are already not what they once were. Your group has done this before. Turning enemies into allies, or at least changing things. Angelus comes to mind.”
“Who are you?” Both Willows asked in unison.
“You’re smart, figure it out,” the man said with a grin. “You’ve attracted a lot of attention. Eyes are on you, and your towns. I love knowing that you’re building a nation out of an abandoned, cursed slice of land. So much has come here before, empires risen and lost.” He rapped his knuckles on the wood of the massive tree behind him. “Myth Glaurach is an example. Your new residence is another.”
“The Dragonspire?” Dark Willow asked. He nodded.
“One of the last remnants of Netheril. The mage had started building her city first, carving it out of the mountain,” the man explained. “She did it reverse of most others, they cut the mountain first, then made the city. She never finished the mythallar. She always was more focused on aesthetics than function. Then Karsus pulled his stupid and not much survived. Dragonspire was abandoned until the Blood of Morueme moved in, breaking wards and walls before setting it up as their base of operations. Changed the name to Morueme’s Cave. The ancestors of your minions were brought in as cannon fodder to protect the dragon clan. They ruled for centuries until your buddy was just a little too late in stabbing her boyfriend.”
“Buffy,” Willow said quietly. “You mean they were the dragons that attacked us?”
“The blue ones, yes. The Green Wyrm was just an angry prick who got trapped under your city and his hoard filled with water, survived by breathing acid to the surface,” the man explained. “But the blue ones. Yeah. The Blood of Morueme.” He took a swig from a wineskin before holding it out to the two women. “Wine? Good Neverwinter vintage. No?” He shrugged. “Suit yourself. But you two showed up. Causing trouble. Casting spells. Calling on deities. Troublesome.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Willow the Younger asked.
“Thought you two would like to know,” he replied as he corked his wineskin and tucked it back in his knapsack. “I also have a request of you.”
“Request?” Dark Willow asked, her head cocked as if looking for the trap.
“The Blood kept all sorts of nice tidbits up in their cave. Spread it around. Share the knowledge,” he said. “You two can’t use it all. Even with your lengthened lifespans, you can’t use it all. Record it, give it to Sunnydale, use some for trade. Spread it around. And when you’ve finished dealing with Bane’s little minion, bring the Scrolls back here to the city where they belong.”
“The City of Scrolls,” Willow said, pondering the slight emphasis the man put on “scrolls” as if it meant something more than a rolled up piece of parchment.
“Exactly. And keep an eye on your fanboys and girls. They might revert unless you introduce them to what freedom really means,” the man explained as he fiddled with his mandolin, plucking the strings and trying to tweak the knobs. He shot a glare at the instrument in his hands. “Damn thing never stays in tune.”
“What do you think we should do?” Willow the younger asked.
“What you think is right,” he replied honestly. He glanced around the wooded glade. “It would be nice to see this city filled with people again. Been too long.”
“How old are you?” Dark Willow asked as she took in the moss covered ruins. It looked like it hadn’t been occupied in centuries.
“Old enough,” he replied. He nodded to something behind them. “Your buddies are back.”
The Willows turned to see their red furred helpers shivering as they made their way back towards the Mythal. The rothé grumbled and started plodding towards their keepers.
“But you said they-” Willow cut herself off as she turned to look back at the man and found him gone, the only sign that he’d ever been there a matted place among the roots of the tree. “Where’d he go?”
“I’m pretty sure he was going for dramatic and we won’t find him,” Dark Willow replied. “Come on. Let’s get going.”
Like a bad joke, three vampires and a werewolf walked into a bar. But this was no ordinary bar, not even in an extraordinary city like Waterdeep, the City of Splendors. Well, that is to say, it looked like an ordinary bar, it smelled like an ordinary bar; it served drinks like an ordinary bar.
But it was no ordinary bar.
Selûne’s Smile was in the Trades Ward of Waterdeep. It was a post and beam building with plaster walls and a sign outside of an ornately carved crescent moon, worn with age but with golden paint that always seemed new. The floor creaked; the windows rattled; the tables were once rough wood, but had been used for so long that they had been worn down, with the grain rising up like dunes on a wooden ocean shore. The beer was neither especially good, nor especially bad, but something in the tolerable medium range. While they served beverages in glass mugs the size of a Frost Giant’s clenched fist, this was only unusual outside of Waterdeep itself.
“Months,” Spike grumbled. “Some crackpot hobbit with a shiny necklace gives a cryptic suggestion and you two spend months
trying to find the bloody place. Wanker could have at least told us it was public house. A shabby public house at that.”
“Shut up, Spike,” Angel said, not for the first time. While their stay in Waterdeep had been interesting, and quite eventful, Spike had become increasingly irritable and perhaps more importantly, irritating
. His antics were driving Angel up the wall, of course it didn’t help that all three vampires were feeling hungry
all the time. A purchase of blood from the butcher just wasn’t cutting it. Not to mention you can only pretend to be making blood pudding for so long before people start asking questions.
“Not now, Spiky! Daddy found it and it’s all done,” Drusilla replied. “Everything’s done. Like wisps of willow and ash and fog and moonbeams.”
“Let’s go get something to drink,” Oz suggested, saddling up to the bar.
The proprietor was middle-aged with pale gray/white hair and a rounded figure. She was there every night and made sure she knew what the regulars wanted and could supply newcomers easily enough.
“Come, sit down, what are you looking for?” she asked the strange quartet.
A handsome man opened his mouth to speak, but snapped it shut as Drusilla launched herself into the air. She tumbled over the bar, skirts and long hair trailing and spinning behind her. The dark haired woman grabbed the bartender in a tight hug. Her companions looked ready to pull the madwoman off the poor barkeep, but paused as they realized no fangs had come out.
“I came, Miss Edith, just like you told me,” Drusilla announced.
“Bloody Hell, Dru!” Spike demanded, pointing at the silver-haired woman. “You mean to tell me this
is the Miss Edith you’ve been talking to all these years?!”
“I’m asking the same question, myself,” Angel muttered. He glanced around nervously as loyal patrons started to stand with dark looks. Angel, as Angelus, had been in dangerous mob fights before and he had no interest in being a target again.
“It’s fine,” the woman said. She held out a hand in Sunnydale style to Oz. “I’m Luna. I’ve been told to expect you.”
“You were?” Angel asked.
She hummed in agreement and nodded as she cleaned a glass beer mug.
“Root beer,” Oz said instantly. Spike looked at him scandalized, but the guitarist shrugged. “Buzz kills the tunes.”
“You know that stuff causes cancer, don’t you?” Angel argued.
“Yep,” Oz said. “Just like the last time you told me and the time before that.”
“Not much call for root beer around here,” Luna said before rooting around under the bar. She pulled out a bottle, poured a glass and passed it over. “From Shadowdale. If Khelben didn’t show up for a drink every now and a then I wouldn’t have it at all. And the rest of you?”
“Beer,” Spike said quickly before Angel could stop him.
“We don’t have that much money,” Angel reminded him. “At least you didn’t order bloodwine this time.”
“Gagh!” Spike spat in disgust. “Looks right, but stuff doesn’t have a spit of blood in it! False advertising, that is!”
“I’ve got just the thing for you both,” Luna said. “Just take me a few minutes to fix it up.
“Fine, how much then?” Angel asked. He paid the noted amount, pleased that it was less than what he expected and waited as Luna vanished into the back room. Once there the silver-haired barkeep went into the darkest corners of her larder and pulled out an old dust covered keg. If it truly were beer, it would have long since spoiled. If it truly were beer. She pulled out three clean mugs, dusted off the spigot with a hand towel and cranked it hard. The ancient wood creaked harshly and liquid of a hue just a few shades more brown than red filled each mug in turn. She set the filled mugs on a tray, and sealed the keg once more, pushing it back into the half-forgotten corner it started in.
Luna set the tray on the counter and passed them out: one to Angel, one to Spike and one to Drusilla. “Drink up. I can guarantee you won’t find anything like it anywhere else.”
The two male vampires gave the garnet colored drink an odd look, but Drusilla threw it back and chugged it down as only someone who didn’t need to breath could. She finished it with a big grin and wiped the foam from her face with her cuff, ruffles and all. That was enough for Spike and he did the same. Not seeing any negative results, Angel took a sip and found it like nothing he’d ever tasted.
Vampires don’t taste food like normal people do. Food and normal drink are bland, give no special properties to one of the undead. Vampires have no thirst or hunger for them, only for blood and mayhem. So when Angel tasted the draught, he knew it wasn’t blood, but it was better. He couldn’t help himself and he drank until the mug was dry. For some reason his eyelids felt heavy. Letting them close, he fell forward, clunking his forehead against the wood of the bar.
Oz looked on in confusion as his three companions passed out on the bar.
“Was that supposed to happen?” he asked.
“Only if I did it right,” Luna said. “Another root beer?”
“Sure,” Oz replied, passing her his glass. She filled it up and passed it over to him.
“You’ve been noticing it right?” Luna asked.
“Maybe,” Oz replied diplomatically.
noticed,” Luna replied nodding to the three vampires. “I’d imagine it would be difficult to spot at first. Feeling a bit of a burn when climbing a long set of stairs or walking up a long slope. Feeling hungry even with bellies full of blood. Waking up in the middle of the day when they rolled over in their sleep and covered their mouths and noses.”
“The fact that they’re actually sleeping instead of just hiding from the sun,” a dark haired man with a sharply trimmed beard said. He sat down next to Oz and set his ebony staff against the bar. “Root beer, if you please Luna.”
“Right away, Khelben.”
“So, another who enjoys a decent beverage for a change,” the wizard said.
“Yup,” Oz said with a nod.
“You know what they are, right?” Khelben said.
“Yup,” Oz replied. “Vampires.”
“And you are traveling with them, why?”
“Complicated,” Oz replied. “Had to get a cure, they came along.”
“Cure?” Khelben Arunsun asked.
“Werewolf,” Oz said, pointing a thumb to his chest. “But controlled.”
“Good, because the alternative would be your extermination,” the wizard of Waterdeep commented.
“Harsh, but fair,” Oz admitted. “You?”
“Being from Sunnydale you might not know, but most would at least get the name,” Khelben Blackstaff Arunsun replied. “Suffice it to say I am a wizard, more than just a simple dabbler, and Waterdeep is my home. And I like my home to stay safe.”
“Fair enough,” Oz said, before turning to stare at the vampires who had now begun to snore. “What was in that stuff?”
“Humus,” Luna replied as she dusted out a beer mug.
“Humus?” Oz asked.
“Holy Humus,” Luna clarified. Oz nodded sagely as if some great mystery of the universe was now understood. “From what I’ve been told, those three are going to have some big changes.”
“Will they be human again?” Oz asked.
“Not exactly,” Luna replied. “They’ll be something else. But the curse will be gone from Angel and the other two will have their limits of power changed.” She smiled kindly at Oz’s worried expression. “Stay your concern. The curse is removed, not the soul. Indeed their demons will merge with what’s left of their humanity.”
“So what? Only mostly dead?” Oz asked, taking another sip off his root beer.
“They’ll be both mortal and demonic,” Khelben replied. “No longer human, but not full demon either. We have a word for their kind: Planetouched.”
“Huh?” Oz asked.
“Those whose ancestry originates from the outer planes or have been changed by those same powers,” the wizard explained. “Much like the Tanarukk who assaulted Sunnydale before you left.”
“Ah,” said Oz.
“There are others, the Aasimar, the Tieflings, of which your friends will be a subtype,” Khelben explained. “Mortal children of the children of celestials and infernals who crossed their lineage with mortals. That’s the usual way of going about it. Your companions have a bit of a different path.”
“It’s because of the way the demon vampire strain spreads. Demons infesting bodies instead of just undead plagues. While weaker than our native vampires, thank goodness for that, they are capable of blending in with mortals much easier. They have no need of resting in their coffin or a need for native grave soil, and that makes them more than a little terrifying than your average walking corpse,” Luna explained as she poured a series of drinks and set them on a platter for a waitress to deliver. “Because of this, there were some who argued for wholesale destruction of Sunnydale ‘just in case.’ People tend to remember what happened in Hellgate Keep, and they had no desire to have the same happen again without ancient magics warding the demons in.”
“But cooler heads prevailed,” Khelben said. “We cannot blame all of your people for the actions of a few demons, no matter how terrible their Line once was, nor how conniving their type is.” He turned to look at the last of the Scourge of Europe, the last of the Order of Aurelius. “But we heard stories. My wife’s sister read the accounts of their ravaging of a place called Europe. Angelus especially was the worst of the worst: the demon with an angel's face.”
“Yes, he was,” Oz agreed. “But now they’re going to live
“Angel was not Angelus, not with his soul and conscience,” Luna explained. “I can understand the Romany’s rage, but that curse could not be allowed to break again. But on the other hand, Angel could be a champion of good if he did not have to worry about the curse.”
“So you made it so he’s plain touched?” Oz asked.
“No, planetouched,” Khelben replied. He chuckled when Oz gave him a funny look. “You are wearing a translation amulet. We hear the difference even if they sound the same in your tongue.”
“Ah,” the werewolf replied. “But what now?”
“Now they sleep it off,” Luna said. “Then they wake up and feel the hunger inherent in mortality. Which is why you’ll be there with breads and rolls at the inn as well as other staples for them to break their fasts on. We wouldn’t want them to mistake their fellow people as the food they need. Then, when they return, they'll spread the cure like a counter plague, transforming more of their kind.”
“Good news,” Oz replied. “But we don’t have an inn yet.”
“I know a place,” Khelben said. “Now, you finish up that wonderful drink of yours and I’ll have a carriage bring you there.”
“Thanks,” Oz replied. “But how much?”
“Tonight and tomorrow are on me,” the wizard replied. “Any more than that and you’ll have to pay. But the tavern has quite reasonable rates or so I’ve heard. They also have an excellent shepherd’s pie.”
Oz nodded politely. Eventually he finished his drink and left, a few guards assisting him with the passed out vampires. When they were gone, Luna flashed the wizard with a bemused smile.
“Why were you so willing to lend a hand, Khelben?” Luna asked. “Usually getting to you help is like pulling teeth.”
“My divinations on Sunnydale told me that if Angel was not changed he would be at least partially responsible for the return to power of one of the most dreaded forces in the history of Faerûn,” the wizard replied, pushing himself to his feet with his Blackstaff.
“The archdemons of the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart?” Luna inquired.
“Well, those and something worse,” Khelben replied. The silver-haired woman raised an eyebrow. The archmage of Waterdeep shivered and looked away before muttering an explanation. “Lawyers
Oz looked up when he heard silver laughter fill the streets, but shrugged as the carriage started moving, and focused on the busy night streets of Waterdeep, the City of Splendors.
After a bit more looting, the two Xanders started down the corridor. The cells were all occupied, some with only a few, others with many, almost with no standing room. The people were dressed in rags. Hairy Xander spotted a few who looked to have once been better off, a few bearing the black and silver of the Zhentarim Black Cloaks.
“We should let them out,” Baldy Xander suggested.
“We don’t know where we are,” Hairy countered.
“And they probably do,” Baldy Xander reminded his counterpart.
“Point,” Hairy agreed with a nod. One by one they opened the cages. The people filed out and cued up as if they were used to this happening before. It was the eyes that struck both Xanders the most. Their eyes seemed to hold no interest in anything besides orders.
“How do we get out?” Baldy Xander asked one of them in the trade tongue. Haltingly, the dirty, wretched person, sex was indeterminate under the rags and filth, pointed down the corridor. The Xanders thanked him/her and went onwards, the newly freed prisoners following. They continued to follow the directions of the locals when they encountered an intersection and stepped up their movements as fast as the freed prisoners could follow. Every corridor was the same black stone blocks, old and worn smooth, but indistinguishable from the rest. There were no windows, only occasional sconces for light, and everything seemed to blend together. Neither Xander would have been able to backtrack to the beginning easily.
“No guards,” Hairy Xander commented quietly. “For a guy as obsessed with control, why haven’t we run into any guards?”
“That’s a very good question,” Baldy said. He glanced over his shoulder to their guide. The weak, starving person simply pointed forward. “We go forward, I guess.”
This corridor was sloped, going downward at a slight angle, but not so much that it required steps. The air was moist, and getting more so the farther down they went. The horde of released prisoners followed the two Xanders as they made their way. At the bottom of the corridor, it hit a landing and made a sharp ninety degree turn to the left where it continued for a short ways before ending at a set of heavy wooden double doors.
“So, is this it?” Baldy Xander asked in the trade tongue. The prisoner nodded. Shrugging, the dimensional twins pushed the double doors open to reveal a line of soldiers with crossbows aimed at the door.
“A trap,” Hairy Xander grumbled. “De-fucking-lightful.”
“Ah, I see you have arrived, as was Lord Bane’s plan,” Fzoul said from behind the soldiers. He was standing on a platform with two long stone slabs, each the basic size of a coffin. Robed clerics stood on either side of the platform, their necks adorned with amulets displaying power escaping from a black clawed hand clenched into a fist. “Bring them.”
Hairy Xander glanced behind him to see that the “prisoners” had all pulled out daggers. They surged forward, their broken eyes filled with spiritlessness as they carried out the command. Hands reached out before the two young men could heft their weapons. Both Xanders struggled, but there were too many and this time there was no Buffy to save them.
Despite their futile struggles, they were dragged up onto the sacrificial platform.
“You’re going to pay for this,” Xander promised. “You have no idea what you’re about to awaken.”
“Oh, that’s where you are wrong,” Fzoul replied with a dark smile as he sharpened a knife as black as the night’s sky. He glanced at the rag covered minions. “Chain them up and begin the ritual!”
“When you die I’m going to be waiting, Fizzy,” Xander said. He glanced at his counterpart who looked equally serious. “We’ll be waiting.”
“Nonsense,” Fzoul said as he gave the knife another pass on the whetstone. “You’ll be stuck in the wall of the faithless, a plaything for Myrkul’s pets. You, and all your kind, will watch helplessly as The Lord of Tyranny reshapes the world as he wills.”
The high priest of Bane turned to face the kneeling followers and held his hands high even as both Xanders struggled to escape the chains that bound them to the stone slabs. “Today we see the birth of Lord Bane’s Divine Plan! He who rules with an iron fist, shall come here, to Toril, in Flesh that shows his full power for all to see!”
“Ah, there’s the monologue part two,” Xander said. The clerics walked forward and took shears to the Xanders’ clothes, leaving them covered only in chains. Whispering words in a language neither Sunnydaler understood, the black robed priests anointed the two with an oil on the chest, forehead and navel. Both tried to struggle, to slip their hands free, but the chains were too big, the manacles too tight and the more they struggled, the tighter the chains pinned them to the slabs.
Fzoul chanted, giving his monologue to his followers, switching between languages. The followers, guards, priests and knelt on the stone floor, folding their hands together and leaning forward until their foreheads touched the cold stone.
Xander looked over to his counterpart as Fzoul ran a hand along the man’s chest. He could see the high priest’s fingers press over the other Xander’s heart, as he felt the pumping of the other Xander’s lifeblood. Fzoul removed his fingers and drove the blade perfectly through the ribs. Xander was helpless as he watched someone who looked exactly like him die. Blood issued forth, spilling over the stone and running along channels down to a depression between the slabs where it pooled.
Fzoul walked purposefully over to Xander. He smiled the smile of a fanatic. He ignored the obscenities Xander hurled at him, never even flinched at the spittle Xander shot into his eyes. Xander could feel the high priest’s fore- and middle-fingers pressing onto his heart, digging into his flesh as they felt his racing pulse. There was an unnatural light in the man’s eyes, a look of glee and anticipation Xander had seen in the eyes of other monsters before.
There was strangely not as much pain as Xander expected when the blade slid between his ribs. It was quite painful, but Xander always thought it would be worse. As the blood drained from his chest, Xander watched as it ran into the pool even as he died. As he died, he saw the pool glow with supernatural intensity.
With that final sacrifice complete, Fzoul tossed by the pinchful a special concoction of herbs, liquids and other precious substances into the pool. With every pinch, the glow intensified until it was a heatless blaze that only fanaticism prevented them from looking away. When the bowl was empty, the clerics lined up, holding their arms bare. Fzoul took up the ebony blade once more and sliced their forearms from wrist to elbow. The clerics held out their arms to the pool, letting their red blood dribble into the growing blaze.
When the last cleric gave their blood, the temple shook from peak to foundation. The blaze spilled out beyond the confines of the pool to cover the entire sacrificial platform. The clerics and Fzoul bowed down.
A hand reached out and clenched the blaze in one black fist.
,” said Bane, a smile on Xander’s face. Fzoul looked up with fanatic intensity at the Avatar of his god. Xander’s body stood up, it’s new obsidian skin bending and cracking as the joints moved. “This body is strong, it’s mind full of Sunnydale’s secrets. You have pleased me.
“Everything I do is for your glory, Lord Bane,” Fzoul said giving the avatar a slight bow of diffidence.
“Now listen, for I shall tell you how we shall anchor Sunnydale and all its secrets within our grasp!
Luna appeared in “Advanced Dungeon's & Dragons,” a comic DC produced in the early 90s set in Waterdeep and the surrounding area with a few longer jaunts here and there. It had some excellent story telling which highlighted Khelben's hatred and fear of lawyers. Yes, folks. That's Forgotten Realms canon.
If you didn't know, Buffy spoke with Malar, the Deity of Beasts. Willow and Willow spoke to Azuth, one of the minor deities of magic, who showed up in a slightly younger form than usual. Luna is an Avatar of Selune, the Moon Goddess, that is bound to the Prime Material Plane.
Thanks again to Janessa Ravenwood. She's fixed this and helped me in so many ways. I'm already working on the next chapter because of her!