Aravae was trained to focus on her target when attacking. Not to look at it, which would reveal intention, but to focus and aim with a soft gaze that took in the entirety of her opponent and her surroundings while staring at nothing. But now she fought against that honed instinct, eyes downcast at the medusa's approaching feet as she threw her kick. She hoped to feel a solid impact. Hoped to send the medusa stumbling back. Then she would be up the stairs and escaping out the opening in the ceiling before the creature recovered. She had no weapons and no offensive magic. Staying and fighting in the basement of this neglected shrine could lead to only petrification or death.
But her kick missed, and the medusa seized her shoulder and tried to pull her close. The snakes comprising the creature's hair gave a collective hiss of anticipation as Aravae pushed her opponent away. Arm muscles bunched as the two women strained against each other. The bladesinger felt puffs of air against her face as the serpents struck and the sound of their snapping jaws announced venomous death was but a finger's breadth away.
"Look at me," the medusa said, voice constricted with effort.
"No," Aravae said, teeth gritted.
She had no idea why she even answered. It entered her mind they shouldn't even be fighting. The medusa was clearly imprisoned here, and thus an enemy of the hags. But it wasn't like the woman had given her a chance to explain that. Their feet danced around in a series of erratic circles as they struggled, their efforts carrying them away from the stairs, deeper into the room, and further from a quick escape.
Aravae reversed the pressure on one of the medusa's shoulders, tugging against the back of her upper arm rather than shoving against her shoulder. At the same time, she lashed out with her foot, catching and sweeping the ankle on the same side of her opponent. The other woman tripped and the bladesinger freed herself from the medusa's grip with a rippling shrug as her opponent fell.
The well-executed move almost cost Aravae her life.
As the other woman tumbled down, her snake framed face came into view. The look of surprise on that face drew the bladesinger's gaze and, for an instant, their eyes met. In that moment, a stiffening paralysis spread through Aravae's body. Then the jarring impact with the stone floor closed the other woman's eyes and their shared stare was broken. Rigidity fled from the bladesinger's body, and she could move again.
But by the time she recovered, the chance to flee had been lost. The medusa scrambled to her feet and blocked the way out. Aravae averted her gaze, side stepping one way, then the other, confirming as the other woman stepped with her, that she wasn't going to just let her past to the stairs. The hissing of the snakes on her opponent's head suddenly quieted, and out of her peripheral vision, Aravae saw their writhing slow then cease.
"I just realized I've no way to get rid of your body," the medusa said, panting. "You're too big for the privy hole."
Their brief struggle had left them both short-winded. Had this been a duel of blades, or even simply a hand-to-hand fight between the two of them, Aravae wouldn't even be breathing hard. But this wasn't a normal fight. She fought more than half-blind against an opponent who could turn her to stone or poison her with a single mistake or slip. Instead of relying on her training, she instead had to constantly struggle against it by forcing herself not to look up. It made her clumsy and essentially a brawler. Under those circumstances, the coursing rush of adrenaline was hard to control.
"This place is bad enough without your corpse rotting in a corner," the woman continued, between breaths. "A statue now, much better. You'll keep me company. You won't be any better of a conversationalist then Alushtasa, but at least you will be new decor. So, look up at me and let's get this over with."
"Or, you could let me go," the bladesinger said. "I've no desire to hurt you."
"Hurt me?" the woman laughed. "A bit of bruising on my backside is worth getting some revenge after so many years of thirsting for it. If the hags are out of my reach, I'll at least take it out on their servants."
"I'm not one of their servants…" Aravae began.
"Vaarn karask," the medusa said, cutting her off. "How stupid do you think I am?"
The words as much as the sudden rush of the woman surprised the bladesinger. She was caught so flat footed that she didn't even have a chance to strike out with a sightless punch or kick before the medusa grabbed hold of her.
'Vaarn karask', 'evil demon' in Elvish. And what had she said before? 'Alushtasa?'. 'Rain' or 'flowing water', also Elvish. The medusa was an elf!
Aravae suddenly felt sure she knew who the other woman was. She had to force herself to keep herself from glancing towards the medusa's face to confirm it as they grappled.
"Sylv…" the bladesinger started to say.
But fingers latched around her throat and cut her off. Wanting to keep venomous serpents away, Aravae had been playing the same game, keeping the other woman at arm's length with hands on her shoulders and shoving. But the medusa had changed tactics. She no longer tried to pull the bladesinger close, choosing to control Aravae's head instead.
"Look at me!" the other woman yelled.
Her hands around the bladesinger's neck directed more than choked. Forcing Aravae's gaze upward.
"Look at me!" the woman yelled again.
Aravae shut her eyes as her chin was lifted by the leverage applied by the medusa's wrists. The choking hands were not tight enough to completely cut off her breath, but it did make her gag and gasp for air. She was a trained combatant and knew how to break a grip. But to do it, she'd have to let go of the other woman's shoulders. Then her opponent could close the distance and the snakes could strike. Was the choke just a misdirection? A distraction to hide the real attack?
Aravae back pedaled to try and alleviate the pressure and buy some time, but the other woman followed with relentless pressure.
"Open your eyes and look at me!"
The medusa had worked herself into a frenzy and now screamed in Elvish. Her anger gave her a furious strength and her fingers dug into Aravae's throat, fully choking off her air supply.
Letting go of the woman's shoulders, the bladesinger broke the grip around her neck and grabbed a wrist. She pivoted quickly, aware of the potential danger of the serpent hair, and wrenched the woman's arm behind her back.
The woman cried out in surprise, then tried to spin free. Having to maintain her distance in fear of the snakes, Aravae couldn't control the woman's head or hips. She was forced to rotate with medusa to keep her position. Again and again, they danced a spiraling dance. Sometimes her opponent would try to reverse the direction to get free, but the bladesinger was ready for such tactics.
And despite the medusa's earlier words, in her desperation, the serpents struck. But Aravae had placed her hands strategically and, with those grips and her outstretched arms, she was out of range. It seemed like forever before the pace of their struggle slowed enough to maybe talk.
"Will you listen?" Aravae asked, breathing hard.
They still circled and the medusa still probed with twists of her wrist or changes of direction to see if she could get free as she took in ragged lungfuls of air. But the tempo was now at least methodical rather than an all-out fight.
"Fine," the woman said back in Elvish. "I'm listening. What lies do the hags want you to spin?"
But before the bladesinger could speak the medusa tried to wrench herself free again with a burst of energy. For a time, they struggled and strained, neither able to spare a breath to speak.
"Now will you listen?" Aravae repeated when the action had finally slowed again.
This time she tightened her grip on the other woman's wrist and gave her a shake to warn her against further resistance. A futile, petty move. The bladesinger didn't have the leverage to cause any pain and the medusa had the shoulder and arm flexibility of her elf heritage. But Aravae was tired and angry, frustrated by the medusa's stubborn resolve to keep fighting.
The woman responded with a nod.
Aravae was not deceived with this feigned compliance. She saw the way the medusa took deep breaths, gathering her strength, and the way she glanced around to note their position in the room. The woman planned something. Aravae decided to take advantage of this temporary lull.
"I'm not a servant of the hags," the bladesinger said. "Cyrena sent me looking for Sylvarie or maybe an ally."
"Cyrena?" the woman said.
She stopped circling and her posture relaxed a little. Aware this could be a ruse, Aravae maintained her grips.
"I'm Sylvarie," the medusa said.
"Yeah, I figured that out," the bladesinger sighed. "But you didn't give me a chance to introduce myself in turn."
"Who are you?" the cursed moon-elf asked.
"Aravae Symbaern," Aravae said.
Silence followed, indicating the medusa didn't recognize the name.
"I've visited before," the bladesinger said. "With my friend Mialee, a wood elf druid. Well she'd have been a druid in training then."
"Mialee," Sylvarie said, now nodding. "You're the foster daughter of the Coronal."
"Yes…" Aravae said, then paused for a beat. "Wait, how do you know that?"
"Your friend told me," the woman said. "We were sharing a soak and just started talking. I'd always hoped…"
She trailed off.
"Always hoped for what?" the bladesinger prompted.
Sylvarie shrugged. "That you'd tell your mother about this place and the Coronal would visit. It would be an honor."
"Oh…" Aravae said. "I will tell her next time I see her. She would like this place. Without the hags of course."
"Of course," the cursed moon-elf said.
It was strange. Moments before they had been desperately fighting and now they discussed something as mundane as a recommendation to her foster mother to a spa temple?
"If you are who you say you are," the medusa said. "I apologize for this."
The woman suddenly threw herself backward, catching Aravae off guard. She was forced to backpedal to maintain her distance from the threat of the serpent hair. Glancing behind her, the bladesinger saw what the medusa intended. She was driving them straight towards the rectangular pool and Aravae was just about to trip over the lip and into it. The bladesinger pushed Sylvarie away and let go. Then she jumped and unfurled her wings. The ceiling was low, but there was several feet of clearance. A single beat of her wings with the jump would carry her to the far side and she would avoid falling in.
That was the intention at least.
"Alushtasa!" the cursed moon-elf shouted.
With a spray of droplets, a serpent of water surged from the calm surface of the pool. It caught Aravae right out of the air and wrapped around her, both drenching her and holding her fast. The bladesinger twisted and writhed, her wings beat, but the strange coiling currents of water constricted, and she couldn't free herself from the cold watery grip.
"Good girl, Alushtasa," the medusa said. "Don't drown her. We were just having the most interesting little chat. But I prefer we converse this way rather than having my arm wrenched behind my back. Please keep your eyes shut, I'd hate to petrify you by accident."
"You miserable bitch," Aravae sputtered. "I'm here to try and help you. And myself. The hags are both our enemies."
"That remains to be seen," Sylvarie said. "Now tell me everything."
"Or you'll have your water weird drown me?" the bladesinger asked with a bitter laugh. "It's my conversation with Cyrena all over again. At least that one was in warmer water."
"Cyrena?" the medusa said. "She is a gentle and shy soul. She'd never threaten such a thing."
"Well now she is more paranoid than shy," Aravae said. "Having hags constantly try and kill you for years will do that."
"Those bitches," Sylvarie said. "I need to get free of this place and end them."
"I can help with that," the bladesinger said. "If you haven't noticed, I do have a pair of wings that can carry us out of here."
"Oh, I noticed," the medusa said. "And I noticed the horns on your head, as well as the other changes. You're not the sun elf who stayed here before. Now talk."
Aravae talked. Like with Cyrena, she told of their arrival at the Temple of the Restful Lily, of being enchanted by the painting, of the dream of Sune and her awakening transformed. To this she added her meeting and conversation with the naiad and even a few details of the circumstances of her birth and fostering.
"Ilmar came looking for me?" Sylvarie asked.
The bladesinger didn't need to open her eyes to see the hint of a smile that must be playing on the medusa's lips. It was in her voice.
"A friend?" Aravae asked.
"He was once more than that," the medusa said. "Having escaped from the Underdark, he was very passionate in his worship of his new patron goddess of Eilistraee and I had visions from my own deity to found this temple here. So, we parted ways. I've sometimes wondered…"
"Sometimes wonder what?" the bladesinger prompted.
Privately she felt they had little time for this line of conversation. Her companions were trapped in an enchanted sleep with only a locked door to protect them. But she was trapped by a water weird, which continually coiled and slithered around her. She needed to build rapport with this cursed elf to be set free.
"Wondered why a goddess who loves love would send me a vision that led me away from it," Sylvarie said.
After an extended silence, Aravae realized the woman actually waited for an answer.
"Who can fathom the mind of a goddess," the bladesinger said. "But in my dream there actually was a message for you. She said to 'Let your inner beauty shine through and the truth of it will set you free.'"
To the bladesinger's surprise the medusa took a deep breath at those words. Then, after a contemplative quiet, Aravae heard the sound of ripping fabric.
"Release her Alushtasa," Sylvarie said.
The current of the water weird was suddenly gone. Aravae splashed down into the pool, going under. It was fairly deep, and cold, but her head was above water when she stood. Eyes closed, she walked in the direction she believed was towards the stairs, groping for the pool's edge as she did.
"You can open your eyes," the cursed elf called out. "There is something I think you should get before you climb out."
Hesitantly, full of trepidation and fearing it was a trick, Aravae did. She hadn't actually picked the right direction and was headed towards one of the corners. Sylvarie watched from the pool's edge, well sort of watched, she was now blindfolded and in the process of tying another cloth around her head over her serpent hair.
"In the center of the pool is a hand mirror. You can't miss it. It is glowing."
"I see it," Aravae said.
It was near the center. She made her way through the water to it.
"Its name is Radiance and it can cast a spell that may be useful," the medusa said. "I had to throw it in there to avoid looking into it and turning myself to stone."
The bladesinger nodded, though Sylvarie could not see that. She dove under and grasped the mirror by the handle.
"It's beautiful," she said after coming up, wiping her eyes, and looking at it.
It was beautiful. Golden with engravings symbolic of Lady Fire Hair's long tresses. The polish surface of the mirror was clean and unmarked despite its time in the pool. It reflected perfectly and shone with a pure soft white light.
"You can have it," Sylvarie said. "A gift. It isn't like I can use it anymore. I'll teach you how to cast the spell it carries."
"You will be able to use it again," Aravae said.
She walked to the pool's edge and climbed out, water cascading off her.
"There is a way to break every curse," she said. "We'll find it and free you from it. And myself and my friends from ours. I don't suppose you have a towel?"
The medusa shook her head. "The rags I'm wearing are it. And there are even less of them now that I've made a blindfold and a headscarf. I usually undress before bathing."
"You didn't really give me a chance, did you?" Aravae said.
"I did apologize before I did it," Sylvarie said.
"You did," the bladesinger said, doing her best to wring water from her clothes. "How did the hags manage to curse you?"
The medusa sighed. "I didn't practice what I preached. Sune teaches us to present the best version of ourselves to the world, but also that it is our imperfections that make us beautiful. These we share with those with whom we are intimately close. Friends. Lovers. But I didn't want to do that. When no one was staying at the Lily my acolytes and I passed the time alternating between this cold sacred pool and the hot springs. They shared their beautiful inner selves with me while I lied to them, playing the role of all wise all-knowing elf. And they're all dead now because of my vanity. The hags offered a way to take away the private doubts and fears that gnawed at my confidence and hurt me. All I had to do was sit for a painting. It worked for a year, but after that, this was the result."
Sylvarie gestured at her face.
"You had private fears," Aravae said, she'd finished wringing out her clothes and stood straight. "We all do. But that doesn't make the death of your acolytes your fault or mean you deserve to be cursed and locked away in here. The hags are guilty of that. So, let's get out of here and finish this."
The medusa nodded and held up a hand. Aravae clasped it with her own and led the blindfolded woman up the stairs. As they took the steps her curiosity got the better of her.
"Let your inner beauty shine through and the truth of it will set you free," the bladesinger said. "After I told you that you trusted me completely. Why?"
"It's just the kind of thing a goddess would say," Sylvarie said. "Our inner beauty can mean so many things. It can even mean the ugly part of ourselves we hide. But in this case, I took it to mean our very capacity and willingness to love. Our desire for it even."
"Our willingness to love?" Aravae asked, confused.
"What do we do when we love?" the medusa asked.
"Share passion?" the bladesinger guessed. "Give of ourselves?"
"Both true," Sylvarie said. "But we also make ourselves vulnerable. That is what I took Sune's message to be. She wanted me to give a symbolic gesture to prove to myself I still had the capacity to love, whatever my form. She wanted me to make myself vulnerable."
"Thus, the blindfold," Aravae said.
"Thus, the blindfold," the cursed priestess repeated.
They were back in the upper level of the shrine now.
"Step carefully here," the bladesinger said. "I'm leading you through shards of glass. It will be easier for me to take off from the center of the room."
"Also," Sylvarie said as they navigated through the bits of broken mirror littering the floor. "Sune knows many think her a vain and superficial goddess and that she is concerned with only surface beauty. She has a sense of humor about it. It suddenly struck me that having a medusa and a…"
She stopped talking, but Aravae understood where this was going.
"Fey'ri half-demon," she supplied.
"…as her champions would be just the bit of irony she'd enjoy," the medusa finished.
The bladesinger looked up at the statue below the opening in the ceiling. The face still had the grime below the eyes resembled tracks of tears, but the carved smile below it, that was the smile of a goddess who appreciated a good joke. She couldn't help but give a fierce smile back in response. Then she sobered, aware of the heavy odds stacked against them.
"According to what Ilmar told Cyrena," Aravae said. "A gargoyle guards the grounds from the tower. I was invisible when I came here, but there is a mist tonight that might keep us hidden if we fly out and to the opposite side of the shrine. Then we can sneak back to the bathhouse, look in on my companions, and plan. But we'll need to leave your hand mirror here. Its glow will give us away."
"Pass it to me," Sylvarie said. "I'll extinguish its light."
The bladesinger did, and the light emanating from the mirror winked out.
"Now I'm going to pick you up," Aravae said. "I've never actually carried anyone flying before and I don't know if I'm even strong enough to do it. But I'm going to try."
"Radiance can help with that," the cursed priestess said. "Sune, bless this woman with strength to endure the trails to come."
The mirror gave a pulse of light and the bladesinger felt vigorous strength flow through her limbs and wings. She easily picked up the medusa, who wrapped her arms around her neck.
"Have you ever heard the fable of the frog and the scorpion crossing the river," Sylvarie asked.
"The one where the scorpion convinces the frog to carry it across the river, but then stings it, even though they'll both die, because wickedness is in its nature?" Aravae said.
"That's the one," the cursed priestess said, smiling.
"What about it?" the bladesinger asked.
"It just strikes me that this could be a variant on it," Sylvarie said. "Medusa convinces a half-demon to fly her up and out of a prison."
"You make one move towards that blindfold and I'm dropping you," Aravae said. "One. Move."
"I'm not going to," the cursed priestess said. "I just thought of it for some reason, and it struck me as funny."
"Hear me not laughing?" the bladesinger asked. "Not funny."
Sylvarie's smile only widened in response.
"You know you and your goddess have twisted senses of humor," Aravae said. "You deserve each other."
The medusa merely nodded, the smile not leaving her face.
The bladesinger gave a beat of her wings. The strength she felt! Dust swirled around the shrine in response. She took to the air, headed for the opening in the ceiling.
For you Forgotten Realms fans, I know I've messed with the doctrine of Sune to no end in this chapter. I know any you'll be truly turned off by this and feel I should be flogged by a priestess of Loviatar for it. I apologize. But in all the art of her symbol she has that knowing smile full of humor. So I wanted to play up on that rather than the more sensual and beauty obsessed parts of her lore. Ed Greenwood, forgive me...
Update 5-15-2022 - did some edits