The hearts of stars burn with liquid fire, light-giving, life-giving – but never eternal; for eventually, even the fire in the hearts of stars shall die; eventually, chaos and entropy shall conquer all; eventually, all things shall–
–end: and so, his servitude – nay, his slavery to Mekrath was ended; but he was not free, as free a bird, even the mere sparrow that he was should be; he was only given over to yonder raven afore–
Aye, for a raven that was; there was no other word to describe him: for his eyes were the eyes of a raven, a Gith, jet-black, without whites, or irises, or pupils; and his hair was the colour of a raven's wing, of the midnight black that in itself contains a myriad colours – for one prepared to see them, that is; and his skin was the white, the purest white of the feathers of the rarest ravens of all, the white ravens of myths and legends–
And he was dressed, as a commoner would be dressed in a cloak or a mantle, in an aura of command, and confidence, and power; and something even beyond that; and the sparrow found himself attracted to the raven as terribly and inescapably as the moth is attracted to her own death in the flame–
"Are you all right?" asked the half-elf; then, clearly irritated, he told someone behind him, "Anomen, the wizard said that he should be–"
"Nay, no need for your friend to trouble himself," Haer'Dalis interrupted hastily, "This sparrow is, indeed, recovered; and grateful for his rescue from the wizard's cage. Or is it–" he added hurriedly – "that you have no wish to set me free; and I am but to be passed from one master to another?"
There was a short snort, and a female voice said, "Oh, he's definitely all right."
The half-elf was watching him curiously. "Haer'Dalis, I presume?"
"Aye, my raven," the tiefling answered, "Though I must confess that you have the advantage in this conversation; for you seem to know me, though I cannot recall ever having met you–"
The man chose not to answer the unspoken question, just as he had left the previous one hanging in the air; instead, he said – "Then, we have been hired to retrieve you."
"Pray tell me: by whom?" If they were Darkwood's bounty hunters–
"By one who shall remain unnamed," retorted the half-elf.
"Ah! Mystery abounds: how intriguing–" Aye; they were either Raelis' or Darkwood's; but which of the two? He still had Chaos and Entropy on him; and that, if anything, was a good sign–
Suddenly, a male, somewhat arrogant, voice interrupted his reverie. "Ishmael, I know that you are enjoying this, but we really ought to refrain from teasing the... man." A handsome young human, dressed in a heavy, bloodstained armour, emerged from the shadows behind the half-elf. He eyed the tiefling condescendingly, and added, "For lack of a better word."
"Anomen, please," protested the still-hidden female; at the same time, the half-elf sighed, "All right; would you know perchance a certain Raelis Shai? She appears to be missing you."
"Then – it is from my lady Raelis that you come?"
The half-elf shrugged, "Well, yes. She is a friend of a friend of ours, and we have promised her to look into your disappearance. Oh, by the way – I believe some introductions are in order. I am, as you have heard, Ishmael; that–" he gestured to the handsome blond man in the armour – "is our resident voice of sanity and conscience, squire Anomen Delryn of the Order of the Most Radiant Heart–" Haer'Dalis nodded to the young man, who, he observed with amusement, seemed almost embarrassed at the lengthy presentation – "And that–" at this point, the half-elf gestured to the shadows on his other side – "is Kareya."
The heretofore-unnamed woman stepped out of the shadows. She appeared to be a young human – mostly; more probably than not she had some dwarf blood in her: she was short for a human, with mousy hair, rather bad skin and definitely more than a hint of a moustache and a beard; her plain, grey clothes revealed that she was also rather plump in certain places where she shouldn't be, and not well endowed enough in some of those where a woman ought to be–
She was, in short – not hideous (for that, in itself, would hold a measure of attraction of its own) but plain; extremely so. "Enchanted," the tiefling murmured in her general direction.
"Likewise," the unsmiling woman replied coolly, eyeing him up and down through narrowed eyes.
Haer'Dalis did not spare her a second glance; instead, he turned to the far more interesting subject of examination: the half-elf leader of the group–
"My raven, I am sure that the fair Raelis will appropriately reward you for the sparrow's release– But before we hasten to the Five Flagons, let me mention an unhappy matter: for when the wizard caught me, I had a certain stone in my possession–"
"–having no doubt pilfered it from the wizard five minutes earlier–" muttered the woman; Haer'Dalis ignored her, though the accuracy of her remark still stung; he did not suspect such insight from her – and continued, "I would I could recover it. Mekrath has a secret niche–"
The half-elf laughed, "Let me compliment you on the quality of your acting, master thespian," he said, bowing slightly in Haer'Dalis' direction. "For you, sir, are a thief – Kareya tends to be correct in such matters – and a liar; and however terrible a thief, as a liar you are, indeed, outstanding. Fortunately for you–" he added, just as Haer'Dalis was losing his hopes – "though I am a miserable liar, I am a very good thief."
"What? Ishmael, you cannot possibly–" the young man in the armour sputtered – "I cannot condone outright stealing! Helm will–"
"I know, Anomen; your protest is duly noted," the half-elf sighed. "Nevertheless."
And with that, the matter was ended.
It was already getting dark when the four of them left the Athkatlan sewers–
"Right," Ishmael said as soon as they were all out, and Anomen put the cover back on the sewer hole, "We split up here. Anomen, I know that your sister is waiting for you – and you know what to tell Ajantis and lord Firecam, I presume?"
The young man started to count out, "First, that you intend to take up Firkraag's challenge; second, that you feel that my company constitutes–" he hesitated for a moment, then picked up his speech – "constitutes sufficient Order presence in the course of the affair; third, that if they insist that a paladin go with us, you will accept none but Ajantis in the party; fourth, even he may come only as a follower, not as the leader of the party, subject to your commands." He sighed, "Mark my words, though: the Order will not accept such conditions."
"The Order will not be ordered around, aye?" The half-elf grinned; then, suddenly serious again, he said, with more than a note of contempt, "But they will. Firkraag played with them just as he played with me; but if Windspear and his daughter cannot be raised to testify, it will take time to do things the proper way, to gather circumstantial evidence regarding the frauds and all that–" he shrugged – "If I am to serve as the excuse, they will accept my conditions. And I say: even if Wessalen or Trawl themselves offer, I won't accept them. And I only accept Ajantis because I suppose that you would like to spend some time with your future brother-in-law in private."
Anomen's only response was a small, unsure smile.
"So, off you go, and remember to say hello to Moira for us–" Then, almost as an afterthought, the half-elf added, "And to Vesper, of course."
Kareya waited until after Anomen muttered out something resembling "Aye, I will do that," and turned away from them; and then, she grinned widely.
"Now, what shall we do with you, master bard?" Ishmael asked, turning to Haer'Dalis, who had been watching the exchange curiously. "How do you feel? Can you get to the Five Flagons on your own?"
The tiefling tested himself– "Aye. A bit fatigued I am, that much is true; but with Chaos and Entropy by my side–" he put his hands on the blades – "I may not yet enter the sweetness of oblivion."
"Curious how this does not seem to please you," Kareya remarked.
"A Doomguard–" Haer'Dalis begun, but was quickly cut off by Ishmael–
"Then, if you are fine, please be on your way as well, master bard. Kareya and I–" he shot the woman a knowing look – "have another appointment today."
The tiefling's curiosity was immediately piqued; but he answered only, "And I suppose that the sparrow is not invited? Very well; I shall leave. What of the stone?"
"What of it? We will keep it, for now; we will come to the Flagons tomorrow. No offence, master bard," Ishmael nodded slightly in his direction, "but, as they say, there is no honour among thieves. We'd rather not come tomorrow to the Flagons, only to see both you and the stone misplaced somehow."
"Ah, my raven – but in that case, how am I to trust you to deliver the stone to mistress Shai? I'd rather it not be misplaced whilst in your possession, either, and that tomorrow you come for your reward empty-handed."
"In that case," Ishmael said slowly, "we seem to have reached an impasse."
Kareya looked coldly at Haer'Dalis. "No, we have not. I think that he simply wants to come with us, and that is all he means to achieve through his petty disagreement."
The half-elf shrugged. "Is that so? If so, come. We won't be watching out especially for you, though, so unless you have a sudden wish to enter your sweet oblivion immediately, be ready to defend yourself, master bard."
Kareya and Ishmael put up the hoods of their clothes – they were both wearing dark grey, which made them almost invisible in the shadows of the Athkatlan night – and set out for some destination known to them both; Haer'Dalis tagged behind them, watching them–
Ishmael moved with the agility and grace of an experienced fighter, a fence-master; Haer'Dalis would love to test his blades against the half-elf's some day in a mock fight. The tiefling's initial impression that the man was almost literally dressed in a mantle of power did not abate; if anything, it grew stronger every second. There was simply something – something which made his blood sing and his head buzz in elation – in the man; he would love to know what that was–
Kareya, though she had spoken far fewer words thus far, was much easier to decipher; with her lack of grace and exercise, there could be but one role she could fulfil in an adventuring party: a wizard's. Yet while wizards of this Prime world usually delighted in showing the signs of their profession to the world with their ornate robes and cloaks, Kareya wore a tunic and leggings, much like Ishmael; she certainly did everything within her powers not to draw attention to herself–
"I will eat you!"
The cry which interrupted his thoughts came from behind the corner of the street; Ishmael raised his hand – Kareya grabbed Haer'Dalis' wrist when the bard did not halt immediately – and disappeared in the shadows.
A few seconds later, a piercing shriek resounded through the night air. Kareya motioned Haer'Dalis forward with her head, and the two rounded the corner–
Ishmael was kneeling next to the prone body of a woman, pouring a healing potion from a blue-tinted bottle into her mouth. "Hareishan, and another one," he said, clearly disgusted. "Her partners followed the other one–"
At that moment, the woman's eyes snapped open. "You! You are–" She paused, clearly unable to comprehend the situation.
The half-elf sneered, "I assure you, wench, that though my looks may mislead you, I am no vampire. Now – I have two messages for you, so do shut up and listen. The first one is for you: the vampire drained you of your blood and energy. A simple healing will not suffice here; make haste to the temple of a god that still tolerates you. The second one–" the half-elf's voice suddenly became frigid – "is for your superiors; for Bayle, or Bloodscalp, or for whomever you dogs actually call your master: tell them that Ishmael does not consort with vampires – yet; but if they are intent on frustrating my operations, they may yet find their operations frustrated. Tell them that I know that the Shadow Thieves are weaker than they pretend to be for my benefit; and if they do not wish to be weakened even more, they had better not lose thieves to my hand, of all." He let the woman's body drop, and, rising gracefully from the ground, turned to Kareya and the tiefling.
"The Shadow Thieves? Vampires? 'Tis a dangerous game that you play, my raven," remarked Haer'Dalis as soon as the woman – and her companions, who reappeared soon after Ishmael gave her the message – was out of sight.
"Perhaps," the half-elf replied noncommittally.
"Aye," the tiefling mused, "and yet even as you dance your dance between the two, you still find the time to truck with the forces of law of this city; and even find the spare moment to recover birds gone astray–"
"Is there a point to your question, Haer'Dalis?"
"If there were, it has long blunted. 'Twas no question, my raven – merely awe at the range of your acquaintance I have met within a few hours."
"Curiouser and curiouser," muttered Kareya on her side.
"Yes," the half-elf's mood suddenly improved, "Kareya is right. Your curiosity grows every minute, doesn't it? Clandestine meetings and shadowy dealings with both the lowest and the highest that this society has to offer – to use your own words: 'Mystery abounds! How intriguing!'" The faux cheerfulness quickly faded from Ishmael's voice as he added, "And you probably just can't help yourself, can you? Oh, well," he said, stopping abruptly, "Here we are: the Crooked Crane. 'Tis time for another piece of your puzzle, master bard."
They entered the tavern – which some would perhaps call "seedy"; though in truth, it was no different from hundreds of similar establishments scattered across all Planes – and were immediately beset by a half-drunken man. "They are splitting up! Aulava and Tiiro are splitting up! Oh," he said, suddenly registering the complete lack of recognition or interest on their faces, "Forget what I said."
Ishmael shrugged, "Fine by me." He then proceeded immediately to the bar, where he asked the bartender a question in a voice so low that Haer'Dalis didn't hear what was said. The bartender nodded, and said, "He's upstairs."
Several coins passed into the bartender's hand, "Thank you, friend." He returned to Kareya and the tiefling–
"Upstairs," he relayed the man's answer; Kareya merely nodded in response.
"What? Oh no, you won't!" exclaimed the inebriated man, "Leave them in peace! Their families have suffered enough; look at Mauna and his barn–"
"What are you talking about?" the half-elf asked slowly and deliberately.
The man sobered under the gaze of the black Gith-like eyes. "Aulava and Tiiro, who else?" he asked matter-of-factly.
"Ah – those who are supposed to be splitting up as we speak? Let me assure you, man; whatever local brats wish to do is no concern of mine. Be on your way, as you please."
When the man departed hastily, Ishmael continued, "As I said – they are upstairs. This may be somewhat dangerous though, master bard; perhaps you ought to stay here–"
"–we really have better things to do than search for another buyer for the stone right now–" muttered Kareya.
"Aye–" Haer'Dalis agreed – "But if it be dangerous, mayhap the sparrow and his blades can aid his saviours in peril?"
The half-elf sighed, "Curiosity is a terrible vice, dear actor."
The first thing Haer'Dalis saw upon coming upstairs was a pair of young humans sitting in a corner, holding hands–
"And so it is over," said the boy.
"Yes, it is over," said the girl.
"Our families want it. Everyone wants it."
The girl sighed, "Yes. They do– What?" she asked, shooting the tiefling a positively hostile look – "What are you staring at, freak? Have you never seen two people in love?"
"Oh, but I have, my finch; I have," Haer'Dalis replied merrily, "For 'tis a play that repeats oft enough, both within the theatre and without; two lovers whom the world conspires to part; yet undaunted they stand and persevere – and in the end, true love conquers all!"
The boy laughed, "Do you hear that, Aulava? He's a stranger – but even so, he speaks so much more sensibly than all those old fools do!"
"Yes, Tiiro! That is what we should do, isn't it? We should stand by our love; and if that makes us outcasts from the society–"
"Then what?" interjected Kareya's cold voice from behind Haer'Dalis. "I've had a few words with Mauna, you know; his barn–"
"We burnt it!" exclaimed Aulava.
"We burnt it, to show the fire of our love to the world!" added Tiiro.
"And no doubt you are willing to set other buildings aflame to prove your... ardent feeling?" Kareya asked nonchalantly.
"I see that you don't understand," Aulava replied contemptuously, "How could you? With how ugly you are, no one–"
She did not finish; there was a sudden whoosh, and Aulava's head fell to the ground, cut off from her body; the following moment, Tiiro's head joined his lover's–
Ishmael emerged from behind the corpses; he lowered the ornate – and by now, rather bloodied – katana that he was holding, and asked, "Are you all right?"
Kareya flashed him a smile. "Yes, thank you. It'll take more than the insult of a fool to hurt me. True love conquers all, indeed." She kicked the girl's corpse viciously.
"Indeed. The Fury is far too good for the likes of them," replied Ishmael, cleaning the blade roughly with Tiiro's tunic. "Well, master bard," he turned to Haer'Dalis, "'Tis a new tale for your repertoire, I suppose: of two fools who refused the protection of society for the sake of passion; only to learn belatedly that amongst the outcasts, only one law reigns–"
"The weak would do well not to bother the stronger," Kareya interjected smoothly.
"Indeed." The half-elf laughed.
Haer'Dalis, who had been watching the exchange between them with bated breath, concluded triumphantly, "Aye; and thus, entropy conquers all; and its own servants first of all!"
"I can already see he likes it," Kareya muttered.
"All right," Ishmael said a moment later. "Argrim's quarters are in the room at the far end of the corridor. Haer'Dalis–"
"Aye," replied the bard, sliding Chaos and Entropy out of their sheaths; the green abyssal steel glinted eerily in the dim candlelight.
"Ready," answered the woman. She was now holding a sword of her own; it was not a physical weapon, but rather appeared to be made of light; Haer'Dalis wondered briefly what spell produced this effect–
"Let us go, then."
The shabby doors did not last long against the half-elf's strength, enhanced by some potion seconds before–
Aided by another potion, the three of them managed to enter the room before the guards inside understood what was happening–
"Keep your hands where I see them, and order your men to drop their weapons," the half-elf growled in the direction of the elderly man standing behind a desk in the middle of the room; apparently, the man Haer'Dalis knew only as Argrim barely managed to get to his feet before the blade of Ishmael's katana touched his neck. "We have come to talk, not fight; though if it is fight you prefer, Argrim–"
The man made a brusque gesture with his hand, and the men around them lowered their weapons.
"Good. You are a reasonable man, it appears. Kareya, 'Dalis?"
The bard collected the guards' weapons in one corner of the room; when he was done, the wizard fired a spell of sleep at the guards–
The elderly man watched the spectacle in silence; but it was obvious that he was fuming inside. At last, as the last guard succumbed to the magic sleep, he exploded, "What did I do to warrant this attack? Who are you men, anyway?"
Kareya flashed her phantom sword around. "I do believe that I should take offence," she said in a positively frigid voice.
"I do believe that so should I," said Ishmael. "But you asked what you did to warrant this visit, lord Ketlaar? Availing yourself of my absence from the city, you have ordered the attack on the laboratory of two of my associates, and seriously wounded one of them. You should really be grateful that Jan isn't dead – which is definitely more that can be said about the assassins, by the way; otherwise, matters would have been somewhat... different for you. And more painful, of course."
"As it is–" he continued, while blood escaped from the elderly man's face – "the Cowled Wizards contacted us, and informed us that the attack was part of your campaign of violence aimed at magic users. They also said that we are free to do with you as you please, as long as they are not implicated in any way in the matter. They'd rather you were either dead or, even better, imprisoned; they even provided us with the necessary weapon–"
Kareya threw a small piece of stone onto the desk.
"Fortunately for you," Ishmael continued, "I have my own unfinished business with the Wizards; and, as I said, neither Jan nor Edwin is dead... That is why we offer you a third option."
"This rune," Kareya explained, laying another stone next to the previous one, "will teleport you to Baldur's Gate. You will be beyond Amnish border then, but still near enough to efficiently oversee the shutting down of your businesses here–"
The man sputtered, "Exile? I am to – to go into exile? Is that what you propose? I am to leave my life here, in Amn? You want my daughters to leave their home here, to grow up among those – barbarians?"
The half-elf's dark eyes bored into the old man's face. "Do you think to shame me into giving you compassion, old man?" he asked calmly; all too calmly, Haer'Dalis thought. "What will happen to your daughters was precisely what happened to me: I was taken away from my home and my friends, and forced to live – not even in the luxury your money will undoubtedly afford you in Baldur's Gate – but from what I found on the road. Except that something else happened as I was exiled, Argrim: my father was killed by an assassin hours after it started. That is a fate that your daughters may yet escape."
"I will not kill you if you do not force my hand," Ishmael concluded. "That is more compassion than you will ever receive from a Bhaalspawn. Now," he gestured to the two runes on the desk, "take your pick, lord Ketlaar Argrim."
The old man was gone – in the end, he had chosen the sensibility of exile over the romanticism of death for the cause; his guards were also gone, off to deliver the missives he had written to his daughters; only the three of them remained in the room. Ishmael was sitting on a chair, still clearly agitated; Kareya was standing next to him, touching him lightly on the shoulder; her phantom blade already extinguished–
Haer'Dalis was watching the scene curiously–
"There is a question you want to ask, bard" Kareya said suddenly.
"Aye, my falcon," he replied: for, aye, a falcon she was; faithful and predatory, trained to kill at her master's behest– "What is a Bhaalspawn?"
Ishmael stirred. "That, 'Dalis, is, as they say, the question."