Summary: Shar-Teel appreciates a man who thinks of bloodshed. BG1.

Warning: a fairly well-beloved character is refrigerated in the second paragraph.

Notes: Elven sources used: candlekeep . com , mirroruniverse . com, grey-company . org . Errors are probably unintentional. Part of Shar-Teel's past (though not ancestry) was also inspired by bioware . com slash games slash baldurs_gate slash game_info slash characters . Note on paladin association rules for the purposes of this story: in BG1, you can put Ajantis in an otherwise all-evil party, or be a paladin travelling with Xzar, Montaron, Edwin, Viconia, and Shar-Teel until the very end of the game, without lost class features or lost party members provided nothing too evil or too saintly is done; I'm making use of this latitude.

--

Men are pathetic.

It was over one of them the witch-woman sulked. To be honest, it was that particular man whose sword had forced Shar-Teel to join this poor group. Now she would never be able to teach him the lesson he deserved; or even repay the favour he had earned in once aiding her to battle a basilisk.

"His mighty beserker wrath will not go unremembered," his witch companion declared. Red fire spread from her hands, covering the warrior's crude resting-place.

"May the Three take care of him," their party leader added sanctimoniously.

"His patron was Khelliara," Dynaheir corrected. She reached to her shoulder, where rested the ranger's furry creature. Shar-Teel supposed that it did not qualify as a man, and was therefore a fortunate animal. "I shall protect Boo...and research suitable cleansing spells. Let us journey on."

"In his...I understand that his role was to protect you on your travels," the party leader interrupted, again. "Insofar as you have need of a blade, I will endeavour to accompany you where you wish to go--although I have need to complete the quest on which you joined us." Typical paladin. She wasn't too bad in a fight--a woman, of course, so slightly better than most male paladins--but her outbursts of moral precepts got on Shar-Teel's nerves. A youngling fresh from Candlekeep, like her insolent thief friend. Shar-Teel would have made a better leader.

"I shall willingly accompany thee," Dynaheir said.

"Tempus shield us," their cleric blessed. A War-priest; Shar-Teel could almost respect that. And their sixth and final member:

"It is an inevitable fate. This hopeless quest will be the doom of all of us."

"C'm on, Xan," Imoen nagged, pulling the elf along by one slightly ragged sleeve of his mage's robe.

--

The sleeping ogres lay before them.

"I love bloodshed," she gloated, and began slitting throats. Perhaps that wizard was good for something! It was about time. A typical man, he was useless. His spell specialization could not even manage the magical missiles the Rashemi witch threw so well.

"Xan, best not to use that spell the next time we fight more humanoid foes," the paladin said softly. "...This one was carrying a spell scroll of some sort," she went on. "Dynaheir, do you want it? And that makes...fifty-six gold."

"Less than I would have charged for the defeat of three men," Shar-Teel pointed out, bending over the last ogre before he had time to rouse.

"There were gemstones too," the thief noted. "Sphene Gem--gotta be worth something."

"The pride of battle is the thing of true importance," Branwen said.

"Indeed. Let us not..." The witch-woman paused; she looked anxiously at the trees behind them. Shar-Teel knew that she smelled more traces of ogre--another attack?

The roars answered that question. Seven of them--a greater threat than the three that lay before them.

"Alas, I can cast no more spells today. We are truly doomed," their elven enchanter said. Shar-Teel readied herself for the fight. Her sword would grow bloodier that day.

"I have spells."

"Let Tempus come to our aid."

Dynaheir muttered her arcane words, Branwen her divine prayers.

"Crush! Crush you to goo!"

The woods themselves shifted in response to Branwen, and a grey spot appeared in front of Shar-Teel--

"Shar-Teel!" The paladin glanced at her; grey strands had arisen to imprison both her and the ogres, two of which were still free to advance. Shar-Teel saw the webbing rising to attempt to imprison the other fighter as well. She could do nothing but see.

The paladin did not run from the spell, as any sensible woman would have. She was able to lay down her shield for her crossbow; she fired at the ogres rushing toward them. The first bolt hit its target, which stuttered and fell back. A poisoned bolt--sensibility unusual in a paladin! For once showing some taste in weaponry. Several more shots; then the ogres were upon them, the paladin raising her shield to protect them both. A hail of the spellcasters' bullets and the thief's arrows whistled about them.

The strands around Shar-Teel relaxed, briefly; she struggled, and won her way out. Not so the paladin this time, ducked down with her shield held rigid. Shar-Teel lunged for the first ogre. She was faster and stronger than many a man, and landed a first blow to its chest, slicing through the tough skin. It squealed; she twisted the blade, forcing it in. Ogres were too slow to die. She brought up her shield against the other, slamming it into its chin. They were too stupid to understand when they were defeated. At last the death-cry of the first sounded, so that she could wrench her blade from its body.

The side of her head felt like it exploded. The ogre before her had given a lucky hit; her vision blurred, though she could see well enough to return the favour with interest. She could also see more ogres running toward her, the witch's spell failing; surrounded by three, for the first time she was not confident she could win this battle.

"Let us save our effort, and just lie down and die."

A thrown dart belied these words, and buried itself in the eye of one of Shar-Teel's new friends. It gave her an opening; she lunged to place her sword in its neck. The ogre fell bloodily, but she was slow to withdraw her blade to face the blow from one of its fellows. A hit to her ribs, and she felt another wound open. Gut wounds, she knew too well, could easily finish a man and even a woman--she felt rage, and screamed as she landed another blow.

A glow ran threw her; a touch on her ankle. The paladin, still frozen, reaching for her to heal her--Shar-Teel detested the feel of the paladin's gods, but enjoyed its effect. Even bound by webbing, the Candlekeep girl had touched a spot of bare skin on her calf and forced the healing through her body. The energy of it fuelled rage enough to slice into the thigh of one ogre, cutting through the main blood vessel. It stumbled, falling; she faced the next, arrows and bullets aiding her.

"If it bleeds--I can kill it! Raaagh!"

The spell-strands failed; the paladin rose, driving her scimitar home. Three ogres remained. A dart rushed through the air, and froze one in place for them; a prayer from Branwen held a second; and the last, they defeated with blade and bow before finishing the others.

Shar-Teel spat upon one of the corpses. "A good battle."

"You are a strong warrior," Branwen said. "I respect that."

"Flattery will get you nowhere."

Dynaheir looked embarrassed; or rather, her mouth drooped and she fiddled with her immaculate braids, and that was what Shar-Teel assumed it was. The witch had never lacked in confidence before. "I...apologize for my choice of that spell," she said. "I had not used it before...I should make no excuses. Mine foolish action could have caused the death of us all."

The paladin coughed, her gaze on the sky above them. "It is so unlikely for you to admit fallibility, Dynaheir, that you have made the rest of us feel much better."

That broke something in the air. Shar-Teel collapsed beside the paladin--Prudence the unfortunately named paladin--and they laughed, Dynaheir as well. Even Xan.

"Oy, Xan," Imoen said, digging through her pack. "Nice going with those darts! Thought I'd give these to you from way back..." She shoved at him two belts, a magic wand, and a dagger. "'M sick of carrying them without knowing. Figure you could do something with them."

"Speaking of redistributions," Dynaheir said. "Shar-Teel, thou art a strong warrior like Minsc, and with tolerance for the unclean. I mean no offence; 'tis natural consequence of thy occupation." Shar-Teel's armour was kept free from rust, of course, but she was no weakling to fuss over trivial cleanliness. "Wouldst thou perhaps take the hamster from me? I am told he is able to feast on eyes during combat."

The furry creature eagerly clambered from the witch's hands. She liked to forcibly bathe it in every passing stream, and its fur was damp even in today's warm sun; Shar-Teel could frankly see why Boo preferred a warrior-owner. She hacked off the head of an ogre and offered it as a delicacy, but the hamster seemed well-fed for the time being. A shame. Ogres were not as common here as further north; Boo was missing out.

"There is a large clot of ogre viscera on your neck," Xan pointed out. "If you must dismember our foes post-mortem, perhaps have some concern against unhygenic practices that will kill us all."

"Be silent, male." He was an irritating clot of elvenhood, and she cursed the day she joined the group.

"Look at that woman over there," the paladin pointed. "We should see if she needs help."

The commoner was a woman, Shar-Teel reminded herself; then returned to her mental imprecations when she heard it was a lost son causing the trouble. Better to let a male child meet the consequences of his own stupidity about worgs! Nonetheless the paladin stripped herself of armour and climbed to the top of the lighthouse to entice the child down on a makeshift rope-ladder, whilst Shar-Teel finished making worgs bleed. The killing was the only thing she truly appreciated with this lot. Still less did she appreciate Prudence handing her the shivering boy to carry, as she was by far the strongest of them.

"Never run off like that again!" The commoner embraced her boy. "Thank you, adventurers. I'll tell everyone of your good deed, I truly shall! In return for your kindness..."

Shar-Teel reached for the money; the paladin laid a hand on her arm.

"M-Our religious vows state we can accept nothing of the sort!" she said. "Come, Shar-Teel. Let us travel to lay our camp for the night!"

Shar-Teel would have happily attacked her; the compensation would have been only adequate for the work they had done! Let her never lose a duel to some overly masculine fool of a thug again.

"Are those like you permitted to lie?" she baited the girl for some token revenge. Assuredly on the right track; her stiff-necked gods would have their vengeance in due time. "Deliberate falsehood, paladin. How long shall the deceit continue?"

"One exaggerated pronoun and people think I'm bound for the Abyss for eternity." Prudence sighed. "Maybe he was right and I will convert to Blackguard someday..." A slight current of pale blue flashed briefly in her right hand as she stared at it. "While I am not, I'll heal the scratch on your arm Xan says you've been pretending not to notice, then I'll get started on praying in penance."

"You are both deathmongers," Xan said. "I take no responsibility for the vast gangrenous holes you will eventually inherit, you know. Nor whatever strange fluids come from that hamster."

Strange fluids? How insulting. The hamster perched on her shoulder seemed to join her in glaring after the disgusting male.

--

A woman's voice was cursing something indistinct outside; Shar-Teel listened and concluded it was elven, and rather imaginatively obscene. She rolled out of her tent to see the female figure in blue-edged robes, skulking about their campfire.

"Ah, Shar-Teel. Feel quite free to get your mocking over with, of course," the elf said. "I...I knew from my spells the enchantment was not harmful, and in foolish...I would almost say foolish optimism, but I believe that would be impossible for me. Foolish something. And this is the enchantment Imoen has bestowed upon me as a reward. I knew something terrible would happen sooner or later. As dooms go, this one would be positively pleasant if not for the jibes I shall endure...and of course the painful death that still awaits all of us. Perhaps you first."

Shar-Teel stared; opened her mouth; closed it; reopened it to speak her conclusion. The tenor of the speech was recognizable, though its register not. "You are...Xan."

"Yes."

"You accidentally turned yourself into a woman."

"Yes. Offer your bloodthirsty wit as you please, I do not care."

Shar-Teel fished through the pack for some cheese for Boo's breakfast. "Why would I do that?" The hamster nibbled the meal quickly from her fingers; satisfactory reflex. When she looked at the elf again, he--she--was still glaring at her. She bestowed a healthy slap on the back that accidentally toppled the witch. "We are a party of women now! I appreciate that."

"Appreciate it so much that I will bear bruised knees below my robes." The elf grimaced. "Perhaps I shall be fortunate for once, and you will leave me in peace for a brief moment."

Shar-Teel took a hunk of bread for herself, and checked Boo's position on her shoulder; it was not often she awoke before the paladin, and best she continue proving her greater skill. Besides, the warrior-hamster's eye-clawing moves could be improved upon.

--

A fruitful training session between her and the paladin, who had restrained herself to asking a single question about Xan's predicament. Fruitful in that Shar-Teel had scored eight out of each ten hits; it was as well the Prudence-girl was persistent. They returned to camp at the time that the others would awake:

"Say, Xan, does your other magic sword still work? Nudge nudge hee hee?"

"The seams of thy robes may be further released, I advise. Thou may otherwise cause not insignificant jealousy."

"Even the largest and mightiest icicles of Auril, it is said, melt in their due season. Of course I shall attempt to restore your form, when my gods grant me such spells; but until then, we shall all instruct you in womanly matters..."

"All right, I think that's all very unnecessary," Prudence said. "Can you still cast, Xan?"

She nodded glumly. "My magical potency remains to me. My balance does not." As if to demonstrate, she stumbled on a stray pebble and fell again; Shar-Teel gave her an arm up. She was light, perhaps more so than she had been as a mere male.

"Lower centre of gravity," Prudence said. "We ought to push onward. Cloakwood awaits us."

Perhaps the plunder there would be greater than Firewine's pathetic effort for the sake of the halfling village, the most significant treasure a spell the witch was not even able to cast yet. Shar-Teel loathed such charity.

--

"I am tired," Xan mused, examining her slender hands. "My boots no longer fit...ah, but why complain about such trivial matters when it will be ignored? What will I care about blisters when we are all dismembered and the very marrow sucked from our bones by fanged monsters?"

"I like your thoughts of bloodshed," Shar-Teel said. The elf-woman had good ideas. Boo chirped, probably to approve of bone-marrow.

"You are attempting to converse civilly with me. The apocalypse is surely upon us..." Xan suddenly gasped, and pointed in the distance. "Trampling ahead! A medium-sized army is nigh upon us. Goblins, perhaps."

Elven senses had their uses. Shar-Teel rushed to the front of the group, drawing her sword alongside the paladin.

"Branwen, melee, if you don't mind. If there are archers, you and I target them whilst Shar-Teel protects the casters," Prudence said.

By protect the casters, Shar-Teel presumed the meaning was to wade into the enemy's stronger melee fighters and slay as many males as possible. She grunted an assent. The witches were reaching into spell-component pouches, the thief nocking an arrow. They did not have long to wait:

"FORWARD...march!"

Hobgoblins. Perhaps a dozen of them; Xan had been overoptimistic on the number of foes. Shar-Teel charged for those of the beasts with drawn swords, swinging her blade as widely as possible. Branwen and Prudence, ahead of her, ran for the archers with hammer and scimitar; hobgoblins were not difficult to slay, but poison in their arrows killed quickly. Among men, they were light exercise to Shar-Teel.

An adequate amount of blood spattered her blade and torso. A green arrow from Xan's hand whistled past her left side, pink missiles from the Rashemi to her right; four hobgoblins remained for her to slaughter. Two archers each to the war-priest and paladin, and they were free to back Shar-Teel up. Branwen to the rear, Shar-Teel leading, the paladin backing her up and shielding them; as practiced. Six women victorious.

A slow clap echoed through the forest.

"Decently done, sisters," said a woman Shar-Teel had not noticed within the shadows, leaning lazily against a treetrunk. She gestured to the old woman behind her. "Would you perhaps exercise your arts on them, and leave me be?"

"Gladly. Your palm may show a twisted path enough, but it is ordinary," said the crone. She winked at the paladin. "Great adventurers no doubt? Let me see your hands, and I'll trace the calluses of your weapons and the dust of scattered spells. Perhaps I can give you a little gypsy magic, to set your path straight and true?"

"Cross your palm with silver, I suppose?" The paladin laid a few coins into the gypsy's hands. "Keep that, and good travels to you." Charity rearing its ugly head again; the paladin would hear about it if those coins did not come from her share.

"Hold, and I shall do the reading." The gypsy caught Prudence's arm, stopping her.

Prudence tried to pull away. "Several wizards have...shown interest in me before. I don't think that I wish to..."

"A softer existence until not long ago, although these calluses tell of long hours with the blade you carry," the soothsayer said. "Further in the lifeline, I see a scholarly influence, a fine education..."

"Please, madam, let me go, we have other matters to take care of," Prudence said. Shar-Teel tended to punch--at the very least--those who laid hands on her without asking. It was a weakness that all women did not do the same. She and Boo bent down to the nearest hobgoblin, rifling it for possessions and gold.

"Even further before that sage in your past, let me see what I find...Madre de merced! You-and-all-of-yours-will-have-a-long-and-happy-life. That is all! Farewell!"

"What is it?" Prudence asked.

"Nothing at all! Long life and pots of gold and I will be going now!"

"There is something you're not telling me. What is it?"

"I have told you all I will. Stay back! Curse me not!"

"Curse you? How could I possibly curse you? Stay calm and let's..."

A flare of magic lit up the clearing; Shar-Teel blinked, and the diviner was gone.

"Enigmatic. And it's not as though ignorance of mysteries has ever led anyone to a painful doom before," Xan commented.

"You are strange, sisters," the first woman said; Shar-Teel recognized her accent as Calishite, one she had heard sometimes from sailors, near the docks she had known in childhood. "If you see any strong men on your travels, send them my way, will you? I'm from the south and they don't grow their men as big as you."

"Why do you need men?" Shar-Teel growled. "They are the weaker sex."

"Strong, ablebodied men," the woman went on, sounding as though she had mistaken the coastal wood for a brothel. "I seek adventure, and what adventure can be had without a robust, red-blooded young man along to toy with?"

"Plenty. I have been toyed with by fate enough," Xan said. "Oh, never mind. Why do I even bother?"

("You don't count as young," Shar-Teel said, generously making no comment on the other adjectives.

"Human or elven standards?")

"Send them over, knight," the woman said, addressing the paladin. "Tell them Safana seeks their services for a treasure hunt of sorts."

"...What kind of treasure?" Prudence said slowly.

"None such as you would show interest in, I am sure." Safana tossed her head. "A holy knight, are you? I have started to recognize those like you from a certain look in the eyes. Men who attempt to conquer their inadequacies through servility to gods."

"I'm a paladin with companions to maintain. What exactly is this treasure, and how far from here?"

"Oh, it is the pirate Black Alaric's hoard, and it is not far from here, but I'll not be cheated. Men would be much better for conquering the dangers..."

Prudence and Branwen held Shar-Teel back, an arm apiece; they reminded her several times that she did not fight women unless they first drew a weapon upon her.

"For your finder's fee: we distribute to you one-third of non-magical valuables, either in specific goods or value adjudged by our rogue with yours and my oversight, plus any magical items we can't use in a fight. You know that I am not permitted to cheat you." Prudence held out a hand in offer; Safana hesitated. "Consider depreciation--an azure thrush in one hand's worth two emerald eagles in a bush." Depreciation indeed. A true fighter, in Shar-Teel's opinion, never buried her head in books like a common wizard.

"One-half."

"Forty percent."

"Very well." Safana shook. A generous deal. If the paladin could use her charisma to recruit the female collaborationist to give away a treasure's location, why couldn't she use her charisma to give them a better share? Damn paladins. "Come further up the coast..."

Shar-Teel ought to have sensed danger when the new rogue slipped to the back of the party, claiming a stone in her boot. But it took only a glimpse of blue-green flesh, and a whisper of song; then she was caught.

A sister, the lovely voice sung. A sister who once lived near the waves, yes? Who paddled after her brothers in the shallows of the harbour. Was it Bherel pushing her head below the water again in cruelty? No; it was kindness to be in the soft tides, to be pulled into the cool water about the tribe-home. Now there were foul landfolk attacking the sisters, and she must fight. The dark and evil face of the paladin loomed before her.

Something pink. Words chanted by another female voice, not so high nor sweet as that of the sirines. Two flashes coming to her, confusing her. Her enemy ran past her like a silverfish; it slowed her in her sword-blows, shook her senses. The sweet laughter of the sea; paired with it was the thief's pink cloak, and words of elven sorcery. Scattered conversation: Charmed--if we try the same; Ick! What is that white thing?

Elven spellcasting, the music foreign compared to that of the sirines.

As depressing as it is to contemplate, Shar-Teel, you are our companion. Please refrain from murdering us all at the whim of the sirines.

An irritating pink colour.

Snap outta it--kill the green ladies, not Pru and Branny!

Yes, obey the pink; hear the elven voice. She charged into battle. Suggestions to fight and kill were given; she felt compelled to give into them. Beside a controlled carrion crawler she killed sirines. Voices she hardly heard:

"This is Sil's place, murderers! Dirty landfolk--suffer--"

"We did not know--if there is a chance we could talk--no, I see. I am sorry."

After that bloodshed, pink-cloak and elven-words whispered to her no more. She waited; voices echoed about her.

"You did not tell us of the sirines' home--why, Safana? We murdered them, when perhaps the bloodshed could have been avoided--"

"What kind of foolish adventurers do not expect to find sirines near the sea? Are they not evil creatures to you, holy knight?"

"This was their home; if there are no tales of attacks on humanoids, they had a right to this place."

"You agreed to a treasure-seeking mission. Expect such things."

"Perhaps this is greed--I thought of finding weapons, of provisioning ourselves--excuses--"

"Why quibble? Most of us pleased the Battlelord today."

"Discuss later, then. Safana--please now tell us what exactly to expect within that cavern, once..."

Shar-Teel came free from the bonds in her mind with a roar, her sword searching out the offenders to slay.

"Sirines charming you--Imoen with cloak and Xan's magic--" the paladin gasped out.

Pink-cloak telling her what to do; elven-voiced guidance. "Xan? Very charming." Charm upon charm to tell her what to do. She loathed her mind controlled.

"It scares me to hear you say that," Xan said.

"A wizard did it," Safana said lightly. "Expect magical defenses of one form or another. If I knew more, I wouldn't need you, would I now?"

Prudence lit a torch from her pack. "Let's go, Im. Look for traps. Turn your sword on, Xan?"

The elf shivered in the dark passage, her face clearly visible in the blue glow of her blade.

"I have had as much of the underground as one of the Tel'Quessir can stand. The morier, tincya suffocating me, five and eighty days--"

They had hardly reached the end of the first passage, but it sloped deeply downwards. Xan had volunteered to remain in the halfling village to help guard it whilst the others had visited Firewine; Shar-Teel saw why.

"How is your sword made?" she said.

"Moonblades are the swords of our ancestors. My great-grandmother, l'l'osi--the smiths of Myth Drannor created it and a part of her soul is in the moonstone in the hilt of the blade, each generation carries it to honour--it must be some dreadful portent that I tell this lore to you."

"From your great-grandmother--a nice blade never lets a woman down. She was a warrior?"

"A great warrior. She wanted a blade with a strong cutting edge, nothing more; my grandmother after her instilled protection from flames when she fought fire-demons, and my mother strengthened its abilities in turn--I am the only wielder it has had who prefers spells to blades. Sometimes I fear it notices the incongruity, but I cannot change that magic speaks to me as much as...well, as much as irrational bloodshed speaks to you."

"Warm blood gushing over that bright blue would be beautiful to me," Shar-Teel said. "Suppose I and the paladin take the front, and allow you to come behind us and take your share of an enemy's collapsing ribcage? You miss the greater part, aiming your mage-arrows from a distance and failing to watch the parting and crumbling of flesh you have destroyed."

"Thank you for that delightful insight into your twisted psychology. I feel slightly better about our certain doom knowing your barbarity likely exceeds it."

Xan seemed less worried of the dark now; Shar-Teel rested a hand on her shoulder to support her in case of falling. The elf said nothing.

Up ahead, a figure loomed.

"Branwen? Please start a healing spell now. Im, I hope the sirines survived here for a reason. Xan, Shar-Teel--chameleon!"

Nonsensical names; invented to elude their foes. The giant the paladin was attempting to fight with torch and blade seemed huge, and Shar-Teel waited impatiently for Xan to finish casting. Invisibility, to cause her to strike unexpectedly; against her will, Shar-Teel winced as the thing's large fists struck the foolhardy paladin, knocking her flat.

Xan's spell finished; Shar-Teel charged, not minding that she pushed Safana against the wall of the narrow passage. Imoen's arrows whistled past her; she was almost in position when the thing stopped moving, making soft cries to itself and twitching. Shar-Teel stared at it: a construct, clearly.

"Stop, Shar-Teel, don't waste it--" leaning on Branwen, the paladin called to her. Shar-Teel resisted the urge to introduce the thing's false flesh to her sword; anyway, she was not sure it would bleed.

It collapsed.

"Go me!" The thief performed a victory-dance with bow in one hand, arrows in the other. "Yeah! Take that, fleshy-golem-thingy!"

"Stop yelling, you fool," Shar-Teel said, at almost the same time as:

"While you may have won a temporary victory, might I remind you that all sorts of other monsters could lurk in this dark and terrible place, and that whooping is bound to attract them all and chain us up and bring undead creatures and torment us and ensure we never glimpse the sun again..."

"Xan, do you want to go outside with Branwen and wait?" Prudence asked her. There was no chance to reply; a second of the creatures greeted them. Only the thief's arrows were required, as before.

"Yay! Two down...How 'bout you help out with the shooting, Safana? Yer all the way back there, missing the fun."

"Oh, I'm sure you big strong...women...are able to prove yourselves. You do remember I suggested men might be of better assistance."

Again Shar-Teel restrained herself against a fool.

"Would it be all right for you and Im to scout ahead?" the paladin asked in her invisible direction. "Continue looking for traps, see if there are any more of those creatures. Stay in the shadows and don't engage them. That means you, Immy."

"All right, all right, sis. Gee, it's not like little Immy just beat two flesh golems singlehandledly or anything..."

"Stay safe."

"I will follow. I sense...I sense the foul magic creating these constructs, and perhaps my knowledge may keep all of us alive." Xan's voice came from thin air; she had conjured up another spell of invisibility to protect herself.

Imoen twisted a ring on her finger. "Gonna be pretty dark further in. Follow me 'cause I've got this shiny to help."

"Elven vision," Xan said tautly. "If we must be doomed, then let us be quick about it."

"Keep your eyes on me 'cause I'm gonna be disappearing into those shadows," Imoen said. Shar-Teel grabbed at Xan's sleeve for the sake of staying together.

"The dire fates I imagined come at last."

It was difficult to walk along thin, flimsy wooden bridges, without seeing hands and feet and their locations.

"Y'know, this bridge isn't secure at all..." Imoen commented upon reaching the other side, bending down to check the foundations; Shar-Teel and Xan hurried to finish crossing. "Hey, let me see if I can tighten it up some! Oh...that's not good..."

The bridge collapsed into the chasm below.

"I may venture to suggest your heavy armour was a contributing factor?" Xan said. "Now, we shall never--mani naa tanya 'ksher'nat, tira ten' rashwe..." What is in there, be careful. Shar-Teel felt her gesture to the dark water before them. "I know nothing of this place other than it is confined, and abomination..."

"And awesome pirate treasure." Imoen, ahead, pointed to the top of a chest barely visible in the middle of the pool. "Looks like Saffy-daffy was telling the truth. Maybe Pru can get it with a grappling hook...so let's just see if this place's maze gets us back without the bridge."

"Ah yes. For a single moment I may have failed to remember that we are trapped here. The chest may be the only grave-marking ever given to us."

"Hurry up, guys." Imoen ducked ahead.

"Women," Shar-Teel corrected firmly.

The dark, twisting labyrinth continued; scarce any light either from outside or the torches carried by their party reached them. Xan was light-footed on the ground, graceful in the low light; Shar-Teel was surprised to find that she was not quite as sure of herself in the darkness.

"Stop here, it's a tripwire. Real crude," the thief said. "Actually, it's not even lethal--it'd be a small rockslide if you set it off, but it wouldn't kill you unless you were in the right place. But it'd make noise and..."

They looked beyond. A third golem.

"Sneakytime!" Imoen whispered. She was quite good at fading into shadows; despite the impractical dark pink of her costume, Shar-Teel could no longer see her. The flesh golem made a regular circuit about the cavern, for Shar-Teel to wait for the chance to get past unnoticed. She would have much preferred sinking her sword into its back--or also, Xan's biting magical blade--but that chance could be had with more favourable odds.

"It is still unnatural. Still I feel it. Shall we be trapped forevermore?" Xan said aloud, out of the golem's hearing-range. Shar-Teel kept hold of her lest she do something foolish.

"Probably not. It's getting lighter," Shar-Teel told her.

"Your company is not reassuring." Xan sneezed. "And that hamster--that hamster--its fur is horrible..."

She sneezed again. Shar-Teel shooed Boo into a convenient pouch, and let the elf discuss her allergy.

Imoen called back to them in triumph. "See? Bridge was nothing to worry about. Circle cave design, real nice excepting the big nasty golems," she said. "Heya, Pru, it's us back! There's a bridge we kinda sorta ruined but this place goes all the way round. Just one mean golem to go before the treasure."

"Poison arrows again. Let's go."

A third golem downed; Shar-Teel's invisibility had evaporated with attack and passed time both. She could look at her own hands again. She had distracted the construct long enough for the thief to shoot; Xan had only waited, bearing her sword to give them light. Shar-Teel noted that her own non-magical blade had done little to no damage against the creature.

"Black Alaric's great treasure at last," Safana gloated, though made no moves toward the water herself. Xan looked white to the point of illness here, near the dark pool.

"Thaurer," she said. "Abomination, I have told you and you have not listened. There are wards upon the chest and I know not their nature. The water is foul and I do not know why. You march to your certain doom as usual and I cannot guard against it."

"So it's...not a good idea to swim in here?" Imoen said. Prudence brought out a grappling-hook on the end of her rope.

"No," Safana said. "Don't you see the chest is bound to the rock? Shatter it and lose the treasure entirely."

"And the mage-crafted wards; they are by no means common to mine eyes, but I know enough that they shall withstand most touches," Dynaheir said. "Wouldst it be advisable to fire into it, and test their strength? I honour thy expertise, Xan."

The elf did not reply, watching the patterns on the water.

"Hmm, volunteers to test this stuff?" Imoen said. "I mean...maybe paladins, 'cause they're supposed to dive into danger? Or maybe, and I know this is a long shot, the one who wanted the treasure first?" She elbowed Safana. "Or maybe..."

"Do you think it would have a grossly negative environmental impact to throw one of the golems' bodies in here, Dynaheir?" Prudence said. "Good. See if it's deeper than the golems, or, well..."

The pool was surely too small for a properly large sea-monster, Shar-Teel thought. A shame. She would have liked to test her sword against a giant serpent gushing with green blood. "Would it not be fun to slay a bleeding monster, Xan?" she said. "If one rose from here and thrashed about this small place, it would be difficult for us; but supposedly their vulnerability is the weak, soft white belly...much like in humanoid men."

"Yes, delightful. A sea monster with teeth the size of small houses to add to our list of homicides nearly perpetrated on us. Most likely it would spit both of us out like we would a grape's seed." She shivered again. "I am telling you this is loathsome and dangerous and you do not listen to me. Tula sinome a'amin, saurarea. At the very least let the foulness come out from the darkness."

Hmm. What weapons to spit male flesh would a pirate have in his hoard? "Could the flesh golems have set the trap Imoen found?" Shar-Teel said.

"Their capacity of thought is all but non-existent," Xan replied. "It seemed crude indeed--I saw the thick wire easily just before she cut it. Perhaps their work, to alert them to noise...or perhaps the wizard who did it. Istar ya ume," she repeated. She stared into the water as though expecting a divined face to appear on the currents.

Borne by the cleric and paladin, the body of the flesh golem disappeared into the water. Its thick shape was soon lost as it sunk, proving depth. The water returned to stillness.

"Our flesh-bait has caught nothing," the War-priest said. "Lay your spells upon the chest's ward, wizards, and if none of you be willing to venture I shall attempt myself, for I weary of this delay."

"Cast your ideas," Xan said to the Rashemi. "I am sure none you could do could possibly make the circumstances any worse."

Dynaheir, reading from a scroll, cast a pale spell that seemed to melt into the wood of the chest. No effect was visible.

"Heyyyyy...was that that spell that magically opens locks? I didn't know you knew how to cast that spell that magically opens locks. Can you tell me more about that spell that magically opens locks?" Imoen said.

"I purchased it in case of emergency. It is neither for frivolous nor larcenous purposes," the witch said. Travelling with her was almost as bad as travelling with a paladin.

"Aww, but I didn't say I was interested in it for larcenous purposes..."

Xan was muttering; she released her spell, purple light that made the chest glow brightly. "More magic below," she said. "I think the chest is now unlocked. I think it was one of the Tel'Quessir who enchanted it. I think we are all in terrible..."

The flesh golem emerged from the water. It lived again; there was a glow deep in what were probably not eyes, and its fists were raised for the attack. Its appearance soaked both Shar-Teel and Xan; she released Boo quickly to let the hamster dodge safely. A poisoned arrow flew past them; and missed.

"That was...kinda my last sirine arrow don't blame me guys!"

The paladin went for her crossbow; Shar-Teel dragged the elf from its flailing fists. Branwen rushed forward with her divinely-granted hammer in hand.

Shar-Teel's ordinary--good, strong, outlasting the iron crisis, and made without help from poncy wizards--sword had done little or no damage the first time. But beside her was a magical blade, and she was never one to miss out on a fight ready for the taking.

The War-priest occupied the thing; but Branwen was no more durable than the paladin. Shar-Teel pulled Xan with her, guiding her hands on her blue-fire sword, running waist-deep into the water to get behind the enemy--Shar-Teel felt the heaviness of her armour, and cursed--and let the elf stab the golem in the back.

"See the flesh crumble before you, wizard?" she laughed, and brought up her shield to block its fists; "Strike again, casters!" Branwen's hammer hit; Xan, shorter than her, stabbed again in an undercut. Blood had begun to coat blue fire.

Prudence's poisoned bolts met their target; Shar-Teel stopped the golem from falling on top of them, pushing it to fall forward and die. Another victory. Xan struggled beside her, her long robes dragging in the water.

"Not bad for a spellslinger!" Shar-Teel clapped her on the back in congratulation.

"Have you not seen? Have you not understood? The danger is close. Ta naa e' alu. It is in the water. Our very doom." She was trying to run out of the pool. Shar-Teel thought it was only a wizard's impractical clothing holding her back, at first; when the elf started yelling, she tried to pull her out herself. Her boots were slippery in the mud, and clumsily she tried to loosen her armour. Too late. The elf's pale face disappeared below the opaque water, and Shar-Teel fell with her.

--

A spell hit her while she descended. A light over her face, a burning pain in her neck that opened slits across it, a breath accidentally taken that showed her proof of the spell's benevolence. A practical wizard spell at last.

She quite liked her armour. Good plate, made in Beregost. She was also fond of the sword, won from a duel with a man, and the shield, wielded against many a dungheap of a male. All sank to the bottom of the pool.

Light. She swam up to search for light. She hadn't grown up on the Baldur's Gate docks for nothing. The sword fell into her hands, shining brightly and weighing less than a single thread of cotton.

It is my sword and functions at my will alone. Try not to spill too much of your tainted soul on it. Xan's voice. She took a deep breath--how strange to do that below water--and swam to look for her. Or him. In the blue stone in the hilt of the elf's sword, she had her male's voice still.

Oh look, a nice young warrior. A very faint whisper in her hand.

A crude, violent, bloodthirsty, savage, infantile, hairless ape of a warrior.

Well, she is human. They can't help it. And she is almost as dextrous as I in my time.

Hardly much more so than my son.

Yes, and she is making an attempt to save your son. Likely futile and fatal; but so is life.

For little humans in particular.

Shar-Teel heard no more. There was Xan, there the enemy attempting to strangle him.

A water-elf. It was hairy and blue, scaled and long-nailed, emaciated and twisted; with ears as pointed as Xan's. Aquatic-elf.

Screaming a battle-cry was not so effective below water.

If my throat holds out, Shar-Teel, we may even learn something of diplomacy. Xan's wry tone from the sword was in direct contrast to her futile struggles, kicking frantically at the monster with soft feet.

The aquatic elf could make itself heard beneath the water. It cried something in its own language Shar-Teel found incomprehensible, screaming like a sahuagin-female she had once seen captured in a travelling-show, poked with pitchforks to make it thrash inside the tank.

He rages. What was done to him is true abomination. Shar-Teel didn't need an elf to tell her that. She caught a glimpse of the abomination's eyes: bright, sickly yellow. It stared back at her.

"Lle naa dhaerow, Alaric! Amin delotha lle, utinu en lokirim, nadorhuan, amin ndengina lle!" It could make itself heard below water, even if she could only make out perhaps one in ten words. He hates Alaric?

It threw Xan down and went for her. Good. She'd never liked diplomacy. She attacked; let it match its scales against Xan's sword.

"Alaric alaric gurthlle alaric alaric alaric!"

Spells bind him here, I sense that much, Xan said. The Tel'Quessir--if you were as us you would understand the vileness--

Once she had smashed open a glass tank.

'Alaric', the sea-elf kept screaming, thrashing at her; Alaric-the-pirate from those ages ago.

"I am no man," she attempted to gurgle through the waves. Pale, sickly green light began to gather around the sea-elf's hands, flashing out and around them--perhaps a black-clad thing flung from the water--she evaded, and did not back down. It continued to scream in its language.

Alaric the treacherous Alaric the vile Alaric I will murder you. Keep him busy. Xan's sword changed to a more rational tone when not translating. I will tell you to stop when it is time.

The beginnings of another spell formed in the sea-wizard's hands. Shar-Teel blocked it, fighting to disrupt the magic; weak, typical male wizards at close range. But this one was quick, twisting and turning like an eel. Acid scorched the skin of her arm. She tried the elbow-jab and thumb-gouge, dirty fighting tricks of the muddy alleyways; she almost had him.

Stop now!

Xan's spell finished. The water-elf stopped also. Charming.

"Sashelas," he said, staring at her.

Deep Sashelas, my Lord of the Underseas! Xan translated the sea-wizard's words. At last you come to me in this very hole! At last I--that traitor Alaric--I thought none would ever come to me in this foul water! I beg--you must take my soul from me, take this burden--please!

Wonderful. First she was mistaken for a male pirate; now a male elven deity. The sea-wizard grabbed at her hand and tried to slobber over it.

You can hardly pretend that you do not look piratical, Xan's dry commentary echoed. Well, perhaps her tattoos had been given by a Maztican sailor, and her brown leathers tattered; but piracy was one of few bloodthirsty occupations she hadn't yet tried. She put a hand to her throat, shocked to recall that she had said nothing. Yes, I warned you about spilling your tainted soul on my sword. Perhaps you can attempt to say something nice to him...no, I should never have said that. Ask questions about what binds him here, and do it quickly!

"Wha..." Indistinguishable bubbling spilled from her mouth.

Use your gill-slits and diaphragm.

"What binds you here?" she managed. Disgusting, speaking in this way. In this water particularly.

Traitor Alaric! Traitor traitor traitor vile Alaric! Xan translated. It was thrashing around in the water again.

"Calm down," she said. It would have been difficult to slay the male--unfortunately. The creature did not seem to have noticed that his elven deity was speaking in Common; "Lle ume quel," she said slowly and have done well. Hard to remember the syllables after so long.

You speak my language like a...like a human. Xan seemed to have chosen the object of that comparison at the last possible moment.

"Mani naa essa en lle?" she said. What is your name. One of the first phrases she'd learned from the elven soldiers in the camp. The second had been, kill them all. Ndengina sen. Not appropriate to say to this elf.

Sashelas my lord Sashelas! The elvish was still too fast for her to understand in its natural shape. Your servant Erashaalin speaks, your lost Erashaalin! Mock me no more, let me wait no more, you must grant me the last gift! I breathe hardly in this foul water, refresh it only with my spells, trapped here for years that pass as the numbering of grains of sand. Alaric curse him forever Alaric alaric alaric...

"Tell us--Kwentra i'narn, Erashaalin. Everything. Sii'!"

A good commanding god's voice, she thought to herself. Being a deity wasn't a terrible fate, even a prissy elvish one.

He spoke coherently at last. Silver gathered at the edges of his eyes. Geas. I live under geas. I was once one of Your priests, Deep Sashelas, which you must know and remember. You nod! Yes, you nod. You remember me. Then I was exiled from your sight and from my clan--it was a treacherous act, but you must know I had to avenge his death somehow! Our clan-leader was wrong to post him to fight, we were both too young, after the battle I took the life by poison and considered it worth my punishment. Alaric it was who gave me a new clan--Alaric who encouraged me in magic, the magic in my blood I once gave up for You. Alaric I fought beside, Alaric I would have willingly died for, Alaric the pirate promising freedom across the seas. Alaric I swore a geas through my own blood that I would protect his treasures, after the great battle wherein I cast to serve him and his sword saved me from the landfolk. Alaric I served in raiding for nigh fifty years, Alaric whose life I fed with my own magics! Alaric who longed to leave the seas and ordered this treasure here, ordered that it must be protected, ordered that the geas bind me here. I cannot raise my head from the water, I cannot breathe goodwater from the sea, I must magic my pets and have them bring me the bodies of those they kill to manufacture more, whilst all the time the ground presses in on me. The time is too much and the space is prison. Alaric damn you to a thousand and one hells! Alaric...

She looked across to Xan, blurred slightly by the water. Xan's face was paler than usual, ghostly white and terrified. Five-and-eighty days I was in the underworld. Five-and-eighty days I thought unbearable. He has been trapped hundreds of years, beyond even the normal lifespan of our kind. He is mad past all reasoning.

Two mad elves. Xan shivered, shook; his grieving fellow, the same. Shar-Teel chose to wait for a chance to strike.

No! My charm--we are dead!

The sea-elf shook the silver from his eyes; writhed and lashed. His foot met Shar-Teel's jaw before she could prepare herself; the water spun about her.

"Lle moria, Alaric."

You will die was another phrase she had been quick to learn. The water suddenly boiled about her, cooking her in a haze of bubbles. She hardly saw Xan struggling to swim away.

If she could but plunge herself into ice--the heat was unbearable! She was burned alive, scalded by a liquid noose across her neck. Better to run, but there was nowhere to go. The sword--the sword was cold. One single thing to hold to, pulled into dark and red-hot depths; it was an instant's worth of clarity. It was hard to fail to notice the fact that the wizard was killing her.

The sea-elf was there, its clawed nails reaching for Xan, more chanting in its high voice. She had to only reach it. She closed her eyes to spare them from boiling. A little further only--

"Alaric alaric alaric!"

She said the words.

"I am Alaric and I release you from your geas. Mellonamin."

A long time ago she had seen the smile of a sahuagin cleanly wounded to the heart.

It was suddenly very cool again. Magic unravelled. Her neck ached and water crowded into her nose, searing her throat. The sea-elf's scales peeled free like snowflakes; a body pale as a dead fish crumbled into dark and thickening water, dissolving into dust. Xan's sword no longer glowed, and weighed heavy in her hands. She would drown in foul mud if she could not save them.

Sweet air filled her lungs; she gasped, spat out damp dirt, and pulled the wizard's impractical robes up with her. The chest still stood on its rock. But one thing to do under the circumstances: carry treasure, moonblade, and white-faced bleeding wizard ashore, pulled from the mud by a damp and black-clad paladin with a hamster waiting on her shoulder. Shar-Teel let the cleric busy herself over the elf's body, and did not the thief over Alaric's treasure.

Voices:

"Mmmm. The treasure of Black Alaric found at last."

"Thou shalt keep thy hands from it, thief. Our companions shalt not be cheated from what they have earned by their risk."

"I'm sorry. I tried to come after you..."

"Tempus, grant me healing..."

"Shouldn't we make a break for it already, people?"

"Squeak?"

Shar-Teel looked back at the pool. No water remained; foul mud was rotting into dry, packed ground. A place long since dead.

They left; it would have been much too contrived a circumstance if the cave had immediately crumbled into dust behind them. Still, unstable walls and falling pebbles punctuated their exit; Shar-Teel saw none of them choose to look back.

--

They stopped in Beregost to fit a new set of plate for her; and to break the curse on the morrow.

"We broke even. Just," the paladin commented, finishing their business dealings; much of Alaric's precious treasure had worn away with the passing of the years, and the Calimite had taken her full share before a quick departure. "Of course, it is your lives that are important. I'm sorry I..."

It was the twentieth time she had apologized for failing to rescue them; the sea-elf had spelled her out of the water.

"Keep whining, child. When your prowess in battle falters, so does my loyalty." That was probably enough to keep the girl to their next fighting target: dangers ahead, the mine in the deep forest. The paladin sighed.

"All right. I'll go off, progress to an early stage of intoxication, negotiate a mutually pleasant and strictly temporary encounter with someone of similar mind, and leave with you tomorrow." Prudence took a sip of her ale; Shar-Teel had recommended the beverage in the Red Sheaf.

"Who talks like that?" Shar-Teel said. She gave the paladin a fixed stare. "If you want to bed some man..."

"...orwoman..."

They both quickly looked away from each other.

"...and I don't think that'll do well with your idiotic gods, not that I care--"

"Therearenouniversalpaladinrulesonsexuality."

"--Don't bother with the fancy negotiating. That just bores them. Hit him on the head--" Shar-Teel demonstrated with Xan, who skillfully ducked--"drag him off to your room, and dispose of him when you're done."

"That romantic advice...ah, has it ever struck you as either criminal or morally reprehensible?"

"No?"

"...I see." The paladin waved flirtatiously at a dwarf openly leering at her. "In Candlekeep there wasn't much opportunity for socializing with interesting people. So I like seeing the world."

"'Ey, too-tall. Ever wanted to find out fer yerself what they say about dwarves?"

"Yes."

Xan sighed. "I travel with utterly insane people. And probably am."

"Don't worry. Insane or not, I'm used to you now," Shar-Teel said. The elf had become tolerable in this form; perhaps it was a result of her respectable fighting ancestry. She reached a hand to the elf's sleeve. No other party members nearby; Dynaheir closeted with her spellbook, Branwen evangelizing Tempus to Lathanderians, Imoen on a 'nighttime tour' of the town that would no doubt enrich the party.

Xan frowned. "You did specify men with regard to commission of carnal violence. That's correct, isn't it? Because if you have any idea of molesting my vulnerable form I would like to register an intent to scream."

Shar-Teel glared at her. "Of course not. If I liked women my life would be a lot easier."

"...Then again, I turn back tomorrow." Xan briefly lowered her head to her hands. "Bloodwine, please. Though drunkenness itself dulls the senses and is a source of doom." She took a long drag. "Somehow I doubt this substance truly hails from Aglarond. Ah well."

Boo stretched and squeaked on the table; Xan cast a somewhat malevolent glare in the hamster's direction, and chanted a quick spell.

"I think this suffices as Protection Against Hamsters," she said, glowing briefly yellow. She reached for Boo. "Who's a furry little unhygienic menace likely to infect us all with rabies? A...achoo..."

Boo easily escaped her for more favourable climes.

"Achoo...I was so sure it would work--obvious intoxication..."

"Niphre'Tel'Quessir," Shar-Teel said. "You people just can't hold your booze."

"We are sophisticated and drink for the pleasure of the taste, not sheer stupidity in impressing others with one's innate level of alcohol tolerance." Xan lifted her glass again. "Who of the Tel'Quessir taught you the rudiments?"

There was nothing wrong with the bare facts. There was nothing wrong with the bare facts. "Small group of elven mercs. Not your sort, Greycloak. Exiles. My... Travelled with 'em a little while. Until things got less heated back home. Business."

"Exiles. Of course," Xan said disapprovingly. "You would never consider lawful elves in good standing worth your time."

Shar-Teel set down her own mug of ale heavily. "I choose for myself. Nothing confines me without my will. That's a better feeling than anything you'll have with your pet secret organization."

Xan glared back. "We are the reason my city has never fallen. We preserve stability. We halt abominations. We perform a more useful service for our people than you ever will."

"Who's an abomination?" Neither of them backed down from the staring contest; so the elf had a spine after all, Shar-Teel thought, watching her black eyes.

"Fear itself," Xan said. Not an answer she had expected. "Fear of confinement and darkness. Exploitation of that. I shine the light of the law of my people on these dark places..."

"Don't spill any more pretentious rubbish. You're no paladin."

"You're a violent, uncultured psychopath."

"Your foremothers read me truly in that."

"You hate without reason."

"I have reasons. None I want to tell you." Her gaze actually dipped to the mirrored surface of her ale, for only a moment. Men were bastards. "Why do you brood so much on bloodshed?"

"What a strange question. It seems to be my one redeeming feature in your blood-searching eyes." Xan dropped her own gaze to her cup. "I cannot change who I am. I am realistic enough to know I will die in my duty; as you will surely die on a battlefield. Probably enjoying yourself immeasurably."

"To death, then." Their cups clinked against each other. "Whatever else, you are no coward, elf."

"Whatever else, and there is a lot, you are no fool, Ohtar." She drunk again. "I admit there was...cleverness...in unravelling the geas."

"Impossible to try to kill the person you're geased to. Even if you're trying so badly that you're after someone else. And of course Alaric's dead." Didn't have to be a wizard to work out the geas had disappeared.

"It pains me to think of it. Erashaalin's own belief keeping him in that foul place. You...would see through such a thing, I think. In the same manner you freed him."

"Yes."

"Imprisonment. If I fall prey to anything of the sort a second time, slit my throat." Was she serious? Crazy elf.

"You think I need encouragement for that? Get over it. Two abominations down--go kill some more."

"Much better fun for you..." Xan sighed. "Face our doom."

"Predict it a thousand times over."

"Futilely attempt to survive against impossible odds."

"Ah, promises, promises."

--

Kerfuffling awoke her nursing a strong headache. Why join in a pointless fight? By the time Shar-Teel stumbled downstairs, the touching scene had run its course: two Flaming Fist officers (dung to both), a paladin in a bedsheet and nothing else, and an unpleasantly naked dwarf with a Flaming Fist helmet covering the worst of it. What a pathetic taste in male scum.

Xan, his old self again and standing with Branwen, observing the dramatics.

"I think he's probably an assassin," the Candlekeep girl was trying to explain, gesturing to a large axe at her feet and a scroll she was holding. "I...well, I was stupid enough to tell him my name this morning, and it turned out he had one of the reward parchments for my head on him, then we both went for his axe because my weapons were in Immy's room....I'm sorry!" she she said to the former squeeze, who was swearing quite inventively at her. "I suppose it would have been very nice if things were different... You will make sure he's a fair trial, surely?" she pleaded to the Flaming Fist officers. "Beyond any reasonable doubting or possible evidence of extra-natural control..."

"Turned out you were the one I'd a job to remove from this here ball of earth, what more proof d'you want, idiot?" the dwarf spat at her.

"And only proportionate punishment for attempted murder. Unless you have evidence of other victims, I guess, I don't think interfering in justice for personal interests would be proper, but..."

The female Flaming Fist officer rolled her eyes. "Enough evidence, thanks. Let us take it from here and stop talking."

"I'm sorry, Karlat. It was...fun, right? Enjoyment of a natural thing?"

More inventive swearing. Prudence sighed longingly as he was escorted away.

"You know," Shar-Teel pointed out, "aren't you supposed to have some kind of ability to notice these things? Are you blind, paladin? Or did you fall when I wasn't around to gloat?"

"I do! Technically," she said. She let one hand fall from the sheet to debate, then remembered to pull her covering back together, to Shar-Teel's relief. "It's that there are three elements in the power to detect evil intent that I think should indicate caution. For one, it can be deceived by magic. Secondly, it's not reliable in detecting actual deeds as against just thoughts. Thirdly and most importantly, it violates people's privacy. So, well, it just doesn't seem appropriate to psychically investigate citizens without evidence, therefore it's only logical to restrain oneself until..." The sheet almost fell again.

"Until you find another bad news guy totally sexy?" Imoen volunteered innocently.

Shar-Teel had met many paladins she wanted to hit over the head (what was she saying? There was no such thing as a paladin she wouldn't want to hit over the head), but this was the only one that she wanted to hit over the head specifically with a large book. Either a large book or some sort of contraceptive implement.

"I'm sure your paladin code is clear somewhere inside your head, ninny, but I do not wish to venture there."

"Maybe that's a good idea. I guess the ultimate rule is just not to annoy the sponsoring gods, and it's very unlikely that for example Sune minds this sort of thing, but putting it that way encourages thinking of loopholes and that's obviously not the point of the code either... Also, I think my gods approve of clothes in public. Um, nothing to worry about. This was all under control." She vanished quickly.

Shar-Teel's head still ached. Best threaten the cook with violence to search for ingredients to heal it; and find Boo fresh food. Xan seemed in glowing health, probably some sort of wizard's illusion. She had certainly not been out-drunk by a mere elf, particularly since the elf had only wine to her strong ale. At one point she remembered breaking into song before deciding on sleep.

"You have a surprising singing voice," Xan mocked her when she passed by.

"Your list of eighty-seven hamster-carried diseases held the bar spellbound. Although I'm sure you were making up epiglotteal rhubarbeanis. Owmyhead."

"'Twas a prickless soldier, oak-burdened at dawn..." he hummed the melody in tenor. "Not dying of alcohol poisoning?"

"Not dying of a sword in the head for being too damn chipper?"

"Curse removal lends a unfair advantage. I feel myself again--the form I know. It is...dare I say...good. Undoubtedly a temporary sensation. Besides, I have nervous forebodings that Imoen has possession of the belt again. Perhaps you would find some gender experimentation enlightening?"

"I would look like--no. No."

Xan raised a finely arched eyebrow. "My people see less difference between the genders than you humans. Acknowledging the power of women to be homicidal thugs. Is it that you have felt otherwise?"

"I tolerate you, male," she said through gritted teeth. "Do not dare compare me to..."

The fully-armoured paladin emerged. "Are we ready to go?"

--

"I have killed the boy lassst ssssent here. Sssspeak quickly, mortalings."

The stupid male was dead. Shar-Teel saw the expression on the paladin's face for a split second. It was long past time for the Candlekeep children to learn harsh lessons of blood.

"Boy? What boy? Lady, we came...to learn from your divine wisdom!" The paladin dropped dramatically to one knee in a pose Shar-Teel noted was ideal for sudden sprints. Continuing her descent into complete moral depravity. "We seek to know the threads of fate, the manner in which the gods tie and break each one... How did you come to this place?"

Small movement in Xan and Branwen; coded reference to strategic choices it suited Shar-Teel's whim to shed blood in aid of. Tie-and-break.

It was a bloated figure enough; Shar-Teel could not make out if the larger lumps of blubber on its midsection were intended to be additional limbs or not. Embedded in its fat head were pointed eartips. "I am Centeol. The archmage Jon did thisss for indignities committed against him and hisss promised wife Tanova by me. I loved Jon, but now I hate him. As I hate you and everything. You liars. Kill them all."

Sword spiders; giant spiders; ettercaps. Xan's chants bloomed into yellow light. He forced several to collapse, asleep; Branwen's summonings bound more spider-limbs with green.

Tied.

To Shar-Teel fell the best part, the enemy's strongest fighters, the sword spiders; slay them, so others could destroy what caster-enemies they shielded. Dynaheir's missiles and Imoen's arrows flew quickly, not into the spider-queen but the sword spiders, most dangerous here.

Prudence made her sprint, her task to disrupt; although Centeol made noises commanding her spiders and began spell-like speech, swordplay distracted her.

The first sword spider had come to Shar-Teel. Eight swords for legs, eighteen-and-more eyes; unnatural, probably-male creature.

Break.

Avoid the swords; aim for the soft underbelly. She had chosen to outfit herself with a large blade rather than a shield, to do more damage; position herself with care, so the spellcasters could rain their own destruction; that last would have been tedious, if not combined with slaughter. The witch brought her hands together, chanting flame; Shar-Teel heard her victim's faint noise of suffering. Branwen fought one-on-one with a giant ettercap, bright lightning arcing from her warhammer.

Centeol's voice gathered in strength. "Hold them--my spidersss..."

Webbing from a spider perched on the roof. Shar-Teel's sword had slipped into the flesh of one of the spiders, held there; she struggled to free herself from the webs. Let the paladin be finishing off the spider-mistress quickly. The roof-spider descended upon her.

She would not free herself in time. Fangs--she had faced worse wounds before. Brave Boo squeaked; his hamster's teeth could do nothing here. Poison was the true fear; the spider's fangs closed on her--

The web-strands gave; the spider reeled back. White light attached to it, a blue blade set her arm free; enough of a chance to fight it. Were it not for the elf, she'd...

He had come too close to the spiders for a spellcaster; the creatures swarmed both of them. The moonblade swung more easily than she expected from a wizard.

"Strike low!" she demanded. Centeol's dying curses echoed about the cavern; only a few foes remained.

Xan fought; cried out when an ettercap's claws reached his left arm. "We're all--"

"Doomed?" She blinded the thing with a thrown handful of dust; allowed him to stab it while she turned to other prey. "Not today, elf." Her giant spider fell; Xan's already-weakened ettercap likewise. Branwen's large sample was also dead, and the paladin finished her last opponent, a dissected spider. "That was...acceptable."

Xan flexed his wounded arm. "It seems I am not poisoned to death. Perhaps our doom is reserved for the next battle." He looked thoughtfully to the swollen body in the room's centre. "The mage Jon..." he said. "I have heard a story of an elven mage of that name from Suldanessellar, made an exile when I was a child. Perhaps it is not the same... The tale of this foul creature bought us seconds of preparation."

"That's what I was thinking," Prudence said, bent down and poking about the floor's webbing. "But perhaps we should have charmed instead?" She had found some sort of trapdoor; then came the unmistakeable sound of vomiting. "The boy...Chelak..."

They had known his fate from the beginning. Better the Candlekeep youths learn about such things in life while they still could.

"You...helped me, male," Shar-Teel said. Jumping in and freeing her. Stupid move for a weak elf.

"And I suppose you'll never forgive me for it."

The set of his chin gave Shar-Teel slight pause. Tension remaining from his insult comparing her to Angelo? Nah, that was too subtle.

"I forgive you."

"Protection Against Hamsters protection against hamsters... You can put me down," he pointed out. "You don't need to grab me like..."

"Like a romance painting!" Imoen said. "Except she's all big and scary, and you're all whiny and depressed. So, exactly not like a romance painting then."

"Oh, there seems to be a very shiny sword with a hilt carved like spiders' legs. A very nice, enchanted sword with a well-crafted hilt carved like spiders' legs and a very sharp blade," Prudence commented.

"Who needs enemies?" Xan sighed. "Shar, anything--of that nature--will never last and surely fail dreadfully, and be responsible for a lot of misery, and inevitably foolish rescue attempts..."

"And we're still alive. Either walk away now or don't." Clear choice. They were both right. A few men she allowed to live.

"...Good hamster," he said. Shar-Teel accepted Boo's judgment.

"You're not sneezing any more," she reminded Xan.

--

end