Chapter Six

She brings her thoughts to Khalid, first.
His nature seems to be, to her, of a more quiet and contemplative nature than that of his wife – whether this will make it simpler or more difficult to persuade him to her idea, she does not know.
He listens through her explanations, nods grimly when appropriate.
He brings up aspects she had not thought of before – the certainty that this man is present, whether it would not be better to seek out and slay any lingering kobolds in the area – and a few tactics.

Jaheira is pulled into it, naturally, as one with much greater experience in such matters, then Taev, a would-be strategist herself, and then Imoen, mostly wanting to be a part of the decision-making.
Even Xan, evidently now strengthened to the point of clear thinking and mostly-clear speaking, takes an interest in the discussion, agreeing that immediate action is necessary, 'even if we are doomed, anyway.'

That, she supposes, takes care of another subject she'd been meaning to bring up; on a quest to find the root of or a solution to the iron crisis he may be, but he is not obligated to join them in these particular actions.
But he had said 'we,' and so she reasons that it would not be out of the question to suppose that he counts himself among their numbers, for the moment, if no longer than that.
Even so, she pauses in an aside as the others make ready and rearranging their bags.
"You're certain you wish to face him so soon?" she asks.
A slow, tired nod. "Though our chances be low, I am bound to carry out my mission, and he… has something of mine. A sword."
Oh? Interesting. She had taken him for a spellcaster. In any case, while he may not delight at the idea, he has little qualms about joining them to… well, to do whatever it is they are going to do to his captor.

So onward they go, opening the door, going through the archway – Khalid and Jaheira in the lead, the rest trailing cautiously behind.

The man they find before them appears sufficiently deranged.
'The man must have some orc blood in him,' she thinks, 'else the tusks and thick skin belie some unfortunate parentage.'
What he had been occupied in prior to their entrance, Kher cannot say, only that he bolts upright and stares at them as if they are wandering spirits.

To see the image of a man as massive as he, fearsome in stature and in the appearance of strength launching into some sort of fearful tirade in the face of their small and underpowered group, has more the effect of disturbing her than amusing her; Taev beside her tightens her grip on her sword, reacting much the same.

Someone named Tazok has sent them, he believes, for – failing to properly ruin the supply of iron?
He becomes all the more frantic and unhinged with every word.
"Peculiar," she hears Xan mutter beside her, "that I can almost empathize with my captor, now that I am not in chains."
Perhaps, then – they can talk to him?
"Almost," he continues in that same morose voice, "but not quite. If we do not overwhelm him quickly, he will doubtless summon forth the kobolds that infest this warren. We do not stand a chance against these odds."
…well, it's still possible. Even if it is to be used as a distraction, though she knows she should frown upon such subterfuge.
Purely rational thought seems as though it will not do, or at least would carry with it too much potential to be pushed aside or misinterpreted.

Everyone seems to be listening still. She tries and fails to catch someone's eye – how she'll communicate this concept to them enough to know whether they think this will work, she isn't sure – and so, finally and with no small amount of hesitation she begins to open her mouth
Think of – of – of persuading the monks to let her take a look at a particular book, of directing the tutors in what they would teach, of anything even remotely similar which she's realizing are few and far between and which have certainly not prepared her to deceive someone enough to persuade them not to kill everyone –
"Tazok," she begins in a faltering voice, at which point she frowns inwardly and digs her nails into her palm as a focusing point. "Tazok has sent us to… ensure your loyalty." Now she has their attention. She makes a quick, circular motion with her hand. Imoen seems to catch on.
"Uh – yes, Tazok is most displeased with thee!" She puffs her chest out and does her best to sound imperious, which makes Kher wince.
Still, from the corner of her eye, she can see Jaheira and Khalid edging to either side of the room, and so she continues, "if, however, you reveal your treachery in full, he may, ah – spare you from an unpleasant death!"
And he, surprisingly seems to accept this. "I have shown no treachery! I have not crossed you, not Tazok, nor any other," he protests gruffly, "my letters – you will see—" Here he gestures wildly to a chest behind him

It is, later, hard to say exactly what happened; she is listening to Xan point out the repetition of 'Tazok' and note the necessity of remembering it to further investigate when things suddenly go very, very wrong.
"Fools!" he roars, hands already grasping for his weapon. "You'll never have the chance! Minions, come forth! Kill the intruders!"

They all start for him, initially – but then of course there is the matter of these 'minions'.
Kobolds, of course, and skeletons, too. The conjurations – as some of them must be – are numerous, enough neat rows of them to overwhelm their group, if they get the chance.
They are not, perhaps, receiving direct orders, but they are certainly centered on the fearsome figure. If they fell the leader, might they not scatter into disarray?

So Khalid and Jaheira go for a sort of crowd control, and she and Xan join them.

She watches even the more experienced couple struggle at times, and she thinks. Kobolds are supposed to be – easy, aren't they? A mere nuisance?
If they have so much trouble with kobolds, with the creatures would-be heroes always start out slaying, start out – batting away as if they were mere annoyances, then – then –
'Then,' she thinks, still trying to unbalance kobolds, or push away kobolds, or push back kobolds, kobolds, kobolds. 'What chance is there for me?'

But – no, no, no, there is absolutely no time for this.
Instead, she allows herself a small rush of triumph when she sees their numbers thin, and she is able to take a few paces back to evaluate.

Imoen fires arrow after arrow, each hit enraging and distracting him further. As he swats away each projectile, Taev closes the gap and slices at him, then steps away to repeat the process.
Each arrow, each strike makes him all the more clumsy, and delays the swing of his own sword.

With Khalid and Jaheira keeping most of the monsters at bay, and Xan and Kher catching those who wriggle through, it goes a little better than expected.
Still, she is unused to such efforts, and the 'minions' are relentless. She clutches at the fabric of Xan's sleeve, tugging him backwards into the room. This would at least bottleneck their foes.

He is more experienced than she, more effective.
Bright colors burst from the tips of his fingers; where they touch, kobolds fall, not lifeless but asleep. His features express displeasure at the task, but, as they fall, something akin to satisfaction crosses his face.
So a spellcaster after all, she notes, just before she bashes open the head of one who sleeps.

She casts glances back, hoping to see some progress.
She is not disappointed.

Taev strikes a particularly forceful blow, not at him, but at his weapon –he loses his grip on it, vibrations shaking down his arms, and as it clatters to the floor, Taev knocks her hilt against his temple. He is forced back, and down.
And he speaks. "I yield," he rasps, eyes wild. "I yield to you. Accept my surrencer?"

Talking, talking, talking – that's what she wanted, isn't it? To talk?
Can she fight a foe that talks to her?
Imoen and Taev – still more prepared for battle than she, yet still softened by gentle Candlekeep?
Can they fight a foe who talks?

They cannot.

They have none to advice them against this – Jaheira runs through two skeletons with her spear, weaking the invisible bonds holding them together, Khalid plunges his sword into two more – and as Kher has now focused on this man and not the battle around him, and they believe they see a man at his end –
Imoen's hand pauses on her bow, failing to nock another arrow; Kher falters; Taev stills her sword. "Tell us what's going on and you may yet live," she growls.

"I will tell you anything, only leave me alive." His voice is quieter than before, but compared to their, still a rumble. "The letters are in the chest, there is everything, everything—!"

Taev motions for Imoen to check the chest, and as she does, the man shifts –

Impressive, how a man so wounded and encumbered still possesses the strength to spring from his position so quickly.
Even unarmed, his blow sends Taev reeling, her head snapping back.

Kher finds words spilling desperately from her lips. "Taev," she cries, "Octavia!"

More kobolds spill from the darkness, but she scrambles away from her fellow spellcaster, her own spells rising forth – one of which she does, at least, remember to cast behind before she is fully lost, lest her companions find themselves too overwhelmed by conjurations without even her feeble spells to assist.

Anger hits her, makes her shake under the weight of it, and fury drives her actions.

Larloch's drain, a spell whose principles made her hesitate when scrawling notes into her spellbook, now leaps to her mind.

Force, knowledge, intent enough can turn weak generality into a specialty spell.
She causes his hand his hand to wither, the muscles in his arm clench tighter around bone, suddenlydevoid of life-essence.

He roars in pain, and his next attack falters, striking elsewhere.
There's an awful sounding crack – Taev has broken her sword. It has broken off not quite in the middle, near the hilt, and the tip skitters off somewhere beyond.
Taev, not to be stopped, lets out a snarl of rage and plunges the jagged points into his eyes.
He roars again, and Taev scrambles backward, to safety – no, not to safety. To a better vantage point. While he paws at his eyes, Taev plants her foot firmly into his stomach.

He swings for her, but Kher slings another spell. Burning, fiery brightness hits him in his already damaged eyes. He manages, still, to catch Taev on this swing, but her sword strikes true.

Imoen has filled him full with arrows, plunged them through chinks in his armor, made of chainmail already weakened.
It has made a wobbly curve of arrows, from one side of his stomach to the other, and it is this line Taev follows, drawing the shattered blade from one to the next.

She slices his belly clean open. Kher sees the yellowish-white of bulging, buberous fat spilling forth, and with another twist and jerk, the pink of intestines, of organs, and then thick, dark blood.
He gurgles; stumbles; falls.

Her sister stands as the warrior queen Kher had first envisioned, all those many years ago, her hair wild around her face, her stance tall and proud, her lips drawn in an imperious sneer as she flings her broken hilt away from the mess – and then she winces with pain and falls upon her knees.

Kher rushes to her; the clicking of a bow set upon stone alerts her to Imoen doing the same.
Taev does not fall.
Her palms support her; when she pushes up, they are slick with blood. "It's done," she says. Her voice is harsh.

"Taev," Kher begins, voice soft, worried as she reaches for her sister. "Are you alright? Do you need—?"
"I'm fine," Taev snarls in response. She shakes away their arms to stand, unsteady.

The burning anger has faded into relief at her sister's words; weariness as she feels more drained of magic than she was prepared for; and guilt as she realizes that this man was not their only adversary here.
As her sisters stand, so she rises also. When she turns, however, she can see that the others have come quietly into the cavern. Beyond, heaps of little bodies, and bones no longer held together by dark magic.
'Though really,' she thinks, 'without giving them some pilfered strand of individuality, would magic that brings them to animation really be 'dark'? Useful, more, and –'
She shakes her head. She is too weary for philosophy.

Imoen has by now begun to sort through the contents of the traps, dexterous fingers already having checked it over for traps, of which there are none.

From it, she pulls scroll after scroll, boots, potions, and a seal. Some of these are handed to her.

Of the scrolls, half are magical, which she rolls and places in her pouch. The others offer explanations. These, she skims, and hands off to Jaheira and Khalid.
As for the boots – she recognizes the distinctive feeling of dull grey the magic there gives off. She has seen the enchantment woven into other objects. Boots of grounding, then.

Taev claims the sword from beside the man's – from beside Mulahey's corpse. Even with flecks of blood and gore, the weapon glitters in her hands.
She does first offer it to Xan, who shakes his head mutely.

The one pulled from the chest, then, found last, buried beneath the scrolls and charms and potions – perhaps this is it?

In his hands, the edges of the blade leap with blue flames, burning softly up and over before extinguishing as he lowers it.

She notes these things dimly; what she takes most notice of is him.

She sought his death, and she attained it. Where once was life, bright and filled with potential, possibilities – could she not have tried harder to talk it out? Did she follow the path of least resistance through inattention? – there is now only stillness. She has brought that on him.
The sight of his ruined corpse should evoke from her feelings of guilt and horror, but all she now has is the sharp, unmistakable sense of satisfaction.

She should not feel that.

She shakes herself from these thoughts to see her sister's concerned gaze, eyebrows that have turned from cheerful pink to ruddy orange in the torchlight knit together in worry.
Kher giver herself a shake and shakes her head at her sister's silent question.
"Let us be free of this tomb."