There was a time, long ago, where I honestly believed that if I was able to find some way to go back in time I could be with my parents and my brother indefinitely. We could all grow old together because I- that is to say, the me of this moment- would be in the house when that man broke in and I'd stop him before he could kill my parents.
But then I have to stop myself from such fantasies. As much as I hate to think about it, my mind fashions all these scenarios that would have occurred if they hadn't been killed that night. My father would've taken me down to the Palace to enlist both of us when the war came, mom would've been all alone because my brother was already enlisted at this point and. . .
And I would've had to watch my father be killed on the field with me right behind him. Somehow I know I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I watched him die right in front of me. I'd have felt like a failure and I'd probably be even more of a wreck than I am now.
My problems, my flaws, my virtues and my vices. Theses're who I am, born of the things I've been through in life and how things came together. Just like anything, when you remove a cornerstone the whole structure becomes unstable and you stop being able to predict the result. This is exactly that kind of situation.
There's another thing, though. Another scenario that has me dying right along with my parents. Just going to bed one night and never waking up. It's peaceful in a way.
I could do with peace now and then."
-Diary of Kathrine Stoneriver
Pain was the first thing she remembered. During the uneasy transition from deep sleep to the first threads of consciousness being bound into the fabric of thought and awareness, Kathrine could sense something wasn't entirely 'right'. Her body ached all over but it wasn't anything more than a distant memory. A phantom pain brought on by the demands her mind placed there. She needed to feel it for some reason. She needed to be reminded.
"Mgh. . ." She turned slightly and felt the pull of sheets and blankets wrapped around her. Reaching up she found a pillow under her head and the smooth kiss of satin against her bare legs. She exerted every bit of will she had left to her to force her eyes open.
A woman was slumped and snoring in a chair beside her bed. She was voluptuous, a pretty redhead with pale skin. Familiar somehow but Kat couldn't place her face. The room itself was rectangular, plain with a simple dresser and dim lights recessed in the ceiling which made it feel as though it was night time, though why was anyone's guess.
Kat laid her head back down, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. And just like that, she was out cold again.
Some indeterminate amount of time later she woke up curled into a ball, clutching the pillow. There was a chair next to her bed in the rectangular room. Atop the plain dresser beside the foot of her bed, white and purple clothes had been neatly folded and beside them an incense cone smoldered in a gold dish.
Her mind was swimming as she sat up and crossed her legs under her. The questions faded in and out of her consciousness; where was she, how had she gotten there, what was she supposed to be doing? Something about a relic. That much was clear. She had to dig through her memories, trying to remember what'd happened. She was running. Running from someone, but why?
Kat grabbed the pillow and held it to her chest. Her body throbbed and her skin itched faintly, suggesting some kind of magical healing had taken place. She was alive because someone helped her. She sighed. At least it was something solid. She'd been hurt, running from someone and she'd been healed. Now where the hell was she?
Another cursory glance around the room brought back some memories, mostly those of her many days hiding in the World Serpent, trying to avoid looking at Arabel or any of the other so called 'civilized' places she'd been to. It'd been her escape when the insanity of the world just got to be too much for her to take on.
The rooms all shared a similar trait that made them unique among inns; they were morphic to the person using them. This would allow an occupant to imagine the room similar to their own native plane and be more at ease with it. Kat had spent weeks 'building' her room just to trying to exhaust the possibilities before finally settling on something that wound up looking suspiciously like her room back at the farm. Yet when they reverted to their default layout, they typically wound up looking completely drab. Much like the room she was in now.
Was that where she was? The World Serpent?
It would've made some sense, but the how and why were still a mystery. Her mind filled in some of the blanks but none of it came together to form any kind of coherent picture; she'd been climbing. She'd had to move fast for fear of someone or something catching her. But what?
The doorknob turned and clicked like the clang of swords. She jerked her head, already trying to figure out where she could hide but her body wouldn't respond. She could only sit there and clutch the pillow tighter as it opened.
She saw red hair first, a gentle smile and laughing green eyes next. The woman was young, older than Kathrine but still younger than most, wearing a long set of robes that hid most of her features yet hinted at a definite hour glass figure. If not for the thick arcane spell book she carried, she looked sort of like a priest of Chauntea. No sooner did they make eye contact than the woman's smile turned a bit more sincere and reassuring, as though dealing with someone she knew might potentially be frightened. As she spoke, she reached into a pocket and pulled out a pair of half-moon glasses. "Hey there, how're we feeling?"
"Mgh." Kat strangled the word from her throat. Why did the woman look so familiar? "Naked."
She closed the door behind her. "I did what I could for your wounds but that healing wand really wasn't reliable. Arcane and all, you know how it goes."
Kat blinked. "Huh. N- Not really. But uh. Where'm I?"
"Oh! Yes, of course." The red head set her spell book down on the dresser as she approached. She pulled her robes up slightly and slid to a seat in front of Kat, looking her over carefully. "You're in the World Serpent, it's a pla-"
"I know." She croaked. "Sorry. Just. . . Hazy."
"I bet! I don't know how you did it, honestly. You crawled in quite a fright, we thought for sure you were going to die."
"Oh, yes. Ah. . . Well, a gentleman helped bring you here, he said he was a friend of yours."
"What'd he look like?" Slowly Kat felt her guard slipping away in the comforting presence of the woman. Perhaps it was the familiarity or the desire for comfort that peeled her concerns away but Kat found her chin resting on the pillow as she listened to her soothing voice flow over her.
"Oh, let's see, he. . . You know? I know he was an older man, pleasant one too, very soft spoken. But I can't recall more specific features. It's been a tenday, sweety."
"Relax, relax. It's okay." The woman held up her hands. "You've only been here for about two days. But back on the Prime-"
"Oh. Relative time." She exhaled. "Cripes don't scare me like that."
"Sorry." The woman scooted a little closer, whispering conspiratorially. "Sweetheart, are you in some kind of trouble? You kept muttering about someone finding you."
"Uh. . ." Kat frowned. "S- Something like that. I guess. . . Kindda hazy. Um. I was trying to- artifact!" She grabbed her mouth with both hands, vaguely aware as the pillow fell away but still trying to shovel the word back in her mouth, to take it back and make it go away. Dammit! Smooth move!
"Oh. That thing." Without missing a beat the woman reached over to the stack of clothes on the dresser, pushing it up and grabbing the small metal dial. She held it out for Kat with a patient smile that didn't falter even when Kat scrambled to pull the pillow back over her chest. "That's an interesting piece of magic, sweety. Where'd you come across it?"
Kat took it and sighed. She could feel the image of Jezebel coursing behind her eyes promising her that she could free the woman. She could be whole and everything would be alright. Kathrine knew the cost but wasn't that worth it? She could see her family again and. . . Jezebel would be lost. Free from the wall, yes, but her soul wouldn't have any place to go. Kathrine sighed.
She couldn't let it fall into the hands of the Oghman's or Bree, though. That's why she'd been running. The power of the amulet could show them the path to their deepest desires and even if it killed them, a carefully worded question might actually reveal a way to circumvent that and keep the 'gift' of the relic. One could effectively, literally, become a god. Wasn't that what Bree wanted?
"I asked you where you found it."
"Oh. Uh. It's. . . Complicated."
The woman smiled knowingly and leaned over to touch Kat's forehead with her own. Kat started to pull away but the woman brought her arm around her shoulders and pulled her into a soft hug. "It's good to see you again, Kathrine." In the next moment she kissed her cheek and hugged her closer, rubbing her back.
Kathrine's heart thumped in her chest as she tried to figure out just who this woman was. There was something in her manner, something in the way she said things that suggested there'd been some kind of history but for the life of her nothing came to her mind. She was reaching for something that simply didn't exist. Despite this, however, her arms came around the woman's back and she returned the hug, if only to feel the closeness of another person. The warmth and security of someone that she felt she could trust. Wasn't that what it was about in the end?
Fingernails dug into her back a little causing furrows of white in her pale flesh. That reassuring subtle demand she asked of her lovers, the kind of thing that put them in control and her supplicant to their desires. Kat whimpered softly and pulled the woman tighter. She didn't need to know more than that. She didn't want to. She was safe like this and she'd remain so for as long as she could.
"I still think about that night, you know." She purred a sultry growl, nuzzling her cheek. All too soon, however, the woman's fingers slipped back so her palms were resting on Kat's waist and she was looking her in the eye. "Do you have any plans?"
"I-" No. No I don't want to. She could avoid Eveningstar for a few days, couldn't she? "I have-" No. If the Oghmans or Bree found her, it'd be over. They'd have the relic. But the thought of visiting her family plot made her stomach lurch. She'd said her goodbyes, that's where it was supposed to end. She wasn't supposed to come back. But she still had to bury the relic. It has to be done. "I have to get to Eveningstar. Um. . . Family thing, you know?"
"Sure, sweety." A small smile pulled at her lips and she leaned in to kiss Kat.
Kat pulled back. She knew how it'd end. She knew she wasn't that strong. Once it started. . . It'd always turn out the same way. She sighed. "I'm sorry. Just. . . Not right now, okay?"
"Of course." The woman brushed Kat's hair out of her eyes. "I mended your clothes as best I could but there really wasn't a lot to work with.
"Really?" She glanced over at the stack of clothes. "Um. . . Thanks."
"I. . . Uh. I don't have any way to pay for-" The woman put her finger to Kat's lips.
"Just say my name."
"Uh." Kathrine searched her eyes as her heart backed up into her throat. The second stretched off into eternity with neither of them giving up anything. Kat was lost and they both knew it but she had the good grace to say nothing, even as she leaned in and kissed her finger between them.
"Ah, well." There was no anger, or even disappointment, just a subtle tone of acceptance. "We had fun, didn't we?"
"Y-. . . Yeah. I'm sorry-"
"No harm, no foul. You should get dressed, though, if you're going to make it to Eveningstar before it gets dark. It's about an hour to first light on the Prime and the portal to the Mines isn't working."
"Huh? That always works."
"That's what I said. Some kind of accident changed the shape of the portal. Strange thing. Guess that's what happens when someone starts messing around with things they don't understand, isn't it?" She shrugged. "Anyway. I'll let you get dressed if you feel like it or go back to bed again, I still have the room for another couple of days before I move on again so you're welcome to make use of it."
"Uh. . . I- I'll get going. I've imposed enough."
"Oh, not at all! I want to see you healthy and safe, sweety. Cyrrollalee will help take care of you just as I would."
Kat furrowed her brow and rubbed at her forehead for a second before running her hand down her face. Abruptly it came to her. "Tammia!"
"Mmmhm!' The woman smiled.
"You-. . . Right. Well, uh. Thank you. Very much for everything. I need to get going, though."
"Of course, sweetheart. I'll be right out side if you need anything, okay?"
Kat clutched the pillow to her chest, watching as the woman slipped out. Only when she was sure that the door wasn't going to open again she threw the covers back and did a quick visual inspection of her body. Sure enough, all her wounds had been magically healed and even with the lingering itch nothing felt out of place, all her muscles were a bit tight but she didn't look any worse for wear.
When she slid out of bed her knees buckled, forcing her to grab the dresser or fall over. Her knees and ankles throbbed but the longer she stood there, the more the throbbing subsided until eventually she could stand upright under her own power. She recovered her clothes and got dressed despite the subtle aches and pains pulling at her mind from her head to her toes. The stitch work that'd been done to her clothes made them too tight in all the wrong places and even hard to breathe. Focus. Come on. She had to focus on the things she was going to have to do.
The only reliable portal back to the Prime that was in the same region of Cormyr would take her to Arabel, a full day and then some away on foot. The walk would probably do her some good but was she really in any condition to go that far? She didn't have much choice, she had to. She'd also needed water and food. It wasn't anything she hadn't done a few times before. She'd be okay.
She found her brother's sword and her spellbook tucked up against the dresser and slipped them on to her thick belt along with a small set of leather pouches meant for holding spell components. Though she didn't remember ever owning a set. When she went to recover her coat, she learned why. The coat was in tatters, the expensive wool exterior and silk lining shredded so badly that no amount of stitch work could've possibly made it whole again. The finely embroidered front panels where still fairly in tact but the swaths of friction burned fabric in the back left a hole nearly the size of Kat's entire torso where the road had ground it up.
It'd taken her weeks to save up money for that coat and it probably cost more than her family's entire farm was worth but for some strange reason it didn't. It was a material possession, it shouldn't have been important in the first place. So long as she had her health, anything else was extra flavor to a rich soup. But some part of her knew she was lying to herself. She'd bought the coat after Jezebel's execution and she'd made it distinctly hers over time. It wasn't something she could replace even if she bought a new one.
She sighed. It's just stuff. Kat slung the coat over her arm. Maybe she could find someone to fix it when she got to Arabel. She'd need to get some new pants anyway. "Mgh. . ." Kathrine took another deep breath and glanced around at the room, memorizing the simple layout. It was a sort of reflection of her life; empty and missing something but still functional. Still kind of comfortable if she was really careful. Or self-delusional. Bree had brought something into it but it wasn't anything she really needed. Danger.
Oh, but she could dance. And sing. And kiss. . . Kat's stomach clenched. What the hells was she thinking? The woman was a danger to all the multiverse. A thief. An insurrectionist possibly. She had a number of vices that could easily out weigh Kat's and-
And she loved her.
No. She couldn't love anyone any more. That was stupid.
She was addicted to that danger. She was hopelessly ensnared by the woman's confidence, beauty and willingness to do anything at any time whether Kathrine really wanted to or not. She'd taunted a dragon with no thought about it and walked away to tell the tale. But she never did. She was a classy woman, too. Not just some reckless adventurer with more bravado than brains, she was intelligent at a level probably surpassing Kat's own gifts. Kathrine's jaw felt a bit heavier as she pondered the logic of her own realization. Bree had been everything Kat secretly longed for yet couldn't quite bring herself to ask of her lovers or her friends. And she'd been it by virtue of being who she was. Not trying to be someone else.
Sure, she was probably insane and, given the chance, would use the relic Kat now possessed to take over the entire Human Pantheon of gods but. . . She was Bree.
And Kat was in love with her.
"Holy hells." The words ran from her lips in a timid whisper. "When the hells did that happen?"
Kat slumped against the dresser, staring at the opposite wall blankly. All the evidence pointed to that. Her palms were sweaty. Her heart hurt and she secretly wanted that comfort of those arms around her. She hugged her chest and sighed. "Why me. . . Come on, really?" Her gaze turned up to the ceiling as though it could provide some answers. "Sune save me, huh?" She wanted to laugh. Wanted it all to be a big joke. But it wouldn't come.
In the wake of her epiphany she barely heard the knock at the door. "You okay, sweety?" Tammia's voice sounded distant.
"Yeah." She pushed off the dresser and grabbed her coat. "I don't think I could be better." She felt like smiling.
And so she did.
# # # #
Kat was standing at the doorway back to the Prime material watching as people walked by the portal's destination. The doorway served as a kind of window into a city that felt like it existed only yesterday, or perhaps decades ago. In light of everything she'd been through, and all the things she'd seen she could only wonder how much time had passed and how much older she really was in relation to that passage of time.
Tammia's hand rested on Kat's shoulder. "You don't have to go if you don't want to, you know. You can come with me to Chult-"
"I have to do this. But. . . thank you."
"Sure, sweety." The woman brought her slender arm around her back and pulled her into a hug. Kat responded instantly. "Do you need any coin?"
"I-. . . I couldn't ask you for that. You've already done so much for me."
"I'll not have you leave without something to cover your expenses. I'm sure you'll find a way to make it up to me some day." She chuckled softly and patted Kat's back. "Infact! I know how you can do it!"
"Help someone else in need. It doesn't matter who or why. Just do it and say a little prayer to Cyrrollalee, okay?" With those words the woman pushed a modest bag of coins into Kat's stomach, pulling back a little. "I won't take no for an answer, young lady, so don't even think about objecting."
Kathrine opened her mouth to do exactly that but Tammia gave her a look that said she'd better not. Instead she sighed and took the coin. "Thank you and. . . thank Cyrrollalee for teaching such generosity."
"I'm sure She'd be happy to share that with you sometime, if you wanted it."
"Um. . . Chauntea's more than generous, y'know? If I was on the receiving end of any more, I'd probably burst!"
"Oh dear, we can't have that!"
They laughed together for a short moment before trailing off into a silence neither of them was ready to fill again. They looked at one another. Both of them opened their mouths but stopped, ready to give way for the other. A small smirk lit Tammia's face. "Go ahead."
"No, n-. . ." Kat stopped herself. She needed to say it. "Tammia, I'm really sorry."
"Sorry? For what?"
"I. . . It's something I've learned. Um. . . Not something I like but I know it now and I can fix it, and I can stop hurting people and myself and pret-. . . Bleh. Sorry. Um." Kat fidgeted with her belt as she bit her lower lip. "I'm really sorry about us sleeping together."
"Ouch." The woman's eyes flickered over Kat's face over the top of her glasses. "Can't say I was expecting that."
"Oh no! No, no, no! Um. I-" She sighed. "I just mean that. . . I've learned a lot and I've realized that I've been using people because I can't. . . I dunno. I can't let go when I need to." She swallowed as her cheeks burned. Her neck felt scratchy and the hair bristling but she clenched her belt to keep from grabbing at it. She needed to do this. "So I'm really sorry that I used you. It wasn't right, or fair or-"
Tammia put her finger to Kat's lips. "Sweetheart. It was one night. It was fun- very fun, infact- but you hardly used me any more than I did you."
"Shh. I appreciate the thought but we both knew there wasn't going to be anything more between us." The woman's smile was genuine and lingering as she leaned in and kissed her cheek. "You're too good a girl for that mind you were given. There're times where you just need to relax and go with the course of things, it'd do you some good!"
"Ah, ah, ah! Not a word. You keep stressing yourself like that and you'll have grey hair in a few years! Just live, Kathrine. That's the only thing the gods ask of us. The future'll take care of itself whether you're there to realize it or not. Let things happen and take them as they come." Her smile turned a bit more coy as she brought her arm around Kat's shoulder again and leaned into her. "Let life surprise and awe you. Then you've no need for the shackles of the past."
Kat sighed against her and hugged her back. Tightly. "You sound like someone I know."
"Wisdom tends to speak for itself, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Ata-girl." Tammia pulled back and looked at her for a moment. "Keep smiling, dear. You have a beautiful smile."
Kathrine looked toward the portal again. Everything was going to turn out afterall. She'd bury the artifact, get her sextant fixed so she could get to chult, and new clothes. She needed new clothes. But then she could relax and spend her time doing Chauntea's will. As she was meant to.
Her journey was over, she'd done everything she could and in the end had probably kept the artifact from the hands of numerous dangerous people. Why shouldn't she smile?
"See? Look at that."
Kat broke into a genuine grin. "Thanks, Tammia."
"No problem. That's what friends are for, huh?"
Kat sighed. Not a sigh of frustration or defeat but the sigh of release. The weight being pulled free from her chest that allowed her to breathe normally. It was time to go home. She was as complete as she had been before loosing Jezebel, she had friends and a direction. Just a couple stops and she could be doing what she was meant to. "Yeah. . . Yeah, that's right." She nodded. "I better get going."
Tammia didn't say anything right away but to smile and pat her back, drawing into herself as she took a step back. Just as Kathrine stepped through the portal she heard the woman speak. "Cyrrollalee bless, my friend."