Six Things Imoen Winthrop Never Did After The Throne Of Bhaal, And One That She Did
A/N: Written Yuletide 2012 for quantumvelvet.
1. Lady of Treachery
An inn, golden with sunset and mellow lamplight, warmed by soft fires and freshened by the smell of evening air. Smooth, buttery ale that flowed thick as cream and the colour of summer flowers. The tortured screams of catgut on a harp, and a resonant tenor voice that drifted from the inn to the winds that blew across the farmers' flowering fields. The bard of Sigil flung his blue locks away from his shoulders and began another verse.
Oh, the goddess above us
Smote her sister with glee
The goddess above us
Drowned her in the sea
The goddess above us
Made her skin to kid gloves
The goddess above us
Became goddess thus
The goddess, she loves us,
A goddess of tears,
A goddess who shoves us,
And smiles at lost years...
To the goddess who loves us,
And brings us our fears
The goddess who flays us
And turns singers to smears.
To the goddess I glimpsed once,
Wildflower turned murk,
A goddess who brings us,
Over his instrument the bard's head slumped forward, as if he was a puppet with strings no longer left to him. When they examined why the singing ended, they would find that his trachea protruded from the skin of his neck, and that it hung as a ragged tube emptied of blood and air alike.
There was little that the inn's inhabitants could do, and so they left Haer'Dalis of Sigil there.
She'd risen high and risen fast, the Lady of Treachery.
She made Cyric afraid. All knew he was mad, and he was frightened of her. Once he had slighted her before her ascension by talking to the other one instead of her, the one whose name was no longer allowed to be spoken. She took half his portfolio and more when she ascended in her father's right. As he had feared, and then raged impotently.
Once she had prayed to the Lady of Mystery, growing to an archmage before ascending. She'd maintained a cordial relationship with the other goddess until the treacherous supper.
Mystra, Oghma, Torm and Helm
All went forth to dine,
Pink plates, pink forks, pink spoons, pink knives,
Pink-coloured immortal wine.
Let's party it up, the goddess said,
Let the wine go to your head,
Let's drink a toast to all the dead,
Let's paint the planes in pink and red,
Let's make merry 'till night's fled.
Who could know betrayal grew?
Who coud have known such despair?
Who saw the heart of the Lady of Treachery?
Who changed such hope to rue?
The goddess had grown up in Oghma's fortress of Candlekeep, and the Lord of Knowledge too thought himself an ally. She had travelled with servants of Torm the True and Helm the Guardian. They dined with her, wishing in the person of Bhaal's daughter an ally against the likes of Cyric. She continued to fight against Cyric, at any rate.
Mystra, you with me? Lady of Mysteries, come,
All these days I've cast your spells,
Magic must make me your chum.
Welcome, Torm, take off a load,
I've quested with knights true.
Helm, your kind eased my long road,
Guarding all the far way through.
Ol' Oghma, now, we're friends long since,
A lonely keep with stone-straw bars,
Books as many as all the stars,
So drink your wine and take some mince.
(No flies or old boots in it, honest.)
They shed their cloaks and shoes and caps,
They took their seats in her pink halls.
They began to dine and feared no traps,
But the doors closing silenced their calls.
She was the new Lady of Murder. There had been a certain unpleasantness at the Throne itself, but she was meant to be an innocent. A boon for those of good intent above the likes of Cyric and Bane.
She proved herself the Lady of Treachery.
"Knowledge is lovely," she said to its lord,
"Knowledge of how to get tight as a lord!"
And in the pink punch Oghma was offered to drink,
A poison of excess that made one think,
Think and think and think of all,
Think of eternity and never stop at all,
For knowledge breeds only yet more thought.
And one cannot stop as one knows one ought...
And thus in the punch bowl rested Oghma's head,
The Lord of Knowledge drowned 'til he was dead.
It was not the Mad Lord Cyric that the Lady allied with; she was no fool at all. An archmage who knew the Weave inside and out.
Mystra, through you, I learned such a lot,
And after learned not to mind a jot.
Though you defend as I advance...
Mask in my sword becomes my dance!
The Lady of Midnight's raven-black hair
Spun now in two halves, reunited ne'er.
Head to toe Mask's sword split her in two.
One-half to the Lady, one-half left to weep,
One-half the Weave tattered, one-half staying true,
One-half to the Slayer. The other to keep.
The Lady of Treachery counted her gains:
The Lady of Murder owned half magic for her pains.
Now Mystra was bisected, half only left to mourn,
And in her shattering Mask's self was likewise torn.
Three fallen at that supper of the dead.
Who could know betrayal grew?
Who coud have known such despair?
Who saw the heart of the Lady of Treachery?
Who taught her how to slay?
Imoen shouted across the room. Not a room. A green-fluid shifting-patterned floor floating out in the middle of nowhere with only blackness up and across and beyond except for the shining stream of pure-gold power—
It was a good spell. A bad spell. A red dragon's head rained fireballs big enough to shake the earth down over stupid foolish Daddy's ex-priestess, and Charon and the rest of the group were just smart enough to stay out of Imoen's way while she was working—
The bone-fiends rattled, the vast giant demons howled and attacked with their impossible fluid shapes of things that should not exist, the slithering tentacled beasts lurked and glooped underfoot. No, wait, most of them were burnt black by now, and then Imoen rained a set of destruction she'd crafted for occasions like this right down on Amelyssan of Bhaal. She was perfect. She didn't trouble to fiddle with her hair or giggle nervously over it: plain, flawless archmagery. Runes added themselves inside her head in stark black-on-white.
Charon brought forward her steel-tipped staff and punched a hole in and out of Amelyssan's ribs. Then it was done.
"Choose, Child of Bhaal."
The plane shook and split. Shadows crept in from the sides and dissolved triangles of the ground in nothingness. Shade fell on where the group slipped together. And Imoen felt herself fading into shadows, the way she had learned it from Dan Winthrop a long time ago.
Torm was a true god, so they say.
A heart so lionlike and wide.
Torm was a noble one of pride.
He was the Lady's easy prey.
Saw no black poison, and so he died.
Helm was a guard, or so they say,
Shield for the gods above.
His helm in place, to hide his face,
His sword, his cold iron glove.
He was the last to stand at table,
The last for the goddess to slay.
She melted his helm as he stood in her place,
And bare-handed she clove his neck.
And the pain in her heart grew still more dark,
As she stood amidst her wreck.
Who could know what shadows grew there?
Who could have known such despair?
Who tore the rends in a once-sweet heart?
Who watched for the Lady of Treachery?
There was pain like a dagger of bone through her chest and nobody wanted to come for her.
No word for her when Charon opened the letter. Gorion tried to interest her in magic when she was young, she'd been chosen by him too and brought to live at Candlekeep, not that anyone remembered that—
"I know your soul. All of your agonies, all the knives slicing through your skin, all the cold breath across your face. And I know the loneliness, the hurt, the unrequited longing that you feel—" Sarevok loomed above her, all unearthly golden eyes in a broad dark face, impossibly muscled and large and her brother after all. She screamed at him and sent magic missiles into his face, the same as she'd done to kill him the first time round and hope that it bloody stuck—
"Imoen." She didn't recognise half the people with her sister—the handsome otherworldy pointy-eared bard, the grizzled old paladin, the hesitant underexperienced little elf with a doe-eyed pale face like a porcelain doll and sheets of dawn-fair hair running down her back. And once that had been Imoen as the youngest in the group, the one that Khalid and Jaheira mentored and led along and hoped to grow up— "Imoen, this is Aerie," Charon said. "We've become close since you were taken, and I want you to know the girl I love..."
"Do you see?" Irenicus said, and this time the saw was made of polished bone, and piece by grating piece the sharp teeth mutilated her flesh. Nobody ever heard her scream. "Do you see? You are alone, child. Alone with death." And he pried open her bones and let them crack. She sat in the asylum hearing the sound of the sea and seeing nothing but blank walls, and forgot who she was, and still nobody came for her while Charon was canoodling with the underaged elf—
The abyssal hellplane was shifting black and livid yellow all around them, impossible plays of light on light and shade on shade, and the golden-eyed blue-skinned solar with fiery wings the size of her body spoke only in the same monotone that sounded like a multitude of voices all in otherworldly harmony with each other. The faces flashed by Imoen. "Is that the only way to resurrect my brother?" Charon said, and the solar pointed out that Imoen too could lose a piece of her soul. And so she laid out a piece of herself again, alone, the soul Irenicus had taken roiling with bitterness inside her—
Why did such betrayal grow?
From what seeds branched such despair?
Why did daughter outdo father and sister?
Who gave us such death and woe?
"Choose, child of Bhaal," the solar said. Imoen's sister hesitated. She thought of leaving to be a goddess.
And Imoen took her down from behind.
It was the closest she had been to her sister in a very long time, she thought as the golden dust swirled around her naked sword.
And now the goddess cupped the translucent vase between her hands and watched a distilled-dust fingerbone shift back and forth, within the endless turning halls of her infinite plane.
They say she had a merry laugh.
Eyes of fair blue, a dimpled cheek.
A sweet girl for a fate so harsh.
So they say.
They say she was a sister, a friend.
They never thought she'd become this end.
Once in a cell in a prison on an island a girl spoke to her rescuers. "You came too late," she said. "I told you that you would come too late."
Once by a keep at dawn two girls swam and this time the mage who chose them called to both rather than only one.
Once the goddess Imoen returned to the sea by Candlekeep and lowered a body into the waters that resembled her sister in life, though all knew that Bhaalspawn should never die in human semblance.
"The raven," the bard said by Bhaal's throne, wide-eyed and surprised rather than jaded for the briefest of moments. Aerie screamed a high piercing bird's cry as if her heart was broken. And Imoen's brother Sarevok gazed at her as if he had known what lay in her soul all along.
She was terrible and of a terrible greatness, the Lady of Treachery, and she had become the last one to stand for the Throne.
The goddess Imoen dropped her sister back to the dimensional shelf. Her portion of the Weave was a series of dark blue strings like a harp as big as Selune's moon. Her palace bore the richest furnishings of Torm and Helm. She'd a summerhouse extending into Oghma's House of Knowledge, but she'd have to do something about all that harpsong. Drove her nuts between her ears, and you'd think goddesses shouldn't have ears unless they wanted them.
She knew all very well Mask was licking his wounds and off busy plotting revenge, that Shar thought she was getting too big for her britches—that half the other guys wanted to kill her for the other gods she'd stabbed in the back and the rest wanted to plot a share in her power. But for now it was good wine all round and all the dark powers in the galaxy.
She made the floor below her feet transparent a moment for a look at her prisoner. Her butler Cespenar encouraged Sarevok to labour on. He'd wanted to serve a god if he couldn't be one, after all; and now that Immy had taken all her soul back and kept a piece extra of his in a different jar, he'd not be able to stop. A few more decades and she'd offer him a seat in the Abyss if he was tired of it. Or even do the smart thing and give him bit by bit what he wanted, so he'd have no other choice but to follow her.
Surely more people should expect backstabs in the world, if they'd started giving them out themselves. Letting her stand behind and coming to dinner with her like that. No wonder the Lady of Treachery rose so high and so fast.
The goddess walked in the silent passages of her vast hellplane, far more powerful than anyone had ever supposed, and never mourned the loss of the other half of her soul.
2. Goodies For All
"Aww, well, I guess it's rough that your little slaving operation here got disrupted. You should complain to the local ruler! The local incredibly talented and beautiful archmage who happened to take over here...oh, wait, I guess that would be me."
Imoen could put up some fireworks in her hands—nothing like a few fizzy sparkly brilliant things to get a bit of attention—but it was getting a bit overdone. Much as she hated slaver scum as much as anyone else, she didn't have to show off about it. She lightly stepped around the man, watching him shift one foot to the other on the slightly scratched elaborate parquet floor commissioned by some previous inhabitants of Vulova Palace.
"Legitimate business!" he blurted out. "A few indentured servants, my own entourage, and goods worth thousands of gold! All destroyed by adventuring thugs. We were welcomed last year by the Baron—"
Imoen waggled her finger at him, imitating one of Mr G.'s old gestures. "Naughty, naughty," she said. "You've heard of a thing called true sight, right?" She made a brilliant white flash come and go from her eyes. "Mage's sight. Everything inside you and all the bits and bobs and funny little out-of-the-way organs and things..."
He blanched, or at least maybe just a little bit below his thick scowl and layers of stubbled chin. Imoen pouted, because it was annoying when people wouldn't take her seriously, even now.
"Everything that says, you know, you're kind of a slave trader, mister, and all your people are free now and you're getting to exit this place through the shortcut," Imoen said, knowing all she needed and bored now. And so she raised her hands.
Thirteenth hour, the afternoon run. Dora-from-the-kitchens brought her a bun drizzled with sugar and raisins to eat on the way, toasted the way she liked it, and Imoen had troops to inspect.
She'd had her people take over the slaver caravan just yesterday—Imoen's Iridescents. Silly name, but suiting their nice uniforms, ornamented with glittering leftovers from the Bag of Holding. And now she'd dealt with their master himself—teleported him out of town in one piece. More or less. If the spell didn't mess up. And, of course, stripping the slaver of all his clothes and jewels and coin and setting him down in his birthday suit in the nearest big city...
"Heya!" they saluted her. She grinned.
Fourteenth-hour, paperwork. She'd turned the Baron's old study into a menagerie, imported monkeys from Chult and set up a slab of glass with flesh-eating toothy fish from Maztica floating inside it and a pink ruby-studded aviary with jewel-coloured birds in a magically extended space, which made it more pleasant to read all the ordinary parchments with squeaking and chattering and Danter the golden monkey always finding his way out of his cage and redecorating in his own way.
Hope that this finds you well. My darling Valygar and I will be travelling deep within the Forest of Shilmista by the time that you open this; at last we attain peace to ourselves far from the excesses and bloodshed of civilisation. That and every likelihood we'll find ourselves trussed up and fighting our way out of some den of orcs.
Relax, little sister! Spend some quality time in hot springs...go look up Aerie and Nalia and Keldorn...enjoy a holiday. Because Sweetie and I certainly plan to...
And then the really boring paperwork. Agricultural reports. Merchant rights-of-passage. And finally, worse than death and even more inevitable: taxation.
Fifteenth-hour-and-a-half, way too much paperwork.
Sixteenth hour, Imoen cast a teleport spell again. Time to judge who stole whose sheep and whether the sewer damage in the square was the architect's fault and who owed whom a bride-price for the girl champion sheep-lifter last harvest fair.
(On the one hand, girls shouldn't be treated like cattle. On the other hand, girls with money got more respect. Imoen magicked a pig's tail on the groom to stay there until he learnt better manners and how to pay his dues.)
Eighteenth hour, her favourite part. She'd roam the streets distributing largesse to the grateful populace.
"Imoen! Heya, Imoen!" little Ettie—or was it Ennie?—called to her. She ruffled the peasant girl's strawberry-coloured hair and made sure to produce a gold piece behind her ear.
"And don't 'cha worry about not washing behind them—I never did and look how I turned out!" There was a faint pressure at her back. "Getting better at the pickpocketing deal, Abin!" A levitation trigger tossed the boy fiddling with her spell component pouches into the air. He giggled at the flight even though that was his mum rushing up behind him and trying to catch him. Imoen wished the parents wouldn't fuss so. She illused a glittering beljuril from a stone she'd picked up—twenty-four hours only, but it ought to make them happy while they had it. The people who lived in Ravnicu by the Vulova palace liked their ruler; they said so and laughed at all her jokes.
Twentieth hour, getting away from formal dinner in Vulova Palace and out into the Ravnicu chasms. Work on the summoning spells, since a mage had to stay in practice.
The howls and grunts in the vast ravines made only of bare fruitless rock were a dangerous cacophony, but to Imoen they didn't make a difference. Feet were stuck onto bright purple glue: ogres and kobolds and goblins and ettins and a few spiders. A few hundred giant spiders. Imoen turned the mage runes neatly in her mind as recipes her foster dad had tried to teach her back in the inn. Take regular castings of summon spells; add permanencies; glue a whole lot of feet (average three point one) to the ground; wait and add seasoning to taste.
(She'd revisit her childhood home one day, she promised, when she had time. Maybe later. Much later.)
Much better than building a human army and risking people's lives. She'd scried across the border and Lady Bellnoss would soon come with an army for revenge over some minor Tethyr-related unpleasantnesses. She'd defeat them, and add the Bellnoss lands to the Ravnicu. Then she'd have a bigger army and more people to deal with. More paperwork.
Imoen's glittering magic appeared before her in network overlaying network, honeycomb above honeycomb.
Yeah, she'd sworn a covenant with Aerie to never let slavers continue on unopposed. Not after the Underdark. Not after Saradush. The little elf was busy up in Sembian slaver rings, making sure just like Imoen that bad people paid for doing bad things.
(Imoen'd never done anything that bad. Not even without her soul. Maybe what she'd needed to survive. Maybe she'd make up for that later.)
Imoen added a last lot of summoning spells to draw needful things from the planes. Everyone always wanted the Baroness to make sure people had the goodies they needed. She would make them all laugh and be happy.
There was one trouble when you could count the number of people who were better mages than you in all the Realms while barely having to use both hands. You had to do something with it.
And Imoen led forth her armies, conjuring pink bolts of lightning for the joy of it to guide their path, archmage come into her temporal power and might.
Radiant light formed the bars of a cage.
A perfect white-gold light, always glowing directly above, allowing no escape from it. The monks would refresh it every day.
Bone-white bars shone with their own blinding light from each side, blocking all else beyond. The barrier was passable by a simple step, but there was no sight possible of what lay beyond. All was light.
A long, shallow white dish with sides of a perfect straightness, held below the light, shed no darkness into the remains of its smooth soup. Light from all sides radiated across the person within.
Her hair was white-bleached, as if she were very old. A white scar ran from right eyebrow to white cheek, bisecting a brown eye turned pale gold below the white light. Her skin was smooth like a younger woman, though pinched and drawn across her bones like paper, and thin and delicate as if she had seen nothing outside for a very long time.
Khalid Al Yami reached into the cage to clear away the old plate. Light was shed on each inch of his arm as if under the midday sun always. The fine hairs on his arm were spun gold, the colour of his flesh a radiant bronze. The light of the Lady ought to be a delicate reflected silver, not this blinding white-gold mimicking desert noon; but it was the only way. Carefully he carried out simple cleansing duties upon the northern woman.
And then a claw-like hand gripped his. The pads of the fingers were callused; he knew from bathing them, milk-pale but stained as with smoke below the skin, as if her very bones were tainted with magic. The grip was weak as if a mother-wet newborn piglet slipped between his fingers, and so he did not—quite—fear.
"Khalid," her voice cracked out. It was then he startled and wanted to wrench his hand away. He'd never heard her speak before. Surely she should know nothing about him. He stared into her uncanny eyes too bright for jaundice-yellow and a river of fear creaked its cold way up his spine. "Khalid, that's your name, isn't it? They call you. When you play. I used to know a Khalid. He was nice. Really nice."
His goddess was with him, Khalid told himself. And he would act with the wisdom and compassion she would wish. Selune above: whatever the woman knew and however she knew it she was pitiable sitting here under the conditions required for her.
"We are here to take care of you," he said. Reluctantly he let her pinched fingers rest in his like bird's talons.
"Khalid," she said. "Nice. With copper hair. Why'd he have to go and die on me? I sliced. I kept slicing. That's all there was."
Was that what shaped her here? Khalid wondered. None of the senior monks would say why she had to be kept in light.
"If you killed then you can atone," he told her gently, like his teachers instructed he and his fellow young monks in their own turn. "Light guide your way."
"Guide this man into the light. Guide him into the light," she prayed. She shook her head like a wild creature. "I didn't kill him! I never killed him! He became the Shattered One. He screams in the abyss forever. I heard him there. And then," she whispered, "they stare into your eyes and stare."
This was the most Khalid had ever heard of her speaking. Her grip tightened, thin enough to be bone. And then in the light it struck him that those were bone phalanges touching him with flensed flesh. All of a sudden he pulled away. The light left him with just the hand, stretching forward, and he felt sorry that he had not tried more to be a comfort to the patient—
But then he saw her eyes and felt no more of that. In the brilliance of the light her pupils were the one dark spot.
"They stare," the woman repeated. "Do you know what happens when you get far enough into the black in their eyes? Have you ever unravelled the thread at the back of their eyeballs...and gone on unravelling? And you...have so very dark eyes."
She screamed like a banshee. Khalid covered his ears, his mouth: sweet Selune save me! He was outside the cage of light. He was running, far away. He lay in a cave in the hills. He was certain that she was still screaming. Darkness was his friend, because surely she could not come to him in the dark. Or behind every shadow there could be the pale banshee, and she would scream and go on screaming until all the light was gone.
No, he thought when he could think. She has done nothing to me. Surely she could do nothing.
"When you gaze into the abyss," a nightmare voice said, "the abyss gazes also into you."
"Rise," his master Boreal said to him, and in time he did.
A History of the Fable of the Archmage Imoen—
The history is of a great clash of powers. So great that this fragment of the history was once told but to those of at least Silverstar rank in Selune's service and even then only were they directly concerned with the patient's treatment. The Lady Imoen was an archmage of great power and the one who brought her to darkness was near a goddess as a brother to a sibling. Lady Imoen herself was nigh to a goddess, of the same gods'-blood as her sister: the heroine of the name blazoned in all histories of Faerun and Abeir-Toril itself. Once Lady Imoen herself was such a heroine.
In direst need with not one of her friends alive save her mortally wounded sister, Lady Imoen drew upon her divine sire's dark power. She descended to the abyss and gathered the forces there to her aid. Black souls and shadows ate her foes alive. In her great descent she touched the very floors of the hells. And the abyss...returned with her.
Her sister lived. The heroine brought Lady Imoen to a Selunite monastery to heal her shattered mind, or at least to subdue the abyss within. Lady Imoen was condemned to light, for only light could contain her darkness. A single shadow cast would become a portal into all the hells. A cut to her body would bleed not red blood but darkness. Lady Imoen's sister gave the weight of her care to us.
There was no other way to treat the patient. Momentary progress, of a sort, was made through reintroducing elements of her old life. But the Lady Imoen is convinced that the souls of all she knew in life scream now in death, and that she crafted that bargain in return for the power to destroy her enemy. Thus it is cruelty of cruelties to remind her.
Therefore, in light she has remained, and the abyss within her... The scroll expressed what was needful. With changing times came fuller tellings of the history. With changing times men could even grow wise.
Once more came the radiant cage. He was a mature fifty-eight, Khalid Al Yami told himself, as he reassured himself each time; he led the monks of the Silver Water sanctuary now. Yet this duty frightened him still. For that reason he entrusted it to few others.
I will watch until you are free, he promised himself. Selune's pendant shone on his chest. Within the light it became brilliant as the moon. All the power of the gods could not help one who once destroyed a near-goddess. Gently he ran a glass comb through Lady Imoen's hair, the teeth of it translucent enough to cast no shadow. Piece by piece, her hair was falling from her skull, and he always gathered up lest it cast shadows. He bathed her in clear water and fed her pale soup, her limbs too weak to hold implements. She closed her eyes, silvered by age. More than ever she had the pinched face of a skull: old as an archmage, milk-skinned, and tight-pulled about her bones. He heard the Lady Imoen breathe a long rattling breath, and then no further sound for time enough for him to think.
"I grow old," Khalid told her gently. "There is peace. There is light...even in the silver of our hair. Go toward it."
Her drawn lips moved feebly. He thought perhaps the name was her sister, that one. She opened her mouth as if she swallowed the light itself. Never was there allowed any but light around her for forty years and above. Never came there any to see her.
"Night will be no more, in the hereafter." Khalid spoke the litany in its lilting melody. If speaking it ten thousand times turned it to unbreakable promise then he gifted the covenant to her. "There will be no need for light of lamp or sun. For, forever and ever, the Lady shall be their light to guide them home. There shall be beautiful nights still, but silver light as waves from the sea shall wash it all to clear glimmering beauty. Selune heal and guide.
"Into the endless silver sea..."
In light, the woman slept in his arms.
4. Multifarious Omnifarious Omnific
Neth, the Living Plane, Neth, the Vast and Magnificent, Neth, the interplanar spill of gloppy stuff, glopped stuff all around her. Imoen hastened to her goal: upon the wall of Visage Masks were frozen faces that looked like people but weren't. Except for one.
Neth had a nasty habit of dissolving visitors. Neth was all around: Neth was this plane. Flesh golems that walked Neth's paths were Neth. The Visage Masks were visitors who'd been dissolved and absorbed by Neth, so that Neth spoke through their mouths and used their memories. It wasn't very nice. In fact it was very icky.
Imoen moved quickly as she could. She was stripped to her smallclothes inside an imitation of a Neth flesh golem, big pink fleshy layers wrapped around her and only small eyeholes where she was going. But the good thing about antigravity spells was that she could walk on ceilings when she wanted. She did. Meanwhile, she knew, her super-scrolled simulacrum was speeding around Neth on a silver flying disc and giving Neth serious trouble plus an easy distraction...
The wall of faces reminded her a little bit of that one dwarven child-killer back on Faerun and what he did with his victims, though she'd seen lots since then. A lot of dead-looking faces, closed-eyed and inanimate for the time being, looking like decapitated heads on Neth's wall. Her gloppy golem-feet were stuck to the ceiling and she reached down. Smoothly she levered the flesh head away from where she sat all sweat-soaked and disguised inside the pink golem. An ugly dead-salmon kind of colour rather than the kinds of pink she preferred, although in Neth all the colours would be off and maybe in some other plane it'd be coppercandy brown striped with mouldblue. She lowered her arms carefully down to the mask wall, locks of light brown hair falling down from her face and sweat running across her from being trapped in that thing, grey singlet wrinkled across her chest. She raised the JansenVision 3000 goggles—famous across the multiverse—from her forehead up to her eyes, watching for the sparkles. Magic. Something not quite right. A little to the right...
The one mask there that wasn't Neth. Bright purple and fluorescent blue sparks danced from it like miniature shooting stars. Imoen reached carefully toward it.
Where'd you hide a needle? In a pyramid of needles. Or something on those lines. Where'd you hide a mask? In a wall of masks on a living plane, she thought.
Nearly there. Her hands wrapped in mooncalf-leather gloves—guaranteed nine-out-of-ten resist to magical traps—seized the bounty, and in that very moment all the ninety-hundred set of eyes in Neth's wall opened and stared right at her.
The effect was lost a little in the greasy streaked effects of the JansenVision 3000s, but it was damn creepy. And meant no time left. Yank back—nearly fall out of the golem suit—realise it was actually better to fall out of the golem suit—
Imoen snapped her fingers and the silver disc expanded itself from a fan and floated to catch her on her feet. Where gravity was flexible—better be flying. She tucked the mask under her right arm even as she was speeding off. Even as all the faces on all the vastness of Neth's wall of visages began to scream and their dead eyes swivelled to look at her back as she flew away.
Gloppy stuff glopped down at speed from Neth's corridors. Imoen reached to the belt slung across her shorts for the pellets there. No number of spells could get her out of here even if she'd been ten times the mage—not where the plane itself was alive and malevolent. No, this was time to rely on prep and useful things.
One pellet exploded into one sheet of ice. That froze up the creeping liquid tendrils of Neth—for a little while. Immy'd an ace up her sleeve: another few pouches on her belt, each containing a box of ten Xephanian Miniature Blue Tarantulas.
One flick of the catch and the spiders scattered free across the ice. Tickling Neth. Tickling Neth and letting Neth's one weakness allow the safe heist—
Neth's gloppy walls shook uncontrollably. She was out of ice pellets and blue tarantulas.
"Darrius? Laughing Flamingo to Night Stork! Open her up right now!"
A wave of Neth—ride it and speed through. If one of them hit her Neth'd seal her up and suck her personality out bit by bit and dissolve her flesh and mount her face on the Visage Wall alongside the precious thing she'd stolen...
Darrius wasn't responding. So Imoen activated her last-ditch power: spoke to the shard of dead-god buried in her soul and felt the burst of speed hit all her cells from the inside out. Fast senses, fast reflexes, fast movements. She spread her haste to the disc and it beat Neth's waves by inches, easy.
The voice crackled back to her on her speakopal earring. "Night Stork speaking, Flamingo. Nor-nor-west portal in one!"
Then the wide carmine-red tube burst out of the air in front of her, winds rising from it and air currents reaching for her. She whooped as she flew the silver disc inside it, and then what looked like stars flashed across the narrowing walls of it and behind her Neth's plane disappeared—
Then she rolled across the deck of the Spellventure, arms wrapped around her prize and tumbling down to the bulwarks of the forecastle deck. And lay there for a moment gazing up at the starry skies of infinite space beyond the golden bubble of air surrounding the spelljammer vessel, sweating into her singlet and drawers, pink-bleached hair tangled through her goggles.
Darrius, nearby, reached a black hand toward Imoen to help her up. Behind him rose the Captain's three-cornered hat, set around her gold-chased horns in naval blue.
Captain'd been born worlds from here as the tiefling daughter of a lady demon ruler and her plane's version of elves for a father: she was tall, fine-boned, glitter-skinned, with a catlike shape to her face and the horns coiled on her head, and dramatic ice-blue eyes without pupils that tended to ominously glint at the slightest hint of mutiny. The ship was in her bones and blood: they said when the Captain pirated it from the last owners she'd plucked out her own femur and bonded it to the tiller and replaced hers with a false bone in ruby. Then again, she walked and fought with no trouble. Then again, the Spellventure's tiller looked an awful lot like polished vaguely humanoid bone.
Imoen snapped upward with a wink and a salute flying in the direction of the nether atmosphere. "Second Lieutenant Imoen Winthrop reporting for duty, siress!"
The Captain acknowledged her in a swift nod. "Then hard plane-right for Sigil, Navigator Rfff'enwic! Lieutenant Darrius, Lieutenant Imoen, you'll handle the goods between you."
It wasn't free leave in advance—the rest of the crew'd get their shoretime in Sigil while she and Darrius were heading down to the buyer. He'd a sweet honey-and-amber tongue, Darrius, almost smooth as Imoen's when she wanted it to be. Convinced her to sign on with the spelljamming crew and spin all the way out of Faerun. They were friends and friends alone, but the sort of friends and shipmates who'd spit in undead stone gods' eyes running through the Astral Plane for each other and rescue each other from hails of meteors pressing down.
He was Faerunian too, a drow hailing from Ust Natha; Imoen'd passed through and thrown off her shackles and eventually left with the spelljammer crew she'd met in that city. A drow born with a wink and a song and a bit of wild magic—a natural bard, not that the drow were for singing. In the planes his skin meant nothing.
They walked side by side on Sigil's intricate torus shape and winding streets, a portal door lurking anywhere and everywhere if you knew how to look—even a hole in the top of a key could be a gate to another plane. A plumed quantum-peacock feather on his fancy hat made him two feet taller as they passed through the rings and the crowds, both of them planewalkers and spelljammers and dressed and poised for it. Women with three heads and men with four arms, blue-skinned devas and red-skinned devils five feet away from each other, berks and guvners and mercykillers and shopkeepers all crowding the streets. Sigil, they said, was the centre of all the multiverse, beginning and end and midpoint to most stories. Imoen drank in the smells of abyssal firepeppers and heavenly toffeecreams and frog legs from space roasting on spits between thick peppery buns, wending her way between pickpockets and petty touts.
The plane curved upward in Sigil's streets. The light above was an early-evening grey-blue; there was no sky or moons in the City of Doors. Just a weird suspended ambience that gave you days and night. Sigil shouldn't exist: there was meant to be a dead magic zone in the centre of it at all and nothing to suspend the gravity and create the cage between all the portals. It did—and Imoen liked it just the way it was.
Janus Makesmith's Oddity Emporium was high in the inner ring but tucked in an out-of-the-way spot, in the back of what passed for a quiet refined suburb where nothing ever happened in Sigil. That nothing involved a trihorned woman with red tattoos moving across her body singing softly in a high voice like nails plucking goat tendons on a mountaintop, a silken scarf floating independently around her, and a tatterdemanimal like living smoke flying through the air trailing a silver cage behind it on a chain.
A living, tiny imp took the place of the bell. Imoen adjusted the wrapped package under her arm and pressed on its nose sharply. But before it could have possibly skittered away to alert its master, Janus' door swung silently open.
"Janus? Hey, ol' Janus! Brought you a little present!" Imoen called out, just for the sake of it. Already the master of the house came down from a flight of stairs she would've sworn hadn't existed a moment ago, though it all looked calm and still. His thickset form was covered with a purple dressing-gown made of something that looked like stolen curtains, and was hemmed with heavy embroidery that moved as he spoke.
"As courteous as ever, scarlet sorceress, my dear. Lieutenant Darrius, ever a pleasure to lay eyes upon you." The whispered bass voice lingered, ever so slightly, on the sibilants. If Imoen'd met Janus in Faerun, she'd have called him an orc, and that wouldn't be a lie. There was nothing wrong with being an orc, or anything else you were born being, especially in Sigil. He was tall and broad-shouldered and bald, with rough green skin like mold eating the back of a caterpillar and scaly lumps on the top of his head. He'd eyebrows like moth wings and small piggy black eyes, and scarcely a nose at all. And, unlike an orc, Janus' tuskless mouth was yellow and set sideways and the wrong way up in a sharp-toothed small triangle that made you wonder how he managed to talk at all.
"You have the payment?" Darrius asked, pleasant-toned enough, holding out a hand.
"It is a slur on my name to think otherwise. There are diamonds of the first water; finest fire-tinted rubies; a matched pair of star sapphires I sorrow to release; four fine translucent rogue stones. All will justify the faith in my fair trade."
Imoen glanced through the contents of the imp-leather bag, using mage's sight to ferret illusions and a thief's eye for imperfections: mage-cut gemstones were fuel to spelljammers and therefore life and light for them. The Captain'd ordered them to accept none less. "Not quite enough," she negotiated.
"Surely it lies within you to avoid becoming o'ersharp, my sleveen. My merchandise is more valuable than lifeless gems; but you will find few buyers for rarities such as the mask."
She plucked some more jewels from the boxes about on the storeroom shelves—cabochon emerald, match-pair of cats' eyes, a small coarser diamond. She was starting to know where Makesmith kept everything. The coin and gems in out-of-the-way old boxes; the serious stuff behind glass or carelessly left on shelves, masks and flesh jars of things without names and intricate things of steel and metal and living feathers. She didn't bother to thieve extra; likely enough there were watch-your-hand-slowly-rot-off enchantments to prevent that and Makesmith's black eyes were sharp. "Deal."
"Unwrap the goods for me." Janus held out a squat, paw-like hand. Imoen already knew what the mask was: pale, perfect blue-tinted skin like snow and black eyeslots dark as ink, blood-red lips and a fall of hair like night. Knew what it looked like, rather.
"Tell us a story?" she asked as the cloth fell away, and glancing into the lifelike fiery eyes of a small dragon that looked to be made from still-growing puffball mushrooms and steel and a set of bellows that moved its cheeks and chest in and out. She'd liked stories ever since ol' Puffguts told her about his Faerunian adventuring days, sitting there by the hearthside with her sister and hearing about trollops and plugtails and priests and warriors—and the Oddity Emporium had more 'n enough of those. Sometimes it seemed everything strange and odd in all the planes passed by Janus Makesmith's doorstep. "A story about this one. I've heard most of the others."
He liked talking about his merchandise—softened him up to no end. His orc's features relaxed. "This one, this new one for my private collection? It is a beautiful soul. The mask of a beautiful soul. Once, you see, there were two planes of ice and snow, and an empress who ruled both of these and kept them in an eternal winter. Beautiful on the outside and vain with it, lovely as a snowflake and cold as the Fimbulfrost. Yet beauty can never last, so they say." Janus shrugged his shoulders as if to say that he had never possessed it. "Therefore the empress prepared. She adopted a young girl from her plane of dread cold and ice and snow, choosing the young babe with the fairest face of all. She ordered the girl to be raised with nothing but sweet, soft kindness for perfect beauty both within and without. The maiden grew to her twenty-first year, fair as frost and red as roses and black as ebony. By then the empress' beauty was fading, as time brings to all.
"Thus then the empress slew the girl and flayed her face from her. Were you expecting else?" Janus said with his soft hissing sibilants, drawing easy attention.
Icky... Imoen thought and didn't say. Wouldn't catch her dead wearing something like that. She shuddered—slightly—to think of running her fingers across the pale white inanimate skin.
"By cold and white arts she used the face to make a pale mask of skin, and bound the girl's soul within to animate it with beauty. She wore it to sustain her own looks. And it was not mere beauty but a far greater power the empress gained. The Mask of the Beautiful Soul gives the wearer that pure soul and an access to all the gifts of the heavens, even for the cruellest and most hellbound who don it. No doors above are closed to those with a beautiful soul; the doors below are open to all who ask. With such a balance of powers it is small wonder that this scrap of flesh provoked wars and genocides, invited conquerors, stormed the gates of celestial planes."
Janus' hands, tipped with small black claws, touched the smooth blank surface lovingly.
"Or so the lore of this artifact claims. A fortune in planar concessions was paid to Neth to guard this. And now it turns to a...curiosity...in my collection; or perhaps to be sold to a suitable buyer."
Imoen blinked. Makesmith's voice was low and rough, but it was also edged a bit with honey. Then there was Darrius tugging on her ear—hard, hard enough that he'd scream if you did the same to him—and she frowned. And looked carefully at the oddity-emporium owner. Something was up, her magesight told her. Golden psionic tentacles creeping insubstantially out of his head on the sounds of his voice, drawing down toward his mouth.
Janus Makesmith was orcblooded all right, and illithidblooded too. Tadpoled. Part mindflayer; part braineater. His triangle mouth was open and the translucent tentacles Imoen could only see with magesight led in there.
Hold on. He's trying to eat our brains! Imoen thought. I'm shocked and appalled. Hasn't been but a tenday since the last guy tried, and all.
Darrius' struggle was obvious. Sweat beaded on his face even though he didn't normally sweat, and he hummed a low note that began like a buzzing bee somewhere deep in his chest and all the squishy bits there. It sent the psionics quivering, for just a little bit, long enough for him to be the distraction.
Imoen slipped out an entirely non-magical tinderbox from her pocket, switched it on, and chucked it at the Mask of the Beautiful Soul. Which caught the preserved flesh alight like kindling.
Janus gave a wordless, agonised cry. He struggled to find water—settled on an antique violet-glassed bottle of some ancient unique wine—and flung it on the burning mask. When he was done there was a black, charred stain upon it that he'd probably never be able to fix in a million years.
"Can you blame me for hungering once in a while?" he asked softly, cradling the stained mask in his arms, standing over the broken wine bottle with the djinn-sculpted neck. "Your pardon, travellers. Sometimes the hunger grows. Can you blame a collector for craving to take more than offered? After you have done unutterable damage here?"
Tears came into his eyes as he cradled the mask, to Imoen's surprise—maybe the crocodile variety; she couldn't know for sure.
"I was to put thou on my finest private shelves; to stroke the craft of thee, flawless one, a leanbh, a mhuirnn, thou one-and-only thing without a price..." he cried. His yellow eyes rolled upward to Imoen and Darrius again. "Take what you have." Compulsively he stroked the black stain on the not-so-perfect-any-more mask. Perhaps that meant it couldn't be used the way he'd told the folktale. Imoen rather hoped so.
She gave a glance up once more to the contents of Janus Makesmith's oddities of ten thousand places. The crystal ball in shimmering light of a colour it was impossible to name, containing an entire planet and people and animals in miniature. A ship inside a glass bottle that was somehow bigger than the bottle. A stuffed tiger with three tusks and a strange grey gnomic creature growing out of its heavy skull. A red wineglass dripping with liquid that existed in three planes simultaneously. A glass-coated pearl shell transcendently pretty with opal-like reflections, harps whispering music inside its hollows. The weeping half-orc half-illithid proprietor still wept.
And in the planes there were so many like him and his oddities—where a daughter of a god from some backwater plane was nothing more than another wanderer making a living, and where today was but another Secondday and another adventure.
Imoen flicked the delicious smooth gemstones between her fingers again. She liked it this way. Probably this wouldn't even be the last time they came to the best-paying oddities dealer in Sigil. And now they couldn't keep the Cap'n waiting. She linked arms with Darrius as they walked out of there back to the Spellventure and onward to another plane.
Ao knew what adventure'd come with the next voyage.
Gorion's Ward was the daughter of Bhaal. Gorion's Ward of Candlekeep. Gorion's Ward, said to possess more of Bhaal's essence than many another illegitimate child of that dread god, and said to be great in power indeed. The daughter of Bhaal who became the famed heroine and who gathered followers who were more than followers, followers who would give life and more for her sake, comrades until the end.
There was another child of Candlekeep. She was her sister. She was Winthrop's child. Imoen snuck away from the inn one night and caught up to Gorion's Ward weeping in the road at the death of her mortal father. She put one hand in her sister's and her sword in the other and swore to help until the last. And she cut both their hands as they sat on the road there and pressed the cuts together, blood sisters and a blood oath to each stick by the other.
There is always one sibling who is the stronger. But sometimes the weak sister must shield her stronger half.
The hobgoblin reached down to slam its crude blade into Charon's chest, and the Bhaalspawn of Candlekeep was a moment too slow to prevent it. Chance can play poor tricks on adventurers. Imoen took the blow for her sister. Imoen died by a hobgoblin's blade in the wilds before Beregost.
And instead of blood there was golden dust. Even as the Bhaalspawn set her hands across Imoen's stomach and struggled to piece the gaping wound back together, even as Jaheira shouted a battlecry like the roar of a mother bear and shattered the goblin's skull with a staff, there was only a strange dust that escaped in Imoen's dying hour.
Flesh melted into golden, insubstantial dust. The Bhaalspawn laid hands on the bones beneath only to find they also flew to dust and ash on the wind. Imoen's red hair crumbled to yellow dust—then the rosy flesh of her face melted away, her eyes staring into the distance before they became black sockets—and then there was the grin of an empty skull. Then nothingness. The dust rose. Empty clothes and a rusted sword rested in the Bhaalspawn's hands.
And the gold dust found its own.
A ghost, the lore said. A ghost from beyond, a tomb's spirit from the potent Netheril days where cities were built on upturned floating mountains. For the ghost was a pure gold, and made of dust that flowed in particles too tiny to be the target of any spell or weapon and yet sharp enough to sear through admantine. And when the ghost's particles flowed about the Bhaalspawn as if she was armoured by ten thousand locusts, there was none who could hold her where she did not wish to be.
A demon, the lore said. A demon who belonged with the dead god. For gold was the colour of the eyes of the murderous god, and that gold could be nothing but evil. For when the Bhaalspawn sent golden circles flowing about her and slicing through her foes—there was none who could stand against her protection.
A sorcerer's magic, the lore said. Gorion's Ward possessed dangerous sorcery. Her golden aura was magic: it flowed in strange ways and crafted spells from its buzzing depths. It acted in wild magic to rain destruction on her enemies, and shaped itself in frightening, barely human shapes as a mage who could transform bodies.
Gorion's Ward roamed Faerun with her golden dust about her. Blood flowed in her wake. The Bhaalspawn brought murder and conquest where she walked, and none could stand against her shield. Few called it her sister.
"Child of Bhaal," the solar said. "Children of Bhaal. Both must choose."
Bhaal's essence was made to unite with itself. There was a bond like no other between the children of Candlekeep. Imoen's soul orbited her own, her body destroyed but Bhaal's power preserving her nature.
"You protected me, Imoen. You always protected me."
The dust flowed in infinite circles about Bhaal's child.
The lore says that there is a new solar now, and that she is made from celestial golden dust like a flock of heavenly bees.
6. Pink Crown And Rose
Imoen sighed and rested her feet for a brief moment. Bother and bother...never a smooth spot...never a break. Gods, she sounded like an old lady too long on her feet. Gods, she was an old lady too long on her feet. A middle-aged lady who still had some of her looks, mind, but if she'd been the seventeen she still felt some days, she'd have looked at herself with pity and thought she'd never let herself get to this point. A glance into one of her silver tankards and she fixed the bun at the back of her head, a single strain of grey starting to run through the red tangles, her yellowing apron covering her up, her cheeks plump and red and only a glint in her eyes the same Imoen of old.
"Two of Melusine's Bitter for a fine strong young thing like you...put hair in places you never thought could grow hair," Imoen teased, laying down the drinks—for a young beardless boy who looked barely older than her Timon. A wouldbe adventurer from the looks of his leathers. Gods, was she ever that young?
Check everyone'd their beer; make sure Mem wasn't overcooking the joint in the back; have Jinnan head down to the pump if they needed it; give everyone at table a word or two from the proprietress, for the customers had to hear from the landlady; make sure Timon and Eiili were in bed and staying there. And watch out for her girls, trotting around the Pink Crown's tables; keep an eye on that new barmaid from foreign parts, Edwytha or Edna or Eadweena or whatever she was called. High-stepping woman quick to answer back to a customer, which some of 'em liked, but careless with trays and glasses.
Bessa trotted up to her—her oldest partner-in-crime here, chief housekeeper and turner-out-of-beds and deputy with the blackthorn stick below the bar if customers got a little unruly. "You all right there, marm? Looks to me like it's all in order, and the new girl's doing well enough tonight. My eye's here on things right enough."
"Thanks, Bessa. I'll do the sparkly-show later tonight. Feel like checking on the kids awhile." Imoen dried a spare glass on her skirt, handed it back to Jinnan at the bar, automatically straightened her bottles of old dwarven ale as she passed, and smoothly stopped old Dunkin from drowning himself in his tankard.
If there was mischief afoot it'd be down to Timon. Young firecracker of a boy. She understood everything ol' Puffguts'd gone through raising her, Imoen thought as she puffed her own way up the stairs. The boy'd been an urchin wandering the town and picking a pocket or two, and like Winthrop had taken her in when she'd tried to steal his silver pocketwatch, she'd given Timon a bed at her inn and never looked back. Eiili was her other child, and different as night from day. A band of adventurers had killed a pack of orcs troubling the town and rescued a little girl the creatures had kept alive, and not finding her family someone had to take the child in. Eiili still did her best to obey every order someone gave to her, and kept calling Imoen milady instead of Mam Immy. But it'd come, Imoen promised herself, she'd do her best and muddle through just like Puffguts to her, and with the inn the kids'd never be out on the streets.
She smiled to herself as she managed to slip silently to Timon's room, stick her ear against the door, and hear the familiar rustle of quick rearrangements and blowing out of candles before she knocked. Sometimes he'd sneak down and stare at the tavern through one of the knotholes, 'specially the illusion shows she'd put on for the customers, stage magic. P'raps she should send him to young Belandrin to learn a bit on how to do potions. Pity that ol' Firebead was long gone.
"Mam!" Imoen was truly proud of the contrived note of tired outrage in his voice, though she tried to quash that feeling. "I was asleep!" She peeked into his darkened room, all looking as it should.
"Well, you keep at it, then, and I'll rouse you proper in the morning for chores, my lad." She heard his groan.
She looked into Eiili's room without making a sound. Eiili had the attic room with the skylight, done up in glass to let the stars in, with a thick curtain on it for the winter nights, the walls hung with wool to keep it warm and cosy and a plush red rug on the floor, furthest from the noise and clamour and closest to Imoen's own room. She slept soundly under the starlight in the dark, her black hair spread over her goose pillow and her pale face peaceful, the book of fairy tales she was reading abandoned by her side. Sometimes Imoen was torn between thinking that Eiili's brother taking her on wild ventures was good for her and every instinct she had as a parent demanding no wild ventures be completely safe!. But tonight the lass was sleeping with all her might, and it was nice to stand there for a peaceful minute or two away from the noise and bustle.
Then Imoen went down and rejoined the noise and bustle, because it was her noise and bustle, and went through every illusion stage-trick she knew in between bringing out ale and wine enough to set their profits for the next tenday. Even the tiny glittering smoke-dragon she'd shape from some sod's pipe, Timon's favourite, in case he was watching through the knothole after all. For one or two of those lessons back in Candlekeep'd given her something, not that there'd ever been call to put it to use.
Catch her adventuring around like that beardless boy and his crew, young wouldbe heroes, probably walking into dungeons and playing the lute at people. Funny how she'd once thought of running off like that. She supposed if she had everything'd have been totally different. Oh, she'd had a foster sister once and that sister went on to greater things—but she was just Imoen. Just Imoen, who'd learned front to back from Dan Winthrop how to keep an inn cleaner than an elven arse and turn a merry tinkling of coin even amidst nothing but boring monks and guards. Just Imoen, who'd sold the Candlekeep inn for a fat profit and set up her own house on her own terms in Beregost and made a fine success of it. Just Imoen, who'd picked up magic tricks as a grown woman and had some fun with what she had. Just Imoen and her pair of kids—and Bessa and Jinnan and Mem and her barmaid girls, and old Dunkin and Belandrin and Kass Smith and Molly Fuiruim and 'Crelia and all the regulars in the Pink Crown and Rose, the best inn in Beregost.
Imoen whistled, rubbing down a stain of foam on one of the tables for something for her hands to do, once her guests were headed up for a little rest. Soon at last she'd get the chance for a bit of shuteye too. Hey, it was just her, Imoen.
7. How Imoen Winthrop Accidentally Started A Thieves' Guild, Lived As An Archmage, And Probably Saved The World A Few More Times
She'd always had a soft spot for kids, but if you didn't, then there was something wrong with you, she'd say.
Her sister'd say something narky about how it was probably because Imoen was a kid inside herself, but she didn't mind. Charon wouldn't have meant it harshly anyway. But it was time for the two of them to move on a bit and get some space, and Imoen wandered about and took every chance she had just to breathe.
Wander far from Tethyr where nobody knew her by sight and the Bhaalspawn wars hadn't managed to spread that far. Take a path between two tiny towns and spend the time if she darn well wanted to chase down the butterflies and fill her arms full of spring bluebells and cowslips and daffy-down-dills. She hadn't remembered anything smelling or tasting like much when she'd been without her soul—just the iron-sharp-rust sense of the asylum and of things cutting, and then the smell of blood, and finally Bodhi's vampire-dead flesh spattered on her hands. And the smoke raining down on Saradush and glittering dragon scales from Abazigal and Draconis and Sendai's statues screaming obscenities at her and Melissan at the end...all a blur, and becoming more of one as days slipped past and she made time out just to be her again.
Nice to meet you, Immy. Y' know, I always liked you, Immy.
Why, thank you, Immy; I've always fancied you too. Let's get to know each other a bit more, eh?
After a while it got boring and she wanted an inn's clean sheets and good food and more people rather than just herself to talk to, and she put herself as a mage into a merchant caravan or three heading north-west. She'd like to see Neverwinter and if it was warm all year round as they said.
She made it to Yartar on a side-trip before she heard that the Baron-for-life had a pink diamond the size of a dinnerplate made for a soul-gem of some dead Halruaan princess-mage kept in an admantine vault guarded by fourteen golems and a crack squad of mercenaries and spell-security ten feet deep.
What archmage-thief with pink-dyed hair could resist that?
Eight days, four hours, and ten minutes after officially retiring from adventuring, Imoen Winthrop hung upside down from a ceiling, carefully lowering a delicate counterweight into the diamond case while shifting limbs and torso into just the right contortions of shape not to trigger any unfortunate wards.
She tripped away through the shadows of Yartar's south-west streets, diamond clanking against her chest. They'd started to notice. She saw bobbing lights of the nightwatchmen roaming the night, searching for their thief. There were running feet not far from her—
But too light to be anyone looking for her. Then they were followed by something heavier. Imoen ducked her head out from the corner of a stable and saw the pair. She heard a man's voice shouting out for money.
And she popped out too. "Hey, you, mister! What're you chasing my little brother for?"
He was rather tall and dressed in all dull greys and purples that would have been a shadow-blending sort, if they weren't stained with old egg and yellowed mud and didn't have that smell to them. There was a blade scar on his face. "You idiot. It's a girl, and she owes me money—and ye don't want to get in Krakar's way."
The kid had sheltered behind Imoen. Scrawny little thing. She stuck her tongue out at her pursuer. "Don't have any, so there, ol' Cacky!"
"Then I'll take it outta your hide. Stand aside, girlie! I know people who run this town," Krakar threatened. Imoen fought the urge to yawn—a two-bit thug, but to the kid he'd be scary as a fullgrown dragon. And besides, she could live without attracting attention herself.
She described a couple of circles in the air with her right hand, and suddenly the man began staggering.
"Purple dragons? Purple dragons? Plaid dragons! Fecking rabbits! Gonna find the rabbits!..."
Imoen dusted off her hands nonchalantly. Good to stick a confusion or few in the spellbooks. The kid looked up at her, tugging at her black cloak. "You a mage? A witch? You got something under your cloak and you're our kind of people, I can tell. But you're not with the Krakens. The Krakens don't like lifters who don't belong."
"Just passing through, kid. So he was after you for dues?" She'd seen Aran Linvail employing kids. Made her annoyed.
"That's right. An' he'll come after me again." The child's face fell. Imoen straightened her shoulders.
"Well, you help me back by coming along and pretending to be my sister, 'till we're free of the guards."
Looking for a lone woman helped—they didn't think it was the girl chivvying her little sister along home. Imoen bought the kid four hot potatoes and two glasses of watered ale to wash it down and learned about Babet's poor life. A kid that age shouldn't be shaken down by thieves for coin no matter what she exaggerated about her story to snare a bit of pity and warmth from a stranger.
Imoen took her down to the temple of Ilmater in the morning and left ten gold with her and fifty for the priests to keep her and others, and snuck out through the shadows of a midden-gate to escape the city.
Nimoar's Stop was where she wandered a tenday or few later, plenty of gold and pretty things and spell components in the bag of holding to keep her going. It was raining and she was sick of squelching through the overflowing Dessarin, even riding on the backs of summoned bears. A small town not far from the City of Splendours—she'd go and see if Waterdeep was as exciting as the first time she vaguely remembered crossing the bridge into the Gate. P'raps see brother Sarevok one of these days, too, thinking of the old Baldur's Gate days a moment.
Then she saw the urchin of a boy playing alone by the riverside, and then falling in.
Bigby's Grasping Hand—rather big and pink and showy—mightn't have been the greatest choice to stay inconspicuous, but she'd had to act in a hurry. And people wanted to buy her free drinks. And as the night wore on and the crowds dropped off, a pale, intense-looking girl with eyes like a pair of cinders came up and stared into her eyes.
"You saved my brother," she said. "I am Zelma, and since I am only a poor thief I've little to give you."
Imoen choked up the beer discreetly off to the side. "You wha—?"
"A humble thief. There are those who say that it is a necessary profession in life. Many adventurers who follow the role for good. Many leaders of thieves' guilds who prosper—the legendary Shadowmaster of Amn and beyond." The girl clasped her long, white fingers—good fingers for lockpicking and sensitive work, Imoen did notice—together as if she were a wouldbe priestess swearing a vow. "You are an adventurer, aren't you? A powerful mage? Do you know many thieves? And you wear a black cloak—"
"Yeah, I've met thieves, and mostly they were sods!" A sour taste came into Imoen's mouth. Aran was a torturing creep who put his eyes where he shouldn't, back in Baldur's Gate she'd nearly been executed for trying to fit into Alatos Ravenscar's guild, and she'd guessed easily that the Kraken Society giving little Babet trouble in Yartar wasn't worth half a copper.
"Then why," Zelma said, cinder-eyes glinting, "have you instinctively moved your hand away from me trying to lay fingers on your bracelet?"
Imoen sighed. "You're mean enough to steal from someone who rescued your kid brother?"
"But I didn't," Zelma said, with all the limpidness of a pool of water in a forest. "I want you to teach me, because you must be good at it, and because I've been to Waterdeep too and I know plenty of places and people there, and because I want to join a thieves' guild at last. Your thieves' guild!
"And if you don't let us...then my brother and I will have nothing to live on."
it was a tiny attic in an abandoned garret in a house falling down and with bare windows and cracks in the walls plugged up with old sheets turned so grey you couldn't tell what dye was originally on the cloth. It was where Zelma and her brother Roach lived. Imoen sighed again, heavily.
"Okay. Ground rules of Imoen's thieves' guild, you two. First, I teach you better sneaking, pickpocketing, and how to open a lock in ten seconds flat with Dan Winthrop's patented Adventurer's Companion." She'd gotten Jan to make her a replica of Winthrop's present to her when the original was long gone, and she fetched it out of thin air with a spell. "Second, you keep what you steal, except ten percent goes to beggars, twenty percent goes to operating costs, and if there's magic items you let me see them before you sell them on. One percent of magic item sales goes to me." She thought it was pretty well implied that she'd be keeping the mage stuff she could use.
Kids. They looked so hopeful and earnest and bright-eyed with fervour...reminding Imoen of herself, frankly.
"No black lotus, no slavery, no assassinating people, and no selling anyone's bodies unless they want to be sold," Imoen ticked off. "No taking more than what people can afford to lose. Plain, simple, old-fashioned thievery—taking from the rich and giving to the poor and having adventures and fun while you're at it." The way she'd hoped thieves' guilds to be when she finally got the chance to see one. "Rumour-trading too, sneaking around after the juicy secrets and hidden shiny things and all that—and a bit of magic here and there. Got it?"
"Yes, Guildmistress!" chorused the two kids in rags.
"And for Mask's sake just call me Imoen! Right, let's see your lockpicking skills."
They said that the Ghost-Beast of Waterdeep only came at night. They said it killed silently. They said folk went to sleep in a house in the east of town and woke up to a shower of blood and fine-chewed gristle over their beds. Imoen heard that gossip among a few other things...and decided she'd keep wandering. Zelma'd earned eight silver the other day picking Widow Leiling's linen chest back open for her when she'd mislaid the keys. The girl—though Zelma wasn't too much younger than Imoen herself—was starting to show a bit of promise at last.
Imoen sauntered into Waterdeep, but then before she knew it she was being surrounded by guards and transferred straight to a deep dark room underground that looked palatial in the furnishings, as if they'd somehow known straightaway who she was. She straightened her shoulders. Beholders, dragons, undead of all sorts, wouldbe gods, all gone now while she was still around, and there was big brother Sarevok apparently routing orcs in Berdusk to compete with. She'd escape. She'd not let anyone hold her a helpless prisoner ever, ever again. No matter what she had to set on fire to do it.
There were four masked people dressed in elaborate black robes that hid all of them, and one tall man with grey hair and an open face who somehow reminded her of ol' Keldorn by the look in his eyes.
"Imoen Winthrop, ward of Gorion. Former daughter of Bhaal. Would that we met in better circumstances. But your guardian's name—and even that of your father—have spoken for you; as have your actions in denying godhood and living quietly since then. You do not deny who you are?"
She'd thought of that. But she shrugged and kept her mouth firmly shut. She could guess who they were, from all the geography lessons back in Candlekeep. Black-clad, expensive, in charge of guards. Waterdeep's Masked Lords and rulers, speaking through Open Lord Piergeiron Paladinson.
"You're drafted," the Paladinson said dryly. "The Ghost-Beast is a threat of grave magnitude and incredible magical power. While Waterdeep still stands, I give my word we will treat you fairly. Please enter the anteroom to meet your fellow draftees."
Separated from the guards, Imoen wandered past a wall-mosaic of a peacock and a couple of unicorns. She saw a tall grey-bearded man in a red robe, a black-bearded man carrying a heavy black staff and looking vaguely familiar, and two silver-haired women, though both looked different enough from each other. One wore her hair wild and free, walking barefoot, and had donned what looked like a brief black sleepingrobe and nothing else over a generous figure; the other was dressed like a noblewoman in a rich green high-necked gown with many layers of fichus and petticoats, her hair neatly braided and an expensive golden necklace shining through the tiny gap in her dress.
"Mister E," Imoen said, taking initiative and walking to the one she'd met the most times, "or is it Mister T? How's it going?"
"Circumstances less pleasing than one would wish," the ol' geezer who really shouldn't be called an ol' geezer said, though there was a faint twinkle deep in his eyes in the light of the oil lamps on the wall. "It seems that thou and thy sister did nobly indeed...exactly as Gorion predicted. And even here I have hopes 'twill prove a benefit to all here."
Elminster. Dropping them hints, bumping into them on the road—Gorion's old friend in ways that Imoen'd never learned the full truth about. Oldest mage in the Realms.
"My name is Khelben Arunsun," the second one introduced himself, all formalike, and Imoen remembered a game with imps near to the Underdark and giving a staff to his dummy. The real thing had a few more streaks of white in his black beard, but he was the same as ever otherwise—and this one time when he'd visited Gorion long ago, her sister'd stolen his cloak and ran all the way through Candlekeep naked as a jaybird except for it... "My lady wife, Laeral." The green-gowned woman curtseyed beautifully.
All the necklaces, Imoen thought all of a sudden, so, lady, they really all your tears or just cheap knockoffs? She held out a hand in turn, and felt, distantly, the magic surging in the lady's blood and bone.
"And her sister the Simbul," Khelben Blackstaff finished. Oh, this one Imoen knew too by reputation—the lady from Aglarond who kept sending all those Red Wizards home crying to their mothers...
Even I'd not be wise enough to attack you now, ol' Elmy'd said to Imoen and her sister on the steps of Abazigal's lair; she stood as equal to these people, and they welcomed her. Imoen summoned a bottle of wine and, smiling back at her, Laeral produced five fine snowflake-crystal glasses with a flourish of her own magic.
But it was all solid business from then on. The Ghost-Beast of Waterdeep was made of some kind of dweomered stuff and swallowed up whatever was thrown against it. The Ghost-Beast of Waterdeep had to be some sort of undead, because it sure as all the nine hells wasn't anything that existed today. Laeral had dug through all her old books and found a hint of something like that back in Netherese days—all the way in those times when magic ruled supreme. The Simbul had a contact near her lands who'd vaguely heard of such things in Halruaan archives. Something imprisoned until lately. Something risen. And something that gained more and more strength each time it fed—and fed more and more often.
The creature's tomb sealing the Ghost-Beast must have been somewhere near—though the Netherese were powerful enough to fold space and time in on each other like children making paper boats, so even that wasn't certain. The only lead they had. And so Imoen started out adventuring with the band of famous archmages on Faerun.
She stared at the Simbul walking barefoot through the deep dark sewers, her feet and the hem of her dress stained with green mouldy mud.
"It's always sewers, isn't it? Why does it always have to be sewers?" she said.
Elminster chuckled. "It was also so when I was young, strangely enough, even though they had not yet invented plumbing."
Imoen fanned her hands in the air and muttered a spell to neutralise the nasty gases there, then added the twists in the runes that'd keep it moving with them. Little thing she'd worked out how to do back with Charon, and a little thing she'd prepared in advance. Then nonchalantly she summoned dancing yellow flames above her head, knowing that normally they'd explode in the noxious gases that haunted such places. She got a few surprised stares out of them before they realised what she'd done. The Simbul flashed her an amused, approving glance.
Khelben frowned over divinations and led them this way and that. The Simbul scooped up a lump of sewerwater in her fingers and held her hand to her nose, then announced she smelt traces of blood and they'd flowed from that way.
And so the intrepid adventures came to the lair of the Ghost-Beast of Waterdeep. It was empty. It was in the end of a long cave that definitely didn't belong to the sewer proper, and came to have old runes carved into heavy blocks of ancient stone. Heavy blocks that had been really badly scratched and flung around. Inside—Elminster and Laeral standing outside in case of traps—it was a dank, dark, empty tomb. Imoen shivered at the sudden cold. Undead, all right. Reminded her of Bodhi and the creepy fingers up her spine walking into the old Athkatlan tombs, and this was older by millennia.
Laeral traced the last decipherable rune with her fingers. "Indeed it is Netheril work and indeed it is a ghost. A Sharran. As there are tales that she instructs her followers to imprison their souls in cold swords to give extra power, in those days she was more potent in demands. This time the soul of one of her priestesses inhabited a black dragon, frozen with an undead's cold and deadly rage. The Beast was slain, but because the soul could not be freed, that is the explanation for why it was imprisoned. It was imprisoned behind locks and keys," Laeral stressed. "It is impossible to read the parts of the one who destroyed it, but I imagine a mage-knight of one of the powers opposed to Shar. Amaunator, perhaps." Imoen gave a slight start at the name. Sun-gods just kept on popping up around her and her sister's general direction. "It has been clever enough to ruin and hide the original spells that kept it prisoned."
"Then we are to hide-and-seek to reconstruct the spell," Elminster announced, stroking his beard. "Mistress Winthrop, your thoughts?"
"Imoen. Just call me Imoen. I know the usual imprison-spells are kinda cruel...but can't we use something like that for a beast?" she suggested. "Except for that swallow-up-magic thing you say it's got going on...and I know you're talking about the Law of Synecdoche Rebuilding here..." She'd got it, she thought.
"Let us rejoin each other with what we may find," Khelben proposed. "The creature is not capable of transcending time and space—yet—like its Netherese brethren. We shall divide the city between ourselves. Whosoever finds the locks we need shall earn a right to toast the others at the Yawning Portal...after we have defeated the creature on its next appearance." His face was grim below the sewer dirt, and his grip about his staff harsh.
Mebbe Viccy could've helped if she'd been here, Imoen thought briefly, but it was too late to search for her and she mightn't even have wanted to. She pulled out the pink diamond from the bag of holding and toyed with it, wondering if she should stick it on a necklace—it was too big for a tiara—to make sure she'd be taken seriously as an archmage. Hold on, cart before the horse, there's a giant Ghost-Beast out there eating people. She frowned. Something to do with liches in spider-crawling tombs there. The diamond glittered with the pink of a dawn. They killed a shadow dragon once and gathered a dawn gem and raised Anomen from vampiric death. It'd come. And she'd another good idea too.
Eight hours later, a band of urchins large and wriggling enough to be impossible to count handed a heavy leather knapsack weighted down with all sorts of metal to her. Zelma looked proud.
"I told you I knew people in Waterdeep, Guildmistress. Thank you for the teleport! I'd like you to meet our recruitment quota this quarter." Imoen fished through the bag. Bog-standard old lock—fragment of gnomish clockwork—scratched part of a bridge—rusty wire—and bingo. Fragments that glittered to her magesight. Old fragments; the Ghost-Beast destroyed and hid what kept it prisoned like a sensible monster—but couldn't hide it from young, sharp eyes roaming the streets.
"I found that one," a small voice said, and Imoen saw Babet popping up. "I took the gold and followed you, Lady Imoen! The priests helped," she said. "I wanna join your guild instead of ol' Cacky's and Second-In-Command Zelma says I can!"
"Okay, kids," Imoen said,straightening up, "time for you to get under cover. Gonna be some serious magery here—and that's orders as a Guildmistress. Pronto, sharp now!" Zelma and her self-appointed title saluted and began pinching ears for Imoen. Useful to have a lass to do the enforcing for her.
Elminster spilt down the red paint of their magic circle for them, getting a good few splashes on his beard. Imoen fiddled with her dogeared spellbook and ran down the crinkly-edged pages; it was a practical adventurer's book, one she'd nicked from Spellhold and taken to firepits and the Abyss and down sulphur-hot wet springs. Laeral's was immaculate and soft-covered and embossed with gold thread. But the woman gave Imoen a friendly, sweet smile. "We must..."
"Swap spells sometime, little sister in sorcery," the Simbul finished. The two silver-haired sisters grinned at each other.
Khelben Blackstaff, all utterly serious business in a face so creaked and set it might as well have been a statue built to illustrate the art of scowling, set down his staff on Elminster's circles; and the whole crackled nto a fine unburning pale blue magefire.
The air grew chilly. Imoen looked sharply into the distant night below northern stars, but it was the Simbul who first spotted the Ghost-Beast of Waterdeep's approach.
It was huge and white and dusty in the air, a great shapeless thing like a predatory cloud that came drawn into the night by the powers uncovered to contain it. It sucked up atmosphere and lifeforce and magery like a typhoon. There was a stray dog who hadn't been gathered to safety in time—a rangy grey dog the size of a wolfhound—and the cloud passed over it. For but a moment. Then there was no dog and the Ghost-Beast took on a bloodied and terrible aspect to its unformed pale shape.
Imoen gathered her magic. Khelben and Laeral'd worked on reconstructing the bonds holding the Ghost-Beast from the remains of the ancient locks of spell-components; and Imoen joined her power to them as they tried to recreate the tomb. Netherese metal from unknown forge techniques sparked white astral fire. False borders sprang about the Ghost-Beast, and there were Elminster and the Simbul—that was smart of 'em, trying to drain magic from the air themselves around the creature to give it nothing—and then a burst of Mystra's silverfire. But the Beast only took that in to give it life.
Made before the current Mystra, that's why—I get that! Imoen thought excitedly, in the middle of battle once more, using all her brains to do what she needed. She just wasn't made to sit around and do nothing when there was peril near—
She toughened the key to a lock. The glittering chain swirled through the air like a pendulum, magically created from a mere part of the old whole. Reach down, reach up, stitch like you're mending a tunic, and push your mind into four dimensions at once. They'd crafted a beautiful heavy net, black serious Khelben, purple Simbul, red Elminster and green-sea Laeral, bright pink slipping between them all and adding delicate edges to secure the locks like a thief. It was perfect. It was incredibly powerful.
Five voices screamed in feedback as the Ghost-Beast tore through it as if it was nothing.
"'Tis but a first attempt!" Elminster bluffed and tried to hold things together. The Simbul distracted it with a brilliant flying purple thing in illusion—a sort of serpent with shifting wings, a sort of lion and a sort of basilisk; Imoen never could describe it properly—and Imoen caught Laeral reaching for all the protection-spells she had, green bubbhling around her and her husband. Khelben stared as if he was trying to think of something, and Imoen's mind raced forward too.
"Souls," she heard him mutter; and she answered—
"Liches, what liches do."
"Soulgems," Khelben said; and Imoen knew that a mage-knight defeated this one and Shar was against all dawn.
So she whipped out her pink diamond and offered it up.
"Pure pink diamond, rosy-fingered dawn hue, perfect soul-container, going once, going twice!"
Khelben's caterpillar eyebrows jolted nearly to his hairline—Laeral was calmer. "How much necromancy do you know, Imoen?" she asked in a soft respectful tone of voice; and then she started pulling open her own books. Imoen scoped out a spot to lay a trap. Pull out maze-spell from memory and reframe it to make something want to eat the labyrinth it constructed. Draw the Ghost-Beast of Waterdeep deeper and deeper into a thief's trap, something nice for it to devour—
There at the end Laeral made the diamond a pink perfect soulgem, and Elminster and Khelben and the Simbul waited with the threads of the Netherese locks. The Ghost-Beast chased the end of Imoen's maze and led itself into the gem's facets. And all that was left was to slam the door shut.
The gem looked so small in Laeral's hands. The old Netherese metal had been consumed by the spells. There was nothing but rubble and darkness around them now, without the slightest magefire to light their way. Imoen wiped a hand across her forehead and found it wet. In the distance she saw the sun begin to rise over Waterdeep and a kinder day dawning for the people inside.
So Imoen went happily down to buy the first round for the other famous archmage adventurers in the region, and yawned her way through the Yawning Portal's morning until afternoon and time for a sleep came.
She found Zelma waiting for her with a pair of unusually fine brocade-embroidered slippers.
Funny, Imoen thought. She'd run away from Candlekeep because she needed to look after her sister, she'd finally got a chance to be on her own, and now she'd more looking after to do. She'd better start a proper home for a thieves' guild somewhere better for it; maybe start out in Yartar rather than Waterdeep proper, get it gradually up and running and competing. She'd best stay around for a while...and make it to Neverwinter later.
Heh, and next adventure she'd better teach Khelben Blackstaff to lighten up a notch or three.