Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Murielle’s body writhed on the wooden floor of the small house in Waterdeep. Her hands and feet bound with shackles to sturdy iron hooks embedded in the thick wooden planks. Strangely though, she found herself watching her body twist and contort in odd ways that she thought physically impossible. She watched from the corner of the small room as Proctor Gertrude, her mentor, looked on with obvious concern etched upon her face.
“What’s happening to me?” Murielle thought to herself, but she could not pull her gaze from the writhing form on the floor of the room. “There’s no pain. Am I already dead?” She thought.
“Do ya wish to be?” A female voice whispered from the shadows in the corner of the room.
Murielle, not easily startled, nearly jumped through the ceiling at the answer to the question she thought no one else could hear. She immediately snapped her head around to face the direction from where the voice had come readying herself for whoever, or whatever, would be coming from the darkness. After what seemed like an eternity, a blonde, half elf woman calmly walked out of the shadows to stand next to her. The half elf woman was dressed in black, skin tight leather armor with a silver belt ornately carved with tiny spiders all over the surface of it. Set into the belt were eight rubies, six smaller ones and two large ones in the center. Upon closer inspection the armor was covered in etchings of small spiders just like the silver belt and as she looked closer she saw that the small spiders would move from time to time as if crawling across the surface of armor itself.
“Don’t fret child, I’m not here to harm ya.” The blonde, half elf spoke in whispered tones. “I’m here to teach ya.” She continued.
“You are… You…” Murielle could not find the words to speak as she suddenly realized who was now standing beside her.
“My name is Tasha, as ya wish yars to be as well, yeh?” The blonde woman looked up into Murielle’s eyes as she spoke so there could be no mistake that this was not just a simple question. Murielle, being tall for a human, was at least a head taller than the smaller half elf but at that moment she felt no less intimidated than if she were facing a storm giant. The blonde, half elf woman stared at her waiting patiently for her answer.
“Yes.” Murielle spoke without really thinking about it. And of course she did, this was all she ever wanted since the time Gertrude and the other two Tasha’s had purchased her from the slave market in Calimport. “Yes.” Murielle said again with more conviction as she straightened herself to look squarely back into the eyes of the blonde woman standing next to her.
“Then we shall begin.” An impish grin spread across the thin lips of the blonde, half elf woman as she spoke. She held out her hand and nodded toward Murielle prompting her to grasp it.
“You are Tasha… the first one?” Murielle said, her voice shaking much more than she wanted, as she moved slowly to take the half elf’s outstretched hand.
“Ya will see, eh? Ya will see.” Tasha said.
The two grasped hands and instantly the small room faded from view replaced by a stream of images and voices to numerous to comprehend. Scenes of friends and enemies alike, of otherworldly beings unknown to Murielle and godlike creatures which she thought existed only in nightmares. She became overwhelmed and found herself nearly losing her grip on the small hand that held hers with a mighty grip. The images and voices lessened suddenly and she found herself floating through the air toward a skyship and gently lighting on the deck overlooking a curious scene.
“The history of Tasha is as important as the future of Tasha.” Tasha said to her young pupil as they touched their feet to the wooden deck of the skyship.
“Mistress Tasha, it is an honor to meet…” Murielle, finally realizing the truth of her companion’s identity, started to say.
“Silence child. Ya’ll learn the history.” Tasha cut her off immediately and nodded toward the main deck where a few people stood talking. “Beware, the godling will sense us if we move too close.” She continued in a whisper while pointing toward a flamboyantly dressed human male of apparent middle age standing in the middle of the deck and doing most of the talking.
“…Finder Wyvernspur, at your service.” The middle-aged man bowed low as he finished. “For your bravery and sacrifice I am entitled to grant you each one request.” Finder continued to speak and for the first time Murielle looked at the others that stood on the deck of the ship.
Immediately two of the figures stood out and her gaze fixed upon them. One was a raven haired, human woman wearing shining plate armor emblazoned with the symbol of the dead god Tyr, and across from her stood a small, blonde half elf woman wearing drab, brown leather armor.
The raven haired woman stepped up and asked the demigod Finder for the ability to better serve Tyr, the Just. The woman’s sword flew out of its scabbard into the grasping hand of the middle-aged man and immediately burst into flames and burned with white light. The demigod then tossed the sword back to the waiting paladin that reverently looked it over and then slid it back into its sheath. Finder spun immediately toward the blonde, half elf woman and stood with a patient look on his face awaiting her request.
“I want… I want more power.” Tasha simply stated, as if it should have been obvious what she wanted.
“Ah! It’s a simple request that carries the weight of the ages!” Finder stated with a flourish of hand gestures. “But can you handle the power little half elf?” As soon as he finished, Tasha’s armor immediately changed from drab, brown simple leather to a black, skin tight leather suit with a silver belt set with eight rubies.
“The armor chose me, ya see. Even the godling didn’t understand it at the time.” Tasha leaned over to Murielle and spoke softly in her ear. “The godling was the unwitting conduit through which the dark lady sank her fangs into me, eh?” The lithe, half elf woman said as a wry grin spread across her thin lips. A grin that was tinged with regret or maybe sorrow, Murielle noticed. Then Tasha looked around as if she sensed something coming near.
“We must move. There’s more to learn, eh.” Tasha again grasps Murielle’s hand and at once the blur of images and whispering voices return as the two of them float past images too wondrous and terrible for Murielle to imagine.
The voices grew louder and the images now started to form more cohesive scenes. Some of these scenes depicted Tasha in desperate battles against creatures too great and terrible for Murielle to comprehend. One scene flashed passed that showed the diminutive, half elf woman plunging two black, horn-like daggers into the skull of an enormous skeletal dragon. The undead beast howled and thrashed and then exploded into thousands of bone shards before the scene faded and was replaced by another. Murielle stared in awe as she held tightly to her new proctor’s hand as they flew through this otherworldly realm toward their next destination that she somehow sensed drawing ever closer. The voices grew clearer with every passing moment, and Murielle was able to make out one word that seemed to be repeated over and over.
The two astral travelers touched down the next instant on a dark patch of ground at the top of rocky cliff. The ground was covered in dust and shards of bone littered the dark landscape. Even the rocks upon which they stood were dark as if all color had been drained away from this world and all that was left were shades of lifeless gray. Tasha made her way a few steps toward the edge of the cliff and looked back toward her young pupil with a stern gaze.
“Things ya’re about to see will disturb ya greatly youngling. But it’s necessary to teach ya what it means to be Tasha, eh?” The half elf woman finished and then motioned for Murielle to come join her near the edge of the cliff.
“What… will I see Mistress?” Murielle stumbled over her words and realized for the first time since Proctor Gertrude had rescued her from Calimport more than seven years before, she felt fear.
“Truth.” Was all that the blonde, half elf woman would offer as she turned back to look over the cliff.
Murielle’s fear grew as she realized the blonde woman’s face showed deep concern. Nevertheless, she moved by Tasha’s side and together they peered down over the cliff at a scene that weakened Murielle’s knees so much so that she nearly fell over the edge and had to be steadied by her new proctor. There at the bottom of that cliff, no more than thirty feet from them, stood the Spider Queen herself, Lady Lloth.
The weakness spread through her body and she was jolted back into the small room and back into her body that still lay shackled to the floor. Proctor Gertrude was kneeling over her squeezing water from a drenched cloth into her opened mouth. The room spun around her and she felt like her arms and legs were being torn from her body. The black armor clung to her skin like rotting mud from a bog. But that was not the worst of it by far. The black, leather armor literally began to crawl all over her body. The tiny spiders etched into the leather skittered about the surface of her skin and sank their tiny fangs into her over and over again. She screamed in terror, but the scream was cut short by a sharp pain on her left cheek as Proctor Gertrude smacked her across the face hard.
“Be strong girl! She will protect you, trust in her.” Gertrude shouted at her in her usual harsh but well meaning tone.
The next instant Murielle found herself back in the dark realm beside Tasha, the first one. The small, blonde woman was holding her up as Murielle now realized that her knees were too weak to support her own weight. She quickly found her footing and tried to gather herself feeling rather foolish and unworthy at that moment.
“Be strong youngling! I’ll protect ya, trust me, eh?” Tasha said to her as she glared deep into Murielle’s eyes.
At that moment Murielle knew that Tasha was not encouraging her as much as testing her strength of will. Murielle was dangerously close to having her life snuffed out by the lithe, half elf woman standing in front of her. Tasha’s stare was one of quiet threat. Not a threat born of malice in any way, but a threat of instant death nonetheless. It was the threat of disappointment and unworthiness. Murielle took a deep, steadying breath, regained her feet and then nodded to Tasha in an effort to convince the half elf that her moment of weakness was over. Murielle buried her own doubts deep within her hoping they would not surface again. In truth, the blonde, half elf woman next to her was starting to unease her nearly as much as what lie just over the cliff.
“A close one, eh?” Tasha’s wry, sorrowful grin again crossed her thin lips as she turned away and peered back over the edge of the cliff. Murielle moved to join her immediately.
Again Murielle looked upon the face of evil incarnate, the Spider Queen. Lloth stood in front of a throne made of the skulls of many different creatures, some Murielle recognized and some she did not. The Spider Queen was a dark elf woman that stood at least ten feet tall and wore a shimmering, black silken dress with thin silver strands weaving a web pattern all over the surface. There was an aura about the dark elf maiden that filled one with terror and lust at the same time. The air crackled around the area with a chaotic power that Murielle could not comprehend yet it seemed familiar to her somehow. The two demon lords bowed low as Lloth took a step toward them and for the first time Murielle heard the terrible voice of the Spider Queen as she spoke to the two demons.
“You disappoint your mistress, Azazel. You had but one task to complete.” The drow maiden spoke in a soft, too polite tone as she moved between the two demon lords. “Tell me, was the human female too much for you to handle by yourself that you had to drag poor Zipresil from the pit to help you, hmmm?” Lloth purred as she stroked the horns atop the lowered head of the demonic from of Azazel.
“I serve at the request of my lord, he who cannot be named.” It was all that Azazel could think to offer at that moment.
“Asmodeus assured me that you would serve me well, Azazel. Yet, you have proved him wrong apparently.” Lloth’s voice carried immense weight and the two demon lords seemed to visibly shrink before her.
As the drow goddess finished she casually turned her head to look up to the top of the rocky cliff where Murielle and Tasha stood. At that moment Murielle felt like there was nothing else in all the realms that she wanted to do more than to crawl under a large rock and hide, but Tasha stood there staring back at the drow maiden. She felt her knees going weak again but managed, somehow, to find the strength to steady herself. Murielle noticed then that Lloth wore the same curious, wry grin that Tasha wore, but there was no hint of regret or sorrow in it, only malice and wickedness.
“The bitch senses our presence.” Tasha said.
“Can she…?” Murielle whispered as loud as she dared half expecting the Spider Queen to rip out her tongue before she finished.
“No. The bitch knows, but she’s powerless to do anything. No fear, eh?” Tasha, reading Murielle’s thoughts precisely, said never taking her gaze from the dark elf embodiment of chaos that stood below staring back at her.
“You may go Zipresil. I’ll not hold you to account for this one’s failure.” The Spider Queen said and she waved her hand as though she was dismissing an insect and the demon lord vanished into a black mist which quickly dissipated into the heavy air.
“Azazel, what am I to do with you? I guess you will have one hundred years to plot your revenge against Tyr’s champion?” Lloth said in a mocking tone. “You better hope the little human whore breeds so there will be something to direct your vengeance against.” The dark elf stood smirking at the demon lord daring him to lash out at her.
Azazel literally trembled with anger and Murielle could see smoke starting to rise from the demon’s skin. It seemed that the demon was ready to explode into rage but the dark elf woman simply giggled with glee and turned her back to the smoldering demonic form still kneeling before her throne. Lloth took one more step and the demon could not contain his rage any longer. There was an explosion of flame and a loud crack of energy as the demon launched its ill-fated attack against the Spider Queen.
From the shadows a black blur raced in to intercept Azazel’s attack just before it landed in the dark elf maiden’s back. Lloth turned and sat down on the throne of skulls and smiled wickedly at the small, half elf woman clad in skin tight, black leather armor now standing between her and the angry demon lord.
“If you can best my pet Azazel, I’ll consider giving you another chance to regain my grace.” Lloth burst into cackling laughter as she finished and the battle was joined.
“I was her slave, her pet ya see? The armor is her creation… or was until I took it from her, eh?” Tasha chuckled as she turned back to face her visibly unsettled pupil.
Murielle was frozen in place trying desperately to work out what she was seeing and how she could be seeing it. Here was Tasha, the one who started the organization nearly two centuries ago, fighting a demon lord for the queen of the drow, Lloth. For what purpose, she thought. The organization, as it was simply known, was responsible for the lives of countless girls from all over the realms. Rescuing these girls from death or slavery or worse, but for what? And yet, her companion was also Tasha. The two of them were apparently on a journey through the memories of Tasha, or perhaps it was the… armor?
Murielle paused and stiffened when the realization hit her like a ballista bolt. Was this the armor that was controlling her mind? Proctor Gertrude said she would have to battle for control of the armor, but she always assumed that it would be a physical battle. Not a fight, but more like an endurance test; like overcoming the effects of poison or a spell. Murielle’s mind swirled with possibilities as she tried to work it all out. And there, next to her, was Tasha who was still staring at her and wearing that wry, sorrowful grin as if purposefully pausing to let her finish her attempt to work through everything that was happening. All the while the battle between the demon lord and Tasha, the other one, raged below them at the bottom of the rocky cliff.
“Are you… the armor?” Murielle hesitated as she finally spoke. Just what was the best way for her to ask her unusual companion that question? She did not know. “I… I mean… is this in my mind?” Murielle was lost and did not expect an answer, at least not an answer that would make any sense, and she was not disappointed.
“Yes… and no, eh?” Tasha finished and let out a giggle as if she was a twelve year old girl. Seeing her apparent light-hearted mood caught Murielle off guard and she nearly fell over with shock.
“I am the armor, and the armor is me, ya know?” Tasha added after seeing the dazed expression on the face of her human companion. She then snapped her head around and looked back into the darkness as if she sensed something watching them. “Let’s move, eh?” Tasha said quickly then grabbed Murielle’s hand and the next instant they were launched back into the shadowy void and were again bombarded by the images and voices that were becoming much clearer now.
“What’s chasing us? Is it… Lloth?” That last word almost stuck in her throat when Murielle spoke. The thought of being chased by the malevolent goddess of chaos was not a comforting thought.
“No.” Tasha stated abruptly.
“Well, what is chasing…” Murielle tried to ask but was cut off quickly.
“Now’s not the time, eh?” Tasha said as she quickly changed the direction of their flight a few times as if she was trying to lose a pursuer.
Murielle was just about to say something else when Tasha shot her a stern look and made her think twice before speaking. This journey they were on through this realm of images and events was starting to take its toll on her. She felt exhausted, whether it was from this form of travel or if it was just the result of the convulsions her real body was enduring back in the small room in Waterdeep, she could not tell. Maybe this was all in her mind. Maybe this was the battle Proctor Gertrude spoke about. Or maybe she was already dead and this was her afterlife.
“You will be stopped, Chaosbringer! There must be justice, my lord demands it!” A voice clearly shouted in the distance shaking Murielle from her thoughts and drawing her attention immediately to the scene unfolding in front of her.
“A few godlings get skewered and suddenly I’m in yar sights, eh paladin of Tyr… my old friend?” A now too familiar voice shouted back from the shadows.
They were standing there only twenty feet from a raven haired, human woman clad in the most brilliantly, glittering armor that Murielle could have imagined. Full plate silvery, metal armor covered the woman from shoulder to foot and etched all over the surface of it was the symbol of a fist clenching the scales of justice. It was the sign of the dead god Tyr, Lord of Justice and Virtue. This god was supposedly killed nearly seventy years earlier during an invasion of the astral realm, apparently sacrificing himself to end a war that threatened all of Faerun. What did Tyr have to do with anything? And, was it true that Tasha had killed astral beings or godlings as she referred to them? Was such a thing even possible?
Murielle turned and focused on the shadows from where the familiar voice had come knowing fully who would appear from the darkness. She had only moments to wait as the small, blonde half elf woman calmly stepped from the darkness into the dim light of the shadowy realm. Tasha stalked around and circled the raven haired woman as they continued their conversation.
“A few? Your work for the Queen of Chaos has claimed more than a dozen exarches and seraphs! It is against the supreme law!” The armor clad woman retorted. “The law must be upheld. Imagine the chaos that would spread if the gods turned on each other and made war!” The raven haired woman shouted at the empty air before her not bothering to turn to follow the circling half elf. A mistake that would cost her Murielle thought. But, to her astonishment, Tasha did not strike at her exposed flanks which would have meant a certain and quick death. Instead, she continued to circle.
“Who’s counting, eh?” Tasha quipped. “So there’s a few less godlings to medal in the lives of mortals. I didn’t know Tyr taught his pets to count Mina?” Tasha continued, and when she finished, the paladin spun around quickly to face her with anger flashing in her eyes, but there was something more there as well. There was sorrow. The sorrow quickly replaced the anger in the raven haired paladin’s eyes when she looked upon the half elf.
“Tasha, please stop this. My lord Tyr can help you.” The paladin spoke in softer tones of genuine concern. “I know what the spider witch did to you… I can help…”
“Lloth no longer holds me!” Tasha shouted back cutting short the words of the raven haired woman. “I’ll not serve another!” The ferocity that flowed forth from the diminutive half elf’s mouth made it seem possible that she could summon the strength to kill a god. If that were even possible, Murielle still wondered.
“Mina ya don’t want to die, eh? Leave… and take yar god with ya!” The blonde, half elf woman pulled the two daggers that were sheathed at her waist free and crouched into a fighting stance as she spoke. “Ya know what these can do, eh?” Tasha held up the two vicious looking daggers; the same two daggers Murielle had seen her fight the demon lord with, but now she could see them more clearly.
The weapons were not made of metal; rather they appeared to be the fangs of an enormous spider. Murielle could see the black, oily liquid dripping from the tips of vile weapons and the look of fear in the eyes of the raven haired paladin. Murielle turned to her companion to ask if those daggers were a gift from Lloth, but she thought better of it when she saw the expression on the face of Tasha, the first one. The blonde half elf stood looking upon the scene playing out in front of them with a pitiful look of despair splayed across her delicate features. At that moment, Murielle thought that maybe the purpose of this journey was to help her companion through the tortured life she had led. These two circling each other before them were obviously acquainted in some way, maybe even friends, but why would a paladin of Tyr have anything to do with a thief?
“The skyship!” Murielle blurted out and spun to face her companion immediately after the words flew from her mouth.
Tasha nodded calmly never taking her eyes from the scene that unfolded in front of her.
Why did I not see this before? This is the paladin from the skyship. Murielle silently berated herself for being so thick. These two had known each other for many years. The raven haired woman was older but not so much that she was diminished in any way. The sword she now held out before her shone with the same white light that had nearly blinded Murielle back on the skyship. The clang of weapons jolted her back from her thoughts.
“So the Spider Queen’s touch has penetrated you fully.” Mina said with solemn resignation in her voice.
“It appears so paladin.” Tasha quipped and a wry grin spread across her face.
“I have to come to help you my old friend.” Mina, paladin of Tyr, said with conviction evident in her voice and then she held up her sword and readied herself for a fight she knew she would not survive.
The paladin’s sword glowed brilliantly but the light seemed to be sucked out of the air and into the black armor that Tasha wore. The half elf’s form shimmered and seemed to become incorporeal at times as she circled the paladin waiting for the opening to strike. Mina stood there in silent prayer to Tyr as she waited for the killing blow to fall.
“NO!” Murielle screamed. She could not help herself when she saw the fang daggers rush in and pierce Mina’s abdomen easily penetrating the shining armor that she wore.
What the paladin did next astonished Murielle completely. Mina, somehow still standing after taking both of the horrible weapons in her gut, stepped into Tasha and brought her sword down from behind her friend piercing them both. White light burst forth and paladin and thief together were engulfed in a blazing radiance which stung Murielle’s eyes. She pulled her gaze away from the scene and looked to her companion. Tasha stood motionless staring at the light as if she could not turn away and would keep staring at it until it burned out her eyes. The light quickly faded and Tasha, the first one, walked over to where the battle had ended. There on the ground lay Tasha, the other one, writhing in agony born not of pain but of grief. Tasha lay there holding the paladin in her arms, desperately trying to stop the flow of blood and entrails spilling from the older, raven haired woman’s midsection.
“I gift to you the grace of Tyr… of justice.” Mina coughed violently and almost passed away but gathered the strength for one final thought. “May it temper… the tyranny… of chaos.” The final words spoken by the champion of Tyr completed the spell and Tasha screamed as the essences of the murdered godlings, of the venom of Lloth and the tyranny of chaos flowed away from her and into the dark ground beside them both.
“This night, I was born. This night I was… rescued, eh?” Tasha, the first one spoke in hushed tones as she stood over her own form that was sobbing uncontrollably still clutching the dead form of her friend. The images faded and Murielle was left standing beside Tasha on that dark, gray patch of ground that was still soaked with blood.
“It’s coming and we’ll not be running anymore, eh?” Tasha said as she glanced around to the darkness and then back into Murielle’s eyes that were still moist with tears.
“It’s the armor coming for me isn’t it?” Murielle asked in an unsteady voice.
“Aye.” Tasha said.
“Mina saved you from the chaos of Lloth’s essence that was inside the armor?” Murielle asked and quickly glanced back toward the darkness when she heard the unearthly moan of something drawing near.
“There’s evil in everyone, yeh? Mina, tempered it so that it’d not be able to consume me, but she also gave me her sense of justice and duty, eh? She gave me the strength to control the armor and truly become its master, yeh?” Tasha’s familiar wry, sorrowful grin again spread across her thin lips.
“Then Lloth’s influence is still in the armor?” Murielle asked, but in truth she really did not want to know the answer.
“Of course." Tasha immediately responded. “The armor is nothing without it, and I…” She paused and thought for a moment then continued. “We, are nothing without that touch of power and chaos, yeh?” She finished as she moved her hand back and forth between the two of them to make her point clear.
“Will I survive?” Murielle asked.
“No fear, youngling. Yar stronger than most of yar sisters that have come to me, eh?” Tasha quickly turned toward a dark form that could now be seen approaching as she finished. “Defeat fear, conquer doubt, and ya’ll join yar sisters in service to me. Easy!” Tasha finished with a laugh and then backed away allowing Murielle to gaze at the black, shapeless form that was fast approaching now.
The black form wriggled and moaned in a grotesque manner as it approached fast from the darkness. Murielle prepared herself for the black, shapeless mass that meant to devour her. She pulled her daggers and set her feet, just as Gertrude had taught her.