Authors: Keith Baker
It was Pierce, reading a book. He looked up as Lei entered the room. With a glance, he took in the staff in her hands and the tension in her walk.
“What is wrong?” he said, setting his book on the nearest table.
Lei studied the room, searching for anything out of the ordinary. “I don’t know. Nerves, probably. Daine’s upstairs?” She felt like a fool, but the inexplicable feeling lingered at the back of her mind.
“I believe so. Do you require assistance?” He already had a
hand on the haft of his flail. Born to war, Pierce was quick to react to any possible threat.
“No, no … I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll just go and check on him.”
Pierce released his flail and retrieved his book, a history of the kings of Galifar. If he’d been human, he would have shrugged. “As you wish.”
Lei sighed as she made her way up the stairs. She considered Pierce to be one of her closest friends, but somehow … things hadn’t been the same between them these past few months. When they’d first arrived in Sharn, Lei had been forced to fight Pierce and had almost destroyed him. She still had nightmares of that moment, of shredding his lifeforce with her touch; while he didn’t seem to harbor any ill will toward her, she still felt the guilt. There was something further—a dream she’d had in the wake of the battle. The memories were vague, but her parents had been there, with a handful of warforged—including Pierce. Was it a true vision of the past or pure delirium? The dream had left her with a strange sense of dread, of a terrible secret just out of reach. She knew she should ask Pierce about it, but somehow she couldn’t; it was as if the secret refused to be let loose.
Daine’s door was shut, and she rapped on it with her staff. “Daine?”
She knocked again, louder. “Daine? Are you sleeping?”
She waited for the acerbic
that would typically follow such a question, but she received only silence. Frowning, she tried the door. It was barred.
“Daine! Answer me!” She struck the door again. No response.
She closed her eyes and drew on the reserves of mystical energy bound within her green and gold jerkin. She visualized this power flowing into her right glove and quickly wove the glittering strands to form a charm of opening. Studying the door, she struck it with her hand; there was a brilliant flash and the door sprung open, the wooden bar clattering to the floor.
Daine was lying just inside the door, naked save for his breeches. The first thing Lei noticed was his awkward position; he’d fallen unexpectedly and hard. She dropped to her
knees and put a hand on his back. His skin was still warm, and she could feel his breathing. She opened her mouth to call for Pierce, but then she saw the other body. Sprawled across the floor in the center of the room, this stranger was completely hidden beneath a dark hooded cloak. For a moment, Lei froze. She opened her mouth to call for Pierce—and a hand grasped her throat.
Lei had been trained in defense, but her eyes were on the intruder. The action was a blur; she was thrown off-balance, then an iron vise caught her neck and slammed her into the ground. A knee came down against her chest, driving the air from her lungs. As she struggled to draw breath, the face of her attacker came into focus: Daine, no sign of recognition in his wild eyes. She gasped, trying to speak, but she couldn’t form the words.
“Daine.” The voice was cool and clear, even over the sound of her beating heart. “Let it go. Come back from the darkness.”
There was a woman standing over Daine, a blurred phantom wrapped in the night. She placed a pale hand on the side of his head, and slowly the pressure eased on Lei’s neck. The madness faded from Daine’s eyes, and they focused on Lei’s face.
Recognition washed over him, and he leapt up, backing away from her. He gazed down at his hands, as if he didn’t know whom they belonged to. Lei drew a deep, ragged breath.
The stranger was standing over her, green eyes glittering in the darkness. She held out her hand. “Get up, Lei,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m afraid this nightmare is just beginning.”
he darkness slammed into Daine like a wave of tar—thick and fluid, yet charged with a terrible chill. He was thrown back off his feet, and in that instant it was all around him. The physical pressure built with every passing second, but the mental agony was far worse. He could feel the shadows seeping into his mind, slowly sinking into his thoughts and melting them away. Emotion, will, all was dissolving in the cold. A few more moments and there would be nothing left—an empty shell suspended in the dark.
This would not happen. This was
mind—his battleground. Struggling against the darkness, he summoned his strongest memories, his deepest pains: his father’s face in the great hall of the Blademark, shame and rage warring in his expression; his first view of the Mournland, of the sweeping ruin that was once his home; a gnome woman’s laughter in a candlelit room; Jode’s shattered body sprawled across a pile of corpses; and Lei—the first time he’d seen her, the sun bringing out the fire in her coppery hair. Her hand was against his cheek earlier that night. Binding joy and pain into a single bright force, he threw this raw emotion against the encompassing dark, and the cold shadows retreated before the light. Even as the chill began to fade, he was consumed by fire. The faces he’d conjured wouldn’t go away, and now these phantoms of the past clutched at his mind. The mad artificer Kharizal d’Cannith
and the changeling Monan howled with laughter, while Naelan of Valenar spun his bloody scimitar into a shield of razored steel. Teral ir’Soras stepped out of the shadows, wearing armor formed of raw flesh and muscle. Daine thrust his way through the phantoms and seized Teral by the throat, slamming the treacherous counselor to the ground, but even as he tightened his grip, his victim’s features flowed away, and now it was Lei who lay beneath him. Horrified, he released her and staggered back. With every second the mental cacophony increased. The mocking calls of his enemies and the cries of dying friends tore into his mind, crushing all thought.
Daine. Come back from the darkness
It was a command. A brilliant light flowed down from above, shattering the shadows. He was back in his room at the inn with no name. Every muscle ached, and he fell back against the wall, slowly sinking to the floor.
Voices called to him.
. A radiant figure knelt before him, and at her touch confusion and pain were swept away.
Lei and Lakashtai pulled him to his feet, each of the women holding one of his hands. He didn’t know the kalashtar woman well enough to read her expressions, but Lei’s face was full of fear.
“I’m … I’m fine,” he said, mustering as much strength as he could. Surprisingly, the words were almost true; his strength was swiftly returning, and he actually felt better than he had all day.
“Not nearly.” Lakashtai had set aside her bantering manner, and her flickering smile had vanished. Her eyes were cold; her mouth a tight line. “Tashana. It would be her.”
Lei whirled to face the kalashtar.
“What is going on?”
Lakashtai’s eyes flashed, and Lei took an involuntary step back. “A great evil has touched the mind of your friend, and I can’t allow it to spread any further.” She looked at Daine, and glittering green energy flowed around her hand. “I am sorry it has to end like this.”
“Move and you will share his end.” Pierce was standing in the doorway. His bow was in his hands, and an arrowhead of black steel was leveled at her heart.
For the briefest instant, Lakashtai’s eyes flickered toward
Pierce. That moment was all that was needed. Daine latched onto her wrist with one hand, gripping her elbow with the other. Even as he moved, Lei brought her darkwood staff around in a low arc, sweeping Lakashtai’s legs out from under her. Daine knelt to keep his grip on her arm, and Lei put the point of her staff against the kalashtar’s throat.
The verdant energy faded from Lakashtai’s hand, but her face was a serene mask. “I bear no malice toward you, Daine. You may not believe it, but I saved your life a few moments ago, for the second time.”
“What was that? A healing touch?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
She glanced at her pinioned hand, and raised her delicate eyebrows. Daine took a deep breath and released her arm, moving back to stand by Pierce. “Try speaking more plainly.”
“The fears that brought me here were proven true. Your mind is under siege, and it is a battle that can only end with your death.”
Was there the slightest trace of pity in her eyes?
“I cannot allow my enemies to break you, but I lack the power to drive them from your mind. I can only hold them off, as I did moments ago, but I can offer you a quick and painless end.”
Lei prodded Lakashtai’s neck with her staff.
enemies? You’re responsible for this?”
“Lei …” Lakashtai looked up at the angry young woman. “Your fury is misplaced, and your weapons are unnecessary. Allow me to stand, so we may discuss this as equals; you know that I would do the same for you, were our positions reversed.”
That’s true, Daine thought. Lei was frowning slightly, but she raised her staff and took a step back. Pierce lowered his bow and returned the arrow to his quiver.
Lakashtai stood up and straightened her cloak. “Better.” She glanced at Lei. “My enemies are the enemies of all. I do not know what they want from Daine’s mind, but the fact that they seek it is all that I need to know. This sacrifice is a tragedy, but we must serve the greater good.”
Daine found himself nodding; strange as it was, it seemed to make sense. After all, who was he to stand in the way of the greater good?
“There has to be another way.”
Lei’s words pulled Daine out of his fog. What had he been thinking? He stared at Lakashtai suspiciously, but she showed no signs of guilt.
“I don’t know what’s going on here, but you said that you held it off—that you saved his life. If you could do it once, why can’t you do it again?”
“I shielded our spirits from the attack, and were I to remain by Daine’s side, I could continue to hold it at bay, but I cannot remain with him forever; I have my own duties to attend to. There is no power that can drive the darkness from his mind. There are only two options: swift death or an inexorable descent into insanity.”
“Well, at least I’ve got options,” Daine said.
“I don’t accept that!” Lei’s knuckles were white against the dark wood of her staff. “I don’t know you, and I’ll be damned to Dolurrh before you touch my friend. If I learned one thing as a child, it’s that there are always solutions—you just have to find them.”
“I take no pleasure in this, Lei—”
“You don’t know me.”
Lakashtai met Lei’s gaze, and this time it was the kalashtar who looked away. “You don’t understand what you are dealing with. This is the source of every nightmare. Its power is beyond comprehension, and no—” She broke off abruptly, her brow furrowed in concentration.
“What?” Daine and Lei said together. Pierce watched silently.
“Yes …” she said, as if speaking to herself. “I had forgotten … but it might be possible.”
Daine could see that Lei was preparing for another blow with her staff, and he put a hand on her shoulder. “Many things are possible,” he said. “Can you be more specific?”
Lakashtai glanced back at him, and the intensity of her gaze sent a shiver down his spine. “I have booked passage to Stormreach. I am leaving in a few hours. You will travel with me.”
“Oh, I think not,” Lei said.
Daine tightened his grip on her shoulder. “Lei—”
, Daine. Across the Thunder Sea? Barren wastes filled with savage giants and creatures we’ve never even dreamt of?” Lei shrugged off his restraining hand and took a step toward the kalashtar woman. “First you try to kill him, and now you want him to take a little trip to Xen’drik? If you think I’m letting Daine out of my sight, you’re insane.”
Lakashtai shrugged, a surprisingly human gesture. Her voice had regained its cool composure. “Then join us. I never wanted him dead, Lei. I simply saw no alternative.”
“A slim chance, to be certain, but if there is hope, it lies in the shattered land.”
“You just happen to be going there. Why is that?”
“A fortunate coincidence, and one I have no time to explain.” Lakashtai took a step toward Daine, and Pierce and Lei leveled their weapons; she glanced at them with the faintest trace of exasperation in her luminous eyes. “Daine, nothing in this land can save you. I know not why the darkness seeks your memories, but I must oppose them. Xen’drik is your only chance, and at the least I can shield you from further harm for the duration of the journey.”
Daine pondered. Lei and Pierce remained at the ready.
“You sought my help before, Daine. I saved your life then, and I will do it again if I can.”
Lei glanced at Daine, puzzled.
It seemed insane, but Lakashtai had helped him before. Although she had been planning to kill him a moment earlier, he found that he believed her. “Fine. I’ll do it.”