Sound & Fury - bardnuts (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Let's Work Up an Appetite for Tragedy Chapter Text Chapter 2: Astarion Gets His Bearings Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 3: Twill and Astarion Set Off Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 4: Astarion Feels Peckish Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 5: Twill Experiences Rudeness Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 6: Astarion Has a Change of Heart Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 7: Twill's Unreciprocated Family Reunion Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 8: Astarion's Midnight Snack Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 9: Twill and Astarion Make an Arrangement Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 10: Withers Kills the Vibe Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 11: Twill Makes a Deal Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 12: Astarion Loses His Temper Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 13: Twill Makes Some Friends Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 14: Astarion Misses the Mark Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 15: Twill Narrowly Prevents a Slugging Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 16: Astarion Sees God Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 17: Twill Slips Away Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 18: Astarion Gets Sloppy Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 19: Doodles & Depictions I Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 20: Twill Receives a Visitor Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 21: Astarion Takes a Bite Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 22: Astarion Sees Too Much Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 23: Twill Misses A Note Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 24: Astarion Steals Everything Not Nailed Down and Some Things That Are Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 25: Astarion's Marvellous Ceiling Adventure Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 26: Twill Hangs Out Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 27: Astarion Breaks a Promise Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 28: Twill Builds a Fire Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 29: Astarion Does the Talking Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 30: Twill's Plan Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 31: Astarion Bravely Runs Away Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 32: Twill Communes With Livestock Summary: Chapter Text

Chapter 1: Let's Work Up an Appetite for Tragedy

Chapter Text

Let’s go over this again.

Start with your name.

The Dark Urge.

no

The Dark Ur—

No.

Twill.

That’s better. Your name is Twill. Twill E. Cavander. It’s the sole piece of you still rattling around in there, like a penny in a jar. Since you regained consciousness after the crash, all you’ve done is stumble through the woods in a vague, bloodthirsty haze. Tadpole in your skull. Thinking dirty thoughts.

Now night has fallen, and you’re no closer to finding a healer. All you’ve managed to find is this … elf.

You think he’s an elf. He’s got sort of a funny smell about him, like there’s something rotten underneath, but you really aren’t in a position to distribute judgement here. Glass houses and all that. And you can’t afford to be picky.

He’s across the clearing now, erecting a tent with the delicate precision of someone who has never driven a stake into the ground in his life. You’re trying to figure out if you can trust him. He did pull a knife on you earlier, after all.

Fantasize about putting your thumbs in his eyes.

Again. Glass houses.

You pluck absently at your lute as you watch him. Well, it isn’t your lute—you found it earlier on a dead body you had to convince yourself not to eat—but something about it feels familiar in your arms, like an old friend. Whatever was going on in your old life, music had something to do with it.

There’s a reason half the children in Baldur’s Gate are terrified of bards.

Something is seriously going on with you, isn’t it?

You watch Astarion’s tent collapse on top of him. He’s almost as bad at being alive as you are, which does make you a little more inclined to trust him. When he extricates himself from the canvas, he dusts himself off and makes his way over to you with all the poise and dignity of a cat that just fell off a windowsill.

“So,” he says, “we’re camping here for the night?”

He’s definitely trying to figure out if you’re going to murder him.

“It’s no Elfsong, but it’ll do,” you say.

He offers an inauthentic chuckle. “Aha, no. This is all a little new to me. Curling up in the dirt, I mean.”

Yes, curl up in the dirt. You will bury him in it.

“At least it’s a lovely night,” you say.

No, it is not a lovely night! It is a night for murder! Murder him!

Instead of murdering him, you pluck a few pleasant chords on your lute. For some reason this makes Astarion flinch.

“You know,” he says, as if the thought has only just occurred to him, “you ought to get some rest. And I—I’m in no place to rest, yet. I need a little time to … digest all this. I’m happy to keep watch, if you like.”

Now look up at him with an air of slow and liquid menace.

“That’s really kind of you,” you say. “I have one humdinger of a headache.”

Blood! Blood! Blood! Blood!

You glance up and he’s staring at you like he has never heard a living person use the word “humdinger” before. His eye is twitching. You meet his gaze calmly.

“Yes,” he says, “well. Sleep tight. Here’s hoping we don’t turn into vicious monsters overnight.”

You stare at him for a minute.

“Oh,” you say, “you mean mind flayers.”

“Yes, of course I mean mind flayers. Unless you’ve forgotten our little excursion on the nautiloid from hell?”

Quick, grab him by the back of neck and hold him underwater until the bubbles stop!

“I should get some rest,” you say, giving him a weary smile.

“And you’re—all right with me taking the watch?” says Astarion, even though he was the one who suggested it in the first place. He almost sounds incredulous. Maybe he’s planning to murder you. “You don’t think I’m some kind of … maniac?”

Now give him a menacing smile.

You give him a menacing smile. “Not at all,” you reply. “What are the chances of two maniacs sharing the same camp?”

“Ha,” says Astarion.

“Ha ha,” you say.

There is a long, hollow silence.

“Well,” he says again, “good night. Sleep well. We’ll find a healer in the morning.”

He’s definitely planning to kill you.

You continue plucking your lute as goes back to his spot across the camp and sits down on the rumpled canvas of his collapsed tent.

One of you has to fall asleep first.

You stare at each other in silence until the fire goes out.

Chapter 2: Astarion Gets His Bearings

Summary:

Sorry it isn't funny anymore

Chapter Text

There is something very wrong with Twill, your new companion. You just can’t put your finger on it, which is distressing because your life depends entirely on your ability to read people. To almost all your senses he seems like a run-of-the-mill dolt: overly trusting and foolishly friendly. By your metrics, the perfect mark.

But he also reeks of blood, and not in the fun way. A stench of death not unlike your own, the kind that can’t be scrubbed out or washed away. Watching him from across the camp makes the back of your neck prickle. If you had any other option against the hordes of mind flayers and monsters and gods-know-what-else lurking in this wilderness, you’d pack up and slip away into the trees.

But he’s asleep for now, which means you are free to experience your first moment of true silence in over two hundred years.

You breathe in and exhale. The sound of your own breath startles you. You look down at your own hands, which are shaking. You tell yourself the tremors are from your growing thirst because the truth is too momentous to contemplate: there is no trace of Cazador’s presence in your mind. He’s gone.

He’s gone.

An owl hoots in the tree above you and you’re on your feet, dagger in hand, before your mind catches up with your body. Every inch of you is humming with tension, because how could any of this have happened to you? Last night you were a slave in Baldur’s Gate, and now—well, you’re in the middle of nowhere, covered in mud, with a mind flayer parasite in your skull, altogether a complete downgrade, really, except … except …

You drop the dagger and sink against the trunk of the tree. Something between a laugh and a sob threatens to bubble out of your throat, but you force it down to keep from waking the snoring human across the camp. How could this happen? Two hundred years of misery and torment broken in an instant, not by some knight in shining armor but by random chance?

Just when you thought the world couldn’t give any less of a sh*t about you, it goes and pulls something like this. You’re a number, a footnote, a lucky roll of the dice.

A bitter smile creases your face. It isn’t like you to be melancholy. Chance has dealt you a favorable hand for the first time in your life, and you’re going to use it to take the cards away. Whatever happens to you now will be your doing. That’s what freedom means. You will never be a slave again.

First you need to get rid of this parasite. And you need to secure some protection. Cazador has fingers in everyone’s pies, and he’ll definitely send people after you. The instant you set foot in civilized society again, you’re f*cked—unless you have some muscle to back you up.

The stranger you’ve teamed up with, the other tadpoling victim, will have to do for now. Unless you can find better prospects.

You’re pulled out of your thoughts by a cry in the night: your companion in happenstance, thrashing on his bedroll like a trapped rat. His back arches and his nails claw at the dirt. In the colorless sketch of the dark, you can see his hair sweat-plastered to his brow. You pick up your dagger again, just in case—if this is ceremorphosis, you’ll be ready to cut and run, in that order.

Your caution is misplaced. Twill jolts awake from his nightmare, chest heaving, but shows no further signs of transforming. He looks around blindly, his eyes shadowed by deep, hollow circles. You’re somewhat comforted by the knowledge he can’t see you in the dark, because you have rarely seen anyone look quite so rabidly unwell and you’d rather keep out of his way if he decides he needs to express himself.

You watch, hidden, as he stumbles to the stream and throws up, then washes his face, in that order. He kneels by the stream, water and sick dripping from his chin, and begins to cry softly. It’s one of the most revolting things you’ve ever seen.

He’s an idiot. He’s a dangerous idiot.

And he’s currently your only option.

Oh, hells. You’re f*cked.

Chapter 3: Twill and Astarion Set Off

Summary:

The dice giveth and the dice taketh away

Chapter Text

You are a wretched pile of sh*t. You are an abortion of nature. You are the sputum of a failed deity. You have such a headache.

You wake to the gentle light of morning, aching like a pile of broken sticks, with a hollow pit in your stomach and a bedroll soaked in perspiration. All night long, you dreamed of blood. Killing. Oceans of gall and bile. It would be bad enough if they were nightmares, but they weren’t. In your fevered mind, they were dreams of beauty.

The white-haired elf watches, unblinking, as you stagger around the campsite. His eyes track your every movement, but he says nothing as you wash your hands in the stream over and over and over again, and he doesn’t look away when you peel off your sweaty clothes to rinse them out. You’re too out of sorts to ask for modesty, but your skin prickles under his gaze. Maybe it’s the psychic link between your parasites, or maybe your imagination, but you can sense him eyeing the scars across your chest. A passing curiosity.

He doesn’t address you until you look at him, and when you do, his expression metamorphoses from wariness to smug indifference in a heartbeat.

“Good morning, darling,” he says. “Sleep well?”

This is hardly a question you need to justify with a response, so you just stare at him in sunken-eyed silence until he shrugs and continues, “You look thoroughly insane, I hope you know. Positively rabid. You poor thing. Tell me, how is your little friend doing?” Astarion prods at his temple. “Any sign of tentacles?”

Tell him the truth. Make him afraid.

Your voice crawls out of your throat half-dead. “I dream of a dead world submerged in lakes of clotted blood.”

Observe.

Astarion’s face shuffles through half a dozen possible reactions before it settles again on smug indifference. “Well,” he says, “do take care of yourself. Shall we? I’d prefer to find a healer before one of us succumbs to frenzied bloodlust.”

He’s taking this surprisingly well. Perhaps he didn’t hear you. Try again.

The words bubble out of you. “I long to kill everything that draws breath, then drive the very blade that murdered the world into my own wretched heart.”

“Not bad, if you’re going for a sort of prose poem,” says Astarion, “but I think your wording takes itself a bit too seriously. Now, can we go? Some of us have places to be.”

The Urge releases its grip on you with a suddenness that makes you gasp. You sag on your feet and Astarion steps back with a grimace of revulsion—possibly the first honest expression he’s allowed you to see. This isn’t good. You need this guy if you’re going to survive out here. You can’t afford to alienate any allies.

“Poetry!” you say. “Right. Too seriously, really?”

“My dear, I’ve read better poems on tombstones.” He waves a hand. “Let’s go; I’d like to reach those ruins by midday.”

Ruins? “We need to find a healer.”

“Yes, obviously, but when we find a healer we will then need to pay a healer, and I didn’t see you vomit up any gold coins last night,” he snaps. “I think a little scavenging is in order. Now, are you coming with me or shall I go find that helpful boar again?”

His feigned concern was nice while it lasted. You sigh. “I’ll need to get my lute.”

You turn away and feel a ping of awareness which is almost completely alien to you: for the first time in your life, with a -2 penalty to wisdom, you have succeeded a perception check.

You whirl around just in time for the point of Astarion’s dagger to halt, unerringly, in the hollow beneath your chin, pressed to your skin, sharp as a plucked string.

He’s still wearing that same impenetrable smile. “Let’s take things nice and slow.”

You glance down at the blade and back up again. “This is already moving a little fast for me, to be honest.”

Astarion keeps the knife where it is and closes the rest of the distance between you. His red eyes are fixed on yours. He’s so close you can feel his breath on your cheek.

“I just thought we should come to an … understanding,” he says quietly. “I’d prefer to survive this horrid little camping trip. I’m sure you would, too. Do I have that right? Nod.”

Nod.

You nod.

Now seize the knife and tear out his jugular with your teeth.

You do not do that.

“Good,” says Astarion. “Now, I don’t know what’s going on with you, and I don’t care. But I’ll be watching you, and I’m faster than I look, so I would think carefully before making any sudden movements. Otherwise I’ll need to bring our holiday to a premature end. Does that sound reasonable?”

“So, so reasonable.”

Still smiling, he removes his dagger from your throat. “Lovely. Now we can get on with things, and there won’t be any more secrets between us.”

Did you hear that? It was the sound of you failing an insight check.

“Lead the way,” you say, shouldering your pack and your lute. “Or do you want me to walk in front? Keep an eye on me, and all that?”

Fool! Never expose your neck to a stranger!

“I could not give any less of a sh*t where you walk,” says Astarion, but he allows you to take the lead as you set off into the trees. Birds rise twittering into the bright morning sun, which scatters on the leaves and paints the ground in gentle dappled patterns. “But I think we’ll get on fine so long as you don’t do any singing. Gods, why a bard …?”

Bear his jibes in silence.

You’ll get your vengeance soon enough.

Chapter 4: Astarion Feels Peckish

Summary:

In which traps are set and sprung

Chapter Text

It’s the hardest lock you’ve had to pick in years, and you really don’t want to turn your back on him long enough to do it. Every time this mad bard leaves your line of sight, you, Astarion, are transfixed by the horrible certainty of imminent murder.

Not even Cazador’s demented skeleton jailor Godey has you this on edge all the time, but there is something wrong with this man. He’s standing behind you now, rocking back and forth on his heels in the sand and singing to himself (very quietly, but only because you already told him to shut up twice). You’ve broken two lockpicks already and the third snaps off in your hand as Twill lets out a bark and doubles over coughing.

You jump a foot in the air and spin around, unable to conceal your rage and unease even though it’s vital, absolutely vital, that you do nothing to alienate this human, even though your very survival depends on his protection. “What was that?”

Tears are streaming from Twill’s eyes. He thumps his chest. “Sorry,” he wheezes. “Fly—went into my mouth—”

“Never mind. Just keep it down, will you?” You’re smoothing yourself over, pulling your voice back down to a more acceptable register. “A master is at work here.”

You bend to the lock again. His eyes burn like sunlight on the back of your neck. You can sense, through your shared parasite, something black and unspeakable thrashing just beneath the surface of Twill’s thoughts. Your instincts are tested, true, rarely flat-out wrong: you’re afraid of him for a reason.

You’re afraid of a man who chokes on flies, and you’re furious about it.

The fourth lockpick does it. The doors in the cliff face crack and expel a puff of dust as you push them inward. Sunlight penetrates a gray interior, thick with cobwebs and silence, and flows over the lid of an ornate casket at the center of a long chamber.

Home sweet home, almost.

You step back and beckon the bard. “After you. Assuming you’ve finished sampling the local wildlife.”

“Oh, this will be fun,” says Twill, breezing past you. “I’ve never done a good old-fashioned grave-robbing before.”

His lute jangles as he walks. His outfit has been embroidered—with frustrating skill—in colors that should make your eyes bleed. He moves with a sense of incaution and ineptitude better suited to a toddler with nothing to lose. You’re so entranced by your own profound dislike for this man that you don’t notice the vents in the floor until it’s too late.

Wait—ah!” You abort your frantic lunge towards Twill as he steps on the raised plate surrounding the vent and the resulting click sends a jolt of terror up your spine.

“What?” asks Twill.

“Traps.”

Twill looks at his feet, where a puddle of greasy slime is oozing steadily from the vent in the floor. “Not really effective, though, are they?”

You can’t kill him, you need him. You can’t kill him, you need him.

“Ehm,” you say. “I have a feeling that the horrible goo is only part one of our demise, and I’m not keen on initiating part two. So shall we watch our step?”

“You have experience in tomb raiding?”

“Let’s say I have experience in tombs.”

To his credit, and your chagrin, he takes your advice literally and begins moving across the chamber with exaggerated care, frowning at his own boots. Then something pulls his attention to the western wall. “What’s that? Looks valuable.”

“Watch where you’re stepping, you—augh!” Your feet betray you and you slip in the grease puddle, landing flat on your back and cracking your skull against the flagstone floor. For a moment all you hear is a high ringing noise. Then animal terror grips you once again and you struggle upright, looking around frantically because you have allowed your attention to lapse and he might already be lunging toward you with a stake to bury in your heart—

His head pops over the top of the sarcophagus in the center of the chamber. “That sounded nasty. You all right?”

“Fine!” you snap. “All is well and good here, no thanks to you. Just don’t touch anything else.” Most of the floor is now covered in what you suspect to be a highly flammable slime. You get to your feet with upmost care, glaring daggers at the back of Twill’s head as he returns to his rummaging.

It isn’t entirely his fault. You’ve been in an abominable mood all day. Because you’re hungry. You’re trying not to think about how you can hear the blood pounding in Twill’s veins, or how tempted you are to lunge at him while he has his back turned, to sink your fangs into that supple-looking neck.

You can’t kill him, you need him.

You need blood, too.

You’re a slave to your hunger, even if Cazador is far away. The very thought makes you want to retch. But you’ve never fed on a sapient creature before, never a humanoid, just … rats. And corpses. And this freak of a human has his back turned to you. Maybe you don’t need him. You could drain him dry and leave him here, and no one would ever be the wiser.

Move quick. Move quiet.

You slip in the grease again and hit your head.

“Careful over there,” calls Twill. “Say, what do you think the going price is for butt oil in rural villages?”

Your hunger has been overridden by a splitting headache. “…What?”

Across the room, Twill holds up a small glass vial shaped like a phallus. “There’s a whole crate full of these. Say, you don’t think … no …” His voice trails away as he gazes down at the quarter-inch of slime coating the flagstones.

“Oh, good gods,” you say. “Whose tomb is this?”

“Don’t know, but we can find out—sh*t!” Twill’s jovial tone cuts into a hiss of pain and he jerks his hand from the crate. A ribbon of blood slides down the back of his hand and up his sleeve. “Well, the whole bottom layer is in pieces, so we’ll just have to take what we can carry, I suppose.”

You can’t reply. Your brain is full of static. You can feel it rising, the feral hunger that will turn you into an animal, a gasping, twitching thing with no thoughts in its head, only blood, only thirst. There’s a voice in your head, an old and familiar one. Look how easy it is to make you forget yourself, boy. Can’t handle a little thirst? A little deprivation? You think you’ll ever be worthy of true power?

“Here, catch.”

Instinctively, you do. It is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a vial of butt oil.

With a sharp gasp, you come back to yourself and smash the vial against the sarcophagus for good measure. “We’re not taking this. Are you insane?”

“Well—”

“Don’t, don’t answer that.” In a panic, you paper over your hunger with mania and dart around the sarcophagus, scanning the shadows of the tomb for anything that might be worth taking. “There has to be something in here we can sell. Come on. Come on!”

“I say we start with the obvious,” says Twill. “If I were dead, I’d want to keep my valuables close.” He makes his way carefully across the grease and reaches for the lid of the sarcophagus.

You seize his wrist. He stiffens.

“I said, don’t touch anything,” you whisper.

His blood is warm and wet under your fingers, his pulse a siren song. You’re as startled by the contact as he is. He’s watching you sharply, not with fear but something more akin to a predator’s caution glinting deep in those honey-brown eyes. One wrong move, and you’re both dead.

Drink. Feed. Consume.

You release him. It almost leaves you giddy with relief—you can control yourself, after all. You’re not an animal. You’re not an animal.

Not anymore.

“Let me take care of it,” you say. “I can see a mechanism here, just under this lip. Do you see?”

He bends down and cranes his neck. “What, that?”

“It might be a trap. So, stand back, and watch the master at work.” You kneel as you fish your tools from your pocket and twist to reach the spring-loaded trigger set under the lid of the sarcophagus. Your fingers are spotted with blood. Your hands are shaking. Your thumb slips.

Click.

“Oh.” Your voice seems to come from a long way away. “sh*t.”

Chapter 5: Twill Experiences Rudeness

Summary:

In which Astarion commits atrocities and Twill very nearly follows his lead

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The instant Astarion springs the trap, time seems to slow around you. It’s clear to you, now, what an utter fool you have been to allocate even a molecule of trust to this haunted-looking elf. Even if this is not a deliberate murder attempt, his clumsiness alone is going to get you killed.

Your body reacts without your input—a worrying development, by any account—and you launch yourself away from the sarcophagus, skidding in the grease coating the floor in your mad scramble for safety. The door you entered through is too far away but there is another door, presumably leading further into the tomb.

Grotesques carved into the walls on either side of the chamber leer at you, cherry red points glowing to life within their leering mouths.

Behind you, Astarion slips and eats the floor.

Abandon the useless wretch. Revel in the stench of his burning corpse afterward.

No, don’t do that.

You turn and seize the back of his collar, heaving him upright with a grunt of exertion.

He slaps your hand away and pushes you over. You land on your side in the grease in time to see Astarion vanish through the door to safety.

You hear a series of rapid clicking noises from the grotesques lining the walls. Every hair on your neck stands on end. You roll sideways, wincing at the twanging protestations of the lute on your back, and scramble out of the grease just as the grotesques discharge a volley of fiery projectiles.

Then everything in your range of vision turns white and you briefly lose your sense of hearing as a mushroom cloud occupies the space in the room where the sarcophagus used to be.

You fumble for the handle and slither through the door and straight onto the flagstones, quivering from head to toe.

Astarion is pressed against the wall across from you, chest heaving, with his hair slimed flat to his head and his mouth frozen in a grimace. You lock eyes with him and there follows a silence broken only by the deafening concussion blasts of the explosions in the next room. Astarion doesn’t look even slightly ashamed of himself.

Then—

You wretched thing.

You should have left him for dead! Stabbed him in the eye! Let the fires take him!

You have made a grave error. You are not worthy.

Think of how differently this might have turned out.

You are only delaying the inevitable. Coward.

Fix it. Fix it. Fix it. Fix it.

Look how afraid he looks. He’s terrified of you. Make him understand why.

Fix it. Fix it. Fix it.

Do it now.

You press your hands to the dusty stone, seeking the coolness on your palms. It doesn’t help. Something inside your own mind is punishing you. It turns your thoughts to mush and makes the darkened chamber spin. You can hardly tell which way is up.

Think of plunging your hand through the soft flesh of his belly. The gooey heat of his innards between your fingers. Easy. Easy. You’ve done it before.

Your twitching hands find the neck of your lute and unhook it from its harness. Your tumble in the tomb left it unharmed; few things can damage a bard’s instrument.

It’s inevitable—you know it is. You will kill him. You will. Think of his pain. His shock at the instant of death. Think of the light leaving his eyes.

You don’t want to have these thoughts, but you can’t make them stop.

Stop putting it off! Kill him already!

The pounding thoughts converge into a thick red mist.

With the lute in your lap, you pluck each string. Thumb, forefinger, thumb. Each note is like a raindrop on dry skin. The mist begins to clear. The thoughts remain, clamoring and shrieking for your attention, but recede further and further behind a veil of music until their grip on your body relaxes and only a headache remains.

Astarion is staring at you, probably wondering why you have chosen this moment for Caramelldansen.*

You aren’t in a position to explain things to him, so after a moment he heaves a sigh and peels himself from the wall. “Well,” he announces, “you’ve lost your mind, no surprises there. I wish I could say you’d been useful, but I don’t like to tell lies. Stay there strumming away until you perish, if you like. As for me, I’m going to take everything that isn’t nailed down and get the hells out of here.”

He leaves you without a backwards glance, which is a relief. As your Urges ease, you’re able to observe the space around you. You have entered an elaborate, sprawling temple. The dark stone terrace where you now sit encloses a sunken courtyard on three sides, and against the far wall stands an enormous statue of a figure in draping robes, carrying an armful of scrolls.

Religion: success

Jergal, scribe of the dead. Your playing slows. Long-dead skeletons are strewn across the floor, wearing scribes’ robes. Astarion steps on one as he roves about the chamber, snapping its brittle skull from its spine in a puff of bone dust. Your gaze is drawn to its eye sockets, which seem to glare accusingly after the elf. Something is off. Your music gives way to silence.

“Oh, hello,” says Astarion to no one in particular, “what do you do?”

Perception: success

He’s talking to a button. Before you can consider further ramifications, he presses the button. Can someone press a button smugly? Well, he does it. He presses that button like he’s never sprung a trap in his life. He presses the button like it owes him money. He presses it like he just rolled a critical success on button pressing.

A languid, gravelly voice echoes through the chamber, nearly overriding the sudden cracking and popping sounds of half a dozen long-dead scribes testing the structural integrity of their bones.

Thou hast committed a moste unwise and foolish Error. Art thou an imbecile?

Astarion retreats nervously. You watch his gaze dart frantically around the chamber, and then it settles on you.

“Oh, look,” he says, “you’ve gone and woken the dead. How silly of you.” Then, with an impotent and terrified sort of chuckle, Astarion dives into the shadows behind a pillar and vanishes.

Six risen skeletons, eye sockets pitted with the dark flame of living death, turn their eldritch scrutiny upon you. With the Urge suppressed, and your music faded now into silence, there is only a single thought in your ruined skull:

That bitch.

Notes:

*A Waterdavian gnome ballad which swept through Baldur’s Gate about 20 years back and culminated in several riots and a fire at the Elfsong.

Chapter 6: Astarion Has a Change of Heart

Summary:

In which the author takes extreme liberties with the spell "minor illusion"

Chapter Text

Now you’ve really done it. Crouching in the shadows behind a cracked sarcophagus, you listen to the ambient popping of bones and frantically review your options.

Abandoning that wretched bard to his fate has probably bought you some time. While the risen undead are devouring Twill, you can creep your way to the exit and escape into the—

—the wilderness, where, finding yourself once more alone and friendless, you will be at the mercy of any hunters Cazador sends your way—

—or else doomed to hideous transformation in some fetid swamp, succumbing to ceremorphosis, tentacles spilling from your beautiful face—

You shudder violently. No. It won’t happen. Across the chamber, Twill cowers against the wall, brandishing his lute as the risen scribes advance on him. You unsling your bow and nock an arrow. You can’t let that fool bard die. He’s your only asset—you just collected him.

You need him.

Your arrow punches through vertebrae and propels the scribe into the path of Twill’s lute, resulting in a discordant twang and an explosion of bones. The remaining undead cast about for you, skulls swiveling on their dusty necks, but you’ve already slid across the floor and into the shadow of a broad pillar. Safe.

Twill takes advantage of their lapsed attention to fling himself into an open tomb.

Think, you command yourself. You’re going to get out of this alive if it kills you again. You can’t escape the way you came in—even through several layers of stone walls you can hear the muffled explosions. Your best way out of here is a break in the chapel wall, a V-shape of cascading stone, through which you can see slick limestone stalactites and a distant mist of sunlight.

Unfortunately, five clattering undead stand between you and safety. They’re searching for you in an aimless, meandering fashion, still just a little too mindless to know exactly what they’re looking for.

You peer around the pillar for a better look. The skeletons are well-armed, for scribes. That one is definitely a wizard. And Twill has risen head and shoulders from his hiding place and is making frantic hand signals at you. This idiot is going to get the both of you killed.

Then he strums his lute.

In the shadowy recesses at the other end of the chamber, something meows. Bones rattle as the scribes turn to face the noise, and you whip your head around in time to see a spectral feline wave its tail in a languid taunt before it turns and slips into the darkness. What in the—

Wait. Their backs are turned. The path to the doors is clear. This is your chance.

You break out from behind the pillar with an arrow nocked, draw the string, and fire mid-stride, sliding home into your new cover behind a crumbling sarcophagus as one of the scribes explodes into pieces. By the time the others react, you’re hidden again and a few precious steps closer to escape. With the blood pounding in your ears, you glance toward Twill’s hiding place.

The bard winks at you, wiggles his fingers, and plucks a single bright note.

Meow.

The scribes cast about wildly. A kitten leaps off the top of Jergal’s mossy statue and vanishes on impact with the ground. You draw. You step out of cover. You fire.

Another one bites the dust.

You drop back into the shadows and press yourself to the floor as one of the scribes clatters past, only feet away from you. There’s only three of them left. By the gods, that’s almost manageable, so long as you’re both careful. Your deranged bard is turning out to be quite the find, isn’t he?

With a silent breath, you set down your bow and draw your dagger. It’s a dull blade with a long, sordid history: until quite recently, it was Cazador’s favorite cheese knife. When the scribe passes your hiding place, you surge up and slip the dull edge between two dusty vertebrae. The skeleton collapses.

Dexterity: Critical failure

A cloud of bone dust goes straight up your nose. You double over, coughing uncontrollably, and sag against a pillar.

There’s no hiding now. The two remaining scribes are charging toward you, both heavily armored and sporting spiked clubs, and although these weapons are rusted halfway to the hells and flaking away before your eyes, the ravages of time have not diminished their ability to transform a humanoid skull into an explosion of brain matter, and in spite of this your unparalleled instinct for self-preservation has been overridden by a fistful of inhaled dust and so you can do nothing, nothing, except watch their charge through streaming eyes,

and then Twill hurls a chunk of rock across the tomb and knocks one of them clear off its feet. The other falters, and you manage, just barely, to dodge its poorly-aimed blow and stumble around the side of the pillar, gasping for breath.

“Ho, ugly!”

Your stomach drops to your toes. Twill is standing on a sarcophagus, in full view directly in front of the doors, with one hand resting against his instrument and the other co*cking back for another throw. The scribes turn immediately for this easier prey. Twill’s second throw misses by a mile, and now he’s armed only with a lute, and for the second time in as many minutes you resign yourself to finding a new source of protection.

Twill plays a strange, discordant chord, one-two-three-four.

MEOW.

The doors behind him burst open and a wave of spectral cats crests and crashes into the derelict tomb.

Hundreds of them, cats and kittens, shorthairs and longhairs and tabbies and tressyms and ugly flat-noses with bottlebrush tails and you think you even see a lion in there somewhere, all rising and breaking with the graceful fluidity that only cats and running water possess. Their shapes bleed into one another as Twill’s fingers blur over the neck of his lute, each note steering the tide in a new direction.

As the undead scribes reel around in the bewildering thrall of this illusion, you manage to scrape your jaw off the floor and hurl your dagger into Twill’s feline crescendo. The knife turns once in the air and decapitates its unfortunate target. The sole remaining scribe finds its objective—you—and takes a single unsteady step.

Sparks play around your fingertips, swelling into flame. You raise your arm.

“Ignis!”

Your last assailant is thus reduced to a pile of scorched bones and smoldering rags.

Twill strums a moment longer and lets the melody resolve. The flow of ghostly cats drops away like a receding wave from a tidepool. Some linger longer as the music fades away: a litter of kittens tumble across the top of a sarcophagus; a tressym shuffles its wings and licks its bristling shoulders; a scrawny tabby stretches and stalks back into the dark, kicking its hind feet as if to bury a sh*t. By the time the tomb is silent again, every one of the cats is gone.

Quick, say something irreverent to distract from your astonishment.

“You know, I quite like cats. It’s nice to see the sentiment returned for once.”

Twill is sitting on top of the sarcophagus, kicking his feet. “I consider myself a cat person, too.”

“After a display like that, I would be confused if you didn’t.” You retrieve your bow and your dagger, kicking old bones around nervously as you traverse the chamber. “Now, shall we go? I think we have well and truly exhausted this place and I’ll remind you that we still have found nothing whatsoever with which to pay a healer.”

Twill points across the tomb. “Secret door.”

You’d forgotten about the ill-fated button press that started this whole mess. You follow Twill’s gaze to see a new opening in the cracked wall. Secret rooms in ancient tombs are, of course, typically lousy with treasure. You feel a sudden twinge of fondness for the bard: perhaps he does have his priorities in order after all. And he’s more than proven himself useful in a pinch, even if his methods are frankly insane.

It seems that you are stuck with this unserious fool.

Well, you had better make the most of it. And ensure his loyalty as quickly as possible, before he inevitably discovers what you are. Already, your thirst is threatening to get the better of you. You’ll need to hunt tonight, even if it means sneaking away from your camp. You wonder: would Twill be receptive to your usual seductions? That’s the simplest way, in your experience, to set an arrangement in stone. He’s not entirely repulsive. You might even find it enjoyable.

With your next course of action decided, you draw your attention back to the matter at hand.

“Well now,” you say, rubbing your hands together, “let’s see what we’ve discovered, shall we?”

You have no way of knowing, at this moment, how much you are about to regret your discovery.

Chapter 7: Twill's Unreciprocated Family Reunion

Summary:

In which Twill has a surprise heart-to-heart with Faerun's deadest capitalist

Chapter Text

The secret chamber beyond the hidden door is certainly not bursting with treasure. It is, however, bursting with spiders. You have the good fortune of learning this secondhand, because Astarion shoves you aside at the entrance and pushes into the chamber like a desperate man into an outhouse.

“Oh, hells!” His voice issues from the darkness within. “Ignis!”

A thousand tiny lives go up in flames.

While you wait outside for him to be finished—elves and their darkvision and their cantrips—your gaze slides sideways. Your fingertips, resting on the cracked stone wall, are only inches away from the button that seals the chamber.

You could … press it.

It would be so easy.

Imagine it.

What is it like, to be sealed in a tomb? He wouldn’t be blind in there, but wouldn’t that make it worse? In the dark, you can hope. Search over and over again for a crack in the wall, a lever to pull, an elusive way out. But he can see. He’ll know how trapped he is. Imagine him scratching on the inside of the walls. Imagine his screams, his cries for help, his raging, fading slowly into hopeless silence.

And then in a week you can return

and

eat

him

“How do spiders taste?” you say loudly, ducking into the tomb. Your hand twitches away from the button and you feel a burning in your fingertips, an itch. You clamp your whole arm against your chest.

“I beg your pardon?” says Astarion. His eyes are like coins in the dark.

“I’m hungry. I have a hankering for spiders.” You reach out, feeling for a sconce or an old candle to light, and instead find a plush, padded doublet that recoils instantly.

“Don’t touch me. Listen, my dear, I’m sure we can find you an amplitude of spiders to devour, but—”

Clusters of candles all around you burst spontaneously into flame, bathing the little chamber in sickly green light. It’s another tomb, containing nothing but another ornate sarcophagus. This time, you can read the epitaph: Here lies the guardian of tombs.

“Did you do that?” demands Astarion.

“Why do you think I did it?”

“Because I didn’t do it, and if I didn’t do it, then you must have—”

The lid of the sarcophagus moves. Four grey fingers push through the crack.

For a moment the only sound is the pap-pap-pap of Astarion’s footsteps receding as fast as his legs will carry him. You, however, stay locked in place. You can’t tear your eyes away as the tomb lid slides back and falls, with a sonorous crash, against the wall.

A figure rises from within: a grey-skinned corpse draped in rags and wreathed in gold. The candles gutter and flare. A pair of sunken black eyes, radiating pinpricks of unholy light, snap open and fix instantly on you. Goosebumps erupt on your arms as the figure descends and lights barefooted on the dusty floor.

“So he has Spoken, and so thou standest before me. Right as Always. What a Curious way to awaken.”

His voice makes your head hurt even more than it usually does. This tomb must have been sealed for uncounted ages, and this undead sealed even longer than that, at least if his toenails are anything to go by. Nobody has set foot in here for hundreds of years—maybe thousands.

So why do you feel as though you’ve heard his voice before?

The corpse speaks again. “First, I have a Question for thee: what is the Worth of a single mortal’s Life?”

It’s as if he knows. Like he’s seen into the hollow heart of you, to your rotted fantasies and dead dreams. Your mouth has gone dry, and your colorful bard’s livery feels like it hangs from your shoulders, suddenly ill-fitting. If you had your lute in your hands right now, you aren’t sure you’d remember how to play it.

You know this isn’t who you are, and you cannot hide from him.

You try anyway. “How are you capitalizing your words like that?”

The dead man waves a hand. “I am Privy to the arts of all four Walls. Wilt thou answer my Question?”

You should be truthful. An honest monster is worth more than a lying hypocrite.

No, you should keep things light. Crack a joke. Make a funny observation.

Levity utterly eludes you. You’re too afraid, and too alone. Astarion is long gone, and it’s just you: someone who’s at war with his own sense of self, wearing a lute that belongs to someone else, with a skull empty of memories but full of worms and hunger.

Whatever made you think this was a comedy?

“All I want is to … all I want …” Your hands twitch. Kill. Kill. Kill again. You’re not a person. You’re not even a monster. You’re a canyon with no bottom.

The withered man holds up a dessicated finger, silencing you. “Thou hast some most profound Imbalances, which are not merely products of thy Blood. Very well; I am satisfied. We shall meet again at the proper time and place.”

“How could you possibly know that? Can you see the future?”

“The workings of Fate are not for Mortals to understand. Nonetheless, we shall meet Again one day.” He gestures smoothly for you to exit the chamber. You can’t bring yourself to move.

He knows what you are. Kill him!

He is, in fact, already dead.

Kill him anyway!

Strategizing is not your strong suit, is it?

“Run along,” says the withered man. “Thou must not wait for My permission.”

“What are you?” you demand. The harshness of your own voice startles you even as you take a step toward him. He meets your accusing stare placidly. “What are you?”

“There are many answers to that question.”

You’re right in his face. “What am I?

“A similarly useless angle of Inquiry. I shall say what I Consider thee: a Most unsound Investment. Now, continue on thy way, as if I were not here.”

You didn’t even realize you had your knife in your hand. Now, without pausing to blink, you drive it into the side of the withered man’s neck.

He reacts to being stabbed in a manner consistent with uncured leather. As you stumble back from him, he extracts the blade and holds it out to you, hilt first.

“Tiresome, but Anticipated.”

Wrong. All wrong. You retreat towards the door.

“Ah! By the way. There is a Path along the clifftop. Follow it, and keep the Edge to thy left side, if thou wishest to find civilization. And thou must, in order to Afford my Services.”

What services? Maybe he can cure you of your parasite. Maybe he can even cure you of—

No! None of that!

You slam your hand against the button as you flee, but the withered man does nothing except watch as the door to his tomb grinds slowly shut. It slides home with a shuddering crunch and a shower of dust, leaving you alone and shaking.

Good. Let him rot. It’s the most sensible thing you’ve done all day.

This isn’t you.

You turn and run.

To your surprise, Astarion is waiting near the crumbled hole in the temple wall, pacing back and forth between two stalagmites in an apparent agony of indecision. He whirls around at the sound of your approach, mouth locked in a snarl, but lowers his dagger when he sees that it’s you.

“Ah. You’re alive. How … unexpected.”

You pull up, heaving for breath. Whatever you were in your past life, it was not an athlete. “There was a guy in there.”

“Of the ‘living’ variety, or …?”

“No, he was dead, but we had a lively conversation.” You step over the crumbled wall and peer down the length of the cave, to where a shaft of daylight and the gentle lapping of fresh water signals the exit to the outside world. You don’t know why, but you feel lighter and more optimistic than you have since … well, since you can remember. “I know which way we have to go.”

“And where exactly did you procure this information?”

“Where do you think, Astarion?”

“Oh, of course!” He throws his hands in the air as he falls into step behind you. “Let’s take directions from a corpse, because I’m sure nothing could possibly go wrong. Do you know, I’m not even sure I believe you? I’ve half a mind to go and speak to it myself.”

Insight: success

He’s bluffing. You’re getting very good at reading him. That’s good.

It will help you kill him when his guard is down.

Chapter 8: Astarion's Midnight Snack

Summary:

In which Astarion takes a nice, uneventful walk for his mental and physical health

Chapter Text

Your thirst isn’t asking anymore.

You stumble out of your tent in the darkest, smallest hours of the morning. Your throat is burning and your vision blurry. What you want, more than anything, is to suck Twill dry—you’ve never tasted human blood—but you can’t afford to kill him and at the moment you have the self-control of a leaf in a windstorm. If that singing fool so much as cuts his gums flossing, he’s finished.

So of course you collide with him as you try to sneak away from camp. You’re so distracted you don’t even hear him coming.

“Oh for the love of—watch where you’re going!” you snap, jerking away from him. Twill recoils too, putting his hand against a tree for balance, his eyes flicking sightlessly around in the dark. He looks naked without his instrument and motley-colored doublet, dressed only in his camp clothes. He reeks of sweat, which is just as well for him because it masks the delicious, fruity aroma of his blood.

“Astarion?” he asks. “That you?”

“Of course it’s me. Who the hells else would it be? What are you doing … up?” Your righteous anger deserts you as you observe him.

Oh, he looks awful. Eyes bloodshot, sockets hollow, skin sallow and beaded with cold perspiration. He feels like a sick animal—but in a dangerous way, not an easy prey sort of way. The word rabid crosses your mind again. Your hand wanders to your dagger.

Or you could bite him, right here, right now. He wouldn’t see you coming.

Drain him dry.

No. You are not going to be an animal about this. If you kill him in the night it will be with a dagger and a smile, not your teeth, and it will be premeditated, the way murder is supposed to be. It will be a gentleman’s murder. Not that you’re planning on killing him yet. You retreat a few more steps, holding your frilled sleeve over your nose.

“I’m … taking a walk,” you say. “Elves like myself don’t sleep, or were you unaware?”

“Oh, I’m … aware.” His voice is distant and strange. He sways where he stands.

“Anyway, I’m much more curious about what you’re doing up.”

“I’m … also taking a walk.”

Insight: failure

That seems like a normal thing for a human to do in the dark.

“But can’t you see?” you ask.

“I like to take walks in the dark.”

“I see.”

“Yes.”

“No, I mean, I can see. You can’t.”

“Oh! Ha ha.” Twill makes a sound which not even you could mistake for laughter and moves his shoulders up and down. “Anyway. Hey! I have a great idea. I think I’ll go for my walk this way, and you can go for your walk that way.”

“I think that sounds like a wonderful idea,” you reply, and you both set off in opposite directions. Twill takes four steps and collides with a tree. You slip into the forest without a backward glance.

Whatever that little freak is doing, you can worry about it later.

The woods are alive with possibilities, and you hate every single one. Squirrels are a vampire’s proverbial shot glass: hard to catch, easy to drop, and never enough. The same with rabbits. A fox makes for decent fast food, if you hate yourself. Which, of course, you do not.

If you were an optimistic man, you would count your blessings. You’re free of Cazador for the second night in a row, which increases the chances that your escape wasn’t some sort of hallucination (a ridiculous notion on its face, of course, but still)—

But you are not an optimistic man, so instead you count your curses. You are filthy and muddy and damp. Your fine clothes are hopelessly torn, and there isn’t a sewing kit in sight. Your hair is embarrassing itself. You have no reliable way to slake your thirst and your only traveling companion and best chance of survival is a man who plays the lute on purpose.

And let’s not forget the main event, the ticking clock, the uninvited guest: the wriggling worm behind your eye.

You’re sure you should have symptoms by now, but all you feel is your thirst. Doesn’t that mean something has gone wrong?

But you can walk in the sun. You’re free. You can seek your revenge against him. Doesn’t that count for something good?

And you smell positively rancid. Truly, there are no silver linings here.

You emerge from the trees onto an old road half-paved by ancient cobblestones. You and Twill delved into the woods to set up camp from here once it was clear that nightfall would beat you to your destination. You sweep your gaze along the road, mouth half-open, tasting the air for the smell of blood or prey. Your nostrils flare.

Three eviscerated goblins lie just up the road, obscured by the undergrowth. Dead blood is toxic to you, and goblins are detestable little creatures anyway, hardly worth the bite it takes to drain them. You’re more worried about what might have killed them.

Cautiously, you approach. The moon slides out from behind a cloud and bathes the feathered ends of crossbow quarrels in a dusty pearlescent glow. Someone has made pincushions of these goblins.

Your cold, dead heart shudders in your chest, and you retreat into the shadows, glancing back and forth along the road like a startled animal. You’d know that particolored fletching anywhere.

It hasn’t even been three days, and Cazador has sent the Gur after you.

Errant monster-hunters.

Your murderers.

He knows.

How could he possibly know where you are?

How could he not? He’s your master, your creator, your god. The real mystery is how you were stupid enough to think he might lose track of you. If you aren’t safe out here, in the middle of nowhere, then you aren’t safe anywhere.

A flare of purple light further up the road draws your attention.

Arcana: success

A waypoint. A travel gate for wizards.

Someone has just used it.

You slip into the trees and creep down a steep incline in slow, agonizing silence. As soon as you reach the bottom, you run for your life.

Or, well, you run for your—it’s a figure of speech.

You only slow down once you’ve made a wide circle around the camp. There are no foreign footprints, no signs of life. The fire is out, which means camp won’t be easy to see, but you need to find Twill right now and snap his f*cking lute in half. Your life now depends on keeping a low profile.

Then one careless step flushes a boar out of the undergrowth,

Wisdom: failure

and all your thoughts pop like soap bubbles.

Snap.

You pivot on the ball of your foot and leap after the animal. Your focus and strength and energy spin and narrow to a javelin-point. Control? Don’t be naive. You are hunger. Hunger. Hunger. The boar squeals as you knock it to the ground with your body, rolling over and over until you come to rest against a stone. Its cloven feet batter at your soft belly, but you know no pain except the fire in your throat.

You pull your blade and slice the tendons in its legs. It’s shrieking now, a sound you’ve never heard an animal make. Your dagger falls from your hand and catches the moonlight while you clamp your mouth over the boar’s pulsing jugular vein and bite down.

Life floods in, electrifying you. Hot blood and the stench of life fill your mouth and nostrils, upending you, reminding you of that you are

You’re better than this, boy. You could be so much more—

a vampire spawn, an escaped rat, you are free, taste it, free, free, free, free, free

Control yourself!

I

don’t

want

to

You always were the most stubborn, the most difficult. You are fractured, in pieces, all sharp edges and deadly points. You’ll never be worthy of my power—

The torrent of lifeblood begins to slow as the boar’s feeble struggles diminish. You have no sense of how much time has passed or how much noise you’re making.

WHAT WAS THAT?

Alarm surges through you.

Snap.

You come back to yourself.

The way you ought to be. Good. Better. You pull away from the dead boar and wipe your mouth, still trembling from the rush of your meal. It wasn’t enough—not by a long shot—but it took the edge off your thirst. You can control yourself again.

You look up at the fine, fat gibbous moon, which bathes the forest clearing in faint pearly light. Then you look down at yourself.

Oh, hells. If only you’d had the forethought to take off your shirt first. It’s going to take a miracle to get the stains out. In fact, you’d be better off just dying the whole thing black …

Twill is staring at you from across the clearing, swaying gently back and forth. His thick black hair is mussed and disheveled. His smell is all wrong. He’s drenched in blood that doesn’t belong to him.

And he has a severed hand clamped between his teeth.

Chapter 9: Twill and Astarion Make an Arrangement

Summary:

In which Astarion has a noticeable penalty to charisma

Chapter Text

You look at Astarion.

Astarion looks at you.

You look at Astarion.

Astarion looks at you.

You look at the exsanguinated pig crumpled up behind him like a forgotten paper bag.

He looks at the severed hand clamped between your teeth like a delicious pork bun.

You spit out the hand. It hits the ground with a very sad little thump.

“What are you looking at?” you ask him.

Astarion looks at you.

“Oh, this?” You nudge the hand with your foot. “This isn’t mine. This is … this is someone else’s. I don’t know where this came from.”

“Oh, it isn’t yours?” Astarion rises from a predatory crouch and wipes his mouth. “Well, thank goodness. Consider all my questions answered.”

Your shoulders droop in relief. “Really?”

“No, you dolt! Whose hand is that? Who did you kill?”

You wait for advice, but the Urge is suspiciously quiet. Content, even.

Happy.

You’re on your own.

“Giving me the silent treatment isn’t going to make this go away, you know,” says Astarion. “You’ve obviously killed someone—you’re positively covered in blood. Now, come on, who was it? Was it a Gur? Did they look like a monster hunter?”

He seems nervous. Figure out why.

Perception: success

“Just a minute …” You retreat a step. “You’re covered in blood, too.”

“I—” Astarion hesitates. “Well, yes, of course I am. I’ve just been ruthlessly attacked by this horrible pig. I managed to fight it off on my own, no thanks to you.”

He’s really bad at this. You ought to save him from himself.

No, let’s see where he’s going with this.

You remain silent and raise an eyebrow.

“If—if you had been here, I’m sure it would have been—it …” Astarion glances down at the pig, then sighs. “I suppose there’s no use trying to hide it anymore. You can see what I really am now.”

Insight: critical failure

You have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

Astarion lets out a weird little laugh. “Oho! Look at us. Just a pair of lost … hungry souls … covered in blood … in the woods, together …”

Is he coming on to you?

Hey. Your Urge stirs suddenly. That hand looks tasty.

You glance down. Astarion doesn’t notice your lapse. “What’s a little blood between friends, hm? We are friends, don’t you think? Of course we are—we’ve saved each other’s lives more than once over the past couple of days. And friends, well, we all know what friends are for.”

He says that as if he’s expecting an answer, but unfortunately your residual memory is only two days old.

Wonder what it tastes like. Beef? Pork?

Go on.

Just a little taste.

“Helping!” supplies Astarion. “Friends help each other. For—for example, if you were in trouble, I would help you. And if I needed, again, just as an example, something to eat, then you, as my friend, would offer me …”

You pick up the severed hand and hold it out to him.

He slaps it into the bushes. “I don’t want that!”

“Oh.” You gaze wistfully after it. “What do you want?”

“For the gods’ sakes—blood!” he shouts, then glances over his shoulder and continues, in a softer tone, “Look, animals are all well and good, but I’m not really my best self right now.”

“I don’t think I am, either.”

See, we have that in common! I’m—I’m weak right now. Comparatively. I’m still very strong, of course.”

You nod in support.

“I just mean comparatively. I could be so much stronger. If I just—just had a little of your blood, I could … think clearer. Fight better.” He draws close to you, smiling in earnest supplication.

“Wait,” you say. Your head is starting to clear. “Why are you so interested in my blood?”

Astarion pulls up. “Because I—”

You gasp. “Are you a vampire?”

He squints at you. “Yes …”

“That’s what happened to the boar! You drank it! And now you want to drink my blood!”

“I’m sorry, did you only just put this together?”

You grip him by the shoulders. “My brain is full of holes.”

Finally, he has the good sense to look properly afraid of you. You give him a little shake for good measure and then sink to the ground against a tree as tantalizing visions flash through your mind, each one snapping neatly over the other. A stranger’s agonized cries as you gnaw through his flesh with your teeth. The gentle helix of his exposed wrist bones gleaming in the moonlight. The last elastic retort of sinew and skin before the hand comes free.

Yum, yum.

“Oh, gods,” you say, “I think I killed someone.”

“You think?”

“I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything. I woke up here.”

“Were you sleepwalking?”

“I have no idea. I haven’t slept for as long as I can remember.”

He’s looking panicky. “Listen, my dear, I don’t care that you killed someone. In fact, I appreciate the initiative. Shows a real team spirit.”

“I feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming.”

“I am just a little, just slightly concerned about someone who lapses into a dissociative state and commits atrocities. I’d just feel better if you were present for the atrocities. Do you know what I mean? That way, you could bring me a severed hand—a severed head, even! Follow your heart!—and drop it at my feet and say, ‘Here, Astarion, I have committed an atrocity!’ and I would say, ‘Oh, how nice! Why?’ and you would tell me why, and then we could laugh about it together.”

Feeling self-conscious, you wipe the blood away from your mouth. “But I don’t want to commit atrocities.”

Nonsense! You love atrocities!

“And that’s what worries me!” says Astarion. “You have to commit. How am I supposed to trust someone who can’t even decide what he wants? It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.”

You stare up at him, giving him absolutely nothing to work with. He glances over his shoulder again. Something other than you has him scared.

He tries again. “Look, I’m not a monster. I’m not about to abandon you to the wilderness, so let’s try and come to some kind of arrangement. I won’t kill you, and in exchange, you won’t kill me. How does that sound?”

You hate to lie. In fact, lying repulses you. You didn’t know that about yourself until just this moment, but you find the revelation gratifying. You know something about yourself. You clear your throat. “I will try very hard not to kill you—”

“No! No no no. Not try. I cannot stress enough how much the word try does not have a place in this negotiation.”

“I don’t want to kill you.”

“I’m sure you understand why I need just a little bit more than that.”

Lie.

You hate lying.

Stop developing stupid new traits and lie!

You inhale, exhale. “I have these … urges. Compulsions. I don’t know if I can control them …”

LIE!

Bile rises in your throat. You tremble as a wave of nausea crashes over you, flooding your mind, breaking your concentration. “But I can feel them coming on,” you add hastily. “I’ve never felt the urge to hurt you, and I swear, on my life, I will warn you if I do.”

Deception: success

Astarion relaxes just a little bit and you sag against the tree, exhausted.

“Well,” he says, “that’s—that’s something, I suppose. I’ve definitely been in worse arrangements. Although, if you wanted to … I don’t know, sweeten the pot …”

“What are you saying?”

He makes a noise of mild consternation and moves closer. It’s almost cozy, the way he sits against the tree beside you, but you can’t help but notice the way his gaze darts back and forth, scanning the dark woods. A bead of sweat stands out on his temple.

“The life of a vampire isn’t exactly easy,” he says in an undertone. “I have … enemies. And I’m sure you do, too, considering …” he waves a hand, “whatever the hells is wrong with you. We have enemies.”

You nod solemnly. “Mind flayers.”

More than just mind flayers. My point is, I’ll need to be at full fighting strength. And I can’t be at my full strength unless—”

You both jump to your feet at the same time.

“Did you—”

“Yes,” you whisper. “I heard it too.”

The noises are coming from the direction of your camp. Note the flicker of firelight through the trees. Someone has made themselves at home.

“Astarion, are there vampires after you?”

“I don’t think they would—I mean, no. Not out here. Probably.”

The firelight flings a long shadow across a cluster of azaleas. Your brow knits into a frown as you peer around the tree. “I’m going to go say hello,” you mutter.

“You’re not serio—Twill! Twill! Get back here!”

He breaks and follows behind you a moment later, the soft rustle of his footfalls in the leaves the only sign of his presence.

“Yes, fine, why not?” he hisses. “I suppose you can always beat them to death with your lute.”

You step into the camp clearing alone. A solitary figure stands over the fire, gazing into its lashing depths with black and hollow eyes. He doesn’t look up when he addresses you, probably because he is concentrating on the sausage he’s roasting.

“I must confess myself Disappointed by the state and solitude of thy Camp,” says the withered man. He carefully rotates the sausage. “No matter. It will have to do, for Now.”

Chapter 10: Withers Kills the Vibe

Summary:

In which Astarion feels left out

Chapter Text

In a few minutes you are sitting tersely on a log, watching your insane bard converse with a dehydrated corpse. It is probably two in the morning and you’re never going to get the blood out of your shirt. It’s turning crusty. Every time you move, you flake.

You focus on this so you don’t have to think too much about the other figures in the shadows, the ones shuffling around you with businesslike professionalism.

“I hope I have not Much inconvenienced thee with mine arrival,” says the jerky. “I did say ‘twas foretold, in Prophecy, that we would meet again.”

“That was eight hours ago,” says Twill. “That’s not a prophecy, you just followed us.”

“The workings of Fate are not for thee to Understand.”

“How did you get out of the tomb?”

“Fate.”

“No; no, I don’t understand.” Twill’s hands run up and down his lute, twanging and pinging. Every note makes your eye twitch. “How could you—”

“I have a question,” you interrupt, then jump as a robed skeleton rattles past you with an armful of suitcases. There are undead all over the place. Some of them have hammers. You scooch to the other end of the log and start again, covering a titter of nervous laughter with a cough. “Ahem. I have a question. Why are you here?”

The jerky looks at you with the slow disgust of someone who has just found a dead bird in his dressing gown. “I have a question for thee, first. What is the Worth of a single Mortal life?”

“What is this, a court hearing?”

“It is but a Question.”

Twill nods at you encouragingly.

“Oh, fine. I’ll play along. A single mortal life is infinitely precious and worth sacrificing everything for, including your own life,” you say, pressing a hand to your chest. “There. That was the right answer, wasn’t it?”

The jerky gazes at you in a disrespectful silence broken only by rhythmic clang of two skeletons building a wardrobe behind you. Across the clearing, a trio of them have almost erected an elegant purple tent.

“I have found thee Wanting,” the jerky says at last. “Begone.”

“I—excuse me?”

He turns away from you.

As you sit flabbergasted, Twill clears his throat softly. “Um. It would be nice to know why you’re here.”

“Consider me a Sponsor for thine Endeavors. An observer, if thou wilt, of the Ineffable wheel of Fate.”

“Ah,” says Twill. “And what Endeavors are those, exactly?”

“How did you do that?” you demand.

“Do what?”

“How did you—oh, never mind.” You’re starting to suspect these two know each other, which of course makes no sense considering one of them has been locked in a tomb for uncounted aeons. And Twill is a human, which means he’s operating on dog years. They hardly have enough time to get to know anyone.

“By Endeavors I refer only to those things which thou dost of thine own Volition,” says the jerky. “Thy Quest, or thy Tragedy.”

“I don’t have a quest. I don’t have endeavors. You know something about me, don’t you? What do you know?” Twill surges to his feet. You watch him warily, because there’s a light in his eyes you haven’t seen before.

“I know a great many things, very Little of which is relevant to thee,” says the jerky, sounding bored. “For now I am a Watcher, not a judge. Although: I may at times provide Assistance to thee.”

That gets your attention. Ancient undead are not known for their generosity. What they are known for is their power … the assistance of one, whatever the price, might give you a valuable edge in keeping your freedom from Cazador. “What kind of assistance?”

“I will not Speak to thee.”

“What kind of assistance?” asks Twill, with considerably less excitement.

“That depends upon what thou dost require,” says the jerky. “A new ally? Or, mayhaps, a Resurrection? More? The breadth of mine Assistance is limited only by thy willingness to Pay.”

“Of course,” you say, raising an eyebrow at Twill. “You didn’t think he’d help us for free, did you?”

“What do you charge?” Twill asks. “We haven’t got any money.”

“He won’t charge money, my dear,” you say. “He’s an unfathomably ancient being you freed from a forgotten tomb. You’ll be lucky if your soul is all he wants.”

“Two hundred dollars.”

“Hmm. That seems reasonable,” says Twill, leaning away from you. His fingertip plucks at his lute, ting ting ting. You realize your mouth is hanging open and close it. “But, like I said, we don’t have any money.”

“And as I said to Thee before, there is a Settlement a Half day’s journey hence, where thou mayest find opportunities for Coin.”

Now he’s bright-eyed as a child. “Performance work? Busking, that sort of thing? Busking’s when you play in the street for money,” he tells you.

“I know what busking is. I’m not an idiot.”

“I’ve always wanted to be a busker. I’m a bard.” He plays a wiggly little up-and-down trill and grins at the jerky man.

“So it would appear.”

“That’s all I want,” he adds to you. “Find stories, write songs, tell the stories in the form of songs, delight people. I have it all figured out just now.”

There is something of an emergency builder about Twill. You imagine a man frantically throwing bricks onto a wall before the storm surge hits. In this moment he is repulsive to you.

“Looks like we’ve got a plan,” he says. “We’ll go to this village, brighten their hearts—Astarion, you don’t play any instruments, do you?”

“Over my dead body, darling.”

“That’s all right, I’ll do it for both of us. Or you can do spoken word poetry—something serious and powerful. I think you’d be very good at that, I’ve noticed how loquacious you are.”

You feel the tips of your ears reddening.

“We can iron out the details tomorrow,” says Twill. “We’ll drum up some coin in no time, and then we’re free! Worms gone. No more mind flayers.”

“Ah,” says the jerky, and your stomach drops to your toes.

“‘Ah?’ Why did you say ‘ah?’” The jerky ignores you. “Twill—”

“You can help, can’t you?” asks Twill.

“I foresaw thou mightst Misunderstand me,” says the jerky. “I am not here to help. I am merely here to observe thy Trajectory.”

“What are you talking about?” asks Twill. “Why?”

“Curiosity.”

“You said you could assist us.”

“If thou dost require a Resurrection, I am happy to Oblige.” He sounds bored.

“So you can’t extract the parasite.”

“It is beyond my Power.”

Liar, you think instantly, but Twill sits back looking crestfallen. There is a long silence. While you’ve been talking, a small army of undead have been busily constructing a camp around you. The central feature is an ornate three-storey purple tent, complete with a small picket fence and an ornamental pear tree. You’ve decided you’re safe from vampire hunters tonight, because any Gur stupid enough to miss this spectacle isn’t going to be much of a problem for you.

“I see,” says Twill. He frowns at his lute for a while. “In that case, I think you’d better leave.”

He can’t be serious.

“Begging thy pardon?”

“I don’t want you here.” His tone has utterly changed, his voice crawling up from his throat like bile in the morning. “You Know something about me, but you’re not telling, and I don’t like it. I need this Tadpole out of my head, and if you can’t Help me with that, you can get Lost, my friend.”

“No.” The word increases the gravity in the camp. It drives birds from the trees around you and makes your molars buzz. You scramble to your feet.

“My dear. Twill.” You layer honey into your voice. “Can I have a word with you?”

You convene behind the large talus boulder at the corner of the camp. Twill has an obstinate look you already dislike. His honey-brown eyes are mulish, the corners of his mouth twisting down beneath his stark black beard. “What are you doing?” you hiss.

“I don’t trust him.”

“Neither do I, but that’s not the point. You have an unutterably powerful undead completely at your disposal, and you tell him to leave? Please tell me you aren’t that stupid. I was just starting to like you. Listen—we could use him. Together.”

“For what?”

“Oh, let’s see … evading death, for one thing! Please. Please.” The desperation leaching into your voice is real, but letting it through is deliberate. You can’t let an asset like this get away. You’ll do whatever it takes to keep it, even if you have to suck his co*ck to convince him. “Look, you might be resigned to becoming a mind flayer, but I’m not ready to give up. I say we go to this village, get our bearings, and make a plan! A proper plan. The zombie can stay here, but he should stay. With us, I mean. Please.”

“I will not Leave, whatever thou sayest,” says the zombie, tottering past with a pillow under his arm. “Good Night.”

You whip around, but he’s already gone into the tent. A moment later, the undead shambling around the camp turn and follow him, a troupe of trotting zombies filing one-by-one into a tent clearly much more spacious on the inside than out. The last two pause by the fire. Each one unfurls a shabby bedroll, places it on the ground, and follows the others inside.

The two of you stand alone in a sudden deep silence.

Twill sighs. “I suppose that’s settled, then.”

You swallow your nervous laughter. “You know, I honestly thought that the tent might be for us.”

“How optimistic of you.” He falls facefirst onto a bedroll.

Before long he’s snoring, but you can’t stop staring at his neck.

Chapter 11: Twill Makes a Deal

Summary:

in which certain events are irreversibly set in motion

Chapter Text

There are dead goblins everywhere. Their corpses are scattered across this secluded forest clearing in various states of dismemberment. This is artistic carnage. You dip your fingers in a pool of half-congealed blood when you think Astarion isn’t looking.

“I don’t like this,” he says. “Keep your eyes peeled.”

Perception: failed

You smear the blood reverently across your lips. It tingles.

Yes. This is right. Be yourself.

“This is the end of the path, but there’s nothing here,” says Astarion, turning in a slow circle. “In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say—oh, hells, what are you doing now?”

Your voice sounds a long way off. “Trying to remember …”

He seizes your arm and pulls you away from the puddle. “Eat them or don’t, I don’t care, but don’t play with your food. Gods. We’re trying to keep a low profile, or don’t you recall? Take it from a vampire: people are less inclined to help you if you show up at their doorstep covered in blood.”

Recall … Your mind feels sluggish and hungry, like a waking dragon. Yes. Try to recall. Plumb the black and unspeakable depths of yourself. Cast off this silly fool’s mask and become what you truly are.

“All that wasted time making ourselves presentable this morning. Hold still.” Astarion reaches over to wipe your mouth with a wet rag.

Bitebitebitebitebitebitebite

You jerk out of reach. Astarion throws down the rag in disgust.

“Fine, you do it. But be thorough. If we get turned away because you can’t get a hold of yourself—”

“Ho, there!” The tangle of vines and branches ahead of you resolves into a lowered portcullis below a camouflaged wooden rampart. A charcoal-skinned tiefling is waving down at you.

“f*ck.” Astarion’s voice is soft and fervent.

You aren’t about to be so curmudgeonly. “Hallooo!” you call, waving back. “How are you?”

“Fine, thanks,” shouts the tiefling. “Um—”

“Beautiful afternoon, isn’t it?”

“Singular! Say, what are you doing down there?”

“I was just saying to my friend here, it’s good to be alive on days like this!”

“Absolutely! Can you state your business, please?”

“Do you have any doctors? My friend and I here—” You catch Astarion by the arm as he tries to slink away and jerk him violently back into line. He offers the sentry a terse wave, a pained rictus plastered to his face. “My friend and I here could really use a doctor. Think you could let us in, please?”

“She has a bow,” Astarion mutters out the side of his mouth.

“You have blood all over your face,” says the sentry.

“Hm?”

“You have blood all over your face!”

“And arrows. She has arrows.”

“Oh, no, we’re not contagious!” you call. “We’ve just got—worms. Bad worms! You know, the—the intestinal variety. We both have. We got them together.”

“Twill, she has the high ground.”

“You can go ahead and open the gate now!” you shout.

“Yeah, mate, we’ve had a little trouble with goblins, so we’re keeping it closed.”

“That’s okay, but you can open it up for us!” You grin up at her.

She grins back. “Yeah, sorry, mate!”

“Yeah, but the goblins are done with,” you shout. “Maybe you can’t see from up there.” You locate a severed arm and toss it. It falls far short of the rampart and hits the ground with a thump. “All dead!”

Her grin looks like hard work. “Yeah, but we’re keeping it closed.”

“I happen to be a bard!”

“That’s okay!” She ducks out of sight for a moment, reappears. “Listen, I’ve got to go. Was good to meet you, though!”

“Wait! You haven’t heard me play!” You reach for your lute. “I can delight your heart!” It’s too late. She’s gone.

You strum thoughtfully. Astarion seizes the neck of your lute, strangling it.

“What was all that, darling?” His voice is dangerously pleasant.

“I don’t understand it. I have a Charisma score of 17. How did that go so badly?”

“You threw an arm at her face!”

“There’s no sense retreading my failures,” you snap. “We need to find a way inside.”

Psst!

You both whip around. This forest wraps around the base of a mountain, which means it’s strewn with talus cast from higher elevations. The portcullis sits against a jumble of boulders. Several pairs of eyes are watching you from the dark holes in their recesses.

“Yeah, you!” says the voice from within. “Funnyman!”

You point at yourself, delighted.

“Yeah!”

You squat outside the hole. Half a dozen tiefling children peer back at you.

“You want in, yeah?” says their leader.

“Sure do. What is this place?”

Astarion drifts over, eavesdropping.

“Druid grove, but we’re squattin’ here till they get sick of us,” says the leader.

“They already got sick of us, Mol,” says another. “They’re kickin’ us out.”

Shut it, rubberlips! You’re killin’ my leverage. So you want in or what, mister?”

“Do you have a doctor?”

“We got Halsin. He’s sort of a doctor. But he’s—”

“How do we get inside?” you ask. Your good mood slips as you look at them all, clustered in that tiny, precarious space. What would it take to collapse it on top of them? All those little crushed limbs.

Wretched thing. Pull yourself together.

We can let you in,” says Mol. “For a price.”

“I’m sorry,” says Astarion, “but we don’t negotiate with babies.”

“Deal,” you say.

“I beg your pardon?” says Astarion.

“She seems trustworthy.”

“You oughta listen to your friend, curly,” says Mol, but Astarion turns and leaves without a word.

“Where are you going?” you call.

“To walk into the ocean.”

Insight: success

Bluffing again.

“Right, here it is,” says Mol. “We let you in, you gotta play for us, deal?”

Bewildered titters arise from the rest of her gathered entourage. The color in her face deepens.

One says, “You ain’t gonna ask for money …?”

“I said shut it! Morale’s low. The kids could use a pick-me-up. Hey Funnyman, you can juggle, right?”

Skulls.

What?

You learned juggling with skulls.

“Yes. I can juggle.”

Yes!” hisses Mol. She’s vibrating with excitement. “Right, we got a deal. Mirkon, you go around lakeside and make a scene. Get Zevlor’s peepers off the gate.”

“Mol, there’s harpies that way—”

“Coward.”

“Fine! Fine, I’m goin’.”

Astarion bursts back into the clearing with branches in his hair and a wild look in his eye. He grabs you and pulls you upright. “We have to go.”

“Why? I’ve just negotiated our way inside.”

“We have to go.” You’ve never seen him like this. His mouth is locked in a grimace and he’s shaking visibly. You stare at him. He lets go and levels a finger at you. “f*ck you. I’m done with you. I’ll take my chances on my—”

“Ho there, travelers!” A man ducks into the clearing through a curtain of deep green ivy. He has a cheery countenance and a twinkling eye and the kit of a well-worn adventurer, the kind you’d like to be if your brain was functioning properly. He meets your eye with a ready grin. “Nice to see more friendly faces out here.” He extends a hand to you. “Gandrel. Traveler, adventurer, and errant monster hunter, at your service.”

Behind you Astarion is vibrating fast enough to achieve liftoff. You wipe your mouth self-consciously and clasp the newcomer’s arm. “Twill E. Cavander. At your service.”

Some part of you has always wanted to say that.

“Ohohoho, I feel like I’ve heard that name before. Been at the berry bushes already, have you?” Gandrel points to your mouth with a knowing wink. “I must confess I have a weakness for the stuff myself. Nature’s candy, I say. Nothing else like it when you get a craving on the road.”

“You can say that again,” says Astarion.

“What brings you here? Not an easy place to find, this grove.”

“Oh! We’re—”

“It’s personal,” says Astarion over your shoulder.

“It isn’t really,” you say. “We’re just after a healer.”

“Hard road, eh? Not to worry. The master druid, Halsin—he’ll fix you up. He patched me up right well when I got in a spot of trouble with a hag a few days ago. Ho, Zevlor!” Gandrel waves at the grizzled red tiefling who’s just appeared on the rampart atop the portcullis.

“Hello, Gandrel!” Zevlor calls.

The sentry is with him. She points down at you. “That’s him. Look. Covered in blood, just like I said.”

“Oh, no, no!” calls Astarion. “It’s berry juice. Tell them, Gandrel.”

“As my new friend here says!” shouts Gandrel. “No blood here except what’s still leaking out of goblin corpses.” He nudges one with his boot and offers a sensible chuckle. You spit into your hand and scrub until your lips start burning. “Do us a favor and let us in, eh? These two need to see Halsin, and I think the little ones are after a show.”

He winks at the piled boulders near the gate, and the air is suddenly full of scuffling noises as the children scatter.

Zevlor peers down at the three of you. He’s an older man, his horns dulled by time and hardship, and he has the permanently exhausted look of someone with too much responsibility to tend to his own physical needs. Ah, paladins. You love paladins. The things you could do if you had him alone in a room with a set of thumbscrews and some pliers. How long would it take to make him remember he has a body? How much agony would you have to inflict to convince him to abandon his responsibilities forever? Everybody has a price, so long as the currency is pain.

“No weapons on you?” calls Zevlor.

“Just an old cheese knife,” says Astarion, holding up his dagger with a shaky grin.

Kill his charges one by one, in the night. Make him think he did it.

Start with the children.

You hold up your empty hands.

“All right,” says Zevlor heavily. “Stand back.” He and the sentry work together to turn the spokes of a wooden mechanism atop the rampart.

“So, Gandrel,” says Astarion as the portcullis raises, “what brings you to this … lovely little corner of the world?”

“I’m hunting a vampire spawn,” Gandrel replies cheerfully. “His name’s Astarion. I don’t have his trail at the moment, but I have it on good authority he’s in the area. That’s why I couldn’t leave you out here, you know. They’re nasty creatures.”

“Yes,” says Astarion. The three of you move under the portcullis and into the shadow of a long earthen tunnel. “Yes, I’m sure they are.”

Oh, this is going to be fun.

Chapter 12: Astarion Loses His Temper

Summary:

In which the author shamelessly inserts story-relevant song lyrics

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

You drag your bard into the latrine pit so the two of you can have a moment alone. This druid’s enclave is teeming with refuse: dozens of tiefling refugees from Elturel stuck halfway up hell’s bunghole, to borrow a turn of phrase from Godey. As if being assaulted by a swarm of ratty children weren’t bad enough—Twill is peeling them off his arms and legs by the time you reach the back of the overgrown cavern where the druids make their home—you now have to contend with a vampire hunter and your only reliable asset is terminally afflicted with joyous whimsy.

The stench in the pit hits you like a slap. Twill seems unbothered. “I think they like me,” he says excitedly. “Do you think they like me?”

“I think we ought to get our priorities together, darli—

That’s all you get out before you double over retching.

“Maybe we should talk outside of the latrine pit?” he suggests.

No,” you snarl. You seize him by the collar and squint through streaming eyes. “Are you going to tell anyone?”

“Tell anyone what? That we’re survivors from the nautiloid crash?”

“For the love of—that I’m a vampire, of course!”

“Oh,” he says. “Why would I do that?”

He seems confused. Of course he is—he has well-established himself at this point to be intellectually on par with a rhododendron bush. Because you are a paragon of forethought, you decide to explain exactly why he should sell you out. “Maybe because it’s valuable information. Maybe because you need to come up with a lot of money very quickly to pay a healer. Maybe because you’re just an idiot. You have a multitude of reasons. Pick one.”

“Do you want me to tell someone?”

“No!”

“It sort of seems like you want me to tell someone.”

“I don’t want you to tell anyone!”

Twill holds up a hand. “Wait. Just so we’re clear: you don’t want me to tell anyone.”

Insight: success

He’s laughing at you.

This will ruin your whole day. What are you supposed to do when the clown finds you amusing? Is there anything in your catalogue of social interactions that equips you for this situation? There is not. You feel perilously unmoored, a sensation which has only grown in strength over the past several days as your cruel routine, unbroken for 200 years, dissolves into nothing.

“What are you doing down here?” Gandrel’s face appears at the top of the ladder and you nearly expire on the spot. “Ahh, I see. Ho ho. Far be it from me to ask what two fine-looking fellows are doing alone in a latrine pit.”

He withdraws.

“How much do you think he heard?” whispers Twill.

Despair eats from the toes up. “Oh, let’s just get out of here. I can’t hear myself think over the smell.”

It’s apparent that some sort of situation has been developing here for a while now. You don’t have any experience in druids’ groves—a midnight prowl in the lower city gardens is about as much nature as you can stomach—but even you can tell the refugees have long since outworn their welcome. The druids keep to themselves or in muttering clusters, wincing every time the shriek of a tiefling child rises above the noise and bustle of the camp. You aren’t welcome here, either. The last thing these druids want is yet another outsider asking for help.

But you thrive best where you’re unwelcome, and so you do what you always do when you find yourself in an untenable situation: you keep quiet, slip into the background, and listen. Let your bard do the talking—he may not have anything useful to say, but at least he’s distracting.

You do have to give him some credit: he’s good at extracting information. You can’t tell whether he’s doing it on purpose or not, but there’s something about him that keeps people talking. You pick up the details over a shared bowl of horrible gruel.

The goblin trouble the sentry mentioned is more than trouble: they’ve organized. There’s a whole band of them camped out in an old Selûnite temple somewhere nearby, and their patrols have become … accurate. Precise, deadly, regimented. A worrying trait in goblins. For a while there was talk of permanently sealing the Grove, refugees be damned, but the Master Druid, Halsin, wouldn’t hear of it. From the sound of things, his magnanimous nature has earned him a lot of enemies.

So there’s leadership trouble among the druids themselves. You file that away. It could be useful later, if you need to play politics.

The refugee leadership is less contentious. That cantankerous old tiefling, Zevlor, is the de facto leader, and he seems well-liked enough. He has dealings with local do-gooders: a devil-hunter called the Blade of Frontiers (quite famous apparently, but you’ve never heard the name on account of your enslavement) and an ex-conscript of Zariel’s named Karlach.

That name you have heard, but you can’t put your finger on where.

Zevlor is positively chummy with the Gur monster hunter, too. It appears they have an arrangement: if Gandrel can track down his quarry before the refugees leave, he’ll lend his protection to the caravan as they travel east. They’re bound for Baldur’s Gate.

Cazador wants you alive.

The thought makes you so ill you choke on your gruel. No one questions you, because the gruel is disgusting. Only Twill can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. He’s shoveling it in like a—well, like a human who hasn’t had anything substantial to eat in three days. You’d forgotten they need food so often.

Somehow you and your bard have ended up around a table with Gandrel and Zevlor. You still don’t know what Twill did to finesse you into the conversation, or for that matter how he compelled them to let you into the grove at all. Even when he isn’t covered in blood, he’s deeply offputting to look at. The smirking bow of his mouth is scarred in regimented lines that could only be cut intentionally—a ritual scarring not unfamiliar to you. The bags under his eyes could hold water. Nevertheless there is something there you have a hard time looking away from. A face you want to figure out, Aurelia might have said. You can see how he might draw people in.

Do you trust him? You could ask for his assistance in killing the Gur, but he could just as easily turn on you if you misjudge his virtues. Your life could end right here, in this backwater mud pit. You don’t understand Twill well enough to predict whether he will betray you, and until now you haven’t really tried. You’d written him off as an idiot. Easy to manipulate. Now you’re worried he’s been playing you this whole time.

Twill talks with his mouth full. “Has anyone tried goin’ out there to parley?”

“They’re goblins,” says Zevlor by way of explanation.

“Right, but I think, if we asked right, that they might let you go. Here’s how: first you have to find the right bird. You may have to raise one by hand.”

Nothing about him makes sense.

The two of you have stumbled upon a logistical stalemate. The refugees have outworn their welcome in the grove, but Master Halsin refuses to force them out until the goblins have been dealt with. It’s a sentimental decision that’s going to get people killed—from the way some of the tiefs and druids are side-eyeing each other, you give it three days on the outside until a riot breaks out.

When it does, you hope to be well on your way. “When is this Halsin getting back?” you ask, interrupting your bard mid-sentence as he waxes enthusiastic about messenger pigeons. “We’ve been waiting a long time.”

“Halsin decides when he sees you, not the other way around,” says Zevlor wearily.

“Don’t worry, lad,” says Gandrel. “He’ll get you taken care of.”

Lad?” you repeat, disgusted.

“He’s older than he looks,” says Twill with a grin. You stiffen.

“Have the two of you known each other long?” asks Zevlor.

“We’re practically blood brothers. Both of us have a real thirst for adventure.”

What is he playing at? Is this a game to him? Does he mean to betray you with a joke?

“That so?” says Gandrel.

“Oh, yes,” you reply, leaning forward. “Traveling alone is murder nowadays, don’t you think? I’m happy I have my bard here to lend me a hand.”

“Tell me about this vampire spawn you’re hunting, Gandrel,” says Twill.

That’s not fair.

“Astarion,” says Gandrel. “That’s his name. Aside from that I don’t have much to go on—though I do have it on reliable authority that he’s an elf, a bit like your good self.” He gives you a closer look and, and though the sun is shining you almost feel the click of suspicion, like a key turning. Gandrel gestures to you. “My apologies … I don’t think I asked your name.”

Your brain dribbles out your ears. “Oh! I—it—uh—”

“Twill,” supplies Twill.

“What?” says Gandrel.

He commits, the bastard. “His name is Twill.”

“Both of you are named Twill?”

“That’s right,” he says. “No relation.”

“No …” says Zevlor. “People aren’t usually related by first names, are they?”

“Very true,” says Twill, gesticulating with his spoon. “But you’ll find that roving bards will often take the same name when they travel together. Helps to consolidate the brand, you know?”

Oh no.

“Is that right?” says Gandrel, turning an open smile on you. “You’re both performers?”

No no no.

“I’m usually the frontman,” says Twill. “But my pale elven friend here has a certain talent for poetry.” He meets your gaze across the table and winks. You try to peel him with your eyes.

“In fact,” says Twill, unslinging his lute, “why don’t we have a song while we wait for Halsin’s return?”

“Would you?” says Zevlor. “I’d be in your debt. My people could do with a little gladness.”

“Darling,” you say, gripping your knees under the table, “I really don’t think—”

Three small heads pop out of a nearby hay bale like fast-growing mushrooms. “A song! Get Mol! Funnyman’s gonna do his singin’!”

“You promised juggling too, Funnyman.”

“One thing at a time,” says Twill, tuning up.

You look on helplessly as a party breaks out around you.

Tieflings crawl out of the woodwork. A few druids, too, and some animals you strongly suspect are druids. Someone passes shakers and a tambourine to the kids. Good grief. It’s depressing to be even remotely affiliated with this circus. Nobody here knows how to dance properly and these children keep time like they were born in the hells. Twill is in his element, it seems, grinning like a fool and singing like one, too.

The tieflings produce their own bard. There are bells on her feet. She and Twill plunge into an improvised duet without so much as a handshake between them, followed by cries of mutual delight when they discover they both know the same song.

“O where are we going?” said the brown dog to the hen

But just because they were animals

Doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been men—

Has he forgotten you’re on a godsdamned clock?

“So, Twill the Second. You’re a poet,” says Gandrel, pulling his chair around. Being so near to him raises every hair on your neck. What poisons are in those pockets? What spells does he know that might incapacitate you, make you compliant, have you back in the Kennel before you can blink?

“Ehm,” you say. “Yes.” Does he suspect you? He couldn’t possibly. The sun is shining down on you, its light catching your pearlescent skin and the brass buttons on your doublet. You’re in direct violation of vampire rule number one.

“Well, have you got one for me?”

“One what?” you say distractedly, tapping your foot to the music.

“A poem. Go on.” He gives you a friendly nudge and you have to physically swallow the urge to scratch out his eyes.

It was part of the plan, everybody would stand

On their hind legs, hands holding high the other—

You’ve never written a poem in your life. At least, nothing that actually qualifies as real poetry. Certainly nothing you would ever share with Cazador’s pet bloodhound. “I wrote this one, actually.”

“What, this—”

“This song, yes.” You’re starting to sweat. You need to be as far away from this place as possible. Gandrel, apparently oblivious to your discomfort, begins clapping along. You wonder if it would be a mistake to knife him in front of everyone.

and the one on the bottom would steer

Till the road was clear

And people would learn to rejoice and to fear our coming—

At least you’re not the only one who isn’t enjoying themselves. Your eye is drawn to a dark-haired young woman with a shifty look. She catches your attention because she isn’t a tiefling, and she’s one of the only people in the camp who isn’t dressed in dirty leaves. She doesn’t belong to the refugees or the druids. So who is she?

As you watch, she has a quiet word with the sentry at the gate, then passes under the tunnel and through the portcullis without a backward glance. The gate closes behind her. It’s as if she were never here. You desperately want to follow her.

But how long did we think we could walk, we could sing

Before our voices gave out and our limbs gave in?

On the road, on the road, on the road, on the road—

No, that’s it. You’re done. You lurch to your feet and push through the crowd. Twill sees you coming, but he doesn’t stop his song for you. Big mistake.

“My dear, let me remind you that we are ill—

“Hey, don’t interrupt!” shouts some uppity tiefling kid. Gods, but you hate children.

You touch his shoulder. “We need to see Halsin, and then we need to be on our way.”

Twill spins around and sings the next verse directly into your face.

I came across some robbers three

At first I took everything away from them

And then they took

Everything

Away from me—

“That’s enough!” you snap. You realize your error immediately as the music dies away. Someone gives the tambourine a sad little shake. Damage control, quick. You turn to the onlookers with a self-effacing smile. “I’m sorry, everyone, but my friend and I have had a difficult couple of days and—”

“Ignore the elf, ” says Twill to the tiefling bard. “He talks too much. Now: One Foot, Two Feet, D major, second from the end? Mixolydian mode. I think the kids will really sink their teeth into it.” He doesn’t break eye contact with you.

“A word.” You speak through your teeth. “Please.”

The latrine pit again. “Is something about our situation funny to you?”

“Fun, yes. Funny, never.” He’s grinning.

“Because I can take a joke. In fact, I’m positively hilarious.” You lean in. You pour in all your venom. Cazador’s voice crawls right up out of your throat. “But I will not be laughed at.”

“Relax,” says Twill. “You’re safe. No one ever suspects a bard.”

“Don’t make me laugh. You’re not a bard. You’re a homicidal amnesiac with a savior complex.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“Your chords are rancid, and your singing is toneless.”

Twill gasps. “You take that back!”

“Is your name even really Twill? Or did you pull that out of thin air, too?”

“Take it back, I said.” His tone changes.

“No. Take it up with the latrine pit. I’m going to find this Halsin and get my infection taken care of, with or without you!”

You leave him there and get halfway to the Grove’s inner sanctum before the penny drops. There is one person in this whole camp who knows that you’re a vampire. He’s a stranger. He’s erratic. He has every reason to betray you.

And you’ve just left him alone with Cazador’s vampire hunter.

You grip a column for support.

Gods. Gods. The idiot is you.

Notes:

Listen to "Bremen" by PigPen Theatre Co
Thanks @axiolotl for fixing my errors

Chapter 13: Twill Makes Some Friends

Summary:

In which a vague memory beckons

Chapter Text

“I overreacted, probably. I was just having a bit of fun, but I can’t imagine how stressful his position must be.” You noodle a tune on your lute and sigh. “I suppose I should apologize.”

“You aren’t giving yourself enough credit,” says Crack-Skull. Her voice is a horrible, unearthly shriek. “He hurt you, too, you know. You deserve to let off a little steam.”

“You really think so?”

“He ought to apologize to you,” says Lickspittle, settling herself into an alcove in the rock beside you. “You were only being yourself. Go on, tell us how you feel. You’ve been holding it in, haven’t you?”

You consider.

“Oh dear, the silence says it all,” says Crack-Skull. She pats your shoulder with a taloned paw. “Men are animals. Stay with us until he apologizes.”

If he apologizes,” shrieks the Matriarch above you. “Take it from me, dearie—never compromise yourself for anyone. Speak your mind. Be authentic.”

“I like him,” you say. “I think he’s funny. And he doesn’t seem to mind that I have a compulsive desire to consume human flesh.”

“That’s hard to find,” muses Lickspittle. “That’s worth keeping.”

“It’s not worth seagull sh*t if he doesn’t treat you with respect,” says the Matriarch.

“Does he eat your c*nt?” hisses Crack-Skull. “Does he lick it tenderly? You can tell a lot about someone that way. If he doesn’t respect your c*nt, he doesn’t respect you.”

You feel compelled to provide further context. “I’m not sure he knows that I have one. Anyway, it isn’t that kind of relationship. We’ve only known each other for three days.” You muse on this. “It’s an alliance of necessity, really.”

“But you said you’d lost your memory,” says Lickspittle. “So, in a way, he’s the only person you’ve ever known.”

“I hadn’t thought about it that way.” You sigh. “Can I tell you something?”

“Anything, dearie.”

“What I really want is to … get into his innards.” Your hands twitch at the thought. “I want to—open him up and really just explore the space. And maybe if I could have … just a little taste …” You get lost in the fantasy, then break out again. “I can’t stop thinking about it. Is that wrong?”

“Not at all, but be careful,” says the Matriarch. “That kind of fascination can turn into love all too easily. Make sure he deserves it first.”

“Who said anything about love?”

“Twill! Darling! There you are!” A distant figure waves at you from the lakeshore.

“Well, someone sounds contrite,” says Lickspittle smugly.

“Make him work for it,” hisses Crack-Skull.

You raise your hand in greeting. “Hallo!”

Astarion yells something indistinct.

What?

“I said, why are you sitting in a harpy nest?”

“We’re having a chat!”

“Oh, for—will you stop making friends?

You are immersed in hisses of disapproval. “Terrible tone,” whispers Lickspittle. “Disrespectful. Tell him.”

“I don’t like your tone!” you shout.

This rebuttal seems to hit him like a hammer blow. He retreats a few steps, pulls out a fistful of his own hair, then wades into the lake up to his knees. “Come down so we can talk about it. Please.”

“Ooooh, I’m invested,” titters Crack-Skull.

You look down on him from a rocky karst thirty feet high. “I’m never coming down! The girls understand me. They like my singing!”

“Oh please, they’re just waiting for you to fall asleep so they can eat you.”

“They wouldn’t!”

“Then why is there a half-eaten child on the ledge above you?”

You look up. The Matriarch grins down. Her pointed teeth are stained red.

“Well, that just means they’ve already eaten,” you say, turning back.

“Darling. My dear. Please come down.”

“He hasn’t apologized,” whispers Lickspittle.

“I want an apology!”

For what?

You fold your arms. “I won’t dignify that with a response.”

More hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth. “Fine. Fine! You want an apology? I’m sorry.” He punctuates this with a princely bow, his unkempt hair flopping over his eyes. “There, can we go now?”

You ignore cries of “insincere!” from the harpies and stand up. Lickspittle stops you with a hand on your arm.

“You’re a sweet girl,” she says. “Gullible, too. Don’t let him take advantage.”

“Don’t worry,” you sigh, suddenly tired. “If he tries, I’ll just eat him.”

You visit the doors of the Grove’s inner sanctum and ask to see Halsin again. No dice. You plead with the druids at the door. You smile. You cajole. None of it works. Astarion watches you suspiciously the whole time. Not once does he let you out of earshot. He’s still convinced you’re going to sell him out at the first opportunity. You decide to call him on it.

He’s examining his fingernails. “What can I do for you, my friend?”

“I’m not going to tell the hunter. I was having fun, before.”

“My. A moment of sincerity? Well, isn’t this just a treat.”

“We’re in this together. I wouldn’t lie to you.”

The Urge sends a tingle up your spine. Oh, yes, you would. You swallow the thought. Your regular headache begins in earnest.

“How sweet,” says Astarion. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”

You smile. He returns a carefully identical expression, then breaks away to hammer on the sanctum door. “Hello! Hello in there! Is Halsin even home?

“You’ll want to stop that,” rumbles the druid on guard. He’s a dragonborn. Red. At least eight feet tall. He loosens his scabbard and Astarion actually whimpers.

Perception: success

Just at the edge of your peripheral vision, where a thicket of rhododendrons obscures a spate of deep alcoves in the rock, the tip of a tiefling tail flicks out of sight. A child’s tail. They were watching you speak to the guards. There is an itch in the back of your mind—not the pulsing hunger of the Urge, but the feeling of an unsolved puzzle. Something here isn’t right.

That itch has kept you alive since you were old enough to walk. It’s your sense of danger. It helps you ask the right questions, look in the right places, say the right things to unlock people like prison doors. It’s why you were never caught—

Someone drives a javelin through your skull and you fall to your knees with a cry, instantly dropped by the sheer force of the pain. It fades as fast as it came on, leaving a bruised throbbing drumbeat. Your splintered vision clears and your awareness returns as Astarion hauls you to your feet, muttering into your ear.

“You can’t do that here …”

“Can’t really help it,” you mumble, using Astarion as a crutch as the two of you wobble away from the sanctum.

“Well, try,” he huffs. You feel a pressure at your side—ah. He’s holding a knife to your ribs. Just in case.

He raises his voice. “Oh, don’t mind us! He’s just hungry, still. You know how much humans need to eat! Sit down. You’re sweating on my cravat.” He drops you onto a stool by the oxpens and you drop your head into your hands.

“We have to get these tadpoles out.” You speak through your fingers.

“I’m glad you’ve located your sense of urgency.”

“They’re hiding something.”

“What?” A note of true interest, as if you’d plucked a string. “Who?”

“The refugee children. They know something.”

“What in the world are you talking about?”

You aren’t sure. You have a series of half-formed thoughts: there are no children around you. At least six you saw at the gate, but you can’t pick out a single one among the crates and carts and overgrown wood scaffolding encircling the cavern. The sealed inner sanctum … the stalemate between the druids and tieflings … the goblins …

“I think,” you say slowly, “that we should ask Zevlor when he last saw Halsin.”

A slow grin crawls across his face. “Oh! You think there’s foul play afoot?”

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

“I hope not, or we’ll need to find another healer.”

The grin falls off. “Then we need to get one of those little brats and make it talk, fast.”

“Shh!”

“I’m sorry, did you just shush me?”

“They’re watching,” you whisper. You’re certain of it. Your eyes dart back and forth. “I think they’re in the walls.”

Astarion takes your hands. “Tell me seriously,” he says, holding your gaze. “Are you having one of your little moments? Are these real children we’re talking about?”

Your voice is barely audible. “Mol will never know that she sent Mirkon to her death …”

That one’s just for you.

A present.

A reward.

A slow smile spreads across your face.

“It looks like I’m on my own again,” sighs Astarion. “I’ll come back to wipe the drool off your chin in a few hours—oh, hells, what now?” In the distance you hear the distinct thud of the gate closing. Then you hear screaming.

“Halsin! We need Halsin!”

That gets your attention. “Let’s go,” you say, standing up.

The camp is coming alive around you. Some of Zevlor’s refugee militia are hurrying toward the gate. You run after them and meet Gandrel, quite by accident, at the edge of a gathering crowd by the gate. The screaming is coming from the other side.

“Hello, you two,” says Gandrel cheerfully, although his smile looks a tad strained to your eyes. “Have either of you any experience in reattaching legs?”

Zevlor hurries by, shrugging into a worn chain shirt. He stops to untangle his horns and says, “Gandrel, she’s returned. Alone. See if you can’t talk some sense into the druids—”

“She’s not alone, my friend. She carried him back.” Gandrel drops his voice. “They’re still bringing in pieces.”

Astarion staggers backward with a sudden sharp gasp. You become transfixed by a thick smell settling like a miasma over the crowd.

Wherever you go, there shall I be.

Blood.

Chapter 14: Astarion Misses the Mark

Summary:

In which Twill demonstrates a worrying proficiency in medicine

Chapter Text

Cazador once pushed white-hot forceps up both your nostrils and held them there while you screamed. It was a punishment for disobedience: you broke the rules by sneaking upstairs during one of his bloody soirees. It was a habit of his to spend a few weeks or months seducing lesser nobles of high society—the widows and the widowers, the ones who wouldn’t be missed—and then throw a dinner party with a very predictable twist.

The spawn were not allowed upstairs for the main event. The revelry, he insisted, was far too much for any but a fully-fledged vampire lord. And you, blind and blameless in your arrogance, thought you might not get caught. You still remember the carnage. The blood. The glistening pools reflecting bright white candlelight, the severed hands hanging from the chandeliers. You dream of it fondly sometimes.

The forceps served a purpose, unlike so many of your master’s other punishments. It was a demonstration for the other spawn. He was making some kind of point about the agony of a vampire’s perpetual thirst for blood, but for some reason the lesson didn’t quite sink in at the time.

You understand now.

The stench of it rips through you like a righteous claw. Living blood, a totally different smell from the dead stuff. Knowing that you can’t indulge, can’t even react without giving yourself away—the forceps would be a mercy. You can’t help your intake of breath. Gandrel gives you a sideways glance that makes your skin prickle.

Rotten Gur, he probably knows everything, he’s probably biding his time so he can ambush you in the night, when you’re alone. Well, you’ll be ready for him. By all the gods, you’ll be ready. You take it for granted that your bard sold you out the first chance he got. Why? Because you’re beginning to suspect that Twill is not stupid, and there’s no reason for someone with even a modicum of intelligence to keep you around when you’d be far more useful as a sack of gold.

Damn him. He was entertaining as an idiot.

They bring the man past you on a pallet. You go rigid as a board, so distracted by your own efforts at self-control that it takes you a moment to notice that Twill is following the procession toward the sanctum.

“What are you doing?”

He has a strange expression on his face. “Helping.”

Damn him twice.

The victim is Wyll Ravengard, dispossessed child of a duke of Baldur’s Gate. This is the infamous Blade of Frontiers—a noxious do-gooding upstart you’ve met before, but only once, when you went as Cazador’s consort to a Flaming Fist fundraiser. Now you remember where you’ve heard the name before. The scandal was so loud it even reached your ears, deep in the shadows of the Szarr mansion. It was all anyone talked about for weeks.

Duke Ravengard’s only daughter sold herself to a devil for a sex change.

Or something.

You take whatever the tabloids say with a hefty grain of salt. You doubt the truth matters much to Wyll Ravengard anymore anyway. If the part about the devil is true, the contract clearly got him more than he bargained for: he looks as much like a real man as any you’ve ever seen, but a pair of ropy horns jut from his brow and his skin is marked with infernal lesions. He still resembles the taciturn girl you once saw in Duke Ravengard’s shadow—what’s left of him, anyway. His legs have been gnawed off. Vicious, twisting wounds cross his arms and chest; mincemeat has been made of his face.

He’s accompanied by the largest tiefling you’ve ever seen, a tremendous woman with a sonorous voice who clears out the crowd just by yelling. She’s the one shouting for Halsin.

“He’s not coming out, Karlach,” says Zevlor, hurrying past you from the inner sanctum. She whirls like a firestorm, emitting a blast of heat that makes your eyes water. Something turns over audibly in her chest—ka-chunk, whirr—and steam issues from vents drilled into the red flesh of her shoulders.

Gods alive. This thing is straight out of the hells, isn’t she?

“Damn him,” she snarls, “damn him! I’m going now. I’m going to kick in the door—”

No!” snaps Zevlor. He steps closer to her, presumably in a display of dominance. It’s almost cute. He only comes up to her chin. “We cannot jeopardize our position here! Halsin has forbidden anyone from entering the sanctum—”

f*ck. Halsin.”

“Have you forgotten Arabella?”

They glare at each other in silent contest. Zevlor’s eyebrows go up in smoke. He retreats a few steps.

“This way,” he tells Karlach. “They’re clearing a table close to the doors. In case Master Halsin decides to show his face after all.” He punctuates this last with a sigh.

You intercept him as he passes you. “What happened to Arabella?” You’re curious; the mere mention of the name sucked the remaining air out of the crowd.

“Locke and Komira’s daughter.” Zevlor nods to a pair of tieflings across the cavern who are watching the scene unfold with hollow eyes. “The druids were going to evict us from the Grove. Arabella lashed out, tried to steal their sacred idol.”

“Oh, my. Is she dead?”

His gaze flicks to yours, annoyed. “No. They’re holding her hostage until we leave. Using a child as collateral—that’s who we’re dealing with.”

You don’t know when to shut up. “Well—but it has been pretty effective, though, hasn’t it?”

“Excuse me,” says Zevlor. “I have a dying man to attend to.”

A few druids are busy over the Ravengard boy, who periodically regains consciousness long enough to howl with pain before slipping out again. Twill stands close to them, gaze fixed unblinkingly on the ruined body. He seems enraptured by it. Bloodthirsty little maniac.

Glass houses.

“We need bandages and alcohol,” says a tiefling woman, pressing an already-sodden rag to the stump of the boy’s left leg. The right has been bound, insufficiently, in someone’s donated blanket. Blood seeps through and pools on the table; you suppress a whimper. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about the legs. We don’t have the components for a spell powerful enough to stop the bleeding, let alone reattach them. I don’t know why he hasn’t bled out already—”

Wyll splutters to life, gasps, “She. Won’t let. Me die.”

“He’s a warlock,” explains Karlach. She’s bent over him, her palms searing permanent marks into the table. “He’s made of sturdier stuff than you. Come on, soldier, we need you …”

“What happened?” demands Zevlor. “Report!”

The command seems to clear her thoughts. She leans back with a thick sigh. “We were trying to clear the high road, yeah, like you said. It’s crawling with gnolls, Zev. Swarming. They’re still feasting on what’s left of your people and I think they’re breeding, to boot. Forget goblins—anyone who heads that way is going to get torn to pieces.”

First goblins, then monster hunters, now gnolls of all things. What else is out there, dragons? It’s as if you stepped outside for the first time in 200 years and the whole of Toril is trying to murder you in response.

The Ravengard boy seizes suddenly, bloodied hands clawing at nothing. Karlach lets out a cry of frustration and rounds toward the sanctum doors. “He’s dying! He saved you, and he’s dying!” There is no reply from within.

Twill says, “He’s in cardiac arrest.”

Nobody pays much attention to him until he steps up to the table and places his hand on Wyll’s gory chest. You see his fingers twitch, hesitate, then push into the pulped flesh.

Hey!” shouts Karlach. “What’re you—”

Twill whistles a single low note, holding it for far longer than his breath should allow. The sound rattles your bones. Ravengard’s convulsions ease, then cease, and his chest begins to rise and fall more evenly.

Arcana: success

True healing is rare, even among practiced spellcasters. There are spells to relieve pain, potions to prevent infection, charms to slow bleeding and speed natural regeneration. Knitting flesh back together is another matter entirely. Things like organ failure are the realm of master healers—like Halsin, supposedly. Unattainable to any amateur spellcaster, whatever their area of expertise.

But your bard has just stopped a heart attack by whistling.

Twill recoils from Ravengard with a sharp gasp, pressing his blood-soaked hand to his forehead. You can’t take your eyes off him. Just what in the bloody hells is he?

Zevlor recovers first. “He’s bought us some time, but we still need to stop the bleeding. Gandrel, will you sweep the camp for supplies? I think there are some bandages still left over in the storehouse.”

Storehouse. Back of the cavern. Dark. Isolated. “I’ll come with you,” you hear yourself say. “It’s about time I made myself useful.”

The Gur barely spares you a glance. “Come on, then.”

Your heart is pounding as the two of you move away from the crowd, into the eerie silence of the abandoned camp. It seems everyone has dropped what they were doing to witness the Ravengard boy’s demise. He must have been either truly loved or deeply hated. Either way, it serves you.

All you need to do is get Gandrel alone, out of sight, and strike before he does. You’re confident you’re quicker than him.

“Your friend is full of surprises,” says Gandrel over his shoulder.

“He is, isn’t he?” You keep your voice light, conversational. Inside, you’re boiling. Has Twill been a healer this whole time? Why didn’t he say anything?

“People tend to underestimate bards,” says Gandrel. He unlocks the storehouse door and holds it open for you. “Your magic is intuitive, creative—but still grounded within a solid technical framework. Wizards who became artists. All the power, none of the reputation. It’s amazing what people will overlook if it shows up in a funny hat.”

Twill mercifully has no hat. You resolve to never allow him to acquire one. “Well, he keeps me on my toes,” you say, smiling as you position yourself near the door. A glance outside tells you nobody is watching. If Gandrel knows what you are, this is his chance. This is your chance.

“A-ha!” Gandrel is deep in an open crate. “I thought Rolan and Lia might have left us some supplies. Although … what’s this …?”

Cazador’s cheese knife is in your hand. If you survive this—if you survive any of this—you’re going to get yourself a proper blade. Something worthy of slaying a vampire lord. You adjust your grip, fingers tapping nervously on the wire-wrapped hilt.

“Hey, Mister.”

You jump so violently you hit your head on the doorframe. There is a ch—

you are about to commit a murder, and there is a child—

“Hey. Mister.”

What?” The word flies out of your mouth with a whole lot of spit as you whirl around. The kid stiffens but doesn’t run. A tiny part of you respects that. A bigger part of you wants to give him something to run from. “Can’t you see the adults are busy?

The infant narrows his eyes. He might be nine or ten. “Is he gonna die?”

“What?”

“If he doesn’t see Halsin, is the Blade gonna die?”

“I hope he does,” you snap. Then Gandrel lays a heavy hand on your shoulder and you are frozen, momentarily, with indecision. Ice creeps down your back. Knife them both drag them into the storehouse cover them with barrels and then but what to do with all that blood what will—

“I won’t lie to you, Mattis,” Gandrel tells the boy. “If the druids won’t admit Wyll to their sanctum, then yes. He will die.”

“That’s all I needed,” says the kid. “Thanks.”

He turns and walks away with the gravitas of a man attending his own execution.

“What an odd thing to say,” you muse.

“You aren’t very fond of children, are you?” says Gandrel, peering at you. There’s a hard edge to his voice that almost … hurts your feelings after all his joviality.

“No,” you answer coldly. “Not particularly.”

Gandrel’s hand tightens on your shoulder. Then he releases you, and the red mist that has been congealing at the edges of your vision recedes somewhat. “We have a problem, my friend,” he says, holding up a fistful of tightly-rolled scrolls. “A very big problem.”

“I daresay we do.” You slip your fingers once more around the knife in your pocket.

Gandrel unrolls one against his palm. “It’s a scroll of disguise. These were scattered all over the bottom of Rolan’s bag. Damn it! Do you know what this means?”

You squint at the tightly coiled glyphs etched into the parchment. “Enlighten me.”

“Anyone could have found them.” He lets the scroll snap back into its tight coil. “I have to be prepared for the worst. The devils are inside the walls. My quarry may well be here, in the camp.”

The red mist is back. The Gur’s heartbeat thunders in your ears. You feel the current in his veins. How fitting would it be for your first human victim to be one of the rotten vagrants who caused your death in the first place? Your body coils like a spring. Your voice emerges a whisper: “As a matter of fact, I think you’re right.”

“There you are!” Twill appears around the side of the oxpens, looking excited. He’s covered in blood again. He looks like a toddler that got into jelly. “Get up here! It’s Halsin! Halsin’s coming out!”

Gandrel whirls away from you. “He’s what?”

You hesitate only a moment before running after them.

In the heart of the Grove, the crowd has gone quiet. Even the inimitable Karlach has subsided into shadow, thin tendrils of smoke rising from her shoulders, eyes aflame as she glares. The onlookers have made a wide circle around a statuesque figure bent over Wyll Ravengard’s pallet. Archdruid Halsin is a brawny wood elf with a regal bearing that rivals your own. He straightens up slowly and squints over the crowd with exaggerated care. Behind him, the stone door to the sanctum stands open.

Insight: critical failure

“Hello, everyone.” His voice is deep, rich, commanding. “Nice to see you all.”

Nobody says a word.

“I am taking Wyll Ravengard into my sanctum now. Nobody else may enter.” Halsin bends over Wyll’s broken body once more and gathers it into his arms. The unconscious man flops around lifelessly. “I will not tolerate any naysayers or dissenters, peas and carrots.”

Karlach lurches forward. “You can’t just—”

Peas and carrots, soldier!” shouts Halsin. She stumbles back, looking stunned. “Nobody may enter. You. Get the legs.”

He’s pointing at Twill, who points at himself. “Me?”

“You may enter. I command it!” Halsin speaks to the sky. “I am Archdruid Halsin! Only Funnyman may enter.” He hesitates.

Oh.

“And … Funnyman’s friend.”

Oh no.

“I command it!” shouts Halsin again. “Funnymen: bring me the Blade’s legs. Everyone else: begone! I am Halsin!” He turns around and carries the Ravengard boy into the sanctum. Twill practically skips after him.

And you follow, too, because—

You glance back at Gandrel.

—do you really have anything better to do?

Chapter 15: Twill Narrowly Prevents a Slugging

Summary:

In which no slugs are harmed

Chapter Text

The interior of the druids’ sanctum is a musty, dank, drafty cavern that nevertheless feels like home to you, though you can’t put your finger on why. You feel comfortable underground, without the sky over your head. The great stone door falls shut behind you, shutting out the ravenously curious glares of the refugees and leaving you in darkness with Astarion, Halsin, and a pair of druids. They join you as you make your way down the steps into the depths of the sanctum.

Astarion prods you. You feel his breath on your ear. “Something’s off.”

“Quiet back there,” barks Halsin. Astarion falls silent at once, bright red eyes fixed on the back of the Archdruid’s head. Each of you has one of Wyll Ravengard’s legs tucked under your arm. The boy himself is dripping everywhere. You leave a red carpet on the stairs behind you. Your normally disorganized mind feels keen, sharpened by the scent of blood and buzzing with questions. Why has it taken so long for Halsin to show himself? Why is the sanctum deserted while the lesser druids stand guard outside? Why have they admitted you, of all people?

Your head throbs. What a stupid question. They ought to be bowing to you.

Then you reach the bottom of the steps and pass through a dark curtain, and Astarion lets out a groan of despair.

This most sacred of vernal spaces has been turned upside down. Boots and druids’ robes are scattered everywhere. The stone table at the center of the chamber is crowded with dirty plates and utensils.

Investigation: failure

In the middle of the table sits a fishbowl filled with slugs. You are distracted by this for a moment.

Not so Astarion. “All right.” His voice is the ugliest snarl you’ve ever heard him make. “Which of you brats is behind this?”

The tiefling children appear the same way roaches do—there are more of them the harder you look. They’re playing marbles under the table, they’re sitting on the statues around the chamber, they’re paddling in the sacred pool. Ominously, they all seem to be wearing flower crowns and togas.

Mol sits proudly with her legs crossed on the table and a gleam in her single eye. Her daisy chain hangs rakishly from one horn. “You weren’t invited to speak, Funnyman Two.”

Excuse me?” Astarion is about to get going. “I don’t need an—augh!”

The two druids who accompanied you down the staircase have transformed spontaneously into children. They’re holding pointed sticks to your ribs.

Mol points to Astarion. “The Queen of the Sacred Grove will decide your fate.”

“The Queen!” shout the children in unison. “The Queen!”

“Oh gods, they’ve organized,” says Astarion.

Break their little necks.

They’re kids, for crying out loud.

Hasn’t stopped you before.

Mol spreads her arms. “Welcome to the new world order! Lieutenant Mattis, put the Blade on the altar, chop chop.” She snaps her fingers. Halsin steps forward and deposits Wyll’s limp form on top of the piles of greasy dishes. You eye the body critically.

Halsin is being swarmed by kids in slapdash togas. “Great job, Mattis!” “They won’t suspect a thing, mate.” “Good thinking with the catchphrase!” “Was that all improv, Mattis?”

“All in a day’s work, my friends,” rumbles Halsin proudly.

You clear your throat. “Ehm. What’s going on?”

“The Gur hunter found scrolls of disguise just lying around where anyone could get them,” says Astarion. “Halsin is an imposter. These little brats have staged a coup.”

You look around at Halsin, who giggles.

“That ain’t the whole story, Funnyman!” shouts Mol. “And if I were you I wouldn’t be getting too comfortable. Our Queen has yet to decide your fate.”

“If I were you,” says Astarion nastily, “I’d start preparing my behind for a spanking. Disobedient little monsters like you deserve to be punished—for wasting my time, if nothing else.” He turns to you with an ugly smile. “I think the druids might simply kill them, what about you?”

“Slug him!” someone yells.

Excuse me?” snaps Astarion, whirling.

The chant gains strength around the edges of the chamber. “Slug him, slug him, slug him, slug him, slug him, SLUG HIM—

You glance once more at the bowl of slugs on the table and get a horrible feeling. “No one’s slugging anyone!”

Mol raises a hand for silence. “That so, Funnyman?”

“No slugging. Whatever it is.” You have a migraine. Your mind is scrabbling, scrambling for ways to turn the situation into tragedy. You’ve been fighting back nausea since the moment you stopped Wyll’s heart attack, and the pounding blood inside your head is only growing louder. If one more stupid thing happens, you’re going to have to kill everyone here just to balance out the tone.

You have a little more self-control than that.

Are you sure?

Reasonably.

“I think you’ll find we’re the ones to decide who gets slugged,” says Mol. She raises one hand in signal, and the kids around the chamber begin to hum in eerie unison. A chill runs up your spine. It’s like they’re summoning something. “Prepare yourselves to meet—our—Queen!

Nothing happens. The humming peters out uncertainly. Mol glances over her shoulder.

“I’m quaking,” says Astarion.

A moment later, an ashen-skinned tiefling girl pokes her head through a doorway. She’s wearing a druid’s robe tailored for a gnome. “Sorry, was that me?”

“Ack, Bella, you’re supposed to make an entrance!” Mol rolls out of her chair and scrambles across the chamber. “Like oooh, ahh, entrance! Look at me, I’m the Queen! Like that!”

“I don’t know,” says the girl. “That seems silly.”

“She’s always ruining everything,” mutters a boy behind you.

“I heard that!” shouts Mol, whirling. “Anyone with somethin’ to say to Bella has to go through me. It ain’t her fault she’s still got parents!”

“Arabella, I presume,” says Astarion. He catches you doing a double take and laughs aloud at you. "Ha! See? While you were frolicking, I was doing research.”

“Yeah, I’m Arabella.” She glances sideways at Mol, who gives her a thumbs up, and adds, “What’s it to ya?”

“Your parents are worried about you.”

“Well, they gotta stay worried for now,” says Arabella. “I have more important stuff to do here.”

“We brought the Funnyman for ya,” says Mol.

Your head throbs. “Funnyman would love to know what’s happening.”

“Right,” says Mol, “well, you’ve held up your end of our bargain so far, so here’s how it is. Arabella’s a hero. The druids were going to kick us out, see, but she snuck in and stole the idol they were using to cast their fancy kick-us-out spell. Do you wanna tell, Bella?”

“The idol gave me powers,” says Arabella, beaming. “I can do things I couldn’t do before.”

“And now the druids are gone and we’re in charge,” says Mol. “And you can’t tell anyone, or you’ll get slugged!

“What do you mean, the druids are gone?” says Astarion. “You can’t just—”

“Slugs,” you say dully. You point to the bowl on the table.

All the expression slides off Astarion’s face. “Ah.”

“We’ve been taking turns, disguisin’ ourselves as druids to keep the game up,” says Mol. “Anyone gets suspicious, tries to give us away—” She socks her palm. “Bam. Slugged.”

“Except I don’t know how to change ‘em back,” says Arabella.

“But where’s the real Halsin?” demands Astarion. They all exchange glances. “We need a healer, damn it! Where is he?

“Dunno,” says Mol. “He went off with some mercs almost a tenday ago and never came back. That’s when the other druids tried to close the grove on us.”

“Mol had the idea that we should be Halsin,” says a girl under the table. “Give out orders, like, but don’t let anyone into the sanctuary. It’s worked so far.”

“Only ‘cause I keep turning the ones who find out into slugs,” says Arabella.

You drift over to the slug bowl and peer inside. “Is this all of them?”

“There’s a few druids outside who ain’t found out yet,” says Halsin-Mattis. “Chumps.”

“What about their familiars? Most druids have—”

“Slugged.”

“Ooh, they must be furious,” says Astarion with a tinge of glee.

You unsling your lute and tune up. “I know a spell to speak with animals. Let’s see what they have to say.”

You strum the magic chord, then pluck a slug from the bowl.

“Hello?”

You’re met with an endless scream of existential terror, a shriek whose volume increases infinitely, a cosmic howl that loosens your bones and numbs your thoughts. OH GODS OH f*ck OH SILVANUS OH GODS WHY—

You drop the slug back in the bowl.

“Nothing worth mentioning,” you tell Astarion.

“All right, we’ve wasted enough time,” says Mol. “Bella, we got you the Blade, and we got you Funnyman to help. He’s a healer, I saw it myself. What do you think?”

Arabella looks scared. “I—I don’t know …”

“C’mon. You healed Doni when he cut his hand. You couldn’t do that before.”

“This is different. He’s messed up real bad, Mol. What if I kill him by accident?”

“Not much chance of that,” you say. “He died a while ago.”

The children look at you in horror.

“Yeah, look.” You circle the table and prod Wyll’s motionless neck. “No pulse. He’s deader than your pal Mirkon.”

You don’t say that.

You didn’t say that.

You did say that. It just came out, like a thought. Mol is looking at you like she’s trying to figure out if you’re serious. Astarion is staring at you openmouthed.

“No, Mirkon just went around to the lake, silly,” says Mol with a nervous laugh. “She’s probably napping. She’s lazy like that.”

Insight: success

You’ve made her uncertain.

You don’t want these kids to be scared of you. Walk it back.

Touched a nerve?

Please.

Who’s the liar now?

Undo it.

You can’t keep doing this. Revel in their tragedy!

You wince as your temples throb, causing your vision to blacken at the edges. “Right, th-that’s what I mean,” you stammer. You never stammer. “Mirkon's just … t-temporarily not with us. Just like Wyll here.” You turn to face them all, holding up one finger, and nearly choke on your spit. “Is only temporarily not with us.”

Deception: success

You are really good at this.

“What d’you mean?” says Arabella warily.

The mere idea of doing what you are about to do sickens you to your rancid core. It seems somehow perverse, profane, obscene. You force the words out anyway. “My friends, we can bring him back.”

Everyone is staring at you.

You clear your throat. “But I’m going to need two hundred dollars.”

Chapter 16: Astarion Sees God

Summary:

In which Astarion updates his strategy

Chapter Text

The stench of moldy rags and dusty bones precedes his entrance. The withered man doesn’t come through the front door—he emerges, instead, from a chamber deeper in the sanctum which you are fairly sure has no exit to the outside. The little urchins shrink away from him instinctively. You observe from a shadowy corner.

“Thank you for coming,” says Twill, rising from his seat near Ravengard’s bloody corpse. It isn’t so appetizing to you now that he’s dead, but the stench in the air is a constant reminder of your thirst. You can hear the blood pounding through Twill’s jugular vein. Your bard is looking pale and drawn; the stark black of his hair makes his skin look positively chalky, and those dark circles … he looks as if you’ve already sucked him dry.

You give yourself an internal shake. Your thirst is getting the better of you.

“There is no need to thank me. I am merely fulfilling an Obligation.”

The brats are saucer-eyed. “The Bone Man talks!” whispers Arabella.

“Of course I Talk. Is this not thy Preferred form of Communication?”

“What else can you do?”

“A great many things I would not deign to share with thee.”

“Whoa …”

“Can you do it?” says Mol. Demanding little thing. “Can you bring back the Blade?”

A single withered hand emerges from the folds of the ancient robe, palm turned up in supplication. “First, thy Payment.”

“I see you don’t ask them the question,” you mutter.

“Beg pardon?” says Twill.

You cross your legs and lean back. “Oh, nothing. Carry on.”

Twill drops a bag of coins into the withered man’s outstretched hand. The refugee kids are resourceful, if nothing else. A few minutes of scrounging in drawers and caskets turned up more than enough to pay for his dubious services. You managed to pocket a tidy sum for yourself when no one was looking, and you’ve resolved to turn this place upside down as soon as you have a chance.

The withered man empties the bag onto the table. “A Moment. I must Count.”

“It’s all there,” says Mol. “Every penny. Now bring him back.”

“Filthy little ingrate,” you mutter. Twill throws an annoyed glance your way. You studiously examine your fingernails.

For a few minutes the only noise is coins sliding around on stone.

“Well counted,” says the withered man at last. “Prithee, make space, and keep thy Distance for a moment.…”

“Swindled by a skeleton,” you mutter. “Whatever won’t they think of next?”

“Sorry, hold on,” says Twill. “Astarion, do you want to wait outside?”

You lean into the light. “My name is Twill the Second. And all I’m saying is that this had better work.”

“By Doom and Dusk, I strike thy Name from the Archives.”

“Because if it doesn’t—and it won’t—then we’re out two hundred dollars, on the hook for the death of a stranger, and neck deep in a political snafu that has absolutely f*ck-all to do with us—”

“RISE.”

You recoil with an involuntary shriek as the center of the chamber vanishes in a brilliant corona of light. It sears itself into your retinas, blinding you. Children scatter in all directions, squealing, as the light gradually resolves into the shape of Wyll Ravengard, unbloodied and fully intact. As soon as his feet touch the ground, the light recedes into a fine point in his chest and winks out. There is not a sound in the chamber. Wyll’s mouth opens in a shocked gasp.

Then he stumbles to the edge of the sanctum and vomits extravagantly into the sacred pool.

At the other end of the chamber, Twill is clutching his head and groaning.

“I thank thee for thy Custom,” says the withered man, sweeping the coins back into their bag. “I hope thou dost find thy purchase Satisfactory.”

He totters through the doorway and off into another chapter.

Arcana: success

You have to remember to start breathing again. This creature is no ordinary undead. You have just witnessed a spell from an echelon of magic so advanced it practically qualifies as miraculous. A miracle cast as casually as a cantrip. No ordinary undead indeed, that much is certain—but then, just what the hells is he? More importantly, how come Twill gets one and you don’t? Having your own zombie minion to raise your allies from the grave would go a long way toward evening your odds against Cazador. It’s galling, being dependent on someone else for that kind of power.

What allies? Who would you even raise?

That isn’t important. You could probably think of some.

Ravengard staggers upright, bracing himself against a statue for support.

“Balduran’s bones,” he gasps. “I feel like I got trampled by an ogre. The cramp in my arse …” He trails off as he turns around and discovers the roomful of children staring back at him. You can see the gears turning in his freshly resurrected mind and pull even further into the shadows, lest he ask you any annoying questions. You hope he won’t recognize you, though why would he? It’s been nigh on a decade.

“Mol?” says Ravengard. He winces and puts a hand to his horned head. “Is that—is that Umi? And Silfy? What are you all doing h—”

“The Blade!” shrieks a boy, and they all rush him. Ravengard vanishes under a carpet of children.

“You were dead!” Mol shouts. “You were dead and we brung you back!”

Twill has recovered himself enough to be annoying. He offers Ravengard a bow which is pompous even by your standards and announces, “The resurrection was mine. Twill E. Cavander, bard errant, at your service!”

Ravengard extricates himself from the pile. “Oh—ahem—sorry, just a second—” He pulls himself upright, slaps an arm across his chest, and announces, “The Blade of Frontiers, monster hunter errant, at your service!”

All the children cheer.

Oh gods, another one. You’re never getting out of here, are you?

Twill is in his element. “A noble title, good sir, if a bit of a mouthful. Do you have—”

“Oh, right, of course!” Ravengard has a warm and easy laugh. You find him instantly attractive and are disgusted with yourself. “You can call me Wyll.”

“Aha! And you can call me Twill.”

“The greatest of pleasures to meet you, Twill!”

“And you, Wyll!”

“Twill and Wyll!”

“Wyll and Twill!” They clasp arms. Your bard drops his voice. “I love the arm across the chest. Quite distinctive. Is that your trademark?”

“I suppose it is,” says Wyll.

“Do you think you could help me come up with one? To tell you the truth, I’m still a bit new to this whole—”

It happens all at once, and it happens to all three of you. Twill and Ravengard both stiffen and you go rigid in your shadowy corner as your parasite spasms behind your eye. It’s happened to you only once before, at your first meeting with Twill. Images and memories collide, passing rapidly between the three of you: the interior of the nautiloid, the red wastes of Avernus, Twill’s fall from the wreckage, you clawing your way out of your pod, alone, in the dead of night. You catch glimpses of Ravengard’s escape from his own pod and vivid flashes of the past several days: Wyll readily defending this druid’s grove from a goblin horde alongside Gandrel the Gur; Wyll making magnanimous amends with the tiefling Karlach, his former quarry; Wyll enduring the cruel punishment of his infernal patron, screaming as ropy horns sprout from his brow. You rifle greedily through his memories, spurred by the power of your tadpole. Here’s a proper hero. He has a generous heart. Real Prince Charming type. He ought to be easy to manipulate. He might even be a better bet than Twill, if only he weren’t a gods-damned monster hunter.

Then Wyll turns the connection inside out, and now he’s in your head. Rifling. You throw up walls instinctively, trying to block him out. The connection breaks.

It all takes less than a second. The children barely notice.

“Well,” says Ravengard, looking from Twill to you with a new and calculated interest. “Seems like we have a lot to talk about.” He locks eyes with you. “Who’s your friend, Sir Cavander?”

“Oh, nobody,” you reply, waving a hand dismissively. “An innocent bystander.”

“His name’s Twill too!” supplies Mattis-Halsin.

Wyll does a double-take. “Master Halsin? You’ve returned?”

“No, that’s just Mattis,” says Mol.

“Somebody catch me up.”

Twill explains the resurrection. Mol explains the slugs. You explain nothing.

“Oh.” Wyll leans over the slug bowl. “Oh, no. You lot have gotten yourselves into one hinky of a pickle, haven’t you? Aw, chintz. What am I going to do with you all?”

Who talks like this?

In the corner a child pipes up softly, “Slug hiiiiim—

Nobody’s slugging anyone!” snaps Mol, whirling. “Nobody’s slugging the Blade!”

“And there’s no need to!” says Wyll, holding up his hands. “I’m here to help you. On my honor, I won’t tell anyone until we figure out what to do.” His face grows serious. “But we can’t keep the druids in a bowl forever. I think our best bet is to find Master Halsin—the real Master Halsin, thank you, Mattis—and get a proper cure from him.”

“I think that’s the most sense anyone has made all day,” you say. “Thank you.”

Twill glances from Ravengard to you and back again.

“But what if he kicks us all out of the Grove anyway?” says Arabella. “He’s their leader, after all.”

“And he’ll be so angry,” murmurs the girl under the table.

Ravengard frowns into the slug bowl, then takes a deep breath and says, “First things first. We have to find Halsin, and we have to make sure you lot are safe while we do it. Mattis, do you feel up to a performance?”

Mattis-Halsin grips his staff and rises to his full height. “Let’s do it.”

“Giving the people what they want,” says Ravengard with a grin. “Let’s show them all what a great healer you are.”

Competent. Reasonable. Apparently sane. What’s not to like? You might even turn his do-gooder attitude to your advantage, if you play your cards right. After all, what’s worse to a monster hunter: a vampire spawn, or a full vampire? If you can make him like you, maybe you can lead him right to Cazador’s doorstep. Your mind is racing. Ravengard has connections. His father is the leading force behind the Flaming Fist company in Baldur’s Gate. He might be your ticket. He might be your ticket. Twill is already forgotten.

The four of you ascend the stairs with Mattis-Halsin in the lead.

“Be careful!” Mol calls after you. “Don’t muck it up!”

“All right,” says Mattis-Halsin. “It’s showtime.”

Wyll speaks a word, and the door rises. The four of you step out of the inner sanctum and into the waiting crowd, to thunderous applause.

Chapter 17: Twill Slips Away

Summary:

In which Astarion changes targets

Chapter Text

“And that’s how I fulfilled my oath and discovered the true meaning of friendship,” says Wyll. “Not a story for the faint of heart, I know, but there it is. What about you?”

It’s the dead of night. The air is frigid but the three of you are seated around Wyll’s tiefling friend Karlach, who has a medical condition of some persuasion and puts out enough heat to roast a sausage on. You’re camped in a low hollow off the enclave’s main cavern, safe inside the palisade. Wyll has spent the past hour spinning a yarn about his time since the nautiloid crash, something whimsical involving devils and mechanical organs and a case of mistaken identity, and you have hardly heard a word.

Your thoughts are a morass of red and black fluids, sliding around each other inside your head. The sound of your own pulse is a persistent beat at the base of your skull. Something is terribly wrong, and you can’t make it go away.

Astarion doesn’t look much better. He isn’t just pale, he’s translucent. He licks his lips every time he speaks. How often do vampires need to feed? Clearly more often than this.

You sit hunched on your bedrolls in a kind of covalent misery, subdued by your respective blood hungers.

Wyll seems to be having a wonderful evening.

Karlach is snoring.

“What about us, what?” asks Astarion.

You, at least, are certain your hunger has a cure. You’re sure the tadpole is causing it. If Halsin can extract your parasite, your urges will cease and you’ll be in command of your own mind again. You think you’re running out of time. Your face keeps making expressions on its own: a scowl, a grimace, an evil smile. Vile words bubble up on your tongue and you have to force them back down. You’re scared of yourself.

“Tell me about yourselves! Who you are, where you’ve been—before our untimely capture, I mean.”

Who are you, really?

No one you want to be.

Your hands tremble. You don’t have the wherewithal to reach for your lute, and you can’t remember how to play.

“Ugh, nobody and nowhere worth fawning over,” says Astarion. “I’m a magistrate back in the city. It’s all very tedious. But you …” He levels a slender finger at Wyll. “The Blade of Frontiers. My, my. Did you choose such a dashing title for yourself?”

Wyll laughs awkwardly. “Uh, well, you see …”

Your vision is swimming. Strange shapes dance at your periphery, vanishing when you turn your head. Hallucinations? You look down at your hands. They’re bruised. They’re clean. They’re covered in blood.

What is wrong with you?

You blink, and an hour has passed. Wyll and Astarion have moved to a more distant corner of the hollow and are chatting amiably with one another. You frown. You’ve agreed to join Wyll and Karlach’s venture to find Halsin—you’re all running on the same hourglass, after all, counting down to illithid-o’-clock—but you’re surprised by Astarion’s instant gravitation toward Wyll. He hasn’t so much as glanced your way since you left the druids’ sanctum. Why, you wonder, does he find Wyll’s enthusiasm so charming but yours so irritating?

Perhaps he’s afraid of you.

Good. Yes, excellent! It’s about time you received the respect that you’re owed. But you could do so much more to enforce your reputation. these aren’t your thoughts Tonight you will—

“No!” you snap. Astarion and Wyll fall silent at once. Karlach sits up with an aborted snore.

SssnUGH—what? Somethin’ wrong?”

You lick your lips. Your mouth is full of paper. “All fine! Spider got on my … shoe …”

“Well, don’t hurt her,” mumbles Karlach, settling back down. “We’re in her house, you know.” The snore resumes before the end of her sentence.

Astarion is staring at you intently.

You collect yourself. “Does Gandrel know?” you ask Wyll, pointing to your eye. “About the worms?”

Wyll glances toward the hollow’s entrance. “No,” he says after a moment. “I think he knows we all fell from the nautiloid. It’s the only thing we all have in common. But I don’t think the other fish has swum into the net yet, if you get my meaning.”

“Ehm—no, frankly,” says Astarion.

“I mean he hasn’t worked out why a group of totally disparate strangers would be on a nautiloid in the first place,” whispers Wyll. “I think some of the refugees from Elturel have, but they have bigger things to worry about at the moment.” He shakes his head. “We need to find Halsin fast. Those kids don’t have long in there.”

“Oh please, it’s no contest if it comes to a fight,” scoffs Astarion. “Not when half the druids in the enclave are decorating the inside of a fishbowl.”

“It isn’t funny. If the wrong person finds them, they could be killed.”

“Darling,” says Astarion, placing a hand on Wyll’s shoulder, “call it tragic if it makes you feel better, but don’t you dare tell me it isn’t funny.”

Wyll sucks in his breath. “All right, it’s a little funny.”

Astarion smiles. “There you are.”

They both chuckle. Your head begins to swim again. You focus on their conversation to keep your awareness from slipping inward, into the yawning morass of yourself.

“Why stay?” Astarion asks. “Here, I mean. You have the same unwelcome houseguest as the bard and me, but instead of looking for a healer you’ve been—what? Hunting gnolls for a group of strangers? Why?”

“Because they needed my help,” says Wyll.

“I’m sure they will appreciate it very much when you explode into tentacles in front of them,” says Astarion dryly.

“It hasn’t happened yet. Besides, there’s something different about our parasites. We ought to have symptoms by now—hells, we ought to be insensible, shivering on our bedrolls as our skin peels off, layer by layer—”

“Eugh.”

“A grim portrait, I know. But …” Wyll shrugs. “Nothing.”

“Maybe they’ve died,” suggests Astarion.

You all know that isn’t true. Even if you couldn’t feel it moving around in there, the four of you are connected, peripherally: you feel Astarion’s presence in the world like a phantom limb, and you’re beginning to sense Wyll and Karlach in the same way. Your illithid worms are binding you together.

Wyll chuckles again. “We can only hope. And we can only hope Halsin knows of a cure. And that Halsin forgives what those kids have done to his people. Gods … I have a headache.”

“Do you want something for it?” asks Astarion. He produces a small bottle. “It’s amazing, what druids leave lying around in locked drawers in their private quarters.”

Your head is pounding. You need a distraction. Someone to pull you out of this. Anything. You shuffle gradually to your feet, drawing curious glances from Astarion and Wyll, and mumble, “Going for a walk.”

Suddenly you are standing by the oxpens in the larger cavern. You don’t remember coming here. Your awareness stutters in and out like the sun passing behind thick clouds. You fold yourself over the fence, saliva pooling in your mouth as nausea overwhelms you.

You’ve held yourself in for too long. There is a smirking edge to this thought. Did you think that was a real solution? Behind the dam, the pressure only builds.

Why can’t you simply be normal?

You do a very good job pretending to be a person. It serves you well.

You aren’t pretending anything.

Oh, but you are. You know when to smile and when to frown, which questions to ask, where to tease, where to commiserate … but it’s all paper dolls, isn’t it? Authenticity is for organs and offal. If anyone knew what you really were—your true self, under all that decoration—they would run from you in terror.

You don’t want anyone to be afraid of you.

No, you have never been interested in power, only in praise. But what good is being liked, if it comes at the expense of yourself? Of your birthright? Your purpose? You feel a stir of air on your cheek, almost like a gentle caress. Love yourself. Be true to your art. Tragedy and blood: that is your craft, and people are your medium.

You shiver. If you wished, you could be the savage ghost that haunts this grove. Sweep through and slit a few throats, then slip away in the small hours before the morning watch. You gleefully consider your options, who to leave alive and who to kill for maximum effect … Arabella, but not Mol. Zevlor—so there’s no one to lead the refugees.

no no no no no

That tiefling bard you played with—she’s much too talented to live. You always hated them, the ones who played better than you, and it will be a good

what is wrong with you

first step back toward your old self. The first rung on the ladder, so to speak. And you’ll need to fix your mistake with the Ravengard boy. Pathetic of you to stoop so low. Irresponsible, irredeemable behavior, but you can set it right …

these are not your thoughts this is not

what is it what is wrong

with me

There is no “me.”

There is only you.

One of the oxen snorts, its hot breath steaming up in a cloud. You raise your head and meet its glittering eye. Then, behind you, someone speaks:

“Can’t sleep?”

You turn and find Gandrel leaning against the fence a few paces away.

Your voice comes out remarkably steady. “I can’t ever sleep.”

“Aye. Me neither, it seems.” But he’s still dressed in his leathers, his sword belt still fastened. He’s awake on purpose. “Forgive me, but you seem unwell.”

He needn’t worry. You’ll feel much better, very soon.

“I’ll be fine.” You offer him a strained smile. “I suffer from … night terrors. Nausea.”

Gandrel watches you implacably for a moment. “My daughter had the same ailment. Do you want to know what helped her?”

You nod.

“We tried bedtime stories. She loved tales of roving heroes and daring adventurers. Those tales didn’t work on her night terrors—her dreams always managed to twist them into something horrifying. No, what worked in the end was laughter. If she woke up in tears, we’d ask what made her cry, and whatever it was—monsters in the dark, a drowned cat, Papa dead and gone—we’d sit and find a way to make a joke out of it. Very bleak jokes they were, too, sometimes. But they worked, so long as they got her laughing. The nightmares lost their power over her.”

“Hm. Know any good ones?”

“I’m not privy to your nightmares,” says Gandrel. “But you’re a bard—I’m sure you can cook up a few.”

You force out a noise similar to a laugh. He ought to leave now, if he wants to live. But he doesn’t. Instead he leans in closer.

“Tell me,” he says quietly, “you and your pale friend fell from the nautiloid, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I had a feeling the ‘roving bard’ story was an act. You both look too haggard and you’re too ill-equipped to have come here of your own volition, and your timing … well, everyone saw the nautiloid fall. If it weren’t for all the other dangers plaguing this place, it would be all anyone was talking about.” Gandrel toys absently with a loop of leather on his belt. “How long have you known your friend, really?”

“Not long.”

“I see. And …”

This is it. The two-hundred-dollar question.

“What’s his name?”

You meet Gandrel’s probing gaze. “His real name? To be honest, I don’t know. I never thought to ask.”

Deception: success

“Hm,” says Gandrel. “Master Twill, you took an interest in my work over lunch. Do you want to know why I’m hunting this particular vampire spawn? This ‘Astarion.’”

“If you’d care to tell me.”

“He’s the servant of a master vampire active in the lands around Baldur’s Gate. Cazador Szarr is his name. I don’t know how much you know of vampires—a fair piece, I’m guessing, given your education—but they are cruel, capricious, tyrannical creatures. They feed on trust and procreate by deception.” Gandrel takes a breath. “A great many of Cazador’s victims have been taken from my own community.”

“Seems like Cazador is the one you should be hunting then, doesn’t it?”

“He’s untouchable. And I don’t choose who I hunt. My people sent me after Astarion for one purpose: to capture him, bring him back alive, and open a pathway to his master.”

You count the tap of your fingertips against the fencepost. One-two-three-four. “A noble cause. Do you have any strong leads?”

“I have no record, no physical description, no information apart from his name and his race,” says Gandrel. “No leads, except for one: he was likely aboard the very same nautiloid whose destruction you have survived. It isn’t often a vampire spawn is separated so completely from his master. For my people, it represents a rare opportunity.”

You’ve always hated lying outright. Not because it’s wrong, of course, but because it’s sloppy. There is no artistry in a bold-faced lie. No interactivity. The best lies, you’ve always felt, begin with the truth.

“Do you know, Gandrel,” you say, speaking to the watching ox in its darkened pen, “I hope you find him. I really, really do.”

He pats your shoulder. You bide your time. “Thank you,” he says. “For working with me. I hope you’ll come to Baldur’s Gate with us when the road is safe for the refugees to leave. I think we may be friends indeed.”

“Yes,” you murmur, “and sooner than you think.”

Gandrel nods. “Good man.” He seems about to say something more, but instead he nods, pats your shoulder again, and slips away into the dark.

You smile to yourself.

Chapter 18: Astarion Gets Sloppy

Summary:

Containing a heinous misuse of Tasha's Hideous Laughter

Notes:

Special thanks to Ellis for all his help with this chapter.

Chapter Text

That’s it. The bard has been gone for too long. You rise from your bedroll, stepping around Karlach and Wyll’s slumbering forms on your way out of the hollow. The first interaction with Ravengard went well enough, you think. There’s a natural rapport to play off of, and Wyll is earnest and uncomplicated—just how you like your men. If you’re careful, you might make a real ally of him.

Perception: failure

Twill E. Cavander, on the other hand, has become a red-hot liability. You hope to the hells he hasn’t gone on one of his dissociative rampages. Out in the wilds, you wouldn’t care, but you’re outnumbered here, and it’s vital you keep a low profile. If he gets caught with blood on his hands, you’ll hang him out to dry: hide behind Wyll and Karlach, feign horror, feign innocence … I swear, Wyll, I had no idea he was a bloodthirsty killer … thank the gods you came along when you did …

It’s quiet out in the main cavern. Suspiciously quiet. You can feel the bard’s presence, somewhere, through your shared connection, but you can’t see him. Gods, he’s going to be the death of you. In other circ*mstances you might have enjoyed his antics—it’s fun to watch someone make a mess of things, but only when your neck isn’t on the line.

Perception: failure

You take a meandering loop through the cavern, slipping past snoring tieflings and dozy druids sharing uneasy space, but find no sign of your wayward companion. You can’t smell any blood, either, which means he’s either restrained himself from a murder spree or he’s killed and eaten the entire camp in record time. As you pass the oxpens you catch a distinct whiff of him. Hair pomade. Resin. An underlying stench of death, like a carcass in a flowery meadow.

Oh, hells. Suppose he’s with those awful harpies again? You’d rather not waste any of your hard-won coin dragging that gullible fool back out of an early grave.

You turn towards the lake. It’s the only way into the enclave aside from the gate by the palisade, but the deep, slow-moving water and infestation of bloodthirsty harpies keeps it defensible against attack. If you were trying to leave without being noticed, and you knew how to swim, that’s where you would go.

Perception: failure

The cavern hollow opens onto a well-worn path which slopes down toward the lake, then follows a series of gentle switchbacks to the shore. You pause at the edge of the water. The harpies’ jagged karst rears up in the gloom just before a steep drop-off into deeper water, and in the distance, across the lake, you make out the shapes of trees and the far-off, slumbering behemoth of the wrecked nautiloid.

Perception: failure

Twill is not here, and you feel exposed. Maybe you’re being paranoid, but you’d rather go back to the hollow. Let the bloodthirsty bard dig his own grave.

Click.

Something slams into your shoulder and knocks you facedown in the shallows. You suck in water with a reflexive gasp as blunt pain turns your arm into a useless, throbbing mass.

You hear a shriek from on high. “Got him good, got him good!” The harpies are watching your humiliation from the top of the karst, the nasty little voyeurs.

Something protrudes from your left shoulder. Your fingers tease out the shape of a thick shaft fletched with soft feathers. Crossbow bolt. Numbness spreads rapidly from the wound, loosening your muscles and traveling toward your legs.

No. No!

“Stay down, now.” A pair of well-worn leather boots wade through the shallows toward you. The Gur, it’s the damned Gur, he’s been onto you this whole time and you’ve been too stupid to see it.

The Gur means recapture, and recapture means Cazador: his touch on your skin again, his cruel eyes, his wrath. His perfectly manicured hands twisting your bones out of place while you sit and grin placidly because he told you to be still and make no sound, be quiet now, this is for your own good. You have been tormented and tortured and killed and brought back and imprisoned and freed and raped and reconstituted. You have lured innocents to their deaths so many times you have long since amputated your sense of shame. You have learned to paper over your weaker emotions so thoroughly your soul feels like an empty room. He made you nothing, you became nothing to survive him.

But you laughed today. It slipped out of you, real and alive, and you wanted to snatch it back when you heard it because you hadn’t thought you had anything like that left inside you. Chance and happenstance have separated you from yourself just enough that you can feel things again. The sunlight, the water, poetry, music. Your body belongs to you for the first time since you lost any sense of what that might mean.

And now the Gur has come to drag

you

back

Your feet gain purchase in the silt of the lake-bottom and you launch yourself toward the karst, toward the deep water, toward freedom. Your feet drag in the shallows as you flee. No strategy, no thoughts except for one: I’d rather die than see Him again.

Gandrel doesn’t chase after you. He plants his feet and shoulders the stock of his crossbow. You feel the Weave shiver.

The hunter’s voice booms out as he fires. “Impero tibi!

The bolt punches into the back of your thigh. You cry out as your leg buckles and drop to your knees in the water. Above you, the harpies shriek and jeer and throw pinecones.

“Serves you right, lover boy!”

“Not so co*cky now!”

“Shut up!” you yell.

A pinecone hits you in the face.

The Gur is wading confidently toward you. Magic plays over his fingertips and invisible threads tighten around your legs. He’s holding you in place, waiting for whatever poison he shot you with to do its work. If you can kill him and get to the water in time, you can swim across before it incapacitates you. If not, you’re f*cked.

You try on an ironic smile and feel like a monkey baring its teeth. “Why, hello. The vampire hunter, I presume? How much did the bard get for me?”

“Astarion, please. I knew who you were the moment I laid eyes on you.” Gandrel stops a few paces away. His face is calm and sad, like he’s looking down on you, as if he thinks what he’s doing is righteous. You long to pull his face off with your teeth. “But what I do want to know is how a vampire spawn can walk in the sun.”

Your whole back has gone numb. Your left arm dangles limply. “I’m sure I have no idea. Maybe I got better? Or maybe the sun got worse. I think it’s been rather dim lately, don’t you?”

“Never mind.” Gandrel lowers his crossbow and steps back, but his eyes still glimmer with spellglow. You can’t do anything but struggle. “Are you wondering how I recognized you for what you are? I would have thought it obvious. You’re pale, you have red eyes—”

“Don’t stereotype. We’re a very diverse bunch.”

He’s counting on his fingers. “—you almost fainted when they brought Wyll into the enclave, you spent the whole evening holding a handkerchief to your nose, your incisors and bicuspids are pointed, you hardly touched your gruel over lunch, you refused to introduce yourself, you waited for me to invite you into the storehouse—”

“All right, all right, you’ve made your point!”

“—and when you first arrived, I overheard you begging your friend not to tell anyone you’re a vampire.”

Oh, gods damn it all.

“I don’t know what you did to secure his loyalty, but he didn’t betray you. The fool. Luckily, he didn’t need to. Do you know why, Astarion?” Gandrel watches as you sag slowly into the water. “Because I’m a damned good monster hunter.”

Then he chuckles, and it almost does you in, that chuckle, because he’s gloating on top of everything else. He retreats a step and chuckles again. He puts a hand to his mouth and frowns. His brow knits.

Laughter trickles through his fingers, his body shudders, and as you look on in bewildered silence, the chuckles give way to a full-throated belly laugh. His crossbow falls from his arms. He staggers, then overbalances and tumbles into the water. He’s howling now, his whole body contorting and flailing like a landed eel as something forces wave after wave of laughter through his spasming jaws. The terror in his eyes tells you all you need to know.

You look toward the shore.

A figure is wading toward you. Twill’s lute hangs at an angle across his back, complicating his silhouette, but you recognize him by his stocky form, his loping gait. The harpies on the karst start shrieking again.

Twill’s eyes are bright with violet spellglow. He conducts with a single hand: at every twitch of his fingers, pained laughter erupts from Gandrel’s contorted body. When he reaches you, he drops to his knees in the water, straddling the Gur. He ignores you completely, but there’s something in his face that spares you any indignation. Just right now, you’re glad his attention is on someone else.

“Eat him!” call the harpies. “Cut him, bleed him, make him pay!”

“Look at me, Gandrel.” Twill’s voice is low and rough. He grips Gandrel’s chin and forces it into place as he twists his conducting hand. Gandrel’s back arches. His chest bucks. A spray of blood exits with the next forced bark of laughter. “Look in my eyes, Gandrel. Tell me a joke, Gandrel.” His fingers trail almost reverently down Gandrel’s convulsing neck. “Monsters in the dark? A drowned cat?” He pulls a dagger from one of the loops on the hunter’s armor and places the blade to Gandrel’s cheek. “Papa, dead and gone?”

The noise that comes out of the monster hunter makes even you flinch. “Puh … please …”

Twill digs the knife under his cheekbone and Gandrel screams, his hands clawing uselessly at the lake-bottom silt. “Laugh,” he commands, and Gandrel does, his heaving chest squeezing out short, agonized coughs. Blood streams from his nose.

Twill’s hand shudders, and in a sudden paroxysm he buries the dagger in Gandrel’s chest, punching effortlessly through armor and flesh. You’ve stabbed people there before. You know how much force it takes. It takes even more force to do what Twill does next: he drags the blade downward through flesh and fat, laying Gandrel open like a fish fillet. The stench of exposed offal chokes the air as Twill plunges his hand into the hunter’s hot guts, mashing, exploring, flecks of blood peppering his ghostly-pale face, and Gandrel can do nothing at all but laugh.

The spell on you breaks. You flop sideways in the water. Twill jerks out the dagger and buries it again, then a third time, stabbing with gleeful energy long after Gandrel is dead and you have regained your feet. You’re frozen with indecision. Leave him, scream your instincts. Slip away before he notices you.

You take a step toward the deep water and your legs buckle beneath you. Twill’s head snaps up, the spellglow draining from his eyes. You stare at one another in silence, the frantic pulse of your heartbeats mingling. Gods, but he’s a gory sight. Gandrel may be dead, but you still feel like prey. If he comes after you now, you aren’t sure you could take him.

Instead, Twill sits back on his haunches and the blade drops from his hand. He lets out a pained groan, gazing down at the mangled corpse beneath him with something that isn’t quite surprise. The wind has shifted. The danger has passed, for now.

You’ll take the win. “He’s dead, damn it! Now help me!”

Twill lurches unsteadily to his feet. “I didn’t … I didn’t mean to …”

“My heart bleeds for you.” You layer your words with spite to stop your voice from shaking, because if he sees how scared you are, how absolutely terrified, there’s every chance he’ll fall on you like a rabid dog and tear you to pieces. Gandrel floats atop the water, blooming like a flower.

Twill’s eyes flick from the corpse to you. He lifts his hand and whistles a long, low note. The bolt in your leg plops into the water, and you grit your teeth as your flesh knits itself back together. It itches ferociously, but it can support your weight again.

“Booo!” screams a harpy above you. “Do him next!”

“Thank you.” You try not to sound too surprised. “The bastard poisoned me. I’m not sure I have long before I … can we go?” It occurs to you that you’d rather not have him around when you inevitably fall unconscious. “Or—you go. Back to camp. I’ll be right behind you, I swear.”

He doesn’t seem to hear you. He’s staring at his hands. You’re not the only one slipping into catatonia, it seems.

Ho! Who goes!” Figures are gathering at the lakeshore. Torchlight shines on the black water. With a jolt, you recognize the distinctive curvature of Ravengard’s horns at the forefront of the group.

“sh*t,” you say. You exchange a look with Twill, who sways where he stands, dripping water and blood. His haunted expression, the horror in his gaze, reminds you

of yourself

of someone else, and you feel an inexplicable surge of understanding. You know what it’s like to be new to blood.

Ravengard’s voice rings out: “Dolor!

A blast of red light and heat explodes between Twill’s shoulder blades and sends him flying. He lands facedown with a terrific splash. It seems your alliance with the Duke’s prodigal son has ended.

You slosh over to Twill’s side. The world is starting to spin. You don’t have long. “Get up. Get up!

“What—ugh …”

Ravengard wades into the water. The firelight glints off a slim rapier.

You smack Twill in the face. “Change of plan. Can you swim?”

“Can I …?”

Can you swim?

“I don’t know, probably!”

“Good enough,” you say, and push him over the drop-off.

He sinks like a lead balloon. You leap in after him. You have not been swimming in 200 years, but you didn’t really think it would be that much of a challenge—babies can do it, after all, and you are better than a baby in literally every way, but what you failed to consider was the added challenge of swimming half-conscious and half-paralyzed, with only one usable arm.

The water closes over your head.

Drowning is not a worry for you—breathing is optional for vampires, after all—but Twill is emitting a lot of bubbles and you know for a fact that he needs to keep his air inside his body in order to survive. You kick, hard, and seize his collar with your good hand, yanking him upwards. In the black-and-white sketch of the underwater dark he appears frozen, but your intervention jolts him back to life. Clouds of blood lift from his hands and clothes and drift around you both. You’re sinking still, your awareness fluttering in and out—out of time, gods damn it—and you don’t have the wherewithal to resist when he wraps an arm around your waist and kicks, driving you both toward the opposite shore.

Even now, you think dimly. We’re even now.

The last thing you feel is the slap of the night air on your face as you surface, and the last thing you hear is a distant mocking keen: the harpies, wheeling high over the lake and laughing.

Chapter 19: Doodles & Depictions I

Summary:

a collection of drawings I've done

Chapter Text

Sound & Fury - bardnuts (1)

Twill E. Cavander, a most unsound investment

Sound & Fury - bardnuts (2)Sound & Fury - bardnuts (3)

You're one thirsty night away from betraying everyone

Sound & Fury - bardnuts (4)

But how long did we think we could walk, we could sing

Before our voices gave out and our limbs gave in

Sound & Fury - bardnuts (5)

Tasha's Hideous Laughter

Chapter 20: Twill Receives a Visitor

Summary:

In which Astarion has a nap

Chapter Text

Let’s go over this again.

Start with your name.

Twill E. Cavander.

Come now. Let’s not keep doing this.

Twill E. Cavander.

You know this charade will only hurt you in the end.

Twill E. Cavander.

Oh, very well.

Your name is Twill E. Cavander, and you have one humdinger of a headache. You lie facedown on a sandy riverbank, your boots still hanging in the current, and groan. There is no strength in your limbs. In a tremendous flexion of will, you push yourself onto your elbows.

A silvery pall of moonlight illuminates a thickly-pebbled beach, which slopes gently upward into the gaping black maw of the woods. Astarion lies face-up a few feet away from you, half-submerged in the shallows.

Investigation: success

He is thoroughly unconscious. A river crab has a death grip on his earlobe. You reach over to pull it off and his head falls sideways at the motion, his sodden hair flopping over his eyes.

You are transfixed. Astarion is perfectly still. Breathing, for vampires, must be a habit that dies harder than they do. His chest doesn’t rise and fall. His eyelids don’t flutter. A pretty corpse. But he’s alive—or as alive as an undead can be. You can hear the insistent thump of his heartbeat, and you feel his mind through your psionic connection, an indecipherable cacophony of electrical impulses. What, you wonder, is the source of the magic that animates him? What is the most effective way to smother it?

In true death, he would be perfect. A pressed white rose, enchanting. You press a single finger to his face, then dig in with your nail, leaving a crescent impression on his cheekbone. Soft and malleable as clay.

Red must look beautiful on him.

How long does it take vampires to decompose?

Snap out of it.

You jerk your hand away and roll to your feet, slipping in the sand. You have to get away from your companion before you dismember him. At the top of the rise you drop to one knee and feel around in the leaf litter. Your fist closes around a sharp stick. The end is wickedly pointed; it fits perfectly in your hand. Almost like it was left here for you. A stake for a vampire.

Here it is! The moment you’ve all been waiting for!

You glance down the bank at Astarion.

Then you level the branch at your eye, gripping it with both hands to keep from shaking.

What are you doing?

This gods-damned parasite will not force you to kill anyone else. The pointed end of the branch trembles closer, closer. Your eye waters with anticipation. Your Urge protests with nausea and pain.

Defilement. Debasem*nt. Don’t mutilate yourself for the sake of denying your nature.

This isn’t your nature. This isn’t you. This is an illithid worm, tormenting you with unwanted thoughts, driving you to murderous impulses, suppressing your memories. You feel it twitch nervously in the sanctuary behind your eye socket. What’s the loss of a single eye, if it rids you of this torture?

Mutilate yourself in worship. Mutilate yourself for art. But not for this, you fool.

“Shut up,” you mutter. But your hands refuse to move any closer. No matter how you try, you cannot drive the implement home. You stay motionless for what feels like hours, locked in silent battle with yourself. You break out in a sweat. Your stomach churns. At last you break and fling the branch into the woods with a gasp, then sink to the ground and bury your face in your hands.

The feel of Gandrel’s intestines squelching under your eager fingers returns to you, seeping into your fevered mind like warm water through a towel. Disgust and pleasure mingle into a co*cktail of emotion so potent it’s nearly erotic. You’ve never felt so alive as you did at the instant of his death. You want to feel it again. You need to feel it again.

You take your lute from its sling across your back and lean against a tree, cradling the instrument. You clamp your eyes shut and let your fingers wander the strings, chaining your impulses to the music. What emerges is strange and discordant. Every plucked note sings of Gandrel’s wanton murder. The betrayal in his eyes, his shock at your cruelty, his disbelief of his own horrific end. What a ballad it could be! The Tragedy of Gandrel. A rueful chord, a stilted progression.

The Weave shivers in reply, but something deep inside you shivers, too. Your bitter blood responds to your call.

When you open your eyes, you find you’re no longer alone. Atop the tree stump in front of you, giggling with mirth, dances a little man in a moth-eaten top hat.

Your playing falters.

“Oh!” cries the little man, turning toward you. “Don’t stop, milord! It was such a lovely tune!”

You can do nothing except stare. There is nothing remotely human about this creature. Its eyes are like two black beetles. Its nose resembles a huge, moldy toenail. Worst of all, under its dusty coattails and patched doublet and wrinkled pinstriped trousers, this little man is wearing spats. Your demented mind has invented something so unspeakably bizarre that you are rendered speechless.

From what haunted corner of your ruined mind has this hallucination sprung? Why have you dressed it this way? What does it mean?

Is it the manifestation of some deeply repressed sexual fetish?

Gods, you hope not.

Then the creature hops off the stump and moves toward you, and your animal brain responds in a manner consistent with all the volatile apes you are descended from.

A series of dissonant twangs fill the air as you beat it to death with your lute.

Afterward you sit on the tree stump, shivering violently, and stare at the pile of viscera you have reduced it to. Hallucinations, you think, are not supposed to squeal when you hit them.

You wish Astarion would wake up. You can’t stand to be alone with your own thoughts anymore, especially not now they’ve started talking back. You feel unmoored. Adrift. You have been running from something strange and unspeakable, and you’re scared it has finally caught up with you.

As if to corroborate this idea, something taps you on the shoulder. You turn and find the toenail man’s face inches from your own.

“What a delicious greeting, sire! I was so worried you might hrrrg …”

You have pinned it to the ground by the throat. It squirms in your grasp, gurgling, its face rapidly turning purple.

Don’t, says your Urge wearily. Really. You’ll only encourage him.

“Oooh, hee hee, hoo hoo hoo!” A whistling laugh emerges from the little man’s constricted windpipe. “Hoo hee hoo!”

He appears to have an erection. You release him immediately.

“Oh, master, but you do know how to greet your dear old servant,” says the little man, wiping a tear from his eye. He dusts himself off, then doffs his hat and sweeps into a courtly bow. “I’m delighted to have found you at last, milord.”

“Stop calling me that. What are you?”

“Ah! That’s right. It was suggested that you might have suffered some head trauma.” He clears his throat. “Sceleritas Fel, milord, your devoted and ever-present Butler.”

You don’t like any part of that sentence.

“I’d almost given up hope of finding you,” says the little fiend, dancing a circle around your stump. “But your work with the Gur was unmistakable. I knew it must be one of yours, and here you are! Such artistry! Such panache! And I have always so appreciated your sense of humor, milord. Death by laughter—delightful! Just like that stage magician at the Duke’s 40th birthday party!”

You wince as pain spikes behind your eye. “You … you know me.”

The Butler grins. “But of course, master! It is my duty to know you—better than you know yourself, it seems!”

A horrible suspicion grips you. “Was it you?” You hold out your hands—the lines on your palms are still etched in red. “Did you do This to me?”

He just giggles. You lunge at him and he dances away from you, cackling all the while. “I cannot say, milord, I cannot say!”

“Are You behind this parasite? Did you Infect me? Tell me Now.

The force of your voice makes the branches overhead shiver.

The Butler opens his mouth as if to reply, then shakes his head and dances out of your grasp again. “Master, you insult me. You insult yourself! Do you truly believe your wondrous impulses are the work of some wretched little worm?”

They have to be. If they aren’t, it means you’re just like this. You can’t accept that.

“If anything, milord, your illithid parasite is repressing your true power. But not to worry: it’s only a minor incovenience for the likes of you! I’m sure you will find a way to remove it posthaste.” His greenish face crumples into a look of concerned sympathy. “I wish I could tell you more, milord, but my silence has been commanded by a higher authority than your exalted self. Have faith in yourself, master: I have no doubt you will breeze through these trivial little exams with ease.”

Exams?

None of this has been an accident. Someone did this to you.

You fight to keep your voice calm. “Is This some kind of Game?”

Sceleritas Fel tweaks the brim of his horrible hat. “Oh, hardly a game, master, any more than the movement of the spheres and stars is the grandest of games! The stakes have never been higher, milord, and I do mean that literally.” He leans forward with a wink. “When are you going to kill the spawn?”

“When it most pleases me,” you snap without thinking. A second later you hear yourself and grimace. You start plucking at your lute again, just to give your hands something harmless to do. “Why the hells would I kill him?”

“For the story, milord, for the story! Your song has ever been a tragedy, and you are its grim composer. It’s in your nature.” He sighs wistfully. “You’ve told me so many times, all death is not created equal! Some lives are worth more than others. The more tragic the end, the more delicious the death. It’s what I’ve always admired about you, milord: you are discriminating! You know, better than anyone else, that death means little if it isn’t narratively satisfying. Oooh, and you have something special planned for this one, don’t you? I can think of no other reason you’ve kept him around for so long.”

“Maybe I like him and enjoy his company.”

“Eugh, really? I find that hard to believe, and you will too, if you get to know him,” says the Butler. “Don’t play with your food too long, milord. You don’t know where it’s been. Nasty little rat.”

“That’s rich, coming from you.”

“Your wit is unparalleled, master.” He hobbles toward you, wringing his hands in supplication. “Oh, sweet merciful hells, look at you! Exhausted, unrested, sickly … it pains me beyond words that I cannot interfere. You have always had such trouble caring for your own needs. Never fear, sweet lord, I’m here! I will guide you as best I can without going against my orders. A word of advice: do not neglect your hunger! It will only grow until you become insatiable.”

“It’s time for you to Leave.”

“Master, I cannot! The two of us are bound together.” His wheedling voice trails into rhyme: “When you think of me, there shall I be. Kill me, crush me, throw me away … now that I’ve found you, I shall always return. It is my duty to remind you of your nature when you forget yourself.”

You press your hand over the strings of your lute, silencing it. “And what is my nature?” It’s more a threat than a question.

“Look inside yourself, master. You don’t need me to tell you anything.” He holds up a finger. “Ah! I almost forgot. My visitation is not only for pleasure. I also bring you a tithe: a piece of your noble heritage, and a reward for your delightful work with the monster hunter.”

The Butler waves his hand, and a dark red glow illuminates the ground around your tree stump. As it dissipates you feel a familiar weight fall over your shoulders. Sceleritas Fel has conjured a cloak—not a simple linen traveler’s mantle but a rich, shimmering garment of highest-quality crimson brocade.

“There we are,” says the Butler, wiping away a tear. “Handsome as ever, milord. Already you return to yourself.”

Condescending twat.

You sling your lute over one shoulder and pull the strap tight. “Let me just be sure I have things right. You know me, but you can’t tell me who I am or where I come from. You’re always watching me, and you can conjure presents from thin air. And you are, somehow, my servant.”

“Just so, milord.”

“Then give me a sword.”

Because he is not stupid, the Butler hesitates.

You rise from the stump. The fine red cloak flutters against the backs of your calves. “Sceleritas Fel, Give Me A Sword.

The little fiend hems and haws, then waves his hand. A slender side-sword, nearly thin as a rapier, appears floating point-down in the space between you.

“N-now, you have not quite earned this tithe, milord!” squeaks the Butler as you grip the hilt. It fits your hand perfectly, and you know with bone-deep certainty this is not a sword but your sword. The waves of folded steel seem to shimmer with their own inner light. “But I see no harm in some preemptive encouragement, ha ha, especially if it motivates you to murder that wretched vampire s—”

He makes a noise like air escaping a balloon as you slide the blade into his gut. To his credit, he does not appear at all surprised by your behavior.

You speak softly into his chewed-up ears. “Let me make Myself perfectly Clear. You are Nothing. You have no Power over me. I choose Whom I kill, and you … do Not … Command me.

You jerk the blade free and stab him through the eye.

Scarcely a minute passes before applause erupts behind you. “Oh, bravo, milord! Bravo, bravo, bravo!”

You turn around slowly. He’s sitting on the stump again. He appears to be proud of you, which is worrying.

“Oh, I knew you hadn’t lost your touch! We’ll have you back to yourself in no time, just as soon as you cast off that silly little children’s fantasy of yours!”

You let out a roar of frustration and hurl your sword. It sails clear over his head.

How very unlike you.

“How many times do I have to kill you?” Your voice cracks on the last word.

“I told you, milord! When you think of me, there shall I be—

He breaks off. Something is coming through the trees toward you, a procession of figures bathed in a sickly green light. As the procession draws nearer, gliding soundlessly over dry leaves and beneath tangled branches, it resolves into the shapes of four skeletal pallbearers carrying an ornate litter.

“Thou must accept Excuses for my Tardiness,” says Withers. A skeleton in a squire’s cap takes his hand, and he steps from the litter with all the poise of a lady descending a staircase. “I did not Suspect thou wouldst move thy camp Tonight.”

He snaps his fingers. His troupe of undead construction workers immediately pours forth from the forest, laden with hammers and nails and travelers’ trunks, and gets to work erecting his triple-decker luxury tabernacle.

Sceleritas Fel is beside himself. “Y-you!” he splutters. You note his loss of composure with great interest. “You, you self-obsessed, cheating, nosy, meddling—

The temperature drops by twenty degrees as Withers turns to regard him.

“Ah,” he says. “Thou art Unwelcome in my Presence.”

“I’ll show you unwelcome, you—”

Dexterity: success

“Begone.”

A column of holy fire strikes your butler from on high, obliterating him instantly.

You throw yourself out of the way in enough time to keep your eyebrows and most of your hair, but it takes a few moments for your eyesight to return to normal. All that’s left of Sceleritas Fel is a scorch mark.

“Now,” says Withers, clasping his hands together, “I trust thou wilt Not require my services for the Remainder of the night? I have mine own Business to attend to.” Two of his undead have set a small campfire, for you, in the charred furrow where the tree stump used to be. He nods at this approvingly and turns away to enter his tent.

“Wait,” you say.

He pauses.

“Is he Gone?”

“Undoubtedly he will Return. A Thought as unavoidable as sleep.”

“Is he Real?”

“As Real as the Credence thou dost offer him. I can say no More.”

“Please, wait!” Now that the Butler is gone, your momentary confidence has evaporated too, leaving you scared and alone. “What about Astarion? Will He—”

“If thou hast left him Unharmed, he shall soon Wake.”

“I haven’t hurt him. I’m not going to hurt anyone else.” You stumble after your withered patron, desperate. “That’s what you Want, isn’t it? That’s why you’re Here, to see whether I give in to these Urges? You Know me, I can tell. Please. Help me.”

“I have informed thee of what Services I offer.”

“Bring back Gandrel. I can find money. I can pay. I didn’t mean to kill him.”

Withers regards you for a long moment. “A Death orchestrated by thine Urges is beyond my power to Revise,” he says finally. “I Suggest thou dost remember That, when thy Compulsions stir again.”

You feel cold. “Mirkon, then. The tiefling girl the harpies ate.”

“Thou didst not Kill her. Why, then, dost thou feel Responsible for her fate?”

“I don’t. I’m not. But—”

“I am bound only to Resurrect thine compatriots,” says Withers. “Ergo, I will not Meddle in the Balance of other Matters. Make thy peace; it is sufficient. Now, if thou wilt excuse me, I must attend a Prior Engagement. Good night.”

He departs into his tent, followed by his minions. For a moment you’re speechless; then you are transfixed by primal rage and spend a good few minutes hurling every pinecone you can find in every possible direction. At last, spent, you slump down by the fire. You’re too tired to even reach for your lute.

“Then what good are you?” you mutter.

No one answers.

For the first time in several days, you drift swiftly and deeply asleep.

Chapter 21: Astarion Takes a Bite

Summary:

In which Twill tries very hard to be helpful

Chapter Text

The house does not sleep. Soft, buttery candlelight flows into the darkened corridor through the doorway to the dining room. At the far end of the hall, a grandfather clock ticks over each moment. Rain hammers distantly on the roof far above, and the man chained to the dining table screams until his voice is raw.

A single word rips wetly through his throat: “Astarion. Astarion!

“If I said he couldn’t hear you,” says the Master, who allows you to think of him as nothing else, “would that be a disappointment?” You don’t hear what he does, but there is fresh agony in the man’s next scream. The Master chuckles. “Yes, you’re hoping your dashing prince will save you. I’m afraid I have some bad news. Come here, boy!

You’re moving into the light before he’s finished speaking. You are an extension of him, poised and intractable. Hundreds of candles cast a gentle yellow glow over rich red carpet, crystal glassware, a varnished dining table. When you appear, the man on the table lets out a low moan. You keep your eyes averted. You feel nothing.

“I’m sorry to say your dashing prince is merely a dashing monster,” says the Master. A knife flashes in his hand, but you do not linger over the spectacle he is making of the man’s face. You feel nothing. “How much did he tell you, on your little honeymoon?”

Nothing! Please! Astarion!

“My, my.” The Master looks up at you in faux indignation. “The love of your life, and you told him nothing? For shame, boy. Come closer. Show him your true colors.”

You stand over the man on the table and gaze into his face and try not to commit it to memory. The smell of blood makes your nostrils flare, your lips curl, your pupils dilate. Bodily functions not even the Master can control.

Insight: success

He’s realized you aren’t here to save him.

“Surprised?” says the Master. “You aren’t alone. Even he forgets what he is sometimes. Not to worry—he is easily reminded.” A faint snarl enters his voice. You feel nothing. “I do not usually speak to livestock, but your little excursion has damaged my boy, and your meddling has earned the displeasure of my regard. Face me, boy!”

Your whole body twitches with thirst. Blood covers the table. Your hunger curls over you, clotting your judgement, clouding everything else with need.

“Do you think yourself clever, boy?”

You cannot lie. “Yes, milord.”

“Did you think you could get the better of me?”

“No, milord.” You knew in your bones how this would end. The secret flight, the attempt at freedom, three nights play-acting at romance with a wonderful stranger—all puppetry, all theatre. You feel nothing.

“That’s right.” He lifts your chin with a bloody finger and smiles. “My sweet, stubborn boy. You’ve never tasted human blood. Would you like a taste of him? Your poor, unwitting lover?”

Your mouth fills with saliva. You feel nothing.

Astarion, please …

The Master’s voice snaps out again. “Dalyria!”

Your sister spawn enters from the corridor to the kitchens. Her white-blond hair is tucked in a disheveled bun, the faint lavender hue of her skin eerie in the firelight. She has a cage with her. Two fat male rats scuffle for dominance within.

The Master unlatches the cage and seizes one of the rats in a clawed fist. “Away, Dalyria,” he commands, and she withdraws to the edge of the dining hall. You feel the brush of her gaze, pitying and relieved in equal measure. She’s relieved it isn’t her, and you hate her, hate her, HATE HER—

You feel nothing.

“A rat has no regard for anything except its hunger,” says the Master. He runs two fingers down the animal’s squirming spine. “If it is hungry, it will eat. If it smells food, it will claw through cloth and skin to reach the tender meat beneath. Ad lapidē.

The man on the table goes rigid, immobilized by the Master’s magic. Dalyria gasps softly. You feel nothing.

“Little thing,” the Master murmurs, placing the rat gently on the paralyzed man’s chest. “Eat your fill.”

You try to avert your eyes.

Watch, boy!

You do. The rat takes its time deciding. In the end, drawn to the bloodied face, it begins by chewing on the lips. You think of how you kissed them, hours ago. Your thirst rips through your throat. Your chest bucks, and you swallow a whimper.

The Master lays a hand on your shoulder and his lips brush your ear. “Do you understand, my little rat? There is no love but hunger. There is no master but me.”

You feel nothing. You know what happens next.

“I’m sending you to bed without supper, boy. Until you remember what you are. I’m sending you to bed for a long, long time …”

How did it go? You walked you feel nothing

You don’t remember if you walked or if they dragged you feel nothing

Your siblings wouldn’t look at you feel nothing

You kept your composure until you feel nothing

The heavy slab scraped shut over you feel nothing

Leaving you in darkness, sealed in a tomb, starving, your punishment

And in the dark you feel n

You finally start to scream.

Heaving upward, gasping, in the misty morning air. You inhale a mouthful of sand and claw blindly at the riverbank, coughing. Your limbs are heavy and weak, your head muzzy with the afterthought of Gandrel’s poison. Your shoulder screams when you try to move it: a crossbow bolt still protrudes from your flesh. You hardly notice the pain, though, because—

Thirst.

Your chest feels raw and dry, your throat sore, your mouth burning.

You plunge your face into the river and gulp great draughts of water. It does nothing. The memory of your forced starvation—a year, a gods-forsaken year inside a sealed tomb—has unleashed the thirst you’ve kept suppressed since your abduction. You claw at your face and hair, hyperventilating, shaking uncontrollably. Pull yourself together. You’re better than this.

It takes far, far too long for you to calm yourself down. You run your hands compulsively through your disheveled hair, but it’s no use. Without lard or pomade, your curls are out of control. Yet another curse to bear. Woe is you, et cetera.

Pull yourself together.

It is, you notice, a beautiful day. Like waking from a nightmare straight into a dream. You half expect to sprout wings and fly away, because this—if this is reality, it makes no sense. Dragonflies hum over the glistening water. Motes dance in the bright morning sun. Your joy at standing in the sunlight again is utterly eclipsed by your confusion. How, you ask yourself again, could this have happened to you? How is it you’re still free?

You’re alone. The realization startles you. Where in the hells is the bard? He’s abandoned you, the blasted wretch, he’s left you to fend for yourself out here. The terror starts to creep back in. You’re exposed. Ravengard’s going to be after you now, and he’s a far better hunter than that Gur, and without the bard you don’t stand a chance—

Oh. He’s up on the hill. You can hear him snoring.

You smooth down the front of your doublet and strut towards the woods to give him a piece of your mind. Your socks squelch audibly in your sodden boots.

Twill’s undead patron has returned; his ostentatious tent towers over the rest of the camp. They’ve settled in a hollow by a narrow stream. The black remnants of a fire lie on a patch of scorched earth, but Twill himself is tucked away in the tall grass beneath the arching root of a weeping willow.

The sight is so unbearably twee it makes your lip curl. You are having a difficult time reconciling this human marmot with the grim specter of homicidal rage that came to you last night. Up to now his sleep has been fitful and short, if he slept at all. You aren’t sure how much sleep humans require, but it’s certainly more than he’s been getting, and his need seems to have finally caught up with him.

Just as yours has caught up with you.

You watch the bard sleep for a few minutes, toying with temptation. Teasing yourself. You could venture deeper into the woods for a boar, a deer, something boring and agonizingly insufficient. But there’s every chance of running into the goblins or gnolls plaguing this land, and hunting in broad daylight seems like a poor idea.

Or you could avail yourself of what’s already in front of you.

Cazador never let you taste the blood of thinking creatures, but Cazador isn’t here. You’re free of him, so why continue to debase yourself with the blood of pigs and squirrels? Why not take what’s rightfully yours, the way a true vampire must? Twill has played his role as bodyguard splendidly, in spite of his eccentricities, but he can be more than a simple meat shield. He can sustain you.

A vampire’s fangs are mildly venomous. They carry a toxin which acts as a paralytic and gentle sedative—if you are careful, you can feed on Twill while he’s asleep and he won’t ever be the wiser. You just have to maintain control of yourself, something Cazador always said was beyond your power. How delicious it would be, to defy him and prove him wrong in a single stroke.

You draw closer, ducking under the willow bough. In slumber, Twill’s scarred face is peaceful, the dark shadows under his eyes less prominent. His thick black hair falls roguishly around his face. You decide he is attractive after all, now that he’s finally shut the hells up. And he’s practically gift-wrapped, the perfect first taste of freedom. You can hear the steady pounding of his lifeblood against the thin and tender skin of his exposed throat. Your own heart flutters with anticipation as you bare your fangs, lean in—

—and make eye contact.

At some point, while you were preoccupied with his neck, his huge, wretched brown eyes popped open. You pull away, but there’s no salvaging this one. The game is up.

“sh*t,” you say.

Twill sits up. You stare at one another.

“Good morning,” he says eventually.

“This isn’t what it looks like.” You feel wild and unsteady, interrupted in this way. It’s all you can do not to throw yourself at him and slash him open. Your overpowering thirst is tempered by the memory of what he did to Gandrel last night, and by the hard edge buried in his curious gaze. You clear your throat. “I wasn’t going to hurt you, I swear—

“It looked like you were leaning in to kiss me.”

You blink. “While you were asleep? What do you take me for, darling? I’m a vampire, I was leaning in to bite you. To feed. To drink your blood.”

“Yes,” he says slowly. “Yes, that does make more sense.”

You notice for the first time that he is wrapped in the finest red cloak you’ve ever seen. “Where did—where did you get that?”

“Oh, this?” Twill glances at the fabric as if he’s mildly startled to find himself wearing it. “A little man gave it to me while you were sleeping.”

“Never mind, I didn’t want to know anyway.” You let out a nervous titter and retreat out of stabbing range. “Do you know, I was worried about you last night. After all that … carnage.” Your whole body is shaking. You trip over an exposed root and just manage to catch yourself. Your injured shoulder barks and you snap your arm to your chest protectively.

“Are you all right?” asks Twill.

“Oh yes, I’m fine. Quite well, thank you.” This is not how this sort of thing is supposed to go. You’re supposed to be a composed and seductive vampire, not a thirst-ridden mongrel that trembles in the breeze like a lace doily. You can’t think straight. Your thirst and the Gur’s handiwork and your own blasted nightmares have you coming apart at the seams. “I suppose I—well, what about you? Forgive me, but I can’t help but notice you were feeling a little homicidal last night. Lose control again, did we?”

Twill is quiet. You watch his shoulders rise and fall and realize you’ve touched a nerve. Good. You’re starting to figure him out.

After a moment, he says, “I saved you, didn’t I?”

You give him a thin smile. “I can assure you, I would have been just fine without your interference.”

“Were you really going to bite me?”

“Well—yes, but you never would have known about it, I swear. I just needed a little bit, just a little of your blood. A little taste.” You layer your voice with honey. “I wouldn’t have been so unhelpful last night if I’d just—if I hadn’t been so thirsty. We both need all the strength we can get if we’re to rid ourselves of these parasites, so I thought, why not take what I need, not a drop more, and use my newfound strength to keep us both safe? I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to frighten you, but please understand I am a paragon of self-control. I’ve fed on hundreds of humans, and not one of them has ever come to harm.”

He’s probably gullible enough to believe that.

Twill swallows. You watch every movement of his throat. “You still have a quarrel in your shoulder. Let me help you.” There’s a quiet desperation in his eyes. You can’t conceal your flash of irritation: you don’t care about your shoulder, you do not give one single sh*t, you need his blood, you need his blood you need it now—

“Please,” says Twill. “Let me do some good.”

You scoff. “Really, darling, is that what this is about? You did plenty of good last night. You may be a slave to your compulsions, but a little bit of violent mania can’t go amiss when someone else is trying to murder you.” His plea, however, breaks through your thirsty haze: you’d be a fool to refuse free healing. “Oh, fine. If it will really make you feel better, go ahead, I suppose.”

You kneel in front of him warily, and he places his hand on your injured shoulder. You resist the urge to recoil from his touch.

He starts humming a jaunty little tune.

“Do you have to do that?” you snap.

“Hm? Yes.”

“I mean, do you really have to?”

“Yes. Ooooooooooooo doo wop de doo te curo.”

You yelp as the bolt shoots out of your shoulder and buries itself in a tree ten feet away. The wound seals, and a ferocious tingling rushes up and down your arm as muscle repairs itself, all functions snapping to attention. “Ouch! Gods damn it! Did you even try to be gentle?”

“I’m sorry,” says Twill with a small smile.

Insight: success

He isn’t.

Your lip curls. “Congratulations, you’ve fixed me. Can we get on with things, now?”

“You mean, drinking my blood?”

“Is that still on the table?” you say carefully.

“That depends,” he says. “How much do you need?”

By the gods, he really means it. What a dolt! “Oh, not much at all. Animal blood does nothing at all to keep up my strength, but the blood of someone as strong and intelligent as you … it might keep me going for five … for two days, at least.”

“I was under the impression you think I’m an idiot,” says Twill dryly.

Swallow your pride. It’s for the greater good: you.

“I had an … unfavorable initial impression,” you admit. “But I can’t ignore results, can I? You knew something was amiss with those orphan brats well before I did. You outsmarted the Gur. And you got us out alive. I think I have been well and truly—proven … wrong.” You really hate the way he’s smiling at you. “Happy?”

“Admit you like my singing.”

“What?”

“I saw you tapping your foot. Admit it.”

You wrack your brains. Were you, ever, at any point, tapping your foot? Surely not. But you can’t recall, on account that you’re distracted by the blood pounding through Twill’s carotid artery. You swallow. “I retract. My earlier. Comments.”

The bard’s face splits into an infuriating grin. “Where would you like me?”

You almost collapse with relief. “Just lie back in the grass. Get comfortable.” As Twill sets his lute against the tree and makes a pillow of his mysterious cloak, you smooth your unruly hair out of your face and unbutton your doublet. You’re determined to be neat this time, but there’s no sense in unnecessary bloodstains. “Don’t worry. I’ll be gentle.” You offer him a small smile. “Trust me.”

“I do,” he says.

You hesitate. Why must he say these things? “Well—good. Close your eyes, darling.”

You bend over him, tilting his chin up with a finger to better expose his throat. You are determined to be sensible about this. Control. Discipline. You are not an animal. Saliva gathers in your mouth as you hover over his fragile, fragrant skin. He has a tattoo of a black rose winding up his neck, its stem twisting over his jugular vein.

You bare your fangs and bite down. He goes rigid beneath you, sucking in a startled gasp. His hands flutter at your elbows, but the blood is already flowing and there is nothing else in the world that matters.

The taste of it shocks you. Animal blood has nothing on this, nothing. Twill’s blood is like ice in your mouth, tingling on your tongue and burning in your throat. It electrifies, invigorates, envelops from within. Is this what you’ve been missing all along? You slide an arm under his head, supporting him, pulling his body close to yours as you fasten your lips against his neck.

His pulse becomes a drumbeat in your skull. Every swallow is an age. You taste aeons in his blood, you are transported, you are outside yourself. Conscious thought shatters like glass as he flows into you. His hands scrabble along your back, tapping out some signal you are no longer capable of comprehending. You hear his distant voice, weak and protesting, but you hardly notice it. You and he are the same, pressed together: his blood is yours. For a moment, you are him. His unearthly taste, the cold fire of his urges, his inevitability. All those primal echoes in his blood. There is a slumbering leviathan beneath the unassuming visage of this simple bard.

A conscious thought, like a drop in a still pool: Just what the hells is he?

In a moment, you have an easy answer. Twill’s hands drop away from your back and his body grows inert. His head lolls as the rush of his blood slows.

Dead.

That’s what he is. He’s dead.

Chapter 22: Astarion Sees Too Much

Summary:

Guilty Elf Elated to Rediscover Powers of Breaking and Entering, less elated by immediate consequences of actions

Chapter Text

Well, sh*t.

You stumble away from Twill’s cooling corpse, wiping your mouth and looking around as if you might spot someone else to pin this on. Finding no scapegoat, you force yourself to look back at what you’ve done.

It happened so fast. You didn’t have time to stop. No, that isn’t true. The past few minutes are a blur, but he didn’t simply drop dead. You had time to stop. You just didn’t want to.

He should have told you when things went too far. He did. Don’t you remember his pathetic little whine as you drained his life away?

Well, he should have … he should have …

You’re running out of excuses. The fact of the matter is that you have sucked this sweet, trusting little fool dry like the leech you are.

You scoff. This is hardly your fault. If Twill didn’t want to die, he shouldn’t have made his blood taste so good.

You’ll just have to scrape some gold together and bring him back, that’s all. No harm done. Though—suppose that blasted skeleton refuses to speak to you again? Nonsense. Twill is his pet human, after all. But … what if …?

You touch a shaking hand to your lips. They’re tingling. Your whole body is as spry and energized as a spring rabbit. You have not felt so sharp and alert for as long as you can remember. This is what Cazador kept from you, all these years? Fresh, steaming hatred coils in your gut as you root through your pockets for the coin you took from the druids. It’s galling to realize you’ve been starving your whole life and never knew it just because you didn’t know how it felt to be fed.

You’re going to kill him. By all the gods and all the hells, you’re going to flay Cazador alive.

But first you need to fix this problem you’ve made for yourself. You’re short by about 50 dollars, so you’ll have to ask for a discount. Not a good look. Time to turn on the charm and negotiate. Running your hands through your hair, you approach the withered man’s three-story tent.

It actively seems to push you away the closer you get. Dread weighs down your limbs and makes the hairs rise on your neck. It wouldn’t surprise you to learn there was a warding spell around it.

Arcana: success

There is a warding spell around it. Fighting an increasingly powerful urge to flee like a startled cat, you push aside the flap and step—

—into an elegant corridor panelled in dark wood. A gorgeous vermillion runner carpet stretches away from you into an indeterminate darkness. Candles flicker in cast-iron sconces set at intervals into the walls. You take a few hesitant steps into the space, then yelp and spin around when something taps you on the shoulder: a ghoul in an ill-fitting tuxedo.

It does not seem to be hostile. “…Hello,” you say. “Can I help you?”

The ghoul emits vocalizations. “Waaaah graahhhh kraaa grrrrrrrr mmmmmimosa?”

It is offering you a flute of something bubbly on a silver platter.

“Ehm,” you say, “no, thank you. I’m looking for your master.”

“GRAAHAHH gimgle gorrrrr bra dah.”

“Your master.” You make a noise of impatience. “He’s about yea high, robed in filth, resembles a cured ham left in the sun too long? Ugh, your master, ghoul. Don’t play games with me; I know you know how to find him.”

“Ouuunnnnk. Brimble borg!” The ghoul nods vigorously and shambles past you, slopping champagne all over its cumme*rbund. You swallow your trepidation and follow the ghoul for what seems like hours through musty darkness, along a corridor that seems to repeat and iterate upon itself, past dozens of mysterious locked doors and several variations of the same painting: a grotesque, anthropomorphic grasshopper dressed in antiquated ballroom regalia.

Religion: failed

The ghoul pauses outside a door identical to all the others. “Eerghgh … hhnngngn.”

“Here?” you ask, but the creature shakes its head vigorously. “Well then, keep going! I don’t have all bloody day.”

The ghoul hems and haws, tapping its feet. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was distressed about something. You press your ear to the door and hear the faint sound of music.

“Is he in there or not?” you ask the ghoul again. You know better than to go around flinging open random doors in a place like this. The ghoul, however, will not give you a straight answer. It nods, then shakes its head again, garbling all the while. Part of you wants to turn around and leave the way you came in, but unfortunately the power of resurrection is currently beyond your grasp. If you want the bard back, your best way forward is through this door. You kneel and slip a lockpick into the fine hole beneath the handle.

Your siblings used to laugh at you for this one. What good is knowing how to pick locks when you can’t enter a house without being invited first?

You sit back, blinking. You entered this place without an invitation. Does that mean … is this the tadpole’s doing? Sunlight doesn’t burn you anymore, Gandrel’s malodorous garlic perfume didn’t harm you, and now breaking and entering is back on the menu? Better and better. Your little parasite is proving to be quite the boon, so long as you don’t break out in tentacles. If only there were some way to harness it …

You turn your attention back to the matter at hand. It’s not a complicated lock, but it’s difficult to concentrate with the ghoul protesting behind you. It does not want you to see whatever lies behind this door.

“Shut up,” you snap over your shoulder. “I have business with your master.”

“GrrrrAGHGHAGH! Ooog garragaghg …”

“You know, you remind me of someone.” You ease the pins inside the lock out of place and turn the your pick carefully. The lock clicks open. “Another sworn enemy to peace and quiet.”

“Ooooog.” It sounds deflated.

“Oh, hush.” You reach for the handle, curious in spite of yourself. “Let’s see what your master is hiding, hm?”

The door opens on a scene that makes you wish, quite earnestly, to never see anything ever again.

A grand fireplace casts a roaring light over a private dining hall, firelight shining on gold-trimmed goblets and filigreed bowls and plates of wobbling jelly. An ice sculpture of a winged devil reposes optimistically in the sweltering heat, and a quartet of zombies in the corner is providing—well, not live music, exactly. The details are lost on you because there is a spectacle occurring at the far end of the table which commands your immediate and unwilling attention. It involves the withered man, a severe lack of clothes, and a real, live devil bobbing enthusiastically between his legs like a dehydrated wolf.

Nature: successful

Well, yes, of course they’re f*cking. Did you really need to roll for that?

Before you can turn and run for your life—clearly the only sane and balanced course of action—the withered man raises a finger and an invisible force propels you into the room. The door slams behind you.

“Art thy Manners so Depraved thou cannot even muster the Decency to knock?”

You will do anything to get away from this tableau. “I’m—I am so sorry, I can—let me just—”

“Thou must Stay.”

The devil surfaces from between the withered man’s legs with a wet popping noise, swipes a forked tongue over red lips, and leans back in the chair at the head of the table. “Well well, what have we here? An interloper? A new playmate? Withers, darling, you shouldn’t have.”

“I did Not.”

You’re going to die. You’ve already died. This is your punishment. You’re being punished, somehow, for what you’ve done to Twill.

“Now, now, let me have a look at you.” The devil rises and comes toward you. Nobody in the world has ever been more naked. “Don’t be afraid, Astarion. You’re sweating more than my ice sculpture. I was hoping to pay you a visit sooner or later, and now that you’ve come to me, well … what do we call that? Ah yes. Providence.”

You’re trying to melt backwards through the door. “I’m sorry, do we know each other? I don’t believe I associate with devils.”

“Know each other?” The devil laughs. “No. But I know you, little spawn. And I have a question for you.”

“Yes, and I have some questions for you. Namely, who, what, where, when, and—” You point at Withers, who has climbed down from the table and is traipsing nudely about the room. “Why?”

“If thou seekest to offend me with thy Tone, I suggest thou findest Another course of Rhetoric.”

“Yes, indeed,” says the devil. “You’re in no position to cast judgement on taste, vampling. Not when yours is so … dead.”

He snaps his fingers. Twill’s inert corpse falls from the ceiling and lands on the table with a thunderous crash, crushing the ice sculpture and flinging dishware in all directions. Half a jelly slaps the wall behind you and oozes slowly to the floor.

“I always think it’s best to confront one’s sins directly, don’t you?”

“I—anyone could have done that!” you say, waving a hand at the corpse.

Anyone is very keen to interrupt a private meeting, isn’t he?”

You’re out of your depth here. Even Cazador hesitated to fraternize with devils. If there is anyone less trustworthy than a vampire, it’s the creature standing in front of you. Some devils use sex to seal a powerful contract. That must be what you’ve walked in on. You hope that’s what you’ve walked in on.

You draw yourself to your full height and clear your throat. “I’m not here to deal with you, devil. I’m—”

“He doth Presume to engage my Service, in spite of his Pitiable Shortcomings,” says Withers. As he comes around the table he is mercifully robed again. “And in spite of a Deficit of Coin.”

The devil laughs. “Really? You didn’t even bring his fee? For shame, Astarion.”

“It’s been a hard couple of days.”

“Clearly,” says the devil, eyeing you up and down. “You look like an aboleth spat you out.”

“I don’t have to be doing this,” you snap. You look past the devil pointedly, addressing Twill’s enigmatic undead. “The bard is your pet project. Clearly you have some sort of investment in him, gods only know what. Bring him back or don’t—it’s no skin off my back either way.”

The devil chuckles.

“No,” says Withers.

Excuse me? Look at—just look at him! He’s no use to anyone like that, least of all you.”

“My Charge is to observe,” Withers replies in dusty tones, turning the void of his gaze upon you. “To see through his Narrative until its End—and should that End come sooner than anticipated, then all the shorter shall its Annotation be.”

“Now—now just hold on,” you say, fighting to keep the whine from your voice, “I have some gold.”

“If thou wishest thy Compatriot’s return, thou must return with the proper payment, in Full.”

“I can’t just go to the bank for a loan! Besides …” You eye Twill’s lifeless body. “He’ll start to rot soon, and I am not travelling with a zombie.”

“Oh, come now, stop torturing the boy,” says the devil airily. “I’ll cover his fee.”

Oh no, no no no, that’s how they get you. “Haven’t I just said I’ll make no deals with devils?”

“My dear little porcelain prince, whoever said anything about a deal?” The devil bares his teeth in an unfriendly smile. “Consider it an investment. A sponsorship, even! You see, I happen to be a patron of the arts, and I have no desire to see the curtain close early on this production.” He produces a fistful of coins from thin air and drops them into Withers’s outstretched hand. “But just—this—once.”

“Very well,” says Withers.

You wrack your brains. Is there a way this could backfire on you? You made no agreement, signed no contract … but devils are not known for their generosity. Something else is afoot here, and you have no idea what it could be.

“By Doom and Dusk, I strike thy Name from the Archives. Rise.

The Ravengard boy was raised in a brilliant column of light, but Twill’s resurrection is different. The roaring fire gutters in the hearth, plunging the dining hall into uneasy gloom, and the red glow of the coals seems to bleed along the edges of the floorboards and the table, bathing everything in crimson. Twill’s back arches, his hands curling into claws as an unseen force raises him upright. He lurches, stepping back into his skin the way you step into a pair of shoes.

He takes an unsteady step. Then another. Then he falls off the table.

“Takest thou better Care in future,” says Withers, striding towards the door as the fire returns to its previous strength. “The City of Judgement is not known for its Charity.”

“Where are you going?” says the devil, looking crestfallen. “We were just getting started.”

“I have lost mine appetite for carnal pleasure.” He closes the door behind him on his way out. There is a jangling of instruments as the undead quartet abandons its performance and troops dutifully after him. In their absence, the only sound in the room is the crackling of the fire and Twill’s bewildered groaning.

The devil’s lip curls. “I hope you’re happy,” he tells you. “Your interruption has cost me dearly. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get him to clear his schedule?”

You raise your voice. “Hello, darling! Welcome back!”

“Ungh,” says Twill, disentangling himself from a broken chair. “Where … am I …?”

“Oh, where are my manners?” says the devil. He stands before the hearth, nude as a peeled fruit, and spreads his crimson wings. “Allow me to introduce myself at last. I am Raphael, and you, dear mortals, you have the tremendous fortune of finding yourselves in my humble home, my abode, my House of Hope!” He chuckles. “I know what you must be asking yourselves: how came you to this cozy corner of the hells? Well, if you will allow me to elaborate—”

“Hold that thought,” says Twill, striding past him. He’s coming straight for you.

Big smile. Like you mean it. “How are you feeling? I was so worri—”

His punch sends you spinning.

You stagger against the wall. The blow shocks you. It’s so wildly out of character, so base, so against the spirit of everything Twill appears to stand for, that you can do nothing but splutter in flabbergasted indignation.

“What the hells was that for!”

“You killed me!”

sh*t, you were hoping he wouldn’t remember that. You spit out a globule of blood. “Ah, I mean, killed is a strong word, don’t you think? Not many corpses have your vigor.”

“You said just a drop.”

“I admit, I got a little carried away. I meant to stop. Really. Listen, you’re here, aren’t you? Clearly, I have rectified my mistake, so can’t we let bygones be bygones? Water under the bridge, and all that?”

“Are you done?” says the devil. “I had a whole … I’d like to …”

“There’s a devil,” says Twill. “He’s naked.”

“Believe me, I am keenly aware.”

Can I finish?” snaps Raphael. He clears his throat. “I am the devil Raphael, and you find yourselves, dear mortals, in my House of Hope. Hope for what, you might ask?”

“I didn’t,” says Twill. He glances at you. “I didn’t ask him anything, did you?”

“I’m so glad you’re back with us,” you tell him.

Hope for your salvation!” says Raphael loudly. A muscle is jumping in his jaw. “Astarion, the escaped vampling, your freedom tarnished by the parasite behind your eye. And you, the nameless human, your past obscured, your memories—”

“Twill.”

“—erased, you—what?”

“My name is Twill.”

“No—no, it isn’t,” says Raphael. “I have seen the eternal Book—”

“Twill E. Cavander, if you’re feeling formal. Look, is this going anywhere? I appreciate a good monologue, but I’m barking for a good meal and frankly the lime jelly smearing the walls is not going to do it for me.”

“No no, let him finish,” you say, grinning. “I think he was building to a climax.”

“Oh, to the Abyss with it all,” says Raphael. “I’ll cut to the chase, since you’re so insistent on spoiling my fun. I have a proposition for you.”

“Not interested,” you say, tapping your brow. “Good day. Shall we, my dear?”

“I was not addressing you, vampling.”

You are too indignant to speak. Twill glances over his shoulder and, finding no one else to whom Raphael might be speaking, points at himself.

“Yes,” says Raphael, “you. Twill E. Cavander.” He sinks his teeth into the name with a mocking chuckle that makes even you uncomfortable. “How would you like to be rid of your illithid parasite?”

The change that comes over the bard is palpable. You’ve observed Twill’s odd shifts in mood before, but you’re finding them increasingly unsettling. His usual expression of detached bemusem*nt becomes one of intense and focused hunger, like a hunting animal. All pretense of mirth drops away. It’s one of his more disquieting patterns.

“Can you get rid of it?” he asks.

“Perhaps,” says Raphael. “You both may have noticed by now that your parasite is not following its expected trajectory. Why, you may be wondering, have you not yet succumbed to ceremorphosis?” He crosses the room as you and Twill stand by the door, listening warily. “I’ll tell you why: your tadpoles have been tampered with by forces beyond your ken, their usual functions suspended to allow some new and greater use.” He sinks into a high-backed chair, crossing his feet lazily atop the table. “The Cult of the Absolute. Have you heard of it?”

“No,” says Twill.

Raphael chuckles. “You will. Here is my proposition: I cannot cure your infection, but I can offer an indefinite delay. With the information I offer, you will no longer need worry about the horrors of ceremorphosis. You will be free to seek a cure in your own time, without fear that your autonomy may be compromised.”

Damn it all, but this devil knows how to deliver a tantalizing bargain. With the parasite disarmed but intact, you’d be free indefinitely from Cazador’s control—able to stand in sunlight, to go anywhere uninvited—and if there’s a way to harness it further … you place a hand on Twill’s shoulder to keep him quiet. “And what, exactly, are you asking in return for this oh-so-precious information?”

“A book,” says Raphael. “Call it … information for information. I seek a volume known as the Necromancy of Thay, a book of great power that has been lost for many years. I know where it may be found, but there are some …” His eyes flick towards the door. “Logistical challenges which impede my ability to retrieve it directly. I’m afraid I must remain hands-off in this particular endeavor—so, I enlist you, my sweet beloved mortals, to retrieve it in my stead.”

“What do you want it for?” asks Twill.

“That’s for me to know and for you to find out,” says Raphael. “And another term: you may not speak of the book to anyone, least of all our mutual skeletal friend. He would be … displeased, I think, and I’m sure none of us wish to risk his ire. Now: what do you say? Agree to my offer, and I’ll tell you where to find your panacea.”

“Not so fast,” you say. “I know a loophole when I see one. Tell us where to find the book, first.”

Raphael laughs. “Little mouse, you vastly overestimate your bargaining power. Agree to my terms here and now, or return to the great wide world and accept your fate as a future mind flayer.”

You exchange a look with Twill.

“What if we fail to retrieve the book?” he asks.

“Oh, how does that old saying go? If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

You don’t like any part of this. Twill doesn’t like it either; you can feel his unease through your shared connection. He may be a fool, but even he knows better than to trust a devil. Or perhaps being murdered has exhausted his reserves of trust for the foreseeable future.

You both know this isn’t a choice.

Twill clears his throat. “Raphael, you have yourself a deal.”

Chapter 23: Twill Misses A Note

Summary:

In which Astarion has an extraordinarily bad idea

Chapter Text

Your lute is out of tune. You have been attempting, for hours, to wrestle it into shape, but it refuses to listen to you. You sit beneath a willow in the overgrown chapel ruins where you’ve made camp, working by the dim light of the low fire, sweat pouring down your face. Your fingers fumble for purchase on the pegs, but either the instrument or the humidity is against you and every time you achieve something close to a workable pitch, the strings slip out of place again. What good are you, what is the point of you if you can’t do this?

When will you drop this tiresome facade?

You need your lute. It’s the only thing that keeps away the urges.

Fingers trail lightly over the back of your neck, jolting you upright. You whip around, but it’s only the draping branches of the willow tree, stirred by a gentle breeze.

The memory of your death comes rushing back. What unmitigated bliss. The ice of Astarion’s fangs in your neck, his hand cradling your head, the slow passing of your life to his, the embrace of the void—

You admit to yourself a little reluctantly that you could have tried harder to get him to stop. You think again what a beautiful corpse he might make, the pale elf who killed you so intimately. Your hand strains at the tuning peg as you pluck at the fourth string, ting ting ting You should ask if he wants to do it again and again and

The string snaps.

“Still awake, are we?” Astarion steps beneath the ruined arch that once marked the chapel entrance. He’s been at the riverbank, bettering himself: his freshly coiffed white hair glows in the moonlight, the curls tamed away from his face, which is clean. The dried blood has been evicted from beneath his fingernails. His elegant doublet hangs over one arm, still dripping. “I’ve told you, darling, you need your beauty rest … and you can trust me.”

Under no circ*mstances is he to know how much you enjoyed it. “Can I?”

A fey smile plays around his perfect lips. “As much as I can trust you, hm?” He drapes his doublet over a low-hanging oak branch and pauses to regard you. There is a fresh confidence in his stance, and he seems taller, somehow, as if a wash and a self-administered haircut made him grow several inches. Has he been slouching all this time? The famished, irritable, half-feral vampire you’re familiar with has vanished.

This vexes you.

“I can’t sleep,” you tell him, bending over your lute again. “But you seem well.”

“I am. How kind of you to notice.” Astarion turns away from you, fussing with a tear in his fine linen shirt. He pauses. “In truth, I have you to thank. I was half-starved by the time you offered me your neck, but your blood brought me back to myself. You were … hm … invigorating.”

“I suppose it’s a good thing my death counted for something,” you say dryly.

“You have my deepest apologies,” says Astarion. “It was a shameful display, I admit, but it will not be repeated again. Hand to heart.”

You feel a completely irrational wave of crushing disappointment. “And the next time you need to feed? What then? Back to animals?”

When he turns back to you, he’s still wearing that implacable smile. “My dear, do you really want to know?”

You’re going to say it.

Don’t you dare.

It’s happening.

Your blood is sacred. Don’t you even think about—

“Look, I’m not against you feeding on me. Let’s just talk about it first next time.”

You fool!

Astarion raises his eyebrows. “Really? Well, aren’t you full of surprises. Seems like I chose the right travelling companion after all. Very well: I accept. I shall await your dinner invitation with baited breath, but until then I promise to abstain from your delectable neck. No more rude awakenings from me. How does that sound?”

“Goo-d—” Your voice cracks. You clear your throat. “That sounds good.”

“Wonderful.” His smile widens.

You wrestle with your lute a while longer, but you aren’t paying much attention to the pitch. Instead, you’re watching Astarion explore the chapel: rubbing dust off the ancient walls and frowning, nodding at an utterly indecipherable inscription on a cornerstone, gazing up at the moon with unnatural stillness.

Was he a nobleman once? A patriar of the upper city? You tell yourself your growing fascination with him is only natural. He is, as the harpies pointed out, the only companion that you can remember. And yet there’s something familiar about him, now with his newfound regal bearing and diplomatic manner. What a puzzle he’s turning out to be.

And you have always loved a game.

There’s something going on in there, you think, but he won’t let you see it. And you need to see it. He’s too composed, too perfect, like porcelain. You need to open him up, explore his insides, make him messy, learn what he really is ….

Astarion breaks the silence, making you jump. “You know, I’ve been thinking …” His voice trails off.

“About anything in particular,” you say, “or just in general?”

“Ha!” he says. “I do so like it when you jest. I’ve been thinking about just how far we’ve come in the past few days. The nautiloid crash, our adventures in that buried old temple, those delightful little children. You’ve risen to every challenge, charged in gamely at every turn. I admit, I didn’t think much of you when we first met, but you’re stronger than I gave you credit for.”

He makes it sound like you’ve been on holiday. “I have my moments.”

“You do indeed.” He sinks his teeth into every word.

Insight: failure

Dice rolled again!

Insight: success

Wait. Is he—

“I’ve been mulling over what may happen tomorrow, when we arrive at this goblin encampment,” Astarion goes on. He leans against the old stone wall and speaks to the moon. “The devil promised we’d find a panacea there, but what exactly does that mean? An artefact, he said … is it large or small? Will we know it when we see it? And then, of course, we must fulfill our part of the bargain. We must deliver the Necromancy of Thay.” He drums his long fingers against his cheek, frowning.

“You don’t seem especially happy about that,” you venture.

“I’m not,” he replies. “It sounds like an exceptionally powerful book, and I’m loathe to part with power of any kind, least of all to a devil. He probably won’t have the faintest idea what to do with it.” His red eyes flick to you, catching the remnants of the firelight. “But I might.”

“It’s probably cursed,” you say.

“All the better,” says Astarion, smiling. “I do so love a good curse.”

“And if the curse is ‘whosoever opens this book shall explode into a cloud of viscera?’”

“Aren’t you uncharacteristically cautious this evening? Rest assured, I’ve thought of that already. You see, I happen to have a friend with a magical talking corpse who, for the low price of only two hundred dollars, can undo even the very worst of mistakes.” He watches you carefully. “What do you say? Can I count on you, darling?”

You keep your voice low. “You want to double-cross Raphael.”

“Eugh, when you put it like that it sounds so underhanded.” He grins. “But yes.”

“What do you want this book for, anyway?” you ask. “A cure for vampirism?”

“How gauche. Why would I want a cure? I’m immortal, eternally young, and, now that I have you and your … generous nature, I’m as powerful as ever. No, I want the book for—let’s say, for research. I have ambitions, you know.”

Something Gandrel said comes back to you. “Does this have anything to do with Cazador?”

He stiffens. “How do you know that name?”

Don’t tell him. You’ve touched a nerve. Pluck him like a string. “We’re the best of friends,” you say, leaning back against the willow. “He comes around for tea on Thursdays.”

Don’t … joke.” Astarion’s newfound composure has slipped; his lip curls up in a faint snarl. “It was the Gur, wasn’t it? He got to you. Well. If you insist on invading my privacy, yes: Cazador Szarr is a vampire lord in Baldur’s Gate, and my former master. Do note the emphasis on former. I’m going to kill him.”

“And this book will tell you how?”

“Maybe,” says Astarion resentfully. “Maybe not. I can’t know until I read it, can I?” He takes a deep breath. “Now, I think that’s enough shop talk for one night. I think you ought to get some rest, my dear. You look ever so tired.”

You unwind the broken string from your lute. “And what are you going to do?”

“Watch over you, of course,” says Astarion. His implacable smile is back. “And enjoy the … beautiful sights.”

You stare at him.

He points to the sky. “The moon.”

“Big fan of the moon, are you?”

He chuckles. “It has nothing on the sun, but you do grow attached to it after two hundred years of nocturnal living.”

You spread your Withers-issued bedroll by the warm ashes of the fire, pull off your boots, and wad your new cloak into a pillow. Astarion watches you the whole time, a smirking marble statue. His delicate hands toy absently with the dagger at his waist. A breeze stirs his pearlescent hair.

Your mouth goes dry. You’re half-tempted to

Don’t

ask him if he’s already thirsty again. The first bite woke something in you, an obsessive crawling hunger for touch. You want someone to flay you open, to unmake you the way you’ve unmade so many others. Only then, only then can there be no more secrets, no more lies.

You lie down.

“Sleep tight,” says Astarion.

You don’t sleep so much as time passes while you have your eyes closed. Your urges are quiet for the moment, but you can’t stop imagining Astarion’s lips on your neck.

Eventually you can’t take it anymore. You open your eyes a crack. Astarion is sitting on a low stone wall, framed by a crumbling arch that once held a stained-glass window. He’s carefully mending a tear in his embroidered doublet, but he glances up as if he can sense your gaze. Maybe he can. You share a parasite, after all. “Hm?”

“How often do you need to feed?”

You are not subtle. You are disgusting. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

“Eager, are we?” says Astarion.

“Just curious.”

“Of course.” He stretches luxuriously. “Well, I’m not thirsty yet, if that’s what you’re asking. You provided me with a feast this morning.”

“I see. Good night.”

“Good night.”

You close your eyes again.

Time passes.

You open your eyes. “Astarion?”

“Yes?”

“How do you suppose we should approach these goblins? I can’t imagine they’ll be happy to see us.”

He makes a frustrated noise. “Oh, I don’t know. But I’m sure you’ll come up with some phenomenally insane strategy and save the day. That seems to have worked for us so far.”

“Hm. Yes. All right. Good night.”

He doesn’t reply. You close your eyes again.

Time passes.

“Astarion?”

“What?”

“Why do you suppose Raphael wants the Necromancy of Thay?”

“You mean, what could a devil want with an evil book?” says Astarion. “Positively nothing untoward, I’m sure. Maybe he wants to read to blind orphans, or something. Will you go to sleep?”

“I think he’s playing a bigger game. And what does he want with me? And how does he know Withers?”

Astarion puts down his sewing with exaggerated care. “Listen, my dear, I have no idea why the most powerful forces in the hells are so keen to throw themselves at you, but I’m not in the business of turning down an advantage. We need all the help we can get. Best not to ask too many questions, hm?”

“Yes, you may be right.”

“I usually am.” He seems relieved. “Good night.”

“Good night.”

You close your eyes again. There is a long silence. You hear him sigh.

“Astar—”

“Twill, if you do not lose consciousness this instant I will slit your throat myself.”

“Fair enough. Good night.”

“It was, once,” he says wistfully.

Chapter 24: Astarion Steals Everything Not Nailed Down and Some Things That Are

Summary:

In which Twill gets arrested

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The bard is yours.

You can see it in his eyes. He’s fallen head over heels for you, and it took so little effort on your part that you almost feel sorry for him. He’s hooked. He might not take an arrow for you, but you feel reasonably confident he won’t abandon his protection of you at the drop of a hat.

Speaking of hats—

“No. Absolutely not.”

“I think it would bring out your eyes,” says Twill.

“I don’t have any wish to have my eyes brought out, thank you. Furthermore: no it wouldn’t. That shade of blue and my eyes have no business being seen together. Are you colorblind?”

“Your eyes aren’t red, they’re rosé. They have cool tones. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”

“Well, it’s not as if I have any way of verifying that, do I? In any case, I’m not taking fashion advice from a man who dresses like a homing beacon. Some of us enjoy subtlety.”

“Look,” says Grat the Trader, “are you gonna buy the damn hat, or are you gonna go join the orgy in the back of the temple?”

“Oh no,” says Twill, “we’re just window shopping. We don’t have any money.”

“Then f*ck off!

The goblins have been surprisingly agreeable so far. The sentry at the gates took one look at Twill’s lute and waved you through, all smiles. There’s some sort of tremendous party going on, and no fewer than six goblin children have ventured up to you to ask whether or not Twill is a bard and how many songs he knows and where he got his clothes.

Loud and obnoxious though it may be, that doublet opens doors. You’re growing sort of fond of it. So long as you never have to wear the bloody thing.

The tribe has made a settlement of an abandoned temple to Selûne, goddess of the moon. It’s fortified and strategically well-positioned near a gorge over the Chionthar. Whatever festival the goblins are putting on has rendered the temple unrecognizable. Off-key singing underpins the wild, frenetic drumbeats of goblin music; a cauldron overflows with rank-smelling beer; something much too lanky to be a pig is roasting on a spit over a raging fire. The once-sacred courtyard has transformed into a bone-strewn, beer-spattered proving ground for supreme debauchery. Truly, it’s inspiring to witness.

“What do you say, dear?” you mutter in Twill’s ear as you make your way back to the tables. “Shall we join the orgy?”

He flushes so gorgeously, you’d swear all his blood relocated to his face. You aren’t ravenous yet, but it’s a near thing.

“Just kidding,” you say, suppressing a grin. “I must say, I’ve never seen someone turn quite that shade of red before. Oh—pardon me. Rosé.” You still can’t believe how freely the bard is offering his neck. You would have thought that murdering someone in a feeding frenzy would earn you a stake through the chest, and instead he’s all but thrown himself at you.

It isn’t that you’re surprised by his attraction to you. You weren’t sure about Twill’s orientation at first, but your good looks have always been your most reliable asset. You’ve lost your touch if you can’t pull one sweaty human man.

There is something about his eagerness that makes you uneasy, though. You’re having a hard time putting your finger on it. Obviously the homicidal compulsions are a potential issue, but you’ve bedded all manner of freaks in your time. You’re quick, and he’s only human. You could take him if it came to that.

You recall the devil Raphael—his knowing smirk, his evident excitement as he trapped you in a deal you never wanted to make in the first place. Devils always know something you don’t. They disguise their greed as generosity and count on you being too stupid to know the difference.

Twill has been far, far too generous with you. You need to sleep with him as soon as possible. Even things out, earn your keep.

“So you’re the new bard, eh?” says a goblin woman, looking you up and down.

“Er, no,” you say. “That’d be him.” Twill is stuffing his face with roasted meat from the spit. There are still bits of bright blue fabric clinging to the charred flesh. You lean over. “Enjoying yourself, my dear?”

“Mhm,” says Twill with his mouth full. “I love a good spit roast.”

“I’m sure you do.” You raise your eyebrows at the goblin woman. “Do you mind? He’s eating for two, you know.”

“Good for him,” says the woman. “I’m Gribbo, I’m your resident bard expert. ‘S my responsibility to make sure he’s got what he needs.”

“Really?” you say, unable to keep the surprise from your voice. “You have a bard expert? Whatever for?”

“Can’t have a party without a bard, can we?” says Gribbo with a sniff. “Need someone who knows how to keep ‘em fed and watered, give ‘em enrichment, all of that. Dental care. Shots. How about it, pigeon? Got what you need?”

Twill swallows. “Now that you mention it, I’m down a string.” He unslings his lute and offers it for Gribbo’s inspection. “What do you say? Got any you can spare?”

“Grat!” shouts Gribbo over the pounding of drums. “Gimme that old lute!”

“I can’t just give it to you!” Grat shouts back. “That defeats the purpose of running a shop!”

“It’s for the new bard, Grat! He can’t play without a string!” She storms across the courtyard.

“Nosy little creatures, goblins, aren’t they?” you remark, shooting a hostile glare at a cluster of them. They keep grouping up to stare goggle-eyed at you and Twill. “Or they’re very fond of bards.”

He mumbles something incomprehensible through a mouthful of meat. You squint across the courtyard at the rotating spit over the fire. Oh, this is delightful.

“Twill?” you murmur.

“Mm?”

“Do you know who you’re eating?”

It takes a moment for your phrasing to sink in. You watch with a barely suppressed grin as Twill swallows his current mouthful and frowns down at the rest of his plate. With a thumb and forefinger he delicately plucks away a scrap of charred blue fabric. You can see the gears in his mind spinning like a runaway Gnommish contraption.

“I think,” he says at last, “that we’ve found the owner of that exceptional hat. Well, there’s one mystery solved!”

He cheerfully resumes his meal.

You rest your elbows on the table and gaze at him in quiet wonder.

“What?” he asks, spraying human flesh across his plate.

“My dear, you are a cavalcade of delights.”

“Meat’s meat, isn’t it?”

“I couldn’t have put it any more efficiently,” you say. “Now, how do you suggest we find this artefact Raphael promised? Shall we trick our way into the temple? Bargain with the bugbears? Squeeze intel from an ogre?” You’re getting excited. Things are looking up for you—you’re free, for one thing, and you’ve not only shaken off Cazador’s hunters but earned yourself the protection of the most gullible murderer in all of Faerûn. Take care of the tadpole, and you’ll be ready for anything. Ready for vengeance. You nudge Twill with a friendly little chuckle. “Look at us, a couple of go-getters on the prowl. Do you know, I think the two of us could be a real team.”

Twill seems troubled by something. “We abandoned them.”

“Oh, for the love of—abandoned who?

He drops his voice. “The refugees. The kids.”

You can hardly believe what you’re hearing. “Yes, of course we abandoned them. They have nothing to do with us. Don’t tell me you have a bleeding heart about it all of a sudden.”

“I just think,” says Twill, “that while we’re here we should try to do something about it, is all.” He frowns. “I like to finish what I start.”

“Who are you? Where’s the homicidal maniac I’ve come to know and love? It’s water under the bridge, darling, and we have a job to do, so focus. Use that precious little head of yours and come up with a plan.”

“Beer?” says a bugbear, shuffling past with a tray.

“Not really my drink,” you say. Twill snorts. You glance sideways at him and beckon the bugbear closer. “I do have a question, though, if you don’t mind.”

The bugbear looks panicky. “Uh, I don’t—”

“Lovely. So kind of you. Now, I can’t help but notice there’s a party going on.”

The bugbear looks around at the panorama of shameless revelry. A quartet of naked goblins have started line-dancing atop a nearby platform. “Stupid, are you?”

You keep your smile in place with an effort. “Aha, no. I’m just curious what it is you’re celebrating, exactly.”

“We’ve just had a raid!” shouts a nearby goblin. He hoists his tankard, slopping beer everywhere. “We put the torch to that piddly human village north of here on the High Road, and good riddance! Thorns in our arses for years. Got a whole bunch of loot and smokepowder from a Zhent hideout, too. We’ve been partying for three days!”

You didn’t think much of it when that old tiefling paladin, Zevlor, mentioned goblin trouble. Goblins are nuisances, but they typically keep to themselves. At most, they haunt less-travelled roads to pick off unprepared wayfarers. For your money, the gnolls on the High Road should be a much bigger problem—but this is deeply unusual. Bizarre, even. For goblins to mobilize at a scale large enough to assault a village, much less successfully, is all but unheard-of. Something is afoot.

Clearing your throat, you lean across the table. “Good for you! Jolly good … victory, and all that. Um. Why?

The drunken goblin’s face splits into a wide, toothy grin. Then he clambers atop the table, lifts his tankard again, and crows, “For the glory of the Absolute!

All around you, the party screeches to a halt as goblins and bugbears spring to attention and repeat the cry in unison. “Glory—for the glory of the Absolute! Glory—glory—glory—glory—glory!

As the chant gradually resolves back into drunken revelry, the goblin who started it all says, “That answer your question, pretty boy?”

“It certainly answers something,” you say. Leaning over, you mutter into Twill’s ear: “Let’s find this artefact and leave as quickly as possible.”

“What’s the Absolute?” asks Twill, ignoring you.

“She’s our god, bard! Our new and shiny god!

You and Twill exchange a glance.

“But,” says Twill, “what about the goblin god? Mag … what’s his face … Maglubi …”

Religion: failed

“That’s ‘Maglubididubidoo,’ darling,” you correct him.

“We’re done with him!” shouts the goblin. You notice a few of his kin looking distinctly uncomfortable when he says this. “And you should be, too!”

“You can’t do that, though,” says Twill. “You can’t just … make new gods. They don’t like being replaced.”

“You better keep your mouth shut, little birdie,” says the goblin, “before you never sing again. Last bard couldn’t keep his mouth shut.”

“And?” asks Twill.

“That’s him you’re eatin’.”

Gribbo the bard expert returns with a broken lute. “How’s this, pigeon?”

“Perfect,” says Twill. As he unwinds the spare string and appends it to his own instrument, he turns and winks at you. As if he expects you to know what that means.

“Why,” you whisper, “are you winking?”

“I’ll cause a distraction,” he mutters. “You get over to that stall and search for the artefact.”

“Do you honestly think we’ll find a powerful magical item in a pile of goblin refuse?” you scoff. “We don’t even know what it looks like.”

“We have to start somewhere. Don’t you know how to detect magic?”

You do not. “Of course I do. Obviously. Fine, I’ll do it. But it’s a waste of time.”

“Two of you done mutterin’?” says Gribbo. “The lads are ready for a song.”

Twill takes a few minutes to tune his lute, then rises from the table and leaps on top of the platform at the center of the courtyard. You retreat to the fringes of the party.

Twill clears his throat. “Ladies, gentlemen, multitudes, otherwise, allow me first to take this opportunity to thank you all for your gracious attention. I am Twill E. Cavander, bard errant and adventurer extraordinaire, and I am here to play for you a song!

Ugh.

But you can’t deny he has a certain panache. Goblins and bugbears drift over from all corners of the temple to watch. Grat the trader seems reluctant to leave his cache, but even he is throwing wistful glances toward the center of the courtyard. Twill’s stupid little plan is working. Of course it is.

Honestly. He isn’t that good.

“Before I get started, do we have any fans of Volo in the crowd today?” There is a smattering of applause. Twill winces. “Ohh, poor taste, poor taste. Thankfully, I’m not here to play Volo!”

Uproarious cheers.

“Anybody want to dedicate this song?” calls Twill.

“For the drow!” shouts a goblin.

“Care to be more specific, friend?”

“Dror Ragzlin!” calls another.

“All of you shut up!” roars Gribbo. Silence falls unsteadily. She looks up at Twill. “For the Absolute!”

The chant goes up around the courtyard. “The Absolute! The Absolute! The Absolute!”

Grat the trader finally caves and scurries to join the crowd, leaving his store unguarded. You pull into the shadows beneath the rampart wall and move quickly toward the stall, drawing as little attention to yourself as possible.

“All right, all right, calm down,” says Twill, laughing. He strums his first chord. “To the Absolute, then!”

The goblins cheer as he begins to play.*

Ooh, baby, don’t you know I suffer

Ooh, baby, can’t you hear me moan?

You caught me under false pretenses

How long before you let me go?

Oohhh, you set my soul alight—

You drop out of sight behind a barrel. Scanning the pile, you see absolutely nothing that strikes you as an “artefact.” You spy the blue hat with which Twill was so enamored and snatch it up. A label stitched into the brim reads Volothamp Geddarm.

Goodness. If you’d known they were eating such a public figure, you might have taken a bite for yourself.

Now, what else is here?

Glaciers melting in the dead of night

And the superstar sucked into the supermassive—

Quite a lot, actually. Twill’s instincts have, once again, steered you in the right direction. Several potion phials lie scattered at the bottom of a slatted wooden crate, including one teardrop-shaped bottle which appears at first glance to be empty.

Arcana: success

An invisibility potion. A pair of fine leather gloves are nailed to the stall post; when you pry them free, you receive something like an electric jolt. They’re enchanted. Assorted pendants and necklaces hang from another protruding nail. You lift several of them free, careful not to take too many—the last thing you need is for Grat to start screaming about thieves as soon as Twill’s performance is over.

The goblins are going crazy.

I thought I was a fool for no one

But mmh, baby, I’m a fool for you

You’re the queen of the superficial

And how long before you tell the truth? Ooohhh—

Petty thievery has never been the focus of your criminal undertakings, but you can’t deny you have a talent for it. As crimes go, it’s probably your favorite. Well, that and first-degree murder. This is certainly the most fun you’ve had since falling off the nautilus.

A glint of steel catches your eye. You reach into the recesses below the stall and emerge with an elegant poniard that puts Cazador’s cheese knife to shame. Excellent. Two daggers are always better than one. The poniard is enchanted, too, to judge from the opaline sheen on the blade.

Still no artefact.

Investigation: success

But what’s this? A little bag? Tucked among the rest of the late writer’s possessions? Volo is embroidered into the supple leather in bright blue thread. You undo the drawstring, frown, and then plunge your hand inside up to the shoulder. Feeling around, your fingertips don’t even brush the bottom.

Gods above, it’s a Bag of Holding. And not an empty one, either, if the weight is anything to go by. You’ve never even seen one of these. You stow it hastily in your pocket as Twill finishes his song, and you’re about to slip away when you spy a stack of books beneath a fluttering drape of sackcloth.

It would, of course, be absurd for the Necromancy of Thay to be a goblin’s shop stool. It would be about as absurd as a cabal of children overthrowing a druid’s grove by turning them into slugs, but not quite as absurd as catching a cambion of the hells in flagrante delicto with an animated corpse. This is just your life now, it seems.

You sigh, and lift the cloth.

From the center of the courtyard, you hear Twill romancing the audience. “Thank you, thank you! Really, you’re too kind! Twill E. Cavander, remember that name, I’ll be headlining at the Elfsong one day. Yes, truly!”

“More songs!” crows a goblin.

“No, juggling!”

“Got any skulls?” asks Twill. And a moment later, in a tone of surprise, “Why, thank you! Thank you indeed! All right, stand back everyone—”

The crowd erupts in raucous cheers. You chuckle to yourself.

If he’s not an incompetent, he can hold them a few moments longer. You examine the books. The top of the pile is an assortment of loose pages and unmarked journals, but there are a few mass-market paperbacks and leatherbound volumes near the bottom of the stack.

The Curse of the Vampyr

In Search of the Nightsong

The Mortal View: Eyewitness Accounts of the Bhaalspawn Crisis

On the Inevitability of Moral Decay and its Benefits

“Ooh,” you say, reaching for it.

Gribbo’s voice rings out over the crowd. “All right, all right, that’s enough!”

“Beg pardon?” says Twill. “Oh—er—hello—”

“Get off the stage, Gribbo!”

“Boooo! Let him perform!”

You poke your head over the top of the stall. Gribbo is advancing on Twill. “It’s a new policy, lads! New policy, direct from bard expert Gribbo!”

“No! We never voted on that!” shouts Grat.

“This ain’t a democracy no more, Grat! We’re all one under the Absolute! Now I’m the bard expert, and I say, you gotta be careful not to overwork ‘em. They need proper care and attention.”

“Thank you,” says Twill sincerely.

“So he’s comin’ back for a rest until he’s ready to sing again.”

“What?” says Twill.

Oh dear.

You shove the whole stack of books into the Bag of Holding, wincing at the series of cascading thuds that issue from within, and spring away from the stall. “Now—just hold on!” you call. “That is a free range bard, if you please.”

“What’re you, his keeper?” demands Gribbo.

“Yes—yes, exactly,” you say, waving a hand. “I’m his keeper.”

Gribbo squints. “I don’t believe you.”

“Well—I—it’s true,” you insist.

She gazes down at you for a long moment. “He’s comin’ with me.”

“Wait just a minute,” says Twill, “don’t I get any say in—”

Impero te,” says Gribbo.

There is a soft pop and a violet blink of light, and Twill drops like a wad of spaghetti. You look on in flabbergasted silence as he begins to snore.

“That’s better,” says Gribbo. “Aw look, he’s restin’. Polma!

The ground shakes as the nine-foot ogre standing guard near the temple doors lumbers over. “What you want, Gribbo?”

“Take the new pigeon to the cages.” She fixes her calculating gaze on you as Polma gathers Twill into her arms. His limbs protrude everywhere like a bundle of sticks. “And you … don’t even think about tryin’ anything funny. I got my eye on you.”

You raise your hands in surrender and smile. “Rest assured, I wouldn’t dare try anything untoward.” Your heart is pounding. Sweet hells, why this? Why now?

Gribbo sniffs. “That’s right. Good. Now, uh … go enjoy the party.” She trots after Polma, and you look on helplessly as they carry the bard away.

You sink slowly down onto a stool.

“I sure hope he sticks around longer than the last one,” says the goblin beside you. “He has a nice style.”

“They go bad after a while,” says another. “Trust me, you got to eat them before they turn rotten. That one’ll be ripe in just a tenday or two.”

“I don’t know if I can wait that long,” sighs a third.

“I don’t know what’s better,” says the first goblin, “the show, or the dinner!”

They all laugh uproariously around you. Your fingers drum against the tabletop. This is an irritating setback, but maybe it’s also an opportunity … if you save him, he’ll be more indebted to you.

First, you’ll need to get inside.

“Oh, sweet Absolute, no!” A cry of anguish goes up from the corner stall. “Where’s all me readin’ gone?”

Notes:

To extraplanar readers, this may seem strikingly similar to the song “Supermassive Black Hole” by the Earth band Muse. It is, in fact, a Faerûnian composition by the famous Ironhand rockstar, “Fuse.”

In addition to being the foremost innovators of non-magical technology, gnomes are also prolific writers of immortal party anthems.

Chapter 25: Astarion's Marvellous Ceiling Adventure

Summary:

In which Twill is conspicuously absent

Chapter Text

Your bard has been stolen.

As the party in the courtyard stutters back up again and a small crowd gathers around the distraught trader Grat, you slip away from the hubbub and scan the crumbled ramparts above for an easy point of entry. You don’t think of going in through the front doors. Keeping a low profile is essential to your particular brand of survival.

Out of sight of the main courtyard, you clamber ponderously up a curtain of clinging vines, cursing the tadpole the whole way. You used to be ten times stronger than this, ten times faster. You used to be capable of climbing up and down walls with no more than a thought. The infection has weakened you enormously.

But you can walk in the sun. You suppose that’s nothing to sneeze at.

A shattered window provides your point of entry. Your soft boots crunch on fragments of colorful glass wrought in blues and greens and silver as you slip out of the daylight and into the stagnant, murky gloom of the temple interior.

You’re inside. Now what?

Find the bard. Your gaze slices undaunted through the darkness. Distant shapes are etched in white. This is certainly a goblin den, no doubt about that, though you’d have known by the smell alone. The air is thick with blood and sex and unwashed bodies—how homey. You creep along a rafter beam to a better vantage point and peer down.

You have discovered the orgy. There’s quite a variety of interesting techniques on display. You make some mental notes.

Now, if you were a goblin, and you had just procured a fresh and tasty new prisoner, where would you put him? Not in the orgy. Probably. You observe the staircases to either side of the main chamber, which split off into multiple branching passageways leading to distant antechambers. Are there kitchens? No, of course not, this is a temple. A dungeon? But all the steps lead up, not down. Damn it all, you’re never going to find him like this.

Then you spot a familiar goblin trotting purposefully around the outskirts of the orgy. Oho, if it isn’t Gribbo the bard expert. Using the network of the rafters, you follow Gribbo from above, keeping low to the beam and leaping silently across gaps whenever she makes a turn. It isn’t easy—half the beams are rotting away, which means this temple will collapse on itself in a few years—but it is, well, fun. You feel alive. Powerful. The bard’s blood buzzes in your veins as you push off the rafters and land softly atop a broken stone pillar.

This is no dungeon. Gribbo has led you to what was once either a library or a Selûnite scriptorium, though the walls have broken down and a whole section of the floor in the rear of the chamber has fallen away into … ah … what appears to be a bottomless chasm. Better and better. You spy the room’s other occupant by its decidedly not goblin-shaped form—a drow? Among goblins?—when a flash of movement near the door catches your attention.

A shadow slips across the floor, moving over the bookshelves, up the walls, but always following the trail of a fist-size black orb floating purposefully around the chamber, back and forth, almost as if it’s patrolling. Its shadow is shaped like an eye.

Arcana: success

You retract against the stone, heart pounding. Scrying eyes can see in all directions at once, and they shriek if they spot intruders. They’re magical constructs, employed by many of the Upper City’s noble patriars as a security measure. You once knew a magistrate—a greasy, self-important twat of an elf—who spent your whole evening together bragging that his scrying eye was of higher quality than anyone else’s scrying eye, that he was the leading edge of home security in the Gate and that no one on the whole Sword Coast was safer than he.

You sort of enjoyed delivering him to Cazador.

The drow is speaking to Gribbo. “No, you may not use the inner courtyard as a free-range pen! Don’t you think I have had about enough of your nonsense?” Her voice is startlingly low and harsh.

“It’s good for his enrichment!” says Gribbo. “And—and it’s good for the lads! They need enrichment, too, and—”

Get out of my sight.”

Gribbo scrabbles across the floor in her haste to obey, and you scrabble against the pillar in your haste to follow her. Below, the unnatural shadow of the scrying eye swings suddenly upward.

You make a blind leap toward the rafters and catch the beam with your arms, then swing one leg over and press yourself flat to the wood. Splinters drag against your cheek as you turn your head in time to watch the eye’s shadow pass over the pillar where you crouched an instant before. Too close, entirely too close.

The drow returns to a desk in the corner, where she has clearly established some kind of study for herself, and scribbles something into the margin of an open book. You ponder her presence. Goblins are notoriously xenophobic toward any non-goblinoids, though not without good reason. Obviously this drow must be the one responsible for organizing and directing them, but to what end? And why would they ever listen to her? Does it have something to do with this … Absolute?

Your parasite squirms. You clap one hand over your eye just as the drow stiffens below. Your minds collide in a swarm of startled thoughts.

The Necromancy of Thay is a dead end, useless in its current state. You’ve wasted more than enough time on it. You must find the Grove soon or there will be all nine hells to pay. Weakening the Emerald Enclave is paramount, and if the Sharran brat truly left the artefact with the druids—

You have to get out of here now. Drow are not known for their mercy. You push yourself up and—

your tadpole jolts you from your reverie, singing upward toward the ceiling … towards a sister? There are few other True Souls in this place, and you always smell the goblins coming. Someone new is here. Someone uninvited.

“Who goes?” you bark, striding out from around your desk, looking sharply from side to side. When you find the interloper you—

break loose from the woman’s mind with a gasp. You’re already moving as fast as you can in utter silence, fleeing back towards the central chamber.

You feel the questing clutch of her mind reach after you as you flee, until you move out of reach and it retreats like a slow tide, a retracting tentacle. Once you’re clear, you huddle against the beam and try to gather yourself.

The drow is another infected. No, never mind that. The drow has the Necromancy of Thay. If you can get your hands on it—and keep it away from that devil—you might discover a way to kill Cazador. To stay free of him without the aid of a tadpole. Maybe even a way to stay in the sun forever. Who knows what power it holds?

But you’re getting ahead of yourself. The drow is trouble. And you’ve completely lost sight of Gribbo, which means you’re back to square one.

“Howdy, Vrak!” calls a goblin, waving to another that has just emerged from a side corridor. “Here to join the orgy?”

“Aw, not this time, Getch. I’m just come out to go give Big Klaw his dewormer, then I’m back to the worg pens.”

Worg pens. Now if you were a goblin, and you had just procured yourself a fresh and tasty new prisoner …

It’s as good a place to start as any. You clamber over to the corridor, where the rafters end, and drop to the ground. Beyond a stone arch, the floor drops away into the aforementioned bottomless pit, but a wooden walkway bridges the gap to the door at the end of the hall. The ceiling has fallen in, and sunlight streams over the bridge, gleaming along the emerald edges of the ferns and moss clinging to cracks in the walls.

You peer over the edge. What’s down there? It falls away into darkness not even your eyes can penetrate.

The door to the worg pens is locked, which is, of course, no problem for you. With a glance over your shoulder, you drop to one knee and reach into your new Bag of Holding. You only need to think of your tools, and they spring into your hand.

The lock is easy, but you’re in a hurry. The last thing you need is for that drow to come around the corner while you’re trapped against a locked door on a narrow bridge over a bottomless pit. One broken pick, two broken picks, and click. You’re in. Holding the latch down to keep it from making any noise, you press your fingertips to the door and push it open.

You have about six seconds to take in the room that lies beyond. A plain square chamber lined with grated cells, a few braziers hanging overhead, a couple closed doors.

It’s a hot, fresh bloodbath.

Dead goblins lie strewn across the floor. Worgs throw themselves against the gates of their pens, snarling and baying, as a tall, rail-thin figure turns to face you. She holds a bloody longsword in one hand and a severed goblin head in the other.

Nature: success

A githyanki? Here?

Her eyes lock on yours.

“Oh, sh*t,” you mutter.

She tosses the head away, grips her sword in both hands, and charges.

As she barrels through the door, you slip sideways and crouch, drawing both daggers. Her charge carries her onto the walkway over the abyss. You flip your daggers into a reverse position as she turns to face you again, ready to lunge—

Your thoughts collide.

Another one.

You nearly drop your daggers. She nearly drops her sword. For an instant

you see through the stranger’s eyes,

the tadpole pulling your awareness—

your ghaik infection jerking you outside yourself—

you see yourself

standing tall, blood-soaked and savage, your armor gleaming silver, fearsome enough to set the most hardened warrior to trembling—

in shadow, a crouched figure with bright red eyes that gleam like coins—

Your mind snaps back into place.

Recovering quickly, you stand up and spread your arms in an offering of peace. Quick as you are, this githyanki could still snap you like a toothpick if she got inside your guard. “You think very highly of yourself, don’t you?”

Her eyes narrow.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” you add with a smile. “I always respect a little healthy egotism. Now, shall we put the blades away? The screams of the dying tend to be noisy, and I’d rather not draw too much attention to myself right now.”

The gith sneers. “You think to stay my hand with such feeble manipulation? You die today, is’tark. Your parasite will not save you.”

“I’m sorry, what did you just call me?”

The gith lifts her sword. “First you,” she says. “Then all the rest.”

“All right,” you sigh, falling into a ready stance. “Let’s do this quietly.”

She lunges. You spring.

She’s fast. You’re faster.

You drop and dart inside her guard. One dagger glances off her armor. The other gets caught on a buckle. She twists, jerking the blade from your grasp, and strikes you with the pommel of her sword. The blow knocks you sideways, but you keep your balance, teetering unsteadily at the edge of the walkway.

You’d rather not kill her. Githyanki are mind flayer experts. There’s every chance she can tell you more about your parasite, give you whatever information that stingy devil was holding back—

No time to think. She’s on you again. Duck.

Her longsword hisses past your face so close you taste the metal. You keep low and close, slashing at the back of her knee. She pivots to avoid the blow and, too close to swing her blade, strikes out with the pommel again. This time you’re ready for the pommel strike, but what you aren’t ready for is the steel-booted foot in your ribcage.

Hells.

The kick knocks you away. You roll back to your feet, hissing through your teeth. The goblin orgy in the next room has reached a fever pitch, but if any of them wander by—how long does it take to administer worg dewormer?—or, by the gods, if the drow—

With a snarl, the gith lunges at you again. Time seems to slow. She’s strong, she’s vicious, but she’s hasty. Overconfident. And very young.

And her left side is wide open.

You feint left. She takes the bait with a sweeping cut which you dodge easily. The weight of her longsword unbalances her, and before she can recover you slide past her, pivot on the ball of your foot, and seize her by the hair, jerking her head back to slip your blade beneath her chin.

She freezes. The walkway creaks.

You whisper in her ear. “Now, this has been fun, but I prefer a little talk before the action, so why don’t—hurgh!

She drives her elbow into your gut. And then your chest. And then your face. Your nose crunches like a dry leaf. You stumble back, ears ringing, and your right foot hits empty air.

Acrobatics: success

You pitch yourself forward, heedless of the blade swinging toward you, and catch her around the legs. She goes down. So do you. You both roll to the edge. Somehow you end up on top. You pin her with your knees. Through the slats in the bridge, you see a flash of light glance off her sword as it falls away. A surge of triumph. You have her.

Your fingers find the hilt of your lost dagger, still caught on her armor. You pull it free, press yourself against her back, and cross both blades beneath her chin. Her breath catches.

You lean in. “I beg you, darling. Reconsider.”

She spits, struggles, snarls, and finally concedes. “Kaincha. Finish me quickly, istik.

“Sorry. I don’t speak gith,” you murmur, grinning. Blood pounds in your ears; every muscle in your body is screaming. Your nose wails in agony. “And you’ve caught me in a good mood, so I think I’ll let you live.”

“I am sworn to eliminate the infected!”

“By all means,” you say, “go ahead.”

There is a long pause. At last, voice muffled by the floor, she says, “Your infection seems to be still in its early stages. Perhaps I can make use of you before you die.”

“That’s the spirit,” you say. “Don’t try anything, hm? I’ll be ready.” This is a lie. If this battering ram of a woman so much as sneezes on you, it’s over.

“On my honor,” she growls.

She seems like someone who cares about that sort of thing. You let her up.

With a grimace, she draws herself to her full height—you have to look up at her—and says, “I am Lae’zel of Creche K’liir, warrior of Queen Vlaakith, cleansing blade of Kith’rak Voss. Look upon me and rejoice.”

“Hip hip hooray. Shall we go?” You feel hideously exposed out here.

She follows you into the worg pens. “This is nothing but a kennel. Where is the detention center?”

“Looking for someone, are you?” You scan the cells along the walls. It’s all worgs and bones and one dead bear in the corner. Twill isn’t here, damn it. Where in the blazes have they put your bard?

“I am on an important mission for my Kith’rak,” says Lae’zel proudly. She hesitates. “Yes. I am … looking for someone.”

“It’s not a drow, is it?”

“A deep elf? No.” She narrows her eyes at you. “Why?”

“Because a drow appears to have commandeered the goblin leadership.”

“Understood. I am seeking a prisoner here.”

“Then our goals are aligned. Wonderful.” There’s so much blood in here your feet are sticking to the floor. You pick up one of the severed goblin heads and examine it critically. “What—hm. Was there a point to this, aside from wanton murder?”

“I entered this stronghold through an external tunnel which led to this kennel,” says Lae’zel. “These goblins challenged me. I do not run from challenges.”

“I can see that. Were you planning on doing this to the rest of the tribe, or …?”

“I fail to see the purpose of this line of inquiry.”

“It’s just that there are an awful lot of them out there,” you say.

“Bah. I do not fear goblins.

A new voice pulls your gaze to the door. “What—what the hells is this?”

It seems Vrak has returned from deworming Big Klaw. You toss the severed head over your shoulder and wince at the thud. “Ah. Hello.”

“Gods … gods!” Vrak backs up a few steps, then turns and bolts. “Help!

“Stop that goblin!” you shout.

Lae’zel thrusts out her arm and makes a twisting motion with her hand. The door slams on Vrak, who throws himself against it uselessly.

Arcana: success

Githyanki psionics. Psychokinesis. Lae’zel advances on Vrak as he cowers against the door and seizes him by the collar, lifting him off his feet. “You, goblin. You will tell me where to find your detention center.”

“Please don’t hurt me! Please!”

“I do not make promises I cannot keep,” says Lae’zel. “Speak, or I will rend your head from your shoulders.”

Vrak begins to cry.

“If I may,” you say delicately, “it’s usually easier to extract information if the subject isn’t sh*tting himself in terror. You may want to—”

There is a hideous ripping noise as Lae’zel tears Vrak’s head off with her bare hands.

“—or that. That’s an option, too.”

“I do not bluff,” says Lae’zel, dropping both pieces of Vrak to the floor.

“Admirable. But we still don’t know where to find our … people.”

“Hmm,” says Lae’zel. “These goblins, they are led by a drow?”

“Yes …”

“Very well. I will speak to this drow. Perhaps I can bargain with it.”

This woman is exquisitely deranged. You can’t let her out of your sight. “Do you know what?” you say. “That sounds like a marvellous plan—but do take care. We wouldn’t want you to get yourself arrested. Although … that would be a quick way to find out where they keep their prisoners, wouldn’t it?”

She gives you a hard stare. “I will not be detained. I am an accomplished negotiator.”

“Of course,” you say. “Of course. I was only joking. I’ll just follow you from the shadows, hm? At a safe distance.”

“Hmm …” She nods slowly. “Yes. You will be my ‘backed up.’ See that you remain vigilant, istik.”

“On my honor,” you say, smiling.

Whatever she does, it’s going to be fun to watch.

Lae’zel gives you a boost back into the rafters and you shadow her silently from above as she strides into the central chamber with supreme confidence. None of the goblins even attempts to challenge her, but they do notice her. A murmur spreads through the chamber and the orgy slows down.

Goodness, what a marvelous distraction she’s causing. If you’re lucky, the drow might come out of her little corner to investigate, leaving you free to search for the Necromancy of Thay. She might even keep the attention of the drow’s scrying eye. You scan the rafters around you, a network of interlocking beams and collapsing stone that feels like a world unto itself. Whatever’s happening below doesn’t matter. Up here you are invisible. Untouchable.

You spy a passage where the rafter beam has fallen and destroyed the top of a wall. It seems as though it may lead to the back of the old scriptorium, placing you right above the drow’s desk. With a glance down at Lae’zel, you clamber away and squeeze through the gap.

The fallen beam crosses what must be a storeroom. Barrels and crates are stacked almost as high as you. You eye them wistfully as you pass. If you had the time, you’d spend many happy hours in here, sorting through for valuables—

—hold on, now, what is that?

By the wall, propped upright against a crate, is a lute. It’s his lute, you can tell right away, because it has the initials “T.E.C.” scratched into the side, followed, in smaller letters, by—you squint—“a.y.s.” He’s also tied brightly colored bits of thread to all the tuning pegs. And drawn a little figure of a man in a silly hat near the bottom of the soundboard.

You almost leave it there.

Almost.

Then, with an inward sigh, you swing down from the rafter beam onto a stack of crates and hop to the floor.

Something crunches underfoot, like course sand.

You look down and nearly sh*t yourself.

Black powder dusts the ancient flagstones, spilling out of crates and sacks piled high against the walls. Sackcloth sachets of the stuff have been tossed haphazardly into a rusty cauldron. Many of the barrels bear the same stenciled symbol: a serpentine dragon, the sign of the Zhentarim. The black market merchants’ guild.

Good heavens. These goblins have stockpiled enough smokepowder to wipe a small town completely off the map.

Your ears twitch. Through the wall, you can hear muffled fragments of conversation. “—of K’liir. I was told these goblins are led by a drow. You must be her.”

You drop the bard’s lute into the Bag of Holding, then eye the nearest crate of smokepowder. You wonder if there’s a size limit. You set The Bag on the floor and open it as wide as you can.

“Ah yes.” The drow’s harshly sibilant voice makes you flinch. “I thought I smelled an intruder, but I must confess I did not anticipate a githyanki True Soul.”

The crate goes into the bag. Don’t think about the logistics.

“I do not know your custom of ‘True Soul,’” says Lae’zel. “I have come to bargain.”

Sweet hells, she’s even dumber than you thought. You may not have much time. You should go. Now.

Although …

Shame to leave all this explosive power here … where anyone could use it …

Gritting your teeth, you set yourself against a stack of crates and push with all your might.

Strength: failure

“Is that so?” says the drow. “And what is the nature of your bargain?”

“I seek a prisoner. One who carries a stolen githyanki artefact. Give her to me, and the resources of Creche Y’llek will be at your disposal.”

Strength: failure

“Fascinating. I have heard much about the brazenness of the githyanki, that they prefer bravery over brains,” says the drow. “I never expected to see it for myself. I don’t expect that you will submit quietly.”

Strength: failure

“I see I have misjudged you,” says Lae’zel. “Know this: challenge me, and you bring the might of Creche Y’llek upon your head. The might of Kith’rak Voss. The might of his red dragon! You will rue your foolishness as your flesh melts off your bones, as your eyes turn to jelly and run from your—”

“Oh for the love of the Absolute, somebody shut her up,” says the drow.

Strength: success

The stack collapses with a terrific crash, crates tumbling into The Bag like talus boulders bounding down a mountain slope. Conversation in the next room comes to a grinding halt. You stumble back, throwing up your hands. A series of crashes echo from inside The Bag as the crates settle, and finally silence falls, punctuated only by the dwindling patter of stray grains of smokepowder draining away.

“We aren’t alone,” says the drow. “You three! Investigate!”

Time to go. You pull the drawstring on The Bag, pick it up, and nearly give yourself a hernia. It’s the single densest object you’ve ever attempted to lift. With a monumental effort you hoist it in both hands, hook it back onto your belt, and clamber back onto the rafter beam.

You pull yourself through the hole in the wall and emerge into the scriptorium, just where you had hoped you would. The drow’s desk and shelves are just beneath you. The room beyond is in chaos, goblins running this way and that. A pair of bugbears have wrestled Lae’zel to the floor. The drow’s back is turned to you.

You scan the shelves and treasures stacked behind the desk. Nothing jumps out at you. Books … papers … rolls of parchment … spell scrolls … empty potion bottles … an impossibly thick tome bound in human skin …

You’ve found it.

The shadow of the scrying eye passes your way again, and you nearly unbalance yourself scrambling into a cobwebby corner.

“You wish to meet our prisoner, gith? I am happy to oblige,” says the drow. “Take her away. She may prove useful in extracting information about the artefact.”

You curse to yourself as she returns to her desk. You’ll never get down there and slip away again unseen. But you know where it is, and that’s a start.

With an inward sigh, you turn and follow Lae’zel from above as the bugbears drag her away. Maybe they’ll lead you to Twill before the goblins eat him.

Chapter 26: Twill Hangs Out

Summary:

Happy Easter. He is risen indeed or whatever

Chapter Text

Here is a dream. In a room dressed with bones, there is an old elf frowning at a skull. He reaches out and strokes it lovingly. He sighs. For a moment his delectable pain is your own.

Here is a dream. A heavyset man with thick, dark hair leans over a map of the Sword Coast, drumming his fingers on the table. Candlelight glints off a single clawed, golden gauntlet. A corner of his mouth twists up in a smirk, and your heart turns over.

Here is a dream. A pale woman with pale eyes stands atop a dais, arms spread, an ecstatic grin on her otherworldly face. Hers, all hers, all hers at last and again. She’s laughing, but her laughter dies away and she turns, inexplicably, to look at you. The torch of her gaze is

a bolt of rage and pain and anguish

THESE.

The dream scatters into fragments.

ARE MY CHOSEN.

The voice is irresistible, all-encompassing, overwhelming—

—and then it fades away, growing muffled, growing distant, gone.

You awaken to discover that the world has inverted itself. You’re in some sort of dreary little torture chamber, but the furniture is stuck to the ceiling and the man strapped to the rack across from you is pointed headfirst at the floor. You have the worst headache of your life, which is really saying something.

For a moment all you feel is shock: the world, inverted! What extraordinary magic could have done this? Who could be responsible?

You are upside down, fool.

That’s probably the simpler explanation. Operating according to this new hypothesis, you look up at your feet. Someone has taken your boots and tied ropes around your ankles. All ten of your little piggies are hanging out for the world to see. You try to wiggle your toes, but they’ve gone completely numb.

Focus. You must free yourself.

You look the other way, down at what should be the floor. Instead you gaze into a yawning black abyss. They have hung you by your ankles above a bottomless pit.

Your heartbeat pounds in your ears. Blood pools in the mincemeat of your pulverized brain, slowing your thoughts and making your vision go blotchy. You can’t become a dreaded avatar of slaughter and death if you’re strung up like a prize ham. You must get down. You must slay your captors, you must strangle the life from their bodies one by—

WHERE IS YOUR LUTE.

THEY HAVE TAKEN YOUR LUTE.

You begin to struggle and discover your hands are bound behind your back. A snarl escapes your throat as you thrash, bouncing around on your lifeline like a hooked fish. You’re going to slaughter this entire camp, every last goblin and bugbear and ogre, you’re going to stuff them with their own innards and sever their heads and use their heads as bowling balls for ninepins.

“Ohhh, master, you are in a pickle now, aren’t you?”

Your head snaps up. Sceleritas Fel is sitting at the edge of the pit, kicking his feet and gazing up at you with a toothy grin.

“You.” Your voice emerges a low growl. “Get me down. Get me Down!

“Alas, master, I cannot! I must not interfere!”

“I’ll kill you! I’ll scoop out your eyes and feed them to you! I’ll braid your small intestine into a necklace!”

“All very creative, master, but perhaps another time!” The Butler jumps to his feet and salutes smartly, then vanishes in a puff of red smoke. His voice lingers after him: “I have full confidence you will emerge from this little predicament with ease!”

“GET BACK HERE!” you roar.

“Please …” moans the man on the rack. “Some of us is trying to sleep …”

Calm yourself. Going feral will not help you. Besides, it is unseemly.

With an effort and more than a few deep breaths, you slowly come back to yourself. You hope sincerely that Astarion is all right. He isn’t so good at people.

Your frantic struggles have set you on a slow rotation, giving you a 360-degree view of your surroundings. You feel like a rotisserie chicken.

Looking around the space, you find that you are not alone. Suspended over the pit beside you is a gibbet, a narrow iron cage, inside which sits a fat, dark-haired woman dressed in rags. She’s watching you suspiciously through a curtain of lank hair. Something about her is terribly familiar. Your tadpole twitches behind your eye. It takes you a minute.

“You—you were on the—” You clear your throat. Make a good impression. “Hello there. Long time no …” You trail off as the trajectory of your rotation carries you away from her. Eventually she comes back into view. “… see.”

She says nothing, but her lip twitches.

You make another rotation and try again. “You were on the nautiloid as well, weren’t you?”

Her expression is something close to barely-contained hatred. She says nothing.

“Can I just say, I am so sorry for how that turned out. You know how it goes when …” You wait until she comes back into view. “… Say, I don’t suppose you could reach out and stop me spinning … Hello. I’m, well, as you can imagine, I’m a little uncomfortable … Hello again. So, as I was saying, I think you could just about reach if you put your foot through the bars … Hello. I’m Twill. How are you?”

“Alive,” says the woman. “In spite of your best efforts.”

“Now, that—really, I tried to get your pod open. I did. I wanted to, anyway. Look, seeing as—ah, balls … there we are. Hello again. What’s it like being right side up?”

A heavy door bangs open and half a dozen goblins file into the chamber. Two of them seem to be children, or at least younger than fully grown.

“Alright, One and Three, this is your first class, so I’ll go slow,” says the goblin man leading them. “Rest of you, good time to review. Torturing humans is a fine art. You can’t just flail away willy-nilly and expect to get anywhere. It takes finesse. Humans are relatively intelligent creatures, so there’s a psychological component you have to address if you really want to get results. Now watch this.” He leans in close to the man on the rack. “Morning, Brian. Tell me where to find the Grove, and maybe I won’t cut your nuts off.”

Brian is shaking with terror. “Please, Spike … I don’t know …”

“Wrong answer, rack meat,” says Spike. “One, get over here and turn the crank. Give him a good stretchin’.”

The young goblin named One gives it all he’s got. Brian’s shrieks bounce wildly around the chamber, making you wince. This is not helping your headache.

“Easy, easy!” shouts Spike. “You gotta keep him conscious, or he’s useless.” He leans over Brian again. “Did you like that, rack meat? Maybe you’ll tell us what we need to know now, eh?”

One of the teenagers raises her hand. “Um, Torturer Spike?”

“Eugh. What is it, Three?”

“Why is it we’re so keen on the stupid Grove all of a sudden?”

“That’s the drow’s business,” says Spike. “Our business is torture, not askin’ questions. Now get over here and stretch the human.”

Three doesn’t move. “So we’re just taking orders from the drow for no reason?”

“No, for the Absolute. Drow’s a True Soul, one of the Absolute’s own—that means we do what she says. That enough for you?”

“I don’t like it,” says Three, crossing her arms. “We used to be a proper socialist democracy, but ever since the drow showed up the whole tribe’s been takin’ a sharp turn into religious fascism. How’s that good for the collective, exactly?”

This garners some nods and murmured agreement from the rest of the assembled goblins.

“The drow ain’t even a goblin,” mutters one.

Shh,” says another.

“I feel like we could torture him better if we knew what we were after,” chimes in One. “Specifically, I mean.”

Torturer Spike considers. “All right. Look there, up at the cage. See that half-elf?”

The class turns toward you and the woman.

“Drow was chasing her down for a while,” says Spike. “She was supposed to have some artefact that’s important to the Absolute, see?”

Your crane your neck to stare at the woman, but she’s glaring resolutely down at the goblins and does not notice you.

Torturer Spike goes on. “We got her, but not the artefact. Drow thinks she left it with the druids but we can’t go get it ‘till we figure out where their Grove is. So. That’s why we got Brian here. He’s been working for the druids, see.”

A few of the goblins nod in understanding.

Three raises her hand. “Why don’t you just torture her?”

“Uh,” says Torturer Spike. “It’s—we’re saving her for the advanced class. Brian here’s much better suited to beginners like yourselves, yeah? Isn’t that right, Brian?”

Insight: success

You clear your throat. “‘Scuse me.” The goblins turn their bewildered gazes upon you. You wave. “Hello.”

“What the hells do you want?” demands Torturer Spike.

“Well, see, I couldn’t help but overhear.” You wince as pain shoots through your head; speaking eloquently is becoming a challenge. “Sounds like your lady in a cage is a tough nut to crack, eh? Sorry, sorry. I know you were trying to save face in front of the class, but, well, if you’ll forgive my intrusion here, I happen to be a dab hand at torturing myself.”

You have no idea if that’s true, but it feels right to say it.

“Who’s that, then?” says a goblin in the back.

“It’s Gribbo’s new bard,” says Torturer Spike.

“Why’s she storing him like that?”

“Don’t ask me, I’m not the bard expert,” says Torturer Spike. “She said something about keepin’ all the music from running to his feet. He’s here to sing, not dance, or some such. And it keeps the meat tender.”

A couple of the goblins make notes.

You smile at Torturer Spike encouragingly. “So, anyways, if you just go on and let me down, I can show you just how to get the information you need.”

“You must think I’m stupid.”

You point at the man on the rack. “Loosen that. Ease up on the pressure a little. It’ll feel better at first, but the retort from the release will catch up with him after a minute. It’s a new kind of pain, which is the important thing.”

Persuasion: success

Torturer Spike squints up at you, then says, “Go on, One. Try it.”

You and all the goblins watch with baited breath. Soon Brian is sobbing extravagantly. Torturer Spike turns to you with a wary respect in his eyes.

“There you go!” you say encouragingly. “Crying’s always a good sign.”

“I know that,” snaps Torturer Spike. “I’m the torturer here, not you.”

“Of course. Of course.” You glance up at the woman, who is definitely watching you now. You’re having that old itch, the feeling of an unsolved puzzle. There’s something here, some way to turn all of this perfectly to your advantage. You follow the feeling. “Though I couldn’t help but overhear—forgive me, again, it’s a small torture chamber—there seems to be some dissension in the ranks?”

“That’s none of your business, bard meat.”

“Of course not, none of my business at all. Far be it from me to pry into another man’s pockets. It’s your business what this drow pays you, not mine.”

Silence.

You clear your throat. “She does pay you, doesn’t she?”

“No,” says Three loudly. The other goblins avert their eyes and shuffle their feet. “She doesn’t pay anyone. She just orders us around in the name of her precious ‘Absolute’ and punishes anyone who doesn’t do what she says.”

“No,” you gasp. “What does she do to you?”

The others start to chime in. “Awful things,” says a goblin in the back. “She made Smyke eat his own toes last tenday.”

“She cast some spell on Gubbs, and he hasn’t been able to stop dancing since.”

“She made Polma feel bad about her size!”

“She … she …” This goblin has begun to cry. “She made me throw away my sketchbook.”

“All right, all right, that’s enough!” shouts Torturer Spike. “It ain’t our place to question what Minthara does in the name of the Absolute—”

f*ck the Absolute!” cries Three.

All the blood runs out of Spike’s face. “Now—listen. If she hears you …”

“She’s nothing without us,” says Three, turning to face the others. “We’re her whole army out here. Imagine how it’d be if we all refused to do her dirty work for her!”

“You should unionize,” you offer.

Yeah!” cries Three. “That’s what I’ve been saying!

“Shut up, Three, or you’ll get us all killed,” says Torturer Spike.

“Just because you’re a slave to the Absolute doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be,” says Three, folding her arms. “Come on. Who’s with me?”

“We’ll have to be careful,” says One. “Half the tribe converted already, and Priestess Gut—”

“What Priestess Gut doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” says a goblin. “We’ll just keep a low profile. Talk to people, like, find out how they feel.” He salutes you smartly. “Thanks, bard meat!”

“Any time. Good luck!”

Torturer Spike watches helplessly as his class files out of the chamber, murmuring to one another. “Ah,” he moans, “they’re going to get themselves killed. I hope you’re happy, bard meat. You cost me my whole crew.”

“Oh, you don’t need them,” you say. “You’ve got me.”

Torturer Spike wrestles with himself, then says, “I’m listening.”

Excellent.

“I’ll make our friend in the cage sing even better than I do.”

“I heard your singing,” says Torturer Spike. “That ain’t saying much.”

His death will be slow and painful.

“Go on,” you say. “You’re a good torturer, Torturer Spike. You’ve got a real command for pain, I can tell. Let me down, Torturer Spike. With the two of us together, we’ll crack her open like a walnut. Let me down.” You look up at the woman in the cage, then back at Spike. The grin that crawls across your face is not entirely your own. “What do you say?”

Chapter 27: Astarion Breaks a Promise

Summary:

In which Twill remains willfully enigmatic

Chapter Text

You’re getting tired of being in the ceiling. It was fun at first, but now you feel like a rat in the walls, scuttling around wretched and unseen.

Lae’zel goes quietly, to her credit. You follow from above as two bugbears lead her through the temple’s winding corridors. She has some common sense in her after all. Instead of kicking and screaming, she walks with purpose, every muscle taut. You can tell she’s waiting for an opportunity, and you respect her for it.

You begin to prepare yourself for the possibility that Twill is dead. Oh, you can bring him back of course, if the skeleton will treat with you, but what a pain! What a waste of bloody time. You would prefer if he could stay alive for more than five minutes.

At last, at the end of a long and lonely corridor, the bugbears pause outside a heavy door twice as tall as you. One of them knocks with force. “Open up! Got someone for the cages.”

“Release me,” says Lae’zel. “Or face the wrath of Creche—”

The bugbear slaps her. She spits a tooth into his face.

“Oooh, I like you,” you mutter.

A high-pitched voice issues from behind the door: “Who goes there?”

Perception: failure

Something about the tone. It seems. Familiar.

“It’s Randall and James, you nincompoop!” shouts the bugbear, banging on the door again. “Who the hells are you? Don’t sound like Spike to me!”

There is the sound of someone clearing his throat. This time the voice is even higher. “This is Spike’s assistant! Everything’s fine!”

“I’m here! I’m here!” This is a different voice. “Come in, Randy!”

“Spike? You all right?”

“I’m fi-AUUUGHH!” The reply trails into a shriek.

“That’s it,” says Randall, and heaves the door open.

You wait until they’ve gone through, then drop silently to the floor.

“What the hells is this?” demands Randall.

You peer inside.

Twill, barefoot and disheveled, is bent over a goblin strapped to a rack. The goblin, you note, seems happy enough to be there. He gives the bugbears an enthusiastic thumbs up, then screams in agony as Twill turns the crank again.

“Hello, gents!” says Twill cheerfully. “Don’t mind us. Just showing Torturer Spike here a thing or two about the subtle nuances of rack operation. Feel the difference there, Spike?”

Spike makes a weak noise of assent.

You stuff your fist into your mouth to stifle a bark of what is either annoyance or laughter. You aren’t sure which. On the one hand, Twill’s tendency to get himself out of situations without your assistance is supremely vexing. On the other, this may be the best thing you’ve ever seen in your life.

“Just … jus’ put her in there, lads,” wheezes Spike, indicating an empty cell grate with a twitch of his finger.

“Spike, what’s going on?” says James. “Why’re the prisoners out?”

Prisoners? A limp, bloody bundle of rags in the corner belies the rack’s previous occupant. You slip to the other side of the doorway for a better angle and spot a woman watching from the corner opposite Twill, obscured by the shadow of a slanted beam.

Lae’zel’s head whips around. The woman flinches. Twill stiffens. Then your tadpole jerks you into the storm of their thoughts.

the gith again, the gods-damned gith, why won’t she go die in a hole—

Astarion! Astarion is here!—

at last! I have found her! Glory to Vlaakith, the Artefact is mine—

For a fraction of a second your minds converge, then split apart. You stagger slightly against the door frame, but the bugbears seem to be none the wiser.

“‘S alright,” says Spike weakly. “He’s just … jus’ showing me a few …”

He takes a break from talking to cough up blood.

“There you are, Spike, that’s the spirit!” says Twill. He glances toward the door and back again. “Oh, pardon me. Where’s my manners.” With a flourish, he turns and bows to the bugbears. “Twill E. Cavander, at your service. I’m Gribbo’s new bard. And Spike’s new assistant, isn’t that right Spike?”

“Now … now just … jus’ hold on …”

“He’s tired,” says Twill.

One of the bugbears opens the cell and the other thrusts Lae’zel inside. She whirls and lunges at the gap, but she’s too slow, and the grate slams shut in her face.

“Release me,” she growls, gripping the bars. In the same moment her voice lances into your mind, sharp and startling: Istik! I know you watch. Assist me or face my fury. “Release me! I will rend your limbs from your body.”

“Well, that’s not much incentive, is it?” says Twill.

You press yourself to the wall outside the door, breathing hard. That was thoroughly unpleasant. You don’t want anyone inside your head, least of all a stranger.

No sooner do you have this thought than Twill barges in like a drunken ox. Is that you? Where are you?

You flinch. Outside the door. Get out of my head.

“Well …” says Randall. He sounds uncomfortable. “If you’re sure you’re all right, Spike …”

“Wait,” wheezes Spike. “I think … I think I’m done, Twill. Can you … let me down …?”

“Oh, you want down?” says Twill. “Down is what you want?”

“Yes … please …”

You have a sudden ominous feeling and draw your daggers.

Twill smiles coldly down at Spike. “No can do, my stout little friend.” He turns the crank violently, and the goblin shrieks.

Randall draws a short-sword with a shout of alarm. James lunges, but Twill whirls around and makes a sharp gesture with his hand. Spellglow pools in his eyes and his voice snaps like a bowstring: “De torno!

Your ears pop. A wave of crackling force bursts from Twill’s hand and blasts both bugbears off their feet. Randall falls on his shoulder and grinds to a halt at the edge of the pit, but James sails into the abyss with a descending scream.

“James!” wails Randall. He surges to his feet and swings wildly at Twill, who jerks clear of the blade with a bark of laughter.

You reverse your grip on your daggers and spring out of hiding. The gritty floor gives you the friction you need to clear the distance between you and the bugbear. He turns too late to stop you and your offhand blade pulls smoothly through the tendon at the back of his knee.

Randall crumples to the floor with a howl of pain. You come out of your crouch and pivot, ready for another strike, but someone else gets there first.

You pull up sharply and throw up a hand to shield your face as the woman from the corner staves in Randall’s head with a chunk of loose masonry. Blood and brains splatter across your freshly-laundered doublet. She keeps hitting him long after his head has been reduced to a spongy goo, then tosses the stone into the pit and stumbles backward, breathing hard.

For a moment the only sound is Spike moaning and crying on the rack.

You spread your hands in supplication. “And they say blunt weapons are overrated,” you say, smiling.

The woman wipes a smear of gore from her face. “Nobody says that.”

You hold your smile carefully in place.

Twill clears his throat. “Introductions? I think introductions are in order.”

“You think so, do you?” says the woman coolly. “Fine. I’m Shadowheart.”

“Are you sure that’s what you want to go with?” you ask.

“Something wrong with my name?”

“It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, darling.”

“Is that so?” says Shadowheart. “Why haven’t you done anything to fix whatever’s wrong with you, then?”

You blink, then laugh. “Oh, I think we’ll be great friends.”

“I don’t.” Shadowheart shrugs out of her filth-encrusted, bloodstained shirt and tosses it into the chasm. You raise your eyebrows at her immodesty. “I need to find my equipment. Thank you for freeing me, by the way. I suppose it makes up for your behavior on the ship. Now if you’ll—”

“I am Lae’zel of K’liir.”

You turn around. The gith is pressed to the cell door, holding the bars in a white-knuckled grip. Her eyes burn into you, wide and accusing. “I am Lae’zel of K’liir, Cleansing Blade of Kith’rak Voss, and I am here to reclaim what’s been stolen.”

Shadowheart raises her eyebrows and steps up to the grate. “What’s been stolen? You mean this?” She produces, through means you fail to see, a many-faceted object about the size of a walnut. You and Twill both stiffen and the shadow of a thought passes between you: Artefact. “No. I don’t think I will. And if I ever catch you following me again, I won’t hesitate to kill you.”

“Get your disproportionately-sized mammary organs out of my face,” spits Lae’zel.

“Gladly.” Shadowheart turns away and walks to the door.

“Where are you going?” asks Twill. “It’s crawling with goblins out there.”

“I’ll keep to the shadows.”

“There’s an orgy going on,” you say, steepling your fingers together. “I don’t think you want to join it. Exposed as you are.”

She gives you a hard stare.

“Come with us,” says Twill. “We can get you out of here in one piece.” You glance at him admiringly. He’s clever—if the two of you can get her to let her guard down, you can make off with the Artefact as soon as she turns her back.

“I appreciate the offer. I may even take you up on it.” She looks at you. “You came here of your own volition, didn’t you? Do you have any idea where they might keep prisoners’ belongings?”

“Ah, that reminds me,” you say, undoing the drawstring on The Bag and reaching in. “Twill, my darling, I suppose you’ll want this back.”

He gasps when you produce his lute, taking it from you with shaking hands. This man has an unhealthy relationship with his instrument. You aren’t in the business of judging anyone’s vices, but you feel a pang of discomfort when he looks at you with his huge, sad eyes and whispers, “Thank you.”

“Oh, it was my pleasure. I don’t know what they’ve done with the rest of your things, though. Or yours,” you add to Shadowheart. “All I managed to find was his lute and a lot of smokepowder.” You pat your Bag of Holding.

“Smokepowder?” says Twill sharply. “How much smokepowder?”

“Quite a lot, but there’s no way I’m letting you anywhere near it. I know your proclivities.”

“That’s fine,” muses Twill, gazing off into the middle distance. You can feel the gears of his mind turning, click-click-click. “That’s fine … Right. Let’s go talk to this drow.”

“What? No. No no no. We’re leaving.”

He looks at you shrewdly. “Did you find our … reading material?

Your lip curls. Did he scrape that out of your head, too? “Maybe. But I don’t see how we’re going to get it. The drow has it, and it’s well-guarded.”

“Not to worry,” says Twill. “I can get it for us. And I’ll get our things back, too. Trust me.”

“I don’t. I think you’re insane,” says Shadowheart. “But it seems I’m stuck with you for the time being.”

“I know just what you mean,” you say, “but he does have a certain track record.”

“And how will you ‘get me out of here in one piece,’ exactly? Maybe you can walk around as you please, but I’ve been a prisoner here for days. They know my face.”

“Oh, I have just the thing,” you say, reaching into The Bag and holding up one of the Scrolls of Disguise you took from the storeroom in the Grove. “See? We’re earning our keep already.”

Istik!” Lae’zel bangs on the bars. “Do not assist the half-elf. You know not what she carries: a stolen Artefact of my people. It is the only thing which can forestall your ceremorphosis until we reach our cure. Release me and we will kill her together.”

“Oh, please,” says Shadowheart. “She only wants it for herself. At least I’m willing to share … for the time being. Consider it repayment for your help—you can benefit from my Artefact so long as our interests align.”

Istik, do not do this!”

“Well, you’ve already tried to kill me once,” you say. “And you did tell me you were sworn to … how did you put it? ‘Exterminate the infected?’ Not the greatest of first impressions, I have to admit.”

“You swore on your honor!”

“I did. It’s a shame I don’t have any. Cheerio, darling.”

“What about him?” says Shadowheart, nodding at the goblin on the rack. She has to raise her voice over Lae’zel’s stream of githyanki expletives.

“Ah!” says Twill. “Yes.” He leans over the goblin again. “Hey. Torturer Spike. I have a secret to tell you, Torturer Spike.”

Torturer Spike whimpers.

Torture doesn’t work.” And he turns the crank as far as it will go.

Spike screams until his voice breaks.

“sad*stic, your friend, isn’t he?” murmurs Shadowheart as the three of you make your way back up the corridor. She now resembles a stout, heavyset drow with silver hair and ashen-grey skin, fully clothed once again in elegant, illusory attire.

“Oh, yes,” you reply, smiling at Twill’s retreating back. “He seems to be in especially rare form today, though.”

It unnerves you to walk so brazenly into the drow’s scriptorium after all your sneaking about, so you keep well back and let Twill take the lead. You shiver as the shadow of the Scrying Eye passes over you. The drow is bent over her desk, tapping her fingers against a rumpled scroll and frowning, and her head jerks up as you approach.

More visitors? I did not send for reinforcements. I was expecting no assistance from Moonrise until the Grove is dealt with.”

Reinforcements. That word has implications. This isn’t a single bored drow taking over a goblin tribe for sh*ts and giggles. This is an operation.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” says Twill, bowing. “My name is Twill E. Cavander, at your s—”

He breaks off with a gasp and shudders as the drow lurches into your minds, swamping your thoughts with an assault so overwhelming it almost drives the three of you to your knees. You clench your jaw and frantically throw up walls around your mind, but Twill stands tall and meets the onslaught with a smile, guiding Minthara’s awareness—you know her name now—away from you and onto himself before she can get a grip on your thoughts. He’s thinking of blood and torment and the death of the human prisoner in the torture chamber.

Minthara fixes her predator’s gaze on him. “You killed our informant. Why?”

Twill smiles dazedly. “Praise the Absolute.”

“In Her name,” snaps Minthara. “You have three seconds to explain yourself.”

“We’ve been sent from Moonrise,” says Twill. “There was concern over the delay in locating the Grove, so we came to assist with your … informant.” He matches her brisk tone almost perfectly.

“Is that so? You look like a prisoner yourself. What about you, sister?” She addresses Shadowheart. “You allow a human man to speak for you?”

Shadowheart doesn’t flinch. “I don’t have much patience for talk.”

“Hm. Delegation. I approve.”

“Your goblins are confused, True Soul Minthara,” says Twill. Heavens, he’s good at this. You nearly giggle with delight at the audacity of his ruse. “I was mistakenly detained on my arrival. Don’t worry. We worked things out. As for why I killed your informant … he was unnecessary. He knew nothing, and I don’t like to leave loose ends.”

Performance: success

“And the other?” demands Minthara. “For your sake, I hope you left her intact.”

“Of course,” says Twill with a shrug. “But you don’t need her. We both know she doesn’t have the Artefact, and she can’t tell you anything I don’t already know.”

Minthara looks at him sharply. So do you. What is his game, exactly?

“The Grove?” says Minthara.

“Not only do I know where it is,” says Twill, “I’ve been there myself.”

“What? How? I have been searching for weeks. I captured their archdruid, but he perished in animal form. Other efforts at torture have been unsuccessful.”

“Oh, I get around.” Twill smiles. “No one suspects a bard.”

“Spit it out, then,” says Minthara. “Where is it?”

Surely he wouldn’t. You don’t care about the refugees, but he does.

“The main gate lies about eight miles north of the old road that goes to the temple by the river,” says Twill. “Give or take. It’s deep in the woods, but there’s a game trail off the road that leads straight to it. There’s a clearing, surrounded by boulders, just at the base of a steep hill.”

Minthara is scanning the map spread across her desk. You’re staring at Twill with your mouth open.

“Yes …” says the drow. “Yes, I see. It’s well-hidden, but strategically placed by the waterside. Damn it all, why didn’t I send a scouting party along the river?”

“Don’t beat yourself up. You can’t see it from the river. It would be unwise to approach from that direction, anyway.”

“I disagree,” says Minthara. “The river is an obstacle, true enough, but a rear invasion is more likely to penetrate their defenses than a frontal assault.”

“Be that as it may about rear invasions,” says Twill, “you’ll have an advantage if you attack the front gate.”

“Pray, enlighten me.”

“Me. I’ve spent a couple of days among them already. They trust me. They’ll welcome me back.”

You sincerely doubt that, but you aren’t about to interrupt whatever web this bard is spinning. He seems to have Minthara hook, line, and sinker, but drow are not known for their gullibility. Is she truly so keen to trust a stranger, or is she more inclined to believe him because he’s infected—a True Soul, as it were?

“Send us ahead of your forces,” Twill continues. “I’ll open the way for you.”

His offer hangs in the air. Minthara drums her fingers against the desk.

“A decent plan,” she says at last. “If it succeeds we will be richly rewarded in the Absolute’s name. I am not overly worried about losses—we have numbers enough to overwhelm, even if it came to an extended siege. Now that we know the Grove’s location, our victory is a certainty.”

You’re feeling nervous despite yourself. If Twill’s intention is to double-cross Minthara at the gate, he’s failed to account for the fact that half the Grove’s protectors are currently slugs in a fishbowl. You’d be hopelessly outnumbered.

Minthara snaps her fingers at one of the bugbears standing guard. “You.”

“Geoff Perkins, milady,” says the bugbear eagerly.

“I don’t care what your name is. Escort these True Souls to the prison cache and see their belongings returned. I will have words with Torturer Spike about his hastiness.”

“You won’t need to,” says Twill, smiling. “We’ve settled our differences.”

She narrows her eyes at him. “Alive?”

“I wouldn’t kill your best torturer, True Soul Minthara.”

“Hm. Perhaps Balthazar has not dispatched a batch of idiots to me this time. That priest was insufferable. Very well, begone. I will muster our forces and see you three days hence at the main gate to the Grove.”

“One more thing,” says Twill. He’s pushing his luck. Even Shadowheart is shifting nervously. “I understand you have in your possession the Necromancy of Thay.

A beat of horrible silence passes before Minthara answers. “What of it?”

“You’re to give it to me.”

“For what purpose?”

Twill hesitates for a fraction of a second, inventing frantically. “For … Balthazar. Balthazar asked me to retrieve it.”

To your astonishment, this actually seems to satisfy her. “Impatient fool. He can’t be satisfied with my letters and so he sends a delivery boy. Fine—it’s useless anyway. As I have told him. Repeatedly. Be careful when you deliver it—he has a tendency to kill the messenger. Now begone.”

For the first time, Twill looks uncertain. “The book?”

“It’s too valuable to be carted around willy-nilly,” says Minthara. “I’ll entrust it to your care once we regroup after the battle, when you depart for Moonrise.”

That’s it, then. You’re locked into this, one way or another. You aren’t thrilled at the prospect of open battle, but you are thrilled by how much information this drow has given you. Moonrise, Balthazar, Absolute, True Soul … more proper nouns than you know what to do with. Your tadpoling, it seems, was part of a deeper plot, and it seems increasingly plausible that its instigators are not mind flayers, but some power more insidious.

Before long you, Twill, and Shadowheart are taking your leave—exiting, unthinkably, through the front doors. Twill is handsome once again in his maroon brocade cape, slender sword and lute crossed over his back. Shadowheart, still in her drow disguise, has placed her effects in your Bag of Holding for safekeeping. They should fetch a nice price the next time you return to civilization, you think with a small smile. You and the bard will probably need to kill her, which is a pity, but you have no room for hangers-on.

A familiar goblin stops you at the gate, calling out and running after you as fast as her short legs will carry her. “Pigeon! Pigeon!”

“Gribbo!” says Twill, turning.

Gribbo bends over and takes a minute to catch her breath. “I heard … I heard you were leaving …”

You and Shadowheart look on in bewildered silence as Twill kneels and takes her hands. “I’m a free range bard, Gribbo,” he says solemnly. “It wasn’t meant to be.”

She sighs. “I know … I know. I should’ve guessed you’d be a True Soul. I tried to get you what you needed! ‘It’s not healthy to separate a bard from his instrument,’ I said. ‘He needs proper exercise and enrichment,’ I said. They wouldn’t listen. I think they just wanted to eat you, Pigeon.”

“I suspect you’re right,” says Twill.

Gribbo buries her face in her hands with a sudden wail. “Oh, Pigeon, who’s gonna take care of you out there? Who’s gonna keep you fed and watered? Who’s gonna keep you up to date on your shots?”

“I’ll manage,” says Twill. “I always have. I think.”

Gribbo nods, then heaves a sigh and backs away tearfully. “Go—go on, then. Go on! Get out of here! Get!”

It isn’t until you are well on your way, halfway across the bridge spanning the gorge over the Chionthar, that Twill falters. He stops in his tracks and presses his knuckles between his eyes.

“Something wrong?” you ask.

“Headache …” He trails off, staring down past the twisted rope railing to where the river rapids break and swirl against the rocks below. His hands are shaking. “I hope she survives,” he whispers. “I hope she stays behind.”

Shadowheart casts you a curious glance. You shrug. You have long since given up trying to decipher his tumultuous moods.

The three of you follow the trail uphill into the woods, until the riotous unsteady drums fade to a distant thunder in the encroaching evening.

Chapter 28: Twill Builds a Fire

Summary:

In Which Astarion Has a Proposition

Notes:

Woman Regrets Embarking on Trip with Two Horny Freaks • Camping in Style: 1001 Things to do with Squirrels • Asshole Without Darkvision Contributing to Light Pollution • Single Man Desperate Enough to Consider Cannibal: “I already like biting in a nonsexual context"

Chapter Text

You do not reach your camp until full dark, after a hard upward hike. Your hands are twitching and your head is pounding, but you keep a stiffer pace than either Shadowheart or Astarion. If you don’t look at them, you won’t have to murder them.

Shadowheart has long since re-equipped herself and reverted to her true appearance: a thickly-built, enormously muscular half-elf a head shorter than you. She wears chain and half-plate in a style you’ve never seen. She’s also armed to the teeth and armored well enough to march straight into battle, so at least there’s no mystery as to whether she trusts you.

She’s very wise not to. But it won’t be enough to save her.

You clench your fists.

Go on. Live a little. Didn’t you have such fun today?

No. You did not have fun. You did what was necessary.

Whatever are you feeling so guilty for? Relax. That prisoner was half-dead anyway. The bugbears had it coming. And you loved it. Don’t deny it.

You just need to sit down and rest. Sit down and play your lute. You don’t feel like yourself again. You don’t know what yourself feels like. Yourself feels scattered like a fistful of sand.

“Well, here we are,” says Astarion, breaking your reverie as the three of you emerge from the underbrush into the crumbled frame of the ancient chapel. He does a little flourish and turn about the campsite. “Home sweet home. Until tomorrow morning, apparently.” He levels an accusing finger at you. “I can’t believe you just volunteered us for the brute squad without even consulting me. What exactly are you planning here?”

You feel a surge of pain shoot through your head and rub your temple, wincing. “It’s the best way to get safe passage to Moonrise.”

Moonrise? Whatever makes you think we’re going to Moonrise?”

You hesitate. The thought had not even crossed your mind until the words came out of your mouth. “The drow thought Moonrise is where we came from. Whatever’s been done to us, I think that we’ll find answers there.”

“All right,” says Astarion, a dangerous edge to his voice, “do you even know what Moonrise is?

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” you reply.

“Neither of you have a clue what you’re doing, do you?” says Shadowheart.

“I’m sorry, this is news to you?” says Astarion. He waves a hand at her to discourage any reply and seats himself beneath the willow growing from the disrupted flagstones at the center of the chapel, where he opens his Bag of Holding and begins pulling out books.

You whistle and a few dozen bright motes appear, drifting like lazy fireflies through the air above your heads and illuminating the chapel around you with unsteady bluish light. Magic has become easier the past few days, new spells coming back to you like half-forgotten melodies.

“What are you planning?” demands Shadowheart, turning to you. “I don’t pretend to have any love for the Grove, but you’re a little too comfortable with mass murder for my taste.”

“Oh please, he’s hardly murdered anyone.” Astarion’s face is hidden behind a leather-bound volume titled On the Inevitability of Moral Decay and its Benefits. “He could stand to be a little more proactive, if anything.”

“I have to say I’m not exactly thrilled by your company,” says Shadowheart. “A sad*st and a vampire. Wonderful.”

“Who told you I was a vampire?” says Astarion, glancing up from his book.

“Have you seen yourself?”

“No. I don’t get much use out of mirrors.”

“And you’ve just been travelling with him all this time?” she asks you. “Alone? Aren’t you afraid he’ll bite you?”

“Oh darling, we’re long past that,” says Astarion.

“We have an arrangement,” you say uncomfortably.

“It’s very intimate.” Astarion turns a page. “Besides, he’s the one you ought to be afraid of. He’s a cannibal, I’ll have you know.”

“I didn’t know it was human flesh,” you say.

“You kept eating.”

Shadowheart’s face passes through a wide spectrum of emotion.

You attempt to bridge the silence with some cheerful small talk. “What about you? What’s your story?”

“My ‘story’ is none of your business,” she replies. “And I’m not going Moonrise or anywhere else with a pair of freaks like you. Thank you for your help back there, but I think I’ll make my way alone from here on.”

“And go where?” asks Astarion idly. He doesn’t look up from his book, but there’s an edge to his voice. You understand why. If she leaves, she’s taking the Artefact with her, and you can’t let that happen. Your Urge trembles with excitement.

“Baldur’s Gate,” says Shadowheart. “That’s all you need to know.”

“Oh? How will you get there?”

“The High Road.”

Astarion clicks his tongue. “Shame. I rather liked you alive.”

“What do you mean?” asks Shadowheart suspiciously.

“The High Road is crawling with gnolls,” says Astarion. “You’ll never get through in one piece. Remember that poor soul the other day, Twill?”

“He came back in two pieces,” you say.

Shadowheart hesitates.

Insight: success

She’s scared. Not of the gnolls and not of you. Of being alone. For all her bluster about making her own way, she has no confidence in her ability to survive by herself. It’s why she accepted your help back at the temple, and it’s why she’s not going to leave you now.

Sure enough, she heaves a sigh and mutters, “Shadows preserve me. Fine. What’s the plan for this siege on the Grove? Are you really giving up the refugees?”

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

“Of course not,” you say. “Do I look like a monster to you?”

“You look like you haven’t slept in a tenday,” replies Shadowheart. “So you’ve set a trap, then. Very well, I’m with you. You certainly handled the drow aptly enough. It will be a relief to be rid of at least one of my hunters, and we can worry about the gnolls afterward.” She fixes Astarion with a hard stare. “But I’ll be sleeping in my armor. If you even think about biting me—”

“Darling, don’t be such a shrew,” says Astarion, closing his book with a snap. “Why would I bite you when I have a willing five-course meal right in front of me?” He gives you a sultry look. “And he is delicious.”

“Disgusting,” says Shadowheart. “I’m sleeping in the woods.”

She climbs through the crumbled old windowsill at the back of the chapel. Astarion waits for the clink of her mail to fade away and says, “I think she’s delightful.”

You don’t reply.

Your thoughts are tormenting you tonight. Every time there’s a lull in the conversation, every time silence creeps in, images of blood and horror grip you. You try not to dwell on them, but they hold you fast: Astarion with his guts laid open, decapitated, a fragment of crooked spine protruding through the ragged hole of his neck … the children of the Grove piled all atop each other, lifeless, limbs contorted in unnatural positions … as if the bloodshed at the goblin camp only whetted your appetite instead of satisfying it, as if the promise of open battle three days hence has made you ravenous—

“So,” says Astarion, jolting you back into the quiet night, “we’re to double-cross the drow.”

You nod.

“And have you considered the … obvious difference in numbers?”

You nod again. He waits. You say nothing.

He heaves a sigh. “Well then. Consider me reassured. Eugh—this is drivel.” He dumps On the Inevitability of Moral Decay back into the Bag of Holding. “Pointless, esoteric … ah, here we are.” He selects another from the stack beside him: The Curse of the Vampyr. “I love to see what they get wrong.”

The soft white lights dancing overhead give off no heat, and the nighttime breeze is frigid on your cheek. You wish for a fire but have no wherewithal to build one. The silence of the deep autumn woods is deafening. Desperate for distraction, you ask the first inane question that springs to mind: “Do you like to read?”

“No, I thought I’d just sit here and torment myself,” says Astarion, propping an elbow on the stack. “I’ve had neither time nor opportunity since before this mess began. It’s nice to return to some semblance of normalcy.” He pauses, then huffs as if his own words have amused him and begins leafing through the book.

You drift closer. He glances up and offers you his faint, thin-lipped smile.

“By all means,” he says, “join me.”

You do. His smile increases.

“You know,” he says, “I’ve been thinking about the … moment we shared the other day, when you so generously offered me your neck. I couldn’t help but notice how much you seemed to enjoy it. How you lost yourself. Your little … shakes of excitement.”

Your throat closes. You cough.

“Of course, those may have been convulsions as you bled to death,” says Astarion, “but I thought I sensed excitement. And then last night, you were so eager to forgive me for my atrocious behavior. It’s unlike me to lose control, but … well …” He clears his throat demurely. “You were my first.”

You frown. “You told me you’d fed on hundreds of humans.”

“Did I say that? I don’t remember saying that.” He licks his finger and turns a page. “I don’t blame you for inventing details. You are an amnesiac, after all.”

He could be right. Your brain is a leaky dam.

The two of you are interrupted by Shadowheart, who climbs through the shattered window and says tersely, “We aren’t alone out here. Someone’s pitched a three-story tent further down the hill.”

You and Astarion exchange a glance.

“Ah,” says Astarion. “Well, that’s …”

“It’s just Withers,” you say. “It’s all right. He’s a … friend.”

“Mummy, isn’t he?” says Astarion.

“I don’t know if he has any children. But he’s definitely undead.”

“We found him in a tomb and he’s been following us ever since.”

“And his name is Withers?” asks Shadowheart.

“Well, he never actually told us his name,” says Astarion.

“We sort of had to figure it out.”

“… I see,” says Shadowheart. She bites her lip, considering her next words. “None of you come anywhere near me.”

She climbs back out the window and vanishes into the woods again, this time heading uphill. The two of you wait in silence until she’s gone.

“All right,” says Astarion, smiling at you, “now that we’re alone—”

“If I was your first, what were you feeding on before?”

He pulls up short. “I—animals. If you must know. Boars, deer …”

Your tadpole twitches, drawing you toward his thoughts. You’ve shaken something loose. There’s a crack in the wall. And Astarion has given you so little about himself that you thrust in without a second thought.

there is no you. There is only the puppet, the wretch, the hungry animal. Your body trembles with revulsion but your hunger overrides all else, it wracks you day and night, the Master keeps you on the brink of starvation, depriving you until you are half-mad with thirst, and then he plucks away your will with only a word.

“Feed,” he says. And you do. You sink your fangs into a fat black rat. Its sour blood tastes like sewage, like sh*t. You choke as it runs down your throat, nearly vomiting, nausea overwhelming you, but you keep drinking, unable to stop, unable to deny the command of your Master, your own need—

The door to his mind slams violently shut, sending you reeling. You clap a hand to your forehead, grimacing, and involuntarily flinch from Astarion’s acid gaze. His lip is curled in a faint snarl, exposing the point of one sharp white incisor.

Then he readjusts himself with a sniff, face relaxing into a look of such cool indifference that you wonder if the anger was ever there at all. “There’s no need for that,” he says. “We’re all friends here, hm? I think we can trust each other without prying into one another’s heads.”

“And rats,” you murmur. “Boars, deer, and rats. You ate animals because you were forced to, not because you wanted to.”

“Yes,” says Astarion. Clearly this is not at all the way he wanted this conversation to go.

A silence stretches between you. You feel as though you’ve ruined things, spoiled an opportunity to make something more out of someone who has been nothing but a stranger to you. Then—

Wanting doesn’t come into it.” He says it so abruptly that it startles you. “When you become a vampire’s spawn, you lose your will. You’re less than a slave—you’re a puppet. Your master speaks. You react. It’s a very simple arrangement.”

“Your master being Cazador.” It’s an effort to hide your excitement. You want him to tell you more. You want to coax out his innards an inch at a time.

Cazador. Yes. He never allowed us to speak his name. I …” He sucks in a breath. His gaze has become unfocused and distant, and you realize he isn’t even speaking to you; he’s simply exposing long-shuttered words to the air. “I had been beaten near to death in the street. It was a mob of Gur unhappy with a ruling I handed down as magistrate. Cazador found me afterward and offered me immortality as a vampire. Seeing as it was a choice between that and bleeding to death in the gutter, I took him up on the offer.” His voice turns bitter. “I always was a poor hand at reading the fine print.”

If you were in the market for a slave, hiring thugs to beat your prospect to the brink of death and then appearing as a savior would probably be your first port of call. You choose your phrasing carefully. “It sounds like he had very good timing.”

“Yes, the thought has occurred to me more than once,” says Astarion. He examines his nails, feigning indifference. “That he might have been behind it all, I mean. Cazador is obsessed with power—not political power, per se, but power over people. He’s developed quite a talent for manipulation over the centuries. Tricking a few angry Gur into doing his dirty work would be child’s play for him.”

He frowns at his book, where an illustration on the facing page depicts a long-limbed figure in a bestial crouch, fanged mouth slavering. You look sideways at him. The bluish light gives his unnaturally white skin a stony glow. If it weren’t for the breeze stirring his soft hair, you might mistake him for a marble statue. You wish he’d give you some sign that he’s alive. A burp, a sneeze, a fart, anything to make you feel less imperfect and alone.

He senses you watching. “I’m not fishing for sympathy, by the way. You should know what we might be up against. Cazador won’t give up on my recapture just because we killed one monster hunter. We need to be careful.”

“You sound afraid,” you say, hoping for a crack in his facade.

“No,” says Astarion, “just cautious. I know him too well not to be—I belonged to him for over two hundred years. It was my duty to stock the pantry, so to speak. I would go out into the city and lure back the prettiest souls I could find.” A small smile creases his face. “I was very good at it. My reward for a job well done was a nice, putrid rat—but he kept us half-starved, so it was better than nothing. And of course, if I refused to feed, he’d have me flayed. Over and over. Again and again. Immortality tends to lose its flair after a while.”

Immortality. There is some relief in knowing Astarion is not as breakable as he appears, in spite of his spindly limbs and delicate features. If you want to kill him properly you’ll need a stake and the element of surprise, and you have neither. He’s safe from your compulsions.

Or you could enjoy him without fear of spoiling your fun early. Take him apart, put him back together, take him apart again. What a wonderful toy he would make.

You reach back and unhook your lute from its harness. As you begin tuning the first course, Astarion flashes you an annoyed glance.

“Lovely. Some accompaniment for my tale of woe?”

You pluck the strings one at a time. “It isn’t you. Playing helps when—it helps me stay present.”

It’s a hollow distraction. A child’s petulant denial of reality.

Astarion regards you impassively, then says, “I can’t help but notice that you seem … a little at war with yourself at times.”

“Really, now?”

“Yes, really now. You don’t need to be a slave to your compulsions, you know. Perhaps they wouldn’t torment you so much if you weren’t hellbent on resisting them.”

“I suppose you think I should give in?” A bitter note creeps into your voice.

“Yes! Play your vile hand for all it’s worth. Embrace it. So long as you aren’t embracing it in my direction, of course. Ho ho.” He leans in conspiratorially, his eyes alight with savage glee. “I’ve seen how powerful you can become when you allow yourself. How effective. Just think of what we could accomplish if you didn’t spend so much time wallowing in your own misery.”

Perhaps you can let him live a little longer.

“Take Shadowheart, for example,” muses Astarion. “She doesn’t seem too keen on travelling with us, and I’m not about to let that Artefact get away. We could keep her around and wait for the inevitable confrontation, or you could … close your eyes and do what comes naturally.” He taps his chin thoughtfully. “That armor looks expensive.”

You pluck a string so hard it snaps against the fretboard, making him jump.

“No,” you say. You would like nothing more. The pounding starts up in your head. You’re going to snap. You push it down. You smother it. It turns into nausea. “No.”

“It was only a suggestion,” says Astarion, waving a hand. “She’ll probably be useful in the battle, at least. We’ll need all the goblin fodder we can get.”

You can’t say anything because you’re busy thumbing a string as fast as you can. Astarion eyes you with vague pity, then closes his book with a sigh.

“It would be nice if you lit a fire,” he tells you. “I’m frozen half to death.”

Once you absorb his words, you rise mechanically, set your lute beneath the tree, and go around the courtyard gathering up branches and twigs. Astarion feigns a yawn and lounges against the willow. You make a little tent out of sticks and dry moss in the divot of last night’s fire, then sit back and wait expectantly.

“Oh, is it my turn?” says Astarion. “Fine, I suppose.” He raises his hand and flicks the air toward the tinder. “Ignis.

A tiny flame shoots from his fingertip and catches on the moss. By the time you’ve nursed the fire to a self-sustaining blaze, your headache has subsided. The newborn heat warms your face and the shivering flames darken the night. You allow your dancing lights to fade away, and Astarion becomes a pair of maroon eyes in a massless shadow. You wonder how he sees you. What name he might give you. What, other than hunger, he shares with you.

Sitting by the fire, you say, “Tell me more about Cazador.”

“Not tonight,” he says. “It’s far too precious an evening to waste on unpleasantries. Although … while we’re on the subject of vampires … I don’t suppose your offer is still on the table?”

Your chest tightens. Your neck prickles. “Offer?”

“Come now, don’t be coy.” He rises from beneath the willow and moves into the light. The night is so quiet you can hear his soft footfalls against the stone.

“Are you … thirsty?” you ask.

He gazes down at you with an implacable smirk. “Are you?”

The question throws you. “Well—not really, but I suppose it’s been a while since I had a drink. I could stand to be better about hydration, if I’m honest with …”

You trail off as Astarion pinches the bridge of his nose with a sigh.

“That’s not what I … aren’t you an innocent little thing. Let me try again.” He steps closer and offers you his hand. Heart fluttering, you allow him to pull you to your feet. “I was planning to keep this to myself, but … well, we’ve seen how my self-control can slip.” He brushes some dust from your shoulder. His hand lingers. “I enjoyed feeding on you. Not just your blood—you. You’re handsome, clever … generous … frankly, my dear, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you. And … I think you like me too. Don’t you?”

By now you’ve worked out what’s happening, but you have no idea what to do about it. You rifle frantically through your options.

Bite

Sneeze

Laugh

Knee him in the balls

Smile

You smile.

“I thought so,” murmurs Astarion. His touch on your shoulder has turned to the lightest caress. “You were so kind to offer me your neck, and how did I repay you? By acting like an utter boor.”

That’s one way of putting it.

“Let me make it up to you,” he says. “I think we both deserve a little fun after all we’ve been through the past few days. Opportunities for pleasure are so scarce on the road—where else can we indulge our lusts, if not in one another?”

Your body feels like one big heartbeat. This would be a good time to reciprocate in some fashion, but you can’t bring yourself to move. He has utterly disarmed you.

You fool! You shrinking coward! Take control!

You clear your throat. “Going to suck me dry again?”

His eyes flick downward. “Hmm … would you like me to?”

Assert yourself! Kill him and chew his nuts off!

“Try it,” you tell him softly, “and I’ll bite you.”

“Oh, you tease.” Astarion strokes the back of his hand against your cheek.

The sudden intimacy of the touch makes your breath hitch, and tears spring to your eyes for reasons you can’t explain. You blink them swiftly away. An emotion you have no name for is welling up inside you.

“It’s settled then,” murmurs Astarion. He doesn’t seem to have noticed. “We’ll take some time to ourselves, and I’ll give you a lovely distraction from your worries. If only for a night.”

Your mouth has gone dry. “Tonight?” you ask, teetering on the edge of panic. You can’t take much more of this feeling on such short notice.

“Eager, aren’t you?” says Astarion, missing your tone entirely. His heavy-lidded eyes wander your face, lingering on your scarred mouth. He leans in so you can feel his breath. You can taste his next words. “I don’t blame you.”

The feeling has alchemized into something tingly and transferred itself downward. Your lips part unconsciously.

Then, just as suddenly as he leaned in, Astarion steps away.

“But not tonight,” he says. “It’s late, after all, and you need your beauty rest. Good night, my dear. I look forward to our tryst.”

His abrupt withdrawal is like a rush of cold air. As you stand there reeling, he returns to his place beneath the tree and opens The Curse of the Vampyr again. He begins to read without a further word to you, unhindered by the dark.

You want to keep talking but you feel self-conscious, an emotion with which you are largely unfamiliar. He has already made it clear he often finds you irritating. He may be attracted to you—or perhaps he considers you his only carnal outlet—but you fear it wouldn’t take much for him to change his mind.

So you stretch out by the fire alone. It isn’t quite hot enough to warm you.

-

You are always surprised when you manage to fall asleep, but here you are. As your body rests, your mind burns. That’s all you are right now, a mind in a formless void. You would be afraid, but a song plays in the distance, one you haven’t heard since the adolescence you can’t remember. The voice singing it is yours, doubled, both your old voice and the new. It makes you feel safe.

This space is beautiful and bloodless. A plane outside of time. Your thoughts are clear, free of murderous ruminations. You turn toward the song and a hand reaches out from the emptiness, nearly solid, almost real. Its fingers are crowded with rings, its thick fingernails striated by thin white lines.

“I have been trying to reach you.” The voice is everywhere and all at once. “But you sleep so little. You aren’t making it easy for me, my darling. We must do something about your insomnia.”

He’s right. Daylight is already thinning your sleep. Your connection grows thin and tenuous, slipping away from your perception.

Who are you? you want to ask. Who am I?

You cannot speak, but he hears your questions anyway.

He only answers the first one.

“A Visitor,” he says. “A very old friend. Trust me.”

And you do, gods help you. You do.

Chapter 29: Astarion Does the Talking

Summary:

In which Twill prepares a new tune

Chapter Text

There is some difficulty in convincing the refugees to let you back in. Twill seems both disappointed and surprised, which baffles you because you saw this coming a mile away. You’ve tried to speak to him about it multiple times over the past couple of days, delicately, over meals comprised primarily of roasted nuts and boiled squirrels. None of your attempts have been productive.

You don’t blame Twill for being distracted. Your astonishing good looks and noble bearing have driven many a man to madness, and he was halfway to madness already before you started working on him. Really, he’s been your only source of entertainment during this horrible backtracking trudge through the wilderness. He is tremendously fun to tease. His gift of gab deserts him at the slightest sexual provocation—a flirtatious word, a suggestive touch, and he’s putty. Half the reason you haven’t bedded him yet is because watching him squirm with anticipation is almost certainly more satisfying than the promised act itself.

You’re also fairly sure Shadowheart wants to strangle both of you by now, which only adds to your delight. Although you would be more capable of enjoying yourself if your return to the Grove weren’t hanging over your head.

Last night you tried one final time to make him see sense. “Darling,” you said, while Twill and Shadowheart were engaged in the revolting human practice of chewing and swallowing, “I can’t help but worry that our welcome will be less than warm.”

“What makes you say that?” asked Twill with his mouth full.

“Just that you murdered their friend and ally in cold blood. Decent people tend to be vexed by that sort of thing, in case you weren’t aware.”

“Wait,” said Shadowheart, “you murdered one of the refugees?”

“No, he murdered that monster-hunting Gur. Laughed him to death, in fact. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was very sweet,” you added with a smile, savoring both Twill’s violent blush and the muscle jumping in Shadowheart’s jaw. “But I do worry that it might damage diplomatic relations.”

“Don’t worry,” said Twill. “It was dark out, so they probably don’t know that it was us. In fact, I doubt it will even come up.”

Typically you love to be proven right, but not when crossbows are involved.

A whole cavalcade of refugees are gathered on the rampart above the portcullis, including Zevlor and that hulking brute of a tiefling Wyll Ravengard keeps as a lapdog.

“Why did you kill Gandrel?” demands Wyll, shouting down at you. The air is suddenly full of the sound of crossbows priming.

You sidle into a safer position behind your stupid bard.

“Hello, Wyll!” calls Twill. “Nice to see you again. Remember me? It’s Twill!”

Ravengard sighs. “Hello, Twill.”

“Sorry we left on such short notice,” says Twill. “We were in a hurry. And you were shooting at us. What was that, by the way? Was that Magic Missile? I’ve never seen—”

“Answer the question, soldier!” shouts Karlach.

“Soldier?” Twill twists around to face you. “You hear that? She called me soldier.”

“Eyes forward, darling,” you hiss through your teeth.

“Right, right. Why did I kill Gandrel? Why did I …” He looks around again and whispers, “Why did I kill Gandrel?”

“Make something up!

“Well, you see,” says Twill, addressing the rampart again, “my friend Astarion here happens to be a vampire, and your friend Gandrel was a vampire hunter, so it was sort of an untenable situation all around.”

Really? We’re just telling anyone now?” you say, voice cracking.

“A vampire?” says Zevlor, thunderstruck.

“I knew something was off about you,” says Ravengard.

“No, no, he’s just a vampire spawn,” says Twill. “I know, scary word, ‘vampire,’ isn’t it? Big spooky bat monsters who creep in through windows and drink baby blood, that sort of thing. Astarion isn’t anything like that—Astarion. Astarion, show them.”

You meet his eager stare with incredulous rage. He nods at you encouragingly.

It seems you have no choice but to play his game. Clearing your throat, you smooth down the front of your doublet and step out from behind Twill with your hands raised. “Hello,” you say.

“Behold, the humble vampire!” says your bard. “Not scary at all, is he? Pale more in the sickly sense, but by and large just a man like the rest of us, even if he is a little long in the tooth, so to speak.”

With a monumental effort you arrange your face into a smile.

“Trust me, he’s almost completely harmless. Constitution of a lamprey. Two shots and he goes down, like that, he was about dead on the ground when I stepped in—”

“All right, all right!” you snap.

Shadowheart sighs behind you. “It’s true,” she says. “I’ve been with them for days and he hasn’t tried anything.”

“Hold on,” says Karlach, shouldering past Ravengard. “You’re Shadowheart, right? You left a few days ago. I remember you.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Shadowheart mutters.

“What in all the nine hells are you doing with them?”

“Necessity. There’s something you ought to know—”

“Right, right, I was just getting to that,” says Twill. “Well, there’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll leave it here. There’s an army of goblins and bugbears and at least one or two ogres coming this way to kill you.”

A frosty silence falls over the rampart. For the first time, you realize you have not heard any birdsong in several hours. The woods feel tense and hostile.

“By the nine hells,” whispers Zevlor, “they’ve found us? How?

In a sudden burst of foresight, you clap your hand over Twill’s mouth before he can get a word out. “Yes,” you say, “they’ve found us. Very unfortunate. They must have tortured your location out of some poor soul. Just be thankful that we got here in time to—ouch!

You snatch your hand away and inspect the crescent of tooth marks in your palm.

Twill smacks his lips. “They aren’t very good at torture, actually,” he says. “Probably they never would have found you if I hadn’t told them where you are. So, that all being what it is, can you please let us in?”

Eons pass. Mountains rise and fall in the intervening silence.

“Leave them out there to rot,” says Ravengard.

“Now—now just hold on!” you say. By now you’re wishing you were uglier, or at least not quite so charming. Your devastating allure has sexually distracted Twill to the point of insanity, but even if this is partially your fault, you are never going to forgive him for leaving you to do the talking. “Do you really think we’d give you up and then trek all the way back here just to get caught in the crossfire? For that matter, if we wanted to betray you, why in the world would we tell you about it?”

“He’s got a point,” says Karlach thoughtfully. “They’d have to be pretty stupid.”

“Exactly,” you say. “Therefore, the only plausible explanation is that what we’ve actually done is set a clever trap, and the drow and all her goblins are about to walk right into it. We’re here to fight for you. For you.” You clear your throat. You are in something close to physical pain. “My bard here happens to be the—the most dashing and brilliant strategist Faerûn has ever seen. Twill E. Cavander and the famous Blade of Frontiers, two heroes ready to save the refugees!”

Persuasion: critical success

It’s probably the salute that does the trick.

Twill’s eyes are shining. “I had no idea you thought so highly of me.”

It’s all you can do not to strangle him.

“With the way all the druids have holed themselves up like stinking cowards,” says Karlach, “I don’t know that we’re in a position to turn down any kind of help.”

“We would have had to deal with the goblins eventually,” says Zevlor heavily. He says everything heavily. You have never met someone so cowed by the sheer weight of his own gloominess, and you’ve spent the last two hundred years in the company of vampires. “It isn’t as if we have the resources to attack their camp. Can you fight, the three of you?”

“Yes,” says Shadowheart.

“Of course,” you say.

“In theory,” says Twill.

Zevlor is silent a long moment. Then he nods. “Open the gate.”

The Grove’s main cavern is even smellier than you remember, the stink of fear mingling with the putrid stench of many travel-worn and unwashed bodies. You appraise the refugees as frantic preparations for the attack get underway. They’re a sorry lot, almost all civilians, and there aren’t very many of them. You’re getting jittery. Twill better have something damn well miraculous up his sleeve, or all of you are f*cked. The refugees have evidently come to a similar conclusion, or at least you can’t think of any other reason for a crowd of them to follow him so reverently to the top of the rampart.

Standing above the gate, Twill props his hands on his hips and surveys the dense woods. “Well-hidden indeed! I’m glad I gave them directions. Look out there, to the South—”

“That’s West,” says Shadowheart glumly, as Karlach looks at the ground with a puzzled frown.

“—to the West, that’s where they’ll be coming from. No sign of them yet, though. That’s interesting. They were supposed to get here right after us.”

Maybe you’ve been an idiot to trust him. His confidence and bravado and your own desperation overrode your better judgement. If you die, it’s your own fault. But there’s hardly any point in worrying about it now.

Twill sits himself on top of the rampart and begins tuning his lute.

“Considering you’re the one who’s betrayed us all,” says Zevlor, “I think we’d be much obliged to hear your plan.”

All the tieflings wait patiently for him to speak. He plays all the way through a well-ornamented instrumentation of Mystra’s Magical Marvelous Mounds, omitting the lyrics probably due to the presence of children. You have never seen a more captive audience.

At the end he looks up, frowning, and says, “Applause is customary, you know. So is tipping. Anyone? No? Gods, you’re a somber bunch. Fine, here’s my plan: first, grab shovels and get to digging holes in front of the gate—as many as you can, as quick as you can. I’ll be checking your work. Save the dirt.” He plucks a descending arpeggio, then adds, “Aside from that, I can’t really think of anything that needs to be done. Eat a good meal. Take a nap, maybe. I have a feeling this whole thing will sort itself out.”

The way the atmosphere deflates around him is really something to behold.

“Should we kill him?” asks one of the tieflings.

“No,” sighs Zevlor, turning away. “We’re all going to die anyway. There’s no sense in wasting our energy.”

You wait until they’ve all abandoned Twill in disgrace, then join him on the rampart. His left hand twists and blurs over the neck of his lute, but he isn’t playing anything. He mutters to himself as he stares into the woods. “E to C-sharp minor to B to E again …”

“I hate to interrupt,” you say, “but what in the bloody hells do you think you’re doing?”

He jumps. “Ah—sounding out. I’m trying to remember how it goes.”

You peer at him. When you first met him, he was—not groomed, exactly. More preserved, like a Baldurian dignitary just prepared for burial. He even smelled faintly of formaldehyde. Now, after so long without bath or razor, he smells much more alive—that is, he stinks like an armpit—and his beard is crawling down his neck and over the clean-shaven gap across his chin, obscuring the scars etched into his freckled skin for some unknowable ritual purpose. His greasy black hair is constantly falling into his eyes, and he is constantly blowing it back with an absent puff of breath.

This man has tried you to the very edge of your patience more times than you can count, and yet, somehow, you’re still alive. As much as you hate putting your life in anyone’s hands, you’re glad that it’s in his. He may be the only person within fifty miles who has any idea what he’s doing.

But if there’s one thing you despise about him, it’s his utter failure to communicate. You reach out to tuck a strand of his disgusting hair behind his ear. He looks at you with a sharp intake of breath.

“My dear,” you say, “I can’t help but notice that you’re quieter than usual today.”

“The refugees. The tieflings. Do you think they trust me?”

“Of course n—” You bite off your reply. Don’t upset him. Sugarcoat. “They might be more inclined to trust you if you were more forthcoming about this marvelous plan of yours.”

“That would be counterproductive.”

“Ah, yes, of course, I see,” you say, unable to keep the derision from your voice. “Why?

Twill taps his eye. “Our friend Minthara has a tadpole, too. When your enemy can read minds, it’s best to keep your secrets from spreading. Ergo, anyone can know a little piece of the plan, but no one should know all of it.”

This had not even occurred to you. “… I see.”

“Besides, it’s better if they’re scared when the goblins get here. More convincing that way.” He gives you a smile so earnest it disarms you. “Don’t worry, Astarion. If all goes well, you won’t so much as get dust on your doublet.”

It takes you a beat too long to invent a suitable reply. “Thank you, but I wasn’t worried. I just want to make sure you’re not about to kill us all.”

Twill’s gaze flicks back to the woods. “They’re late. That’s good. The later they are, the better it is for us. But make sure they dig those holes. The holes are paramount. Five or six should do. And …” In what seems like an impulsive motion, he takes your hand and guides it to the Bag of Holding at your belt. You resist the impulse to recoil. “Remember what we picked up at the Temple of Selûne, hm?”

You take his meaning. “I’ll be sure to make good use of it,” you say, extracting your hand from his grip. Then you leave him and descend into the cavern.

You will give this to the tieflings: they’re hard workers. In no time they’ve erected rough palisades at strategic choke points throughout the cavern. Dammon, their only smith, has given away his entire stock and is cobbling together roughshod weapons as quick as he can swing a hammer. All over the cavern, the refugees converse in harsh whispers. Some are sobbing openly. You don’t see a single druid.

To your surprise, the portcullis stands open, and a group of them are digging holes in the clearing just as Twill advised. Desperation, it seems, breeds trust.

You loiter by a rock wall in a secluded corner, half in shadow, lest someone try to hand you a shovel. Your soft and delicate hands were not made for manual labor and you intend to keep it that way. Let them dig the holes; you’ll do your part when they’re done.

You’ve seen your share of murder, you’ve done dirty work in the dead of night, and Cazador loved to make his spawn fight to the brink of death for his amusem*nt, but preparing for open warfare is a new experience. You are not accustomed to an atmosphere of impending doom. Doom itself, yes, doom is an old friend, but it was a perpetual houseguest in Cazador’s estate and so you’ve not had much experience in preparing for its arrival ahead of time. Waiting for the drow’s forces to arrive is grinding your nerves to a fine paste, and watching the tieflings is making you profoundly sad.

Look at them all. A whole hamlet’s worth of spirits waiting to be broken. Throwing all their precious energy into pointless preparations. Don’t they know hope is a non-renewable resource? You amuse yourself for a while by imagining their inevitable painful deaths. She’ll have an arrow through the neck, he’ll be squashed by an ogre, those two devoured whole by worgs … Drow keep spiders, right? You add some spider-related gore to your imaginings. With all this promise of death in the air, Twill is probably on the brink of org*sm. Whatever he says, maybe organizing a massacre has been his plan all along. If that’s the case, you’ve underestimated his depravity—truly, no one does suspect a bard.

You realize you’re clenching your jaw. Somehow, irritatingly, this game has become distasteful to you. What’s the point of being a cruel and capricious creature of the night if you can’t smother your own conscience? Ah, well, perhaps you’ll have some satisfaction when they actually start dying; the pleasure of schadenfreude, to witness the moment hope dies and cold reality sets in.

“Psst!” says a voice behind you.

“What now?” you say, turning.

A pair of tiefling eyes blink at you through a crack in the wall.

Investigation: success

“Well, well, if it isn’t little Arabella.” You drop your voice to a whisper. “Still hiding from your poor, worried parents?”

“Is it true?” she asks. “Goblins?”

“Oh, yes.” You brush a speck of dust from your doublet. “Hundreds of them.”

“But there aren’t enough of us! We’re gonna die!”

“Maybe you should have thought of that before turning all the druids into slugs.”

“I don’t know how to turn them back.” Arabella’s voice breaks. “I need help.”

“And you’re asking me?” you scoff. “Little girl, do I look like a druid to you?”

Please! If I come out, everyone will learn what I did!”

“Come clean, Arabella.” You jump as Twill manifests at your shoulder. For someone who jingles when he walks, he has an unnerving tendency to appear out of nowhere. “The truth will come out whether you like it or not.”

“Do you mind?” you say, but he has already drifted away.

“He creeps me out,” says Arabella.

“Good. That means your instincts are working. Now, scurry on. Away with you.”

“I can’t come clean. They’ll all … they’ll all be so angry…”

“Chances are they’ll all be dead.”

“C’mon, please! You’re a vampire—I overheard everything! You’ve gotta know some spell, or … or something …”

“Hm,” you say. “Yes. I think I have a spell for you. Would you like to hear it?”

“Yeah, quick!”

S-C-R-A-M.”

Her eyes fill with tears and she at last removes herself from your presence. You frown after her, tapping your fingers against your cheek. Then you set off across the camp.

You find Wyll Ravengard in a sandy hollow at the back of the cavern, giving a small group of tiefling children a useless last-minute lesson in self-defense.

“Remember,” he tells them. “This isn’t about heroics. You just need to buy enough time to run. Mister Zevlor has agreed you’re all to have knives, but they’re a last resort only. Have you got that?”

“Oh, please,” you drawl. “If the goblins break through the gate, it’s over for everyone—you and me included.”

Wyll gives you a look that could cut granite. “Don’t listen to him,” he tells the children. “There’s always hope, no matter what.”

“You’re doing them a disservice,” you say. “They ought to know what’s at stake.”

“You would know a lot about stakes, wouldn’t you?” says Wyll acidly.

“Ooh, very witty. Bravo.” You show your appreciation with a two-fingered clap. “Actually, darling, I was hoping to pick your brain. Not literally, of course. I have worms enough of my own.”

Ravengard has the discipline of a saint and the backbone of an ooze. You watch a hundred violent impulses cross his face before he tells the children to keep practicing without him, then draws you away to the edge of the hollow.

“If you wanted to make yourself useful, you could pick up a hammer and—”

“I’m already risking my life to be here,” you interrupt. “What more could you possibly ask for? No, I was wondering whether you’d made any headway on our little … slug problem. It would be nice to have a few spellcasters on our side.”

Wyll’s expression is answer enough. “I suppose I shouldn’t ask if you found Halsin on your travels.”

“Not exactly,” you say, recalling Minthara’s account.

His look turns dour. “Ah.”

“There is something you could help me with, though. That is, if you’d like for us to survive this little ordeal.”

He eyes you suspiciously. “What do you mean?”

Being a vampire of subtlety, this is not the sort of idea you would typically put forth, but simple is better than subtle in certain cases. You take The Bag off your belt and toss it at his feet. The impact makes the stalactites tremble.

“What the hells is that?” asks Wyll.

You smile at him, showing every tooth. “The plan.”

It takes half an hour for you and Ravengard to lay everything out in the clearing. Wyll fills in the holes, taking care not to pack the dirt too tightly. You follow in his wake with an armful of leaves, which you scatter over the churned earth to disguise it. The whole while Twill sits atop the ivy-decked rampart, legs dangling in the air, playing some sweet and wistful tune.

Wyll asks you what exactly is the matter with him.

“I have absolutely no idea,” you reply in consternation, because it’s the truth. He has given you very little to work with. Being near someone like Ravengard, who shouts his morals from the rooftops, makes you realize your vexation with the bard. You wish you understood him better. It’s a surprising impulse. You rarely try to understand anyone, for the same reason most people rarely try to understand a roast beef sandwich—it’s gone almost as soon as you make its acquaintance. “I’m not sure he knows, either. Half the time his head seems fully empty, and then he goes and saves your life.”

As you set out your finishing touches, you hear something that makes you and Wyll stop and stare into the woods.

The sound of approaching drums in the distance, like rumbling thunder. All the birds, being smarter than you, have quit the area, and even the sun has hid behind a cloud, dampening the warm yellow-green light to something more dreary and grey.

“They’re coming,” says Wyll.

“They’re late,” you say thoughtfully.

The cavern is deserted. You and Wyll follow a dull arrhythmic banging into the sheltered glade of the enclave’s inner circle, where a scene is unfolding. Karlach is hurling everything in reach against the inner sanctum door as Zevlor and Shadowheart and a crowd of refugees look on.

“Come out, you cowards!” she roars, hoisting a priceless figurine over her head. “Come out and fight, you pacifist tree-hugging f*ckers!”

No one is more surprised than she when the ancient door issues a loud crack and slides shudderingly upward in a hail of gravel and dust. A tiny, terrified figure stands just inside, dwarfed even more by the great rectangle of the doorway.

A woman in the crowd lets out a cry and claps her hands to her mouth. “Arabella!”

“They let you go!” says Zevlor. Then, “Mol?

The girl with the eyepatch appears at Arabella’s shoulder, glowering like an angry watchdog. “Mister Zevlor can come in. Nobody else, got it?”

A few minutes later, Zevlor emerges from the inner sanctum with the look of a man only moments away from pushing an icepick into his prefrontal cortex. This isn’t much different from his usual expression, so at first the tieflings don’t realize that something has gone horribly wrong.

“We’re on our own,” he announces.

As groans of despair go up all around the glade, something sends a chill down your spine and lifts the hair on your neck. The feeling spreads through the crowd, silence falling in stages until you realize what first piqued your attention.

The drumming has stopped.

“They’re here,” says Zevlor.

Chapter 30: Twill's Plan

Summary:

In which Astarion dirties his doublet

Notes:

Special Feature: The Faerûnian Fire Prevention Society's Special Message About Responsibility • New Local Performer Receives Incendiary Reviews • How to Kill a Clown: One Drow's Search for Knowledge

Chapter Text

The goblins are gathering in the woods. They’re crouched in the shadows of the talus, they’re assembled in the dappled gloom beyond the clearing, they’re hanging in the trees. Low growls and rumbles and rustles in the woods promise other things: worgs, ogres, and bugbears, oh my. Awaiting some signal, they do nothing but watch. Your music does little to alleviate the pregnant stillness, but you hardly notice because you are embroiled in an argument with yourself.

Those wretched castoffs from Avernus do not trust you.

Taking into account your overall disposition, that’s probably for the best.

They also don’t respect you. Worse, they don’t fear you. You should rectify this.

You can do without fear.

The spawn does not respect you either.

Wait—he doesn’t?

He told you as much. Can’t you see he’s only willing to bed you out of pity? Vampires are gloriously cruel, bloodthirsty things. You could be perfect for each other if only you’d embrace your nature, but no, you insist on pissing away your talent to play out-of-tune chords on a subpar instrument. Grow a spine and command some respect for yourself, you intolerable clown.

That’s a little uncalled for.

Your charade is uncalled for. Twill Cavander is nothing. No one. But you—you could be great. You have already orchestrated a glorious slaughter today! Make it complete! Slay the refugees. Slit Zevlor’s throat. Strangle the so-called Blade of Frontiers. Delicious betrayal. Delicious death.

“Their screams will be a glorious harmony to the crescendo of my triumph,” you mutter.

Astarion raps on your forehead. “Hello. Can Twill Cavander return to the building, please?”

You glance up, stiffening. Somehow you have missed the arrival of the refugees atop the rampart. Those who fancy themselves marksmen have primed their crossbows and strung their longbows, but their attitude of general despair is entirely the wrong one to bring to a battle. Zevlor and Wyll walk among them, dispensing encouragement,

but the fact remains these fools have no faith in you, and isn’t faith vital to your plan?

Shut up.

You look at Astarion pleadingly. “Did you finish in time?”

“It’s done,” he says. He crouches next to you behind the cover of the rampart. “I hope that wasn’t your entire plan, by the way. If they don’t position themselves just right, this whole rotten endeavor will have been for nothing, and I am not dying for a handful of filthy refugees.”

“I don’t think—” You clear your throat. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a battle.” The full truth is that you are not sure you’ve ever been in a fight, unless you were the only one armed, and the opponent was looking the other way.

“Neither have I,” admits Astarion. “Won’t this be fun?”

Your plan, up to now, has been to follow a fine thread of intuition through a series of unorthodox decisions, stumbling confidently toward a future where everything turns out in your favor. Now the great potential soup of future has boiled down into the hard and horrible nugget of present, and you’ve realized that your brilliant plan is more of an insane gamble. Things may not turn out in your favor. It’s actually quite possible that you’ve killed everyone.

You say that like it’s a bad thing!

Ah, but self-doubt wins no battles. “Do you trust me?”

“Eh, trust isn’t really in my repertoire. In my line of work—”

You waggle your eyebrows. “You ought to trust me.”

Astarion sighs. “If I didn’t, I’d have jumped into the Chionthar and swum halfway to Baldur’s Gate by now. There, happy?”

“So you do know how to swim.”

Insight: success

He’s holding back a smile.

You grimace as an ice-cold pressure invades your mind, accompanied by a tremendous wave of chattering and shouting from the woods all around you. True Soul! I have come to claim this Grove in the name of the Absolute! Be ready for my signal to open the gate, as you promised.

This is it—the moment where you will see, in nothing but a glance, whether the first part of your plan has worked or not. You peer over the rampart.

Atop the mossy rock formation at the edge of the clearing, Minthara appears in a spray of swirling mist. She cuts a severe figure, ramrod straight and stiffly at attention, arms clasped behind her back and the uncompromising lines of her face set in a laser-focused glare. Her armor is drow-crafted leather; a silver-tipped mace hangs from her hip; her white hair is bound in a tight bun. She’s dressed for war. You’re dressed in an embroidered doublet.

But despite this your heart leaps, because the forces arrayed behind her are pathetically sparse compared to the numbers you saw at the temple. Either Minthara is extraordinarily confident in the martial ability of her chosen minions, or—

You get into character and reach back out to her. Your ranks seem a little thin, True Soul Minthara. And you’re so much later than you said you’d be. Did something … happen?

She doesn’t betray your conversation with so much as a twitch. There was a complication. It will be dealt with. It is no matter. With that, she shuts you out and calls across the clearing, “I am Nightwarden Minthara! Your Grove is surrounded; your Archdruid is dead. Surrender to me now, and your deaths will be swift.”

You wriggle back into her thoughts like a happy eel. Yes, but, what’s the complication? It’s just that, well, I expected so many more goblins and ogres and things …

Enough. We will discuss this later, she replies. Aha, there’s the twitch.

Poke. Poke. Only I’m so curious, Nightwarden Minthara. Was there a mutiny? Did they all keel over dead? Oh, I know, you couldn’t get them to go to war on account of the orgy—

“They’re on strike!” snaps Minthara, making everyone jump.

Her gaze fixes on the spot where your nose pokes over the rampart. The wretched things have unionized. I tell you, it’s no matter—we have strength enough to prevail. Now! She thrusts a fist into the air. “Denizens of the Emerald Enclave! Do you surrender?”

Wyll draws his rapier and steps to the edge. “Never.”

“Very well,” says Minthara with a cruel smile. “Your deaths will not be brief.” True Soul—it is time. Open the gate!

You look at the mechanism to raise the portcullis and nearly burst out laughing. The wheel would take one strong tiefling or three Twills to operate, and everyone on the rampart can see it. Minthara has not thought through the logistics of this. Fortunately, you haven’t made the same mistake.

You have them in the palm of your hand. This is not Minthara’s voice, but your own. All you need to do is turn on them here, and they’ll break and scatter. They’re dead standing up, and they all know it. Your brain-blood pounds, your bloodlust congeals, you are a wretched force of nature feared from the Abyss to the hells and back—

That’s enough of that. You have had it up to here with yourself.

Twill Cavander is not prone to embarrassing monologues about death. Nor is he some sad sack of piss stumbling about in the wilderness with a lute he hardly knows how to play, no. He knows exactly where he’s going and what he’s doing. He has a plan. He’s handsome. He has impeccable fashion sense.

Twill Cavander is a hero.

Twill Cavander is a bard.

You reach out again. Mind if I take this conversation outside, Nightwarden Minthara?

I beg your pardon? she replies.

“Right,” you say aloud, tucking your lute under your arm as you rise, “considering I’m the one who’s betrayed you all, I think I should be spokesperson here. Firstly, we will not be opening the gate at this time. Sorry, Minty.” You strum your first chord. It’s perfectly in tune. “Secondly, I have no interest in a parley with what may be Faerûn’s most constipated drow. Or do you all look like that?”

“Like what?” barks Minthara.

“Like you’re trying for dear life to hold in a big sh*t.” You strum your second chord. It shivers through the Weave. “I’m speaking to the goblins now. Hello, goblins!”

“What’s he doing?” says Wyll.

Astarion shushes him.

“And hello, bugbears! Ah—and don’t think I’ve forgotten you, ogres! Welcome, yes, welcome. So glad you all could make it to this evening’s bloody siege.” You keep playing as you speak, so your music winds around the clearing and up and down the rampart. “Some of you may recognize me as none other than Gribbo’s devoted free-range bard! Please, keep your applause to a minimum. You may wonder what I’m doing up here with the enemy—well, the truth is quite simple, my dear devoted legions!”

The goblins in the woods are all spellbound by bewilderment, which buys you a few more sentences—and a few more chords. The music’s in your bones now, and it’s getting into theirs.

“For you see, I am not your enemy at all: my true name is Twill E. Cavander, True Soul of the Absolute! I have been sent directly from Moonrise by her Chosen to claim this Grove in Her name—and to Relieve this Incompetent drow from her Duty.” You don’t know what half these words mean, but they sure sound good. Those goblins loyal to the Absolute must see you as an authority, a leader, and you sense there is enough discontentment among them to discredit Minthara easily.

And she knows it. She knows what you’re doing. She nearly pops a vein.

“Enough of this!” she shouts. Traitor! “Shoot him!”

“That will do, Minty!” you shout back. You hop onto the rampart, strolling back and forth along the narrow ledge as you strum. “Well, go on! Shoot me if you like, lads! Go on now, I’m wide open!”

No!” A lone goblin breaks out of the woods and tears past the mossy rock. She seems not to notice upturned earth and scattered leaves near the base of the rampart, but Astarion tenses beside you as she comes close. “No! Nobody hurt him! That’s my bard! That’s my Pigeon!”

Your heart sinks a little. “Oh, Gribbo, you came! I’m so glad to see you!”

“Pigeon, what is all this?” she cries. “Did you come to replace Minthara?”

“That’s right, Gribbo, I am no humble Bard! Forgive my Deception and Disguise, for I’m one of the Absolute’s own, and not only have I been sent to Capture this Grove—I have already Succeeded!”

“Nonsense,” says Minthara. “You have—”

“Natter, natter, natter. Haven’t you all had Enough of her prattle? True Soul this, True Soul that—no, False Soul, I say! I captured this Grove without any Help from her, and it only took me half a morning. The people assembled behind me are my thralls. They Serve me as I Serve the Absolute, but you don’t need to take my Word on it. Behold.”

You strum a complex and impressive-sounding series of notes and turn to face the refugees. In the most commanding tone you can muster, you shout, “Lay down your arms, the lot of you!”

At first no one reacts, and for a moment, you’re certain that your plan has failed and you are about to suffer the most embarrassing death ever devised. But then Wyll Ravengard, glancing from you to Minthara to the dark shadows of the goblins arrayed in the woods, steps back from the edge and throws down his rapier. His single eye locks on you and you feel the shadow of his thought: You had better know what you’re doing.

One by one, the tieflings drop their weapons. Karlach lays down her axe with the same care as someone putting a baby to bed.

Heart pounding, you turn back to the clearing. “See! In a Moment you’ll be able to come in and Kill as many of them as you like—they won’t even Resist you! Come out, friends! Come out, the Absolute’s own best soldiers! Leave False Soul Minty to her tantrums and gather before Me!”

“Nobody move!” barks Minthara. “The first to move is the first to die!”

Tut tut, Minty,” you say. “Are threats really the way to go?”

Her threat is redundant anyway; the goblins and bugbears emerge from the woods as one, galvanized by your words and your music, which reaches a frenetic tempo as it wends around the clearing. There’s a visible shimmer in the air. Minthara’s forces surge toward you, rattling their weapons and cheering, and Gribbo looks adoringly up at you, crying, “I’m so proud of you, Pigeon!” and as they flow around the mossy rock Minthara notices the churned earth below the gate and at last you see the shadow of fear on her unrelenting face.

“Stop, you fools!” she shouts. “Stop!” But it’s too late.

You pluck three quick notes, one two three, and the magic in the air reacts.

Many of the goblins stop dead in their tracks. Some stumble and fall, while others halt standing up, swaying unsteadily. The only ogre among them falls and crushes two of her fellows. Even Minthara is caught in your spell; she sways, eyes glazed, shaking her head to clear the fog from her mind. You don’t let up for an instant. Your hypnosis will hold as long as you maintain your chord progression, and you only need to keep the goblins in place for a few seconds.

Yes, yes, yes!

For once your disparate selves are in concert with each other.

Astarion raises his arm, flame swelling around his hand. “Ignis!

His firebolt strikes a small sackcloth bag left innocuously near the base of the mossy rock. It ignites. You throw an arm around Astarion’s shoulders and drag him behind the shelter of the rampart. The tieflings dive for cover.

A violent burst of blinding light throws the world into monochrome. An instant later, the noise boxes your ears and makes your bones shake. You hardly have space to take a breath before another, even larger explosion rocks the clearing, then another and another, as each buried cache of smokepowder ignites.

As the explosions fade away, a profusion of goblin paraphernalia showers the clearing. Ears ringing, you squint through billows of oily black smoke. Scorched breastplates and dented helmets bounce off the rocks with discordant clangs. Piles of viscera slap the ground. A severed head rolls down the slope of the crater and comes to rest facing you, skull exposed, skin half-scorched away.

Doesn’t it ache? Isn’t it sweet?

“Oh, Gribbo,” you murmur.

There is a hullabaloo behind you as the tieflings emerge from cover and a shocked silence as they behold what you have done. Then they start to cheer.

Gribbo’s skull grins up at you.

Slowly, you grin back.

Someone screams. Astarion seizes your shoulder, jerking you to attention. “We need to go.”

“Rather generous with the smokepowder, weren’t you?”

“I don’t do half-measures, darling, now shut up and look.

It’s hard to see, so you hear it first. Shouts, whoops and jeering screams, the rattle of armor, the thunder of footsteps. The sound of goblins.

“How did they get through the gate?” shouts Zevlor.

“They didn’t,” you whisper. “They came over the river.” Minthara must have split her forces. The assembly at the gate was a test—the rear invasion was insurance.

“Oh dear.” Astarion’s voice has risen an octave. “What now, wise leader?”

You’re frozen with shock. You have no idea how to react. You didn’t plan for this.

Astarion jumps to his feet. “Give me that longbow,” he says, snatching it from the hands of a tiefling girl and shoving her aside. “You don’t know how to use it.” Gritting his teeth, he draws and fires. A goblin in the cavern falls down dead. Astarion nocks another arrow.

Then Minthara appears out of thin air on the rampart. She is singed and incandescent and her eyebrows are gone. As she takes shape, she comes directly for you. Coward! I suspected you might turn—but I am not so easy to fool!

You have a fight on your hands after all.

25 23 21 19 19 18 16 16 16 15 14 14 13 13 13 11 11 10 9 7 7 4 3 2 1 1 1

Commence.

Chapter 31: Astarion Bravely Runs Away

Summary:

In which Twill overestimates his prowess

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

When Minthara appears on the rampart and lunges for Twill, you spin around and loose your arrow at her. It sails into oblivion. You don’t take it to heart—you haven’t had cause to use a longbow in some 200-odd years, after all.

All along the rampart, the tieflings are picking up their arms; Shadowheart, who stayed in the cavern so as not to be recognized by the drow, is running hellbent-for-leather away from the swarm of goblins and bugbears pouring in from the inner Grove. You hear Karlach loose a bone-rattling scream.

Twill throws himself out of the path of Minthara’s mace, which buries itself in the rampart inches from his head. Woodchips fly. She jerks it out and pursues him. Twill crabs backward on all fours to get away from her, his lute going twing ting twang, stammering, “Now—hold on, Minty, we can talk about this—”

Wyll Ravengard’s voice booms out. You catch a glimpse of his free hand snatching at the air, and the curvature of his horns against the sky, before darkness floods over the top of the portcullis. You recoil with an instinctive hiss as your vision fails completely. You have never known such darkness. Your ears twitch in all directions, suddenly overwhelmed by sounds: Minthara’s boots thudding against the planking to your right, Twill’s stupid lute pinging off to your left, the distant clanking and howling and screams. The stench of sulphur stings your nose.

You glimpse the shade of Ravengard charging past, his red eye like a streamer in the dark, and realize he can see just fine. The power of the hells—the power of a pact with a devil. You ought to have taken him more seriously.

Desperate to get away, you pick a direction and scramble blindly until you find the edge of the rampart and emerge into a late evening sunburst. There’s no sign of Twill or Ravengard or the drow in the black cloud behind you, but you feel no safer in the open than you did in the dark. Arrows are flying everywhere. The shrieks and clatter of war batter your sensitive ears. You weren’t made for open battle, you have no interest in honor or glory, and Twill was not incorrect about your constitution. Your heart feels caught in your throat. You’re choking. It’s over. You’re as good as dead.

A tiefling hits the planks right in front of you, contorting in mortal spasms. There’s an arrow embedded in the hollow of his throat, neat as a pin through a butterfly. Blood fountains from a severed artery and splatters your face.

Hunger rips you open. It’s all you can do not to fall slavering over the poor wretch, and for a moment you’re frozen, rigid, watching the light leave the tiefling’s eyes and screaming at yourself to move. You—

stumble around waving your arms as if that might dispel the darkness. Where is Astarion? You can’t find him. Then Minthara’s blow grazes your calf and pain rips all the way up your leg. The pain, shocking. The wound, more so. The blood—

—has slowed to a trickle and now the tiefling lies dead. You snap back into yourself with a gasp, your eye throbbing as the tadpole thrashes in your skull. Twill seems incapable of staying the hells out of your head, damn him. Then the smell of his blood hits you like a brick to the face. You recognize it; it’s unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.

And he’s wasting it.

You jerk the arrow out of the dead tiefling and turn to face the cavern. At least twenty goblins, at least forty, are charging toward the rampart. Nothing like the hundreds it could have been, thanks to Twill’s gambit, but you’re still outnumbered and there’s nothing between them and you. There’s a hobgoblin with them, and according to the jagged crown on his head, he’s the usurped leader of the tribe. He’s looking the other way. You have a clear shot to his throat. And you’re not as good as dead.

You’re better.

Your arrow punches into the hobgoblin’s neck from fifty feet away. He staggers sideways with a howl, then folds to the ground. Many goblins look around with alarm, and one of the bugbears lets out a vehement, “f*ck!

A severely old goblin that has no place being in a combat situation springs to the hobgoblin’s side. She waves a staff and cries an incantation, and then all the torches in the cavern gutter at once. The hobgoblin rolls over, pulls the arrow from his neck, and rises to his feet.

Oh, that’s not fair.

“They have a cleric!” shouts Zevlor. He stands at the far end of the rampart, calling orders to his people. The main way onto the rampart is an incline of sloping earth winding up between the rocks. The tieflings had the foresight to block the path with a rough palisade, and as the goblins at the head of the charge reach the incline, Zevlor plunges down the slope and fills its narrow opening with his own body and shield.

If he wants to die a hero, that is just fine by you. He won’t be able to hold them off for long, but there’s enough meat between you and the goblins to buy you some time before you have to run. You aim your next shot at the old cleric. You miss.

Karlach lets out a howl and leaps off the rampart. She bursts free of Wyll’s darkness and for an instant seems to hang in the air, sunstruck greataxe arching overhead, wisps of black clinging vainly to her limbs and pale fire lapping at her shoulders. You hear a mechanical chunk-whirr as the mechanism in her chest turns over.

Then she slams into the ground on both feet and charges the goblins massing at the palisade. She swings her greataxe down and back in a full circle, gathering momentum, and on the second rotation she cleaves into a goblin with such immutable force that she bisects him from shoulder to waist. He peels into a perfect Y-shape and falls down dead. The others scatter to avoid the wake of her axe, but Karlach wades into them, hacking a path like an explorer through dense vegetation. Zevlor presses into them from the other direction, driving them away from the gap in the palisade.

Below the rampart, Shadowheart charges into your field of view and joins the two tieflings, harrying a pair of bugbears trying to outflank Karlach. By the gods, she’s a force of nature with a flail, and you hastily amend your plan to murder her and steal the Artefact. You’d rather not provoke her.

Besides, the goblins will probably take care of her for you. There’s no getting around it—they’re hopelessly outnumbered down there and it’s only a matter of time before the three of them are overwhelmed. The refugees atop the rampart exchange volleys with the goblin archers near the back of the cavern, and it seems that no one on either side has ever held a bow before. The tieflings are terrible archers, and the goblins all such poor marks that half your arrows are return-to-sender.

You have a clear shot at the goblin cleric. You draw and fire. Your aim is true, but your arrow bends in midair just before it reaches her and breaks against the ground. As a magical shield shrouds her in a globe of shimmering air, the cleric looks straight up at you, and your parasite reacts.

the heretics—

for the Absolute! The Absolute!—

traitorous smelly little pissant of a bard—

Your awareness pings around the cavern. All at once you feel them all, Ravengard’s focus and Karlach’s boiling rage and Shadowheart’s grim purpose and—

you realize you’re all connected, even to Minthara and the Priestess Gut and the hobgoblin called Dror Ragzlin, and just for an instant you’re all of them at once. Still lost in the dark, you turn toward Astarion’s presence. Your calf burns, and you can hear Minthara flailing blindly at Wyll, but you can see nothing. You’re itching for violence, it’s humming under your skin, and unlike Astarion you aren’t afraid.

You’re euphoric. Your pain only invigorates you. Get up, get up, stop thrashing on the ground like a worm. So you find the edge of the rampart and pull yourself to your feet, and in almost the same instant you feel a flash of pain and hear Wyll cry out. His concentration breaks. The darkness dissolves.

Late evening light washes over the rampart, thick and orange. You feel suddenly naked. Wyll staggers, clutching his free arm close to his chest, and Minthara turns to face you with a savage grin. You look aside for an escape route and lock eyes with Astarion and—

see yourself staring at—

yourself staring at yourself staring—

at yourself and then you recoil, dropping your longbow with a shout. Twill recovers just in time to dodge Minthara’s next attack. He pirouettes away, laughing, and draws his sword. “Have to be faster than that, Minty!”

Minthara lunges for him in grim silence.

Ravengard flings out his injured arm and shouts, “Dolor!

An eruption of crackling red light strikes Minthara in the shoulder, knocking her off her feet. She rolls and comes up again, hair spilling loose from its bun. Her glare is chilling. She has nothing to say; she’s here to kill.

Your bard is having far too much fun. “You should know I’m over here, Minty, just in case you missed me—oh wait, you did! How embarrassing for you. Why don’t you try hitting me next time, that’s what you’re supposed to do in a fight—”

Her composure snaps. “Shut up!

While she’s distracted, Wyll stabs her in the back.

His rapier darts into a gap in her armor and out again. Minthara makes a noise like air escaping a balloon. Her hand goes to her side. All the mirth slides off Twill’s face; a familiar look of predatory hunger overtakes him, and he lunges for her throat.

Truly, a man after your own heart.

Then Minthara does—something. She doesn’t move, she speaks no incantation, but you feel a sudden backlash of psionic force that drives you to your knees. Your parasite writhes and you look up in time to see Twill clap a hand to his eye with a yelp of pain. Wyll drops his rapier, stunned.

It’s her tadpole. Some kind of illithid power. Walking in the sun, telepathy, mind reading, and now this—what else are these parasites capable of? What else could they do for you?

“Absolute, preserve me,” gasps Minthara, hitting herself in the side. curo.

Oh dear.

Healing light washes over her abdomen. She straightens with a groan and you hear every vertebrae pop with relief.

Then she hefts her mace and bashes Twill’s head in.

“No!” you shout—a silly reaction, because if he dies you’re only out two hundred dollars—but even you feel a shadow of shooting pain in the side of your head. Twill goes reeling sideways, then hits the edge of the rampart and tips over it. The last thing you see are the soles of his boots as he falls backward. You hear a distant thud.

Your immediate instinct, gods only know why, is to run to the edge of the rampart and look over the side to see if he’s alive or not. But before you can move, Minthara turns around and you feel the full blazing wrath of her gaze. At the same moment, down the incline, the goblins break through the palisade. Finding yourself caught between a pack of murderous goblins and the most terrifying woman you have ever met, it is suddenly very easy to sort out your priorities. You aren’t dying for anyone, not even him.

There’s only one escape route available—you vault over the side of the rampart and into the jumble of talus boulders in the empty clearing beyond the gate.

Safely out of sight for the moment, you hear Ravengard shout another incantation as he re-engages Minthara. The battle screams of the refugees and goblins almost seem muted compared with the blasted silence of the clearing. As you catch your breath, you look out over the goblin parts scattered across the cratered ground like confetti after a party. If not for Minthara’s pincer maneuver, Twill’s plan would have worked and none of you would have had to fight. You feel a twinge of shame, which is unlike you. Besides, he’s almost certainly too dead to care. You’re connected—you felt his skull cave in.

You touch your brow above your eye, where your parasite is lodged. You abhor the idea of anyone rifling around inside your head, but snooping around in someone else’s thoughts … why, it’s positively tempting. You always loved Petras’s whiny little diaries. And if it’s possible to use your infection to your advantage …

There’s one way to know if Twill is alive. You close your eyes and—

open them again, struggling to focus as life surges back into you. You gasp reflexively. A blurry shape leans over you, eyes white with spellglow. A hand is pressed to your brow and a healing warmth suffuses your veins. You reach up to touch the figure. Is it an angel? A god? The Visitor from your dream? You feel so cared for, so loved.

Someone slaps you across the face. “Get the hells up. I’m not doing that again.”

The shape resolves into Shadowheart.

“You’re a healer,” you gasp. Time is starting back up around you.

“Occasionally.” She wipes a stream of blood from a broken nose.

“You’re a good healer.” She either brought you back to life or from the very brink of death. That makes her one in a thousand, and she just kept it to herself.

“Forget it,” says Shadowheart. “Try to stay alive; I don’t want to waste myself on you.” She stands abruptly and embeds her flail into the next goblin that gets too close. Inch by inch, limbs trembling, you wobble upright and pull your sword out of the ground, where it embedded itself point-down after your fall from the rampart. Shadowheart might be brusque, but her positioning isn’t lost on you: she’s defending you while you recover.

Right. Right. You have your sword. You have your lute. You have your life. You’re ready to go, and not a moment too soon. A roar from deeper in the cavern draws your attention—that monstrous hobgoblin, Dror Ragzlin, has murder in his eyes. He vaults the gate over the oxpens and charges you, but you’re ready for him. Murder is your trade. You rush to meet him, laughing. A duel! A duel! Into the bloody fray!

Ragzlin knocks you into a haystack on his way to Shadowheart.

You pop your head out of the straw, frowning, and the last thing you hear is a resonating thwok as an arrow goes straight through your eye.

You clap a hand to your face and recoil so violently you almost fall off the rock. “Augh! Gods. Damn it!” Oh, so now they can aim? Bards. Bards! Who lets bards into battle? Twill isn’t just useless, he’s a godsdamn liability. If his brain sustains any more trauma it’s going to turn into soup and run out his ears.

You reach into the Bag of Holding, searching for anything that might be of more use to you than Twill-bloody-Cavander.

A small glass bottle springs into your hand. You took it from Grat’s private stash at the temple, tossed it into the Bag, and thought no more about it, but your gains have a habit of finding their way back to you. At first glance the bottle seems empty, but then a smile creeps across your face. The contents aren’t gone. They’re invisible.

A chill rolls through you from tongue to toes as the potion takes effect. You can still perceive the limits of your own body through a slight shimmer in the air, but otherwise you’re undetectable. Suffused with new confidence, you scramble up the side of the boulder, then leap to the top of the rampart, lithe as a cat.

The light is fading now, but the battle rages around you. Ravengard dances around Minthara, face locked in a grimace of concentration as he harries her with his rapier and dodges her increasingly furious blows. He’s the very picture of a dashing prince—except for his infernal horns, of course. The air around him crackles with magic; frost smokes off his shoulders.

There’s blood everywhere, and you’re finding it very hard to think clearly. You resolve to never again go into battle hungry.

Further down the rampart, the refugees have managed to form a barricade against the goblins with shields, and anything that might serve the purpose of shields: barrel tops, pot lids, spare planks of wood. Zevlor holds the line with an unstoppable ferocity that even you have to respect. Most of his people, incredibly, are still alive. You chalk it up to your excellent marksmanship.

A tiefling of ashen complexion winds a crossbow and puts the bolt through a bugbear’s eye; you recognize her by her motley as the bard that helped Twill annoy you so profoundly a few days ago. Alfira, you think.

Gods, you’re learning their names now. What’s wrong with you?

Focus. Find Twill. You cast your gaze across the cavern, past the rampart. Karlach is still turning goblins into letters. The eight-foot Ragzlin is flailing wildly at Shadowheart, who’s quicker than she looks, darting around his flanks and between his legs, her flail snapping out to punch holes in his thighs, his side, his calves. Not good. You need her alive, you need her now if—

Ah, there he is. Slumped facedown in a haystack while the sole surviving ox chews placidly on his hair. What’s the best way to get to him? You’ll never get through the tiefling blockade in one piece; most of the surviving goblins are massed against it now, and the fighting is thick and desperate. You eye the opposite wall of the rampart. Twenty feet to the ground, maybe?

You can make that jump.

You check left and right, then dart across to the other side, retrieve your fallen longbow, and you leap over the edge. You roll to absorb the impact, come up to your feet, then fling yourself backwards with a yelp.

Dexterity: success

Karlach’s greataxe splits the ground rather than you.

She and Dror Ragzlin circle each other, the six-foot tiefling and the eight-foot hobgoblin. Shadowheart lies on her side in the shadow of the portcullis, muttering incantations as she painstakingly stuffs her own intestines back into herself. Karlach has engaged Ragzlin in her stead. You’re caught between two enraged barbarians. You’re invisible. You curse every twist of fate that has brought you to this moment.

You feel the undercurrents of their thoughts as they each search for an opening. Ragzlin doesn’t want to close with her unless he has to, because the heat coming off her skin is making the air shimmer. He’s taller, but she’s broader, and he’s afraid of both her power and her heat.

And she knows it.

With a howl of rage, Karlach charges, swinging her greataxe around one-handed. You see Ragzlin’s eyes widen in terror and he retreats impulsively, nearly tripping over himself in his haste, his warhammer smacking the ground. He gets it up in time to parry Karlach’s blow, but it’s a near thing. The axeblade screeches off the hammer’s steel haft. Ragzlin deflects the blade and dodges her next swing, then spreads his arms in mockery.

“Come on, then, hellspawn!”

You’re crossing between them, trying to get to Shadowheart, when Karlach obliges Ragzlin’s invitation and charges. You roll

Dexterity: success

under the blade, then reverse direction and scramble as Ragzlin’s hammer

Dexterity: success

cracks the ground. You dig your toes into the dust and

Dexterity: success

leap out of harm’s way not a moment too soon: Karlach screams as her machinery overheats and releases a cloud of scalding steam. Ragzlin stumbles backward, howling in pain, hammer dropping from his blistered fingers. Karlach swings. The blow nearly cuts him in half.

As he falls, you look across the cavern to see the goblin priestess Gut emerge from her hiding place, an incantation forming on her lips. You drop into a crouch next to Shadowheart and nock an arrow to your bowstring.

“Oh no, you don’t,” you mutter, and fire.

It hits Gut square in the chest. She staggers and goes down, staff falling from her hand, clutching and scrabbling at the protruding arrow as she dies. Your invisibility breaks and Shadowheart shouts in surprise as you appear out of thin air beside her.

“Where did you come from?”

“Never mind,” you say. “Are all your guts back in?”

“What are you—”

“Good. The bard’s dead again. Go fix him.”

“I’m not your personal life insurance,” snaps Shadowheart. “He had his chance. It’s not my fault if he’s wasted it.”

You’re all smiles when you turn to face her. “My dear, are you really in a position to be stingy with your spells? I think we need all the help we can get, don’t you?”

“I’d rather spend my energy on people who are actually helpful.”

“He’s the only reason we have any chance at all,” you say, irked—both with Shadowheart for her stubbornness, and with Twill for putting you in a position where you have to defend him like this. Ragzlin is bleeding out on the ground. Gut is dead. Minthara is busy with Ravengard. It’s now or never. “Ugh—I’ll even cover you while you do it. Just go!”

“Go!” says Karlach, blasting by on her way up the slope to the rampart. “I’ll handle the rest of these little f*ckers!”

Shadowheart looks ready to keep arguing, but instead she looks at you and says, “Lead the way.”

“Lovely to see there’s a practical woman buried deep inside you.”

“Don’t push it.”

You cross the cavern ducking and weaving, but Shadowheart is not a person inclined to dodging and her shield is bristling with arrows by the time she reaches the oxpens. You shoo the ox away from Twill and pull his head up by the hair to see how dead he is. Oh, he’s very dead.

“Move,” says Shadowheart.

“Shouldn’t I pull the arrow out of his brain first—”

“Move!” She shoulders you out of the way.

While she works on him, you scan the cavern. Something has been picking off the goblin archers, even though most of the fighting has been contained to the rampart. Little bodies lay everywhere. A goblin standing on a barrel catches your eye and aims at you—then lets out a shriek and falls backward. You see a tiefling’s red tail-tip flick out of sight, and your heart lurches into your throat.

They’re supposed to be hiding, the wretched little sh*ts. In spite of Ravengard’s specific advice to avoid any heroics—which you have taken readily to heart—the orphan brats are out here risking their tiny, irritating lives. You can’t even aim into the cavern now; you might hit one of them and you’d never hear the end of it from Twill. You swear vehemently under your breath.

“Everything all right?” asks Shadowheart without turning around. The aura of her healing magic warms your back like sunlight.

Up on the rampart, silhouetted in the late-evening glow, Minthara finally fells Ravengard with a blow to the head. Zevlor breaks through the raging melee to take up the fight in his stead, but he’s exhausted and bleeding all over. Her mace catches him in the shoulder, sending him reeling.

“Ehm,” you say.

“Astarion!”

Minthara gets her arms around Zevlor and snaps his neck.

“Oh, everything’s fine,” you say. “Keep working.”

Shadowheart’s voice echoes unnaturally: “Dum vita est spes est.” The heat at your back flares hot enough to make you flinch. Your parasite writhes in your skull, and you receive a sudden flood of incoherent thoughts as Twill snaps back to the mortal coil, clawing at the air and spitting out hay.

You aren’t the only one to feel his return. Minthara’s mind lances into yours like a shard of ice, passing through you on her way to Twill. Enough! How many times must I destroy you?

Shadowheart turns and sees the carnage atop the rampart. “You said everything was fine!”

“I’m sure I beg your pardon,” you say. “I didn’t want to distract you.”

“If I’d known—”

“Yes, if you’d known you wouldn’t have wasted your spell on my fool of a bard,” you interrupt. “I’m well aware.”

“You conniving, selfish little bloodsucker!”

“If you’re going to call me pet names, buy me a drink first.”

Twill extricates himself from the haystack. “Right,” he says, “I think I’m ready to get back out there and kill some—”

“No!” shout you and Shadowheart in unison. Shadowheart knocks his legs from under him. He lands flat on his back in the hay, blinking up at you both in dazed bewilderment.

“You stay here,” says Shadowheart.

“On the ground,” you add.

“But—”

Shadowheart stiffens. “She’s coming.”

You feel it too, and so does Twill. Her malice. Her intent. Minthara vanishes from the top of the rampart. You don’t see her reappear.

Then her mace slams into your back and sends you flying.

You plow into the ground face-first and can’t muster the strength to rise. Your whole back has gone numb, from neck to ass. You can’t move your fingers. Your ears are ringing. Somewhere in the soup of your mind you feel Minthara’s triumph and a bolt of terror from Twill, and then you black out.

Seconds later someone is tugging on your sleeve. “Get up, Funnyman! Get up!”

You seize a child’s slender wrist. “Astarion. Call me Funnyman … one more time …” You cough wetly, then turn your head to see Arabella. “What’s … happening?”

“They’re all dyin’!” she cries. “You gotta get up!”

Fighting pain and numbness, you push yourself up on your elbows and try to get your bearings. Karlach is holding on the rampart, but she’s bleeding and tired; she remains the sole obstacle between the goblins and the refugees, who have clustered at the far end of the rampart and seem mostly out of arrows.

You crane your neck to look behind yourself. Minthara has Shadowheart in a headlock. Shadowheart drives her elbow into Minthara’s gut; Minthara slams her knee between Shadowheart’s legs. Their weapons lay discarded, out of reach. Twill is bleeding again, face locked in a grimace as he tries to stand on a leg that keeps crumpling beneath him. Ravengard is dead. Zevlor is dead.

Hells, you might be f*cked.

“My bow,” you tell Arabella. “Get me my bow!”

She looks terrified. “I don’t—I don’t know where it—”

You grip the girl by her shirtfront and snarl into her face. “You came out here, you wanted to be part of this, now suck it up and be useful!” When you release her, she falls down with a gasp. Then she scrambles away.

A sudden chorus of shouting goes up on the rampart, dozens of voices swelling into a riotous frenzy. You can’t make out what they’re saying, but horror almost overwhelms you as the portcullis lets out a mighty crack and begins to rise, the great mechanism turning seemingly of its own volition. A lone figure stands beyond the gate, magic swirling around its upturned hand.

You finally decipher what the refugees are shouting.

Halsin! Halsin is here!

The figure raises its arms and a voice booms out. A series of long shadows rise over the rampart, twisting upwards. They first appear black, silhouetted in the evening light, but then they bend forward over the top of the rampart and you realize they’re vines, or roots, or reeds, growing at impossible speed. At a word from the druid, they whip through the raging melee, knocking goblins out of the way. A bugbear hits the ground only feet away from you, neck snapping on impact.

Halsin passes under the gate with an unhurried stride. He’s the largest wood elf you’ve ever seen, a bonafide freak of nature, with biceps the size of cantaloupes and a lantern jaw that could illuminate a stadium and a presence that makes you want to get the hells out of the way. This fight, you realize, is over.

Minthara takes her knee off Shadowheart’s neck and twists around in shock. “Halsin! You’re Halsin?”

“I am.” His voice rumbles out of the subbasem*nt.

“But how? What of the bear we captured and slew?”

“That,” says Halsin, as his limbs begin to swell and fur bursts across his face, “was probably a bear.”

The beast erupts from his form in a fury of muscle and claws, slamming all four feet to the ground. It roars—you’ve had it up to here with all this blasted noise—and you cower instinctively as a wall of brown fur charges past you.

A scream from Karlach echoes the roar; reinvigorated, she decapitates two goblins in a single swing.

The bear hits Minthara like a battering ram. She goes flying, but vanishes in midair and reappears on her feet a safe distance away. You sense the blow has hurt her badly, and the quick spellcasting has sapped her energy; pain radiates from her.

Goblin arrows stipple Halsin’s broad back. He turns, humped shoulders rolling, and rears on his hind legs to roar again at the archers.

You finally spot your own bow, caught between two shattered crates, and crawl towards it, ignoring the cacophony of horrible bear noises behind you. You ache so badly that every movement is a struggle. Cursing yourself, your parasite, and your weakened state, you wrap your hand around the bow and rise slowly to your feet.

When you turn, you see Halsin getting harassed by a trio of exceptionally courageous goblins. They dart like flies around him, deftly avoiding his swatting paws. The distraction has given Minthara precious moments to recover. She’s retrieved her mace and stands, panting, with her back to a stack of supply crates. Her hair hangs around her shoulders. She’s splattered with blood. She can’t stand up straight. But there’s murder in her eyes. Shadowheart lies insensible across the cavern, and Twill appears to be suffering from a severed femoral artery, which means you’ll have to do some fundraising soon.

It’s down to you.

You jerk an arrow from the ground and put it to your bow. But someone else, for once, is faster than you: the one-eyed tiefling girl, Mol. She leaps from her hiding place in a crate, sharp little teeth bared in a snarl, and buries her knife in the meat of Minthara’s shoulder.

Minthara lurches forward with a shriek. You loose your arrow, which slams into her thigh. Halsin dispatches two of his attackers with a blow from his great paw, then crushes the skull of the third between his teeth and swings back around to face Minthara.

The drow, however, doesn’t have the good grace to concede defeat. In the same rapid motion, she jerks the knife out of herself with one hand and whirls to seize Mol with the other. The girl thrashes as Minthara lifts her up by the neck and shouts, “Enough!

Halsin pulls up short. You start searching for another arrow.

“Take one step closer, druid, and I open her belly,” says Minthara, pressing the knife to Mol’s abdomen. Mol’s tail twines around Minthara’s wrist; her legs kick in futile desperation. “Or maybe I’ll slit her open anyway. You fools. All of you. You think you’ve won? You are nothing, nothing, in the eyes of the Absolute.”

You pull another arrow from the ground.

“Praise be!” cries Minthara. Her thoughts tumble around you like rain, full of zealous devotion. You draw back the bowstring. “Her glory will obliterate you. You are worms. You are all worms—

She vanishes into thin air. Mol hits the ground with a thump. You lower your bow, frowning.

Then Arabella steps out from behind the crates, looking tired and pale.

“Did it work?” she says in a small voice.

You and Mol and the bear all look down. There in the dust sits a fat grey slug.

“Bella,” says Mol, “you’re a bloody queen.”

Arabella’s face splits into an exhausted smile, and Mol stomps on the slug with all her might.

You hear the squelch from across the cavern.

Notes:

chapters are getting long so updates will probably be less frequent moving forward; don't expect a weekly schedule! :] I'm also revising an original novel, so I'm splitting my time a little bit. Thanks everyone who's stuck with me so far--we have a long way to go!

Chapter 32: Twill Communes With Livestock

Summary:

In which Astarion fails to understand the full ramifications of vampirism

Chapter Text

The cavern is littered with bodies; the pungent aromas of spilled intestines and half-congealed blood mingle in the air. Dead goblins are scattered all over the place, misshapen lumps silhouetted by torchlight. A decapitated bugbear sits propped against a barrel, surrounded by the detritus of all the supplies he destroyed before his end. Everywhere, sacks of grain have been spilled open, crates smashed, oxen and chickens slaughtered. The sand pit which served the tieflings as a training yard now houses the corpse of an ogre woman who lies, spreadeagled, in a halo of her own blood.

You cannot remember the last time you have been in such a stupendous mood. The carnage is spectacular, the Grove is secure, and moreover, you’re getting laid tonight. The overwhelming smell of blood and offal makes you want to kick things off early—a little preliminary solo action in a dark corner somewhere, nothing elaborate, just to build up stamina for later—but some of the tieflings seem like they might not be comfortable with any naked displays of necrophilia. You have a sense for these things.

What you don’t understand is why the tieflings are all so gloomy all of a sudden, and this is where your mood sours. What happened to celebrating victory? Does no one appreciate your feats of dashing heroism? Your bold and daring plan? Why has no one hoisted you on their shoulders to parade you about the cavern? The party should have started hours ago, but instead the tieflings have all occupied themselves with tiresome chores like “digging graves” and “respecting the dead.” You have seated yourself next to the headless bugbear in sullen protest.

You could respect the dead. You could respect the dead all by yourself in that secluded alcove over there.

None of that, you tell yourself firmly, tapping your fingers against your thigh. You ought to maintain some kind of decorum, however difficult it may be when you are practically quivering with anticipation over your tryst later tonight. Astarion has made himself scarce, but that’s hardly surprising considering the ground is sticky with blood. He might be out in the woods drinking squirrels—or maybe, you think hopefully, he is saving his appetite for you. Perhaps he’s as mad with anticipation as you are. Yes, that’s a pleasant thought. It puts the smile back on your face. You start composing a ballad to pass the time: The Triumph of Twill Cavander.

It doesn’t keep you occupied for long. All this weeping and crying is really sucking the fun out of the air. Halsin walks among the dead tieflings laid out on the ground, dispensing flowers and forehead touches. Karlach has thrown herself into the gravedigging. Wyll, who has survived his brush with death thanks to Halsin’s timely intervention, stands guard on the rampart, single red eye gleaming in the dark. It all makes for a singularly depressing tableau.

Shadowheart is arguing with a tiefling named Lakrissa about Zevlor; there is, apparently, nothing to be done about him.

“But can’t you just try!” Lakrissa begs.

“Five minutes,” says Shadowheart coldly. “Five minutes, give or take, depending on the manner of death. After that, there’s nothing I can do.”

“You brought back Twill! Twice!

“Yes, and now I’m exhausted. I’ve been mending you people all evening. Zevlor’s dead and that’s that, so leave me alone.”

Lakrissa storms away in tears. Shadowheart drops onto a crate with her head in her hands. Her misery swirls around the cavern, infecting you.

“Good grief.” Astarion appears behind you with a bottle in his hand. “You’d think all of them had died, the way they’re shambling around like zombies. We won, you miserable drips!” he calls. This earns him more than a few dirty looks. He parries them with a shrug and examines the bottle, muttering, “But by all means, stop the world for a few minor casualties.”

“I thought they’d be happy,” you say.

“My dear, no one is ever happy. Some people are simply less blatant about it.” He gets his nail under the cork and pries it out with a pop.

“What’s that?”

“Mead, ostensibly,” says Astarion, giving the bottle a disdainful sniff. “This enclave is famed for their mead, or so the Archdruid insists. There’s an apiary down in the circle and enough honey in the larder to keep a hundred bears happy for weeks. Frankly, going by the smell, it seems like a waste of bees.”

You give him a sly sideways glance, but he isn’t looking at you. “Connoisseur of mead, are you?”

“Oh, yes, I’m an expert on mead, wine, and fine liquors of every persuasion. My expert opinion is that it all tastes like piss.” He puts the bottle to his lips and turns it upside down. You hold out your hand, and he passes it to you half-empty. It tastes sweet and wild and puts a merry buzz in your veins.

“Dreadful, isn’t it?” he says. “I don’t know how any of you can live with yourselves. All your drink is swamp water and all your food is stinking and rotten. Not like when I was mortal. Things had flavor back then.” He sighs. “Thank the gods I have an alternative, but I do feel sorry for you all sometimes.”

Insight: success

You pluck an apple from the intact supplies the refugees have consolidated beside their surviving wagon and take a bite. It’s delicious. You hold it out to Astarion. “How’s this taste?”

“I have no interest in—eugh, fine, if it will humor you.” He takes a bite and chews, looking as though someone has shoved dung under his nose. Then he spits it out. “It tastes like the wrong end of an ox. I pity your poor, lifeless palate.”

“Uh-huh. But food tasted better two hundred years ago? Before you became a vampire?”

“Something must have got into the water and ruined everything. It’s the only explanation.”

You don’t have the heart to tell him, so you take the apple back and finish it while he looks on with incredulous disgust.

Across the cavern, near to the portcullis, the refugees have finished digging a deep hole for their fallen brethren and are lowering the bodies in reverently one by one. There is much weeping and sniffling. Zevlor in particular, you note enviously, is getting a royal treatment. You wish someone would cry over you like that.

“Do you think they’d be happier if we asked Withers to bring him back?” you ask.

“With what money? Ours? None of them have two coins to rub together—I checked already.” He squints at you. “Don’t you dare tell anyone about him. Mark my words, you hand out a single resurrection and suddenly everybody will want one. Plenty of people would kill for that power, you know. I certainly would.”

“They don’t seem like the murdering sort,” you muse, watching Lakrissa collapse in a puddle of tears.

“Maybe. But you can’t ever really tell. I’d rather not take chances, if it’s all the same to you.” He watches the glum spectacle in silence, then lets out a groan of disgust and turns away. “I can’t stand this anymore. I’m going to go throw rocks at the harpies.”

“Hold on,” you say, “wait.” Has he forgotten, or is he toying with you? Either option stings, but you don’t want him to leave; he’s the only thing making all this palatable. But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? All of a sudden you can hardly believe your own folly. You’re Twill E. Cavander, errant bard extraordinaire, and these poor fools are lost without you. If the refugees are miserable, it’s because you have done nothing to gladden their hearts. If there is no celebration, it’s because you have yet to start it.

You get to your feet.

“What?” asks Astarion. “What is it?”

You bend over to touch your toes, crack your knuckles, and shake yourself out. Your recently-healed leg twinges in protest. “I’m going to make a speech,” you say, and stride with purpose toward the assembly.

“Oh?” says Astarion. You can hear a smile in his voice. “Well, this I have to see.”

The tieflings’ heads are bowed in prayer to some god or another. You don’t know which one; there’s so many of them and keeping them all straight is a challenge even for someone without extensive brain damage. Halsin is leading at the foot of the big hole, intoning solemnly in a language which is probably Elvish to judge by the amount of phlegm he’s generating.

“Well,” you announce, shouldering up beside him, “that’s enough of that, eh? Funerals are for the living, as they say, and it’s all very well to have your fill of grief, but do you know what else is for the living? Fun! A funeral without fun is just an eral, and who the hells knows what that is? Anyone? Anyone?”

Nobody seems to know.

“I believe it’s a kind of minor noble,” calls Astarion from behind the silent crowd.

“Is that so? Well, there’s no call for anything noble here. I’m Twill E. Cavander, bard errant—as you all well know—and I’m here to reinstate the fun in funeral.”

“Hear, hear!” says Astarion, raising his bottle.

“Twill,” says Halsin softly, laying a massive hand on your shoulder, “perhaps you should—”

“Before we plunge into carousing and delve into debauchery, I’d like to make a speech,” you say. “In honor of the dead—no, in honor of the living! Death. Death! What is death, really? A short stop at the end of a long fall. A period, a punctuation mark! Something every soul aspires to, try as we might to deny it. Rejoice, my friends, for your fallen comrades; the rest of us may well be run-on sentences, but brief statements are all the better.” You tip your non-existent hat to the pile of ruined corpses in the hole. “Thank you, departed friends, for not going on and on.”

You pause for effect. The tieflings hang on your every word. Your speech has brought many of them to tears.

Well said! Make them cry more.

Encouraged, you forge ahead: “Now, I know all of you have been through quite a lot, so I thought it might be fun to take a little tour, a retrospective, if you will. Elturel, the Descent into the hells, your perilous journey on the road, rejected everywhere you go, half your number mauled by gnolls … isn’t it wonderful, how far your comrades managed to come before dying horribly in this backwater corner of the wilderness? A triumph well-worth celebrating, I’d say!”

They are rapt. A woman in the back swoons at the sheer power of your words. Arabella’s mother covers her daughter’s ears, but you’ll be having none of that. “Now, now,” you say, “don’t exclude the girl from this remarkable occasion! Think of it! How much noble suffering did Zevlor endure before Minthara snapped his neck like a dry twig? How far did … ehm …” You peer into the hole. “Well, I don’t know her name, but think of all she did before goblins gouged out her eyes and … intestines.”

You’re losing them. Brevity is the soul of wit and you’ve been going on too long. You clear your throat. “My point, dear survivors, is that celebration is in order. Thanks to me, you’re all alive! You may as well rejoice tonight, for you might be dead tomorrow!”

They are all so stunned by your eloquence that for a moment the only sound in the cavern is Astarion’s pert two-fingered clap.

Then Alfira, the bard who is better at it than you, shoulders her way to the front of the crowd. Her bluish hair is mussed and tear tracts stripe her dark grey skin. She steadies herself with a few deep breaths.

Then she says, “f*ck it, he’s right. Does anybody want a drink?”

The party really gets going after that. Halsin opens up the Enclave cellar and breaks out the mead. You’re a little surprised by how much these simple refugees can put away, almost a bottle to a man, and most of them seem to be sad drunks. At first there’s more crying than ever, but as the night wears on, you and Alfira are able to make something of a party out of things by splitting the work between you. She takes the left side of the cavern and you take the right. The kids have more than earned a little juggling, so you go away for a bit and chop off a few goblin heads and give them a spectacular show. The orphans love it, but Arabella’s mother, whom you are beginning to suspect has no sense of fun whatsoever, drags her protesting daughter across the cavern to watch Alfira’s far less exciting, and vastly inferior, juggling routine involving ordinary balls.

At some point, to your surprise, Withers appears from deeper in the cavern—where to your knowledge there is no point of entry—and drifts around arming himself with bottles of mead, which vanish inexplicably into the folds of his robes. A herd of children ambush him before he can make his escape and bedeck him merrily in a flower crown and a bright white toga.

By midnight most of the tieflings are too sloshed to stand fully upright. You aren’t too sober yourself and keep dropping heads. Figuring they won’t mind—or notice—if your playing is below standard, you put away the goblin heads and bring out your lute. It occurs to you that all great bards errant should name their instruments, if they’re to be truly legendary, so you go ahead and privately dub your lute Astarion after the very first friend you can remember, though you won’t be telling him about that. In between draughts of mead, you play songs of ever-decreasing complexity to a drunken crowd which cares less and less as you go on. Eventually you forget what chords are and decide to pack it in for the night.

You realize it’s been a while since you’ve seen Astarion and look around the cavern, wondering again if he’s forgotten his proposition of a few nights ago. The celebration has died to a murmur. Withers has vanished without a trace. The torches burn low, shrouding the cavern in near-complete darkness. A nighttime breeze stirs the stagnant air, and somewhere a trapped bird flutters against the limestone walls in a frantic search for the sky. Many of the tieflings lie stretched out on the scarce patches of unbloodied grass or wrapped around one another, their tails twitching in their sleep. Alfira dozes alone in a hollow, lying on her side with an oil lamp illuminating her face.

She’s better than you. Your second thoughts are muzzy and unclear. You consider them drunkenly. It’s not untrue. Her chords are cleaner. Her voice is brighter.

Yeah! Yeah, see? She’s—alright, see, how can you … hang on …

You belch and take another drink.

Right. Right right right. Right, here’s how it is: how can you be a legendary bard errant if you’re only second-best? Isn’t Twill E. Cavander the greatest in all Faerûn? Right?

Right. Yeah! That’s right!

She’s shaming you. You could … heh heh … kill her. Then you’d be really great. Anyway, who’s gonna miss one more smelly tiefling refugee? Just—just rip out her jugular with your teeth and, and dump her in the hole, or something. Easy. Yeah.

Or.

Or?

Or you could ask her for tips. She’s real good at breath control.

You’re already good at breath control! Good at stopping it entirely. Go on now and control hers. Eh? Eh?

Nah. You can hardly see straight. Bad form to murder under the influence.

Your mind quietens. You notice Astarion isn’t the only one absent; there’s no sign of Halsin, and he’s hard to miss. You can’t see Karlach or Wyll or Shadowheart, either. With a pang you wonder if they’ve all abandoned you. Making fun of you behind your back, laughing at what a mediocre bard you are—

You stagger to your feet, remember what Astarion said about throwing rocks at harpies, and wobble down towards the lakeshore. You feel Astarion first as you approach, and then the others. They’re all there, as you suspected. They’ve moved the party without you.

There is a good deal of nudity going on. Empty bottles litter the beach. Halsin lies supine with his ankles in the water, scooping fistfuls of honey into his mouth in one of the most impressive displays of raw hedonism you have ever seen. He is extravagantly, hypnotically naked. Shadowheart is waist-deep in the lake, scrubbing the blood off herself and staring at him with voracious intent. Further out in the water, an impenetrable cloud of steam paddles around, hissing; you assume this must be Karlach. In the spirit of inclusion, someone has retrieved the bowl of slugs from the inner sanctum and stuffed a few fistfuls of leaves through the opening.

After a moment, you find Astarion. He sits further up the embankment, nestled under an olive tree, with Wyll. They’re chatting amiably. They look cozy.

By now your good mood has completely evaporated. Nobody notices you. Nobody pays attention to you. What is the point, what is the bloody point of being Twill Cavander, errant bard, if no one appreciates how stupendous you are?

He’s ignoring you. He’s forgotten. On purpose. Doesn’t he know he’s yours?

You lurch forward, then trip over a root and plow face-first into the ground. Sand goes up your nose.

Blood. Blood. Murder. Death. Blood. Piles of corpses. Guts and viscera.

Snarling and spitting, you push yourself up on your elbows and thrust your mind in Astarion’s direction. You can’t stand not knowing what goes on that inscrutable head of—

his dark cheeks are suffused with blood; he’s flushing. Ravengard shifts uncomfortably, but you don’t avert your eyes. You enjoy it when people are unnerved by your gaze. It means your charms are working. A lovely little bolster to the ego.

“I had heard rumors,” you say, plucking a beetle delicately from your leg and flicking it into oblivion. “But to see it in person … such power is extraordinary. Tell me, Wyll … how does it feel, to have made a deal with a devil?”

“It feels like being watched,” says Wyll. “Ever at the beck and call of your patron. I wouldn’t recommend it, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“Oh, I wasn’t getting at anything.” You shift and gaze at him flirtatiously. “I’m only curious. Hand to heart. So … how might someone go about striking a deal with a hellish benefactor?”

“I can’t discuss the details of my pact. The deal comes with power, true, but the drawbacks are many and debilitating. Does that satisfy your curiosity?”

“Sufficient power is worth any drawback,” you say, and mean it. “And from what I’ve heard, your pact has done nothing but improve your life.”

He looks at you sharply. “What have you heard?”

“You truly wish to know? Very well. Rumors only, of course, before my capture from Baldur’s Gate, but … the Blade of Frontiers is a recent invention, isn’t it? It seems to me like your devilish deal freed you from a life as Duke Ravengard’s daughter.” Your curiosity is genuine, so you automatically conceal the depth of it—after all, your true interest is in Ravengard’s power, not his sex.

Ravengard stares at his knees for a while before answering. “It’s true,” he says at last. “I was once a very different person indeed—although, I won’t go so far as to say I was freed from anything. My choice was always my own, and my father’s choice was his.” He pauses for more tiresome brooding. “In any case, my transformation was not the reason for my pact. I wouldn’t sell my soul for a cause so selfish. My cause was duty. Loyalty. To my father, to Baldur’s Gate … to my people.” He clears his throat. “The other changes were an afterthought.”

His tone says otherwise, and so you press. “But still …”

“I suppose it was always something I wanted,” he admits, with a self-deprecating laugh. “I knew there were spells and magics that might grant me my wish, but they were always beyond my reach. Convincing me to dress properly for formal occasions drove my father to his wit’s end. He once caught me stuffing a pair of socks down the front of my trousers …” He trails off, flushing even more darkly. “Balduran’s bones. You know how to draw embarrassing secrets out of a man, don’t you?”

“My dear, it’s one of my finest talents. But socks? Whatever for? What does that have to do with—” The connection slides home. “Really?

“I suppose it seems like a strange impulse to someone who’s never had it.”

“Not at all. It’s just … darling, it simply isn’t worth it. They’re such unwieldy and inconvenient organs. I would never sell my soul for one—why, I would happily give you mine if the opportunity presented itself.”

Ravengard coughs. “While I appreciate the, uh, offer, I already have my own. It was in the terms of my contract.”

“Pity,” you say, examining a broken fingernail. “I happen to possess a particularly exquisite member, if I do say so myself.” You glance sideways at Ravengard again, and you’re gratified to see—

you have heard more than enough. Seething, you withdraw from Astarion’s mind and crawl your way back up the path toward the grove. Your mood has gone as sour as the mead in your stomach. If you weren’t too drunk to stand up straight, you’d be disemboweling something by now.

Fantasizing savagely about pulling Astarion’s intestines through his mouth, you swim through bloodlust and nausea and eventually collapse on your back in the oxpens, atop a pile of sweet-smelling straw.

The refugees’ sole remaining ox gazes impassively down at you.

“Rough night, is it?” it says after a moment.

“You have no idea,” you moan. Suddenly, it’s all you can do not to burst into tears.

“Hmm. I understand,” says the ox. “A party is a lonely affair.”

You mean to laugh at this remark, or make some noncommittal sound. The whisper that comes out instead surprises you. “I can’t stand it anymore.”

“Is that so?” It seems to be laughing at you.

“I’m not real,” you breathe. “I might have been once, but there’s nothing left of me. There is no me. Was I ever anything? How can I know?”

“Well,” says the ox, “you could always do what comes naturally.”

Your blood whispers to you. Kill. Kill. Kill. The hunger haunts you, wracks you day and night, every waking moment, every dream. Relentlessly.

“I’m afraid of what will happen if I do,” you whisper.

“In that case, you could become an ox.”

You push yourself up on your elbows. “How do I do that?”

The ox snorts. “If you have to ask, it’s hopeless. Pah. Incapable.”

“Please. Help me. I need help—”

“What in the hells are you doing down there?” Astarion leans against the fence, gazing down at you with a faintly mocking smile.

Your heart jumps at the sight of him. “Talking,” you reply.

“To a cow?”

You look at the ox. In a deep, measured voice, it says, “Moo.”

“He’s a good listener,” you say, looking back.

Astarion seems to take nothing amiss. “Well,” he says, examining his nails, “I could leave you to your conversation, if you’d like. But I couldn’t help but notice the night is getting on. Almost everyone is dead asleep.” He smiles primly, his lips pressed together. “Which means, of course, that it’s the perfect time for us to steal away and have a little fun for ourselves, don’t you think? If you still … want to, of course.”

You have an almost irresistible compulsion to leap at him and start tearing with your teeth and nails, to squeeze out his eyes with your thumbs, to gnaw at his belly until you break through his stomach wall …

Wisdom: success

With a tremendous effort, you suppress the feeling. An involuntary whimper escapes you.

Astarion’s smile widens. “I thought so,” he says. His look is sultry and seductive; the blood has been meticulously scrubbed from his glowing white skin. His hair is coiffed and pearlescent. “You didn’t think I’d forgotten about our plans?”

“It may have crossed my mind,” you admit.

“My sweet, I could never. Couldn’t you tell? I’ve been waiting for this moment almost since our first meeting. Even from the start, I could hardly take my eyes off you.”

His words make you dizzy. “You—really?”

“Oh, yes. You have it all. Good looks, intelligence, creativity. Hmm.” He watches you in silence for a moment. You stare back, your heart thumping in your ears. “Yes, indeed. I very much like what I see.”

“And what do you see?” You don’t ask the question so much as it escapes from you. “When you look at me, what do you see?”

“I see someone who deserves a night of passion and pleasure,” says Astarion. “Which is perfect, because that is precisely what I happen to crave. Isn’t it nice how our interests continue to align?”

Insight: success

He’s right in front of you, so why do you feel like he isn’t really there?

This is what you’ve wanted. You’ve been craving this, too. Be grateful. He’s offering connection, just when your loneliness is ripping you apart.

So you try on a smile. “Why don’t we align our interests somewhere else?”

“Ha! There’s the wit I’ve grown to love so much.” He offers you his hand—delicate, pale, long-fingered. You take it. Your own hands are scarred and grubby, your fingernails ragged. He pulls you to your feet. “I have a place in mind already. Shall we?”

As he leads you from the cavern, past scattered bodies and sleeping tieflings, you look over your shoulder at the ox. For an instant it seems to regard you with a glittering intelligence, as if it’s mocking you. The next moment you’re sure you’ve imagined it.

The ox bows its head to munch on its hay, and Astarion takes you into the woods.

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