The Sun and The Moon - Chapter 15 - LiamHodsii (2024)

Chapter Text

The party made it roughly 10 steps into the grounds of creche Y’llek before finding themselves confronted by the business end of a dozen crossbows and blades. Only through Lae’zel's hurried intervention, their own soldier of Vlaakith somehow speaking with authority despite trespassing and being heavily outnumbered, were they spared the fury of the guards who were insulted more than anything by the brazenness of the incursion.

For a moment, Astra was worried the last thing she would see before a crossbow bolt went through her skull was Shadowheart’s silent look of I told you so . But protocols were quoted, a right to purification invoked, and eventually the squatters acquiesced to their presence.

With safety not quite guaranteed but death not immediately imminent either, they began exploring the ground of the settlement. There was a maze-like quality to the creche, halls and corridors intersecting and splitting at odd angles everywhere they went. It had a raw, cavernous feel too, both due to the high ceilings and imposing arched support columns and in the more literal sense, with jagged stalactites and jutting uncut rock mixed in amongst the more deliberate architecture.

Lae’zel mused about the lack of discipline within the base, letting a group of istik’s wander around unguarded even if the rest of the party stuck as close to their resident githyanki escort as possible. Astra was struck by the sheer scale of the place however, the raiders completely embedded within this stolen land and using it not as a temporary refuge on the Material Plane, but as an established base of operations. What the gith sought here on the Sword Coast, they were willing to spend time and manpower to acquire it.

Burying the anger at the injustice of the occupation was in her best interest, both for her sanity as well as her safety, so instead Astra tried to keep an impassive curiosity whilst they searched for the infirmary that would hold their supposed cure. When she had first asked Lae’zel about what a creche would entail, one of their earliest conversations shortly after meeting that wasn’t a thinly veiled threat or an insult about her nose, the soldier had explained how it was more than just a home for her people. What she had described seeing in K’llir was true of Y’llek as well - they found a classroom of young githyanki training, though the instructor seemed more keen on abusing his students rather than actually teaching them anything. Cruelty that was casual and accepted, yet even Lae’zel said that such methods wouldn’t accomplish anything exceptional.

Astra couldn’t bear to watch, not being certain she could stop her blood from boiling and end up doing something profoundly stupid, like confronting a senior githyanki teacher in the heart of his home. A distraction would help, and fortunately any and all questions about life in a creche were welcomed by Lae’zel, who must have appreciated being somewhere familiar, in her domain after so long as a stranger in strange lands. Being raised in K’liir sounded just as brutal as Astra had imagined, with tales of slaughtered cousins and daily combat being described as minor inconveniences, points of pride even for the soldier. It was enlightening certainly, especially when they found themselves stood in a more natural looking hollow, a wing of the creche filled with acrid smelling brine that coated their noses and created a sickly green fog.

Gods , Lae. Is this the toilet for this place?” Karlach asked with a strained voice, pinching her nose and wafting her other hand in front of her face.

“Chk , this is the hatchery .” She corrected shortly.” Here, young githyanki mature within their eggs. Time cannot pass on the Astral Plane, and so they are kept here.”

“Given the size of the chamber and the population of the creche, I’d have expected to see a larger clutch here.”

In quite possibly a first for them both, Gale’s observations earned him a look of respect from Lae’zel. “That is correct. K’liir would have closer to fifty at a time. To see so few here is… unusual.”

“Fewer githyanki in the world? What a tragedy.” Shadowheart muttered a bit too loudly.

Sensing their soldier bristling in response, Wyll jumped in with a peacemaking distraction. “So, ah, Lae’zel! Where do these eggs come from? The, ahem, details must be a bit different to what we are used to here.”

Lae’zel glared at Shadowheart but didn’t act any further on her disdain, and explained. “They are lain by chosen, shu’kyani , and it is a completely asexual process. A favourable aspect by any estimation, to be able to partake in the pleasures of sex without the looming threat of bearing children.”

“You know, this Vlaakith of yours might be on to something.” Astarion nodded approvingly, suddenly interested in alien biology.

“There is wisdom in all the undying queen does, but you are correct. A shame I already offered some of these carnal delights to the most worthy among you, and they did not express the same interest.”

For all the pragmatism and severity that was synonymous with the githyanki, Lae’zel wasn’t above a spot of theatrics. She disclosed the incendiary information of her unsuccessful pursuit with an air of nonchalance, only flicking the briefest of looks at Astra, one that she might have even seen to be cattish , but thankfully wasn’t noticed by any of the party, so embroiled were they in digesting the reveal.

“I don’t recall being asked…” Mumbled Astarion, far less pleased now than he was a moment ago.

Throughout the party were confused looks and hurt egos, silent questions being asked of each other in an attempt to find out who among them was exactly the most worthy . To spare herself any interrogations, Astra kept her gaze anywhere other than her companions, suddenly enamoured with the architecture of the building and its intricate flooring.

When they decided to move on finally, Astra noticed a presence closer at her side than it was before, walking almost shoulder to shoulder with her.

“There was a part of me that almost didn’t believe you when you mentioned that proposition.” Shadowheart whispered, some of the disbelief still present in her hushed voice.

“I’m honest, and so was she.”

“Well, I better not find your scent anywhere near her.” The cleric repeated Lae’zel’s salacious words with plenty of teasing mirth, though Astra caught a note of seriousness in her eyes, maybe even a possessiveness that went undeclared but still made her pulse quicken a bit.

“That’s a terrible double standard, Shadowheart, since it’s been less than 24 hours since you were straddling her.”

Astra fully expected, and deserved, the slap to her shoulder that followed - less so the blood that rushed to pale cheeks.

No one expected the means to a cure to be pretty. But the machine that stood in front of them was exceptional in all the worst ways.

The Zaith’isk was a cursed amalgamation of metal and flesh, twisted and warped so much so that it was hard to tell where organic ended and artificial began. A chair lay at its centre, but the huge chitinous pincers above and below made it look like a yearning maw, hungering for something. Lingering energy radiated from the device, a static that hung in the air and made Astra’s eye twitch. An instrument of healing, so insisted the doctor that attended to her prized machine, fussing over the hellish thing like a proud mother.

Lae’zel looked at the machine with awe. When she first took her seat and was strapped into the seat, a genuine relief settled over her face, softening the usually so intense eyes that hid beneath black war paint. The protruding spikes at the top of the Zaith’isk bent down and settled over and around her head, and a tentative relaxed smile came soon after. A duty fulfilled, a protocol followed.

Then, the screaming started.

A roaring glow of energy and light enveloped the soldier of Vlaakith, and a moment later Astra’s head burned in concert with Lae’zel’s agony. The scale of the psionic torment forced her to her knees, and through gritted teeth and blurred vision she saw true fear from the poor soul sealed into the machine tearing their mind apart.

VLAAKITH TAVKI NA’ZIN! MY QUEEN, HEAR ME!”

Lae’zel’s voice broke and splintered just as her thoughts did. No longer a fearsome warrior, but a woman being pulled apart piece by piece, calling to anyone who may listen to her pleas. She repeated the words, begging for any respite, but there was none. Only the pain that ruptured her and Astra’s brain, burning away all it could. Not curing, but taking her very essence, harvesting it.

Around her Astra could see shapes moving, her companions she guessed. They were terrified, judging by the frantic way they yelled even if the exact words couldn’t penetrate the storm in her mind. But then, a voice did reach her. Coming from within, not her own but one she recognised nonetheless. The Guardian.

“The machine is killing her! Why are you letting this happen?”

Astra couldn’t answer, could barely move under the crushing strain. The words cut deep, and the Guardian did not relent.

“You’re meant to be protecting them, protecting her! Do something, paladin !”

She felt the venom dripping from the last word, her heart breaking under the weight of the admonishment. Astra didn’t want this for Lae’zel, but the individual threads of her own mind were unravelling too fast for her to focus.

“The githyanki could not be trusted. You knew this, and still you led them here. Her undoing is because of you! I will save her, but you should never have let this happen.”

A surge of energy rushed into the Zaith’isk , and through her failing senses Astra just about perceived the explosion that followed, a roar of blinding light and fire. The storm in her mind ceased, and she returned to herself once again.

She was still on her knees, and could see a small pool of blood that had gathered on the floor in front of her. Some of it still stained her face, and she realised her nose and maybe even her eyes had bled during the haze of pain. Shadowheart knelt at her side, pouring healing magic into her head that made her feel like she was floating for a moment. Astra looked beyond the concerned face of her cleric and to the rest of the room, one that was filling with choking smoke from the still burning device.

The githyanki doctor looked equal parts distraught and furious at what had happened, even as an equally vexated barbarian and warlock tried to confront her about what was being done to their friend. The others were with Lae’zel, who was wobbly on her feet and paler than usual but still yelled and cursed to whoever would listen about the failure of the Zaith’isk , the parasite that still lingered in her mind.

The words of the Guardian hung heavily over Astra, but there was no time for rest. Lae’zel had concluded the failure of the Zaith’isk to be a crime, a betrayal that needed to be reported. She wouldn’t hear any argument about what it’s true operation or purpose may be, and it was all the party could do to keep up with the wronged woman as she strode deeper into the creche to confront anyone senior enough to hear her accusations.

With everywhere they had gone, everything they had done, Astra had sometimes let herself think of what might come afterwards. If she could ever one day sit down and tell this story that began in the Hells and ended…

Well, that was yet to be decided.

Yet even before that ending had been written, there was so much that had already happened that would seem unbelievable to describe to whoever would end up listening to her. Kneeling before the lich Queen of the Githyanki was just one such moment. An absurd thought, given the stakes and the peril they faced, but Astra found herself contemplative still as her head hung low in reverent submission to the towering apparition of Vlaakith that now stood before them.

Just making it into this room had taken no small amount of half-truths and unrelenting persistence from Lae’zel, each level of leadership within the creche more belligerent and distrustful than the last. Their party had stumbled into the middle of a githyanki inquisition, one that had even shaken the fearsome Captain that was in charge of creche Y’llek. This officer was their biggest obstacle before Lae’zel could have justice for the supposed sabotage of the Zaith’isk , the failure of the creche to cure her. Although perhaps it was actually the second biggest obstacle, as while the two gith exchanged threats and barbs, another non-verbal battle was being fought. Between the silent icy glare and menacing growl of the Captains two huge wolf companions, and the cleric who was giving everything they had not to succumb to blind terror.

The psionic link of the tadpoles may have played a part, or maybe the sheer ferocity of the fear in summer green eyes was enough, but either way Astra understood what was happening within Shadowheart as she struggled to keep still, resisting her body’s impulse to tremble or flee. Their eyes met, and Astra saw the raw courage of the cleric through her clenched fists and gritted teeth, daring not to look away from the object of her panic just in case the wolves were to pounce while her back was turned. Though leaving her like this was unconscionable, Astra knew there were problems. Leaving the room would only antagonise the gith further, and Shadowheart wouldn’t appreciate some open act of comfort, the need for discretion, the acceptance of pain and suffering far too ingrained in her to allow it.

Truthfully, Astra wasn’t sure what she was doing initially, only that it was some kind of instinctive action rising from the same part of her that wanted to do whatever it could to ease pain, to give what she could to help whether it would even be wanted or appreciated. Except this time, her blind fumbling aid could be tempered by the covert awareness so valued by one of Shar’s faithful.

Shadowheart’s shield hung on her hip, easily accessible given how close it was to her hand. It would shield them here too, from whoever dared to judge a woman facing her greatest fear and having someone try and ease her worry. Delicately Astra moved her hand behind the circular armament and took a firm hold of the shaking hand of her cleric. No one else saw, only the two of them feeling the shared warmth and silent promise of support. The cleric flinched at first, but the look on her face signified surprise more than an adverse reaction. As that shock faded, so did the trembling. Fear still had a presence, but Shadowheart stood a little taller, looked a little less lost as she squeezed the hidden hand back firmly.

Leaving the Captain’s quarters had been a relief, but they were nowhere near finished. The Inquisitor had summoned them, and there was very little choice but to proceed. She tried to turn a blind eye to it, but Astra couldn’t help but notice the rows and rows of storage shelves also housed within this deeper part of the creche. Stocked with backpacks and other belongings, many of which bore the symbol of the rising dawn. More evidence of the crime committed here, one which only revealed itself to be more heinous with every body they had seen, the numerous records of interrogations and tortures they had found. A temple of hope and light desecrated in the name of conquest, its residents worth no more than the information they carried and the few belongings that could be taken from them.

It didn’t matter how wronged she might have felt however, when they stood face to face with the Inquisitor and were surrounded by his personal guard. An older soldier, clad in imposing armour comprising of intricate plate and fine metal accents. He spoke almost softly, politely to Astra and her party with an ease that could only come from equal parts knowledge and power. To him and his soldiers, they were already known, their journey observed and documented. Hearing their deeds and battles recited back to her with such detail made Astra’s skin crawl, but there was nothing else to be done apart from being silent and listening. Not with the door locked behind them and a host of weapons ready and waiting for any sign of opposition. Not even when the question she had been dreading was asked with a wicked and insincere smile.

“Now, hand over the weapon. Please .”

Her mind raced as soon as the order was given, looking for a way out that simply didn’t exist. Buzzing at the back of her head, Astra felt equally urgent psionic threads connecting her to the others. Such open transferrals were thankfully rare, but in moments of extreme distress the tadpole would pounce upon any faltering in mental defences and bond minds together. Lae’zel’s thoughts were steel and certainty, demanding the prism be handed over. Shadowheart’s were blurred however, warring emotions muddying the intent beneath the mire.

There was the cold hard grip of duty, holding the artefact close at all costs. But mixed in was also resignation , having been entrusted with such a coveted and dangerous item she didn’t even begin to understand, knowing just what the consequences of refusing to part with it now would be. Her mind was still sharp, realising the gith didn’t seem to know exactly how she had acquired the thing in the first place, instead believing that it had been looted from the Nautiloid crash. Also, the cleric ruminated on the box’s strange attachment to them it had displayed before, its power fluctuating as it seemed to refuse to leave her side.

Although maybe such reasoning was simply academic. The choice was compliance or death, and they chose the former. However the moment the cleric had revealed the prism from its home on her hip pouch, a great pillar of light erupted from behind the Inquisitor. Not a spell or even material, but a projection of a towering figure. All around her Astra saw githyanki fall to their knees, commanding and rigid soldiers cowed in an instant by this apparition, Lae’zel doing the same. They weren’t a solid presence in the room, but they had been watching all the same for the moment the artefact was produced. Now, the undying Queen of the githyanki had come to bear witness.

The air of menace and threat circling Astra and the party had evaporated, now a hushed silence broken only by the booming voice of Vlaakith addressing her subjects. The monarch spoke briefly to her Inquisitor, but then her focus turned to Lae’zel of K’llir. Leaning in close to the soldier, acknowledging her as a valued subject, promising ascension. Under the off-yellow light of the conjured projection, Astra saw the change that had started with the Queen’s appearance now fully take control of her gith companion.

After the Zaith’isk had failed, the party had followed Lae’zel as she stalked the halls of the creche. The promise of purification had been shown to be a lie, and the device, the one thing that had spurred the gith forward from the very beginning had tried to tear her mind apart without remorse or reason. She was formidable of course - Astra had seen her strength and will from the moment the pod next to her on the Nautiloid had released it’s hostage amidst the withering fire of dragons - but there had always been a focus to her severity. An eagerness for battle reserved only for mutual enemies, knowledge of a cure for the tadpole reluctantly shared but shared nonetheless to new companions even if there had been distrust once.

Lae’zel had uncovered a painful truth about the reality of purification, or more accurately how such a thing most likely did not exist and was instead a convenient story taught to serve a more nefarious purpose. The evidence was there, her anger justified, but that had changed now the moment her Queen had only acknowledged her existence. How could logic and truth overthrow the power of duty and lifelong loyalty? Astra wished Lae’zel would see beyond promises and vacuous flattery offered by her ruler, but she couldn’t blame her gith friend for complying blindly. Soon, a final order was given, and they had no choice but to attempt to follow it. Drafted as assassins on behalf of the lich Queen, seeking prey that lived within the artefact.

“Boundless, timeless. Like every dream that ever was stitched together. The Astral - it is home.”

Lae’zel took in their surroundings with a look of loving appreciation, revelling in the stillness. Astra felt it too, a weightlessness that threatened to carry her away tumbling through the Astral sea. But her boots stayed planted, and her mind hardened with focus. A grim task still lay ahead.

As Vlaakith had detailed the mission set out before them, illustrated both its importance and the boundless rewards that would be bestowed upon Lae’zel, the artefact had been pulled by an unseen force from their possession, and had begun to flower. Some of it’s mysteries had been revealed, and the Astral Prism as it was now known to be had unfurled with a bundle of great energy until a portal materialised within it’s scattered pieces. It was said to house a great enemy of the githyanki, one they were now tasked with killing. Astra knew exactly who it was, dreading the confrontation already, but still the party had strode forth into the not-quite unknown, the Guardian awaiting.

An unseen force pulled them forward, step by step further on one of many rocky bodies suspended within the air, until without warning a voice coming from within their heads shattered the tranquillity.

I may have made a mistake trusting you. We will speak, face to face.

A feeling of floating permeated with sickening nausea, and suddenly Astra was no longer with her companions. Still within the Astral, but in a different location entirely.

“What happened? Where are the others?” She asked, whipping her head around in a frantic search.

“I needed to speak to the leader.”

In front of her, The Guardian stepped forward. They wore the same flawless paladin armour, its golden hues and red fabric adornments glorious amongst the silvery blue of the world around them, but everything else was different. Gone was that aura that made Astra feel safe, the understanding so often present in their violet eyes replaced with cold disappointment, a simmering contempt in amongst it. A simple frown, a clear dissatisfaction, and it made Astra freeze on the spot where she stood.

Another step forward. “That’s what you call yourself, isn’t it? The leader, the heroic knight saving all she can, the answer to everyone’s problems?” She chuckled mirthlessly. “You couldn’t even save yourself without me.”

Astra fumbled for her words, but the Guardian wasn’t finished.

“Mine is just another life for you to take, isn’t it? Tell me, do you even know how many you have killed, paladin, just in the last few tendays? And you celebrated that slaughter, didn’t you? A grand day of murder ended in the arms of a woman who hates who you are, who you distract and torment with your own selfish morality, forced upon anyone unfortunate enough to call you an ally.”

She knew she must have looked an imbecile, the way her mouth hung open and still no response materialised. But Astra had nothing to say, no way to dispel the verbal wounds that had completely blindsided her. Not capable of meeting the eyes of her protector any longer, she stewed on that shame and building resentment at having been forced into this confrontation by the same githyanki who had already destroyed so much she would hold dear. There was truth in what the Guardian said, dripping with venom as it was, and they both knew it. It cut deep, had her mind reeling from pictures in her head of death and blood and summer green eyes until finally, a new face of stone settled upon the protector's sculpted half-elf features. With a smooth motion, they conjured a shortsword to their hands and descended to their knees.

“Go on then, Astra” The Guardian spoke solemnly, a hint of resigned exasperation now instead of blunt anger. “Take my blade, and fulfil your mission. If you truly believe me to be an enemy, that my death is your only way out, then strike me down. Perhaps your oath may even hold despite my murder.”

Not knowing what else to do, Astra took the weapon. It was immaculate as all things about the golden paladin seemed to be, but it weighed a ton in her hand. The pair of eyes she looked down upon bore into her very soul, seeing the flawed and short-sighted leader she was. The one who held a life, and the expectations of an empire, in her hands.

Only time would tell if it was the wrong decision, but the blade clattered to the floor. She could stomach holding the thing no longer, and saw the path ahead clearly. The Guardian would live, carry on protecting them as they always had, and whatever waited back on the Material Plane would be faced with a clear head and a lighter heart. Astra dreaded what would come next, but that was nothing new. At least someone who had the power and the wisdom to actually keep them safe would continue to live.

The ice in their expression melted, and the Guardian stood once again. Looking infinitely more at ease, they inclined their head gratefully with an emerging respect. “Thank you, paladin. I always hoped you would make the right choice, and you have not let me down. Now, I can give you the answers you deserve.”

When they spoke, they spoke as equals and allies once again, the Guardian understanding and enthusiastic to convey what they knew to Astra so that she might act upon it in the physical world. Astra was grateful to have her protector back, even if all they said made the next moments infinitely more complicated. Details of Vlaakith’s fraudulence, of the lie of the Queen's power to cure illithid infections and stop the Grand Design of the mindflayers. A deception centuries in the making, and one that would be kept secret at all costs.

“As soon as you leave this Prism, the githyanki will turn on you. They were always going to kill you, whether you obeyed Vlaakith or not. Your own gith companion will be furious, but you can help her see this truth, of me and of her people.” The Guardian looked sorry to deliver such a grave warning, necessary as it was.

“I’ll try and help her see. I don’t know what she’ll do once I tell her, but Lae’zel deserves to know it all the same.”

“Good. I believe you can win this fight, Astra, and will keep yourself and the others safe. However, to find the Absolute will require all you can give. You’ve done well to embrace the potential of the tadpole so far, but you must continue to do so.” They urged. “It’s strength is too valuable to turn down.”

“I… I know, but -”

“Did it not turn the tide against Nere? Save the captives at Grymforge? I trust you to find the Absolute and do what needs to be done in the Material Plane - can you not trust me to keep you safe from the negative influence of the infection?”

It was an earnest plea, and it settled Astra’s nerves ever so slightly. Consuming harvested parasites was something she wouldn’t force upon her friends, but for her the Guardian’s words were pertinent. As wrong and foul as she knew and felt the power to be, it had been useful. So long as only she would bear the consequences, Astra would use the tadpole if there were no other choices available.

She nodded hesitantly, but the Guardian smiled with warmth and approval. “We share the same goal, and I will always have your best interests at heart. Together, we will give all we can and be free of these parasites as well as the Absolute. Now go, the next attack here is imminent and I cannot risk you getting hurt. Good luck, my friend.”

Another disorienting rush, and Astra was somewhere else once again. Just about staying on her feet, she saw her companions come rushing over to her side, Shadowheart’s healing magic already at her fingertips.

“Astra! What in the Hells happened?” Wyll was first to reach her, a light touch on her shoulders helping to steady her.

“That ethereal voice spoke, then the Astral seemed to swallow you whole like a silent Dimension Door. We feared the worst, given what we came here to do.” Gale looked relieved to see her, as did they all.

Everyone, that was, except one.

“Well? Have you slain my Queen’s enemy?” Lae’zel demanded. Astra understood her determination, her desperation, almost too much so. In a hazy sort of head rush she recognised the tadpole beginning to form a connection as Lae’zel’s mind probed for access.

Sharing a singular consciousness was a deeply unpleasant feeling. Thoughts and memories lost their edges, and a foreign personality mixed with her own made her own mind an unfamiliar place. But Astra grit her teeth and gave her gith companion what she sought. In an instant, Lae’zel saw everything that had happened. The admonishment, the potential sacrifice, the truth of Vlaakith’s rule.

“They surrendered to you? And, and my Queen… No.” A lesser woman may have crumbled in the face of such shattering revelations, but Lae’zel just about held herself together. She shook her head, vigorously as if physically casting off the doubt that showed in every inch of her face before being violently shoved down into a stoic set frown. “Lies, all of it. It must be! My people will not turn on us. A cure can still be obtained!”

“Lae’zel please , we have to be ready for what is going to happen next.” Astra pleaded with her to see beyond what she believed and at least acknowledge the possibility of another truth, before turning to the gathered party. “The Guardian is still alive and still on our side. They told me the creche have been ordered to kill us on our return. We’re going to have to defend ourselves the moment we leave this place.”

“There were rather a lot of them in that room. This is either going to be a very short battle, or a very fun one.” Perhaps a note of fear lingered underneath the bravado, but Astarion’s bloodlust was still quite real.

“We’ve got you Lae. That Inquisitor won’t do nothing to you while we’re around.” Karlach looked ready to throw a comforting arm round the faltering githyanki’s shoulders, but remembered herself just in time.

Gale and Wyll were already readying magic and potions to boost the others, empowering their fighters with extra speed and strength knowing just how vicious combat with elite gith soldiers would be. Shadowheart had a look of nervous apprehension with a distinct note of frustration at the worrying turn of events showing in her furrowed brow, but she said nothing and added her own divine spark to the process.

The way laid open back to the material plane, and as Astra began to lead them forward, Lae’zel pulled her aside momentarily. She feared for a last minute change of heart from her companion, but instead their reptilian eyes softened, and she whispered quickly as if the words were uncomfortable on her tongue.

“The Guardian was unfair to you. You are a capable leader and warrior, ra’stil . We will overcome whatever awaits.”

The world swirled and spun around them as they departed the Astral Prism and returned to the grand chamber of the temple claimed by the Inquisition and its leader. Astra’s vision settled and her mind cleared quickly, but she almost didn’t comprehend what was happening in time even as the world seemed to slow down around her.

Being forewarned of the ambush didn’t make the sight of silver blades being drawn any less intimidating, their war cries roared in unison any less potent at firing her adrenaline into overdrive. Astra saw her own warriors react, with a roar of red burning fury, a pale shape seeking the cover of shadows. Force magic, either lancing bolts or thundering missiles carved through the air overhead on their way to puncture armour and flesh. But the chaos faded into the background when two githyanki stood face to face in a confrontation all of their own.

Astra didn’t understand the words the Inquisitor spoke, but the disgust and poison that coated the volley he launched at Lae’zel conveyed his intent even before he reached for his weapon. His blade unsheathed, a final snarl of judgement, and he raised its wicked edge above the head of his kin. The woman who watched what he did, stared almost blankly, arms hanging limply at her side and her posture flat, defeated. A soldier who was always lightning quick to draw their sword, could anticipate danger through years of brutal training and honed instinct. Lae’zel did nothing, did not defend herself, and as Astra sprinted desperately to close the distance and intercept the fatal blow she realised why.

Lae’zel couldn’t believe the strike would come. She didn’t think one of her own, an Inquisitor of her monarch, would hurt her whilst she had remained faithful, followed protocol. Her people had betrayed her, and she was too stunned to even act.

The man was fast, and Astra was too far away to stop what was coming. She knew what would happen next, yet couldn’t bear to look away - meaning she saw the moment a powerful Guiding Bolt struck the sword arm of the Inquisitor and disarmed him in a storm of divine light and burning flesh.

He screamed and reeled backwards, clutching the charred limb and cursing in his native tongue. In this momentary respite, Astra met the eyes of Shadowheart, who offered the barest acknowledgement as to what her intervention had meant before she was off fighting elsewhere, before finally she grabbed a hold of Lae’zels shoulders. The trance the gith was in was dispelled with the grounding contact, and wordlessly her and Astra turned to engage the recovering and rearmed Inquisitor.

He would land blows, and all of them sustained injuries in the fighting that followed. Astra took her usual role as a constant at the side of the more experienced warrior, parrying and harassing the skilled Inquisitor while Lae'zels' razor sharp focus exploited the new gaps in his defence. Despite being outnumbered, the older githyanki would land a handful of hits, most absorbed by their plate but one devastating cleave cutting across the front of Lae’zels armoured stomach before burying the sword edge in Astra’s side. She yelled as the silver tore the strength out of her, had her doubled over and fumbling for a healing spell. Though blood had been drawn across their torso, her companion had not suffered nearly as grievous a wound. Another defiant cry, and with a flash of lightning fast precision Lae’zel buried her sword through her betrayer’s heart, silencing him save for a wordless groan of agony.

Blood covered the walls and floor of the once pristine monument to her God. Some of it hers, some of it her friends’, most of it githyanki. A quick application of magic had stunted the damage somewhat, but her side still burned with fresh agony as Astra moved to survey the scene and check in with her party once the room had fallen silent. Fresh lacerations decorated the soft armour of their warlock, with Gale and Astarion both nursing deep reddened burns that Shadowheart was treating with as much patience as she could given her own magical fatigue and the danger they still found themselves in. It was hard to tell if Karlach was even wounded given the flames and blood from various owners that covered her body, so Astra went to the companion that hadn’t suffered physically, but perhaps needed the most attention.

Lae’zel looked upwards, seeing with begging eyes beyond the crumbling ceiling of the room and further up past the skies of Faerûn itself. She looked cold, alone, abandoned as she yelled helplessly towards whoever could possibly hear the cries of a lone woman having their world torn apart.

“Vlaakith… Vlaakith! I have wielded your fury as a blade, roared your wrath as a dragon! You promised ascension, yet I crawl amongst my own people, low as an asp’s belly. Shka’keth!”

With each word, each desperate call to an uncaring regent and her kin that had turned on her, more and more of Lae’zels fire and passion was sundered to the silence that answered her cries. Her shoulders sank, and defiance was replaced by true sorrow and a half sob that sounded so alien in the usually proud and deliberate voice.

“I followed your path. What good, this heart of stone, for it to be shattered ?”

Heartbreak and loss hung in the air around the two women for a moment, neither of them knowing how to continue. Lae’zel would resent pity, or a hug even, Astra considered, but she felt the raw sadness all the same and couldn’t bear to just leave her to drown in it.

“Lae’zel, I’m… I’m so sorry. To have all of this promised to you, then for them to turn on you like this? I can’t begin to-”

“Silence!” Lae’zel snapped, before a tentative belief returned to her. “This may yet be a test, a trial to prepare me truly to take my place atop a red dragon. There must be more for me to do to prove my worth again to my people. I- I need time to think on this.”

“What?” The conviction with which she spoke startled Astra more than the words themselves, one that seemed to dissociate Lae’zel from the blood and corpses around her and shroud her in a shred of deceitful comfort. “The Inquisitor tried to kill you, what do you mean-”

A yell from a shadowed wing of the chamber halted the conversation. “Darlings, I hate to interrupt, but I may have a way out of this place that doesn’t involve fighting the rest of the creche. Just in case anyone’s interested.”

An alternative way out did sound appealing given the hostile nature of the heavily populated creche, even one that ended up being a gauntlet of traps and arcane gates. Lae’zel wouldn’t hear anymore on what had just happened, and thoughts soon turned to surviving these new perils anyway.

A feeling of recognition grew within Astra the further down the dangerous hallway they travelled. The structure and function of the security they faced matched diagrams and stories she had seen and heard long ago. Measures far too powerful and unforgiving to be implemented in her home, instead saved for the most sacred of vaults and safe places guarding invaluable treasure. Something that transcended gold or other wealth, an importance only understood by those who possessed equal parts knowledge and faith.

Through disarmed traps and destroyed magic generators, they found themselves deep within such a vault. There was an eerie stillness in the air, one that seemed at odds with the incensed githyanki stronghold that lay just a stone’s throw above their heads. Despite this, no patrols had found them, no living enemies waited for their arrival. All they had to do was continue forward and face what waited up ahead, suspended above a pedestal of gleaming gold and polished stone.

“The magic radiating from that object is staggering. Do you know what it is Astra?” Gale asked her, distracted as she was by the halo of brilliant light that surrounded the artefact up ahead.

Astra wasn’t fully aware of the steps forwards she was taking, only that the flood of recalled teachings and stories made her hands shake and drew her ever closer. “I don’t believe it - The Blood of Lathander. It’s said the mace head contains the essence of his human avatar, remains of a battle long since fought.”

“So, are you going to leave it here? I’m sure the gith will take good care of it, not that such a vain trinket would be of much use to us.” Shadowheart asked, but her disdainful comment sounded more like a required barb rather than a deeply felt truth. Astra shot her a glare all the same, but couldn’t bring her focus away from the glorious weapon for more than a moment.

“This place had more lethal security in place than the grandest vaults of The Counting House. Can you really just reach out and take it?”

Shadowheart scoffed at Wyll’s assessment. “Oh please, we would’ve been killed a hundred times over if we’d tried this break in on a Sharran temple. Though there is likely to still be a consequence to removing this from its shrine…”

Astra took a closer look at the pedestal the mace rested on, or more accurately floated above. An carved empty socket sat at its centre but it was otherwise inert, no visible switches or pressure plates. She was conflicted certainly, but also understood the significance of this rediscovery and the unsavoury new surroundings the weapon had found itself in.

“I can’t just leave it here. If the gith follow our path and find it, then it’ll be lost forever. But I can return it, to my temple in Rivington, and a new home can be found that will keep such a sacred item safe.”

“I don’t like this, soldier. You know your God best and all that, but just be careful, yeah?”

Astra nodded reassuringly at Karlach, and stepped forward once again. The head of the mace hummed with power, the spark of the divine it housed feeling familiar to her own that spawned from the depth of her oath. Slowly she reached out, brushing the handle with a gentle caress at first, waiting for a reaction. Though none came, and finally Astra took a firm grip and tugged the weapon towards her, overcoming the sudden pull away from her she felt.

A pause, one just long enough to spark belief that there would be no consequence, but this was short lived. Arcane machinery hummed into life all around the central platform, drawing immense power and directing it up towards the roof of the Monastery. What had once been a dormant empty archway came to life with an image of a portal, one that led outside of the underground vault and showed exactly what was coming next. The final act of the Lathanderite monks, one they hadn’t even triggered in their moment of greatest desperation, but that was rapidly activating now. A Lance, a weapon of total destruction. A failsafe that would burn and erase the monastery, the creche and the very chamber where they now stood unless they acted.

The device whirred into life, consuming power in a frenzy before it would be unleashed in one devastating volley. All around the ground trembled, the very walls themselves shaking in fear of what was coming. Astra was close to panicking, but within the chaos had made a mental connection – the gap within the pedestal was the right shape and size for a Dawnmaster Crest, a small carved symbol she had found during their earlier exploration. Slotting it into the opening would almost certainly deactivate the weapon.

So why was she hesitating?

Thinking of what the Lance would do, the destruction it would wreak, had allowed repressed emotions to sink their teeth into her mind, and they weren’t letting her go. Days, tendays, however long ago it had been, an act of ruthless, meaningless violence had been committed against monks looking only to worship in peace and offer the best parts of their faith to new pilgrims interested in learning. Just another act of abuse and cruelty visited upon the undeserving that would go unpunished. All the creche had tried to do to them, to Lae’zel, her friend . They’d used the threat of death and the yoke of Lae’zel’s sincere belief to try and bully them into being pawns, turning them against their only ally in the service of preserving a grand lie and the reign of an uncaring monarch.

Astra had the power now to deliver justice, consequences finally for all of this slaughter and betrayal. Using the power of her God’s sun to enact wrath upon these defilers. Glorious retribution to avenge her fallen brothers and sisters.

She took a shaky breath, and slotted the Crest into the socket, the arcane machinery and the trembling of the earth ceasing at once.

Her knees almost gave out despite the ground now becoming still, and a burning shame roared through her. It terrified her, that she had even considered such an act of large-scale murder, but she couldn’t let it happen. No matter how much it hurt, how angry and wronged she felt, it didn’t justify this. Most of all, she wouldn’t be able to look Nathaniel in the eye again had she allowed this to occur. Of all the boundless kindnesses and good he had done for her, the one thing held dearer than all the rest was his pride in who she was, who she was trying to be. A force for good looking forward and aiming always to be a beacon of hope for others despite the injustices of her own life and past. Giving others the new dawn that had only come for her far too late.

Losing his respect, the only person in all the realms who had been proud of her, who believed in her when she had almost given up on herself, was not worth any kind of blood-soaked revenge she thought she wanted. It scared her more than losing herself.

The portal to the Monastery exterior had remained open, the inviting view of fresh air and the sunset still radiant within the towering archway. Shaken, but still whole, Astra led the party swiftly back to the surface before they made a hasty retreat from the area, putting as much distance between themselves and the creche before the setting sun would force them to halt and make a temporary camp.

“So? How are they both doing?”

“Not great, to be honest. One of them was more inclined to see sense, though probably not the one you’d expect. The world around you falling apart must make it difficult to think clearly.”

On the one hand, it was a kind of gossip to be talking about their companions without them around to hear. On the other hand, a githyanki rebellion and a world ending orb were the sort of things that did concern the whole party and absolutely warranted a swift discussion.

A few hours of not quite walking, not quite running away from the creche had taken them to the site of an old stone ruin, barely more than a few crumbling pillars and cracked tiles littering the ground. But it provided some shelter from the elements and wouldn’t be as exposed in the case of a search party coming to find them. All in all, it had seemed a secure enough place to camp for the evening, catching as much rest as possible before finally setting off in the direction of Moonrise Towers, the last lead available to them. Though in reality, they had somewhat unwillingly played host to two separate visitors. The first, arriving in the middle of the night and with their blade drawn.

“Lies, Lae’zel, all of it! There is no purification, no ascension, only consumption. The Zaith’isk pulls apart the mind, erasing the ghaik parasite and it’s host. But the lich queen takes even more, body and soul in her vain pursuit of Godhood. That is what becomes of the ascended.”

Voss had begun by laying his sword at his feet in a gesture of peace, but with a few short sentences had torn Lae’zel apart all the same. She had cursed his name, denied the heretical words, even drawn her own weapon like it was the only constant she could hold on to, rely on when all around her betrayal consumed her wholly.

The former Kith’rak turned revolutionary had remained steadfast in the face of her opposition, imparting his knowledge bluntly even whilst knowing how devastating the depth of the truth would be. Astra had been content for Lae’zel to lead the discussion, wanting to give her friend the freedom to choose after suffering within the confines of her Queen’s tyranny for so long. Whilst she had been quick to bury her vulnerability after the death of the Inquisitor, Lae’zels immense defeat and despondency had been too persistent this time for her to dismiss. Voss left as quickly as he had arrived in their camp, but the weight of his revelations only grew heavier on the gith’s shoulders.

A few hours of uneasy sleep later, and Astra hadn’t been able to leave it any longer to go and find Lae’zel, if anything just to learn what to expect from the soldiers Voss had warned Vlaakith would send after them.

She wasn’t sparring with her training dummy, or tending to her equipment like she so often was. The only indication Lae’zel was actually still here with them was the mumbled stream of githyanki emanating from within her tent, all of it unrecognisable but an untamed doubt coating every word spoken. Astra could only guess what she was saying, maybe prayers or simply thinking out loud, though neither of these options seemed to be of much use to Lae’zel at the moment.

She couldn’t exactly knock on the soft material of her tent, so instead Astra made her footsteps deliberately loud as she approached. The last thing she wanted to do was sneak up on her. The voice inside fell silent as Astra stood just outside the closed privacy flap. A moment of indecision stifled her words initially, but she began tentatively all the same.

“Lae’zel? It’s me.”

“What is it? Are we departing?” It wasn’t unusual for Lae’zel to be so business-like, but the hollowness in her voice was both new and concerning.

“No, not yet.”

The question was sharper this time. “Then why are you here?”

Astra herself wasn’t sure of the specifics beyond one simple truth. “We just wanted to know how… how you are, after everything that happened?”

She winced as she said it, hearing how pathetically inadequate the question was given the reality of the situation. Lae’zel fell silent again, a heavy quiet that was pushing Astra into retreat, fearing she had overstepped a boundary and prodded at far too fresh of a wound.

“Look, I’m sorry. You don’t want me to bother you, I understand.” Astra turned to leave, embarrassed and guilty. “We’re here if you need us, but if you-“

“Vlaakith’ka sivim hrath krash’ht”

The louder voice interrupted both her own and her walk away from Lae’zel’s tent. Astra watched as the privacy flap was unpinned, and the woman herself stepped out through the opening. She had most of her armour already on, the shiny metal polished to within an inch of its life. Every piece of plate looked proud, ready for combat, but its wearer did not. It was clear Lae’zel hadn’t slept, her intricate braids that usually trod such a fine line between practical and elegant were a mess, the black warpaint around her eyes smudged. All of the pride the gith woman usually had, in her appearance and the way she carried herself, had simply evaporated.

“What does that phrase mean?” Astra asked, noting the turmoil it was spoken with.

‘Only in Vlaakith may we find light. ’ The first words I ever read on Tir’su slate. A foundation upon which all other protocols and teachings rest. They are law, creed, truth .”

The last word seemed to burn her tongue as she spoke it, her eyes wrenching closed with the distaste. Astra let her continue, hoping that this release would at least be a shred of comfort she could offer the suffering woman.

“To forsake this truth, to disobey and to doubt is to forsake Vlaakith herself. The only use for a githyanki who sins against their people is to be the blood and meat that feeds the Queen’s red dragons.” She recited the teaching’s with a resigned energy, the words hitting her differently now they were spoken aloud.

Just when Astra was worried Lae’zel had begun to doubt Voss’s words, give up on herself, her face hardened. The guilt and the hurt were overcome with a more familiar fire, determination and new simmering ferocity all at once.

Astra couldn’t help but ask, understanding the severity of her friend's new reality but recognising the spirit within recovering. “What does that mean for you now?”

“Ever since I grew strong enough to hold a blade I have fought for Vlaakith. Followed her words, given my faith and fury in pursuit of ascension and her favour. But if Voss speaks true, if purification is a lie, ascension only a means for the lich Queen to consume her people and pursue godhood? Then I have not sinned against Vlaakith.”

For all of Vlaakith’s enormous might, Astra had to wonder whether the Undying Queen herself would have still felt a hint of intimidation were she to see into the eyes of this woman she had wronged for herself. Betrayed, hunted, abandoned, but with a new courage and vengeful strength boundless as the Astral Sea. One who swore a new declaration.

She has sinned against me .”

“So, Lae’zel has chosen a side then.”

Astra nodded at Wyll’s conclusion before recounting the rest of the conversation they had shared. Lae’zel had recounted more of her training and lessons that were now so at odds with what the rebellious knight had told her. Two decades of unrewarded faith was too much for anyone to process so quickly, so instead they had focussed on what may come next. Voss had asked to meet in the city, his collaboration and the strange detection device he had given them placing them firmly within what was emerging to be a devastating schism within his people.

“Are we really gonna be a part of a githyanki civil war? I’m sure that little whatever-the-f*ck-it’s-called will be useful to have, but Gods it would be nice to have things be simple for once.”

“Wouldn’t it just?” Astra couldn’t help but agree with Karlach’s disbelief, answering with a wry smile. “What a f*cking mess.”

“The truth can cause as many problems as it solves, but it’s worth it all the same.” Wyll remarked, though he clearly had more than just Lae’zels situation on his mind.

“I know you’re right, I really do, but it doesn’t make it easier to watch what she’s going through. In less than a day she went from certain of her path to striking down an Inquisitor of her regent. Can’t help but be in awe of the strength she must have just to pick herself up and carry on.”

“Careful, Astra. What would our dear Sharran think if she heard you saying such nice things about Lae’zel?” Astarion chimed in with an amused raised eyebrow.

Him bringing up Shadowheart made her momentarily nervous, wondering just how much the others knew about them, but his provocation didn’t seem to have the focus to betray any real compromising information. “She’d be even more glad that she’s on watch rather than being here and having to listen to an instigating vampire.”

“Merely an observation, darling.” He said innocently.

“I may invoke the Triad on occasion, appeal to Helm from time to time, but I have never felt a devotion like Lae’zel once had. To have such a thing ripped out from underneath you? We’ll have to help see her through, remind her that we can be here for her.” Wyll declared confidently, the instinctive empathy as inspiring as it always was to Astra.

“Damn right. We’ve got to look out for each other, especially when someone very powerful asks one of us to do something very stupid.”

The others gathered around having this discussion followed the barbarians pointedly disapproving gaze to the two men stood away from the group, a stuttering purple glow distorting the air between them. The older one was deep in concentration, chanting softly a litany of arcane phrases whilst the glow, and the man it was emanating from, reacted in kind.

“Is Gale’s grandad done sorting out that orb yet?”

Elminster , Karlach. The most famous wizard in all the realms?” Wyll urged in reminder.

“Why should I bother learning his name when he’s gonna stroll into our camp, eat all our best rations, and tell my wizard to blow himself up?” Karlach threw her arms wide, letting out her frustration.

Astra thought about replying, but realised she had very little to offer in response to what the other tiefling had accurately said.

Elminster had arrived in camp early in the morning, the low sun bathing the camp in long shadows cast from the ruins scattered around its perimeter. Astra had been deep in prayer knelt next to Shadowheart when she had heard Gale’s surprised exclamation from over by his tent. Opening her eyes, she noticed an elderly man, clad in elaborate robes and with an impressive beard white as snow, shuffle over to the wizard. Whilst she hadn’t heard exactly what was said, Astra could see the two greet each other in a undoubtedly familiar way, even if Gale still looked fairly surprised at the new company before flowing swiftly into annoyance as the stranger began rifling through his personal supply of rations with a hitherto unseen voracity.

“I think the lack of sleep is getting to me.” Astra mumbled to the woman next to her.

“Hmm?” Shadowheart asked still with her eyes closed, half interested and half annoyed and having her silent prayers interrupted.

“I could swear I’m watching Elminster Aumar eating all of our cheese.”

To be fair, that did pique the cleric’s curiosity enough to have her crack open one tired eye.

“Wonderful, another visitor. You’d better go see what he wants with Gale.” She sighed. Astra definitely related to the feeling.

She hauled her exhausted body to its feet, stretching her legs after having spent so long in the hunched supplicant pose. After shaking off all the malaise she could, Astra started to head over to join the two mages.

From behind her, she heard a final order come from Shadowheart. “Don’t let him anywhere near our wine!”

Astra waved a tired hand of acknowledgement to the half elf behind her. “On my oath.”

There were barriers of both Elminster’s hunger and his immense verbosity to overcome before she and Gale could finally understand just why an old acquaintance of the wizard had made such a journey to find them. But once they did arrive at the crux of the matter, the gravity of it soon brought Astra back to being fully alert.

Mystra sent you to find Gale? What does she want with him?” Astra bristled at the mention of the Goddess of magic seeking anything from Gale, now more than ever.

“It is a most pressing matter, one which has shaken the very heavens to their core, a grave future that beckons ever closer for all the realms and their inhabitants. Cataclysm in its purest form…”

“Please, could you speak plainly ?” Gale asked with a real impatient edge to his voice. Astra almost shot an accusatory glance at him as if to question the sudden hypocrisy at someone else’s meandering speech, but it wasn’t a time to be so petty.

The older wizard looked slightly perturbed at the insolence, but continued. “The orb within you. A reminder of your folly, but it may yet serve a greater purpose than a monument to a past mistake.”

“I’ve… informed them of the circ*mstances surrounding its acquisition. There’s no need to be so coy.” An undercurrent of shame accompanied Gale’s explanation.

“Well, then you will know exactly how unstable it can be. The merest imbalance, an application of Weave a mite too much or too little would inevitably lead to catastrophe.”

“Is there anything you or Mystra can do to help him?” Astra too wasn’t in the mood for flowery speech, especially when she hoped someone as powerful as Elminster Aumar might have the ability to help her friend.

“Perhaps… although Mystra may yet offer something far greater. Forgiveness , Gale, for what your ambition led you to undertake.” His look darkened despite the supposedly positive yet still evasive answer.

“I could be forgiven ?” Gale asked with an emerging sense of hope, relief and disbelief mixed within it.

Astra couldn’t help but feel there was more being unsaid. “But there might also be a cure for his condition as well?”

“She has given me the power to halt the orb’s rush to overpower Gale, temporarily.” Elminster paused for a moment, then turned to face Gale directly. He grew deadly serious, centuries of wisdom as well as an almost apologetic edge making his next words all the heavier. “But for this new control, and for absolution, Mystra makes a singular demand of you. To seek the heart of the Absolute, and burn it from this world.

“We’re already on the path towards the Absolute, how does this fall to Gale alone? All of us are…” Astra’s mouth worked faster than her mind at first, until she realised exactly what was being asked. The audacity of the request, the enormity of the cost, and the pointlessness of the supposed reward.

“No.”

Gale met her eyes, pain and acceptance battling within his brown irises. “Astra, he offers redemption and a solution at a time when both seem infinitely far away.”

“No. No way. You don’t owe her your death, you don’t owe her anything!”

Her voice had been rising, and his matched it though with exasperated pleading rather than indignant anger. “This is about more than just me! The cult, the tadpoles, all of it could be gone. All I need to do is find the suitable place and… let go.”

She stumbled for the words to rebuke Gale, and so instead Astra whirled on Elminster, for a moment not caring for his centuries of deeds and heroics and addressing him solely as the man who had just ordered her companion’s death. “So you came here just for this? To ask a friend to blow himself up to spare the blushes of his petty divine ex-lover?

“The heavens forbid direct intervention, and Gale shall gain what he seeks in return - Mystra’s will is final! I will stabilise the orb, and you will shepherd Gale along his path.”

The argument had continued in much the same way for a bit longer, until Astra could no longer listen to Elminster’s unjustifiable demands. Gale was less certain towards the end of the discussion, but the fact that he was still entertaining the notion had her reeling. She did have a few persisting doubts about their strength, how realistic their chances were against the Absolute should it come to that. But Mystra’s order, and the dangled carrot of a forgiveness Gale did not need, nor would be able to even appreciate in death?

Quite frankly, Mystra could go f*ck herself.

Fortunately the others had agreed, initially gathered around to watch their paladin rage against a hero of legend before, defeated, Astra had left the two men to join them. The process to stabilise the orb would take time, and they did have plenty to discuss about Gale and Lae’zel.

“That orb was an unenviable burden before. I’m not sure having control over its potential for destruction makes it that much easier to bear.” Wyll’s words were sympathetic, free from judgement or any kind of derision.

“He really said Mystra can’t do sh*t to help?”

Astra shrugged back at Karlach, not flippantly but simply resigned instead. “Can’t, won’t, the outcome is the same. A suicide mission for her devoted follower.”

“So the Gods don’t have our best interests in mind? I’m shocked, honestly.” Astarion added with a theatrical sarcasm.

“You’ll talk him out of it, won’t you Astra?” The other tiefling urged.

“I mean- I’ll try?”

The meekness in her answer was immediately picked up on by the others.

“Could we persuade you to do a little better than ‘ I’ll try? ’ It’s only all of our lives at stake if he does decide to detonate that thing.” However frustrated and solely concerned with self preservation he was trying to appear, Astra did notice how invested the vampire was in Gale’s situation. Maybe he really cared about Gale, or maybe the idea of a powerful figure in the wizard’s life ordering him about so callously had triggered the outrage.

She didn’t truly mean to snap back at him, but the outburst arrived all the same. The stress, the pressure, the sheer exasperation forced their way out in response to this final push.

Of course I don’t want Gale or any of us to die! I want him to see his worth and to believe there’s another way, the better way he deserves , but if this is truly what he wants then what right do I have to force my opinion on him? To tell Lae’zel it’s fine to murder her own people? To-”

At the last moment Astra controlled herself, slamming the door shut in the face of the taken aback companions reacting to her torrent of woe. The last part wasn’t something she was ready to say, the idea complicated and damaging and unable to be pushed from her mind no matter how much she knew she should.

Who am I to push someone to embrace a light that suits them so much better than darkness?

She went very still and shrank from the embarrassment, the last embers of her pathetic tantrum lost in the quiet between them. She didn’t deserve the concern that coloured Karlach’s bright amber eyes, or the patient encouragement that Wyll offered her.

“You’re not coercing him or trying to pick him apart with a deceptive argument. You’re a friend who has earned trust and respect and is offering a different perspective. To someone who has only known one life, one path for so long, that can be a lifeline that they didn't know they needed.”

An ambient heat betrayed the fact the barbarian had shuffled closer to her side. “We look out for each other, don’t we? Someone needs some arsehole paladins chasing them smashed, we smash them together. Someone's bitch ex-girlfriend asks them to sacrifice themselves, we knock some sense into that sentimental fool. Not literally , but y’know?”

At times it was easy to forget just where she was and who she was with. Survivors of a living nightmare who still yet cared about her, believed in her worth, apparently that she was someone worth listening to even outside of battle. Long years of loneliness, of being an expendable asset worth so little, that had only begun to be erased by the embrace of her faith and her oath, and were now being dug out of her piece by piece. How could anything be insurmountable when she had people to rely on, when she was becoming someone who could be relied upon in turn?

Astra could only smile and hope it conveyed the depth of her gratitude, how this strange type of companionship was more than she ever hoped to experience.

“Yes, we’re all wonderful friends and allies and so on. Can we get going now? There’s a nightmare shadowscape waiting up ahead and I’d rather like to get it over with.”

Astarion was right - they couldn’t put off Moonrise and the Shadowcursed Lands any longer. After setting about covering the evidence of their camp as best they could, and making one final check of supplies and equipment, Astra gathered her party and led them north. The mountain pass continued, but instead of continuing to crest a ridgeline and providing a dominating view of picturesque landscape, it descended down a steady incline into the depths of an ancient river valley.

Being on such low ground was daunting, with high slopes on either side bracketing them into a narrow two person column, but the ground had hardened for the warmer season and progress was fairly steady. Heads were kept on a swivel in case of ambush, but between the Qua’nith detector provided by Voss and the ingrained vigilance of their resident soldiers Astra felt in safe enough hands, even knowing the destination that waited up ahead.

Shadowheart had joined her at the front, the two of them together chatting and walking through unfamiliar and dangerous lands essentially a welcome routine at this point. Astra knew that notion was insane really, but the scenario had become comfortable, in a strange sort of way. Her mind kept wandering to ways it could have been even better, half formed fantasies and ideas of what life could’ve been like for the two of them if something, everything , had been different. But their connection had survived all the same, nothing the world had thrown at them succeeding in breaking what drew them together. Astra didn’t fully understand it, and Shadowheart was reluctant to address it explicitly, but it existed, and that was more than enough.

“So, more problems to solve.” Shadowheart sighed once she’d been brought up to speed on the latest world-shattering revelations. “That shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point, but at least we’re heading in the right direction now. Still, putting that creche far behind us is a good thing. For both of us.” She added.

Astra wasn’t as capable at discretion as the cleric, and her unpleasant experience of the Monastery and its depths must have been obvious to anyone the least bit observant. Shadowheart always saw right through her, and the subtle reassurance was welcome, even if the memories dredged up of the far too recent ordeal clouded Astra’s mind and distracted her from responding.

A sharp poke through a gap in her shoulder armour brought her lurching back into reality. Astra startled in time to see Shadowheart withdrawing the offending hand and wearing a questioning look.

“Conversation was growing a little one-sided. Anything happening underneath those horns?”

She chuckled at the light hearted physical and verbal jab. “Nothing usually, no. I was just thinking, sorry.”

“Something you want to get off your chest? My hourly rate is very reasonable.”

“Hair ties and elegant circlets don’t pay for themselves, right?” Astra was glad the cleric was still definitely amused, but there was a curiosity to her yet to be assuaged.

“I didn’t know you had an appreciation for such finery.” She remarked with a smirk, making a show of adjusting the ornate accessory around the curtain of black silk.

“A band made of tin and twigs would look beautiful on you.”

Astra wasn’t sure where such bold flattery had started to come from, only that Shadowheart had said something similarly charming about her gifted Idol and that the cleric showed a wonderful mix of surprise and approval even when being complimented without any hint of real poetic complexity.

“For someone who says they’re new to all this, flirtations come very easily to you, don’t they?” A more reclused, shunned part of Astra did produce a wave of doubt whenever she said something more direct like that, but Shadowheart’s answering tease and flowering smile settled it down quickly enough.

“If you don’t approve, I could always go and try it on someone else…”

Shadowheart hummed in mock-thought for just a moment, then shook her head with conviction. “No, I think you’ll stay right here with me. None of the others deserve such flattery.”

“That works for me too.” Astra smiled, hoping it didn’t betray her heart fluttering madly.

She truly enjoyed these times, regardless of the surroundings, or maybe because of them. A shelter of escapist joking and sharing away from anyone else, a carved out peace they could indulge in. Though such a thing only made it harder to banish lingering ideas from her head, or words spoken earlier at the campsite and of the most fanciful of futures.

Astra found herself dipping a toe into this realm of fantasy, ill advised as it was. It would most likely hurt, but the kernel of hope was hard to dismiss.

“Something to add to the list, then.”

“What’s that?”

“If we ever were to go around the city together. Maybe we could visit a few of the finer jewellers in the Upper City, perhaps educate a tasteless tiefling on which stones and gems are the most desirable?” Her own suggestion from a while ago, but a dream that had remained irresistibly appealing all the same.

“That day in Baldur’s Gate you mentioned on the cliffside?” Shadowheart asked with an uncertain confusion, less confident now for the realisation.

Astra nodded, and nerves began to get the better of her seeing the cleric’s surprise. It had been such an enjoyable part of that special night together, planning a grand return to their city, imagining a perfect day out piece by piece. It could have been tortuous to dream like that, but it had instead been motivating for Astra ever since they had shared it with each other. A simple joy to look forward to, but there was still the possibility she had overstepped herself here, or that Shadowheart had just been humouring her.

The cleric thought for a hard to endure moment, until a stiff restraint took a subtle hold of her. Astra avoided staring as best she could, but the clawing purple glow of the incurable wound and the vicious contraction of the muscles in Shadowheart’s hand were clear no matter how much she’d tried to hide it. Whatever the cleric had thought to begin with, a punishing agony had wrenched her back into a familiar dispassionate attitude.

“I shouldn’t think about that day, or anything beyond my mission. Lady Shar still requires all of my focus to fulfil her will. I’ve come too close to disobedience recently.”

Astra wanted to ask her a thousand questions, about why Shadowheart spoke like she was convincing herself as much as she was trying to convince her. If the happier times they had shared recently were worth the price of disobedience. Why she couldn’t allow herself to picture a future of her own design.

“Besides, the here and now isn’t so bad, is it?”

Shadowheart’s inquiring question caught her off guard, the steady voice and cool evaluating look completely free from the turmoil that had silently come and gone. A hint of a deeper feeling lingered in her eyes, something like denial, grief even, but she wasn’t here to interrogate her about hidden feelings. Astra didn’t disagree with her really, and she tried to content herself with how things currently were. A land of shadow awaited up ahead, and they needed to face it together. A difficult ending might lay ahead, making it all the wiser to accept the present and cherish all the time she could at Shadowheart’s side, being with the companions who would stand alongside her through the challenges that lay up ahead.

Conversation turned to more frivolous topics for a while, the whole party involved in inane arguments and discussions without any malice that passed the time and made the distance more bearable. It was suitable enough, for a while, until the change in the air snuffed out this amicable atmosphere.

More of a feeling rather than anything tangible, at least at first. The sensation of being watched, a cold prickling of the hairs on the back of the neck. A threat that couldn’t be seen or heard but existed all the same, hanging overhead like an executioner's axe. Aching dread that clung to the bottom of the stomach, the kind usually reserved for when learning of terrible news, a bereavement or an accusation of guilt. Invisible and invasive hands that clung to the skin and dug deep, pulling the external darkness inside with them.

Paranoia or a malicious imagination could have explained away the withering energy of the place, had the land around not been so visibly suffering. Grass that had once flattened softly now crunched underfoot, greyed and dead. Colour had fled from the world around them, bare trees and stunted foliage of a ghostly pallor bracketing the path forward. Ahead laid the ruins of what had once been a checkpoint, though the wooden scaffolding of the guard post was shot through with rot, the entire structure looking perilously unstable even as they pressed on forward.

But the darkness. The darkness was the worst of it.

A darkness that went beyond the vacant canvas of a starless night, or the gaping gloom of a deep hole in the earth. No natural quality softened the impact of the blanketing shadow that now enveloped them. No respite or escape from the vast ocean of black flowing above, below, around, into them.

A cold, clawing void yearning to be fed.

Halsin had spoken of the curse, the Absolute having somehow made its home within its bounds, but no forewarning or forearming with information had made it easier for Astra to see this with her own eyes. The Nautiloid had taken her to the Hells and back, but this place felt just as hostile and hopeless as Avernus itself.

More steps forward, more featureless landscape passing by, until a new obstacle made her pause at the head of the group. A thick veil of shadow, but this time resembling a tall, drawn curtain, Lines of tainted green and poisonous teal danced within, like the vibrant colours of a poisonous reptile aiming to ward away predators.

Astra turned to see her companions, just for her own reassurance that they were still here as much as anything. Exhausted, hunched over bodies that heaved each breath all while scanning the horizon for unseen threats. The curse was taking its toll on even the strongest among them, Karlach shivering and Lae’zel looking more tired and weak than Astra had ever seen her. All of her party suffered the effects of the unholy shadow.

All except one.

Where the tendrils of night lashed out and bound themselves to her skin, dragging her down, they danced around Shadowheart. The cleric had a vacant, wonderous look as she observed the effect, watching and feeling the curse flow and float around her. Darkness welcomed her in, and Astra felt a new worry when she saw her face through the bare light. A rare, unashamed smile, true contentment and a new glee completely detached from the horrors around Shadowheart, from the torment of the party, from her.

“I… I felt it before. This calling, this comfort . I couldn’t begin to imagine…” The cleric looked barely aware of what she was saying or who she was saying it too, only that she was excited and unburdened as she shared it.

“Shadowheart? What’s happening?” Words were an almighty effort, and Astra’s call landed on unreceptive ears.

“Lady Shar. She wants me… she needs me closer.”

With heightened grace and freedom Shadowheart started to take light steps away, turning her back on Astra and moving towards the curtain of cascading shadow like an invisible tether was reeling her in. No other purpose existed for the cleric other than venturing deeper into the abyss.

Astra yelled at her to wait, panic taking over at the sight of losing her to the dark, the spirit and the depth so absent from her cleric’s eyes. Shadowheart didn’t react, and without hesitation stepped through the veil and out of sight. Barely aware of the others shouting warnings or reaching out to stop her, still suffocating from the weight of the void all around, Astra hauled her body into a desperate run to follow through the obscuring boundary, barrelling through the solid wall of darkness before she even realised what she was doing.

Once, long ago, she had felt a fear like this.

The cold nipped through the rips in her torn tunic, fingers and toes long since numbed by encroaching frost. Clusters of buildings, houses built one on top of the other provided shelter from the worst of the wind at least, but the way they towered overhead and leered down at her shivering form made her feel so very small. Holey shoes carried short, shaking legs down street after street, maze like and overwhelming.

Dusk was falling on Baldur’s Gate, but that was all she could say for certain. Astra had no idea where in the city she was, where she was going or what she would do now she was here, fighting hunger and exhaustion through a haze of fear and grief just to make it inside the city walls. Now, she realised just how alone she was. Abandoned in a world that resented what she was, had ripped away everything she held dear in a vicious act of cruelty she didn’t fully understand.

Death hadn’t even bothered to take her, instead content to watch as sorrow and pain dragged her down in its place. She tried to hug her emaciated body for warmth, to stop her stubby tail from swishing wildly in an outpouring of her panic. Nothing worked, nothing stopped the sickening fear and the biting cold from bringing her to her knees, collapsing into a dark doorway of some unknown merchant shop. It hadn’t been the end, fate being cruel enough to send the two figures she’d seen through her tears, the ones that had dragged her away into a fresh torment.

Memories of the rest of that night had blurred, but that fear had left a weeping imprint on her soul.

The curse had come for her immediately, awakening that raw terror of loss and dread and grief all at once. Biting and clawing at her with animalistic violence, ink black tendrils that tried to tear her apart. Raw hate incarnate, and one that had a target. Astra felt what it was searching for, the suffocating darkness that was rushing over her, forcing her to the ground and onto her hands and knees. The divine strength that stemmed from her sworn oath was being extinguished, smothered by the darkness that loathed her Morninglord and any who dared bring his mark into this sunless domain.

The world was only cold and shadows as her arms gave way, and Astra collapsed to the floor while her strength continued to be sapped away. Lathander didn’t hear her cries, and neither did the person she saw stood in front of her. Shadowheart was facing towards her, but didn’t register her presence or her groans of pain. The cleric had her hands clasped to her chest over her heart, almost vibrating with giddy joy like a child who’d received the present they had always wanted. Happiness without reservation, reverence without doubt.

Astra reached out desperately to the woman who was there in body but not in spirit. No acknowledgement came, no depth to her eyes, just deferential words spoken with a shaky overexcitement. The last thing Astra heard before darkness finally overtook her vision.

“She loves me, she must do! I am blessed! I am blessed…”

The Sun and The Moon - Chapter 15 - LiamHodsii (2024)
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