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Chapter 20: The Face of the Enemy

“To me,” the rakshasa said, his voice placid but with a hint of menace lurking beneath the surface, like a cat who hadn’t yet decided whether a particular mouse was worth his attentions. Thyra pressed herself back against the wall, trying to avoid that feline gaze, though the fiend had yet to turn his attention to her. Yet his presence was a weight of horror in her mind. The nightmare lived. The evil she had feared so much had come for her, not from within, but from without. Behind her she could hear one of the necromancer apprentices whimpering, and the priest was praying softly under his breath – whether a spell or a plea for salvation, Thyra couldn’t make out. Ir’Sarrin and Irinali, however, remained calm, apparently unshaken, though a quick glance passed between the warlord and his necromancer.

“I don’t think so,” ir’Sarrin finally said, sweeping his cloak back and resting his hand on his sword. “This artifact – this “key”, as you describe it – is mine by right of conquest. You may try to take it if you wish, but I warn you, I am a warrior of the Queen of Death and will not be easy prey.”

“How dare you speak so to the Master!” one of the barbarians yelled and drew his own sword, but the rakshasa raised a hand to quiet him.

“Be still,” he said, but his eyes didn’t leave ir’Sarrin. “You lay claim to the key,” he said, addressing the warlord, “but you have a claim on nothing. This artifact is older than your race, human. Even your Queen of Death is only a fraction of its age. It was forged in ancient days, when gods walked Eberron. I am a servant of those gods, and I will see those days return. You are a short-lived thing, more rodent than man, and yet the fact that you entered the vault and survived earns you a measure of respect – I was afraid I’d have to go in and claim the Key myself. Therefore, I offer you this chance to live. Give me the Key, and I will permit you to walk away unharmed.”

“I always heard that one should beware of fiends who come with honey on their forked tongues,” ir’Sarrin said; the rakshasa’s eyes flashed with sudden anger that was quickly buried. “Legend says your kind play long games, but I think that if you were capable of returning this world to the Age of Demons, you’d have done it already. Your time is past, creature – this is the Age of Man. Stand aside, or I will show you what that means.” As he spoke, Irinali surreptitiously stuck a hand into a pouch in her belt and drew forth a small object that Thyra couldn’t clearly see.

“You understand nothing,” the rakshasa said. “You are an insect crouching upon the stones of a ruined city, believing it was put there purely for your benefit. I walked this world when the dragons were young! I have seen things you cannot even imagine. You’re ignorant even of that which goes on in your immediate surroundings. Did you not wonder why your path through the Mournland was clear? My followers and I destroyed any threats you might have faced, to speed your passage towards this door that I could not open, but one of your party could. Ah, yes, I know of her.” His gaze flicked to Thyra and she shivered, desperate to be somewhere – anywhere – but here, in this terrible place, face to face with this timeless creature. “I’ve watched her for a long time – and you as well, Warlord. You both played the roles I set for you admirably. Do you not see now the faintest glimmers of the grand design in which you have been caught? Do you not see who has written your fate? Now, I will ask you one last time – give me the Key!

“I’ll see you in Dolurrh first!” Ir’Sarrin roared, drawing his sword. “Irinali, now!” The necromancer swept up her hand, revealing the object she held within it – a human finger bone. She clenched her fist tightly and the bone splintered, speaking the words of a spell as she did so; the closest of the barbarians collapsed with a howl, his arms and legs bent at unnatural angles. The other barbarians cried out in shock, and in the camp several of the Emerald Claw warriors took advantage of the opening, knocking them to the ground and seizing their weapons. The camp devolved into a general melee, Karrn war cries mixed with the barbarians’ yells.

Ir’Sarrin closed on the rakshasa, swinging his sword towards the fiend’s neck, but the blow never fell. Quick as the great cat he resembled the rakshasa leapt backwards, throwing open his robes. Beneath he was clad in full armor, and a long, curved sword was belted at his waist. In an instant the blade was in his backward-facing hand, and then the air echoed with clash of the fiend and the warlord’s swords.

Thyra watched in horrified fascination, crouching near the mouth of the tunnel as her foes did battle, praying to the Flame for some sign as to what she should do.

///

Len swore under her breath as she crouched on a rock overlooking the Karrn camp as it dissolved into chaos. “Well,” she muttered under her breath, “looks like we found out what those barbarians were after. Now, what the Khyber do we do about?”

“Walking away isn’t an option,” Pitar said from where he crouched nearby. He pointed towards the far side of the camp, where a door was open leading down into the earth, and before which ir’Sarrin fought a man with the head of a tiger in a flurry of flashing steel. “The vault is open – whatever secrets it contains may well be exposed, and can we really risk unleashing that on the world? And besides, look at what ir’Sarrin’s fighting. That’s a rakshasa, in Tira’s name! Whatever else ir’Sarrin is, he’s human, and can we really leave him to face a creature like that alone?”

“And I don’t see Thyra,” Valyria said, shielding her eyes. “I suppose it’s possible that the rakshasa down there is the same fiend that had possessed her, but why would it reveal itself now? Still, I suspect this another piece of the same plan. I have to put a stop to it, for the Flame, and for my sister’s memory.” There was steel in her tone, and Len found herself edging slightly away.

“Len,” Yhani said, “this is your call, though I think our friends from Thrane will act regardless of what the rest of us do.” She raised her head and scanned the battlefield with her keen eyes. “Both sides here are our enemies, but given the choice between the Karrns and the demon’s servants, I would have to pick the Karrns, at least for the moment. If we intervene now, we might be able to tip the battle in their favor, and then deal with ir’Sarrin after. But I think we should act swiftly, while we still have the chance.”

Len regarded the priestess for a long, silent moment, then nodded sharply once. She slid down the rock and came to rest on the side away from the battle, where the rest of her team waited; Yhani and the Flameites followed close behind.

“Well, boss?” Ghazaan asked. “What in the Six is going on over there?”

“Looks like the one behind all of this finally showed his hand,” Len said. “Apparently ir’Sarrin got the vault open, but now there’s a demon out there who decided to take whatever he found, and he brought friends – like the one Harsk found. Now they’re having it out, and it looks like Thyra’s in the middle of it. We can’t take both groups at once, so as much as it may pain us to do so, I think if we want our client back we need to help the Karrns.” She drew her sword and flames burst from it, flickering red under the dim Mournland sky. “There’s no time to plan and no time to question, people. Every moment we waste is a moment that brings our enemy closer to victory. So let’s do this, and show the barbarians what real soldiers look like. We’ve got a demon to kill.”

///

Ir’Sarrin and the rakshasa dueled back and forth in the center of the camp, the melee swirling about them. The warlord was good – so far as Thyra could tell, he was better than either Len or Yhani had been the night she’d watched them spar – and he fought with the strength of a man who was absolutely certain in his convictions. But the rakshasa was more skilled still, and Thyra realized that the fiend wasn’t pressing his opponent as strongly as he could. This was a game to him, she realized – a game he was in no hurry to win. He didn’t consider ir’Sarrin to be a threat at all.

Irinali and the priest stalked back and forth near the vault entrance, watching the battle warily. Between them they had killed the barbarians who had been standing in the entrance with the rakshasa, and with some hurried prayers and incantations and a tap from Irianli’s staff the corpses had jerked to life and clambered back to their feet; now the zombies joined the fight against their former comrades, and fought heedless of personal injury. Still, the Karrns seemed outmatched by the barbarians, and were slowly being pushed back.

Suddenly a terrible cry echoed over the battlefield, and a towering figure came charging into the fray, his great sword held in both hands and cutting vast sweeps before him. Thyra’s heart leapt at the sight – Ghazaan! The hobgoblin was free – were all the mercenaries free? Had they actually come for her? The thought seemed to incredible to imagine, but it was true – Ghazaan was followed by Len, who ran a barbarian through on her flaming sword and sent another sprawling with a bolt of lightning from her free hand, while Yhani stood at her back with her white hood pulled over her head, warding her from harm with sweeps of her scimitar. Harsk crouched at the base of one of the rock formations, firing arrows that hit home and sent the rakshasa’s followers screaming, while Havaktri stood by his side, knocking enemies away with blasts from her mind. Rinnean darted among the enemy, a knife-wielding shadow. And there, his sword blazing with a holy light as he dueled a barbarian one-on-one – was that Pitar? Could it be possible?

They came. They came. A part of Thyra that she’d long kept buried seemed to unclench in her chest, and filled her with warmth. They weren’t just mercenaries anymore – they were her friends. She had friends. And now they fought on her behalf, and she was doing nothing. What sort of a person was she? Would Tira Miron have hid in a cave like a coward and let others fight her battles for her? No; never. Could her namesake do less?

But the rakshasa, too, had taken note of the new arrivals. Scowling – if that inhuman face could be said to scowl – he pressed his attack on ir’Sarrin, fighting seriously now. The warlord’s gaze hardened as he parried a flurry of blows, but then the rakshasa gave a sudden twist; ir’Sarrin’s sword went flying. The warlord stumbled back, eyes wide, and then the rakshasa kicked him hard in the chest. He slammed back into one of the rocks and lay still.

“This could have been avoided, you know,” the fiend snarled as he crouched by the warlord’s side and took the Key from his belt. “But mortals always do disappoint me. I’ll be going, now. Die slowly, human.”

The rakshasa turned away and raised his hand, the words of a spell beginning in his fanged mouth. Thyra tensed – now was her chance, before he escaped – but someone else acted before she could. The silver streak of an arrow shot from one of the rocks and embedded itself in the rakshasa’s bicep; the demon snarled in rage and pain and dropped his arm, spell abandoned. Thyra’s eyes widened – who could have… ?

And then she saw her, crouching atop one of the rocks and carefully nocking another arrow. Val.

///

Valyria aimed her arrow carefully at the wounded rakshasa, preparing to let fire. “In the name of the Silver Flame, monster,” she hissed under her breath, “today I send you back to the darkness that spawned you!” No sooner had the words left her mouth than she let fly.

But the rakshasa was ready. Even as the arrow left the string his reversed hand came up and made a slashing motion in the air before him; the arrow struck an invisible barrier in the air before its target and clattered harmlessly to the ground. The rakshasa bared his fangs in a grin and made another gesture; a great, invisible hand seized Valyria, knocking the breath from her, and then pulled her towards him; she collapsed to her knees on the rocky ground and looked up to see the fiend towering over her.

“Sister Valyria Entarro,” the rakshasa said. “We meet at last. I’ve been following your career for some time, you know. Most impressive. Such a dogged pursuit of your sister across Khorvaire, never failing in your determination to see justice done! Had you not shot me in the arm, I might applaud.”

“Save it,” Valyria spat, struggling to her feet. “My sister’s dead. One of your kind killed her and stole her body, murdering another innocent in the process. You’re right – I won’t stop, ever, until I see justice done. That’s my calling from the Flame. It’s who I am. And I promise you that you won’t find me as easy prey as a teenage girl or a middle-aged scholar.” She drew her dagger from her belt, inadequate weapon though it seemed, and fell into a fighting crouch.

“What bold words!” the rakshasa said. “And yet, it’s a pity that you don’t know the full extent of what I’ve wrought. If I am to be executed, then surely the full list of my crimes should be known!” The fiend’s mouth widened in what could only be a smile. “I think you mentioned poor Brother Nalin?”

Valyria suddenly went cold – she’d mentioned the priest, yes, but not by name. “Thyra – the false Thyra – killed him,” she whispered. “Because he had discovered her secret. Her face was the last thing he saw!”

The rakshasa shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “Thyra didn’t kill Nalin. It was I who did that.”

“What?” Valyria asked, the chill creeping into her heart. “What are you saying?”

“Who took Thyra’s appearance and killed the priest?” the rakshasa asked. “I did. Who hid Nalin’s body and took his shape, telling Thyra she had to flee lest the Church find out the source of her magical abilities and put her to death? I did. Who wrote the journal entries that you found, that led you to believe your sister had been possessed? I did. At my insistence Thyra fled, and I made you think she was a murderer and a demon so you would pursue, a constant threat, a goad at her back, all so that today, she would stand here, open the vault, and clear the path for me to claim what is rightfully mine! And you, Sister Entarro, played your part to perfection. But now that part is done. And so, Inquisitor, it’s time for you to die.”

The rakshasa lunged forward, slamming Valyria’s side with his uninjured side and sending her sprawling. She lay on her back, staring up at the fiend, a feeling of shame more intense than she’d ever known pouring through her. Her every inquisitor’s instinct told her that he was telling the truth, and… it fit. Somehow, it all fit more than the idea of Thyra as a possessed murderer ever had. Valyria felt used, sullied, and worse – she’d been made an enemy of her own sister, the girl she’d mourned as dead who’d come to think of her as an enemy. The sister who had been stolen from her by this monster’s lies.

Valyria stared up at the rakshasa, knowing she was about to die, prepared to meet death with a defiant stare, but suddenly a voice cut across the battlefield.

“Leave her alone!”

///

Thyra had watched the battle between Val and the rakshasa, unable to move, scarcely able to breathe. She had heard the fiend’s revelations, and they lit a fire in her belly. Here was her enemy, the one who had framed her, the one who had used her, and who now threatened her sister’s life. Thyra had never hated before – she hated now, hot and intense. But there was love for Valyria there as well, and it held her back from letting the hate consume her. And between them, they proved stronger than fear.

The artifact in the vault had proven useless as a tool to cure her condition; Thyra understood that now. And yet, as that hope died, it made room for other thoughts that had long been pushed aside to make room for it. The Church of the Silver Flame taught that not all evil was equal; it came in many guises, and was more often a small and petty thing rather than the grand monsters and terrible tyrants the bards sang of. And it was possible, sometimes, for evil to become a force for the greater good. Bind a lesser evil, use it to help defeat a greater evil, and sometimes, it was possible to change its nature. Havaktri’s words came back to Thyra in that moment – angels can fall, she said, but demons can rise. And Yhani’s as well – fate is written not as something changeless and immutable, but as an infinite web of possibility.

Thyra had power – evil power, perhaps, but it need not be so. Maybe she could change its nature, if she used it for something good. But there was little time to act. She knew what she had to do. Slowly she stood, trembling but determined. “I am Thyra Entarro,” she whispered to herself. “I am a servant of the Silver Flame, I am named for Tira Miron, and I am no longer afraid!”

Thyra strode out of the tunnel to face the rakshasa.

One of the barbarians saw her approach; taking the head from the Karrn soldier he was fighting, he charged towards her. Thyra raised her hand casually and spoke a spell; the barbarian collapsed screaming, clawing at his face, tormented by a nightmare vision only he could see. The sorceress stepped over his prone form without breaking her stride and approached the rakshasa as he stood above Val’s fallen body. “Leave her alone!” Thyra called. “It’s me you really want.”

“Well, now,” the rakshasa said slowly, turning to face her. “The little lost cub returns at last. I was wondering when you would find your courage, but it doesn’t matter. You’ve done well already today, and I expect great things in your future.”

Burn.” Thyra levelled her hand and spoke the words to a spell she’d never used, but which was engraved on her soul as surely as her name. A thin blast of flame shot from her hand, striking the rakshasa at the center of his breastplate. He hissed and stumbled backwards, but Thyra held the fire on him; the smell of hot metal filled the air. Finally the flames died and she lowered her hand; the rakshasa regarded her and smiled.

“You have grown skilled,” he said, “but you’re not ready to face me in battle. Not yet. I’ve been watching for you for centuries, Thyra. You were a piece in our plans long before you were born. We arranged your bloodline, had one of our own sire a child with a human to ensure you would inherit our power, and I have watched and shaped your life from birth. Every step you have ever taken has been guided by the Lords of Dust. Do you really think you can stop me now?

“I. Will. Never. Serve. You. Again!” Thyra yelled. A flurry of magical bolts shot from her hand, the rakshasa threw up his arms to shield his face. Thyra strode forward purposefully, anger filling her heart. “This is for Nalin. This is for Val. This is for our parents, and the Flame, and Len, and for me. I won’t let you use anyone this way ever again!” She spoke the now-familiar words again and another bolt of flame lanced from her fingers, scorching a black mark in the white fur of the rakshasa’s face.

The fiend snarled in fury and charged, seizing Thyra’s wrist in one hand and raising her body so she was at eye level with him. “You need to learn some respect,” he hissed, but before he could say another word someone tackled him from behind and drove a dagger into the side of his neck; he roared in fury and dropped Thyra to the ground. ‘

“You will never hurt our family again,” Valyria said, and she pulled her dagger free.

///

Irinali watched as Thyra engaged the rakshasa and shook her head. Who could have guessed the girl had it in her, after all? Well, it provided a convenient distraction in any case, and for the moment, that’s all Irinali cared about.

She gestured back towards the tunnel mouth and her two apprentices timidly emerged, Dal holding a dagger in one hand while Ashlinn had a plain wand at the ready. The two of them hurried over to stand beside their teacher and the priest, Haund. “Mistress Irinali,” Ashlinn asked, regarding the battle with wide eyes, “what are we going to do?”

“What we should have done long ago,” Irinali muttered under her breath. “With me.” She turned and began to pick her way along the edge of the battlefield with Haund, the apprentices, and a pair of newly raised zombies following close behind. The reached ir’Sarrin’s prone form where it lay out of the way and undisturbed; Irinali knelt beside him and checked for a pulse. He was still alive – good.

Irinali liked Kharvin – he’d been a good patron, and even a friend. But where he believed the Emerald Claw’s cause was worth dying for, she did not. Looking up, she saw that most of their soldiers had been killed, and they were outnumbered by both the barbarians and those damnable mercenaries – how had they escaped, anyway? It didn’t matter; Irinali had no intention of facing the victor, no matter who they might be.

“Get him up, carefully,” she ordered the zombies, who bent down and hauled the warlord to his feet. Ir’Sarrin’s head rolled and his eyes opened blearily, but he was clearly in no condition to fight or take command – Haund would probably need to say some prayers over him once they’d got to a safe distance. Following Irinali’s lead, they made their way to the edge of the camp, where ir’Sarrin’s warhorse was still tied up, tossing his head and stamping his hooves at the prospect of a battle.

“You’ll be free soon enough, boy,” Irinali whispered, stroking the stallion’s neck to sooth him. She gestured to the zombies and they helped ir’Sarrin climb onto the horse’s back. He was still woozy, but was at least conscious enough to grab hold of the reins and steady himself. Dal hurried over and untied the horse’s restraints.

“Now, let’s get out of this place,” Irinali said, and the small group turned and departed from the battlefield, leaving both sides behind.

///

The rakshasa howled and stumbled forward, the Key falling from his grasp to clatter to the ground; he shook Valyria from his back but she landed lightly on her feet and reached out a hand to help Thyra stand. The sorceress regarded her sister’s face for a long moment, taking in every detail – it was sweaty, dirty, tired, and yet she still thought Val had never looked more beautiful. “I missed you,” she said softly.

“So did I,” Valyria said. “Can you forgive me for hunting you and thinking… what I did?”

“If you’ll forgive me for running,” Thyra told her. “But I think we know now who tricked us both into doing we did.”

“Yes,” Valyria said, expression tightening. “Let’s finish this.”

Both sisters turned to face the rakshasa; the fiend was now haggard and bleeding, his armor scorched and his fine robes rent, and blood streamed from his neck, but he still seemed powerful, arrogant, and somehow in control. Valyria raised her dagger and dropped into a fighting stance; Thyra prepared to cast her fire spell once again.

Suddenly several of the barbarians stumbled between them, forming a wall between the sisters and their master. They raised their swords, but even as they did so, the reason they had fallen back became plain. The mercenaries appeared, Pitar with them, taking up positions beside Valyria and Thyra; Ghazaan looked battered and Len had a line of blood on her face, but they were alive and they were determined. The captain met Thyra’s gaze and she nodded approvingly; the sorceress returned it. Slowly, then the nine of them began to walk forward, tightening around their enemies.

“Come on, monster,” Len called. “Is cowering behind your minions when things get tough really the vaunted power of the rakshasas? I’m disappointed.” She gestured with her free hand, and flames played along her fingers. “Come on – you’ve been fighting people one-on-one, but can you take all of us? I’m waiting!”

The rakshasa’s gaze travelled from one mercenary to the next, sizing them up each in turn. “You are fools,” he said. “You think you’ve won today? You’ve won nothing. Your fates are already written. Every breath you take is one breath closer to your ends.”

“All things must die, in time,” Yhani said. “What matters is what we do with our lives before that moment. That is something your kind has never understood.” The elf tilted her head back, and Thyra gasped. Ghazaan had told her that Yhani had a ceremonial mask that looked like a golden skull; she was wearing it now. It made her seem something alien, a creature of ancient wisdom and power; small wonder Len had thought her one of the undead when she’d first seen her wearing it! The rakshasa regarded that masked visage intently, and his expression changed subtly as he did so. For the first time, his arrogance was shaken; for the first time, he seemed… uncertain.

“You were not foreseen,” he whispered.

“I was foreseen,” Yhani replied, voice calm. “Just not by you. You may go and tell your master that, despite what he may believe, he does not see all. Some things still are hidden from him, and you… but there are those who see what you cannot.”

The rakshasa was silent for a long moment; the barbarians shifted nervously. “Master,” one of them said, “what is your command?” The rakshasa stared at the mercenaries, then at the Key where it lay on the ground between them, and then finally his eyes met Thyra’s, and she knew what he was about to do.

“There will be another day,” the rakshasa said, and he reached out his arms and gathered his minions close. The words of a spell echoed in the air, and there was a sudden flash of light, and then the fiend and the barbarians were gone.

“Is it over?” Ghazaan asked. “Did he just… run?”

“I think it’s over, for now,” Thyra said. Sudden weariness claimed her then, and she stumbled forward, only to fall into someone’s arms.

“It’s all right,” Val said quietly. “I’ve got you.”

///

Climax time! For most of this fic, Thyra has been intentionally limiting her abilities, chiefly using them to hide and evade; this time she’s finally hit her breaking point and shown us more of what she’s actually capable of. This was a pivotal moment for her characterization – most of the time we’ve known her, she’s been essentially consumed by the desire to hide herself and look for a cure; shorn of that hope and seeing her sister in danger helped crystalize some things that have been in her subconscious for a while.

Speaking of her sister, Valyria also got confronted with some important developments, in particular the knowledge of how she’d been deceived. Valyria can be harsh, but she’s still basically a decent person (in game terms, she’s a somewhat hardline Lawful Good) and the realization of what she almost did and why shook her badly. But having just, in her mind, gotten her sister back from the dead, she certainly wasn’t going to lose her again!

Ir’Sarrin wouldn’t have run off if he’d been in any condition to make decisions, but Irinali is a rather more pragmatic person. Given the choice she’d rather live to fight another day, and that’s what she chose to do here. The two of them will be recurring characters should the full fic series got off the ground, hence why I spared them from a direct confrontation with our protagonists here, but they’ve still got something left to do before this first story closes.

The nameless rakshasa (well, he does have a name, but we haven’t learned it yet) who is the true antagonist of the fic got to show some of what he can do off as well; he’s got several levels of sorcerer and fighter both on top of his native abilities and is certainly a force to be reckoned with! I was a bit worried about essentially pulling my main villain out of a hat at the last minute, but I think I foreshadowed him fairly well throughout the fic. We’ll also be seeing him again in the epilogue, which will cast some more light on just who he is and what game he’s playing here (what, you thought this was just a straightforward attack? From a Lord of Dust? Nah!) And what was up with his little moment with Yhani? Hmmm…

The fic is almost done, in any case. One more chapter and an epilogue. Almost there!

-MasterGhandalf


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