Part 12: Homecomings and Revelations
(Girl Talk, Hellmouth Style)

St. Wolf Residence
Sunnydale, California
23 November 1998

As Amy and Shaw materialized in Steve's training room, Shaw started to pitch forward. Luckily, Amy's reflexes were up to the task of steadying the ranger before she fell face-first onto the floor.

As Shaw steadied herself, clutching at her abdomen, Amy let a little smile creep onto her face.

"You weren't kidding, were you?" the witch asked. As Shaw looked at her, she added, "About getting sick, I mean."

"No," the half-elf said weakly. "I find it ironic that someone from a world of magic can adjust to airplanes so easily, and not to teleportation."

"Maybe it's an acquired taste," Amy offered good-naturedly.

Shaw shrugged, and took in her surroundings for the first time. After darting her head around a few times, she looked at Amy.

"The others?" she asked with concern bleeding over onto her face as well as her voice.

<Figures.> Amy thought wryly. <She's the one who's fucked up, and the first thing she does is ask about everyone else.>

Amy looked at her watch, and shrugged. "Eight-thirty, so they're all at school."

Shaw tensed up, and warning bells went off in Amy's head. She quickly reached out and grabbed Shaw's arm.

"Whoa, girl," she ordered, looking Shaw in the eyes to get her undivided attention. "We'll cast the spell soon as they get here. Settle down."

"But, Amy. ."

"Stop," she said. She looked around and saw the scroll sitting on the weight bench. She walked over, and picked it up and read it. After a few seconds, her shoulders slumped.

"What is it?" Shaw asked, a tinge of worry lacing her words.

"It takes two witches to cast the spell," Amy said, holding up the scroll. "One to take the Quickening out, the other to focus it and send it into the Immortal who takes it in."

"Someone has to absorb this thing inside of me?!?" the priestess asked in disbelief.

<Oh, shit.> the witch thought, looking at her cousin. "Shaw, it's a Quickening, it has to go into an Immortal. I mean, where else would it go? Don't wanna wreck our shrine to Artemis."

Shaw looked over at the Amazons' shrine, and nodded softly. "No, Amy. Of course not."

<You just gotta know what buttons to push with her,> Amy said to herself. After she did, she frowned. <That's not very funny right now, is it, Madison.>

"I'm sorry, cuz," Amy said regretfully with a sorrowful look in her eyes, "I'd cast it in a second if I could do it myself. That way, it'd be all over."

Shaw nodded, hugging herself as she pace around the training room. The Amazon watched the half-elf and knew something was wrong.

<That's a nervous habit of hers. When she's really worried about something, she hugs herself.>

"Shaw, what happened before we came back?" Amy asked, jumping a bit at her startled reaction. <Whoa, deep in thought, much?> "You were fine until Cordelia and I went into the office, then you wigged out over something. What happened?"

Shaw just looked at her for several seconds, as still as a marble statue. Then, suddenly, her eyes glistened and her mouth began to tremble. She bowed her head, apparently unable to form the words she wanted to express. Amy quickly walked over and touched Shaw on the upper arm.

"Hey, settle down," she firmly stated. She nodded over to the bench and said, "let's sit down." <This is not going so easy, Artemis.>

*****

Connor MacLeod's Office
MacLeod's Antiques
New York City, New York
23 November 1998

As Artemis entered the office, Xander looked around and asked, "We got everybody this time?"

Cordelia looked at him crossly, and he started to back up, but Artemis stepped up behind him and slapped him upside the head.

"Oww!"

"Thanks, Lady," Cordelia said with a smile.

"My pleasure," the Goddess said with an equal grin. She looked at the Wanderer, and asked, "With your permission, shall we go?"

"Of course," Steve said, looking to Buffy and taking her hand. "Whenever you're ready."

"Then let us be off," Artemis said, snapping her fingers.

*****

St. Wolf Residence
Sunnydale, California
23 November 1998

Shaw slowly walked over and settled herself on the bench, still tense. The blonde witch sat next to her on the half-elf's left side, and softly asked what had happened.

The black-haired warrior stumbled over the first few words, but proceeded to quickly spell out what she'd said to Buffy after the revelation that Angelus had been in New York. By the time she finished, she was starting to cry over her loss of control. Amy watched her cousin sitting there, dejected, before sighing and leaning over, putting a supportive hand on her left shoulder.

"No wonder you wigged," the teenager said softly, squeezing the half-elf's shoulder. "Buffy'll understand. She knows you didn't mean it."

Shaw raised her eyes to Amy's, and the look of sadness in her green-shaded pupils told Amy something.

<Did she mean it?> "Shaw, did you mean what you said?" she asked.

Shaw nodded her head, quite obviously hating herself for her positive answer. Before Amy could counter, Shaw blubbered out, "I. .I wanted to be in San Francisco with the rest of you. I was upset when. ."

She broke off, not wanting to go further. However, Amy knew what had been left unsaid.

"When you stayed here," she finished. At Shaw's tear-filled nod, she pressed on. "Shaw, we needed someone to stay here. You were the only one we knew that could do it. At least, here in Sunnydale."

"I know! Steven told me this!" she spitted out. "You trusted me to keep our homes safe, but. . ."

"But what?" Amy pressed.

"It still hurt, Amy," she whispered hoarsely, now staring at the floor. "I felt honored that I was trusted, but I still wanted to go with you. It is so confusing, Amy."

Amy gave her a sad smile that was unseen by the recipient. "I understand."

"But now, I. ." Shaw stopped, and looked back at Amy. With a trace of fear, both in her eyes and voice, she asked, "Amy, have I lost my place here with you?"

Amy's jaw dropped and her eyes went wide with shock at the question. It took her more than a few seconds before she recovered enough to answer.

"How the hell could you think that?!?" she snapped incredulously. "We've been going nuts for the last four days trying to save you!!"

Shaw scooted away from the witch's outburst, and almost fell off the bench. The scared look on her face caused Amy to regret her shout, and reined in her ire.

She sighed, and said, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have snapped like that. But what makes you think we'd do that to you?"

The Mielikkian still looked upset, but answered. "What I said to Buffy was unforgivable, Amy. I. . .I hate to know that I could say such things."

"And you wouldn't have said it if you didn't have that funky lightning bolt in your belly," Amy pointed out, literally pointing at Shaw's stomach.

"But to say that to someone I look up to, a friend trying to help me," Shaw said, folding her hands between her knees and eyeing them, "there is no excuse whatsoever for that."

After a moment of stunned silence, Amy asked, "Did you just say that you look up to Buffy?"

Shaw nodded once, and said, "I have been here long enough to see the kind of people you are. Steven and Buffy would be seen as great heroes even on Toril, a world filled with such people for centuries." Shaw looked forward, staring off into space. "I have read about Buffy's history, and I have talked with her and Giles. She is the kind of person I was before. . .I made the mistakes that I made. The type of person I want to be again."

Amy just sat there, not believing what she was hearing. <Did Shaw Hunter just admit to having heroes?!?> she asked herself silently, her thoughts racing. <And she still thinks. .>

"Shaw?" Amy asked, getting the ranger to look at her, "Do you really think that you're not a good person?"

"Amy, these last days, I am. .I am always so angry and hateful. ."

She stopped, covering her mouth as the tears flowed down towards the floor. "Amy, I thought I was doing better. ."

"Stop it right there," Amy snapped, grabbing Shaw's arm hard and making her look straight at the witch. "You think you're not a good person? Well, let me tell you something about Shaw Hunter. You wanna know what Buffy, someone you look up to, asked me about you?"

Shaw looked dubious, but quietly answered, "Yes."

Amy nodded emphatically. "Good," she said. "Buffy asked me how can you care so much about helping others after all the shit you've gone through in your life. After all the stuff that's been done to you, why do you want to help others?"

The half-elf just watched her, processing her question. After a few seconds, she answered.

"I merely want to live up to the example my grandparents set, the way they lived their lives and how they taught me to live. I see the same example being set by you and the others. Amy. .after all those years of hate, I want to be like I was all those years ago." She shrugged, and added, "It is the way that I am."

<The way you are? No kidding.> Amy thought, smiling again. "That simple, huh? And I can't help but notice that you said 'the way you are.' As in here and now."

Shaw looked at Amy, trying to understand what she meant, and she opened her mouth to speak, but she lowered her head and started to grow flushed, rather than answer.

Amy's smile disappeared as she watched Shaw, and asked, "Do you really find it that hard to think that maybe you ARE as good now as you were when you were younger?"

"Amy, I have so much anger and hate inside of me," Shaw said, crying and refusing to look at her, "I can feel it. ."

"It's not yours, dammit," Amy said harshly, trying to keep Shaw from getting depressed. "It's that Immortal's, not yours. You gotta keep 'em separate."

"I have tried!" the half-elf blurted out, smacking her fists against her thighs. "I have been fighting this since it began! You do not understand. ."

Amy's temper flared as Shaw said that. She jumped to her feet and snapped, "Of course I don't understand! You won't let me!"

As the Slayerettes materialized, they looked around in confusion. They'd been teleported into the kitchen.

"Uh, why'd you bring us here?" Buffy asked.

"First, I think Amy and Shaw need some privacy," Artemis replied, snapping her fingers again and creating several plates of pancakes, French toast, bacon and scrambled eggs out of thin air. "Second, Xander threw away three perfectly good boxes of donuts when he saw Shaw."

"Hey, that's right," Cordy said, starting to move after him.

"Oh, your jelly donuts are more important than a friend?" Xander asked as she wound up to hit him.

Cordelia stopped in midswing, and looked at Artemis. "Don't you hate it when me makes a good point?"

"No, it gives you a challenge on ways to counter them," the Goddess said, grinning at Xander.

"Gee, thanks," he mumbled.

"Anyway," Steve said, starting for the door, "I'm going to head for my office and call Giles and let him know we're back."

Before he reached the door, both the door to the living room and the side door leading outside glowed with a blue glow. Steve stopped, and turned to the Olympian with a raised eyebrow.

"Should I even bother asking why?"

"As I said, they need privacy," Artemis said evenly, snapping her fingers again. "Their talk isn't going as well as I'd hoped. Let them have the time they need."

A flash on the counter drew the attention of the four Slayerettes, and when it died, Steve's cordless phone, attached to the speaker, were prepared for the Wanderer to make his call.

Steve chuckled. "Okay, you win."

*****

Sunnydale High Library
Sunnydale, California
23 November 1998

As the phone rang, Giles debated over whether or not he should answer it. He'd been swamped with a couple of days worth of paperwork due to Shaw's departure, and he was scrambling to catch up.

<Can't blame her, though.> he thought. <Perhaps we could convince Artemis to force Ares into doing it.>

On the tenth ring, the Englishman sighed and picked up the phone.

"Sunnydale High Library," he answered.

"Oh, I was trying for Domino's," Steve's voice replied.

"Very funny," Giles snorted. He removed his glasses, and started to clean them. "Hello, Steve. Are you calling with a progress report?"

"You might say that," St. Wolf replied mysteriously. "Good news, and bad news."

"Well, I suppose the good news should come first," the librarian said ruefully. "Oh, and how is Mr. MacLeod?"

"How should I know? We're not in New York."

Giles paused in cleaning his glasses. <Did Shaw leave New York?>

"I know you're going to give me some sort of smart answer, so I'll just get it over with," he said flippantly. "Where are you now?"

"In my kitchen," was the somewhat unexpected response.

Giles had started to write to take down some notes, but stopped at the answer.

"Did you say, in your kitchen?" he asked, to make sure he'd heard correctly.

"Yep."

"And where are the others?"

Steve said, "Well, Buffy, Xander, Cordelia and Artemis are having breakfast. Well, that is, except for Artemis."

"And Amy and Shaw? They're not with you?"

"Not exactly," Steve said, and Giles could imagine the grin on the Wanderer's face.

"Then where are they, exactly?" the Watcher asked in a perturbed voice.

"They're in the training room."

Giles sighed, and counted to ten. "Steve, you know we can't just drop everything and head over there. It'd raise suspicions we can't afford after San Francisco."

"No kidding," St. Wolf said on the other end. "We're going to stay at my place and try to catch some sleep. Amy's talking to Shaw, who's still scared out of her wits. According to Xander and Cordy, the four of them put a whoopin' on the God of War."

Giles almost dropped the phone. "Ares got directly involved? And the children had to fight him?"

"Hold on a sec," came the response, and then a few seconds later, Steve chuckled, "Artemis says she helped by enhancing Amy's spells and Shaw's skills. And apparently Ares won't be able to get even with us."

"Well, that is a relief. I'll inform the others. I assume we'll be heading over to your residence as soon as school's over?"

"You bet. We need to get that Quickening out of her ASAP. I'll call Duncan and Robin's places, let them know we're back."

"Of course," Giles said hanging up the phone and preparing to talk to Jenny when she came down to share lunch with him.

*****

St. Wolf Residence
Sunnydale, California
23 November 1998

The shout shocked Shaw into complete silence, as she watched the now angry witch staring at her, with anger equal to anything she'd ever seen from Shaw. It took the ranger a few seconds to regain her voice.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"What do I mean?!?" Amy mocked angrily. "You've been here two months, and I don't know shit about you! How the hell am I supposed to understand you if you don't tell me anything?"

The half-elf appeared to be confused at Amy's vehemence. "Amy, I have told you things about myself."

The blonde teen folded her arms and snapped, "When, Shaw? Name on time you've said jack shit about yourself?"

"The night in the library," she reminded Amy. "The morning after, I told you more."

Amy cut the half-elf's answer off in mid-sentence. "Facts, Shaw. Where you've been, what you've done. That's not what I want!"

Shaw's eyes went wide at the last words out of Amy's mouth, and her face twisted into a bit of anger as well, as her jaw clenched, and her fists curled up a bit as she stood up and glared straight into the witch's eyes.

"What did you say?" she asked in a hiss.

"I said I don't want to know the facts, dammit," Amy said, under more control but still taking the hard line. But, before she could elaborate, Shaw took over the offensive in the conversation.

"If you did not want to know, why did you not tell me?!?" she yelled, moving forward a couple of paces. "Why have you waited two months to tell me this?!? Why?!?"

"I've been waiting for two months for you to tell me about yourself, dammit!" Amy retorted. "You told us all that shit in the library, but it doesn't say shit about YOU!"

The anger in Shaw's face quickly lessened, and a puzzled look came over her as she tried to understand what Amy meant.

"Amy, I do not understand," she said, trying to comprehend what Amy was trying to tell her. "You said you do not want to know about me."

Amy's own anger faded a bit as she realized her kin's confusion. "Oh, Goddess, Shaw," Amy said, clenching her hair in her fists. "That's not what I meant! Dammit, Hunter, just once, can't you read between the fricking lines?"

Tears started to streak down Shaw's face, as her emotions roiled together as she tried to understand. "Then do not say things that confuse me!" she screamed, although to Amy it sounded more like a plea. The older vampire fighter waved her hands in evident frustration. "Tell me what you mean, Amy! I am so tired of trying to understand what people say, thinking that I understand what they mean, but in truth they mean another."

In a mourning tone, she said softly, "I am so tired of doing things wrong."

Amy's anger faded a bit, and while still angry, she realized that she might now have an opening. She decided to work with it, to see if it would have any effect.

"Shaw, you're not the only one who makes mistakes," Amy offered, trying to sound reasonable. "We've both made mistakes in this." When she said that, Shaw's head started shaking.

"Amy, you have not--"

"Listen to me, dammit," Amy said, slapping her hands against her thighs. "Just let me talk, and I'll tell you exactly what I'm trying to tell you. Okay?"

When she lowered her head, red with embarrassment, Amy nodded.

"Okay. Shaw, you've been waiting two months for me to tell you what I want to know, right?" At the soft, single nod, Amy said, "I've been waiting for you to tell me anything about yourself."

Shaw's head came back up, confusion and anger combining, and Amy said, "You wanted any relationship between us to be my choice, right?"

"Yes, and I have tried to be patient, Amy," the half-elf said with a soft whine. "I did not want to push you. ."

"And you haven't. But I decided a while ago that I wanted to do this. I thought you knew that."

Shaw shook her head, and the tears that were running down her cheeks started to flow even faster.

Amy's heartstrings tugged at her a bit, and she said, "Did you really think that you had to have my permission to talk to me? Or that I had to ask you what I wanted to know?"

Shaw's mouth started fluttering as she began to protest. "No, Amy! If you wanted me to tell you anything, all you had to do was tell me what you wanted to know." Shaw started to bow her head, and softly added, "I did not know what you wanted me to tell you, or. . if you wanted to know."

"Because it was my choice?" Amy asked. Before Shaw could answer, Amy asked a second question, one of many she needed an answer to. "What about your choice? Shouldn't you have a say in this?"

Shaw looked back up at Amy, and shook her head in sadness. "Amy," she said, her voice barely audible, "I do not feel that I have a right to a choice in this, not after what I did."

"What?" Amy asked, trying to pry more details out.

"Manipulating you like Jehanne did me," Shaw said, finally admitting the reason for her reluctance in the matter. "I did the same thing to you that she did to me, Amy. I told you about myself so that all of you would accept me for the prophecy."

Shaw turned her back to Amy, and Amy could tell that Shaw was trying to speak through her tears, as she continued her explanation.

"I hurt you, I made you angry. ." she said, trailing off. She turned back to Amy, and through a virtual sob she said, "Amy, I did not know how important this mystery about Alison was to you. I would have told you, do you not know that?"

"Shaw, if you had told me," Amy countered, trying to reduce the guilt she could hear, and almost feel, coming out of Shaw's words, "it might have screwed up the prophecy. Would you really want that?"

"So, I hurt you," Shaw said, not bothering to wipe her tears, "and I could see how much it hurt and angered you, Amy. Do you know how much it hurt me to know that it was *I* who did that to you?"

Amy sighed, and with a soft, gentle sound she said, "Shaw, I'm not angry about that anymore. I haven't been mad for a while. And you need to stop feeling guilty about it."

"I. ." Shaw began to say, but she stopped, lowering her head, not speaking.

Amy cleared her throat, and Shaw's head came back up. "See, that's part of the problem. You start to say shit, but you close up," she said.

Amy walked a little closer, and Shaw, this time, didn't move back, looking at the witch with wet eyes.

"I. .I am afraid of saying--"

"Something wrong," Amy finished, drawing a widening of Shaw's eyes. "Shaw, I talked to Duncan. I know what you told him."

"He told you?" Shaw asked in a breathy voice, the barest traces of bewilderment and anger in her words.

"No," Amy said, pulling the Walkman out of her pocket, "you did."

She held up the player, and Shaw's eyes flickered over to it, and then back to Amy's own dark blue ones.

"He recorded what I said?"

"Will you let me explain, before you lose control again?" Amy asked.

It took an effort for Shaw to remain still, and to keep quiet, but she nodded, despite the fact that Amy could tell she was upset.

"He thought you might run from him, if you thought you might hurt him," Amy began. "He hoped you might drop a hint where you'd run. He had no idea you'd tell him what you did."

Shaw considered her explanation, and asked, "To help me?" When Amy nodded once, she asked another question. "What did he tell you, Amy?"

"Nothing," the Slayerette replied, and when she saw that Shaw was stumped, she elaborated. "I told him I wanted YOU to tell me. So, he gave me the tape. Shaw, I finally figured out why you haven't said anything to me. You're scared shitless that I might say 'go fuck yourself' or something like that."

"I am not 'scared shitless,' Amy," Shaw said petulantly.

"Oh, really?"

Shaw added, in a hollow whisper, "It does not cover how I feel."

Amy rolled her eyes. "Do you really think I'd do that to you? 'Specially now, after what I heard?"

"Amy," the ranger said, tears streaking down her face like a pair of fast-flowing rivers, "I do not know what to do or say. If I did something that angered you. ."

"Shaw, what are you afraid of?" Amy asked, truly wanting to know. "What is it that scares you so much about this?"

Shaw looked at Amy, and said, "I am afraid of being alone again. I. . I left because I am so scared of hurting any of you. ."

She broke off, crying too much to continue talking.

Amy said, "Shaw, you're not alone anymore. You know that. Everyone's worried about you. That's why we've been going ballistic trying to find you, 'cause you're one of us."

"Am I, Amy?" Shaw asked softly, looking hopeful for the first time. "Do I still have a place with you?"

"For as long as you want," Amy promised. "But you have to get that Quickening out of you."

"I have tried to fight it, Amy," Shaw said, crying very hard. "I have tried so hard. ."

"But you're losing," Amy retorted softly, placing her hands on Shaw's shoulders. "Shaw, part of being on a team. . . part of having friends, part of having family, means that you don't fight your battles alone. You let others help you fight, and sometimes. . you let them do the fighting for you."

"I. .it is, I feel like an outsider at times, Amy," Shaw said softly. "Like I am not truly one of you."

"How can you say that?" Amy asked, sincerely surprised. "You're our friend."

"But you are more than that to each other," the half-elf countered, tilting her head a bit. "You consider each other to be more than friends. When I first joined you, I thought that friendship would be enough for me, as it was in the Harpers. But now. .I find that I want more than that. I want to feel about all of you as you feel about each other, and. .to have you feel that way about me."

"It'll happen," Amy said, putting her hand under Shaw's chin and looking straight into her eyes to show her sincerity. "It just takes time."

"I know, but. . it still hurts at times. And I feel that I have not done enough to earn it."

"Shaw, part of it is that we don't know the whole you," Amy said softly. She released Shaw, and backed up a bit. She looked at the ceiling, and said, "We've seen peeks of yourself, other than a warrior or priestess, but that's all. It's like you're afraid of letting yourself open up. You have to let us in, Shaw."

"But I do not know how to do this, Amy," she said.

"That's what I can't figure," Amy asked, not understanding. "You've had family before, right? Uncles, aunts, other cousins. ."

"No, Amy, I have not!" Shaw snapped, waving her arms around. "I have never had any of those!"

"Whoa, girl," Amy said, getting a cross look onto her face. "Don't get pissy with me. Tell me, don't yell."

Shaw's face took on another guilty look, and she said, "Amy, my father was an only child. My grandfather had a brother who lived far away, I never met him. My grandparents were the only family I have ever known." Shaw then gazed at Amy, and added, "Until I learned about you."

"What about your mom's family?" the witch asked.

"Nothing, at least that I know of," she said with a shrug, "not that I would have been accepted in any case."

"Why not?" Amy asked, surprise bleeding through.

"Amy, how are children of what you term 'mixed race' treated here?" Shaw inquired, apparently changing the subject. "Those children whose parents have different skin colors, or ethnic backgrounds?"

"A lot of 'em are treated like shit," Amy said, not seeing the point.

"In this, our worlds are not so different," Shaw said, hoping to make Amy understand.

Amy's jaw opened as she got the point. "Are you sure about that? That you would have been treated that way?"

"It is commonplace, Amy," the half-elf said. "Any chance I might have had of being accepted by my elven relatives, if I even have any, vanished when my parents died on a Harper mission."

"Your parents were in that group?" Amy asked.

Shaw nodded, not seeing how Amy could not know. "I said as much two months ago, Amy. My grandparents were in the Harpers, as was. ."

Amy quickly got the point. "Your great-grandma."

"Yes," she said. "Amy, you see how those people are treated. Imagine how it is for me, not only on Toril, but here, where my mother's people are considered legends."

"I can see your point," Amy said, nodding her head to show she meant it. "But you've never had anyone besides your grandparents?"

Shaw shook her head, and said, "Only you, Amy. That is why I wanted this to be your decision. Because I am afraid of doing anything wrong, because I do not know how to do this."

"Because this is different than them," Amy said.

"And I do not know how to learn these things," Shaw added. She closed her eyes for a second, and then looked at her. "Amy, what am I supposed to do?"

"First off, be yourself," Amy said firmly. She walked up to Shaw and, standing only inches from her, told her cousin, "I don't want you to act like you think I want you to. I want to know YOU."

"Amy, I do not understand," Shaw said, shaking her head helplessly. "Please, help me to do that."

"Okay, I'll try," she said. "But first, you tell me what you want from ME. And don't give any 'I don't know,' or some stupid 'what I am capable of giving' bullshit. Tell me, right now, what you want from me, say, a couple months, hell, a couple years, down the road."

Shaw's eyes grew hooded, and she seemed to be pondering her answer. Finally, she spoke.

"I want to be accepted, Amy. For who and what I am, even if you know what I am capable of that frightens even me," she told the witch. She looked into Amy's eyes, and she said, "I want to have family again, Amy. It has been so long. ."

Amy sighed, and nodded. "I know. Shaw, I can try to help you, and maybe we can do this. We've realized what we were doing wrong, now we can try to do it right. Okay?"

Shaw didn't move, but Amy could see the desire in her eyes. "I want that, Amy. But I will not force you. ."

"Okay, first lesson," Amy said, pointing at the older woman. "Nobody forces me to do SHIT that I don't want to do. I WANT to do this, and it's about damn frickin' time we did it." Amy then smiled a bit, and added one final comment. "Got that?"

Shaw nodded, and Amy's smile vanished.

"Okay. Now, when I said details about you, this is what I mean," she said searching for an example. "Let's try this. Where you were born."

"Evereska?" Shaw asked.

"Yeah. What was it like?"

"I cannot tell you, Amy," Shaw said, hanging her head.

"Shaw, this is what I'm talking about," Amy moaned. "You won't tell me. ."

"Amy, I left Evereska when my parents died," Shaw told her, looking up at the ceiling, as if she were looking through it to the sky beyond. "I have no memories of my parents or of the city." In a soft, sad voice, she added, "I cannot tell you what I do not remember."

"Okay, my bad," Amy said, pretending to smack herself in the head. "Let's try this. Where you grew up, uh, Deepingdale?"

"Yes, but I told you this," she responded, not knowing what Amy wanted.

"I know that, Shaw," Amy pointed out. "You told me the name. But what I want to know is what it was like for you. The city, village, whatever. What was your childhood like? What was it like growing up there? Did you have friends, pets, hobbies? What you did for fun, what you wanted to do when you grew up. THAT'S the stuff I want to know about you. Your memories, your experiences. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Amy," Shaw said, her mouth trembling again. "I did not know. I want to tell you these things."

"I know, Shaw, I know," the witch assured her. "I listened to the tape. Shaw, what I know about you so far is the warrior, the priest, the Harper, that kind of stuff. What I want to know, who I need to know, is YOU. The person that you are under all the other stuff. I mean, Steve had to tell me your birthday. I know you wanted to avoid pressuring me, so I'm not angry about that."

Before Amy could continue, Shaw asked her, "Amy, there are things that I am afraid of telling you." She nearly choked, but kept on talking, to get the words out before she lost her courage. "If you want to know these things, I will tell you, but I do not want you to be afraid of me for things I have done."

"Shaw, I know," Amy said, placing her hands on the other's shoulders. Shaw flinched, but didn't retreat. <Good. I'm getting through.>

"Look. I know what happened twenty-five years ago," Amy told her, and Shaw's eyes became frightened. Amy shook her head at her. "Stop. I only know what you said to Duncan. I think I know why you allowed what happened, but what I can't get is why you feel so guilty about it. Shaw, I could hear how upset you were, but why? Why does something that happened to you make you feel so much guilt?"

Shaw lost what little self-control she had, and cried, "Because of what I did, Amy! Those people died because I did not know what to do! I. .I killed the man who killed them, but Amy. ."

"The same fuck who did it to you?"

The question was answered with a soft nod and more sobbing.

"Shaw, you said four people died," Amy said, thinking back to the tape. "How many did you save? How many?"

It took a second for Shaw to understand exactly what the teen was asking, but she muttered, "Thirty-seven."

The answer was somewhat greater than what she'd expected.

"Thirty-seven?" Amy repeated dully, and Shaw nodded as she closed her eyes, despite the tears continuing to flow. "You did this so that many people wouldn't go through that?"

"Yes, but Amy, if I only had acted sooner. ."

"Stop it," Amy said quickly. "Shaw, what happened?"

Shaw's eyes slowly opened, and Amy could see fear, anger, and old pain flowing in them.

"Amy, I. ." she started, but she shuddered, refusing to say more.

Amy sighed, more from weariness than from anger. "Shaw, you said you wanted to tell us. But I won't push you. When you're ready, you can tell me. I won't be mad at you for not telling me. Do it when you're ready, not when you feel you have to do it."

Amy backed up, and said, "But the longer you hold all that guilt in, the worse it gets. You told me you made the mistake of not saying bye to your grandparents, I'm afraid of what this'll do to you if you don't let it out."

Amy paused, looking at the half-elf, and said, "You calmed down, now?"

Shaw nodded her head, but Amy could see she was still scared, even if under control for the time being.

Amy led her back over to the weight bench, and said, "It's gonna be over this afternoon. You just gotta stay cool until we get that spell done."

A few seconds later, Shaw softly said, "Amy?"

"Yeah?" the witch replied.

"It. . it began in the first week of. .August, of. . 1973, by our calendar," she said, fighting to keep her voice from breaking.

<What's she talking about?> Amy thought, before her eyes went wide as she realized what Shaw was doing. <She didn't have to. . . yeah, she did. She wants you to understand, so she's doing it.>

Amy settled down, and listened as Shaw's eyes took on a far away look, as she began to relate her tale.

*****

Mistledale
The Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (the Forgotten Realms)
9 August 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

Tamaran Oblashos sat at the table in his home, pondering the missives he'd received that morning. His black brows furrowed as he tried to think of a solution to the dilemma taking shape to the east, near the city of Zhentil Keep. He ran one hand through his dark brown hair as he concentrated.

<He's at it again,> the thirty-two year old bard thought hatefully. <I thought we'd have another moon to be prepared to apprehend him. Now, we're without an infiltrator that we desperately need.>

His thoughts were interrupted by the door to his home being slammed open and a loud, piercing scream like the cry of a diving falcon. He dropped the letters he'd been reading, and he turned to reach for his sword. He nearly made it before having to reach up to catch a dead partridge that had been thrown at his face. As he caught and started fumbling the wild fowl, he snarled, "Girl. . ."

His words were stopped at the sight of the tip of a longsword at his throat, the gleaming steel blade catching the light from his lantern. Tamaran led his gaze up the blade, to the hilt, to the hand clutching the sword, to the yellow-and-red tunic and cape to the hazel eyes dancing with silent laughter.

Shawukay Redarrow looked at Tamaran and with an innocent gaze and said, "The first lesson you ever taught me was to expect the unexpected. The second was to use whatever items were available to me in any given situation."

"How about the lesson on not provoking your teacher," he countered.

"There are some who would say that two out of every three is most satisfactory," was the response.

"Perhaps," the bard muttered, glaring at his student of three years. "Anyway, I don't think I meant for you to use dead game birds as missile weapons."

"It was effective, was it not?" she asked in her alto voice. With a grin, she removed the sword and placed it in the sheath at her left hip. She sat down in the other chair and leaned forward, her hands folded and her chin resting on the double fist. "I picked up some interesting rumors in the tavern yesterday, Tamaran," she began, pausing to gather her thoughts. "One I felt it prudent to verify for myself, and the Goddess be praised, it was a good thing that I did."

Tamaran dropped the partridge onto his bench, and sat back down. He took out a quill and fresh parchment, and looked at her. "Give me the unverified rumors first, so that I may start looking into them."

The half-elven woman began reciting a litany of stories, mainly involving adventuring parties, the Zhentarim, the Cult of the Dragon, and other shady groups that populated the Heartlands. After twenty minutes or so, she finished. The ranger's instructor in the ways of Those Who Harp then repeated what he'd written, making corrections and getting her own thoughts on the matters as well.

"Very well," Tamaran said approvingly. "Good work. Now, the rumor you verified?"

"The cattle killings to the south," Shawukay said, running a hand through her thick, riotous raven-colored curls. "The Riders and farmers believed it to be goblins, probably wolfriders. I decided that going alone to find out the truth might prove easier than a group of mounted warriors. This was not the work of goblins."

"Who, then?"

"It was a displacer beast," Shawukay said with a shiver. "A nasty creature."

Tamaran stopped writing. "You keep using the past tense, Shawukay."

"For the simplest reason," she said, folding her arms across her chest and leaning back with a grin.

The Harper dropped the quill, and looked at her with a frown. "Do you think that was some kind of game?"

Shawukay's smile vanished as quickly as if someone might blow out a candle, and she stood, placing her hands on the table palms down, and leaning forward. The flash in her eyes made her teacher want to kick himself for forgetting that she had inherited her grandfather's legendary temper in full measure.

"The thing was killing cattle, Tamaran," she growled with words that sounded like they were coming from the mouth of a battle-hardened dwarf, rather than the twenty-eight year old half-elf. "I am not stupid. I called a dust devil, and it kept the displacer distracted long enough for me to close in and kill it. So do not think that I was anything less than completely serious about this."

Tamaran took the rebuke with good grace. Unlike Myokar, Shawukay's grandsire, who tended to carry grudges for days if not longer, she preferred to make her point and move on. The counter to this was that she was also as stubborn as the old ranger.

<Thank the Gods she has her grandmother's practicality,> the minstrel thought thankfully. <She's more open-minded than Myokar, and willing to admit when she's wrong.>

The half-elf sat back down, a small amount of ire still rumbling in her hazel pupils. She said, "There is one more thing. It is a rumor passing around amongst the Riders of Mistledale. However, it is most certainly false, so I do not think you will need to investigate it."

"Shawukay," Tamaran said, preparing to deliver a lecture on never discounting anything one heard, "give me the rumor, and I will take the steps to verify or deny it. That is not your purpose."

"But, Tamaran," she began to say, but he held up a hand.

"Now," he said in a gentle, chiding tone.

The student sighed, and she nodded. "Very well," she allowed, staring him in the eyes. As he started to sit down, she blurted out, "The Riders think you have an excellent taste in lovers."

The result was exactly what she'd hoped for; he slipped and fell to the floor with a crash. As he let out an earthy curse, Shawukay dissolved into helpless laughter, quickly burying her face in her arms on the table, shaking violently at his reaction.

Tamaran slowly rose, rubbing at his sore backside, fixing the half-elf with a glare that could melt a white dragon's icy breath. However, since she was lost in laughter, the look was pretty much wasted.

He allowed her a few moments of enjoyment, and then barked at her to be silent. He began to roll up the parchment, and said, "All right, lass. You've had your fun."

"Fun?" Shawukay asked, barely in control of her amusement. "Do you think I made this up?"

The Harper stopped rolling the parchments, and asked, "You are serious?"

"If you wish me to elaborate," she said, looking to the heavens and chewing her bottom lip as if attempting to recall a distant memory, "two-thirds of the male Riders compliment your taste in women. The other third curse you for capturing my heart before they did."

Burying his face in his hands, and not really wanting to know the answer, he asked, "And what are the women saying?"

"They are virtually unanimous in their opinions; they lament that, an I am quoting Lasellyen here, 'the finest stallion in Mistledale has been tamed by that half-elven mare.'"

Tamaran rose with a sigh, and walked over to his workbench to begin cleaning the bird. Shawukay listened to him grumbling under his breath, and decided to ask him what was wrong.

"Tamaran, this is only barracks gossip," she reminded him.

"It means we've attracted attention to ourselves," he said, waving a knife around.

"Particularly from the females," the priestess remarked, and Tamaran turned towards her. For a second, Shawukay feared he might have heard the slight disappointment in her tone.

"You think this is a good thing?" he asked in surprise.

Shawukay shrugged. "I would rather have them think we are in love than learn the truth," she said neutrally, "especially whom my grandparents are."

"Yes, they do have quite the reputation," the bard admitted, referring to the Flamingarrow family's history as both rangers and Harpers. "Still, I object to these rumors. My instincts say to correct them, but I do see the point you raise."

"Thank you," Shawukay said with a trace of sarcasm. <He objects.>

"Anyway, speaking of Myokar and Mishaya," her mentor said, picking up some rolled parchment tied with a ribbon, "this came for you."

Shawukay quickly stood up and literally ripped the paper out of his hand. She unrolled it, and with a full smile on her face, she began reading the letter.

Tamaran watched her, and the smile quickly faded as at first her face took on a pink tinge, and then a look of worry. She walked back over to her chair and sat down, apparently reading the letter a second, and perhaps a third, time. He sat back down as well, and asked, "Bad news?"

"No, Tamaran," the ranger muttered, looking at him. "Grandmother is saying things in an attempt to be subtle, but failing miserably."

"What does she say?" he asked, having a pretty good idea.

"That by the time of Third Feast NEXT year," she said, talking about the Mielikkian holiday that marked the autumn equinox, "Grandfather to meet or have news about who might be likely to be helping me bring the next generation of Flamingarrow rangers into the world.

Tamaran started laughing at her discomfort. "Well, perhaps it's time you started looking, then."

As he laughed, he failed to see Shawukay giving him a long, considering look. By the time he looked at her again, she was once again looking at the letter.

"What else does she say?"

Shawukay looked at him, with a look of uncertainty that was rare for her.

"They have accepted a mission," she stated delicately. At Tamaran's raised eyebrow, she added, reading from the note, "The Lady Cylyria has asked us to track down, and if possible, eliminate, some creature that is menacing the people of Eversult. They will stop at a couple of towns en route, but hope to complete their mission in time for us to meet in Deepingdale for Third Feast."

"Cylyria Dragonbreast herself asked for them?" Tamaran asked in awe.

Cylyria, a half-elven bard of legend, was the ruler of the city of Berdusk, which lay well west of the Dalelands on the route to Waterdeep. She was also the unofficial leader of the western branch of the Harpers. The fact that she had personally asked for Myokar and Mishaya Flamingarrow meant that the well-known tracking skills of the elderly rangers were sorely needed.

Tamaran watched the concerned look in his student's eyes, and gently asked, "Are you worried about them?"

Shawukay nodded absently, folding up the letter and putting it in her pocket.

"Grandfather is seventy-six, Tamaran. Grandmother is only four years younger. They have earned the right to rest," she said, now looking to him. "I think there could have been others they could have asked for."

"Someone younger, maybe?" the Harper bard asked with a smirk. "Like you, perhaps?"

The half-elf let out a single, sharp laugh. "The day I track as well as my grandparents will be the day Elminster gives up his pipes!"

"You are an excellent tracker, Shawukay," Tamaran said as he began to reshuffle the papers he'd been reading before she barged in.

"By your standards, perhaps," she said with a good-natured pout. She then pointed at the letters. "Now, tell me what is on that parchment that consumed your attention so much that you never heard me knocking."

Tamaran watched her for several seconds before asking, "You knocked?" When she nodded, he sighed. "A situation has come up involving a Zhentarim wizard. A slaver."

Shawukay's eyes took on a hard look at the mention of wizards. It had been against a band of Zhentarim wizards that her parents had been killed when she'd barely begun to speak. But the look was only momentary; she saw no sense in holding grudges for parents she didn't remember.

"What is wrong?" she finally asked.

The veteran Harper drew breath. "We were planning an infiltration to track his next raiding party, so that a band of Harpers could attack and bring Jazartho to justice. The obstacle we face is that this particular wizard often hires mercenaries for these raids, and we have so far been unable to place an Agent or full Harper within a mercenary group that he's selected. We finally had the names of several bands that will be in the area of the Keep, but the Gods damned wizard has moved his timetable forward by more than a month. We know when, where, and who, but we have had our infiltrators locked out of position. So, we've had to come up with a risky alternative; having someone infiltrate the slavers by posing as a local, who is to allow himself to be captured, and use some form of magic to allow the Harpers to track the caravan, awaiting a chance to attack at a good time."

"What is so difficult about finding someone?" the half-elf asked, looking confused.

"This is a farming village," Tamaran explained, running a finger along the appropriate passage of the letter. "The group wants someone that won't raise suspicion, and has experience in living in rural areas."

"Someone with a knowledge of woodcraft?" Shawukay asked in a low voice.

"Or farming, but finding someone appropriate would be almost impossible at this point."

Both of them sat there, silent, for a few moments before Shawukay stood up. Tamaran looked at her and asked, "Where are you going?"

"To the shrine," she said as if her attention were elsewhere.

<Which it probably is, when regarding the Lady of the Forest,> Tamaran thought wryly. "Is there a specific reason?"

"Yes," she answered, starting to head for the door. "But I think it would be best if I spoke with the Lady on this."

Before the bard could reply, she was out the door.

An hour later, Shawukay walked into a small group of birch trees, silently looking around in all directions to ensure that she was alone and would not be disturbed. She let her gaze linger over on patch of earth, and a dull ache rose up in her heart.

"Hello, Screecher," she said in a mournful tone, staring at the spot where, two years ago, she'd buried the hawk she'd raised from a fledgling from the time she was sixteen. A wistful smile crept onto her face as she remembered the look of open-jawed shock on Myokar's face the day she'd brought the baby raptor home after finding the mother dead from snakebite.

She turned her attention back to business, and walked over to a small, bush covered area. She moved branches aside, and sat down in front of the small pedestal adorned with a small, carved ivory figurine of the Goddess, Mielikki. A surge of emotion shot through her as she remembered the day her mentors had given her the statuette the day she had been formally accepted into the faith on her fourteenth birthday, to mark her entry into the church of the Lady of the Forest. Settling herself, she closed her eyes and began to pray to her Patron deity.

"Mother, I have a dilemma," she began, talking aloud as if the Goddess were sitting right next to her, "doubtless you know what Tamaran and I just discussed. These Harpers need someone to help them save these people from a life of slavery, and I could help them. But my first duty has to be to you. I am to meet Grandfather and Grandmother for your holiday, but if they can accept a mission, should I do the same? My heart is torn on this, Mother. Do I follow my duty to you before this, or. . .do I help these people?"

As she asked the question, Shawukay felt something inside of her mind, something at felt of. . .approval.

Her eyes snapped open, and she asked, "Is this your will, Blessed Lady?"

She felt the short, good sensation a second time, and she smiled.

"Thank you."

As Tamaran turned the spit upon which he'd placed the partridge, Shawukay walked in the cabin without comment. He watched her sit down, and pick up the letter concerning Jazartho.

"Shawukay?"

She looked at him, a determined look on her face, and asked, "When do I leave?"

He stared at her, not believing what she'd just asked him. He HAD been considering her to be the one he sent on this mission, and he couldn't understand how she'd divined it.

"How did you know I was even considering you?" he asked.

Shawukay sighed, and set the papers down. "I called to the Lady, and it is her feeling that I can put her second in this matter. She feels that I should help these villagers."

"You are supposed to meet your grandparents next month," he reminded her.

"If our missions take too long, there is always Fourth Feast, the winter solstice," she countered with a shrug. "I was looking forward to seeing them again, since I have not seen them since I came under your tutelage. But, I can help these people now, and the Lady agrees with that sentiment. I can always meet them for another day."

Tamaran watched her silently, and nodded. "Very well, Shawukay. You've given me a solution I sorely needed."

He turned to take the bird off of the fire, and said, "You leave in six days."

*****

Old Skull Inn
Shadowdale
The Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (The Forgotten Realms)
17 August 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

Shawukay rode up to the stable near the Old Skull, the inn that served as the main tavern in the community of Shadowdale, which lay on a direct path on trade routes between Zhentil Keep to the east, on the coast of the Moonsea, to the western Heartlands, and even further west to the Sword Coast, where lay the great city of Waterdeep. The half-elf dismounted from the roan-colored mare she'd borrowed from a Harper in Mistledale who knew of her and Tamaran, and smiled as a stableboy ran out to greet her. The boy was barefoot, and dressed in old but serviceable clothing. A bushy mop of curly red hair topped his freckled face, and gray-blue eyes took in the appearance of the late arrival.

He gave her a "tsk tsk" before speaking. "You're lucky. Only two stalls left."

"Yes, I am very lucky indeed," Shawukay agreed, handing the reins over to the stableboy. She reached into her belt pouch and said, "Take good care of her, please."

The boy's eyes went wide as she placed a gold piece in his palm, and he stammered, "Y-y-yes, Lady!"

Shawukay gave him a smile. "I am no lady. I am a warrior, nothing more."

His smile brightened at her grin to him, and he took the reins and led the horse towards the stable. Shawukay turned and headed for the door.

She walked into the inn, and winced as a multitude of conversations assaulted her sensitive hearing. Concentrating on shutting out the noise, the ranger walked over to an empty table. Sitting down, she swept her gaze across the inn, wondering if the Harper she was supposed to meet was already here, or whether he was late.

<I would not be surprised if he or she watched me enter, and will wait to see if I grow impatient,> she thought to herself. She let a small smile creep onto her face. <Not that it would take long.>

A barmaid came up to her, and the half-elf ordered an ale. As the woman went to get the drink, Shawukay looked around a second time, to see if she had missed anything on her first scan of the inn. When she had satisfied her curiosity, she relaxed a bit. The barmaid brought Shawukay her mug, and she handed over three pieces of silver. She lifted the mug to her lips, and took a long draught, savoring the feeling of the cold liquid going down her throat. She sat the mug back down, and settled in to wait for her contact. Over in the corner, a minstrel took up a harp and began to play a soft melody.

Shawukay listened with a half-interest in the song, a tale about a sorceress from another plane of existence meeting a forest warrior, and how the two had faced many battles before falling in love. The young woman tilted her head; for some reason, she felt that this particular piece of music should mean something to her. After musing over the strange thought for a while, she put it aside.

She took another drink of her ale, and watched as an elf walked into the Old Skull. With silver hair and amber eyes, he was obviously a moon elf, like Shawukay's mother. He looked around, and his gaze eventually settled on Shawukay. His face went slightly sour as he realized that she was a half-elf.

<Oh, Goddess. One of THOSE types.> she thought tiredly.

The few elves Shawukay had known in her life usually fell into one of three categories; they accepted her for what she was (a half-elf), they accepted her for who she was (a ranger and priestess); or they were bigots who decided that she was N'Tel'Quess on first sight. Most fell into the second category, and truth be told, the woman preferred it that way. But this one seemed destined to be an exception. As the moon elf walked forward, Shawukay noticed a longsword at his left hip and a wand of some sort at his right.

<A fighter/mage.> she thought in surprise. <But he is not a Bladesinger, he only carries one blade.>

The elf sat down at her table, not bothering to ask permission from her.

He sat there, watching her, and she met his gaze without any trouble.

{Tell me,} he asked in Espruar, the common Elvish tongue, {does your harp sound as bitter as always?}

What he'd said was an insulting reversal of a coded greeting amongst Harpers, substituting "bitter" for "sweet." He was subtly suggesting that she should not be here among full ranking Harpers.

<Well, two can wage this form of combat.>

{No, as I play the songhorn, in full sweet measure,} the priestess answered in full honesty; she played that class of wind instrument. {But I must know; is the spider sitting on your shoulder your familiar?}

The mage's eyes widened at the blatant insult; there was only one type of elf that would use spiders in such a fashion, and she had just insinuated that he was a Drow. As far as Shawukay thought, he'd brought it upon himself.

<I do not initiate conflicts. I terminate them.>

She sat there, staring at him with an innocent expression as if she were waiting for him to answer her question. The elf did not deign to do so.

"Aeurulieth of Leuthilspar," he answered at last, giving his name, but omitting the name of his clan. "Have you visited there often?"

The mage has just laid down another jab at her heritage; half-elves were banned from Evermeet, the island home of the elven People, let alone its capital city, where he was from. Again, Shawukay decided to return the favor with interest.

The half-elf shook her head. "I am no human city-dweller," she replied casually, extending her hand. "Shawukay Redarrow of Evereska and Deepingdale, daughter of Trocar Flamingarrow and Miyana Redstar, priestess and ranger in the service of the Lady of the Forest."

Thus, the half-elf laid down a triple insult to Aeurulieth; she'd given him the city of her birth, which indicated that she HAD been in elven cities before, although she left unmentioned that she'd left the city after her parents' deaths. She had also hinted that Evermeet was full of humans, and by giving him the names of her parents, she had recited part of her lineage after he had declined to do so. Family history was something that was taken very seriously by virtually all elves. However, beneath the insults was a stern warning.

She would tolerate his insults about her heritage, but she had put him on notice that she was a daughter of the forest in every possible sense of the word, and any derogatory remarks directed at her path and faith would put him on the receiving end of steel in very short order.

The elf's eyes had gone wide, and Shawukay had to hide a groan.

<I HATE it when people judge me by my grandparents' names!> she thought, completely frustrated. <I want to be accepted for my abilities, not because of their reputations. If I am to become a full Harper, I want to know that I truly earned it.>

The fighter-mage slowly recovered from her subtle verbal barrage, while Shawukay patiently waited, her hand still extended. He finally seemed to notice the outstretched limb, and clasped her forearm. He quickly released it, and turned to business.

"The others are waiting for us," Aeurulieth said brusquely, staring at her. "But I have my objections to this. I. . "

"Can share them with me on the journey to meet your companions," Shawukay said as she rose from her seat.

"Shawukay," the elf started to say, but she froze him with a glare.

"Two warnings, Aeurulieth of Leuthilspar," she said coldly. "One, you might know of my grandparents' reputations. Well, as far as temper and stubbornness go, I most definitely take after my grandfather. Two, save your insults as I do not give a damn in the Abyss about your opinions. Understand that the Lady approved of my coming here, and that I HAVE Her approval. As long as she is pleased with my service to her, your approval or lack of it means less than nothing to me. Remember that, and we shall tolerate each other just fine. Please note that I said 'tolerate,' not 'get along with.'"

Without waiting for his reply, Shawukay turned and walked towards the door. Aeurulieth just watched her back, and if one watched him, one could have sworn that the look of hostility he'd shown her, not for her race, but for her youth, had given way to a look resembling that of remembrance. The fighter-mage of Evermeet just sat there, until he stood up to follow her.

<She is impatient enough to instantly turn around and drag me back out by the ears,> he mused, a smile tugging at his face.

The elf quickened his pace to catch up with the new addition to his mission.

<Yes, she is most definitely Miyana's daughter.>

*****

Unknown Location
Northeast of Shadowdale
The Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (The Forgotten Realms)
18 August 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

As Aeurulieth and Shawukay rode through the late afternoon, they each kept their own counsel rather than continue their "discussion" from the Old Skull. The elven fighter rode a gray horse, whose color sharply contrasted with the ranger's dark-colored mare. Shawukay, after several hours of silence, decided that enough was enough, and resolved to talk to her companion, if only to hear their voices.

"May I ask you a question?" she asked, hoping that it would not provoke him.

Aeurulieth looked over at her, and nodded once.

<Such a resounding yes,> Shawukay thought to herself. "What can you tell me about the others of your group?"

The fighter-mage looked thoughtful before answering. "There will be six of us, counting yourself. You are the only priestess, but other than myself, we have two fighters, a second ranger, and a bard."

Shawukay pulled her horse up short, forcing the elf to do the same.

"Is there a problem?" he asked.

"Other than yourself and the bard, there are no other magic-users?"

The elf shook his head.

"Can you take this slaver wizard, spell-to-spell? My magic is not suited for offense," she stated. "Especially for a spell-duel, which is likely in this situation."

At first Aeurulieth thought she was disparaging his abilities, until she added the comments about her own magical powers. He now realized she was asking a viable question out of curiosity.

"From most of our reports, I am nearly equal to Jazartho," he replied, holding no arrogance in his voice, "I also wear a ring of spell turning, which will give me an additional advantage."

Shawukay just stared at him with a neutral look before commenting.

"That is devious, sneaky and underhanded," she stated evenly. When the elf's eyes narrowed at her, she added, "But then, so am I at times."

With a quick grin, she drove her horse into a light gallop with a quick kick, leaving Aeurulieth staring at her, trying to decide whether to be complimented or insulted.

After another hour or two, the sun had set, and the two adventurers decided to set up camp for the night. After dismounting, Shawukay set about gathering firewood, using only deadfall branches in her collecting. She set up a fire circle, and prepared to start the fire when Aeurulieth asked, "Are you sure that's wise?"

Shawukay let out a sigh, and asked, "Why did you not say something before I went to all this effort?"

"You did not give me a chance to," he retorted, folding his arms.

Shawukay silently counted to twenty, and then stood up. She turned to face the elven mage, irritation radiating through her infravision.

"Aeurulieth, you seem determined to make this mission as difficult as possible for me. For whatever reason that is, I do not care. I am not in the mood for your insults, your condescension, or your Evermeet arrogance."

She moved away from the fire circle, and moved to within ten feet of her counterpart, determination etched onto her features.

"I am here, despite the fact that I have religious duties to attend to, because the Lady Mielikki allowed it. And if I were you, I would try to remember that a village full of innocent people is about to be enslaved if we do not stop the Zhentarim. These peoples' lives and freedom are at stake, and are infinitely more important to me than your discomfort at having a mere half-elf join you on this mission."

Shawukay then walked over to her horse, and pulled out a brush and began curry the mare.

"If you truly think that a campfire is not a wise idea, then simply say so, and I will heed your advice."

"I do prefer to remain unobserved," Aeurulieth said coldly.

In an equally cold voice, Shawukay answered, "So be it. I will take first watch."

Aeurulieth snarled, "Why should you get first watch?"

"Because I have evening devotions to perform, which have been delayed by your belligerence," she responded, not bothering to turn around. "I have warding spells I can cast, but they are unlikely to last through the entire night, as yours might do. I would rather have your stronger magic later, when you are somewhat rested, rather than tired and sore from hours of riding. Unless, of course, you object to my reasoning?"

The mage watched her for a few seconds, and then said, "You speak sense."

"For a half-elf?"

Aeurulieth gritted his teeth in frustration, and a soft growl escaped his lips.

Shawukay turned around and said, "That is a fair imitation of the displacer beast I killed a week ago. Do you wish to say something?"

"Yes, Shawukay," he answered angrily. "It is not your blood that is the reason that I object to your presence on this mission."

"Then what is it?" she asked, moving some curls out of her eyes.

"Your youth," he answered, waving an arm at her. "You are young, inexperienced, and barely out of childhood."

"Yes, I am, Aeurulieth," the priestess said with an agreeable tone that brought a surprised look to the elf's face. "But as Tamaran himself said, we were desperate. You needed someone with experience like mine, and I have it. I will freely admit that there were certainly more qualified Agents or full Harpers, for this role I am to play, but we lacked time. And every second we waste bickering is a second that we could be preparing for this mission. So stop belittling me, provoking me, or if you are attempting to do so, stop testing me. I am focusing on our mission from this moment forth, and I would 'suggest' that you do the same."

Shawukay then paused, and said in Elvish, {By the way, we are surrounded.}

{By who?} Aeurulieth asked, thinking she was playing games.

{Short, thin, squat humanoids,} she answered, looking around. {If you would listen. . .}

He did so, but shook his head. {I do not hear anything.}

{That is my point. No birds, no insects. They are cautious.}

Now, the elven warrior was impressed by her attention to detail, even through their argument. He asked, {What do you suggest?}

{Close your eyes for a second, and only open them one second after I cast a spell,} she answered as she reached for her longbow and quiver.

The elf nodded, and did as she was bid. {Go ahead, Shawukay.}

She waited two seconds, and shouted, "Shirak!"

Suddenly, a burst of light lit up the woods, twenty-five feet ahead of the half-elf. The radiance lit up a trio of short, scaled humanoids with tiny horns sprouting from their heads.

"Kobolds!" she shouted, loosing an arrow at the three creatures.

The shaft tore into the middle kobold's throat, and his two companions were startled, and stunned for a split second. More than long enough, in fact, for the ranger to unleash a second arrow into one of the creatures, taking it in the heart.

Aeurulieth, his eyes now open and adjusting to the visible spectrum, saw three of the creatures heading towards him. His mouth drew a grim line, and he quickly chanted a simple offensive spell. He extended his right hand, and four lines of light shot from his fingers, unerringly finding their way to a quartet of kobolds rushing at the campsite. The evil humanoids fell to the forest floor, thrashing in their death convulsions.

Shawukay loosed two more arrows at the remaining kobold in her group, missing with the first shaft, but piercing the creature's spine as he turned to retreat. Her eyes went wide at the unintentional back shot, and cursed softly. Another four creatures were heading at her, so she dropped her longbow and drew her longsword. She decided to take the fight to the kobolds, and let out a piercing battle cry, attempting to simulate the call of a hunting hawk that would have done Screecher proud. She raced forward, fire in her eyes, and the action succeeded beyond her imagination; three of the four kobolds skidding on the turf and turned tail to run for whatever lair they'd made for themselves in the woods. Shawukay quickly eliminated the last with a clean stroke that cut halfway into the monster's neck. She quickly turned around looking to check on the elf and for any more creatures that might be lurking.

She needn't have worried. Aeurulieth had cast a spell that had created a web that caught four more of the creatures, and he had quickly killed them, lest they attack when the spell faded. One creature was trying to attack the fighter-mage with a spear, but Aeurulieth drew out his sword, which lit up in licking, white flames that Shawukay recognized as faerie fire. The man quickly threw two slashes, the first breaking the kobold's spear in half, the second driving into his gut.

As the creature lay on the ground, clutching at his stomach, Aeurulieth nodded in satisfaction and started to sheathe his sword.

"What are you doing?" Shawukay demanded.

"Putting my sword away," he said simply.

Shawukay's eyes narrowed, and she stalked past the mage, to kneel beside the kobold. She looked into its eyes, and she felt a small surge of guilt. She saw the pleading look it gave her, and she pulled out a dagger and quickly drove it into his heart. As the light faded from his eyes, she got up and glared at the elf.

"I cannot believe you were just going to leave him there to die," she accused him.

"He would have been dead soon enough," the elf countered. "We need to leave, lest they gather any others of their kind to attack once again."

"That does not mean that you leave an enemy to suffer like that, Aeurulieth," Shawukay growled through gritted teeth. "You kill an enemy quickly and cleanly, no matter how much they might do differently."

She walked over to her longbow and picked it up. She looked over her shoulder at the elf, and asked, "Do you treat all of your opponents that way?"

"Of course not!" he snapped, growing furious at her question.

"Yet you make exceptions for that kobold," she said, trying to rein in her temper. "One cannot live by two sets of standards, Aeurulieth of Leuthilspar. I would suggest that you decide which you will live by."

And she quickly repacked her longbow and quiver, and walked over to her bedroll. She crawled into it, and rolled over.

"I thought you were taking first watch," he reminded her.

Without so much as turning over to look at him, she said, "You wanted it so much, you take it. You can use the time to determine why you are such a hypocrite who would let an enemy suffer like that."

Before he could shout his reply, she added, "Oh, by the way? Your swordsmanship is excellent."

He was caught off guard, and lost his steam as her compliment turned into an insult, as she added it after deriding him as if it were an afterthought. He took nearly a full minute, breathing hard while trying to regain control, before he finally calmed himself. He began searching his mind for spells to protect the campsite, while thinking with great frustration.

<Mother,> he called out silently, <I feel greater sorrow than ever that you did not survive long enough to raise this one. It would have made finding out that I have a half-sister, not to mention this mission and my life, much easier!>

*****

Voonlar
Between the Dalelands and the Moonsea
Faerun, Toril (the Forgotten Realms)
19 August 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

As the two elven adventurers rode into the town of Voonlar, Shawukay kept looking around, scanning the streets and people with her almond-shaped eyes. After a few seconds, Aeurulieth cleared his throat.

"Shawukay," he warned, "do not look around like that. It will only serve to attract attention."

Shawukay sat there, on her horse, looking straight forward, and Aeurulieth thought she was going to berate him for ordering her around.

{Point taken,} she muttered softly, with the most fractional of nods to show she understood. {I was simply trying to get an idea for the number of soldiers in this town. It IS controlled by the Zhentarim.}

{Yes, I know,} the elven fighter-mage replied. He also had his hood up to hide his features. Elves were rare enough in this part of Faerun, wanting nothing to do with the Zhentarim, but an elven Harper was not someone who wanted to be found out by the Black Network. {We will be staying at the Drowning Orc inn. That is where we will meet the others.}

{Understood.}

The two Harpers rode in silence the rest of the way, finally coming to the inn where Aeurulieth had told her about. From the first glance at the building from the outside, Shawukay decided she should not hope for much.

{I assume this is the worst inn in town,} she said, pretty much asking a question.

With his hood up, the half-elf didn't see him smirk. {Of course. Were you expecting better?}

{Of course,} she said, mimicking his tone, her own face curving into an evil grin, {but they chose you to meet me.}

As the mage's head snapped around, she innocently added, {Shall we stable the horses and go in?}

<I hope that I survive this introduction to the others,> Aeurulieth thought silently, praying to the Seldarine, the Elven Pantheon, for guidance and patience.

Unfortunately, they seemed not to hear him.

The pair walked into the Drowning Orc, and the loud conversations died a bit as the two of them walked in. After the most cursory of glances, the talking picked up again, and most of the patrons lost interest in the new arrivals. Shawukay looked at Aeurulieth, waiting for him to take the lead. He looked over at the man keeping the bar, and started over, with Shawukay in tow. As they walked, Shawukay kept moving her eyes from side to side, to see if anyone was watching their progress. To her satisfaction, no one seemed to be doing so.

Aeurulieth walked up to the bartender, who gave him and his companion a quick look.

"Room for you and your woman, two gold pieces for the night," the man said disinterestedly.

Aeurulieth tensed as he could almost feel Shawukay gripping at her sword, and he quickly answered, "I'm looking for someone to meet with. Name of Axeheart."

Shawukay now riveted her gaze at the elf. <Axeheart?> she repeated in her mind. <That is a dwarven name.>

Shawukay had met two dwarves in her lifetime, and she now smiled. The dwarves she'd encountered had been rather contrary to the reputation of the Earthen folk, dour and taciturn. She hoped to make it three for three.

The bartender looked at Aeurulieth, and said, "Since when do dwarves and elves get along?"

"When they have business that others would frown upon," came the mage's answer.

"Of course," the burly bald man said, nodding his head upstairs. "Third door on the right. He's expecting you."

Aeurulieth put a gold piece on the counter and turned without comment. Shawukay followed without saying anything, but she spared the barkeep a glare before following him. The two quickly headed upstairs to the proper room, and stood by the door.

Aeurulieth knocked on the door, and a gravelly, rumbling voice softly (soft being somewhat relative in the case of dwarves), "Go away. We didn't order any room service."

Aeurulieth prepared to say something, but Shawukay decided to beat him to it.

^^Go kiss a goblin, you beardless tree-hugger!^^ she snapped in Dethek, the dwarven tongue.

Aeurulieth looked at her in shock, and Shawukay could almost feel the ripple of shock from the other side of the door, as well as hear some soft feminine laughter from the room.

The door swung open, and Shawukay looked down a bit to see what she expected; a dwarf, red-haired and -bearded, standing a little over four and a half feet tall, and probably weighing closer to two hundred pounds. He glared at her, and she just gave him an innocent smile that was meant to suggest, but probably didn't, that she was completely harmless.

"Did I hear you correctly, lass?" he asked with a growl.

"Yes, sir, you did," she replied with no expression, simply waiting to see how he'd react.

The dwarf sighed, and said, "You had to pick up a fiery one, didn't you, Aeurulieth?"

"That is an understatement," the elven fighter muttered with a frown of disapproval at the ranger.

The short demihuman stepped aside to allow the pair into the room, and they entered, Shawukay first, then Aeurulieth.

Shawukay looked around, and saw three more people standing in the room, one man, a human, and two women, a human and an elf. Shawukay was surprised to see a group with such a mix, and it reinforced her opinion as to the importance of this mission, having *two* elves in Voonlar in one location.

Shawukay looked at the others, who were watching her with varying amounts of interest. Her chance to gauge their interest in her was interrupted by the dwarf speaking to her.

"Ye speak Dethek, lassie?" the short man asked her.

"Only a little," Shawukay admitted.

"Oh, come on lass, don't be modest. Speak some to me. These taller people can't seem to learn it."

"Very well," Shawukay said reluctantly. ^^Go kiss a goblin, you beardless tree-hugger.^^

"Ye already said that to me," he said crossly.

"That is the only Dwarvish that I know."

The dwarf stared at her, and then looked at the rest of the group, most of whom were chuckling at him.

"I think it says something when the only Dethek this girl knows is an insult like that," he said to the group at large.

He stuck out his hand to her, and she took it with a smile.

"Dargen Axeheart, son of Borgesh and Dharasa," he offered.

Shawukay nodded, as the dwarf was accepting her as an equal. If he hadn't, he'd have introduced himself by giving his name, followed by "of the dwarves." This usually came with the unsaid, "do you wish to make something of this?"

"Shawukay Redarrow, daughter of Trocar Flamingarrow and Miyana Redstar, priestess and ranger of Mielikki," the half-elf returned, noticing Dargen's eyes going up, but missing the looks of shock on the others' faces, save for the fiery-haired elven woman, who looked at the mage sympathetically. The others were looking at Aeurulieth in total surprise, and he gave them a look that said to keep quiet about this.

Shawukay took her hand from the dwarf's, opening and closing it once or twice to get the feeling of circulation back into it from Dargen's good-natured attempt to crush it. He turned to the others in turn, and began the introductions.

"Lass, these are the others in this mission," he said. He pointed to the human male, who was about forty years of age, with short-cut brown hair, with the slightest touches of gray at the temples. He carried a two-handed sword on his back, and a pair of daggers at his belt. "This is Qualeck Windrunner, lassie. Like you, he likes that Forest Lass with the crazy horse symbol."

<Translation, a ranger,> Shawukay thought, taking care not to grow TOO irritated at his making light of Mielikki as she noticed the unicorn pendant hanging over the man's heart. She exchanged a greeting with Qualeck, who said, "It is a pleasure, Daughter of the Lady."

Shawukay flushed a bit; she wasn't used to such titles outside of temples. Dargen turned to the female human, who Shawukay could tell was the bard by the lute she was tuning.

"Shawukay, this is Soryen Harmosk of Baldur's Gate, traveling bard at large," he said about the short brunette who looked even shorter than Shawukay. The bard wore normal fighting leathers, with a brace of throwing daggers across her chest, running from her right shoulder to her left hip. A slim, ornate-handled rapier hung at her right hip.

"Shawukay," Soryen greeted in a fine, soft soprano voice.

Finally, Dargen turned to the elven woman, who carried a longsword at one hip, and a short sword at the other. The elven woman's hair was a combination of orange and gold, and her eyes were the same shade of amber as Aeurulieth's. However, Shawukay could see something else in her eyes, something she could not identify. Standing nearly six feet tall, she was abnormally large for a human female, let alone the full-blooded moon elf she clearly was. Needless to say, it was something of a surprise to the priestess.

"And finally, Llednas Amarillis of Evermeet," he said grandly.

Shawukay's eyes widened a bit; the Amarillis clan was one of the legendary clans of the Tel'Quessir, on a par with the Moonflowers, the royal clan of Evermeet, and the Durothils, the gold-elven clan who had ruled Evermeet's Grand Council before the royal family had been chosen over six hundred years ago. That a member of this clan would be on the mainland of Faerun, let alone in the Harpers and in a Zhentarim controlled city, was shocking, to say the least.

"Lady Amarillis," Shawukay said softly, sketching a short bow. Her human grandparents might have raised the half-elf, but she had been raised in Deepingdale, where nearly half of the population was elven or half-elven. So, Shawukay had heard many of the legends of the People, even if she did take almost fully after her human heritage. "It is an honor."

"Please, call me Llednas," the elven fighter said in a husky voice. "Was it too much trouble tolerating my husband on the way here?"

Shawukay looked at her, and back at Aeurulieth, who was grimacing, as if he were waiting for her to make a smart comment.

Shawukay asked, "You are married to Aeurulieth?" When Llednas nodded, Shawukay said, "You have my sympathies."

Aeurulieth growled, and the others laughed at him, and Dargen looked at the elven mage.

"Don't be actin' that way, laddie," the dwarf admonished him. "You brought her here."

"As much as I would like to continue these introductions," Qualeck said congenially, "shouldn't we get settled into the proper rooms? We can talk of the mission later."

The others nodded assent, and began to head for their separate lodgings. Shawukay looked at Dargen, and he nodded, saying, "You go with Windrunner. Ye're stayin' with him."

"Oh, really," the half-elf said, folding her arms.

"Ye're a ranger, he's a ranger. And he's quite happily married, so ye don't have to worry about anything," Dargen added. "Now git, ye young tree lover."

Shawukay nodded, despite being somewhat reluctant, and headed out with the older ranger. As soon as the door closed, Dargen turned on Aeurulieth.

"She doesn't know, does she?" he demanded.

"No, I haven't told her."

"Why you damned..." Dargen started, but was cut off by Llednas laying a hand on his shoulder. "What?"

"He was not supposed to tell her," Llednas said softly. She backed away from him, and said, "I have seen her."

"More of yer dreams, lassie?" the dwarf asked, cocking an eyebrow, as did her husband.

"Yes, and I must tell you not to reveal their link to her, and you must tell the others this as well. This is not the time for it."

The elven lady turned to her mate and said, "Husband, there is more I must speak of this with you, in private."

Dargen took the hint, and smiled, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do, Llednas."

"That is a scant list, now isn’t it?" she retorted.

Dargen let out a belly-busting laugh. "Aye, that it is, lassie, that it is."

The dwarf exited the room, closing the door behind him.

The elven couple turned to each other, and Llednas asked, "So, husband, what do you think of your sister?"

Aeurulieth snarled as he began to pace, muttering, "She is impulsive, sarcastic, stubborn, and has no respect for my greater experience."

Llednas gave him a small smile. "In other words, she is much like you when you when you were at the tender age of one hundred."

"She's worse," the warrior-wizard said, waving his arms around. "She is only twenty-eight, and she is worse than I ever was. . ." He stopped, and looked at his bride. "Llednas, you know her origins?"

Llednas Amarillis sat on the bed, placing her palms together and looking at them, as if trying to concentrate. "Some of my recent dreams have featured a half-elven warrior. A warrior fighting with others against great evils. A warrior of Mielikki, although I knew not that she was a priestess, as well."

She looked at Aeurulieth, who asked, "Shawukay is this warrior?"

<He is not convinced.> she thought as she nodded with conviction. She paused to consider her answer, and finally said, "Aeurulieth, these dreams are complicated. They always have been. Occasionally, the Lord Corellon will grant me knowledge to interpret these dreams, even if that knowledge is cryptic."

"Has he given it to you this time?" the mage asked, sitting next to his the fiery-haired warrior.

"Husband, this one, your sister. . ." Llednas began softly, "she has a destiny. But the places, the things I see her battling. . . it is beyond my ability to describe. All I know for certain is this; her battles will come when she is older, perhaps twice the age she is now. Also, her weapon of choice. She does not possess it now, yet in my dreams, she wields it with a skill that even a Bladesinger might envy."

"What is it you are not saying, my love?"

Llednas didn't answer, but looked from her husband's face to the sword belted at his hip. He followed her gaze, and comprehension dawned on his face.

"Soulreaver?" he asked, surprised. "You see her wielding my sword? How is that possible?"

Llednas stood up, and shrugged as she went to look in the mirror on the wall. With haunted eyes that Aeurulieth saw in the reflection, she said, "I do not know. I see you in my dreams, as well, in the future, but carrying another sword, other blades. I can only guess that you give her this weapon. But, this leads to the third piece of information; this child, Shawukay, can NOT be told of the connection between you. Nor can Dalrania."

"WHAT?!?" Aeurulieth exploded, his face going pale with shock. "How can you ask me. . ."

Llednas turned, resolve on her angular elven face. "The Lord Corellon has spoken on this! My love, do you think that I want to deny her this knowledge? Apparently my Patron and hers, the Lady of the Forest, have been given the knowledge that this half-elf is destined for something else. I have seen her in my dreams, fighting alongside others she clearly loves. One of these is a human, a young woman not yet born, who is a wielder of magic that not even you can match. This one, she loves above all others; I believe she is human kin to Shawukay. I have seen these two, fighting together against several forms of ta'narri. . . and winning. Shawukay has a path to travel, but it must be without your guidance."

Aeurulieth studied her face for several minutes. He knew that attempting to change what she saw in her dreams could have disastrous consequences. Finally, he nodded with great sadness.

"And I am to deny my half-sister the knowledge of her destiny?" he asked.

"I can tell you this much, however little it will console you," she told him. "In time, she will come to you. Not for many years, but eventually. It is THEN that you and Dalrania will tell her who she is."

Aeurulieth pondered her statement, and sighed. "Very well, love. I will keep my silence on this."

He walked over to Llednas and kissed her fully on the lips. As they parted, he said, "I am heading downstairs. Will you join me?"

"In a few moments," she agreed. As he left the room, Llednas turned back towards the mirror, and a tear fell down her cheek. "If only I were allowed to tell you what is coming for her, Aeurulieth. But I dare not tell you, or this child's future, her destiny, will be destroyed for all time, and possibly a world far removed from ours with it. But too much depends on her facing these trials, and overcoming them, alone and in her own time. I only pray that you both will forgive me when this is over and done with."

*****

Llednas walked down to the taproom, and took a seat at the table being shared by the other Harpers. When the barmaid came over, she ordered a glass of wine, and the woman went to get her drink.

The Harpers were trading stories of their past adventures, and to Llednas' delight, Shawukay seemed to be fitting right in with the group, except perhaps, for the silent Aeurulieth. A pang of sorrow rose in the elven noble's heart, as she knew that her husband dearly wanted to tell the young ranger who she was to him.

<I am sorry, my love, but it will be some time,> She lamented. She quickly shook the gloomy thoughts out of her head. The others were enjoying themselves, so she would do the same. <With elven practicality,> she thought, a grin finally forming.

Dargen smiled to her, and she looked over at Qualeck.

"So, Qualeck," the moon elven fighter asked, "have you convinced your counterpart to spare us any of her past adventures?"

Shawukay snorted a bit. "I have not so many to speak of, Lady. . ." she stopped at the look from Llednas, and respoke. "Llednas. I have not been on that many adventures, as I have spent most of my time training with my Grandparents or Tamaran."

"Certainly, there's something, lass," Dargen said encouragingly.

"Well. . ." the half-elf said, seeming embarrassed, "there was a time on patrol in the woods. . ."

"Tell us," Soryen said in her soprano voice. "Let us hear your tale."

"Very well, Soryen. But it is not so glorious as some of your stories," Shawukay admitted.

"Enough stallin', lass," the dwarf scolded with a smile. "On with it."

Shawukay sighed. "As you wish. One day, when I was seventeen, I was on patrolling the woods a day north of my home when I came across a poacher's trap. In the trap was a bear cub."

The others waited expectantly as she paused, taking a drink of ale. She then continued, saying, "When I began to free the cub from the trap, someone objected to my doing so."

"The poacher?" Aeurulieth asked, coming to the logical conclusion.

"No, Aeurulieth," Shawukay said with a sigh. "The cub's mother."

Several sets of eyes went wide at that revelation, and Qualeck asked, "What did you do, Sister?"

With a shrug, the half-elven priestess said, "I considered my options, looked over several courses of action, and chose to do what any proper ranger or servant of the Lady with my level of experience at the time would have done in that situation."

The others looked to Qualeck, and the older ranger provided a translation.

"She ran."

The others looked back at the half-elf, who smiled.

"As if every denizen of the Abyss were after me."

Qualeck broke out into a roll of hilarity, as did Dargen and Llednas. Soryen just chuckled under her breath, while Aeurulieth looked exasperated.

The elven mage asked, "You ran from a bear?"

"A mother bear," Shawukay clarified, taking another sip from her mug. "Facing orcs or goblins with swords is one thing. But staring at a female grizzly bear standing eight feet tall on her hind legs, with five inch claws and weighing ten times my own weight, is another thing entirely."

Aeurulieth looked over at Qualeck, who smiled and raised his mug to Shawukay.

"Wisdom beyond her years," he said with a mock salute, which she returned with a grin.

"Husband, tell us some of your stories," Llednas said, taking his hand in hers. "Tell us. . . how you retrieved your sword from the ruins of Myth Drannor."

Aeurulieth looked at her, and mentally asked, //Why this story, my dear?//

Through the rapport they shared, Llednas replied, //So that Shawukay will have some sense of history of the sword when you give it to her. The Lord Corellon has forbidden you from giving her yourself, at least for now, but he did not say anything about a gift from her brother.//

The man smiled, and gave a mental thank you, and turned to the rest of the group.

"Soulreaver was created over twelve centuries ago, in Myth Drannor," he began as his eyes grew distant as he recalled what history of the blade's forging he'd learned. "It was forged and enchanted by priests of the Seldarine, and Bladesingers to be a weapon designed to fight the walking dead."

He looked at Shawukay, and said, "One thing that the Seldarine and your Goddess have in common is that we believe that the undead are the ultimate perversion of nature. That was why this sword was forged using a combination of holy magic and wizardly might, to create something that could maintain the natural balance."

Shawukay nodded, watching him with keen interest. The level of interest pleased Llednas.

<Yes, someone with a love of learning. That will also serve her well in times to come.>

"The blade was passed down, not from father to son or mother to daughter, but to warriors, priests, or fighter-mages, like myself, who dedicated themselves to ridding the world of the undead. When one wielder was ready to move on to Arvandor, or to cease fighting to raise a family, he or she would pass it on to the next person who would use the blade. However, there were limits to how effective the sword was. The stronger undead can resist its powers, but being struck more than twice often guarantees the creature's demise. But, six hundred years ago, the Army of Darkness fell on Myth Drannor, and the city fell to the baatezu. The wielder at the time, whoever he or she was, fell defending the city as the refugees fled to Evermeet through a series of magical gates."

"How did you recover the sword?" Qualeck asked. It didn't really matter, as the ranger and the others had heard the story before; in fact, Llednas had been on the journey with him. The story was completely for Shawukay's benefit, and somehow, on some unconscious level, they realized that Aeurulieth was giving something of himself to the sister who was forbidden to know about their link.

"I was part of a band of elven explorers, sent from Evermeet to see if any items belonging to the People remained to be salvaged. The party was somewhat light on warriors, as we decided to make three quarters of the party wizards and priests. And even most of the fighters were also mages or priests, as well as being warriors. It was that glut of magic that allowed us to survive the fiends for the three days we were there. It was while we were hiding from one of the patrols of lesser fiends, in an ancient temple of Sehanine Moonbow, that we found several bodies. Old bodies, human and elven, literally covered with armor, weapons, magical items. We didn't know how they could have survived being plundered for centuries, until one of the priests discovered that the temple was still consecrated. How, we still don't know, and we may never know."

Aeurulieth took a sip of his drink, and sighed. "We separated the bodies, taking off their items, while all the while attempting to discern who they were, who they had been. Most of the people, we never learned because we would have to call their spirits to identify themselves. As you know, the People frown on disturbing one's afterlife. When we found Soulreaver, I had one of the elder wizards look at it, to identify the types of magic in the blade. Imagine my surprise when I found out that he identified the blade, its history, and its powers because he had been in Myth Drannor during the last days of the siege. He had seen the man wielding this very sword," he said as he touched the hilt, "and had watched as this man eliminated ghouls, zombies, and wights by the dozens. But, unlike mortals, the undead do not have limits on their stamina. That was when we received another surprise."

Llednas took up the thread. "The wielder was none other than a member of the Amarillis clan, a distant cousin to my grandfather. The wizard knew both my grandfather and my cousin, and he knew that Aeurulieth and I had married. He charged my husband with turning the blade over to me, to determine what was to be done with it. Since I carry a vorpal weapon myself, I saw no reason why my husband should not carry Soulreaver."

Shawukay interrupted at that juncture. "La-- Llednas, if your ancestor carried this sword, I would think you would be honored to carry a weapon with such a history."

"I would have," Llednas answered with a small smile, "but as I already had a magic blade, I saw no reason why my husband should not have something similar. And he has proven to be a worthy wielder on more than one occasion."

"Meaning that he hasn't accidentally stabbed himself or one of us," Dargen added, setting the others, even Aeurulieth, into soft laughter.

"You are too short to accidentally wound, O Bearded One," Soryen said softly, to which the dwarf added, "Damn right, bard."

So, the night went, as the party talked and got to know the addition to their group, and finally they went up to bed, save for the elven couple, who sat there watching the two rangers walking upstairs, comparing notes on various methods of bringing down game.

Aeurulieth turned to Llednas and asked, "What do you think?"

"You had her completely focused on your story, love," she said firmly, taking both hands in his. "But you must still give her a story she can believe when you gift her with the blade."

"I already have one," he answered, drawing a pair of raised eyebrows. "The truth. Dalrania's blade."

Llednas watched him in shock, and said, "You continue to surprise me, husband."

"Isn't that why you married me, my love?"

"No," the fighter answered, getting up and pulling her husband with her, "it was so that no other woman would have to put up with you."

And the husband and wife walked upstairs, for one final night of peace before trodding into likely danger.

*****

Unknown location
Forest of Cormanthor
The Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (The Forgotten Realms)
21 August 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

Having dismounted from their horses a few hours previously, the group of six Harpers slowly picked their way through the heavy forest, along an almost hidden path that only Qualeck, Aeurulieth or Llednas could follow. Shawukay might have been able to see it, if she had ever been in this part of the Elven Court before. As it was, she brought up the rear, keeping a constant watch for any signs that they were being followed.

Eventually, the elven couple both held up their hands, and the entire party stopped. Aeurulieth cast a quick spell, and concentrated for several seconds before visibly relaxing and nodding to Llednas. She turned to the others, a smile on her face.

"All clear," she said as she began to unsaddle her horse, and the other Harpers copied her action.

Shawukay hesitated, but complied with their actions. When Llednas finished, she smacked her horse on the rump and he took off, followed quickly by the rest of the mounts, Shawukay's included. As she watched her mare head off into the forest at a slow cantor, she looked to Soryen.

"Soryen, is it not dangerous for them to be alone in the forest?" she asked the bard.

The small woman smiled at the half-elf. "They'll be all right. There aren't any predators within a mile of the cabin. Aeurulieth's magic prevents any danger to the mounts."

Shawukay nodded, and they began to go into a small clearing, where a decent sized log cabin was placed. Shawukay was not surprised that the Harpers had a refuge here, in the forest where many would be afraid to travel. It provided privacy and security from casual travelers.

The half-elf thought about her grandparents; by now, they should be in Eversult, tracking whatever prey they had been asked to locate. She felt a chill run up her spine, and she shivered.

<I wonder why that happened,> she wondered, trying to think of why she might be worried. <It is because they are older, and should be at home, worrying about great-grandchildren. . .>

A soft moan erupted from her throat, and she suddenly felt several pairs of eyes upon her. She looked up, and flushed when she saw the Harpers looking at her, probably wondering what was wrong.

It was Dargen who voiced their thoughts.

"Somethin' wrong, lass?" the fighter asked, tapping his foot along the floor. "Don't like the place? Yeah, it's made o' wood instead o' proper stone, but it's warm and cozy."

"It is not that, Dargen," Shawukay said, waving him off. "It is something private. A family matter."

The Harpers shared glances with Aeurulieth, and he asked, "Family?"

"Yes, my Grandparents," she answered, distracted enough with her own thoughts that she didn't see the relief flashing through his and Llednas' eyes. "They. . ."

She stopped, and headed for the door. "Please excuse me. I need to be alone for a bit."

She walked out of the cabin, and Aeurulieth looked at Llednas, as if asking for approval to go talk to her. She shook her head, and set her saddle down on the floor.

"I will talk with her, love," she said softly. "It might be best if you let her have some time before we discuss the mission."

The elven mage looked at Dargen, who nodded. "She'll make mistakes if her head isn't on straight."

Taking his comment as assent, the female moon elf exited the cabin, following the ranger into the woods.

Shawukay walked for several minutes, until she stopped, leaning against the trunk of a shadowtop. The firmness of the massive tree lent the priestess some relief from her anxiety. Being in contact with the forest usually gave her comfort and peace from her troubles.

A sound attracted her attention, and she whirled around, only to see Llednas coming towards her. Shawukay relaxed, but she knew her worries were plainly etched on her features.

<I never could fool anyone or hide my emotions when growing up,> she thought wryly. <And with Grandmother's perceptiveness, it was even more futile.>

Llednas came over to the half-elf, and asked, "What is concerning you, Shawukay? Is it this mission?"

Shawukay raised an eyebrow at the fighter, surprised that she thought that was what was wrong.

"No, Lad-- I must try to remember that you prefer to be called by your given name," the ranger said irritably, to which Llednas laughed. Shawukay hesitated, but said, "Just before leaving Mistledale, I received a letter from my Grandparents. They accepted a mission, at the behest of Lady Dragonbreast. But they are in their latter days, they should be allowed to enjoy the time they have left in this life."

The young woman turned away from the older one and said, "Grandmother and Grandfather want me to begin a family, with. . .someone I know. I was still trying to determine if I care about him in that manner, but this mission, and theirs. . the Lady told me to come here, and I am trying to focus on what is important, but there is much I have to think on."

"Family is important, Shawukay," Llednas said, coming up behind the half-elf and placing a hand on her right shoulder. "And they seem important to you."

"They are the only family I have," Shawukay said with a shrug, not noticing a look of pain that came to the moon elf's eyes, "and I simply want them to be safe. As I said, I believe that they have more than earned some peace."

"I understand," the fighter said softly, and she added, "But right now, you must focus on our mission. Especially the part that you will play in this. It will be up to you to make sure that we can track this caravan and attack it at a vulnerable point."

"I understand, Llednas," Shawukay said, nodding her head with confidence and turning to the other. "Thank you for talking with me."

"It was my pleasure," Llednas said with a smile as the two elven women turned to go back to the cabin.

When the two women walked in, Qualeck walked over to Shawukay, and asked, "Are you all right, Sister?"

"Yes, Qualeck," she said with a small smile. "I simply needed to think about the mission my Grandparents are on. I worry about them."

"As is only natural," Windrunner said, approval in his tone. "Come. We are going to have dinner, and then we can discuss the mission."

Shawukay nodded, and the twin rangers headed towards the table while Aeurulieth walked up to his wife, a look of inquisitiveness on his face.

"She is fine, Aeurulieth," Llednas assured him. "She was only showing the normal concern for her elders."

"Have you seen anything concerning her grandparents?" the mage asked. "It might alleviate her concerns."

To his surprise, Llednas shook her head. "I have only seen her, husband. She is the focus of the dreams, and as I said, in time she will come to you. But that is all I can truly tell."

"Very well, love," he said, drawing her into an embrace. "But we must attend to the mission. Anything else can wait for another time."

Llednas gave her husband a full smile, and leaned in to give him a passionate kiss.

"Now THAT'S a way to ignite an old dwarf's passion!" Dargen's voice called out, shocking the elves from their private moment. As they turned and gave killing glares to the dwarven fighter, he snickered. "Don't be lookin' at me like that. I'm just keepin' you from bein' a bad influence on the youngster. Now git your bony arses in here so we can eat."

He turned and went into the room that served as the Harpers' dining area, and Aeurulieth looked to Llednas.

"Shall we take up this discussion later?" he asked.

"I will hold you to that idea, Aeurulieth."

After a dinner of venison and wild poultry, with the additions of vegetables bought in Voonlar, the Harpers cleared their table and pulled out a map of the region, including the likely routes to be taken by the Zhentarim wizard and his caravan.

"Lissen up, here's the plan," Dargen said, placing mugs on the corners of the map to keep it from rolling up while he was discussing the mission. "Especially you, lassie. Your role's the one that's going to let us take out that Black Wizard."

Shawukay nodded, intently watching the map so as to memorize the paths they might take once she'd infiltrated the village.

"Now, here's the plan, based on what we learned," Axeheart said, pointing to the town of Snowmantle on the map of the Dalelands. "The wizard's gonna hit one of the little farming villages that trades with Snowmantle. The village is called Bordertown, 'cause it's on the edge of the Border Forest. Not very original, but that's humans for you."

The human members of the band rolled their eyes at the dwarf.

"Right," he said with a smart grin. "Well, anyway, what they plan on doing is takin' the villagers in wagons, and taking them along a route that takes 'em between the Border Forest and the western foothills of the Dragonspine mountains. They'll keep to the foothills as they turn along the northern edge, and with the Citadel of the Raven at their backs, head down the Zhentilar trail straight for the Keep."

"That would seem to add a large amount of time to their traveling," Shawukay pointed out.

"That's because Jazartho is cautious," Soryen said, drawing the ranger's attention. "It's almost fifty miles just between the forest and the foothills before he clears the eastern border and turns east. Another thirty miles, and they pass the Citadel and turn south onto the Zhentilar trail, but it's a clear path to Zhentil Keep. We have to find a location to attack the caravan *before* they make the Citadel's sights. Any later, and we would be outmatched, outmanned, and out magicked."

Shawukay considered the information, and nodded. "Thank you, Soryen. I understand." She looked at Aeurulieth. "May I know how you will be tracking me?"

"With this," Aeurulieth said, pulling out a small emerald. "It's enchanted with tracing spells, and I can track it up to two hundred miles. Even if you pass through a dimensional door, and are still within the tracking distance, I can find you."

Shawukay nodded and accepted the gem from him. "Was this your creation?"

When the elf nodded, she gave him a sour look.

"Now I am less confident about the outcome of this mission."

The group chuckled at her barb, although Aeurulieth did not seem to share their enjoyment.

"Shawukay," Qualeck said, getting the half-elf to look at him, "if you will come with me, we will discuss your cover identity in Bordertown."

Shawukay nodded with a grin, and they left the room, leaving Soryen and Dargen to look at the moon elven couple.

"It sure is strange, Aeurulieth," the bard whispered in her soft voice, "for someone who does not know her heritage, she truly acts like a younger sister to her older brother."

The elf glared at her for a second, but ended up chuckling. "And of course, you know this from personal experience."

"Of course."

Shawukay and Qualeck walked into his quarters inside the cabin, and he headed over to a pack that was sitting on his bed, which was surrounded by gear.

"Here is the gear you will carry, Sister," the elder worshipper of Mielikki said, pointing to the items. "You do understand, what you will have to leave behind on this mission."

"My weapons, and my bracers," the half-elf said, indicating the only magical items she possessed. "I know that I will be pretending to be a simple person, rather than an adventurer."

Qualeck looked at her, and said, "There is more. You must not let them suspect that you are a priestess. You will be leaving behind your pendant, and you will carry no magic at all."

Shawukay's eyes widened, as she realized what they were asking of her. She shook her head, her mercurial temper rising within her.

"How can you ask me to give this up?" she demanded, gripping the silver chain which held her ivory holy symbol. "She is the most important thing to me!"

"I know, but I can explain," Qualeck said patiently to the strong-willed, short-tempered woman. He sat on the clear edge of the bed, and told her, "Sister, this wizard is clever, intelligent, and always looking over his shoulder for enemies. He has to, to prevent others from gaining credit for his work. His suspicions could probably be raised if a young half-elf shows up in this village just before he raids it. You have to have no magic, or any indication of your true self, in your possession to give weight to his suspicions."

Shawukay stared at him, her arms folded, breathing furiously for nearly five minutes, as he just watched her with his blue-gray eyes.

Finally, she nodded. "I take your point, Qualeck. I simply do not enjoy it. It is not the magic; power does not mean anything to me. It is the connection to the Lady that I will miss."

"I understand, Sister. I can see it in your eyes when you talk of Her," the human said. "But, for this, you will have to be a worshipper of Tymora."

"Oh, Goddess, I wish you had not said that," Shawukay muttered.

Qualeck ignored her comment, and pointed to the gear, which Shawukay now noticed contained several animal pelts.

"Your cover is as a trapper, simply moving into the area to try her luck in the Border Forest," he explained. He picked up some traps, and said, "You will set these traps around the area, and occasionally check them."

At the dangerous look in her eyes, he sighed. "The traps are harmless, the teeth have been sawed down. Aeurulieth and Llednas objected to using functional traps as well."

"Very well," Shawukay said with a curt nod. "I would not willingly harm forest creatures for no reason."

"Of course not," Qualeck said fervently. "And some items common to trappers will be accompanying you."

"When do I leave?" Shawukay asked.

"Tomorrow morning," came his reply. "Aeurulieth will teleport yourself and him to the Border Forest, and he will then teleport back here. Once he returns, we will wait two days, and then head out after you. We will make up as much ground as we can, but with our horses, the slower caravan will not be that hard to catch."

Shawukay nodded, and said, "You do realize that I do not like the idea of divesting myself of any connection to the Lady."

"I know, Shawukay," Qualeck said as he began packing the items into the pack. "That is why I discussed it with you, because we did not want you to kill Aeurulieth for suggesting you give up your holy symbol."

"I would not have killed him," the priestess objected.

"No?"

Shawukay gave her fellow forester an evil grin. "I am not that merciful."

The rangers shared a laugh over he answer.

"It is time for rest, Shawukay. You have an early start tomorrow."

(((The half-elven warrior walked through with two elven warriors, one a fiery-haired female, the other a silver-tressed man, also a mage. The youngest of the three walked over to a young elven female, clearly a child no more than thirty winters, and drew a sword which lit up in white light.

The elven child drew a short blade of her own, and the two females started swinging, the elder quickly defeating the younger. As the girlchild looked on in surprise, the half-elf quickly began giving advice to the youngling, whose face eagerly lit up with a smile, apparently at some praise laid on her by the older woman.

The little one looked at the elven couple standing off to the side, both of them smiling at the half-elf and the child acting so friendly to each other.

The child began to say something to the female, something that sounded like....)))

Llednas exited her reverie with a jerk, shaking at the intensity of this dream. She quickly looked around, and saw Aeurulieth laying next to her, deep into reverie himself. She stroked his cheek, a smile full of love and other higher emotions on her face.

She quickly stood up, and made her way to the chamberpot, wondering why she had been feeling ill these last two weeks.

As she walked, she tried to make sense of this newest vision.

<What was it that child was trying to call me?> she thought. <And why did she seem to look like both myself and Aeuru--->

The moon elven fighter stopped in her tracks as she realized exactly who the elfgirl sparring with Shawukay was, and her mouth opened suddenly as she absently rubbed a hand over her bared stomach. Tears started to flow from her eyes as she realized what her dream had just revealed to her.

She quickly forgot the queasy feeling in her stomach, and headed back for bed, where her true love awaited her.

Shawukay stirred when she felt a hand touch her shoulder. Pulling her blanket up around herself, she rolled over and up into a sitting position. Standing there in the darkness, his eyes two dots of red light, was Aeurulieth.

{It is time to go, Shawukay,} he said in the elven tongue. {Our mission begins now.}

The ranger nodded and quickly, but quietly, got up and began dressing in the buckskin leathers that had been she had brought along. After pulling on her boots, she walked over and picked up her pack, and with a look of open disgust, she picked up the string of traps and threw them over her shoulder.

Nodding to indicate that she was ready, Aeurulieth asked, "Have you ever teleported before?"

"No, Aeurulieth, I have not," she answered, shaking her head as well. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, you must understand. . ."

"No, we must go," she said, interrupting the elf. "Cast your spell and let us be gone."

"Fine," the mage snapped, beginning to chant and wave his arms in arcane gestures.

Shawukay walked up and grabbed his tunic around the waist, as she knew that she had to be in contact for the spell to take her with him. A faint, white glow encompassed the pair, and suddenly Shawukay found herself in a forest, but obviously not the Elven Court woods they'd been in only seconds before, let alone the cabin; they were outside.

Shawukay started to talk, but suddenly her stomach rebelled, and she quickly moved away from Aeurulieth and over towards a stump, which she leaned over, losing her dinner from the previous night.

<As much as she had it coming, I feel sorry for her,> the warrior-wizard said, trying not to laugh at her sickness.

After a few more seconds, Shawukay turned around, and she could feel him grinning at her. She glared at him, and through his infravision, he could tell she was angry.

"I did try to warn you," he pointed out.

"Just what were you trying to warn me of?" she snapped as she threw her pack and the traps down.

"That the first time one teleports can make one sick," he replied, walking up to her. "I will leave now. Remember, in two days, we will depart. You have the emerald?"

"Here," she said, patting the hidden pocket on the inside of her tunic. "I will do my best not to lose it."

"I have no doubt, Shawukay," Aeurulieth replied. He gave her a look of concern. "Shawukay, are you sure you wish to do this?"

"What is your concern now, Aeurulieth?" the younger asked irritably. "Is it my youth? Why do you object to my being here?"

Aeurulieth sighed, and said, "It is not for me to say."

Shawukay folded her arms, and said, "Because I am right, am I not. You object to the fact that I am so young."

"There are other reasons, Shawukay, which I cannot discuss," the elf replied, trying to keep from blurting out the truth.

"Or will not," the woman retorted, turning to pick up her pack. "I swear by the Lady, you act less like a Harper than a mother worried about her cub."

She missed the expression of raw sadness that passed over Aeurulieth's face, and he almost told her at that point. The only thing that kept him from doing so was Llednas' warnings about Shawukay's path being one she would have to travel alone.

"Be careful, Shawukay," was all that he said, as he quickly cast his second teleportation spell, and vanished in a white light.

Shawukay turned around, and stood there, considering why he acted in such a manner towards her.

<It has to be my youth,> she concluded. <He said as much when we met in Shadowdale.>

Picking up the sawed-down traps, Shawukay trodded off into the early morning hours, determined to place the traps and find a place to take as shelter before the arrival of the Zhentarim.

*****

Border Forest
Southern boundaries
Northeast of the Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (the Forgotten Realms)
29 August 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

Shawukay walked through the forest, about an hour's travel from the village the residents called Bordertown. She'd been in the town twice since arriving, to establish that she was a trapper trying to find a few pelts to sell for money and more traps.

She'd spent one night in the pub, and she'd seen people who did not seem to be villagers, but she had not been able to determine whether or not they were Zhentarim scouts, or simply passersby. They had taken an interest in the half-breed trapper, but they had not tried anything forward.

<Better fortune for them,> Shawukay thought silently, a grin coming to her face.

A drunken Rider of Mistledale had tried to make an attempt for her affections the previous year, and the half-elf, having said "No" emphatically six times already, showed the intoxicated Rider, as well as his compatriots, that swords and daggers were not the only weapons she was capable of wielding.

<I loved the look on their faces when I picked up that chair and tripped him from behind,> she wondered, thinking back. <THEN I hit him over the head when he tried to stand up.>

She slowed down, and walked over to one of the traps. Thankfully, it was empty. Once already, one of the traps had been sprung, but to her pleasure, it had only been a hare. A simple spell for speaking with natural creatures had allowed the ranger to assure the terrified rabbit that she meant no harm, and that she was performing a mission. She also gave him some cabbage leaves she'd purchased from the village as an apology for his getting snared.

She stood up, brushing dirt off of her hands, and heard the forest around her go quiet. She quickly realized that something, or someone that was capable of scaring the animals was in immediate proximity.

She quickly drew a knife from the hilt at her waist, lamenting the fact that it was for skinning, rather than combat. She dropped her pack and pulled out the largest weapon she'd brought with her, a hatchet for cutting wood.

She looked over in one direction, and heard someone clumsily attempting to sneak up behind her from cover. The half-elf had to fight her instinct to show the person the error of his ways, and concentrated on the person approaching.

He burst out of the brush, a medium-sized human wearing leather armor and carrying a broadsword. He let out a loud yell that Shawukay assumed was meant to scare her. She quickly realized that she was supposed to pretend it had.

<Oh, of course,> she muttered in her mind.

She allowed a look of hesitancy to enter her eyes, as well as a touch of faked fright. She threateningly lifted her hatchet, and said, "These are my traps. Leave now, and we will not have to become violent."

"We're not here for traps, half-breed," the human said, a sick smile coming to his face. Shawukay saw that he was missing several front teeth, likely from a fight.

"It cannot be for food," she retorted with a smirk. "You have not the teeth for eating."

The man snarled, and said, "Take her!"

The second man came up from behind, and the half-elf had to fight her reaction to swing as she whirled around. As it was, her knife fell well short of the range as the man lifted a longsword and said, "We can do this the easy way, girlie. Your choice."

Shawukay did not have time to react as the first human suddenly threw his arms around her, pinning her arms to her side, and twisting and turning her to get her to drop her weapons. She fought with a frenzy, but she finally dropped the hatchet and knife, leaving her unarmed.

<Except for your head and feet,> a voice in her head, suspiciously like Tamaran's, sounded in her head.

<NO!> she thought, again fighting down her violent reactions. <They have to capture me! They have to be convinced.>

Finally, feigning exhaustion, Shawukay sagged in her captor's arms, panting heavily. The man holding her wasn't in much better shape.

"Hurry up and put the manacles on her," he demanded of his partner. "She fights like a she-bear, and I don't want her getting her second wind on us. We don't have time to waste."

The second man reached into a pack of his own, and drew out a pair of wrist chains. Shawukay's eyes widened a bit, and she added a second round of struggling, but kept most of her strength hidden from the two leather-clad men.

The first man released Shawukay's right arm, and she tried to throw a half-hearted punch, but the man caught her wrist and quickly locked the manacle in place. Shawukay let out a feral yell and fought harder, but it was a simple matter (due to her acting) for the two humans to place the second manacle on her remaining wrist.

"Let me go!!" the half-elf screamed as she continued to "fight" her "captors." She toned down when the toothless man held up his broadsword in

a decidedly less than friendly manner.

"This one's got fire, friend," the second man said at the look of death that the ranger's eyes promised. "And we thought this trip would be boring."

"Yeah, we did," his partner responded.

Shawukay kept "struggling" as each man took an arm, and began walking her in the direction of the town. As they fought her continued movements, she thought of the surprise the Harpers had in store for these ones.

<Yes, Zhenatrim, this trip will most definitely NOT be boring.>

*****

Bordertown
Southeastern border of the Border Forest
Northeast of the Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (the Forgotten Realms)
29 August 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

The two mercenaries dragged Shawukay into the village square, the half-elf pretending to struggle futilely against the two soldiers that had put the manacles around her wrists. To her satisfaction, the hireswords seemed to be accepting her act.

A quick glance around showed a typical farming village, with little more than seven or eight buildings such as markets or a town hall. Her observations were interrupted as the mercenaries threw her into the crowd of villagers, who had been herded into the center of the small group of buildings. Shawukay fought to keep from following her instinct to roll with the impact and reach for cold steel that she was currently lacking. She succeeded, at the cost of a hard impact into the dust that sent a jarring pain into her left shoulder, which caused her to grit her teeth in pain.

A villager, a man in his early to mid-thirties, bent over to help Shawukay up. His hair was almost golden colored, and his light brown eyes held sorrow at her situation. He looked her over once and asked, "Who are you?"

"Miyana," Shawukay replied, using her mother's name for her persona. She sat up and rubbed at her shoulder, and said, "Miyana Flamingstar. Who are these humans?"

"Zhentarim," the man answered with a spit. "Slavers. Their leader is a mage, and he killed what few warriors we had here with a single fireball. I'm the only one left capable of wielding a sword with any skill." He gave the ranger a sidelong glance. "How about you, half-elf? Any talent for

swordplay?"

Shawukay snorted at him. "Sir, against a fox, there are few who can match my hatchet. And I wield a knife with an amazing amount of skill when skinning a pelt."

"Trapper?" the human asked, drawing a nod from her. He extended his hand. "Balloris Kentrana, at your service."

"Balloris," Shawukay said with a grave nod, taking his hand into her own. "They caught me completely unawares. I was checking my traps, and they ambushed me. Needless to say, it was a short battle. Nothing for the minstrels to waste their composing talents on."

Despite their situation, Balloris laughed. His mirth did not last long, however, as he looked over Shawukay's shoulder. She turned around, and saw a terrified young girl, eight to ten years of age, wearing manacles like the half-elf and human, although hers dangled from her small wrists, with a look of icy fear in her eyes. Shawukay could tell, from her hair and eye colors, that this had to be Balloris' daughter.

"Father," she asked with tangible dread, "why are these people doing this to us?"

"It will be alright, Kadali," Balloris said in soothing tones, reaching to stroke the girl's cheek. "We'll be all right. You'll see."

The girl gave her father a brave smile, reassured by his apparent confidence. As she walked off to join a group of children, Shawukay watched her with a hard gaze.

<These bastards make children into slaves?> she asked herself as she clenched her jaw. <Jazartho, you will pay for your crimes in a Harper tribunal.>

"Miyana?"

Shawukay jerked, and saw Balloris watching her with keen interest. At his inquisitive gaze, she nodded towards the girl he'd called Kadali.

"The children should not be made to go through this," she said sullenly, looking at the irons around her wrists and pulling on them to test their strength. "Say what you will about the Zhentarim, they make strong chains."

"Thank you, half-breed," a baritone voice called, interrupting Shawukay's musings. She and Balloris looked up to see a magic-user, dressed in black leathers, with numerous rings adorning his fingers and a steel headband encircling his bald head. He stroked his goatee while considering the half-elf's appearance. What unnerved Shawukay was the look of something in his black eyes that made her worry, although she could not understand why. He began chanting in a language that no one understood, and watched her intently for several seconds before nodding in satisfaction.

"No magic in this mongrel," the mage said, quickly losing interest. "Oh, well."

<If you only knew, wizard.> the half-elf taunted silently. <Fortunately, the tracing gem is shielded against such magics. But I know understand why the others were so adamant about not praying to the Lady for spells.>

Shawukay thought back to the morning she'd separated from the other Harpers to make her way to the village, when they'd told her it was imperative that she not carry any magic, and had instructed her to cast all of her spells before leaving.

<That was a detail I would not have thought of, myself.> she wondered. After a second, she sighed. <That is why they are Harpers, and you are a student and Agent.>

As the mercenary leader and magic-user discussed the traveling plans, the two soldiers who'd "captured" Shawukay began going through and examining her pack. They pulled out and divided the few fox and raccoon pelts that had been thrown in, and then her knives, which while not worthy weapons, were still useful for everyday use. One soldier pulled out a disk, and bit it. Satisfied as to its purity, he put it in his pocket, and gave Shawukay a smirk as he muttered "Tymora."

<Go right ahead, mercenary. Assume that I am a Tymoran. It will make my assignment easier if you believe that deception.>

However, Shawukay still felt naked without the reassuring feeling of her true symbol of faith, her Mielikkian pendant, resting over her heart. She unconsciously reached up for her heart, and the soldier laughed at her at her apparent dismay.

<Keep it up, slaver,> she thought.

Shawukay turned her attention back to the argument raging between the magic-user and his head soldier. They seemed to be hard at work on disagreeing over something.

"I tell you, Dyarn, there is a spy in our midst!" the wizard, who Shawukay knew from descriptions to be Jazartho, hissed in a panicky voice. "One of my rival wizards, or a Red Wizard."

"Master, you have used your own magic to confirm that there are no traitors," Dyarn replied, one hand gripping his sword. "Even this trapper we found has no magic on her whatsoever."

"Still," Jazartho muttered, rubbing at his facial hair. "Keep a watchful eye on your charges. Mystra knows I've used enough magic to ensure YOUR loyalty."

The man's eyes flashed, and he bit back a smart comment that quite likely would have cost him his life.

"As you say, Master Jazartho," he said with mock respect.

The wizard either failed to notice that sarcasm, or decided that it was

not worth the effort to respond, turning and heading for a wagon.

<Has Jazartho compelled their loyalty?> Shawukay asked herself. She pondered that possibility, and nodded to herself. <A useful bit of information.>

Dyarn, his bulk clanging in his chain mail hauberk, turned and shouted, "Load the prisoners in the wagons! We depart in an hour!"

The soldiers quickly paired off into twos, heading for the obvious targets, the young to middle-aged men, who would likely be the first to offer resistance to the slavers. As she very same two who Shawukay had let capture her grabbed Balloris, a cry from his daughter sounded as she ran forward, screaming for them to release her father.

As one of the mercenaries prepared to draw his sword, the half-elf grabbed Kadali by the shoulders, keeping her out of the blade's reach. The mercenary, obviously a crueler type, scowled at the lost opportunity for a bit of random violence. He looked as if he were about to make an issue of the situation, but Dyarn barked off a sharp command, and the mercenary trodded off without further actions.

The villagers watched as confusion as one wagon was brought forward and unloaded. Three mercenaries took out several rusted and pitted weapons, and began throwing them in random directions while two others were damaging the properties in the village. The wagon unloaders went back to the wagon, and started pulling out...

"Orcs?" a farmwife asked in dazed confusion as the men started dragging some corpses of the hated goblinoids out into the early afternoon air. The stench rising from the bodies that wafted its way to Shawukay's nose suggested they'd been dead for more than a day.

"They are attempting to make it appear as if orcs raided your village," Shawukay answered, figuring out this part of the Zhentarim's plan. "They plan to have the blame for this attack fall upon orcish raiders, rather than the Zhentarim."

"Then. . .we are lost," the middle-aged woman said, sinking towards depression.

<Not if we have anything to say about it,> the Harper Agent vowed silently.

A crying sound grabbed Shawukay's attention, and she turned to Kadali, who was sitting down, her hands hugging her knees to her chest, her face red from crying. Shawukay crept over to the weeping child, putting a hand on her knee.

"It will be all right, Kadali," the half-elf promised, reaching up and wiping away a tear with one of her fingers. "You must have faith."

"In who?" Kadali asked with a dry whisper.

"In whomever you worship," the ranger said tenderly. "In whomever your heart calls out to."

"Chauntea," the terrified girl said softly, rocking back and forth on her haunches.

"A fine choice," the said approvingly, stroking the human child's cheek in an attempt to relieve her tension. "You have chosen very well."

One of the mercenaries came over and grabbed Kadali by the arm, and the girl let out a horrifying shriek. Shawukay jumped up and tried to force the warrior to release his grip, but another hired sword grabbed her arms from behind. Shawukay tensed to fight back, but the mercenary leader came over, his face clouded over with intense displeasure.

"What are you doing?" he boomed with authority. "The women and younglings are to go into the same wagon."

"Captain, the trapper's not part of the village," the soldier holding the half-elf said as she struggled. "Figured, she's not going up for sale, we could have some pleasure."

His meaning got through to the captain, and his face went red as he narrowed his eyes to mere slits that his pupils could not be seen through. His mouth grew into a feral smile that showed through his flaxen-colored beard.

"Put them in the wagon, now," he said in a low, deadly sounding voice. "Half-elves are rare in Calimsham, she'll fetch a goodly price."

Shawukay could see that her "fetching price" was not the reason the man was saying this, but because he was not pleased with the mens' plans for her.

<Could I be correct?> she asked herself. <Did Jazartho use magic on them?>

"But, Captain. ."

Dyarn's gauntleted fist lashed out, smacking into the protesting soldier's jaw and sending him to the ground. Luckily, he had released Shawukay, or the priestess just might have been sent to the ground with him. As it was, she used the moment of opportunity to grab the chain linking her wrists together and bring them up to swing at the nearest mercenary. It was only a last-second flash of memory of her mission, to sit and observe while awaiting the others' attack, that stayed her hand. Luckily, her hesitation would be attributed to the second underling releasing Kadali and drawing his shortsword. Dyarn quickly held out a hand to forestall an attack.

"Hold!" he snapped, freezing the mercenary in his tracks. As the first man stood up, rubbing at his bruising jaw, he spitted the man with a dangerous look. "Get on your horse, and do not dismount for any reason until I give you leave to do so."

As the man grudgingly moved to obey his orders, Dyarn turned and looked at Shawukay, who was still holding her chains in a ready position.

"Drop 'em, lass," he ordered, nodding at the gathered links of heavy steel she was gripping like a blade. "I don't want any trouble."

Shawukay gave him a look of hate, but did as she was bid, with a great deal of faked reluctance.

"You move quickly for a trapper," he remarked.

The half-elf gave him a smirk, which seemed to surprise both Dyarn and the other man, given her situation.

"I may be a trapper," she said, holding her hands up to show she was surrendering, "but I have been in my share of villages and towns. And one thing that all such areas have in common is that they tend to have taverns. These chains are not so different from a wooden barstool."

Dyarn chuckled at her explanation, and he shook his head in amusement. "Seen your share of tavern brawls?"

Shawukay's next words killed his laugh. "And unwanted advances," she said coldly.

He nodded to take her point, and turned to the man standing next to him, who was awaiting his orders.

"Put her in the wagon with the children," he ordered brusquely. He turned to Shawukay, and said, "You seem to be somewhat rational. Maybe it'll rub off on the younglings. I don't want any trouble from these people."

Shawukay nodded grimly, not liking his insinuations. <It is not these villagers you should be worrying about, Dyarn. When the time comes, you will see how a Forestarm handles slavers.>

The underling moved to grab her arm, but Shawukay froze him with a glare, and Dyarn muttered, "Don't fight him, lass, or the child will be at risk. They're not a very moral lot, and it's barely all I can do to control them. They're loyal to me, and that's it."

"No, they are loyal to that wizard," she retorted, drawing a wince as her shot hit home.

"Take her away," the Captain snapped, turning and marching off to see to the rest of the preparations.

The underling grabbed her arm, and started taking her towards the wagon that had been crowded with the other females. Kadali, seeing no other option, tagged along miserably.

As the young warrior brought the half-elf over, he whispered, "I would not have allowed what my companion was planning. You have my word."

Shawukay didn't look at him. "I see. You are above rape, but not slavery."

"We were supposed to be hunting orcs!" he snapped. "The wizard told us our true purpose after we'd hunted down a band. He's used geasing spells on us to prevent us from leaving. We don't have any choice in the matter."

Shawukay did look at him, now. She could see the fear and loathing in his voice, but she did not comment on that. Rather, she said, "But some of your companions like this situation."

"They see only their pockets," he said in distaste. "I joined this group to see the world."

Any further discussion was halted because they'd reached the wagon, and he stopped to push Shawukay up into the back. As she entered, she turned around, and saw the man holding the struggling Kadali.

"Kadali," Shawukay said softly, but the low word managed to break through the girl's terror, and the mercenary used the moment to hand the frightened child over to the ranger.

As she backed up, the door slammed shut, and her elven hearing could hear a lock of some sort being closed, trapping the villagers and Harper inside.

Kadali began to tremble, and Shawukay looked for a place to sit down. She guided the youngster over to a corner, and sat down, her back leaning against the wall, and she slowly descended, her eyes shining red in the darkness of the improvised cell.

Kadali was hugging herself once again, and Shawukay noticed that the other children were crying as well, as their mothers attempted to soothe their fear.

Suddenly, with a lurch, the wagon started moving, and Kadali's soft crying raised itself into a wail that the half-elf found herself comparing to what a banshee's keen must sound like.

Shawukay called out to the girl, and when she looked over, she jerked her head as an indication for the child to join her.

As the young girl reluctantly scooted over to her, Shawukay said, in a voice just above a whisper, "Kadali, does your father hold a position of authority in your village?"

"Yes," she said, a bit of pride coming through her anxiety, "he's the Mayor."

"And the other villagers look up to him," Shawukay observed. "I will let you know a secret."

"What?" the girl asked, the natural curiosity of a child taking over on instinct.

"As the other villagers look up to your father, I think that the other children look up to you. Your fear is only making theirs more obvious. You must set an example for them by hiding your fear."

The girl's nose crinkled in confusion. "Why?"

"If the children think that you are not scared," the half-elf said with a friendly grin, "they will have faith that we will be rescued."

Kadali looked down, apparently thinking about what Shawukay had said, and nodded.

"I will try," she promised solemnly. "But I'm still scared."

Shawukay leaned over to her, and whispered, "Another secret, Kadali Kentrana. I am frightened as well. Perhaps we can help each other hide our fears."

Kadali looked at her in shock, and said, "You remind me of my father. I can't believe that you're scared."

"It is natural," Shawukay countered.

She reached a hand out and brought the little girl close to her, leaning her into herself and leaning herself over the girl.

"When I was young, my Grandmother used to sing to me when I was scared, to let me know I was not alone," she offered.

"My father does that for me," the child admitted. After a second, she looked up at Shawukay. "Could you sing?"

"I can sing," the Mielikkian said with a sad smile, "but I cannot sing well."

"That's okay, just keep your voice down."

"Thank you so much," Shawukay said wryly, but she nevertheless began to hum in a low voice, singing nursery rhymes that her memory dragged from her childhood.

After an hour, with aid from the rocking of the wagon, Shawukay managed to lull the innocent girl to sleep.

*****

Zhentarim Caravan
Northbound
Between the Border Forest and Dragonspine Mountains
Northeast of the Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (the Forgotten Realms)
Early hours
30 August 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

A sudden lurch woke Shawukay from her sleep. She quickly focused on her hearing, since she could not see what was happening from inside the wagon she'd been put in with the female and young villagers.

When the wagon train had stopped for the night, Shawukay had made sure that the women and children were able to fall asleep before praying to the Lady of the Forest. She'd considered praying for spells, since Jazartho had been convinced of her lack of arcane ability, but eventually she had decided against it. It was too soon into the mission to risk discovery because of her inconvenience.

She'd stolen a few hours of sleep, waking up before dawn, if the lack of light peeking through the gaps in the wood of the wagon were any indication. The wagons had started up again, and the ranger had decided to get what sleep she could before focusing on the mission entirely. However, less than two hours later, the wagons had mysteriously stopped.

Again, she laid an ear against the front of the wagon, hoping to catch snatches of the drivers' conversations with each other.

She was able to make out little bits of information, which basically said that the wizard had determined that one of the men was a Red Wizard, and had used some magic to prevent the old man from casting any spells. Shawukay couldn't understand why the wizard would take such steps, as he had already taken care to make sure that no one, herself included, possessed spell-casting abilities.

A cold lump of fear formed in Shawukay's gut as she thought of what was likely to happen to the old farmer, once Jazartho started his "interrogation." The Zhents were not known for being subtle in questioning suspected enemies.

One mercenary thought that the wizard was just being cautious, while the other, from his voice the one who had put Shawukay and Kadali into the wagon, thought something was wrong with the wizard himself. Shawukay considered the information, and was ready to dismiss it, until she remembered the look in the wizard's eyes when he'd looked at her.

<I knew there was something I did not like about him,> the half-elf thought. <Could something. . . no, it is probably idle musing. He is just angry the wizard has used geasing magics on him.>

The Harper Agent put the thoughts from her mind, and crept silently back to the sleeping Kadali Kentrana. The golden-haired child was silently weeping in her dreams, and Shawukay gave her a sad smile as she sat next to the young girl and picked her up and laid the preteen against her body. So weary was the farmer's child that she did not even stir.

Shawukay laid back against the wall, waiting to see what came out of the coming daylight hours.

Jazartho watched as the two mercenaries brought in the old man, chained at both hand and foot. A gag was tied around his mouth, so that he couldn't unleash any magic against the Zhentarim wizard. When the two hirelings threw him down on the floor of the wagon, the Zhentarim wizard nodded.

"That will be all. Leave us," he ordered.

The guards nodded and took off, mumbling about why the wizard wanted to talk with a worthless old farmer. The Zhentarim just chuckled at their idiocy.

"Well, well," he said, stroking his goatee as he walked forward. "I wonder, what do the Red Wizards of Thay want with me?"

The old farmer just looked at the wizard, fear in his eyes. Fear which Jazartho took as confirmation of his thoughts.

"So, which zulkir do you serve, hmm?" Jazartho asked. "Evocation? Conjuration? Who is your master?"

The man tried to mumble something through the gag, and the Zhent smiled.

"Oh, if I were going to be that easy on you, I would have just dragged the information from your mind. But I want to be sure the answers are given freely, so that I can plunder whatever magic is within your mind at my leisure, without the chance of destroying anything first."

The wizard walked over to the old man, and began chanting a spell. He stood behind the farmer, and said, "What I'm casting is a variation of the standard shocking grasp spell. The damage is lessened, but the pain is increased to encompass the entire body. All of your nerves, your entire body, will feel the pain at once. Feel free to tell me what I want to know."

Jazartho cast the spell, and touched the old man on the top of the head.

Outside, the guards jumped at the sound of the muffled scream. They stared at the wizard's wagon for several seconds, and then at their Captain.

"Tempus, please make this end," he softly prayed to the God of War. "This is not what I signed on for."

In the womens' wagon, Shawukay had also heard the scream, although the rest of the women, some of whom were now awake, did not.

The half-elf realized what Jazartho was doing, and her face fell a bit as she realized that the old man was undergoing a Zhentarim interrogation.

<He is no Red Wizard,> she thought, trying to sound positive to herself. <Jazartho will quickly determine that, and let the man alone.>

For some reason, Shawukay didn't truly believe it.

*****

Zhentarim Caravan
Northbound
Between the Border Forest and Dragonspine Mountains
Northeast of the Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (the Forgotten Realms)
30 August 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

Shawukay continued to listen to the screams, and apparently some of the human women from the village had started to hear it as well.

After several hours, the screaming suddenly stopped, and the priestess wondered if the wizard was finally satisfied with the old farmer's innocence. She listened as mercenaries ran around, their armor and weapons clanking as they moved, and she assumed that the wagon train would soon be moving again.

<But this delay, however inexplicable, will allow the others to catch up much quicker,> Shawukay thought. She looked at Kadali, who was trying to peek out through a crack, albeit in the wrong direction, and smiled.

<She has hope. That is good.>

"Kadali," the young woman called out, drawing the girl's attention. "Come here."

Kadali crept over, dragging the chains around her wrists. She came over and said, "Yes, Miyana?"

Shawukay knelt down beside her and said, "I admire your initiative to try to watch the slavers, but if you are going to do it, you must do one thing."

"What?" Kadali asked in confusion.

"Look out the correct side of the wagon," the half-elf answered, a smile in her eyes if not on her lips. "You were staring at the Border Forest, and not the center of the caravan."

"Oh," the girl said with a deep blush. "Sorry."

"Do not be sorry, Kadali," Shawukay said, stroking the girl's hair. She leaned in close and said, "I have reason to believe that we will be rescued."

"By who?"

Shawukay now realized that she might have backed herself into a corner with the girl, who quite certainly expected an answer.

"Well, I know that there are elves in the Border Forest who do not take kindly to their people being taken as slaves," Shawukay said neutrally, hoping the girl would believe her. "They probably know of this caravan, and might be willing to eliminate this threat to their people."

More yelling from outside caught Shawukay's attention, and her jerking caught Kadali's.

"What is it?" she asked.

"I do not know," Shawukay answered honestly. She gently moved Kadali to the side and quickly crawled over to one of the cracks, where a farmwife was sitting, looking through the crack already. "What is happening?"

"He killed Ouran," the woman said with a sob. "That Gods damned wizard killed Ouran for no reason."

"The drivers said that Jazartho believed he was a Red Wizard," the half-elf answered. "He was interrogating him."

The woman looked at her. "How do you know what the wagon drivers were saying?"

Shawukay lifted one hand and touched her right ear. "Elven hearing."

The woman nodded and looked back out. She gasped and said, "They are dragging my brother towards the wizard's wagon."

"Let me see," the half-elf ordered, and the woman gave way to her tone, and Shawukay quickly watched as the two mercenaries dragged a young human male of about twenty-five winters into the wizard's cabin. After about two minutes, they exited, talking amongst themselves, although Shawukay was not able to make out anything they were saying.

She backed away, and sat back against the wall of the wagon.

"Well?" the woman asked.

"He is in Jazartho's wagon," Shawukay said, stating the obvious. "Goddess knows what will happen now."

Jazartho watched the defiant man stare at him, obviously angry about this turn of fortune.

"So, rival, did you really think you would get away with this?" the mage asked the man. "I will admit, I was convinced the old man was the one who'd impersonated a villager, but. . . you are the more likely suspect. So, I will have to be much more careful with you."

"What in the name of Chauntea are you blabbering about, Zhentarim?" Nagosh asked. He couldn't understand what this wizard was talking about. "How am I your rival?"

"Oh, a question with a question," Jazartho said, a twitch coming to his right eye. He smiled, and said, "To interrogate you, I will no doubt have to come up with something original. You are doubtless protected from magical interrogations and mind probes, so I will have to resort to somewhat more. . .physical techniques."

The wizard quickly chanted a spell, and Nagosh trembled, thinking he was about to perish. Jazartho smiled as he finished his chant. Nagosh was somewhat puzzled by the lack of pyrotechnics, and he looked at the Zhent with a look of confusion.

"A unique variation of spells," Jazartho said. "A summoning spell for animals, and I decided to call up some rot grubs. Have you heard of them?"

Nagosh paled; the parasites were well known for infesting carrion, until a living being came in contact with it, at which point the grubs would quickly burrow into the person, and burrow towards the being's heart. It was a slow and agonizing death, unless the infected person had spells for the curing of diseases cast upon them.

Jazartho smiled even further and said, "They are already inside of you. And I also have cast a slowing spell on them, so it will take three times longer for them to find your heart. Plenty of time for you to decide whether or not you wish to tell me what I wish to know."

Nagosh quickly jumped up to attack Jazartho, but the wizard quickly chanted another spell, and the young farmer fell to the ground, asleep.

Jazartho stood there, watching, as the man snored away, oblivious to the tiny creatures even now looking for his heart.

<I hope you wake soon, rival,> the Zhentarim thought to himself. <I would hate to lose whatever information you have. . .>

The thought trailed off, as the twitch in Jazartho's eye increased somewhat.

In the late evening hours, a loud, piercing scream echoed through the wagons. Dyarn was starting to grow fearful about the lack of progress the slave train was making. After stopping that morning, they hadn't moved an inch all throughout the day.

"Probably want to move at night," the mercenary Captain said. "Never mind that we can't see a damned thing in this place."

A second scream tore from the wizard's wagon, and one of the younger, and more decent, hire swords came up to his leader.

"How long do we let this go on, sir?" he asked frightfully.

"What are we supposed to do?" Dyarn countered with a snarl. "We can't attack the wizard, we can't disobey his orders, and half the men would side with him anyway."

"Then there is nothing we can do?" Yulin asked painfully.

"Not unless the Gods are very kind," the man, who for the first time felt truly old, said sadly as he rubbed his beard.

Dyarn turned and walked away, not letting the young Yulin see the tears falling down his face.

At about the time Selune approached its zenith, the door to the wizard's wagon opened once again. A body levitated through the opening and to the ground.

As the mercenaries moved to take the body, Jazartho cried out, "Hold! Unless you want to be infected by rot grubs."

The soldiers for hire quickly made their retreats, and Dyarn looked at the wizard. "Well, Master Jazartho?"

"He was most resilient," the wizard allowed, his left hand twitching a bit. "I do not know. Perhaps he had an accomplice."

Jazartho turned and walked back into his wagon.

Dyarn looked at him with a look of death, but it was futile, and he shouted, "Burn the body! Now!"

He turned and started heading towards the forest to vomit.

Inside the wagon, Shawukay turned and settled back against the wall, tears slowly forming in her eyes. The village women took in her appearance, and Nagosh's sister voice what they already knew in their hearts.

"Nagosh is dead?" she whispered in a low, barely audible voice.

To the half-elf's thinking, the soft question was as audible as a scream.

"Yes."

The man's sister choked back a scream, and buried her face in her hands as she started crying. Some of the children started crying as well.

<Oh, Goddess, why is this happening?> Shawukay asked herself. <Lady, why does this wizard look over his shoulder for enemies? He cannot know what I am. The jewel. . .>

Shawukay stopped thinking, and reached for her pocket. She felt the weight of the small emerald, and was somewhat reassured.

<Please hurry, my friends,> she pleaded in silence. <The villagers need you.>

Shawukay brought her attention back to the current situation, and saw Kadali shushing the younger children, apparently having taken it upon herself to play the older sister. The actions brought a smile to the ranger's face. Shawukay absently reached up and removed the leather band which had been keeping her hair in place. As she shook her hair loose, she noticed Kadali coming over.

"What is wrong, Kadali?" she asked, seeing a determined look that looked out of place on the child's features.

"The others are hungry," Kadali said. "We haven't had anything to eat today."

Shawukay's eyes narrowed at the thought of the wizard starving children, and Kadali, unbeknownst to the half-elf, gulped at the look of anger.

Shawukay sighed, and told the human child, "Get the others to go to sleep, Kadali. And then you do the same."

Kadali watched her with childlike curiosity for a second, and then went to coax the other children to sleep. Several of the women had already fallen asleep, the notable exception being the mourning sister of Jazartho's second victim.

Two hours later, when even the strongest-willed child had surrendered to slumber, Shawukay closed her eyes, finally confident that she would not be disturbed, nor discovered.

She sent out a silent call, and felt the touch she'd felt every day since she was a child Kadali's age. The warm, pleasant feeling of the Lady of the Forest filled the ranger as Shawukay fervently prayed for guidance on what to do about the souring mission.

<Blessed Lady, please help me. I do not know what I am supposed to do. I am only bid sit and watch, but what good is this if Jazartho kills innocent people? My duty is not to interfere, but my heart screams for me to take action! How can I help them?!?>

Suddenly, a number of spells filled Shawukay's mind, and the priestess gasped.

<Mother, are you certain of this?>

The presence in her mind took on a feeling of "Of course." The young ranger giggled as she sent a "note" of apology. Slowly, the presence faded until it was at the level Shawukay normally felt, and slowly opened her eyes.

Looking and listening, she determined the people were still asleep, so she quickly cast a quick prayer, and suddenly, a large amount of white radiance lit the wagon, forming several loaves of bread and numerous waterskins out of thin air. She walked over and touched Kadali. As the girl stirred, the half-elf smiled.

"It would seem your prayers have been answered, Kadali Kentrana."

When Kadali wrinkled her nose in sleepy confusion, Shawukay handed her two loaves of bread.

"Be quiet, and keep the children quiet as well," she instructed. "Give them enough to quell their hunger, and give them each some water. Then tell them to sleep again."

"All right," the child said, quickly scampering off to do what she'd been told.

Shawukay smiled at her, and went to handle their mothers.

*****

Zhentarim Caravan
Between the Border Forest and Dragonspine Mountains
Northeast of the Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (the Forgotten Realms)
31 August 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

Shawukay sat silently, praying to the Lady as the sun rose, or so she assumed based on the light coming through the cracks in the wood of the wagon. The Goddess placed a spell in her mind to replace the one her servant had cast earlier, and Shawukay slowly opened her eyes.

And the first thing she saw was Kadali staring at her in awe.

<What in the name of Mielikki?!?>

"Kadali, what are you staring at?" she asked, even though she had a pretty good idea.

"You were glowing," Kadali answered softly through her awestruck expression. "Are you an angel?"

"Hardly, Kadali," Shawukay sighed. She rubbed a hand over her eyes, moving errant curls out of her vision. "If I were, none of us would be in this situation."

"Then what are you?" she asked, her voice rising.

The half-elf moaned. "Kadali, you were not supposed to know about this," she said in frustration. "I am a half-elf. But you knew that."

The child folded her arms in defiance despite the manacles encircling her wrists. "What else are you, Miyana?" she demanded.

<She looks like I did when I was bound and determined to learn something,> the ranger thought, a smile coming to her face in spite of her dilemma. <She even glares like I did when I was her age. Oh, Mielikki, how did my Grandparents ever survive raising me?>

"Very well, Kadali Kentrana," Shawukay said sternly, folding her arms as well. "You wish to know the truth? On your word of silence, then."

"I promise," Kadali said, her tone huffy at the indication that Shawukay would suggest otherwise.

Shawukay's smile widened.

"Agreed. Then know this, Kadali Kentrana, daughter of Balloris," she intoned with mock gravity, "know that I am a priestess and ranger of Mielikki, warrior maiden to the Lady of the Forest, blood granddaughter to the Flamingarrow clan of Deepingdale and the Redstar clan of the Tel'Quessir, and an Agent of Those Who Harp. My mission is to allow myself to be captured, so that my comrades can track me using magic and eliminate this wizard once and for all."

The young girl's eyes and mouth had gone wide open at Shawukay's proclamation, and she started to draw breath to say something, but Shawukay cut her off before she could utter a single syllable.

"Your word of silence, young lady," the half-elf said in a tone so often used by her Grandmother in her younger days.

<All of ten to fifteen years ago.>

Kadali's mouth clacked shut, and after a few seconds she said, "You sound like Momma."

"My Grandmother was whom I was trying to impersonate," she admitted with a grin returned by Kadali. "But I am serious, Kadali. You cannot talk of this to anyone, not even to me. Once our comrades free us, then we can talk. That is, if you want to."

Kadali's grin expanded into a wide, full smile that brought a surge of joy to Shawukay's heart, and she nodded excitedly. She crawled off to the opposite side of the wagon and settled down.

Shawukay noticed that some of the women were stirring, and she let out a sigh of relief.

<I finished that conversation none too soon, Mother.>

About an hour later, Shawukay's attention was grabbed by the sounds of movement from the caravan. The Mielikkian turned around and put her eye up to the crack in the wood.

<I still cannot understand why we are not moving. Dargen told me that speed was of the essence for this wizard.>

Jazartho exited his cabin, and Shawukay felt another surge of anger at the thought of the way he was treating the children. No food, no water, and making them into slaves made Shawukay enjoy the thought of the Zhentarim in prison.

She quickly berated herself at the thought; she should not get enjoyment out of that, not like he was enjoying hurting innocent farmers.

Her private thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of someone being dragged from the mens' wagon, and a cold lump of dread formed in Shawukay's heart.

<Goddess, no. Not another one,> she pleaded, pressing up against the wall to get as much viewing room as possible.

Behind her, the women and children knew something was happening, due to the half-elf's actions.

The cold lump of dread grew larger as she saw who the next target of Jazartho's "interrogations" would be. She slumped down in sad resignation, and turned around, sagging against the wall and lowering her head, staring at the floor.

An old woman dredged up the courage to ask, "Who is it?"

Shawukay didn't answer, but instead looked straight at Kadali, a look of hopelessness in her eyes. It only took two seconds for everyone in the wagon to realize what the half-elven woman could not bring herself to say.

"Father?" Kadali choked out.

When Shawukay nodded, the child started to dash to the wall, wanting to look out and see what they planned to do to her father. Shawukay grabbed the wailing child, and pulled Kadali to her, hugging the terrified villager for all she was worth.

Kadali cried for several minutes, asking Shawukay to help her father, but knowing all the while that the half-elf could not do so, or that they would all be lost.

"Please, Miyana," she whispered, holding the ranger with a strength born of terror and love for her father, "help him. Please help him."

Shawukay felt her heart breaking over the plea that she so desperately wanted to answer, but she still didn't know how to accomplish this, as she could not defeat fifteen seasoned warriors, let alone the mage commanding them.

"I want to, Kadali," Shawukay said, tears falling down her face as she held the little girl. "I want to so much. But I cannot do it alone."

Kadali drew away from Shawukay, and was stunned to see tears falling down the Harper Agent's cheeks.

"You're crying," she said in wonder.

"Just because of who I am, does not mean that I cannot feel for someone who deserves better than this," Shawukay told her.

Kadali's tears intensified, and she asked, "Miyana, what will happen to my father?"

"I do not know. I will pray that he will survive," she told the younger one. "I will be praying very hard."

Kadali snuggled up to Shawukay, and was crying even harder in fear.

"Miyana, what will happen to me?" she asked, so softly that even the half-elf's hearing had trouble picking up the words. "Momma is gone, what if. . ."

"Then he will be with your Mother again," Shawukay offered. "But you must hope that this will be a long time in coming. You MUST hope that Balloris Kentrana can survive whatever happens."

Kadali wailed, "But what if he doesn't! I will be alone!"

Shawukay drew Kadali into another hug, and said softly, "You will not be alone, Kadali. Surely someone would want to have a daughter as special as you are. I have seen you do very well in this."

"But who would want me?" the girl sobbed into Shawukay's shoulder.

Shawukay started to answer, but stopped when she realized the answer she had been about to give. Kadali looked up into Shawukay's eyes, wanting the reassurance of a positive answer that someone, somewhere, would take care of her if her father somehow didn't survive this.

"Miyana?" she asked, wanting the half-elf to answer.

Shawukay looked straight into the girl's eyes, and came to the realization that somehow, over only two days, she had come to...

"I would," Shawukay answered, tears of her own matching Kadali's in intensity. "I would want a daughter like you in a beat of my heart. With the Lady as my witness, I promise you that, Kadali Kentrana."

Kadali stared at her, and she saw the emotions in Shawukay's eyes, and she threw herself into Shawukay, crying that even if the worst happened to her father, there was someone who loved her.

<Please, Lady, do not let this one lose both of her parents,> Shawukay prayed to Mielikki. <Her father does not deserve this, please find some way to help him. If you cannot, and if he is lost. . . I mean what I say, Mother. This one will be taken care of.>

The other women just watched, as Shawukay and Kadali just sat there, holding on to each other, rocking back and forth and not wanting ever to let go.

As the day grew long, and afternoon descended into twilight, Shawukay and the females and children who were inside the wagon with her waited, awaiting any indication of what was happening to Balloris. There had been no screams, no activity of any kind to give any clue as to the fate of the Mayor.

Shawukay did not take any action, other than to let Kadali lay against her, offering her silent support. At one point, Kadali looked up at her.

"Miyana?" she asked hesitantly.

"Yes, Kadali?" Shawukay whispered.

"If Father is alive, what will you do?"

Shawukay looked at the girl looking at back at her. "I will go home, and continue doing what I wish to do."

"You would not stay with me and Father?" Kadali asked, her meaning clear.

Shawukay's eyes opened a bit more, and she quickly found herself blushing. Taking a moment to collect herself, she said, "Kadali, I would not want to marry your Father. He may one day find someone he loves."

"You wouldn't stay?"

"No, but I could visit you, perhaps," the half-elf said earnestly. "And if I visit, and you have a mother once again. . ."

Shawukay shrugged, and finished with, "Well, I have always wondered what having a sister would be like."

Kadali watched the ranger, thinking over what had just been said, even as Shawukay let her emotions shine through her eyes. Finally, she gave Shawukay another hug, which the woman returned with interest.

Sounds coming from the camp alerted Shawukay, and she disengaged from the embrace. She quickly looked outside, and when she did, she felt as if her heart was rising into her throat.

Jazartho was standing next to Dyarn, boasting about his new servant. The. . .thing looked like the descriptions Shawukay had heard about flesh golems, but something was different about it.

<He. . .> Shawukay thought, wracking her brain. Suddenly, the blood drained from her face. <No. . .oh, Mielikki, please no!>

The undead thing that had once been Balloris Kentrana had had every inch of his skin removed from his body.

The half-elf's head just started shaking back and forth, until something broke inside of Shawukay, and her jaw started clenching. She turned around, sitting down and closing her eyes.

"Miyana?" Kadali asked, instinctively knowing something was wrong.

Shawukay quickly uttered a prayer, and she felt the spell begin to take effect. She got up and walked over to the door at the rear of the wagon. Most of the women shrank back at the look of repressed rage in her eyes.

Kadali grabbed Shawukay's right hand, and Shawukay snapped her gaze to her.

"Get back, Kadali!" she snapped, startling the child. "The chain is going to become very hot, and I do not want you to suffer burns once the spell takes effect."

Kadali nodded, but there was a little bit of fear in her eyes.

Shawukay looked at the child, and said in a caring voice, "Whatever you do, please do not come outside."

She then reached inside her shirt, and pulled out the jewel. She considered what to do with it, should she be searched, and proceeded to do the only thing that she could think of. She threw her head back, and swallowed the emerald.

<Try to find it now, you Zhentarim bastard.>

Shawukay felt two of the links of chain growing red hot, and her right wrist began to blister from the intense heat. Suddenly, the links snapped, and the ranger twirled the chain around, encircling her left forearm with the heavy weight. She quickly chanted a second prayer, and a scimitar composed of magical flame appeared in her right hand.

As she began chanting a third time, the villagers were finally beginning to realize that this half-elf was no mere trapper caught by circumstance.

"Who is she?" the old woman asked.

Kadali almost blurted out Shawukay's secret, but settled for saying, "A hero."

Shawukay stopped speaking, and the villagers stared as the door to the wagon began to warp. Once it stopped, Shawukay let out a piercing scream and kicked the out with her boot, sending the door flying off the hinges, and she leaped out into the open air.

As she landed, Shawukay noted with surprise (and satisfaction) that there had been a guard beside (now underneath) the door she had kicked out. She turned towards the source of her attack; Jazartho himself.

The Mielikkian's plan was simple; kill the wizard and free the mercenaries from the geasing spell. Any possible refinements were made impossible when one mercenary came at her, sword leading. Shawukay dodged his thrust and quickly slashed her fiery blade across his eyes. As he screamed, he dropped his sword and reached for his burned eyes. The half-elf slashed him across the neck, and dispelled her flame blade to pick up the steel replacement.

<Broadsword? I will have to make due.>

"Stop her!" Jazartho yelled.

A burst of anger surged through Shawukay, and she set her gaze on the wizard, seeing sweat beading on his face as he tried to cast a spell. However, the cleric wasn't going to let him have the chance to finish it.

"Shirak!"

A burst of light blinked into existence over Jazartho's eyes, and his chant stopped in mid-sentence, costing the wizard his concentration and his spell.

A mercenary threw a thrust with his blade, but Shawukay sidestepped it and chopped into his arms, making him drop the sword. The half-elven woman then sliced him across the spine, sending him screaming to the turf. She glanced at the mage, who was just dispelling the light enchantment.

"Dulak!" she cried out.

Just as the light disappeared from Jazartho's eyes, a globe of darkness took its place. Shawukay took glee in the wizard's frustrated howl.

Shawukay tried to start a prayer to cast a spell of silence over the wizard, eliminating any magic from him whatsoever, and making him more or less defenseless, but a warrior, the one who'd wanted to have his way with her, came at her, a rotten smile on his face. He threw a slash meant to separate her head from the neck attaching it to the rest of her body. But, rather than parry the blow, the half-elf ducked, and stabbed her borrowed blade straight into the man's groin area. Her mouth opened in shock as she realized what she'd done, and the man's agonizing scream made the other mercenaries pause. It also distracted Shawukay from casting the silence spell.

Jazartho dispelled the darkness over his head, his hands twitching nervously. He concentrated and began to cast a spell to deal with the half-breed upstart.

Shawukay shook off her indecision, and quickly stood back up and threw a wicked backhanded forearm at her would be rapist. The heavy chain added to the power of her blow, and his jaw was shattered as he was sent spinning to the grass.

Shawukay started towards the wizard once again, but Yulin stepped in front of her, a look of fear on his face as he saw his death in her eyes.

"Step aside so that I can free you!" she snapped.

"I can't!" he cried as he threw a slash at her heart. "I have no choice!"

Jazartho was just finishing his spell when he noticed a second target entering the group, running for all it was worth. At the last second, he pointed his hand at the new target, and uttered the final syllable to his spell.

A bluish-white bolt of lightning flew from his hands, and burst straight through Kadali's chest, a primal scream erupting from her throat as the bolt tore through her heart.

Shawukay had parried Yulin's blow, but hesitated at striking back at her enspelled opponent. She saw the wizard cast his spell, and the scream from the child froze her for a split second. Yulin took that second to throw another blow at her, which she barely ducked.

The ranger jumped up and threw a light stab into Yulin's gut, taking care not to wound him too badly; she could heal him after taking the wizard.

She looked at the corpse that had been the child she had fallen in love with, and shouted, "KADALI!!!"

She then switched her narrowed eyes to Jazartho, whose jaw was flapping in a panic as he realized he'd wasted a powerful offensive spell on a defenseless child. Shawukay's eyes blazed in righteous anger, and she started to stalk forward, fully intent on killing this wizard and anyone who stepped into her path to block her.

But, in her anger, she had left her back unprotected, and Yulin took the opportunity to throw a slash at her backside. Shawukay's instincts took over, and she threw herself forward at the last instant, but it was not enough. The young human's blade ripped through her tunic, leaving a long, thin ribbon of blood coming from her back just below the shoulder blades.

The half-elf arched her back reflexively, and another hiresword took the chance presented to him to throw an overhand chop at the now injured warrior. As he brought his longsword over his head, Shawukay instinctively threw her left arm up to block the blow. The sword impacted on the chains around her forearm, yellow sparks flying in all directions.

Shawukay felt one of the bones in her forearm crack, and the pain sent her to her knees. Yulin brought his sword up to finish her off, hating every moment of what he was about to do.

"I want her alive!" Dyarn shouted as Yulin reached the apex of his swing.

The order allowed the young man to alter the direction of his blade, and he brought the pommel of his sword crashing down into the half-elf's skull with a resounding "crack."

Shawukay's head exploded into pain, and she fell face-first to the ground, and as her face hit the grass, blackness encompassed her as she faded into oblivion.

*****

Zhentarim Caravan
Between the Border Forest and Dragonspine Mountains
Northeast of the Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (the Forgotten Realms)
1 September 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

Awareness made its way back into Shawukay's consciousness, very slowly. The half-elf moaned softly, and then louder as the ringing pain in her head grew stronger the more she regained her senses. She tried to reach up to hold her head, but her arms wouldn't obey her commands.

That realization brought her fully awake, and she opened her eyes. She quickly wished he hadn't. She was still laying on the ground, and she quickly glanced down, and saw why she couldn't move her arms. Her arms had been tied behind her back, bent at the elbows and tied heavily at the forearms just between her two wrists, locking her arms in place. More ropes encircling her torso prevented any movement of her arms in any way, shape or form, and more strands had been tied between the ropes around her forearms, linking them to the ropes around her chest, making any movement of any type completely impossible.

The half-elf tried to stand, but quickly discovered that this, too, had been made unlikely. She glanced downward, and saw that her legs, too, had been heavily bound, at the thighs, above and below her knees, calves and ankles.

<Goddess, this wizard must truly think me a threat to his health,> the priestess thought with gladness, despite her situation. <He is right, should I get him alone any time soon.>

Shawukay started to struggle to try to free her arms, but laughter from behind her stopped her in her tracks. She turned over, hissing as pain flared in her back from the wound she'd taken there, and she saw Jazartho, his mouth twitching in one corner, watching her.

She quickly understood that something else was wrong, when she saw that the remaining villagers, men, women and children, were herded together outside under the watchful eyes of the mercenaries. Shawukay noted that two of the mercenaries were missing, while two more, including the one she'd stabbed in a sensitive spot, were quite clearly at less than optimal health.

Jazartho smiled as she took in the situation, and he said, "Good. You're

finally back with us. You were knocked out all night, and I'd begun to think you wouldn't rejoin our little band."

Shawukay said nothing, simply waiting for the wizard to finish his rambling.

"Well, we seem to have a dilemma on our hands," he continued, wringing his hands nervously. "It would seem that you, or perhaps more of you, have been sent to spy on me. I want to know who you serve, and why he has taken an interest in me."

"I do not think I will be answering any of your questions, wizard," Shawukay finally said, giving him a glare. "You do not seem to be particularly adept at interrogations. You have killed four innocent people, who had nothing to do with your paranoia."

The mage began spitting uncontrollably at her comment, and he finally settled down after several seconds, during which everyone, including the hardened soldiers, looked fearful as to what might happen.

He calmly smiled at her, and said, "Well, then, since you won't answer any questions, it's quite obvious I will have to take a different approach."

He turned and began to point at the villagers, and began softly speaking.

"NOOO!!" Shawukay screamed, and the wizard turned back to her, a look of triumph on his face.

"What? You object to my killing them?" he asked.

"Yes, traitor!" she shouted, desperately trying to stall his actions.

"Traitor?!? TRAITOR?!?" he screamed, frothing at the mouth. "I am the most loyal wizard in the Zhentarim!"

"Who kills his merchandise, and cheats his masters out of their rightful share of gold!" the half-elf countered. She couldn't believe Jazartho was buying her on the spot lie, but anything that worked, that kept the villagers from harm, was precious time her comrades needed to reach her location. "You were suspected of selling slaves on your own and pocketing the profits, but obviously I was wrong. I will have to report this to my superiors."

"Whom do you serve?" the wizard demanded, apparently convinced of her purpose.

"A power much greater than yours," she replied with a smile that suggested she knew something he didn't.

"Oh, really, half-breed?" Jazartho muttered. He turned to the villagers again, and said, "I think a demonstration is in order as to my power. These villagers would be worth a bit of money, but I think the question of my power and loyalty is more important. So, I think I shall cut my losses."

"And when they find out what you have done? They will kill you for such a waste of expenditures as proof of your treason."

Jazartho stopped, considering her words. He turned to the bound half-elf, and snarled. "Then perhaps I should spare them, and deliver them. But a demonstration as to what happens to those who question my loyalty is in order, and so someone will have to pay the price for the masters questioning my integrity."

He began to turn towards the villagers once again, and Shawukay blurted, "You cannot do this!"

"Are you suggesting I not prove my loyalty?" he asked, his left wrist twitching.

The half-elf managed to struggle herself into a sitting position, and said, "There are those who are watching you, Jazartho. And they will take kindly to any more unnecessary killing."

Jazartho smiled, and said, "You'd be amazed at what people can survive, spy. And I can be quite inventive in my interrogations."

"Those were not interrogations, they were the tortures of merchandise by a traitorous fool!"

"I am not traitorous!!" Jazartho shouted, walking up and grabbing the half-elf's chin in his hands. "You talk so much of loyalty, I will offer you a test of YOUR loyalty. Either I interrogate one of the slaves to be, or. . . the 'watchers' will watch as you fail in your mission. Unless you can offer an alternative."

Shawukay knew what the Zhent meant by "alternative," and her eyes flashed as she sent a silent message to him, saying that we was a dead man walking for what he had done.

She glanced at the villagers, who were plainly terrified at the thought of what the wizard could do to them, and Shawukay felt her heart breaking because of the deaths of Kadali, Balloris, and the others. Then, the half-elf's resolve hardened, as she knew what the only possible course of action for her to take was, no matter what the cost to herself.

<There are times when one must listen to her heart, rather than duty,> she told herself, tears streaking down her face while wondering what would happen when the others discovered she was risking discovery. <Will they understand?>

Any further thoughts were cut off as Shawukay brought her attention back to the evil wizard.

"Do your worst, Jazartho," she snarled defiantly, adding a gob of spit into his face. "But know that you will die for this. No matter how long it takes."

"Of course I will," he said, reaching up and stroking her right cheek with his hand, chuckling once when she tried to jerk away from him. He looked over his shoulder, and shouted, "Stand this bitch up!"

Two mercenaries marched forward and hauled Shawukay to her feet by the elbows, the lifting making her arms ache. As they held her up in front of the wizard, he smiled and began chanting. After several seconds, he finished, and Shawukay felt something come over her, but she simply waited for him to tell her what he had done.

Jazartho looked to the mercenary at her left side, and said, "Cut her loose."

The man looked distinctly less than pleased with the prospect, and asked, "Are you sure?"

"Do NOT question my authority!" he screamed, moving forward and slapping the man across the face.

The crowd of villagers all gasped at the wizard's action, but the man just gritted his teeth and took out a knife, starting to cut the ropes around Shawukay's legs. Once he'd finished, he undid the ropes around her arms and torso, and Shawukay, on reflex, tried to lower her arms.

She couldn't move.

Jazartho watched the look in her eyes, and watched as confusion, fear, and then, finally anger, warred in the hazel eyes of the young woman. He nodded in pleasure at her realization of what he'd done.

"Yes, a holding spell, woman. Quite simple, yet effective," he explained. "Think of it. Being trapped, your own body your prison. Completely unable to move, to speak, even to do something so simple as blink or move your eyes."

He walked around her back, and the half-elf tried to move her head to follow his progress, but failed. The prison was complete.

Suddenly, she felt hands on her arms, and felt her left arm being moved to the side of her body, slightly elevated from being straight against her side. Jazartho repeated the procedure with her right arm, and then ordered the mercenaries next to him to lift her by the arms. As they did so, Jazartho knelt and moved her legs slightly apart. He nodded, and the hired arms set her back down, and he nodded to himself in satisfaction.

"There. That is more stable, so you will not fall over during this little demonstration," he mused, looking at the anger growing in her eyes. "And know this; you will be facing these villagers that you say are so valuable, that they are more important than our masters."

He smiled at her and said, "And when you are ready to tell me who you serve, you can simply call out. Of course, I took the liberty of giving you a potion of my own creation while you are asleep. The potion enhances the effects of a spell cast upon the person twentyfold. So I don't think you will be having conversations for quite some time."

He had the mercenaries face her at the villagers, and Shawukay was actually glad for one part of this spell that was quite simply beginning to frighten her.

<THEY are the ones I am doing this for, Jazartho,> she thought to herself. <And every hour you have us sitting here only works to MY advantage.>

Jazartho walked back in front of her, and called Dyarn to his side. As the bearded warrior walked over, Shawukay could see the look of sorrow and despair in his eyes at her predicament.

"What are you going to do, Master?" the mercenary asked hatefully.

"Actually, your young Yulin gave me the idea," the Zhentarim replied. He clapped his hands, and called out, "Behold!"

Shawukay heard shuffling behind her, and watched as Dyarn's face went pasty white. When four figures moved into her sight, she felt the same thing happening to her.

Balloris, Kadali and the two warriors she knew she'd killed during her attempt to kill Jazartho were zombies.

<Kadali?!? No no no no....>

"Ah, you understand," the magic-user sneered, a look of evil glee on his face. "But, we need to make one modification. . ."

He walked behind her, and the next thing she felt was her shirt being ripped in the back. She felt it as Jazartho drew a dagger along her sleeves, and down her back, and then at the neck, removing her shirt and leaving that part of her body bare to the elements.

The wizard walked back to the front of the half-elf, and gazed at her with naked admiration.

"Yes, this one is most beautiful, Dyarn," he said, tapping his chin with his index finger. "She would have fetched a good price in Calimsham, indeed. But, Yulin has marked her, so I suppose I should finish the job. Or, that is, my servants will do so."

Shawukay thought back, and remembered what Yulin's "mark" had been, and she felt a cold dread as she realized what would be happening to her, what would be done to her by the four zombies, including the little girl who had stolen her heart. It was that thought that was the worst one of all.

"The zombies have their orders, Dyarn," Jazartho said. "One of them, every half an hour exactly, will walk up to her, and draw a line of some sort across this half-breed's back."

"She won't last long, Master Jazartho," Dyarn pointed out. "How will she answer questions if she's dead?"

"Oh, I have taken care of that," he answered. "The marks they leave will be very deep, very painful, and will most certainly leave very interesting scars. But they will be shallow enough so that any damage will be minimal."

Jazartho started to turn, and stopped, seeming to recall something.

"Oh, Dyarn," he said, looking back at the mercenary leader, "I want to let you know something, tell your men about this."

He walked up to the paralyzed ranger, and said, "Those who possess elven blood. . ."

He ran one hand up to the side of Shawukay's head, and used his index finger to stroke the outside of Shawukay's right ear. Although she couldn't move, the look in her eyes said it all.

". .are very secretive about certain erogenous zones. Fortunately, although not for this one, I have had some elven lovers. Tell the men not to touch her in any other way, but they can take turns. . . ‘massaging’ her to distract her from her pain."

Jazartho started to walk to his wagon, but stopped once again and said, "Tell them, NOW. I will be in my wagon, studying. Let me know if she decides to talk."

Compelled by the wizard's order, Dyarn turned to talk to his men, his shoulders slumping as he went to do as he had been ordered.

Shawukay stood there, the tingling feeling evaporating after Jazartho had walked away.

She felt her heart grow cold as she realized the two-layered ordeal which Jazartho had selected for her, but she once again focused on the thirty-seven villagers whose lives depended on her going through this.

However, it was little salve over losing the four she'd acted too late to save.

Especially one child who would never have a future she so richly deserved.

She started to shed tears over Kadali Kentrana when hot pain erupted in her back, as a small, child-sized zombie drew a dagger across the lower portion of her back, just above the tailbone.

Over the next five hours, the zombies would take their turns fulfilling their orders, walking up, lifting a sword or in Kadali's case a dagger, and adding to the ever-increasing blood covering the back of Shawukay's body. Although the villagers could not see the raw, bloody wounds, they could imagine exactly what the half-elf who'd sacrificed herself for their sakes looked like behind her back.

Dyarn stood near the prisoners, pretending to be guarding them but in truth, he was keeping well away from the animated corpses that had once been soldiers under his command.

"How can you let this happen?!?" one of the women demanded of he veteran mercenary. "How can you let that wizard do this to her?!?"

Dyarn looked at her with despair in his eyes and said, "My men and I are geased to follow the wizard's orders and not harm him or his endeavors. We were hired under false pretenses, and our fate is no better than yours."

One of them men spit at the ground, and said, "Why did that Zhentarim bitch let him cast that spell on her then?"

Anger rose inside of Dyarn, and he lashed out and grabbed the man by the shirtfront. "That 'bitch' is trying to keep you alive, farmer," he hissed through his long whiskers. He set the villager down, saying, "She is no Zhentarim. If she was, she would not be allowing herself to be tortured for mere slaves."

"But she said. ."

"What Jazartho wanted to hear," Dyarn finished. Looking around the camp, he saw that the rest of his men were eating, sleeping, or in Yulin's case, watching the half-elf with a look of sadness. He leaned in close to the villagers. "That half-elf is no Zhentarim. And she is certainly no trapper."

"Then what is she?" the woman asked, realizing that in a way, Dyarn was as much a prisoner as the rest of them.

"Unless I miss my guess," he said in a dry whisper, "I would call her a Harper. One likely with friends on their way here to rescue you or to eliminate the wizard, so keep silent when the others are around."

Having given the villagers that bit of information, Dyarn turned around, seeing that the small animated corpse was once again moving forward, dagger in hand. The old warrior said a silent prayer that whomever watched over the half-elf would see her predicament and come to her rescue.

As the moon was rising, Shawukay's mind was racing over what she was enduring. Every thirty minutes, one of the zombies would come up to her and drag a blade in some direction, making fresh pain ignite in her back, and then walk away.

She assumed the wizard wanted to make her feel the anxiety of not knowing how much time had passed between cuts, but he had miscalculated on that; she could tell exactly when the undead were approaching her, by the sound of shuffling feet picked up by her sense of hearing, or the scent of rotting flesh filling her nostrils. But, the latter did cause her some problems. A few times, Shawukay's stomach had turned at the smell of the zombies, and she had to fight to keep herself from vomiting, but she had managed to prevent it through sheer willpower.

As the night had grown longer, the half-elf had fought to ignore the impulse to give in to the pain, and simply fall asleep. She kept focusing on the villagers, taking a small measure of triumph in the fact that by making her look at the prisoners, Jazartho had ensured that she was always seeing the reason she was here.

<Mother, please help us,> she called out in her thoughts. <Let the others make it soon. All I ask is that you look over the villagers.>

A gentle breeze started blowing up from the south, hitting Shawukay in the back. After an instant of the pain flaring up, the cool air gently caressing her body began to lessen the pain coming from that part of the ranger's body, and she thanked the Lady for the easing of her discomfort. The wind continued to blow across the camp for some time, and after it had more greatly soothed the helpless ranger, she allowed her mind to wander a bit, and she began drifting. . .

<Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!> she screamed in her mind as yet another mark was artlessly carved into her flesh and muscles. As her ears picked up the receding sound of shuffling feet, tears started to flow from her straight-looking eyes. <How long? How long is this going to go on?>

Shawukay tried to focus on the others, calling their faces to mind, and remembering the tales they'd shared in their short time together. She would have smiled if she could have, at the memories of Aeurulieth's face when she'd told them of her encounter with the bear. The joy did not last, however, when her memories flashed forward to Balloris' and Kadali's deaths. She mentally shook off the images of their corpses standing upright, and tried to think of them as they had been just two days ago.

Another sound disrupted her thoughts, and one of the mercenaries came into her limited field of vision. To her dismay, it was the man she'd stabbed in the groin, and to her surprise, he seemed to be in perfect health, as his jaw was repaired and he was smiling at her with an expression that was much less than friendly. He stood there in front of her, for a full two minutes, admiring Shawukay's body, the look on his face becoming lecherous.

"Well, now," he said, whether to her or himself she didn't know, "we've got another half hour to work with, so we might as well get started, don't you think, pretty one?"

He moved up towards her, and with only inches separating their noses, he said in a low voice, "Healing potion cured the problems you caused me. You cut me bad, bitch. And I want to kill you, slowly. But, since the wizard's taking care of that for me, I'll just follow his other orders concerning you."

Shawukay's eyes flashed at the thought, and the man's grin grew even more distasteful at her realization of what he was here for.

The half-elf's pupils actually began to blaze in impotent fury, and the mercenary actually hesitated a bit before recovering his equilibrium.

"Ah, you're a fighter, all right," he remarked. "There's no fear in you, you're just furious. Well, I think you need a lesson in being happy, or enjoying yourself. And I just happen to be the one to be teaching it to you."

The hired warrior reached up and slowly and gently inserted his right index finger into Shawukay's left ear, and as slowly and lightly as possible, stared tracing the lines on the inside of that ear.

"The wizard knew what he was talking about, when he talked about elfwomen," the guard said as he reached his other hand up, going slow as to antagonize Shawukay with anticipation of something she couldn't prevent, "but what he didn't mention to the others is that elfwomen can be brought to the edge of sexual ecstasy by continuously stroking the very tips of the ears. But I'm in no rush, really, so I'm going to take my time and make this enjoyable."

The hiresword slowly moved his other index finger into the half-elf's right ear, and just slowly moved both fingers around, doubling the feelings she was receiving from his actions. As he continued, moving from the very center of her eardrums to the outside, and then reversing the direction and going back inward, he did nothing but lock his eyes onto hers, and he could see her fighting the feelings that he knew, from prior experiences, were building inside of her body.

"Oh, come on, little one," he cooed in a soft whisper full of false sympathy, "you shouldn't fight it. It's a losing battle, and you'll only prevent yourself from having a good time, and you're only prolonging something that IS going to happen. Give in to it. Just let go, and enjoy it."

Shawukay hardly heard the soldier's voice as he talked, as she concentrated on waging a silent battle with her own body. When he had started moving his fingers around, it prompted tingling sensations in her ears which quickly spread to the rest of her head. She started to feel light-headed as her mind began to race, then to spin, and she could feel continuous chills running up and down her spine.

After a few more minutes, she felt a heat rising inside of her, born in the center of her body and slowly but surely growing stronger. Shawukay tried to ignore it and focus on her resistance to the mercenary's actions, but slowly and surely the feelings continued to persist, and grow, and she was unable to take action to stop it.

She tried to focus her willpower, to try to find a way to break the holding spell by sheer brute force, and she tried to tense, to break free, but to no avail. All she could do was fight as she was, trapped inside of herself, and at the mercy of the man's whims.

She focused on her vision, and saw the man again, and summoned up a wall of anger and determination, and the unwanted, but pleasurable, sensations were held at bay for a few precious seconds.

The merc watched the half-elf's vision become more and more glazed, and less and less determined, and he smiled, thinking this would be easier than he'd suspected. Suddenly, the fire returned to those hazel orbs, light from the campfires reflecting as a pale version of her own internal wrath, with a vengeance and that fire was focused on him.

<How the hell can she resist...> he thought, his mouth open in shock, and a flash of victory shot through the woman's eyes. <Well, let's try something different.>

He slowly started towards the outsides of her ears, and rather than start going back to the inside, he went downward, towards her earlobes. The sudden change in direction caught his unwilling subject off guard, and he began twirling his fingers around the earlobes with excruciating slowness, drawing out the process and, from the renewed look of confusion in the Harper's eyes, driving her to sexual insanity.

"Yes, that's it," he said, leaning forward and blowing his words into her left ear, adding even more sensations to her torment. "Just let it happen, and let yourself feel it for all it's worth."

Deciding that he'd spent enough time at the bottom of her ears, the evil man began slowly tracking upwards towards the tips of her ears, perhaps the most sensitive portion of elven anatomy, with four digits at one time, index fingers along the back, and his thumbs, pressing ever so lightly, along the front. He never quite reached the tops, stopping just shy of the one area that would quite literally drive her over the edge.

When the mercenary changed his tactics, the half-elf's agonizing feelings shot upwards tenfold. Any further resistance she wanted to put up to the man's bodily manipulations was permanently disrupted by the sensations wracking her entire consciousness.

What had begun as a tingling feeling in her mind had by now encompassed her entire body, joining with the fire in her lower regions and the chills in her spine to combine into a virtual tidal wave of tingles, chills, shocks and sensations to her nerves that to her seemed to run the entire length of her body.

When the guard was lingering at he lobes, it felt to Shawukay that the unbearable sensations would erupt at the top of her head, with her feeling the separate tingles and shocks in every single strand of hair on her scalp, and combine to rush down her entire body into the tips of her toes. Then the feeling would race back up to her head, making it spin from the pleasure she was feeling without ever wanting to, and the rushing feelings drowning out everything else, making nothing else exist to her.

The feelings changed again, and Shawukay was swept up in an irresistible blast of pure sensations that encompassed her entire body at once, leaving no part of her five-foot-five frame untouched in the slightest, as the human stroking her ears went up and down, back and forth, each change of direction driving the half-elven ranger further and further along on her journey to a climax.

The smallest part of the Mielikkian's mind urged her to stop, urged her to fight back, and somehow Shawukay tried to shake her head away from the man's hands, tried to move even the slightest muscle that would indicate she could stop this and save herself from this experience, but it was, quite simply, an exercise in futility.

She never noticed that in her mind, and trying to recreate the action in the flesh, she was moaning in a way that she would never have imagined had she had even a semblance of self-control left.

The guard who was torturing Shawukay in a way far worse than in the way the wizard had been doing saw that the half-elf had ceased all attempts to resist his pleasure-inducing massage, so he decided to finish this fun before the time came for her to have another visit from one of the wizard's servants.

He finally brought the fingers and thumbs he was using up to the very tips of her ears, having the digits join together before utilizing the rest of his fingers to slowly move up the backs of her ears, and ever so slowly, moved them over the very tops with his fingertips. He then moved his hands upwards, bringing his palms up over the ears, and placing the heel of his palms at the very edges of the tips, he began bringing them down, the hands bent inward to form a groove that the tips of her ears fit into, sliding down as slowly as was humanly possible before finally tracing the line with his middle fingers.

The cleric's reaction was even more than he could have hoped for.

Shawukay's mind was foggy and completely out of focus now, as she was totally lost to the bliss erupting in her mind and body as the guard did what he could to cause her to climax.

When he finally touched the tips of her ears with both fingers, the feelings that her head pounding even harder than her heart shot to a level that made the half-elf think she would burst as she tried to shudder at the pleasure that she had given in to.

Suddenly, the feelings could finally be contained no more, as Shawukay let out a loud, silent scream as she was finally driven to the point of no return, and her body exploded into a massive orgasm, her mind completely overloaded from the sheer length of time and total immersion of pleasure she had endured.

If she had been capable of it, the scream would have been sounded all across the Border Forest and her eyes would have rolled into the back of her head, but as it was, the look in her eyes simply faded, and became glassy and unfocused as she passed out from mental and emotional exhaustion.

The mercenary watched the look on the half-elf's eyes, and he realized that she had passed out, or perhaps fallen asleep from had been done to her. He wanted to make sure, and continued stroking for one or two minutes, but when the faded look in her eyes failed to change, he stopped and backed off.

He considered her face for a moment, and then looked at the breasts and stomach of the half-elf, and he decided to reach for her breasts to fondle them, in an attempt to see if that would bring her back about, so that he could repeat the procedure he'd used on her once the undead got their turn at the wench.

As soon as he touched her nipples, the geasing spell enforced the wizard's order that she be touched in no other manner, and the man screamed in unbearable agony as the spell he'd broken the limits on killed him in a painful, disintegrating flash.

A further insult to injury to the now dead mercenary was that when the zombie did come up and slice the unconscious half-elf, she did not feel a thing in her blissful slumber.

*****

Zhentarim Caravan
Between the Border Forest and Dragonspine Mountains
Northeast of the Dalelands, Faerun
Toril (the Forgotten Realms)
2 September 1973 (1344 Dale Reckoning)

As the morning winds picked up, the paralyzed ranger began picking up new sensations in her senses of smell and touch. As the wind blew against her, the wind was slightly warmer, more humid, and she could smell a great deal of moisture in the air.

<Rain,> she thought dully. After the events of last night, her senses and thought processes seemed to be on a time delay, which she was slowly recovering from. <There is a rainstorm coming. What happens then? Will the wizard start the wagons moving, or stay to wait it out?>

The half-elf was furiously hoping for the latter, as another delay would give the Harpers time to finally catch the slavers and finish them once and for all. She only hoped that Dargen's band would save one slaver in particular for her to deal with.

<I am going to kill him for what he did. . .> she thought, cutting herself off as Dyarn came before her. Her eyes blazed as he stood there, but it faded a bit when she saw the look of regret plastered on the old warrior's features. <He looks much older than when I first saw him.>

"I'm so sorry for this, lass," he said, sadness plain in the words coming out of his mouth. He looked back at the prisoners, who were being herded back into the wagons, and said, "Storm coming soon. Hopefully, the wizard will stop this barbarism once the rain comes. I'd have the men move you, but the wizard ordered otherwise."

He looked into her eyes, hoping to see some sign of forgiveness from her, but what he saw was anger and resignation. He bowed his head and told her, "The bastard who did that to you last night is dead. He died seconds after you passed out. You have my word on that."

He looked back at her, the sincerity coming through his eyes as well as his face, and he saw a bit of glee in her pupils, followed by a little bit of regret. Figuring that was all he was going to get, he turned and walked off to give orders to his men.

Shawukay watched him walk off, and silently said, <I cannot forgive you, Dyarn. I see nothing that you need to be forgiven for. You did not choose this, I only hope I live long enough to tell you that.>

Shawukay started to pray to her Goddess, hoping to replenish the spells that she'd used two days before, but the time had come for another addition from one of the undead animations serving the wizard.

Her mind whirled as she tried to wonder who was coming forward. <Balloris, one of the soldiers, Kadali. . .>

The painful musings were cut off as a long, diagonal cut was put into her skin, from her left shoulder all the way down to nearly the top of the right side of her buttocks, and fresh tears started to flow as she cried out to Mielikki to end this situation however possible. She was just beginning to recover when she saw Jazartho walking over to the mercenaries and villagers.

"What are you doing?" he snapped. "I ordered you to force them to watch my demonstration!!"

"Master Jazartho," Dyarn said softly, turning to face the wizard, "there's a storm coming. We were just going by your own words about the disposition of the prisoners."

"Oh, how so, Dyarn?" the wizard snarled dangerously.

"You told the elfwoman you'd deliver them. Won't be worth much money if they catch their death in a storm and die before we reach the Keep."

That logical argument caught the magic-user off guard, and he rubbed his goatee for several seconds before nodding in approval.

"Good thinking, Dyarn," Jazartho complimented the captain. "Keep this kind of intuition up, and I just might keep you and your men on permanently."

Dyarn's face paled at that grim possibility, and he quickly changed the subject. "What about her?" he asked, indicating the ranger.

Jazartho looked at her, and with his left wrist twitching, he muttered, "Hmmmm. You do raise a good point. Have two of the men bring her to my wagon. I'll simply have one of the zombies continue my showing her what I think of those who question my loyalties."

"But. ." Dyarn started before the wizard snapped his insane glare at the warrior.

"You have a problem, Dyarn?"

"Well, Master, it's just that the zombies," he put forth, trying desperately to find some way to end the torture of the woman he knew to be a Harper, "well, they stink something fierce. Just thought you'd want to know that."

"Ah, yes," Jazartho mused, looking over at the four zombies, who stood in a line a few yards behind the target of the blades in their hands. "I'll take the little one. The elf wench seemed fond of her."

The wizard started walking towards his wagon, and Dyarn began to dream up a thousand fates for the wizard to suffer, but unable to inflict them upon the Zhentarim himself, he prayed that someone would do it for him.

As two of the underlings brought the rigid woman into Jazartho's wagon, he nodded in approval as they took care not to bang any part of her body against his wagon doorway, even if it was more out of fear of him than because they cared about her fate.

As they stood her up, he told them to depart, and once the two were alone, save for the body which had once housed the soul of one Kadali Kentrana, he stood up to her and softly said, "So, young woman, what do you think of my loyalty, now?"

The half-elf just stared forward, a small amount of ire playing in her eyes, which the wizard caught and laughed at.

"Oh, yes, still fighting, are we?" he sneered before getting up in her face, spitting at her. "Don't you realize you've lost?!? You have no chance of fulfilling your mission!! I have proven my loyalty to your precious 'watchers!'"

He turned and said, "Cut her."

The childlike automaton walked forward, and slowly reached her arm up, and brought the dagger down, just to the right of Shawukay's spine, watching with glassy eyes as fresh blood welled from the shallow but painful cut, and started to run down her back towards the floor. The zombie finished cutting, and slowly stepped back, awaiting further orders from its master.

Jazartho just watched as the half-elf's eyes went from showing pain and shock, to tears of sadness and frustration, until they finally started to go unfocused, which brought the Zhent great satisfaction.

He turned around, and went over to a roll of bottles, and turned to his prisoner. "I have some healing potions, you know. I could easily cancel the holding spell, and give some of the potions to you. All you have to do is tell me whom you are working for, and it'll all end."

When the half-elf didn't respond, even in her eyes, the wizard shrugged and said, "Very well, my dear. If you wish to be stubborn, it will be your own choice."

He turned around, and came back to her face and whispered, "But know this; I will know who you work for, and I will find out your secrets, and afterwards, what happens to you will be entirely up to me. Think about that; your fate, whatever happens to you, rests entirely on my whim."

He paused as the sound of thunder rumbled outside, and he smiled at the inattentive half-elf.

"Well, at least you're out of the rain," he remarked. "I would hate for you to have the water soothe your wounds. I have other ways of doing that."

As a second thunderclap sounded through the walls of the wagon, Jazartho started to reach up towards the side of Shawukay's head, but stopped when a loud, pain-filled scream tore through the camp.

Twenty yards inside the edge of the forest, the Harper band watched as the mercenaries were finishing loading up the villagers of Bordertown. Several days of hard riding had culminated with their arrival, and blessing the Gods for their good fortune, as the caravan had mysteriously stopped only two days out of the village.

Qualeck and Dargen were discussing targets to take out first, having seen the apparent conflicts in the style of some of the hirelings, their captain in particular.

"Well, what do ye think, tree hugger?" the dwarf asked in his rumbling tone, attempting without much success to be quiet.

"If you speak another word, I think we will be on the defensive," Windrunner replied easily. He scanned the camp one more time, and said, "The wizard should be in his wagon. If we can take out several of the guards before he enters the battle, we should be able to defeat him. It might help if we could convince the guards to surrender or break their contract. Their captain seems to find this situation distasteful."

"Ye're saying we should spare 'em?" the stout warrior asked with incredulity.

"If he agrees to surrender, that would only leave the mage," the forty-something ranger offered. "Easier to fight one than thirteen."

"Aw, ye're just tryin' to spoil me fun," Axeheart mumbled with mock frustration. "What's your recommendation?"

"Have Aeurulieth target one of the more unsavory ones we've watched, I shall do the same with my bow," he said. "If the crueler ones have the fight taken out of them, they might be inclined to follow their captain's orders more easily."

"Sounds good," the fighter said, pulling at his beard. "One volley, two at most, then join the party. I don't want to have to do all the work. I'll tell those pointy-eared lovebirds to get ready."

As he started to move off, a rumble of thunder sounded, and the dwarf cursed.

"I was blasted kiddin', you Gods damned elf spirits!"

Soryen, who had been listening nearby, softly said, "You're only upset that you have already bathed this month."

"Damn right, you string-loving human," Dargen snapped as he shook his head furiously. "And I don't wanna be slippin' and slidin' through the mud we're gonna make in that camp."

"You have no room to complain," the bard retorted, "as you have the center of gravity one would want in such a fight."

Dargen watched her twinkling eyes for a second, and said, "And ye don't. Of course, ye're only human."

The dwarf went to talk to Llednas and Aeurulieth before the lute player could come up with another smart remark.

The elven husband and wife had separated from the other three Harpers, and were just returning from their scouting mission, getting the layout of the camp fresh into their minds, and preparing for the battle to come.

They had seen the same situations that Dargen, Qualeck and Soryen had seen, but the focus of the fighter-mage's attention was something different than strategy and tactics.

"Where is she?" he asked as he and Llednas swiftly but silently made their way back to the others in the way that only the People could. "I saw no sign of her."

"Husband, calm down," Llednas hissed, attempting to keep up with Aeurulieth despite her greater strides. "She is competent, intelligent, and she is still alive. My dreams are of the future, remember that. And you must concentrate on the mission. She is alive, you know this through the emerald and through my dreams."

Aeurulieth stopped, and turned to her, naked concern on his face. "Llednas, did you see dreams of this mission beforehand?"

Llednas sighed. "No, Aeurulieth. If I had, we would not have been here two full days after they stopped cold. Others with the talent, like Alaundo in ancient times, saw the future more clearly as the events they envisioned grew closer to reality. My gift seems to be the opposite. All I can say for sure is that she will survive at least into the next two or three decades. And she will come to you, as I have already said. For what is to come, now or into the next weeks, I cannot."

The female moon elf turned around, folding her arms, and pacing forward a bit. Aeurulieth seemed confused by her sudden inaction.

"What is it, beloved?" Aeurulieth asked.

"I did have a dream involving Shawukay, the night before we left Voonlar," Llednas answered, conflicting emotions coming through. She turned back to him, and said, "In this dream were Shawukay, you, myself, and one other, a female moon elf."

"Dalrania," the magic-user assumed.

"No, Aeurulieth," she said with a shake of her head. "Right clan, but the wrong direction in generations."

Aeurulieth cocked his head in confusion, his eyes narrowing at her cryptic answer. Understanding flashed in his eyes, and he looked at her stomach, as if he could see through her through sheer willpower.

"You. . ."

"Yes," the fighter replied, a smile full of love and hope coming to her face as tears began to form in her eyes. She bowed into a faint mockery of a curtsey, and said, "I carry you heir, my Lord."

Aeurulieth stood there, watching her for all of 3 seconds so stunned was he, then with 2 strides scooped his beloved up into a great embrace, laying a passionate kiss onto his wife's lips. After nearly a minute, Llednas squeezed away from him, her face red.

"I do need to breathe, love," she pointed out as she panted. "We would not want to lose our firstborn before she is with us."

"No, we would not want that," Aeurulieth agreed with a smile.

"And it's kisses like that which got ye into this predicament," Dargen called out, making the elves jump in surprise. He walked out, grinning from ear to ear. "And if I can surprise twig fingers like ye in the forest, that's all the more reason for the two of ye to retire and raise that little one in yer belly, Llednas."

"What have you decided?" Aeurulieth asked, turning to dwarf with a look that said he wasn't sure whether the dwarf would survive the end of this conversation.

"You and Qualeck, one shot from a distance while Soryen, yer mother-to-be, and myself get up close and personal with the bastards. Qualeck's gonna point out the targets, and we'll take out the nasty ones, give the ones which seem decent a chance to surrender nice and neat."

"Did you see Shawukay?" the warrior asked.

"No, lad," the dwarf admitted, looking at the elf with a critical eye. "Keep yer mind on straight, Aeurulieth. Git that wizard, and we'll make sure yer baby sister's all right. We all gotta soft spot for her. Makes us wonder why you turned out the way you did."

Llednas started giggling at the dwarf's comment, and Dargen turned his attention to her.

"And YOU, oh Noble One of the Island," he snapped, "Yer orders are to take out the least dangerous ones."

Llednas' laughter died in a sputter at the dwarf's order. She allowed the regality (or as some would say, haughtiness) of the Tel'Quessir nobility to surface, and demanded, "Who are you to treat me like a novice with a wooden sword?!?"

"Someone who sees a pregger woman who has a runt to think about," the dwarf pointed out, literally pointing at her stomach. "I will NOT let you be losing that baby in a fight like this."

Dargen sighed a bit, and said, "Just be careful, lass. After all, I'm callin' dibs on being the punk's godfather. Moradin knows her auntie ain't got enough Dethek in her brain to teach proper cursin' to yer young one."

He turned and walked back into the bushes, saying, "Don't be long."

Aeurulieth and Llednas turned and stared at each other, watching each other silently.

"Please tell me you haven't seen a dream to THAT effect," he pleaded.

"No," she answered, "but the thought is frightening enough without prior knowledge, is it not?"

"Indeed, it is," the mage said as husband and wife turned to rejoin the others.

Once Aeurulieth and Llednas had joined the other three, they snuck up to the very edge of the large trees of the Border Forest, and Dargen looked to the two females.

"Soryen, yer on me left," he ordered. The small dark-haired woman nodded and took off. "Llednas, me right. Once we start runnin', run fast and hard. Aeurulieth and Qualeck're gonna fire off their shots, and then a second. By then, I wanna take out at least one guard apiece, so be quick about it."

Llednas nodded, and faded into the brush without so much as a leaf shaking to betray her passage. The dwarf just shook his head, and said, "Okay, ye two tree lovers, wait until the three of us're at a full gallop, and hit 'em hard when I give the signal."

"What is the signal?" Aeurulieth asked.

"Oh, ye'll know," he promised. Without further explanation, he turned and raised his hand so that Soryen and Llednas could see it, and waved it.

The elf and ranger watched as the trio started running for the camp at full speed from the forest, and the guards had no idea that they were about to come under attack from a band of Harpers. That is, until a loud, rumbling shout shook the mercenaries to the core of their beings.

"MORADIN!!!!!!!!!!"

The guards were scattered around the camp, gathering their supplies and putting them away when the warcry sounded through the air. The guards jumped and those who were even remotely prepared for battle saw the two women and a dwarf running at them which as much speed as they could muster.

Two of the nastier sorts started to draw swords, but one suddenly fell back as two black-fletched arrows mysteriously appeared in his chest. The second died screaming as multiple lances of light twirled through the air and unerringly struck him, and left his corpse lying there with nary a mark to show he'd been the subject of an attack.

The rest of the guards started to move, but Dyarn grimly smiled; he'd been hoping for just such an attack.

He drew his bastard sword, and told Yulin, who had just run up, drenched in sweat from fear, "Only attack if you are directly attacked. Tell them about the geas."

"We have no choice but to fight them," the young man pointed out.

"Perhaps, but the wizard never said we couldn't mention that fact. I say again, TELL them about the geas."

Yulin smiled as the first rays of hope he had received in many days blossomed in his heart, as he ran off to battle that he did not want.

Dyarn threw a quick glance at the wagon where Jazartho sat, his victim undergoing whatever evil plans he drew up, and asked whatever Power was listening, "Spare the lass. She did not deserve this, and she has proven to be a better man than I."

He then turned back to the approaching warriors and steeled himself for whatever fate befell him.

In the mens' wagon, the warshout reverberated off of the walls, and was still more than clear enough for the occupants to hear it.

"What the hell was that?" one man asked.

Ouran's son, now the head of his household, said, "It was a call to Moradin. I've heard that name before. We're being rescued."

"Who's Moradin?" another man asked.

"The Soulforger, the King of the Dwarven Gods," the man told the others. "It seems that a dwarf has taken it upon himself to save us. And I wager that he's not alone."

The men sat back, realizing for the first time that the mercenary leader had been correct; the half-elf being brutalized for their sakes had been there for a reason. They sat back, wondering what the outcome of the battle would be.

Aeurulieth cast his magic missile spell, then quickly began casting a second one, while Qualeck Windrunner loosed a second volley of arrows at another warrior. As the arrows flew through the air, the elven mage let fly with a second set of missiles, which struck their target, a scant instant before the arrows stuck into the man's chest.

Qualeck turned to Aeurulieth as he dropped his bow, and said, "You could have named your target, my friend. I could have saved those arrows."

The warrior from Evermeet smiled and said, "Spells are more expensive than your arrows, Qualeck. Now, shall we join the others?"

"Absolutely," Windrunner replied, drawing his two-handed sword from his back. "Oh, by the way, I hear that certain members of the People are in need of a godparent for their firstborn daughter?"

"I'd prefer you to that hairy dirt-digger," Aeurulieth answered with a laugh, "but you will have to discuss it with Axeheart. He claimed first right."

The fighter and woodsman took off, running to join the battle.

Soryen quickly joined the battle, throwing a dagger on the run and piercing the arm of a mercenary. As she closed in, she drew her rapier with a flourish and watched as the man fumbled his longsword.

"It would seem that I have the advantage," she offered, twirling the

rapier in a teasing figure eight pattern. "I will offer you one chance to surrender."

"I have no choice but to fight," Yulin said, fear tingeing his response. "I have to follow the wizard's orders."

"You have loyalty rare in a mercenary," the woman from Baldur's Gate said in her fine soprano voice as she parried an attack normally seen from farm boys, which wasn't far from the truth in Yulin's case. "Why don't you make it easy, and give up before I am forced to kill you?"

"I can't!" he shouted, throwing a wicked slash with no discipline which the bard nimbly dodged, returning his blow with a thrust that sliced into his other arm. "The wizard used magic on us to make us fight for him."

The bard's eyes widened as she realized that the young man had no choice but to fight, and she quickly began to chant, hoping to cast a spell before she had to kill the young man who she now knew was quite simply scared out of his wits. Another mercenary was coming up behind her, a club ready to smash in her head.

"Behind you!" he called, even as he launched a thrust for Soryen's trim stomach.

Quickly changing tactics, Soryen kept her concentration and stepped directly between the two mercenaries. When the man behind her brought his club up, Soryen quickly dove to the side, and Yulin's own blade penetrated deeply into the other mercenary's gut. It was at that point that Soryen's dispelling magic took effect, attempting to negate the geasing spell. Harmosk held out little hope, as the wizard's magic was much stronger than hers, but it would seem the Gods were smiling on her; she felt the magic compelling the child to fight her dissipate, and the young man knew it, too; she saw the look of sheer relief on his face as tears started streaming down his freckled face. He turned to her and said, "I surrender to you, Lady. My life is yours."

"I am sorry, but I don't want your life," Soryen said in her voice, but she nodded towards the rest of the battle. "But if you would be so kind as to aid me against the more unsavory members of your band, we can save those who are worth saving."

"My sword is yours," he swore, giving her a surprisingly formal salute for someone so young.

"Keep it," she said with a smile, "I have my own."

And the two ran off, Soryen not noticing the look of rapture in the young fighter's eyes as he watched her run in front of him.

Dargen ran up to one of the nastiest examples of this mercenary band, and allowed the joy of battle to show in his eyes as the hired hand swung his broadsword at the dwarven fighter.

Dargen knew that humans often had problems fighting the shorter races; they were used to aiming at hearts or necks at their own eye levels. The stout man used this to his advantage by ducking, and the man's sword swooshed through empty air, and before he could recover, the dwarf swung his axe from an underhanded position, driving the curving axe blade deep into the man's stomach.

Quickly withdrawing his weapon, the Axeheart left his opponent kneeling on the ground, trying to put his entrails back into his body. He looked around and saw another warrior coming at him, with a look of resignation in his eyes. The warrior carried a short sword, which was not a weapon for fighting dwarves under the best of circumstances. However, he was apparently ready to die in the attempt.

"Ah, damn," Dargen said at the look of reluctance on his opponent's face. "It's no fun when they don't wanna fight."

He blocked the first overhead chop of the sword, and smiled under his thick beard. He lifted his heavy boot, and stomped on the human's right foot. As the man shouted in pain and reflexively dropped his sword, Dargen reached up behind the man's head, and brought it down with all of his considerable power into his forward rushing skull. Needless to say, as in most such collisions, the dwarf came out the victor, as the dwarven Harper dropped the senseless warrior to the grass.

Whistling to himself, he ran off in search of another opponent.

Dyarn watched as the two women, a moon elf and human, raced into his camp, their longer strides leaving the roaring, axe-wielding dwarf in their dust. He determined that the elfwoman was the most dangerous of the three, an assumption validated when the extremely tall example of the People pulled out a long sword which erupted into a brilliant golden light, and proceeded to block her initial opponent's strike, and perform a perfect spinning stroke which cleaved cleanly through the soldier's neck, separating his head from his shoulders, and leaving his body to slowly fall to its knees as if bowing before the regal-looking swordswoman before him.

Dyarn saw the look of battle rage in her eyes, and began to believe that the intention of the attacking band, which he believed to be Harpers, was to wipe out his men. He could only do what he believed to be the right thing, and try to tell them the truth of the situation.

He moved forward, raising his bastard sword in a two-handed grip, and intercepted the elf as she pursued one of the more unfavorable men under his command. Whatever he might think of them, he was still their leader, and would do what he had to do to protect them.

He swung his sword in a whistling arc, and the blade was met by the moon elf's golden steel. Her eyes lit up as she realized who she was fighting, and he decided to talk to her, to get her to spare at least his men, if not himself.

"Who are you?" the woman asked, her voice sounding like pure melody. "Give me your name so that I know who can enslave innocent beings just to line his pockets."

"Dyarn Orchunter of Sembia," he snapped out without hesitation. "Leader of this mercenary band. . ."

"Llednas Amarillis, wife of Aeurulieth Redstar, bloodkin to the House of Nightstar," Llednas countered without pausing to breathe as she parried another blow, and then launching a stroke at the human's leg which was also promptly deflected. She cocked her head and an eyebrow, saying, "A worthy opponent. You have some skill, mercenary."

"As well as a geasing spell over myself and my men," he hissed, deflecting another blow and backing up from another. He quickly realized that while she said he had some skill, it wasn't nearly enough to win this battle. "You have a wizard among your number; can he negate the spells?"

"Do you truly expect me to believe you?" Llednas asked, swinging her vorpal weapon and grazing his chest, leaving a thin trail of blood seeping through his chain mail hauberk, which was no match for her fine elven chainmail. "Can you prove it?"

"Do I look suicidal to you, elfwoman?" he shouted in despair. "I'm compelled to take on a woman with better armor, more skill in her fingers than I have in my gut, and armed with a head severing sword, and you want me to prove I'm not allowed to surrender?"

Llednas quickly considered her options, and the mercenary's words, and thought, //Aeurulieth!//

//I heard everything, love. I can only release one, and still have

enough magic to handle Jazartho.//

//Dyarn! He is of good heart. I believe him.//

//One moment.//

Dyarn launched another swipe of his weapon, and Llednas jumped to the side, rolling forward. She came up behind Dyarn, and sliced him across the posterior. He shouted, and yelled, "You mock my words!?!"

"I was hoping you would drop your sword, so that you will be unarmed in the time it takes my husband to free you of the spell," the expectant mother said simply. When Dyarn turned to face her again, she added, "Please consider that the Teu'Tel'Quessir you are engaging in combat with just happens to have an unborn daughter in her womb at this very moment."

Dyarn's eyes widened with sadness at the thought of fighting a woman with child, but he still raised his sword against his will, until suddenly he staggered, and dropped the sword to the ground with a sharp toss. He went to his knees, and said, "Please forgive me, Lady Amarillis. I had no choice."

"I understand, Orchunter," Llednas said, accepting his yielding to her. "But tell me; the half-elf. Where is she?"

Dyarn cried out, "In the wizard's wagon. He is insane, I tell you! We could not stop him!"

The Amarillis' face went pale, making the blue tints to her cheekbones and ears common to the Moon People show up even more than usual as she realized what might be happening to her sister-in-law. She quickly set her gaze on Dyarn, and said, "You had best pray she is alive, mercenary. Otherwise, my wrath will be the least of your worries." She leaned in close and hissed, "I am in rapport with my husband, so he knows everything I say. And he is very protective of his SISTER!"

"I will accept whatever punishment he deems fitting. I only ask he make it quick."

Llednas nodded, and said, "Take up your sword, Dyarn Orchunter. Fight to kill the members of your band who enjoy taking slaves, but fight to disarm or render harmless those who are worth something. It is your chance to redeem yourself."

He nodded, his eyes tearing up at the chance for redemption, and said, "By your orders, Lady Amarillis."

She nodded in acceptance, and as a soft rain started to fall across the camp, the elfwoman and guilt-wracked human headed towards the camp.

Having heard the conversation in rapport, Aeurulieth snarled and called out to Qualeck, who was running through a guard with his large blade, and told him what he'd learned.

Nodding stoically, Qualeck and his partner began making a beeline for the wizard's wagon. Just then Jazartho peeked out of the wagon, and his jaw started flapping in a panic at the sight of the Harper band attacking his encampment.

Aeurulieth began chanting, as did the Zhentarim. In the rush to get their spells off, Jazartho proved to be the victor.

The elf stretched his hand out, and shot off a lightning bolt at the wizard, but it struck and bounced off of an invisible wall, and rather than counter the Harper's attack, the bald human ducked back into his wagon, shouting incoherently about loyalty and treason.

Aeurulieth paused to start casting a second spell, but he had to stop as a mercenary came up, sword leading. The elven male spun away, drew his sword at the halfway mark of the spin, and sent Soulreaver into the man's spine, severing it halfway up his back. With a scream of agony, the fighter went to the ground.

At this point, Llednas, trailed by the miserable Dyarn, came up to the wizard and ranger. Aeurulieth spitted the captain with a look, and began to move his sword, but a voice in his mind cut him off.

//He had no choice, husband. He tried to stop what happened. And it is still happening to your sister. You MUST try to lower the force wall.//

Aeurulieth gave her a look of regret, and nodded. He turned once again to try to break through the barrier erected by the slaver, the rain not drowning out the rage infiltrating the elf's casting.

Jazartho burst back into the cabin, and he began mumbling things to himself about hiding and moving to safety. He turned around, and saw the emotionless eyes of the ranger looking forward. He looked at the small undead creature behind her, and snapped, "Cut her."

As the creature began to move to perform its task, Jazartho smiled. "Your companions obviously are tracking me. That is how they found us. Well, I am about to end that right now."

Jazartho quickly moved into a spell, his words wringing out as sweat swept down his bald forehead, making it glisten. He finished the spell in some haste, and nodded in satisfaction.

"That dispels any enchantments they use to follow me," he told the half-elf. "Now, a quick teleportation spell, and I will be out from under their observation."

He began to chant, but another voice, emotionless and flat, began to sound as well. In shock, he turned around, and the now freed Shawukay reached forward and grabbed Jazartho with both hands, and the wizard's words were cut off in midsentence as the cleric's holding spell took effect on the Zhent.

The wizard's eyes danced with insanity as he realized that his spell had not done anything but cancel the paralyzation that his victim had suffered for twenty-one hours, and she turned and took the dagger from the formerly living young girl.

She moved up to the wizard, and brought one of his wrists up into the view of his eyes. She quickly slashed the wrist with the dagger already covered in her blood, and said in a flat, uncaring tone, "That was for Ouran."

She then lifted his other wrist, slashed it as well, and said, "That was for Nagosh."

She then slowly, and uncaringly, drew the dagger across the front of Jazartho's throat, and muttered, "That was for Balloris."

She then stepped back a step, and drove the dagger into his gut.

"And that. Was. For. Kadali," she said, driving the dagger into his stomach with each word, but without any trace of emotion whatsoever.

When she said "Kadali," she did not remove the dagger, but simply left it there, her right hand covered in the wizard's blood as blood continued to flow down her back. But, the coldness in her heart caused by her ordeal had blocked out the pain and exhaustion, and she simply left the wizard, and the zombie that had been the girl she had wanted as her own, standing there as she walked for the door.

Aeurulieth cast a second lightning bolt, but the magical attack once again bounced off of the wall of force blocking him from the wagon, and the sister he'd found in Shadowdale. He was starting to feel enraged at the barrier between him and his kin, while Llednas, Soryen and Qualeck were binding the still-geased mercenaries while Dyarn and Yulin freed the rescued villagers from the wagons, and then their chains. He began to cast a fireball, when Dargen grabbed his arm.

As Aeurulieth snapped a fire-filled glare at his leader, Dargen snapped, "Just cancel the blasted thing, elf! You'll not get through by brute force. And consider that I'M saying that!"

The elf nodded once, and quickly cast the proper enchantment. Thankfully, the casting negated the enemy wizard's spell, as he started forward, Shawukay took that moment to exit the wagon, a blank look on her face as she was softly chanting, rain pelting her as she walked away from the wagon where the wizard waited.

Aeurulieth started forward to grab the young ranger, but once she was fifteen paces from the wagon, she turned around, not seeing her brother and the dwarf next to him, and finished her chanting as Aeurulieth and Dargen saw what the Zhentarim had done to her.

"Moradin's beard," Dargen whispered in shock and horror, but also in awe. <How did that lass survive?!?>

"Oh, Gods no," the mage said in a choke. "Mother, forgive me."

However, any further comments were silenced by the crack of a lightning bolt that suddenly flashed down and struck the wizard's wagon, sending pieces of the roof flying in all directions, amazingly none of them hitting the motionless priestess.

Auerulieth's eyes momentarily cleared, and he saw that his sibling was calling down yet another blast of raw energy.

He started screaming her name, but she seemed not to hear.

Lost in the need to eliminate any trace of the wizard, Shawukay called down a second, third, and yet a fourth bolt of lightning from the heavens. After the third bolt, there was nothing left of the wagon larger than a quarter of a wheel, but she was heedless of this, simply wanting to erase Jazartho of the Zhentarim from the face of Faerun.

A part of her called for her to stop, to simply let it end, but it was overwhelmed by the coldness that she had never known could exist within her.

As she dimly heard someone calling out a name, a name that should mean something to her, she just stood there, catatonic, as a piece of the person who had been Shawukay Redarrow was lost, a piece of innocence that could never be regained.

*****

St. Wolf Residence
Sunnydale, California
23 November 1998

Silence reigned as Shaw broke off, staring at her clenched fists, a small amount of blood welling on her nails as they penetrated the skin of the palms.

Amy just sat there, watching her, oblivious to the tears streaking down her face, as she just watched the profile of her fellow Slayerette.

Finally, after two or three minutes, Amy finally spoke.

"Shaw?" she asked softly.

Shaw snapped her head around to look at her cousin, and Amy could see the far off look in the half-elf's eyes fading, as she brought herself back to reality. Shaw's own eyes started tearing up as well.

Shaw just started shaking her head over and over, not wanting to speak any more.

Amy whispered, "It's okay. I understand, now." <Boy, do I ever. I knew she was tough, but. . .no, no I didn't. I didn't know jack shit about how tough she was.>

In a hoarse, parched whisper, Shaw asked, "What was I supposed to do, Amy?" With a little more strength, she asked it again, "What was I supposed to do?"

Amy just shrugged and answered, "Your best, Shaw. That's all anyone can ask. And you went above and beyond what anyone could have asked you to do."

"But. ."

Amy scooted over and put an arm around Shaw's back, and said, "Shaw, you got put in a crappy situation, and you had to make a choice that no one should have to make. As far as I can tell, you kept anyone else from dying."

Shaw's lip started trembling, and she whispered, "She was only nine years old, Amy."

Amy's tears started flowing faster, and she nodded. "I know, Shaw. I know."

"If I had only waited. ." she said, but Amy cut her off.

"Then someone else would have died," she pointed out softly. "Or more than one. You can't save everyone. But remember how many you did save. How many people were free and alive? Thirty-seven. And how many went on to have kids, who were born because you did this for them?"

Shaw looked away, and said, "But, Amy, the wizard. ."

"Got what he had coming," Amy snapped. "I would've fried that son of a bitch myself."

"He was INSANE, Amy!" Shaw cried out, startling the witch. "He was not in control of himself! It was not his fault! And I killed him, Amy, brutally! And I robbed him of a chance to be cured!"

"How do you know that?" Amy asked, sincerely wondering.

Shaw's temper settled down, and she softly replied, "Aeurulieth called the wizard's spirit. Once he died, the madness left him." Shaw looked up at the ceiling of the training room, and said, "He was researching some ancient magics. There was an accident, and it somehow made him unstable. The more magic he used. . ."

"The worse he got?" Amy guessed, and Shaw nodded. "Oh, fuck. And he was using all that magic. ."

"It was not his fault," the priestess reiterated.

"Well, consider this then," Amy countered. She shifted a bit, and said, "You were the one who freed him from that craziness."

"Amy, it was cold blooded."

"Shaw, you had to be feeling. . ."

Shaw jumped up, and shouted, "I felt nothing, Amy! I did not feel one single Goddess-damned emotion! I killed him because. . ." The young woman sat back down, crying a bit, and in a low, horror-filled voice, confessed, "I killed him because I *thought* it was prudent. Because I *thought* it was simpler and easier. Emotions had nothing to do with it."

"Which proves what I think about this," Amy said, drawing Shaw's attention once again.

"What?" Shaw asked in confusion.

"That the wizard wasn't the only person who went nuts in this," the blonde-haired Amazon said. "I think you went nuts from what happened to you."

Shaw looked at Amy as if she'd never seen the teenager before. "What are you saying?" she asked.

Amy's face became sympathetic, and she took Shaw's hands in her own and said, "Think about it, cuz. You're claustrophobic, right?"

"That is one word for it, yes," came the response.

"And you were paralyzed for, what was it? Twenty-one hours?" Amy asked, and Shaw nodded with a shiver. "Shaw, I don't know exactly what you went through, but I can imagine it. And one thing that I CAN understand is what you were feeling when you couldn't move. Trapped, caged, trying to find SOME way of breaking out of it. ."

"I thought I would go mad," Shaw said with tears slowly falling, interrupting the younger one's speech.

It was exactly the opening Amy was looking for.

"That's my point!" she said, and Shaw's eyes went blank with confusion. Amy started to speak faster, trying to get her point across. "Shaw, you just said it. You thought you'd go nuts from being paralyzed. But you weren't just paralyzed, Shaw, you were tortured! For nearly a day! And I know you; you were focusing on all those people, and you felt guilty about the four you couldn't save, especially that little girl. . . Shaw, if you thought not being able to move would make you crazy, what would all that other crap piled on to each other make you do?"

"But, Amy. ." Shaw started to say, but the witch didn't let her gain any momentum.

"Shaw, there is such a thing as temporary insanity," Amy said.

"But it was cold-blooded, Amy," Shaw said, shaking in fright at the memories. "It was so horrible."

"That's what I mean, Hunter," Amy continued, speaking her mind with a bluntness normally shown by the one receiving it. "You're the one who hates to see people suffer. YOU'RE the one who always says, 'make it quick and clean.' Shaw, you've killed in anger, maybe you used to kill in hate. Now, when you fight, you're trying to protect the rest of us, or you know that for every vamp you dust, it saves a life. Shaw, you have TOO MUCH emotion to kill in cold blood. Maybe you hide your emotions, or just try to keep 'em under control, but that's just the way you are."

To her delight, Shaw actually seemed to be considering Amy's argument, but there was still a great deal of doubt on her face and in her body language.

"Then how could I have done something like this?" she asked, plainly hoping Amy had an answer for that as well.

"Shaw, everyone has their limits, even you," Amy said, moving her thumbs along the tops of Shaw's hands. For some reason, it seemed to have a calming effect on the scared ranger. "People can only take so much shit before they just give up and die, or shut down, or. . . they push back. I think that's what happened here. You just got pushed over the edge, and you pushed back. And that's why all that guilt you feel, it's not right for you to have it, 'cause it wasn't your fault."

After a pause, the half-elf asked quietly, "Do you truly believe this, Amy?"

"I'll believe you went nuts for a little bit forever, before I'll think you'd kill someone without feeling something. You're just not the type." Amy just sat there, waiting for Shaw to answer her, but she seemed reluctant. Finally, Amy spoke again. "You don't believe me, do you?"

"I want to, Amy," Shaw said, choking on the words. "I want to so much, but. ."

Thinking desperately, Amy looked Shaw up and down, and realized there was one tactic that she could try. She looked back at Shaw's eyes and said, "Then ask the one person you CAN believe. Someone who can tell you everything you need, so that you can believe me."

Shaw's face knitted into complete puzzlement. "Who?" she asked.

"Her," Amy said, pointing right at Shaw's chest, in between her breasts.

Where, under her shirt, sat her unicorn pendant. Shaw looked down, and then back up at Amy.

"What do I ask Her?" Shaw asked, seemingly lost.

Now, Amy let a smile creep onto her face. "Ask Her if I'm right. Ask Her if you're not guilty of doing anything wrong. You know She'll tell you the truth."

Shaw's eyes went wide, not in fear, but in a way that Amy's mind translated as to "Why the Hell didn't *I* think of that." Shaw's eyes closed, and the half-elf seemed to be falling inward, and her eyes moved back and forth in a way that Amy thought of when she imagined people dreaming.

Shaw reached into herself, into her mind and soul, seeking out the connection to Mielikki. Finding it, and embracing it and the pleasant feeling that was part and parcel to her being, Shaw called out to the One she loved more than anyone, even family.

<Mother?> she asked desperately, hoping for an answer, <is Amy correct in this? Am I. . . am I innocent in these things?>

Shaw waited for what she felt was nearly a lifetime, perhaps even an elven one, waiting and hoping for a sign, or sensation that could resolve her guilt one way or another.

What she did get was something she would never have expected.

***YES.***

Shaw's eyes snapped open only five seconds after she'd closed them, and they widened as if she'd been kicked in the gut.

<THAT was quick,> the Amazon thought. She leaned forward at the half-elf staring straight ahead. "Shaw?"

Shaw didn't answer her, looking as if she were in a trance. She only spoke one word, in a question, that Amy didn't know what to make of.

"Mother?" she whispered in awe.

The rich, purring, husky voice in Shaw's head continued.

***YES, DAUGHTER, YOUR COUSIN IS CORRECT. YOU ARE BLAMELESS FOR WHAT HAPPENED, AND YOU ALWAYS HAVE BEEN. THE TIME HAS COME FOR YOU TO LET GO OF YOUR GUILT, AND TO HEAL FROM IT.***

The feeling started to fade, but a parting message was indelibly left behind.

***REMEMBER, DAUGHTER, THAT I LOVE YOU.***

The trance-liked look slowly faded from Shaw's eyes, and tears started flowing from them again, and Amy waited expectantly. Shaw slowly turned her head, in slow motion, awe in her eyes and on her face for all to see.

"She answered you?" Amy asked, hoping that Mielikki had confirmed what she'd only guessed.

"Yes, Amy," was all that the older cousin said by way of reply.

"She gave you a sign or something?" the witch asked, trying to get details out.

"No," Shaw said, her jaw starting to tremble again, "she answered me, Amy. She answered me with her own words. . ."

The half-elf broke off, and stared at Amy, her tears flowing faster than anyone Amy had ever seen, and she asked, in a voice laden with conflicting emotions, "How did you know?"

Amy smiled sadly, and said, "I know you. Or at least, I've got an idea of what makes you tick. You take so much onto yourself, you try to do what's best for everyone else, you forget that it's okay to put yourself first now and then. But like I said, all that stuff you feel, and She just told you I'm right about it, it's not yours. And if what you say about the guy who cut you up is right, it's not his either. It was just something that happened, and you got hurt by it."

Once she finished, Amy just watched Shaw sitting there, contemplating what she'd just been told, by Amy and by her Goddess, Herself. Finally, the doors began to break down, and the half-elven Slayerette could not, and did not want to, hold back the massive store of emotions anymore.

She just started crying, and what started as just a small sob quickly picked up speed and power, becoming a raw torrent of grief as she unleashed everything she'd kept behind a wall of guilt and self-anger for so long.

As the first true wails of grief escaped her throat, Amy just took Shaw into a hug, and just sat there, holding Shaw against her and letting the warrior cry into her shoulder, as she released emotions that she'd not allowed herself to share with anyone for half a lifetime.

Amy was crying herself, as she finally realized a great deal of the reason Shaw had kept herself at arm's distance from her the last two months, and simply held her cousin, slightly rocking back and forth, just whispering to her.

"It's okay, Shaw," the witch said to the ranger, "it's okay. Just let it out. Just let it out, and let it all go."

<Goddess, the guys are NOT gonna believe that she has this much emotion in her,> Amy thought to herself, as Shaw's sobbing start to relent slightly. She sighed, and thought to herself, <I wanted details, I got 'em. I just wished she'd told me sooner.>

Amy's tears intensified, and she thought, <Goddess, I wish I were that strong. Hell, I couldn't have gone through half of what she had done to her.>

*I think you underestimate yourself, Amy,* came Artemis' voice.

Amy almost stiffened in shock, and silently relayed, <Did you hear. . .>

*Yes, but I already knew. From Mielikki,* the Goddess of the Hunt answered. *And you were the only one she would have told. But, as I said, like Shaw, you don't give yourself enough credit. You thought you couldn't handle the whole story, remember? Yet you did. And I'm proud of you for that.*

The voice faded, and Amy permitted herself a small smile, as Shaw's crying had faded to silence, her grief apparently spent. After a couple more minutes, Shaw started to back up, and Amy let her go.

Amy bent down, and asked, "Feel better?"

Shaw nodded silently, tears still streaming down her cheeks. She looked at Amy and said, "Amy, I am sorry, I. . ."

"No, it's okay," Amy said with a smile, coming closer to Shaw. She put a hand on Shaw's shoulder, and said, "You had to let it out, and you needed someone to tell. I just wish we'd figured out this stuff earlier. But haven't you ever told anyone else what happened?"

"No, Amy," Shaw told the other, bowing her head. "There were others who knew I did. . ."

"Stop right there," Amy said harshly, making Shaw jump. "Shaw, you didn't do anything to feel that way. It was something that happened to you. And I don't want to hear you say "I did that" ever again."

Amy could see Shaw still felt guilty over what had happened, but it did look like a great burden had been removed from the half-elf. Shaw just nodded without answering, and Amy felt satisfied with the progress for the time being.

"No, you never told anyone."

"No. Amy, the only people I could tell, the only ones who could help me with this. . ." Shaw said, stopping and hesitating for several seconds before finishing. "Were taken from me three days later."

"Your grandma and grandpa," Amy said in understanding. "You needed them, and they'd been killed."

"I received the message two weeks later," Shaw answered, wiping tears from her eyes. "And then. . ."

"What?" Amy asked. <Is there more to this?>

Shaw looked at Amy, and wept, "Amy, please, no more. I cannot. . ."

"Hey, hey," Amy said taking her hands and gripping Shaw's shoulders, "it's okay. You don't have to tell me right now. You told me the bad part, right?"

Shaw nodded, her crying starting to intensify again, and she said, "Yes."

"That's enough for now," Amy promised. "You don't have to go on, not for me. Do it when you're ready, and do it for you, not me."

Shaw looked at the witch, and asked in a quiet voice, "Amy, can you accept this? What I. . . what I was willing to do?"

Tears started filling Amy's eyes again, and she nodded as she took Shaw into her arms again, and this time, Shaw returned it with a power that surprised the stronger Amazon.

<Damn. It's like she doesn't want to let go.> "Shaw, I accepted you two months ago. I don't accept parts and reject others. I take the whole deal. And it just shows that Robin and Jenny were right two months ago."

Shaw backed away, puzzled interest on her face, as Amy continued.

"Remember when you died?" Amy asked, and Shaw nodded. "We thought, well, that it showed what you were willing to do to kill a bad guy."

Shaw's eyes widened, and she shook her head in protest. "That is not why. . ."

"Look, let me finish, okay?" Amy asked. With a sigh, she added, "Robin and Jenny told me and Giles differently. They said it just showed how much helping others meant to you. It showed how much you cared. Well, I think they were wrong."

Amy looked at Shaw, and said, "I think THIS shows how much you care. I know you, Religion Girl, you worship the Nature Goddess, you don't fear death. You're into the whole 'circle of life, colors of the wind' thing. When it's time to die, you just do it, and go on to Heaven or whatever. Right?"

After a long delay, Shaw said, "If I correctly understand the one half of that speech that I have the slightest idea as to what you are talking about, then yes, you are right."

Despite the sadness in the air between them, Amy still managed to laugh a bit. "You could've just said, 'yes.' You don't have to talk like Giles."

Shaw gave Amy just the most fractional of smiles, and looked at the floor. In a voice full of fear, she said, "Amy, the others. I want them to know what happened. I want to tell them, but. . . I am afraid of doing it."

Amy's face fell, and she put an arm back around Shaw, to offer support. "Shaw, don't you think they'll feel like I do? I feel so sorry for everything you lost on that mission, now that you told me. . ."

"I did not simply tell you, Amy," Shaw muttered, looking for the proper words, "it was like. . ."

"You relived it," Amy said, drawing a shocked stare from the Mielikkian. She nodded, and said, "When you talk about something from memory, you get that spaced-out look in your eyes. And you had it to the max while you were telling me what happened."

"Amy, I am afraid to. ."

"Then I'll tell them," Amy said, which prompted Shaw to start shaking her head. "Why not? Shaw. ."

"Amy, I cannot ask you to go through that," she said, trying to prevent Amy from doing that.

"Shaw, let me talk, okay," Amy said, getting off the bench and crouching on the floor in front of Shaw, so that she was looking down into her eyes. "Shaw, I could see what it was like for you to tell me what happened. And I know how hard it was for you to even talk about it at all. But you did it. But, you remember what I said about not fighting your battles alone?"

Not seeing the relevance, Shaw nodded anyway. "Yes, Amy."

"I didn't mean just fighting the bad guys. I meant dealing with stuff like this," Amy explained, once again taking Shaw's hands in her own. "You just fought a big one, and you won. You finally got it out. Now, let me do the rest. Just this once, let someone do something for you, huh?"

Shaw swallowed several times, and hissed, "You will tell them everything?"

"Well, I was gonna leave out some stuff, but. ."

"Amy, no," Shaw protested quickly. "I will not have them know anything less than the truth."

"Shaw, listen to me," Amy said harshly, prompting Shaw to lower her head in embarrassment. <Damn.> "Shaw, really, REALLY think about this; do you really want me to tell the others about things that YOU said were secret?"

Shaw looked at her, her eyebrows narrowed in uncertainty, and with a sigh, Amy tapped her left ear. Shaw's eyes went wide as she realized what Amy was talking about, and her face went redder than a bad sunburn.

"Well, do you REALLY want them to know about that?" Amy asked. "Shaw, there are things that you ARE allowed to keep private. Don't you think that's one of them?"

Shaw closed her eyes and swallowed again. "It was part of what happened," she pointed out, her voice almost completely inaudible.

"Shaw. ." Amy started, but she stopped when Shaw looked at her with determination.

"Amy, I. . ." she said, and gathering herself, she said, "I will leave that decision up to you. But I would rather they know then have Xander or Cordelia make a comment without knowing what they are talking about, and having me lose control. My temper is not long in the best of times, let alone now."

Amy couldn't believe what she was hearing, until the last sentence. <Shit. She's still worried about losing control.> Amy thought about it, and thought, <And is she just going to be herself again, once this is over and done with? No, she's gonna be hurting over this for a long time.>

Shaw looked at Amy, who was deep in her thoughts.

"Amy?" she asked hesitantly.

"What is it, cuz?"

"What happens when this is over?" the half-elf asked wearily. "This weekend is a holiday, and. . ."

"You were gonna do the patrols, and give us the weekend off," Amy finished.

Shaw nodded, swallowed heavily, and said, "I cannot do it, Amy. I. . ." She trailed off, looked up at the ceiling, and whispered, "I am so sick of killing."

Amy actually smiled, and said, "You aren't a killer, Shaw. You're a fighter. But every fighter needs some time off now and then."

"Amy, even the thought of picking up Soulreaver frightens me," she told the witch, trembling even as she said the words. "But. . ."

Shaw stopped, folded her hands together, starting to cry a bit more. Amy frowned, but not out of anger.

"Shaw, come on. Don't close up on me now," Amy pleaded as she placed a hand on Shaw's knee. "I want to help you, but I can't if you don't let me."

"I still want to help," Shaw whispered softly, now looking at Amy with bloodshot eyes. "Is there anything I can do without killing? Anything?"

"Of course," Amy said quickly. <Goddess, she wants the downtime. That's good.> "Shaw, there's research, you help Giles with that a lot. You've got magic that doesn't need battle to be used."

"My magic is only about two-thirds of your level of power, Amy," Shaw pointed out.

"Maybe, but you've got spells we can't cast," Amy countered with a shrug. "And you've got more experience with magic stuff than anyone else here. Part of it's your age, but mostly it's your background. You're a big help outside of fighting. Remember, it was you do figured out what the demon wanted with that puzzle."

Shaw chewed her bottom lip for a moment, and then asked, "How long would they let me have?"

"Shaw, this isn't something you say, 'two weeks,' or 'one month,' or whatever," Amy said kindly. "They'll give you as long as you need to get over this. And. . . to get over that mission, too."

To Amy's surprise, Shaw settled down at the last comment.

"Amy, I dealt with what happened to me a long time ago," the half-elf said with a great deal of confidence. "As well as what I did to the wizard."

Amy started to talk, but Shaw cut her off. "Amy, I still killed him. And the way I did it. . . I left something behind on that mission, Amy. Something that I can never have back."

"You sacrificed your innocence," Amy said, thinking back to the tape.

Shaw gave a sad, tearful nod and wiped her arm across her face to wipe away her tears.

"I am sorry I did not tell you of this earlier," Shaw said softly.

"You weren't ready, but now it's out in the open," the witch said. She tapped Shaw's knee, and said, "And I can tell you this; I don't blame you, I sure as hell don't hate you, and I'm not afraid of you. You don't have to worry about that. Ever."

"I was so scared last night, Amy," Shaw said, looking straight ahead. "I was so afraid when I saw you being attacked."

"That's okay," Amy said earnestly. "Shaw, look at me."

Shaw did, and Amy smiled. "Look, I'll admit, I was a little wigged, too. When you booked, I was worried sick. I told Garrett I'd set a fireball on the seat of his wheelchair. One thing that did frighten me was that spell you cast. Let me finish; it wasn't you, it was that, well, I can throw a lightning bolt if I need to, right?"

"I have seen you do this," Shaw answered. "Why is my spell different?"

"Shaw, my bolts are magical. Yours," the Amazon said, waving her arms about, "those were the real deal. I know you didn't make 'em, and that's what caught me off guard; you just called real, actual lightning bolts. But, I guess it's kind of like your eyes; it just takes time to get used to it."

Shaw just nodded, but hesitated to go further. Amy knew what that meant.

"Come on, girl," Amy said with a grin. "Talk to me."

Shaw let out a heavy sigh, and said, "While you were gone, I. . . .I accidentally told someone about us."

Amy stared at her, and quietly asked, "Someone knows we hunt vampires?"

Shaw's head snapped up, and she quickly shook her head in a jerking motion.

"No! Amy, I. ." Shaw blurted before closing her eyes. "He knows I fight with a group, he knows that I have magic, and. .he knows about me."

"Oh, shit," Amy said. "What else does he know? HOW does he know?"

"A vampire attacked us at the school, before the sun rose," Shaw answered as she quickly related the story of the attack. "He only knows that my leader was a Green Beret. That is ALL he knows."

"But you said he knows about us," Amy pointed out.

"Yes. Me and you." Shaw tensed, and said softly, "I did not mean to do it."

Amy started laughing under her breath, causing Shaw to stare at her.

"Amy?"

"Oh, Goddess, Shaw!" Amy said between giggles. "No wonder you're so nervous!"

"You are not angry?" the puzzled Slayerette asked.

"Of course not," Amy wheezed, clutching at her side. "I don't mind if people find out. But I think Steve's gonna want to know who knows about this."

"Larry," Shaw replied without hesitation.

Amy nodded thoughtfully, and said, "Okay. I know Larry, he's a cool guy. What'd he say when you told him about you and vampires?"

"How can I help," Shaw answered.

Amy was caught off guard by that response. "Whoa, there, just a sec. Lemme get this straight; he wants to sign up?" she asked her cousin.

"Yes, Amy," the priestess said with a shrug. "I tried to discourage him, but he truly wants to help. I know he does not have your abilities, but he knows of me, and he told me a secret, something that could ruin his life if the wrong people found out."

"He told you his secret after finding out you were a half-elf?" Amy asked. "He told you so that you'd have a secret of his?"

"No, he told me after I told him we were cousins," Shaw responded. When Amy started to comment, Shaw blurted, "Amy, I trust him."

That comment stopped the teen witch from saying anything further, until finally, she said, "Okay. I think Steve will want to decide on that, though."

"That was what I told Larry," Shaw promised with a straight face. "I told him that 'my leader' would have ways of determining whether or not he was suited for this."

"Do you think he could handle it?" Amy asked.

"Xander, Willow and Cordelia did not possess their special abilities when

they first started helping Buffy."

Amy cocked an eyebrow, and smiled. "Good argument. But enough of that. This is our time, okay?"

Shaw nodded, and said, "Thank you for not being angry about this."

"Hey, you had to save his life, and I figure, it's gonna come out sometime anyway," Amy told her.

Shaw suddenly changed subjects. "Amy, you said that you could understand the feelings I had when under the holding spell," she said, looking directly into Amy's eyes. "What happened to you?"

Amy's eyes widened a bit, and she let out a massive sigh. "Should've known you'd remember that," she said wryly. She sighed again, and looked at the waiting half-elf. "Shaw, it involves my Mom. My real Mom, and not Rhonda, my stepmom. It's, well. . .complicated."

"Your own mother did something to you?" the ranger asked, sadness and surprise bleeding through. "Amy, I am so sorry. I did not know."

"I know. Probably because we haven't really talked, until now," Amy said as she shrugged. "Besides, this time is for you, remember?"

When Shaw looked sad, Amy's shoulders sagged. "Shaw, once this is over, and you've got a couple days of sleep to catch up, we'll talk again. We're not gonna get everything out in one day. Besides, you're the one with a hundred years of family history to tell me about."

Shaw perked up, and she smiled at the thought of sharing the history of her ancestors with Amy.

"I would like that, Amy," she said, her eyes starting to glisten. "I can tell you so much about my Grandparents, and I can at least tell you what I know of my parents and Alison. In fact, Alison scored one of the greatest victories in the history of the Harpers less than a century ago."

"She did?!" Amy said in surprise. "What did she do?"

"You know how spellcasters on Toril are limited to specific numbers of spells every day, based on their levels of power and experience?"

"Like you, but that'll change," Amy said. "Why?"

"Alison was not limited to a certain number of spells each day," Shaw said with a smile as she recalled the story her Grandmother had told her when she was ten. "To put it in terms that use phrases I have learned on Earth, to make the 'short version' that Giles never uses. . ."

Amy laughed at that, but Shaw continued.

"She showed a young, stupid red dragon what happens when you 'piss off' a red-blooded, red-headed American witch raised in what Xander calls the 'Wild West.'"

Amy stopped laughing for a bit, and then stared at Shaw.

"Now I know where you get your temper," she mumbled.

"I knew that the night I saw you, when you got angry with Robin for calling you that name," the half-elf said with a smirk.

"Very funny," Amy said. She just shook her head. "And I thought beating the Headless Horseman was bad. You're just a chip off the old block."

"Xander does tell me I have a hard head," Shaw said, and she smiled at Amy. "Amy, thank you for this. I. . . it has been so long since I had kin. ."

"We're not 'kin,' Hunter," Amy said. "We're cousins. Relatives. Family. Maybe we aren't close yet, but we can make it work. And I know we both want to."

Amy paused, and said, "Okay, it's gonna take a little work. ."

She stopped when Shaw cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Fine. It's gonna take a LOT of work," she said, but then she pointed at Shaw. "From BOTH of us. But I figure we can swing it. And like I said, we'll talk again later this week, and really get started on this cousin thing. And if I were you, I wouldn't make plans for Saturday."

"Why not?" Shaw asked in confusion.

"'Cause me and you are gonna go out, and spend the day together," Amy said firmly. "It's your birthday, and we're gonna celebrate. Whatever you wanna do, it'll be your choice."

"Celebrate?"

Amy stared at the ranger again. "You do celebrate birthdays where you come from, right?"

"Yes, but. ." Shaw said, looking down. Softly, she said, "I have not had reason to celebrate for a long time, Amy. Or. .I did not have anyone to celebrate with."

Amy nodded softly and said, "Shaw, you have it now. The reasons, look at all that you've got now. Friends, family, a home, and you've got a chance to be really happy for the first time in a long time. And you have us to celebrate it with. If you let us."

Shaw looked at her, and nodded, crying once again. She reached forward and hugged Amy, and while a bit startled, the witch returned it, smiling.

Amy could feel Shaw shaking as she cried, but not out of sadness as she had been only a few minutes before, but she received another surprise.

"I love you, Amy," Shaw whispered as she embraced Amy with an intensity that proved her words beyond a shadow of a doubt.

<What am I supposed to tell her?> Amy wondered. <I mean, I care about her, sure. But I don't love her...>

*Just tell her how you DO feel.* Artemis' voice commented with a sigh.

<Duh. . .> Amy smiled, and said, "I think you're pretty cool, too, cuz."

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