Brandis (played by and written by Zan Christensen)
The owner—well, part owner—of the Blushing Mermaid sat in the brothel’s management office and took it in. Even by dim candlelight, he could tell that it was much nicer than he remembered. It was clean, for starters, with an engraved cherrywood desk and flowers in vases around the room. It seemed that in his absence, the manager had not heeded the adage that cut flowers are never to be allowed in a whorehouse, as they represent the beauty and brilliance but quick decay of youth. Brandis was a traditionalist, and being surrounded by the blossoms made him nervous.
He was even more nervous, though, to unfold and read the tiny roll of parchment that he’d found hidden deep within his box of lockpicks and “tools of the trade”. He’d discovered it just before his merry band of adventurers were beset upon by some hideous beast or other, and he’d hastily put it back in its hiding place and taken up his daggers. He was sure he, himself, had not put it there and forgotten it, and thoughts of who might have done so had distracted him in some crucial moments. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this piece of parchment had nearly gotten him killed several times in the weeks prior.
Even after the chaos had subsided, he had not reopened his box and faced the note. He’d left the mystery unsolved until he was able to part company with his friends and be alone with it. Now he felt a peculiar mix of dread and anticipation as he finally unrolled the tiny note, no bigger than his thumb. The flickering candlelight revealed the words that he’d hoped and feared he’d see.
Brandis squeezed the miniature scroll in his fist, tightly, and pounded the desk, color rising up his neck and onto his face. He had not been as prepared as he hoped; he felt disoriented, sick. He left the tiny ball of paper on the desk and opened one drawer after another to see if Clea kept a bottle of spirits handy, as he used to do, but found her workplace to be entirely too damned professional. He kicked the drawers closed and narrowed his eyes at the crumpled note, resting on the reddish wood.
The rogue, the criminal, the heartless bastard in him was too proud and cynical and had fought letting go of this hurt, so carelessly inflicted by someone supposedly so dear. For years, he had clung to and nurtured his resentment, mingling it with the one he’d been given as a fatherless child, pouring every drop of it into his way with a dagger, his easy manipulation of the rich yet weak-minded, his confident and somewhat callous demeanor. He had turned it to his advantage.
All the while avoiding looking inside himself, lest he face the cancer growing within.
He had strayed into this territory just once before, in desperation, cracking himself open to reveal his past to his malevolent father, to gain a moment’s advantage in pitched combat. The rawness of his soul had stunned the powerful elder elf for just a moment before Brandis had to retreat in terror and close himself off to the world again. In that moment, he feared that throwing open those doors permanently might be a path to self-destruction.
He took the note and unfurled it, smoothed it out on the desk with both hands as if to restore it to its pristine state, knowing he could not. He laid his hands flat on the desk as well and tried to calm himself. If his heart was to be open, he would have to carefully unlock it, and would have to forsake his familiar lockpicking tools for the new ones he’d been mastering. Brandis had struggled to hold onto the grudge and harness it, but now it was time to try something else.
Brandis had found love and sex were easy conduits to connect with the life of the world, but he’d feared allowing his sorrow to do so. He had not wanted to expose his pained and foolish side to what seemed to be the pulse of the universe itself, for fear this new and powerful current he’d discovered would turn and smite him if it knew his weakness. But he was quickly learning that things did not work this way. He pushed aside, with great effort, his anger, his bitterness, his coldness, to try and uncover what had come before it. A wave of intense sorrow. Of loss. Of disappointment. They burst forth and, although he had a brief moment of panic, they did not drown him.
His heart became a seed, bursting from its tough shell and sending its pale green shoot down into the earth to find a comfortable home and place to grow. What poured out of him was all sadness and pain at first, but then he found something unexpected mingled in as well: the love and trust and care that he had all but forgotten. He felt his emotions matched to those of the dreaming city—lifelong romances, abiding friendships, casual passions, bitter heartbreaks. The calm inside him now was so pure, his connectedness to the flow of life to complete that he was oblivious to the sobs that wracked his body as he purged years of built-up sorrow. His copious tears watered the sapling he was growing into.
Brandis did what he knew he must. He sent out a remembrance of the brief love he'd shared. He sent a taste of the sorrow at how badly things had turned. He sent his hope that they might find their way back into each other’s hearts, in whatever small way. He released these feelings, not knowing whether the sentiments would actually find their way to the author of the note or if he would understand them if they did. It did not matter.
He smiled then, opening his eyes and wiping his tearstained face. He looked up at the muscular man in black who had entered the office quietly and now held a wicked-looking blade aloft, ready to bring it down in a deathblow.
“Good evening, sir,” Brandis said, simply.
The point of the gigantic blade came down hard across the beautiful wooden chair Brandis had been in, cutting a gash in the fine floral engraving on the back while the edge of the blade connected solidly with the desk, slicing the love note cleanly in two. But Brandis was no longer in the chair, he was on his feet several steps away, sizing up his opponent. His manner was still calm, and he was not drawing his weapons. He moved with speed and agility, but with a serenity that had been absent before.
“I’m guessing you’re here for money,” Brandis said, feeling waves of avarice and envy radiate from the brutish fellow. “That makes sense.”
The blade came down again, shearing a corner of the desk completely off, which made Brandis frown.
“Clea won’t like that at all,” he said before turning his attention completely to his assailant. “You’re quite rude.”
Without moving a muscle, he pulled hard on the emotional tether he’d forged with the inhabitants of the city, sending a tidal wave of emotional disruption outward which caught the muscled thug flat-footed. Instead of baring his soul and shocking the man’s sympathies, Brandis instead used the emotional energy to break open his opponent, turning his own skeletons and demons upon himself. Apparently there was no shortage of shame, doubt, and pain in his soul, and facing it all at once burned the life out of him.
The lifeless attacker slumped to the floor in an anticlimactic end to the battle. Brandis barely took notice of him; he walked back to the table, sat in the chair and pushed the halves of the note together.
“‘Prize your kindness ever’,” he read, saying the words out loud for the first time in years. He remembered finding notes bearing this phrase hidden deep in his pack, inside the folds of his boots, even once tucked into a piece of flat bread, the corner poking out. He could fondly remember these gestures now and feel the warmth they’d brought him, rather than dwell on the sour way in which things had ended.
“I prize yours, as well, my cruel, lost love,” Brandis whispered. “What little I had of it, for as long as it was mine.”
Suriel (played by and written by me)
Suriel fiddled with the clasp of her dress in frustration. It was gorgeously worked metal with moonstone inlays and fine engraving, and it was impossibly fussy. She wrestled with the damn thing every time she put it on and if it weren't for how beautiful it looked on her, she would have tossed it over the balcony of the Airspur palace weeks ago. Occasionally she wished for the simplicity of the voluminous robes she used to wear to hide herself. She wasn't used to finery, frill, and finicky accouterments, but now that her scars had been burned away by the silver fire in the Blackstaff Tower, she felt it was her duty to dress herself accordingly to show off her natural elven beauty...even if she found she didn't particularly enjoy it.
She knew one person who did though.
"Have I displeased you mistress?" Varzynthiir rested casually on the lush carpet of the palace apartments, his head propped up with one hand.
"No, I'm fine. It's just this damn clasp. And I told you don't call me that. This is not Menzoberranzan. We're equals." She tried not to let her eyes linger, though there was much to appreciate about him. There was something else though. A dream she had about him.
"You didn't mind me calling you that about an hour ago. Besides, why bother with the clasp at all? Toss it aside and come back to the floor with me."
Suriel smiled and blushed, but also turned away, finally getting clasp to catch and secure her dress in place. "That's...different. Besides we have to pack. You heard the queen. We're leaving Airspur, and not a moment too soon. I can deal with Kadath, even enjoy his company sometimes, but I cannot handle a city full of Kadaths. It's time to go."
What she didn't say, couldn't say, was that no matter how much she enjoyed her dalliances with the drow, her mind would not forget the dream of him in Arvandor...with Xara. Every time she saw his face, she saw Xara's too. It was...unsettling. She had forgiven Xara for the suffering in the past, but the memories of her were still not fond. The thought of he and Xara talking, sharing sercrets that Suriel was not privy to, made her uneasy.
She trusted Varzynthiir with her life. She just didn't know if she could trust him with her heart.
"I'm going to...I'm going to pack up my apothecary gear...in the other room." Suriel spoke more to the room than specifically to her lover, who wore a look of confusion as she went to a small adjacent chamber and shut the door. She rested her forehead against the door and started to cry softly. It felt so good to be held by Varzynthiir, to be near him, to have him in her life. She was not so naive to think he shared all his secrets with her, but to think he might be keeping something important from her, that he might be involved in some plot against her....it broke her heart almost as much as if he had already betrayed her.
He once told her never to trust him, or anyone for that matter. She hadn't followed that advice, but perhaps she hadn't completely ignored it either because this dream gnawed at her and made her wonder what he could be hiding.
"It was just a dream Suriel. It wasn't real. It didn't happen!" She wiped angrily at her tears and turned away from the door. Before her lay her bags of ritual components, her alembic for mixing potions, and....the bag of holding.
The night she had the dream about Xara and Varzynthiir, he had asked Suriel for the shards of Xara's Ioun stone. The next morning he had returned them. That was the reason the dream felt so real. With a scroll of Speak with Dead, Varzynthiir could have spoken with Xara's ghost. It was all too plausible, but it wasn't necessarily what happened.
There was one way she might be able to find out though.
She rummaged through the bag of holding until she found what she was looking for. Four sharp chunks of stone that looked like obsidian, though now dull and lifeless. She snatched up a bowl and dropped them in. They made a light tinkling sound as they settled in the bottom of the metal container. She then selected the rest of what she would need; bone dust, soil, and dried nightshade. Only a short time later, an apparition of Xara stood before her. The shards of her ioun stone floated sluggishly around her head.
The ghost stared at her with dead, emotionless eyes. Suriel knew she had three questions she could ask the shade before the ritual expired and she drew breath to ask what it was that Varzynthiir is keeping from her....when she remembered that this echo of her past enemy was not truly Xara. It was only an impression of her, a collection of her memories summoned forth from what remained of her body up to the moment of her death....which occurred more than a year before she had her dream.
She felt foolish, sitting here in the dark, gazing into the lifeless eyes of her past trying to find the answers to her future. Again tears formed in her eyes and, again, she angrily scrubbed them away, refusing to show weakness even before the remnants of Xara. But the ghost didn't even notice. It stared intently at her, awaiting the questions it must answer before it could be discharged from this plane.
Suriel knew she had to address it and complete the ritual, or else Xara's empty shell might remain there unmoving possibly forever until someone asked it three questions. She thought about what could be relevant, and her thoughts turned to their departure. Leaving the tangle of Airspur politics they could go where they pleased and she knew the path she intended to walk. She drew herself up and addressed the apparition.
"What is it that Allyx and the Eight are trying to accomplish?" her voice wavered at first, but grew with strength as she spoke.
Xara's response was immediate, though her voice was flat and toneless. "Allyx and his eight traitors pretend to distract you from our master's schemes, but at the same time they secretly turn you against those same efforts. I do not know Allyx's endgame, but he wants you with an undying passion. The others of the eight are unknown to me."
This surprised Suriel. She had never thought that Allyx might a master. Those with ambitions to rule or destroy the world rarely acknowledged a superior. "Who is this master whom Allyx betrays?"
"I never saw him in person. he is a mighty being of ancient years and great power. I heard Allyx once call him dúathrî, Shadow-Crown in the common tongue, though that is not his true name, if he even has one. If you seek him, find him through the City that Waits."
"Dúathrî." Suriel tasted the name in her mouth and found it unpleasant. "Why does Allyx want me?"
"You and he share a great destiny, both an honor and a heresy. Yours is the sister to his soul...his greatest ally and enemy both. He loves and hates you in equal measure. He believes that you will complete him." Xara's voice became quiet and whispered as she spoke until the last three words were barely audible. Her form wavered and finally faded from existence. The Ioun stone shards fell to the ground.
Suriel let them lay where they fell while she pondered the words. She had not forgotten what they saw in the Garden of Graves despite the matters that had occupied them in the meantime. According to the old lich that tended the ritual apparatus there, Allyx was a threat to the entire world. That is a boast she did not take lightly. It seems she must discover what Xara meant by the City that Waits and focus on things that were more important now.
"It was just a dream." She intoned quietly to herself, hoping that she could convince herself of it. "Just a dream."