24 March, 103 CY
Aramis stared at his folded hands while he kept watch, chanting dirges in a low voice to regain his exhausted spells. Most of his healing magic had gone to Azal, so the tiefling rogue slept more soundly than Bhavik Devanta did. The rest of the warden’s mending would have to wait until dawn, when Aramis’s prayers were answered.
The three adventurers had fled the Black Lake, back up to the foundry’s abandoned library. The room reeked of moldy paper, but its single entrance made it the most defensible position they could reach. Though the dragon was likely licking her own wounds, many other threats still dwelled in the halls of Khundrukar…
Distracted once more by the shame of their retreat, Aramis halted his prayer. We threw everything we had at her, he thought again, and it still wasn’t enough. How can we slay the dragon?
How can we save Talgen?
A shadow crossed his face as a small black form fluttered past the everburning torch that illuminated the room. The intruder flapped to the top of a bookshelf, where it perched upon the cracked remnant of a white marble bust and turned to regard the cleric with one beady black eye, then the other.
“A raven,” Aramis found himself saying aloud. He stole a guilty glimpse at his companions, but neither stirred at the sound of his voice. A sign! It must be a sign… no bird could have possibly found its way down here – not unless it was sent by the hand of fate herself.
“Greetings, Shepherd,” the raven croaked, dismissing Aramis’s last vestige of doubt.
“Hail, raven,” Aramis replied. He didn’t care to be called Shepherd anymore – not after his last disastrous visit to his home in Oakhurst – but he wasn’t about to correct a divine herald on the matter. His exhaustion dragged down every syllable he spoke: “Has my Queen sent you to talk me out of what I must do?”
The bird tilted its head to a different angle. “What makes you say that?”
“I know that, when I go to face the dragon again, I’ll die. We will all die. And my Queen knows that I must face the dragon again. I cannot abandon the only hope my friend has.” Unless Aramis recovered the golden apple that the duergar stole for the dragon below, Talgen Hucrele would forever remain a monster, twisted by the Gulthias Tree into its supplicant…
“Yes. Our Queen knows.” The raven shifted from one foot to another. “Yet she also knows that there is another way.”
“What?” Aramis got to his knees. “Tell me. Please.”
The bird paused to fluff its feathers out, sounding like an opening parasol. “Nightscale may be a dragon, but even a dragon is a living thing. And every living thing owes a death to the Queen. Fate would have her, and not you, in this hour.”
So that’s the dragon’s name. A dozen questions poured into his mind, but he only dared ask one: “But how?”
“Nightscale has a weakness. She has many weaknesses, Shepherd, but this one may be of use to you.”
“But this wisdom comes at a cost.”
“Of course.” The raven flitted down from the bust to land on the top of Aramis’s backpack, within the cleric’s reach. “It is not our Queen’s way to make her designs plain, even to her servants. But these are trying times.”
“I will pay whatever price she asks.” As she well knows.
“She wants your eye. And she wants your companions.”
A river of ice flowed through Aramis’s veins. “They’ll die? Down here?” Losing an eye to save his friend was nothing. Losing Bhavik and Azal was unthinkable.
“That is not for me to say. But, should they live, you will be called to a place where the tiefling and the shifter will not follow.”
“Will I ever see them again?”
“Not for me to say. Fate wills what it will. But, were I you, I wouldn’t pin my hope upon it.”
The cleric considered this. “I have become the Raven Queen’s avenger,” he said, closing his eyes. “I am Death’s reaper sworn, bringing those who would challenge the natural order of life, death, and rebirth into her embrace, by her grace and my will.” But I’m nothing in battle without my friends. And I’m sure there will be many battles beyond this one… if my Queen wants me to survive this day, what plans could she possibly have for me?
The raven squawked, once, the normal sound seeming abnormal. Bhavik moaned, once, then turned over in his sleep. “The choice is yours, Shepherd,” the bird croaked.
Guilt panged Aramis’s heart as his thoughts turned to Sharwyn, the girl who’d fallen in love with him when he was only a shepherd. She’d confessed her love only nine days ago, after keeping it a secret for six years or more. She still loved him, though he could scarcely remember being that shepherd boy, could see no resemblance when he looked in the mirror. How much more could he change before it cost him this newfound love? Fate was cruel enough to tear them apart so quickly after bringing them together; fleeting love had brought him into the Queen’s service in the first place…
You vowed to save her brother, Aramis reminded himself. Sharwyn would give an eye, at least, to save Talgen. So would their mother! This is the only way. You must pay this price, but don’t count the cost…
“Fate wills what it will,” Aramis said. “I accept.”
“Come then,” the raven said, fluttering up to land on his shoulder. “Let us begin.”