IN WATERS TOO DEEP

Black spots circled and danced before her eyes and a cold sweat was general about her body, glistening, it seemed, from every pore.

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Arrayan tried to stand straight and hold fast to her concentration, but those spots! She put one foot in front of the other, barely inching her way to the door across the common room of her tiny home.

Three strides will take me to it, she thought, a sorry attempt at willing herself to shake her state of disorientation and vertigo and just take the quick steps.

The knocking continued even more insistently.

Arrayan smiled despite her condition. From the tempo and frantic urgency of the rapping, she knew it was Olgerkhan. It was always Olgerkhan, caring far too much about her.

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The recognition of her dear old friend emboldened Arrayan enough for her to fight through the swirling black dots of dizziness for just a moment and get to the door. She cracked it open, leaning on it but painting an expression that tried hard to deny her weariness.

"Well met," she greeted the large half-orc.

A flash of concern crossed Olgerkhan's face as he regarded her, and it took him a long moment to reply, "And to you."

"It is far too early for a visit," Arrayan said, trying to cover, though she could tell by the position of the sun, a brighter spot in the typically gray Palishchuk sky, that it was well past mid-morning.

"Early?" Olgerkhan looked around. "We will go to Wingham's, yes? As we agreed?"

Arrayan had to pause a moment to suppress a wave of nausea and dizziness that nearly toppled her from the door.

"Yes, of course," she said, "but not now. I need more sleep. It's too early."

"It's later than we agreed."

"I didn't sleep well last night," she said. The effort of merely standing there was starting to take its toll. Arrayan's teeth began to chatter. "You understand, I'm sure."

The large half-orc nodded, glanced around again, and stepped back.

Arrayan moved her hand and the weight of her leaning on the door shut it hard. She turned, knowing she had to get back to her bed, and took a shaky step away, then another. The inching along wouldn't get her there in time, she knew, so she tried a quick charge across the room.

She got one step farther before the floor seemed to reach up and swallow her. She lay there for a long moment, trying to catch her breath, trying with sheer determination to stop the room from spinning. She would have to crawl, she knew, and she fought hard to get to her hands and knees to do just that.

"Arrayan!" came a shout from behind her, and it sounded like it was a hundred miles away.

"Oh my, Arrayan," the voice said in her ear a moment later, cracking with every word. Arrayan hardly registered the voice and barely felt powerful Olgerkhan sweep her into his arms to carry her gently to her bed.

He continued to whisper to her as he pulled a blanket up over her, but she was already far, far away.

"Knellict will not be pleased if we fail in this," Canthan Dolittle said to Athrogate upon the dwarf's return to their small corner table in Muddy Boots and Bloody Blades.

"How many times ye meaning to tell me that, ye dolt?" asked the black-bearded dwarf.

"As many as it takes for you to truly appreciate that - "

Canthan sucked in his breath and held his tongue as Athrogate rose up over the edge of the table, planting both of his calloused hands firmly on the polished wood. The dwarf kept coming forward, leaning over so near to the studious man that the long braids of his beard and the gem-studded ties settled in Canthan's lap. Canthan could feel the heat and smell the stench of the dwarf's breath in his face.

"Knellict is - " Canthan started again.

"A mean son of a pig's arse," Athrogate finished for him. "Yeah, I'm knowin' it all too well, ye skinny dolt. Been the times when I've felt the sting of his crackling fingers, don't ye doubt."

"Then we must not forget."

"Forget?" Athrogate roared in his face.

Canthan blanched as all conversation around their table stopped. The dwarf, too, caught on to the volume of his complaint, and he glanced back over his shoulder to see several sets of curious eyes focusing on him.

"Bah, what're ye lookin' at, lest it be yer doom?" he barked at them. Athrogate held no small reputation for ferocity at the Vaasan Gate, having dominated the hunt for bounty ears for so many months, and having engaged in more than a dozen tavern brawls, all of which had left his opponents far more battered than he. The dwarf narrowed his eyes, accentuating his bushy eyebrows all the more, and gradually sank back into his chair. When the onlookers finally turned their attention elsewhere, Athrogate wheeled back on his partner. "I ain't for forgetting nothing," he assured Canthan.

"Forgive my petulance," said Canthan. "But please, my short and stout friend, never again forget that you are here as my subordinate."

The dwarf glowered at him.

"And I am Knellict's underling," Canthan went on, and this mention of the powerful, merciless archmage did calm Athrogate somewhat.

Canthan was indeed Knellict's man, and if Athrogate moved on Canthan, he'd be facing a very angry and very potent wizard in a short amount of time. Knellict had left the Fugue and gone back to the Citadel of Assassins, but Knellict could move as quickly as he could unexpectedly.

"We ain't to fail in this," the dwarf grumbled, coming back to the original point. "Been watching them two closely."

"They go out into Vaasa almost every day. Do you follow?"

The dwarf snorted and shook his head. "I ain't for meeting no stinking drow elf out there in the wilds," he explained. "I been watching them on their return. That's enough."

"And if they don't return?"

"Then they're dead in the bogs and all the better for us," Athrogate replied.

"They are making quite a reputation in short order," said Canthan. "Every day they come in with ears for bounty. They are outperforming much larger groups, by all reports, and indeed have long since surpassed the amount of coin handed out at the Vaasan Gate for bounty in so short a time - a performance until very recently pinnacled by yourself, I believe."

Athrogate grumbled under his breath.

"Very well, then, though I would have hoped that you would trail them through all their daily routines," said Canthan.

"Ye thinking they got contacts in the wastelands?"

"It remains a possibility. Perhaps the drow elves have risen from their Underdark holes to find a spot in Vaasa - they have been known to seize similar opportunities."

"Well, if that Jarlaxle fellow's got drow friends in Vaasa, then I'm not for going there." He fixed Canthan's surprised expression with a fierce scowl. "I'm tougher'n any drow elf alone," he growled, "but I'm not for fighting a bevy o' the damned tricksters!"

"Indeed."

Athrogate paused for a long time, letting that "indeed" sink in, trying to gauge if there was any sarcasm in the word or if it was honest acceptance and agreement.

"Besides," he said at length, "Hobart's boys been seeing them often, as've others. Rumors're sayin' that Jarlaxle's got himself a goblin scout what's leadin' him to good hunting grounds."

"That cannot sit well with Hobart," Canthan reasoned. "The Kneebreakers view goblins as vermin to be killed and nothing more."

"A lot o' them pair's not sitting well with Hobart of late, so I'm hearin'," Athrogate agreed. "Seems some o' them halflings're grumbling about the ears Entreri and Jarlaxle're bringing in. Seems them halflings lost a bunch o' their own earned ears."

"A pair of thieves? Interesting."

"It'd be a lot more interestin' and a lot easier to figure it all out if yer friends would get us some history on them two. They're a powerful pair - it can't be that they just up and started slaughterin' things. Got to be a trail."

"Knellict is fast on the trail of that information, do not doubt," said Canthan. "He is scouring the planes of existence themselves in search of answers to the dilemma of Artemis Entreri and this strange drow, Jarlaxle. We will have our answers."

"Be good to know how nasty we should make their deaths," grumbled the dwarf.

Canthan just clucked and let it go. Indeed, he suspected that Knellict would send him a message to do just that and be rid of the dangerous pair.

So be it.

Olgerkhan grunted and sucked in his breath as poor Arrayan tried to eat the soup he'd brought. Her hand shook so badly she spilled most of the steaming liquid back into the bowl long before the large spoon had come up level with her mouth. Again and again she tried, but by the time the spoon reached her mouth and she sipped, she could barely wet her lips.

Finally Olgerkhan stepped forward and took Arrayan's shaking hand.

"Let me help you," he offered.

"No, no," Arrayan said. She tried to pull her hand away but didn't have much strength behind it. Olgerkhan easily held on. "It is quite..."

"I am your friend," the large half-orc reminded her.

Arrayan started to argue, as the prideful woman almost always did when someone fretted over her, but she looked into Olgerkhan's eyes and her words were lost in her throat. Olgerkhan was not a handsome creature by any standards. He favored his orc heritage more than his human, with a mouth that sported twisted tusks and splotchy hair sprouting all over his head and face. He stood crooked, his right shoulder lower than his left, and farther forward. While his muscled, knotted limbs exuded strength, there was nothing supple or typically attractive about them.

But his eyes were a different matter, to Arrayan at least. She saw tenderness in those huge brown orbs, and a level of understanding well beyond Olgerkhan's rather limited intelligence. Olgerkhan might not be able to decipher mystical runes or solve complex equations, but he was not unwise and never unsympathetic.

Arrayan saw all of that, staring at her friend - and he truly was the best friend she had ever known.

Olgerkhan's huge hand slid down her forearm to her wrist and hand, and she let him ease the spoon from her. As much for her friend's benefit as for her own, Arrayan swallowed her pride and allowed Olgerkhan to feed her.

She felt better when he at last tipped the bowl to her mouth, letting her drink the last of its contents, but she was still very weak and overwhelmed. She tried to stand and surely would have fallen had not her friend grabbed her and secured her. Then he scooped her into his powerful arms and walked her to her bed, where he gently lay her down.

As soon as her head hit her soft pillow, Arrayan felt her consciousness slipping away. She noted a flash of alarm on her half-orc friend's face, and as blackness closed over her, she felt him shake her, gently but insistently, several times.

A moment later, she heard a thump, and somewhere deep inside she understood it to be her door closing. But that hardly mattered to Arrayan as the darkness enveloped her, taking her far, far away from the land of waking.

Olgerkhan's arms flailed wildly as he scrambled down the roads of Palishchuk, heading to one door then another, changing direction with every other step. Palishchuk was not a close-knit community; folk kept to themselves except in times of celebration or times of common danger. Olgerkhan didn't have many friends, and all but Arrayan, he realized, were out hunting that late-summer day.

He gyrated along, gradually making his way south. He banged on a couple more doors but no one answered, and it wasn't until he was halfway across town that he realized the reason. The sound of the carnival came to his ears. Wingham had opened for business.

Olgerkhan sprinted for the southern gate and to the wagon ring. He heard Wingham barking out the various attractions to be found and charged in the direction of his voice. Pushing through the crowd he inadvertently bumped into and nearly ran over poor Wingham. The only thing that kept the barker up was Olgerkhan's grasping hands.

Large guards moved for the pair, but Wingham, as his senses returned, waved them away.

"Tell me," he implored Olgerkhan.

"Arrayan," Olgerkhan gasped.

As he paused to catch his breath, the half-orc noticed the approach of a human - he knew at first glance that it was a full human, not a half-orc favoring the race. The man looked to be about forty, with fairly long brown hair that covered his ears and tickled his neck. He was lean but finely muscled and dressed in weathered, dirty garb that showed him to be no stranger to the Vaasan wilderness. His bright brown eyes, so striking against his ruddy complexion and thick dark hair, gave him away. Though Olgerkhan had not seen him in more than two years, he recognized the human.

Mariabronne, he was called, a ranger of great reputation in the Bloodstone Lands. In addition to his work at the Vaasan Gate, Mariabronne had spent the years since Gareth's rise and the fall of Zhengyi patrolling the Vaasan wilds and serving Palishchuk as a courier to the great gates and as a guide for the half-orc city's hunting parties.

"Arrayan?" Wingham pressed. He grabbed Olgerkhan's face and forced the gasping half-orc to look back at him.

"She's in bed," Olgerkhan explained. "She's sick."

"Sick?"

"Weak... shaking," the large half-orc explained.

"Sick, or exhausted?" Wingham asked and began to nod.

Olgerkhan stared at him, confused, not knowing how to answer.

"She tried the magic," Mariabronne whispered at Wingham's side.

"She is not without magical protections," said Wingham.

"But this is Zhengyi's magic we are speaking of," said the ranger, and Wingham conceded the point with a nod.

"Bring us to her, Olgerkhan," Wingham said. "You did well in coming to us."

He shouted some orders at his compatriots, telling them to take over his barker's spot, and he, Mariabronne, and Olgerkhan rushed out from the wagon ring and back into Palishchuk.

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