{Where we last left our heroes: Ebony attended her drama club meeting and was interrupted by a bizarre storm of some kind… or perhaps something worse}

Chapter 3: What Men Fear

Ebony ran up the stairs and out to the front porch. The sky stopped her dead in her tracks. She’d expected to see towering black clouds dumping down rain, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Her first thought was that it was the Aurora Borealis. Golden light spiraled from a hole in the sky, and around it rusty rose tinted clouds swam in a circle before dying out into the dark blue cloud roof of early evening.

A swarm of small black dots trickled from the light hole, whether it was a hundred or twenty of them she couldn’t tell, plummeting to the level of the skyscrapers and disappearing too quickly to see what they were. Something was pulling her. She turned and tried to run back into the house but she was jerked step by step down the sidewalk. The tugging grew stronger, and she saw the pendant around her neck lift as if drawn by a magnet. She snatched at it and held on. The ground was gone from under her feet! She was flying towards the hole in the sky. Thrashing, trying to escape her invisible attacker, Ebony screamed and fought.

Light blinded her. Cold stone beneath her hands and feet. She caught her breath and tried to steady her spinning head. Releasing the pendant from her death grip, she let it fall back, hidden behind her dress. It felt comforting there, warm from her hand, smoothly familiar against her skin. Blinking her eyes into focus, she looked around. Gray stone steps descended from where she crouched on her hands and knees, and beyond that was grass, shriveled and a dull green that was almost gray, an occasional limp rough-barked tree, and a river, lazy and muddy. And around the steps, about a hundred men in wide-sleeved, hooded and belted rough-spun brown robes stared up at her, dumbfounded.

“Who are you? How did you get here?” one demanded. He moved up the steps toward her and several others followed him. Ebony pushed herself to her feet and turned around. Like bright sun on a winter morning, flames of wavering light licked up to the sky. Even as she took it in it flickered, stuttered, and died into the ground as if it had never been. Blank stone stared up at her from where it had been as if to say What? What are you looking at? Groans and shouts of anger erupted behind her, and someone grabbed at her. She twisted free and kicked hard. Tumbling down the back of the raised dais or whatever it was, Ebony found her feet again and ran. Kung Fu was one thing against a few, even if they were skilled, but a hundred? Never. She glanced back over her shoulder. No one was chasing her. The brown-robed man who had spoken to her stood on the dais, arms crossed.

“I just needed to ask you some questions, miss!” he shouted, speaking in Chinese as he had before. She slowed and turned.

“So you grab people you want to speak to?” she shouted back, using the same language. “No thanks.”

“My apologies, miss. If you reconsider, and wish for my assistance, seek me in Kyho Twon.”

She backed away, still not trusting him, and scanned the horizon for any hope. Was this Mystra? How had she gotten here when her parents had been unable to? And how in the blazes was she supposed to get back? She would follow the river. Surely she would find a village along it somewhere, and someone there might be able to tell her where she could find Coriarkin, or even Ohbi Whan, or maybe… what had that woman’s name been? Darcia? Dancia? Maybe, if this was her parents’ world, maybe she could find her brother. Her heart raced, but she didn’t even dare to let herself hope.

She was aware of the men’s eyes on her as she hurried along to meet the riverside and leave them behind, and she herself kept sneaking glances over her shoulder. What were they up to back there? And why had they behaved so oddly with her? Something was going on, bigger and deeper than anything Ebony had been involved in before, and she was cut off from her mother and father. Were they worrying about her? No, she told herself. Because before they had time to get seriously upset, she would’ve gotten back to them and it would all be alright. And even though she didn’t believe it for a second, it kept her mostly calm. She would need all her calm and more.

* * *

“Karliah Shieldmaiden, Covenant Crowned?” the messenger asked uncertainly from the doorway of the chilly second floor room. The woman turned from the window, sheathing the sword she had been sharpening.

“Yes? What is it?”

“The wizards are up to something at the Gate. They opened it.”

“Yes, I know. I gave them leave, even to come so close into our position. They’ve sworn no harm and carry no weapons. They have not attempted mischief in their previous efforts to open that stupid Gate, and they know the price if they do. I’m surprised they got it open. They ought to have told me. Such was our arrangement.”

“They didn’t have it open long, at least so far as I saw, but they brought a girl through. And closed half their number in on the other side!”

Karliah Shieldmaiden frowned and glanced out the window as if she could see to the old Gate from her position. “Strange. Did the girl expect them to bring her here? I didn’t think they could communicate between the worlds other than through the Gate, and that I know it has refused to open for at least fifteen years.”

“I don’t know, ma’am. She ran off from them, and they shouted back and forth a little, but the wizards let her go peacefully, without trying to capture her or anything, so I’m really not sure. It was after she came through that they closed the Gate.”

“They closed the Gate,” Karliah mused, frowning. “Now why would they do that? Go to Captain Edrich. Tell him to find this girl if he can and as soon as possible, and describe her for him. Warn him also that he might be contending for her with wizards. If he finds her, tell him to bring her to me, willingly. Treat her with respect; she won’t be a hostage. I just want to know what she knows and what the wizards want with her and what’s going on.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The messenger turned to go.

“Oh, and when you’ve done that, swing by the Gate, and if Melchior and his crew are still there, tell him to get his wizard thugs out of my land, and that includes himself.” She gave him a half smile and he nodded.

“Yes, ma’am.”

When he was gone, Karliah sighed and turned back to the window, watching him ride out of the city and head for the Gate.

“Melchior, you old sly dog, what are you trying to pull now? You won’t catch me napping, not Karliah the Watchful. Not like last time. Though the Apocalypse takes us both, I shall see you die. One day.”

* * *

Ebony eyed the armed men warily. There were about twenty of them, armored in heavy steel cuirasses and helmets equipped with cheek guards. Even their boots were fashioned from the same plated steel, and she felt burdened just looking at them.

“What?” she asked when they had approached her and stopped. She was trapped between them and the river. Not that it was a problem. She had little hesitation about wading it, muddy as it was, but these men hadn’t been acting like hostile warriors and something, curiosity perhaps, or desperation, drew her to see what they wanted. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a white plume in his helmet stepped forward and bowed.

“Miss, may I ask you if you were the girl the wizards sucked through the Gate into Mystra?”

Ebony paused, wondering if it could matter what she told. What knowledge or experience or sage advisor’s words could she use to base her judgements on in this world, so different and yet so similar to her own? None. Follow your instinct, Ebony, she told herself. That’s the best you can do, and that at least is the same in both worlds.

“I believe I did come through the Gate, yes. I can’t be certain since I don’t know what it looks like or how it works, and I couldn’t go back because it disappeared behind me. How did you know about me?”

“You were seen coming through and leaving the wizards. Karliah Shieldmaiden, the Covenant Crowned, asks if you would speak with her. She wishes greatly to understand what the wizards are up to and about your role in it all.”

Ebony raised an eyebrow and looked the men over. “It doesn’t look like I have a choice.”

He nodded. “Karliah urges that you be brought peaceably or not at all. She is a smart woman, if not one of the old line, and she knows when to keep things peaceful. I think she hopes you are the reason everything is happening and that’s why the wizards wanted you. Do you have any special powers or gifts perhaps?” he asked hopefully.

Ebony shook her head, strangely embarrassed. “I can do Kung Fu. And I have a pretty good intuition. But I don’t think those count.”

“The man looked disappointed. “Oh, well. Karliah will have her own questions anyway. Will you come to see her? We will escort you if you will, and see that you encounter no troubles from thieves or wizards.”

“Um…” Ebony looked about her for inspiration, anything to tell her which was the best choice. Wander around in the dark, alone, hungry and cold, risking thieves and marauders, hoping to find Coriarkin by mere chance? Or go with these men, talk with some unknown woman, maybe get made a prisoner or hostage, and perhaps find help and answers?

“Sure,” she said, and her heart sped. She’d just committed. She could only hope she’d committed right.

* * *

“Gaius!” the wizard bellowed.

A terrified man in a brown robe was brought forward, supported by two other brown wizards. He gulped twice, struggling in vain to stand on his own. “Yes, sir?”

“What in the name of wizardry did you think you were doing? We spend years preparing, gathering power, lining things up, bowing and scraping before the ‘Mighty Shieldmaiden’, pouring our resources and the resources of the world into this one opportunity. And you blow it! You ruined it! I was so close, so close! I could taste it!” Melchior raised his hands and stared the palms, shaking in rage, rage that had no outlet. He started to pace. “This was the first time we got it open. It was supposed to work. It did work. And then,” he whipped around to face Gaius, “it stopped working. I want you to explain how you could fumble such a thing. I wanted a world. And you give me a girl!

“I channeled all the strength I had! I spun all the Essence from the other world that I could reach into the Gate, and that was little enough. That world is dry of power. I took all it had. And then it faded. I lost connection with it. It fell apart. I did everything I could. I tried so hard it practically broke me!”

“Too bad it didn’t!” Melchior snarled. He huffed in several breaths before turning back to the frail man. “Explain to me why, Gaius, when I give you a simple task, and all you have to do is open a Gate from our world into theirs, you somehow manage to screw that up too! Now some strange girl is running wild in this world and who knows how much she knows. Did she see my wizards descending to attack her city, her world? Does she know what will happen to the world she knew? What exactly does she know?”

“I… I can’t know, sir. I didn’t mean to bring her through. Maybe she did it. Coming through while I had it open. Reversing it. Somehow. I don’t even know how to bring someone in! Maybe we could find her and question her.”

Melchior seemed to relax, as if all the steam had been released from him at once. “She will come,” he said coolly. “She will come because she will not be able to stay away. She will come.”

Author’s Commentary: SAY WHAAAH? Who are these people suddenly springing up (Melchior? Karliah Shieldmaiden??)? Don’t worry; a class-A information dump is on the way *weird emoji combo of evil grin/face-palm*

{Read Chapter 4: The Covenant and The Dominion}

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