of sacrifice and suffering - Chapter 6 - littleplease (2024)

Chapter Text

Foxglove pressed the side of her thumb against her nostrils, pulling it away to check for blood. It came away clean, much to her relief.

A few feet away, Karlach stood draining a potion, held tilted back. Grinning, the tiefling threw down the empty bottle, unbothered as it clattered amongst the cobblestones.

“Not broken then? That’s good, because I’m not good at setting noses. Shoulders,” Karlach considered. “Shoulders I can do. Popped mine out a few times over the years wailing on orthons,” she added, shadowboxing a demon that wasn’t there.

Amused despite the pain, Foxglove grumbled half to herself, “How do you have the energy for that? Ilmater’s ashes,” she groaned, pressing tenderly around her face, checking for bruises and split skin.

Gale stood behind Lae’zel, a hazy orange glow spilling from his fingers onto a buckle at the warrior’s shoulders. Lae’zel was busying herself by counting arrows she almost never shot, the quiver currently clutched to her chest.

“Almost done, Gale?” Foxglove called to him, shaking out her muscles. Their battle with Therezzyn had been fast and bloody, but the biggest casualties on their part included a nose that wasn’t broken and a single buckle on Lae’zel’s armor that was, so Foxglove was calling it a resounding success, all things considered.

Foxglove had to keep moving, though, or the adrenaline and exertion in combination would make her body cold and tense… she just didn’t have the wellspring of energy Karlach seemed to, so Foxglove’s movement looked more like pacing than sparring.

“Just about,” Gale replied, distracted. The orange glow faded, and he patted Lae’zel’s shoulder good-naturedly. “All fixed up, my friend.”

Lae’zel moved stiffly away from Gale, a sharp nod marking her thanks. Foxglove felt a pang of sympathy. Friendship, assistance - however much Lae’zel needed those things, they remained a weakness, an embarrassment, for her.

The keyshard Foxglove took off Therezzyn’s body clicked into the mechanism, and the doorway opened to them, leading on to the Inquisitor.

Meeting Lae’zel’s eyes, she offered one last hope. “My Lord said ‘the paths align.’ May His truth prevail.”

-*-

“Hand over the weapon,” W’wargaz thundered. Foxglove felt the hairs raise on the back of her neck, heard the githyanki warriors around the room shifting, their hands gripping their weapons tighter.

And she heard the Dream Guardian, pleading with her, his pleasant voice dripping with frustration.

Please. Do not give it to him.

Foxglove was not sure how much she trusted him, the Dream Guardian. He whispered honey-sweet in her ear, and promised to keep her safe and see her through this journey. But he also pressured her to collect and consume the tadpole specimens they’d come across, and adding more of those horrid things to her body was a kind of torture she did not think she could withstand.

Regardless of the Dream Guardian’s pleading, she couldn’t give the artifact to W’wargaz. She needed it.

And there was Shadowheart; her oath. Her trust.

Foxglove clung to the hope that when her violence was done here, the fact she held her unsaid promise to Shadowheart would soften the group’s response to her betrayal of Lae’zel.

“I can’t. It protects me,” Foxglove said calmly. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Lae’zel shake her head.

“You must. Do not disobey the Inquisitor,” Lae’zel hissed.

Foxglove tilted her head slightly, turning just enough to see Lae’zel’s expression.

Fear, written plain as day. A most unusual sight on the githyanki’s face.

“I cannot,” Foxglove repeated. “Remember the zaith’isk, Lae’zel. Remember what they tried to do to you. They cannot be trusted.”

Their paths would align, Foxglove prayed, granted hope by Ilmater’s foreshadowing. Carefully, Foxglove loosened her stance, gently bent her knees, and slid one foot slightly backwards.

Lae’zel said nothing, but Foxglove read the fury and betrayal in her expression. Whether it was at her, or at the gith of Creche Y'llek, she wasn't sure. Foxglove supposed she would find out when the battle they were hurtling towards began, but she had hope.

Lae’zel made a sound of frustration, a grunt deep in her chest, and turned on her heel, placing her back to Foxglove’s and facing the gathering warriors, hands twitching towards her greatsword

So it would be. Their paths would align.

Allies at her back, spirit lifted, Foxglove stared coolly at W’wargaz. “We are keeping the artifact.”

“Your adventure ends here,” he snarled. “Hta’zith!

The githyanki warriors’ answering cry was deafening, but Foxglove spoke over it as best she could.

“Gale, find the high ground. Make trouble, but try not to get caught in it. Karlach, stay on Lae’zel, they’ll go for her first. I’ll strike him down, as my Lord commands,” she glared at W’wargaz. “And Lae’zel - go where your blade guides you.”

It was the best she could offer before the battle raged true, and her friends listened, splitting off as Foxglove described. Karlach screamed her wrath, chest heaving, while Gale disappeared into blue light and reappeared on an outcropping overhead.

Lae’zel, ferocious, pulled her greatsword free and slashed at a warrior dashing for her, her blade finding purchase in his side.

Foxglove gripped her morningstar, the metal smooth against her hand, and smiled wickedly at W’wargaz.

“The gods seek your head, and your head they shall have,” she yelled, lunging for the githyanki.

The githyanki warriors hit hard, but they died quickly. Gale kept the room controlled, the picture of strategic brilliance, with fire and ice in equal measure. The githyanki were frustratingly mobile, but Gale ensured no square foot of space was safe for long.

Foxglove sidestepped a slash of W’wargaz’s greatsword, using the angle to swerve behind him and place herself between him and an approaching enemy warrior. Seizing the moment, she thrust her morningstar into the air, crying out for divine aid.

Ilmater defendat me, ira et dolor!

Golden godlight, tinged dawn-orange and rust-red, burst from her, shapeless spirits swirling around her in an aura. Screeching, W’wargaz and the other warrior nearby stumbled, affronted by the radiant and necrotic protection the aura provided.

It gave Karlach just enough time to throw a javelin through the approaching warrior’s face, the sickening crunch of bone and the choked gurgle of blood and spit the final noise they made. Roaring her victory, Karlach smacked the blunt end of her axe into the side of an enemy’s head, dropping them too.

“The next one is mine, teethling,” Lae’zel yelled, having been moments from piercing through the warrior Karlach just ended. Karlach’s answering laugh was maniacal, alive, and it gave Foxglove more hope than she had a right to.

Smiling viciously, Foxglove wasted no more time before advancing on W’wargaz. He was hurt - badly - and with few warriors left to protect him, he was lashing out with mediocre skill and desperation.

“Vlaakith will see you dead, ghaik worm,” he spat. A scream rent from his throat, and swirling purple lashes unfurled from him, attaching to Lae’zel, Gale, and the two remaining enemy gith. Four respective shrieks met her ears, and Foxglove saw red.

“All in due time,” she snarked. “And not before I end your reign of terror.”

Foxglove did not know what those purple bands of psionic energy did, but she knew they were bondage, and that W’wargaz grew stronger as the ties clung to the others. Grunting, she hefted her morningstar and slammed it at W’wargaz, skimming the front of his armor as he deftly backstepped.

Growling, she called out to her friends. “Sever the connection - whatever you must do!”

Foxglove kept W’wargaz busy, to her own peril. They'd been fairly well matched before, but with whatever his magic was doing, W’wargaz was landing more blows to her than she was to him, and the pain was mounting. She was slowing down. Gritting her teeth, she whispered to herself, te curo, and let the cool slide of Ilmater’s gift patch over what it could.

Only a few more seconds, Foxglove coached herself. You will suffer, you will endure.

Her friends’ work made her platitudes truth - the two remaining githyanki warriors, archers both, met their end in the next dozen seconds.

Gale, seeing the opportunity for a well-placed Thunderwave, stepped into and out of the Weave, appearing behind the two archers on a ledge they’d jumped to.

Detono,” he barked, the word punctuated by a slam of his staff into the ground. Shrieking displeasure, the gith were shunted off the ledge, plummeting to the stone floor below, where Karlach and Lae’zel waited for them, great-weapons poised to finish what did not die in the fall.

It was only W’wargaz against them now, outnumbered and his demise certain. As her allies closed in, in the final seconds of his life, Foxglove breathed deep and recited a prayer over him.

“May your death bring peace to the martyrs of Lathander, children of Ilmater, in the life beyond. May the blood we spill today nourish life anew, a new dawn rising for the people of the Western Heartlands. May you find mercy and forgiveness elsewhere, for my Lord has none for you,” she intoned, standing back as Karlach, in her rage, abandoned weapons for the ones her maker had granted her: strong fists, sharp talons.

“Enough,” Foxglove murmured, chest heaving. The body of W'wargaz was still and bloody, quickly cooling. “Kelemvor has claimed him.”

Foxglove waited, expecting to hear the voice of her Lord, or feel the warmth of Him, or something, anything to indicate His will was done, her quest completed, but instead, the metal plate in the middle of the room began glowing an eerie orange, humming with arcane power.

“The planecaster,” Lae’zel said, wonder softening her tone. “I’ve never seen one work before.”

“I didn't know it was a two-way connection,” Gale frowned. “Actually, I'm certain it's not a two-way connection-”

He was cut off as the planecaster whooshed with energy and that hazy glow coalesced into a beam of light.

In that light materialized an ancient gith woman, her face lined with age, wearing a crown of golden spikes.

“My Queen,” Lae’zel gasped, her jaw slack with awe. As if on instinct, Lae’zel knelt, head bowed in reverence.

Foxglove uneasily shifted on her feet. She has no interest in bowing to the god-queen of the githyanki-

Her mind quieted. The god-queen.

Where was the divine pull, the holy taut-bowstring tenseness that signaled the divine? Vlaakith’s presence before them did not bring that feeling, and curiosity stirred in Foxglove.

“Inquisitor W'wargaz was potent,” Vlaakith said, her voice low and throaty. “We are impressed.”

Vlaakith swept a hand at them in welcome, as if the bloody chamber they stood in was her own throne room. “You are permitted to look upon me. You are invited to kneel,” she smiled slightly, eyes expectant.

Foxglove, torn between sacred fury at what was done to the monastery in Vlaakith’s name and ingrained deference to anything godly, stood blankly, frozen between opposite desires.

“Kneel, you fools,” Lae’zel hissed, head still bowed.

Foxglove stood, exactly as she was. She could not bring herself to genuflect before the Deathless Queen: Vlaakith's will was the Lathanderians' suffering, and Foxglove would not bow to it.

Behind her, Karlach and Gale shifted, unsure, but followed Foxglove’s lead. Steadying herself for the Queen’s scolding, as she was sure would come, Foxglove hoped she'd not made a choice that would lead Karlach and Gale to harm.

“My expectations of your culture and education were low, istik, but here, you kneel before your queen,” the gith narrowed her eyes at the three of them.

Foxglove bristled, but held her tongue.

Here, in a sacred house of Lathander, where Vlaakith’s forces stole the very land they stood upon; where Vlaakith's people tried to kill Lae’zel, who had earnestly come in search of help and salvation; where the bones of Ilmater’s blessed martyrs were strewn across the walkways above, their deaths forgotten to time, their sacrifices undocumented.

Ilmater’s fury sparked to life in her, but still, Foxglove stayed her hand. Mercy, she reminded herself. Not for Vlaakith, for Lae’zel.

“No matter. I sense your need. You wish to be purified,” Vlaakith rumbled, an unsaid accusation, the acknowledgement of their infection, in her voice. “I can grant that wish, Lae’zel,” Vlaakith coaxed, her voice softening over Lae’zel’s name as if it was something to be savored, delectable.

In awe, Lae’zel looked younger than ever. Foxglove realized then that Lae’zel was probably very young, hardly older than Creche Y'llek's oldest trainees.

“You know me, my Queen?” Lae’zel asked, quivering, her eyes wide. Vlaakith gave Lae’zel a razor sharp smile. Foxglove thought it might have been intended to be kind, even doting, but it looked like a predator’s smile to her, like the smile Abdirak the Loviatan gave her as she submitted her body to his ritual.

“Urlon of K’liir speaks most highly of you, as did Al’chaia before him,” Vlaakith purred, before turning her narrowing eyes back to Foxglove. “Istik, you bear that which is ours. Are you friend, or are you thief?”

“I am neither,” Foxglove replied honestly. She would not consider herself a friend of Vlaakith, the Deathless Queen, but she hardly counted herself a thief. Perhaps Shadowheart might claim that title, but the artifact clung to Foxglove now - it was more her keeper than she was its.

“Very well,” growled Vlaakith. “Let your actions determine your fate.”

Vlaakith, her anger growing with each word, explained that the artifact, the Astral Prism, was the githyanki’s last line of defense against the illithid, the weapon the gith intended to use to stop the mind flayers’ Grand Design: their quest to reinstate their empire, enslaving all of the races, of all the worlds, everything the illithid could reach.

But there was someone inside the prism, Vlaakith claimed. Someone rotten and corrupted, ruining the prism’s usefulness.

Foxglove thought of the Dream Guardian, his voice entwined with the prism. She did not trust him - not fully - but he did not seem corrupted.He had promised to protect her, protect them all, against the parasite’s persuasion, and so far, he had done so.

“Cleanse the blight from the prism, and I will cleanse you,” Vlaakith promised. “Cleanse the blight, and you will ascend, Lae’zel of K’liir.”

“I will cleanse it, I will kill him for you, my Queen,” Lae’zel begged, yearning clear. “I will ascend, an honor gained, a burden borne!”

Foxglove heard Karlach’s intake of breath, and could feel her frustration mounting. The Dream Guardian - Karlach’s golden paladin - was kind, protected them, offered guidance and stalwart hope against the threatening storm.

“We cannot kill the one inside, Lae’zel,” Foxglove said solemnly. “I am sorry, but we cannot. I will not.” Turning back to Vlaakith, knowing her explanation would do nothing but stall something terrible and inevitable, Foxglove spoke. “The person in the artifact protects us. We cannot kill them.”

Furious, Vlaakith’s face grew larger in the beam of light and she roared her anger at Foxglove. “You are being lied to! Kill them, and cut out its lying tongue!”

Foxglove felt it then, the tug of the divine, the truth of the god-queen’s power. Vlaakith was sucking the air out of the room. Shuddering, she bowed her head to the power, as she had always done for the divine.

Gritting her teeth, Foxglove submitted. “I will deal with the prism-dweller, if you will cleanse the infected of the parasite.”

“It will be done,” Vlaakith promised.

And then She was gone.

Swallowing roughly, Foxglove turned to her companions. Lae’zel was elated, her face blissful and eyes clear.

Karlach and Gale, however, bore similar expressions of anger and hurt. Gathering herself, Foxglove explained.

“I do not know what Vlaakith is,” she began, watching Lae’zel from the corner of her eye. “But Her threats carry a divine weight, a weight I do not think we could bear. And She promised salvation, freedom from the parasite.” Foxglove looked first at Karlach, then Gale. “You deserve that freedom, my friends. If the price for such a boon is the prism-dweller’s death, then I shall pay that cost, in blood or in sacrifice. It is a drop in the well of my violence for the good of people,” Foxglove sighed.

“You kill that person, and we are all doomed,” Gale argued. “I don’t care what Vlaakith said she would give to you, she’s supposedly a god, why can’t she do it herself? Something isn’t adding up, and I can’t believe you would murder an innocent, an ally, for your own benefit.”

He was yelling now, poking a single finger into her chest. Frustration mounting, she grabbed his wrist, pulling him close to her.

Inches from his face, Foxglove spoke low and harsh. “I am not doing it for myself, Gale of Waterdeep. I am doing it for you. For the wizard who deserves to go back to his tower, free of the threat of illithid enslavement, back to his tressym, to his mother’s love and his books and his magic.”

Gale’s face fell, frustration and shame equal tenants in his expression.

Foxglove let him go then, turning to Karlach. “I am doing it for the tiefling who deserves a chance to live, to liberate herself from Zariel’s servitude in truth, and enjoy being free once more, to visit her home, and her friends, and to experience the wild and wonderful beauty of being alive.

Karlach looked like Foxglove had taken the very spear from her hands and run it through her, wounded and disbelieving.

“I am doing it for the githyanki,” Foxglove said quietly, breathing heavily. Lae'zel meet her gaze with determination. “Who will not be ghaik.”

-*-

“Boundless, timeless,” Lae’zel whispered, her voice as soft and as calm as Foxglove had ever heard it. “Like every dream that ever was, stitched together. It is home.”

The very air they breathed was alive, heavy with magic. Foxglove could hardly believe the expanse around her: purple-blue-black sky filled with uncountable stars; rocks that were not rocks, floating suspended in space; the gentle wind of time slipping by, as if she was riding a comet as it spilled through worlds unknown, worlds infinite.

Slowly, Foxglove led her friends towards a yawning gate, a swirling portal that stood between two boulders. Their path was lined with plants - a strange variety of herbs and flowers that belonged in different environs, all growing together in this unreal place.

But there were bodies, too. Githyanki bodies, cold with death but perfectly preserved, as if they’d met their demise minutes ago. The blood spilled around them was still wet.

Swallowing against her unease, Foxglove continued on towards the portal, unsurprised to hear her Dream Guardian’s voice spill out of it.

“Come,” he beckoned. “We will talk in private. Just the two of us.”

His voice was sweet as ever, brushing against her like crushed velvet, soft and welcome. Foxglove turned to her companions, a promise, a goodbye on her tongue, but she could not say it.

A nod was what she offered, and three solemn sets of eyes, heads bowing in understanding, responded.

Foxglove stepped through the portal, emerging into a clearing that reminded her of the Emerald Grove’s surroundings, with that great cosmic unknown behind it instead of the sky.

“I may have made a mistake in trusting you,” the Dream Guardian said. His back was to her, hands clasped tightly behind his back. He was massive, a tiefling with broad shoulders and graying hair, eyes a Hellish flaming green.

Foxglove was glad those eyes were not boring into her, seeing through her. Ilmater, forgive me, guide me, she prayed. Would she feel the burning hot bindings around her wrists, the warmth of His assurance, a cloak against the world? Could He even see her, hear her, here?

“I told you to stay away from the githyanki, but you just couldn’t help yourself, could you?” he scoffed, frustration evident.

“Do not presume you know my motivations,” Foxglove said, her voice calm despite the roiling fear and uncertainty inside her.

“Your reasons matter not, child. You’ve come to murder me.”

He turned, then, and Foxglove met his stare, willing Ilmater’s endurance to fill her, bolster her.

“I have few choices,” Foxglove apologized. “But I have not come to kill you. I have come to barter for my friends’ freedom.”

The Dream Guardian furrowed his brow, and for the third time that day, Foxglove lowered herself to the ground, seated comfortably, and nodded at the expanse of space in front of her. “Let’s sit. Put the weapons aside, and talk. The gods have beckoned, and you are called to answer.”

Bewildered, the Dream Guardian slowly knelt, arranging himself as he mirrored her, cross-legged, until his body was as grounded as hers, several feet away.

“My name is Foxglove,” she said. “I am a cleric of Ilmater. My parents were farmers, my sister was a healer, and I am the last vestige of my line.”

The Dream Guardian stared at her, confusion melting into consideration. Foxglove lifted one eyebrow in question. “Who are you?”

The Dream Guardian grimaced, large hands folded in his lap. Foxglove gazed at them, wondered whether there were callouses from the sword he wore across his back, wondered whether scars littered the back of his hands like they did her own, wondered whether those hands caught her when she fell from the nautiloid, if they’d touched her skin in kindness, as she considered using her own hands to kill him.

Please, can I hold your hands, just for a while?

“I do not have a name,” he admitted. “I was an explorer, in a world before. Now I am a soldier, doing what I can for the fate of Faerun.”

It was something, Foxglove thought. The start of a true alliance, built on shared knowledge and kindred desires.

“I want to survive,” Foxglove said mildly. “I want to heal my friends. I do not want to kill you,” she smiled briefly, a bitter thing. “But I will, or I will find my death in trying, if you cannot help me.”

Nodding back toward the portal, she continued. “I do not know what you overheard, held as you were, in the planecaster. Vlaakith has promised salvation if I kill you. Knowing what you know, why should I not try?”

“Vlaakith is a fool and liar,” the Dream Guardian glowered. “She will not save you. She is manipulating you because she is threatened by me, and by you. When you leave the Astral Prism, she will have declared your githyanki friend a traitor, and you will be hunted mercilessly.”

Foxglove leaned forward, seeking tells on his face. She could not lie very well, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t sniff one out.

Honesty shone through. He believed this of Vlaakith, believed her capable and likely to commit such treachery. But he saw more of the lance board than Foxglove did - what could she do to threaten a god-queen?

“She said the same of you,” Foxglove offered, tilting her head. “I am inclined to believe you over her. You have protected me, you have comforted me, you have tried to steer me from danger and death,” she acknowledged. “But Lae’zel will not be so open to you. And I will need to tell her why I have not killed you.”

The Dream Guardian placed an elbow on his crossed knee, resting his head on an upturned palm. “Vlaakith lays claim to the Prism. It is hers, and I stole it from her,” he said, a hint of a smile playing at his lips. “She has become desperate to end me because I know her secret. It is a secret so great,” he continued, voice lowering until it was hardly a whisper. “If Vlaakith's people ever found out, they would hunt her, for her betrayal.”

Foxglove was grasping at wisps of smoke, trying to understand what the Dream Guardian was saying. Nodding slowly, she asked, “I suppose it would be too great an ask for you to share this secret with us?”

The Dream Guardian offered her a thin, knowing smile. “That secret is how I have been protecting you from the Absolute. And as secrets often are, it is best left unsaid.”

He sighed, a deep, tired thing, and fixed her with those piercing eyes. “I want the same thing as you, Foxglove. I want freedom. We are fighting the same war, on different fronts. I am on your side, as I have been from the beginning.”

Foxglove nodded slowly, not an agreement so much as an acknowledgement of his logic. His words held weight, they sounded right.

Foxglove closed her eyes, centered her mind, and looked at the Dream Guardian through her magic. She sought the divine, curious if this tiefling-who-was-once-something, a man with no name, was something more than a captive, more than a fugitive of Vlaakith and of the Grand Design.

No godlight shone from him. No godlight shone at all - Ilmater’s warmth was inaccessible in this place. Gasping back to herself, she reached for the wellspring of power, immersing herself into the faith that granted her divine magic-

And laughed in relief when it answered her, familiar and winding like a cat rubbing against her soul.

“You’re glowing.”

The Dream Guardian’s voice rumbled across the cobblestones, a note of wonder and amusem*nt in his voice. “Does that happen often, when you seek your magic?”

Lips lifting into a smile, Foxglove shook her head. “No. Or - at least, I don’t think so. This place is odd,” she added, rubbing her own arms as if to remind herself she was real - bounded, not timeless, not forever lost in a sea of stars. “Perhaps the astral plane and the divine interplay in ways yet unknown,” she shrugged.

Foxglove looked behind her, towards the portal, and heaved a sigh, feeling the exhaustion of the day weighing on her.

She stood, then, and the Dream Guardian followed, knowing her time in this alien paradise was drawing short.

“If we are to be allies,” she said, staring at the portal. “You need a name.”

A short laugh drew her attention away. “I have none,” he reminded her. “What do you call someone without a name?”

“The children taken in by the Ilmatari temple I serve-” she cut herself off, stumbling over the word. “-the temple I served were given the second name Ironhelm, so named after a relic of Our Martyred Father that appeared to the goodhearted. A treasure,” Foxglove smiled fondly. “And so the orphaned are named, so that they might know their existence too is treasured by He Who Endures and His disciples.”

The Dream Guardian looked uncertain, eyes - for once - drifting off instead of drilling through her. “I do not think I am a pious man,” he said, reluctance coloring his tone.

“It matters not,” she reminded him. “If you have no name, and you will not choose one, then Ironhelm you shall be called, appearing to me - as the relic does - in a time of great need.”

Blinking rapidly at her, Ironhelm strode across the space between them and knelt, gently ensnaring one of her hands in his.

“You are a kindness I have not known in many years,” he murmured, staring up at her. “I will not fail you, Foxglove.”

Ironhelm let go of her hand, and she let it drop, standing still, save for breathing, lest she break the solemnity of the moment. Ironhelm reached behind his shoulder and pulled free a shortsword, and balancing it reverently across his palms, he offered it to her.

“As I am your shield, I ask you to be my sword. I cannot fight the battles that lie beyond this prism, but with each moment, I fight a different front to keep the secret I hold safe, to keep you safe,” he whispered to her. “If I have not convinced you, end me here. Let it be known.”

Clenching her jaw, Foxglove wrapped her hand around the hilt of the sword, lifting it from his hands to let it dangle loosely at her side. With her other hand, she reached for him.

“Get up, Ironhelm, or I will kneel with you,” Foxglove said quietly, half-threat, half-promise. “I am not a god-queen demanding your supplication, I am not a hero seeking your fealty. I am an ally, and I do not desire any further power.”

His broad hand wrapped around her wrist, and she pulled him to his feet.

“I am glad I was right to put my faith in you,” Ironhelm smiled at her, all gentleness. But then, flinching, he turned to look at the world beyond. “You must go back. I have stayed for too long, and I must return to the struggle. Your githyanki friend, you’ll need to convince her.”

“I know,” Foxglove smiled weakly. An hour ago, she'd been prepared to fight Lae’zel in pursuit of Ilmater’s holy quest. What was once more?

It is much more than that, to slay a friend in pursuit of the greater good, Foxglove thought to herself. But if her Lord willed it - if Lae’zel threatened her, or Gale or Karlach, or Foxglove’s quest, then Foxglove would defend those things, would suffer the hurt of treason and endure the abandonment from her allies, if she must.

“Vlaakith promised Lae’zel ascension,” Ironhelm said, gravely staring past Foxglove at the portal. “Vlaakith is a lich, an undying monstrosity amassing power to play at being a god. Ascension is death.”

It was a bold accusation, a terrible fate for Lae’zel if he was right. His face only held honesty - it was a sadness that aged him, and Foxglove wondered if, from within the Astral Prism, he watched other fierce, proud warriors submit to their Queen only to be absorbed, fully eradicated in Vlaakith’s quest for godhood.

His shifted that sharp gaze to Foxglove, expression softening. “I hope you can convince her. We need all the allies we can find.”

With a final, private smile, Ironhelm walked off, disappearing in a flare of lilac light.

Foxglove considered staying here forever, in this timeless, peaceful space, where Ironhelm in his strength and brilliance would protect her, where she would never need to kill another in service to anyone.

It sounded like a boring, quiet existence, and for the first time, Foxglove thought such a life sounded nice.

Alone, disconnected from even her Lord, Foxglove heaved a hitching breath, and whimpered out a sob that had been long, long coming.

-*-

Karlach’s crow of success fed Foxglove’s own wonder and reverence, and the smile she wore broke into a true grin - uncontrollable, unimaginable joy given form.

The Dawnmaster’s Crest slotted into the podium slowed the relic’s defenses to a calm halt. Gale was beaming next to her, the fruit of his brilliance paying off.

The axe Lathander had led them to was, as Gale deduced, much more than a message: it was a gift, His own invitation to solve the Dawnmaster’s puzzle and retrieve His holy weapon.

The Blood of Lathander was sun-warm, god-warm, in her hand. It shed light around her, as if she might never know the fear of darkness, of absence, again.

Halsin would like this, Foxglove thought fondly, when they returned to the Underdark. No need for day-lit lamps, not when the Morninglord's own light blessed them so.

It was harmony, it was balance: the mace was equal parts weapon and torch, an object of creation and destruction, of preservation and death. Grasping it tightly, Foxglove pulled it down from the pedestal, acclimating to the weight of it. It was lighter than her morningstar, but no less lethal, and certainly more interesting.

“I can't believe they never found it,” Foxglove murmured to herself, running her fingers over the ancient engraving in the handle. It wasn't in the common word - it could be nothing, or runes, or a writing system of ages past, she didn't know.

“Neither creche leaders nor trainees have time to explore their locations,” Lae’zel said offhandedly. “From our earliest moments, we expend all time and resources to fulfill Vlaakith's will, and to hunt down the ghaik aberrations.”

“No exploring? How dull,” Gale remarked dryly.

When Foxglove emerged from the portal after her conversation with Ironhelm, convincing Lae’zel of Vlaakith’s treachery and concealment was easier than she expected. Lae’zel pressed for entrance into Foxglove’s mind, and seeing no better way to give Lae’zel the truth, she acquiesced. Lae’zel saw clearly what Foxglove had - Ironhelm’s truth, his knowledge of Vlaakith’s potentially dynasty-ending secret.

Lae’zel did not truly turn from her god-queen, but Ironhelm's words planted a seed of doubt, and reduced tensions enough to a simmer that they were able to leave the astral plane as allies, at least for now.

It helped that Ironhelm was right. When they tried to leave the Inquisitor’s chamber, a contingent of githyanki were waiting, having declared Lae’zel hshar'lak.

Lae’zel saw it as a trial from her Queen - a test of her faith and strength. Foxglove held great sadness for Lae’zel - to trust so blindly, so fully, that in the face of mounting evidence, one could not turn from that faith. Lae’zel was grasping for anything to make sense of what they’d learned about Vlaakith from Ironhelm.

If Lae’zel read into their situation a message from Vlaakith, then in turn, Foxglove saw that Ilmater had been right. Their paths aligned - to leave the creche, they’d have to fight every capable warrior; if they survived, the monastery would be cleansed of its conquerors, and the martyrs outside could rest in honor, at last.

The Blood, in her hand, hummed with energy. It desired to be used, eager to be put to work for the Morninglord’s glory.

“Gale, there are several fights ahead of us,” Foxglove pointed out. “Not to insult you, but the three of us, brutes all,” she teased, “With suitable healing, we could fight until dawn. Your magic is different. What do you have in you?”

Grimly, Gale nodded. “If I stay at range, I can do plenty of damage with just cantrips and save my power for the right moments. And I’ve a few scrolls stuffed away for moments like these. If you can get rid of the archers, I’ll be fine.”

“Get rid of the archers? You know I’ve been working on my aim,” Karlach joked, miming a throw. “Don’t worry about him, Foxglove. Put me on archer duty and I’ll make sure our favorite former-prodigy stays topside.”

“Former-prodigy makes it sound like I stopped being good at magic,” Gale grumbled. "Not to pull rank or anything, but Iwas Mystra's Chosen not so long ago..."

-*-

It was well past dusk by the time Foxglove led her friends, all of them bloody, into the camp they’d made that morning up the road from Rosymorn.

The fire was still going, and four bodies sat around it, quiet and still.

“Ho, there,” Foxglove called, her voice scratchy. She’d used it heavily in the hours prior: commands to her friends, expressions of her own anger, more than one scream in pain, and finally joyful, mournful laughter, when Ilmater’s own heat lit her veins, a declaration of victory.

Four heads jerked up and turned at her call. Scrambling to his feet, Wyll jogged out to meet them. He blanched, and Foxglove smiled sheepishly.

It was a poor smile, noticeably fake if anyone looked hard enough, but convincing enough in the darkness.

“Sorry I didn’t send ahead, your grace,” she said cheekily. “We were a little busy.”

A strangled noise - half laugh, half cry - sounded from Wyll’s throat. “I can see that,” he coughed. “Who needs healing?”

Foxglove almost laughed. They all did. “Lae’zel first, then Karlach and Gale. My wounds can wait until morning,” she shrugged. “I need to wash, to pray, and to sleep, preferably in that order.”

She needed to sit in her pain, her suffering; the least she could do for the dead. As soon as she had a moment alone, she would suffer what she thrust upon the githyanki in turn; Ilmater’s Butcher.

Wyll was already calling to Shadowheart, but he gave her a sharp look at her avoidance of healing. She returned his glare, willing him to see her need for a moment of peace, alone, to be with her god before she let anyone else near her.

The strength of her faith, a weapon.

By the time Wyll looked away, sighing in frustration, Shadowheart had led Lae’zel to a nearby rocky outcrop, the cleric’s hands glowing as Lae’zel explained her injuries. Gale and Karlach were walking slowly towards the fire, each nursing their own hurt, but taking joy in the bond the day’s endeavor created between them.

Foxglove wondered, if Karlach’s engine was not burning so hot, that their hands might be intertwined.

“Astarion looks lonely,” Foxglove noted. “Has he been feeding from anyone?”

“He’s fine, and yes. Sometimes,” Wyll flushed. “Sometimes I let him. He’s fine. Stop changing the subject,” he shook his head. “I’ll ask once: you are not in need of immediate healing?”

Foxglove read the concern on Wyll’s face, the unsaid question: would she do something risky again, would he awaken in the night to find her limp body awash in Halsin’s magic, coaxing her spirit to stay on this side of the Veil?

“I am not in need of immediate healing,” she confirmed. “Today was too much for me, in many ways. I need a moment alone. The others are just as capable of filling you in as I am, and less likely to break in the effort,” Foxglove admitted. That, at least, was the truth.

Halsin’s voice interrupted them. “There are undead walking the mountain pass,” he murmured. “I’d apologize for eavesdropping, but I try not to make a habit of lying,” he said blandly. Foxglove’s lips twitched towards a smile, despite her exhaustion. “I found them today while scouting. There’s a river to wash in nearby, but it is foolish to go alone. Could you settle for being alone, together, with someone?” he offered.

Halsin’s voice betrayed none of the concern his face held. His expression was intense, eyes dark and hooded, lips downturned despite his genial tone.

“More undead?” Groaning, Wyll clapped Foxglove on her upper arm before walking back towards the group. “I’ll set a watch schedule,” he called over his shoulder. “Go enjoy whatever peace you can find, Foxglove.”

Foxglove watched him go, definition lost against the fire beyond him and the darkness around.

“Will you show me to that river?” she asked, voice thin. She couldn’t meet his eyes, wary of the intensity with which he’d stared at her moments ago.

“Will you let me heal you?” he responded, rooted to the ground.

Frustrated, Foxglove pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. “Show me to the river, Halsin, or I will strip here and magic myself clean.”

“That is not a very good incentive,” he rumbled, voice gruff. “You say it as if that would displease me, Foxglove.”

Choking a delirious laugh, Foxglove lowered her hands and finally met his gaze. “Does seeing me covered in blood do something for you, druid? That’s the second time.”

The first had been in the goblin camp, still riding the high of battle rush. And now - no matter how enticing his voice was, no matter how much she wondered what more of him, besides his hands, might feel like beneath her own fingers, Foxglove could not offer him anything besides her teeth bared in a desperate attempt to smile.

“Seeing you covered in blood makes me want to ensure you won’t end up in my tent later, clinging to the thread of life, because you refused to let me offer you what you offer to others.”

“Ouch,” Foxglove winced.

“Indeed,” Halsin responded, smiling without any mirth. He held out his hand, broad and warm. “Come. The river is a half mile’s walk.”

Foxglove stared at his hand, the manifestation of his kindness, his stubbornness, his care -

“Ilmater bid me to kill the entire creche,” she said, apathetic. “For the atrocity they brought to the Lathanderian monks, decades ago. I-” her voice cracked. “We did it. They’re all dead - even the children, vicious things, true to their blood. I’m sorry,” she said. “You don’t - I can go to the river by myself.”

Foxglove wrapped both arms around herself, hugging tightly, as if in containing her own body she might find comfort, find salvation. Serving Ilmater’s will should have brought joy or satisfaction - less suffering, if nothing else - and instead she used the Blood of Lathander to ruin the githyanki of Creche Y’llek, to eliminate their hold on Rosymorn and finally, truly find vengeance for Lathander’s fallen. The shame of the day’s actions weighed heavy, even done as they were in the Broken God’s name.

Halsin gazed sadly at her, his hand still outstretched. “Ilmater asks much of you, but I have not known you to be cruel. I sense there is more to your choice to kill the githyanki than just His will. The others would not have followed you into battle, otherwise,” he pursed his lips, something between a grimace and a smile. “You are many things, Foxglove, but you are not much for manipulation,” he observed.

His words rang with truth, but Foxglove shook her head against it. Monster, she thought of herself. Ilmater’s Blade, Lathander’s Vengeance, a nightmare of unholy fury.

The movement pulled at her muscles, already wound tight and sore, and she hissed amidst the pain. Frowning, Halsin lowered his hand.

“Good,” Foxglove snarled, her voice hasty with vicious energy, derived from her own self loathing. Her eyes fell closed, and words tumbled from her mouth; the spoils of a rotten spirit she harbored, constantly at odds with herself. “Good. Walk away from me, away from my bloodshed and violence and endless destruction, wrought in the name of the most merciful god.” she laughed, all spite. “I am a fraud, I could never be what Wisteria was, I should have died instead of-”

Halsin’s hand reappeared on the back of her neck, his palm spread across the base of it. Grounded, suddenly pulled from that spiral of spite and grief and shame, she opened her eyes to find his own, nearly black with widened pupils in the dim light.

“You dishonor yourself,” he said, voice clear despite the low volume. “Come with me to the river. Let me heal you. And then you may take your rage out however you wish, Foxglove. You can yell, or cry, or fight, or f*ck. Whatever it is, I can take it. But you will not speak of yourself that way, not in front of me.”

Frozen, his hand still cupping her neck, the solid warmth of him tethering her to her own body, she could not speak, could not run. So she did the only thing her body truly craved - she collapsed into him, knees buckling as her forehead pressed against his sternum.

Tutting, Halsin removed his hand from her neck and wrapped an arm around her in a hug. “To be soft, even as you are sharp, is a virtue, Foxglove,” he murmured into her hair. “Let me care for you tonight."

Drained of anger, all that remained in Foxglove was her exhaustion and her sorrow. "Why?" she mumbled, voice disappearing into his chest.

"Why, asks the Ilmatari," he laughed, voice husky. "Because you do not have a cleric of Ilmater seeing to your needs. An old druid will have to do."

She let him lead her gently to the river, the half-mile traveled in silence. As they approached, Foxglove imagined herself the river - rushing past, ever changing, ever cutting deeper into the earth in pursuit of its one goal: to reach the sea, to become one with something greater.

On the bank, Halsin tapped the jangling chainmail of her armor. “Can I remove this?” Nodding numbly, she helped him doff her armor, shifting her body to ease the mail from her limbs and torso.

“And this?” he asked, plucking the sleeve of her tunic undershirt. Foxglove did not even hesitate - Halsin had secured her trust, and no matter her reservations, some large part of her yearned for his care, his affection. Even if she didn't deserve it. Nodding again, she let him remove her clothing until she stood in just the base layer covering her pelvis, most of her skin showing, illuminated by the moon and light reflected by the river flowing by.

Bruises bloomed across her midsection, mostly sickly yellow-green with purple and red splotches like spilled ink. Halsin gently pressed a hand against her tender ribs, and flinching, Foxglove shifted away. He watched her face, lips forming a taut frown in concentration. “Broken?” he asked.

Foxglove licked her lips. “No-... maybe. I don’t know. Please don’t- don’t heal it, not with magic.”

Not with magic, she pled, not with Silvanus’s gift, golden filigree leaves and the sound of wild hoofbeats, no more gods today, no more-

Her voice shook. It was a real tremor - she was far past pretending to be anything but broken - and Halsin’s expression gentled as he heard it. His eyes stayed on her face, searching for something. Foxglove couldn’t know whether he found it, but he nodded tightly.

“The cold water will ease it. I have a salve for the bruising, back at camp.”

Halsin lifted his hand from her body, reaching for Foxglove's own hand again. “Can I help you wash?”

Foxglove looked down at herself. Her hands were stained rust-red, but most of her had been shielded by clothing and armor. She was surprised to find much of her skin tinged pink, like someone had sponged on something crimson. She was sure her face, her neck, her hair, were coated as red as her hands.

She might drown in that river, if Halsin let Foxglove go in on her own, exhaustion weighing down her limbs and her thoughts and her spirit, so she croaked out something that sounded like, that was, a yes.

Halsin removed his own shirt and pants, naked and unbothered. Foxglove might have flushed, might have struggled to look away, but desire was a forgotten concept, tonight.

Halsin stepped into the river ahead of her, his hand beckoning. “Come, Foxglove,” he murmured. Halsin rewarded her with a smile when she took it, grasping tightly, her lifeline, as she stepped in after him.

The water was cold around her ankles, and Foxglove was thankful for it. Too much warmth today - Ilmater’s heat, the Blood’s god-warmth, the hotness of spilled blood, the burn and sweat of exhaustion. The river was frigid, shocking something like awareness back into Foxglove.

Still gripping her hand, Halsin settled himself in the shallows, the water lapping a few inches up his torso, seated as he was. He pulled Foxglove in front of him, arranging her between his bent legs, her back to him.

“Is this okay?”

Foxglove nodded, wrapping a hand around his ankle, focusing on the texture of coarse hair against soft skin. Content to let him lead, to stop thinking and just feel the coldness of water, the roughness of his hands, the solidness of muscle under skin, Foxglove sat patiently as he scrubbed at her skin, handfuls of water dripping over her shoulders and chest, bare to the world beyond them.

“Why did He ask this of me?” she asked, voice reedy. Foxglove felt the brush of his still-dry hair as Halsin leaned in.

“What did He ask of you?”

In stilted sentences, Foxglove recounted her day - the first long-dead monk, the realization of the githyanki invasion, her anguish, Ilmater’s fury for the forgotten martyrs, Lathander’s appearance in her mind and His gift to them, the edict the Rack-Broken Lord gave her: to be His blade, His justice. The crushing realization she would need to betray Lae’zel, the horrible satisfaction and grief that Karlach and Gale would follow her into the beckoning song of murder and revenge. Her meeting with Ironhelm - the knowledge that Lae’zel’s god-queen was a creature of horror, the sorrow she held for her githyanki friend, to learn one’s faith has been misplaced - and then, finding the Blood of Lathander, reveling in its power, and body by body, leading her friends to bloody freedom.

Foxglove was crying by the time she finished, everything clean except her face. Halsin, to his credit, had not interrupted, had instead reminded her of his presence by continuing to wash her, his care a baptism and a cleansing.

Foxglove shifted between his legs, turning her upper body to face him. “I do not know myself. I do not see Him in my work. Where is my forgiving god, my merciful Father? I have killed for Him before - many, many times - but always without His direction. I have long killed those beyond His mercy, torturers and slavers and evil incarnate, each one an insult to His compassion and grace. But to be told, as I was, to slaughter dozens? To slaughter even the children?”

Foxglove was desperate to see something in Halsin's face to tell her how to feel. His disgust, a confirmation; his sorrow, forgiveness. But Halsin just looked on, his eyes searching hers, his face neutral.

Halsin’s thumb brushed across her cheek, wiping blood and tears. He rinsed it in the river, and continued, swiping away the last evidence of today’s sins.

“I have many thoughts,” he admitted. “About what your god called you to do, about how your journey is unfolding. I admit, the ruin of the githyanki creche does not weigh on me,” he smiled briefly. “Their removal would please Silvanus, and nature’s wrath would have been less kind, less efficient. There is a cycle to all things, Foxglove, and we are instruments of it, always, whether we wish to be or not.”

He sighed, hands skimming the river’s surface. “Perhaps the gods will have answers for you, or comfort for your actions committed in their name. Or perhaps they will not. But I question whether the Crying God’s absolution would heal what is hurting inside of you. There is a deeper pain, a grief like poison you have not let.”

Leaning close, he repeated her earlier words, the truth and pain and loss of them like a stake through her chest-

I am a fraud, I could never be what Wisteria was, I should have died instead of-

“When you are ready,” Halsin breathed. “I will listen.”

of sacrifice and suffering - Chapter 6 - littleplease (2024)
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