The Three Sisters
By Gerry Torbert
...I don't care, it's strange... I know, Slayer... goes against everything I've been taught, or at least, the teachings of legends, of myths... myths have some type of basis, don't they?... yes, but they're often from other people's points of view... sometimes, from people who don't understand something advanced... but you can't deny that they have blood on their hands... I can't argue that, but we may need their help... these types of situations seem to follow you... maybe these are the decisions of a leader...
Darmon walked at the forefront of an odd assemblage. Behind him there were a dozen half-drow, half-snake beings, each easily eight feet tall when erect. Their tails extended to nearly twelve feet behind their noses, or what passed for a nose. Some had legs, and others simply had tails. Those with legs were clad in ragged pants and, in some cases, shirts taken from those they had eaten, their elegant but terrifying bodies half-walked, half-slithered over rocks and logs as they made their way through woods and over rocky plains between main roads. When they could, they laterally undulated against rocks and trees, lifting their rear legs and using their whole bodies much like their much smaller brethren. The sound of the scales and leathery skin rubbing along the ground sent a chill down Darmon's back.
The Creagish hero had a pact with these creatures. Few humans had survived encounters with them, but he struck a chord deep in what passed for souls of the Yuan-ti, and they with him. Both were cursed, Darmon, as a result of his desire to help his own people, the Yuan-ti, as a result of their own existence. He seemed to demonstrate to them what it was like to have a soul, while they proved to Darmon that all creatures have a reason for being—both needed something from the other.
The night was dark, especially so since they had made their agreement. Sulis herself seemed to be uncertain of what was going to happen. She sent a few light showers to give them moisture they lost during the heat of the day, or so it seemed. A younger and more naive Darmon would have thought it was just a fact of random meteorology. The older Darmon wasn't so sure.
Darmon knew it would take a full three days of walking to arrive at the falls. This would not be the most hospitable terrain for such a walk, even less so in the night. The most logical path would be southeast to Zel City then north on the road to Wawmar. But logic was of short commodity now. The most direct path would be around Lock Brech to the south of Eahrcnoc, then through the Three Sisters to the Collin River. There would be some farmland for food along the way, plenty of cover and he knew the location of some caves. They would have to cross the river, but he knew where it was narrow. The only unknown in the trip would be the Sisters.
The Three Sisters was a geologic anomaly that seemed to be alive. Long ago, a particularly rich slug of iron magma pushed its way to the surface, only to find the last three hundred feet or so blocked. The molten mass found three fissures and erupted slowly through them. When the pressure subsided and the weaker stone eroded, three spires were left standing. They broke and slipped to the sides, leaving an eerie landscape resembling much of the Deadlands.
But much mystery and legend still pervaded the craggy area. Miners and explorers had been lost there without a trace. Some have reported feeling a dark, brooding force in the hills, and from time to time, people in the northwestern reaches of Zeland had heard rumbling, moaning, even something resembling ancient language echoing across the hills. Folks steered wide of the strange pinnacles, even to the point of adding miles to their journey.
Darmon walked ahead of the yuan-ti, watching for any travelers or obstacles. Gloom'ozss slowly caught up to him, however, to initiate a conversation. "You lead well, Darmonstuart. We not walk on surface as you, but keep with you. We tire soon, need water. Surface is dry."
Darmon turned to the leader of the snake-drow. "I know, I need water, too. There's a stream just ahead, about three hundred feet. It's just before the Three Sisters. We'll want ta get past them before dawn - we don't want ta stay too close to them for too long."
He could tell his companion was perplexed. "Why afraid of sisters? Are they of egg? Your sisters?"
"No, they aren't really sisters. It's a strange way o' namin' things. They're mountain tops - solid steel pinnacles. A lot o' people 'ave come up missin' here, an' they claim it's from some monster, or elemental, somethin' huge. It's powerful, or so they say. But this is the best way ta get through the ridge, or we'd 'ave ta walk way aroond it."
"You seem to like... problems... things that are bad. Problems... follow you?"
Darmon smiled. The yuan-ti hit the nail on the head. "You're not the first ta tell me 'at. I guess, now 'at I'm cursed, nothin' seems ta faze me."
Gloom'ozss thought for a minute. "...what... is like... not to fear? Even Yuan-ti fear things... is what makes us fight, what makes us protect our own. Is like, thick armor on bull..."
"I can't explain it. Oh, I dunna want ta die, for sure. But somehow, I know it won't 'appen. It's not always a pleasant feeling. There's the stream..."
As they approached the stream, Darmon noticed a movement along the bank. The light brown body turned its head toward them and eyes flashed back the reflection of the few stars above - unmistakably, a mule deer. Darmon put up his hands and gave the thought-command to stop. He pointed to it, and the yuan-ti nodded their heads. He then pointed to two of them at the right, swept his arm in an arc, and pointed to the trees on the right of the deer. He looked to the ones on his left, giving them the same command to flank their prey. He motioned to those behind him to get close to the ground. With another motion of both his arms, sweeping them in a great circle and meeting in the middle, he silently began the hunt. The yuan-ti seemed to know exactly what he wanted - they quietly moved out as he crawled toward the deer.
Moving more silently than Darmon thought possible, they quickly covered the distance and began to pinch inward. Darmon grabbed a loose rock and with a hefty throw, landed it far beyond the deer. It spooked toward him a dozen feet, unwittingly moving into the center of a circle of hungry mouths. A final thought sent the circle into a shrinking lariat of death. The deer almost leaped free, except for a swishing tail that knocked him to the ground. "Save me a leg!" yelled Darmon as the feast began.
Glell'siss threw him a lower leg, fresh and warm. He thought, ...it's what I asked for..., but only for a moment. He was hungry, as well. Soon filled with food and water from the stream, the yuan-ti walked over to Darmon. Glarsh'toom said, "This how you hunt? Was like war. Was good!" He looked to the others, who shook their heads in agreement.
"Beats those damn slugs, don't it, now?" They seemed not to understand his words. "Slugs... you know... don't you eat them? The drow fed Nurm'siss slugs, in their cave."
Gloom'ozss shook his head. "Slugs are food of slaves. Drow fed slugs? They will pay."
Darmon thought the matter was best left to die. He changed the subject rather quickly. "The Sisters are ahead. Keep yer eyes watchin' an' be careful. This is a strange place." He began the walk.
As they splashed through the stream and up the peat moss-covered hill, the spires came into view. Even in the poor light, they were both magnificent and imposing, and every bit as large as Darmon was told. And there was no doubt - a feeling of gloom washed over them as if they walked through a dense blanket of fog.
As they made their way past a grove of evergreens, Darmon noticed a light humming sound in his ears. He reached around to Dragonslayer, but the sword was silent and still. He looked to Gloom'ozss, who seemed to hear it as well. It wasn't mechanical or a natural sound, as a matter of fact, it seemed to be a song. It varied in pitch, moving up and down the scales and repeating the pattern, almost as if some absent-minded person was humming while working. It sounded happy, and loud.
As they approached to within fifty feet of the first of the spires, the hum stopped. Darmon held up his hands to stop their advance, motioning for silence. After a minute or two, the sound began again. They moved at Darmon's signal, but stopped again for another pause. It was then that they saw something moving almost effortlessly between the spires. Darmon couldn't make out exactly what it was. It seemed to move in and out of focus, first here, then gone, then parts of it solid, then wispy, then gone again. He then pinned it down. "Snake... it's a snake..."
Gloom'ozss shook his head. "No, is slug... maybe large man... is changing."
The shape moved through the rocky spikes as if through water. Each time it moved, the portion of its body that exited the rock would sparkle and shimmer, as if it was breaking free of the very iron and rock that made up the formations. Soon, it escaped from the grasp of the rocks and stood before them, still shifting back and forth between existence and, perhaps, thought. "Oolloommoonnoo aahhnaaloo mootoogaaaaah hchchcaaaaa toommoo." The ancient, perhaps very foreign language was spoken in a melodic hum. Darmon's right hand burned, and he held it up toward the being. It was translated for him, although very rough in meaning. "Who are you human wake me snakes from deep go."
Darmon looked to Gloom'ozss. He was surprised that his hand could understand the language, and the look on the snake's face agreed. The common blood was meant to share thoughts and transmissions from the very soul of the Yuan-ti and from the human, Darmon. It served so far to translate yuan-ti speech, but only on a 'soul level'. The fleeting thought that the entity within known as the soul was in touch with this creature, that whatever place it came from was the final resting place of all souls, passed through Darmon's mind as well as Slayer's being. As one who barely understood the concept of a soul, Gloom'ozss was even more confused. But the thought that he must have one hit home.
Darmon concentrated on his hand. "Darmon of Creagland, and these are Yuan-ti, from deep in the ground. We need to pass. We mean you no harm."
The creature began to hum, this time as a musical tune. It continued to shimmer and black out, in places, then came back into view. But suddenly the upper part of it became solid, a mixed color of blue, green, brown and mostly red, swirling in circles. Tiny sparkles fired in random sequence and location, all over its mass and beneath its surface. The humming stopped. Darmon got the distinct impression, and impression is all he could read from it, that it was disturbed. "I Noog pass no not pass will take being from little shell into me go back darmonofcreagland yuantideepinground."
Darmon looked to Gloom'ozss. "I think that means it'll take our soul if we don't go back." Gloom'ozss nodded vigorously. "Not know before had soul. Now want to keep, whatever it is."
Their thoughts were stopped as the creature began to change. It stretched in the center, to the left, and seemed to grow an arm. The mass of its body flowed into the appendage as it grew and stretched to the side. It began humming again, as the appendage formed into what appeared to be a leg. With a swift move, it lifted the leg and forced it down. When it hit the ground, the earth shook with unimaginable power. Dirt, rocks, grass, all lifted about a foot and a wave of displacement raced toward Darmon's army. The ground around them lifted, reaching them a split second after the deafening roar. The wave passed them, but knocked down some of the trees along the stream.
As they picked themselves off of the ground, Darmon looked toward one of the yuan-ti. "I guess 'e really means wha' 'e says, eh, laddie?" The shaken half-snake nodded as he righted himself.
Darmon looked out of the corner of his eye. The clouds were parting. The moon was full. It was at that point he remembered something Cellian had said to him in the Drow caves. He turned to Gloom'ozss. "Say, don't ya Yuan-ti have much more power when yer near each other?"
"Yes, true. When touching, power flows back and forth, becomes great. Why important?"
"Something tells me we can huddle, with me in the middle, you touching, in a mass, and walk right past it."
Gloom'ozss looked at Darmon for a second, then pointed to the creature. "But is huge! Too much power. It is elemental, egg of ground. Not strong enough."
Darmon grabbed the yuan-ti by the shoulder and put his face directly in front of him, challenging the cave-dweller. "Come on, now! Ya have power! Ya have a task ta do, mon! You want ta be united again! Is this th' way ya fight? Run away when the goin' gets tough? Maybe the legends about the Yuan-ti are all wrong!"
Something in Gloom'ozss stirred. He had never been dressed down, not by anyone. The Yuan-ti were of singular purpose, much like ants. There was room in their psyche for private thoughts, but their actions were almost always of a tight group. His eyes tightened, the blood rushed to his features and his jaw dropped a few inches. He hissed with anger. "Yuan-ti never run way. We do this." Darmon breathed a sigh of relief, if but for only a few seconds. Another wave of the ground hit them, scattering thirteen bodies around like leaves in a stiff wind.
He quickly gathered his group together with a few ancient words. They grouped themselves in a ring of four, then eight around that ring. Darmon crawled past their tails into the middle. "Concentrate on armor, something that can't be hurt. We'll walk in that direction," he said, pointing the group to the right to flank the creature.
The reptilian group moved slowly along the rough terrain to the side of Noog. Darmon shouted encouragement from the center of the rings. Noog turned slowly toward them, and a deep growl began to emanate from deep within him. As they moved, Darmon could feel an aura around them, but so could the elemental. He began to create another 'arm' over them, and Darmon called out, "Watch out, he's attackin' again!"
The arm slammed down on the group, but their psychic armor held. It did push them down with the psionic shell they had devised, and dust flew up around and between them. Words of encouragement from Darmon and Gloom'ozss prodded them onward, and they reached a point adjacent to the center of the Sisters.
The second attack came a few seconds later, but this time it was more effective. One of the yuan-ti fell to the side, the downward force of the drubbing separating him from the rest of the pack. Darmon heard his grunt as he fell, and saw the creature prepare for another swing of his amorphous appendage. He saw the faint glow of the armor and could see a hole in it near where the snake-man fell. Darmon pushed his way through the bodies toward the hole and grabbed the heavy yuan-ti by the arm, dragging him toward the still-moving mass of his comrades. The yuan-ti regained his footing and grasped the tail of one of his friends, the leg of another, and the shell immediately regained its form, just in time to resist another pounding.
But this time, the force of the strike blew air out from beneath it in a cloud of dust and rocks, forcing Darmon out and away from the shield. He flew through the air and landed in a heap, thirty feet from the nearest Yuan-ti. Glell'siss turned as he sensed Darmon's absence. "Darmonstuart... we come back..."
"No, save yourself... pass it by!" Darmon watched, dazed, as Noog advanced to him, its arm raised. He shook his head to regain his senses, then heard a familiar voice. ...take me out, hold me up... trust me... He pulled the sword from the scabbard and held him up toward the creature. He began to vibrate wildly, so hard that Darmon had difficulty holding him. He glowed with the light of a sun, so much so that Darmon had to look away. Darmon's right hand glowed along with the sword.
I am one with Noog... must not hurt human... I have beings in me... must let pass...
Then Darmon looked back toward Noog and held his left hand to block the light. He saw yellow and white streaks of light flowing through Noog's body, streaks of energy moving toward where the sword pointed. The yuan-ti looked back in wonder, now fifty feet past the creature. The souls of Noog gathered together nearest the sword, just as iron filings gather toward a pole of a simple magnet. They coursed around each other in a swirl, slowly protruding from Noog's body until they touched the massive steel blade.
Darmon could see the faces of hundreds of people, all torn from their earthly existence, each appearing, then congealing into another face. They looked into the sword, and into Darmon...deep into him. He felt violated, torn, pulled but at once, relieved. They were cursed, not for anything they did, but for where they were. But he felt their contentment, their relief at seeing ones of their own. Faces formed at the tip of Slayer as well, speaking to the others in languages of all races.
It lasted for what seemed to Darmon hours, but in reality, it took only a minute. The humming began again, once again in a melodious voice, almost happy. Noog backed off, the faces disappearing into his wispy mass, his arm and his swirling appendage sinking back into the smoky mass. He backed into the spires, slowly darkening and quieting. Darmon took this as a signal, got up and walked to the yuan-ti, a wary eye on Noog. As they met, he walked past them and motioned for them to follow. When they reached the small lake beyond the Sisters, they slowed their pace and Darmon risked a look to the rear. The Sisters stood alone, proud and overwhelming, dark silhouettes against a dark blue sky. The moon was obscured by some clouds.
Darmon turned to the yuan-ti and breathed a sigh of relief. "E'ryone a'right? Glell'siss, you okay?" As one, they studied him for a moment. Glell'siss spoke.
"You save us, save me! Use own body... why?"
Darmon smiled. "The souls of many outweigh the harm o' one. An' the promise of one is worth gold. Besides..." he pulled Slayer from his back and held him up so they could see, "... I 'ave a friend." Slayer hummed slightly as the visions of souls reflected in the fine blue-gray steel. The yuan-ti gazed in wonder, mesmerized at the faces of those he held. And behind them, looming over them, was that of Gark'ahs. They understood.
Gloom'ozss was the first to speak. "Those are souls of humans he kill?"
"Not killed, but saved. Many were in turmoil, endless torture. Y'see, we believe 'at part o' ya goes to another place, it lives forevah."
"Yauan-ti have no beliefs of soul. We have no soul."
Darmon sheathed his companion. "Yes, ya do, lad. Ya wanted ta come back ta save me. There's 'ope for ya, yet." He pointed to a grove of trees on the other side of the lake. "Let's find a place ta rest for the day, eh, wot?"
The strange assemblage spent the rest of the day crowded beneath some over hanging rock ledges, the yuan-ti not able to move in the heat. Darmon found some high ground and watched over them, looking for any chance encounters that might prove unwanted. Ahead were the rolling highlands of northern Zeland, populated by occasional farms and a few unmapped towns of little note, which he thought possible to skirt around on their way to the Collin River.
The Collin was a fairly wide river, as it drained the great lake of the northern tier and the Vestbreak Mountains to the east. It was fairly quiet most of the time but was subject to treacherous currents from heavy storms. There were few places to ford, so Darmon would have to take the yuan-ti across swimming. He had asked if they knew how to swim, and Gloom'ozss said that they had few occasions to do so. But they were reptilian in nature, so it seemed of little risk.
But Darmon was another matter. He had to carry Dragonslayer, quite a hefty slab of steel. And his clothing wasn't meant for free movement in the water. But at the end of the second night, they found themselves at the western bank of the river, and his concerns were about to be put to the test.
The recent storms in the last few days had driven water along the Collin to the high stage, and it was easy for Darmon to see that he might have trouble crossing. The yuan-ti immediately waded in at the edge of the stream, replenishing their body moisture, and seemed at home in the aquatic environment. Darmon scouted the banks to find a narrow ford, but as expected the river was much faster in those places. He returned to his companions and after a short discussion began to cross.
Darmon was amazed to see the ease with which the yuan-ti swam. Their undulating movements were very natural, but accompanied by their powerful arms and legs, they glided through will little trouble. However, soon into the crossing Darmon found himself in trouble. He was unaware of a few large rocks just beneath the surface, which caused vortices and eddies that he was unable to detect in the dark. One rogue current twisted him around like so much driftwood, and he gasped as it pulled him under. Fighting for his life, for another breath, he kicked and thrashed with his powerful arms just to keep from being dashed against more rocks. There was little light above to help him find the surface, which added to the feeling of senselessness and helplessness.
He tried waiting it out, hoping the current would flush him out of the rocky area. But he could feel himself being pulled deeper. His lungs about to burst, the last thing he remembered was striking his head on a rock.
Two hands reached around his waist and pulled him to the surface. As he floated along on his back, they squeezed his chest and expelled water from his mouth in a burst, and he gasped as he took a deep breath. He turned to see the face of Grlash'toom staring down at him as the yuan-ti treaded water to shore.
Darmon grasped a shrub, once high out of the water, now at its edge. He pulled himself up, helped by the reptilian savior. He reached around to find Slayer; grasped the gold amulet on his neck; reached in his kilt and found his pipes and the tooth; felt down in his sock to find his knife, and crawled up on the bank. He coughed up some more of the Collin as he looked around to see several sets of green eyes. "Darmonstuart ask if yuan-ti can swim! Maybe ask if he can!" Several clacks and harrumphs ensued, and the Creag felt himself blush."Many thanks, Grlash'toom. I was gone. Me sword is too 'eavy. Ya know, ya coulda jus' let me drown..."
"Soul... not let that..."
Darmon smiled. He stood up and looked around, surprised to see only three yuan-ti. "Where are the others?"
Gloom'ozss pointed toward the grove of trees along the bank. "Found 'coo. Swimming make hungry. Join."
Darmon walked over the slight bank and looked back at the deadly Collin River. He would need to hire a ferry for the return trip, no doubt. As he walked toward the feast, he gathered some firewood. ...no more rare meat, not this time...
The group ate and found some ledges and rocks along the river to give them cover from the sun and prying eyes, but not before Darmon instructed them to toss the remains of their repast into the river. Darmon watched over them again as they slept.
The evening fell with a soft rain. It was quite overcast, and the darkness gave them plenty of concealment. The last leg of the trip was fairly straightforward, just a few farms around which to maneuver. They arrived at the Falls of Dimrune about midnight, and Darmon showed them the entrance behind the falling water. He lit a torch and walked cautiously down the cave. When he came upon the tee in the path, he carefully searched a few dozen yards into it and continued, thankful he didn't see any drow.
He turned to the others as they all passed the tee. "This is where we part, Gloom'ozss. I have do interest in arousin' the damn Drow. I'd like ta get out o' 'ere."
The reptile nodded. "Yes, you have done your part. We thankful. Sense others are ahead. Have learned much, Darmonstuart. Remember to talk to us with amulet."
Darmon extended his hand. The snake-man didn't understand, but took it. Darmon reached up and grasped the gold nugget with his left. "Say hello to Nurmm'siss for me."
They filed past Darmon, Grlash'toom being the last to shake his hand. Darmon retraced his steps and emerged beneath the falls. It would be a long trip, and he would probably have to pay for a 'coo, but it was worth it.
The cave was simple, consisting of a huge solution dome lined all around with white and gray stalagmites and stalactites, some meeting in continuous formations, a few creating curtains of encrusted piers. About thirty yuan-ti met with their dozen lost brethren, all speaking in archaic, lost, and forgotten tongues. Torches lit the perimeter of the cavern, and from off to the side stepped the largest of all. The others stopped speaking and moved to face him.
"Good see, Grlash'toom. Now we are stronger. You say human brought you?"
"Yes, Klarm'suth. In trade for help in future. He save us from giant mountain creature, fed and spoke for us, we save him from drowning in a great river. He is honorable."
Klarm'suth shook his head and harrumphed. "Nurmm'siss told us of this human, too. Humans not to trust. They are too powerful, too many, too easy walk in the light. And they save cursed gods of the light. Will talk about trade later. Did you give him the silver amulet? Will use it to watch them, to plan against them."
Gloom'ozss looked down, to the lost eleven, then to the leader. "Yes, Klarm'suth, gave him the silver amulet." His eyes were inscrutable.