I apologize to all my loyal readers for the delay...all none of you. So I guess I don't apologize. :) I finally carved out some time to do some writing. Note I took some liberties (maybe) with both the Shape Water cantrip and Mage Armor. I hope I can be forgiven and it makes the action a bit more exciting.

EDIT - Working my way back through it to clean up the old stuff...

Chapter 3 - Out on to the Darklake

Jhelnae stood, put her hands on her back and stretched. She moved her head from side to side to loosen her neck. Sheathing her dagger, she shook out her hand and wrist, trying to clear the ache from her fingers and forearm. She'd alternatively hacked, carved, stabbed, and pried pieces of wood from the upside down giant zurkhwood mushroom cap in front of her for hours and she needed a break.

"When we are on the water, Jhelnae," said Sky. "You stay on the side you worked, and I'll stay on my side. Your side is lumpy."

Jhelnae smiled to herself. Sky should be too tired for banter. They'd been traveling for eight day equivalents in the Underdark. Eight days with little rest, less sleep, and only what fungi they could scavenge along the way to eat. But the tabaxi was a wellspring of energy.

"I'm still working on it. And my side would be smoother too if I had claws."

Between the two of them they'd nearly finished hollowing out their makeshift boat. Shuushar had told them they could turn a cap of zurkhwood, giant mushrooms that could reach 30 to 40 feet in height, into rough hewn watercraft. The half-drow, however, couldn't suppress a pang of nervousness as she looked at their upside down cap. The result of all their efforts looked less than seaworthy. Then again it didn't need to be seaworthy, just worthy of the calmer waters of the Darklake. As there was no wind down in the Underdark, the surface of the lake seemed almost unnaturally calm. Yet the water still had a slight ebb and flow, gently lapping the shoreline.

"Your lack of claws is my fault?"

"Not your fault. I just thought you'd be more generous with the use of your claws. Especially to a friend who jumped into a spiderweb to keep you from getting eaten."

"Fine, Jhelnae. I'll help smooth out your side for you. You won't let me forget falling into the web, will you?"

"If you promise me you'll tell me the next time you are in trouble, like you were with the poison needle, I won't bring it up again."

Sky sighed. "I promise."

"Good, because I can't lose the only friend I have. Who else is going to be able to free me from a drow prison with only a hairpin to help her?"

"No one, Jhelnae," Sky preened.

The tabaxi arched her back in a stretch. Her tail unconsciously mimicked the motion, taking on the same shape. Her innate flexibility seemed unaffected by the hours bent over their zurkhwood cap and unrestricted by the studded leather Jhelnae had passed on to her when she'd realized the tabaxi had not had a chance to armor herself. Jhelnae shivered and hugged herself for warmth. It made sense to give the armor to Sky. The half-drow had other means of protecting herself. But now that she wasn't moving or working on their cap, she was cold. She missed the extra layer the leather provided.

"Where is Jimjar with those waterorbs?" Sky asked. "I'm thirsty. Shouldn't he be back by now?"

It was a good question. As infuriating as Jimjar could be, with his constant offers to wager, he was usually reliable. The waters of the Darklake were unsafe to drink. Jimjar had promised to gather them waterorb, a bulbous fungus that could be squeezed like a sponge to yield drinkable water. Except for waterorb they'd only been able to drink when Kuhl, a paladin of Sehanine, purified the water during a rest period. But hours had passed and Jimjar hadn't come back. Jhelnae looked around, seeing if the deep gnome had gotten distracted with a wager with other members of the group.

Down the shore other former prisoners hollowed out their own zurkhwood caps. Nearby Kuhl tilted their makeshift boat to stand on one end while Aleina knelt and scooped out the last remains of the wood shavings from the interior. Ront, Sarith, and Buppido also seemed close to finishing. The orc and the derro currently did most of the actual work while the drow rubbed his temples with both hands and watched. Enchanted Prince Derendil and Eldeth had already completed the work on their own cap and now helped Shuushar and Stool with theirs. The quaggoth form of Derendil seemed well suited to the task. The shield dwarf and koa-tua held the cap steady while Derendil scraped out wood with his large, clawed hands. The sprout myconid watched the progress, hopping from foot to foot in anticipation nearby. Jimjar and the other deep gnomes, the twins Topsy and Turvey, were nowhere to be seen.

"Anyone seen Jimjar? The twins?" Jhelnae asked.

Heads turned towards her, then turned again to check their surroundings.

"Topsy and Turvey are riding with us," Kuhl said. "But I don't know where they are. I think they are keeping watch."

"Well, if they are keeping watch they aren't doing it from around here," Eldeth said.

It was true. They'd chosen a small clearing next to the shore of Darklake to construct their makeshift boats. The zurkhwood forest that had supplied the fallen caps they worked on, surrounded them. There was no sign of any of the deep gnomes within the clearing.

"If they don't come back by the time these boats are finished, we're not waiting." Sarith said.

"We're not leaving anyone." Jhelnae said. "Especially when there is no reason not to wait."

"No reason?" Sarith stopped rubbing his temples. "Escaping Ilvara is no reason? Not being chained and dragged back to Velkynvelve is no reason? Not being sacrificed on the altars of Menzoberranzan to Lolth is no reason?"

"We've escaped," Jhelnae said. "Surely they can't still be pursuing us. We cut the silk rope bridge after we crossed the ravine, did the same with the ladder up the cliff, and made so many choices when the tunnels forked, I couldn't find my way back if I wanted to."

Sarith cut her off with a mirthless laugh.

"How can you look so much like one of us and yet have no understanding of us? Can't still be pursuing us? Status is everything to a priestess of Lolth. And sacrifices to the goddess, the more exotic the better, bring status. Ilvara has lost a paladin to the hated Sehanine Moonbow, a surface dweller with celestial blood, and the daughter of the Chosen of Eilistraee who also has the stolen powers of the Dark Mother herself." Sarith pointed at Kuhl, Aleina, and Jhelnae in turn. "Ilvara will not be redeemed for losing you until your collective blood is staining altars in Menzoberranzan."

Jhelnae felt herself stiffen as Sarith revealed her secret. Of course he'd know. He'd still been a soldier of Velkynvelve when she'd first been brought there. His own imprisonment had come a short time after. She'd been trying to learn of news of her mother, to pass along a message to her, when she'd been captured by the drow. The knowledge of who her mother was would have followed her to the Underdark and become gossip in the barracks. Everyone stared, but no one more intently than Kuhl, his expression unreadable.

"I didn't steal any powers," she said.

"I don't care," Sarith said. "It doesn't matter to me one way or another. But the priestesses believe you did. And that matters. Because of it, and the rest, believe that they are still pursuing us."

"Fine, they are still pursuing us. But they aren't here yet and I'm not leaving the others. We're almost done, Sky can finish the rest, I'm going to find the gnomes."

"They've left and don't want to be found," Ront said. Like the others the orc had stopped working on hollowing out their cap and watched the exchange between Sarith and Jhelnae. "They live down here. Probably can crawl in some hole where only they can fit. They'll only crawl out after the drow catch us or follow us away."

"He is probably right," Sarith said.

Jhelnae could see this made sense to many in the group. Even Kuhl and Aleina exchanged a thoughtful glance. But it didn't feel right to her.

"Maybe the twins, but not Jimjar. He offered to bet anyone he'd find enough waterorb for us all to drink our fill. Have any of you seen Jimjar not follow through on a wager?"

Her point had struck home. Even those who believed the deep gnomes had abandoned them now had some doubt in their eyes.

"Sky, finish hollowing out the cap. I won't be long. I'll find them and bring them back."

"No fair, Jhelnae. I usually trick you into doing the work." Sky said. Her tail swished in agitation.

"I don't have claws, remember?" Jhelnae smiled at Sky. "I can't scrape out the wood as fast as you can."

"You shouldn't go alone, Jhelnae." Sky shook her head.

"I'll go with her. We promised the twins they could ride with us." Aleina stood and dusted wood shavings from her hands.

"I'll go too." Kuhl lowered their boat to the shore.

"Can you help Sky finish their boat instead?" Aleina gave a pointed look at Sarith. "And make sure we're not left behind."

Aleina and Kuhl shared a look. Nothing was said, but their body language spoke volumes. He worried about letting her go without him. She didn't want him to argue. And what she had said had been true. Someone needed to stay and counter the influence of Sarith and Ront. Someone the others would listen to.

Kuhl eventually nodded and moved to help Sky. Aleina approached Jhelnae.

"Shall we?"

In answer, Jhelnae led the way into the zurkhwood forest. No shade existed in the Underdark without a source of light. Yet with the looming caps overhead, Jhelnae couldn't shake the impression she'd entered the shadowy interior of a forest. The fungus smell of the zurkhwood, already strong, grew pervasive. Jimjar had been looking for waterorb, or claimed to be, which grew near water. Jhelnae stayed near the shoreline as she wove through the trunks of the zurkhwood. Behind her, she heard Aleina following and felt the aasimar's gaze on her back.

They were past the point where the group would be able to hear when Aleina finally spoke.

"So…"

"So…" Jhelnae repeated.

"What did Sarith mean? Chosen of Eilistraee? Stolen powers of the Dark Mother?"

It hadn't taken long for the questions of her past to start. Damn Sarith.

"So that is why you wanted to come? To get answers? Still don't think you can trust me?"

Jhelnae increased her pace, as if she could run from questions of her past. Within a few paces Aleina had caught up to her.

"You know we trust you."

"Do I?"

"The first thing I saw you do was take a beating from Ilvara's scourge meant for me."

"How many times do I have…"

"Stop."

Jhelnae stopped, both walking and talking. But kept her back to the aasimar.

"Yes, I know. You didn't plan to save me from a beating. Let's say that is true. But I still watched you jump into a web full of giant spiders to save Sky. And we're still out here looking for Jimjar and the twins because you won't let Sarith leave them behind. Time and again you've proven yourself trustworthy. Lack of trust has nothing to do with my questions."

"Why then?"

"Maybe I want to be your friend. Even if you are a prickly bitch sometimes."

Jhelnae heard the jest in the other woman's voice with the last statement. Against her will it coaxed a smile from her. Aleina must have seen the tension leave her posture, because the aasimar started walking again and patted her shoulder as she passed.

"Let's find Jimjar and the twins."

Jhelnae followed in silence for a few paces.

"My mother is a Darksong Knight, a paladin of the Eilistraee. During what people call the Sundering, she was rewarded for her faith, and became more."

Jhelnae didn't fully know why she started speaking, but she found it easier to speak to the aasimar's back.

"She became one of the Chosen?"

"Yes. I know it sounds delusional."

"You're talking to an aasimar who grew up with a Shard of Selune visiting her dreams. I live in delusional."

Jhelnae laughed. Then felt a spark of hope.

"You've dreamed of her recently? Since you came to the Underdark?"

Her heart fell when Aleina shook her head.

"No. She only comes in dreams if I sleep under the moonlight and even then, rarely. And we're a long way from the moon down here."

Neither spoke for a short time. Their steps and the gently lapping waters of Darklake the only sounds.

"Your mother became Chosen." Aleina prompted.

"Yes. Blessed by the goddess. But it turned out to be a curse. The Red Wizards of Thay hunted Chosen. We were caught by them. Me to be a hostage and my mother for their experiments with the divine."

A lie of omission to assuage her guilt. They had not been caught. She had. Her mother had given herself up to spare her daughter.

"My mother was taken and held in a place called the Doomvault. I was kept hostage in the mansion of one of the Red Wizards. It was a gilded cage. I had free reign in the mansion, with guards and wards barring me from exits and forbidden rooms. And there were other hostages. These became my friends."

Jhelnae told herself she left out the details for brevity. Did Aleina need to know her jailor was one of Szass Tam's, the lich ruler of Thay's, lieutenants and a vampire? No. But the truth was she didn't want the aasimar to know the true depths of her humiliation. While he had kept her, the vampire had fed on her, her, and the other hostages.

"I lived there for nearly a year," Jhelnae continued. "Then something happened. My mother had escaped. The place that held her had been destroyed. We hostages had only been useful as tools to exert control over our parents. Now that we were no longer needed. They decided to kill us as punishment for the destruction of the Doomvault. They took their time with it. One by one my friends were slain, until I was the last."

The half-truths kept flowing from her tongue. One by one her fellow hostages had been fully drained of blood, caged in the basement of the mansion, and left to rise again as vampire spawn. They were starved, crazed, and tried to break the bars to feed. The Red Wizard had viewed their suffering, and the fear and anticipation it evoked in the survivors, as fitting punishment for losing the Doomvault. Jhelnae had been spared to be the last. In no part of the mansion had she been able to escape the wailing of the previous victims from below.

"I prayed. I prayed to Eilistraee, the goddess of my mother. I prayed to Torm, the god of my father. I prayed to both that my mother and father would show up to save me. Nothing. I grew desperate. In the library, during my stay, I'd found a book of rituals. One had a ritual to summon a Yochlol. A handmaiden to the goddess Lolth."

Aleina stopped and turned around.

"You didn't."

"I was desperate," the half-drow repeated, not meeting the aasimar's gaze.

"It worked?"

Jhelnae shook her head.

"Nothing happened. I repositioned the candles. Then repeated the words from the book. I was just about to redraw the symbols when someone laughed from the shadows. It was a drow female. She was stunningly beautiful with skin as dark as jet and hair the sheen of silver. I just stared, still kneeling over the symbols, unable to move."

"The Yochlol?"

"No. The Chosen of Lolth. Her avatar. In the language of High Drow, her Yor'thae."

"And you made a pact with her?"

"Not a pact. She'd known my grandfather. He'd saved her when she was a mortal and she'd owed him a 'very large debt'. She offered to pay that debt now and give me the power to free myself. I took her offer, charmed the guards, and escaped."

It wasn't the way it had happened. Not fully. The avatar of Lolth had approached her. Taken her hand and raised her up, then leaned close and whispered.

"Your grandfather once saved my mortal self. If he hadn't, I'd never have become Yor'thae. I repaid him with treachery. Shall I finally pay the debt I owed to him to you, his descendant? Give you a taste of what he'd hoped for?"

Her presence had been intoxicating - feminine, powerful, and perilous. Her voice - seductive, sultry, and suggestive. Her grey eyes, mischievous. Jhelnae's grandmother had been an alu-fiend. Yet her father had mastered his infernal heritage and became both paladin of Torm and a Knight of the Order of the Vigilant. Her mother was a Darksong Knight and the Chosen of Eilistraee. By rights Jhelnae should have pulled away. Denounced Lolth. Spit on her avatar with her last breath.

She had done none of these things. As she always suspected, secretly hated about herself, she was weak. An unworthy child to her parents. Instead, she'd leaned forward, imperceptibly to even herself. The avatar of the goddess had followed her lead. The gaze of the other women had held her, both invited and dared her. Their faces moved closer, closer, then closer still. Later, Jhelnae would question if her fiendish heritage was to blame for what happened next. But at the moment there were no questions. She'd continued forward as if hypnotized. Then their lips touched, and the power of a goddess flowed into her. Too soon it ended. She was forced away, held back, left gasping.

"A taste is all I promised to fulfill my debt," the Yor'thae had said.

"What did you do to me?" Jhelnae had asked.

"What did I do to you? Ungrateful bitch. But what should I expect from a follower of Eilistraee, the ungrateful daughter? I gave you access to power. Power you might use to free yourself from here. Or not. The Spider Queen helps those who help themselves."

"Did you take my soul?"

The Yor'thae had laughed.

"I am the avatar of Lolth. Her web covers all and all the worlds are her prey. The souls of the drow come to her in death. Her priestesses strive to sate her eternal hunger with countless offerings and sacrifices. Do you think I'd come to harvest a single soul? The soul of a waif taken as a battle captive? Your soul is weak, beneath our notice."

"Why then?"

"You seek a reason from the Lady of Chaos? There is no reason. My mortal self once should have died. On a whim, Pharaun Mizzrym, your grandfather, saved me, and I went on to become Yor'thae. I didn't know Pharaun Mizzrym had a child let alone a grandchild. To find that descendent trying to summon one of the Yochol was a surprise, I grew curious, and came to satisfy my curiosity. And now, on a whim, I have helped you. There is no reason. Sometimes, chaos provides."

With that the Yor'thae had disappeared. One moment talking and the next gone.

"You were desperate." Aleina's voice brought Jhelnae back to the present. "And fortunate. Never try something like that again."

The aasimar surprised her by pulling her into a hug. Before Jhelnae even had a chance to react the other woman pulled away.

"Sorry. I know I smell terrible." Aleina said.

"No worse than I do."

Neither of them had bathed or had a change of clothes since coming to the Underdark. Yet Jhelnae found herself savoring the warmth that lingered in the wake of their brief embrace. She hadn't minded the aasimar's nearness. She had just shared, even if only in half-truths, her darkest secret and felt vulnerable, full of self-loathing. The gesture of comfort had been welcome.

"Let's find Jimjar and the twins and leave this fungi forest," Aleina said. "When I find whatever passes for an inn down here, I'm soaking and scrubbing until my skin is raw."

They found Jimjar a short time later. He had found the promised waterorb. He lay dead in a patch of it, sightless eyes staring up at the presumed roof of the dark cavern that lay above, beyond their dark vision. Aleina and Jhelnae had stopped the moment they had caught sight of his lifeless form, stared at each other in wordless horror, and then finally walked forward.

To Jhelnae the fear of what she'd see as she approached the body was like a physical thing. Each step closer was one on leaden legs.

In life the deep gnome had such a large personality that his body seemed far too small in death. His throat had been cut. Blood had sprayed all over the waterorb he'd been in the midst of gathering. Whatever had killed him had stuffed a piece of one of the orbs into his mouth. Or maybe he'd been sucking on it when he'd died. If so, his cut throat had not supplied him enough air to spit it out. His abdomen had been sliced open and organs pulled out and arranged on his chest.

"Did the twins do this to him?" Aleina whispered. "Or something else?"

"Either way a killer, or killers are nearby."

Both women came up from their crouch before the body and looked around warily. Jhelnae pulled her moonstone capped rod from her belt. Aleina followed her lead and brought out her moonstone orb.

The zurkhwood still surrounded them. Their giant caps still loomed overhead. Yet they'd suddenly become more ominous than moments before. A threat could be hiding behind any one of them.

Next to her Aleina spoke an arcane word and passed a hand in front of her. The spectral outline of armor, seemingly formed of pale moonlight, flared around her then faded.

"I can protect you too," the aasimar said.

Jhelnae shook her head. She had a similar spell. She passed her rod in front of her and spoke her own arcane phrase. Deep inside her core, a gateway opened and power from the Demonweb flowed into her, chilling her body and soul. She channeled it and ghostly webbing formed and cocooned around her, then also faded.

"Help me carry Jimjar," the half-drow said.

Aleina touched her shoulder to catch Jhelnae's attention and shook her head.

"We have to warn the others first. Then we can come back and bury him."

Jhelnae didn't want to leave the deep gnome like this, but Aleina was right. How stupid would it be to die before the others were warned, cut down from behind like had happened to him while she carried his body.

"If I get the chance, Jimjar, whoever or whatever did this to you is going to die."

It wasn't much of a eulogy, but all Jhelnae could give at the moment. And it was heartfelt. The deep gnome hadn't deserved this. He'd only been trying to quench the thirst of his traveling companions. Now warded and holding her rod, anger replaced the fear and sorrow she'd felt.

Aleina gave a solemn nod and started back the way they'd come, moonstone orb leading the way.

So much had happened since they left the others, telling Aleina some of her past and finding Jimjar's body, it seemed they should have traveled a long way. Yet they wove their way through the zurkhwood trunks only a short time and they were almost back. They were almost within sight of their clearing when Kuhl's voice called out, frantic.

"Aleina!"

"Jhelnae!" Sky's voice came soon after.

More sounds came as they rushed forward. Splashing, the hiss of crossbow bolts, the thwack of those bolts striking home.

At first Jhelnae couldn't make sense of what she saw as they came to the edge of the clearing. A cloud of inky blackness darkened the center and far end of the clearing, obscuring even her dark vision. The strip along the shoreline was visible. Kuhl crouched in front of the lone remaining zurkhwood cap boat in a fighting stance, sword and shield at the ready. Sky stood inside the boat, aiming a hand crossbow over Kuhl's shoulder into the darkness. Farther out on the lake, more impenetrable darkness and the sounds of splashing.

Then she understood. Sarith's words had been prophetic. The drow had found them. They'd conjured the magical darkness in the clearing to hide their movement and avoid bolts loosed by Sky and the others. Sarith had employed the same tactic out on the lake, covering their escape with his own magic darkness.

As if to confirm her thoughts, four drow charged from the darkness towards Kuhl and Sky. With a snap and a hiss, the tabaxi loosed her crossbow bolt. It planted itself into one of the rushing drow, sprouting from his right shoulder. He slowed, lagged, but the others rushed on.

Kuhl barreled forward and met their charge. He knocked aside a short sword thrust with his shield. Metal rasped as he parried another thrust with his sword and he stepped back as he dodged a third, then stepped back again to give himself room to bring his sword and shield to bear. He was skilled, Jhelnae saw, but once the drow had driven him back to the water there would be no more room for steps back and drow blades would find their mark.

The cold of the Demonweb swept through her as she raised her rod and sent forth a beam of crackling energy. Fear of striking Kuhl or Sky threw off her aim and the beam dug a furrow into the shoreline near the combatants. Beside her Aleina let fly a bolt of fire. It too went wide, hissing into the surface of Darklake.

It had the desired effect. Drow eyes widened after turning and finding the aasimar and half-drow crouched near the edge of the clearing. They retreated, one wounded, back into their conjured darkness.

But they would not remain there long, Jhelnae knew. And more would be coming. Only four, and none of them Ilvara. The half-drow was sure the drow priestess would hunt for them personally. Those present were only the advanced scouting party.

Heart hammering in her chest, she contemplated their options. They could make a dash for the boat, but they'd be vulnerable as they loaded and pushed out. And the drow were not fools, they'd likely attack right when her group was weakest. Aleina seemed to come to the same conclusion.

"Go! Now! We'll cover your escape."

Kuhl hesitated, then shook his head, motioning them to the boat.

"We're coming," the aasimar yelled. "I promise. Just go!"

The aasimar sent another bolt of fire flying along the shoreline, skirting the cloud of darkness. Jhelnae followed her lead, sending her own beam of crackling energy. Both hit nothing. The drow did not emerge to pursue the half-elf and tabaxi.

Kuhl pushed the boat into the lake, wading up to his ankles. Sky held her crossbow aimed at the shore, casting confused glances at Aleina and Jhelnae.

"Do you trust me?" The aasimar asked the half-drow.

Jhelnae almost nodded, then remembered.

"Is this going to be as crazy as burning the web?"

The half-drow was only treated to a brief respite of relief when Aleina shook her head. Then her next words came.

"Crazier. Follow me. When we get to the water, jump."

The aasimar sprinted forward. Jhelnae caught a glimpse of dark elves charging out of the darkness before she followed close on Aleina's heels. The shoreline lay nearby, but time seemed to slow while she ran. Jhelnae saw Kuhl swinging his legs into the zurkhwood boat, saw Sky trying to cover the retreat of the half-drow and the aasimar with her hand crossbow, but the boat rocked from the half-elf's entry, and she was forced to clutch the sides instead to keep from being thrown overboard. Footsteps whispered behind Jhelnae in chase, and she was sure she'd feel the thrust of a blade into her back at any moment.

Then they were at the shoreline. A crackle drew Jhelnae's attention a few feet out into the lake. What she saw there almost made her stop in wonder. A sheet of ice rapidly formed in the water. Aleina leaped towards it. Something struck Jhelnae in the back as she followed. She felt no pain, and she hoped the warding magic of conjured armor had turned the blade.

She might have been able to keep her footing if she'd been anticipating the ice, if she hadn't been struck, but neither of those were the case. Jhelnae's feet slipped out from under her the moment they landed. Her rear hit the ice with a bone jarring cold thump and she took Aleina down with her. They fell together in a tangle of limbs.

Both of their warding fields flared, reacting against each other like two opposing lodestones, threatening to separate the two women and dump them off on opposite sides of the ice sheet.

"Don't let me fall off!" Aleina's face was a mask of concentration.

Jhelnae perceived the ice was moving, out into the lake, away from their pursuers, and assumed the aasimar was the cause. She stabbed the end of her rod into the ice to keep her from sliding and secured a better grasp on the other woman. It was like wrestling an invisible squirming child. Every time she brought them closer together the wards flared to life, became visible, pale moonlight opposing ghostly strands of cocooning web. Jhelnae strained so hard to keep her hold she could do little else. She briefly thought of dropping her warding, but the whisper of bolts passing overhead changed her mind.

As she held on, she heard the splash of Kuhl rowing their zurkhwood boat nearby and the twang of Sky loosing bolts in answer to the ones coming from the shore. Tense moments passed - her heart hammered in her chest. Next to her, Aleina's breath came in gasps as ragged as her own. Then the darkness Sarith had conjured to cover his retreat enveloped them.

"I think we're out of range." Aleina whispered as they floated out the other side of the cloud of darkness.

Even so, they waited, listening. When no more bolts came Aleina dropped the field of her magic armor and Jhelnae followed suit. They collapsed together in a loose embrace. Jhelnae's heart still raced, and she took a few calming breaths. Clad in her undergarments, arms and legs bare, she rapidly became aware of the cold ice they lay on.

"We can stay on this ice," Aleina said. "I could hold it together and keep it moving for the next hour or so. But I already can't feel my fingers. Let's have Kuhl and Sky pick us up."

"Please." Jhelnae said. She released the other woman and sat up.

For a brief moment Jhelnae felt elation and relief. They'd escaped again, survived against all odds. Another of the crazy aasimar's plans had worked. Those feelings died with Kuhl's words as he pulled the boat alongside them.

"What about Jimjar? The twins?"

Not all of them had survived. One lay dead, mutilated on the shore they departed, the fate of the others unknown.