Friday, January 23, 2009

Anya's Story

[It is late. The companions huddle around their small fire as the barren forest around them creaks in the wind. Anya pulls her drab woolen cloak tighter around her, gazes at her companions’ shadow-streaked faces, and begins to speak.]

You have been so kind to me, and have shared your stories with me, yet I have told you nothing of myself. It is not because I don’t trust you. We have faced death together several times since you welcomed me into your group, and already I owe you my life several times over. No, I trust you without reservation. My fear is that you will not trust me once you know of my past.

I was born in Throddenoth, the youngest daughter of a humble baker. Life was never easy, but my parents managed to provide for us by working day and night. I never realized how hard that was for them. There was always someone to pay for the priviledge of staying in business, always some petty noble to lay claim to what little profit my parents saw. But I was a child, and my parents sheltered me from those aspects of life as best they could. I had food to eat, a bed in the small apartment behind the bakery in which we lived, and I had my guardian and my best friend. I had my sister, Afa.

Yes, the cleric you spoke of, the priestess of Demogorgon, was once my older sister. I say was because she is no longer the same person. My sister was very different from the woman whose temple you raided, who sent you on that desperate mission to the Abyss. How she transformed from the loving sister I knew to the person she is now I know not. I was not there to witness it.

My childhood came to an abrupt end one winter night. We were all asleep in our common bedroom when we were startled awake by a loud crash from the front of the building. My father leapt up, grabbed the dagger that he kept by his bed, and ran toward the noise. My mother ordered Afa and me to hide.

There was a loose floorboard between our beds. Afa and I liked to crawl through the hole, and crouch beneath the building and play. We hid little treasures that we found there. I jumped out of bed and pulled up the floorboard. As I wriggled through the opening, I heard my father’s voice in the other room. It was loud, frightened. Then a louder cry, and a dull thud against the floor.

What happened next will be burned into my memory until I die. My mother screamed. Someone replaced the floorboard above me. I groped around for Afa – she had been right behind me – but she was not there. I heard my mother cry out, pleading, and then another thud, this one directly above me. Then I felt something warm and wet. It was my mother’s blood, dripping onto me through the floorboards.

I do not know how long I cowered there. I remember the light of dawn graying the room above me, the silhouette of my mother’s form taking shape above me through the chinks, and cracks of sunlight through the floorboards. When I finally emerged, I found both of my parents dead, their throats cut, their eyes fixed blindly on the ceiling. Afa was gone. Nothing else, save the front door that the intruders had broken to get in, was disturbed. Even the lockbox behind the counter was there, with a handful of silver pieces inside.

I was on my own after that. Because I was so young, I had no rights to the bakery, not that I would have wanted to stay there anyway, or been able to run the business on my own. I became a street waif, stealing my bread and sleeping in the tunnels beneath the city, or in the backs of blind alleyways. I learned how to steal, how to become invisible to the people I took from. I learned how to bluff my way out of the most desperate situations, how to distract a others’ attention while I slipped away or filched a piece of fruit of loaf of bread.

As I grew older and began turning into a young woman, however, it became harder to remain invisible, particularly to men. Many of the girls that I shared the streets with began to sell themselves to these men; the money was easier than filching and pickpocketing, and one didn’t have to worry about about dodging the city guard. I was never interested in making my living that way. Not only did I find the men who frequented the city’s prostitutes repulsive – anybody with any money went to a brothel, and only the dregs of Throddenoth used the street girls - I also saw the hidden price of the easy money. Girls disappeared with alarming frequency, and others got so terribly illI that their young bodies withered into those of old women. Instead, Iearned to take advantage of men in a slightly different way. I would win a man’s trust by pretending to be a prostitute, and then rob him before he even had a chance to unbuckle his trousers. Men, I found, were easy victims when they craved sex; if a man was also drunk, robbing him was ridiculously easy.

It was very lucrative. I was able to eat and dress well, and let a room above a shop. It was also very risky, though I did not realize it at the time, drunk as I was with the money and excitement. It was a dank November night when it happened. I was walking down an empty street with a man toward what I had told him was my room. I had already liberated his purse, and was waiting for my opportunity to flee. When we passed a narrow alley, I made my move.

I pressed myself close to him, smiled up at him flirtatiously, and asked if he would excuse me for just a second while I slipped into the alley to relieve myself. The bluff had worked dozens of times; by the time the unhappy fellow got impatient and went into the alley to find me, I would be blocks away. But not this time. As I turned to go, his hand tightened around my arm. “You’re not going anywhere,” he hissed, “until you earn the coin that you took from my belt.”

I tried to escape, but there was no chance. He was a big man, with huge hands and thick, ropey forearms, and I would be hard-pressed to escape today, let alone then, when I was a fourteen year old waif. He dragged me into the alley and beat me. Then he raped me on the wet cobblestones. When he was finished, he beat me again and left me for dead.

I awoke in a small room, lit by a smoky oil lamp on an upturned barrel. I was in a bed, covered in heavy woolen blankets. My whole body throbbed with pain. From the heaviness of the air , I could tell that I was underground, probably somewhere in the tunnels beneath the city. I don’t know how long I drifted in and out of consciousness, but at some point a woman entered the room through a doorway behind me. She bent over me, smiled, and placed her hand on my forehead. As she whispered what sounded like a prayer of some kind, I felt an intense warmth seeping through my body, filling me with strength, melting the cold pulse of pain.

I later found out that I had been found by a member of Heaven’s Shadow, a group of thieves and clerics who worshipped Olidamarra, the god of rogues and tricksters. The woman who had healed me, Morganna, was the group’s leader. Heaven’s Shadow was a charitable organization of sorts, which accepted unwilling donations from the city’s rich and powerful and redistributed the wealth to the city’s poor. Some members were tricksters and con artists, some were burglars and pickpockets, and others, like Morganna, were clerics of Olidamarra who used the deity’s powers to the same ends as the other members. What struck me as most unusual, however, was that each member of Heaven’s Shadow had sworn a vow of poverty. Their lives were deliberately austere so that they could give as much as possible to the poor.

There was one thing I was never trusted with, and that was knowledge of what everyone called the Dark Item. It was a magical object of some sort that the group guarded, but seldom spoke about. Some members refused to speak of it at all, while others seemed to fear it.

I had nowhere to go, so once I recovered, I stayed with Heaven’s Shadow. I was grateful that they had saved me, and was happy to help with the menial tasks that everyone shared, such as cooking, cleaning, and running errands. As the members’ trust in me grew, and as they realized that I posessed some skills of my own, I was allowed to help distribute the purses of silver and gold to the poor, a task that required no small amount of discretion. Morganna took an interest in me, and began teaching me about Olidamarra and his role among the gods. The more I learned, the more my interest grew, until one day, Morganna told me that the god favored me, and that she would like to initiate me as a priestess of Olidamarra.

The next few years were some of the happiest of my life. The excitement and danger that I had so loved while living on the streets was now infused with purpose, and shared with a group of people who had become my surrogate family. I realized that my past suffering had a purpose, for it had led me to where I now was, and had shaped and hardened me for the trials I would have to endure as I worked to mitigate suffering and undermine the corrupt aristocracy of Throdennoth.

One day, while I was on my way back to the caverns after distributing purses, I stopped to watch some jugglers and acrobats. I was transfixed – I had always loved public performances – and was startled to hear someone speak my name. I turned and froze in disbelief. Though she had changed over the years, I immediately recognized my sister. We embraced, both of us tearful and speechless.

We went to a tavern to talk, but the conversation was strangely uncomfortable. Afa told me that she had indeed been kidnapped from our home that night, and that she had spent the years since as a slave in an aristocratic household, but she seemed unwilling to say anything more, and quickly turned the conversation to me. I noticed a tattoo on her wrist when she took a drink – she was wearing a loose-fitting blouse that covered nearly all of her skin – but when I asked about it, she became very evasive. We parted on good terms, and agreed to meet again.

Two nights later, our home beneath the city was attacked. Most of the attackers were men and women dressed in long robes, but one was a terrifying, shadowy creature that seemed to drain the life from anyone it touched. We fought hard, but our attackers were strong, and they had taken us by surprise. I took one attacker down with my daggers – a foul-looking man with half his nose missing – but someone struck me from behind. As I lost consciousness, I saw my companions, my family, dying around me.

How I survived, I do not know. I somehow regained consciousness long enough to cure myself. Everyone, including Morganna, was dead. The vault where we stored the Dark Item was breached and empty. I was tortured with questions. Was it my fault? Had my meeting with afa caused this? I wandered the streets after that, bereft and hopeless. Had I not met you, I do not know where I would be today. And even more importantly, I would not know what really happened that night.

I must face my sister again. With you by my side, I can find the courage and hope to do that. My only question to you is, do you still trust me?

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