The worst part had been the screaming. Minsc had hammered at the cell door until his gauntlets were dented and his fists bloodied, but all Kelsey could do was sit and listen as Maera screamed. Even the worst of her nightmares had never wrenched such bone-chilling cries from her. No battle wound had ever earned even a fraction of the agony he heard in her voice now. And he was powerless, sitting in the dark cell, fists curled tight until his fingers ached, just near enough to hear. He might as well have been on another plane for all the good he could do her.
At length, the screams had stopped, and then that was the worst part. At least if she could scream, she was still alive. The minutes ticked by, and he finally brought himself to look up. Minsc had given up on the door, and sat staring at his hands, his face anguished. Jaheira was turned away from them, her shoulders so straight and stiff Kelsey's own ached looking at her. She had not made a sound since they had been thrust into the cell.
A key scraped in the door lock, and it swung open to reveal Bodhi, smiling maliciously. "Come along. We have a game to play."
Her vampires herded them into an open chamber with a strange, chipped mosaic on the floor. In the middle of the huge room lay Maera, head pillowed on the lap of a slender young woman with a narrow, delicately pretty face, who looked up as they were shoved in. "Jaheira! Minsc!" The overjoyed relief in her voice faded as she caught sight of Kelsey. "Who's this guy?"
"Kelsey," Maera rasped. He had never been so glad to hear her voice, even if she did sound terrible. "I'll explain later."
"Oh, how sweet." Bodhi appeared on a ledge above them, voice dripping false sweetness. "Family reunions are the best kind, I think."
"You've got quite a family yourself, Bodhi," Maera rejoined hoarsely. "You've done as you were told, so go scamper back to big brother like a good girl."
Bodhi's face twisted. "Such bravado," she growled. "I control the dead; I am not mocked by them. This asylum has all manner of nasty secrets, Child of Bhaal. Enjoy them. At least until I grow bored watching you flounder and kill you myself." She vanished.
"Looking forward to it," Maera muttered. She tilted her head, looking up at Imoen. "Hell of a way to find out, huh, Im?"
Imoen shrugged. "There are worse sisters to have than you. Bodhi, for example."
Jaheira and Minsc hunched down beside the pair, but Kelsey hovered on the outskirts, feeling, unexpectedly and uncomfortably, like an outsider. He wanted to rush to Maera's side and hold her close enough to hear her heartbeat, reassure himself that she really was alive, comfort her after whatever it was that Irenicus had done to her. But he felt as if he were looking back in time, through a window into her life from before him. The party that had saved Baldur's Gate was as truly reunited as it could be. So he hung back, and watched. The venerable art of observation. His hands suddenly tingled, and he had to clench his fists to keep the sparks at bay. Damn you, Yoshimo. She trusted you.
"You were in my dream," Imoen was saying softly.
"'Two parts of a greater whole'? Standing for each other when our own defenses fail?" Maera asked.
"Yeah." Imoen's fingers brushed nervously over Maera's hair. "Do you think we always knew, deep down? That I'm…like you?"
"Maybe. It doesn't matter," Maera replied, as firmly as her strained voice allowed. "Sarevok was a Child of Bhaal, and he was no brother of mine. If you're really a Bhaalspawn too, it doesn't change anything. It doesn't change you."
Looking at them, Kelsey couldn't help but think of his own, much-younger brother, who'd stayed at home with their mother rather than travel the trade routes with him and their father. They hadn't been close since their father's death, and now that they were both grown, a chasm yawned between them that Kelsey didn't quite know how to bridge. How different that distance from the closeness he saw before him now. Imoen smiled down at Maera, though the expression was thin and stretched tight at the edges. Dark brown eyes met sunny blue, and Maera reached up, her fingertips brushing her sister's cheek. Suddenly, Kelsey understood. This was the love that had driven her thus far. For love of this small, thin girl – childhood friend, comrade in arms, sister in all but name – she would have overturned Amn without a second thought. There was nothing she had not been willing to do, no one she would not cross. She loved like she fought. Fiercely, purposefully, and to the end.
She had said she loved him, too. The realization of what that really meant was rather humbling. And a little frightening.
Maera was trying, with limited success, to sit up. She got an elbow under her, gritting her teeth. "Whoa, easy, Mae," Imoen cautioned. "After they did it to me, I couldn't get up for most of the day. Don't push yourself."
"If I don't, how are we going to get out of here?"
"What did they do to the two of you?" Jaheira asked intently. "What has happened?"
"Magic." Maera gave her fingers a weak, meaningful wiggle.
Imoen's laugh only lasted a second before it grew choked, and she leaned over Maera, hugging her as best she could, despite the awkward angle. "Gods, I missed you," she declared, her voice half-muffled.
Maera's hand traced a gentle circle on Imoen's shoulder. "I missed you too." She held the embrace for a moment, then carefully maneuvered Imoen out of the way to try sitting again. She was more successful in this second attempt, but she still winced. She looked towards Jaheira. "Irenicus and Bodhi needed souls for some reason, and apparently ours were just right. I don't know the details. He's certainly not one to give up the game. Cagey bastard."
Imoen shuddered. "He's a monster."
Maera's fragile good humor crumbled. "I'm sorry we didn't get here sooner, Im."
"You came. That's what matters."
Jaheira's brow was creased in perplexed thought. "So he has performed some sort of ritual that has removed your souls but left you living?"
"I'm not really clear on how it works," Imoen said, not meeting anyone's eyes. "This is high end ritual magic; way, WAY out of my league." She flexed her hands fretfully. "It took six people to power the spell. It killed them. Just...poof. Alive one minute and dead the next." She looked up slowly. "That's what happened to the wizards. And the other prisoners. He practiced. A lot."
Maera's eyes widened. "My gods. That's what Bodhi was doing in Athkatla. She was providing him with fuel."
"Silvanus preserve us," Jaheira breathed.
Maera took a deep breath. "Well, nothing can be done while we sit here." Minsc got the hint, took her by the shoulders and levered her to her feet. She swayed for a moment, then glanced towards Kelsey and half-turned to face him. "Hey... No need to lurk," she said quietly, holding out her hands to him. They were ice cold. "It doesn't work anymore," she added. She gestured towards her throat with their joined hands. "I tried."
"Tried what?" he asked, looked down at her hands, and then the light dawned. "Oh… Well, if it helps, I can still do this." He concentrated, letting a tiny rivulet of magic warm his hands, and hers. Her smile was faint, but it was all he needed.
"That's a neat trick. Knew there was a reason I kept you around," she said softly, brushing her thumb along the back of his hand in a reassuringly intimate gesture.
He had to fight back the urge to pull her tight, settling for holding her slowly warming hands as firmly as he could. "You were screaming," he murmured, "and I couldn't help you."
"I'll be alright," she said, but there wasn't as much conviction in her eyes as in her voice. Imoen watched the exchange with an inquiring eye, but Maera fended off her questions as she withdrew her hands. "Im, this is Kelsey. He's a sorcerer, he's been with us for a while now, and…we'll discuss the rest later. Right now, we need to figure out how to get out of here, because I'm feeling better and experiencing a powerful urge to buttkick."
Minsc visibly perked up at her words. "If Maera feels like buttkicking, serious heroing cannot be far behind! Boo and I were starting to get worried." She patted his shoulder; it was obvious she noticed the dented gauntlets.
With an effort, she drew herself up, pulling back her shoulders in that familiar, determined way. Her eyes lit on a jumbled pile of packs in the corner. "Good of them to leave us our gear. Guess Bodhi wants a good show." She walked towards the packs, her stride lengthening with every step. Belting on Daystar with obvious relief, she dug about for a moment before producing the bow they had bought in Trademeet, which she handed to Imoen. "Not exactly the best scenario for gift giving, but it's just as well, because you'll probably be needing this." Imoen smiled her thanks, stringing the bow with a practiced hand as the others gathered their belongings. The door they had been pushed through before seemed to have vanished, so there was only one obvious exit now. Maera led the way.
Spellhold had been created in the old Amnish view that magic use was on par with madness. It was a prejudice slowly losing ground in the public mind, but like all such ugly little bigotries, it still found a way to bubble to the surface every so often. Kelsey knew it all too well, remembered the whispers as his father lay dying of that strange, wasting illness. The Coltrane boy does magic, the rumormongers said, you can't tell me it's coincidence. And the words had taken root in Kelsey's heart for so many years, despite Eila Coltrane's deathbed refusal to blame his son's magic for the sickness, despite the knowledge he had gained in the intervening years. In the back of his mind, part of him was still fifteen, still terrified that somehow, he had killed his father, still certain that magic led to insanity and death, because that was what magic did. And there had been no magic to do the one thing that mattered, to bring back the one who had been the anchor of their family. Lost, they had all washed out to sea, and Kelsey had drifted farthest of all.
The walls of Spellhold seemed to know it all, and they laughed at him.
"A fish?" Maera's voice shook him from his reverie. "Seriously?" She held an ornate antique key, and stared at the statue that stood guard in the middle of the corridor. She shook her finger at it, still apparently addressing the carved form. "I'll have you know I was solving logic puzzles twice that complex by the time I was eight!"
"What do you wanna bet that key opens the door we couldn't get through earlier?" Imoen asked.
"That would be the painfully obvious solution, wouldn't it?" Maera replied. "I hope Bodhi's not too disappointed by the fact all this place has to show for itself so far is statues asking stupid, elementary riddles." She made a rueful face. "I've just jinxed us, haven't I?"
As they moved down the cavernous corridor, Kelsey shivered, glad Minsc was behind him, taking up the rear. But even the big ranger, normally so heedless and bellicose, was restive and watchful. He stopped for an instant, then quickly strode past Kelsey, dropping his huge hand on Maera's shoulder. She stopped mid-stride and glanced back at him, questioning. "What's wrong, Minsc?"
"Vampires," he whispered. She stiffened. "I can smell them."
"Guess Bodhi's making her own entertainment," she replied softly. "Which way?"
"Ahead," he said, eyes fixed on the darkness.
Jaheira's expression was sour. "Sometimes infravision is worthless."
"Can you tell how many?" Maera asked. Minsc shook his head. "Okay. I say we smoke 'em out. Kelsey? You wanna do the honors?"
He stepped to her side, pushing Spellhold's mockery out of his mind. Maera thought it was a gift. She, whose very birth had been the will of a god, found his magic a source of wonder and fascination. She didn't believe he was a freak, or a monster. She had told him his magic itself didn't matter, only the application.
The fireball on his palm would need three seconds to get to the right size. One. Two.
She really liked this part, too. He'd be lying if he said he didn't enjoy that.
The vampires screamed as one, and Maera and Minsc were moving in an instant. There were, as it turned out, four of them; former prisoners, judging by their drab, ratty garments. Maera slashed one across the chest, and didn't even flinch as an arrow winged over her shoulder to strike the vampire in the throat. A flurry of glowing magic missiles followed in its wake, zipping around Maera's body to hit their intended target. She shot a quick, fierce grin at Imoen before turning to the next semi-charred vampire.
When the last gaseous form had drifted away into the darkness, towards whatever forgotten corner of Spellhold their coffins resided, Imoen gave Kelsey an appraising look. "Not bad," she said, her tone that of one arcanist to another. "And you don't have to use an incantation?"
"Um...no, I don't have to say anything," he replied, a bit wary. Most mages tended to view that fact as either gross heresy or desperately unfair. Imoen just nodded.
"You should see what he can do when he tries," Maera remarked, smiling slightly as she wiped her sword blade.
Imoen's eyebrows raised. "Should I?"
Maera almost managed not to cough. "I, uh, didn't think you'd have any spells memorized, Im."
"I went over them in my head every night," Imoen said, her voice soft but matter-of-fact. "They gave me something to think about." Maera didn't reply, but swiftly pressed her cheek to the top of her sister's head before continuing on down the dark hallway.
It might have been an hour later, after exploration of a side hall ended in a dead end and backtracking, that Imoen stopped short, pressing a hand to the wall.
"I'm fine," she said shortly in response to Jaheira's inquiry. "It's just a little vertigo. It started a couple of days ago, after Irenicus did that weird ritual to me."
The druid peered at her with a diagnosing eye, and peeled back her right eyelid with a thumb. "Any other symptoms?"
Imoen sputtered, trying to extract herself from Jaheira's determined grasp. "I've had some headaches! But I'm okay! Really!"
"You're running a fever," Jaheira said, her tone accusatory.
"I'll live, Jaheira! Ow!"
"Shut up, both of you!" Maera snapped sharply. "Give it a rest!" The pair subsided, surprised, and Maera took a deep breath. "Sorry. If Im's okay, let's keep going."
Kelsey struggled to keep his thoughts from returning to their previous gloomy bent, but it was not easy. The place seemed designed for drawing one into unhealthy reflection. It wanted those dark thoughts. There were stairs, eventually, and a set of doors than Imoen had to ponder over for a solid five minutes before she could declare them safe. Time had begun to seem relative anyway. They walked on, the silence of the dank rooms settling over them like a thick blanket.
Imoen peered around a corner carefully. "Trolls," she reported.
"What are trolls doing here?" Maera asked, perplexed. She rubbed her hands together anxiously. She was tight, on edge, and it radiated off her like heat. It had to be the dark, and the silence. The long, maddening hallways. What other reason could there be?
Imoen poked her head back around the corner momentarily. "And a golem."
"Well, the golem at least makes sense..."
"The way I understand it, nobody had used this basement for years," Imoen said. "There's no telling how they got here, but I'm sure they haven't run into any people for decades."
"Good to know the Cowled Wizards do such an excellent job keeping their own house," Jaheira muttered.
"I'd expect nothing less of them," Kelsey said.
Maera slowly slid Daystar from its sheath. "Let me handle the golem," she said. "Daystar's probably our best chance of hurting it. You four take the trolls."
Kelsey shot her a concerned look. "Are you sure, Maera? I mean, one golem doesn't seem like much, but-"
"Gods, what happened to me being the boss?" she flared. "I do not need you holding my hand, Kelsey!" He stared at her, stung, and she rubbed her forehead distractedly with her off hand. "I'm sorry," she said, "I'm just…really frustrated right now. I'm sorry." He nodded, but his eyes were on guard. She fretted at her forehead again. Why was she so tense? "We've got work to do."
Minsc charged first, Jaheira at his back. Imoen raised her hands, moving them in a series of precise gestures that matched the measured cadence of her incantation. Kelsey really had no idea how that worked. He had found through practice that certain hand movements seemed to improve his control over certain spells. That was why he always held his hand palm up for a fireball, or put his left hand behind the right for a lightening bolt – it was easier to aim that way. But those who had made an actual study of magic always amazed him. Imoen's hands spread, and a fan of ice issued form them. A rime of white frost coated the trolls just as Minsc and Jaheira reached them. "Very good, little Imoen!" Minsc shouted happily, punctuating his good cheer with a blow that lopped off the leg of the first troll at the knee. "Now they don't stink!" Kelsey sent a quick fire arrow at Minsc's amputee with a quick motion of his hand (using two fingers to aim it, because its arc was more stable that way).
Maera had taken advantage of the chaos to slip around the outer edge of the room. The golem, which was roughly the same size as the trolls, thundered forward with them as the others entered. She squared herself up behind it, and stabbed at its lower back. Daystar sank into the clay as if it were flesh, and the golem roared. She smiled suddenly, a fierce joy singing in her ears. The only way it could be better was if the damn thing bled.
She faltered for an instant. Where had that come from? The golem turned, swinging a massive fist at her, and she was almost too distracted to get out of the way. She could feel the air in the wake of the golem's fist pass her cheek; she danced out of its path, aiming for its legs. Golems could only be killed through the heart or the head, and she would have to get it down to her level. She dove to its right, with a quick, deep slash at its ankle. It had no tendons to cut, but as she darted around it, it followed her, turning on its wounded leg. With a snap, the ankle gave way, and the golem teetered off balance before dropping to its side. Maera drove her sword through its glowing left eye socket, and the light abruptly died. She looked around; Imoen had just finished off the final troll. "See?" she said as she sheathed her sword once more. "Fine." Kelsey didn't look at her, and her jaw tightened. How dare he? Of all the sanctimonious, judgmental… She had taken three steps towards him when she realized what she was doing. She stopped, trying to breathe deeply, but for some reason, it didn't seem to help. Well, if she was still angry, at least she could direct to a more deserving target. Bodhi's pale, smug face rose in her mind, and the anger surged towards it like waters from a broken dam. I'll show you a game, she thought grimly.
Perhaps it was her thoughts that summoned the vampire forth, because she was waiting for them in the next room, a quartet of vampires arrayed behind her. Bodhi's arms were folded across her chest, and her pallid features were set in a pout of boredom. "I suppose I should have simply taken the opportunity to kill you when it first presented itself and spared us all this tedium. It did seem like such a good idea at the time, though."
"Looks like I'm a disappointment on every front," Maera said. "But you're here now. Let's focus on that."
Bodhi smiled suddenly, revealing her long canines. "Yes, let's. I've already tasted your little sister's soul. Let's see how her blood is."
"You don't get to hurt her anymore," Maera hissed.
The smile never wavered. "And here's the hero, valiant in her defense of others, even now. But deep down, you already know, don't you? That it doesn't matter what you do, because you've served your purpose. The only question left is - what will be the most amusing way to kill you, Child of Bhaal?"
Maera shook her head slowly, eyes narrowing. "I am so sick of this," she muttered. "I am sick of you, and I am sick of your lunatic brother. I'm sick of being threatened, shoved, dragged, prodded, and kicked. I'm sick of having no say in my own life. I am no one's toy, I am no one's puppet, and I am no one's spell component. Even if you and your brother and every other maniac with a grimoire and an axe to grind want to treat me like one." Her voice rose. "Bat guano, sulfur, and just a pinch of Maera! Everybody wants a piece of the Bhaalspawn! Well, here I am, Bodhi!" she shouted, arms spread. "You can have me! You want to see what a Child of Bhaal can really do, then COME ON!"
She stood in the center of the room, sword still sheathed, and as she spoke, the shadows around her seemed to flicker and stretch. At first, it seemed like a trick of the torchlight, struggling against the darkness of the room. But by the time she reached her crescendo, there was no mistaking it. The shadows were coalescing on her like a cloak, like armor. They stretched to the ceiling, spiky and jagged, a demon shape with unnaturally long arms and a crest of barbs. She threw back her head and screamed, a cry of pure rage and vengeance, and all of Spellhold echoed back the cry. Worse than that, though, was the next sound she made. A low, gurgling chuckle rippled through the sudden and absolute silence.
One clawed hand flashed, and the vampire next to Bodhi was doubled over with a howl of pain. The next blow took off its head. Bodhi stepped back, eyes wide with sudden alarm, as the gaseous form of her minion swirled around her. "What is this?" Her voice trembled warily. "Child of Bhaal, what have you become?" She and the remaining vampires edged away. "Irenicus will know of this. Whatever you have done, this changes nothing," she warned unsteadily, and they vanished.
It should have been funny, Kelsey thought. Under any other circumstances, it would have been satisfying to watch Bodhi flee. She took such pleasure in inspiring fear in others – it should have been amusing to see her stricken with fright. Maera would have taunted her roundly, and they all would have laughed. But Maera wasn't there, and they were left with the thing that had taken her place. The shadow beast hissed in frustration, thwarted in its desire for bloodletting, and turn on its heel to face the group behind it. Maera stood in the midst of the shadows, her eyes ablaze with rage, and Kelsey's skin crawled. There was no light in those eyes, no spark of humanity, only a vicious need, lust for the kill. It was the face of a terrifying stranger. He didn't know her at all, and it was obvious she did not know him.
Even breathing seemed too loud, and the action of it was too much movement. From the depths of her shadows, Maera swung her head to gaze at each of them, the motion jerky and unnatural. Her fingers flexed, and the long claws twitched in response. The slow survey paused with Imoen, a shadowy arm extended, and then everything happened at once. Imoen shouted something, Minsc bellowed a challenge, and Kelsey felt himself hit the stone floor hard, unsure of why his chest suddenly burned. A questing hand came away wet and a suspicious warmth spread across his midsection.
Minsc plowed into Maera, all his weight in his shoulder, bearing her to the floor. For an instant, the shadows covered him, the dark claws screeching horribly against his armor. He rolled hard, forcing her onto her back, and she screamed with an inhuman rage, her arms flailing to grapple him, to force him off. Suddenly the scream became a very human cry of protest, and the shadows were gone. Maera lay panting on the stones, Minsc's elbow at her throat, and her eyes were wide with shock. "Minsc?" she whispered, a tiny, lost sound. "What just happened?" The ranger said nothing, his face clouded with confusion and concern as he got to his feet and held his shoulder. He glanced to the side, where Kelsey lay, splayed on his back.
Jaheira knelt beside Kelsey, pushing open his robe and ripping the slashed shirt beneath to examine the wounds. "Not as deep as I feared, " she reported, giving his chest a quick press. "And no broken bones." She spread her fingers wide and closed her eyes, lips moving. He sucked in a breath at the contact of her bare skin on the open wounds, but as the glow of healing magic sank into him, the pain subsided. Pushing himself up on his elbows, he looked down at his chest. A trio of thin, oozing cuts stood livid against his bruised ribcage. "I'll need to dress and bandage them," Jaheira said shortly. "And you will need a new shirt." He nodded, and looked up, across the room, where Minsc stood over Maera, who had pulled herself to her knees. She stared at him, eyes huge with abject horror.
"I didn't even recognize you." Her voice shook with panic and confusion as her eyes darted around the room in desperation. Minsc was still staring at the floor some distance from her, Jaheira was pointedly busying herself with dressing Kelsey's wounds, and Imoen's face was white with terrified recognition. Her mind felt like a castle under siege; the walls were battered down and hysteria lurked at the broken gates. "What was that? What was that thing?"
Imoen spoke tentatively, with the tone of one who was not sure her information would actually help the situation. "Irenicus showed me a lot of things, while he was preparing the ritual. Really unpleasant, nasty things. He seemed to feel it necessary to, um, educate me about Bhaal. That looked an awful lot like the Slayer…which was a kind of avatar that priests of Bhaal would summon into themselves." She coughed uncomfortably. "Usually to carry out death curses."
Maera gaped at her, stricken, then hauled herself to her feet, a hand clapped over her mouth. She fled to a corner of the room, where she was noisily sick. When there was nothing more to come up, silence descended. The only sound was her ragged breathing. Kelsey flinched as Jaheira tightened the last bandage. He needed to say something, but had no idea what. "Maera…" he began.
She turned, and her eyes were so full of self-loathing it hurt to look into them. "I could have killed you without a second thought," she said. "I would have. I wanted to." She looked away, self-consciously adjusting her gear. "There are stairs through that doorway. I think we're almost back to the ground floor."
They reorganized themselves and trooped up the stairs, and none of them could bear to look at each other.
Irenicus's experiments had managed to depopulate Spellhold in fairly short order. The prisoners, their Cowled Wizard jailers, and unfortunately misled Shadow Thieves provided by Bodhi – all had powered the rituals he designed. The upper floors of the Asylum were every bit as barren as their subterranean counterparts, but at least they began to recognize their surroundings. "I think I know where we are," Imoen said slowly. "I think the lab is down this hallway."
"I hope he's still there," Maera said. "He and I have some things to discuss."
He was not. The lab stood as empty and quiet as the rest of the Asylum. Maera kicked a table in her fury, sending beakers and other, more arcane glassware spiraling to the floor to shatter loudly as thunder. "I will turn this place inside out!" she growled. "He doesn't get to vanish! He has too much to answer for!" For an instant, her shadow appeared to lengthen. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes.
"If it's any consolation, my dear, I do wish I could stay." Irenicus's voice, smooth and supercilious as ever, issued from the opposite doorway. "Bodhi tells me you've experienced an interesting… transformation, and I would love to have the opportunity to study it more closely. Call it an academic interest, if you will. I'm sure you can relate." He folded his arms and met her irate gaze coolly. "But as I said before, I do not have the luxury of time. My plans are moving forward and must be overseen. And while I have the sneaking suspicion you will continue to turn up like a bad copper, I cannot waste that precious commodity on killing you personally."
"Oh, no," Maera said, her voice trembling with suppressed violence as she drew her sword. "No. You don't get to just walk out of here. There is blood of your hands, and I will account for it."
"You would be better off to throw yourself on my sword now, villain," Minsc added firmly. "You murdered Dynaheir, and my boots are itchy!"
"And you killed my Khalid with no more thought than you would give a fly!" Jaheira cried.
"Necessary. All of it necessary!" For the first time, emotion cracked through the façade. "You do not, you cannot understand the importance of my work! I cannot be slowed by your petty concerns! You have been used, and I have no more need for you!" He raised a hand and uttered a word. The ozone stink of teleportation filled the long room. "Here! Amuse yourself with the last of my fodder! And do me the courtesy of dying here, so I may no longer be plagued by you!"
He teleported himself away, leaving them in the midst of a half dozen thieves, who were as vacant-eyed and lost as Perth had been. Standing with them was Yoshimo. A bitter, ironic half smile touched his lips. "I have one last order to follow, it seems."
Maera lowered her sword. "Yoshimo, you don't have to do this."
He shook his head sadly. "You still don't understand. Yes. I do. The time for choice is long past. Only Ilmater can free me now." He drew his katana, and saluted her. "No redemption. No second chances. Let's get this over with."
He struck swiftly, she parried, and at the sound of steel on steel, the dominated thieves sprang into animation. Minsc bellowed a battlecry, and Imoen spoke a quick incantation, the arcane syllables flowing as naturally from her tongue as Common. The air popped slightly, and everything took on a bluish tinge as her shielding spell was completed. Kelsey was instantly envious; he couldn't do that. Minsc's great sword swept before him in long arcs, and his face was grim. As he opened his hands to let his next spell loose, Kelsey heard the sickening crack of wood meeting flesh and bone behind him; Jaheira's staff versus a luckless thief's skull. There was a crack of thunder to his left, and lightening danced off Imoen's fingers, blowing a hole through the thief before him, and frying the one beyond. He took a second to be impressed, and realized that was the last of them, and there was only Yoshimo now, still locked in combat with Maera.
He was quicker, and she was stronger. They circled each other, bleeding and winded, and he slashed, but her sword was there to block. Another swift, steely exchange, and another. "Listen to me, Yoshimo," Maera said urgently. "What one mage can do, another can undo. We can fix this."
"You think I have not considered that?" Yoshimo retorted, slashing at her left side. She bocked him again, and the lab rang with the sound of their blades. "Leave off the heroics," he hissed, "and fight me." Her eyes narrowed, and she swung high, forcing his blade up.
Her face was set with typical concentration, but her eyes were hot. She half-turned, pulling his next attack farther left than he had intended, then pivoted back swiftly to catch his blade. She feinted low, and he was ready, but then his block was a little too high, and with smooth finality, Maera exploited the opening, sinking Daystar between his ribs. He coughed, and blood trickled from his lips. She yanked the blade back, expressionless. Yoshimo swayed, and dropped to his knees as she stood over him. Blood streaming freely down his side, he looked up at her, a wary hope in his eyes, even as his face twisted in agony. "Forgive me, fair friend," he croaked.
She closed her eyes, and drew a half-choked breath as she opened them again, her face suddenly and infinitely weary. Yoshimo's strength failed, and he collapsed, but she knelt swiftly, catching him before he hit the floor. "He will pay for this," she said softly. "And you won't have to suffer any longer. I swear."
He coughed again, tensing in a spasm of pain. "Better this way…" he whispered, his breathing shallow and ragged. "Better your hand…than his…"
She shifted him carefully, resting him in the crook of her arm. Her chin quivered, and in that moment, she looked lost and hurt as a child. "It's okay. Everything's okay," she said, struggling to keep her voice steady. "Just relax. It'll be over soon." Yoshimo nodded once, slowly, and his eyes drooped shut as he lost consciousness. His breathing rattled on for several more minutes, and then it stopped. Maera bent her head over his, tears streaking the blood on her cheeks.
No one spoke. There was nothing to say. Maera sat over Yoshimo's body in utter silence, and just when they all wondered if they should try to move her, she drew her belt knife. "Im, dig around in my pack and get me an oilcloth."
"What are you-"
"Do it." Utterly composed, she opened Yoshimo's chest, and everyone flinched as she calmly cracked his ribcage, the sound echoing unnaturally loud in the hushed lab. She took the proffered oilcloth from Imoen, who blanched as she deftly removed Yoshimo's heart from the chest cavity, her face still expressionless. "Is there any sort of magical preservation you can do here?"
"Um…yeah, I guess. Why?"
"An Ilmaterian penance," Maera said shortly. "It's the only way to truly break the geas."
"But didn't he-"
"This is not a discussion, Imoen." Still dubious, Imoen spoke a few quiet words, and Maera wrapped the heart in the cloth, stowing it in her pack. She stood, back straight, her jaw set to an almost painful degree. "Now. If I were an egocentric sociopath with deeply important plans to carry out, where would I be?"
A tentative, yet unctuous voice came from the shadows near the door. "I…may be able to help there."
"Saemon Havarian?" Maera's brow furrowed. "What the Nine Hells and Abyss are you doing here? No. Wait. Let me guess. You're in on the gag, too." In an instant, she had crossed the room and had the captain against the wall, hand at his throat. "Make it good, Captain. I've had a very bad day. Or couple of days. I couldn't even tell you how long I've been here now. Suffice it to say, I'm feeling extraordinarily aggressive right now, and you have a big bullseye painted on your chest."
"I was just supposed to get you here safely! Yoshimo was the one who was doing the dirty work!" he protested.
"Trying to pass this off on a friend of mine I just had to kill would be a VERY bad idea at the moment, Saemon. So I suggest you be more helpful in the next five minutes than you have ever been in your entire life." Her shadow was spreading again. She clenched her teeth and it retracted.
"Irenicus and Bodhi swindled me! They promised me a sword for doing my part, a real artifact, one of a kind, but then they only gave me the blade!"
"Truly, my heart bleeds." She gave him a shake. "Information. Do you know where he's gone?"
Saemon stiffened, trying to regain a bit of dignity, even if his position had not changed. "He has a portal. It's on the next floor. Follow the hallway directly from the stairs, it's the last door on your left. Before you ask, no, I don't know where it goes. But he was always talking about 'our friends in the dark', so you can take that as you will. I wouldn't be surprised if it goes to the Underdark." He looked pleased that his words sent an obvious chill through his listeners. "Of course, I could always honor our agreement and take you back to the mainland. Let you prepare to take Irenicus from a position of strength, as it were."
"I don't think so. Even if you hadn't just admitted you were in my enemy's pay, I don't trust you any farther than Minsc's hamster can throw you." She released him and stepped back. He rubbed his neck, panting. "This is what's going to happen. We're going to follow Irenicus through this portal of his. You are going to go back to town and inform Sime of that. You will then take her back to Athkatla and deliver her safely and directly into the arms of Aran Linvail." She leaned forward, eyes flint hard, her voice dropped to a growl. "And if I find out you have failed to do any of those three things, there will be no rock in the Realms that will hide you from me. Understood?"
He nodded hastily, and bolted.
The portal was just where he had described, shimmering blue white on the wall, giving no indication of where it led. Maera sighed as she gazed into it. Her anger was gone, and the slump of her shoulders was all too obvious against the flickering portal.
"Maera?" Jaheira said softly. "What is wrong?"
"What isn't?" Maera tried to chuckle, but it caught in her throat. "Everything's gone wrong, and I don't have the slightest idea what to do now."
"No direction but forward. I know. I just-" She shook herself, and Jaheira touched her shoulder.
"You go nowhere alone. You should know this by now." The druid drew herself up. "I will go first." Before anyone could protest, she stepped through the portal. Minsc followed, and then Imoen, who squeezed Maera's arm as she passed.
Kelsey reached out to likewise touch her in encouragement, but she shrank away, averting her eyes from his hurt face. "I'm sorry, Kelsey," she whispered miserably. "I...I'm really sorry." She vanished through the shimmering door.
He stared after her for a long, pained moment, then closed his eyes, and took a deep, steadying breath. It didn't matter. He would go with her no matter what. He would follow her wherever she led. No matter the darkness.