Versus Bodhi, Round 2

The wind had shifted after the previous night's rain, and the sun glinted off the freshly washed rooftops with the particular clarity that only comes after a long night's storm. It seemed to light favorably on the rather eye-catching young couple who laughingly threaded their way around the deeper puddles, hand in hand. He was tallish, a bit lanky, vividly redheaded, and wearing a blue robe much like a merchant's, save for the odd embroidery around the collar and down its front. His equally tall companion, fair haired and dark eyed, was less colorfully clad, but the cut of her dark brown leathers was striking in its own right. He dropped her hand to drape his arm across her shoulders, and she smiled as she matched her long stride to his. No one they passed that morning could mistake the lovers for anything other than what they were.

Maera sighed as they passed through the gate onto the Bridge, and Kelsey tilted a curious look in her direction. "Something wrong?" he asked.

"When we walk through that door, it'll be back to business," she said. "Back to the real world. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to waste any time – I want to take down Bodhi, I want to get Elhan his Lanthorn back, and I want to get my hands on Irenicus and rip my soul back out through whatever orifice first presents itself." He chuckled, and she shot him a sidelong glance. "You think I'm joking."

"I know you're not." She made a face, and leaned into his side, forcing him momentarily off-balance. "Hey!" he protested. "If you knock me over, I am taking you with me!"

"See?" She sighed again. "This is nice."

"Knocking me over is nice?"

She made another face at him, this one more expressive. "Pretending to be normal for a little while is nice. Who knows when we'll have the chance again."

Kelsey stopped, slipping his arm from her shoulders to stand face to face. "Probably sooner than you think," he said. "Look at it this way, Maera; someday this will all be so far behind us it'll just be a story we tell. One of many."

She raised an eyebrow, a faint blush staining her cheeks. "So you think you'll be around for a while, then?"

They began walking again; they could see the pitched roof of the Five Flagons ahead. "I told you I'm not going anywhere," he replied, then grinned mischievously. "Except where you tell me to go, boss." He punctuated the last word with a swat at her rear end.

She gasped at him, overplaying her surprise. "You treat all your bosses like that, mister?"

"Just the ones who let me get away with it." He smiled hugely at her, completely unrepentant, and she sniffed with mock severity.

"Obviously," she said as they turned the corner towards the Five Flagons' entrance, "this is going to a discipline issue."

"Feel free to reprimand me any time you think I need it."

The Shadowmaster's office was a place transformed when the party arrived later that morning. His desk had been pushed against a far wall, and a large, plain table had been set in the center of the room, its top covered in scattered papers. Linvail was standing over it, contemplative as a still pool, and Sime sat to the side, busily making notations in a large loose bound book with such an academic air Maera almost wanted to laugh.

"What do you have here, Aran?" she asked, examining the mass of parchment. She picked one up; it looked quite similar to the tomb map she and Yoshimo had made. That night felt like years ago.

"We took advantage of the relative peace and quiet after you left for Brynnlaw to do a little surveying," Linvail said. "She had quite the ugly enterprise down there. There was an entire downstairs level that we didn't even know was there the first time around. And side tunnels leading off to two other above ground entrances."

"So you think that she has returned to this headquarters?" Jaheira eyed the maps skeptically. "Despite the ruin we left it in? And I rather doubt your thieves were any gentler."

"If she was back to reform her guild, I wouldn't be so sure, but she's gone to ground because she's stolen something." He flashed her a winning smile. "Give us a little credit, my lady. We are the experts in what people do when they've taken something that doesn't belong to them."

Jaheira's eyebrow twitched, but she nodded. "Bodhi is not 'people', but I accede the point."

"Now, it's always better to overestimate how much the mark knows," Sime said, still copying, "so we've been going at this with the assumption that she knows you've followed her back from the Underdark. She's probably only found that out in the last few days, but there's still no point in getting cocky." She tapped her pen on the table, looking up at Maera. "This needs to be done your way. You're familiar with her, and with the space. What are your suggestions?"

Maera rested an elbow on her folded arm, and looked over the maps, chin in hand. The second level she and her party had not penetrated to in their first assault on the crypt seemed to be one large room, with two smaller spaces off it. Linvail was right; the vampire was laying low in a familiar place. She probably either intended to wait them out, or force a confrontation on ground of her own choosing. They couldn't give her any more time. "We have no idea what her numbers are down there, but I'm sure she has at least a few," she said thoughtfully. "Since we're not just trying to inconvenience her this time, we will need more manpower." She looked up at Linvail. "We'll need close-quarters fighters; people who can take some punishment in the process. But I want quality, not quantity."

Linvail nodded. "Arkanis." Sime was on her feet and heading for the door even as he spoke. He called after her, "I want him, and a list of his best knifemen, a half dozen at least. If he has any plans for the rest of today and tomorrow, he can cancel them." She acknowledged his orders with a wave of her hand, and Linvail looked back to the adventurers before him. "Well," he said, his smiled returned, "this will be exciting."

Sime soon returned with Linvail's chief assassin, a dour and hawk-nosed man, in tow, and what had begun as a midday strategizing session stretched far longer into the evening than any of them had anticipated. This was mostly out of a desire to cover as many angles as they could think of, but also because after about five hours, Linvail pulled a well-disguised bell pull, which summoned a young thief to the door in less than ten seconds. "Have the kitchen send up dinner for eight," the Shadowmaster ordered, before looking askance at Minsc. "Actually, make that ten." The unsurprisingly excellent meal provided by the guildhall kitchen was followed by another sampling of the best of Linvail's wine cellar, and they were all feeling pleasantly mellow by the time he finished drawing up the last of their plans.

"I honestly envy you a bit," Linvail said as he sent off Arkanis with the list of those he was to have ready by the next morning. "One of the downsides of achieving a certain level of status is that one doesn't get to enjoy the more…earthy aspects of one's profession as much. Oh well. Sime will be with you, though, and she's my right arm, so I suppose I'll be there in spirit."

It was evening when they exited the Shadow Thieves' guildhouse, and the south Bridge Gate was in sight when Imoen stumbled, the heel of one hand pressed to her temple. Minsc, without missing a step, scooped her into his arms. "Minsc, you don't have to carry me," Imoen protested. "It's just a dizzy spell. I'll be fine in a minute!"

Minsc shrugged his massive shoulders. "I carry Boo all day, every day, and little Imoen does not weigh much more than a hamster."

"Um, thanks?"

The three others stifled their chuckles with varying amounts of success, and that small drama concluded, they turned back to the street. Before them stood a cloaked figure who had not been there just a moment previous. The summer night air went cold, and Maera realized before the hood was thrown back who it was. Sime had been right. "Maera!" Bodhi chirped, all false cheer. "What a pleasant surprise."

"Bodhi," Maera returned, with equal sweetness. She had not expected Bodhi to seek them out, but she would be damned if she let the vampire see her sweat. "We both know it's never pleasant when we run into each other."

Bodhi's canines seemed especially long when she smiled. "Indeed. But I have sought you out for a purpose tonight."

"What's that?"

"I have some advice for you."

"Really! I'm all ears."

"Walk away from this. Go about whatever business you like, but forget about those arrogant elves, and let me and my dear brother finish our work in peace. There's no need to involve yourselves in this affair any longer."

Maera folded her arms, imagining ice water in her veins. Were Bodhi and her 'dear brother' really so conceited that they thought she would just step out of the way after everything they had done? Apparently so. "This has nothing to do with the elves, and everything to do with what you've taken from me." She glanced back at Imoen. "From us. And you know it."

Bodhi's eyes narrowed to catlike slits. "So be it, Child of Bhaal. Then it seems I will have to continue taking from you." With a movement almost too quick to be seen, she slipped behind Kelsey, a hand closing on his throat. Everyone froze. "I could snap his neck, you know. Or worse."

"Let him go, Bodhi." Maera tried to keep the panic out of her voice, but Bodhi was a predator. She could smell it.

"Or what? What will you do, Maera dear, transform again?" Bodhi's lips curved with baleful satisfaction. "No, you don't dare. You have no control over the beast."

"She doesn't need the Slayer to deal with you," Kelsey rasped.

"Oh, it talks back! How charming. I like this game." She leaned in to sniff at Kelsey's neck; he swallowed hard, revulsion creeping across his face. "Yes, this will be fun." Bodhi smirked darkly at Maera. "How much more are you willing to lose before you give up and die?"

Maera lunged, catching the edge of Kelsey's cloak…and they were gone, disappeared into the night by whatever soundless magic it was that Bodhi wielded. In the middle of the dark street, clenching her fists in the cloak, Maera stared into the night with wide, unseeing eyes, all thought consumed by a white roaring in her mind. The shadows under the street torches began to slither towards her, crawling up her body. Her breath came in short, growling gasps; the Slayer shadows circled her as she began to rock slightly back and forth, her knuckles white, her jaw clenched. Minsc hastily set Imoen down and prepared to draw his sword; Imoen and Jaheira shared a quick look, readying themselves for the inevitable, when Maera screamed.

"NO! I WILL NOT GIVE YOU THE SATISFACTION, YOU BITCH!" The shadows around her shattered like glass. Panting with suppressed wrath, she rounded on her companions, eyes diamond hard, and snarled, "She hasn't bought herself any time. We go back to the inn. We move in the morning. Nothing changes the plan."

The sun was just peeking over the rooftops of the City of Coin when Imoen tentatively knocked on Maera's door. She found her sister in her armor, sitting on the obviously unused bed, staring at a bundle of dark blue cloth in her lap. Kelsey's cloak. "I should have known," she muttered distantly, shaking her head. "I should have known she wouldn't just lay low and wait. I should have known she would try something. I was complacent. Sime was even talking about not getting cocky, and that's exactly what I did."

Imoen chewed on her lip. "Mae…you can't plan for everything. You just can't." Maera was silent, guilt and self-loathing still written in bold characters across her face. How irritating, Imoen thought. She puckered her mouth in disapproval. "Maera, if you don't stop this, I'm going to slap you across the face. Then my hand'll hurt and you'll be mad at me!" Maera's lips moved in a manner that wanted to be a smile, but just didn't have the heart. Imoen sighed. "She grabbed Kelsey to hurt you, Mae. That's…her thing. She likes that."

Maera flushed and stuffed the cloak behind her. "You must think I'm pretty silly for letting it get to me."

"You've got it bad for the guy, and that's okay. I do wish the circumstances were different so it wasn't so weird for everyone involved." Imoen glanced out the window, at the gold limned rooflines, and said, "I mean, you've always been so reserved. With men, anyway. And he was not in the picture when they took me, and then you show up at Spellhold with him, and it's screamingly obvious something serious is going on, and…" Her voice caught. "And I had to wonder, if you had time to start fooling around with some guy, did you even miss me?" She sniffled. Darn it all, she hadn't meant to cry.

Maera stared at her, mouth open, struck to the core at the suggestion. "Gods, Im, I missed you every day! Like a part of me was gone. Kelsey helped keep me sane." She scuffed the edge of the worn rug with her stockinged feet. "And I was so excited to introduce him to you, because I thought you'd really like him, but then…everything went wrong, and I didn't know what to do anymore."

"Well," Imoen said, sitting beside her, "tell me about him now."

Pensively, Maera looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. "When the Cowled Wizards took you," she finally said, her words carefully measured, "I wasn't sure how much more I could take. With everything that had happened – waking up in that hole, knowing we'd lost Khalid and Dynaheir – everything seemed so bleak. Even meeting Bayle and finding out there was a way to get you back, it still felt like I was just going through the motions." She raised her head, her eyes fixed on the wall across the room. "And then there he was. He seemed so ordinary at first. He said he'd been at the Promenade, saw what happened, and that he wanted to make up for doing anything to help us. For some reason, it never even occurred to me to tell him no. After that…" She flushed again and shrugged vaguely. "He's funny, and he's smart, and a hundred times sweeter to me than I'd ever deserve. We'd talk, and he would look at me like I was the most interesting person he had ever met. It was like I'd always known him, but I just hadn't met him until then."

Imoen gave her a knowing look. "And there was also the fact you wanted to lay him like a Calimshan carpet, right? Because honestly, Mae, the sexual tension was kinda ridiculous."

Maera spread her hands, chuckling sheepishly. "What can I say? He's got a beautiful smile, nice shoulders…cute butt."

"He's not bad," Imoen conceded. "Kinda skinny, though."

"He is a bit skinny, yes," Maera agreed, and her smile grew somber. "I really love him, Im. Some things in this world just belong together. I think we do." Imoen smiled as well, and was about to put her arm around her sister's shoulders when Maera sucked in a deep, shaking breath, tears welling in her eyes. "I don't know if he's okay, Im! I don't know where he is, or what she's done to him, or is doing, and-" Her voice rose with emotion, and Imoen felt a surge of sympathy. She took Maera's face in her hands and kissed her firmly on the forehead.

"So you kick her butt and you save him, Mae. That's what you do."

Maera nodded, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth as she drew in those calming breaths Gorion had always had her doing. "I can't lose my head," she murmured. "Not again. I cannot let her push me." She stood and reached for her boots. "How're you feeling?"

Imoen blinked, both at the sudden shift in topic, and the acknowledgment. "Okay for now. Jaheira's headache tonic is good stuff. But I'm hoping after we beat Bodhi, I won't have to worry about it anymore."

"Me too," Maera nodded. She glanced at the floor again and then said, "Im, I have been such an ass. I didn't listen to the dreams and look where it's gotten us."

"The dreams?"

"During the ritual. The whole bit about standing together. We said it to each other in our dreams. But I was so terrified by what happened in Spellhold, I didn't listen. And I'm sorry. Maybe this wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't been such a self-centered idiot."

It was only fair to let her sweat for a minute, so Imoen did not immediately respond. But she couldn't help but smile a little, and stood to embrace her sister as she said, "Apology accepted."

Maera hugged her hard. "I love you, Im."

"Well you should," Imoen said, keeping her tone light even as her throat caught, "because I am damn lovable."

"Two parts of a greater whole, right?" Maera sniffled even as she smiled.

"That's us." The vise that had clenched Imoen's heart loosed, and they were back on even ground again. "And when we get Bodhi safely killed, and get your boy back, you can buy me a drink, little sister."

Maera raised an eyebrow, staring down at the top of Imoen's head. "Little?"

"What? We don't know which one of us is older."

"That's true, but I object to being called little by someone ten inches shorter than me."

Imoen 'accidentally' trod on Maera's foot as she withdrew from the hug. "Fine, rub it in, you darn giant."

Sime and Arkanis were waiting for them near the main Graveyard gate, blending into the morning shadows cast by the tall tombs. Sime looked pleased to see them, but as she counted heads, her brow furrowed. "Where's Kelsey?"

"Bodhi," Maera said shortly.

"Oh." Sime pursed her lips in uncomfortable understanding. "This won't, um, be a problem, will it? Apart from the obvious problem, of course."

Maera's only motion was a very deep, controlled breath. "I'm still planning on tearing down her little lair stone by stone and then ramming a stake so far into her heart it comes out the other side. So, apart from the obvious problem, no."

Sime carefully looked around Maera at Jaheira, who shrugged. Arkanis whistled shrilly, and the remainder of the assigned Shadow Thieves joined them. In accordance with the previous day's plan, Sime distributed wooden stakes to everyone before they split into two groups, and took up their positions to prepare for their assault.

If at first you don't succeed, Maera thought grimly. They stationed themselves outside the south entrance to Bodhi's lair; she, Imoen, Arkanis, and his trio of thieves. Maera readied a torch, and as the striker scraped the flint, she remembered another torch, flames springing to life under a familiar long-fingered hand. She briefly closed her eyes, clawing for composure. Losing herself again would only give Bodhi what she wanted, and to Maera's mind, the vampire had had entirely too many victories so far. By the time you die, Bodhi, she thought, you will regret everything you've done.

Arkanis shot her a glance, and tested his short sword's blade on his thumb. "We ready?" he grunted.

"As ready as we'll ever be. Im, send the signal." Imoen raised her hand and a spray of fiery sparks shot upward, signaling Jaheira, Minsc, and Sime to begin their descent.

The tomb was as darkly beautiful as before, though there were soot stains on the walls, evidence of their previous visit. There was movement in the shadows, and she smiled coldly. Time to go to work. She tossed her torch on the floor a few yards ahead, and the vampires, provoked, rushed her. One she slashed across the abdomen then clubbed with Daystar's hilt. Another she skewered and slammed face first into the wall. A third she simply beheaded. She was aware of the fighting going on around her – aware of the assassins and their long daggers and of Imoen's fiery arrows, but they were simply noise in her ears. She was busy.

But it was still there, in the back of her mind, the darkness pressing at the seams and edges. Once it had been angry at her refusal to allow it entry, but now it seemed almost smug, as if it knew she couldn't keep it out forever. Maera swung crosswise at a fledgling female vampire, still clad in the shopgirl's dress she had worn in life. Just a few days before, she had been a living thing, and this was her fate. Undeath at Bodhi's cold hands, and now true death at Maera's. Jaw tightening, she sliced the vampire hard across the torso, and the body dissolved into mist, fleeing insubstantially for the safety of its coffin and bed of dirt. This was all Bodhi's doing. With her cooing voice and her oily smirk and her godsdamned superior attitude, WHO THE HELL DID SHE THINK SHE WAS-

"Mae?" Imoen's whisper caught her off guard, and she realized she had stopped walking and stood in the center of the corridor, her grip on Daystar so tight her hand was numb, the shadows stirring restlessly in her wake. Arkanis was watching her with detachment, but none of his trio of assassins had so much command of their features, and faced her with various shades of unease. Damn. Maera scrubbed her off hand across her face.

"Sorry," she coughed uncomfortably. "Let's keep going."

Their path took them by the former coffin room, which stood empty now, its walls blackened and still smelling faintly of smoke. A short distance past it, another group of hissing fledglings flung themselves out of the darkness. One of them appeared barely past childhood, and Maera could feel a rush of anger lap at her like the hot waves of a bloody ocean. Wasn't it all right to be righteously angry, though? Didn't Bodhi deserve it? After everything she had done, hadn't she earned every bit of fury Maera could direct at her?

Claws through the gut would teach her.

Daystar glowed faintly in the gloom, like a pale reflection of the rising sun, and Maera breathed deep as she thrust it forward towards her next target. No need for claws. I've got a blade.

They fought their way to the great central chamber, Maera dispatching a final vampire with a long blow that opened it from shoulder to hip. She looked up, and saw Minsc, Jaheira, and Sime enter, flanked by Sime's subordinates. They appeared to have met a similar amount of resistance.

The long room had obviously been picked over by the Shadow Thieves in the wake of Bodhi's abandonment of the lair. Bits of the wall mosaics had been chipped out, and a stone door obviously meant to be unseen was partially open, its iron tracks bent. Stairs were barely visible beyond, and Imoen rubbed her arms. "She's downstairs. I can tell. It's a really weird sensation." Jaheira reached out to check her temperature again, and she shook her head. "It's okay, Jaheira. I'm okay. I'm just all…tingly."

Maera eyed the previously secret door. The Shadow Thieves must have discovered it and forced it open to prevent its reuse, but Bodhi's vampires had apparently attempted to repair it. "Help me get this door open," she said, and Minsc and one of the larger thieves aided her in wrenching the door back on its runners. The descending stairs disappeared into the darkness, with just a hint of a turn at their base. Maera stared down them speculatively. "Im? You got any lightning for me?" Imoen nodded. "Bounce a bolt down there, please. Let's clear out any rats that might be waiting."

"Everybody clear the door," Imoen said as she moved to the top of the stairs. "Just in case. I've never been that good at geometry."

Her modesty proved false; the lightning bolt that left her hands ricocheted off the wall at the bottom, illuminating the darkness. There were a pair of distant screams, cut short, from below, and they descended with Sime in the lead, searching out traps. The air smelled of the dissipated lightning, and as they approached the door to Bodhi's sanctum, of blood. Maera felt an odd, very faint buzzing in the very back of her head, and glanced over at Imoen, who looked as though she could barely breathe. She gripped her sister's shoulder. "I think Bodhi needs to learn some manners." Imoen nodded, grimly hopeful. Maera leaned back, and kicked in the door.

"Hi, Bodhi," she said coolly. "I know it's rude to drop in unannounced, but somehow I knew you wouldn't mind."

Bodhi sneered. "Again you come on another's business. Elhan sent you, didn't he? Do you even know why?"

"Frankly, I don't care if all you did was kick his dog. I'll take any opportunity I can find to be the end of you."

"Poor thing. Always doing the dirty work of others. Others who are too cowardly to do it for themselves. The elves are not incidental, my dear. Do you think because they are beautiful they are incapable of wrong? Because they are ancient they cannot be fools? Don't be blinded by them. They do not deserve your aid."

Maera flexed her fingers on Daystar's hilt, letting the familiar grip comfort her. "You took from us, so you can destroy them. I don't know why, and I don't need to. There's nothing you can say to make me change my mind, so we might as well save our breath for trying to kill each other."

The vampire's lips curled into an ugly, mirthless smile. "Justify it as you like. You've still chosen your side, after I warned you not to. Would you like to see the price you've paid for not heeding me last night? Your toy is mine now, Child of Bhaal – and I can see why you were so attached to him."

A figure stepped from the shadows from among the vampires who silently lined the walls, awaiting Bodhi's order. But it wasn't Kelsey. It only looked like him. His skin was so pale as to be colorless, his once lively features utterly blank. That was not the face she'd seen softened by candlelight and passion. Those lips could not possibly curve in a shy smile. Those dead eyes would never dance with good humor. A huge ragged wound marked the side of his throat, the blood thick and blackened. Grief reached into her chest and twisted her heart with a giant's strength, an internal scream threatening to drown out all rationality. He was standing right in front of her, but he was gone.

The satisfaction on Bodhi's face made Maera's hands ache to wipe it off by force, and an animal growl of rage rose in her throat. The shadows nipped at her; hounds set on a fox, baying to be let loose. The vampire just kept taking, and taking, but no more. This could only end one of two ways, and Maera found she was fine with either outcome. She probably had something left to lose, but she couldn't think of it at the moment. She felt an icy chill of utter determination steal over her, steam rising from the rage it quenched. "Stealing seems to run in the family, Bodhi. Souls, relics, people. Someone needs to teach you a lesson. I nominate me."

An arrow whistled by Maera's ear, burying itself halfway to the fletching in Bodhi's shoulder. "Oops," Imoen said, deadpan. The vampire hissed, enraged. She ripped the arrow out, launched herself towards Maera, and the air exploded in violence. Now would be a good time, Maera thought, and Daystar responded, filling the chamber with light. The vampires howled, and the side of the living pressed their advantage. The thieves fought silently, slitting throats and stabbing backs, as Minsc roared, swinging his great sword in huge arcs. Jaheira stood between the onslaught and Imoen, who alternated between spells and her bow.

The ebb and flow of battle pushed her towards the base of a large gargoyle statue, and Maera could not let herself let herself flag. An elbow to a throat, a kick that sent something sprawling. Daystar's blade was dark with blood, and she lost track of both Bodhi and Kelsey in the confusion. The vampire before her, its skin raw with angry burns, snarled as it reached for her with claw-like fingers. She was almost fast enough, but not quite, and connection was made, leaving her cheek stinging from the fresh wound. The sight of fresh blood made the vampire's eyes light, and in its eagerness for her throat, she was able to duck low, ramming her shoulder into its chest. Thrown off balance, it could not recover in time to defend against the stabbing thrust that skewered it. Maera turned quickly on the ball of her foot, and found herself face to face with Bodhi.

The vampire's eyes were wild, and Maera took an instant of bleak pleasure, knowing she was hard pressed. "What's wrong, Bodhi?" she asked, breathing heavily. "No fair fighting back?"

Bodhi's answering growl was some strange mix of feline and demonic. "Ants sting, but they still die. So will you, no matter what you do."

Across the room, Maera saw Imoen, and their eyes met, even as Imoen loosed another arrow. A plan flashed into being in her mind, and she swung at Bodhi, forcing her back a step. "Whether I live or die isn't the point right now. What matters is getting back what you've stolen."

"You show such disdain for theft, yet you appear surrounded by Aran Linvail's finest." Bodhi grimaced as her grab for Maera's throat was thwarted by Daystar's blade.

Maera let Bodhi go on the offense, but gave her no ground, keeping an eye towards Imoen. If she could get the vampire back just a few more steps, it would be perfect. "I think Aran would be offended to hear you compare your business to his." She swung again, hard, just as Bodhi's arm moved, and Bodhi staggered back a pace. "But you're about to make up for it all."

The din of battle was still too great for her to hear the arcane words Imoen chanted, but Maera knew that spell well enough to know when to throw herself out of the way. A fan of blue-white fire burst from Imoen's spread hands, and Bodhi was directly in it path. She screamed, an eerie, unnaturally high sound. "No," she gasped, her voice rising to a wail. "NO!"

Maera slashed one last time, and Bodhi doubled over the gaping wound in her abdomen, black blood gushing between her fingers. "That's the price you pay for not heeding me," Maera panted.

The vampire's form shuddered, going hazy and gaseous. It flowed towards one of the small side chambers, and Imoen was there, following it into the crypt beyond, gripping a stake she had thrust into her belt. An ornate sarcophagus rested on a carved marble bier; apparently Bodhi had desired greater luxuries than she had afforded her minions. The instant the gas settled into the coffin, Imoen flung open the lid and rammed the stake down with all her strength. She dropped to her knees, but was already picking herself up as Maera reached her side. She took a deep breath, and smiled. "I think I feel better already," she said. As she re-entered the sanctum, her step surprisingly springy (even for her), Maera glanced back into the coffin, and furrowed her brow. Bodhi's heart had not dissolved with the rest of her.

The last of Bodhi's vampires had been dispatched, and the thieves were tending to their wounded. Sime leaned against a wall, her right cheek swollen, nursing a long gash on her left arm. Wordlessly, Maera handed her a healing potion, which she accepted with a faint smile of thanks. She swished it around her mouth for a moment before swallowing. "We spotted their new coffin room on the way down," she said. "We'll torch it on our way out." She sighed uncomfortably, and inclined her head to the floor beside her, drawing Maera's eye to the body that lay there, sprawled on its back. Maera's throat tightened. It was Kelsey. "I took him down as gently as I could," Sime said quietly. "I'm sorry, Maera." She took another swig of potion, and clapped Maera on the shoulder. "Arkanis! Is everyone accounted for?" The assassin answered in the affirmative, and the sanctum emptied as the Shadow Thieves made their slow exit.

Three sets of eyes turned towards Maera, who leaned against the wall, resting her head against the rough bricks. She stared up at the ceiling with unfocused eyes, and her lips moved, but only Imoen was close enough to hear what she whispered.

"If either of us died tomorrow, what would we…"

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