"Are they gone?" Maera glanced up to see Imoen's nod, and her knees buckled. She slid down the wall to the floor.
Imoen knelt beside her, gently pulling her head to her shoulder. Maera was dimly aware of Minsc and Jaheira nearby, standing close, and she was grateful for them, but she felt oddly detached, empty, as if her heart had simply cracked, and every emotion had drained away. She leaned against Imoen's shoulder until her sister slowly stood, pulling her to her feet. Jaheira rubbed her upper arm gently with understanding in her eyes before disappearing into Bodhi's crypt, with Minsc on her heels, worry and confusion on his broad face. Imoen touched Maera's cheek, staring up at her intently. "Mae. Talk to me."
Shaking her head vaguely, Maera whispered, "I don't know what to do, Im. I have no idea what to do. Should we bury him? And oh gods-" She clapped her hands over her mouth. "I'm gonna have to tell his mother. Oh my gods. 'Hi, I got your son bitten by a vampire!'". Her eyes widened in heartsick horror as she heard herself speak. "Is he gonna turn? Will I have to…"
"Don't," Imoen said firmly. "Do not freak yourself out like that. You won't have to stake or behead him. She may have bit him, but the process obviously wasn't that far along." Maera's confusion was evident, so she elaborated. "No gaseous form. He's still here. And if he's still here, there still may be something we can do for him."
Maera nodded, trying to get her thoughts back in order, then blurted, "When did you get so grown-up, Im?"
The ironic ghost of a smile flickered across Imoen's face. "Sometime between the first and second kidnappings, I think." She wound her arm around Maera's waist, and Maera in turn rested her cheek against the crown of her sister's head. They stood silently thus until Jaheira reappeared from the crypt. She held a small lantern in her hands, scarcely two hands' breadths in height. Typical of elvish works, it was elegant in its simplicity, its smooth, polished surface marked only with a pair of flowing symbols. The Tree and The Source. Maera realized that, in a graceful bit of wordplay, the two runes combined to form the word Rillifane. They had been right. Bodhi had had the Lanthorn. She sighed. If nothing else, Irenicus was back within her grasp. And with every blow she sustained, that grasp was getting tighter.
Minsc followed with a stack of books in his arms, his lips curled in disgust. "The vampire read nasty books!" he proclaimed, dropping them to the floor. Imoen read the spines with interest.
"Interesting bedtime reading for a vampire," she said.
In spite of herself, Maera's curiosity was piqued. She flipped open the bloodstained cover of the first tome. Dea Vampir Becomos. The pages were stiff, and the binding crumbled a bit in her hands as she picked it up. Her heart was chilled as she read. "She was researching how vampires are made," she said, quickly turning a page to avoid a particularly gory illustration.
"You would think she already knew how it worked," Imoen replied, equally intrigued by the book she was skimming.
Maera bit her lip, and glanced at Kelsey's body, newborn hope fluttering weakly in her heart. "Do you think…"
Imoen tilted her head in understanding. "If there's a way to reverse it, I bet we'll find it in these."
The sisters settled in beside the pile of books, and Jaheira almost would have smiled to see the two refugees from Candlekeep back in their native environment if the task at hand had not been so grim. Bodhi had apparently been amassing her collection for some time, and it was not light reading. Here were the secrets of the transformation – the transference of blood, and the loss of the soul. The metaphysics were enough to make one's eyes cross. As they continued to plow through the books, Maera felt her eyelids begin to droop. When had she last slept? She wasn't even sure anymore.
"I think I found something!" Imoen exclaimed, and Maera started awake, realizing her head had come to rest on Minsc's shoulder.
"This may be it, Mae." Imoen tapped the pages of the book spread on the floor before her. "This book is full of stories from priests about run-ins with vampires, and one of them is really old, by a priest of… Amaunator?" She pursed her lips. "I am not familiar with that name."
"I am," Maera whispered.
"Anyway, they were in the Umar Hills…isn't that just a couple of days from here? They were in the Hills, and one of their group was attacked and incompletely turned by a vampire. They killed the sire before the transformation was finished. He says they took their comrade's body and 'laid him in the arms of the god' with the sire's heart…" She gave Maera a significant look. "And he was restored."
The words sunk in slowly. "The arms of the god…" Maera breathed. "Oghma's books. The temple in the Hills! The altar!" Her mind was ablaze with the possibilities, when a sobering thought struck her with cold reality. "But… that's two days from here at least. We can't keep Elhan waiting like that, I mean…we promised him, and who knows what Irenicus is doing in Suldenessellar, and-"
"Maera." Jaheira's voice was soft, but edged sharp as a knife. "Maera, would you deny Kelsey the chance to be restored out of a sense of duty to Elhan and the elves?"
From the corner of her eye, Maera could still see Kelsey's corpse. She had seen him thus in her nightmares, bloodless and loose-limbed, while the Slayer laughed. She shook her head, a tiny, tense movement. "No," she whispered.
"You have a duty to him as well, do you not?" Jaheira stepped close to her, gripping her upper arms almost tight enough to hurt. "Maera, sometimes, it is acceptable to be selfish. You should fear no one's approbation in doing so."
Maera's mouth moved, her eyes growing wet. She stood in stiff, desperate silence for what felt like half a lifetime, then cast Minsc a sudden, pleading look. "Can you carry him?"
She knew she was pushing them hard, but she couldn't stop. Every time Maera looked back at her three companions, doggedly keeping pace with her, her heart swelled with gratitude. They had all three lost so much, given up so much, for her, and yet they were still there.
It was long past sunset when they finally made a rough little camp near the roadside. They dispensed with a fire and tents, spreading their blankets under the open sky. Jaheira and Imoen were already lying down as Minsc carefully laid Kelsey's body, now wrapped in a tent canvas, down on a level patch of ground. He was in the process of digging another canvas from his pack when Maera stopped him. "Thank you, Minsc. I'll handle it from here."
Minsc pointedly finished withdrawing the canvas and covered Kelsey's still form with it. "I am helping."
The prim correctness of his tone made her want to laugh, but she had a feeling that if she did, it would come out with such hysteria she would not be able to stop. She settled for a sigh. "You shouldn't have to."
"Why not?" The ranger looked genuinely perplexed. "Kelsey is one of us. Boo has always liked him very much. Though not as much as you do," he added hastily. The potential laugh made it halfway out before she strangled it back, still unsure of her ability to control it. Minsc didn't seem to notice as he continued. "We could not save Dynaheir, or Khalid. But maybe we can save Kelsey, and that would be good, right?"
Her shoulders shook, but the tears streaming down her cheeks told she wasn't laughing. "Yeah. Yeah, that would be good."
They left the highway early, cutting cross-country towards the temple, and on the evening of the second day, they reached the altar. Imoen looked around, giving her arms a quick, nervous rub. "Shade Lord, huh?" Jaheira nodded. "Well, can't say you guys were sitting around doing nothing while I was gone, at least." Minsc picked his way over the broken paving stones and placed Kelsey's limp body in the statue's outstretched arms, fastidiously clearing a bit of detritus out of the way first. Maera unwrapped the thick cloth that covered Bodhi's heart and laid it on his chest. The twilight gathered about them, steel gray and chill. They waited. Maera could hear her heart pounding in her ears; every breath seemed to take an eternity. She felt like she should pray, but the only word she had, echoing loud as a drum in her mind, was please. Please.
The statue's eyes were made of some sort of golden mica, and at first, it seemed as if the setting sun simply caught them at a better angle, for they glowed faintly. The light gradually increased, until suddenly they flared, lit from somewhere deep within with a brilliant orange light. Bodhi's heart seemed to melt away like ice on a hot pan. And again they waited in silence.
Kelsey inhaled. He did not gasp dramatically, nor did he bolt upright. He simply began to breathe again. Color warmed his face, and the wound on his neck began to knit back together. Minsc quickly lifted him down from the statue's arms, propping him gently against the base, and the motion seemed to rouse him. Maera knelt by his side as his eyes flickered open. His hand groped for hers, and she took it, pressing it to her lips.
He swallowed dryly, squinting at her. "Maera?"
"It's me," she whispered. "I'm here."
"Details later, okay? How do you feel?"
"I-" He inhaled sharply, his eyes popping wide with distant horror. "Bodhi."
"Then you... you brought me back." With her help, he pulled himself up to sit under his own strength, his eyes resting on Imoen, Jaheira, and Minsc before gripping her hand so hard it almost hurt. "You brought me back." His eyes were dark with some unexpressed emotion as she wrapped her arms about him, and he slowly returned the embrace, sagging against her as if in relief.
He couldn't seem to warm up. He huddled before the fire in their room in the Imnesvale inn, wrapped in both his cloak and Maera's. She sat on the bed, trying to look like her attention was focused on the map before her, not him. He almost smiled. Surreptitiousness was not among her many talents.
Noticing his gaze, she gave up the charade, and moved to sit beside him on the floor, legs crossed, head tilted. "Do you...remember any of it?" she asked.
"Yes and no." Her eyes questioned him. "I saw things, when she bit me." His hand went to his neck, even though he knew there was no wound there anymore. "But I can't really describe them, because my mind just...gave up, like it was too much to bear. I remember seeing you, though. I thought you were there. And I wanted you, but not-" He rubbed his neck, fighting the phantom itch. "And I remember the blood. There was so much. Like an ocean. And I…I wanted more."
There was no horror in her eyes; she simply nodded. "I know what that's like. But it's over now, Kelsey. Bodhi's dead. You won't ever have to see those things again."
"I know." He turned his head to look at her fully. Her chest rose and fell with each breath she took; he had never realized how amazing the act of breathing truly was. "How do you do it?" he asked softly. "You have those awful dreams and visions…and you're still you."
She shifted under the weight of his gaze, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear uneasily. "I still maintain that being me isn't anything to get excited about," she said, trying for a lightness of tone she didn't feel.
He would not be deterred. He reached out and touched her face, cradling her cheek against his palm. Her skin was so warm. "It is, though. I couldn't face the darkness Bodhi had to show me for even a day. But you withstand a god. And you've done it for years. Maera…do you have any idea how incredible that is?" His eyes lingered on hers as his hand trailed down the side of her neck to her breast, resting over her heart. "Your heart's beating," he whispered.
She returned the gesture, placing her own hand over his heart. "So's yours." He breathed deep. It didn't just feel good to have her touch him, it felt right. He leaned forward, intending to kiss her lightly, but the contact of his lips to hers seemed to send a shock down his spine. He kissed her hungrily, urgently, and the force of it caught her off balance. Her arms pinwheeled, but it was too late. She landed on her back, his weight bearing her to the floor.
"I'm sorry," he said hastily, sitting up. "Are you okay?"
She chuckled from her supine position, and held open her arms. "I'm fine. Come here."
He smiled, and rested his head against her chest, her heartbeat echoing comfortingly in his ears. They lay there in silence, his fingers tapping on her collarbone with the rhythm of her pulse, and then he said, "The last thing I clearly remember, before waking up earlier this evening, was her telling me I belonged to her now. And I remember thinking, I can't. I already belong to someone else."
She didn't reply immediately, but her arms tightened around him. "Some things in this world just belong together," she whispered finally.
The silence lengthened pleasantly, and time became a distant concern. Maera shifted, and sighed deeply, prompting Kelsey to lift his head. Her eyes were closed, and her mouth was half open. She had fallen asleep on him again. Under him, this time, he corrected mentally. It was little wonder, though. She hadn't had a proper night's sleep in days. But he knew he could not join her. He felt as if he had been asleep for days – as she had gone without, he had been overindulged. He sat up, contemplating her sleeping form.
It would have been nice, he thought, to be able to sweep her up from the floor and carry her to bed, but reality laughed at him. He nudged her carefully, and helped her to bed, where she flopped onto her back without ever once opening her eyes. He pursed his mouth thoughtfully. At least she had already removed her corselet and jerkin, but that still left those damn leather pants. Even though the view they afforded was magnificent in every imaginable way, he had learned the hard way that getting them off, even with her help, could be an incredible pain. He sighed and started unfastening.
The fact she hadn't woken by the time he was done was a testament to just how exhausted she really was.
He tucked the blanket up around her as she rolled onto her side with a sigh. The trader's son and the god's daughter, he thought to himself as he kissed her hair gently. What a pair we make.
He slipped his notebook into his pocket and blew out the lamp, heading for the common room. He felt as though he ought to write, but there was so much to add from his last entry (which had ended with "Jaheira has just stopped by my room to inform me that she's bored. I suggested cards, she said yes. Odds I will regret this: 2:1."), that it almost seemed pointless to try. So he sat at the table closest to the fireplace, gazing into the embers.
Imoen knew she should be tired, but the return of her soul had been a jolt of energy she had yet to burn through. She stood in the door of the common room, and watched the redheaded sorcerer stare at the fireplace. It irritated her that she hadn't really had the chance to get to know him very well yet. That he and her sister had A Serious Thing would be obvious to the blind, and it certainly had been for her from the minute they showed up in Spellhold. Imoen truly was glad that Maera had found someone who made her happy, but before she could decide whether or not she approved of this arrangement, she felt like she needed to know him better. It was only fair. Maera may have come out with it, but she was only half of the equation.
She swung a chair around across the table from him and straddled it, all business. "All right, Red." He looked up, startled. "Here's what we're gonna do. You're gonna buy me a drink. We're gonna talk. And I'm gonna decide whether or not you get to keep sleeping with my sister."
He blinked. "You know, when Jaheira and I had this talk, she just threatened me to beat me to death. I didn't have to buy her anything."
Imoen laughed. "Well, for one, Jaheira's not much a drinker. And she also prefers to start with threats of violence and work her way back from there. It's a time saving thing."
His lips quirked. "So what are you drinking?"
"The cheapest swill they've got on tap."
One Beer Later
"I know it's not very exciting, but that's kind of the point, I guess," Kelsey said. "My life was just…there, you know? I didn't feel like I had a purpose. I was just marking time. Til the next season. And then the next one after that." He took another drink and made a face. "This stuff really is awful, Imoen. I've had the beer here before. The local brew is good. Why did you want this?"
Imoen grinned. "Well, if I'm gonna get drunk on your copper, I ought to be considerate, right? Besides, it's got you talking."
Two Beers Later
"And there was no way they weren't going to see me. I was a goner. But Maera's keeping watch for me, right? So she runs out into the hall, and trips all over herself. And it wasn't a trick fall, either. She banged up her knee really bad. But the distraction was enough that I was able to get out the window."
"Yikes…how old were you?"
"Twelve or so, I guess. She never told on me, but as soon as her knee healed, she beat the crap out of me." He laughed, and she waved a warning finger at him. "I've seen her with you, and she's all doe eyed and gooey now, but just you wait, my friend. She punches like a golem." She took another, thoughtful sip. "Though I suppose it's better when she gets it out of her system like that than when she holds a grudge. She didn't let me forget about the whiskey incident for YEARS."
"Well, I probably shouldn't… Oh, what the heck. We were about fifteen, and…"
Three Beers Later
"I can't imagine actually studying magic. I just…make it happen. And I've only just now gotten to the point where that doesn't terrify me. I have to say, I really respect mages. I mean, I'm sure you understand what's going on when you cast a spell a lot better than I do."
Imoen sighed into her drink. "I miss Dynaheir. She was the one who taught me the basics, you know. Gave me my first spellbook and an hour-long lecture on the responsibilities of a witch. She took that really seriously; in Rashemen, the witches are real pillars of the community. You don't study magic for fun there. I know a lot of people thought she was stuck up, but she was actually just really smart, and kinda shy, and super serious, so that's just how she came across. But she was a good teacher. She was good at explaining complicated things in simple terms."
Kelsey raised his mug. "To fallen friends?"
Four Beers Later
"I'm probably gonna regret asking this, but…I've gotta know. Give me a timeline here. When did you and Mae first…" She made an obscene hand gesture.
Kelsey sputtered foam from his beer all over the table.
Five Beers Later
"Imoen, keep your voice down!" There were only a few others in the common room, but Kelsey looked about self-consciously nonetheless.
"Sorry." Imoen didn't actually appear to be very apologetic at all. "But seriously, only twice? The way you two had been drooping after each other, I'd expected a much higher number, that's all."
Six Beers Later
"I don't need that freak Irenicus telling me I'm a Bhaalspawn for me to know Maera's my sister. And I mean, really, from what I understand, there are Bhaalspawn of every race you can imagine! Not just humans and elves and halflings, but gnolls, and kobolds, and maybe even dragons! So I dunno…it doesn't feel like the rest of them are my siblings. Why should they be? Sarevok called her 'sister' a lot, but I think he did that just to get under her skin.
"It takes more than that to make you family. Maera and I grew up together. She's my best friend. I don't even really remember much about my life before I came to Candlekeep. I had to have been at least ten, but my first really clear memory is meeting her there at the Keep. Like nothing was really important until then."
"Does that bother you?"
"Nah. If I can't remember it, there's no point in missing it."
Kelsey rested his cheek on his fist. "Well, I don't think anybody could say you and Maera aren't sisters, blood relation or not. She wouldn't. When the Cowled Wizards took you, she was willing to do anything to get you back. I've never met anyone so driven. It would almost be scary if it weren't so admirable. But she's absolutely fearless! You could see it in her eyes – she was going to find you and nothing was going to get in her way."
Imoen grinned. "Things that get in her way tend to end up in chunks." She shot him a look. "And I think it's safe to say that Bodhi's last mistake was grabbing you. I mean, Mae was gonna thump her anyway, but after that…" She whistled. "Nothing but a grease spot."
His ears reddened. "It wasn't just for me."
"Awww, you're cute when you're embarrassed!" She flicked a spot of foam off her mug at him, grinning. "Don't sell yourself short, Red. You've gotta have something going for you to get a catch like her."
Seven Beers Later
They lay outside in the grass, looking up at the stars, having firmly but tipsily cut themselves off. Imoen gazed up at the sky, a dreamy expression on her face. "So tell me, Kels…really, truly, and honestly. What are your intentions regarding my sister?"
Kelsey lolled his head over to look at her. "Oh, you're good."
She giggled. "Hells yes I am."
He turned his face back towards the sky, chuckling. "It's crazy really. We haven't known each other all that long, if you think about it. But the first time I saw her, it was like she reached out and pulled me to her, and I had no choice but to follow her. I looked into her eyes and I had to know who she was. I had to. And now, I can't imagine my life without her. She's changed everything, Imoen; how I look at life, myself, my magic. I think about my life, before that day on the Promenade, and I realize now that I couldn't have kept going like that for much longer. Something had to change. She was the spark.
"I didn't realize it at the time, but I think I fell in love with her in Trademeet. She was sitting by the fountain, laughing, and she was so beautiful. And I thought, she should get to be this happy every day. I wanted to let it last forever for her, because that's what she deserves."
"She has this light about her," Imoen murmured, "like one of those alabaster lamps. You can't see the flame inside, but it lights up the whole thing."
"Yeah, she does." He looked at her again. "Imoen, that was really eloquent."
"Don't let my simple exterior fool you," she said with inebriated haughtiness.
"So do I pass? Do I get to keep sleeping with her? Because one," he thrust a wobbling finger into the air, "you may give me crap about the twice thing, but I am very much looking forward to sending that number into double digits. Triple, actually, but I don't want to ahead of myself. And two," another finger joined the first, "I am just drunk enough to start expounding on how much I really, really like sleeping with her."
"Okay, I'm kind of a pervert, but I do not want to know how good my sister is in bed, or how much you want to get her there," she snorted. "And just remember, I can toast your butt if I have to, Red."
"I'd like to see you try!"
They both remained firmly horizontal. Imoen reached over and drunkenly patted his hand. "You know, I think you may be the one person in the Realms who loves her more than I do. That's good. I wouldn't want anything less for her."
"Thank you, Imoen." Kelsey, feeling his eyes go a little misty, suddenly laughed. "We are a lousy pair of sloppy drunks, you realize that?"
"And when it starts getting maudlin, it's time to pack it in!" Imoen cautiously rolled and climbed to her feet, swaying slightly. She held out a hand to help him up. "Tell you what. I'll speak your language so you know I mean it. You keep being good to her, and I won't blow you up. Deal?"
When Maera woke the next morning, she wasn't entirely sure how she had ended up in bed, nor why Kelsey, who snored beside her, was fully clothed and smelled of beer. She trusted that answers would be forthcoming. And she was right to do so, because as soon as he came to himself and realized both his state of dress and the state of his head, he explained all.
"It was fun," he said, absently smoothing his robe in a vain attempt to make himself more presentable. "I feel like we finally, really got to know each other. And I'm really glad, because she is your sister, and that's important, and…" He patted at his pockets and his expression soured. "And she stole my journal. That dirty little sneak."
Maera patted him on the shoulder in commiseration. "Welcome to the world of Imoen's friendship, honey."
Both the thief and the purloined item in question were in the common room, where Imoen lounged with her feet propped up on a table, much to the quiet disgust of the innkeeper. "Heya, Mae!" she hailed cheerfully as Maera and Kelsey entered. "Red."
"May I have my journal back, Imoen?" he asked.
Imoen did not acknowledge him, but said to Maera, "Mae, I hate to break it to you, but this guy? Complete pervert."
"Really." Maera's face was so neutral as to have been beige.
"Really! I borrow his journal for research purposes," - Kelsey snorted – "and I discover he's been writing his own personal pornography! He's been taking lascivious notes about you from day one! There is not a part of your anatomy he has not drooled over in prose!"
Maera cast Kelsey a speculative look. "I am suddenly deeply fascinated by the contents of this journal, Master Coltrane."
He waggled his eyebrows at her suggestively. "I can arrange a private reading, if you like."
Imoen turned green. "Ew."
"You steal someone's journal, you're bound to find out things you didn't want to know," Kelsey said.
"Borrowing implies asking. You didn't ask!"
"Borrowing implies that the item will be returned. I'm returning it!" She threw the notebook straight at Kelsey's head, and he caught it an inch from his nose.
"Oh, I get it. This isn't the start of a beautiful friendship, this is ritual abuse!"
"Can't it be both?"
Kelsey's reply was cut short by a sound from his side that neither he nor Imoen had heard in some time. A warm, rich laugh filled the room, a sound of genuine and heartfelt merriment. Holding her sides, tears of mirth in her eyes, Maera was laughing. Imoen and Kelsey shot each other puzzled looks as she leaned against the wall, wiping fruitlessly at her cheeks. She continued for some minutes, gasping to regain her voice, and when she had finally subsided to a hiccupy giggle, she said, "I'm really glad you two are friends now."