The Exile's Return

Minsc took the lead as they departed Imnesvale, for their path back to Elhan's outpost followed few roads. Though it was not easy going, Maera felt a peace of mind she not known in some time. With the Rhynn Lanthorn in hand, she could move forward again. No more chasing. Irenicus was within reach, and she was bringing the fight to him. The pieces were aligning to move into check, and she almost felt like she had an idea of how the board was arranged. It made a nice change.

Something else had changed, as well. The quiet, humming tension that had lurked between them all seemed washed away now. Behind her, Jaheira and Kelsey were comparing their knowledge of Tethyr ("Oh, I haven't been there in years." "I imagine you have been there more recently than I."), with Imoen making the occasional unhelpful comment. Kelsey spotted her looking over her shoulder at them, and smiled; she smiled back, and nearly tripped over a root in doing so. Imoen wasted no time in abusing her for it.

"You know, Mae, he looks the same today as he did yesterday. No point in twisting your ankle just because you have to check." And despite her reddened face and slightly abraded pride, Maera had to laugh.

The other subtle change presented itself that evening as they made camp by a small winding steam. Entirely without discussion, she and Kelsey placed their packs and blankets in a single tent, and it struck her that, at some point she could not exactly name, they had Become Official. Wasn't there supposed to be a talk that went with that? How had they managed to pass that milestone without even noticing? But then, it didn't seem there was a single thing yet they had managed to do the normal way. Thus far, every occasion of import between them had come at an unexpected time and place, marked more by some unspoken understanding of its rightness, rather than any external marker. And as she drew her honing steel down Daystar's blade that evening, she realized she was all right with that.

He sat near her, writing in his journal once more, though she caught him watching her a few times (probably not as often as he caught her doing the same, however). Minsc hummed tunelessly to himself as he buffed his breastplate, and Jaheira sat close to the fire, mending a shirt. Maera smiled. How ridiculously domestic.

It was almost perfect.

Imoen was sketching a pattern of lines in the dirt near the fire with a stick, and glanced up with a glint in her eye. "Hey Kels," she said, "wanna let me kick your butt at checkers?"

Kelsey's eyebrows went up. "You're awfully sure you can. You know what they say about assuming, Imoen."

"That it's actually an elvish homonym for 'Imoen's gonna win'?"

Kelsey pursed his lips, shot a quick look at Maera, then shook his head. "Okay, I can't beat that. But…" He pocketed his journal, and seated himself on the challenger's side of Imoen's makeshift checkers board. "I will beat you at this."

Imoen cackled dramatically and moved her first piece. Maera watched them for a moment, wondering why her vision seemed blurry. She looked towards Jaheira, who had stopped mid stitch, the shirt in her lap seemingly forgotten. Oh good. She wasn't the only one with tears in her eyes.

Kelsey's eyes snapped open the next morning. A vision filled his mind, an image of such perfect clarity he could see it as though it were right before his eyes. Maera was still asleep, curled on her side with an arm draped across his chest, and under any other circumstance, he would have taken a moment to enjoy that, but the vision pressed at the fore of his brain, clambering and insistent. His hands tingled in an odd, familiar way as he worked his way out from under Maera's arm and hastily dressed.

Jaheira was up, having had the last watch, and greeted him as he exited the tent, but his reply was distracted at best. He looked about their campsite searchingly. Someplace that wasn't flammable. Non-flammable was very important. His eyes lit on a small outcropping of slate overhanging the creek. Perfect. He hurried to the rock, closed his eyes, and let the vision become reality.

A perfect circle of fire surrounded him, a wall of flame several inches thick and at least six feet in diameter. Within, the air was still cool and fresh, but he could see the grass on the edges of the rock withering before the heat. He noticed Jaheira watching, a hand on her hip, head cocked. "A new spell, I take it?" she asked.

He nodded with a grin. "Yeah, it just…came to me."

"I can see a distinct defensive advantage in its use."

He was about to agree when Minsc pushed his way out of his tent. The ranger straightened with a huge yawn, but then his eyes focused on Kelsey, and widened with horror. "Boo!" he cried, addressing the hamster on his shoulder, "Kelsey is on fire!"

Jaheira threw out a hand, catching Minsc across the chest as he started forward. "He is fine, Minsc. It is a new spell; he is quite all right, I assure you."

"Oh." He looked back at Boo. "Jaheira says he is fine. You panicked."

"Wow, Red," Imoen said from the open flap of her tent. She rubbed her eyes. "I'm guessing you're a morning person."

Kelsey thought about retorting, but settled for shaking his head with a chuckle. Confident now in his control of the flames, he was about to let them die when he saw Maera exit their tent. Her cross expression faded as she caught sight of him, her mouth opening slightly in surprise.

"So can you control the height, too?" Imoen snooped about the heat perimeter, looking almost disturbingly intrigued.

"Um…I think so." He closed his eyes again, concentrating, and the fire responded, roaring up over his head. When he opened them, he saw Maera still watching him, biting her lip. She took a quick step back, and then sprinted towards him, passing through the fire in one long stride, and plowing into his arms with such force they nearly both went into the stream behind them.

"Hi," she grinned, breathless.

"What did you do that for?" he demanded. "You could have hurt yourself!"

She looked about them, still pressed against him, eyes bright with wonder. "Maybe. Worth it for the view, though."

That errant strand of hair at her forehead was in her eyes again, and as he brushed it slowly back behind her ear, he realized that before he had met her, he would do everything he could to avoid casting in front of others unless it was absolutely necessary. Now I don't even think about it. Hell, now I do it to show off. "You like?" he murmured.

"Very much." Her smile was brilliant, and ever so slightly wicked. It reminded him of a honey-flavored kiss near the Trademeet fountain in the light of the setting sun; it was the smile he would have walked back through the Underdark ten times over for. He had missed that smile. His hands moved to cup her face. He hadn't planned on kissing her. It was just one those things that seemed to happen on its own. Her arms tightened around his waist, and for one radiant instant, all things in the planes were aligned in perfect harmony.

Jaheira coughed, loudly. "The sun is climbing," she stated in a matter-of-fact tone. Kelsey tore his attention from Maera, whose face was such an appealing shade of pink it was all he could do not to kiss her again, and saw that Minsc and Imoen (the bearer of a pronounced smirk) were already striking their tents. He closed his eyes again, sheepish, and the fire dwindled away, leaving only a scorched ring on the slate.

As they departed the campsite, Imoen snickered at her sister. "You know, I'm glad we've got Kelsey around, Mae. Now he's the one who gets you in trouble."

From farther up the line, Jaheira commented coolly, "That does not mean I do not have my eye on you, Imoen. Far from it." Imoen made a face at her back. "And sticking out your tongue only dries it."

They arrived at the elven outpost at dusk two days later, and Elhan himself was waiting for them. Obviously, their approach had been noticed and anticipated. The general's expression was tense, and it was clearly taking every bit of civility he possessed not to demand they empty every pocket and pouch as soon as they were within ten paces. Maera almost smiled at his anxiety, but didn't, because she knew that, in truth, it was no laughing matter. This was business.

Jaheira reached into her pack and presented Elhan with the small lantern, wrapped in a soft cloth. He turned the Rhynn Lanthorn over in his hands, his touch gentle and reverent. "Not a scratch," he breathed. "Maybe some part of her could not bear to harm it, even after all this time. Maybe she still…" He shook his head. "The past is done. She made her choices." He glanced at them sharply, a soldier once more. "And she is dead?"

"Well and truly," Maera replied. The general nodded.

"Good." Elhan spoke over his shoulder to his aide, his Elvish almost too quick for Maera to keep up with. In the tradition of library brats everywhere, she could read it far better than she could speak it. "Alert the troops. We move out at dawn. But leave a rear guard on the cave."

"Have there been any further drow attacks since our departure, General?" Jaheira asked.

"No, there have not," he said, switching back to Common. "It isn't that I don't trust your word regarding the state you left them in. Call it…an excess of caution." He looked down at the Lanthorn. "But they won't have to remain for long. This will lead us all home."

Unerring as a compass, the Lanthorn pointed the way through the tangled woods of north Tethyr, and Elhan made no apologies for the pace they kept. Maera could respect his sense of urgency; she knew all too well the feeling that time and distance were conspiring to prevent intervention. It would seem she and the general had that in common, so there would be no complaints from her quarter. Ultimately, it was a day and a half's hard march to the place where Suldanessellar should have been, and Elhan called a halt as they neared the invisible location of the city's main gate. The general walked forward slowly, hands extended, and stopped as the Lanthorn's light fell across the grass. Like the popping of a soap bubble, the gate was there.

Not so long ago, it had been a beautiful, imposing structure, wrought from brushed copper and polished wood. Now one half swung drunkenly from its topmost hinge, and the other lay in smashed pieces on the ground. Beyond the ruined gate was a paved platform, from which curved walkways wrapped themselves along the towering trees, leading to the shops and homes of the people of Suldanessellar. The illusion broken, they could smell smoke and sulfur. Elhan's face whitened. "By Rillifane," he whispered. "What has he done here?" He squared his shoulders, taking obvious refuge in his training, and addressed the assembled elven soldiers. "We need intelligence. We have to know what's going on here in the city." He began to tick off items on his fingers. "We need to determine the strength of the enemy's forces, we need know the position and condition of our own troops, we need to find and protect the civilians, and we have to discover what has happened to the Queen and the Whiteleaf. We will establish a defensive position here at the gate. From here, we will make sorties into the city to achieve those goals." He turned to the adventurers. "Maera, I trust that I can rely upon the continued aid of your party."

"Of course, General. The city has to be secured, and you definitely know about how to do that better than I do."

The general allowed himself a small smile in the manner of one indulging in just one candy. "Even so, it is...comforting to know that our goals continue to coincide."

Maera looked around, at the sunlight cutting feebly through the smoky, yellowed air, at the elven soldiers hauling parts of the broken gate forward to form the beginnings of a barricade. "I'm sorry if I gave you cause to believe that they wouldn't. General; I do want Irenicus. I want back what's mine. And I want to be the one who sees to it that he pays for it. But this..." She gestured around them with a shake of her head. "I don't know why he hates you and your people, but I'd say this is pretty much the classical definition of a disproportionate response."

"Indeed," Elhan murmured. His expression hardened, and a snap of his fingers brought an aide trotting over with a map of the city, affixed to a bit of board. "Head north," he said. "We will likely have to take this city back one house at a time."

Maera wiped the blood off her sword and nudged the drow corpse at her feet. This was the third empty house they'd found in two hours, with no sign of the inhabitants but bloodstains. They had found a small clutch of survivors in another home earlier (there had been children among them, a fact that both enraged and comforted her), and directed them to Elhan's fortification at the gate. But her mood was black as, after searching the house and finding it devoid of friendly life, they pushed onward.

Even fighting in the daylight with ordinary steel weapons, the drow had left little in their wake but horrors. It was obvious the elven troops trapped by the illusion had faced brutal opposition, evidenced by the bodies and discarded arms. Imoen pressed the back of her hand to her mouth as they rounded a bend and found themselves faced with the days-old aftermath of a clash between the city guard and the invaders. "Gods," she whispered, "why has he done this?"

If only they had gotten there sooner, Maera thought. Just a few days might not have changed much, but maybe they could have saved these unfortunates...

Jaheira shook her head, her expression cold and hard as naked steel in a blizzard. "Life has no meaning to him. None."

Just a few days earlier... Maera felt Kelsey watching her, and she realized they were thinking the same thing. Had the trip to Imnesvale been justified? Had his life been worth it?

She remembered Jaheira's words in Bodhi's crypt: You should fear no one's approbation. She couldn't agonize over the reasoning behind every decision. She couldn't second guess her every choice. Madness lay down that road, fueled by grief and anguish and the knowledge that she could never do enough.

It had to have been. It had to have been worth it, or nothing was.

She nodded, holding his gaze. Yes, she mouthed.

He looked to the side, unconvinced, a wash of guilt suffusing his features and she stepped close to him, gripping his shoulder, her voice lowered for his ears only. "I'm the one who chose to go to Imnesvale, Kelsey. It was my decision. And if any judgment for that choice is going to fall on anyone, it will be me. Don't you dare blame yourself."

He glanced at her sidelong. "It's not that easy."

"I know it's not."

He covered her hand with his, a ragged smile trying to tug at his lips. "Thank you."

She nodded again, and stepped away. There was no time to say more, and nothing to be gained in lingering, so they continued on, around the curve of the house. A soft, wooden creak, an unsurprising sound in a city of tree limbs, met their ears after a few paces, then the twang of a bowstring, and an arrow grazed across the top of Maera's shoulder, nicking the leather of her jerkin. "Hey!" she protested.

"They're not drow!" exclaimed a frightened male voice in Elvish.

"What was your first clue?" snapped Kelsey in kind, his right hand raised. Imoen, a half pace to his left, drew her own bow.

Jaheira lowered her staff and raised her free hand in a placating gesture. "We are here with General Elhan," she said, also in Elvish, the smoothness of her accent betraying the noble origins she never liked to talk about. "The illusion is broken, and we are here to help."

A trio of young elves stepped from the darkness of a half-collapsed portico. The two young males wore mages' robes, and the female toying nervously with her bowstring wore a sword at her hip. Maera's heart ached for them – in elvish terms, they were barely past adolescence, green and out of their depth. But they were still alive, and that had to count for something.

"The illusion's broken? The General's here?" The dark haired mage who had spoken before closed his eyes in profound relief. He stared up at Minsc, who smiled the genial, non-threatening smile of the very large. "But you're humans!" Catching a closer look at Jaheira's face, he flushed. "Most of you."

"We're here for the cause of this," Maera said. She tried not to sigh as she spoke. She knew she shouldn't compare her accent to Jaheira's, but she couldn't help it. "The mage, Irenicus. Your people call him The Exile, though no one will tell me why."

The other mage, taller and fairer than his friend, shrugged. "I don't know the whole story. That was before our time." He indicated the female archer. "This is Naren. I'm Velkin, and this is Madeth."

"Well, if you can't answer that question," Maera said, "you can at least tell us what's been going on here."

They ducked into the empty house, and the three young soldiers sank to the floor as one. "We've been hiding for three days," said Madeth glumly.

"We haven't really rested all that much," Velkin added, rubbing his face.

"Or eaten." Naren was still plucking her bowstring.

"Everyone else in our unit is dead," Madeth continued. "There are still people holed up in their homes, but we didn't want to endanger them by trying to seek them out. So we don't really know what's going on. We've just been trying to stay alive; avoid the drow patrols and the golems."

Imoen paled. "Golems?"

Madeth nodded. "Clay ones, mostly, but we've seen some stone ones too."

"Tell them about the rakshasa," Naren murmured, nudging him.

"Oh yeah…"

"Of course!" Maera exclaimed in Common, too thunderstruck by her sudden epiphany to remember not to. "He didn't make the illusion himself, he contracted it out!" Realizing she'd interrupted, she cleared her throat and subsided. "Sorry. Go on."

"We were near the temple two nights ago. There were rakshasa guards outside…apparently the Exile's given it to them since the drow got done with it. They have some kind of holy day coming up in another day or so, and it sounded like they're planning to sacrifice Whiteleaf Demin!"

This was met with a universally blank look. "Who's that?" Kelsey asked.

"The high priestess of Rillifane's temple!" Velkin supplied in frustration.

That got the desired reaction. An exclamation of shock rippled through the group. Maera felt ill. "Sacrificing a priestess in her own temple?"

Jaheira looked equally repulsed. "First he lets the drow desecrate it, and now this?"

"But she's still alive now!" Naren said. "There's still a chance to save her. And I know we can't, but maybe you can! And if you do that, then retaking the temple will be the next step, and from there, we'll be in a position to move on the palace. We'll be able to save the Queen and the Tree!"

The adventurers were back to blank stares. "The Tree of Life?" Velkin offered. They shook their heads. He looked at Jaheira. "Lady, even you don't know?"

She shifted uncomfortably. "Assume my knowledge is no greater than a human's."

The three elves exchanged glances, and Madeth sighed, having seemingly been elected spokesman by some sort of silent vote. "The Tree was planted by Rillifane himself. It is the center of Suldanessellar. The city and the Heartwoods would cease to exist if something happened to it. It…it is the city."

"And Queen Ellesime is Rillifane's child," Velkin added. "Her bloodline is tied to the Tree, and vice versa. They are the living embodiment of the Leaflord's blessing, and without them…"

Cold certainty washed over Maera. "He means to utterly destroy this city. Tear it apart from the inside out." She fought off the shiver that arced down her spine, and shook her head. "You three should head back to the south gate and report in to your general. I'm sure he'll be even more interested in what you've learned than we are." She looked at her group. "And I guess the five of us will go find this priestess of yours."

They had just departed the house when they all got the distinct sensation they were being watched. In a second, they knew why. It was a testament to the robustness of elvish construction that, despite its delicate appearance, the tree-climbing walkway barely shuddered under the golem's weight. They scarcely had time to notice the lumbering creature before it was upon them, ten feet of baked clay in the rough shape of a man, before the glowing eyes lit on Maera, and the massive fist swung down. She dove out the way, scrambling to get her feet back under her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kelsey raise his hands – there was a crack, the grinding sound of ceramic sliding against itself, and dust rained lightly down upon her.

"Kelsey," Imoen said, expressionless, "you just blew up a golem."

He was more than a little surprised himself. "I did, didn't I?"

"Boo likes the lightning the best," said Minsc, not to be left out.

Kelsey's lightning had struck the golem directly in the chest with such force it had cracked cleanly all the way through. The construct now lay in several shattered chunks before them. Velkin and Madeth stared in awe, then bolted towards Kelsey, voices overlapping in excitement. "Was that sorcery?" "That was amazing!"

Jaheira firmly interjected her staff between the oncoming mages and the sorcerer. "He is not a circus attraction!" Kelsey looked relieved at her intervention, his flushed face caught between pride and embarrassment.

Maera couldn't help but smile as she pushed herself to her feet. She bumped him with her shoulder as she moved back to the head of the line, murmuring, "I'll thank you later." His eyes widened ever so slightly, and in them, she could see his sense of propriety go to sudden war with the reply he obviously wanted to make. Sometimes, she thought as she brushed golem dust from her jerkin, you have to make your own reasons to smile.

The three young soldiers directed them towards the priestess Demin's house, it being the most logical location to begin a search for her. After sending the trio back to the gate, the adventurers continued through the battered city. The sound of violence rose from the west – Elhan's reinforcements clashing with Irenicus's invaders. Maera silently wished them good fortune.

Demin's house was a smallish dwelling in the shadow of Rillifane's temple, which was located a level above, nearer the tree crown. A pair of rakshasa, clad in scarlet silk stiff with embroidery, kept an indolent guard at the priestess's door. They appeared bored and languorous, but the twitch of the tiger-men's tails betrayed their watchfulness. "There's not going to be much surprising them," Maera murmured as they peeked around a corner.

"They're pretty resistant to magic, aren't they?" Kelsey asked, nervously clenching his fist around a sling bullet.

"From what I know about them, yes. But there's more than one kind of magic…" Maera glanced at Jaheira, and the druid smiled.

Even the sharp ears of the rakshasa could not hear her whispered invocation. And at first, they did not notice the slowly shifting foliage around them. But all at once, the vines burst forth, engulfing them in a tide of thick stems strong as steel and leaves the size of dinner plates. They hissed and swore in their own language, unable to free themselves as Maera and Minsc descended on them.

"They probably heard that inside, Minsc," Maera said, giving the corpse at her feet one last poke. "Would you be so kind as to let us in?" The ranger, who had never met a door that didn't need kicking down, happily obliged her.

A single female rakshasa, saber drawn, was on the stairs before them. Maera heard Imoen's bow creak, and ducked as her sister's shot caught the creature in the throat. But she was only the first; more were hard on her heels, and Maera lunged for the one whose furred hands moved in arcane gestures, slicing low across its abdomen. Behind her, she heard Imoen chant the slippery words of a spell, and anything went blue for a moment as the protective shield she'd created sprang into being around them. Minsc grabbed one of the tiger-men by the ankle, wrenching him over the banister with a snap of bone, and clearing a path for Maera to dash up the stairs.

There was a single room at the top of the stairway; apparently her holiness the Whiteleaf had no need for showy quarters. The door stood open, and an elven woman sat on the floor, chained to the foot of the bed, her face watchful at the sound of combat below. She had obviously been in that state for several days, and her captors had clearly seen no need to let her wash in that time. A yellowing bruise marked her long oval face from temple to jaw, but general dishevelment seemed to be the worst of Demin the Whiteleaf's suffering. Her dark green eyes were calm and steady, and they measured Maera as sharply as if she were the one doing the rescuing. "I do not know you," she said. "Dare I hope that General Elhan has returned to us and you have come in his train, or are you some worse fate descending in our hour of weakness?" She tilted her head and added, "That's a lovely sword. I'd hate for you to notch the blade trying to cut these chains, so if you don't have the key, I wouldn't bother."

The sound of fighting from downstairs had diminished, and Maera sheathed her sword. "I and my party are here with the General, yes," Maera replied. "My name is Maera."

"Forgive me for stating the obvious, but you are human. How have you come here, and for what purpose?"

"I am here for Jon Irenicus. Your Exile has something of mine."

The priestess tensed and caught her breath. "What did he do to you?" she whispered, as though dreading the answer.

There were booted feet on the stairs, Minsc's heavy step almost drowning out the others. Maera watched Demin carefully as she answered. Finally, someone who could tell her something. Someone who had better, hissed a tiny part of her mind. "He created a ritual to remove my soul and transfer it into him. Whatever his reasons for attacking this city, he's doing it with strength he stole from me."

Demin closed her eyes, and pressed her mouth to one balled fist. "Merciful gods." Her face paled and the great jaundiced bruise stood out all the more terribly for her pallor. She looked up as the rest of the party entered the room.

"Oh!" Imoen said brightly, swinging a key on the end of her index finger. "I bet that's what this opens!" She unlocked Demin's chains, and the priestess pulled herself to her feet, stretching her shoulders and rubbing her wrists, still stunned from Maera's words.

"Whiteleaf Demin?" Maera asked softly. There was a buzzing in her brain, and if she did not keep her tone even, she could not be sure what she might do. "You know why he's doing this, don't you?" Demin nodded. "Then tell me: why do you call him the Exile?"

Demin gazed at the floor for a long, silent moment, then jerked her eyes up, forcing herself to look at Maera full in the face. She swallowed, licked her lips, started to speak, then said nothing. She repeated the sequence twice more before saying, "What I am about to tell you has never been shared with any outsider, and when I am done, I hope you will see why. The Exile, Irenicus you call him…his actions are a black mark on Suldanessellar, a source of deep, deep shame to us all."

"Why do you say that?" Maera asked.

"Because he is – was – one of us."

"He's no elf!" Imoen scoffed.

"No. No, he's not. Not now, anyway," Demin said, sitting on the edge of her bed and making a vague 'seat yourself' gesture. "And I imagine his appearance has undergone some…modification in the intervening years. He was always fascinated by that."

Kelsey's brow furrowed as he settled onto the floor next to Maera. "How does one stop being an elf?"

Demin took a deep breath, and braced herself. "His soul was stripped from him."

Maera was suddenly very glad she was already sitting. She felt as though she had been punched in the gut by a lead golem, leaving her stomach to drop through the floor beneath her. "Why?" she whispered.

"The Tree," Demin said, her voice soft and utterly miserable. She coughed, and raised her voice to continue. "He and his sister were brilliant, you see. She was the researcher, and he was the visionary. They devoured knowledge…anything they could learn, they did."

Maera wasn't entirely sure where the problem with that was. "'Wisdom is possessed only by the learned'," she quoted.

Demin cocked an eyebrow. "An Oghmaite? Unusual, in your profession." She shook her head, apparently regretful this was no time for a discussion of comparative religions. "I think even the most zealous of your faith would agree that there are boundaries one should not cross – means of obtaining knowledge that are ultimately more harmful than beneficial." Maera shrugged and nodded. "It is one thing to desire to know the secrets of the planes, of life and death. It is another to seek that information at the expense of others.

"It started small. Strange books, delivered with the seals of the Zhentarim and the Red Wizards. Odd questions about non-divine means of restoring life. Rumors of live kobolds and goblins brought to the city, but none knew where they went or what happened to them. Then we discovered the humans." Demin swallowed, her face twisted as if forcing down a bitter taste. "They had been experimenting on them, torturing them, using their lives to power ritual spells." Imoen and Maera exchanged a chilled glance as Demin continued. "Ellesime, the Queen, was horrified, and many demanded their immediate exile from the city and the Heartwoods. But before she could make her final decision, they took the matter out of her hands.

"They stole into the palace one night, and attempted to bond themselves to the Tree of Life. If they had been successful, they would have usurped the divine link between us and our patron deity. They would have been like gods. Whether that had been the ultimate goal of their research all along or whether it came to them in the course of it, I do not know, but it was clear at that point that something more drastic than exile was called for." The silence was absolute. Demin interlaced her fingers and heaved a huge breath. "The common citizenry was outraged. Elhan called for their execution, and his voice was seconded by the chief wizards, and the druids, who were particularly vociferous." Jaheira chuckled humorlessly. "I had only recently been elevated to Whiteleaf, but ultimately the decision lay with the Queen."

"Obviously she didn't have them executed," Kelsey said. "Why not?"

Demin's eyes dropped, her pale, narrow face flushed. "All these years, and the memory still burns," she muttered. "Ellesime loved him. She loved Joneleth, so very much, and it broke her heart to see that she had loved a façade. There was an entire world within him he had hidden from her. And yet, she could not kill him. She knew exile was no longer sufficient punishment, so she suggested we petition Rillifane; have the Leaflord remove their souls, the essence of their elvishness, and then exile them. She justified it saying it was a fate worse than death, but we all knew the truth. As Whiteleaf, I could have overridden her request. I could have refused her, could have thrown in my vote with the others." Her voice trembled, and tears slid down her cheeks as she sucked in a breath. "But she is not just my Queen, and I do not simply revere her as the daughter of my god. She is my friend! And I could not bear to oppose her. I gave in; I went along with her ridiculous plan because I could not bear to hurt her more." She laughed bitterly, wiping her eyes with shaking fingertips. "She loved him too much to put him to death, and I loved her too much to force her to." She glanced up at Maera. "So it would seem, my young friend, that you are little more than an innocent in the path of the machine, brought to grief on wheels set in motion long before you were born."

Maera found herself echoing Demin's humorless laugh. "That's basically the story of my life." She took a deep breath, still working her way through the information. She wasn't angry, and that surprised her. Perhaps she would be later, but her first instinct was pity, and she wasn't even sure why. Who had they been before, Irenicus and his sister? What had their aim been in their experiments, and how had they justified it to themselves? Was it mere vengeance that had turned them back on Suldanessellar, or something darker still?

And suddenly, the board was laid out before her, the position of every piece clear as day. It all made sense; Bodhi's capricious desire to hurt, and Irenicus's chill calm, both fueled by a rage almost too deep for expression. "He's in the palace now. With the Queen," she said. "All he's ever wanted, all these years, was a second chance at the Tree."

Demin nodded. "He always was single-minded. He may very well be successful this time, and who knows what he could do with that kind of power." She stood, and crossed the room to an armor rack, where an elegantly lacquered suit of mail hung. On the stand beside it was a beautifully turned wooden cudgel that seemed to glow faintly in the gloom of the corner. She lifted the weapon, and hefted it, calm and strength returning her face. "We must retake the Temple," she said. "Reestablishing our link to our patron is paramount if we wish to assault the palace and destroy the Exile once and for all. We will remain here tonight and make our plans." She returned the cudgel to the rack, turning back to them, the iron returned to her eyes. No longer Demin the wounded and shamed, she was the Whiteleaf, highest priestess of Rillifane the Leaflord. "It is obvious there is much I need to know, Maera. Tell me everything."

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