At the Den of the Seven Vales, a conference was in session. Or at least that's what Maera would have called it in another, more sane time. She sat in the corner, knees drawn to her chest, staring into a cup of mediocre wine as Minsc and Jaheira stared each down like mountain rams preparing to charge. The image made her want to laugh hysterically, but a deeper, more primal survival instinct warned that that would be a very bad thing indeed.
Besides, if she started laughing now, she might never stop.
"We cannot stumble blindly after the mage, no matter how sorely we are tempted!" Jaheira's nostrils flared. "We must regroup and PLAN."
"He is a villain! Why should he not pay for what he has done?" Minsc demanded, his voice ragged with frustration.
Maera glanced up as Yoshimo slid onto the bench beside her. "Fair friend," he said quietly, "are you well?"
She drew in a shuddering breath, raking a hand through her hair. "I've had worse shocks. Not many, but I have had them." She watched as Jaheira's body tightened like a spring. Time to be proactive. "I'll be all right…but I need to break them up." She handed him the wine cup and stood. "Please, both of you, let's sit down and catch our breath."
Minsc towered over her, his broad face dark as a storm cloud. "Boo says we cannot wait! Dynaheir's killer has slipped through our grasp like a greased weasel!"
Yoshimo held up the wine cup with an 'are you going to drink this?' look. Maera shrugged, and he drank. She wasn't sure what to make of him yet. Why he had chosen to involve himself with three grieving, traumatized strangers was beyond her. "I would not call his capture by the Cowled Wizards an escape, large one," the thief said. "They have little love for competition. He will likely find myself under their gentle ministrations for some time to come."
Maera rested her hands on Minsc's huge biceps. "He knows more about this than we do, Minsc. The most important thing right now is finding out how to get Imoen back, so I have to take Jaheira's side. I want to make sure that mage pays for what he did to Dynaheir and Khalid, but we've obviously stepped into a swamp here, and we have to be sure we can find a solid path. Otherwise we won't do any of them any good." She deliberately caught the eye of the hamster sitting on Minsc's shoulder. "Boo? Do you understand?"
Minsc cocked his head as Boo nosed about his ear. His face fell, and he sat heavily, his chosen seat groaning slightly. "Boo says he understands. He does not like swamps."
"Neither do I," Maera said. She glanced over at Jaheira, who had sagged into a seat of her own. "Jaheira? Are you…"
"I am fine."
"No, you're not."
"Then I shall be fine." The druid's lips were compressed to a tight line, almost white against her olive skin. "I do not like being among so many people. I wish to meditate and I fear I shall not be able to in such surroundings. I will seek what solitude I can, elsewhere. You will understand, I am sure."
Maera sighed and rubbed her forehead. "I understand, Jaheira. I…I guess I'll see you later."
"Indeed." Jaheira swept towards the bar - to purchase a private room, no doubt – her chin set so firmly as to be a danger to those she passed.
"Solitude does sound good at the moment, actually." Maera said softly. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen." She ducked into a small antechamber off the common room and leaned against the wall, trying to breathe. Closing her eyes, she felt inside her jerkin and undershirt, feeling the new scars that criss-crossed her left breast, scars she didn't remember getting. What had Irenicus done to her? Why couldn't she remember it? Her last clear memory was the camp a few miles from Baldur's Gate. They had planned to wake early and be in the city by mid-morning. But something had happened that night, something she couldn't recall, and the next thing she knew, she was in a cold damp cage, body aching and a fresh wound dripping blood into her right eye as Imoen shook her awake.
Imoen. She had remembered. And what she remembered had sent her up onto that piece of rubble, angrier than Maera had ever seen. Not just angry. Enraged. Whatever had happened in that chilly, forbidding laboratory had filled Imoen with more rage than Maera had ever known that small frame capable of holding. But now she was all alone with those awful memories to prey on her, snatched away from the people who loved her for breaking some bizarre law she'd known nothing about. Maera shuddered, her eyes burning, her throat tightening. No, she couldn't cry now. Not now. Not for Imoen, not for Khalid, not for Dynaheir. Not now. Not yet.
Deep breaths. There is peace at the center. She let herself slip back into the memory. She was 13, and Gorion stood before her in the training room. Her eyes were closed, and she was listening. "My child, today we will work on your concentration. You possess great martial talent, but to translate that talent into skill you must learn control. Now, take a deep breath, and exhale slowly." She did as she was told. Book lessons bored her, and he had given up on trying to teach her magic years ago, but honing her fighting skills was exhilarating. "Inhale, and exhale again. Is there any tension in your chest, Maera?"
"Then continue. With every breath, release the tension until it is gone."
"What happens when it's gone?"
"You will find the center. There is peace at the center, for a truly prepared warrior. Otherwise you will strike with anger or pride, and they will fail you. Do you feel it?"
"Then open your eyes." She did, and caught the quarterstaff he threw. For a mage and scholar, Gorion was a keen duelist with a staff, but that was the first day she almost beat him. The next day, she did.
Deep breaths. The tightness subsided, and the burning managed to taper off to a few tears and a runny nose. Nothing could be gained by losing her head, and nothing accomplished by standing still. She would mourn for her fallen and fear for her lost later. She marched back out in the common room, grabbed the half-drunk cup of wine from Yoshimo and drained it to the dregs. "You know this city better than we do. What do you advise we do next?"
He gazed up at her calmly, unruffled by her reclamation of her wine. "You seek information, yes?"
"As much of it as I can wring out of this town."
"Then we must begin in a less...well-appointed venue. All things, even answers, naturally seek the lowest point, and there are very low places in Athkatla."
She wanted to be more suspicious of the mysterious thief, but dammit, she liked the way he talked. "Then where do we start?"
"There is a tavern in the slums known the Copper Coronet."
"And it's a low place?"
"The lowest I have ever known."
It had been more than a tenday since the disturbance on Waukeen's Promenade, and Kelsey was beginning to wonder if he was losing his mind. He didn't even know her name, but whatever she was involved in, whatever had brought her to that place, he had to know, because if he knew where she was going, maybe he would finally know for himself. His fixation on the idea unnerved to him to a degree; he couldn't explain it, even to himself. It was more than simple curiosity. It was a need. He hadn't needed anything in years.
It didn't help that he was no closer to learning anything concrete. In the past week, there had been rumors of a slave ring in the slums, centered at the Copper Coronet tavern, being broken in spectacular fashion. So spectacular, in fact, that some counting-house wags were claiming it had to be the work of Harpers or some company of big-name northern adventurers. Idle speculation or not, he'd chased down the reports; he couldn't bring himself to believe that dramatic happenings didn't follow the mystery woman wherever she went. And that impulse was rewarded at the Coronet with whispered, awestruck tales of a golden-haired woman with fire in her eyes, kicking down doors and cutting down slavers. But by the time he'd gotten there, she and her companions were already long gone.
And just that morning, as he crossed Government Park, he'd heard talk of an invasion of trolls being beaten back from the keep of a country baron by the name of De'Arnise. He had a good guess who were responsible for that. But what could he do now? If she had already left Athkatla, how could he possible find her? He couldn't delay his own departure much longer anyway; he'd have to take another job soon, if only to put off having to head back east again for just that much longer. And the fact that his purse was starting to get a bit thin – especially since buying all that information in the slums – was not lost on his internal ledger sheet, either.
Wasn't this all just a little far to the side of crazy, anyway?
Kelsey sighed, leaning against the marble retaining wall of a fountain and scrubbing his face. It had seemed like a great idea. It had seemed like the best idea, but he'd only been fooling himself. Whatever she was mixed up in, there wasn't any room for someone like him – a merchant who could do magic that wasn't like regular magic. Magic that came from nowhere and didn't seem to care what his opinions of it were.
He gazed into the rippling water morosely. Over the fountain's gentle murmuring, he heard people approaching in booted feet, but he gave them no attention. He'd just spent a week chasing after a phantom for reasons that were, in his newfound state of rationality, completely ludicrous. He sighed again. Besides, what would he say to her anyway?
"All I can say is that boy had better be here."
He looked up, and there she was, the same set of companions trailing after her. The other woman commented, "I am still unconvinced that leaving a child under the oversight of Gaelan Bayle was the wisest choice."
Her voice grew louder as the party neared the fountain. "We've been over this, Jaheira. Bayle said he'd make sure the kid was provided for while we were gone, and I made it clear to him there would be consequences if that didn't happen. Best I could do."
It was really her. Now that he could get a closer look, he saw that she was almost as tall as he, her light hair cut to a sensible length about her face. She wore battered leathers, and a sword on her hip, and carried herself with the easy grace of one accustomed to both. Her eyes were a dark, rich brown, astonishingly so for one of such fair coloring. Those eyes could cut right through you, he thought. All the more reason not to screw this up. What would he say to her? Time to open his mouth and find out. He took a deep breath and stepped forward.
"Hello." Gods, I already sound like an idiot. "My name is Kelsey. Coltrane. I saw you on the Promenade last week, in the middle of that mess with the Cowled Wizards, and I figure anyone who can walk away from that must be worth knowing."
She stopped, and blinked. "Hello," she said slowly. "I have to ask, if you saw what happened at the Promenade, why did you just watch? We could have used some help."
Not quite the reaction he was going for. "Well, for starters, my kind of help would have probably gotten me carted off with your friends."
"My apologies." The new and improved Kelsey Coltrane, now able to dig himself into a 50% deeper hole. But she wasn't walking away. She tilted her head, and he got the distinct impression he was being sized up.
"You're a mage, then?"
He flinched involuntarily. "You really aren't from around here if you're so willing to say that out loud to someone. But the answer is, sort of. Let's just say it's not a conscious choice."
"So you're a sorcerer?" Curiosity flickered in her dark eyes. "I've read about sorcery, but I've never met anyone with the gift."
Gift? He'd never heard it called that before. "I'd like to make up for before, if I can."
Now was the time for directness. Be forthright, Coltrane! Be assertive! Don't make an ass of yourself! "Joining your group, if you'll let me."
She regarded him for a long moment, and again, he was having trouble breathing. Please say yes, he thought, I need you to say yes. He forced himself to meet her eyes, and to hold them, and maybe that was what cinched her decision, because she said finally, "We take standard shares. I'm in charge. And this isn't seasonal, it's...specific." He nodded, not sure he could speak quite yet. A faint smile crossed her face, and she reached out to clasp his forearm. "I'm Maera, by the way. Pleasure to meet you, Kelsey Coltrane."
They made their way across the broad park in front of the Council of Six building, Maera making introductions as they walked. She stopped short suddenly. "There he is! I guess Bayle kept his promise after all." A young boy, no more than 12, was standing under a spreading elm, looking lost and nervous. She approached him, bending slightly to look him in the eye. "Hi. I've heard you're looking for someone to help your village."
The boy nodded. "Y-yes ma'am."
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Delon. P-please, ma'am, you have to help! I've been gone so long anyway, and this hooded man told me I needed to wait for a blonde lady in leathers, and I guess that's you…"
She smiled and gave herself a glance. "That would be me. Where's your village, Delon? What's happened there?"
"I'm from Imnesvale, ma'am…in the Umar Hills. Something's been attacking people, turning them inside out! And then their bodies disappear!"
Maera glanced at her companions, then looked back at Delon. "You're brave to come all this way by yourself, Delon. I've never been to the Umar Hills before. If we leave tomorrow morning, will you be my guide?"
The boy's eyes widened, and he nodded vigorously. "Yes, ma'am!"
They spent the night at the Copper Coronet. The change in management had not made the clientèle any less rough, but the general aura of the place was friendlier. Hendak's reputation preceded him, and it was apparent no one was willing to test his limits just yet. Maera circulated through the common room, watching her party. She turned a blind eye to the fact Yoshimo was working the patrons in his own inestimable fashion, pausing only once to remind him that if he was caught, he was on his own and she didn't know him. Minsc kept a fierce guard over Delon, regaling him with stories of adventures in Rashemen. Jaheira was sitting off to the side, watching them. A stranger would have interpreted her expression as stony, but Maera knew her well enough to see the faint smile. She sat down. "You seem in better spirits. Are you?"
Jaheira took a deep breath. "It was…comforting to leave the city walls behind, and I am glad we shall soon do so again. I feel as though I will be able to regain some measure of serenity, seeing wild things again."
"That's good. I've been worried for you. Is there anything I can-"
"Please allow me to face my situation in my own fashion," Jaheira said, the clipped edge returning to her voice. Maera dropped her eyes. "I have been concerned for you as well," the druid added. "You have been much restrained the past few days. I know you feel it necessary to maintain control because of your…heritage, and I appreciate that, but I also know you are capable of much gaiety, and I have not seen that side of you since we made our escape from Irenicus."
Maera stared at a particularly interesting knot in the surface of the plank table. "There's not as much to joke about without Imoen."
"We will find her, Maera." The younger woman remained silent. "Have you been dreaming again?"
"It's not the same as the other dreams," Maera whispered miserably. "I dreamt of Imoen. She said I would come too late." Jaheira reached out to touch her young friend's hair, but Maera rose suddenly. "I'm just worrying you again now. I'm going to go be social with the new recruit. He seems nice enough."
Jaheira caught her wrist. "We will speak of this again."
Maera wove her way towards the central firepit, where Kelsey sat, scribbling away in a notebook. He did seem nice enough, and his nervous eagerness to join up had been oddly endearing. Friendly faces were so few and far between, and his was remarkably friendly. She paused for a moment, watching him write. She'd never been much for redheaded men, but…he wasn't hard on the eyes, in a long, lean sort of way. She shook her head and sat across the table from him. "Would I be interrupting to sit here?"
He glanced up, and the notebook disappeared so quickly she wasn't sure it had been there to begin with. "Of course not!"
"I wanted to get the chance to speak to you one on one. Our situation is...odd, at the moment and you deserve to know what you've gotten yourself into. And...get out, if you want. I certainly wouldn't blame you if you did." She took a deep breath, fixing her eyes on the table. "There were six of us: me and Imoen, Jaheira and her husband Khalid, Minsc and his witch Dynaheir. The mage you saw in the Promenade – he had captured us, somehow. I'm pretty fuzzy on the details because I'm…missing some time there." She swallowed before continuing, struggling to keep her tone flat. "He killed Khalid and Dynaheir, and was conducting some sort of experiments on me and Imoen. I don't know why. I don't know what he wanted. And honestly, if she hadn't been taken, I would have been perfectly happy to just put this behind us, get out of here and get on with our lives." She glanced up at him, and saw he was watching her with rapt attention. There was something about his expression, a mix of interest and honest empathy, that invited her confidence. A lift of his eyebrows and a slight smile encouraged her to continue, and she did, her voice stronger.
"The day after we escaped, we were approached by a man named Gaelen Bayle. You've heard me mention him. He claimed that he had contacts that could, for a rather steep fee, arrange for Imoen's release. It became apparent pretty quickly no one else even wanted to discuss the matter, so we took him up on his offer." She shot him an inquiring look. "The Cowled Wizards really own this town, don't they?"
He chuckled as if she'd just made a very funny joke. "Oh, yes."
He parsed his response for a moment, and then said, slowly, "Traditionally, he people of Amn have been a bit suspicious of magic – I guess it goes with the merchant mindset. So when the country was unified and the Council of Six established, they set up the Cowled Wizards to regulate the use of magic."
Maera leaned back in her chair, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "From what I've seen, it looks more like a protection racket. Don't bother with magic unless you know the right people or can pay the right people."
Kelsey rubbed his chin, smiling faintly. "I hadn't thought of it that way, but I guess it kind of is. You'd think a bunch of merchants would know better than to give anyone a monopoly. But here in Athkatla they have the numbers and the support of the nobility to keep running things the way they want. So they do."
"I thought as much. Definitely explains why some of the looks I got for asking questions where Imoen might be." She sighed, then laughed nervously, feeling inexplicably embarrassed. "So... now that I've foisted all my collected baggage onto you, are you still feeling like you need to be a part of this?"
"Even more now. You're doing something really important, and I like that. Um, not the kidnapped and experimented on part. That part sounds terrible. But the part about getting your friend back – that I want to help you with. Having a mission will...make a nice change. Besides, it's not as if I'm baggage-free myself, so I'm in good company."
He smiled at her, and she wasn't embarrassed any more. She propped her elbows on the table and smiled back. "Well then. Your turn."
A week and more's worth of agonizing over the identity of the mysterious woman in the Promenade, and it had not even occurred to him that he would like her so much. And not just the usual reaction he would have to an attractive woman, though she was definitely that, with her hair stained red gold by the firelight and those amazing eyes and that smile, quick and brilliant as a lightning flash. But it felt so good to talk to someone. He was struck by how lonely he had been, without even knowing it. They talked for hours, long after even Yoshimo had bored of card games and picking pockets and gone to bed. He'd told her about the family trading business, and his childhood travels with his father, and she had listened with interest. ("I can't even imagine. I lived in the same place for twenty years.") He recounted the first frightening manifestation of his magic, and she had been sympathetic. ("Yikes.") And he'd acquainted her with his Uncle Birinar's insinuating takeover of the business after his father's death ("Sounds like you got a raw deal."), and his own journeys with caravans and various militias. "Birinar obviously didn't care what I did as long as I stayed out of the way. I guess I realized it just didn't matter when I got back, so I started taking longer and longer, and that's what really led me to the caravan guard jobs. It was interesting, at least for a while, and definitely better than being an under-appreciated part-time accountant, though in my own defense, I really can balance books like nobody's business." And she had genuinely laughed.
Now it was so late it was almost pointless to go to bed, despite the fact they had to be up early to set out for the Hills with Delon. Kelsey grinned sheepishly at her. "I think we might be insane."
She glanced around the deserted common room, which was lit now only by the embers of the firepit they sat by. "I think you're right. You know, before I came over here to talk to you, Jaheira was telling me she was worried that she hadn't seen me laugh in the past week. Now I think I've laughed enough tonight to make up the deficit."
He gave her a hard look, or at least what passed for a hard look in a dim room on short sleep. "Was that an accounting joke?"
"I guess it was." She snickered, then reached over and touched his hand. "This has been a very nice change of pace for me, Kelsey. Thank you."
He looked down at her hand, calloused and scarred and yet strangely elegant, resting on top of his, and suddenly his pulse quickened. "It has for me too," he managed.
She gave his hand a squeeze. "I'm going to try to catch a few hours of sleep. You should too."
He nodded. "Okay."
"Good night. Or, good morning, rather." She laughed again and headed for the stairs.
Kelsey took a deep breath. Well, this was unexpected. He was smitten.