Welcome to Hell
When he died, Kelsey felt something tug at him. There was somewhere he was supposed to go, and that destination should have been his sole objective. He knew this. He could rest now, if he wanted. And yet, he was not sure that he did. The pull was gentle, but insistent, like an eager child at his sleeve. He recognized it, and knew its name. Her name. She needed him. Her work was not finished yet, and that meant his was not either. He turned his back on the place that was waiting for him. It would be there again. She needed him, and he followed.
Maera replayed the final moments in the palace again and again in her mind. Irenicus had killed them all, and somehow, in death, pulled her along after him. To Hell. Or rather, a hell of Bhaal's. She gazed up at the obsidian statue of the dead god. The place felt at once welcoming and hateful, like a long-lost relation that was glad to see her, but nonetheless nursing a grudge. But she wasn't afraid, she found, nor even terribly discomfited.
Why should she be? This was where she came from, after all.
The words, laced with despondent bitterness, brought forth a sigh, but beneath that ran a river of malicious, rejoicing glee. Finally! She was where she belonged! She was no longer bound by those petty, human concerns. This was the center of it all, the source of her strength, and she was home! She grinned darkly, and her right hand dropped, crossing her abdomen, falling on her sword hilt-
Even in death, she still bore Daystar. The disc of rose quartz on the hilt, Lathander's symbol, lay just beneath her fingers. And on the chain around her neck, there still hung the silver charm etched with Oghma's scroll. She was human, subject to beings greater than herself, and in turn, tasked with the defense of those she was greater than. Her strength had more than one source.
"I don't belong here," she murmured.
She sighed with relief as she recognized the voice. Just like always, Imoen had found her. "I'm here, Im." Her sister appeared from the gloom, eyes wide and posture edgy.
"I'd ask what the hell, but I'm afraid I've answered my own question," Imoen said sourly, rubbing her arms.
"So it would seem," Maera replied. "Why are you here, Im? Bhaalspawn or not, this can't possibly be where you're supposed to end up."
"I followed you," Imoen shrugged. "Figured wherever you were going had to be more interesting."
Maera shook her head, disbelieving but grateful. "That's always your excuse, and it never works out the way you plan."
Imoen spread her hands. "Glutton for punishment, I guess."
A voice echoed, hollow as a tomb, from the darkness beyond Bhaal's statue. "You. You are of the Master's blood." There was a hiss of disgust, as if the unseen speaker had just stepped in something unpleasant. "But you do not belong here. You traffic in mercy. And love." This last was pronounced like a slur. A balor slunk from the shadows, the sourceless, orange-red light of the plane catching on its curved horns and yellowed fangs. "I know you. You are the prodigal," it whispered. "You have turned from the gift. You have squandered your sire's power."
Without thinking, Maera rolled her eyes. Demon or not, she was getting tired of this particular song and dance. "You know, it's bad enough I have to be here without being given grief about my lifestyle choices." The balor growled low in its throat, but it did not move, its barbed tail lashing. Something kept it at bay; some force restrained it, against its obvious wishes. It was angry, but could do nothing against her. Maera suddenly laughed, unable to contain herself. "The black sheep of the Bhaalspawn clan comes home and you can't give me the thrashing you think I need. Isn't that a shame?" The demon did not answer. "Oh, come on. You have to admit, it's pretty funny." The only sound was the whip-like sound of its thrashing tail. Seeing it disinclined to play along, Maera shrugged and turned. "Not big on irony, I see. Oh well. Let's go, Im. Irenicus is waiting."
"Idiot whelp," the balor spat at her departing back. "No doubt you congratulate yourself for being so good." It dismissed the word with the same distaste it had accorded love.
Maera turned back, tilting her head. "You're not just angry, are you? You're afraid of me."
"And why should I, a loyal servant of the Lord of Murder, loyal even beyond death, fear of one my master's failures?"
She could feel the thing's fear, smell it, taste it. The whole of the hell that surrounded her reeked of it, and she understood. It was suddenly so clear. "Because that's what I am. His failure. He was so arrogant, so self-impressed, so shortsighted, he honestly never believed any of his Children would reject him. You are afraid of me, because I'm everything that went wrong with his plan. I'm the evidence of his weakness, not the other way around." She shook her head. "All this time I've wasted being afraid of him, when he was just as afraid of me. Like a snake." She turned her back on the balor, but it could not resist one last parting shot.
"The others, they have embraced your father's strength. They stand with his power behind them. They will rise up soon, and drown the mortal world in blood! How will you stand before their strength, lost one? What do you have?"
Imoen rounded on the beast, her blue eyes blazing. "She has ME. Now go away. We're busy."
When Jaheira died, it was not her life that flashed before her eyes, but a memory. She remembered sitting in the great common room of the Friendly Arm Inn, hastily finishing a letter. I fear we can wait no longer than a tenday, old friend. This business in the south will require intervention soon. As for your request, if it should come to that, you know we will give your fosterling any aid within our power. I confess I am interested to meet her after all these years. But then there had been no Gorion, only a lost girl whose jaw was set in terrified determination, Imoen trailing in her wake like a shadow. Even a promise lightly made must be kept, and the girl had needed her. She needed her still. Jaheira followed.
A tall, male figure in spiked armor blurred into being before them with a slow, deep chuckle. She would have known that laugh from a league away. "Never content to do things quietly, are you, sister?"
The voice gave her pause, and Maera felt herself grow very still. Once, he had been the stuff of nightmares. Once, he had lurked in the corners of her mind, the ogre, the demon, the source of every horror. Once, she had hated him so, she had feared she would burst apart from the rage. She searched within for the fear and anger and found none. The place in her emotions once inhabited by Sarevok Anchev was curiously empty. "Not that I'm surprised to see you in hell, Sarevok, but what are you doing here?"
"I sensed you coming. And I wanted to know what manner of creature you have become since you killed me."
Sarevok. Her opposite. Her antithesis. Her enemy. She pushed again at the place in her mind where he had once loomed, and found only the memory of pulling her blade from his body, lightheaded from blood loss and exhaustion, her hand so slick with blood that Varscona's hilt slipped from her grasp. She had been so sure then that it could not be over, but time and distance had done their work, as inexorably as water on rock. And rather than flooding back, it seemed as if she saw it all through a window. Killing him had not been the end, as she had thought it would be. It had simply been a passage, one she had experienced, and moved beyond. She shrugged.
"I am the creature you see."
A slow smile spread over Sarevok's ghostly face. "But I sense the taint that has touched you. You have become the Slayer. I long wished for such a union with our father's darkness, but I never could achieve it. Show it to me. Let me live vicariously…if you'll pardon the expression."
Maera folded her arms. "If you'd like a performance, there's a very nice playhouse in the Five Flagons Inn in Athkatla. But aside from dropping a few names, I can't help you."
His lips twitched. "What is this? Did your old mockery grow stale? Come now," he said, his voice growing smooth in that unctuous, all too familiar way, "you cannot tell me it was an experience not worth replicating."
He had a point. Nothing in her life could ever match the furious, blood-singing glory of becoming the Slayer. And in equal turn, nothing could match the horror of its aftermath. She found that she would much more happily accept the confines the mortal form placed on such sensations, rather than face such a precipitous rise and fall ever again. "I'm told jumping off a building is quite a high too, but some experiences really aren't worth the price you have to pay for them."
He leaned forward, eyes narrowed to hard slits. "What makes you so superior now? I knew you from the beginning. I killed your precious Gorion, and I sought your death. I saw murder in your eyes the night you slew me. Show me that I was murdered by Bhaal's true heir!"
Arrogance was the common theme, she thought. Irenicus thought his plans so grand he was elevated above her grasp, and Sarevok still thought himself her greatest enemy. And neither could conceive that she might disagree. "If you're looking for some sort of cosmic validation for your death, Sarevok, you've come to the wrong person. The books are balanced and the slate is clean. We're even now. And honestly, I feel a little sorry for you that you have nothing better to do with your afterlife than try to restart old fights."
"You pity me?" he snarled. "How insulting."
"If you'd like to feel insulted, go ahead. I won't stop you. But the truth is, I'm not here for you. I have business with someone else, and when that's concluded, I'm sort of hoping I'll be able to leave." She touched Imoen's shoulder and they began to walk past him. As she drew even with him, she paused to add, "Sorry to disappoint you, Sarevok, but we're finished."
Sarevok's form began to waver and fade, but as he melted into the darkness, he whispered, "You and I will never be finished, sister."
Boo had assured him that despite Dynaheir's death, a glorious warrior's afterlife was not out of the question, so Minsc was just the tiniest bit nonplussed to realize he was headed in quite the opposite direction when he died. But then it struck him (somewhat slowly, but with great force, as most of his thoughts did) who he was following, and then it was all right. For by her side was the best place to be if one desired to put the boot to villainy's various and sundry parts, and Minsc had never wanted more or less than just that. If she wasn't done buttkicking, neither was he.
The tingling had never really gone away. She had simply adapted to it, to the point she could almost ignore it now. But slowly, she became aware of another sensation; a feeling of reaching, of stretching, of holding out one's hand and knowing that at any moment, it would be taken. She stopped, and closed her eyes, concentrating on the faint impression, trying to pull it to the forefront of her mind. Imoen watched her, her eyes concerned. "Mae? What's wrong?"
It was close now. It reminded her of waking up when she was very small, when she still slept in Gorion's room, comforted by the knowledge of his presence, even if she could not see him. "Don't you feel it, Im?"
And they were there. Kelsey, and Jaheira, and Minsc, suddenly in front of her as though they had been all along. Maera gaped at them. "Well," Kelsey said, looking around with disquieted surprise, "this was not quite what I was expecting."
Maera's jaw continued to brush the rocky floor as Imoen threw herself joyfully into the nearest pair of arms she could find. "I am so glad to see you guys! How did you get here?"
Jaheira returned the Imoen's embrace gently, but her eyes were on Maera's stunned face. "It would appear our destinies are more closely entwined to Maera's than we knew. I, for one, am at peace with that."
Maera reached out slowly to touch Kelsey's cheek, swallowing hard as her gloved fingers made contact with his skin. "I don't understand," she whispered, then let out a breathless squeak of surprise as Minsc gathered her into a huge hug.
"We heard you calling, and we came," he said happily, squeezing her hard against a chest that would have been like steel plate even if he hadn't been wearing armor. "We had to! If we do not wear the boots of Justice often enough, we will get blisters."
Kelsey caught her arm, carefully extricating her from the big ranger's grip. He flashed her a half-smile, and shrugged. "Love's a funny thing." He wrinkled his nose, and Maera realized that while she had had time to be accustomed to the smell of the place, it was assaulting the others for the first time. She felt a sudden urge to apologize profusely, but she instead extended her arms in a small and sarcastic "ta da!".
"Welcome to hell," she said.
Jaheira clenched and loosened her fist about her staff, an absent, thoughtful gesture. "So Irenicus has come here. And carried you along in his wake." Maera nodded. "Then logic would dictate we must find him."
"How do we do that?" Imoen asked. "This place isn't exactly the most straightforward. We could probably walk around for hours and find ourselves right back here."
"Metaphysical place," Maera said slowly, tapping her temple. "Just have to think metaphysically." She closed her eyes.
She concentrated on the buzz. It was her soul she felt causing the cicada-like thrum, stretched between her and Irenicus like an impossibly fine cord. She realized it had been that line she had been following since Spellhold, feeling it tug her along as she stumbled through the Underdark, snapping her back to Suldenesellar. And when they had died, the tie remained, and there was only one way to break it. She reached out for the thread that connected them, and pulled.
The line went slack, and then she heard his voice in her mind. I cannot be rid of you even here!
No, you can't. She tightened her mental grip. We end this, Irenicus. Face me.
He stood before them, flanked by a pair of demons, a corona of shadows engulfing him that almost looked like the Slayer, like the imperfect tracing of a familiar image. He stretched one dark-limned hand, studying it. "Strange. I had not thought of the other, more extreme uses of the power in your soul, Maera. I was thinking only of its benefits for my immediate work, but there is so much more. I was rather shortsighted, I will admit." He lowered his hand, and his mouth curved in a caricature of a smile that made her gorge rise. "You may choose to hide away the very source of your strength, but I embrace it!"
"I like to think I'm greater than the sum of my parts," she retorted. "You said it yourself. You can't be rid of me. Haven't you figured out by now I will go anywhere to finish this?"
Pure contempt oozed through the air between them. "And when yet have you beaten me, girl? When have you even come close? You are persistent, yes, but I have taken from you, and I have killed you. Continuing on is folly and madness, and you know that."
Maera inhaled to make a hot reply, but Kelsey spoke first. "But the thing you're not saying," he said quietly, "is that you haven't beaten her yet either. Because if you had, she wouldn't be here right now. None of us would. And you know that."
"We have followed her here because we believe in her," Jaheira added. "But you stand alone, even with your toadies." She dismissed the demons with a scornful jerk of her chin. "Enough anger has been wasted on you. I believe I can kill you now as I would a rabid beast – to put you out of your misery."
A snarl of rage rose from Irenicus's throat, and Maera recognized that sound. The Slayer was working on him, stoking the fires of his anger past their natural boundaries. And as she knew all too well, anger was frequently stupid.
"They're right, you know. Your one mistake in this whole mess was thinking I was disposable. Well, you wouldn't be the first to underestimate me, and I doubt you'll be the last, but you won't be around to find out, because it's your part that's over now. Joneleth." He sucked in a quick, furious breath, and she glanced at her companions, the people who loved her enough to risk Hell for her. There was no need to verbalize a battle plan. They knew what she needed to do. So she charged.
Irenicus blocked her first swing with his shadowy forearm. "How dare you…" he growled. "You take a moment's suffering and think that it makes you my equal. You know nothing of what I have endured."
She mentally reached for the thread of her soul again, and timed her tug on it with her next stroke. He howled as Daystar's blade bit deep. "Here's the thing – I don't care," she said as she reeled in the line tighter. "There is nothing for you to justify or defend. You can't break me now." She swung again, and the almost-Slayer shadows fizzled.
To her left and right, her party had paired off and engaged the demons. Jaheira stood within a glowing shield of Imoen's creation, her staff a blur as she pummeled her target, and Minsc roared with fierce joy as a bolt of lightning left Kelsey's hands, scorching the air. Maera couldn't watch them for long, but she knew that with them by her side, she could afford to give her focus solely to Irenicus. She wasn't sure she would even know what it felt like to doubt them now.
Irenicus, having figured out the trick to their mental tug-of-war, pulled back, and she quickly brought Daystar up just in time to block a swipe of his arm, sheathed in Slayer-shadowed claws. His other arm moved, driving her back, scoring her armor deeply. She spared a quarter second to glance down - another strike would bring blood. She seized the thread again, unwilling to lose the rhythm. Pull and swing, pull and swing, pull and...
He had abandoned his magic, she noted, and she struggled not to laugh in his face for it. The Slayer was a poor crutch indeed, as she knew all too well. Certainly, it made one feel invincible, but feeling and being were rarely the same thing. She felt him pull again; where would he strike next? High? Low? To her left? He swung again, and she gambled, ducking low. The passage of his clawed hand over her head parted her hair, and she felt feel his anger stoked hotter. Pull. Pull back. Pull and swing.
"HA HA!" Minsc crowed in jubilation, giving his sword a final thrust into the heart of the demon before him, its black blood shining on his dented armor. The creature screamed and shuddered in its death throes, and Maera smiled grimly. Pull and swing...
Imoen's voice carried over the sound of combat as the demon's clawed forefoot caught Jaheira across the torso, knocking her to the rough floor. She hesitated as she tried to regain her feet; something had broken in her landing. But before Maera had time to falter, Imoen was moving. "Kelsey!" Without missing a beat, he turned, and raised his hands. A sheet of fire rose between the demon and the druid, and Imoen raced to her side to help her stand once more as Minsc roared towards his new target.
She should have known better than to worry about them.
She reached for the cord again, just as she could feel Irenicus do the same. And for an instant, weapons were meaningless, physical motion unnecessary. She met his eyes, and she could see to the his very core, burning away with his stolen fire. His mind was strong, hardened and honed by years of disciplined rage. But he was still a mortal being, and in her dreams, she had faced gods. Gorion had always told her that her most dangerous weapon was within, and it was not until after his death that she had come to understand what he meant. With a final jerk, she pulled again, and this time Irenicus physically lurched towards her, directly into the path of her blade. She brought Daystar up; her arms moved without conscious thought, the motion as natural and reflexive as breathing. She ran him through almost to the hilt, his face inches from her own. He stared at her, eyes clouded with pain and some strange mix of wounded disappointment. "I…was so close…" he rasped.
"Believe that if it gives you comfort," she said softly. She placed her left hand on his chest, and the last remaining vestiges of her soul within him flowed back into her. Irenicus slumped over her sword, and she dropped to her knees, unable to support the weight. The surviving demon, grievously wounded, fled as Irenicus fell, and Maera was suddenly so tired she could barely lift her head.
"Maera?" She heard Jaheira's voice. "Maera…you are glowing."
She looked down at her hands, turning them over, and chuckled tiredly. "So I am." Something with her stretched and pushed, and her body suddenly did not seem big enough for the forces it contained. It's almost time, the voice of her Slayer-self hissed. Alaundo was talking about you, you know. What will you do when the time comes? What will you become?
"I really don't like it here," she mumbled. Then blessed darkness claimed her.