I. Twenty-Seven Hours
The Exile lay where he fell, and no one had dared to touch him yet. It seemed an invisible circle surrounded him, and no one even wanted to glance in his direction. They had busied themselves instead with tending to the five adventurers, whom they had lined up in the ruins of the throne room, their armor and clothing carefully stripped, to be salvaged or disposed of later. Each was covered in a sheet up to the neck, but Demin wasn't looking at them. She had been for hours and couldn't bear to any longer.
It had to be nearly midnight by now, and she was so tired. Her eyes burned with exhaustion, the muscles in her shoulders trembled, and she had been kneeling so long she was sure she had lost feeling in her legs. Her body begged for the release of reverie; to slip away into trance would be so sweet. But she couldn't. It couldn't end like this. She wouldn't let it.
It was not that the Leaflord had not answered her. The Oak was faithful; she had felt the gentle surge of strength enter her upon her first entreaty, and as always, she thanked her god for his trust in her, that he would put such awesome power at her disposal. The body could be mended, and the soul returned, and it was humbling to be the conduit through which miracles were worked. She had prayed for the lives of the adventurers, and Rillifane had answered her.
But they had not.
They remained cold and still, save the hamster, which had surprised her. After her first attempt at the resurrection, it had come nosing its way out of the ranger's armor, and she would never know if it had somehow survived or if it had been her first success. It lay curled in the palm of her hand now, watching the body of its master with an almost unnerving awareness. She knew there were others in the room still – a younger priest and a pair of acolytes, a handful of soldiers, Ellesime, holding Elhan's cloak tight about her shoulders, still so pale her lips were colorless – but as the hours slid by, their presence had become increasingly meaningless. She knew she couldn't keep it up forever. Sooner or later, she would lose her focus and she would have to rest. But not yet. They had to come back. Didn't they want to?
"Demin!" She heard Ellesime's voice, echoing from millions of miles away, and forced her eyes open.
They were breathing again, stirring as life returned. The hamster scampered off her hand, down her knee to the floor, and she stood shakily, tottering on numbed legs. The little mage (Imoen, wasn't it?) moved her head, her eyelids fluttering; Demin raised her hand to her mouth and realized that her face was wet. She was so tired she had not even felt the tears slip from her eyes. She stumbled back towards the door, as the others gathered around the reviving adventurers. Ducking into the shadow of the throne room doors, the Whiteleaf leaned against the wall, sobs of relief tearing at her throat.
They're alive, they're alive, thank you Rillifane, they're-
A small scuffing sound directly ahead of her caught her ear, and she looked up. The drow, Solaufein, also lurked in the doorway. How long had he been there? The embarrassed cast of his eyes said long enough, and he ducked his head silently, half-turned, then looked back at her. "Why…why are you crying?" he asked, genuine confusion in his voice.
"I'm not even sure." She wiped at her nose with her sleeve, and the tiny part of her that still gave a damn protested wildly at such undignified behavior. And in front of the drow, too! "It has been a very long day, and I…felt myself begin to despair."
"But the danger is past now, and that…" He looked sidelong again, bowing his head. "Excuse me…it's not my place to-"
"Solaufein." Something about his posture, his word choice, his refusal to meet her eyes, set her teeth on edge, but not for the reasons she would have thought even a day earlier. "I may be ill-tempered, but I am not the sort of priestess you have known."
She could see the faint beginnings of a smile on his face. "Indeed not," he said. His eyes flickered up to her face. Such strange eyes, she thought. From childhood, she had heard of drow with their 'eyes like blood', but that wasn't entirely true, it seemed. His were the clear, gem-like color of a polished garnet. Rather pretty, actually.
She heard a lazy chuckle, and was surprised to realize she was the source of it. By the Oak, she was exhausted indeed, to have such thoughts bouncing about in her head. "If you choose to remain here on the surface, you will find the delineation between male and female less stark that what you were accustomed to. Here, we are equal."
For an instant, he looked as if her words had struck a chord. But then a slyness entered his smile, and he replied, "But we are not equal. You are the highest priestess of a mighty god of the Seldarine, and I am an apostate in exile."
So among his other supposed qualities, he was a pedant, as well! She wanted to laugh, but a sobering thought smothered the mirth. "You've struggled long, to hone your wits so sharp," she murmured.
He glanced away again. "They have often been my only weapon."
"That is a shame." It was the first thing that came into her mind, and it surprised her as much as it did him.
He blinked and opened his mouth, but another voice called excitedly, "Whiteleaf!" The senior of the two acolytes, a male whose name she could not remember at the moment, trotted towards her. "Whitele-" He caught sight of Solaufein, and it took him a moment to recover his voice. "W-Whiteleaf, the adventurers have all regained consciousness. Well, except for Maera."
Jaheira wanted to hit them all. Instead, she settled for a glare, and that seemed to work well enough. "Space to breathe would be appreciated!" she growled, and the others flinched back, with various degrees of shame, ranging from the deep (Kelsey) to the cursory (Imoen), on their faces.
She turned her eyes back to Maera, squinting hard to force her eyes to focus. She had not been in the habit of requiring resurrection, and she still felt rather vacant and at loose ends. But reality was slowly reasserting itself. While the rest of them had woken, Maera had not, and they were gathered around her, having been given soft robes to wrap themselves in while their packs were fetched from Demin's home. Jaheira tilted her head, her fingers at the side of Maera's throat. The younger woman's pulse was strong, and her breathing was deep and regular. Jaheira shrugged, looking up at the others. "I cannot explain it," she said. "It would appear she is simply asleep."
"I didn't fall asleep," Imoen remarked, perplexed.
"You did not die," Jaheira countered. "The mechanics of returning a soul under any circumstance are beyond my knowledge, and particularly in this case."
"Whatever the reason," came Ellesime's light voice, "she should not have to remain there on the floor." The Queen stood before them, the set of her face making it obvious that only willpower was keeping her vertical. "Captain," she said to the soldier beside her, "there are guest quarters in the north wing that should be sufficient for the night. Will you be so good as to direct our friends to them?" The captain nodded, and Minsc effortlessly gathered Maera up in his arms to follow; her head lolled loosely and Kelsey worriedly brushed her hair out of her face.
"She'll be okay, Red," Imoen said softly, stopping to scoop Boo up. Elhan brushed past the adventurers as they filed past into the darkened hall, and his eyes lit on his queen.
"Majesty." He bowed low, then straightened to look at her squarely. "You should rest." She shook her head.
"What more is there to do tonight? The city is entirely secured." She wasn't looking at him, but over his shoulder, and he turned his head to follow her gaze. None had ventured close to the Exile's twisted remains, and they did not make for a pretty sight. Ironically enough, he had borne the brunt of his own firestorm. Or perhaps that had been his design. Elhan twitched his shoulders with distaste and banished the thoughts from his mind. It was little matter – Joneleth of Suldanessellar had died long ago, and now Irenicus had joined him. There were other, far more worthy objects for his attention. "What do you wish to be done with him, Majesty?"
She was silent for a fearsomely long moment, and when she spoke, her voice was almost too low to be heard. "I will need a shovel, and a lantern."
Elhan stared at her. "You cannot mean..."
"This madness began because I stayed my hand, General. No others should have to dirty theirs now." She looked him in the face, the gold in her eyes catching fire. "I will need a shovel, and a lantern, and a general who can keep a secret."
It was easy to forget, sometimes, that she was not merely an elf. Perhaps she had forgotten it too, but not now. He bowed again with slow reverence. "All three are easily obtained, Majesty."
The door wasn't completely closed, but Imoen knocked anyway before entering. She wasn't completely sure why; perhaps it was the feeling she was entering a sickroom. Rationally, she knew that wasn't the case. Demin and Jaheira had come to the consensus that Maera was still asleep for the same reason anyone might be – she needed the rest. But rationality couldn't still the little voice in her head that said it wasn't natural.
The room was bright with morning sunlight, which poured through the arched windows, over Maera and the completely unsurprising occupant of the chair beside her bed. Kelsey looked up as Imoen entered, his eyes red-rimmed and his face haggard. Sleep deprivation did him no favors. She clucked her tongue, which garnered a glower. "I am well aware it was stupid to stay up all night," he grumbled. "Thank you, Jaheira Junior."
"That's tacky even for you, Kels." She chuckled anyway. She had to give him credit for that one. "If you know it was stupid, why'd you do it?"
His eyes darted back towards Maera, who sighed in her sleep, and he chewed on his lower lip for a moment before whispering, "What if she wakes up?"
The plaintive exhaustion in his voice made her want to either hug him or smack him across the back of the head. Possibly both, and maybe at the same time. "You're hopeless, you know that?" He shrugged, his gaze back on Maera, which gave her the opportunity to make a quick gesture with her right hand and mutter a few words. He looked back at her sharply.
"Hey, I know that incan-"
He slumped forward in his chair, and Imoen carefully pushed him back into a reclining position. On its own, the spell wouldn't keep him asleep for long, but the real thing might kick in, given a foothold. She grabbed a blanket from the foot of the bed and covered him with it before addressing her sister. "He's a sweet boy, but he's not very bright sometimes." She leaned down to gently kiss Maera's forehead. "You'd better wake up soon."
Minsc was helping.
He knew that was what he was best at. He was not smart, after all, and he knew that. But he was thorough, and whether his appointed task was to inflict severe bodily harm on evildoers, or make a bed (which was his current commission), he would do it to the best of his ability. Maera said he was also useful for removing the tops from jars, but it was so hard to tell sometimes if she was being serious or not.
The elf Queen, who was a very nice lady, had set aside a section of the guest rooms in the palace for them to use, but Jaheira had refused to let anyone wait on them in any shape or form. "It is ludicrous," she had snapped, wresting a pile of sheets from a startled and somewhat terrified chambermaid's hands. "I am sure you are more greatly needed elsewhere." So she had set Minsc to making the beds, and after Kelsey had irritably woken from his enforced nap, she had put him to work straightening and sweeping.
Minsc finished tucking in the coverlet, and sat for a moment to admire his work. Boo scampered down his arm to inspect the bedding more closely, opining that it smelled very good. Even in the nicest human establishments, there was always the scent of mothballs. "Maybe elves don't have moths," Minsc suggested. Boo took that under consideration.
"Oh. You were speaking to the hamster." Jaheira stood in the doorway. "Was that the last one?" Minsc nodded. She looked tired, but he knew better than to say anything. Years of shouted experience had taught him that with people like Jaheira, it was best to let them decide how they felt, because the alternative was usually denial, and a thwacking, and Jaheira was the only person he had ever met who thwacked harder than Dynaheir. She gazed out the window, giving her eyes a stealthy rub. "She is still asleep. More than half a day, and she still cannot be roused."
"Getting back a soul must be very tiring," Minsc commiserated, and the corner of Jaheira's mouth moved.
"It must be." The druid straightened her back. Work time was not yet over. "Your armor seems to have survived in reasonable condition, but I noticed some of the strapwork will need to be replaced. You should clean it before this evening." There was a thump from the next-door room, and Imoen's voice, raised in a howl of protest. Jaheira sighed. "And that would be Kelsey taking his revenge." She shook her head. "Children."
As she stalked from the room to dispense a verbal thrashing, Minsc glanced down to comment to Boo that he wouldn't want to be in their boots right now, but the hamster was already asleep.
It was dark, and she was lying in a bed. Those were the two things Maera was most immediately aware of when she woke, and neither of them seemed to match with her last memories. She squeezed her eyes open and shut, and slowly, they adjusted to the darkness. There was a dim pattern of leaves cast in silhouette on the ceiling. She was somewhere in Suldanessellar, but that didn't narrow it down much.
She cataloged herself as she became aware of the various parts of her body. Hands and feet? Still in working order. Head? Not feeling entirely attached. Throat? Parched. Stomach? Ravenous. She rolled carefully onto her side, and discovered she was not alone. Her fellow sleeper lay on his back, one hand across his chest, the other extended towards her. He was rather cute, in a bookish sort of way, and his profile was naggingly familiar. Where did she know him from, and why did it not bother her in the slightest to find him in her bed?
She blinked, and the appropriate memories clicked into place. "Kelsey?"
His head moved in response to his name, and his eyes opened. They focused on her, then widened, and he threw his arms around her, pulling her into a surprisingly tight embrace. "Oh my gods, you're awake. I was worried about you."
She took a moment to consider this. She was not going to complain, but the vehemence of his reaction was a trifle puzzling. "Um…hi." A determined wiggle of her shoulders gave her enough room to look him in the face. "I take it I was asleep for a while?"
He squinted towards the windows, where translucent curtains floated gently in the night air. "It looks like the moon's almost set, so it's got to be past midnight…" He scrunched his forehead with mental calculation. "At least a day."
She sat up, trying to orient herself. "Huh. No wonder I'm so hungry. And I really have to pee."
He laughed. "Don't let me stop you."
Pressing business attended to, she sat on the bed, rubbing her face and trying to clear the cobwebs in her head. She stared at her hands - her very ordinary, human hands, with the crooked index finger, scars on the knuckles, and calluses on the palms – and remembered the glow that had surrounded them, the sensation of bursting at the seams with strength and power, and the words her Slayer-self had spoken. She shook the thoughts away, and cocked her head to look at Kelsey. "He's really dead, isn't he? It's over. Oghma's books, Kelsey, I don't even..." The enormity of the realization crashed over her like a wave, leaving her with only a few sandy shoals of coherent thought. Everything they had endured, everything they had overcome, everything that have changed, all in the space of a few short months. "My gods…we can do anything now. We can…" She laughed, struck by a sudden giddiness. "I don't know what we can do! We've been doing this for so long, I can't think of anything!"
"Hey, no need to get ahead of yourself," he said, smiling soothingly. "Just…enjoy being back among the living." She smiled back as he scooted closer to rest his chin on her shoulder. "Queen Ellesime's said we can stay here if we like, and I'll admit, I was personally hoping for a bit of a break. It might be nice. Besides…I hear the she's got a great library." He dangled the word in front of her like a hypnotist's charm.
"You know me too well already." Her stomach grumbled loudly, and she stood. "That's it. I am starving." She shot him a grin. "Wanna help me stage a raid on the royal larder?"
He grinned back. "So thieving is hereditary, after all."
"This is self-preservation," she sniffed, peering out the doorway into the hall. "You in or out?"
"That's a loaded question." He couldn't help himself.
She glanced over her shoulder at him, arching an eyebrow. "That it is. And if you're nice to me, it may have multiple answers." She disappeared into the corridor.
He stared at the empty doorway for a moment before springing from the bed after her. "Oh, I like where this conversation is going."
II. Among the Living
In the days that followed, Jaheira found herself, more than once, drawn to the ruined throne room. The blast of magical fire had charred the great branches of the Tree of Life, heat bubbles blistering the once smooth surface of the floor, and the few leaves that still clung to the burnt twigs overhead were curled and blackened.
"I am told that sometimes fire is a great necessity in nature."
Jaheira turned, startled, and saw Demin in the doorway. The priestess smiled faintly and picked her way carefully over the sooty floor. "That is true," Jaheira replied. "Fire clears the undergrowth that can choke the forest floor, and it enriches the soil for the next generation of trees." She rested a hand on the nearest branch, feeling the faint pulse of life beneath the scorched bark. "This is only a wound. Already the sap begins to stir again."
"That's what Ellesime says. And she would be best placed to know, wouldn't she?" Demin patted the branch with a familial air. "I understand you will be remaining with us for some time."
"Yes. We discussed the Queen's offer, and the general consensus was that none of us are eager to return to the road just yet. And we had all wanted to aid in the rebuilding…if we could."
Demin smiled. "I am glad to hear it…that is actually why I sought you out." Jaheira furrowed her brow, and Demin continued, "I had planned to begin the cleansing and reconsecration of the temple tomorrow. I would be grateful if you would join us. A druid of your talents would be welcome."
Jaheira was not easily tongue-tied, but it took her a moment to blurt out, "Of course! I would be honored!"
The Whiteleaf's smile broadened. "Good! You certainly would not be required to. There is no charge for room and board, after all." She cast her eyes about the burnt tableau of Ellesime's hall and sighed. "It is not as if some random catastrophe has visited us. We are left now with the consequences of choices made long ago. You would be perfectly within your rights to leave all these pieces to us, to fit back together as best we can, and I, for one, would be hard pressed to blame you."
"I have never been one to lounge while others work. It is not in my nature."
"No, I see that it is not." They began to walk the length of the hall, and Demin looked at Jaheira with cool, assessing eyes. "You are part elven, but you have not been much amongst elves, have you, Jaheira?"
That qualified for speechlessness. Jaheira opened and closed her mouth a half dozen times before the words came to her. "No. I have not. I do not think my parents or any of their peers had a full human or elven ancestor for several generations."
"Ah. So when I thought I detected something Tethyrian in your accent, I was correct. A great many in that country are of such mixed heritage, are they not?"
"Yes." For a moment, Jaheira could see them again; her mother, elegant in her embroidered dresses and beautiful as a star, her father, who looked almost human, but who read to her in Elvish. She remembered the night she'd had to flee, and the haze of smoke over the stars. They were old memories, and she had grown accustomed to them. She did not think her face had moved, but Demin looked suddenly conscious.
"Forgive me," she said. "I fear I have tread where I should not."
"No offense taken," Jaheira replied. "I feel I can learn a great deal here."
Demin seemed to consider this. "Sometimes we forget the world here, among our trees. I think it is good for us, that you are here, and not just for what you have already done. After all, is not learning a reciprocal endeavor?"
Jaheira could not help but chuckle as they passed through the doorway. "That is a line of thought better suited for Maera than I."
"Indeed! It has been some time since I've met an Oghmaite…I find their tenets fascinating…"
Kelsey was trying not to ogle, but he just couldn't help himself. At that moment, Maera was leaning over a railing above him, hammer in hand, and the view was, in his biased opinion, rather spectacular. She glanced down at him, and made a face. "Forget something?" He grinned, grabbed the nails he had gone down to fetch, and hauled himself back up the ladder.
"Sorry. I got distracted."
She glanced at him from the corner of her eye with a faint smile, color rising in her cheeks. "We're working right now, you know. But I will distract you to your heart's content later."
"I am nothing if not a woman of my word," she replied primly.
"Then I can wait." He handed her the nails with a flourish and a grin. "Not well, but I can wait."
She rolled her eyes affectionately. "You're terrible."
This house had not been as badly damaged as some, but its front door had been smashed in, and the frame broken. It should not have surprised Kelsey that Maera knew how to hang a door (though the shape of the elvish doors did give her momentary pause), but it had. "I spent nearly five years training with the Watchers, and they don't just guard the Keep, they maintain it," she'd explained, enjoying his astonishment when they began. "I'm also pretty good at repairing masonry. At least I used to be. I'm probably out of practice."
They sat in the shade near the newly repaired door, alternating pulls from their waterskin. "You know, I'm thinking about growing my hair out," Maera said. "The only reason I've kept it short is because it's easier to take care of on the road, but if we're going to be taking some time off from that, I thought, why not?"
"I think I'd like to see that," Kelsey replied, reaching over to give her hair a gentle tug. It had grown to the point she could pull it into a small and ragged tail, which was how she wore it that morning. It was rather adorable like that, he thought, and then he had to chuckle to himself for applying the word 'adorable' to a woman who could kill a man in less than five seconds. "I mean, I love your hair no matter what you do with it. Though, please, don't shave it off. I think I'd cry."
"Only if you promise me the same!"
"Not to worry. I have it on excellent authority that baldness is a nigh unheard of rarity on both sides of my family."
"Well, I can't make any promises about mine, so maybe you shouldn't get too attached to it," she teased, taking another drink. "I also thought I might finally get my ears pierced."
"Wait…" His brow knit, and he leaned towards her, inspecting her earlobe. "Your ears aren't pierced?" He tugged it between thumb and forefinger. "How did I not notice this?"
She laughed. "Paying attention to other things?"
"But I…how did I…?"
His observational crisis was cut short as a pair of elven children dashed by, giggling madly. They concealed themselves somewhat poorly in the bushes, still chortling. In a moment, the reason for their glee bounded into view.
"Maera! Kelsey!" Minsc boomed. "Have you seen two very small elf people?" He didn't seem to notice that the bushes were snickering.
"Why, Minsc?" Kelsey asked. "Do they owe you money?" The bushes suffered another burst of hilarity.
"Oh no! They think they can hide from the sharp eyes of Minsc and Boo! Little do they know that I was the finest player of hide and seek in all of Rashemen!"
"Boy, they don't stand a chance, do they?" Maera asked, eyes wide. The laughter had devolved into a cackle.
"None at all." Minsc folded his arms in a superior fashion, and the hamster on his shoulder looked as smug as it was possible for a rodent to do.
"Well, I'm sure they will soon learn the error of their ways, Minsc," Maera said. "In the meantime, I think those bushes are laughing at you." She stood, gathering the tools, and she and Kelsey strolled towards the next house on their list, leaving Minsc and his small adversaries to their next round of hide and seek.
In another life, Solaufein had never hidden in the shadows.
He had been a visible figure, a favored son, a male to be reckoned with. What he did was for all to see, the better to enforce the rule of the Matrons of Ust Natha. Some lessons were, by necessity, best taught from the darkness, but not his. He was known to all, respected and feared.
But that was another life.
Here, the elves watched him suspiciously; wary that all behaviors up to that point had been lies, and that any moment might be the one he chose to turn on them all. It did not seem to matter that he was one and they were many; he no doubt possessed dark magicks far beyond their imagining. And his as well, for what it was worth, but pointing that out would likely do his cause no favors.
And it was not just the people, it was the place, as well. The sky crouched over him, endless and empty, and his head still ached most days, his eyes overwhelmed by the light of the sun. There was constant sound in Suldanessellar, beyond the noise of people going about their day-to-day lives. The wind shook the trees and grasses, and the creatures of the land and air never ceased their calling, singing, snorting, and growling. He wondered if there was any place on the surface that could ever match the silence of the deep caves. Sometimes, he missed it.
But the surface was not without its charms. The cycle of day and night fascinated him; the idea of living life bound by the waxing and waning of light was alien, but interesting. And there was night itself. Maera had told him that surfacers both feared and loved the night, and he could well believe it. At night, the sky filled with jewel-like stars, and the moon beloved of his goddess rode the heavens like a ship cleaving the waves of a great lake. It was not until he had witnessed the sight for himself that he finally understood why dancing under the moon's light was a sacrament of Lady Silverhair. He was closer to her here. That was, in and of itself, a gift.
He had taken shelter from the sun that afternoon under the porch of an abandoned house a few levels below the Temple, and that was where the druid found him. He knew her only vaguely, more from Maera's description than any actual interaction with her, though he had seen her around the Temple of Rillifane a great deal. "There you are," she said. "I had been looking for you."
His mind ran through a web of alliances and interactions, and he vocalized the first conclusion it came to. "Is the Whiteleaf having me watched?" he asked.
"Not to my knowledge," she replied, completely unruffled by the intimation. "Should she?"
He shrugged. "After the incident at the Temple earlier this week, I thought she might have lost confidence in my ability to avoid trouble." He hoped he didn't look as sour as he felt. A few days prior, he had let a pair of cocksure young soldiers goad him into raising his hand. (They really did need to work on their hand-to-hand training.) The altercation had distressed Demin, and, much to his surprise, he found that fact more bothersome than the incident itself. He had found an unexpected ally in the Whiteleaf, and he knew better (or at least hoped he knew better) than to squander that. He turned his attention back to Jaheira, raising an eyebrow. "Is there a reason you have sought me out, Lady Druid?"
She handed him a small glass bottle, filled with a milky liquid. His other eyebrow joined the first. "It is a remedy for the eyestrain headaches you have suffered. Two or three spoonfuls will dull the pain quite effectively, but if it is taken at the onset of the headache, you may avoid it altogether."
He turned the bottle over in his hands, trying desperately to find something to say in response. He had found himself at a loss for words entirely too many times in recent days. But a booming sound, a hollow, ceramic clang echoing from the level below them saved him from having to make an answer.
Jaheira leaned over the railing with momentary concern, but then she smiled, and unable to contain his intrigue, Solaufein shaded his eyes and joined her. Below them was one of Irenicus's golems. Ten feet of roughly shaped clay, it was scarred with the evidence of the battle that had destroyed it - chunks of it had been hewn away by sword and mace, and a variety of magical fire had scorched the pinkish-white clay deep red and black. Clustered about it were a half dozen of the city guard, and a pair of familiar humans. Maera and Minsc were always striking by virtue of their height, but they were even more notable that day, as he was stripped to the waist, and she had preserved her modesty only by the cloth that bound her breasts. The elven soldiers were in a similar state of semi-dress, and the accoutrements that surrounded them - hammers and blocks, skids and rigging of leather and rope - suddenly gave the whole scene context. The monstrous thing was too large and heavy to be practically disposed of whole, and it had fallen to these strong-bodied few to break it.
Solaufein and Jaheira were not the only spectators drawn by the noise. Along the rails of levels opposite them and above, the citizens of Suldanessellar paused to watch. A loud wolf whistle cut through the babble of overlapping conversation; its source was easy to spot. Standing on the rail above and to their left, the little female mage (Maera's sister, his internal notes reminded him) catcalled down something in Common that Solaufein didn't entirely understand. The sorcerer stood to her side with his hand over his face, the very picture of acute embarrassment, though it did not stop him from peering between his fingers with interest at Maera's attire. Maera shouted something back about not making a certain gesture because children might be watching, and Jaheira chuckled and shook her head.
"They are incorrigible. But then, they are young," she said, and even though he was not sure she was actually addressing him, Solaufein replied.
"I do not have a wide experience on the subject, but it seems that where humans are concerned, age is most relative." Maera waved up at Imoen and Kelsey, and the young sorcerer rested his forearms on the railing with a smile of unadorned affection, but Imoen, satisfied that she had made a pest of herself, grabbed his arm and began to drag him off towards their original destination, which appeared to be the Collegium, where Suldanessellar's wizards honed their art.
Jaheira smiled faintly. "Humans talk about 'old souls'. It is how they explain those who are more knowing than their years can account for. Most of the time, I do not take such descriptions with much faith, but I think it would make a certain sense in her case." Below them, Minsc raised his hammer once more, and the golem's knee joint cracked cleanly from the force of the blow. Maera and a trio of soldiers bound up the limb and dragged it onto the waiting skid to be hauled away.
"So it would seem." Solaufein glanced down at the bottle in his hand. "Why did you give me this?"
"Regardless of what Maera may have told you, I do not enjoy the suffering of others." She was still smiling, but her brown eyes were sharp. "I have seen you about the Temple, and the city. In remaining here, you are attempting to do something few would have the courage to do. Druids measure others by their actions. Your actions have said much of you." She looked back down over the rail, and as she turned to depart, she added, "Your eyes will adapt, Solaufein. And I imagine you shall as well. That is what life does."
Imoen had never been in an open-air library before, but if anyone could manage such a seemingly impossible feat, it would be the elves. Ellesime had placed no restriction on their use of it, and its curving shelves contained the fruits of centuries of concerted book collecting. The sisters from Candlekeep hunted through the stacks, tucking interesting volumes under their arms, only to replace them when they discovered something marginally more fascinating.
Imoen had settled into a ridiculously comfortable chair to dig into a really promising book about the alternate uses of certain material spell components when she heard movement near the door. She looked up, and beamed at the newcomer. "Heya, Kelsey! I'm glad you stopped by."
Kelsey gave her a faintly suspicious look. "Was that sarcasm?"
"No!" She stuck out her tongue. "I found something you might be interested in." She hopped to her feet and scrabbled through the pile of books on the table beside her until she recovered the one in question, which she extended to him. "How's your written Elvish?"
"Pretty good. Though I'm a little out of practice."
"Well, brush up on this." He took the book and read the cover, his lips moving as he translated.
"On the Theory and Practice of Spontaneous Magic," he read. He looked up at her, surprise writ all over his face. "Imoen, is this about sorcery?"
"Yep," she grinned. He stared at her, and her smile widened. "You know you wanna hug me."
"You know...I think I do." He laughed and embraced her. "Thank you, Imoen."
She settled back into her chair, still beaming. "Let me know if it's useful."
"Absolutely." He left her to her book, and wandered back through the shelves, admiring their graceful, organic shapes. They fitted against the tree branches as if they had been grown from them, and for all he knew, they had. He rounded a trunk circled in books like a spiral stair, and saw Maera, trailing her fingers along the spines of the tomes before her with one hand while chewing on the thumb of her other. He smiled to himself, and waited for her to notice him.
It took her a few moments, but she glanced back, and started happily at the sight of him. "Hey, you." She looked down, noting the book in his hand. "Find something already?"
"Imoen did, actually. Apparently, it's about sorcery."
"Ooo, that ought to be an interesting read."
"I hope so." He nodded towards the shelf beside her. "What about you?"
"Oh, too many to choose from! This entire section is devoted to swordplay. Different styles, different mechanics…there's even one on the Kara-turan katana, like Yoshimo's. And this one!" She held up a volume that was nearly a handspan thick. "This is the collected writings of four consecutive heads of a martial monastery near Neverwinter. I've always been fascinated by that kind of-" She cut herself off suddenly, looking self-conscious. "What?"
He realized he was grinning at her. "What? Nothing!" He reached out, taking one of her hands in his. "You're happy, and you're having a good time, and I'm glad. That's all."
"Well…yeah, I am." She smiled back cheerfully, then her expression softened, and she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. "I've missed the smell of books. Leather and vellum and ink. Illuminating paints. Brings back memories." She raised her free hand to touch the book spines again with a gentleness bordering on reverence. "And I've missed having the time to read. Though on the road, it's not so much the time, it's..." She chuckled distantly. "Well, books are heavy. Gotta travel light. Can't leave things behind."
Her tone was airy, but the words were suffused with a wash of sadness, like light shone through blued glass. "That's true, I guess," Kelsey replied. "I hadn't thought of it that way." Something behind her words needled at him, and he wasn't quite sure what it was. He gave her a quick smile. "I'll leave you to your reading." She returned the smile and kissed him in farewell.
He left the library, the end of the exchange nagging him, irritating as a loosened tooth. By the time he reached their room, he had figured out a solution. Setting the book on sorcery aside, he found a sheet of parchment and sharpened his pen. He had a letter to write.
Maera had just wormed her way into the most comfortable position she could manage, when she noticed the angle of the sunlight streaming through the windows. She sat up suddenly, dislodging Kelsey's arm and swearing.
He blinked at her fuzzily. "What's wrong?"
"I'm supposed to meet Elhan this afternoon!" She rolled out of the bed and began rifling through the discarded clothes on the floor for her underwear. "He wanted me to spar with some of his officers."
"That was today?" Kelsey propped himself up on his forearms. "Honey, I'm sorry, we probably shouldn't have-"
She snatched her shirt off the floor and draped it over her shoulder as she began lacing up her leather leggings. "No apologies," she said, shooting him a quick smile. "I'll just have to come up with an excuse that doesn't involve nudity." She tugged on her shirt, dragged her fingers through her hair, and sat to quickly yank on her boots before leaning over to kiss him as swiftly as she could manage.
"Have fun," he said, smiling. "Try not to hurt anyone too much."
"If anyone gets hurt, it'll be their own fault," she scoffed.
She was still buckling on her swordbelt as she strode down the hall, when a soft voice accosted her. "Maera. Might I have a moment?"
Maera stopped short. "Oh! Elles- Your Majesty."
"Just Ellesime is fine," the Queen said with a smile. "I would hate for someone who has saved my life to feel she must be formal. May I walk with you?"
Ellesime began to walk beside her, smoothing her skirts fastidiously. Just as the silence stretched almost to the point of awkwardness, she said, "I confess I did not seek you out with idle conversation in mind." Maera remained silent, waiting for her to continue. "I have been thinking on the nature of divinity, and what it means to be a mortal child of such origins."
"Heady subject matter for an afternoon stroll."
Ellesime inclined her head. "It is that. But I would not be amiss in guessing it is never far from your thoughts either?"
Maera shook her head with a rueful laugh. "I don't know if I'd be comfortable drawing a lot of parallels between you and me."
"Why is that?"
"Well, for one…it's obvious that Rillifane loves you. To Bhaal…me, Imoen, even Sarevok…we're just means to an end. Our lives don't matter. So for me, all I have is trying to make my life matter to me." Maera cast her eyes towards the Queen. "But you were a gift to the people of Suldanessellar. And the Leaflord cares. About you and them. We were both born with a purpose. You just don't mind fulfilling yours." She coughed self-consciously. "You don't, right?"
"This city is my joy," Ellesime said, without hesitation. Her voice softened. "Which is why I have much to atone for." She looked up at Maera thoughtfully "But I should think you are a gift in your own way, however unintended. There are others of your kin who seem more than happy to follow the narrow path your sire intended for his children. Most of us never push at the boundaries fate places around us."
"I don't really know any other Bhaalspawn, so I'm not sure I'd want to put myself on that pedestal," Maera said. Then a thought occurred to her, and she narrowed her eyes, suddenly disquieted. "But there are others out there. I know there are. And you're talking about them in the present tense. Do you know something about them, Ellesime?"
Ellesime glanced to the side. "I know…rumor, and supposition. And as you know, that is hardly the basis of real, usable knowledge."
Maera was not comforted by this. "But?"
The Queen did not respond for a moment, and just when Maera was sure she would not reply, she said quietly, "There has been…talk of armies, in the south, in Tethyr, and Calimshan. But I would not waste worry on it. That region is notoriously unsettled, even now." She shook her head with forced brightness. "I understand you have an appointment, and I have detained you. My apologies. Please, allow me to take the blame with General Elhan for your tardiness."
Maera flushed. "Well, it's not really your fault, Ellesime."
"Please." Ellesime's eyes were intent. "I have failed for too long in that regard." She smiled sadly. "Perhaps if I start small, I can yet learn."
Maera found Imoen lounging near a fountain wearing a very short tunic and not much else. "Encouraging your fan club again, Im?" she asked. In the weeks they'd been in Suldanessellar, Imoen had developed a devoted cadre of followers amongst the younger members of the Collegium. She maintained it was all purely intellectual camaraderie, but Maera wasn't fooled. At the Midsummer celebration the previous week, Madeth and another young mage had nearly come to blows over who got to dance with her first.
"Just getting a little sun," Imoen replied innocently. She leaned back, and stretched. "So…how's your research going?"
"Research?" Maera asked, puzzled.
"I thought you and Kelsey were involved in a joint study on the durability of elvish mattresses," Imoen said. "It seemed pretty intensive. Especially since last week. He really liked that dress, didn't he?"
Maera gave her a long, flat look. So that was how it was going to be. "I could answer that question with a level of detail that would make you very uncomfortable. You know that, right?"
"True, but we also know I have a much higher embarrassment tolerance than you do." Imoen gazed back with equal severity.
Maera shook her head, unable to keep a grin at bay. "How about we skip that part and just go straight to me kicking your ass?"
Imoen smirked and rolled into an easy handstand on the back of her seat. "Gotta catch me first." With that, she pushed herself up, landing lightly on her feet. She stuck out her tongue and dashed off, Maera in pursuit. "You're old and slow, Mae!" she called, bounding over the garden terrace. They wove around railings and tore through the trees, leaping from walkway to walkway. Not far from the Temple of Rillifane, Maera finally made a successful grab for Imoen's shoulder, and they both went down, laughing and swearing at each other.
"Old and slow, huh?" Maera crowed, pinning Imoen face down in the grass. "Who wins, brat?" She became aware of watching eyes, and noticed a cluster of young elves gathered at the railing of the level above them, watching intently. She recognized Madeth and Velkin among them and laughed. "Looks like we're giving your admirers an eyeful, Im."
Imoen turned her head, spitting out grass, and grinned. "Maybe we should kiss or something. That'd get a reaction."
"Sorry, Im," Maera said, releasing her sister and stretching out beside her, "I like boys better."
"Aw, man," Imoen whined in mock disappointment. "What's a girl gotta do around here to get some action?"
"Ask them," Maera said, casting a significant look towards the spectators. Imoen leered in response. Their audience above began to disperse, obviously disappointed that the show was over.
They lay in the sun, the silence comfortable and companionable. The breeze was light and smelled of green growth, and Maera could almost feel the beginnings of a nap tugging at her when Imoen spoke. "I really like it here," she said softly
"Yeah, me too. Feels like forever since we've been able to take it easy."
"When we do leave, where do you wanna go?"
"I dunno…I was thinking about heading back up north. Kelsey suggested going to the Deepwash. His…um, his mother lives up there." Maera's face was hot, and Imoen snickered.
"Oh ho ho, meeting Mom, huh? That's a big step!"
Maera stuck out her tongue. "There's more to it than that."
"I figured." Imoen patted Maera's hand. "I know I give you a hard time, but you two have a good thing going, and I'm happy for you."
Maera smiled. "Thanks, Im."
They were quiet again when Imoen asked, her voice gone very small, "Mae? How do you know if a dream you've had is a Bhaal dream, and not just a nightmare?"
"If you've had one, you'd know."
"I was afraid of that."
Propping herself up on an elbow, Maera looked at her sister, concerned. "Why? What did you dream?"
"I…I was standing in front of the palace. The sky was dark, cloudy like it was going to storm. There was thunder in the distance, or maybe it was marching feet. And there was a voice. I've never heard it before, but I recognized it anyway. It said the Children's time had come. And then it started to rain." She shifted uncomfortably, picking at the grass. "It started to rain blood. And you were there, standing in the rain, holding your sword. Laughing."
Maera sat up, and wordlessly held out her arms, an icy chill running down her spine to settle like a frozen weight in her stomach. Imoen scooted closer and rested her head on her shoulder. "When did you dream that?" Maera whispered.
"Have you had any other dreams like it?"
Not yet. Maera wrapped her arms around Imoen's waist, and they sat huddled together in the summer grass as if freezing.
III. Rivers of Blood
Maera had had the monopoly on bad dreams for so long, Imoen guessed it was only fair she should have some of her own. That was, of course, the logical response, which came to her after thinking about the situation in a rational and intelligent manner. But in the mornings when she woke from visions of floating on a river of blood and killing her friends with a dagger of bone, she wished profoundly that Bhaal would keep it to himself.
But it was never as bad in the daylight, so as she and Minsc wandered the bazaar on the forest floor on market day, her mind was more pleasantly occupied with the sunbeams cutting through the morning haze and amiable babble of voices. Tents and stalls in a variety of lush and vibrant colors dotted the flowering grass, and the trees of Suldanessellar towered above them. From the ground, the city stretched upwards for hundreds of feet. It was enough to make anyone feel small.
Except perhaps Minsc, who informed her solemnly, "The squirrels are laughing at us."
"Eh, let 'em. What do we care?"
"Squirrels carry stories. Better that they should extol the bravery of Minsc and Boo and little Imoen then make fun!" He glowered up at his bushy-tailed mockers.
"I think our reputations will survive a little forest gossip, Minsc," she soothed him. She stopped at a fabric stall, and fingered a rich olive green silk that would suit Jaheira's coloring nicely. As the proprietor measured out cloth for another customer, she heard him say, "Like Maera?"
Curiosity piqued, Imoen drifted closer. "No, not like her at all," the customer said, her voice hushed. "More like that one in Baldur's Gate."
The shopkeep shook his head. "I thank Rillifane for Maera, but all the same, you can't trust that lineage." The customer glanced at Imoen and did not reply.
She backed away, discomfited. Outside a spice merchant's tent, another pair of locals watched her as they spoke, only to look away as soon as she glanced towards them. Something was wrong. What had everyone on edge? Spotting Velkin near another stall, she was relieved to see a more friendly face, but her wave was answered only half-heartedly. He turned to go, but she charged after him with a burst of short-legged speed and grabbed his sleeve. "Velkin, what's the deal? Why's everybody looking at me funny this morning?"
The young mage swallowed. "You haven't heard?"
"If I had, would I be asking?" she snapped, channeling her inner Maera.
He looked about nervously, and lowered his voice. "A human caravan arrived this morning. From Tethyr, Saradush, I think. They were all talking about how the city is filling up with refugees because an army appeared out of nowhere last month and has started laying waste to the countryside down there, slowly working their way north. And…" His eyes darted, and he licked his lips. "And they say the leaders of this army claim to be Children of Bhaal. Like you, and Maera."
Her stomach turned to lead. Over Velkin's shoulder, she saw a familiar red head. Kelsey, his face grave, was weaving through the crowd. Looking for Maera, no doubt. Rivers of blood, she thought.
Since the reconsecration of the Temple, Demin had been able to return to her normal routine – rise early, lead the morning worship, deal with administrative matters, oversee the evening rites, and handle anything else that should happen to come up during the day. And twice weekly, she met with Ellesime for tea, to discuss matters both civic and personal. But that particular day, she paused as she approached her friend's chamber, because Elhan was exiting. That was unusual. If he had business with Ellesime, he typically met with her earlier in the morning.
His face was grave as he nodded to her, but he did not speak. Uneasy, Demin entered to find Ellesime facing the open window, her arms crossed before her. "Ellesime?" She closed the door carefully behind her. "Is something wrong?"
The Queen did not turn. "Elhan has grown more wary of the world lately. It would do him well to take some leave, I think."
Demin looked down at the tea table. A map was spread open, showing the Heartwoods and Forest of Tethir, as well as the countries to the south. Someone had drawn a circle around the city of Saradush. "I've heard the rumors too, Ellesime."
"It's a shame, really. Stability had so recently returned to Tethyr. Now it's as if the civil war never really ended."
"This isn't the same, though, is it?"
Ellesime sighed, and finally turned to face her. "No, it is not. And it is more than rumor. Elhan has a verified account now that the leaders of this army are claiming to be Bhaalspawn. Short of divination, there is no way to be sure, but ultimately, that does not matter. As long as their claims are believed, people will either flee from or flock to their banners."
Demin let out a long breath and sat slowly on the divan. "War is never to be desired, but this will change the complexion of it considerably."
"It's worse than that." Ellesime plucked a battered sheet of parchment from under the map and handed it to Demin. "Apparently, these have been found in towns and villages throughout the area. Your friend got this one from a caravan master who arrived earlier this week. He's quite skilled at obtaining information."
"My frie-" Demin frowned peevishly. So she had taken it on herself to keep Solaufein out of trouble. What of it?
She gave an irritated huff, and examined the page. It was a broadside, and her fingers shook slightly as she unfolded it and saw the black skull sigil of Bhaal emblazoned across it, its brief message repeated in Common, Elvish, Dwarven, and surprisingly enough, Orcish. She swallowed and quickly tucked it back under the map, but the words were already ringing in her mind.
"The time of the Children of Bhaal has come. There will be no sanctuary or haven before our coming."
In her dreams, Suldanessellar was burning.
The air, hot as the blast from a dragon's throat, burned her nose. Bits of burning leaves floated to the ground at her feet like slowly falling stars. Maera saw five figures arrayed against the backdrop of flame. Their shapes and sizes varied wildly, but she could sense the taint of Bhaal within them all, as surely as if it had been a scent on the wind or a brand on their foreheads. Her Slayer-self stood there, arms crossed nonchalantly before the tableau of destruction.
"There are so very many of us. But as in all things, some are stronger than others. A few are greater than the many. Only a few of us truly have what it takes. To triumph. To ascend." She jerked her head back towards the motionless Bhaalspawn. "They do. And you might. Because the time is coming. In fact, it's already here. But if you persist in preferring a soft bed and that redheaded sextoy of yours, you'll be swept aside in the flood. Smashed on the rocks, and no one will look back as they step over your corpse. You and all those darling innocents you worry over so. You bleed to protect them when they just get in your way." Her look of disgust melted into cunning consideration. "Of course, that's only one possibility. You still have options. You value your strength. I know you do." She smiled darkly. "After all, I am you. You can do so much now. Think of what you could do if you just opened your hand." Her arm extended, and the fingers of her right hand slowly unfolded. The palm was wet with blood. "Come to me. Become the Child of Murder you were meant to be. And let them all burn."
Maera awoke with a jolt, and for an instant, everything still seemed lit by licking flames. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, all she saw was the now-familiar pattern of leaves on the ceiling.
Kelsey shifted beside her. "You okay?" he slurred sleepily.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think so." She covered her face with her hands, breathing deeply.
He rolled onto his side facing her, and she curled up in his embrace. "Been a while since you've had a bad dream," he murmured, stroking her hair. "I got spoiled."
"I'm glad you're here, though. It helps."
"Good," he breathed, already back on the verge of sleep. She laid in his arms, listening to the steady rhythm of his heart and the counterpoint of his even breathing. The rasping hum of the crickets wafted through the open windows on the cool midnight breeze. Suldanessellar was quiet, and at peace. You're wrong, she thought to the Slayer within, I bleed to protect these people because they deserve it. But… She sighed. But there's more than one way to protect them.
Her eyes burned suddenly with tears eager to be shed, and she pressed her face against Kelsey's neck. She wanted to laugh at herself, abuse herself for a fool. She had thought it was over after Sarevok, too, hadn't she? And for a little while, it had been. This was no different. Bhaal was dead, but she still couldn't outrun him.
Maera was already up when Kelsey woke the next morning, but she hadn't gone far. She sat in front of the dressing table, staring into the mirror, and he smiled for a moment. He really could get used to this sort of domesticity. Being with her made it easy. But then he noted the expression on her face, and his smile slid away.
She held a pair of scissors in one hand, and her eyes were lost and melancholy. She noticed the movement as he sat up, and said softly, "I'm going to have to cut my hair."
Maybe he wasn't quite awake yet. He got up, and sat beside her on the vanity bench. "Um…okay." He rubbed his eyes. "I thought you said…well, it's your hair."
"I have to. We're gonna have to leave soon."
"We are?" Now he was sure he wasn't fully awake. "Why do you say tha…" The realization dawned. "Was it the dream you had last night?"
She nodded miserably. "As long as Imoen and I are here, Suldanessellar is in danger. They're coming for us."
A chill slid down his spine. "Who's 'they'?"
"I don't know exactly," she whispered. "Other Bhaalspawn." She turned her head, tears in her eyes. "I just wanted this to be over, Kelsey. I just wanted my own life."
He pulled her close as her voice broke, kissing her hair, murmuring endearments. "It's okay, honey…it'll be okay."
"How?!" she cried.
"I don't know yet," he said softly. "But it will be. And I like your hair short, so that's okay, too." He took her face between his hands and tried for a smile, which she eventually returned with much effort and some sniffling.
"Thank you," she said with a small, damp chuckle. She turned her eyes back to her reflection. "Gods, some hero, huh?"
"Best kind of hero," he replied. She looked puzzled "You don't buy your own advertising."
She smiled weakly, but the spark was already returning to her eyes. "Why should I? All my advertising says I can be bought in bulk."
"You can't? I've been misled!"
"Sorry about that," she said, standing. "But I'm afraid there are no refunds."
He had to consciously force his grin not to stretch from ear to ear. It was the moments like this that made him certain to his very core that walking up to her that day in the Government District was the best decision he had ever made in his entire life. "I love you." She smiled again, grateful, knowing, and warm. She sighed resolutely and began to get dressed, rolling her shoulders absently. Even as he watched her, his heart full, a familiar anger rekindled inside him, lashing out at the wrongness of it all. She deserved so much more than to be at the mercy of dreams and prophecies, a pawn in some sort of celestial power play. You'll have your own life, Maera, he thought. I don't care what I have to do, but I will make sure you do.
Maera sat on the divan in Ellesime's chamber, staring into her cup of tea. "I really can't thank you enough, Ellesime. Your generosity has been amazing."
The Queen laughed softly. "I would accept your thanks and say that you are very welcome, if not for the fact that you are the one who fixed my door."
"That was no big deal," Maera said, bewildered. "It just needed new hinges."
"My point being," Ellesime continued, "that my generosity has been, in attempt at least, proportionate to your own."
"Well, I don't really do idle," Maera muttered uncomfortably. "I get bored."
"Then let us thank the Oak for that." Ellesime smiled and freshened both their cups. She took a sip, looking at Maera from across the rim of her teacup. "Where will you go?"
"I'm not sure. We're needed in that mess to the south, I know that, but… We need more information, and I don't want to wade into a war zone to get it."
Ellesime pursed her lips in considered silence. "If it is guidance you seek, I may know of a source for that. There is an oracle grove to the south; I can make no promises regarding the Ancients' aid, but even a general direction is better than none at all." She fixed her green-gold eyes on Maera and added softly, "You said that you were born for a purpose, but that you did not wish to fulfill it. I believe that very soon, you will find that you are intended for greater things than ever Bhaal imagined."
They left in the predawn glow of a fine, late summer morning a few days later, having made their farewells with as little fanfare as possible. Maera gazed back at Suldanessellar, at the soaring trees that had been their refuge from the world, even if only for an all-too brief time. As the city gates swung shut behind them, Maera couldn't help but remember the gates of Candlekeep, and feeling that, once again, fate was pushing her along like a hurricane wind at her back. The wheels that had begun turning that day had brought her to this point, and they were spinning faster and faster with every passing moment. This was only the beginning of the end.
Now what the end was; that was the real question.