A low rumble of thunder echoed through the dark clouds that hung bare inches above the tops of the half-dead trees. Maera kicked despondently at the damp moss. "Well, thanks for trying, Ellesime," she sighed, giving the now-silent stone heads a dark glare. "Putting what I already know in a nice meter does not make it new information!" she informed them hotly. They did not deign to respond to her critique. She heaved another sigh, looking at her companions as she sat heavily on a nearby stump. "So now what?" Her only answer was another roll of thunder, and then the sky opened.
Jaheira flipped up her hood, and, with a disapproving look, did the same for Maera when she made no move to do so herself. "I suppose our best course of action would be to head south into Tethyr."
"Saradush, right?" Maera rubbed her face, nearly pushing her hood back again. She caught it at the sight of Jaheira's sternly raised eyebrow, and tried not to look petulant.
"That was the name that kept cropping up," Imoen said, her expression freely indulging in petulance. She hated getting rained on.
"It's been a few years since I've been to there, but I do know the way," Kelsey volunteered.
Maera stood, nodding and straightening her shoulders. "Yeah. I guess that is our best option. I just wish that…" She turned, and saw Minsc staring watchfully into the trees. "What's wrong, Minsc?"
The ranger lifted his cupped hands to his ear, and nodded. "We are being watched. Boo agrees."
Maera closed her hand on Daystar's hilt as she crossed to Minsc's side, unable to see whatever signs he did. "How many?"
He slipped the hamster into one of his many belt pouches. "Four or five. We are not completely sure."
"Spread out, or in a group?"
"The main group is ahead, but there are two more behind."
She patted his upper arm, nodding. "If it gets ugly, you take care of those two. Keep them off Im and Kelsey." She took a step forward and raised her voice. "I know you're out there. Experience has made me leery of people who lurk in the woods, so either move on, or come out and chat."
Silence, and then there was a rustle in the trees as a female figure stepped into the clearing, flanked on either side by a pair of heavy, hooded men, and movement behind indicated the others Minsc had noticed. Hired muscle, Maera thought; the woman was the important one. She was human, of medium height, her sleek, close-cut black hair plastered to her face by the rain, a disdainful sneer curling her mouth. She probably would have been rather lovely if not for the expression, and the heavy makeup the rain sent in rivulets down her face. "Maera of Candlekeep. I've been looking for you. But I'm afraid I was expecting something grander."
"Everybody always says that. I'm starting to get a complex."
"That's of little matter to me. And it will be to you too, after I kill you."
Maera cocked her head. "Right to the point. You know, it's nice to deal with a professional."
This sally won her a raised eyebrow. "I had heard you think yourself humorous. I see my sources were correct."
"Oh, I wasn't trying to be funny. I meant it. You'll have to excuse me if I still don't take you seriously, though. Over the past few years, I've had a lot of people walk up to me, announce they were going to kill me, and then fail to do so. Makes it difficult to get too worked up about it."
"You have no idea who I am, do you?"
"Gods, you can't even recognize another Bhaalspawn when you see one. And everyone was so agitated about you, so worried over what you could do to our plans. Like you were some sort of bogeyman to frighten naughty children." Her expression shifted from disdain to amused condescension. "But the pathetic truth stands before me. You're no different from the rest of the cattle."
"Watch who you're calling a cow, lady," Imoen muttered darkly.
"Another Bhaalspawn looking to kill me," Maera mused, keeping her eyes on the other woman. "So this is what we do? Wander around murdering each other because that's what Daddy would want? I've never been able to figure out why we should care so much about his opinion."
"As he is dead, Bhaal's opinion counts for little. We are far more interested in what he left behind."
A slow, mocking smile slid over the woman's lips. "You are not the only one who has made an alliance among our kin. Your past behavior has made it clear to us that you pose a threat, so I have been sent to…handle you."
Behind her, Maera heard Kelsey snort quietly. "Good luck with that," he said under his breath. The woman raised a perfectly arched eyebrow, but did not move her gaze from Maera.
"The world is watching us," she continued. "Waiting. Even the gods themselves do not know what we might do. Or even what we are truly capable of. Isn't it nice to be a part of history? You, of course, will only be a footnote, but everyone has their place."
A gust of wind made a hollow rattle in the bare branches. Maera sighed. She had not, until very recently, given much thought to what her interactions with other Bhaalspawn might be like, but this was not setting an encouraging precedent. She drew her sword. "Look, you say you're here to try and kill me, so let's get on with it, shall we?"
"Very well." Almost too quickly to be seen, the woman drew a pair of long knives, raising her off hand above her head as she spoke. "I am Illasera the Quick, and I have been charged with ending your life. Defend yourself. Not that it will do you much good."
Maera suddenly smiled. "Do you always trash talk this much, or do you just like me?"
Illasera had not come by her title ironically. She was fast, she was accurate, and she was obviously very experienced. She spun and turned, light on her feet as a cat, magic blurring her image. She changed up her parries, catching blows on the edge of one blade, then both. Maera's own style relied on swiftness and while matching herself against a skilled opponent was always an undeniable pleasure, she knew she couldn't afford to get carried away. Her reach was longer, but Daystar was heavier. She would tire first. She had to keep her eyes open for a break.
Jaheira engaged the fighter to Illasera's right, landing a succession of swift blows to his torso. He obviously wasn't well practiced against a staff user. His loss, Maera thought, smiling grimly. From behind her, she heard Minsc's cheerful battlecry; he was more than enough to keep the other two occupied, keeping Imoen and Kelsey free from worrying about a close defense. A sizzle and scream made that clear.
That was the nice thing about magical fire. Rain didn't really pose that much of a problem.
Illasera half-turned, and for a moment, Maera thought the other Bhaalspawn was simply trying to upset her footing on the slick grass, but then she realized she was being positioned. The other goon could come at her flank. From the corner of her eye, she could see Imoen and Kelsey, a bluish half-globe of Imoen's making surrounding them. Kelsey's head turned, and understanding crossed his face. He raised his hands, and she recognized the gesture. Fireball. Time to get out of the way. There was no turning her opponent, so back was her only option. She swung hard, pushing Illasera back only a step, but it was enough. Illasera bared her teeth in a frustrated grimace, and she slashed quickly at Maera's midsection. She parried the lead blade, but Illasera's off hand sliced down, and she had just enough time to move –
"Maera! Down!" A footstep behind her, and Jaheira's voice ringing with authority kicked her body into motion before her mind even got involved. She dropped to one knee, ducking as six feet of solid, Rillifane-blessed oak sailed over her head with a wet buzz, catching Illasera squarely across the temple and doing very ugly things to her skull.
"Another Child of Bhaal, huh?" Imoen poked the twitching body of Illasera the Quick with the end of her bow.
Maera shrugged as she sheathed her sword, noting gladly that no one seemed to be seriously injured, though Minsc would be pounding dents out of his armor again at the first opportunity. "She was delightful, I'll give her that."
"She said she'd been sent," Kelsey noted. "By who?"
"A cheerful thought for a cheerful day," Maera replied dourly. "Come on. All we're doing here is getting wetter."
She oriented herself south, took a step…and for an instant, her vision went dark. She blinked hard, shaking her head. "Something wrong, Mae?" Imoen asked.
"I'm okay," she said, giving her eyes a quick rub. She walked a few more steps, and the darkness returned, but it was not the dark of blindness. She was looking into a room, darker even than the gray out-of-doors. She caught a brief impression of carved columns of snowflake obsidian before her awareness returned to the clearing again.
"Maera?" Jaheira's tone was one of stern worry. "Are you sure you were not injured?"
"I'm fine, Jaheira, I promise, I just- "Another step, and suddenly, she felt as though a great hand grabbed her by the belt and pulled with all its strength. The feeling of momentum ceased as quickly as it had begun, and as it did, she realized she was standing in the great, dark room with her companions, rainwater still dripping from their cloaks. There was a smooth, polished floor of dark marble under their feet instead of the sodden forest floor, and the columns she had seen a moment before stretched up to an unseen ceiling. It seemed to be growing lighter, which she rationalized as getting used to the gloom, until she turned around.
Even if she had never seen an image of a solar, never heard a description of one, she was sure she would have still recognized the celestial being for what she was. An immense female figure, clad in pure, simple white, a massive sword at her side, her great burning wings folded demurely behind her, the solar gazed on them with eyes full of a warm, complete compassion. She was beautiful, but not in the way mortal creatures are, not for symmetry of feature and grace of line. She was beautiful like lightning across a violet sky, like a storm-lashed sea, like a mountain range at sunrise. She was beautiful in the way of grand and mighty things, and though Maera opened her mouth, she could find nothing to say. Her mind was so addled with a multitude of questions that none of them could fight their way past her stunned lips. The solar smiled. "You are wondering where you are, and how you came to be here."
Five heads nodded.
"You have been here before, after a fashion. Though this is more a piece of a place, than a place in its entirety."
The words nagged at Maera until they finally pushed their way through her confusion. "This is Hell, isn't it?"
"It is a portion of your father's realm in the Hells, yes."
"So are we dead again?" Imoen asked.
The solar smiled again. "No, little one. You inhabit your physical bodies still." She turned her fiery eyes back to Maera. "When you were last here, godchild, your presence touched it, and you carried a part of it back with you into life. Now, it has opened to you, and to those you deem essential to your journey. You may now enter and exit it at will, though you will find it will take where you need to be, not necessarily where you want."
The implications of the solar's words struck like the proverbial ton of masonry. Maera stared. "I made this place?" She looked around helplessly. The gloom of the cavernous room made it gave it a claustrophobic feel. She knew there was a ceiling up there, but she couldn't see it. "How?"
"Not by conscious thought," said the solar. "Nor even by desire. As the saying goes, you were in the right place, at the right time. The plane responded to the divinity in your soul, and when you regained it, this place came into being. I understand this knowledge is somewhat overwhelming, godchild, but there will be many such truths revealed to you in the coming days. You have only begun, and that is why I am here. It is my task to aid you, to help you grow in knowledge and power so that you will be ready when your time comes."
What will you do when the time comes? Maera swallowed. "I don't understand."
"Do not be afraid. You will. All things will be revealed in their proper time, and you will know their truth." The solar reached down and touched Maera's cheek. "I will leave you now, but we will speak again soon. For now, there is one here who wishes to speak with you. Farewell."
With that, she was gone, and Maera was left to look about the darkened room in confusion. "Someone where?"
"I told you we were not finished, sister."
The voice echoed as though coming from a great distance away, but the filmy shape that formed in the air in front of her was less than a foot away. Maera swore and stepped back swiftly, eyes wide. It spoke again, exasperated. "No need to recoil – I can do you no harm in this place. And certainly not in this form." The shape gained greater definition, and there was no denying who it was. Sarevok's face was set in concentration as he shot Maera a calculating look. "I am disappointed. One would think you would know better how to conceal your shock."
Minsc peered at the specter. "Didn't we kill him? I am fairly sure Boo made a snack of his eyeballs."
"That he did, Minsc," Maera said, grateful the ranger's interjection had given her time to recover her composure.
Sarevok, on the other hand, looked irritated at the interruption. He pointedly ignored Minsc as he continued. "When last we met, I noticed the energies of our father's realm gathering around you. I determined my best course of action would be to…stow away, as it were."
Her jaw tightened. "As what were?"
"It would be pointless to attempt to explain the metaphysics to one who has so deliberately ignored those aspects of herself, but suffice it to say that I saw my chance to depart and I took it."
"And now you've traded one piece of hell for another. Well done."
A ghostly eyebrow lifted, unamused. "I had missed your sarcasm."
"I'm sure you've missed it as much I've missed you." She crossed her arms. "What's your game, Sarevok?"
"I seek something. Something it is within your power to grant."
"Considering I wouldn't spit on you if you were on fire, you may have gone to all this trouble for nothing."
"Why sister, what of your vaunted lack of hate? I thought you had outgrown me. Am I not beneath you now?"
She narrowed her eyes. Gods, he was maddening. "Fine. What are you after?"
"Life, dear sister," he said, his hollow voice unctuous in the extreme. "With a little, a very little, aid from you, I can be returned to it."
Maera stared at him, mouth gaped. A shocked, half-choked laugh shook her shoulders, and the empty cavern suddenly rang with her laughter. "You… You honestly think that… Oh my gods, you're serious, aren't you?" She covered her mouth, trying to regain her composure. Saverok's hazy features twisted with anger. "I always knew you were at least a little crazy, but now you've proved it. No, I think you did quite enough damage the last time you were alive. I am perfectly comfortable with you staying this way. So, sorry, Sarevok, but I think we're just going to be on our way."
His look of fury shifted into cunning. "Do you even know how?" he asked, dry amusement rippling in his tone. "I suspect you do not. But I do. I have watched this place as it formed. Observation of that process has taught me much."
"Why should we listen to anything you have to say?" Jaheira groused.
Maera extended a deferential hand towards the druid. "An excellent question, Jaheira. Why should we, Sarevok? Your track record doesn't inspire a lot of confidence."
He snorted, a feat for one with no obvious need to breathe. "Fine then. Wander about like lost sheep. When you tire of it, I will still be here."
"What is with everyone comparing us to farm animals today?" Imoen demanded of no one in particular.
"Alright, Sarevok," Maera sighed, rubbing her forehead, "you're obviously dying to share your wisdom, so I'll listen. And no, I'm not apologizing for that remark being a terrible pun, because I don't care."
"Then we have a deal? My help for yours?"
"Return me to life, and I will tell you everything you need to know."
Kelsey could not watch the back and forth in silence any longer. "What kind of a trade is that?"
Sarevok flicked him a look of dry contempt. "I don't believe I was speaking to you."
"Talk, Sarevok," Maera snapped, her temper rising. "I'll decide if you have anything to say that I find interesting."
"As I said," he replied smoothly. "With your aid, I may live again."
"How is that supposed to work? Last time I checked, I'm no priest."
"But you are a Child of Bhaal. I don't believe I have to tell you that your soul has certain…unique properties."
"Oh, no. The last time someone played with my soul, very bad things happened. You think I'm going to let you it voluntarily?"
"Suit yourself," he said with a spectral shrug. "You know where to find me."
She looked about the darkness emptiness of the strange cocoon plane. There were no obvious exits. To all appearances, it was nothing more than a huge, empty room. As if the idea of a semi-metaphysical place being attached to her like some sort of lamprey wasn't bad enough, the thought that that place was a hell made her skin crawl. It was far less visibly horrific that Bhaal's hell had been, though, even if it was not exactly welcoming. But if she had changed it unconsciously, how much had it changed her? She glanced back at Sarevok, and the question was asking itself before she had time to stop it. "What would this entail?"
A small riot broke out behind her, as four voices, in various tones and accents, questioned her sanity. Even Minsc, and he knew from crazy. Sarevok, unnervingly, smiled. "Like rekindling a fire, sister, I only require a spark."
Her head was beginning to hurt. "Oghma's books," she sighed. "I cannot be rid of you, can I? Even dead, you still manage to butt your way into my life. As if I don't have enough to worry about right now!" She paced angrily in front of him, stopping to shoot at him, "And what would you do? If I agreed to this, what would you do with yourself?"
He looked askance, and moved his translucent shoulders vaguely. "I wish to live again. Beyond that… I do not know."
She was unimpressed. "Don't lie to me, Sarevok," she said. "You're a planner. You don't do anything without your end game in mind. So tell me. What do you want?"
"I have already told you. Doubt me if you will, but in that, at least, you do it unnecessarily."
"I'll stick with doubting you, thanks. That feels more natural."
Sarevok glowered. "Very well then. How may I ease your mind?"
"Explain to me how returning Sarevok Anchev to the world of the living is, in any way, a good idea. Help me understand how doing that is anything other buying myself a temporary convenience in return for bringing back someone who got what was coming to him. Please, Sarevok, help me out here."
The ghost took a step towards her. "If you wish to assure I will not act against your wishes, I could swear an oath to you that I would not. In this place, it would bind like a geas."
The word rang through Maera's mind with the off-key clang of a fire bell, and suddenly all she could see were Yoshimo's weary, wounded eyes. "I don't do geases," she said shortly.
"Then I will be in your debt," he growled, his frustration growing.
"You think I want you indebted to me?"
The dead man compressed his lips. "Then what more can I say? You have made your stance abundantly clear; now let me make mine. I have no desire to raise my hand against you again. That is past. But if I have means within my grasp to be returned to life, then I will take it! You are trapped in this place now, just as I am, and neither of us can escape without the other! You know what I wish, and all I have to offer is my word and my knowledge. Take the one and you will have the other."
Maera met his eyes again. This had been so much easier when she could just kill him. It had all been so clear before - he was the enemy, and all she needed of him was his death. It was clean, and it was simple. But everything had been simpler then. "All right," she said softly. "Fine. If this is what it takes to get you to leave me and mine the hell alone, fine. If this is what I have to do to finally get you out of my life, then take as much soul as you damn well need." She lifted her chin, glaring up at him belligerently. She had forgotten how godsblighted tall he was. "But I swear – cross me, piss me off, look at me funny on the wrong day, and you will be the first person I've ever killed twice."
"Having died on your sword once before, sister," Sarevok said calmly, "I am in no hurry to repeat the experience." He stepped close to her and pressed his hands against the sides of her head, sinking them into her. Her eyes rolled back in her head as his insubstantial body began to gain color and substance, like glass being painted.
She staggered back as he pulled away his hands, and Kelsey stepped behind her, letting her stumble against him. His hands rested on her hips as she leaned on him, breathing heavily. He looked over her shoulder to the now entirely solid form of her old enemy. Sarevok was clad in very plain plate, a simple, unadorned sword belted at his hip. The phrase "a big man" did not begin to do him justice – he was taller even than Minsc, and his shoulders could probably blot out the sun. Kelsey suddenly felt very short and reedy by comparison.
So this was Sarevok, who'd killed Maera's beloved foster father and haunted her steps halfway across the Sword Coast. The presumptive ruler and would-be scourge of Baldur's Gate. Sarevok, whom she had killed in turn. Remembering that made Kelsey slightly more comfortable with the man's size. "It worked," Sarevok murmured with satisfaction.
"You went tinkering around with my soul and you weren't sure it would work?" Maera's voice was harsh with incredulity.
"Success is never an absolute, sister." The oozing familiarity of Sarevok's tone made Kelsey's hands tingle with unspent fire.
"I'll make sure they carve that on your next headstone," she shot back, patting Kelsey's hand as she straightened and stepped away from him. "Well. Here you are."
"Yes," he breathed, flexing his fingers, "here I am indeed." He watched his hand, seemingly entranced by the motion of bone and muscle under the skin, then brought his head up with a jerk. "And now, payment is in order, I believe." He gestured about them. "This place knows you better than you know yourself, sister, but let us be frank, that isn't difficult. Sometimes I think you are willfully obtuse." Her eyes narrowed.
"Getting off to a rousing start, Sarevok," she growled warningly.
He continued, but not before his lips moved in an expression that was almost, but not quite, a smirk. "The solar was correct; this…pocket plane of yours may be used to travel from one point to another in the Prime Material, but you set your destination only in the broadest sense. It knows where you truly need to be in order to travel your path. So I propose an exercise." She raised her eyebrows. "Empty your mind. I will ask you a question, and when I do, do not give me an answer colored by your personal desires or your precious morality. Give me the truth." She rolled her eyes, humoring him, then closed them. "Where do you need to go?"
"We have to go to Saradush."
"Because… it's the center of this whole thing, and I have to know what's happening. I have to be there."
She heard her party gasp, almost as one, and opened her eyes. Between the two columns nearest her, she saw a swirling vortex of golden light, a mandala of heatless fire. She stared at the whirlpool of light. It hummed faintly. "Will that take us to Saradush?"
"There is only one way to find out."
She circled the portal, eyeing it suspiciously. She glanced over at Jaheira, who shrugged, her face reflecting her own confusion. A small, high-pitched voice issued from the darkness to her left, and the sound of it left her scrambling for Daystar's hilt. "Big ghostie?"
A look of intense, pained consternation crossed Sarevok's face. "Oh gods, the imp."
With a rustle of leathery wings, a small imp fluttered into view. "Ooooo, ghostie, you lookin' awful solid. " Catching sight of Maera, it put a tiny hand to its thin chest. "Great one! You is finally showed up! It's been just Cespenar and the ghostie for so longs now!"
Having had little experience with hellish entities, Maera was at something of a loss. "Um…and you are?"
"The less heed you pay that pest, the better," Sarevok opined.
"Don't pays no attention to him," the imp chirped in his sing-song voice, his ugly little face pulled into an expression no doubt meant to be suave. "Ghostie's a big grump. Cespenar serveds the great lord Bhaal, but I guesses I is serving you now." He seemed to notice the portal for the first time, and his body language morphed into that of a debilitating depression. "Awww, you is leaving already? But you just gots here!" Good cheer returned like a lit candle, as with a strong wing flap, he looped about in the air. "I knows! What you want done with the place while's you is gone? More skulls? Some spikes? Is not very spiky." He held up his hands as though framing a picture. "I is thinking…big fountain of blood, right there in the middle."
Maera looked at the imp, and the reality of the day began to sink in. She was standing in the middle of what was, she had been told, a sliver of a hell dimension that had apparently followed her home like some lovelorn puppy. She had just given up a portion of her soul to return Sarevok Anchev, of all people, to like. And now she was talking to an imp that seemed to have decided she was its new boss. All right then. She carefully peeled off her sanity and set it aside, the better to wade into the waters of absurdity unencumbered. "You know what, Cespenar? No. No blood, no spikes, no torture implements. Some comfy furniture, I think. Lots of padding, nice upholstery, anything but black. Maybe some potted plants. And some torchieres. The nice big ones that hold a couple dozen candles. We need more light."
The imp flapped calculatingly. "Unusual."
"I'm a rebel."
"I sees that."
"Think you can do it?"
He crossed his heart solemnly. "Cespenar does his best!"
"I have the utmost faith in you." Maera could feel the disbelieving stares of her party in the back of her neck. She glanced quickly over her shoulder and shrugged, mouthing "what?".
"Shall we be off, then?" Sarevok asked, all smoothness and urbanity.
"There is no 'we', because I don't recall inviting you, Sarevok. Don't get me wrong; you're going through that portal with us, but only because if this place is mine, I don't want you junking it up. What happens to you on the other side is officially not my problem. You're alive again. Try not screw it up. Because you know what will happen if you do." She glanced at Imoen and Jaheira, Kelsey and Minsc. "Let's go."
She extended her hand, and as her fingers brushed the light patterns of the portal, she saw a cobbled courtyard, the stones scarred and broken. There were men in chain mail, and a woman with long red hair, gesturing at them vehemently. As she pushed her hand forward, there was sound, words to match the movement of the woman's mouth.
" – will solve nothing! Just let me TALK to Gromnir!"
The eyes of the armed men on the steps before them widened at their sudden appearance, and the one obviously in charge leveled his sword at them with a cry. Here we go again, Maera thought.