One Way Out
It wasn't actually the crash of bombardment that woke Kelsey the next morning, but the reverberation of the floor beneath him. He sat up, trying his best not to disturb Maera, and to his relief, she simply shifted on her side but did not wake. She got so little sleep as it was.
The movement sent a small, folded piece of paper fluttering into his lap. He furrowed his brow and picked it up. He did not remember any paper on his chest the night before. But the note's contents quickly cleared up the mystery.
Mae and/or Red –
I didn't have the heart to wake you guys (you were so cute!), so this is to let you know that Minsc and I have gone out to have a look around. Jaheira's around. Don't worry – we'll be careful.
Under her name, she'd inscribed a pattern of lines that looked almost, but not quite, like letters. Warding runes, designed to give anyone who had not been authorized to handle the note a nasty shock. Kelsey smiled to himself as he tucked the paper halfway into one of the outer pockets on Maera's pack. The message itself was secondary to the protection she had left for them. Knowing her, however, he was probably lucky she'd included him in the list.
He stood, shoulders aching. Sleeping fully clothed on a wooden floor wasn't exactly conducive to comfort in the morning. Yawning, he stretched his arms over his head as he rounded the corner out of their stairway alcove, and nearly collided with a dark haired young woman carrying a tray.
"Mirena! I'm sorry!"
"It's okay," she said, smiling up at him. She gave the tray a small heft. "See? Didn't even splash the tea. Much." Her smile softened. "By the way…I'm really glad you and Kelvim had a good talk last night."
"Well," he chuckled uneasily, "for various quantities of 'good'. It was mostly awkward, and…humbling." He shrugged slightly. "I don't know, Mirena. I don't know what kind of relationship we can really have at this point. There's a lot of lost time."
"True. But you're both adults now. Maybe you should just try being friends." There was understanding in her brown eyes, and a heartening lack of judgment. He could see her again as a child, small and solemn – the neighbor girl from down the road, who spent so much time at the Coltrane home because her own wasn't anything worth speaking of. She and Kelvim had always been close, and Kelsey wouldn't have blamed her in the slightest if she had held him responsible for any of the hurt his brother had felt over the years. But then, the girl he remembered had been a perpetual peacemaker, and the harmony of her adopted family had seemed at times to matter more to her than it had to them. Time, it seemed, had not changed that, and he was grateful for it.
Her hands shook slightly, and he realized that her tray must be heavy. "And now I'm keeping you here when you probably really want to put that down."
"It is kind of heavy, yes," she said. He carefully took the tray from her hands.
"I can carry it for you, if you don't mind. Were you going upstairs?" She nodded, and he let her lead the way.
They paused outside the room she shared with Kelvim, and she looked up at him, her hand on the doorknob. "Would you like to join us for breakfast?"
"I…don't know if I should, Mirena. I don't want to push my luck after last night…"
"Look at where we are, Kelsey," she said, her gaze frank. "This isn't exactly the time or place for waiting games."
Definitely not a kid anymore, he thought. He glanced down at the tray. "There enough for three?"
She smiled broadly. "I'll make sure he doesn't hog it all."
Maera lay on the floor for at least ten minutes after waking, trying to create a simile that could best describe how her head felt. It needed to be a good one - something florid and a bit overstated, while still maintaining an essential honesty.
She kept coming back to crap. Sometimes one had to stick with the basics.
She spotted Imoen's note, and stuck it back into her pack after reading it. A paper ward wasn't the strongest, but it would keep the majority of curious hands away from their gear. The note didn't account for Kelsey's absence, but she was sure he hadn't gone far.
It was early yet; the curtains were still up, and the light slipping around their edges was pale, but the bombardment, which had tapered off in the night, was picking back up in the distance. It was amazing how quickly one could become accustomed to the sound. She rounded a table, feeling dull and sandy eyed, and was treated to an indignant "Hey!" from the vicinity of her waist. She started to apologize to the halfling (height based mishaps could be so embarrassing) when his face paled and his eyes grew large. He backed away. "I'm not looking for any trouble!"
She spread her hands, grateful for once that Daystar was not on her belt. "Neither am I. Look, I'm unarmed."
The halfling snorted forcefully. "Not like that matters. I saw what you did to that guard last night."
Maera sighed. As usual, Jaheira had been right. She always was. "You're a Bhaalspawn too, aren't you?"
"Yeah." The halfling's face was a mask of crafty suspicion. "Though I'd hardly put myself in your league."
"What's your name? Where are you from?"
"What do you care?"
"I haven't had a lot of chances to meet other Bhaalspawn. Well, like this, anyway. Can you blame me for being curious?"
His face said that he could probably blame her for quite a few things, but finally, he answered. "Name's Len. I grew up in Gullykin."
"I've been there before," she offered. He shrugged.
"I hated it. Ran off to Beregost first chance I got. There's where Melissan found me last year." His eyes darted to a table along the wall – six or seven others, male and female, in a cross-section of the races of the Realms, sat clustered around it, watching Len and Maera uneasily.
"More Bhaalspawn?" she asked, and Len nodded. "Why did she bring you all here?"
"Guess she figured since Gromnir hadn't joined the Five, he'd help us. He hasn't hurt us, but he's about worthless, is what he is."
"But why bring you all together in the first place?"
"Look," Len said, "we're not big fish like you. Seems like our main purpose in this world is to get butchered by you." She was about to protest, so he rolled his eyes and amended, "The ones like you. The strong ones. As a group, we actually stand a chance of not being completely mown down. And while this has been a real treat, you scare the crap outta me, so I'm gonna go." He made for his table and his companions. Maera could feel their eyes on her. How was she supposed to feel about them? She claimed Imoen as her sister, and while Sarevok's constant use of the term in relation to herself had chafed, she hadn't yet felt it necessary to tell him to stop. But these other Bhaalspawn – Len and his fellows, Illasera, the infamous Five and the yet-unseen Gromnir – who were they to her? Disquieted, she turned, and found herself less than a foot from a broad chest.
"Oghma's books, Sarevok! What the hell?" she snapped, trying to cover her nerves with ill temper.
He raised an eyebrow. "I had no idea it would be so easy to sneak up on you, sister."
"I didn't get a lot of sleep last night," she replied, scowling at him. Part of her wondered why she was even bothering to make excuses.
"Ah. Over-exerted yourself with the sorcerer, then?"
She shot him an icy glare. "On a list of the top ten things in all the planes that are none of your business, Sarevok, my sex life is near the top. So if you have any further speculation on the subject, do yourself a favor and don't share it."
"I simply would not have thought him to be to your taste," he said, his voice bland.
"Because you know me so well." She swept past him towards the bar.
"Your favorite color is red," he announced. "Your favorite flowers are yellow roses, your favorite food is cloudberry tart, and you named your first sword after the heroine of your favorite childhood book, Kirit of Shadowdale."
She stopped, and glanced over her shoulder. "Trivia is not the same as knowledge. Just because you spent three years spying on me before trying to kill me doesn't mean you know a damn thing about who I am."
"If you say so." He followed her to the bar. Breakfast was not to be an awe-inspiring affair – plain cakes and a pitifully small amount of ham. Anxiety twisted in Maera's gut, for if a well-stocked inn was already feeling the pinch of shortened supplies, the private citizenry was likely worse off. No wonder the mood in the streets was so black.
"I don't recall asking you to eat with me, Sarevok."
He shrugged, his face carefully composed. "Very well. I can go, and leave you to your thoughts. Unless you care to share them. With someone well placed to understand."
She leaned back from her food, crossing her arms contemptuously. "And why would you want to be my listening ear? The last time we were in this kind of physical proximity, we were trying to kill each other."
Her statement garnered another lifted eyebrow. "But as you have pointed out, things have changed since then. We have...moved on, as they say."
Good gods. "I may not hate you like I did, but that doesn't mean I like you, Sarevok. So please don't make the mistake of thinking we're going to be best friends now that you've borrowed a cup of soul."
"You shouldn't presume that you know what I want."
"I thought you didn't know."
"I thought you didn't care."
"Why didn't we ever take the time to have these charming heart-to-hearts when you were alive the first time?"
"When I said I'd missed your sarcasm, I was lying."
She rolled her eyes. "You're edging me back into hate territory."
"I have to wonder why you bothered to leave it."
"It wasn't a conscious choice," she said, her eyes returning to her breakfast. "You were dead. There wasn't any point anymore."
"Oh?" He was almost as good as Jaheira at packing a mountain of meaning into a single syllable.
She looked at him again, her gaze sharp. "I hated you for what you did to Gorion, and for what you put me through. I hated you for what you did to all those innocent people, just to further your ambitions. You made me so angry I wanted to punch through your armor and rip out your heart. I settled for the sword because it was cleaner."
He smiled slowly. "I always knew you were our father's daughter."
"Gods, do you have any idea what you sound like, being happy that someone could hate you that much? No wonder you thought starting a war was a perfectly acceptable way to get what you wanted." He snorted, and she fixed him with a cold glare. "But here's the difference between us: When I killed you, it was over. It had to be. Because that was the only way to stop you, and it was what you deserved. And when people pay for what they've done, you can't keep punishing them."
She expected anger, or at least a retort in the previous vein of the conversation, but he simply looked at her, calculation in his golden eyes. "An interesting perspective."
"One you don't agree with, of course."
"I feel it…unwise. After all, what is to stop me from putting a knife between your ribs even as we sit?"
She looked him in the eye, arching one pale eyebrow. "I don't know. What is stopping you?"
Their gaze locked, and she felt a tiny thrill of triumph when he looked away. "And what of those unfortunates?" he asked, indicating Len's table with a jerk of his head. "Do you think they would subscribe to so enlightened a view?"
"It's not enlightenment; it's common sense. And whether or not they would agree with me is their own business. They're people, Sarevok. Just like the rest of us. Yes, even you." She shook her head, looking away. She didn't want the others to think she was staring. "Gods, what was Melissan thinking, bringing them here like this? They're the whole reason that army's out there now!"
"And yet rather than turn on them, the people of this city look to her just as her flock of Bhaalspawn do."
"One might wonder at her motives in bringing them here. Gathering them together," Sarevok murmured, his eyes still fixed on the other Bhaalspawn. To a one, they quailed under his scrutiny. "After all, a large, stationary target is always easier to hit than a multitude of small, moving ones. One might almost think it was by design."
Maera pondered that, examining the words as if through a jeweler's loupe. If forced at swordpoint to admit one thing about Sarevok Anchev she actually respected, it would have to be his intellect. "You don't trust her," she said softly. A slight motion of his head signaled his agreement. "Well, that's one thing we can agree on, then."
"Perhaps some pointed questions will be necessary when we speak with her again."
Movement in the corner of her eye caught Maera's attention. Kelsey was descending the stairs. She stood, pushing her plate back. "You're having pronoun trouble again, Sarevok. You might want to look into that."
She met Kelsey a few steps from the bottom of the stairs, and kissed his cheek. "Hey. Where'd you disappear to?"
Kelsey couldn't keep himself from glancing over her shoulder, towards her empty place at the bar, and Sarevok. "Uh, I ran into Mirena. Almost literally. I had breakfast with her and Kelvim."
"That's good! ...isn't it?"
"Yeah, it was…civil." He met her eyes, then pointedly looked back towards Sarevok, lowering his voice. "Were you-?"
She sighed. "Please don't ask. Weirdest quarter hour of my life." She slipped her hand into his, and squeezed. "Let's wait for the others outside."
"It's not exactly safe out there."
"Safe's a pretty relative term right now."
"This place is screwed, Mae. In a bad way, and in a very unnatural place."
They had claimed a corner of the inn porch, and sat bunched around a table that really wasn't big enough for five people, particularly when one of those people was Minsc. But there was something comforting about being close to her party. Worse than the constant noise of the siege engines was the feeling of being hemmed in and surrounded, and if Maera was going to be too close to people, it might as well be people she at least liked. She looked at Imoen, who was restlessly flipping a coin over her knuckles.
"That's very…colorful, Im. Care to elaborate with fewer metaphors?"
Imoen made a small, chuckling snort. "The city's been closed for nearly two weeks, and that Gromnir guy that Melissan was talking about? Hasn't done a thing, just like she said. And now a bunch of the Lords were running things before the siege are yelling 'Told you so' from the nearest unsmashed rooftop, about half the city militia are trying to run some kind of defense in the absence of orders, and most people are trying desperately not to panic." Her voice lowered. "They're not doing so well on that front, either. There's already been one bread riot in the poorer part of town. Everybody I talked to seems to think it's only a matter of time before it happens again, worse and bigger."
Maera heaved a breath, a creeping coldness working its way up her spine. "So either Saradush rips itself apart from the inside, or Yaga-Shura's army does it from without. Wonderful." She glanced around the table at her companions. "Obviously, the siege has to break. What are our options?"
"How long would you like your odds?" Imoen tried to hide her nerves under flippancy, but Maera knew her too well for that.
"Judging from our conversation yesterday evening," Jaheira said, "it would seem Melissan has been put some thought to the subject. Following her lead may be our best option, at present, though I do not feel it wise to put our trust entirely in her hands. Her agenda is mysterious at best." Everyone nodded.
"Boo thinks she is not telling us something," Minsc stated, and Maera almost managed a chuckle.
"Oh, I don't doubt that, big guy."
"What do we even know about her?" Kelsey asked. "I asked Kelvim and Mirena about her this morning, and all they could tell me was that the locals seem to trust her almost implicitly. My first thought was magic, but I don't think that's it. I can usually tell when something or someone's been enchanted, and…I don't feel anything like that."
"Nobody's acting charmed," Imoen said. "And it would take some serious oomph to Charm an entire city."
"The answer may be much simpler than that," Jaheira said thoughtfully. "From what I have heard, she has been everywhere in recent days, it seems; while the city's Lords and the militia do nothing, she has been visible. Even the appearance of action is better than none at all, for people who need hope."
"Willing to trust her in the absence of no one else to trust," Maera murmured. "Even if she is the one who brought the Bhaalspawn here."
The druid tapped the table absently with her fingertips. "That may actually work in her favor."
"People do like it when it looks like someone is taking responsibility," Kelsey agreed.
Maera nodded slowly. "All right. Obviously, we want out of here; we can't do anything stuck in a city under siege. So if Melissan can point us in the right direction to do that, we'll go with her lead. As long as her goals don't conflict with ours, at least." There was a screaming, whistling roar overhead, and a jagged block of stone nearly the size of a horse slammed into the row of houses halfway down the block, splintering the timbered walls, and shattering roof tiles. As she straightened from her instinctive duck, the cold returned to Maera's spine, but this time there was anger in the ice.
It was one thing for Bhaal's children to tear each other apart; most of them seemed to think that was their collective purpose, and that fact forced her own involvement whether she liked it or not. After all, she wasn't about to let any of them think she was easy prey. But running down the innocents who happened to be in the way, just because they could? That wasn't her idea of a fair fight, and unfair fights made her testy.
The cloud of dust was thick enough to cut visibility in the Tankard Tree's narrow cul-de-sac to almost nothing, and Maera was about to suggest going back inside when a pair of figures emerged from it. Melissan coughed, lowering the cloth she held over her nose and mouth. "There hasn't been much bombardment in this district," she said. "This is worrying." She looked around the table, and then glanced up at the tall, silent presence behind her. "I'm glad to see you all well this morning. Sarevok told me you had remained here."
"Did he?" Maera eyed Sarevok suspiciously. Having to section off a portion of her mental energy to worry over his motives was something she had hoped to avoid.
"Yes." Melissan tucked the cloth into a pocket. "This is likely to be an unwelcome proposal, but I had hoped he could join us in the formation of any plan of action."
"You're right," Maera said, her face impassive, "it is unwelcome."
Sarevok's eyes rolled, and Melissan subjected her lip to a brief gnawing before saying, "I understand that you have very valid reasons not to trust him, Maera. Truly, I do. But do you think it wise to leave a warrior of his abilities on the shelf when we every one need all the help we can currently get?"
"Wouldn't you rather have me where you can keep an eye on me, sister?" Sarevok's voice was almost offensively unctuous.
"I think we would all prefer not to waste our vision on you at all," Jaheira snorted. Maera nodded, scowling. He was maneuvering her, gods damn him. She sucked in an aggravated breath.
"We will discuss this later, Sarevok." She looked at Melissan. "You've obviously got a plan. And just as obviously, you need our help." The other woman nodded, and Kelsey stood silently, offering her his seat. He slipped between Maera's seat and the porch rail, his hand resting on her shoulder. She felt a small shock as he touched her, and she realized it wasn't static.
"Sorry," he whispered. He was just as edgy as she was, and in a way, that was comforting. She shot him a small smile.
"Im," she said, glancing at her sister, "would you provide us with a little privacy, please?"
Imoen dug a bit of brightly colored chalk out of her pocket, and sketched a pattern of triangles and crescents on the table's surface that radiated out from a central point, murmuring softly as she drew. She enclosed the whole in a circle drawn with a single movement of the chalk and pressed the palm of her hand to it. An iridescent shimmer filled the air for a split second, and the noise from beyond the porch was suddenly muted, as if it traveled through water instead of air. "Done."
"All right, Melissan," Maera said, "what do you want from us?"
"Gromnir," Melissan replied. "I have to speak with him. If I can convince him to make a stand, Saradush stands a chance. The city is actually quite well defended, and the militia very well armed, but without leadership, their hands are tied."
"What makes you think you can?"
Under different circumstances, Melissan's expression might have been a half smile. "Sheer, bloody-minded persistence. I am…not good at leaving things undone. There has been a great deal of talk, and very little action, and if no one else in this foolish city will try to save themselves, then I will make the effort for them. With your help, of course. You have quite a formidable reputation, and I would think that, as a Bhaalspawn yourself, you see your vested interest in this." She sighed. "And without Gromnir's cooperation, the only other option I can see to end the siege would be an attempt on Yaga-Shura's life. Which would not be easily achieved."
"I guess just knocking on the door won't get us anywhere?"
"You saw the success of that method when you arrived," Melissan said dryly.
"Then how do you propose we do this?" Jaheira asked.
"It is my understanding that the lower levels of the city keep can be accessed via the public sewage system. A very kind fellow who worked as an engineer's assistant during an expansion of the sewers several years ago was good enough to give me a map." She reached into an interior pocket of her cloak, and spread a sketched map on the tabletop before them. "For a group of your skills, such an infiltration would no great matter."
For some reason, the flattery wasn't helping. Maera cast a sour gaze around the table, noting the distinct lack of enthusiasm on the faces of her companions. There were no options, no branches to the path. She felt lost, and try as she might, she should not bring herself to place much confidence in the only person who appeared able to guide her. The only way out of Saradush, it seemed, was through Melissan, because she was the sole advocate of real action. Well, I can respect that at least, Maera thought glumly, and sighed. "Alright," she said aloud, "how soon to do you want to start?"
Melissan glanced over her shoulder, down the street towards the damage wrought by the earlier impact. "Far too much time has already been wasted. The sooner, the better."
"Anybody got any plans for this afternoon?" Maera asked.
"Well, I was gonna stand in the middle of the street and get rocks dropped on my head," Imoen said airily, "but I guess I can postpone."
Maera raised an eyebrow, fighting to keep the inevitable smile off her face. Sometimes she loved that obnoxious little sprite so much it hurt. "Anyone else saved from their own stupidity by this plan?" Jaheira shook her head with exasperated amusement; behind her, Kelsey chuckled and gave her shoulder a surreptitious squeeze. Minsc drew in his broad face in confusion.
"Boo and I were just going to go wherever you were going to go, Maera."
"As was I," Sarevok added sedately.
"This is very encouraging," Melissan said, standing before Maera could snap at Sarevok. "I had felt all my options slip away, but now you're here. Keep the map. I will return in two hours and we will be underway." She stepped into the inn, and Maera advanced on Sarevok, her jaw clenched.
"Do not do that again," she growled.
"Do what?" he asked, with gold-plated innocence.
"Try to handle me. You knew I couldn't say no in front of Melissan without looking petty."
He shrugged. "You worry too much about the opinions of others. Even if you don't trust them, you want them to think well of you." He gave her a thin smile. "Not all my knowledge of you is trivia, sister." She inhaled with a hiss, but he continued, "Just as in the pocket plane, we are both trapped here. And as before, I am willing to swallow my pride to aid you. Are you willing to do the same?"
Damn. Him. "I don't like being painted into corners, Sarevok."
"Stop handing me brushes, then."
She grabbed the front of his shirt and yanked, forcing him to eye level with her. "You follow my lead. You do as you're told. You don't speak unless you're spoken to. Understood?"
He didn't blink. "Perfectly."
"When people talk about adventuring, they imagine dragons' caves, and mad wizards' towers," Imoen mused, subjecting the muck swirling around her boots to a philosophical gaze. "It's all gold and jewels and fabulous magic beyond your imagining. No one ever mentions the sewers. And there are so many sewers."
"That is what makes us heroes," Minsc replied decisively. "We go where no one else wants to!"
"We go where we don't want to, Minsc," Imoen said.
"Do you keep them around for comedy's sake, sister, or do they actually serve a purpose?" Sarevok muttered derisively.
Maera's eyes glittered darkly. "The only purpose you need to be worried about is yours, which is to be seen and not heard."
It was a deep relief when Melissan pointed out a narrow, crumbling brick stairway ahead of them to the left. "There," she said, consulting the map Jaheira held. "We go up, and we will be in the keep basements."
The first sub-basement was dank, and smelled only slightly better than the sewer they had just emerged from. The still, cool air was heavy with the scent of mold and damp, and Maera could not imagine that anything being stored down there was possibly still of use. She glanced at Melissan, who walked between her and Jaheira, gamely attempting to keep her soiled skirts from additional fouling. "Do you really think Gromnir can turn this siege around?"
"I have never met him," Melissan answered, "but I understand he is a ferocious fighter, and quite beloved of his subordinates. With a firm hand at the tiller, I do believe that Saradush can stand a fighting chance. I am not martially inclined, but it's my understanding the strength of Yaga-Shura's forces lies more in their ability to intimidate than in their numbers."
"Intimidation's all it takes sometimes," Maera murmured.
Drier and less odoriferous environs awaited in the next level, but as they approached the flight of steps leading to it, they heard voices. Imoen pulled up her hood and stole through the shadows, returning a few moments later with disheartening news.
"At least a dozen," she reported. "Those stairs lead directly into a barracks. Guess that makes it easier to guard." Maera swore under her breath, and Sarevok's eyebrow went up.
"Surely we are a match for a dozen common soldiers," he said.
"Of course we are, but I don't want to kill anyone." The eyebrow gained altitude, and she crossed her arms. "They're just doing their jobs! We're here to get Melissan to Gromnir, not add to the widows and orphans of Saradush!" He looked unmoved. "You're currently breaking rules one and three, and that eyebrow is trying really hard to break rule two, so if you do not want your face put through the nearest wall, you will keep your opinions to yourself. Try keeping a diary. You can title it Things Maera Does That I Don't Agree With."
Imoen was looking thoughtfully at Kelsey. "Red, this could be a chance to test the sleeping gas."
He rocked slightly on the balls of his feet, looking unsure. "I don't know, Imoen…we never really tested it."
Maera's eyes shot between the two of them. "Plan on filling me in here?"
"We combine two spells, causing an alchemical reaction," Imoen answered proudly. "In this case, I cast a choking cloud, and he casts an acid arrow into it. The reaction of the acid and the gas turns it into sleeping gas. It was my idea."
"It's just a theory," Kelsey said nervously. "It could also potentially kill them."
"We tried it in Suldanessellar!"
"In an empty room in the Collegium where no one could get hurt."
Maera bit her lip. Time was wasting. "Im, how sure are you about this?"
Imoen crossed her arms and gave Kelsey a judgmental look. "As long as he uses a weak enough acid, I'm very sure."
Maera's eyes moved to Kelsey. "Can you?"
He shifted uncomfortably, chewing on the inside of his cheek. "I... Yeah, I'm pretty sure I can."
"Almost ninety percent."
She nodded. Even if he didn't always trust his control of his abilities, she did. "Good enough for me. Do it. We need to keep moving."
Kelsey's brow furrowed slightly, but he nodded. "You're the boss." He followed Imoen up the stairs; a grate at the base of the door would provide their access. Imoen chanted a few soft words to herself, holding her right hand over the grate, and a thick, yellow-green fog billowed into the room beyond. On the other side of the door, there were surprised voices, then the sound of coughing. She nodded to Kelsey, and he closed his eyes in an instant's concentration. It was almost harder to consciously make it weak than it was to create the arrow in the first place. He brought the fingers of his right hand together, and as they sprang apart, the pale green arrow launched from his palm.
The wisps of gas emanating from the grate turned a grayish hue, and the coughs were joined by the heavy sound of bodies hitting the floor. Maera winced with every thump, hoping desperately she had not made a terrible mistake. Imoen picked the lock, and stood with her hand on the door latch, counting down to the gas's dissipation. "One," she said, and opened the door. She knelt beside the nearest guard, putting her fingers to his throat, and looked up with a broad smile. "Still kicking," she announced happily. "Well, internally, anyway."
Shaking his head in relieved disbelief, Kelsey said, "I'm man enough to admit when I'm wrong, Imoen."
She beamed at him. "Good, because that happens a lot around me."
The Saradush city keep was largely empty – any concentrations of soldiers were more easily avoided, and the few out and about in the corridors were subdued without difficulty. The only civilians to be encountered were a pair of nervous maidservants and a male page of fourteen or so who was trying desperately to appear more grown than he actually was. They seemed to recognize Melissan, at least by reputation, and were more than happy to point her towards the council room where Gromnir spent most of his days. But even as they gratefully affirmed their faith that Melissan could fashion a breakthrough for their beleaguered city, Kelsey could see their eyes sliding uneasily towards Maera. She was acting like she didn't notice.
The council room that had formerly been the seat of Saradush's government was unguarded, and Maera decided a grand entrance was in order. She and Minsc yanked open the brassbound double doors, and Melissan, playing along, strode in, the adventurers closing ranks at her back. The twenty or so guards lounging about the room came to their feet, but no weapons were drawn. All eyes rested on the bulky man sitting indolently at the head of the room, his greenish skin and jutting jaw marking orcish antecedents.
"Gromnir," Melissan said gently, "why have you kept me out? I'm only trying to help."
He stood, a snorting sort of laugh echoing through the chamber. "Pretty Melissan wants a hand in everything. Can't stay away. Can't keep her nose out."
"The people of this city called on you to protect them when Yaga-Shura approached. He is here, now. Don't let them down, Gromnir."
Gromnir laughed again. "Nobody can protect them." He looked at Maera, his small eyes lit with a manic light. "You are Maera. Gromnir has heard of you. Melissan is trying to kill you too, eh?"
Melissan sputtered, "I am not trying to kill anyone! Gromnir, why do you persist in this mad idea? I'm trying to help the Bhaalspawn! That means you, too!"
He did not acknowledge Melissan's outburst, his eyes still fixed on Maera. "Can't believe her. Melissan lies."
Maera raised an eyebrow. "Does she? What is she lying about, Gromnir?"
Gromnir nodded vehemently as Melissan protested, "This is not productive! Gromnir, please. I am here with Maera. The enemy is out there!" She slowly edged towards him, a hand outstretched. "No one in this room is trying to harm you. We have to focus on Yaga-Shura. If we can organize a strong offensive against his siege camp, we can - "
"More lies," Gromnir growled. "Can't kill Yaga-Shura. Melissan knows that." He jerked his head towards Maera again. "Didn't tell you that, did she? Didn't tell you Yaga-Shura can't die."
A chill coursed through Maera's abdomen. "What do you mean?"
"Magic!" the half-orc crowed, his gaze bright and wild. "Magic that protects his heart. Keeps it safe, far from here. Everyone will die. Except Yaga-Shura."
Every eye landed on Melissan, whose own eyes were wide as she stammered, "I-I did not know this! Gromnir, is this true?"
Gromnir shook his head, an almost fond expression on his ugly face. "Pretty Melissan still tries to deceive. Gromnir knows the truth."
"All magic is breakable, Gromnir," she replied, still inching towards him. "We will find a way to defeat him. You see? Telling us this, you have already helped. Now think of how much more you can do if you arrange a sortie out of the city. Make a show of strength. Show Yaga-Shura we do not fear him, even with his magic." She was close enough now to touch him, and gently rested her hand on his upper arm, smiling the encouraging smile one gives a wayward child.
He looked down at her hand, then at her face. "Have to kill you first," he rumbled, then raised his voice, addressing his soldiers. "Kill them all!"
The benefit of experience was that certain action did not even require conscious thought. Daystar was in Maera's hands, blocking an axe strike, before her mind had engaged. The soldier had not had a good grip, and his weapon slipped from his hands as it met the resistance of the blade. She reversed her grip and smashed the hilt into his face as she whipped around to face Gromnir, but Minsc had crossed the hall in a few distance-eating strides, taking no time for chivalry as he shoved Melissan out of the way. Her eyes huge in her pale face, she scooted out of the way, making herself as small as she could.
Satisfied that Minsc could handle Gromnir, Maera turned again to assess her party's situation. There was a creaking sound to her left, and a crossbow bolt clattered on the stone floor inches from her. She swore - she didn't have time for archers. But as she raised Daystar to catch another strike mid-blade, she saw a half dozen sizzling missiles leave Imoen's hand. Not missing a beat, her sister reached for her shouldered bow, one of Kelsey's bright red fire arrows streaking a few inches over her head. She would leave it to them to harass the archers; she did her best work at much closer range.
Sarevok was surrounded, but it was clear he did not mind. His roar had a ring of satisfaction to it that both chilled her blood and made it surge in agreement all at once. She knew that feeling, all too well, and hearing it in his voice was discomfiting. Jaheira had fought her way within feet of Minsc and Gromnir, and a well-timed sweep of her staff against the half-orc's legs caused him to stumble, giving Minsc the opening he needed to run him through.
Silence reigned as Gromnir fell, and the remaining handful of soldiers dropped their weapons and raised their hands in surrender. Sarevok was still holding a man by the throat, and growled in disappointment as Maera shook her head at him. He tossed the guard aside like a doll with a roll of his eyes. The only sound after the swords and axes had clanked on the floor was that of over-exerted heavy breathing, and a steady, soft drip. Bent over in an attempt to catch her breath, Maera looked about for the source of the noise, and noticed blood dripping from the fingertips of Minsc's left hand. Jaheira saw it at the same time, and they both made a line for the big ranger, Jaheira forcing him to his knees and Maera fumbling with the straps of his armor. A bolt was sunk into his shoulder, having hit in just the spot where the cuirass and shoulderplate separated. The carefully loosened armor pieces were set aside, revealing the shoulder of his padded undershirt, soaked with blood.
"All right, Melissan," Maera said, holding Minsc's shoulder as Jaheira pulled the bolt free. "How do you propose we fix this?" He swayed, and she braced herself against his weight.
The woman scrubbed at her face with the back of her hand, still ghost pale. "I…did not mean for it to happen like this," she whispered, staring at Gromnir's corpse. "We needed him!"
Maera's jaw twitched, and seeing Jaheira's glowing hands pressed to Minsc's wound, she crossed the room and roughly hauled Melissan to her feet. "What kind of asinine plan was this? He was crazy!"
"I'm glad you agree with that, hearing those awful things he said. Me trying to kill him! I had no idea he'd grown so paranoid." Melissan said, absently rubbing her hands on her skirt.
"So you did know he was mad! And you really thought he was our best option? This city is a tenday from being bombarded into dust, and less than that from tearing itself apart from the inside, and this was your best-case scenario? Gods, I do not know who I'm angrier with – you for cooking up this idiocy, or me for going along with it!" Melissan said nothing, and stared at the floor. "And you kept information from us! Yaga-Shura has some kind of magical anti-death insurance, and you just happened to not know about it?"
"I did not!" Melissan retorted, bracing herself against an overturned chair, knuckles white. "For one, we cannot even be sure that statement was anything more than Gromnir's madness speaking, and if it is, he had far greater intelligence on the matter than I, and little wonder. I am not highly placed in the city's circles, you know."
"Could've fooled me," Maera grumbled. "Oh gods." She buried her face in her hands, lips curling from the scent of blood on her gauntlets. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply, and let the wheels turn. How could she have been such a fool? How could she have let this spin so far out of control so fast?
"And now," Melissan said slowly, "you are the only one who can defeat Yaga-Shura."
Maera lowered her hands, tilting her head. "Am I now? Last time I checked, being Bhaalspawn doesn't make us immune to being killed by other mortals. Just ask Gromnir there. Anyway, I don't recall volunteering to take care of your fire giant problem."
Melissan blinked in confusion. "Isn't it what you want, though?"
"What I want?" Maera laughed humorlessly. "What I want and what I actually get are so far removed from each other they're not even on the same plane." She sighed. The world was an ocean of choices, and she had been run aground. "Somebody has to catch the rats and clean the middens, and somebody has to keep my so-called 'siblings' from burning the world down. I guess this is just my job."
"So…you'll make the attempt, then?"
The adrenaline of battle and anger had worn off, and she suddenly ached all over. Maera glanced around the room, at the silent faces of her party, and a wave of guilt at getting them yet again embroiled in Bhaal's mess washed over her. She wanted to sink into the floor. "If I don't, who will? Is that what you're saying?"
Melissan stiffened slightly, looking hurt. "I'm not trying to manipulate you into anything, if that's what you're insinuating."
"I never said you were. But everyone has an agenda, Melissan. I've lived long enough to know that." She stripped off her gauntlets and rubbed her arms, adding quietly, "Wish I knew what mine was, though."