Those You've Lost
They would have to do this quietly. That was the first thing they had all agreed upon. They had waited until dusk, and returned to the Tankard Tree with as little fanfare as possible to clean up and gather what few supplies they could. And then, Maera would get to try her hand at voluntary interplanar travel.
It hadn't been her idea. While still standing in the battle-wrecked council room, she had said, "This whole idea - us going after Yaga-Shura and all - we kind of have to be able to get out of the damn city to do it, you know."
Melissan had shrugged. "How did you get here in the first place?"
It was not a plan that inspired much enthusiasm. Sarevok had reassured her (in his own richly condescending fashion) that of course she would be able to draw them back into the pocket plane. She had made it; all she had to do was ask it, and it would respond. But she had never made a practice of asking miniature planes of existence for anything, so the idea remained stubbornly foreign.
And Melissan was being so helpful she could scream. Several large and highly detailed maps of the surrounding area, the forests and mountain ranges to the east, and the deserts to the south, had found their way into the apparently endless pockets in her cloak and she was all too eager to spread them all before the party and help them guess the most likely spot for Yaga-Shura's base of operations. As she pulled yet another map of the Forest of Mir and began to unroll it, Maera glanced at Kelsey, and mouthed "Enchanted?", rolling her eyes in Melissan's direction. He nodded. She didn't know why it mattered, but for some reason it felt nice to have at least one minor mystery solved.
They were gathered in a curtained off back section of the Tankard Tree's common room, Melissan's influence having won them a bit of privacy for their planning process. "The army marched from the east," the woman said, tracing a finger over the map covered tabletop.
"Giants prefer mountainous areas," Jaheira reflected. "They tend to gather where the terrain suits their size."
"So we'd be looking around here." Imoen circled the area marked as the Marching Mountains with her fingertip.
"That's a big area to search," Maera said. "Do we know anything that would narrow that down?"
There was a snort from the shadows. "Have you forgotten the solar's words already, sister?" Sarevok interjected. "The pocket plane will send you where you need to go. Any more time or effort spent attempting to work out the giant's location with our own meager information is a waste of time."
Maera swung her gaze towards him. He'd been just quiet enough that she had been able to mostly ignore his presence for the past hour, and that had been rather pleasant. "Forgive me if I'm not quite willing to trust to some nebulous cosmic knowledge of what I 'need'. I would really love to know how the multiverse at large is making those determinations."
"You grow up surrounded by Alaundo's prophecies, and you have to ask that?"
"I must have missed the one that mentioned the street address of a fire giant's lair."
"Don't force me to explain the concept of a metaphor."
"Enough!" Jaheira glared at Sarevok, her eyes dark with anger. "If you do not cease being a distraction and an irritant, you will soon be gaining first-hand knowledge of the tensile strength of the human skull!"
"Don't worry, Jaheira," Maera said soothingly. "It's not like he's invited anyway."
The meeting broke up shortly thereafter. There was nothing to be gained from continuing to poke at Melissan's maps, and much as Maera hated to admit it, their best course, ultimately, was to trust in the pocket plane's direction. "Before we go," Kelsey said quietly, "I'd like to say good-bye to Kelvim and Mirena. I won't go into detail about what we're planning or anything, but...I need to tell him we're going. I don't want to just disappear on him again."
"Of course!" Maera replied. She took his hand in hers, giving it a tight squeeze. "Take your time."
"Thanks." He slipped past the partition, and headed up the stairs.
His knock was met with a grumbling, "Who is it?"
"Kelvim, it's me." The door opened, and his brother blinked blearily at him.
"It's a little late, Kelsey. Is something wrong?"
"I just wanted to let you know that...we're going to be leaving. Tonight."
Kelvim blinked again. "How do you expect to get out of here?"
"I can't really say." Kelsey leaned closer to his brother. "I wanted you to know that something is going to happen soon, and you and Mirena need to ready."
"Ready for what?"
"To get out of town."
This time, the blink was calculated, and Kelsey felt a stab of pride. His little brother had obviously inherited their father's quick wits. "Kelsey...do you really think five people can break this siege?"
Kelsey shrugged, hoping for confidence. "We're gonna try."
Kelvim looked at him for what felt like a year, and then his head dipped in a small nod. "Okay." He held out his hand. "Then be careful. We'll be waiting."
Maera watched Kelsey duck through the curtain, and felt a light tug on her belt. "Hey," Imoen said softly. "What's eatin' your brain, Mae?" She held up a warning finger as Maera inhaled. "And don't say zombies."
"Well, there goes my one good answer," Maera chuckled ruefully. "Gods, I would gladly deal with zombies right now instead of this mess. Just...bring 'em on. A whole army of the damn things." She sighed. "I'm really hoping this works, Im. There are so many things I can see going wrong, and I know we've faced long odds before with no good plan, but...eventually everybody runs out of luck. There's a whole city riding on this. It'd be a bad time for our dice to fail us."
Her sister made a slight, considering shrug. "Yeah, it would. But you know it's more than luck that's gotten us this far."
"I know. But anymore, I've found it almost better to underestimate myself." She tapped the side of her head. "Keeps unwanted visitors from using my ego against me."
Imoen pursed her lips. The dreams of blood and horror that tore her from sleep, the cruel voices that whispered in the back of her mind - they never seemed as personal as the inner battles Maera described. For an instant, she wondered at the difference, then dismissed it. As far as she was concerned, it really didn't matter, and besides, Bhaal obviously didn't know Maera very well if he really thought telling her what to do was his best option. She wrapped her arms around Maera's waist. "Just don't forget you're not in this alone, okay?"
Maera smiled. "Even if I could, you wouldn't let me." From over the top of Imoen's head, she could see Sarevok watching them with a strangely unreadable expression. She bared her teeth at him, and he looked away. If you're feeling left out of the family bonding, maybe you shouldn't have tried soroicide as your opening move, she thought at him pugnaciously.
Kelsey re-entered, and there was a second of something almost like sad envy as his eyes fell on her and Imoen. But it vanished with a shake of his head, and he gave Imoen a gentle poke in the shoulder. "Mind if I cut in?"
"Gods, grabby," she said, sticking out her tongue, but she moved nonetheless.
"Squared away?" Maera asked softly, returning his embrace.
"As much as it's going to be."
She nodded as they stepped apart. "Then I guess it's time to give this thing a try."
"Strange as it sounds," Jaheira said, "I am looking forward to sleep there, instead of here. Even if the amenities are no greater."
"Do be cautious," Melissan said. "I know better than to offer you advice on how best to manage this matter, but I will ask that of you."
"Hopefully when you see us next we'll have good news," Maera said. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She wasn't completely sure how to go about this process, but centering herself seemed like a good start.
Where do I need to go?
Out of Saradush. To wherever Yaga-Shura's base of power is.
Someone has to. It might as well be me.
"Cespenar, I like what you've done with the place." Imoen looked impressed, and the imp preened.
"It was big challenge," he said modestly.
The pocket plane had been transformed in the brief time since they had last been there. Cespenar had put in his fountain, but it was water that poured from the elegant white marble fixtures and splashed about the prettily tiled basin. He had not been able to help himself with the furniture, either; despite Maera's request, it was black, but the overstuffed chairs and soft sofas were so shockingly tasteful that one could willingly overlook that. There were even bedchambers – five small rooms sectioned off like cubes of stone, with surprisingly comfortable looking beds.
Maera, however, didn't see a bit of it. Her eyes were fixed on the first thing she had seen when her senses returned, and she could not force them away. Her voice was clipped and ragged with rage. "What the HELL are you doing here?"
Sarevok shrugged, the living embodiment of nonchalance. "It would seem, sister, that I have a greater use to you than you were willing to accede. How deeply ironic." He strode off towards the bedchambers, leaving an aura of intense, smug satisfaction in his wake. Maera looked around desperately for something to hit.
"Godchild. A word."
And there was the solar, appearing between one breath and the next, standing amongst them as if materializing out of thin air was the most natural thing in the world to do. And for her, it likely was. Cespenar ducked behind Imoen in a vain attempt to be inconspicuous, and the solar smiled. "Peace, little one. We are not enemies here."
"Can I help you?" Maera asked uncertainly. There was nothing worse being thrown off her stride during a perfectly good fit of pique.
"Yes," the solar replied serenely, holding out a hand twice the size of any in the room. "Join me." Maera laid her palm against the large fingers, and suddenly, they were somewhere else entirely.
The room was dark, lit only by a single light, which had no visible source, and the solar herself. Maera looked about in confusion. "What just happened?"
"There was no need for your companions to be part of this, so we are elsewhere."
"What is 'this'?"
"Education. There is much you must learn."
"So I've been told."
The solar tilted her head. "You have been placed in the center of a great work, godchild. Do you doubt the need for preparation? For understanding?"
"Of course not. I just…don't know why it's me."
"That is a lesson for another time. For now, our attention shall rest not on the external forces about you, but on you yourself." The solar gestured, and two other figures appeared. With a start, Maera recognized them as herself. One was all too familiar – her Slayer-self, cold eyed and haughty of expression, wreathed in the shadows of Bhaal's avatar. The other was rather more difficult to place. There was something subtly different about her face; this version of herself had never know gut-wrenching fear or bone-deep exhaustion. Those eyes had never witnessed violent death, never been stung with tears of grief. She was wearing a blue coat with silver embroidery around the collar, and suddenly Maera understood. She'd been very fond of that coat, but in the rush of packing to leave Candlekeep, she had forgotten it. "Do you know them, godchild?" the solar asked gently.
"I know her far too well," Maera replied, pointing to the Slayer Maera, who smirked at her. "And I'm guessing that the other one is me before I left Candlekeep."
"Very good. Why do you think that they are here?"
Maera looked back at her Slayer-self. "Well, she's always popping up in my dreams, making a pest of herself. She never misses a chance, it seems. I'm not so sure about the other one, though. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say they are parts of me."
"Indeed they are. One, the reflection of your divine essence as it wishes to manifest itself. The other, a personification of a more innocent self, before blood touched your hands."
"Why are they here, Solar?"
"Because sooner or later, you had to face us." The Slayer-self crossed her arms, looking bored. "You know, for someone with such a reputation for bravery, you're very good at running away from yourself. She is your past, I am your future. If you'll just accept that, we'll all be a lot happier. Because all this 'Get out of my head!' 'I don't want anything from you!'…it gets really old."
"She's lying," her Candlekeep-self said firmly. "You don't have to sink to her level. Hers is not the only way." A tendril of hope curled through Maera's heart, only to be crushed out of existence by the next words. "We can leave all of this behind. It doesn't have to be our responsibility. You can walk away, and be who we were before." Her voice grew soft. "Weren't we happier then? Before all the pain and fear and anger?"
The Slayer snorted. "We are anger. We are rage. We are murder. It's our birthright! It is the reason we were put on this plane! How many mortals can claim to know the reason they were born? Well, we can!" She looked at Maera, her hard eyes incredulous. "Are you honestly going to let this infant tell you to walk away from that? To put aside our destiny because it's scary?"
"Gorion did not raise us to be butchers!" Candlekeep Maera cried. "This isn't what he'd want for us, or from us. "
Maera looked at them, at the malicious eyes and angry lips of the one, to the guileless, naïve features of the other. "Solar, I don't understand the lesson. All I see are two equally unacceptable choices." Their voices raised in protest, but they were hushed by the solar's raised hand.
"Explain," she said, her face placid.
"She," Maera said, pointing to the Slayer-self, "already knows how I feel about her and what she has to offer. I may kill, but I will not murder." The Slayer rolled her eyes huffily. "But she," she continued, facing her Candlekeep self, "doesn't offer anything better. I can't walk away and forget about everything that's happened to me since I left Candlekeep. I was happy then, but I can still be happy now. There's been a lot of good to come with the bad since then. I've grown up, and no, that wasn't entirely by choice, but it's not something I can take back. I can't be her again, no more than I can allow myself to turn into her. So I don't understand what I'm supposed to learn from them."
The two versions of her faded away, and the Solar smiled. "Do you not?"
Kelsey sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, bouncing a few times to test the mattress. "Not bad," he murmured, giving the coverlet a poke. The little bedrooms were sparsely furnished, but Cespenar had obviously put his energy into quality, not quantity. He supposed that made the imp the butler, in a roundabout sort of way. He smiled, shaking his head in mild disbelief. He was fairly certain she had never had a butler before. Cespenar was quite a way to start.
She poked her head through the door. "Oh, there you are," she said. She quietly sat beside him on the bed, her eyes distant.
"How'd it go with the solar?" he prompted.
"It was…interesting. Strange. Surreal."
"On a scale of one to Having Breakfast with Sarevok, how surreal are we talking?"
That got a laugh. "I still can't believe that happened." She flopped backward onto the bed, covering her face. "Gods, and that was just this morning, too. I really need to sleep." He smiled, and was about to reach over to gently rub her stomach when she sat back up and said, "She did give me some useful information, though. We were right about the general location of Yaga-Shura's base of operations. It's in the foothills of the Marching Mountains, and apparently the pocket plane will spit us out somewhere in the Forest of Mir that will put us on the right road. Sending us where we need to go and all that." He nodded, and she stared at the coverlet, moving her fingers along the weave. After a moment of silence, she spoke softly. "Kelsey? If you could go back to a time in your life when there was nothing to be afraid of, when everything was clear, and easy…would you?"
He thought for a moment. "It's been a long time since I felt like that. Not since my father died, at least. Sometimes I do miss it, though. When the world was wide open, and there was nothing he couldn't do, because he was the smartest man in the world." He shrugged vaguely and sighed. "But I guess we can't live like that forever. No matter how much we'd want to."
She was still engrossed by the blanket. "Yeah, I guess so. It's just…I really was happy in Candlekeep. My whole world wasn't even a half mile square, bounded by walls twenty feet high, and I didn't care. Everything was so simple. Everything made sense. Now it seems like there's a million miles and an ocean of blood between me and the person I was then."
Kelsey chewed on his lips thoughtfully. This was turning into one of those conversations that need just the right words. "I admit, I didn't know you then, so maybe I can't judge, but I have trouble believing the woman you are now is somehow diminished from you were before. You've come into a much bigger world, and it seems to me that you've grown to fit it." He touched her chin, turning her downcast face to look her in the eye. "I am proud to know you, proud to be a part of your life, and I doubt very seriously you've changed so much in the past three years that I shouldn't be. Look at yourself, Maera, and tell me that the world isn't better off with the you who's here now."
There was a rueful edge to her chuckle. "How do you do that?" He raised his eyebrows questioningly. "You always manage to turn everything into a compliment."
"It's my job," he said, firmly. "I meant what I said about being part of your life, and that means sometimes I have to remind you that you really are an amazing woman. I take my responsibilities very seriously, you know."
She smiled. "That you do. And I'm glad. Helps keep me honest." She fumbled with the laces of her jerkin. "Ugh. I've been wearing this so long I feel like it's attached to my skin."
"That's no good." Kelsey began to help her peel off her leathers. "Your skin is much nicer than this."
"See?" Finally free of her armor, she lay on her back, arms spread wide. "You're doing it again."
"Is it a bad thing?"
She sat up just far enough to make a grab for his sleeve, pulling him down onto the bed beside her. "Never." She stared at the fabric of his shirtsleeve with the same absorption she had given the coverlet. "You're taking this really well."
"Taking what well?"
"A week ago," she said, looking up to meet his eyes, "we were still in Suldanessellar. Now I have my own personal plane, and a solar for a tutor in lessons I can't even begin to understand, and…I wouldn't blame you at all for looking at me like I'd grown another head. I kind of feel like I have."
"Part god I can handle," he said. "Part ettin?…I don't know." She laughed, and used his hand to cover her face. Pleased at her reaction, he grinned down at her, then sobered. "That's it, though; you aren't normal. I mean, you are…in a good way, but-" He paused to try gathering his thoughts. "You're human, but you're not. You're mortal, but you're not. I don't pretend to understand how it works, and I probably never will. When I try thinking about it for too long, my brain seems to seize up, like…wax in a clockwork."
"That is a really good analogy," Maera said, releasing his hand. "I may have to borrow it some time."
"Go ahead." He lay on his side, facing her. "Maybe I don't know enough to be appropriately terrified by this whole thing, but all I see is you, and you don't look any different to me."
She smiled and touched his face. "Have I mentioned lately how lucky I am to have met you?" Her fingers stroked his cheek and he let his eyes close with a sigh. "Though…all things considered, maybe it wasn't luck. Maybe it was because we needed each other." She kissed his lips gently and whispered, "That's the kind of celestial interference I can get behind."
The solar's word had been true, and they returned to the material plane in a dark tangle of trees. The Forest of Mir was no spacious, sunny wood, but vine-choked and twisted. Under the heavy branches, the chill of approaching autumn made them pull their cloaks closed about themselves. Maera was reminded of the Umar Hills, and wondered what manner of spirit or spell had created this oppressive murk. She hoped they didn't have to find out.
Half a day's march along the winding forest track, they noticed a spur trail leading off a few hundred yards or so, where the ruined heap of a building stood, barely visibly through the trees. "We should check that out," Imoen said, voice hushed. It did not feel right to speak loudly; the forest might take offense.
"I do not think we have time for sightseeing, Imoen," Jaheira replied, but Maera's eyes were fixed on the ruins too.
"No, Im's right. We need to look around."
Jaheira raised an eyebrow, but Sarevok, who had brought up the rear in glowering silence all day, stepped ahead of her. "Lead on, sisters." The druid's eyes buried a dagger in his back, but she kept silent.
A cool wind sent flurries of leaves across their path as they followed the trail, and Maera found her thoughts turning again to her interlude with the Solar. Gorion didn't raise us to be butchers. The words, in a voice so much like her own, echoed in her mind, and she wasn't sure why.
"We are being watched by many eyes," Minsc whispered to Kelsey, "but Boo cannot see them." Kelsey shivered. It was like being back in Spellhold – that heavy sense of self-loathing he was sure he had thrown off by now tugged at the edges of his thoughts, whispering.
They rounded a bend, and Maera suddenly stopped so short Imoen nearly walked into her back. "Hello, child," said a familiar voice, and everything within her turned to water.
He stood there, solid as life, blue eyes, gray beard, plain robe. His hair was pulled back into the messy tail he wore when he was studying; he hated it getting in his face as he read. She'd often teased him that his hair was longer than hers, and he'd always retorted with amused good humor that his age afforded him the right to wear his hair in any fashion he saw fit. She blinked hard – it couldn't be. It wasn't possible. Behind her, Sarevok coughed, a sound as full of disbelief as its nature would allow. Her voice finally asserted itself. "Gorion?"
"Yes, child, it is I," the figure said calmly, seeming to take no notice of the shock his appearance had caused. Imoen peered around her, eyes wide with hopeful incredulity.
"What are you doing here? How are you here?" Her words tumbled over themselves.
"I am here because you and I must have words. You walk a dangerous path, girl."
"I know," she said, so relieved to have the chance to speak with her foster father again her questions could wait. "I'm just trying to do my best with what you taught me."
"Are you? For what I see is a girl who stumbles about blindly, as unsure of her own strength as a hound pup, and just as likely to cause harm. Though your harm might leave a man dead. As you did me." She stared; a man born without a tongue would have been more eloquent than she at that moment. "And I see you travel now with my murderer. Would that I could be surprised, but for all your protestations of doing good, I see merely one who does what is convenient, not what is right. The road of righteousness is narrow and rocky, but you've managed to avoid the harder stretches. All the threats and lies. And the murder. Let us not forget the murders. "
"W-wait…" she stammered, but he continued, remorseless as an executioner.
"I have watched you all these years since I was cut down. Watched you slip ever farther from the innocent I raised. Watched you draw nearer and nearer to the blackness within, embracing the taint of Bhaal even as you claim to spurn it. The world may not see it, not yet, but I do. Who better than I?"
"Gorion!" Imoen cried, pleading. "Please! What are you saying? Maera has never stopped being a good person. You should know that!"
"And you," he said coldly, "my second hope. I went back out into the world to seek you, and for what? For you to be a petty thief and a dabbler in base magics. A failure, just like the others she's surrounded herself with."
"Failures?" Jaheira's voice was stiff with anger. "Old friend, if death brings such bitterness, I hope never to die."
Gorion's laugh was harsh and unnatural. "Ever the biting wit, Jaheira. Others have suffered under it. Your poor, henpecked husband for one. What a relief it must have been to die and be free of you." Jaheira reeled as if he had physically struck her, head turning from the verbal blow. "Dear Khalid. Stuttering, simpering Khalid. Did you set aside any time to mourn him? To grieve and let your heart mend? No, you left him there in that dungeon to rot. Literally. If a man is known by how he is remembered, then you've done a fine job indeed." Minsc, broad face was dark with ire, stepped in front of the druid, whose eyes were shining with furious tears, but Gorion bore down mercilessly. "Who else was left in the mage's dungeon, ranger? Your witch. Your mistress. Your oath. You gave your word you would bring her back in safety, but there wasn't anything left to bring. You failed her, and it does not matter what battlecries you make, you will never balance the scale. She was your only chance, and yet you live. Not her."
The big man's chin trembled like a child's. "We…we could not save her. Even Boo could do nothing…"
"My gods!" Kelsey could no longer contain himself. "What is this? Everyone talks about what a good man you were, and here you stand, torturing them all! Why are you doing this?"
"Ah. Kelsey. The shopkeeper's son." The hard blue eyes fell on him, burying him like a rockslide. "Rest assured, my boy. You have my approval. Who better to bed this wayward girl than you? Your hands are almost as red as hers, and you started even younger. And with your father…a masterful touch. But then, you've protested your innocence in his death so much you actually believe it now."
"That isn't how sorcery works. I didn't kill him." Kelsey fought to keep his voice steady. The battle was not going in his favor.
"Yes, I'm sure it gives you great comfort to believe that." The contempt in Gorion's voice was thick as fog. "All that power doesn't come from thin air. Now you simply kill them outright, magic feeding magic, but you had to start somewhere. What delightful symmetry, too, to begin with the man who helped bring your miserable hide into this world in the first place. Was it because you knew you'd never measure up, never be half the man he was? And was it everything you hoped for, making your mother a widow? And your poor brother…he wasn't really old enough to understand death, was he?" Kelsey gasped, and Gorion turned back to Maera, face alight with grim satisfaction. "Do you see them now, child? Do you see them for what they are? What they have helped you be?"
Maera's head was bowed, her eyes clenched shut, though that did little to impede the tears trickling down her face. "Stop it," she said in a broken whisper. "You are not Gorion. Gorion would never be so cruel." Her head came up, eyes opened, breath ragged with yet-unshed tears. "Whenever he was disappointed in me, no matter what, he always made it clear he loved me. He loved me! Even if I didn't feel like I deserved it. So whoever you are, you missed that."
The creature wearing Gorion's face laughed, but the voice was no longer his. Its form shifted, stretched, and darkened even as the laughter continued. "What a shame," the wraith chuckled, its voice like a rasp on the ears. "I had hoped to stretch the game a little longer. I suppose I overplayed my hand, but you were all so delicious. Really good self-loathing is like a fine wine."
Maera's face hardened. "How about I direct some loathing towards you, then," she hissed, pulling Daystar from its sheath.
The humor was gone from the wraith's strange voice. "You cannot hurt me with steel, fool."
"Good thing I have more than steel at my disposal." She swung, the blade cutting a wide arc through the air, her heart crying a wolf's howl of pain. She'd wanted it to be him. She'd so desperately wanted it. The wraith's mockery had torn at the bandages she had so carefully bound about her heart, leaving the wound bare and raw once more, and in her mind, she was on the Coastway road again on that chilly spring morning, Imoen holding her as she sobbed over Gorion's body. She was back in Irenicus's dungeon, remembering Minsc's roar of heartbroken rage, remembering Jaheira's fingers bruising her arm as she stared sightless at Khalid's broken remains. And she ached for Kelsey, seeing the loss that had marked his life and fed his fears and doubts reduced to a joke for the wraith's amusement. As if in response, comforting her in the only way it could, Daystar began to glow. The bright blade cut deep, and the party descended on the lone creature, their pain pushing them on. It screeched in agony, and as it died, Maera savagely hoped it felt half the hurt it had caused.
A trembling silence hung over them in the moments that followed. "It got inside our heads," Maera said, more to remind herself than anyone one. "It told us what we were afraid was true, not what actually is."
"Yeah," Imoen murmured, nodding. Maera looked around her group, at their sadly thoughtful faces, and back to Sarevok. She gave him a defiant look, daring him to speak, but he wisely chose to keep his peace. She straightened her shoulders.
"Let's get moving."
The ruins proved to be an old temple, though any trace of the god once worshipped there had long since vanished. Under a stone dome, a fire crackled, trying vainly to keep back the damp forest chill. An old woman sat before it, a ragged figure in an ancient cloak, her wild white hair half-covering her craggy face. "The flames told Nyalee you would come," she said as they approached.
"Who is Nyalee?" Jaheira asked.
"Nyalee is me, greensister, and I am Nyalee," the woman replied. "The fire always knows."
"What does it say?" Maera looked at the fire curiously. It seemed perfectly normal to her.
"It says you have come for the boy. Nyalee's boy."
"Actually, we…" But the old witch continued, her stream of thought unabated.
"Nyalee found the child. He was her own element – it was a sign! Loved him like her own, too, even though he was big as a man grown in five years. Raised him up, and such fun we had. Taught him secrets of the flames…it seemed only right."
Understanding dawned. "Your boy is Yaga-Shura," Maera said.
"Yes," Nyalee said, her eyes never once moving from the flickering flames. "You must kill him, mustn't you?"
"He leads an army that is besieging a city full of innocent people," Maera answered, unnerved by the woman's inflectionless voice. "We have to stop him."
The witch nodded. "But he still uses Nyalee's magic. The fire protects his heart, and while it does, he cannot die."
"Can you help us?" Maera swallowed nervously. "Will you?"
There was no sound but the crackle of the fire. "Nyalee should long since be dead," she said finally. "But the boy keeps her heart in the fire, too, in case he needs her." A tinge of bitterness, the first emotion she had yet expressed, colored her tone. "What sort of child would use a parent so? Keeps her heart away from her, so she cannot even die when she chooses." She looked up, and Maera saw with a start that her eyes were milky white. "He has a grand fort down the forest road, in the hills. Few will be there now as he makes war. Go you there, and fetch those hearts from the fire. Nyalee will mend all." With that, she turned her face back to the fire, clearly finished with them. Cautious glances flicked between the group before finally, and quietly, they departed.
They continued on in silence for several hours, until they came upon a clearing a short distance off the road that would make a good campsite. Little was said as the firepit was dug and the tents were pitched. Sarevok vanished to the darkness beyond the ring of firelight, and they sat, lost in thought, each surrounded by a cold circle of empty space, until Imoen spoke.
"Mae, do you remember those bounty hunters we fought outside Nashkel?"
"It was right after we beat Mulahey. We'd taken that side tunnel out of the mine, and wound up five miles from the main entrance. We were almost back when we got ambushed."
"Oh, yeah. That bunch."
"I don't really remember the fight all that well, because of that guy with the hammer." She elaborated for Kelsey's sake. "Back of the head. It was messy." He winced in horror.
"It is fortunate Branwen was with us then," Jaheira said quietly. "I am not sure I could have saved you on my own." She turned to look Imoen full in the face. "Why do you mention this?"
"Because the first thing I remember, when I woke up, was Khalid. He was leaning over me, and he was washing my hair. Getting out the blood. That was the kind of guy he was."
Jaheira's eyes suddenly glistened in the firelight, and Maera said quickly, "Maybe we shouldn't-"
"No," Jaheira said firmly. "No, she is right. That is exactly the sort of man he was. He would find something he could do, always, even if it was a small thing. And usually, it was the one thing everyone else overlooked." She sighed sadly. "Perhaps the wraith was right. I have not mourned him as I should."
"Jaheira…Khalid would understand," Maera said. "He always understood."
The druid smiled slightly, eyes downcast. "He did. He was forgiving to a fault. I never understood how one who came from such difficult beginnings could be so open-hearted."
Heads nodded around the fire, and they sat in quiet reflection for a moment longer. Then Maera said, with an almost impish smile, "Why don't you tell the story of how you met?"
"I do not know…" But she was drowned out by the chorus of encouragement, and, with a roll of her eyes, cried, "Very well, very well! If I must!" Jaheira sighed, giving her audience a reproving smile. "We were introduced by Gorion, actually, and he was so quiet at first, I was sure he didn't like me very much…"
And so the stories began, one memory happily sparking another. Kelsey slipped an arm around Maera's shoulders, and she gratefully burrowed against his side, kissing his cheek. Imoen stretched out between Jaheira and Minsc, her head in the lap of the former, and feet with the latter. "Remember the time Dynaheir slapped Elminster?"
"She did not!" Kelsey laughed.
"Well, I'm sure you've heard the stories about him," Imoen said, grinning. "He likes the ladies, and Dynaheir was very pretty. And she had that whole aloof thing going which some men really get into, except she actually meant it. So of course, she didn't appreciate being appreciated like that, and let him know."
"He should have kept his hands to himself," Minsc said decisively.
"You left out the best part!" Maera admonished.
"Oh yeah…she did it right in front of Duke Eltan. We were all in his receiving chamber, and Elminster got a little handsy, and SMACK!" She brought her hands together in a sharp clap. "It echoed."
As the cheerful chatter continued, Maera gazed beyond the edge of the light, where she could barely make out Sarevok's lonely outline, keeping watch with his back to the fire. She gently shrugged Kelsey's arm from her shoulder and stood, holding up a finger to indicate she would be right back. Sarevok did not immediately acknowledge her, and she stood silently near him for a moment, her cloak wrapped around her like a shield, unsure of what to say. When he showed no sign of speaking, she sighed, and turned back, but before she had taken a step, he said, "I suppose I should count myself fortunate the wraith had no words for me."
"Don't you have to have a conscience to have someone on it?" Strangely, she found her heart wasn't in the barb.
"You would think that."
"Anybody I'd know?"
"Yes, actually." He continued to look up at the sky. "I put her in your path with no more thought than one would give a loosed arrow." His head dropped, and he added softly, "I used her very poorly. And she did not even have the decency to hate me for it." Maera stared at his back for a moment, then turned, and walked back towards the fire. She didn't have to ask who he meant.
There was another gale of laughter from the circle of firelight. "Poor Khalid was sooooo embarrassed." Imoen giggled.
"He should not have been." Jaheira's smile was warm with remembered affection. "It was an honest mistake." Maera sat back beside Kelsey, curling against his side and resting her head on his shoulder. "Kelsey," the druid said, turning her smile to him, "You have listened enough. It is your turn. Tell us about your father."