All Things Ablaze
The trees thinned as the land folded into rocky hills along the base of the Marching Mountains, and the sun was sinking over the brick-red hills as they reached their destination. Nyalee had directed them rightly; Yaga-Shura's base of operations would be hard to miss even if it had not been created to fire giant proportions. Carved from the rock face itself, there was a sort of arrogance in the stone fortress. The thirty-foot metal doors were boastfully flung open, daring the world to cross the master of such an edifice. Maera was unimpressed.
"Im, clearly, we have been doing this all wrong," she commented as they gazed up the narrow gorge leading to the fortress. "All this time, we could have been building ugly, overblown lairs and recruiting armies of hapless underlings. I feel so unaccomplished."
Imoen nodded gravely. "Where did we go wrong?"
Sarevok scoffed at them both. "Think of what you might have done if you had built yourselves an army. Let us be honest, sisters. The Five would be the least of anyone's worries had you chosen that route."
"You know, I think he's trying to compliment us. It's like he doesn't quite know how," Maera remarked to Imoen, who bobbed her head in solemn agreement. Kelsey had to bite his fist to keep from laughing, and Jaheira coughed into her hand to cover a smirk. But Sarevok would not be deterred.
"Look at what you have accomplished with a small band. Imagine your successes if you had aimed a little higher. You could have imposed your will on Baldur's Gate in the wake of my defeat."
"I did," Maera replied calmly. "It was my will that it continue on exactly as it had before. I hear they've done a good job of it, too." Sarevok exhaled a huff of frustration; the conversation had clearly not gone in the direction he had intended. She continued to look towards Yaga-Shura's fortress, the wheels turning as she made mental notes. In the light of the setting sun, the hills seemed to have caught fire. "All right. We've been out here for an hour and there've been no obvious patrols, but I highly doubt he's left the place undefended. We've got the evening though, so that gives us some time to familiarize ourselves with the territory. We'll split up and scout the area." Heads nodded in agreement. "Except you, Im. I need to know the inside of that place, and you're the one who can find it out for me." Imoen beamed, and Maera turned her eyes to Sarevok. He almost managed to cover his surprise at being directly addressed. "So, what do you know about fighting giants?"
He considered her question. "The important thing is to get their feet out from under them."
They took advantage of the evening light to acquaint themselves with the outlying area of Yaga-Shura's fortress while Imoen, cloaked in invisibility, scouted the interior. Regrouped at their campsite near the mouth of the ravine, they shared their information and began to sketch out their plan of assault.
"Pretty straightforward layout, at least on the first floor," Imoen said, using a stick to point out features on the map she had traced in the dirt. "There only seem to be two levels, but I could be wrong. I didn't head upstairs, though – didn't want to push my luck. There are guard posts here and here," she indicated the locations with circles, "but the place is wide open, no real doors and straight sightlines, so we're going to have to move fast to keep them from ganging up on us." She tapped her stick thoughtfully on the map. "There's gotta be a way to take advantage of that…"
"We'll let that stew for now," Maera said. "Everybody take it easy tonight; we need to be rested and on top of our game in the morning." Even Sarevok found nothing to argue with in that statement, and they broke their planning huddle to seek the relative relaxation their small camp could offer.
It was Minsc and Maera's turn to handle the post-supper cleanup, and the ranger dove into the task with his typically hard-applied work ethic, though he did grumble under his breath that it wasn't fair that Boo always managed to get out of pulling his weight. Maera took to it as she always had any odious chore; working fast to get it over with. She hastily finished scouring the pot before her (but not too hastily – Jaheira did not believe in cut corners), dumping out the sand and giving it a quick wipe. As she stood, she noticed Kelsey disappear behind the tents, and there was something restless in the set of his back. She followed, pushing through the break of scrub trees to find him sitting on a rock, face tight with concentration. She wanted to ask him if something was wrong, but his expression stilled her words. His right hand raised, his fist clenched, and suddenly an icicle the length of her leg dropped from the clear sky, plowing into the ground six inches from her feet.
"That's a start," he said to himself, and seemed to notice her. "Oh gods, I didn't even see you there, Maera! I'm sorry!"
"It's okay," she replied, smiling and giving the icicle a nudge. "That was… unexpected."
"Not quite what I had in mind, though. Take a step back, I'm going try to again." She complied, and this time, a dozen icicles sliced through the evening air to gouge deep postholes in the red-orange earth. "Now we're getting somewhere," he said, panting slightly. His hand lifted again, this time on its side, and a sheet of ice crept between the icicles, covering the ground like moss. He nodded to himself, and looked back up at her. "So what do you think? I mean, I know it's not fire, but I hope you're still impressed."
She gave him a narrow, suspicious look. "Are you making fun of me?"
He held up his thumb and forefinger, separated by about an inch or so. "Maybe a little." She stuck her tongue out at him, the bold retort of a proud warrior, and he grinned. Standing, he wove through the rapidly melting ice field towards her. It's just that I haven't really done much with ice, and I figured that, well, fire giants. It wouldn't hurt to brush up."
"That's a good idea. And I definitely think this'll get somebody's attention."
"That is the point." He poked at the nearest icicle, and it wobbled. "I envy Imoen sometimes. As long as she knows a spell, she can cast it, and there's nothing to stop her from learning as many spells as she can fit in her head. But if it doesn't come to me, it just...doesn't come."
"I guess that's true," Maera said, "but comparisons are tricky things, honey. Look at it this way: what Im can do, anybody with a head for magic can. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of her and I'm grateful for what she's learned. She's smart and she's got a lot of talent. But…" She shrugged. "I dunno, I guess I've just spent too much of my life around mages to get too excited about arcane magic."
"Gorion was a mage, wasn't he?"
"Yeah. Along with three fourths of the Readers in the Keep." She chuckled quietly. "Did I ever tell you he tried to teach me magic?"
"How'd that go?"
She glanced down at herself, armor clad with a sword of her hip, and her smile broadened. "You tell me." She reached for his hand, rubbing the palm with her thumb. "The thing is, spellcasting is a process. You say the right things, in the right way, with the right components, and poof, magic. And it's the same, every single time. But with you, your sorcery...it's unique. No one else in the world has your magic, and no one else ever will. That's what makes it amazing."
The edges of his ears were red, and he looked at her for a prolonged moment before he spoke. "I definitely don't have a monopoly on the compliment department." She laughed, pleased with herself.
"Well, that keeps things fair, right?"
He decided to let a kiss be his reply, and just as their arms entwined, there was a noise behind them in the trees. "Oh good," Imoen said, "I caught you before the clothes started to come off." She glanced at the icicles. "Nice work, Kels. Practice, or some kind of kinky thing I don't wanna know about?"
They sighed in unison. "Can we help you, Im?" Maera asked.
"I'm bored. Red needs to entertain me by losing at checkers again."
"Well, when you put it like that, how can I say no?" Kelsey made no sign of movement.
"Exactly!" Imoen grabbed his sleeve and tugged him free of Maera's arms. "C'mon."
She dragged him back towards the tents, Kelsey gazing back at Maera with persecution in his eyes. She shook her head, commiserating and mildly guilty for sacrificing him on the altar of Imoen's boredom. Hopefully he would forgive her. And she needed to sharpen Daystar anyway.
She settled in near the fire to do that as Kelsey and Imoen went to battle over their improvised board, and quickly fell into the comforting lull of tending her weapon. "A sword is a tool," the Gatewarden had said, long before he had ever allowed her to wield actual steel. "It has a purpose, and you should respect that purpose. The best way to show your respect is to treat your sword like the extension of your arm it is." She could not say how many swords he'd had her sharpen, how many hours she'd spent with flint and honing steel, but her teenaged resentment of the tediousness of the task had slowly melted into a realization of its necessity. And she wasn't ashamed to admit that in Daystar's case, it was an act of love. She'd be very fond of Varscona, the trophy from Nashkel that she had carried against Sarevok, but Daystar engendered something deeper. She truly loved the sword, not just for its elegant beauty or its devastating power, but because, like so many of the things dearest to her, it had come into her life just when she needed it.
Imoen's voice cut through her musing. "You cheated." The little thief sat with her hands on her hips, glaring at Kelsey, who gaped at her.
"What? How is it even possible to cheat at checkers?"
"I don't know," Imoen said, "but you did." She subjected him to a fierce, narrowed stare. "It was sorcery, wasn't it? You used sorcery to cheat."
"Now you're being ridiculous. You're just mad because I won."
"Because you cheated."
"I did not cheat!"
Maera shook her head as the squabble continued. They were maddening when they got going, but she could see the affection underlying the contention, and that brought a smile to her face, even when she felt like knocking their heads together. She sheathed Daystar and stood, stretching her arms over her head with a yawn. A half turn to her left brought her face to face with Sarevok, and she sighed. "What now?"
He bent his head in Imoen and Kelsey's direction, where the argument carried on energetically. "Doesn't it concern you, sister?"
"What? I know they sound like they're two seconds from setting each other on fire, but they don't mean anything by it. They're friends."
"Are you sure of that?"
She almost managed not to roll her eyes. "I'm pretty positive they're not actually planning to murder each other, yeah."
"That isn't what I meant."
She cocked an eyebrow. "What are you angling at, Sarevok?"
"Don't you worry where their bickering could lead? Or where it already has?"
He wasn't really implying what it sounded like he was implying, was he? She stared at him, both eyebrows elevated in incredulity. "You know, trying to spread dissension in the ranks probably isn't a good idea right now, and not just because it'll piss me off."
"I am perfectly serious, sister."
"Are you now?" One way to nip this in the bud. She swung her head toward Imoen, Kelsey, and their continued ethical debate. "Hey, Im! You screwing Kelsey behind my back?"
That brought an immediate cessation to hostilities. "Ew!" Imoen cried. "Like I'd want your sloppy seconds!"
"Sloppy seconds?" Kelsey sounded unsure whether he should be offended or not.
Maera looked back at Sarevok. "Nope. Not concerned."
The dawn found them returned to the curve in the ravine, watching a quintet of bored fire giants lumber back into the fortress after completing an unenthused patrol that hadn't taken them nearly far enough to even suspect they were being watched. "I am beginning to think that Yaga-Shura did not leave his best troops here in reserve," Jaheira remarked.
"Good news for now, likely not so good news for later," Maera replied
"I've been thinking about the floor plan problem," Imoen said, "and I have an idea, but the heavy lifting's gonna be on Kels here, so I didn't want to just volunteer him."
"That is surprisingly considerate of you, Imoen," Kelsey said.
She shrugged, all false modesty and bonhomie. "I'm a giver."
"I always enjoy a good plan," Maera said, looking to head off the looming battle of banter. "Hit me."
Imoen outlined her strategy as they trekked up the gorge, and Maera had to chuckle at its main component. "Observation births inspiration, huh, Im?" Imoen rolled her eyes.
"You and those darn proverbs. But…yeah, pretty much."
Maera glanced at Kelsey. "Think you can do it?"
"Shouldn't be too difficult," he said after a moment's thought. "Put me where you need me." They shared a quick, flirtatious smile, and Sarevok looked as if he were going to be ill.
Kelsey and Imoen went ahead and stood against one of the huge doors. With the sun streaming in through the open doorway, they was all but invisible to the loitering guards, who were obviously wondering how they had managed to get stuck at the home base while the rest of the army was off doing more interesting things. Heat rose from the interior of Yaga-Shura's fortress like the blast from an oven. Hot, dry air swirled in miniature cyclones on the threshold where it met the cooler mountain wind. "See that little sorta bluish stone in the floor, about twenty feet out? Shaped like an H?" Imoen asked in a whisper. He nodded. "That'll be our mark." He nodded again, following her gaze as she watched the guards plod by, marking their steps with tiny nods of her head. "Now," she breathed.
He closed his eyes and concentrated, feeling the magic within slither through his mental fingers like fine silk. This would be tricky, and time was not on his side. Raising his hands, he let the power surge through them, and starting from that one small stone, a slick of ice nearly half an inch thick spread across the floor, racing for the corners of the immense room. Light-headed from concentration, he smiled with satisfaction. Even six months before, he had not had even half that control. Amazing what regular practice could do.
The guards raised the alarm, but to a one, slipped and lost their footing, going down with roars of pain, anger, and surprise. "My turn," Imoen muttered, extending her hands and not bothering to keep her incantation to herself. The gusting wind in the doorway suddenly howled, carrying with it claws of snow and ice that lashed the fallen guards mercilessly. But in the heat of the fire giants' lair, not even the most magical of ice could last long. Fortunately, that was part of the plan too. Steam from the swiftly melting ice billowed through the doors, and that was Maera's cue. With a shout, the rest of the party descended on the downed giants.
Even with the giants' height advantage nullified, it was messy work dispatching them. The aftermath found them all covered in bruises and blood, though little enough of it was their own. "Good plan, Im," Maera said, wiping ineffectually at the beads of sweat along her hairline. "Gods, it's hot in here. I'm impressed you got the ice to last as you did, Kelsey." He soaked in her praise like a besotted schoolboy, and Imoen rolled her eyes at him, grinning.
A massive flight of steps dominated the far end of the hall, and ascending them proved a challenge, as they had been intended for legs twice as long as even Sarevok's. After a brief pause at the top to catch their collective breath, they pressed on, Imoen scouting ahead silent as a cat. The second floor was a maze of giant-proportioned rooms, most of them deserted. They stole deeper and deeper through the hallways, alert for any sign of fiery hearts (however they might present themselves) until they came to an enormous set of double doors, almost the equal of the entrance to the fort itself. Fortunately, they were ajar, for Maera did not see how they could open anything that huge under their own strength. Imoen padded back from her recognizance, holding up four fingers. "Looks like Yaga-Shura's quarters – they're too fancy to be anybody else's. But he left some friends. And I don't think the ice thing will work in there. It's just too hot."
"Well," Maera said, smiling humorlessly. "They get to enjoy the dubious pleasure of fighting enemies who can stab them in the crotch."
She took in the room at a glance as they charged in. The furnishings were few, but ornate; a single bed, a pair of chairs, a desk – and a huge, shallow copper brazier as wide as a man's height. It smoked and hissed, and in the flames there were two vague, lumpy shapes. The hearts. The fire crackled endlessly, but there no obvious source of fuel. The giants stood at its cardinal points, a guard of honor, it seemed, and the largest of the quartet shouted, "You shall not touch the master's heart!" He raised his hands and began an incantation. It didn't sound like arcane magic to Maera's admittedly uneducated ear, but whatever he was doing, he couldn't be allowed to finish.
"Im, Kelsey! Shut him up!" she cried, and turned her attention to the nearest giant. She had discovered downstairs that the giants' armor had something of a flaw: their greaves did not wrap quite far enough around the thigh to prevent a precisely aimed strike from cutting the major artery in the leg. They might want to look into that, she thought as she hamstrung her target and sliced through the blood vessel, rolling out of his way as he went down.
When she came to her feet, it was already over. Minsc had Jaheira seated on the floor, and with a practiced motion, popped her left shoulder back into place before handing her a potion. Sarevok, sword still in hand, was eyeing the brazier with a mix of curiosity and caution. "A curious manner of preserving life," he said. "One wonders what other secrets the fire witch knows."
"What does it matter?" Maera asked, helping Jaheira to her feet. "We're not here for secrets."
"Your short-sightedness is truly astounding," he snorted. "You really do just get along on blind luck, don't you?"
Maera refused to be baited. "Whatever gets the job done." She approached the brazier. It was low by fire giant standards, which meant its rim was even with her nose. Though the fire was obviously magical in nature, it was most definitely real. Her scalp tingled with the heat. She bit her lip, thinking. "Jaheira. Cast a fire protection on me. Looks like I've got to go to them."
Outlined by a pale orange aura, Maera gripped the edge of the brazier, and with a push from Minsc, scrambled over the edge. Even through Jaheira's protective magic, the heat pressed on her like a heavy hand, and she knew she would not have long. The two hearts sat in the deepest part of the bowl, and despite the blaze that surrounded them; they still looked as if they had just been plucked from their respective chests. Maera had seen her fair share of internal organs in her time, but for some reason, the sight made her stomach roll. Part of her wanted to just kick the nasty things out of the brazier and be done as fast as she could, but the other urged moderation, so she gently lowered first Nyalee's small heart over the edge into Minsc's waiting hands, covered by the oilcloth Imoen had just fireproofed, and then Yaga-Shura's, which was the size of her head. She lowered herself back down, watching the fire aura fade as her feet touched the floor again. She wiped her forehead again, sweat stinging her eyes. "I could really use some air."
After the heat of the fire giant fortress, it was a relief to be back on the mountain path. Evening was approaching, and the first stars were glittering on the purple edge of the eastern sky. They made camp a few miles down the road, and it seemed reasonable to believe that they could get back to Nyalee shortly after noon the following day.
"I do not know why we have to feed him," Jaheira groused, setting down a small pan of quick bread to cook in the ashes. "In fact, I have yet to hear a truly satisfactory answer for why he is here to begin with!"
Maera gave the stew a dispirited stir. She didn't have to ask which 'he' Jaheira was referring to. "I'll be honest – I can't explain it myself. I really wish I knew why he got brought back into the pocket plane with us, but since he's here, the least I can do is make some use of him. And as long as he's with us, I don't have to worry about what I've unleashed on the world bringing him back to life."
"Maera." Jaheira snatched the spoon out of Maera's hand and focused stern eyes upon her. "You owe him nothing. In fact, in restoring him to life, he owes you. Send him on his way. Do not let some misplaced sense of responsibility tie you to him."
"You're right, druid." Sarevok sat with his back to a tree, at a distance they had assumed to be out of earshot. "I do owe her. And if I choose to repay that debt by lending my sword to her cause, what is it to you?"
"I am her friend," Jaheira bristled. "It is everything to me."
"She is a grown woman," he replied. "She does not need a mother."
Jaheira inhaled sharply, eyes flashing. Maera gritted her teeth in annoyance. "What I need is for me to decide," she announced. "You," she pointed at Sarevok, "can take your insights and shove them." She looked back at Jaheira and lowered her voice. "Jaheira…don't worry about him. He's my problem."
She remained awake long after the moon had risen, pacing the perimeter of their camp, edgy and restless. In the morning, she thought, they would return to Nyalee, and hope the fire witch did not have a change of heart. The unintentional pun made her groan, and she rounded the corner of her self-imposed route, irritated with herself for even thinking it. Imoen and Kelsey sat near each other at the base of a broad pine as Maera paced by. "My gods, Mae, if you do not sit down, I will break your knees," Imoen declared, her head propped wearily against the tree trunk.
Kelsey held out a beseeching hand, and with a grumble, Maera settled between his legs. "You've got to rest," he said gently. "You know we're not going to get this done any faster getting worked up."
"What if this whole thing was the wrong move, Kelsey? Gromnir was crazy, and Nyalee's no better," she whispered tersely. "What if we've followed the one lead out of Saradush that will get us nowhere?"
He nuzzled her ear, sliding a hand up her back to rub her neck, though he was somewhat thwarted by the high collar of her jerkin. "Do you think those hearts would have been there like that if there wasn't something special about them? That Yaga-Shura would have had them guarded if they weren't? We're moving against him, Maera. We're lessening his power, and that'll be to our advantage. You'll see."
"You're awfully sure of that."
"I have to be." He rested his chin on her shoulder. "Remember what I said about my responsibilities? Letting you know I believe in you is one of them."
"That doesn't mean you have to be a yes man, honey."
"Hey." He poked her in the side. It didn't have much of an impact due to the thickness of the leather at her midriff, but she was contrite nonetheless.
"I'm sorry," she said, resting her head against his. "That...didn't come out right."
"It's okay. But do you think any of us would have gone along with this if we didn't think it was our best option?"
"Because we have so many right now." She sighed heavily. "I can't help but feel like if I'd done something different...if I'd been smarter somehow, I wouldn't have needed to drag all of you into this."
"Maera," he murmured, "I'm going to keep telling you you're not in this alone until you believe it."
She sighed again and leaned back against his chest, and he kissed her hair, thankful to feel her body relax. The moon was high overhead, the night cool and breezy, and the woods were rich with the scent of dew and late summer growth. Kelsey began to seriously contemplate the virtues of simply sleeping there against the tree with her, and a slight snore from his left revealed that Imoen had already considered, and decided for, a similar plan. But there were eyes on him.
Sarevok's hawk-like gaze rested on him and Maera, his dark face utterly inscrutable. Kelsey's eyes narrowed as he stared back, inexplicably affronted. He hated the way Sarevok spoke to her, but the way he looked at her was worse. There was something about it that summoned up some dark, possessive, primeval instinct that he couldn't quite articulate. His jaw set stubbornly. Maera's old enemy seemed to think facing her in battle gave him some special insight into her, entitled him to some special consideration, but all Kelsey saw was someone who needed to figure out that his version of reality was not the one everyone else was using. So he held Sarevok's gaze and saw a spasm of something – Anger? Disgust? Resignation? – cross the warrior's face before he looked away.
Maera murmured to herself, and Kelsey, realizing she was asleep, wrapped his cloak tighter around them, and let himself nod off.
Nyalee was in the exact spot in which they had left her, and Maera couldn't help but wonder if she ever left it. Staring into her fire, the old witch said, "You have brought the hearts. Nyalee can feel them." She held out her hands, and Maera carefully placed the bundled, burning hearts beside her. Nyalee opened the larger one first, and ran her hands over the contours of Yaga-Shura's heart, the heat apparently no cause for distress. "When this thing is done, the boy will be mortal once more. He will be bleed again, and so he will die. Ironic, yes, that we must have our life's blood to die?" She whispered odd, archaic words over the heart, her bent fingers tracing patterns across its surface. The flames sputtered as though blown by a draft, suddenly roared to an inferno pitch, engulfing Nyalee's body entirely, and were just as suddenly gone, leaving her completely unburnt, and empty handed. She repeated the process with her own small heart, and when the flames disappeared, she stared down at her empty hands, an odd expression on her withered face. "Strange to have a heart again. Strange to feel."
Maera knelt beside her, head tilted. "What do you feel, Nyalee?"
"Sad," the old woman whispered, pressing a hand to her left breast. "Nyalee loved the boy. And now he must die."
"I am like your boy," Maera said softly. "I was raised by a man who loved me, the way you loved him. This is not your fault. You did nothing wrong."
Nyalee turned her milk glass eyes to Maera. "No. You are not like him." She looked back at the fire. "Nyalee is very old. And tired. Perhaps she will die now. She has long wished to." An uncertain silence filled the air, punctuated only by the crackling of the fire. "Go. Do what you must."
Maera stood, pity softening her face. "Thank you, Nyalee." The fire witch did not respond.
When they were a safe remove from the ruined temple, Maera turned to the party. "I guess the thing to do now is go back to the pocket plane, and hope it doesn't spit us back out right in the middle of the siege camp," she said.
"Are we really gonna take on an army, Mae?" Imoen asked.
"All that matters is getting to Yaga-Shura. He's the snake's head."
The passage through the pocket plane went smoothly, and if not for the sense of urgency pressing at her back like a dull blade, Maera would have taken a moment to be pleased. She doubted she would ever truly get used to the idea of having access to the place, but it was a convenience she was growing increasingly grateful for.
They shifted back to the material plane without difficulty, ready for whatever might be waiting on the other side, knowing that the plane's determination of where they needed to be seemed not to account for the safety of that location. But all was peaceful as they took in their surroundings. They stood on a rocky ledge, a thin line of trees bounding the northeast side. Birds chirped in the wind-ruffled branches, but above them, staining the clear blue sky, rose a column of smoke. Maera felt her heart drop. For an instant, she tried to convince herself she was just imagining things, that it wasn't the right direction, that it was too far away. But they broke through the trees at the top of the ridge, and her half-heart lies withered to nothing. Below them, Yaga-Shura's siege camp spread across the flood plain of the river that flowed past the south wall of the city. The army was moving, and Saradush was burning.
She started to run.