City of Ash

"Maera!" Jaheira made a grab for her arm, but she dodged. "MAERA! There is an army down there! We cannot proceed without a plan!"

Maera whipped back to face the druid, wrenching Daystar from its sheath. "Anything that gets in my way dies. That's my plan."

Jaheira swore and grabbed at her again. This time she connected. "No, by Silvanus, it is not!" She wrenched Maera a half step closer, a storm brewing in her eyes. "If you do not approach this assault with some semblance of thought, you will be killed, and if you are not, I will do it myself on general principle!"

"Jaheira," Maera said, her voice a low snarl, "let me go."

The rest of the party edged back, watching the silent war waged in their glaring eyes. A battle of wills between them was like tidal wave versus a cliff face – the ocean would never get tired, and the rock would take a very long time to care. Then Jaheira spoke, and in an instant, the war was over.

"I will not lose you too."

Maera's shoulders dropped. "What do I do?" she whispered.

"Think, Maera. Take a moment, and think."

She sucked in a deep breath, and forced herself to look down the ridge. The army was pressing their offense at the southwestern corner of the city, where the river that formed a natural moat was at its narrowest. "Few of us, and a lot of them." Greasy black smoke rose in columns from the heart of the city. They were too far to hear any sound other than a generalized roar, but her mind filled in the screams and cries for help. Her fist tightened around Daystar's hilt. "I want Yaga-Shura," she growled. "He dies for this."

"If he is even slightly competent," Sarevok remarked, "he is likely directing the main assault. We will need to get his attention."

"Something showy?" Imoen gave Kelsey a nudge.

"We can do that," he said.

"I don't really care for sneaking anyway," Maera said. Minsc smiled broadly in approval.

Jaheira followed Maera's eyes down the ridge. "Their lines appear thinner on the eastern side. An unexpected assault would sow confusion, possibly even break the disorganized." Maera nodded.

"Im? How well could you conceal all six of us?"

Imoen scrunched her nose thoughtfully. "Oh, I can make us all vanish, but not for long. The more bodies you add to an invisibility spell, the more variables…shortens its lifespan."

"Then save it for when we get close enough to need it. I want to be on top of those sons of bitches before you and Kelsey do your thing." Maera caught Kelsey's eye. "Feel free to make it flashy."

"And we take advantage of the chaos." Sarevok smiled. "Admirable thinking, sister."

"Don't congratulate me yet."

Their passage down the ridge was a combination of skidding and sliding, and as soon as they had reached level ground again, Maera stalked ahead, eyes hard. They closed in on the staked out boundaries of the siege camp, skirting around the oversized supply wagons. The roar had begun to take on individual voices, carried on the smoky wind, and with each step, Maera's shoulders tightened. They had taken too long, and now the walls were breached. She should have been there to stand between Yaga-Shura and the people of Saradush. She should have been there to fill the gap, to keep the flood of soldiers from pouring over them all. That was her purpose, wasn't it? To be the one who got in the way? Why hadn't she been able to this time?

Half a dozen arrows buried themselves in the churned dirt less than a yard ahead of her. "Shit!" she hissed, dancing back a step. Ahead, partially concealed by a large wagon-borne forge, a loose rearguard of human archers was forming into a firing position. They had already been spotted. Invisibility would have to wait for another day. "Kelsey! Im!" she called. "Flashy can start right now!"

She veered hard to the left, Minsc, Jaheira, and Sarevok similarly scattering. The best defense against archers that a melee fighter had was to keep moving, and no one wanted to be in the way of whatever Imoen and Kelsey were about to do.

Imoen cast first, a violet bolt of lightning scorching the earth as it left her hands. Maera refused to believe the color was incidental. She looked back towards Kelsey, who stood with his hands held nearly a foot apart. An incandescent ball of flame glowed between them like a small sun, the fire brushing his fingers without ever burning them. His hands shifted, seeming to grasp the fireball, and he heaved it forward, not at the archers, but at the forge wagon. Maera saw his plan in a split second, and hit the dirt.

The explosion was tremendous. With a whining scream, the suddenly overheated iron of the forge blew apart in all directions. Bits of wood and pot metal sailed back down to the ground, digging craters where they struck. The archers were nowhere to be seen.

Maera hauled herself to her feet, looking back to give Kelsey a quick nod of appreciation before turning her attention back to the situation at hand. It was a good beginning, but they had to keep pressing. Fortunately, it appeared the soldiers were going to make that part easy on her, at least in the short term, because over the tops of the tents ahead, she could see a line of approaching giants. She glanced about, assessing the positions of the rest of her party. Kelsey and Imoen were still behind, and Jaheira had fallen back nearer them, while Minsc stood a few dozen paces to her left. Sarevok waited near the ruins of the forge wagon, his stance gleefully anticipatory. Maera felt a surge of answering satisfaction, and this time, she let it flow through her. I'll take them all. Just bring me Yaga-Shura.

The air around them flickered with the familiar blue light of one of Imoen's shields – a contingent of crossbowmen followed in support of the giants. The magic could shrug off the bolts, but only for so long. "Minsc!" Maera called, pointing Daystar towards them. He nodded quickly, and circled around, weaving through the tents and firepits towards their position. If he needed help, she trusted Imoen and Kelsey to keep him covered, a supposition supported by the sight of one of Imoen's white-fletched arrows arcing over her head. She smiled thinly, hefting Daystar, and shouted, "Come on, you ugly sons of whores! I'm quicker, I'm smarter, and I am a damn sight more pissed off than any of you, so let's see what you've got!"

She threw herself towards the oncoming giants, slicing towards the first set of legs unlucky enough to get in her way. Murderers! screamed some inner part of her, and even as she dodged a low swinging strike, she pulled at her rage, reeling it in closer. She couldn't afford to get lost in it; the Slayer's shadows might be safely confined to their proper place, but fighting angry wasn't fighting smart. She couldn't waste the energy, couldn't let herself burn up in fury. Not yet.

Kelsey was already a bit winded, and that worried him. His magic was not a bottomless well, while he had no idea what would happen if he pushed himself too far, he had a feeling it wouldn't be enjoyable. Conservation was his goal, timing what magic he did use for maximum impact, and relying on his sling for the rest. At least the crossbowmen had been easy enough. All it had taken was one casual beheading on Minsc's part, and they had broken and run. But there were still more coming – they had definitely gotten the attention they wanted, but they would have to work fast to prevent getting bogged down. Maera knew it too; he could see it in her body language as she scanned about, using every unengaged second to take her bearings. She was looking for the best place to punch through.

A pair of giants closed in on her, but beyond them was her break. He raised his hands, aiming carefully. Lightning was a finicky thing, but at the moment, it was his best weapon. Sparks caught on every dry surface in the bolt's path, crackling over Maera's head to bounce between the giants. Knocking the nearer to his knees, it struck the second directly in the gut. Electricity and steel armor never did play well together, and Maera wasted no more time on them.

The line wavered around the hole, and they pushed again, deeper into the siege camp. Before them, the smoldering devastation of Saradush spread an oily black pall over the sky, the late afternoon sun was a pale disc behind the smoke. "Yaga-Shura!" Maera shouted. "YAGA-SHURA!" Another barrage of arrows sang over the tents, overshooting and plowing into the dirt a few paces from her feet. She sneered, and raised her voice again. "YAGA-SHURA! Quit hiding behind your arrow fodder, you coward! You came here for Bhaalspawn! Why don't you try one who can fight back?"

The bluish bubble of another shield formed around them, but the expected wave of arrows did not come. A lull had fallen over the camp, a hush of held breath. Maera stood in the center of the circle, eyes hot, chest moving in short, controlled breaths. Her challenge was made, and whether consciously or not, everyone was waiting to see Yaga-Shura's response.

The ground shuddered with the fire giant's approach as he passed the inner ring of tents. The huge Bhaalspawn gazed down at her, his broad, bearded face twisted in a sneer. "So you are the famous Maera," rumbled the giant.

She stared up at him, eyes dangerously hard. "Let me guess. Expecting someone taller?"

"Only a human would think that's funny," he rumbled, then tilted his head contemptuously. "Why are you here? You cannot touch me, and you will die for nothing."

"Overconfidence has killed bigger men than you." As if summoned by her words, there was the whiz and thunk of a projectile striking home. The giant roared, and clapped his neck to the back of his neck. He pulled away a bloody hand; a crossbow bolt bristled like a gnome's dart just below the hairline. Sarevok stepped into sight, the offending weapon held loosely in his hands. Maera's nostrils flared. "What the hell, Sarevok? I can take him on my own!"

A raised eyebrow, and a calm reply. "But would you want to?"

"What is this?" shouted Yaga-Shura, teeth bared in fury. "How is this possible?"

Maera shot Sarevok one last, venomous look before turning back to Yaga-Shura. "You should have done better by your old mother."

"The witch sold me out?" he hissed. "What was her price?"

"Nothing," Maera said coldly. "She loved you like her own and you spat on her. Gods willing, she's dead now, and you can't hurt her anymore."

"We are meant for greater things than the love of mere mortals," Yaga-Shura said, pressing his hand again to the wound on his neck. "Well, you probably weren't." He chuckled dismissively. "Even if you can kill me, what would it avail you now? I have ground Saradush under my heel, and the others still remain. You can join us, or you can be cut down."

She raised her sword, a fierce glitter in her dark eyes. "I don't like your options. I'm making my own." Diving between his legs, she swung for the gap in his armor behind the knee. Yaga-Shura growled, and turned on her with remarkable dexterity. Sarevok fired again, but the second bolt clattered off the giant's shoulderplate.

Kelsey spotted a human soldier on the fringes, winding his crossbow and taking aim at Maera's back. I don't think so, he thought. The fireball burst forth from his open hand without a second thought. Beside him, Jaheira caught Minsc's eye and raised her staff. The ranger nodded, and they broke from the group, disappearing back into the warren of tents and wagons. They could keep stragglers from interfering, which left him and Imoen to watch Maera's back. Conservation be damned. He raised his hands, his fingers tingling with the charge of electricity. Yaga-Shura convulsed and staggered as the lightning struck, but managed to keep hold of his blade. Imoen and Sarevok took advantage of his momentary confusion to harass him with missiles as Maera kept up her attack.

There was a heavy thud as Yaga-Shura dropped to one knee, and Maera circled in for the kill, bringing her blade to bear against his unbent leg. The giant, his eyes wide in growing panic, struggled to block her, but without the advantage of his greater height, he was not her equal. Daystar sang through the air one last time, and Yaga-Shura toppled, his life's blood pouring from the gash she left in his throat. "You can bleed," Maera panted. "You can die."

She staggered, blinking hard, light headed from exertion. Kelsey stepped forward to catch her…but Sarevok was there, hands on her shoulders, righting her. The irrational urge to hurl a fireball at his blandly expressionless face surged up like a flash flood, but Jaheira, as usual, came to the rescue, emerging from the tents to pull Maera away and ease her to the ground.

"I will tend to her, thank you," she said shortly.

"'m okay, Jaheira," Maera mumbled. "Just tired."

"Really? Then why aren't you using your left arm?"

Maera stared at her arm as if she had just noticed it. "Dunno. It hurts."

"Indeed. It is broken. Kelsey? Would you be so good as to aid me?" He was sure he saw a gleam of understanding in her brown eyes as he knelt beside her, helping unlace Maera's armor to get at the injured arm.

She gripped Kelsey's hand hard as Jaheira set the bone, and she drew in a deep breath as the pale light of healing spread over her arm. "Better?" he murmured as he helped her stand. She nodded, and was about to speak when the sound of running feet emanated from the tents ahead.

Imoen drew back her bow, but a familiar voice cried, "Don't shoot! Please!" Melissan stumbled past the tents, and pitched headlong into the ground before them, out of breath and shivering madly. Minsc gently pulled her up to her feet, but she leaned against him so heavily it did not appear she could stand under her own strength. Her dress was torn and filthy, the hem falling ragged around her calves, splattered with dark stains that could only be blood. Her face was swollen, both from tears and the spreading bruise that covered much of her left cheek. When she sucked in a breath to attempt speech, it appeared she was missing a few teeth. "Thank the gods…it's you."

"Melissan?" Imoen shouldered her bow. "What happened?"

"They increased the bombardment last night," she gasped, after several false starts. "At dawn, they began crossing the river. They'd breached the walls by noon." A choking sob caught in her throat. "They're all dead!" she cried. "I tried so hard to protect them, and they're all dead!"

"Who is?" Maera asked, dreading the answer she already knew.

"The other Bhaalspawn!" Melissan wept hysterically. "I brought them here to save them, and now they're dead!"

Maera swallowed. "Len and the others?"

"All of them!" Melissan wiped uselessly at her face with her ruined sleeve. "I tried to get them out, but they were looking for us! There was nothing I could do."

Raising her eyes, Maera forced herself to look at the smoking ruins of Saradush. "What about everyone else?"

Melissan shook her head miserably. "I can't begin to guess the casualties. Thousands." A quiet ripple of horror passed through the party. Kelsey swayed slightly, realization striking him like a fist. Kelvim.

Maera's eyes were still fixed on the city, but her gaze was buried somewhere deep within, her face gone slack. "Maera," Melissan said, her voice catching brokenly, "I have not been entirely honest with you. I know more of the Five than I had…let on." This earned her a look sharp enough to cut, and she quailed slightly. "I was trying to prevent this! I didn't want to drag you into anything, or force your hand! I was hoping you would choose of your own volition to move against them, but now we have no choice!"

Maera strode closer to Melissan, staring down the shorter woman. "Really? Because your genius ideas have worked out so well so far!"

"Maera!" Jaheira admonished softly.

"Not apologizing!" Maera hissed stubbornly, still eyeing Melissan. "What do you know?"

"There are two others I know by name," Melissan replied shakily. "Abazigal and Sendai. They both have…enclaves, I suppose…bases of power, farther to the south. Now that Yaga-Shura is dead, they will surely move, though whether they will band together or strike at each other, I do not know. Either way, they will cause incredible devastation, and we are out of options."

"Who are the Five, Melissan?"

"I know of three. Yaga-Shura, and I have just told you of the other two. Beyond that, I know as little as you, I swear." She clutched Maera's arm, her eyes earnest. "If you go to Amkethran, on the edge of the Calim desert…there is something there who can help you. There is a monastery, under the leadership of a man called Balthazar. I will send him word. He is an ally of mine, he will aid you." Maera stared at her mutely, and Melissan murmured, "I am sorry, Maera. Truly, I am. But you are the only one who can stop them. The only person who can prevent this from happening again, elsewhere and worse." She pointed towards Saradush's broken walls. Maera swallowed, and Melissan patted her arm in faint encouragement. "I should go. There are preparations I must make if I am to help you."

"You are departing already?" Jaheira asked.

"I must. No more time can be wasted. Not if I am to be of any use to you." Melissan glanced at Maera again. "Remember: the monastery at Amkethran. Even if I am not there myself, I am sure that Balthazar will help you. Be careful, my friend." She tried out a small, hopeful smile and disappeared among the tents.

Maera stared sightlessly upward at the greasy smoke smudged across the sky. "Chaos will be sown from their passage," she whispered. "All those people…" With a sudden scream, she grabbed the nearest tent and ripped the canvas from the poles, tears of fury and anguish stinging her eyes. Sinking to her knees, she buried her face in her hands, shoulders shaking with sobs. Imoen, her own eyes shining in sympathy, reached out to touch her, but her hand was stilled when Sarevok's voice rang out, clear and remorseless.

"Stop it."

Maera looked up, incredulous. "What?"

"What use is caterwauling like a child? You have achieved your goal. Yaga-Shura is dead. His army and his siege are broken. You are the victor. So stop it."

She stood slowly, her dark eyes hot and still shining with tears, and everyone took an instinctive step back. "What kind of a victory is this?" she asked, pointing across the river, her voice low and shaking. "Innocent people have died!"

"And why should you grieve for them?" he countered. "They cared nothing for you."

"So? I don't do this for pats on the back, you know. If all I cared about was getting my ego stroked, I'd be you." She snorted. "Better looking, though."

He stepped closer to her, staring down at her angry, tear streaked face, his features clouded. "Do not attempt to deflect me, sister. You know that I am right. You know it is a waste to shed your tears for this worthless city. Harden your heart, or the days to come will break it."

Her eyes narrowed viciously. "Who the hell do you think you are? How DARE you lecture me! I know what I have to do, and I will not be questioned by you every step of the way."

"So will you cover your ears and demand to only be told what you want to hear? I was right – you are a child. A whining child who clings to the ideal of 'the right thing' because she's too afraid to face what it truly means to be a Bhaalspawn!"

Her fist was a blur, slamming into his jaw with only a second's thought. Sarevok staggered back a step from the blow, blood welling on his lip. He stared at her, his swollen mouth twisted as he gritted his teeth and returned the punch. Maera's head rolled with the blow, and a chorus of angry protest rose from the others, but she spread her hands to her sides warningly, her eyes never leaving his face.

"Don't. This is between him and me." Their eyes locked, and she sneered at him. "You arrogant prick. You think you know so much. I have been the godsblighted Slayer. I've seen what's at the bottom of who we are. I know what it means to be a Bhaalspawn, and that is nothing good!" Her voice lowered, deadly quiet and sharp as a razor. "So you can stand there and act like the fact that you gave in and danced to Bhaal's tune somehow makes you braver than me, but honestly, I don't care anymore. We're not trapped in Hell's foyer, or stuck in a besieged city. There is nothing left to keep you hanging around but your pathetic need to lord your supposed enlightenment over me. Well, too bad, because I am done with it and I am done with you. We are finished."

Their eyes held for a long, perilous moment, and then his lips moved. "No."

She took a very deep, very controlled breath. "Remember what I said in the pocket plane? That I would kill you again, if I had to? Get the fuck out of my sight, or I will keep my word."

"I will see this business through to its end and you cannot stop me."

She outspread her arms, lifting her bruised chin scornfully. "No walls. No chains. Nothing to keep you from turning around and walking in whatever godsdamned direction you please. So what part of 'We're finished' did you not understand?"

"As I told you once before, sister, we will never be finished." He took another step towards her, and she tightened her fist, but didn't raise it. He stared down at her, his next words so low only she could hear them. "Why was you who killed me, and you who came to our father's hell where I was waiting? All our brothers and sisters in this world, and it is always you. You can strike me, you can attempt to toss me aside, but deny it all you wish, you know the truth. Our lives are a gyre, Maera. You and I circle each other endlessly, even though death. You cannot be rid of me so easily. Not yet." He turned on his heel, and vanished through the now-deserted camp, leaving Maera staring after him.

Imoen let out a long breath. "Well, that was tense. Glad to see the back of him, though."

"He'll be coming with us," Maera murmured tonelessly, and before anyone could question her, she was walking towards the river, her eyes a century away.

Hours later, as the sun sank towards the western horizon, staining the sky a brilliant orange through the smoke, Kelsey found her sitting on the riverbank. It had likely been a pleasant spot, before the siege. The remains of boat slips dotted the foreshore; he could imagine picnics in the grassy meadow, young couples boating on the river. Now there were bodies in the brown water, the grass was churned up and stamped down, and the air stunk of charred wood, scorched stone, and death.

"Don't ask me why, because I don't know," she said suddenly.

"I'm not really worried about Sarevok," he replied. Okay, that's a lie. "I figure you can handle him." That's true, at least. "But if he hits you again…"

She shrugged. "I swung first. Don't throw a punch if you can't take one." She was still looking across the river, but he wasn't sure she was actually seeing anything. "All those people," she murmured. "It's not right, Kelsey. They shouldn't have died." Her eyes lowered, fixed on the dirt at her feet. "Hell of a win, huh?"

Her voice was bleak, and empty, and he hated it. "Maera, don't do that."

"Don't do what? I don't see anyone else around here to blame for this."

"What about Yaga-Shura? His soldiers did this, not you. We were racing time and we lost. There wasn't anything you could have done differently to change that."

"What good am I if I'm helpless?" she flared. "If I can't protect people, what's the point?"

He sighed in frustration. Ninety-eight percent of the time, he admired her stubbornness, but then there was that other two percent… "Just once, I wish you wouldn't blame yourself for everything you can't control."

"Oh, I would love to, Kelsey! Except I've got solars, imps, ex-Bhaalites, and Sarevok Anchev himself telling me that I'm responsible whether I want to be or not! And so far, I'm not really impressed with my performance." She thrust an angry finger in the direction of Saradush. "This isn't exactly something to be proud of."

His mouth tightened. It hurt to see her so angry with herself, so lost in self-loathing. He took a deep breath. "Let me tell you a story, Maera. Two years ago, while you were saving the Sword Coast from Sarevok, I was in Cormyr, serving in a mercenary company. And I didn't find out until too late that I shouldn't have, because the captain of that troop was a tyrant. He was petty, egomaniacal, power hungry. And cruel. He openly played favorites, he'd have men lashed for the smallest infraction, he'd harass and extort the very caravans we were supposed to be protecting – it was hell serving under him, and he enjoyed every minute of it. A few people tried to desert, and when they were caught, he hung them for it. But the last straw came when one of the caravans he tried to shake down refused. And with one of his toadies holding a knife to my back, he made me fireball the whole caravan – people, animals, wagons." He swallowed hard, the memory forcing bile into his throat. "And he laughed while it burned. So that night, I returned the favor." He forced himself to look at her and meet her widening, horrified eyes. "I burned him to death, and I turned and walked away. That is something to not be proud of."

"My gods, Kelsey," she whispered. "That's awful."

His eyes dropped. "You can see why I hadn't told you about it."

"Yeah." He looked back up, relieved to see sympathy in her expression. "But this isn't exactly a life that gives you a lot of clean choices."

He nodded pensively. "I guess not. Just like it's not a life that cares about your intentions. Or that you've run out of time." He turned his eyes back towards Saradush, and realization struck Maera so hard she gasped aloud.

She pressed her hand to her mouth, cheeks flushing with shame. "Kelsey…I didn't even think about him…I felt so sorry for myself, I…" She fumbled for the words, tongue-tied in her embarrassment and horror. "I'm sorry." The phrase felt so trite she wished the ground would open up and swallow her.

But Kelsey was still looking at the city. "After all these years, I finally see him again and discover my little brother actually grew up into a pretty decent man. And I thought that maybe…" Maera caught his fingers in hers, and he turned to face her. Her heart ached to see tears in his eyes, which he hastily wiped away. "You're doing it again," he said with as much sternness as he could muster.

"Doing what?"

"You can't think of everything, Maera. You can't do everything, you can't be everywhere." He touched her face. "And you're only going to hurt yourself trying so hard."

"I can do something about this." Kelsey looked unsure and she said, "We could stay. Stay here and look for him and Mirena."

He shook his head. "You need to get to Amkethran. You're obviously on some kind of timetable here, and I can't ask you to put your mission on hold for me."

"Screw that! This is important! He's your brother! What kind of person would I be if I didn't give you the chance to know for certain if he's okay? You shouldn't have to make that kind of sacrifice for me, Kelsey; it wouldn't be fair." His brow wrinkled uncertainly, and she let out a frustrated sigh. "You just got done lecturing me about taking on things I can't control. Well, this is something I can, isn't it?"

He pursed his mouth thoughtfully. "It is, I guess. But-" Her arms crossed firmly. Stalemate. "What if I stayed?"

"By yourself?" She couldn't keep the doubt out of her tone.

"I can take care of myself. I've done it before," he said, smiling slightly, and she made a face at him. The air between them seemed to warm. "I could…stay here a few days, and look. Then I'd follow you to Amkethran. I've never been there before, but I know where it is."

She didn't like it. Her first instinct was to tell him it was a terrible idea and that she categorically refused to go without him. After all, he had followed her across Amn to save her sister. She could spare a few days for his brother. But if he was right, and the planes really did have her on a schedule, maybe they would see fit to let him find what he sought, and bring him back to her safe. It was the best she could hope for, and she needed every bit of hope she could find. She nodded, leaned against him and closed her eyes. She'd been so tired lately.

Twilight gathered, but Saradush would burn through the night. Small fires began to dot the hills, the hopeful sign of refuges yet alive. Perhaps all was not lost after all. Maybe they all still had a chance. When Maera spoke, her voice felt very small against the hugeness of the night. "I'll miss you."

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