A lone traveler, dusty and footsore, approached Amkethran in the fading light of a desert evening. A few coins in the hand a thin young goatherd bought him directions to the tired stucco building that served as the town's only inn. When he pushed through the dust curtains into the dim, threadbare common room, the trio of mercenaries playing cards in the corner paid him little mind, but he was a welcome sight to the slender little mage nursing a beer at the bar. She stood, smiling, as he pushed back his hood. "Heya, Kels," Imoen said, giving him a quick hug. He returned the embrace, but before he could ask the question burning his lips, she offered, "She's fine. Getting her nose set, at the moment."

"She…wait, what?"

"You know it's best to set bones before they're healed. Jaheira's real big on doing things the right way."

"Yeah, I know that, but how'd she get her nose broken?"

"Oh, she and the locals have been getting along famously." Irony dripped from Imoen's voice. "Come on." She led him into the door-lined back hall, and knocked on one.

"What?" Jaheira's tone indicated there had better be a good excuse.

Imoen smirked. "He's here," she announced.

A brief argument, a curse, and frantic scrambling all emanated from the room, and Maera jerked the door open, bruises still fading around her nose. It was, Imoen thought, both incredibly adorable and completely disgusting the way they beamed at each other like idiots. Maera grabbed his face and planted a huge kiss on him, but flinched away, holding her still tender nose.

"No more of that for at least half an hour," Jaheira declared firmly, squeezing past Maera into the hall. "The bones are not finished healing yet."

"Yes ma'am," Maera grumbled. She pulled Kelsey into the room with her, shutting the door firmly in Jaheira and Imoen's faces.

"Think they'll last that long?" Imoen asked.

"It will not be my fault if her nose heals crooked now."

Behind the closed door, Kelsey sat heavily on the bed, pulling off his boots with a sigh of relief. Maera sat beside him, and he tapped the tip of her nose affectionately. "So what did you do?" he asked.

"What did I do? What makes you think I started it?" He raised his eyebrows and said nothing. She sighed in defeat. "Okay, I did start it. But I was defending an old man! And you should see the other guy." He laughed, and she added, eyes wide with sincerity, "No, really. I put him through a wall."

"The walls here?" She nodded. "The stucco walls?"

She glanced down furtively. "I won't rule out the possibility of overkill." He shook his head, smiling, and she added seriously, "There's something weird going on in this town. Melissan's 'friend' Balthazar?" She hooked air quotes around the word. "I don't think he's anybody's friend. Something about him is just…off. And I haven't heard much good about him from anybody. Much recent good, anyway. Apparently the town and the monastery have always had a really good relationship – looking out for each other's interests and all - and when he became head of the order last year, it didn't seem like anything had changed. Then all of the sudden this past spring, the gates are always closed, he's using the town's treasury to hire mercs and won't say what they're for – and this is a martial order, mind you."

"The mercenaries could be for protection from the Five," Kelsey suggested.

"That was my first thought too, but…they don't act like they're here to protect anybody." She sniffed disdainfully. "Mercs being mercs though, they're probably more worried about what they're gonna spend their coin on when the job's done." She shot him an apologetic look. "No offense. I know you've hired out a few times."

"And there's a reason why I stopped," he chuckled lightly.

"True. But here's the thing I thought you'd find most interesting: Balthazar's actively discouraging caravans. There hasn't been one stop here in over four months."

Kelsey's eyes widened. "This is a supply town. These people make their living off the caravans."

"Exactly. And no one seems to know what to make of it. At least…that's what they're telling me. Everyone's been very polite and very, very distant. And I don't think it's just the Bhaalspawn thing. Seems like they're more afraid of him than they are of me." She sighed. "Not that I mind that particularly. It makes a nice change of pace."

"I heard about your run-in with Jamis Tomelthen at the oasis. Watering hole gossip always spreads the fastest." Kelsey shook his head. "I don't understand. I know I'm biased, but I just don't see how anyone could hold you responsible for the things the other Bhaalspawn have done. It just isn't fair to you."

Maera shrugged. "They're scared."

He tilted his head, eyes gentle. "Of all the people to be afraid of."

She smiled at him teasingly. "Yeah, you're biased. But you're in good spirits," she said softly. "I hope that means you have good news."

He nodded, unable to contain his smile. "I do, actually. They're okay. Singed and scraped and exhausted when I found them, but they're okay. Turns out a lot of people were able to make it out through the north gate before the walls were breeched. Mirena's leg was broken in the bombardment and Kelvim carried her over a mile until they found a safe spot. He was single-handedly whipping their little group of survivors into a functioning refugee camp when I found them." He couldn't keep the pride out of his voice and Maera smiled. "So I helped him. Finding others, getting them organized, helping them share resources. We make a pretty good team, actually."

"The magnificent Coltrane brothers in action," she laughed.

"Something like that. They're planning on staying until Mirena can travel and then head home. I know Kelvim hates to cut their trip short, but considering everything they've been through, it's really for the best."

"I am so glad to hear that," Maera said with a relieved smile. "It's really great to have good news for once." She ducked her head. "Can I be selfish and admit I'm more glad to see you again, though?"

"Absolutely," he smiled.

"Well, I am. I missed you." She touched his cheek. "You look tired."

"I'm exhausted." He tugged at the front of his robe, and she helped him pull it off. Freed, he lay back on the mediocre mattress. "I had forgotten is how much time you have to think, when you're out there on your own."

"Come to any world-changing epiphanies?" she asked lightly.

"Maybe." He smiled up at her. "I thought about you."

"If you've got any insights, I'd love to hear them, because lately, I don't have a clue."

He tugged at a stray lock of her hair in gentle reproof. "Don't make me resort to obscene levels of flattery again, because I'll do it."

She covered her face in mock horror. "Anything but that!" They laughed, and he wrestled her hands away. Holding her wrists, he gazed up at her, his expression growing strangely solemn. For some reason, it made her heart race.

"I was right," he whispered.

"Right about what?"

He took a deep breath and sat up again, facing her. "I did have an insight, and you just proved it right." He cupped her cheek gently. "Maera, you changed my life. You know that, but I'll never get tired of telling you anyway. And from the moment I met you I didn't want anything else. I've known for almost that long that I want this to last. I genuinely think we can have a lifetime ahead of us, Maera, that we can have a home, and a life, and be a family together." She watched his face in breathless silence as he swept his hand back through her hair. "But I realized I was taking all that on faith. I was assuming. And you – you deserve so much more than assumptions. You deserve a promise."

Her lips parted, but it took several seconds for any words to emerge. Finally she asked, "Kelsey…where are you going with this?"

He chuckled nervously. "I think I'm asking you to marry me." His eyes met hers, hopeful, and adoring, and terrified. "Will you?"

She'd never really thought about marriage much. Like so many of the strange, exotic beasts of the outside world, it had only existed for her between the pages of a book, a concept she had never seen in practice until she met Khalid and Jaheira. To the uninformed observer, their relationship would have seemed perilously lopsided, but time and their constant company had shown Maera the delicate give and take of partnership, the interlocking of strength and weakness. She had mentioned that to Jaheira once, who had smiled slightly and replied, "Marriage is the ultimate expression of the balance." At the time, she hadn't really understood what that meant. Now she did, and there was her answer.

"Yeah, I will." His smile spread and she added, taking his hand, "You deserve a promise too. And this deserves a name."

"Husband has a nice ring to it."

"Actually, wife does too, for that matter."

They grinned at each other; his cheeks ached from his smile and he was desperate to kiss her, but Jaheira's admonition still rang in his ears. To still the voices urging immediate physical action, he reached into one of his pockets, removing a small cloth-wrapped object. "I think this was what started the line of thought." He peeled back the wrapping, revealing a simple silver ring, set with a perfectly polished bit of amber as rich as drop of dark honey. "I found it the day I left Saradush, wedged between a couple of paving stones in the main plaza. All it took was a little polishing to get it looking new again. When I saw it, all I could think was that it was perfect for you, so…I guess I had sort of an Imoen moment."

She laughed as he slid the ring onto her finger. "I won't tell her if you won't."

"Thank you."

She held her hand up to admire its new adornment. "I like it," she announced. "But I wish I had something to give you." She bit her lip, and inspiration struck. "Actually, I do."

She pulled a familiar piece of gently battered parchment from her pack, quickly writing something on it with the stubby end of a pencil. She handed him the deed, and he didn't quite understand what she had done, until he reached the bottom. Next to his own name, she had added 'Maera Coltrane', crossing the T with a flourish. He stared at her. "You don't have to take my surname," he said.

"I don't have one of my own," she replied, shrugging, "so I don't mind borrowing if you don't mind sharing."

With great care and deliberation, he set the deed on the bedside table, then grabbed her waist and pulled her onto the bed with him in one joyful motion. Horror widened his eyes just before they kissed. "What about your nose?"

"It's been long enough," she said stoutly, but then uncertainty crossed her face. "But if it hasn't…do you mind being married to a woman with a slightly crooked nose?"

"Well, you need at least one flaw," he grinned.

She rolled her eyes, trying not to be pleased at the flattery. "That's it. You're in trouble now, mister."

His accusations of mistreatment were insincere and short-lived.

Kelsey woke suddenly, hours later, unsure of what had jolted him out of sleep. There had been no loud noise, no abrupt light or commotion. For a few seconds, he lay in confusion; then Maera stirred beside him, drawing a ragged breath, and he understood. The twitch in her movement, the faint whimpering sound of her breathing – she was having one of her dreams again. And something had told him to wake up, just as she did, with a deep, tearing gasp and a whole body shudder, as if she'd had to physically wrench herself out of the nightmare.

He didn't say anything, but gently rested his hand on her side. She flinched, then sighed, her body still quivering with tension. "I'm so sorry," she whispered miserably. "I woke you up again."

"It's okay."

"No, it's not. You should be able to get a full night's sleep. What if we're old and gray and I'm still waking you up at night with my bad dreams?"

"I'll be glad I've gotten to be old and gray with you."

Her laugh was small and humorless. "Nice try, honey. But…thank you."

He wrapped his arms around her gently in reply, and she exhaled, rolling slightly to tuck herself closer to his chest. When they had first begun to share sleeping space on a regular basis, he had thought her propensity for using him as a pillow was simply the byproduct of narrow inn beds and limited tent space, but when having access to an impressively large bed in Suldanessellar had not broken her of it, he had come to the amused conclusion that Maera of Candlekeep, the famed and fearsome, was an inveterate cuddler. And that was a bit of secret knowledge he could happily keep to himself. He shifted (as best he could), and continued to stroke her back as she relaxed. He wasn't sure how long they lay in silence while she pushed away the remnants of the dream, slowly sliding back into sleep. And maybe then, he might finally feel like he could sleep again too.

But he had meant what he'd said – the occasional night of interrupted sleep was a trade-off worth making, if it meant getting to spend his days with her.

Who is she, Kelsey?

He remembered standing on the crest of the hill overlooking Saradush, the refugee campfires dotting the landscape as the moon rose. He glanced, brow furrowed, at Kelvim, who'd asked the question.

"Maera. The way people talk about her she's either a demon straight from the Abyss, or so pure-hearted and virtuous she'd put a paladin to shame. So I thought I'd ask someone who knows. Who is she? Really?"

Kelsey pondered that, gazing down the hill towards the city. It hadn't taken much convincing to get the remaining militiamen to establish a perimeter to keep out looters, and their torches and mage lights glowed in the still night air. His brother cocked an eyebrow at his silence. "I didn't think it'd be that hard a question."

"It's not. It's a lot of answers."

"I don't know about you, but I didn't have a lot of plans for the night."

"Waukeen's purse, when did you turn into a smartass?" Kelvim snorted amiably, and Kelsey said, "I know this is going to sound incredibly cliché, but...she's a hero. She helps others because I don't think she could live with herself if she didn't. She's brave, and driven, and she always follows her conscience. She doesn't do what she does because it's convenient, or because it's easy, or because someone told her to, it's just…what she does."

Kelvim nodded thoughtfully. "There are a lot of rumors going around. People saying that she killed Yaga-Shura single-handedly."

"She did, more or less. I think she felt like killing him herself was the only way she could make it right."

"Well, that doesn't make much sense." Kelvim's brow was creased in a mental accounting. "She didn't owe anybody anything."

"See, you or I might think that. And sometimes it drives me crazy - the way she takes things on herself that can't possibly be her responsibility. But-"

"That's what makes her a hero?" Kelvim, his expression shrewd, finished the thought.

"Yeah. The kind bards write songs about. Or at least they should."

She was asleep again, and Kelsey could only hope that Bhaal would not intrude on her dreams again. But even if he did, there was nothing he could do to break her. She was invincible. And Kelsey realized that being the one who got to hold her made him feel invincible too.

Now that Kelsey had rejoined them, it was time to move into action swiftly. Early the next morning, they gathered in the room Jaheira and Imoen shared for a conference.

"We have wasted too much time already, sister," Sarevok declared. "With Melissan's Bhaalspawn dead at Saradush, the Five will turn their attention to you. And they will bring their combined strength to bear against you."

"Good!" Maera shot back, never taking her eyes off the map Balthazar had given them. "At least when they're doing that, they're not slaughtering innocent people while they tear each other to shreds."

"Still ignoring the big picture," he groused. "Typical." She raised a warning eyebrow at him and he folded his arms. "There are still two of them we cannot account for. And how much faith do really want to place in Melissan's supposed intelligence?" He dismissed the map with a contemptuous wave.

Maera sighed. "Considering she apparently knows where they live but has never seen fit to ring the door bell, I know we can't really trust it."

"We cannot trust her," Jaheira pointed out, and Maera nodded with a roll of her eyes.

"But unfortunately, she's all we've got. Whatever her game is, all we can do is be ready for the rules to change when she decides she's done helping."

"That is a dangerous play, sister," Sarevok said softly. He didn't look angry anymore – worse, he looked earnest. She looked away uncomfortably.

"I am well aware of that. But they do exist, and we know they're Bhaalspawn. She's provided us with a direction. All we can do is cross bridges in the order we find them."

"I've asked around," Imoen said, "and none of our sellsword friends have heard anything about either of them hiring other mercs, but there are rumors about some of the orc clans in the mountains leaving their old ranges and consolidating."

"Around here?" Maera pointed to the marker that indicated Abazigal's stronghold, and Imoen nodded.

"It seems like every one of the Five has something different to bring to the table – that could be his schtick."

"Then maybe we should go calling and find out."

They set out from Amkethran in a wary mindset, east into the mountains, ready for anything, for they could be prepared for nothing. But the first day was uneventful. They followed narrow goat paths along the winding passes, and it was nearly sunset when they reached a decent camping spot for the night – a broad, mostly flat plateau with a screen of small scrub trees to cut the wind. Maera peered through the branches and breathed a sigh of wonder. "Oh wow."

Below them stretched the Calim Desert, a seemingly limitless expanse of sand, glittering like gold in the light of the setting sun. Kelsey looked around her and smiled gently. "Never seen anything like it, huh?" She shook her head, still drinking in the view. "It stretches all the way to the Shining Sea," he murmured, "to Calimport. You think Athkatla is big…it has nothing on Calimport, believe me." He gave her hand a squeeze. "We could go there someday. Get lost in the sabbans. Drink spiced tea and be very politely insulted for being northern barbarians."

"Well, now we have to." She smiled. "Good thing I've got a tour guide."

Jaheira made dinner that evening as usual, and Maera was assisting in a dogged attempt to reacclimate herself to the smell of cooking food. Imoen was under strict orders to stay out of the way, so she had dragooned Kelsey into amusing her while they waited. "Get any sleep last night?" she leered.

"Actually, yes," he retorted, not looking up from their dirt checkers board. He moved his piece and sighed, trying not to let his breath disturb the lines. "She had another dream, though."

Imoen pursed her lips. "They seem to be getting a lot more frequent. For both of us," she added, looking askance. She deflected his concern with a bright smile. "So why does she keep messing with her hand? She hasn't taken her gloves off all day. What'd you do, Red?"

He coughed; they weren't planning on keeping it a secret, but they also hadn't seen any reason to make a major announcement. He was working on his reply as her eyes widened in comprehension. "You gave her a ring. You big, sentimental goober, you asked her to marry you, didn't you?" He nodded sheepishly, and she threw herself across the board, destroying it in the process of tackling him. He fell back hard, the breath knocked from his lungs, and she crowed happily, "That's wonderful! I'm so happy for y-" She sat up suddenly. "Wait. She did say yes, right?"

"Nah, I'm just stringing him along until I get a better offer," Maera said. She stood over them with her arms crossed, gazing down at the tableau of ruined checkers and dusty loved ones, an eyebrow raised with near Jaheira-like precision. "Come on, you two. Dinner's ready."

She helped them up, and smiled as Kelsey wrapped his arms around her waist, slowing her progress back towards the fire and food. She was leagues away, in the warm cocoon of family, and did not notice Sarevok's narrowed eyes.

Kelsey had a mid watch that night, and he was gratefully looking forward to its end. Sleep tugged at him persistently, and he unsuccessfully fought a yawn. It was cut short, however, by the snapping of a twig just outside his range of vision. Flame waited in his fingertips, eager for any reason to burst into life when he heard a voice, low, rumbling, and unpleasantly familiar.

"Peace, sorcerer."

"Sarevok? What are you doing?"

"I wished to speak with you. Privately."

Kelsey crossed his arms, trying not to feel undersized as the big man emerged from the darkness, his eyes catching the moonlight like a cat's. "Well, you've got me." There was no immediate response, and he began to understand why Maera found talking to him so maddening.

Then, a question. "Do you really think you can claim her?"

He didn't have to ask who Sarevok was referring to. "Claim?" More silence. "She's not a horse or a dog, so I can't really 'claim' her."

"And yet you behave as though you have." It was Kelsey's turn for silence, waiting for elaboration. Irritation seeped into Sarevok's voice. "You touch her as if she were a common barmaid to be seduced. Who are you to take such liberty? Have you no respect for who and what she is?"

"I know exactly who she is. And if I'm really, really lucky, I'll get to spend the rest of my life getting to know her better." He glared up at Sarevok. "I don't fear her, or worship her. I just love her. You may not think I hold her in proper awe, but she doesn't seem to mind."

"You have no idea," Sarevok said softly, "what it is to be a Child of Bhaal. You cannot even conceive of it. If you think for even an instant that your magic gives you power equal to hers, banish that thought. You know you are not worthy of her."

"She thinks I am. That's what matters." Kelsey's jaw tightened. He should be waking Minsc and going to bed, not fielding Sarevok's interrogation. "What is this really about, Sarevok? I have my own suspicions about why it matters so much, but I'd like to hear it from you."

"I am her brother."

Kelsey snorted; exhaustion was making him honest. "Brothers don't look at sisters the way you look at her."

A muscle twitched in Sarevok's cheek. "Do not presume you understand what exists between two people whose lives have been tied to one another since before birth. She and I are a part of something greater than you can ever understand. You have not died by her hand; you have not known the touch of her soul restoring your life. You cannot even comprehend it."

His immediate retort – that he was pretty damn familiar with other things her hands could do – was almost out of the gate before he managed to restrain it. "You're right. I can't entirely understand what she's a part of. But you aren't a part of it either. Not anymore. You're just an ordinary mortal now, aren't you?" Sarevok looked away, eyes narrowed to angry slits, and Kelsey felt a tiny stirring of triumph that the shot had struck home. After another silent moment, Sarevok spoke again.

"Perhaps I am. And perhaps I simply seek to follow in her wake to the glory I failed to attain before." His voice dropped to a cold whisper. "Or perhaps I want what is best for her, and it sickens me to see her waste herself with one as limited as you."

Kelsey's hands shook, aching with unkindled fire. He clenched his fists and tried to force his voice to steadiness. "Did you ever think that maybe the Maera you're so obsessed with is the person you wish she was, and not the person she really is? You can talk about fate and connection and entwined lives all you want, but don't take it personally if you're the only one who's listening. She has the only opinion that matters. As long as she lets me be hers, I will, and no one else has any say in that. Now excuse me, I am going to bed." He turned, took a few steps towards the camp, then turned, too tired and fed up to resist taking a final shot. "And Sarevok? Stay away from my girl."

Minsc and Maera walked point the next morning as they continued through the mountains. Behind them, Jaheira rolled her eyes at the apparently gossipy conversation Imoen and Kelsey were having ("He did not!" had been exclaimed more than once), and Sarevok, as usual, brought up the rear, glowering with extra force. Maera paid it all only passing mind; Minsc was explaining the local flora to Boo, and it was refreshing to listen to him. There was no room in Minsc's mind for getting lost in implications or over-thinking probabilities. She had found herself so wrapped up in confusion lately it was comforting to spend time with someone whose mission statement had not, and would never, change: Hit evil until it stopped twitching.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a question. "Maera?" Misnc sounded strangely self-conscious. "We are not bothering you, are we?"

"Of course not, Minsc! I was enjoying the lecture. I had no idea you knew so much about desert plants."

"Well, we did cross the great Anauroch, you know – Dynaheir and I. But that was years ago. Even before Boo."

"The Sand Sea," Maera murmured. "Sometimes I'm reminded just how little of the world I've seen. Anyway, why would you think you're bothering me?"

Minsc's broad face flushed. "You have such important things to think about these days. Gods and planes and powers and things that make even Boo's head hurt! I did not want to cause you extra trouble."

"Oh, Minsc." She patted his plated forearm fondly. "Having you around keeps me honest." The phrase obviously confused him, and she smiled as she explained. "You see good and evil. You want to be good and beat up evil, and so do I. So you're my example."

The redness in his face bloomed into a genuine blush as he took in her words, and he watched his feet carefully as they walked. "People say I am crazy. Most of them are not comfortable with crazy. But you have never cared."

"Crazy, or just enthusiastic?" She smiled, and pointed at a spindly tree with long, needle-like leaves. "So what kind of tree is that one?"

By late afternoon, they had reached an open meadow, cupped within the higher elevations as if it were the palm of the mountains' hand. The sun-bleached grass rippled in the sun, fluttering against the base of a granite colonnade that abutted the northern escarpment of the valley. Broad, tumbled steps led up to its uneven floor, which was decorated with a faded mosaic. What remained of the tiles seemed to form some sort of serpentine shape, worked in blue glazes that had not well withstood their long exposure to the harsh sun.

As Maera pondered the art beneath her feet, there was a hollow rumble, the sound of a stone door on tracks. A section of the rock wall began to slide, and the party tensed, their weapons ready. It came to a stop, and framed against the darkness of a cave entrance stood a rank of orcs, who blinked in the daylight. Maera only had time to wonder at the dark blue surcotes they wore over their piecemeal armor before they had come to themselves enough to charge.

There were two dozen or so, as near as she could tell, and though none of them were terribly skilled, in their numbers and on the rough surface, they were not to be underestimated. She ducked under the swing of a heavy spiked club, trying not to be backed into Jaheira's way. Slicing upward, she dispatched her opponent, turning for the next. The orc grabbed at her with his free hand, and she narrowly missed the hold. Sliding behind him, she aimed a kick at the inadequately armored back of his knee. She whipped about to face the half-kneeling orc, raising Daystar to finish him when his eyes widened, shifting suddenly from a dull yellow-green to a vivid ice blue.

"You are Maera," the orc said. Though his voice was every bit as gravelly and deep as she would have expected, he spoke with an accent far more fluid and articulate than that of any orc she had ever met. At the sound of it, every one of his fellows still fighting dropped their weapons, raising their hands in surrender. The party stared at one another in confusion as the first orc continued to speak. "I knew that you would seek me out. I have seen it."

Maera slowly lowered her sword, never taking her eyes from the unnatural ones before her. "I take it I'm speaking to Abazigal?"

The orc dipped his head in a nod. "You are."

"Do you frequently play highwayman with your underlings' brains?"

"As I said, I knew you would come here, and when I realized my troops had engaged, I thought it best to see you for myself." Abazigal-in-the-orc subjected her to a penetrating stare. "So you're the one who killed Yaga-Shura. Interesting. At least he fulfilled his objective before he got what was coming to him."

"'What was coming to him'? I guess the Five's no best friends club? You don't send each other presents at Midwinter Fest?"

The orc waved a hand, a comical gesture from one who would not normally dismiss anything in such a way. "You know better than that. We may make a temporary alliance, but ultimately, we must destroy each other for our father's throne. It is the reason for our existence, and the reason you are here." A condescending smile twisted the orc's face. "But I will give you a chance to choose a quick, painless end, rather than the prolonged suffering of battle. After all, does it not seem right that Bhaal's firstborn should ascend, rather than the runt of the litter? You have waited barely more than a score of years for this time to come; I have seen it on the horizon for centuries. It was I our great father first brought into being so long before his own death; that I might be here, now. You are young. And as your life has passed swiftly, so may your death, if you have the sense to choose it."

The pure, undiluted arrogance in the other Bhaalspawn's tone made her skin crawl, and Maera's first instinct was to spit in his face. But that would unfair to the poor orc. She forced calm into her voice. "Let me see if I'm with you here. You've come here to offer me the opportunity to die quickly by your hand instead of fighting you, because the former is apparently much preferable to the latter." He nodded. "Here's the thing, Abazigal: you say I'm here to destroy you for 'our father's throne'. You've just proved that you don't know anything about me. You think I care about a throne? Knowing Bhaal, it's probably covered in spikes, and that doesn't sound very comfortable."

"Foolish, flippant child," Abazigal sneered. "How have you managed to stay alive so long with so little understanding of what is at stake?"

"What is at stake is this whole world," Maera replied, dark eyes boring into the blue before her. "And if I don't stop you here, you'll burn it all, because somehow you've gotten it into your head that that's what it deserves. So I reject your offer, because I will not commit suicide to spare myself. If I'm going to die, I'm going to make you bleed first."

Abazigal-in-the-orc stared back at her. "Very well. Bring them to me," he said, addressing the others. "It would appear the upstart must learn her place." The orc blinked hard, and in the instant before his eyes rolled back in his head, Maera could see they had returned to normal.

The rest of the surviving orcs paid no attention to the unconscious ex-oracle as they formed up around Maera and her companions. They left him slumped the ground, urging the adventurers into the caves. One, whose bone headdress marked him as a shaman, summoned a light for them.

"So..." Maera glanced at the orc nearest her, adopting a brightly casual tone. "Like working for Abazigal?"

"Can't talk to you," the orc muttered, staring straight ahead.

"Why not? Afraid he'll hijack your head next?" The orc didn't reply, but she could see the nerve she'd struck. "Is he some kind of wizard?"

"Bad news."

She raised an eyebrow. Orcs rarely had opinions about their employers if there was loot and a good time to be had. She lowered her voice. "Bad how?"

"BIG bad."

Maera shot the orc a calculating glance. "Look, I'm only here for him. He's the one my quarrel is with. So maybe, once I've got his full attention, you and your fellows make a break for it. Find yourself some more profitable pastures."

That suggestion prompted a shake of the head. "Come after us."

"Not if I kill him." The orc snorted, then quickly covered it with a cough. "What, don't think I can?"

He shrugged. "Think you don't know what you into. But…" He glanced around nervously. "We not get in the way, okay?"

"Good enough."

Their descent took them deep into the mountain, through a narrow, twisted passage. The orcs were subdued and edgy, and had nothing to say to each other or anyone else. Whoever Abazigal was, he had them terrified.

The passage terminated in an open cavern, its dark stone walls studded with large quartz formations that had been enchanted to provide light. A lone figure stood in the center of the flat space, waiting. As they approached, they saw that it was a man with heavy features that looked more like a wood carving of a face than one in actuality, and an oddly bluish cast to his skin. The orcs nervously shoved the adventurers towards him, and he turned his blue eyes towards them, subjecting each of them to a long, assessing gaze. After a tense, frigid silence, he said to his minions, "You may go. I don't believe I will require you for this." The orcs beat a quick retreat, and Maera had a feeling they would not be back.

Abazigal looked at Maera. "Such stories I've heard of you, little sister. The rebel. The prodigal. What makes you so very different?"

Maera shrugged. There was something deeply unsettling about his craggy features and strange voice, but she wouldn't let him see her sweat. "Guess I like to do my own thinking instead of letting Bhaal do it for me."

"Then that fuels your contempt. You think the rest of us fools."

"Shouldn't I?"

He spread his hands. He had very long, pointed fingernails. "What is the greater foolishness? To fight one's own nature, or heed the stirrings of one's very soul?"

She couldn't help it; she sighed. "And now you're just another big talker who thinks they know me better than I do. When you've got an original line, come find me then."

Abazigal lifted his heavy eyebrows. "There is a special sort of arrogance in adolescents. When children think they have seen the world and understand how it works. You are far too young to dismiss me so casually. If you knew the truth, you would not be so glib."

"You think? Try me."

"Very well."

And then he changed.

Blue scales gleamed in the mage lights, dappled from midnight to cobalt, from the tiny flecks no larger than a fingernail covering his triangular head to the ones the size of dinner plates armoring his sides and flanks. He narrowed his massive eyes, and puffed out a breath between his dagger-like fangs, wings spread. "Now do you understand?"

Of course. The voice of logic in her mind, the one that sounded like Gorion, realized that it made perfect sense. Dragons were so long-lived, and wouldn't the Lord of Murder want a dragon among his offspring? Even as the hindbrain animal instinct gibbered in terror, logic thought, But since he bothered with more beyond the first, the first can't be unbeatable. Dragons can die, just like anything else. There was no time for strategy or elaborate plans, and she smiled thinly as she unsheathed Daystar. She did her best work on the fly, anyway.

The air contracted and popped as Imoen's shield magic sprang to life around her, and just in time, for Abazigal widened his mouth and with a strange cry, coughed forth a bolt of lightning that shattered itself on the shield. Minsc and Sarevok harried his hindquarters as she went straight for the chest; Abzaigal whipped his long tail about, catching Sarevok just below the knee with a crack. Maera hoped it was not bone she heard. It only seemed to make him angry, but for Sarevok, that didn't serve as a very good indicator of injury.

A rear claw lashed out, but Minsc danced out of its way, taking off two of the talons as it went by. A tangled nest of vines burst from the ground, holding the foot in place as the ranger regained his stance – Jahiera's work. Maera had to duck and roll out of the path of the dragon's right forefoot, and it was testing her temper; Abazigal was keeping her moving too much, and she had barely been able to land a blow. His scales shimmered suddenly, rippling peculiarly, and Maera realized Imoen was wearing down the natural magic in his hide to give Kelsey the chance to get in a shot. Abazigal's reaction to the wardbreakers was like that of a horse to a swarm of flies – he twisted his head about almost involuntary, and Maera saw her opening in the tender webbing of skin near the crook of foreleg and body. The scales there were so fine they almost could not be seen as individuals, and she slashed hard and deep. Hot blood splashed down on her as she struck, and the dragon roared.

"No respect for your elders, I see," he growled.

Maera dodged another swipe of his claws. "I don't think Bhaal had much of a succession plan in mind," she panted. "You may have been the first, but to him, you were just one of many."

Abazigal breathed an enraged streak of lightening at her once more, and this time, it was more than Imoen's shield could bear. The magic broke, and Abazigal's long mouth curved in a reptilian smile as he inhaled to breathe again. A sphere of white-hot flame exploded across his face as he did, curling the edges of his scales and eliciting a scream of pain. Kelsey had chosen his moment well.

He tossed another fireball, aiming for Abazigal's throat, trying to buy Imoen time to recast the shields on those in the melee. The sky blue scales at the juncture of head and neck charred, and the dragon's fury was both gratifying and frightening. His tail sliced through the air once more, and this time, it couldn't be avoided. Minsc hit the ground hard, a long dent stretching the width of his breastplate, and Kelsey could only console himself that it must have hurt Abazigal just as much. Jaheira aimed her attention at the wound Maera had opened in his foreleg, striking at the weakened limb to throw the dragon off balance, and he raised the other to slash her out of the way. Maera turned and saw the claws descending. She grabbed the druid's shoulders and hurled her out of the way, just before the outer talon caught her at the right shoulder, cutting through her armor like tissue, shattering bone and ripping flesh. The blow drove her to her knees, eyes wide and staring with shock, but for an instant it seemed to Kelsey that she looked at him. Then they rolled back in her head, and she dropped face first to the ground, her blood pooling on the stone floor.

"One of many, indeed," Abazigal rasped.

Kelsey heard the rest of the group shout their anger, their fear, their defiance, but all he could see was her blood, and all he could think was No.

Not like this. She couldn't die like this. Not now. No. No. Nononononono…

"NO!" His hands rose with his voice.

The magic that lived within him was energy. Somewhere in his mind, or his soul, or somewhere else, deep within, it had a sort of reservoir, where it remained until conscious thought gave it shape, turning it into fire, ice, acid, or whatever form he needed it to take. But there was no conscious thought now, only rage and denial. The power that left his hands was raw, unfiltered, unfettered magic, the pure energy of the Weave itself, and it struck Abazigal like a titan's fist, the air around the dragon shimmering like a heat mirage. It seemed to have no end, pouring through him not to burn or freeze but simply eradicate. Scales peeled from skin, which melted from muscle, which evaporated from bone, and all the while Abazigal screamed in agony.

Then there was silence. Kelsey barely felt the ground shudder as the dragon toppled in a heap, barely registered the stares of the others. His head was so light it seemed it might just float away like a bit of cloud, but his legs felt as if they were made of lead. Jaheira crouched over Maera, and Imoen reached to help her, but stopped halfway, still gaping at Kelsey. "Holy hells, Red," she managed finally, "what was that?"

He had to concentrate very hard to get the muscles in his jaw moving again, and convince his tongue not to loll uselessly in his mouth. He swallowed. "Everything," he said, and wondered why the ground was moving towards him.

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