Maera was not fully conscious when she pulled them back into the pocket plane. It was, Jaheira thought, more like the reaction of a wounded animal, an instinct for flight she was not in full control of. Which was why it was a very rough passage indeed, materializing them all nearly a foot off the ground. Jaheira had to scramble to keep Maera's head from striking the hard marble floor, and behind her, she could hear Minsc doing the same with Kelsey.

"Fool girl," Jaheira muttered when she had regained her equilibrium. She put her hands on either side of the wounded shoulder, and closed her eyes as the energy flowed through her – water from the root to the leaf, sunlight from the leaf to the root. First, the worst of the damage: the severed blood vessels and nerves, then the muscle and tendons, then bone and skin. It would not be a quick process, and she set her jaw, praying for the patience to pace herself.

"Imoen," she said, eyes still closed, "how is Kelsey?"

"Um…he's breathing. His heartbeat's strong. I guess he just passed out. Too much magic at once?"

"Perhaps." And he was a fool too. They were well-suited, really; both so bright and thoughtless, putting themselves in harm's way so carelessly. Idiot children, half dead in the defense of someone else. She tried to ignore the moisture gathering behind her closed eyelids.

"Have Minsc put him to bed. He should rest, and I'm not sure there is anything I can do for him anyway." She heard Imoen's voice, and Minsc's, then movement, and threw herself wholly into the mending of the battered girl under her hands.

It had been some time since she had had to work such prolonged and complex healing, but arduous as it was, it felt good. There was a primal satisfaction in returning a body to its proper working state. And she had certainly done that often enough for Maera. How many times had she wrenched this overzealous young madwoman back from the edge of death? More than Gorion would ever have been comfortable with, certainly. And in those times, Jaheira had come to know the workings of Maera's body almost as well as she did her own. It was impossible not to; healing meant sliding into another's skin and encouraging it to do what it would do naturally. Every person had their own unique pattern of energy, their own particular body chemistry, and Maera's was as familiar as her own heartbeat.


She opened her eyes, brow furrowed. Something was different this time. That was odd. She couldn't possible be-

Maera stirred, eyes opening, slow and unfocused. "Do not move," Jaheira cautioned. "I am not finished." The younger woman nodded, and winced.

"What happened? Everybody alright?"

"Abazigal is dead. By Kelsey's hand, no less."

Maera smiled woozily. "No kidding."

"It was…rather spectacular. He is resting now. Apparently he overtaxed himself."

"That's my job." Maera attempted to roll her eyes and Jaheira resisted the urge to cuff her.

"You were the most seriously injured, though I must see about Sarevok's leg shortly." Her mouth twisted in distaste, and Maera smiled again.

"More than he deserves." Jaheira slid an arm behind her back, helping her sit up, and she hissed softly as the muscles protested. She sat obediently still as the druid began to wind a long bandage around her torso, binding her right arm against her side to keep her shoulder immobile.

"It will be several hours before the bones knit. Rest until then." Maera nodded, then peered at her, head beginning to clear.

"Is something wrong, Jaheira?"

Jaheira pursed her lips, debating internally. While she weighed the pros and cons, she stood and poured water into a basin, gathering a cloth to wash the remaining dried blood from Maera's face and hair. Finally, her decision made, she firmly shut the door. "Maera…we should talk."

Everyone else was asleep now, but Maera couldn't have slept if she'd wanted to. She wandered the main chamber, the marble floor cool on her bare feet. She sank into the cushions of the deep black sofa with a sigh and carefully drew her knees up to her chest. How much longer would she be able to do that? Her shoulder ached dully, but she was grateful for it. The pain kept her mind from drifting too far.

A soft humming startled her, until she realized it was Cespenar, busily patching her armor with a long hooked needle, using stitches so fine she could barely see them. The imp looked up, and said sheepishly, "Cespenar hopes the great one does not mind." She looked past him to the armor racks against the far wall. Already Minsc and Sarevok's plate was dent-free and polished to a fare-thee-well. "You sure is seeing a lot of work! Mighty busted up!"

"I don't mind at all, Cespenar," she said quietly. "It looks like you're doing a good job."

He blushed emerald green, then asked hesitantly, "You is thinkin' lots?"

"Yeah. I've got a lot of my mind at the moment."

"Is…anything you needs help with?"

She cocked her head. "Why would you want to help me?"

"You is the Great One! You mades this place!" He lowered his voice confidentially. "You is the reason I haves a job again."

To her surprise, she chuckled at that. "Well…you're welcome, I guess." She sighed again. "Don't worry about it, Cespenar. Just keep doing what you're doing. That's all any of us can do, really."

"But there is no reason to do so with a heavy heart," the solar said, appearing on the opposite sofa as if she had been there the entire time. She somehow managed to still look dignified, even though the seat was like child's furniture to her. Cespenar did not even flinch; Maera wondered if he could see her at all. "What troubles you, godchild?"

"Why ask? You probably already know."

The solar smiled serenely, untouched by her waspish tone. "I know many things, yes. But we all gain insight in the articulation of our thoughts. Such is the power of language."

Maera rested her chin on her knees, trying to bring some order to the tumult in her head. "I grew up listening to the Chanters. To Alaundo's prophecies being recited every day. And I always believed that everything happens when and where it does for a reason, because everything flows together. Nothing happens in isolation. There are no accidents." She puffed out a long, slow breath. "It's easier to handle as a purely philosophical concept sometimes." She looked up at the solar, who regarded her with calm, crystalline eyes. "I thought that not doing what Bhaal expected of his children was my purpose, that being contrary was enough. Now it doesn't feel like it."

"Then would it give you comfort to know you are correct in that supposition, godchild? The proper working of all the multiverse requires opposition. And just as virtue is predicated upon the existence of vice, so too must there be a stone to break the path of the river of blood. Your 'being contrary', as you put it, is a necessity. It is the role into which you have been cast." She smiled again. "How you choose to act it is, of course, entirely up to you."

Maera stared at her feet. "Why me?" she asked softly. "Who decided I was the right person?"

"It is not your qualities that brought you to this part. You must turn your perspective, godchild." With that, the solar was gone again, and Maera rubbed her arms in nervous contemplation.

Cespenar held up her finished jerkin with a flourish. "Ta-da!"

Kelsey drifted back towards consciousness like a bit of wood slowly bobbing up to the surface of a pond. The only thing he could be reliably certain of was that he felt like hell. He groaned as he lifted his head, and the fair-haired figure seated on the edge of the bed looked at him. Reality flooded back, and he tried to sit up, but she was already there, leaning over him with an arm tucked under his shoulders. He wrapped his arms around her with a sigh of relief. Everything was all right now.

"You're alive," he whispered as she pulled back from the embrace.

"So are you," Maera replied. "How do you feel?"

"Not so great. I don't think I should do that again."

"What did you do, anyway? I think the word Jaheira used was 'spectacular', and coming from her, that's quite a statement."

He looked up at her, pale but smiling, and remembered her on the floor of Abazigal's cavern, covered in her own blood. He remembered the clutching hand of horror in his chest at the sight, and the magic pouring out of him, as if he were bleeding too. "I hit him with everything I had. All at once." With her help, he sat up, now able to get a better look at her. She looked drawn, and oddly vulnerable, her right arm bound against her side, the bulky bandages clearly outlined under her oversized shirt. "Are you okay, Maera?"

"Tired," she said. "My shoulder still hurts, but it's getting better."

He took her hand, rolling her ring between thumb and forefinger. "Something's bothering you."

She shrugged, one shouldered. "I had another talk with the solar. Not very long, but it gave me some things to think about." He nodded, but she did not seem inclined to elaborate. The silence stretched, and finally she continued, "And Jaheira told me something…surprising. When I woke up. I've been chewing on it for a while now." He nodded again, encouragingly, and she muttered, "It's a good thing you're already sitting down." She inhaled deeply, and then said, "I'm pregnant."

"Oh." That seemed to sum it up fairly well. "Um…okay." He tried to fit this knowledge into his current view of the universe. It didn't work. "Okay, what?"

Maera stared down at her unbandaged hand. "If it's any consolation, I had no idea either. I mean, my cycle's never been terribly reliable, and I've been tired lately, but other than that…"

"You've been a little emotional," he offered carefully. For an instant, he was afraid she would take offense, but she simply chuckled in tired agreement. He went back to looking for the bottom that had fallen out of his stomach. "I thought…I thought we were taking precautions."

"We were. Militantly." She heaved another sigh. "It would seem there was a sneak attack." She covered her mouth. "Oh gods, that was an awful pun. I'm so sorry." He chuckled in spite of his shock, and she shot him a hesitant smile, then touched his hand cautiously, as if afraid he would withdraw it. "I'm sorry to drop this on you now…I probably shouldn't have. I probably should have waited, but I…just couldn't. I needed to talk about it."

Her eyes dropped again, and he reached for her, pulling her across his legs, onto his lap to look her full in the face. She situated her legs on either side of his, straddling him, and for a moment, his mind indulged in thoughts his body was not yet prepared to follow through on. "Maera, no. It's okay. Thank you for telling me. It's…a shock, but what matters is that you're okay. I mean, you were really badly hurt, and…" He let the rest of the thought dangle in the air.

Maera nodded. "Yeah, Jaheira said she was surprised I didn't miscarry." She stared down, fingers picking restlessly at the front of his shirt. "It would have been over before I even knew about it. I wouldn't have even had a chance to miss it."

He watched her downcast features, apprehensive, and not completely sure why. "Are you alright with this?" he asked.

"I'm not sure. I'm really not. Maybe?" She looked up, her eyes just as anxious as his. "Are you?"

"Well… I had thought it might be nice to start a family with you someday. I just wasn't expecting us to start so soon." She half-smiled at that, and looked away again; he took her face between his hands, and added firmly, "But ultimately, it's whatever you want, Maera. Okay?" She nodded, and he kissed her forehead, wrapping his arms around her again. "But between you and me…I think you can do anything."

She laughed weakly. "Well, I'm still terrified, but thanks for the vote of confidence." She buried her face against his neck, worming as deep into his arms as she could manage. "But for now, less talking and more hugging, please."

Kelsey closed his eyes. "You got it, boss."

They gathered in the central room again to discuss strategy, and sat arrayed on the black sofas; all but Sarevok, of course, who paced about the periphery.

"I do not wish to cast gloom on our success, but we were very fortunate Abazigal chose to face us alone," Jaheira said. "We cannot assume we shall be similarly lucky with Sendai."

"So any guesses on what Sendai is?" Maera asked. "Gorgon? Basilisk?"

"Two-headed troll?" Imoen offered.

"Giant horned weasel bat?" Minsc's eyes were wide; he was clearly naming the thing that horrified him most.

"Kappa?" Kelsey suggested. Everyone looked at him. "They're water demons from Kara-tur."

"Oh," the others replied in unison.

Jaheira sighed, mildly martyred. The conversation was already far too silly for her liking. "Sendai is a female name. Of elvish origin. Does that help?"

Maera cleared her throat, looking askance. "It does, actually. Thank you, Jaheira."

"So where does this leave us?" Kelsey asked. He sat very close to Maera, even closer than usual, and Imoen noticed that the air grew a little chillier every time he and Sarevok looked at each other. "If we're going by Melissan's accounting, there still leaves two we know nothing about."

Maera glanced at Sarevok. "You're the one who did all the Bhaalspawn research. Any ideas?" She was sure it was her imagination that he looked slightly smug.

"The main focus of my research was not to uncover identities, but to learn the plan our father had for us. However, the actions of our siblings lead me to believe there was similar study on their part. Bhaal spread his essence widely among his Children so that there would be no one moral vessel for that power until the time was right. We are in that time now, but as you well know, many of our fellows died in childhood because anxious Bhaalites chose to misunderstand his words and could not wait."

"But that's what this all comes down to? Killing each other off to thin the numbers? To create a mortal vessel?" Sarevok nodded, and Maera gave a snort. "Well, that's bullshit. Because if that means Im and I are supposed to have some sort of cosmic battle to the death, I think Bhaal knows where he can shove it."

Sarevok's shrug was a minimalist affair. "That is not germane to our current discussion, sister. What matters is that Sendai, and the two unknowns, are no doubt also aware of this. Time is fleeting."

"Isn't it though." Maera rubbed her forehead. "Looking at the map, it seems like Sendai's…enclave…lair…fortress…whatever is the base of a valley, quite a ways off any of the roads. The main question is, do we go back to Amkethran, or trust the pocket plane?"

"It will always take you where you need to be," Sarevok reminded her.

"When it listens to me."

"We may be expected on the Amkethran route," Jaheira said. "Wherever we find ourselves upon exit from this plane, I doubt it will be an obvious location. That will give us an advantage, and the chance to reconnoiter. We will need all the intelligence we can gather."

Maera nodded. "Yes, we will. All right, everyone collect your gear. We can leave as soon as everyone's ready."

The world resolved about them, and they took a moment to take in their surroundings. They were in the midst of a pine thicket, the needles waving at being displaced by their sudden appearance. The trees trailed down a rocky slope, and further investigation proved they were on a ledge above a narrow gorge that terminated in high limestone cliffs. A small, tumbledown cottage stood at the base of the cliffs, an empty cart just outside the door, but there was no sign of habitation – no well or privy, no scattered tools or laundry left to dry in the late afternoon sun.

"This is where we need to be?" Imoen shot a skeptical look at Sarevok, who, unsurprising, did not deign to respond.

"Well, we can't really do any serious investigating by daylight anyway," Maera said, wondering the same thing, "So we'll just have to wait until nightfall to poke around and see what we can learn. Hopefully, current appearances not withstanding, we're in the right place."

She drifted towards the tree line, staring down towards the strange little cabin. "I hope Tall, Dark, and Gravelly is right about this," Imoen said from behind her.

"Me too. Though if that's her base, it's a pretty impressive cover."

"I'm sure there are caves involved," her sister replied. "I mean, I don't have any proof to back that up, but let's face it, caves are the go-to locale for evil lairs. And you're right, that little house would be a perfect cover." They stood in silence for a while longer as the sun sank ever lower behind the mountain crags, and then Imoen spoke again. "So Red knocked you up, huh?"

Flustered, Maera fumbled for a reply, but she realized she should have known better than be surprised. "Did Jaheira tell you, or did you eavesdrop?" she sighed.

"Little of both."

"Uh huh. Alright, yes, but we are not telling Minsc. Not if I don't want to get carried everywhere."

"And Sarevok?"

"I would think that goes without saying."

Imoen stifled a laugh. "I figured." She slipped an arm around Maera's waist, her face grown serious. "Mae, knowing this is going to make it a lot harder to watch you throw yourself around in a fight."

"How do you think I feel about having to do it? But I can't stop now, Im. I'd love to, but I can't. This whole thing is coming to a head very, very soon. I don't know how or where exactly, but I can feel it. And I know you can too." Imoen nodded. "So all I can do is hope that this is happening now, under these circumstances, for a reason, even if I don't know what it is."

"You sound like you really want it."

Maera was silent for a moment. "I think I do," she said softly. "I never really thought about kids, you know? I never thought my life would be normal enough for children to even be a consideration. And hell…it's not!" She laughed suddenly, then sobered and ducked her head. "Wanna hear something weird?"

"Always," Imoen said immediately.

"It's his. Ours. Mine and Kelsey's. I don't know why that matters, but…it does."

Imoen hugged her a little harder, and rested her head against her sister's shoulder. "It could be fun to be an aunt. And you know Kelsey'd be a great dad."

Maera smiled faintly. "Yeah, he would. He will. Good thing too, because I don't know the first thing about being a mother." She sighed heavily. "That's what I keep coming back to. My first instinct is fear, yeah, but…it's an excited fear. The kind of fear that says 'Okay, you've never done this before, but it could be fun if you give it a chance.' But then my brain kicks in, and that's when it turns into panic. I mean, who would ever look at me and say that I'm good parenting material?"

They were quiet again, watching the deep shadows fall across the valley, the sky fading from indigo to brilliant orange. And then Imoen asked, "Do you remember when we were kids, and we would sit on the battlements and talk about what we imagined our mothers were like?"

Maera nodded, a fleeting bit of sorrow ghosting across her face. "Yeah. Too bad mine turned out to be pretty much the opposite of maternal."

"Mae, the woman who happened to give birth to you is not the issue here. What I'm getting at is that the mother you always wished you had…you can be that woman yourself, for your own child."

Maera regarded her for a long moment. "Im, do you remember when I was the mature, level-headed one?"

"No, not really."

The stars began to appear when Maera sent Imoen and Jaheira down into the valley to take a look around. An hour or so passed before they emerged from the trees, and they were not alone. "We brought you a present!" Imoen said brightly, shoving a bound and gagged drow male to the ground at Maera's feet.

"What do we want that for?" Sarevok asked.

"If he knows what's good for him," Jaheira said in cool, precise Elvish, "he will tell us everything we need to know." She switched back to Common as she addressed Maera. "You and Imoen were correct about the cabin. It's concealing the entrance to a cave. Probably more of a cave network, actually."

"And our friend here," Imoen continued in Elvish; no doubt for the prisoner's benefit, "had the bad luck to wander out right as we were about to leave." She patted his head, eyes huge with sympathy. "Does Sendai not have a latrine down there for you guys?"

Maera pulled the drow into a sitting position and squatted in front of him. "I'm going remove the gag," she told him. "Behave yourself and we'll get along just fine." He glared at her, but when she loosened the cloth in his mouth, he made no sound. "Now, tell me about Sendai."

The drow's face was tight. "Torture me if you wish, surfacer. You'll get nothing from me."

"Torture?" She chuckled. "Oh, torture's a terrible way to get information. No, I have a much better idea. I think I'll just have my large associates here take you up to the top of the mountain and leave you there for a few hours. I imagine the view is pretty spectacular. Not a thing between you and the stars…nothing but air." The prisoner gulped visibly. "Think about it…all that sky above you, miles and miles of it. We surfacers really take it for granted, but I bet you have a special appreciation for just how amazing it is."

He swallowed. "There's not much I can say," he muttered, glancing about sourly. "I am not her confidante."

"Anything is better than nothing. She's a drow too, I take it?"

"Of course! What drow would willingly serve any other?"

"It happens." Maera shrugged. "So now that we're such good friends...let's chat."

The drow looked almost peaceful, curled up on his side against a tree trunk, snoring softly every other breath. When Maera felt she had reached the end of his information, Jaheira had force fed him a dose of her strongest sleeping potion and dumped him off to the side while they planned.

"We're going to have to draw her out," Maera said tiredly, leaning against Kelsey's side. "Even if he was exaggerating her numbers, and I'm sure he was at least a little, I don't like the idea of a blind fight on someone else's turf."

"How do you propose we do that?" Jaheira asked.

"She's expecting us, so if there's suddenly a lot of noise and bother at the top of the valley, she'll investigate. But she's a drow, and they never play a short game, so she'll be cautious. She won't stir outside the safety of her walls, but she'll have no compunctions about sending off some of her force if she thinks she can deal with me without dirtying her hands."

"Again, what do you propose?"

"You and Kelsey, Minsc and Sarevok, go to the top of the gorge, and be as obvious as you can. Try to pull whatever force she sends as far off as you can. Imoen and I will infiltrate her enclave and deal with her personally."

"You're not serious!" Kelsey exclaimed. "Why just the two of you?"

Maera gave him a firm stare. "Firstly, this is my Boss Face. Second – we can move faster and quieter, and we'll have surprise on our side. And you have to admit there's a certain symmetry to it."

"Indeed," Sarevok murmured.

"Jaheira, you're in charge. I trust you to do what you have to to make this work."

"As you should."

"Then you four should get moving."

Kelsey helped her stand and pulled her close as she regained her feet. "Please be careful," he whispered. "Not just for my sake, but..."

"I can handle this, Kelsey. I have to," she replied. She forestalled further argument by angling his head down a few degrees to kiss his forehead. "You be careful, too."

"Always. I've got you to come back to."

An hour or so before daybreak, Imoen spotted a troop of drow moving up the valley. Leaving their prisoner still sleeping under the tree, the sisters picked their way carefully through the rough pines down to the cottage. It was empty, and the lone guard still stationed on the other side of the back door that led down into the caves did not have time to shout before Maera clubbed him with her sword hilt.

The natural cave system had been carved out and shaped to widen hallways and form rooms; it was not luxurious, but it was certainly functional. "Do you think she's got the support of a House?" Maera asked as they peered around a corner. "Or has she struck out on her own here?"

"Haven't seen any House insignias," Imoen said, her eyes glazed and distant. Maera realized she was in the midst of a farseeing spell. "But then, I'm not exactly up on my drow heraldry."

"It's a big deal to do this kind of thing on your own for a drow; I almost respect that."

"Yeah, except for the whole evil thing."

"Should we really be assuming that she's evil? Isn't that like what Jamis Tombelthen did with us? I mean, look at Solaufein."

"Who doesn't have his own personal army or super secret mountain cave lair, last time I checked." Imoen screwed her eyes shut, and when she opened them, they were normal again. "But if it really bothers you, we can ask her about it when we find her. And speaking of, there's a mages' lab up ahead on the left. A wizard and his quasit are running an experiment. Across the hall, there are four men-at-arms in their barracks."

"You take the mage. I'll handle the others."

At the first volley of magic between Imoen and the startled wizard, the barracks door opened and a head popped out. Maera grabbed the fighter by the scruff of the neck and smashed him into the opposite wall face first. The next grabbed the nearest weapon, but she grabbed his wrist as the sword descended, kneed him hard in the groin and shoved him back into the way of his oncoming comrades. Drow armorers really needed to improve their codpiece design. She dropped the third with a well-placed slash across the midsection, and the fourth fell as an arrow of pure fire zipped past her to lodge in his chest. "We're clear through the next tunnel junction," Imoen reported. "Let's go."

They were spotted a short distance past the junction by a guard with two oversized spiders at his heel, which he set on them with a barked command. As she stabbed at the mandibles of the first, Maera said, "I just keep thinking about that conversation with the solar. About opposition. Just because the default moral position for Bhaalspawn seems to be pretty thoroughly rotten, I feel like you and I can't be the only ones on the other side of the fence." The spider handler rushed her; she parried him easily and ducked beneath his next swing. "But maybe I'm just the optimist who wishes she wasn't the minority. It's disheartening, you know?"

Imoen finished her incantation, spreading her hands and letting her lightening arc through the surviving spider and wounded handler. "Well, Bhaal was the Lord of Murder, after all. The voices, the visions…he's not exactly subtle. But the way I see it, you're too stubborn to be evil, and if I was, we couldn't be friends anymore."

They rounded a corner, stealing up the sides of a wide corridor when they heard an angry female voice in the distance. "I don't care!" the speaker snarled. "You know they're here; why aren't they dead yet?!" Maera and Imoen crept closer as a male voice stuttered apologies. "Don't you see we were gulled?" the woman cut him off imperiously. "There's only one way to set this right. Find them, kill them, and bring me their heads!" The door ahead of them opened and a harried looking male drow in ornate armor exited. His eyes widened as his sensitive vision spotted them in the shadows; Imoen chanted a hasty spell, striking him with a blast of cold. Maera took advantage of his disorientation and her height advantage to step behind him, wrapping an arm around his neck and pressing down on his windpipe. His struggles grew weaker until he sagged in unconsciousness, and she lay him down in the floor, nodding towards the door. They had found who they were looking for.

Sendai did not immediately turn when they opened the door. "I already told you, I – " She looked over her shoulder and raised a snowy eyebrow. "Well. Egeissag was even more useless than I thought. I should have sent him out to chase your diversion instead of Diaytha. Males really are only good for one thing." The drow faced them, her dark face expressionless. She was scarcely taller than Imoen, and her chainmail was intricately made, with blackened rings forming a pattern against the silvery steel. She folded her hands. "I admit, I was hoping you would deal with the others before we came to this. Save me for last. The daughters of Bhaal, at war for their birthright – it would be very poetic. And let us be honest, the sons have been every bit as pathetic as one would expect." She pursed her mouth ruefully. "Though Illasera didn't fare all that well either…"

Maera cocked her head. "Illasera? She was one of the Five?"

"You didn't know?" If Sendai's surprise was not genuine, she was a very good actress.

"Then there's only one left," Imoen murmured.

Cunning lit Sendai's red eyes. "And you don't know who it is, do you?"

"Is it Melissan?" It couldn't hurt to try, Maera thought. Even a shot in the dark struck occasionally.

Sendai laughed, a disarmingly rich and lovely sound. "She wishes she were. She thinks she's quite the puppetmaster, but she's far too obvious at pulling the strings. The true master of the art is never seen but always felt." She drew her sword. "But in all honesty, you do puzzle me. The motives of the others are so transparent, but you…you're different. Almost as if by design."

Maera wrapped both hands around Daystar's hilt and dropped the blade into a low guard with a shrug. Behind her, Imoen murmured her shielding spell. "You're closer than you think." Imoen's shield popped up around them, and Maera raised her sword suddenly to attack high, but Sendai was not fooled and blocked easily. She struggled not to grin as their blades met again. This was what she lived for – not the easy kill, but a real test of ability against a skilled opponent. She almost wanted to call Imoen off, but logic told her that would be foolish. As it was, Sendai seemed to have little enough trouble handling the two of them; her armor (and likely other, less visible trinkets) soaked up an impressive amount of Imoen's magic, and she was light on her feet, appearing to almost flow out of the path of arrows, but she was always there to meet Maera's sword. She smiled over their crossed blades, and Maera felt a twinge that sharply resembled remorse. They could never be friends, but maybe, in some other life, there could have been something noble in their opposition. But here they were just players, acting out parts.

How you choose to act it is, of course, entirely up to you.

A small motion of her off hand, twisting a ring on the other, and suddenly, Sendai was behind Imoen, who bounded to the side, regaining her feet with catlike ease. Maera let herself grin at that as she rushed the drow. "Dirty trick, Sendai," she chided.

"And two on one is fair?" Sendai laughed again, with an overhead feint. "I shouldn't have to tell you that combat," she twisted the ring again, "is all about advantage."

Imoen saw her first, and this time, her arrow struck; it wedged at an odd angle in the seam between chest and sleeve. Sendai yanked it away with a growl. The tip of the arrowhead was bloody. "Life is about advantage, Sendai," Maera replied, stretching to block the drow's slash at Imoen. "How we use those advantages makes us who we are."

This brought a thin smile to Sendai's lips. "I'd heard you fancy yourself intellectual." A shower of ice, fine and sharp as needles, slammed into her back, worming through the links of her armor, and she hissed with pain.

"I fancy myself tired of listening to you yap," Imoen declared.

"I'll deal with you shortly, little flunky," Sendai snapped, the façade of good humor gone. She pressed her attack on Maera, and they circled one another, swords ringing. The dance grew closer, tighter, and angrier. Imoen, eyes narrowed, saw her chance, and clamped a hand to the back of the drow's neck in the space between her armor and hairline, atoning a single phrase. Sendai jerked and convulsed as the electricity sparked before crumpling to the floor in a heap.

Maera reached over her prone form to grab her sister into a hug. "I don't tell you often enough how lucky I am to have you," she said gruffly.

Imoen beamed, then gave her a critical once over. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. I think she and I would have worn ourselves out long before either of us managed to land a blow. She was good. Really good. It's a shame that-" She patted Imoen's shoulder. "Well, we should get out while the getting is good."

There was a whispering sound at their feet, and they stared as Sendai slowly rolled herself onto her back, her lips moving. Maera dropped to one knee beside her, and caught a fragment of a word. "…thasar…"

Maera's mind whirred, and she felt the distinctive click that always accompanied understanding. "Balthasar?"

The drow's head moved in a loose sort of nod. "Last one…"

"He's the last of the Five? Illasera, Yaga-Shura, Abazigal, you, and…Balthasar?" Maera and Imoen exchanged a look. "That actually explains a lot." She looked back down at Sendai. "Why tell me this?"

"Don't owe him…owe him anything," Sendai wheezed. "Fairly won…" Her eyes suddenly focused hard, her hand grabbing Maera's wrist with a viselike grip. "What are you?"

Maera carefully loosened Sendai's fingers, and as the drow breathed her last, murmured, "The stone in the river of blood."

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered book publisher, offering an online community for talented authors and book lovers. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books you love the most based on crowd wisdom.