Jaheira and the others had led the drow on such a merry chase they were halfway to Tethyr by midmorning, and never even noticed that the adventurers they were chasing had doubled back. Returning to the valley, they found Maera and Imoen taking their ease near the entrance to Sendai's enclave.
"Sendai?" the druid asked as the two young women rose and dusted themselves off.
"Dealt with," Maera said shortly. "And we need to get back to Amkethran. Balthazar and I need to have a talk."
"The monk?" Sarevok's eyebrows rose.
"That's the one." She turned to collect her pack, aware that everyone was watching her expectantly.
"He's the last one, isn't he?" Kelsey asked softly.
"Yeah. Yeah, he is." She shouldered her pack and smiled tightly. "We should get going."
They found the Amkethran road by midday, and that evening, made camp at an abandoned shepherd's croft. After eating and assigning the watch, Maera and Kelsey disappeared into the woods, hand in hand. "Where do they think they're going?" Sarevok grunted.
"Oh my gods," Imoen sighed, without looking up from her spellbook. "Sarevok, if I have to explain to you what they're doing, a part of me will die." The warrior rolled his eyes and grumpily sought his typical solitude outside the range of the firelight.
"It is very impolite for him to ask such things," Minsc noted, feeding Boo from his cupped hand.
"Definitely none of his business," Imoen said. "Isn't that right, little fuzzy?" she cooed, scratching the hamster's head.
Minsc shook his head as if to say Some people, but then his broad, honest forehead crinkled in intense thought. "Everything was so much easier before," he said plaintively. "Even when we did not know his name, we knew Sarevok was the villain. Now he fights beside us, and every time we think we find the villain, there is another one still! Boo is trying to keep it straight for me, but it is giving us both a headache."
Imoen closed her spellbook and leaned her head against the ranger's bicep. "I guess the real villain in all this is Bhaal himself."
"But how do we kick the butt of a dead god?"
"We'll figure something out, Minsc. We always do."
A few dozen paces away, under the branches of the scrub evergreens, Jaheira tried to meditate, but the voices of her worried children could not be shut out. She sighed and pulled her cloak closer. She had first watch anyway, so she might as well begin it now. She could not shake a rushing sense of inevitability. Events were converging on an unknown point very close at hand, and somehow, the lynchpin of this entire cosmic scheme was a temperamental, headstrong, mouthy girl who had not even passed her first quarter century. "Imoen," she heard Minsc ask quietly, "what about Maera?"
"What about her, big guy?"
"What is it that she is supposed to do?"
"I think she's just supposed to be herself." Imoen's voice grew soft. "At least I hope that's all."
Deeper in the woods, there was a rushing stream that poured over broken pine boughs into a dark pool. Near it, where the ground was soft but not muddy, a blanket had been laid, and on that, half-dressed and only marginally covered by his discarded robe, sprawled Maera and Kelsey. "I hadn't given much thought to it, honestly," she said. "All the…stuff just seems kind of excessive. But it's not like I really have any personal experience with it."
"I've never been married before either," Kelsey pointed out.
She poked him in the ribs. "I didn't mean like that. I mean I don't know that much about weddings other than what I've read."
"So you never even been to one?" She shook her head, and he chuckled. "I guess they wouldn't have a lot of weddings in Candlekeep though, would they?"
"It's not that the Readers weren't allowed to get married, they just…tend to have different priorities." She propped herself up on an elbow. "So what do you want to do?"
"I'm not supposed to have any opinions. I'm just the groom."
She poked him again. "That's stupid and you know it." He grinned at her.
"You are amazing. Dismissing hundreds of years of tradition with a simple 'That's stupid'."
"Well, it is." She aimed her next poke for his sternum. "So…c'mon. Let's hear it."
"Ow." He rubbed his chest, making a face at her, then sighed. "Honestly, it's not really the wedding itself I've been thinking about. What I really want, when all this is said and done is to go back to my mother's house and…try to fix things. I was so angry with her after Father died, but I understand now. How much it must have hurt to lose him. But I was just a stupid kid who thought my own pain was the most important thing in the multiverse. I know better now, and…" He touched Maera's cheek. "I really want her to know my wife." He took a deep breath and added, "And her grandchild." He gave his head a quick shake. "I think my brain exploded a little just saying that."
Maera smiled with nervous empathy. "Don't feel bad. Mine's been doing that on an hourly basis ever since I found out." She covered his hand with hers. "That sounds like a good plan, Kelsey. I'd like that."
"I know it's not much a wedding plan, but…Hells, maybe while we're there, I can pry my leech of an uncle off her life finally. I know Kelvim's been trying. Maybe between the two of us, we can finally make it stick. We can punt him into the Deepwash or something."
"Weddings nothing," she said, eyes bright, "that sounds like fun."
He laughed and pulled her close. "I'm marrying a woman more interested in kicking around my worthless uncle than she is in her dress."
"Hey, you proposed."
"I did. And I do not regret it for a second."
She tucked her face against the side of his neck, tightening her arms around him. "It's nice to make plans," she said softly. "It's been really tempting lately not to think about the future, for fear it won't happen." Kelsey swallowed and hugged her harder. "It used to be enough to fight just because I could. But I guess I'm getting older, because I need a better reason now. And the chance to have a future with you is the best reason in the world."
He shifted, the better to look her in the eye, and his hands moved up to catch in her hair. A soft, wondering smile touched his lips. "My warrior woman," he murmured, leaning his forehead against hers. "I am with you. To the very end. No matter what that is."
They returned to Amkethran under the silent, watchful eyes of its citizens. The mercenaries were still out in force; if anything, there seemed to be more crowding the streets now. But they gave Maera and her party wide berth, obviously remembering previous encounters. And there were none to be found in the inn, to the palpable relief of the innkeeper. "Good customers last time, and anyone who gives that lot pause is fine by me," he said as he made change for them.
"Why did the monks hire mercenaries?" Maera asked. "Couldn't they protect you on their own?"
"They say it is to keep us safe from the Bhaalspawn." The innkeeper chuckled bitterly. "Yes, we are so safe we can barely move."
"It wasn't always like this, was it?"
"I have lived in the shadow of that monastery all my life, as did my father and grandfather before me. Always, the masters and mistresses of the order have been kind and wise and kept the best interests of Amkethran in their hearts. At first, it seemed Balthazar would be no different. But something has changed in him." He sighed with a regretful shake of his head. "Or perhaps it was never there to begin with."
"Considering what I know of him," Maera murmured thoughtfully, "it could go either way."
That evening, Jaheira found Maera standing outside the inn, staring up at the bulk of Balthazar's monastery in the gathering desert twilight. "You should eat," she told the younger woman. "Tomorrow will be eventful."
"I'm aware of that," Maera replied, her eyes fixed.
Jaheira pursed her lips in annoyance. She was not in the mood for this. She skipped the banter and threw down her trump. "You will worry Kelsey."
That at least got her a look, even if it was one of irritation. "Low blow, Jaheira."
Jaheira shrugged. "Can you blame him? It's his child as well."
"I'm aware of that, too," Maera said tartly, playing absently with the ring on her finger. She sighed. "I'll come in and eat in a minute, I promise. I just have a lot on my mind."
"Share it, then."
Maera smiled inwardly. That was Jaheira – direct as a blow to the head and just as subtle. "It's… this. This whole thing. Hunting down these people and killing them before they can do the same to us. It doesn't feel like I'm winning anything other another day alive. And they're my siblings…in a way. I mean, I've never expected family bonding, followed by tea and cakes, but just once, it'd be nice to meet another Bhaalspawn that didn't either flee from me in terror or try to gut me at their first opportunity. And the worst part is, we're doing exactly what Bhaal wanted. We're killing each other off. I have no idea how many Bhaalspawn there were, but now there are three – me, Im," she jerked her chin towards the monastery, "and Balthazar. And tomorrow we go to kill him. And despite it all, it feels so wrong. Like it shouldn't have come to this. Like I should have found another way. I…I can't explain it any better than that." She stared at the ground. "And what happens when it is just me and Im?"
Jaheira put her hand on her young friend's shoulder. "You cannot hold yourself responsible for what the others of your lineage have chosen to do. Their choices have been their own, just as yours have. Wasting your regret on them achieves nothing, nor does wallowing in guilt for the things you cannot change. Resolve that this will end with you, and when it does, be satisfied with that. I am no prophet, Maera. I cannot tell you what the future holds. But I do trust you. As I always have."
There was a long silence, then Maera reached up and squeezed Jaheira's hand, saying, "What would I do without you, Jaheira?"
"Let us hope we never find out."
Maera was quiet again. Her eyes returned to her boots as she said, "Speaking of - sort of… There was something I wanted to ask you. Well, Kelsey and I." The druid raised her eyebrows, her expression encouragingly continuance. "We were wondering if you would marry us."
Her eyebrows remained elevated. "I had no idea you were interested in that sort of arrangement."
One of the humorous side effects of infravision was the appearance of a blushing face in the near darkness, particularly one as vivid as Maera's. She stammered for a moment until she managed, "You are not funny!"
"We will have to disagree," Jaheira said with a shrug. Maera stuck her tongue out, and Jaheira let her poker face ease and said, smiling gently, "I would honored to preside over your wedding."
Maera smiled an anxious, brilliant smile, and dove ahead. "And there was something else. You know the house he bought us?" Jaheira nodded slowly. "Well, apparently it's out in the country a ways, and on about fifteen acres of land, and I'll admit that I don't know the first thing about gardening, or landscaping, or anything like that. I think that what would matter more to me to know that the place I lived was under the care and protection of a druid." Maera carefully took Jaheira's hands in her own. "You've been through so much with me. Because of me. But you've always been there. You deserve a home, and a family. And I…we want to give you that."
Jaheira tilted her head, studying Maera's features. Time could move so quickly. So much could happen in a single year that in just a few, a nervous, rough-edged girl with nothing but determination and raw talent could become a woman of confidence, skill, and unbelievable fortitude. She had come so far, so fast. "Before I ever met you, I promised Gorion I would look out for you, if you needed me."
"You have. And I still do."
"No." Jaheira shook her head. "You have not truly needed me for some time. But I have needed you." Maera's brow furrowed. "When Irenicus…took Khalid, it was you that gave me reason to persevere." She withdrew one of her hands to brush her fingers over her young friend's cheek. "It is for love of you that I have endured. So yes. I will go with you to Berdusk." She smiled. "Besides, you did not think I would allow for your child to be delivered by some anonymous country midwife, did you?"
Maera sat at a corner table with Kelsey, picking at her dinner, and they were too absorbed in their own private universe to notice Sarevok's eyes on them from across the common room. Imoen did, however, and diverted her course from the bar with the next round for herself and Minsc to give him a hard look. "You know, Sarevok, even I know staring is rude."
Sarevok shot her a glance, and sneered. "Your grasp of etiquette is an inspiration to me." Imoen rolled her eyes and was on the point of walking away when he continued. "He does not deserve her."
Imoen turned back, set the mugs on the table, and cocked her head. "You have really got a bug up your butt about that, haven't you? She is over the moon for that guy. You really think some glaring and sarcasm is going to make her change her mind?"
"Then you approve?"
"Maera's a big girl. She doesn't need my approval. But since you asked, yeah, I do. He's a nice guy, he adores her, and he's a funny drunk. Pretty much meets all my brother-in-law criteria. I mean, sure, they're disgusting, the way they can't keep their hands off each other. You'd think sex was going out of style or something. But they're happy." He glowered, and she was about to scoop up the drinks again when something seemed to occur to her. "Is she not allowed to be happy? Is she too special for it or something? Here stands Maera of Candlekeep, Bhaalspawn and all around kicker of tush: Too awesome for piddley human emotion. Is that it?"
His expression was cold. "You would not possibly understand."
"I'm smarter than I act. Try me."
Sarevok gritted his teeth as if she were trying to pull one out. "Regardless of his power as a sorcerer, he will never understand what it is like to be Bhaalspawn, especially one as strong as she. He cannot truly know her."
"And you can?"
"My life and hers have been connected since her birth. Even before I knew her name or face, I knew her."
To his surprise, she plopped down in the chair across from him, shrugging dismissively. "So did I."
There was something surprisingly akin to curiosity in his eyes. "Does it bother you? Being constantly in her shadow, pulled along in her wake? You are Bhaalspawn too, yet the Solar has no messages for Imoen."
She stared down at the table, and began tracing the wood grain with her fingertip. When she spoke, her voice was soft. "Hiding in shadows is what I do. I've always been in hers; I like it there. Safest place in the world to be. And I'm not all that fond of the nastier side effects of being a Bhaalspawn, so if the Solar wants to ignore me, that's fine by me. But… it's just so unfair to Maera. It's all coming down on her. Everyone's so focused on her and what she does sometimes I feel like standing on a chair, waving my arms and yelling 'Hey, I'm a Bhaalspawn too!' just so they'll leave her alone for five seconds. Just so she won't have to bear the weight of the world all alone." She glanced over at her sister's table. Maera was smiling in reaction to something Kelsey had said and he gently kissed her temple. Imoen found herself smiling, looking at them. "I guess that's why I like her being with Kelsey. He seems to feel the same way." When she looked back, she saw Sarevok studying her intently. She flushed. "What, have I got something on my face?"
"You intrigue me, little sister. You genuinely seek nothing from our heritage. Your life revolves around her and you truly do not care."
She shifted in her seat, uncomfortable under his scrutiny. "Yeah, well, she's my best friend, and I love her. Whatever she does is going to be the best thing for the both of us, so I just follow her lead. She hasn't steered me wrong yet." She shot him a challenging stare. "As weird as this feels to say, I get it, Sarevok. I understand what it feels like to not be able to explain why she matters so much." She shrugged. "Mae's the most important person in my life. Always has been. That's just the way it is."
"But," Saverok said shrewdly, "you are no longer the most important person in hers."
She raised an eyebrow, and he realized too late she was already ahead of him. "So that's where you are, huh?" She leaned over the table conspiratorially. "Just don't give Red an excuse. You saw what he did to that dragon, and you know what they say about the nice ones."
"I think I preferred you when you were an irritating child," he huffed, but the bluster felt weak.
"Yeah, well, I wouldn't recommend to the Jon Irenicus day spa to anyone, but the personal growth was an unexpectedly positive side effect." She rubbed absently at the scar that bisected her eyebrow. "The facials were crap, though." She stood, picked up her mugs, and turned.
"She has given me much to think about. Much on which to reflect. I turn these thoughts over in my mind again and again and yet I am no closer to understanding," Sarevok said, almost to himself. "I thought once that either her death or mine was the natural end of our peculiar relationship. I was wrong." He could see the cutting remark hovering on Imoen's lips, but to his surprise, she simply smiled at him, and walked away. Sarevok watched her return to her table, hand Minsc his mug, and rub his head by way of apology for the detour. He glanced at the little mage, then back at Maera. At the last of the Bhaalspawn. He had never thought that when the time came for the end, he would be on the outside looking in.
His gaze returned to his drink, but from the corner of his eye, he could still see her. The sorcerer was pulling her up from her chair; she lost her footing for a split second and pitched forward into his arms with a laugh. They remained thus for a moment, her lips curved with contentment, and he found his mind drifting back to the all-too brief time in his own life when happiness had not been an alien concept. Such strange thoughts. Once his life had made so much sense. He had had a purpose. A destiny. Who was he without them?
"Gods, I hate being mortal," he muttered.
Morning light filtered through the shutters as Maera stared at herself in the dim, wavy mirror. Funny. She didn't look as old and tired as she felt. She could almost physically feel the press of time, pushing her forward, hurrying her towards the end. A wave of nausea washed over her, and she closed her eyes, trying to will away the desperate desire to empty her stomach. Morning sickness? Really? This was new. When she looked back at the mirror, she caught sight of herself. She was gripping her abdomen with her left hand. The ring on her finger. The hand on her stomach. There had always been more that stake that just her own life, but somehow, this felt so much more tangible. She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. The nausea passed. Maybe it was just nerves, then. "Well, I don't have time for that," she murmured to herself, "Balthazar's waiting." She knew he was, just as certainly as she knew she was breathing.
The streets of Amkethran were silent as they trooped towards the monastery. The young monks standing guard at the gate looked a bit green about the gills themselves. They knew. Everyone knew. The impending confrontation hovered in the air like the dust, threatening to choke them all. They let them pass without a word, and Maera didn't have to ask where Balthazar was. She already knew.
He sat on raised dais in the center of the great hall, watching their approach with an unreadable expression. He stood as they drew near. "Maera," he said softly.
She inclined her head. "Balthazar. So, pleasantries first, or shall we just get on with it?"
He looked at her, and there was a blankness in his eyes that chilled her. There had been disdain in Illasera's, rage in Yaga-Shura's, arrogance in Abazigal's, fire in Sendai's, but Balthazar's were empty, as if emotion itself was too much effort. "You must know I take no pleasure in this."
He wasn't tall; even standing on his dais, she barely had to lift her head to look him in the eye. And he was slim, a fact his loose robes could not conceal. She stared into his dark gray eyes, wondering what he saw in hers. "That puts you one up on a lot of people I've met lately."
"Do I look like I'm enjoying myself?"
"I couldn't say. I find you…difficult to read."
She chuckled bleakly at that. "I could say the same to you."
"Then do you understand why I must do this? Why I must see your evil destroyed?"
She raised her eyebrows. "Excuse me. My evil? Where have you been?"
He stiffened. "It is true you have dispatched our demonstratively unpleasant siblings, but that ultimately means very little, as they would have wasted no time doing so for themselves. The taint of Bhaal is in us, and that is evil of the purest sort. Regardless of our actions, or even our motivations, we cannot be separated from it. We are damned, and that fact cannot be escaped."
There was a long, empty silence. She hadn't been expecting this. "I don't believe that," she said flatly.
"You can still say that after Saradush?"
Her jaw tightened. "Oh, screw you, Balthazar," she spat. "I blame myself enough for what happened there. For the people I couldn't save. I will not let someone else do it too!" Her voice cracked with a surpassed sob, and she gulped a deep breath, watching his impassive face. Was that self-loathing she saw in the faint turn of his lips? "Motivation and action have to mean something, Balthazar. We can't judge someone's actions without knowing the why."
"Reassuring ourselves that the terrible things we do are in good cause serves only to balm our own consciences. Believe me, I know."
Maera could feel the collective gaze of both his monks and her party boring into her back. The tension was so thick she could barely breathe. "So why do this? Why join the Five? Why not stand up to them?" She let the words The way I have go unspoken, but she knew he could hear them.
"As I said, we are damned," he said quietly. "Our only hope is to die before our bloodlust overwhelms us."
Even she spoke, Maera busily filed away the revelations, assessing the monk in a new light. "We are still creatures of will. Just because most of them chose the path Bhaal wanted them to take doesn't mean we have to now."
"So you think me a fool," he murmured. "And weak willed to boot."
She shrugged. "Sounds to me like that's what you think of yourself. "
"You would analyze me, then?"
"Could be fun. Want to?"
His lips turned again, but this time, the expression might have been, for the most fleeting of instances, a smile. Then he slumped back into his seat, never taking his eyes off her. "What I want," Balthazar said, breaking his silence, "is immaterial. It is my sacred duty to bring about the end of Bhaal's evil in the Realms. I will utterly destroy every trace of his taint. Including you. Including myself. That is my resolve, Maera."
She studied him for a moment, her head tilted. "That was why you joined the Five. You would wait until they'd torn each other to pieces, and then you'd face the last one." He nodded. "And then you'd kill yourself?"
"And Bhaal dies forever with me."
"That's a really stupid plan." All around the room, the monks stiffened, and Balthazar looked almost irritated for an instant. "I'm sorry, but there has to be another way. Suicide is a very grand gesture, but in the end, you'd just be letting Bhaal commit one more murder."
He peered at her, looking almost bewildered. With a small shake of his head, it was gone, the implacable façade returned. "You were raised in the great library of Candlekeep. I understand you are quite well-read. Surely you are not ignorant of the concept of sacrificing one's self for the greater good."
"I'm very familiar with it, actually. The man who raised me in that library lay down his life so I could be standing here right now." There was a small huffing noise behind her; Sarevok cleared his throat and looked askance. Maera didn't bother paying him any mind. All her attention remained with Balthazar. "You know what I think? I think you're scared. I think that, at this point, dying doesn't seem so bad. That it might even be easier than living. Am I right?"
"I am not afraid of death," he whispered.
"But to get there, you have to go through me, don't you?" Without ever taking her eyes from his, she slowly lowered her hand to her belt knife, working it from its sheath. There was a hiss of indrawn breath from the monks, but Balthazar did not move. She reversed the dagger, taking it by the blade, offering him the hilt. "I'll make it easy on you. Kill me, and you're one step closer to getting what you want." Behind her, another gasp, this time from her horrified companions. But still she did not look away from Balthazar, and his wide eyes, fixed on the knife in her hand.
"I will not murder you." His voice was so soft she could barely hear him.
"Why not? If we're damned, what does it matter? By that logic, you'd be doing me a favor." His hand stretched out, fingers opening towards the hilt, brushing the pommel, and then his head moved in a tiny motion of denial.
"Not like this."
"No," she agreed quietly. "Not like this." His shoulders drooped, and suddenly, she could see the exhaustion in every line of his face.
"Are you not tired of it?" he asked, his voice catching. "The dreams, the voices, the blood on your hands?"
Her heart clutched in sympathy. She knew that weariness, the fatigue of the spirit that made the beating of one's heart feel like an effort. She laughed weakly. "Oh, Balthazar. I'm so sick of it I'm ready to do just about anything to make it stop." He closed his eyes, and to her surprise, her instinct was to put her arms around him. He looked back at her.
"Do you think you can?"
"I think I have to."
Their eyes held, and he drew in a small, shuddering breath before drawing himself up. "There is a question you hope I can answer for you, yet you have not asked it. Why?"
"What question would that be?"
"Oh. Right. Her." Maera shot him an expectant look. "She does seem to be everywhere and nowhere at all. Sendai said she was a puppetmaster. What do you think she meant by that?"
"I would assume that to be a reference to Melissan's role in the creation of the Five." The center of the puzzle fell into place; not one piece, but a whole collection of them, fitting neatly into the scant border Maera had spent so long putting together. He regarded her for a long moment. "This surprises you, and yet it does not."
She nodded distractedly. "It makes perfect sense."
"She came to me last spring. She told me she knew who and what I was, that she knew of others like me, and that she could…help us help ourselves, as she put it." The bitterness returned to his face. "I thought that if I could not…ignore it, perhaps I was meant instead to be the instrument of its ending." His voice lowered. "I did not think so much innocent blood would be shed along the way. But by the time it had begun, it was already too late to stop it."
The tinge of misery in his voice brought her back to reality. "She used us." Anger, her old friend, warmed her from within, chasing away the chill of horror. "She used us all. Every last one of us. That bitch." She looked back at Balthazar, whose eyes were still downcast. "She played us against each other for her own gain. She used us!" She shot him a quizzical glance. "Doesn't that piss you off even a little?" He did not react. "Okay, try this one. Bhaal, in his infinite arrogance, brought us into this world for the sole purpose of bringing him back to life, never once thinking of what that meant for living, breathing creatures with minds of their own!" His face remained still and she shrugged. "Well, fine, because honestly, I've got enough pissed off for everyone in the room."
He gave her another of his almost-smiles. "I see that."
She took a step towards him. "Balthazar, we don't have to do anything that anyone tells us to. We don't have to play anyone's game but our own."
Silence again. "How can I trust you? Or myself? The Bhaal essence is so strong – how do we know it will not overwhelm us?"
"We can't, really. But it's amazing how far having a little faith in yourself will go." She lowered her voice. "You feel it too, don't you? Something's coming. One way or another, this is ending very soon. Wouldn't you rather it be on your own terms?"
Something flickered in his eyes, something that almost looked, for the briefest second, like hope. "Gods forgive me," he whispered. "Perhaps if they do, I can as well."
Balthazar offered them lodging in the monastery that night before figuring out what their next move would be in the morning. The gender segregation practiced by his order meant separate sleeping arrangements for male and female, and Maera and Kelsey were subjected to no small amount of ribbing from their party at having to bunk apart. They both stiffly pointed out they were adults who could manage to contain themselves for a night or two, but this assertion was met with good natured derision. Seeking escape from Imoen's faux pity ("I can lend you my extra pillow if you need to snuggle, Mae"), Maera climbed to the flat roof of the great hall, and discovered Balthazar already there. He didn't look surprised to see her.
"Do you also seek solitude in high places?" he asked.
"Sometimes. When I lived in Candlekeep, I could always count on finding a section of the battlements where I could be alone," she replied, seating herself carefully on the tiles.
"I have often thought I should like to visit there. But I understand the entry rules are quite strict."
"All you need is a very good book," she said, gazing down at the courtyard where a small group of young monks practiced their way through a set of slow forms. "Did you grow up here?"
He nodded. "I was a foundling. The monks raised me, and when I reached manhood, I was offered the choice all such orphans are. I could stay and join the order, or strike out on my own. Obviously, I chose to remain." His voice was soft. "I wanted no other life."
Maera drew her knees up, and rested her elbows on them. "I know how that feels." She gazed at him sidelong and asked, "When did you find out?"
"About being a Child of Bhaal?" Balthazar sighed and rubbed his bald head absently. "I was sixteen or so. I understand that the matter was one of fierce debate amongst the elder monks at the time – some did not want to tell me at all, some had never wanted to even offer me membership in the order. Ultimately, it did not matter. I was so horrified when they told me, I did something rather rash." He pushed up the loose sleeve of his robe, revealing a long, knotted scar that traveled up the interior of his forearm. Maera whistled softly. "My master refused to let it be healed by magical means," Balthazar continued quietly. "He thought it an object lesson in the sin of despair."
"Did it work?"
"For a time. It was actually that revelation that led me to request membership in the order." He snorted. "Request. I begged. I thought I would be safe here, and that others would be safe from me. There was order and consistency. A pattern and a sense of worth. And as I grew a little older, no risk of marriage or children." Maera shifted her weight, but he wasn't looking at her. "The taint within us…who would blight an innocent with that?"
She cleared her throat. "I would, apparently." He turned a confused gaze to her, and she awkwardly scratched at her cheek. "I'm, um…I'm pregnant." He stared at her, and she cleared her throat again. "Obviously not showing yet." He continued to gape, his eyes round with horror. "Oh damn. Did I just break you?"
"You…you offered me your throat!"
"Yeah…I have a bad habit of gambling from time to time. Usually with my own life. I should probably stop that, shouldn't I?"
He seemed to be recovering from his shock, though he was still having to blink a great deal. "Forgive the indelicate question, but…does the father know what you are?"
"Oh, he knows. He's ever seen some of the nastier side effects." Spellhold came back in a flash, and she pushed it, and the bile that rose in her throat at the memory, away with a hard swallow. "And he's still here. But…he knows what it's like to have the potential to be dangerous." Balthazar looked confused again, and she elaborated, "He's a sorcerer."
"So then…the mage?" He was back to blinking. "Truly?" Maera made a small face.
"Why is that so hard to believe?" she muttered, ruffled.
"Well…" Balthazar looked ill at ease; such discussions were far from his comfort zone. Maera decided to have mercy.
"Because he doesn't look like my type?" She sighed. "Everybody says that." The monk coughed, and she smiled at him. "What I'm getting at is that there are people who understand what it's like to be us. And that's a pretty wonderful thing."
"Then you do not fear bearing a child?"
"Of course I fear it! I'm having a baby; that's the biggest responsibility in the world! But do I fear it because I'm a Bhaalspawn? No. How can something metaphysical be passed by physical heredity? We're not cursed. We're just…different. If we're monsters, it's because of what we do, not the fact that we exist."
Balthazar regarded her silently. "That is…a unique perspective."
"Other gods have had mortal children before. No one seems to mind when it's one of the good ones. Why should we consider ourselves lepers because of Bhaal's portfolio?" She leaned back, bracing herself with her hands and staring up at the sky. "Fearing things gives them power, and I don't believe in that. It seems to me that a lot of people who think they're cursed just use it as an excuse to avoid the things that frighten them. Like getting close to people."
"Or facing their own frailties," Balthazar murmured. Maera looked at him.
"Or that," she agreed quietly. "But you shouldn't be too hard on yourself."
"Why not? Look at what I have done. I have been complicit in the murder of thousands."
"Melissan gave you a hard sell. She made you think you didn't have any another options."
"And I bought it. You wouldn't have, I think."
"Not everyone's as stubborn as me. But…if our situations were reversed, I'm not sure I could say I would do differently. And I'd probably hate myself for it, just like you obviously do yourself."
"You're very forgiving," he said. "Others will take a less generous view, I fear."
"Maybe not. But I know where you're coming from, remember?"
"It's an unusual feeling. But I could get used to it." They chuckled, but then his eyes swept towards the gate below. She gave him an enquiring glance and he murmured, "Trouble. You may come with me, if you wish."
They regained solid ground as a female monk sprinted towards them. "Master! The mercenary captains! They want to speak with you." She panted for a moment, her face marked with disapproval. "Their language was quite coarse."
Balthazar's face regained the smooth, inexpressiveness Maera had found so difficult to read. She laughed to herself. That's his Boss Face, she thought. "I will speak with them," he said calmly. Maera trailed along curiously in his wake.
A trio of rough-looking humans and a half-elf of equally weathered appearance were waiting for them. One of them, a woman whose dark hair was cut bluntly around a face that might have reasonably attractive if not the deeply etched scowl, stepped forward and said bluntly, "What is this bullshit, Balthazar?"
Balthazar serenely folded his hands. "I assume the 'bullshit' you are referring to is the fact I terminated your contracts this afternoon, yes?" A grumbling growl served as their confirmation. "I do not see how I could make myself plainer. You have been paid through the end of the month, but the services of your companies are no longer required, so I would prefer that you make an expedient departure from Amkethran."
"You can't just kick us out of town like this!" the bearded half-elf snarled.
"He can do whatever he wants," Maera interjected.
The half-elf rounded on her. "I don't think I was talking to you."
"You are now."
He looked her up and down. "I've heard about you. I've heard you have a bad habit of getting your nose in other people's business. Well, take my advice, and keep it to yourself, bitch."
His word choice was unfortunate. She raised an eyebrow and wordlessly seized him by the back of the head, jerking his face downward even as her knee rose to meet it. She tossed him aside, and he staggered back, spitting obscenities and teeth, blood streaming freely from his nose. She turned to face the others, but saw quickly that Balthazar needed no aid.
He didn't fight. He flowed. His hand moved, quicker than a serpent's strike, finding his opponent's throat with swift precision. He pivoted effortlessly on one foot, the other raised in a lashing kick almost too quick to be seen. Compared to the smooth ease of his movement, the captain he faced, nearly a foot taller and twice as broad, staggered about like a drunkard, and within the space of minute, the man found himself lying on his back, staring up at the sky in utter confusion "You have my answer," Balthazar said, barely breathing heavily. "Now go. Or I will hurt you."
Maera crossed her arms as the mercenaries captains fled. "That was excellent," she said, grinning broadly. "We should spar some time."