Here Endeth the Lesson
She dreamed that night of a throne of blood, set in the howling winds of an endless void. It was empty, and some instinct deep within her said that this was not as it should be. Plans had been made, and a course had been charted, but now something had gone terribly wrong. Someone had interfered, causing events that should have rushed towards their intended conclusion as smoothly as a stream of blood to twist and hurtle like a rapid.
"Everywhere I am crossed," whispered the voice she knew, the voice she had heard for so long now. "Everyone seeks to thwart me. Even you. Even her."
She had the sense of slowly approaching the great seat, and drawing near, she saw a hooded figure, a woman, standing before it. She was so still she might have been a statue, but then she turned her head to gaze over her shoulder at the dreamer.
As Melissan's eyes met Maera's, a welter of images and sensations struck her: the decades of planning and research, the lies so carefully cultivated. She had been their only friend, the only one who understood, the only shoulder they could lean on. With every slit throat she'd laughed that her former lord could have sired such gullible creatures. And now she stood at the base of the throne, the object of half a lifetime's plans a breath away. Her lips curved in a cold, indulgent smile. "I was first among his priesthood," she said. "And last. I watched him die. And in that moment, I knew I was destined for greater things than service. You may come to me if you wish, but you will be too late." She turned her face back towards the empty throne of the Lord of Murder, the shadows of the Slayer licking about her like black flames. "Remain dust, foolish god."
Maera's eyes snapped open, and the moonlit ceiling of the monastery's female dormitory came into focus. In the bed beside her, there was a rustle of bedding as Imoen jerked to wakefulness. "Im?" Maera whispered.
"You saw her too, didn't you?" She heard, more than saw, Imoen's nod, and sighed. She was now suddenly, almost unnaturally, awake. Rolling out of bed, she hunted about in her pack for a pair of leggings. Imoen seemed similarly disinclined for sleep; she was already wrapping herself in a robe, and together, they slipped out into the hallway. Before they had got a dozen paces, a soft whistle hailed them. Balthazar, bare-footed and carrying a lamp, had just rounded the corner behind them.
"I knew it wasn't just me, but I had to be sure," he said.
He led them across the great hall to his quarters, but as they passed the door leading to the men's dormitories, it opened, revealing Sarevok's tall, bulky frame. "Did you have a dream too?" Maera asked him, puzzled.
He shook his head. "But I knew that you did."
"Oookay, this has just gone from weird to weirder," Imoen said.
"Join us," Balthazar said. "We need to talk."
Balthazar's quarters were unsurprisingly austere. They sat on soft cushions on the floor (Sarevok naturally chose to stand) while the monk made them all tea. Maera stared into her cup, but there weren't enough leaves at the bottom to make it worth the effort. "We all had the same dream, didn't we?" Imoen said, breaking the silence. "Melissan, in front of Bhaal's throne."
"She even told us she'd been a Bhaalite," Maera murmured.
"It's impressive, in a way. She never really lied to any of us," Balthazar said, taking a long sip of his tea. "She just very carefully avoided telling certain truths."
"No, she lied," Imoen replied firmly. "She lied about the Bhaalspawn in Saradush. She said she tried to protect them."
"Perhaps that was not even a lie," Sarevok said. "For the sake of appearances, she may have put up a fight."
"Well, she certainly wasn't being truthful when she said she was sorry they were dead," Maera said. "But that's beside the point. I was wrong yesterday. I'd assumed she wanted to be the power behind the throne, but she doesn't. She wants to be on it."
"Set herself up as the new Lord of Murder," Balthazar said quietly. "Or Lady, as the case may be."
The Children of Bhaal, present and former, drank their tea in silence until Imoen again spoke. "Would this be over now? If not for her? I mean, we're all that's left, and we don't want to kill each other, so…" She arched her eyebrows, first at Maera, then Balthazar. "We don't, right?"
"Still feeling surprisingly non-murderous," Maera assured her. Balthazar nodded, a faint smile marking his face. She got a the distinct feeling he was enjoying the camaraderie.
"I doubt it would be so simple." Sarevok strode closer, refilled his cup, and to the astonishment of the others, topped off theirs as well. "This power was intended to be funneled into a single individual. Whether that would require anyone's death at this stage I cannot say, but there is still one step left, either with Melissan's interference or without."
Maera set down her cup and laced her fingers together. "The solar said it was her task to teach me so I would be ready when the time came. I'm pretty sure this is the time she was talking about." She took a deep breath. "We need to go back to the pocket plane."
Imoen and Sarevok nodded. Balthazar looked perplexed. "Pocket plane?"
After the others had awakened later that morning and heard about the strange shared dream, they wasted no time preparing to leave. "It's just a lil' corner of the multiverse we like to call home," Imoen said brightly as they were pulled into the plane, but Balthazar did not appear to hear her. He gazed around the central chamber in awe.
"What is this place?" he asked in a hushed voice.
Maera scuffed a foot on the marble floor sheepishly. "I kinda…made it."
He faced her, eyes round. "How?"
"Apparently it attached to me, or…me to it. I'm really not clear on the logistics of the whole thing."
They all set about unloading their gear and making themselves comfortable when Balthazar gasped. The solar stood in the center of the room, radiant like the dawn, and he stared at her, transfixed.
"My gods," he breathed. "I had no idea…"
The solar smiled at him gently. "And now you are here as well, my child." Her burning eyes caught Maera's. "You have come for your final lesson. But first tell me…what do you know of these events? What have you learned?"
"Melissan wants to become a god. She's figured out a way to use the power of the other Bhaalspawn to do it."
"Yes. She who was once known as Amelyssan the Blackhearted was the final priestess of Bhaal in his last days. With his death, she turned from him, and seeks now to raise herself up in his place." The solar's voice was sad. "Her interference is…a complication.
"Bhaal's scheme to circumvent his death through his children did not go unnoticed amongst the gods. Your role, godchild, was to serve as a check against the unfettered horrors Bhaal hoped his Children would wreak. The intended outcome was that you, and any Child who allied with you, would face those who sought destruction and chaos. The matter would be ended there, in the victory of one over the other, and the gods would abide by it. But Amelyssan seeks usurp your birthright, and raise herself up in your stead."
Maera furrowed her brow. "My stead?"
The solar blinked, a rare gesture that might have been surprise. "Yes, godchild. When all the essence of Bhaal is at your disposal, divinity will be easily within your grasp." Maera stared at her, mouth agape. Out of the corner of her eye, Imoen saw Kelsey go white.
"B-but what about the others?" Maera stammered. "What about Imoen and Balthazar?"
The solar's eyes moved to the monk; he seemed to make a conscious effort not to drop to his knees. "My child, she said, "do you, freely and without reservation, offer the power of Bhaal within you to your sister? Once made, this choice may never be revoked, and you will be bound to her, until such time as she makes her own choice regarding the final and ultimate disposition of Bhaal's essence. What say you?"
"I do, absolutely," he said immediately, rubbing his scarred forearm. "I have never wanted it." He glanced at Maera. "She, I think, is the better steward. She certainly has the greater share of courage." She shot him a small, touched smile.
"What about me?" Imoen asked.
The solar smiled again, more broadly. "You decided for your sister some time ago." Imoen tilted her head in confusion, and the solar continued, "When last you were in your father's realm, you spoke three words to a demon that answered the question I just posed to your brother."
Comprehension lit her face. "She has me," she murmured.
"Even so," said the solar. "And here, godchild, would be in the end of it, if not for the deeds of Amelyssan. Having been granted the power of your living siblings, with that of the dead already in your hands, the fate of Bhaal's essence would rest with you."
Alaundo was talking about you, you know. Maera nodded slowly as her mind made order of it all - the scraps of prophecy, the fragments of dreams, the rumors, hints, and leaps of logic. A stone in the path of the river of blood. Here at last it all made sense. Resolve that this will end with you. "But as long as Melissan controls a portion of that essence, it isn't over."
"You are equally matched." The solar's bright face grew urgent. "You must prevail over her, godchild. Should she attempt to assume divinity, there will be war in the planes, and more than just your mortal world will suffer."
"Never low pressure with you people, is it?" Maera sighed.
The solar's brilliant smile was almost mischievous, and then her face stilled to its familiar inscrutable calm. "Take your rest, and prepare yourselves, my children. Your time is almost at hand." With that, she was gone, and Maera sank heavily onto the nearest sofa with a heavy sigh. She sank her face into her hands, steadying herself with a deep breath. When she looked up, her eyes cut about the room, then narrowed in confusion. "Where's Kelsey?"
"He was just here," Imoen said.
Maera stood and began to walk out of the circle of furnishings, biting her lip with concern. Sarevok caught her arm. "Sister, should we not speak of what the solar has told us?"
"Not now, Sarevok."
"Not now!" she flared, wrenching her arm away and stalking off.
Balthazar watched the exchange with some interest. He edged closer to the larger man, who stood glaring at the door Maera had just entered and shut. "If you will forgive the presumption," he ventured, "I believe I understand your predicament."
"Do you?" Sarevok did not look at him. "This should be enlightening."
"Imoen and Maera love one another very much. Their bond is old, and very deep. I envy them that. For my part, though I have not known her long, Maera has earned my respect. She has given me hope, and that is a precious gift indeed. But you…" The monk fixed Sarevok with a calm and utterly inescapable stare, "you did not intend for this, did you? Your death at her hand bound you to her, just as our choices have."
"All those years," Sarevok whispered. "All those years, I sought her. And when I found her, we were locked in struggle, and it was right. But now… I no longer know my own mind. She has changed me, and I think I may prefer the man I have become, but I do not know him. Does she? I…" He cut himself off, scowling, realizing just how much he had said.
"You do not know how best to express this debt of obligation that you feel," Balthazar said, his own voice dropped low. "And that is what angers you most of all, is it not? You have never been at a loss before." Sarevok's eyes blazed, but the fuse burned hot for only an instant before his shoulders slumped. Balthazar spoke gently, as if to a young novice. "Be her brother, Sarevok. That is what she needs now. From both of us. A brother in arms, as well as blood. Not all change comes with a flashing of light, carried on the voice of a solar. In time, you will know yourself, and you and our sister will find common ground." Sarevok nodded once, and withdrew. Balthazar watched his broad, departing back for a moment, before turning to find a place to meditate.
Kelsey had retreated to the small bedchamber he and Maera shared, the implications of the solar's words forcing his stomach into his feet. He sat on the bed, fingers knotted tight together, staring at the floor, seeing nothing. How could he have been such a fool? She was the daughter of a god, and half-divine beings didn't just walk around living normal lives. How did the old stories go? The godchild sent to the mortal realm to fulfill a specific purpose, and when that was done, away they went. They never stayed. They never got to.
She'd never seen it that way, he knew. She downplayed it where she could, laughed it off when she couldn't. But this was it. There was no more ignoring the truth. There were so many possibilities locked inside her; who was he to ask her to forsake that? She had been born, she had lived and grown, but she didn't have to die. She could exist forever. The thought of spending the rest of his life with her, working through the thousand joys and vexations of everyday life by her side, was more appealing that any future he'd ever imagined. But what if it didn't matter now? He was just one ordinary human, after all. What place could he have in the story of one who could be a goddess? He had said he would follow her anywhere, but if she was meant to walk a higher path in the planes, that was one place he could not go.
"Kelsey?" She stood in the doorway, outlined by the brighter light of the main chamber, her face shadowed, her voice troubled. "Why did you leave like that?"
She stepped closer, closing the door behind her, and he swallowed. Sometimes she seemed to be made of iron – the warrior, fierce and unafraid. The stuff of legends, as Minsc liked to say. He'd seen her calmly slash through a horde of vampires, spit defiance in the face of the man who'd stolen her soul, cut down giants without blinking, and generally live her life in open disobedience of the wishes of the god that had created her. But she was also the girl from Candlekeep, who'd cried on his shoulder, had bad dreams, and kissed like Sune herself. And from the moment he had first seen her, he'd found himself pulled to her by a force as natural as gravity, until somehow she had become the bright center of his universe. She tilted her head. "Kelsey…what's wrong?"
He wanted to thank her for every moment they'd had since they met, wanted to tell her that he would not take back a second of it. He had thought at first, when he realized how thoroughly she had changed his life, that she had changed him as well, but he knew now that wasn't true. By virtue of simply being herself, she had helped him become the person he had always had the potential to be. Did she have any idea how incredible that was?
She touched his cheek, worry brightening her eyes. "Are you okay?"
He was intensely aware of her warm hand against his skin, of her body scant inches from his. He threaded his fingers through her hair, hoping his hands didn't shake. He wanted to tell her so much. He wanted to tell her everything, in case he never got another chance. But actions would have to stand in for the words he couldn't seem to find. He kissed her, hoping that would say enough, and when their lips parted for a few seconds, he finally managed, "I just…I need you." He pulled back just far enough to look her in the eye. "I always will."
"And you've got me," she whispered.
He kissed her again, his hands sliding down the line of her back as she leaned into him with a soft groan that sent a shock down his spine. Every sensation was amplified like a fever dream, and his desperation for her only increased with each passing second. It wasn't enough. The rest of his life could never be enough, and if this was the last time… He tugged at the hem of her shirt and she stiffened briefly, pulling her hands away. For an instant, he was afraid he'd misread, but then she pulled back, yanking the offending article over her head, kissing him again the instant it was out of the way. And he was so intent on feeling her beneath his hands and lips that he almost missed that she was pulling at his shirt until she had it nearly to his shoulders. He chuckled apologetically and lifted his arms, and she shot him a small, conspiratorial smile as she tossed the garment aside. And then she was back in his arms, body pressed to his, and nothing else mattered.
He wanted to say so much, but this was so much better than trying to explain how he felt with mere words.
They lay in a tangle of limbs and sheets, limp and sated. Maera let out a long breath. "Unexpected," she announced, "but definitely appreciated." She rubbed her cheek against his chest, and kissed him just below the collarbone, which earned her a soft mumble of pleasure. She planted a kiss on his chin near the corner of his mouth; his lips contorted trying to reach hers. She propped herself up on her folded arms, lips pursed. There was something about the set of his face that bothered her – he looked as if he were miles away. "Something's on your mind, Kelsey. Talk to me, please."
"I'm fine," he said, moving his shoulders vaguely and leaning up to kiss her forehead. He smiled at her, but her expression didn't change.
"That is probably the least convincing lie I have ever heard."
He sighed, and ran his fingers through her tousled hair. She winced as he hit a tangle. "I'm trying really hard not to be selfish, but I'm not doing a very good job of it."
"You're a good person, so I think you'd make a very good goddess, if it came to that. You could help a lot of people…not to mention being infinitely powerful…and immortal. I would worry about that power coming from Bhaal, and what it would do to you. How it would change you. But ultimately…I don't want to lose you. And I would." His voice was steeped in quiet misery. "Even if you were the best, purest goddess in all the planes and Bhaal's taint didn't touch you even a little, I would still lose the woman I love. And all I want is to sell you on the idea that I'm better than eternity, and I know that's selfish. You have a choice, and I can't ask you to make it about me, even though I really, really want to." He closed his eyes and exhaled hard. "Gods help me, Maera, I want you. I…I want our child. And I'm scared."
Maera pulled herself up, one arm on either side of his head, and stared him down with an intensity she normally reserved for those on the opposite end of her sword. "Kelsey Coltrane. If you never listen to another thing I say, listen to this. I made a promise when I agreed to marry you, and you know how I feel about keeping my word."
"But what if-"
"No. No what ifs. Just a few days ago, we were planning our wedding, and that is the future I'm going with." Her eyes softened. "Please. Trust me, Kelsey." He nodded, and she lay back on her side, stretching an arm across his torso. They lay quietly as he traced his fingertips up and down her arm, eyes fixed on the ceiling. He didn't seem terribly convinced, and she found herself telling the story without giving it an excess of thought. "We ran into Delon by accident, you know. He was this scared country kid miles from home and out of his depth and I felt so bad for him. But I'd already promised Nalia De'Arnise that we would help her, so I made Gaelen Bayle swear that he would make sure the kid was safe and protected while we were gone. When we got back, I found out that he'd taken to hanging around the park in the Government District…I guess it was as close to home as he could get in Athkatla.
"But before we could pick him up, we were waylaid by this guy who said he'd seen what happened on the Promenade. He said he felt bad about just standing by and watching, and that he wanted to make it up to me, of all the crazy things. I mean, honestly, what was he thinking?" Kelsey glanced at her with an embarrassed little half chuckle, and she added, "But I guess I'm crazy too, because it never even crossed my mind to tell him no."
Her left hand rested on his chest, and he fiddled with the ring that adorned it. "So what were you thinking?"
"That you looked honest. And sincere, and…genuine. In a city full of people who were only interested in what I could do for them, you wanted to do something for me." She gave him a small, smiling nudge. " Not to mention that you were far cuter than you had any right to be, under the circumstances."
His ears went a little pink. "Really?"
She lifted an eyebrow. "Do you honestly need convincing at this point that I find you attractive?"
"Imoen's right," she said, sighing with an affectionate roll of her eyes, "you are a goober." She propped herself up again, resting her free hand against his cheek. "Kelsey, you are quite possibly my favorite person in all the Realms. You are my friend and my kindred spirit and ever since I met you, I finally feel like I'm…myself. Like knowing you makes it possible for me to be who I am without any apologies or excuses. Does that make any sense?"
His eyes had widened slightly, and it took him a moment to reply. "It makes perfect sense, actually. I know exactly what you mean."
"See? That's why we get along so well." She settled back against him, closing her eyes. "Probably explains why the sex is so good, too." He tightened his arms around her, making a noise of pleased embarrassment, and she laughed. "Gods, you're easy."
"Well, obviously," he said, clearing his throat.
"I really didn't have to put much effort into getting you into bed, did I?"
"No, you didn't." He rubbed his cheek against her hair. "You just had to be you."
"I don't know how you do it," she murmured, "but somehow you always manage to make being me sound like a good thing." Her eyes were still closed, so she didn't see him move his hand, but she most definitely felt the extremely blatant goose. She yelped, and opened her eyes to see him frowning at her.
"That's because it is," he said firmly. "No matter what happens, never forget that, Maera."
She looked down at him, chastened. When she ran out of faith in herself, he always had more than enough to make up the difference. "That's why as long as I have a choice, I'm going to choose you." She curled beside him again, sighing deeply. "It feels like everyone's waiting on me. Not just everybody else out there, but…Melissan, the Solar…hell, maybe even the gods themselves. But you know what I think about that?"
"I think that puts me in an extraordinary position of power." She burrowed her face deeper against his neck. "Let 'em wait."
"So good of you two to join us!" Imoen said cheerfully as Maera and Kelsey made their way around the sofas to seat themselves with the party. Maera said nothing, making a vulgar hand gesture in Imoen's direction, but she just laughed. "No, that's not my job. Is it, Red?" Kelsey silently flicked a marble-sized fireball at her.
The others chose to ignore the innuendo, save Minsc, but it was obvious he was somewhere far away, his forehead wrinkled in deep thought. He pursed his mouth hard, looked up, and said, "Maera. Boo and I would like you to know that we trust you. You are a great hero, the greatest we have ever seen, and anything you choose to do will be right." She started to thank him and tell him it was unnecessary, but he continued, his voice suddenly small and rather child-like. "But we would miss you, if you went away."
"I would too," Imoen said softly.
Maera blinked back tears, but her next attempt to speak was cut off by Jaheira, who added quietly, "I have always believed your choices to be a part of the greater balance of the world. That said…you are my friend, and you are dear to me." Maera swallowed; she looked at Kelsey, whose shoulders moved in a faint shrug and whose eyes were bright with everything he had already said.
From the shadows behind the farthest sofa, Sarevok said, "I would urge you not to accept our sire's essence, sister, should we prevail."
She met his eyes challengingly. "What happened to rising above my weaknesses and embracing my power?"
"You would not be happy," he replied, and turned away. She stared at him, but only had a moment to be dumbstruck. The solar had reappeared among them.
"Are you prepared, my children?" Maera nodded, and the solar said, "When you leave this place, it will cease to be. You will have only one destination." Cespenar, who had been fluttering about the perimeter, sighed heavily.
"Alls this work," the imp moaned into his small hands. "Down the drain, and Cespenar is unemployed again."
"Hey, don't worry, Ces," Imoen said brightly. "When this is over, I may be in the market for a familiar. I'll look you up."
Maera stood, squaring her shoulders and wrapping her hand around Daystar's hilt, strangely at peace. For the first time in her adult life, she knew her purpose. Everything was lit in the illumination of understanding. Her life fell into place in an ordered line of necessity, each experience and decision leading her to the foot of the Throne. Melissan was just an obstruction in the planned progression of events. She needed to be moved. Maera could do that.
What will you do when the time comes? What will you become?
"Let's end this."