The voice reached out to her across the void, silky and unctuous. She could feel its shadowy claws reaching out for her even before her senses returned and she was aware of her surroundings. It was the Slayer, rolling the dice one last time.
"Yeah, good luck with that," she muttered. Jaheira shot her an odd look, and she forced herself to keep the words in her mind. What do you want?
You've come. Come to take your place. Come to embrace your nature. I always knew that you would, in the end.
It was all Maera could do not to laugh aloud. You know me better than that by now. You've tried threatening me, recruiting me, intimidating me, and now you're trying to cozen me. You've already lost, and you know it. No matter what happens here today, you're done. If Melissan wins, she won't even spare you a backward glance on her way to godhood, and if I win…Well, you know how I feel about you.
There was a hiss, an almost reptilian sound of indrawn breath. You have always relied on me. You will not admit it, but you do not know how to live without me.
She glanced about her at her party, and felt the expectant weight of their eyes. For a half second, she caught Kelsey's gaze. She'd asked him to trust her, and in his eyes, she could see that he did. I think I'll be okay.
Turning her focus forward, she saw the throne of blood, and she knew she would have recognized it even if she had not seen it in her dreams. It was completely familiar, a commonplace, ordinary thing, and it was her lack of astonishment that surprised her most. A pillar of heatless fire shot through the center of it, pulsing a strange measure, like an arrhythmic heartbeat. Surrounding it was a broad dais made of a sort of crystalline glass that glowed from within, and the same substance formed the solid surface beneath their feet.
Imoen glanced down and gulped slightly, her thin face paling, but Minsc confidently took her arm. "Minsc," she asked, "doesn't it bother you? I mean…" She swallowed again. "There's nothing down there."
He shrugged. "I never know which way is up anyway. Just follow Minsc and Boo, little Imoen. You will be fine."
Maera smiled slightly and straightened her shoulders, sliding Daystar from its sheath as they crossed the glassy causeway. Melissan stood before the Throne, just as Maera had seen in her dream, and just as in the dream, she turned to face them, her eyes lit with the casual cruelty of a well-fed predator that hunts for fun. She could not have looked less like the ragged woman they had left on the riverbank in Saradush had she been a different person altogether. "It's a relief," she said calmly, as if remarking on the weather, "in a way. Our motivations are out in the open now. No more need for lies."
"You know, you're right." Maera balanced the tip of her blade on the glass-like floor , resting her hands on the pommel. "I honestly felt a little guilty about distrusting you before. Now I know I don't have to. I feel better, knowing that."
The corner of Melissan's mouth pulled in some mockery of a smile. "And look at us. So civilized, despite knowing what we both must do. You're too late," she said, a derisive laugh ringing just below the surface of her voice. "You can't defeat me now; I've killed too many of your kin."
Maera gazed back at her steadily. "This isn't a numbers game, Melissan."
"But it is." The laugh still lurked, edged with arrogance and something almost approaching hysteria. "Even with your resident Bhaalspawn scholar," she jerked her chin towards Sarevok with contempt, "lurking in your train, you do not possess even half the knowledge I have amassed in all these years. Knowledge wins battles, and I know more than you can possibly imagine, my dear."
Maera wasn't sure where her next words came from. "You cannot know what is bred in the bone." Almost as one, Imoen, Balthazar, and Sarevok snapped their heads towards her with varying degrees of shock. She shook her own head briefly and looked back into her enemy's eyes. "You want me, Melissan? Come get me."
"Oh, I will," Melissan purred. "First, though, I think something will have to be done with your lackeys. Seven on one is hardly a fair fight."
"You think I care about giving you a fair fight?"
"And I thought you were the noble one."
"Honor earns honor, Melissan. You're a thief who would upset every plane of existence for your own benefit without a second thought. I could stab you in the back and never lose a moment's sleep."
Melissan arched an eyebrow, and raised her hand, drawing her body into a fighting stance. As if pulled from the very air, a halberd filled her empty hand, jet black, its bladed head already wet with blood. "Very well, Child of Bhaal. But you are not the only one with his strength flowing through her now. I control this place. Its guardians will destroy those pitiful fools who follow you, and I will kill you myself."
Maera gripped Daystar's hilt with both hands, raising the sword to a middle guard. "You say that like you know. Nothing is ever decided until it happens."
The detached amusement faded from Melissan's features, and her lips curled in a snarl. She gestured with her free hand, and with a howl of unearthly rage, a black chorus of demons swept down towards the party. Maera glanced over her shoulder, catching Jaheira's eye for an instant before turning back to catch the downstroke of Melissan's long blade on her own. Jaheira nodded swiftly and began shouting orders. "Minsc! Keep them off her back! Sarevok, with me! Balthazar, keep them away from the casters!"
Maera heard the subsonic thrum of Imoen's strongest shields springing to life, and Jaheira and Sarevok's hoarse, wordless battlecries as they flung themselves into the fray. The heavy sound of running feet behind her was Minsc, cutting his way through the beasts between her and the main body of the group. "All right, demons!" he announced. "Who wants to be the mushroom on the Shiskabob of Evil?" Maera smiled as she dove under another sweeping slash. They could do this. She could do this.
All on your own? the Slayer asked.
"You know," Maera said to it between gritted teeth, "you really ought to give this up." She parried another blow one handed, grabbing the shaft of Melissan's halberd with her off hand and jerking the weapon. The former priestess's grip remained firm, but it cost her an instant's balance, and Maera's next stroke opened a thin, deep wound in her upper arm.
Melissan hissed, baring her teeth. "Give up? After all these years? I am so close to godhood now, I can see right through you."
Maera snorted, skipping out of the halberd's path, then back within the circle of the weapon's reach, bringing her elbow up sharply to Melissan's windpipe. "Really? Maybe that's why you can't land a blow."
Melissan lashed out again, the halberd's shaft a hair away from Maera's face as she dodged. "Don't think you can talk me into a mistake, girl," she spat. "I was your father's greatest instrument long before your birth. And now I am my own! I will have what I have earned, and YOU WILL SUFFER!" As she spoke, familiar shadows played across her face, and Maera felt a hot surge of joyful rage as she caught another blow on Daystar's edge. A steady hum was building in the back of her mind and again she spoke not knowing the source of her words.
"Your power is stolen, Melissan. Mine is my birthright."
Beyond the foot of the Throne, Melissan's fiends screamed as they clashed with Maera's party. Minsc was battered but cheerful, standing between Maera and any interference. Jaheira and Sarevok stood side-by-side against them, having created a surprisingly smooth rhythm of defense and offense. Within Imoen's shield, she and Kelsey alternated spells and missiles as just outside it, Balthazar followed his orders to the letter, a dervish of smooth, constant violence.
"Did you see that?" Imoen gaped. "He just punched a balor!"
"Technically he used his palm," Kelsey replied, closing his eyes and summoning up a fireball. He released it with a snap of his wrist, curving its trajectory around Jaheira. He glanced back at Imoen, who gave him a dirty look.
"Literalist," she muttered darkly.
The demons' roars were chilling to mortal ears, and Jaheira had to steel herself against the shiver of fear they caused. Though I am far from your touch, Nature, I carry your strength still. Sarevok staggered, a lucky scrape of claws catching him just above the eyebrow, sending blood pouring down his face. Without thinking, she raised a glowing hand to close the wound. He stared at her for an instant and she thrust out her jaw. "Are we not on the same side?" she demanded, pivoting to sweep her staff at the feet of a cambion. There was an unpleasant snap as the creature's ankle broke; Sarevok wordlessly finished the downed demon before nodding briefly and turning his attention to the next unfortunate in his way. Jaheira sighed to herself; a common enemy could lead to the strangest of allies.
But there were more. Clawing and howling, the deaths of their fellows did not shake the demons, nor give pause to their bloodlust. Jaheira turned to stop the advance of an alu-fiend to her left – her attention diverted, another balor raked its claws across her back. They came away bloody.
"Jaheira!" Imoen shouted. At the sound of her voice, Sarevok turned and ran the balor through, his sword ripping through the demon's hide. Balthazar nimbly dodged through the press of enemies to pull the druid back to check her wounds. Her mail was rent and ragged, her padded undershirt soaked with blood. She gripped her staff with white knuckled hands, and seemed to have trouble catching her breath.
Imoen slung her bow over her shoulder and held out her hand to Kelsey. "Desperate measures, Red."
Kelsey eyed her outstretched hand dubiously. "Are you sure about this, Imoen?"
"No time like the present."
He took her small hand in his, focusing all his magic on it, as she began to chant an incantation. He closed his eyes, listening to the familiar rise and fall of the arcane words; he was familiar with the spell, but timing was everything if their experiment was going to work. As she reached the final syllable, sparks gathered on the fingertips of her free hand. Even with his eyes closed, he could sense them, and with the last word, he opened the door on his own magic, letting it pour through their joined hands. "Sarevok!" Imoen gritted, "OUT OF THE WAY!"
A bolt of blue-white lightning so wide it might have more properly been called a sheet cracked from her hand, arcing through the throng of demons; Sarevok barely escaped its path. A boom of thunder loud enough to make the ears ache drowned out the agonized screams of the creatures in its wake. Kelsey had to physically pry his tingling hand free from Imoen's as she panted, surveying the carnage. "Damn," she grinned, "we are good."
Kelsey allowed himself a chuckle. "Yeah, we get by." He looked towards Jaheira and Balthazar; he was helping her drink a second potion. "How is she?" he called.
"I will live," Jaheira gasped hoarsely. "We cannot stop now. We are not finished."
Melissan's eyes swept the carnage, the motion not going unnoticed. "What's wrong, Melissan? My little friends killing too many of yours?" Maera couldn't resist.
"Hardly," Melissan sneered. "This is only a fraction of the force at my command." She swung the butt end of her halberd up in a long arc, then grasped it one handed, gesturing with the other. The air shuddered as four teleportation portals crackled; they closed and four blank-eyed figures stood in their places. "But who needs demons when you have something even better?"
The silent forms of Illasera, Yaga-Shura, Abazigal, and Sendai opened their eyes as one. They looked as they had in life, but their faces were blank and expressionless, their bodies unnaturally still, like marionettes waiting for the puppeteer's hand. The party slowly drew up around Jaheira, who dragged herself to her feet, leaning heavily on her staff. Kelsey gulped, his mind racing with a half dozen strategic scenarios. None of them ended well.
All eyes looked to Maera, standing in front of the Throne with Daystar held in a low guard. The sword blade trembled. Her shoulders began to shake. She was laughing.
Even the demons stared.
"Poor Melissan." Maera's voice trembled with merriment. "Everything you claim to know, and you set them on me?"
Melissan's face darkened, flushed with anger and embarrassment. "How dare you mock me? I control the essence of Bhaal now; they are my servants, subject to my will alone! You can't defeat them all! This is over!"
"That might be true. If not for a small detail." She gestured towards the motionless figures of her dead siblings with her sword. "They died by my hand, and those of my allies. They couldn't hurt me now if they wanted to. Which they don't, because they're dead and they don't care anymore." Melissan's jaw trembled, and Maera shrugged. "Don't ask me to explain how I know. I just do. I guess that's the difference between us, Melissan – I was born to play this game. You were never invited." She dismissed the four dead Bhaalspawn with a jerk of her head. "Go. You're not needed here."
Melissan screamed with rage, whipping her halberd down, and the shadows of the Slayer cloaked her entirely. Maera barely had time to parry the blow. "You are nothing!" Melissan cried. "This is my right!"
Are you going to stand for this?
"You stay out of this," Maera growled. She swung aggressively, pushing her way into the halberd's reach again, forcing Melissan to rely on the weapon's shaft, rather than its blade. "Listen to me, Amelyssan the Blackhearted," she said, her voice low and razor-edged. "You play with stolen power and think it makes you a god. But your arrogance has blinded you. You've lied so many times you believe it yourself. You do not belong here." Again, the words were not quite her own. "This is my realm."
The remaining demons seemed unsure of what to do next; Minsc solved their dilemma by beheading the nearest fiend with a cry of "Who wants some?!" Balthazar kept to Jaheira's back, keeping foes from taking advantage of her ruined armor. Kelsey sent a shower of ice into the nearer of the two cambions pressing their attack against the monk, and followed it with a carefully sized fireball. But precision control was becoming more difficult; the magic was growing slippery and harder to direct. His head swam, and if he focused on any one thing for too long, white sparks danced before his eyes. Gritting his teeth, he glanced towards Maera, hoping to see a breakthrough in her duel with Melissan.
"Imoen?" he panted nervously. She shot him a quick look as she loosed another arrow. "She's glowing."
It was the strangest sensation, much like the feeling of stretching she had experienced when her soul was returned after Irenicus's death. With every swing and block, it grew; her body seemed filled to overflowing with raw strength. She was moving faster, striking harder, aware of every muscle and bone, of the air in her lungs, of the blood singing through her veins. Of the life growing within her, its small, newly made heart beating in time with hers. Time had slowed to a crawl and her eyes could see everything; the smallest twitch of Melissan's grip on her weapon, the slightest turn of her features, all bathed in the light of the cold fire pouring through Bhaal's empty Throne, and in the light that radiated from herself, the bright opposite of Melissan's Slayer shadows. She was caught somewhere between the fierce elation of battle and a chill certainty that spread over her mind like mirror glass. It was a sensation she had felt before, but never with such clarity. This was her calling, her purpose, the reason she had been born.
It was her duty. It was her destiny.
She slammed into Melissan again, driving her shoulder into the other woman's sternum. It didn't even hurt. The former priestess fumbled for an instant with her halberd, and Maera watched it tumble out of her grip. She kicked it out of reach, forcing Melissan back, nearer the Throne. She slashed, and Melissan stumbled, landing hard, her back against the empty seat. Panic flashed in her eyes, but her face was resolute as Maera raised Daystar high for the final blow.
"This is finished!"
The solar strode up the crystalline causeway towards the Throne, her flaming sword drawn. The few remaining demons took a single look at her and vanished into the void. Imoen sagged against Kelsey's arm, Jaheira swayed slightly, and Minsc dropped his sword to support her, holding her shoulders with his huge hands. The bell-like sound of the sword striking echoed in the sudden silence.
Maera did not lower her sword. She merely turned slightly to look at the solar. Kelsey noticed with disbelief that she was not even breathing heavily. She raised an eyebrow, her face calm.
"It is done, godchild," the solar said firmly, but then her face softened slightly. "And well done, too."
"Thank you." There was something different about her voice. Kelsey couldn't put his finger on it, but it was more resonant, more present. The vast emptiness of the Throne plane should have swallowed it, and yet it seemed she filled every inch of it.
"It is within my power now to perform one of two tasks for you. In the first, I can remove the essence of Bhaal in yourself, and the stolen essence in this creature," she gave Melissan a dark look, her eyes flashing with literal fire, "delivering it to the heart of Mount Celestia. This plane will be destroyed, and Bhaal will cease to exist.
"In the second, I can deliver that portion of your sire's essence trapped in Amelyssan to you. You may make this place your Throne, and shape it in whatever way you desire." The solar bowed her head, raising her sword in a graceful salute. "And I would be proud to enter your service as your messenger and champion." She looked up, her bright face expectant. "The choice is yours, and yours alone. Maera."
Silence reigned. Maera looked at the solar, her face contemplative, her body still wreathed in the halo of light. Kelsey felt Imoen's hand tighten on his arm, and he swallowed, trying to ignore the tightness in his throat. "It's out of her hands now, isn't it?" he whispered. Imoen didn't reply, but her hand shook slightly.
This was it. The godchild sent to the mortal realm had fulfilled her purpose. He remembered her eyes, soft and warm as velvet. Please trust me, Kelsey. Was it enough that she wanted to stay? Enough that she loved him, wanted to marry him, wanted their child? Or were her own wishes unimportant in the schemes of the gods? He searched her face for his answer, and their eyes met, but only for an instant. The fire that lit her was too bright; he couldn't bear to look for longer. His eyes blurred slowly with tears as he dropped his gaze.
Finally, she spoke.
"Take it, solar."
He looked up, his heart suddenly racing. The solar tilted her head "Are you certain?"
"Bhaal is dead. He needs to stay that way."
The solar bowed deeply. "Very well. It shall be done." She stood between Maera and Melissan, taking the hand of the former before looking down at the ex-priestess. "Amelyssan, you have absorbed a divine essence into a soul not made for such. When I remove it, you will die." Melissan's jaw tightened, but she said nothing. The solar placed the palm of her large hand on Melissan's forehead, and closed her eyes.
Maera would never be able to describe what it felt like. The closest term she could think of was "deflation", but there was no negative connotation to the process. Even as all the strength and awareness flowed away, she did not feel empty, merely different. Like high tide washing out to sea, there were wonders were left in its wake, waiting for her to find them.
She fancied for an instant that she heard the Slayer scream. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking.
The sensation faded, and she stood at the foot of the empty throne, the solar beside her, Melissan's body at her feet. The solar released her hand, smiling gently, and she took an experimental breath. Glancing down at herself, she noted no physical changes. Everything seemed in working order. She turned towards her silent, watching companions, and the first eyes she met were Kelsey's.
He stared at her, concern and dread warring with the wild, desperate hope in his eyes. The corner of her mouth twitched in the beginning of a smile. "Hi," she whispered.
In three strides, he crossed the space between them, arms flung around her, mouth pressed against hers. She could feel the tears on his cheeks, taste them on his lips, and a thrill of pure, unadulterated joy raced through every fiber of her being. Kelsey's hands ran down her back, over her sides, as if he was trying to convince himself she really was there, and there was a fierce desperation in his kiss that made her knees weak and her skin electric. He drew his hands up to cup her face between them before finally pulling just far enough from her lips to murmur, "Oh my gods. Oh my gods, Maera." An elated laugh forced itself past her attempts to swallow the lump in her throat, and her chin quivered as he surveyed her features, eyes bright. "I feel a league tall," he laughed, his smile every bit as broad and joyful as her own. "You're here. You're still here." He held her face in those long-fingered hands she loved, and whispered, "My warrior woman. My love." The next words brought fresh tears to his eyes. "My wife. Mother of my child. My Maera."
She laughed again, her arms around his neck, smiling so her cheeks ached, and she was about to kiss him once more when a slim, curved bit of wood, very much like a bow, cut in between them. "You know, Kels," Imoen said, covering her sniffle with a look of disdain, "there are other people who might wanna hug her."
Kelsey wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, chuckling. "You'd better give her back."
"No promises, Red."
Imoen embraced her hard, and Maera bent her head to tuck her cheek against her sister's hair. "Thank you, Im."
Jaheira peeled Imoen away with a firm hand, ignoring her squawk of protest. She gazed up at Maera, the faintest of smiles on her lips, and said simply, "Gorion would be proud. I know that I am." Maera felt her eyes grow wet again and was about to reply when she was whisked into the air by a massive pair of arms attached to a jovial ranger.
"We have done it again!" Minsc boomed as Maera yelped. "Never has there been greater heroism than that of Maera and Minsc and Boo! And to think you do it all without a hamster of your own!"
Balthazar watched the celebration, his smile only slightly sad. "Our sisters are victorious," he commented to Sarevok. "Their joy is well earned."
"Yes." Sarevok crossed his arms, his face still. "And have we done as they deserve, monk? Have we been the brothers they needed?"
"They live to enjoy their success. I think that we have."
"Good." Sarevok watched the continued embracing a beat longer, then shook his head, a flash of ironic humor crossing his face. "The old man won." Balthazar's left eyebrow arched, and he explained. "Those two are Gorion's gamble. He bet the Realms on them. And he won."
Maera found herself disentangled enough from the others to find her way back into Kelsey's arms. Standing in the midst of their jubilant little knot, she rested her head against his and exhaled slowly. It would be days, and weeks, and longer before what had happened here truly sank in, before she could genuinely claim to have a sense of just what she had done. Maybe she never really would. Kelsey glanced at her, turning his head to kiss her cheek. "I'm so glad you decided to stay," he murmured. "I don't think I will ever been able to express how happy I am right now."
"I told you I was going to keep my word."
"I know, but there for a minute it seemed like-"
She put a finger to his lips. "You couldn't look at me. Nothing could ever be worth that." He flushed slightly and she gave him a squeeze. "Besides, I would have missed too much." She touched her abdomen, a distant look in her eye. "I could have brought her into existence with a thought, but it just wouldn't have been the same."
Kelsey's eyes widened. "Her?"
Maera cleared her throat. "Um, yeah, we should probably be thinking about girls' names."
"My children," the solar said, her voice warm and gentle, "I must depart to complete my task, and this plane will shortly be no more. It is time for you to return to the mortal plane."
"Where to, Mae?" Imoen asked, a sparkle in her blue eyes.
Maera thought for a moment, then shrugged, smiling thoughtfully. "Wherever we want."