The Shadow Over Imnesvale

Merella the ranger had lived in a cabin on the other side of the ridge from Imnesvale. It was not an easy hike, and though Kelsey was far from soft (he'd done far too much traveling for that), he was winded by the time they reached the top. Maera, on the other hand, looked remarkably vital and alive that morning, her pale gold hair sparkling in the sun, and the fact she'd insisted on going ahead of him meant the view was both glorious and torturous. She did realize those leather leggings could be the death of a man, didn't she?

No, she probably didn't. In a way, that just made it worse.

The view from the top of the ridge itself was spectacular. The Umar Hills spread before them, verdant and green, and a score of small streams and rivers flashed in the sunlight. Maera gazed off to the north, and her brow furrowed. The northern horizon seemed dark, as though storm clouds lurked over the hills, a black smudge that hung over the trees. "Jaheira?" she asked. "Are those clouds?"

Jaheira shaded her eyes with one hand, squinting. "I do not believe so. The wind is in the wrong direction, and it does not appear to be moving. We may wish to investigate."

The way down was much easier, and they made good time. The cabin itself was not large, but was sturdily built, despite being half overgrown with moss and vines. Within, the stillness was unnerving. It looked as if Merella had just stepped out for a few moments and would be back at any second. Dishes still sat on the table; a cloak lay still draped over a chair. A curled parchment on the floor caught Kelsey's eye; a quick scan of its contents proved enlightening.

"Maera! This is a letter from that adventurer the mayor mentioned last night, Mazzy Fentan. Listen to this: 'Our investigations lead me to conclude that the sightings of wolf-like creatures in conjunction with these attacks are not merely the product of over-active imaginations. But I cannot help but feel that there is some greater force at work here, and as such, in the morning my company and I will embark on a thorough search of the ruins to the north in an effort to exhaust all possibilities.'"

"The north?" Jaheira repeated, exchanging a significant look with Maera. "Interesting indeed."

"Fair friend," Yoshimo hailed Maera from the door to the bedchamber. On the floor before the bed was a broad smear of dried blood, and in it, large, lupine tracks. "I believe we now know what happened to Merella."

"Mazzy Fentan's suppositions are correct," Jaheira said. "This is certainly not the work of predators." Minsc, kneeling to examine the tracks, nodded his agreement emphatically.

They gathered for a conference in the grass outside the cabin. "I think this Mazzy was on the right track," Maera said. "I hate to lose an entire day, but we should head back to Imnesvale, inform the mayor of our findings, and set out for these ruins in the morning. Maybe I'm being overly cautious, but there's something about that darkness to the north that makes me think it would be a bad idea to be there at night." She looked around. "Are we agreed?" Heads nodded in assent, and they returned to Imnesvale with their new intelligence.

There was a small stable yard to the side of the inn, which was really more for the innkeeper's horses than anything else. But there was enough flat, open space that Maera felt she could get some good practice. She waited until the sun was low, staining the sky pink orange. She stretched, rolling her neck and shoulders, then relaxed, concentrating. Gorion may not have been able to teach her magic, but he had succeeded in teaching her the self-awareness and control of a battle mage. She was her own weapon. And just as she did every time, when she drew her sword, she saluted his memory - fallen teacher, mentor, father. She owed him everything. It seemed more and more important lately to remember that.

She moved through the first figure. High block, low parry, overhead swing. And the second, and the third. "Watch your feet, girl!" She could still hear the Gatewarden's voice. "Gorion says you want to learn swordplay, you'd better prove it!" And she'd gritted her teeth, belligerent as only a sixteen year old could be, and proved it. Most of the scars on her hands came from those days. She was proudest of her slightly crooked right index finger; she had blocked Hull's first strike poorly and the finger had broken, but she had still beaten him in the end. She spun on her left foot, and out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of something blue. Kelsey's robes. She skidded to a stop. "How long have you been there?"

"Long enough to be impressed." His face was a mask of innocence. "I don't recognize your style."

"I don't really have one," she shrugged, sheathing her sword. "I've just learned whatever I could, and kept what worked for me." She spotted a couple of staffs leaning against the wall of the stable, and indicated them with a tilt of her head. "Wanna spar?" She was gratified to see him go a little pale.

"You could probably kill me with one blow."

"Well…maybe. But that's not the point of sparring, now is it?"

Kelsey had a very expressive face, and she amused herself trying to identify the various emotions - nervousness, a little horror, and a certain masculine pride - that danced across it. Finally, he grabbed one of the staffs and tossed it to her, which she caught one handed, and took the other for himself. "Be nice."

She couldn't help but grin. "Naturally." She made the first blow, lashing out and up, but she was pleased to see that she didn't catch him off guard. They circled each other, testing defenses, and she soon discovered he had better reflexes than she'd given him credit for. She made sure to pull her blows, however; she knew good and well that she was stronger than he. He surprised her with a flurry of strong offensives, but he didn't have a good enough grip, and she exploited the weakness by knocking the staff from his hands and bringing the butt end of her own staff to his throat.

"Big surprise," he panted, smiling, "the warrior woman wins." And simply for the fun of it, she tossed aside her staff and tackled him, knocking him to the dirt. He laughed helplessly. "Help! Abuse!" Any attempt at wrestling quickly devolved into tickling, and she found herself on top of him, holding his wrists. Their eyes met, and it suddenly seemed like an uncommonly good idea to lean down and kiss him. Something in his face told her he was thinking roughly the same thing, and she could not roll to her feet fast enough.

"I'm sorry…I got carried away, I shouldn't have…"

"No, Maera…" He got to his feet and dusted himself off. "It's okay. Really."

She smiled weakly, and fled back to her room.

What was going on here? She was supposed to be the sensible one! Maera, the cool and collected. The untouchable. The one apt to brush off even the courtliest pass, and break teeth for a boorish one. And there she was, wondering what it would be like to kiss the new guy. What was wrong with her?

She already knew the answer to that.

The truth of the matter was that she really hadn't done this sort of thing before. There'd been Dreppin back in Candlekeep, yes, but she'd been fifteen, and that had been far more about hormones than any sort of real personal connection. Unbidden, Ajantis's face rose in her memory, and she cringed inwardly at the fool she'd been then. Gods, she'd tried so hard to get his attention, but the young paladin had been far more interested in Helm then her.

But she could talk to Kelsey. Being around him And when she thought about the fact he'd seen her cry, she found it didn't bother her. Instead of the embarrassment she thought she'd feel, all she could find inside herself on that count was a strange sort of gratitude. She was glad he'd given her the chance to ease the fist she'd been keeping clenched around her heart. As much as she hated to admit it, Jaheira was right. There was a connection there. Something she couldn't quite put her finger on, but very real nonetheless.

Just when things couldn't get any more complicated.

The next day dawned crisp and bright, and initially the going was very easy. But as the day wore on, the sunlight seemed to grow dimmer and dimmer. The woods around Imnesvale teemed with all manner of birds and wildlife, but the farther north they journeyed, the quieter their surroundings become. Finally, Maera had Minsc light a torch, despite the fact it was only midday.

Kelsey shivered. "At times like this, I really wish I knew how to cast Infravision," he muttered.

"It wouldn't matter," Maera said softly. The gloom discouraged even a normal speaking voice. "If these things are what I'm starting to suspect they are, it wouldn't do any good."

The darkness deepened, like a bank of the heaviest cloud hanging over the land. Soon everyone was carrying a torch. They broke into a clearing, and there stood a wolf-like creature on its hind legs, holding the corpse of a man in its forepaws, and preparing to feed. "Werewolf!" Minsc cried, and drew his sword. The creature shuddered, growled, and in its place stood a ragged, unkempt woman with long, matted hair.

"Stay where you are!" she cried. "I have waited too long for my revenge; I will not be denied it now!"

"I'm not denying anybody anything," Maera said, holding up her hands. "What are you talking about?"

"Revenge for my pack! This land was not always like this, cursed with this unholy darkness! This is the work of the Shade Lord, and I will repay him for what he has done!"

"The Shade Lord?"

"A creature of terrible, black power," the werewolf said. Her yellow eyes narrowed. Had she still been in her wolf form, her ears would have flattened against her skull. "He killed my pack, all my beautiful children, every one! And now he uses their bodies to do his bidding. Even in death, they cannot rest. They cannot lay down and return to the earth." She gave a small, mournful howl. Pity stirred in Maera's chest, and to her right, she saw righteous anger coloring Jaheira's features.

"What's your name?" Maera asked gently.

"My name is Anath. This ground has been the territory of my pack for many years. There is an old temple here, the ruins of a place where a god of the sun was once worshiped. It is so old the god is dead and the temple is gone, save for what was under ground. That is where the Shade Lord holds court; that is where he keeps his army of shadows. It lies to the east of here." Anath gave Maera a long, calculating look. "You may come with me, if you seek vengeance as well."

"I don't seek vengeance, but I do seek to stop him, if he is truly the cause of all this trouble." Maera turned to the group, hoping the shiver that raced down her spine was not visible. "Desecrating the temple of a sun god. Oghma's books." She exhaled, and drew her sword. "Minsc, take the rear. Yoshimo, keep your eyes sharp. I'm counting on you to keep us from getting flanked. Kelsey, we're dealing with shadows, so fire is going to be our friend."

He nodded. "Got it, boss." She gave him a hard look for a moment, but there'd been no mockery in his use of the honorific. Boss, huh? She could handle that.

She simply looked at Jaheira and nodded. They stayed close, and followed the werewolf deeper into the perverse darkness.

Anath was true to her word, leading them to what had probably once been a broad courtyard. In the trees, Maera could hear the rattle of branches, and a nerve-wracking whispering and clicking, just low enough for her to wonder if she were truly hearing it or if it was imaginary. Red eyes seemed to peer behind the dead limbs, only to vanish the instant she tried to focus on them. As they climbed the shallow steps, the shadows burst forth, their hazy forms blending with the unnatural dark. But they were very solid indeed when they struck. At least two hit Maera hard, chest and knees, and she could not keep her balance against the momentum. As she fell, she saw Anath, in her wolf form once more, but the press of shadows around her almost obscured her from view. The shadows tore at the werewolf, and what fur was visible was bloody. Anath howled; the sound was cut suddenly, brutally short.

Maera had no intention of being next. She had not lost her grip on her sword, at least, and she swung in a wild arc to afford herself breathing space. She heard Minsc bellow her name, and the shrieks that rose up in his direction made it clear he was fighting his way to her. Icy claws scraped at her, chilling her to the bone, and she kicked and slashed and was almost to her feet again when she heard Kelsey shout, "Stay down!"

A dull roar passed over her head, and her nostrils were assailed by the stench of charred shadows as the fireball exploded. She regained her stance and whirled about, her sword cutting an arc through the shadows that hissed before her. She turned her head to take stock of Kelsey's position, and she saw more fire form on the palm of his outstretched hand. For an instant, she was mesmerized; it wasn't like watching Dynaheir or Imoen cast at all. There were no careful, precise arcane gestures; it was almost organic, in a way, as if he were pulling the fire from the very air around him. She could swear it was breathing in time with him. It was quite possibly the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

"Maera!" Yoshimo called. "We must descend!" The party raced for the stairs, the last of the shadows wailing in agony as Kelsey set them aflame.

She leaned against the wall to catch her breath. Now that the first surge of adrenaline had worn off, she could feel the sting of the wounds on her exposed skin, deep scratches across her face and neck. She wiped the blood from her eyes and looked about as Minsc and Yoshimo lit fresh torches. "They got Anath, didn't they?" Jaheira nodded soberly and handed her a healing potion. She took a long swig before stoppering the bottle and stowing it in a belt pouch. "Well. Now for the fun part."

The lower level had once been a training area, it seemed, and likely there had been cells for the priests. Now the floors were uneven and the corridors half-blocked with crumbled stonework, and all around the shadows seemed to have eyes. Yoshimo scouted ahead, almost invisible himself in the dark. They came to a closed door, and he put his ear to it, eyes narrowed. "There are at least two on the other side. We must be prepared."

Maera pointed to herself and Minsc. "We'll go first. There's no way to sneak, so we may as well get their attention. Minsc, kick it down."

Minsc positively glowed at the chance. His enormous chest swelled as he roared a battle cry and kicked the door into splinters. "BUTTKICKING FOR GOODNESS!"

The pair of shadows on the other side never had a chance. Minsc and Maera had them dispatched before the others even came through the doorframe. Something glinted on the floor, a key, dropped by a dead shadow. As if in answer to the unanswered question of which door it belonged to, there came a pounding on the door to their right, from the inside. "Who's there?" cried a muffled voice.

Maera unlocked the door, and the flickering light of Kelsey's torch revealed a halfling woman. Her face was grimy and her shock of auburn hair was matted, but her bearing was proud. "Hail, friends. That is to say, I hope you are friends. At the very least, I see you are not shadows."

"No, we're here on behalf of the people of Imnesvale. May I ask who you are?"

"I am Mazzy Fentan, and I am a servant of justice and righteousness." The look on the halfling's face made it apparent she was ready to defend herself from any misplaced guffaw or chuckle at her expense.

Maera had no intention of doing either. "So you're the famous Mazzy Fentan. We came here on the strength of your letter to Merella. What happened to your party?"

Mazzy's face fell. "The Shade Lord defeated us. He is a powerful creature, and works on the mind. He killed my companions and now uses their bodies as his servants. He must possess a living body, himself, but his unnatural state slays the host before long. He called me his 'consort', but I believe he intends me for his next host, when the one he has wears out!" She shuddered. "As you can see, it is an ugly business."

"What do you know about this place?"

"Only that it was a temple of the god Amaunator in ancient days. I believe he was supplanted by your Lathander – I'm afraid I'm not as familiar with the human pantheon as I should be." Her expression became thoughtful. "I was…confused at the time I was brought to this cell, but I believe we must go through this complex to reach the altar the Shade Lord has perverted for himself. That is…if you would allow me to accompany you. I very much desire to see the Shade Lord brought low." Taking Maera's pause for doubt, the halfling brought up her chin. "I am more than capable of handling myself. I am a knight, a Truesword in the service of Arvoreen the Defender, and I can be of use to you!"

Maera hadn't needed winning over, but she was impressed all the same. "I don't doubt that, Lady Knight. We should get moving."

Mazzy's gear had been tossed unceremoniously in a dank corner of the room, and she clucked her tongue at the condition of her mail shirt as she pulled it over her head. But her small sword gleamed in the torchlight as if it had been freshly sharpened and oiled; when Yoshimo commented on it, the halfling smiled grimly and said, "This blade was a gift of my god. Not even these abominations can do it harm."

They pressed on through the dank, shadow-choked rooms. Maera had gained more than a passing acquaintance with dark, underground places in her brief adventuring career, but experience failed to make them more enjoyable. Once there had been open skylights to allow the sun to pour in on the faithful of Amaunator, but now they were collapsed, filling the corridors with rubble. Holy runes had been carved onto the walls, but they had been defiled with crude scratchings. She shivered as they passed a defaced frieze. Maybe it was her own strange link to the divine, but such sights always made her queasy.

The rubble and detritus in the corridors caused their path to twist at odd angles, and more than once, they had to quietly deal with small groups of shadows in both wolf and man form. It was rough, cautious going through the warren, and several times Minsc only barely fit through the gaps that afforded them passage. He looked infinitely relieved when they came upon a large, round chamber, where a rough-hewn crystal glowed dimly on a plinth before them. "I remember this place," Mazzy said softly. "We should go this way," She indicated the doorway to their right. "This passage leads to the altar, I believe."

But before they had gone twenty feet, they found they could progress no further. The darkness was so profound as to be impenetrable. Maera reached out, only to touch something cold and solid. The chill stung even through her gauntlet. She glanced at the halfling. "Are you sure, Mazzy?"

Doubt crept over Mazzy's face. "I…"

"I have an idea," Kelsey announced to no one in particular, and suddenly turned and headed back into the round chamber.

"Kelsey!" Maera hissed. He came jogging back with the crystal from the plinth in his hand. She grabbed the shoulder of his robes, and gave him a brief, disciplinary shake. "Don't DO that!"

He looked appropriately crestfallen. "Sorry. I wasn't thinking. Let me see if I'm right, though." He thrust the crystal at the shadowy barrier, and with a faint crystalline twinkle, the barrier disappeared.

"Excellent thinking, my friend!" Mazzy crowed. "Let us onward. We may yet see the end of this."

Amaunator's altar had likely once been a thing of great beauty. A figure of the god, arms stretched to cradle the faithful, was crowned with a golden sunburst. Now it crouched under the pall of darkness, corroded and blackened, the rays of the sunburst twisted and broken. Its degraded state struck Maera to the heart as the group climbed the steps out of the temple's underground and up the altar platform. A dark figure stood before the ruined statue, its outlines oddly fuzzy, as if its being could not quite fit in the form it inhabited. Other shadows chittered and hissed around them.

"So, my dear knight miniature has escaped. A pity. But now you bring new friends to join us… That's very considerate of you."

"Fiend!" Mazzy spat. "I will destroy you!"

"It isn't so bad, Mazzy," whispered a shade. "You can still join us."

The small knight started, her face going pale and her eyes widening with horror. "Patrick? Oh, Patrick, what has he done to you?"

"Only what I always do, dear Lady Knight. Expand my family." Suddenly it seemed to Maera to be an awfully good idea to put down her sword, sink to her knees, and just rest…it had been such a long day…such a long week…rest would be so nice, and all this fighting was really pointless…

"NO!" She was snapped back into reality by Mazzy's fierce, ragged cry. "I will not let you do this! Not again! Arvoreen! I strike in your name!" She flew at the Shade Lord, a three and a half foot tall streak of pure righteous fury. Kelsey seemed to have regained his wits as well, because she heard three shadows in front of her suddenly shriek as arrows of pure flame embedded in their nebulous bodies. Jaheira had rushed to Mazzy's aid, but none of their blows seemed to be doing any damage. Maera watched their futile struggle for a moment, and then it came to her. It was the altar. The Shade Lord had drawn his power from polluting something holy. It was worth a shot.

She scrambled up the base of the sunburst statue, and drove her blade into the metal altar with all her strength. The screech of pain from the Shade Lord drowned out the squeal of rent metal, and was proof enough that it had worked. She leapt down to help Jaheira and Mazzy finish the creature off. Jaheira knocked its feet from beneath it, and Mazzy, her face gone cold as an executioner's, plunged her sword through the Shade Lord's chest.

The remaining shadows wailed and hissed as the air grew lighter. It was like watching a sunrise at double speed, and within moments, the Shade Lord's darkness had fled. Mazzy gazed down at the body that had been the Shade Lord. The cloak of shadows gone, they could recognize it for what it was - a woman in hunter's leathers, her dark hair pulled into a simple braid. "Poor Merella," Mazzy said softly. "Even you."

They stood on the altar platform in reflective silence, all save Yoshimo, who poked about the base of the altar with a bit of scavenged metal. There was a sudden crunch, and the thief whistled quietly. "Fair Maera," he said, bowing gracefully in her direction, "I shall hereafter defer to your wisdom in all things."

"What are you taking about, Yo-" She didn't bother finishing her sentence. In his explorations, Yoshimo had opened a small hollow in the stone base of the altar that contained a pile of sapphires, diamonds, and an assortment of other stones.

"There were indeed coins here that we could not see," Yoshimo laughed.

They remained at the altar that evening. Minsc insisted on building a pyre for Merella's body, so her ashes might remain with nature, and Mazzy declared that Patrick and her other fallen companions should have a similar end. The sun slipped towards the horizon, and in the distance, a wood dove tentatively began to coo, as if unsure the darkness was truly gone. Mazzy stood apart from the others, watching the pyre burn, and though Maera was loathe to intrude on the halfling's vigil, she felt drawn nonetheless.

"It's hard to lose companions. People you've traveled with. People you've trusted your life to. For what it's worth, Mazzy, I'm sorry that you have."

Mazzy did not immediately reply, and Maera prepared to withdraw. "I thank you," she said finally. She looked up at Maera, and though her face was composed, her eyes glistened. "I take it you speak from experience?"


"Tell me. Does it get better?"

"I don't know yet," Maera replied honestly. "I'll let you know when I find out."

The journey back to Imnesvale was far easier and much more jovial than the previous trip. Minsc and Yoshimo extolled Boo's bravery in the fight with the Shade Lord, Mazzy told Jaheira of the druid grove that was located near her hometown of Trademeet, and Kelsey and Maera walked shoulder to shoulder, arms brushing occasionally. They were both trying to act as if they didn't notice.

All of Imnesvale was waiting for them when they returned. Apparently Delon had been watching for their approach and alerted the mayor, and in the end, the whole town, tent-dwellers and all, had turned out. Maera acquainted them with the source of their troubles, and gave a brief summary of how they had defeated it. She told them of Merella's fate, and Mazzy's role in the Shade Lord's downfall, and Minister Lloyd offered her a small sack of coins and a wrapped package. "We cannot offer much gold, my Lady, but we gladly give you this. The package contains a leather armor that has been in my family for generations. It is enchanted, and I hope it will serve you well." Someone in the crowd whooped, and applause soon swept through the assembly.

There was cheering, there was toasting, and what had begun as a quiet ceremony ended a raucous party involving a bonfire on the village green and several very large casks of ale. Maera sought solitude behind the inn, and she was fairly certain that the rest of the party had dispersed as well, but at that point, the celebration really didn't need them.

"This seems like a good hiding place."

She started. "Kelsey! How did you do that?"

"Magic. Kidding! I don't really know how to do spells like that." He sat in the dirt beside her and handed her a mug. "Thirsty?"

"Definitely." She smiled and took a drink. They brewed a good ale in the Hills.

"So, is this what always happens after doing heroic things?"

"Well, there was a pretty big party in Baldur's Gate after we beat Sarevok, but that was mainly Duke Eltan's doing. I think the majority of the people had no idea what was going on until long after it was over. And things like that never seem so threatening when you find out about them after the fact." She stared up at the sky. "It's funny. I really don't think of what we do as heroic. I mean, I guess it is, but that's not why I do it. It's just…what I do. It's the only thing I can do, because the alternative…" She drew her knees up to her chest, and set her mug on the ground. "The alternative really isn't an option. I could hurt so many people, so easily, and no one could stop me." She shook her head. "No, that's not an option."

"I know how you feel," he said, staring into his mug. "It seems like the only magic I can cast is designed to hurt people. What does that say about me? Does it mean that, underneath it all, that's what I want?"

She looked at him with surprise. "I don't think so. Nobody really understands sorcery or how it works, Kelsey. It's one of those mysteries of the planes. But I don't think the magic you can use is necessarily a reflection of your personality."

He absently drew circles in the dirt with a fingertip. "I guess there's still that part of me that wishes it would just go away."

She put her hand over his, stopping him mid-circle. "It won't. I've learned the hard way that you can't change what you are. It's something you were born with. It's a part of you. You're a sorcerer, Kelsey. Be one. That you have this power is not your decision. Only how you use it."

He opened his mouth to reply, thought better of it, and nodded thoughtfully. They fell into silence, and both propped their heads against the inn wall, looking up at the stars. She left her hand on top of his. He didn't seem to mind. The villagers of Imnesvale were still celebrating, but it was pleasantly quiet in their hiding place. "I'm about to ask you a very personal question, Maera, and if you don't want to answer it, I will completely understand."


"Do you remember the first time you killed someone?"

"Better than a lot of much more pleasant memories." She sighed softly. "The day Gorion and I left Candlekeep, there was a man in the visitor barracks with a knife. I had to wrestle it away from him, bash his head into a table, and gut him with his own dagger. That was when I understood why we were leaving. Candlekeep had always been safe. But it wasn't anymore. Not for me." She took a long, steadying drink from her mug. "I've gotten used to what it feels like to make a killing blow, but I will never forget how hard I had to push that knife into him. Not as long as I live." She looked at him. "What about you?"

"I was at one of my family's shops in Westgate, and two bandits walked in. Broad daylight. There were no guards, just me and some customers. I'd just learned I could make acid arrows, and without thinking, I fired one at the closest bandit. It caught him in the throat. I can't begin to describe the noises he made. It was…horrifying. And the look on the other one's face…he looked at me like I was some kind of monster. Afterwards, when it hit me – what I'd done - I was hysterical. I wanted to kill myself. I thought he was right. I was a monster. I had to be."

"Ugh." Her lips curled in pained sympathy. "That's awful. But, it may not have been pretty, or clean, but you were protecting people. People who probably couldn't have defended themselves otherwise. That's not monstrous, Kelsey. That's…responsible."

He turned his head to meet her eyes, as if seeing something he hadn't before. "Thank you." The gaze held; Maera had never known just how much one could see, simply looking into another's eyes. She felt a twinge of something almost like regret when he finally looked away.

The night was growing chilly, and it felt good to sit close, together. Her head drooped drowsily, coming to rest against his shoulder, and she decided (after an instant of something that felt suspiciously like panic) to leave it there and let him be the one to move. He shifted slightly, and she prepared herself for disappointment, but then she felt a light pressure on the crown of her head. It took her a moment to realize it was his cheek, resting against her hair. She let her eyes close. She could get used to this. "It's funny," he said, "that we seem to have so much in common, in some ways. I like that - ever since I started casting, I haven't really felt like I had much in common with anyone."

Maera smiled. "I guess us weirdos have to stick together."

"You're not weird," he chuckled.

"Weirder than you think." And though she tried to fight it off, she yawned, and tried to hide behind her hand.

"Uh oh," Kelsey said. "Looks like we need to get you to bed."

He stood, and she let him pull her to her feet. She stifled another yawn, and said, "Mazzy asked me earlier if we would like to accompany her to Trademeet. That's where she's from, apparently. I told her I'd think about it."

"That actually wouldn't be a bad idea," Kelsey remarked. "Trademeet sits on the junction of four major caravan routes. We'd probably get a much better price on those gems Yoshimo found there than in Athkatla."

"You, sir," Maera said as they made their way into the inn, "are a fount of useful information."

"I try."

Kelsey woke early the next morning. The thoroughfare was surprisingly busy, given the party the night before, but the people of the Hills were in a hurry to return to their homes, and the tents and shanties were coming down at a remarkable pace. Maera emerged from her room, and something about her looked different. Gone were the battered beigey tan leathers he's grown accustomed to. She was dressed in dark brown, almost the color of her eyes – jerkin, leggings, and corselet, which clung to her curves in a truly unfair fashion. Involuntarily, he let out a slow whistle of approval. She whirled about like a débutante in a silk gown, grinning. "Is that the armor the mayor gave you?" he asked.

"Isn't it gorgeous?" she enthused.

He couldn't tear his eyes away. "Yes, it is."

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