The Shadowmaster's Guild
Maera tried very purposefully to keep her mind blank as Yoshimo led them through the streets to Athkatla's docks. No rehearsing the conversation – it was better instead to simply be ready for anything. Nothing could surprise her if she had no expectations.
The Shadow Thieves' headquarters was a large, cavernous building in the northwest part of the district. The thief standing guard seemed to know them before they even introduced themselves, and his apparent pleasure to see them was slightly unnerving. The interior of the windowless structure was not so much furnished as vaguely inhabited – the stacked crates and plank tables could be disassembled in moments. They were directed through a draped doorway that led to the basement stairs. Just inside the drapery, another, younger thief, whose immaculately maintained hood indicated deep pride in its no doubt recent acquisition, challenged them sharply. "I'm going to need some proof that you are who you say you are."
"Other than this?" Jaheira exhibited the key. The young man swallowed, his five minutes of guarding glory already fading before his eyes.
"Don't be an ass, Declan. You know who they are."
They didn't even see her until she moved. The female speaker lightly leapt down from her perch at the top of a stack of crates, and pushed back her hood.
"I was just-" Declan's face was red.
"Yes, you were very fearsome. I'll make sure you get a cookie later." Maera had to bite her tongue to keep her face straight; the woman turned to face her with a cool, detached smile that almost managed to reach eyes tightened with stress. "My name is Sime. Yours is Maera. There. We've been introduced. Now if you'll follow me, please, he's expecting you."
She led them down the stairs to a common area that apparently had its own kitchen, and through a back door. "You can look around later, if you like," she said as they walked down a hallway so long it bordered on parody. "But we should really get the formalities out of the way first." The corridor finally approached its end, and she knocked a syncopated rhythm on the ebony door, which was answered by a knock from within. The door swung open, and Sime gestured with one black-gloved hand. "After you."
There were a half dozen people in Aran Linvail's painfully well-appointed chamber, but the man himself was easy to spot. He was the only one who was smiling. He was fair-haired, and utterly average in appearance. His features seemed designed to slide from memory as soon as the eyes beheld them, and they would have, if not for his eyes, steel sharp and bright with a dangerous intelligence. Thieving was the ultimate meritocracy, provided one survived, and he had done better than that. "And you would be Maera of Candlekeep," he said pleasantly. "Or do you prefer Baldur's Gate these days?"
"Seeing as I'm neither place, it doesn't really matter."
He inclined his head. "As you will. Care to introduce me to your companions?"
Maera could see no point in delicacy. "You already know who they are."
"True. But even the slightest veneer of civilization is preferable to none at all, isn't it?" Maera sighed and made a cursory circuit of introduction, Linvail greeting each in turn with remarkable sincerity. "Was that so bad?" he asked mildly.
He wasn't trying to kill her with kindness per se, but Maera could see the edges of machination in his hospitality. Which meant he probably intended for her to do so. "We're here to do business, Linvail," she said, echoing his calm tone. "I've been operating in the dark for far longer than I'd prefer to, so shall we?"
A flash of smile passed his eyes without his expression ever changing. "Absolutely. Bayle has relieved you of your hard-earned coin – and by the way, Sime, you'll want to make sure he hasn't filed any of it."
Sime leaned against the wall near the door with apparent indolence. "He'll behave himself. We had a nice chat after last time."
"I'm sure the conversation was quite bracing." Linvail's attention flicked back to Maera as if it had never been elsewhere. "Having dispensed with the financials, there remains the larger issue facing us all."
"Bodhi's 'war in the streets'," Maera replied.
"Yes. I'll admit, she surprised me. I knew she would attempt to make contact. I did not expect it would be this very evening."
"And why would you think that she'd do that?"
"Your reputation precedes you."
"She asked for our help against your guild," Jaheira said. "I imagine there is a similar expectation awaiting us here?"
"I'm afraid so. Would that I could simply sell you information regarding your friend's whereabouts, but that is not a possibility."
"But you knew you couldn't," Maera said. The wheels were turning in her mind, and she wondered if the sense of the Shadowmaster she was getting was accurate. "Right from the beginning. You knew when you sent Bayle to us that you would need our help. So I'm guessing that the money was just a test, and the information just bait. So I have to ask: do you really intend to help me find Imoen, or are you just holding her hostage too?"
Linvail's slow smile was that of a teacher pleased with a student's insight. "One: yes, I did know. This business with Bodhi has been simmering for some time time now, even before you appeared here in Athkatla, though we didn't have a name for her until quite recently. Letting me learn her identity was the first step in escalation, but now that she's made herself known to you, I suspect she is transitioning into open warfare. And before you ask, no, I do not know why you personally are important to her plans, but it is apparent that you are. Your name has come up repeatedly. I suspect it is because of your heritage, but obviously, I can't prove that."
Jaheira, whose posture was always extraordinarily correct, stood even straighter. "What do you mean by that, Linvail?"
The Shadowmaster looked wounded. "Peace, my lady! I meant no disrespect. I did not know the Child of Bhaal issue was a forbidden topic."
Minsc glowered. "Boo does not like those who throw about that name. It makes him itch for eyeballs."
"How interesting," Linvail remarked, unruffled. "As for your second question, Maera, yes, I do intend to help you recover your friend. I appreciate that it seems I am dangling her just out of your reach, and I hope you will appreciate why."
He met her eyes, and she let him look, let him read her. Go on, his gaze seemed to say, surprise me. All right then. "You mean other than the fact you're a slippery, self-serving son of a bitch?"
For a single, shocked second, there was a profound silence. Then the air sang with drawn weaponry as the near invisible thieves lining the room pulled knives from places Maera probably did not want to know about. Quick, imminent violence loomed like a thunderstorm. Aran Linvail laughed.
"Oh, I like her," he said to Sime, who had conspicuously not armed herself. He looked back at Maera. "Are you always this much fun, or did I just catch you on a good day?"
She chuckled, relieved beyond the telling of it and determined not to let it show. "You should see me when I'm in a good mood." The daggers disappeared and she let herself breath again. "I may not like it, but I understand. You can't help me until I help you. Fine. As long as we understand each other's motives, I think we can work together."
The Shadowmaster smiled. "That's all I can ask. We'll talk real business in the morning – You've had a long day."
And somewhere on that desk, Maera was sure there was an itemized list that proved it. He probably knew what she'd had for breakfast. "I do have one more question," she said.
"Bodhi scares you, doesn't she?"
"Scares me? Never," he said lightly. His face darkened, and something genuine flickered across it, though whether it was fear or anger, she couldn't tell. "But I claimed this guild from the ashes. It was the making of me, just as I made it. I will not lose it."
They retired to a small, anonymous inn just outside the district walls. The common room was cozy, and populated only by a few small clutches of obvious regulars. Kelsey sat at a table with Minsc, and he felt bad for listening to the ranger's story with only one ear, but he couldn't stop glancing towards the fireplace, and the long bench in front of it where Maera sat with Jaheira.
"…and that was when we burst in heroically! Boo always says a good entrance is vital for proper heroing." Minsc swept his hand over the table for effect, and Kelsey had to quickly rescue his drink from becoming a casualty.
"Well, yes, heroes are frequently known for their entrances." He took a drink, and noted activity in front of the fireplace. Jaheira said something, and Maera shook her head. Consternation crossed the druid's face, and she spoke again, more forcefully, only to be met with silence and averted eyes. Standing, Jaheira tossed up her hands and turned for the stairs.
"Jaheira, I'm sorry," Maera said, loudly enough to carry.
"It is not apology I seek, Maera," Jaheira responded over her shoulder. "Good night." But as she faced the stairs once more, she shot a quick look towards Kelsey and Minsc's table, catching Kelsey's eye. She gave a tiny jerk of her head, the motion almost imperceptible, back towards Maera. Dumbfounded, Kelsey pointed to himself, and Jaheira nodded, her expression saying, as clearly as if she'd spoken, you try.
Kelsey blinked in surprise, then stood quickly. "Minsc, will you excuse me?"
Maera sat hunched forward, her elbows resting on her knees. She looked over at him as he took Jaheira's vacated seat on the bench, greeting him with a weary, "Hey."
"Hi. Wanna tell me what's on your mind?"
"What's not on my mind would be a better question." She exhaled a long breath. "I'm just so tired of being pulled back and forth. Do this, do that. I'll help you, but you have to help me first. It's maddening." She scrubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. "But…I guess that's what I get for assuming this would be easy." She shot him an apologetic half-smile. "I'm sorry I've gotten you mixed up in this, Kelsey."
"It was one thing to drag you all over the countryside before…I mean, that's adventuring. But now…thieves and vampires and cloak and dagger wars in the streets, that's-"
"That's adventuring, too, isn't it?" He turned slightly on the bench to face her. "Maera, I didn't ask to join your party for fun. I meant what I said. I wanted to help you, and I still do." He leaned forward slightly, hoping to lighten the mood. "Besides, if I'd quit just because of the Shadow Thieves, I would have missed watching you call the Shadowmaster of Amn a son of a bitch to his face." It worked; she chuckled tiredly. "I cannot believe you did that."
She smiled faintly. "It was a gamble. It's a good thing I read him right."
"No kidding. For a minute there, I honestly thought we were all going to die."
"You and me both."
Encouraged by her good humor, he decided to try for what Jaheira had obviously been advocating. "He was right, though - It's been a long day. Why don't you go to bed?"
She looked away, a metaphorical portcullis slamming down behind her eyes. "I don't feel like it."
He refused to be deterred. She couldn't win them all. "You're exhausted, Maera."
"Kelsey, it's very sweet that you're willing to look out for me, but also very unnecessary," she said shortly.
He sighed heavily. He hadn't wanted to do this, but there was no point in tiptoeing around the issue. "You're having nightmares, aren't you?"
She shot him a razor-edged glare. "What, are you spying on me?" It stung, but he forced himself not to drop his gaze, and kept talking.
"It's hard to miss when the person in the next tent wakes up screaming."
The fight drained from her like water from a cracked cup. Her shoulders slumped and briefly, he hated himself. "Oh gods, you heard me?"
"Are they-" He lowered his voice. "Are they because of Bhaal? Like the other ones you told me about?" She nodded. "But these are worse."
Suddenly, he understood. "Jaheira asked about them. You didn't want to tell her."
"She shouldn't have to worry about me."
"But she asked."
"I can't do that to her anymore."
"Why don't you let her decide that?"
Tearful frustration clipped her words. "They were married for twenty-eight years, Kelsey. I can't."
And the whole tortured knot unraveled, revealing its heart. "Okay. Then can you tell me?"
"You'll think I'm crazy."
"So, I care what you think of me!" she shot back. She flushed, and stared hard at the floor.
Now was the time to weigh his words. He spoke tentatively, feeling out the ground before him as best he could. "I think…that this is something you need to talk about, and that's what matters to me. You matter to me. So if you decide you don't want to tell me, I understand, but…the offer stands."
She looked into the fire in silence for what seemed like an eternity, wrestling with her answer. "They'd gone away for a while," she whispered finally. "They do that. I'll go weeks without one sometimes, and then they're back. Sometimes I dream about people I know, and things that have already happened, but it won't be my memories. It's like seeing my life through a different set of eyes, and those eyes belong to someone who just wants to let the world drown in blood and laugh while it happens. And sometimes, in my dreams, that someone is me. Or another me. It's…it's hard to explain." She laughed raggedly. "I'm trying really hard not to sound crazy."
He gave her an encouraging smile. "It's okay. Keep going."
"The past few nights it's been Irenicus. He has Imoen. And he…" Her voice broke, and she forced back the sob as she raised her head, eyes shining with anger tears. "He's a mage! Why does he use a knife? And why do I just stand there and watch? What kind of monster just watches?!"
It was not, oddly enough, pity or sympathy Kelsey felt as he watched her. Rather, a slow, simmering anger roiled inside him – it wasn't fair. On some fundamental level, it was not right that someone with so much good in her, so much life, and wit, and courage, should be plagued so she could not bring herself to face the simple act of sleep. Kelsey reached out, and touched her cheek. She flinched, then leaned against his hand, closing her eyes. "If I'm not a monster, then neither are you," he said softly.
She opened her eyes, and in one quick motion, wrapped her arms around him, draped one long leg over his, and buried her face against his neck. He started in surprised pleasure, and returned the embrace. Talking had just become a lot less important.
It felt good. That was the sum total of his cognitive process on the matter; it felt good. Good to be so close, good to give her comfort, good to know she trusted him. He wasn't sure how long they sat in silence; whether it was a few moments or hours, he didn't care. It wasn't until a barmaid passed, collecting empty mugs, and stopped at the sight of them to press a sentimental hand to her lips that he looked down, and noticed that Maera had fallen asleep. He squeezed her upper arm gently.
"Maera," he whispered. "How about going to bed now?"
"Mmmph," she replied articulately.
"C'mon," he encouraged, nudging her to a stand. She swayed hazily up the stairs, his hands on her shoulders. Her room was halfway down the hall, and when they got there, he politely turned his back for her to undress, trying very hard not to think about what was going on behind him. He heard her climb between the sheets, and turned back to wish her a good night. She lay on her side, one hand outstretched on the coverlet.
"Don't go," she said, her eyes half-closed.
He froze. How would that look? How would the others react? "Uh…"
She didn't need to say anything else. Appearances could go to the Abyss. He removed his robe, draping it carefully across a chair, and pulled off his boots, before climbing into the narrow bed beside her. She tucked herself against his side drowsily, and he lay there, idly stroking her hair, realizing that this just provided additional conformation of their joint insanity. But another part of his mind was more happily engaged in wondering if there was an afterlife like this, because he wouldn't mind that at all.
Maera lay awake, watching Kelsey sleep in the chilly gray light of dawn. She could tell herself she didn't know why she had asked him to stay, but she knew that would be a lie. She had been so comfortable, so at ease, more relaxed than she'd been since this whole mess began, and she simply hadn't wanted it to end. It was probably presumptuous, and unfair; she shouldn't have taken advantage of…whatever it was that was going on between them. Mutual interest? Flirtation? Courting? She shook her head. Those were things for normal people. Not Bhaalspawn adventurers who couldn't throw a rock without hitting someone who wanted to vivisect her in the name of alchemy, religion, or mere twisted curiosity. Or power. The ones after some vague, unspecified power were her personal favorites. But then, there were certain merchant sorcerers born in a country with rather odd views on magic who probably knew how that felt…
And there it was. He understood. He knew what it felt like to fear one's own self and the loss of control. What it felt like to know that underneath the surface, something lurked, and wondering if anyone could tell just by looking.
She had woken once in the night, the tendrils of the nightmare still clinging to her. He had stirred, and sleepily tightened his arms around her. "It's okay," he'd murmured, still half-asleep. "I've got you."
"Yeah, you do," she said softly, touching his cheek. He turned his head against her hand in his sleep, stubble scratching her fingertips, and she couldn't help but smile. She slipped out of bed and tugged on her leggings, padding on stocking feet out into the hall. There she saw Jaheira leaving her room.
"Good morning, Maera."
"Morning, Jaheira." They walked in silence down the stairs into the slowly awakening common room. "Jaheira, I know you said you don't want an apology, but I owe you one anyway."
"And why is that?"
"Because of last night. Because I was being an idiot."
"This is a marked improvement. Did you sleep well?"
Maera narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Are you making fun of me?"
No one could make a single raised eyebrow mean as much as Jaheira could. "Me?" She stopped Maera with a light hand on her arm, looking up at her with that familiar unflinching gaze. "How do things stand between you and Kelsey?"
So she'd noticed that. "They're…good." Maera flushed and looked at her feet. "Very good. I-I like him a lot, Jaheira, and-" She bit her lip self-consciously and glanced back at Jaheira. "I've wanted to talk to you about it…it's just felt awkward, under the circumstances. I…haven't wanted to intrude."
Jaheira sighed. "Change is merely the turning of life's cycles. All I can do is reconcile myself to his absence," she said softly. "But," she continued, her tone strengthening, "that does not mean you should wallow in guilt like some overzealous Ilmaterian. You have a right to happiness, and you have quite enough real concerns without adding imaginary ones!" She shooed Maera with her hands. "Now go eat your breakfast." Maera smiled and took a few steps before Jaheira said, "Actually, wait a moment." She ducked into her room and returned with a small bottle, which she pressed into Maera's hands. "Take two spoonfuls the morning after, every time," she said quietly.
"Morning after…? Oh!" Maera flushed crimson. "Jaheira!" she hissed. "We're not…we haven't…"
"You will." Jaheira swept off to towards the stairs, leaving Maera bright red and utterly speechless.
Maera seemed deeply embarrassed about something as they returned to the Shadow Thieves' headquarters to meet with Aran Linvail, but she refused to tell Kelsey what it was or why Jaheira was oddly smug. He didn't mind terribly, though; he was still flying high from discovering a scrap of paper in his robe's outer pocket that simply read "Thank you." She had lovely, if surprisingly old-fashioned, handwriting.
Declan the Fierce was nowhere to be seen that morning, but Sime was waiting for them in the basement common. Back down the corridor to the ebony door they went, and into Aran Linvail's study. "Did you know," he said without looking up from the papers on his desk, "that the Cowled Wizards actually charge us a licensing fee? It really is ridiculous, if you think about it." His head came up, and he smiled at them brightly. "Have a seat wherever you like. We're partners now, after all, so there's no need for ceremony."
"Then I would say, partner," Maera said, choosing a beautifully carved wingback chair, "that we should start with what we know."
"An appreciation for the power of information," he said. "I like that. Very well. We know vanishingly little about Bodhi. As I said last night, we only learned her name in the past week. She simply appeared here in Athkatla about two months ago. Normally, when dealing with incursions of this sort, the Night Knives and the like, there's a rumor trail one can trace."
"But not with Bodhi?"
"Not even a little. It's as if she never existed before she came here. At roughly the same time as her appearance, a mysterious lab is set up in the sewers beneath the Promenade. You are unfortunately far too familiar with its goings-on."
A damp, chilly cage…blood in her eyes… Maera shuddered. "I suppose we should thank you for raiding the place. I don't know if or when we would have been able to escape if you hadn't."
"Well, you can if you like, but to be perfectly honest, we weren't there for you. The timing was too convenient for my taste; I wanted to see if there was some connection between the mage and the vampire."
Jaheira's eyes widened slightly. "Is there?"
"Nothing we can prove. But I still have my suspicions."
"But you knew she was a vampire," Maera said.
"You can only find so many bodies without any blood left in them before you start drawing conclusions."
"And that's what's been happening?"
"If only it were that simple." The Shadowmaster gazed at them over steepled fingers. "The fact of the matter is that Bodhi and her…minions, for want of a better word, are disrupting this organization on a fundamental level. Unordered assassinations are occurring, with my people taking the blame. Operators who have worked for us for years are suddenly cutting ties, if not outright disappearing. My thieves can no longer go about the streets at night alone without being drawn into confrontations."
"That is a shame," Kelsey muttered. Linvail raised an amused eyebrow.
"The irony is not lost on me."
"So the next question," Maera said, shooting Kelsey a look of very mild reprimand, "is where we come into this?"
"She has an end game that she is moving towards. My instincts tell me she wants to draw us into an open conflict, because everything that has occurred thusfar smacks of softening us up." His features darkened again. "She's planted fear in our midst, and I will see her pay for that. So where do you come in? I intend to pay her back in fear. She wants you, so I will give you to her. Sword first."
Maera couldn't help but smile a little at that. Manipulative master thief or no, she liked the way his mind worked. At least what he let her see. "You want to beat her to the punch."
"Desperately. But we're not even sure where she is headquartered."
"She met us in the graveyard," Maera offered, and Linvail nodded.
"We're fairly certainly that's where she makes her lair; it makes sense, after all. But we need to know where she is. The undertombs are vast. We would waste weeks trying to pin down whatever corner of the district she's claimed. The best way to discover that may be to tail one of her guild members back to their base." He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I've received word that two of my thieves are planning to defect – another of their fellows who was in on the plan thought better of it and came to me. They are supposed to meet a contact this evening at the Five Flagons Inn on the Bridge. Perhaps they could be followed?"
Maera nodded slowly. "That's actually not a bad idea. But it'll need to be done quietly." She glanced back at Yoshimo, sitting somewhat stiffly in the chair behind her. "You and I will handle this." He nodded in quick, silent assent.
"If I may make a request?" Sime, loitering in her habitual spot near the door, spoke for the first time. She had been so quiet it seemed even Linvail had forgotten her presence. "Since you're wanting to handle Jaylos and Caehan with just two, could I possibly…borrow the rest of your party for the evening?"
Maera almost laughed at Sime's phrasing. "It's not exactly lending a book, but what did you have in mind?"
"Yes," Linvail echoed, interest lighting his dangerous eyes, "what did you have in mind, my dear?"
Sime shrugged. "Mook."
"Ah." The Shadowmaster nodded knowingly. Maera cocked her head.
"That means absolutely nothing to me."
Sime shot her a swift smile. "Mook is one of our operators on the docks. Probably the best we have. She came to me this morning to ask for extra help guarding her shipments. She was nervous and that's not like her. I told her I would see what I could do."
Maera looked to Jaheira, Minsc, and Kelsey. Jaheira spoke first. "I had no other plans for the evening."
They had an entire day to kill, and Maera released them all to enjoy their downtime before they went their separate ways that evening. Kelsey saw her enter the temple of Oghma, and decided better of following her in. Better to let her worship in peace. He did not even notice Jaheira standing beside him until she spoke.
"It is a strange thing. I have actually only known her a very short time. Two years and some odd months are nothing in the life of the earth. But I suppose I feel I have known her longer because I was aware of her through her childhood, from her foster father. I regret not being a better correspondent when Gorion was alive. I might have known her that much better if I had. Nevertheless, I promised him I would stand with her. Help her find her path." A note of quiet pride entered her voice. "She has grown so." She turned her eyes from the modest Oghamite edifice to him. "Tell me. Does her…unusual parentage worry you?"
"No," he said. "I worry more about the situations her parentage has put her into than her parentage itself."
She eyed him a moment, and nodded once. He felt as though he had passed some sort of test. "It is apparent you are much taken with her, so it is best that I say this now." She leaned closer, and said a low tone, "As a druid, I will not interfere in any choice she makes, because her role in the greater balance is yet unknown. But as her friend, I tell you this. If you hurt her, the beating you will receive at my hands will leave you lingering in agony for days before death finally comes for you. Am I understood?"
He nodded weakly. "Yes, ma'am."
"Good," Jaheira said, and walked away.
"You look as if you are the only hen in a room full of foxes, fair friend," Yoshimo said, passing Maera her ale with a jovial smile.
"Sorry." She took a quick pull of her drink. "'Act natural' is apparently easier said than done." She and Yoshimo sat at the bar in the bustling common room of the Five Flagons, trying to look like they were just enjoying a night out, rather than on business. She attempted not to be obvious as she scanned the common room yet again for the now infamous Jaylos and Caehan.
"You should relax. This will be an easy night's work."
She tilted a curious look towards the thief. "You're in a good mood all of the sudden."
"The hunt is on," he said, punctuating his reply with a bounce of his eyebrows.
She laughed. "Seriously, though, you've been awfully quiet the past day or so. I would have thought you'd be more lively, considering who we're working with."
He pursed his lips and took a drink. "I am what you might call an…independent agent. My lack of formal Shadow Thief membership places me under certain constraints. It is only your company that has saved me from the sharp lesson I was promised when last I was here in Athkatla."
"Ah. Shame on you for not being a good team player."
"Yes, that is exactly my problem," he chuckled.
"You said you've been to Athkatla before. How many times?"
Yoshimo scratched at his chin. "Four or five, I believe. It begins to blur together after a time, which I am sure you can attest to. One never stays in a single place for long."
"Adventuring doesn't leave much chance for that."
"You would prefer it otherwise?"
"Don't get me wrong. I like adventuring." She shrugged and took another drink. "It just might be nice to get the chance to do it on my own terms every now and then."
Yoshimo's foot suddenly nudged her shin, and he quickly cast his eyes towards the staircase. A pair of hooded figures, a gnome and a human by the looks of them, was stealing up the stairs, trying far too hard to look nonchalant. Seeing them, Maera felt better. Leave it to the idiots to be apprehensive, she thought. She nodded to Yoshimo, who pulled up his hood and murmured, eyes suddenly sharp and narrow, "Follow me closely."
A quarter of an hour's loitering later, Jaylos and Caehan exited with their contact. As expected, they wound their way to the Graveyard District, doubling back, taking side streets and alleyways, until they passed the gateway into the tombs. The home of Athkatla's dead was a small city unto itself, with winding streets, and terraces among the fantastic architecture. Maera and Yoshimo stole between the monuments, finding a hiding spot behind an obelisk as the thieves and their guide stopped. A well-concealed switch was depressed, and the trio disappeared into the tomb below. Yoshimo raised an eyebrow, Maera nodded, and they followed their quarry into the depths.
Yoshimo was right. It had been an easy night's work. They had even been able to sketch a rough map before leaving the tombs and returning to the inn. Maera had expected to see Minsc, Jaheira, and Kelsey already there, waiting for them, and was surprised to see they were not. A quick inquiry of the barman turned her surprise into alarm.
"They haven't been here at all tonight, Yoshimo!" She knew she was unnerving the other patrons with her pacing and she didn't care. "They were on the docks, right? We need to go after them!"
Yoshimo stood in thoughtful stillness, a fist pressed to his lips. "I am not sure that would be wise. If they have been overcome, what aid can we two truly offer?"
"Well, I'm not just going to sit here!"
"Maera." He so rarely called her by name she stopped short. "Perhaps an interval to gather our thoughts would be best, yes?"
She heaved a breath and nodded. "You're right. Jaheira's always telling me I'm running off without thinking."
"Your devotion to them is admirable," he said softly.
The door opened, and there stood three figures, two men and a woman. Maera's heart leapt, until she realized the woman was not Jaheira, and that the taller of the two men was cradling a body in his arms. The world seemed to stop for an instant, and then everything was happening at double speed.
"Show me to her room," the woman said briskly. "We'll want to get her comfortable."
Minsc, his armor marred with score marks, was holding Jaheira, and he strode across the common room towards the stairs, the stranger in his wake, pausing for only an instant to meet Maera's shocked gaze. His face was dark with anger, but his eyes shone with unshed tears. Maera turned, horrified, to Kelsey, who leaned heavily against the nearest table, his pallor extreme. There were bloodstains on the front of his robe.
She didn't care who was watching or what they saw. She took his face in both hands and kissed him, grateful just to see him alive. She led him to the bench by the fireplace, and sat with him, Yoshimo trailing a few steps behind. Conversation began to return to the common room, the drama apparently at an end. Maera watched Kelsey's pale face carefully, taking one of his cold hands in hers. "Kelsey…what happened?"
"Everything that could go wrong did." He laced his fingers with hers and kissed the back of her hand. "Mook's dead." He shuddered at the memory. "He was on her in a second."
"Another vampire. He called himself Lassal. It was over so fast, I don't think any of us even realized she was dead until she was lying there with her throat torn out."
"Oghma's books," she breathed. "What about Jaheira? And you? No offense, but you look awful."
"I'm okay," he said, running his free hand over his hair. "Overgold Reysa says I just need to eat something. That's who that was, by the way, with us. We got jumped on the way back here, not even three streets over. I'm not sure how many of them they there were, but…it was bad." His voice lowered to bitter whisper. "And I could barely do anything, because I have to be so careful out in the streets anyway so I don't attract the wrong kind of attention…"
"Don't blame yourself, honey," she murmured. The endearment left her lips without a thought. She glanced up at Yoshimo, who stood behind them, his expression unreadable. "Yoshimo, could you get him something to eat?"
The thief bowed his head. "Of course." He turned for the bar, and Maera looked back at Kelsey.
"So Jaheira's going to be alright?"
He nodded. "We managed to get them off long enough to get to the nearest temple – which was where Overgold Reysa came in. She came back with us to get Jaheira settled. She'll be fine, she just needs to sleep through the night." He gave her hand a squeeze and released it; Yoshimo had returned with a steaming bowl of soup, and he accepted it with evident pleasure. "So did you have any trouble?"
Maera caught Yoshimo's eye, her stomach gone cold. They were going to have a very interesting talk with Aran Linvail in the morning. "No. None at all."