Versus Bodhi, Round 1

The room was still mostly dark when Maera woke, and she had to take a moment to reorient herself. She was on the floor in Jaheira's room, and the dark bulk lying near her was Minsc, but the faint, slightly squeaky snore was Boo. Minsc was a very quiet sleeper. She stood, wrapping herself in the blanket she had been lying under, and approached the bed. As her eyes adjusted, she was encouraged. Color had returned to Jaheira's face, and she looked peaceful, her hair spreading in freshly unbraided waves on her pillow. A slightly tattered gray-green cloth big enough to be a horse blanket was draped over the coverlet; Maera smiled slightly and tucked Minsc's cloak closer to Jaheira's chin. "Sometimes the touch can be worse than the bite," Overgold Reysa, the kindly if slightly officious priestess of Waukeen, had said before taking her leave. "It can drain the very life out of you without ever spilling a drop of blood." She had left with firm instruction that Jaheira be allowed to sleep for as long she could, and wake naturally. So now they waited.

Yoshimo sat before the unlit fireplace in the silent common room. A solitary maid hummed to herself as she wiped down the tables in preparation for the morning, shooting the thief the occasional sunny smile as she worked. Maera sat beside him and said teasingly, "She's too young for you." Yoshimo simply raised an eyebrow, obviously deigning not to dignify that with a response. She tried a more serious tack. "You have the look of a man who's been up all night thinking. Care to share?"

He crossed his arms thoughtfully and leaned back. "I feel as though we are being toyed with. I find it an unpleasant sensation."

Maera nodded somberly. She was trying very hard not to blame herself for the previous night's events, and was mostly succeeding, but little daggers of guilt kept jabbing at her when she least expected them. It had been too easy, and some sense, somehow, should have told her that. It was an irritating feeling, and now that the shock had worn off, she found she was growing rather testy with the whole business. "It looks like they've started up the fires in the kitchen. Let's see if we can get some breakfast, shall we?"

The young maid, an obvious morning person, was only too happy to get them the first of the kitchen's morning offerings. Yoshimo eyed his oatmeal with a mild, polite disgust. "I do not know how you Westerners can stomach this. Flattened grains boiled until nothing remains of them."

"It's good with sugar," Maera said defensively.

"I still miss rice."

The maid passed on her way back to the kitchen. "By the way, miss, I was told to let you know – your beau's robes have been laundered." Maera tried not to choke on her oatmeal, her face hot. The girl didn't seem to notice. "We didn't add it to your bill. Must see a lot of bloodstains in your line of work."

Yoshimo's expression was carefully neutral as the maid went on her way, but his eyes danced. "That is an amusing word, is it not? Beau."

"Shut up, Yoshimo."

He stretched the word out, as though savoring it. "Beeeaau."

"I hate you so much."

"Do you truly?" He almost looked legitimately worried; she flicked her spoon at him good-naturedly, a few flecks of oatmeal splattering his shirt.

"No, more's the pity. If I did, I wouldn't care that you're laughing at me."

Yoshimo's gaze focused over her shoulder towards the stairs, and his face grew sly. "We have but to speak of him and he appears."

Kelsey and Minsc were already almost to their table, and Maera knew it was far too late to hope the blush would be gone. "Do I even want to know?" Kelsey asked, looking between them warily.

"Yoshimo thinks he's funny," she replied, giving the thief a dirty look.

"Ah. Gotcha." Kelsey sat beside her, his hand resting lightly on the small of her back by way of greeting. She smiled at him; something had changed between them in the past day or so, and she was fairly sure she liked it. Yoshimo, who missed nothing, had the pleased, catlike smile of one who had just had his point made for him. A subject change was in order.

"Minsc, is Jaheira awake yet?" she asked. The big ranger was eyeing Yoshimo's barely touched oatmeal with longing; it was pushed towards him with a generous hand. He shook his head as he attacked the bowl with gusto.

"But she is looking much better than last night, let me tell you!" He set down the spoon, his brow furrowing angrily. "Dirty vampires," he growled. "They should line up for the buttkicking they have earned. It will be easier on them than making me chase them down!"

Maera smiled, and gave his bald head an affectionate rub. "I'm sure when we go visit Linvail later this morning, we'll be discussing just that." She glanced at Kelsey, and gave him a gentle poke in the ribs, about to inquire after his sleep, but he winced and shied away.

"I'm okay," he said hastily. "Just a little more beat up from last night than I thought."

"Let me see."

"Not in here!" The inn was beginning to wake up; other early risers had joined them in the common room, and he looked about self-consciously.

"Fine." She stood, pulling him to his feet over his protests, and hauled him towards the stairs. The nearest of their rooms was Jaheira's, and she shut the door behind them, saying in a firm but hushed voice, "Now, let me see." He sighed and pulled up the hem of his shirt, revealing a splotchy wine-colored bruise painting his side. Maera whistled softly. "Why didn't you have the priest look at this?"

"It didn't look this bad last night. Besides," he said, gesturing towards Jaheira's bed, "She had other people to worry about. I figured it wasn't that bad since nothing was broken."

"Maybe not, but still." She extended her hand tentatively. "May I?" He nodded, and she placed her hand on the bruise, very gently, closing her eyes. It wasn't something she did often, despite having had the ability for years, and the sensation was always a little surprising. Jaheira described healing as feeling like a conduit, a vessel for the power to pass through. She was its guide, directing it to where it was needed, but she did not own it. Maera found the experience rather different. It was already there, within her, and every time she used it, she wondered if she should be, considering the source. But just like every time, when she opened her eyes and saw the bruise faded to yellow and significantly smaller, she felt it had to be all right. After all, what better way to spit in Bhaal's eye than to use his power for something good?

She noticed Kelsey watching her face intently, and she tilted her head slightly, meeting his eyes. When she was younger, she had hated her height. It could be awkward, being so tall, but maybe it wasn't so bad, really, because it made it very easy to look him in the eye, and he did have beautiful eyes…

It was a kiss with promise, a kiss that had places to go. Unfortunately, it did not get the chance; the rustle of sheets brought them back to reality. Jaheira stretched and yawned, her eyelids fluttering. They shared a quick, abashed look and hastily put some distance between themselves. Maera swallowed, composing herself and faced the bed. "Morning, Jaheira. How do you feel?"

"Stiff. And ravenous." The druid stretched again as she sat up.

Kelsey edged towards the door. "I'm gonna…" Maera nodded quickly.

"Yeah. I'll see you downstairs."

Jaheira waited for the door to close before continuing. "All this time, I thought Imoen was the shameless one."

Maera sighed. It was, it seemed, her fate to be mocked mercilessly this morning. Though in fairness to Jaheira, she had brought it on herself this time. "You're smirking."

Jaheira seemed to notice Minsc's cloak over her bed, and plucked at it gently. "A trick of the light, perhaps."

"I'm sure," Maera made a face. "Get dressed and come eat." She stomped back down the stairs, allowing herself the luxury of feeling put upon. She stopped short on the third stair from the bottom when she realized there was an addition to her party's table. "Sime? What are you doing here?"

Sime looked up, her face grave. No amount of irony could hide the apprehension in her eyes now. "You weren't the only ones who had a rough night."

Aran Linvail drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. Sime had simply said he was "not happy", though her tone had indicated this was A Bad Thing, possibly on par with another Time of Troubles. But Maera didn't have to ask why. The evidence had been obvious from the moment they entered the guildhouse. Pale, strained faces and bloodstains on the floor. The vampires had been busy.

"I underestimated her." The Shadowmaster studied a spot on the wall some distance above their heads. "I underestimated her, and she bloodied my nose for it." He focused his eyes on Maera and her party again. He could shift his attention between targets so quickly it was almost unsettlingly, and that was just at his desk. Maera wondered how that talent translated to action; she found she was a little envious of the answer her speculation provided. "Well," Linvail said, "she's pinked us, but by Mask, I will return the favor." Now we're talking, Maera thought. He raised an eyebrow at her. "What?"

She was positive her face hadn't moved. "You're just speaking my language, that's all."

"I hope so. That's why I wanted you involved in this venture to begin with." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "She wants us scared and off balance. She wants us to react without thinking."

"That's her edge," Maera replied, chewing thoughtfully on her thumbnail. "Unpredictability and fear."

"So why do you think she raided this guildhouse and ambushed your party last night, but let you and Yoshimo walk right to her front door?"

"We even drew a map."

"Exactly. Why?"

Jaheira shook her head in disgust. "It is a special kind of arrogance, if you ask me."

"Yes, it is," Maera said, still worrying at her nail, eyes growing hard. "The gall."

Minsc straightened in his slightly-too-small chair hopefully. "She is getting mad," he whispered loudly to Kelsey. "When Maera gets mad, that is when things get exciting."

Maera glanced over at the ranger, her smile grim. "I think that's a fair assessment of my mental state, yes. If she thinks she can scare me into doing something stupid, she had better disabuse herself of that notion, because nobody jerks me around." She caught Linvail's eye. "Not for long."

The Shadowmaster returned the gaze calmly. She could almost see him filing away her every word for future reference. "Then last night was just a jab."

"She probably expects one of two reactions from us. Either we swing wildly, in desperation, with no regard for our defense, or we play turtle, and overdefend to our detriment."

"Fight or flight," he murmured with calculation. "She is a predator, after all."

"But even a cat toying with its prey does not do so out of cruelty. Not in the sense that we understand it," Jaheira said. "She also seeks to frighten us because it is amusing to her."

"If she wants entertainment, she can go find a bard," Maera snorted. "I'm not playing her game."

"Then what game do we play instead?" Linvail's sharp eyes were bright.

Maera could hear the ringing clink of marble chessmen on a granite board. She could hear Gorion's voice. "Advantage is the key. In chess, in combat, in negotiation. Do not engage in gambits that take too many moves to complete. When you see your opening, you cannot hesitate." A possibility glimmered before her, suddenly within easy reach. If she lined it up just so, more than one bird could be in the path of this stone.

"Aran," she said mildly. "You of all people should know the answer to that. One where we make our own rules."

Her adoption of his given name didn't even garner a blink. "You're right," he replied, smiling, "that is the best sort."

"We need to hit her back hard, but on our own terms. We can't play to her expectations in doing so." The Shadowmaster nodded. "Then before we go any further," she said, lobbing her stone, "why don't you tell me where Imoen's being held?"

There was her blink.

"You know me, Aran," she said, holding his gaze with every scrap of determination she had. "The second you found out who I was, you were learning anything you could about me, weren't you? You knew you needed an advantage, and you saw one in me. So you sent Gaelan Bayle to me, and watched to see what I'd do. And you have your answer now. I said I would help you, and you know that I will keep my word. But I'm taking the burden of your guild war onto my own shoulders, and I think it's only fair that you offer me a little something more than a key and the pleasure of your company."

He stared at her in absolute silence for what felt like an eternity. Centuries passed, civilizations rose and fell, and his eyes remained fixed on hers. "You," he said slowly, "are a terror." The corner of his mouth twitched. "I know you'll never take me up on it, but if you ever do decide on a career change…" He pushed back his chair and stood, pacing a few steps behind his desk. "Unfortunately, your friend is not in Athkatla. Nor is she in Amn proper. The Cowled Wizards maintain a facility where they house their prisoners on the island of Brynnlaw, some distance from the mainland. They refer to it as the Residence for the Magically Deviant, but I'm told it is more commonly known as Spellhold. That is where she has been taken, along with the mage Irenicus."

Whatever answer she had been expecting, that was not it. "When did this happen?" she asked, more shaken than she cared to admit.

"They were probably already gone by the time you met with Bayle." He seated himself once more. "The island is not easy to reach, nor is it on any regular shipping lane, which is why I was asked such an outrageous price of you. Passage is not cheap." He smiled faintly. "And you're right: I wanted to see what you would do. The fact that you were willing to pay that price told me everything I needed to know."

Maera shook her head incredulously. Even now, he still held the cards. And he called her a terror. All the same, it was more than she had known when she woke that morning. She straightened her shoulders, and looked around the room. "So now that we understand each other a little better, the question remains. What do we do about Bodhi?"

Ultimately, the plan they arrived at was simple, which was how Maera liked her plans. Maera and her party would assault Bodhi's lair at mid-morning, and hopefully culminate the attack by noon, when she and her vampires would be most sluggish and weak. The object was to do as much damage as they possibly could, in as short a time as possible. "I'm looking to light the place up like Waterdeep on a fest night," Maera said. She glanced at Kelsey. "Which means I'm going to have to ask a lot of you."

He nodded tightly. "I can handle it."

"I understand it's necessary not to clutter this operation with extra bodies," Linvail said, "but I will have my own people in the Graveyard District on watch."

"That's fine," Maera replied, "but honestly, I'm more interested in material help than manpower."

"Of course. We had started an anti-vampire stockpile some time ago, when we were afraid we would have to do this ourselves." He cocked his head in her direction. "I'm glad that we're not, and not for the selfish reasons you'd imagine. Many of my peers would consider it heresy, but stealth and finesse aren't always the best tools, particularly in a situation like this."

They dispersed shortly thereafter to rest and make ready for the next day. Minsc and Jaheira returned to the inn to clean and prepare their armor. Yoshimo, who had gone quiet again, Maera noticed with some small concern, simply left without a word. She and Kelsey remained at the guildhouse to ransack the Shadow Thieves' supply of holy water and potions.

Kelsey was quiet as he held open a knapsack for her. He seemed distracted, his brow furrowed in thought, and finally he burst out, "I may not be a natural at this like you are, but don't go easy on me, Maera."

Her hand stopped, half way to the potion rack, and she looked him, puzzled. "Okay, first, what? And second…you think I'm a natural?"

"Aren't you? You're as good as a lot of people who've been adventuring for a lot longer. That says natural talent to me."

She thought about that for a moment. "I guess I tend to view things that come naturally to me with suspicion. Considering the source." She faced him, crossing her arms. He wanted to talk shop; she could do that. "As for 'going easy on you'… You may not have come at adventuring by the traditional route, but neither did I, as you just pointed out. Professionally speaking, you're easily the equal of any mage I've ever worked with, even if I can't exactly draw a direct comparison. I respect what you're capable of, Kelsey, but there's a fine line between that, and treating you like a human fireball dispenser, and I'm not going down that road." She took a deep breath. Time to address the griffin in the room. "But I will admit, it's different with you than the others, because of..." She gestured lamely at the air between them. "Us."

He appeared to find the stone floor completely fascinating. "Yeah."

Her own eyes dropped; she had to agree, the floor really was interesting. "We're an us, huh?"

"I guess we are."

She laughed weakly. "How did that happen?"

"I don't know. Believe me, I wasn't planning for anything, I just-" His head came up. "I've never met anyone like you before," he said frankly. "And I don't think I've ever felt as…alive as I have since meeting you. My life makes sense, for the first time in a very long time, and I can't explain why. I just know I don't want it to stop." A sudden grin crossed his face. "Besides, Jaheira's already told me I'll be taking my life into my own hands if I screw this up. Well, her hands, technically."

Maera's hand flew to her mouth in appalled amusement. "Oh gods."

"Something about beatings, and agony, and death."

"Oh my gods." She giggled into her fist. "I am so sorry."

"She made her point."

"She's good at that."

And then they realized they were standing in a storeroom in the headquarters of the most powerful thieves' guild in Amn, grinning at each other like fools. They hastily finished packing the knapsack, and were about to enter the basement common when a voice hailed them from behind.

"Maera," Sime said, "can I have a word with you?"

Maera handed Kelsey the knapsack. "I'll catch up," she told him. She turned to the other woman. "What can I do for you, Sime?"

"You can let me thank you. For what you're doing for us."

"Why wouldn't I?"

Sime dipped a shoulder idly. " A lot of heroic types tend to look down on my line of work. You haven't struck me as that sort, but it never hurts to be sure."

Trying to read Sime was like opening a book in an unknown language. Which was likely why Maera found her so interesting. "Well…you're welcome. But I'm still not sure why you're thanking me."

"People tend to make assumptions about thieves. They think we don't know anything about loyalty, or that it has no meaning to us. But the truth is, it's something that can't be bought or stolen, so most thieves just don't bother with it."

"But you do."

"When you can get just about anything you want by skill, the things you have to earn become a lot more important. You're loyal to your friend, and I respect that."

Maera sorted through that statement, found Sime's direction, and followed it. "I see. And you're loyal to Aran Linvail."


"He earned that?"

Sime grinned. "That and more."

"Why tell me this?"

"Because when you go to Brynnlaw, Aran will be sending me with you. And I wanted you to know you can trust me."

To her surprise, Maera was touched. "Maybe I should be thanking you."

Sime shot a wry smile over her shoulder as she turned to depart. "Can't buy gratitude, either."

The next morning, they went to the Graveyard District while the city still woke. They came to the tomb entrance she and Yoshimo had found and she mentally scanned the map they had made "Yoshimo, scout ahead until we've reached the main door. I'm sure they've got some got some surprises waiting for us." He nodded tersely and her brow furrowed. "You alright?"

"Only anxious to begin," he replied heartily. Something about the set of his shoulders belied that.

The tomb Bodhi had chosen for her headquarters was beautiful, as graves went. Elegant mosaics decorated the walls, and even the stone floors were carved with intricate patterns. Yoshimo stalked through the darkness ahead of them, a soft whistle his signal for them to stop when he discovered anything suspicious. As they reached the double doors that marked the entrance to the lair itself, he shook his head, cutting a fine wire that stretched from the door handle to a slot in the floor. "Amateurish attempts," he muttered.

"I don't think the traps are really here to hurt us," Maera replied, her voice low. "They're just trying keep us on our toes."

"They should try harder, then," he said, smiling grimly. "I could more deviously trap this door in my sleep."

"No one likes a braggart, Yoshimo," she whispered, pulling a torch from her pack. Before she could dig out her striker, Kelsey touched the palm of his hand to the torch's head. The oil-soaked cloth crackled as it caught fire. Maera shook her head, smiling. "I'm surrounded by showoffs." She shifted the torch to her left hand and drew Daystar. Time to see what her new acquisition could do.

Yoshimo and Minsc pulled at the great doors, which slid open with silent ease. Eyes appeared in the darkness before them, reflecting the flickering torchlight. Maera grinned mirthlessly and swung for the first one unlucky enough to be in her path. The vampire launched itself at her with uncanny speed, and she brought her off hand up in an arc, the torch illuminating her opponent. Unlike Bodhi and Valen's darkly sleek appearance, these vampires were stringy-haired and none too clean. Fledglings perhaps, too new to their changed nature to know better yet.

It may have been her imagination, but it seemed almost like Daystar was glowing as it made contact with the undead. Reflecting the torchlight? She didn't waste time on wondering; there was still work to be done. She pivoted on her heel, ducked to avoid a claw swipe aimed for her throat, and cut the legs of her assailant out from under it. Yoshimo finished it off for her with a single beheading stroke.

She came up and saw a trio of vampires closing in on Kelsey. She was about to call out a warning when his hands came up and his eyes closed. A perfect half-sphere of fire rushed out in all directions from his body with a roar, coming within a few feet of where she stood. She was suddenly glad she was no closer – the heat was so intense it seemed to have physical form, and that form had fists. A stench of charred meat filled the air as the three vampires dissolved into their gaseous state. Maera heard another behind her and turned, slashing low from the waist, gutting the last vampire in the room.

Kelsey hurried towards her. "Are you okay? I couldn't tell how close you were, and apparently that spell messes with my depth perception."

"A little singed, but I'll be fine," she said, catching her breath. "That new?"

He nodded with sheepish pride. "Just figured it out a couple of days ago."

"I like it." She stretched her shoulders. "Everyone alright?" A chorus to the affirmative made her smile. They could do this. "Minsc, you're on point. The time for subtlety has passed us by."

She had meant what she told Kelsey about not wanting to see him as a walking personification of his abilities, and that was true for the entirety of the party, but what she hadn't said was that in battle, different rules had to apply. She had learned that lesson the hard way once and she would not make the same mistake again. There had to be something distant, something clinical about combat, or else she would never be able to put the people dearest to her in the world in harm's way. Most of the time, she was not aware of slipping into that mindset until after the battle was done, but sometimes she could feel herself separate and hear her own thoughts, conscious of the changed lens.

She was in that state as another quartet of vampires rushed them down the narrow corridor. Minsc, with his plate mail and ability to ignore almost ludicrous amounts of pain, was perfect on point in such situations, and the great two-handed sword he favored made his reach almost twice her own. But there was an opening between two of the vampires, and she was just as able to see herself through tactician's eyes as anyone else. She skidded between them, just out of Minsc's range, keeping Daystar up against the inevitable neck grabs. She lashed out with her torch, and the vampire recoiled, then stiffened, howling. It turned, flailing at the arrow of fire sunk between its shoulder blades, and Maera took her opportunity to run it through. She knew Kelsey would never admit to it, but there had to be something cathartic about being able to set things on fire just by gesturing at them. Ah well, she philosophized as she kicked the body off her sword blade, the grass is always more flammable on the other side.

There was a chime of breaking glass and another inhuman scream. Jaheira had lobbed a vial of holy water over their heads and the final vampire, its skin smoking, tried to flee, but it had nowhere to go. It took only one stride and one quick slash for Maera to put it out of its misery.

They burst into the great central hall, and a solitary figure stood before them, stiff-backed and cold-eyed. Here was one that was older, more assured, and more in command of the nerveless terror its kind inspired. That was the thing about vampires, Maera decided. She had faced other forms of undead before, zombies, wights, and their ilk, and they were undoubtedly disturbing creatures. Dead things should stay dead, and those that didn't offended the order that the very deepest, most primal parts of the mind accepted as right and proper. But vampires were even worse, because they were dead things that acted like they were still alive.

"I am Lassal," the vampire atoned, his voice rough like winding sheets and coffin lids. "You shall not live to face my mistress, dogs!"

Maera's jaw grew tight. "'Dogs'? That's the best you've got? Here. Let me show you how it's done." She extended her arm, pointing her sword at Lassal's throat. "This is Daystar. And the last thing you're ever going to feel will be this sword, cutting you in two." Lassal snarled and a half dozen other vampires appeared from the shadows. "Did I mention it was blessed by Lathander?" The glow she'd thought she imagined on the blade suddenly flared, a brilliant, clear light that lit the room as though the ground above had opened up to let in the sun. The vampires wailed and hissed in agony, stunned and burned. It could never be said that her party let opportunities pass them by; no one had been expecting the pyrotechnics, but they were all willing to take advantage of the turmoil. They launched themselves at the bewildered vampires, but it wasn't actually Daystar that cut Lassal down. Minsc got to him first and sent his head bouncing off into a corner like a child's discarded toy. Maera wrapped both hands around Daystar's hilt and pressed the weapon against her chest. Okay, she thought in Lathander's general direction, that was far better than I was expecting. I'm not converting or anything, but I will make a very nice offering when we get out of here, I promise.

As the final vampire drifted away in gaseous form, there was a clatter behind her. Yoshimo leaned against a plinth, his katana forgotten on the floor, one hand pressed to his side. Jaheira had spotted him too, and she was quickly beside him, examining the wound. "Get that torch out of my eyes," she ordered irritably, and Maera stepped back. She still occasionally forgot about infravision.

The vampire had gotten lucky, slashing through a thin spot in Yoshimo's leathers on his ribs, a handspan under his arm. He was pale, and Jaheira tipped a restorative potion from the Shadow Thieves' stock to his lips before she even attempted to heal him. It was apparently none too pleasant; he choked as he tried to swallow. "All of it," Jaheira said firmly, as if he were a restive child refusing his vegetables. When he got it down, she raised glowing hands to his side. "Was that so terrible?" she asked.

Yoshimo's lips remained curled with distaste, even as the color returned to his features. "You did not have to taste it."

There was only one other obvious door in the hall besides the one they had entered by. They had only gone a few steps into the next room when Maera had to stop, gagging. The air was so thick with the scent of blood she could taste it. As she forced herself forward, the source of the smell was apparent. A beautiful marble tub, the sort that might grace the bath chamber of a noble house, occupied almost an entire wall of the small room. It was filled to the brim with blood. Brightly colored silk cushions scattered about the floor gave the impression that it might well be the vampires' bath room. "Gods, that's disgusting," Kelsey muttered, breathing through his sleeve.

Minsc's mouth was a deep line of disapproval. "Everyone knows you use water for bathing. Even Boo, and he does not like the B word."

"I don't care if they use it to water their plants," Maera said. She was trying to breath through her mouth, but it wasn't really helping. She held out a hand. "Jaheira, do you have any more holy water?" The druid silently pressed a small clear vial into her hand. She unstopped it and poured the contents into the tub. "There. That ought to ruin the bouquet." She looked about the room glumly. There were no apparent doors. "Looks like a dead end, though."

"Not so, I think." Yoshimo was examining the far wall carefully, trailing his fingers over the masonry with deliberation. He paused, tapping lightly on a spot that seemed, to Maera's eyes, no different from the rest of the wall. "Ah," he murmured. "I was correct." One of the mosaic tiles depressed under his hand, and a section of the wall slowly moved on hidden tracks. A cool gust of air set the torch to flickering. Minsc raised his eyebrows in inquiry, Maera nodded, and the ranger led the way into the hidden chamber.

It was a small, dank room, with none of the ornamentation that marked the rest of the lair. The walls were bare, crumbling brick, and the only feature of note was the trio of raised biers, each stacked with at least a dozen narrow coffins. Maera allowed herself a tight smile of triumph. This was what they had come for. Each of them had been carrying three skins of oil, another gift of Aran Linvail's stockpile, and they set to work, pouring out the oil on the coffins, the floor, and the walls.

"Well, well," Bodhi said. She had simply appeared in the room with them. No crackle of teleportation, no ozone, no warning.

"Morning, Bodhi," Maera said, doing her best Imoen impression in an effort to ignore the way the vampire made her skin crawl. "Did we disturb your beauty sleep?"

"You certainly don't do things by halves, do you? You really are determined to make a pest of yourself."

"No need to make it personal," Maera replied. "This is just business."

"Yes, Shadow Thief business. How does it feel, being Aran Linvail's errand girl?"

"When my other option was to be yours? Frankly, Bodhi, I like Linvail," Maera said. "He's intelligent, urbane, witty, and odd as this sounds, honest. Whereas you? You're just really creepy."

Bodhi snorted. "And what has he given you, other than promises? What exchange has he made for your gold and blood? How can you know he does not intend to sell you to the highest bidder, Child of Bhaal? Irenicus could have helped you, but the Shadow Thieves interrupted him."

Maera gritted her teeth. Her fuse was burning. "I asked you this before. What do you know about Irenicus?!"

"Oh, I know many things. But I have no reason to share them now. Things might have been so different. You could have learned so much," Bodhi sighed, unruffled. "But I grow tired of indulging you. This posturing is really quite pointless."

If that was how the vampire wanted it, so be it. "You know what? You're right. It is." Coolly, Maera tossed her torch at Bodhi's feet.

The oil burst into flame, and the vampire snarled, eyes slitted. "So that is how it is. Very well." And she was gone.

"Bitch," Maera said, and coughed. It occurred to her that she had just set a very small room on fire, and beating a hasty retreat might be a wise move.

They emerged from the tomb soot-streaked and choking on the smoke. Maera sank into a squat and put her head on her knees. "Okay," she said, voice muffled, "I realize that the torch throwing thing was overdramatic and kind of stupid, but will someone please tell me that it was worth it?"

Minsc pulled her to her feet and clapped her on the back so hard it knocked the wind from her. "You have planted such a foot in the vampire's backside, she will taste your boot polish for days! Boo is very proud of you."

"Oh good. Oghma knows I live for Boo's approval."

Jaheira gave her a stern, don't-encourage-him look, and they all set out from the graveyard smoky and exhausted, but generally pleased with the morning's work.

They descended on Aran Linvail's guildhouse in high spirits. The Shadowmaster took one look at them, caked with sweat and soot and smelling vaguely of charcoal, and asked that they kindly make use of the guild's bathing facilities before bothering with an after action report. And so it was some time later when, clean and refreshed, they gathered in Linvail's chambers to fill him in on the events within the tomb.

"I was happy enough to hear you all exited under your own power," he said, "but it's even better to see you're pleased how it went."

"I don't think I would count the vampires out just yet, Aran," Maera said, savoring her wine. It didn't surprise her in the slightest that the Shadowmaster had an excellent wine cellar. "We definitely slapped them around, but Bodhi is still very much at large."

"It would seem, however, that her guild's purpose is at an end," Yoshimo said slowly, pressing his fingertips to his temple for a moment.

"Why do you say that?" Maera asked.

He shrugged, and looked apologetic. "It is a feeling."

"She mentioned Irenicus again. She taunted us with her knowledge of him," Jaheira said contemplatively. "You are correct, Linvail; there is some connection between them, though I could not guess at its nature."

"It's never wise to write off an enemy until you've seen the body," Linvail said. "And even then, I prefer to save the celebration until I've killed off the priests, just to be sure." Jaheira raised an eyebrow, and he coughed, contrite. "Metaphorically speaking, of course."

"Of course."

"But I do think you have more than fulfilled your part of our bargain. I can't in good conscience ask you to remain when you have pressing business elsewhere."

Maera couldn't help herself. "Conscience? Isn't that a dirty word around here?"

"I'm a little ashamed to say it in mixed company," he chuckled. "I have purchased you passage on a ship, and will be sending Sime with you." Sime, lurking in her spot by the door, caught Maera's eye with a 'told you so' smile. "She has some contacts on the island and will be able to advise you on the best course of action when you arrive. Your ship leaves on the night tide tomorrow evening, so I would suggest making ready." As they filed from the room, he called out, as though just thinking of it, "And Maera? Good luck."

They returned to the inn to begin packing. Kelsey reached for Maera's hand as they climbed the stairs up to their rooms. "Would it be out of line for me to tell you yet again how remarkable you are?" he asked.

She shook her head with a slight eye roll, pleased all the same. "Flatterer."

"No, flattery would imply that I don't really believe it, and I'm just saying it for your benefit. But I really do believe that you're remarkable, so it's not flattery." He was pleased with his rhetorical powers.

"Touché. So what inspires this non-flattery?"

"The way you handled Bodhi. And Linvail. And everything. You're fearless."

"'Courage is the acceptance of fear.' That's what Gorion used to say. But I'd say it's more acclimation. Deal with certain situations long enough, and they…lose their power. I don't have time to be afraid anymore. I have things to do."

He stopped her as they reached the top of the stairs, his face suddenly serious. "Maera, there's a difference between being brave and being blasé. Your life is very important to a lot of people."

"The whole Bhaalspawn thing makes people very interested in my life, but not on a personal level."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it. Think about Minsc and Jaheira, and what you mean to them. Yoshimo obviously respects you, and I get the feeling that's a pretty rare thing. And I…" His voice trailed off, and he stared at the floor. "I can't do without you."

She was fairly certain she was actually a puddle on the floor, and that her upright physical form was just an illusion. "I can't do without you, either."

He flicked his eyes back up to her face. "Then we won't." He put on his trader's face, all earnest eyes and serious jaw, and thrust out his hand. "Deal?"

He really was too much. She laughed helplessly, and the words slipped out before her brain had a prayer of keeping up with her mouth. "I love you."

Oh gods.

Kelsey stared at her for a long, terrifying moment. She worked her jaw to say something, anything, but her voice had fled in confusion. Without warning, he grabbed her by the waist, pinned her against the wall, and kissed her, hard. She yelped in surprise, but the shock wore off quickly as the kiss deepened. He ran his hands up her sides to tangle them in her hair, and she dropped her own to the small of his back to pull him tighter to her. The world was gone, and it was just the two of them, saying nothing and everything all at once.

A footstep creaked on a stair, and they turned their heads in breathless embarrassment. Jaheira let a smirk ghost across her lips for an instant before commenting, "It would not do to overtire yourselves, you know. We have much to do."

Maera and Kelsey both muttered agreement. They did need to pack. Before they disentangled, Kelsey touched her chin gently, meeting her eyes. "I love you, too," he whispered. He cleared his throat, glanced at Jaheira, and pointedly kissed her again before vanishing up the hall. Maera leaned against the wall and counted to ten before she trusted her legs to take her to her own room. Something had definitely changed, and she was positive she liked it.

Jaheira watched them, and for a moment, indulged in the sweet melancholy of remembering a few stolen moments with a redhead of her own.

Maera had made a promise, and she saw no reason to delay in fulfilling it. She hurried through the streets with a cone of rather expensive incense, heading for the Temple District. She ducked into the Temple of Lathander and placed her incense on the alter. Kneeling, she took a deep breath. All right. I told you I'd be here and I am. Honestly, though, I don't really know what to say other than thank you. Thank you for the sword.

"You're welcome," said the priest beside her. He blinked, as if unsure why he'd spoken.

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