Author's Note: It seems like a lifetime ago when I started this story and now, finally, it is finished. I apologize for the long delay and I doubly apologize to any who have this on alert. I hope you don't get spammed with updates. I have made many changes and every chapter is affected. (The major changes start around Ch. 8) This tale is now as close to my original vision as I have the skill to make it. I have no idea if anyone will have the patience to read through this again-if you do, I'd love to hear from you! Enjoy, and please, feel free to leave feedback—that makes this all worthwhile.
Disclaimer: Baldur's Gate belongs to the talented people at BioWare and not me, alas. I don't own the Forgotten Realms either, darn it, that's Wizards of the Coast. I guess I get to keep Keeta, an original character.
I was tired, hungry and (I hate to say it) scared. I hadn't had a decent meal since Suldanessellar and I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a decent night's sleep. My gauntlets, thrust in my belt now, were still tacky with the blood of the bounty hunters who'd ambushed us in the forest. Before we could even loot the bodies, a celestial being, wings and all, swooped down upon us. She uttered a few cryptic warnings and dumped us in the Abyss. No exits in sight. And now my dead brother's ghost wanted a chunk of my soul so he could come back to life.
As days go, this one was shaping up to be a real dandy.
"Take my hand, Keeta," commanded my dead brother. His insubstantial fingers reached for me. I flinched and took a step back. Even in death, Sarevok was intimidating. He towered over me like few humans could and his ghastly undead eyes glowed with eager fire. My hand dropped to my sword hilt. Had I really agreed to this? I'd already killed him twice. If I killed him again—three times the charm—would he be gone forever out of my life?
My companions were a ring of anxious faces. Sarevok Anchev, Deathbringer, usurper of the Iron Throne, and (briefly) one of the Grand Dukes of Baldur's Gate, smiled when he saw my fingers convulse on the cool hilt. It wasn't a nice smile. Not nice at all.
"That sword of yours is not the key to the lock that imprisons you here."
"Maybe so, but killing you would feel pretty good."
"I am already dead, fool."
Well, there was that.
"Will you throw away all your lives for a petty revenge?" he asked.
"Just kill him already," Imoen said. "He's lying. We'll figure a way out of here."
I wasn't so sure about that. I'd been here before, in this very pit of the Abyss. Recently, in fact. My soul had been dragged here by a mad elven wizard, and before I could escape I'd had to pass a series of tests. This had the feel of another such test. The Solar who brought us here had even hinted as much.
"Will you, sister? I have learned much of this place during my own—incarceration. Do you have the time to discover its secrets?"
"You're not my brother!" Imoen said.
"It surprises me too," he said drily. His eyes flicked back to me. "Surely you do not deny our relationship."
"No." He was a child of the Lord of Murder, just as I was. He'd reached for Bhaal's throne while I'd fought those who sought to use my power but both of our lives had been dominated by the dead god who sired us.
"Death did not strip me of the knowledge I gained in life," he said to me. "I may not be privy to all that has happened to you since my death but neither am I blind. The time of Alaundo's prophecies is upon you now, or you would not be here. There are few, if any, still alive who know more than I do of these prophecies. And my—condition—has taught me more of this place than you have any hope of learning on your own." He gestured with his hand at the strangeness around us. "You stand now in the cocoon plane you created from our father's realm yet you know not how you created it."
A cocoon plane, he called it. To me, the word 'cocoon' calls up the image of a cozy haven, a place for growth and change. The bare stone underfoot, the unsettling statues that sprouted in random abandonment like mad trees in a deranged grove, and the low undercurrent of formless sound (so like whispers from the tormented dead) did not add up to a warm and cozy atmosphere.
This felt more like a tomb.
"I know that you have power here," he said. "And I know that you do not know how to use that power. I can teach you this."
Power comes with knowledge, the Solar had said. I felt the echoes of her words like the distant clanging of a prison gate slamming shut. I didn't want power but I was going to have to do this. I could feel the inevitability shiver through me.
He took a step closer and looked down at me. He had been a big man, my brother Bhaalspawn—at least a whole head taller than me, and I am accounted a tall woman.
"You need what I can teach you," he said. "Without my knowledge of the Abyss and of the prophecies that bind you, you will not survive the times that come."
"You know you can't trust him, Keeta. He wants your soul!" Imoen wailed. "Don't do it."
"I am no demon to trade in souls," he said. His eyes bored into me. "Bhaal's taint was stripped from me when I died but it runs thick and potent in you, sister. Here, in Bhaal's domain—in your domain—you could return a spark of that divinity to me. The slightest touch of the taint of our dead father would allow you—us—to recreate my flesh and restore my mortality."
He said that like it was a good thing.
I glanced at my companions. Imoen had drawn closer to Jaheira, whose face was set in lines of angry denial. Jaheira had already voted and she was strongly opposed. Neither Anomen nor Keldorn, knights of the Order of the Radiant Heart, had known Sarevok in life but they were familiar with his crimes and they both looked troubled.
"Come now, Keeta, give me your hand."
"If I refuse?"
"I cannot compel you. Some things cannot be stolen but only freely given. If the mage who first sent you here had understood that—"
"Do not speak of Jon Irenicus," I snapped. I carefully did not look at Imoen. I didn't have to look to see her flinch. We all had suffered at the mad mage's hands but she had been under his power the longest. The wounds on her body had faded to scars but the wounds to her spirit ran much deeper.
"He is irrelevant," Sarevok said. "You killed him."
Yeah, well if Irenicus' ghost popped up and demanded another piece of my soul, I'd be feeding him my githyanki silver sword. No debate. As the githyanki say, we'd speak with blades for tongues. And as much as I wanted to feed Sarevok same sword, I took my hand off its hilt and I held it out to him.
"Let's get this over with," I said.
I braced myself for pain. When Jon Irenicus ripped my divine soul from me, it had hurt like Nine Hells. Sarevok wrapped his insubstantial fingers around my wrist. My hand went numb. The cold of the grave crept over me, running up my arm and into my body. Sarevok leaned into me. His eyes burned, evil red fires, not the golden discs they had been when he lived. His face was eager.
I've seen much death in my life. I've delivered many a soul to Kelemvor's judgment. I have no particular fear of death but I do have an almost phobic aversion for undeath, in all its myriad horrid forms. To step out of the natural cycle of life and death is just wrong. To restore Sarevok to life—would this reverse the perversion of his undeath? Or was I about to compound the wrongness?
My heart should have been racing with fear but its beats felt slow, muffled. Sarevok leaned into me. He whispered, and I wasn't sure if I heard his words in my ears or in my head. Join your will to mine. He stood as close as a lover and he wrapped his death around me like a shroud.
I could feel Sarevok's death and it was not the peaceful place I'd been taught was the reward for faithful service to one's god. Sarevok had served no god but himself. It was a cold and tortured hell he suffered, a bleak place of his own making. I heard an echo of the quiet wails of the spirits who haunted this plane: Retribution. His spirit encased an empty hunger that I knew all too well—the same emptiness I'd felt when Jon Irenicus had stripped my divine soul from me and left me dying from the inside out.
I thrashed in panic. I'd shared my soul once before although not by choice. What made me believe Sarevok was any less greedy than the mage who had ripped the god's power from me and left me for dead? And I had consented to this. I must be the biggest fool in all Faerûn.
Join your will to mine. Sarevok's words were insistent. The Solar had said something about joining, that the time of joining was near. Was this what she meant? Sarevok's divine soul was gone, leaving him hollowed out, empty and starving. I knew this feeling. I had been hollowed out while I was still living. But I had regained my soul. And now, I was to share it with Sarevok? A man I hated more than any man living?
Sarevok twined himself around me so I couldn't pull away but my need for escape was desperate. Not again—gods, no, I could not face that emptiness again.
But he, too, was desperate.
I will have my life back. You will give it to me.
He had said he knew how to recreate his flesh but he had lied. As his cold sank into me, I could feel what he felt. All he had was the desperate hope that it could be done and the belief that I could do it.
You are a god here and you can give me life if you will it so.
I am no god!
You could be. Deny it if you like but I know the truth. A beat and then his words continued, harsh and certain. What's more, you know it too, Slayer.
Don't call me that.
Here, you are the avatar of our dead father. Give me life. Give back that which you stole from me.
Anger and hatred—I felt them boil off him in a toxic cloud. Anger at his fate, at all that had been taken from him—taken by me, or so he believed. And his hatred, so personal, was centered on me. I had good reasons to hate him after all he had done—he had killed my father before my very eyes and that was just the beginning—but his own hatred took me aback. I'd been so busy hating him that it never really occurred to me that he would have feelings too. It seemed unjust that he should hate me so. Anything I had done to him was in direct response to what he had done to me first. How it galled him to be dependent on me. The heat of his rage warmed the sluggish blood in my veins.
Live, then, damn you. Live. But you will not take my soul from me. It is mine and I shall keep it.
My thoughts were too slow. The monster within me—the part Sarevok called the Slayer—roused like a startled sleeper. Before I could force it back to its uneasy rest, Bhaal's blood rose—hot and eager and terribly, terribly hungry. Sarevok reached for the monster with his cold emptiness. I fell into his burning eyes, into the hellish furnace of his hate, his fear and above all, his iron determination to live at any cost.
I woke to find Anomen kneeling beside me and Sarevok standing over me, his face transfigured by the only joy I had ever seen him express.
"I live!" Sarevok cried. Not just his eyes, but his face, his posture, everything about him rang with ecstatic satisfaction. He showed no awareness of our stares. "I swore I would scratch and crawl my way back into the world of the living and I have done it!"
The Slayer was not gone—it was never truly gone—but it had scuttled back to some dark quiet fastness in my soul. Perhaps (like me) it had been terrified by what had just happened. My soul had just been reaved by my Bhaalspawn brother and I had allowed it to happen. I didn't want to think about that. But it had worked. His eyes were golden moons again, not red pits of fire. Sometimes my eyes glowed like that, or so I was told.
Unfortunately the miracle that knit back his flesh had neglected to provide my brother with any clothes. He was naked as a newborn babe.
Unlike a newborn babe, he had scars and plenty of them. So do I. I'm a warrior and even though I travel with the most powerful priest I've ever met and am rich enough to afford the finest healing potions, not every wound heals without a trace. Surely if I was to recreate my body, I'd try to leave the scars of the past behind me. But then, I've always been vague on the mechanics of resurrection. Although my god, Lathander, doesn't precisely forbid such practices, His expectation is that only a devastatingly powerful purpose should recall a worshipper from His side. I know other gods have different expectations but that was the way I'd been taught.
Not that my beliefs matter. When I die, Bhaal will claim me. I can only hope—well, there's really no point in thinking about it.
Anomen helped me sit up.
"I think I'm going to be sick," I warned. Anomen handed me his water skin. I sipped stale water until the nausea passed. To my side, Jaheira stood in a rigid pose, stiff with anger and disapproval. There was something almost comforting in the sight of those narrowed eyes and compressed lips. I could be sure that nothing Sarevok did would escape her scrutiny. Imoen stood a little behind her. Her face looked pale in the strange light. But it was my brother who held my attention.
Sarevok stared down at me with bold and challenging eyes. I'm no gently reared maiden to be shocked by nakedness; I've been in and out of barracks most of my life. My recent years have been spent adventuring, a career that does not exactly encourage prissiness. Still, I was relieved when Anomen burrowed through his pack and shoved his spare clothes at Sarevok. Having him tower over me in all his glory was more than I needed.
The tunic fit well enough; the breeches were far too short. It disturbed me to see Sarevok wear my lover's clothes. Irrational, I know, that my mind should pick little niggles to worry at. I managed to pull myself to my feet and broke the silence.
"I have met my end of our bargain, Sarevok. Tell me what you know of this place and how we can leave it."
We were in the Abyss, specifically in the part of the Abyss that had been Bhaal's domain, a place known as the Throne of Blood. Somehow I had managed to section off this small enclave for my personal use, erecting walls to protect us from the vast energies and fearsome denizens of this plane.
Or so Sarevok claimed. I had no recollection of doing such a thing. It scarcely seemed possible.
"We know all this," Imoen said, interrupting Sarevok's lecture. She could be patient enough when she chose—an impatient mage doesn't live long, I suspect—but she tended to muscle her way through conversation like an orc headed for battle. "Tell us how to get out of here."
"There is a portal."
He pointed to a massive arch behind us. Caught between the vague and mysterious Solar and the demanding shade of my brother Bhaalspawn, we'd had no time to explore this place. Without waiting for the rest of us, Imoen ran to the arch. She yelped when an unseen power threw her back.
"It is sealed," Sarevok said. "There are several sealed rooms in this plane."
"Why?" I asked, after I too was repelled by the opening. "If this is my domain, why can't I enter?"
"Perhaps our father still protects some of His secrets," he said, shrugging. "Or perhaps your mind has created these barriers to protect yourself until you are ready to face the challenges these rooms contain. I do not know." While this answer did not satisfy me, it was consistent with what the Solar had said—that I was unready for the power in my blood. Perhaps the Solar had sealed these rooms until she judged me ready. "What I do know is that the key to the portal lies beyond this barrier—and I can show you how to open it."
"Then do so."
"Be wary," he said. "There is a spirit that guards the key. There will be conflict."
"What kind of conflict?"
"How would I know that? This is your realm—what kind of conflict would you expect? Something you can face with that sharp sword of yours, no doubt."
Sarevok insisted upon facing this challenge with us. I thought it better to have him armed at our side than unarmed at our back, but that meant he needed to be outfitted. Luckily for him, I hoard weapons and armor.
I rummaged through my Bag of Holding, a semi-intelligent container surely invented for packrats like me. None of my spare plate would fit Sarevok without more work than I had the time or the tools to accomplish but I found some chainmail that would do for now. He managed to force his long elegant feet into a pair of Minsc's old boots. (Why I still had them was a mystery. Minsc had left for Rashemen long ago, to bring Dynaheir's family the news of her death.) I also found a suitable helmet with the liner miraculously intact, if a little stained, and then—my prize.
"Where did you get that?" Sarevok growled. I was taken aback by his expression. I had thought he would be pleased to see his old sword. Imoen answered for me and her voice was gleeful.
"Off your corpse, of course."
I offered the scabbard to Sarevok but he snatched it from me as if he thought I was merely taunting him.
"The Sword of Chaos," he breathed. He pulled it from its scabbard and stared down the length of the blade, which shimmered with the magic woven into it. I will admit that I tried using Sarevok's sword for a time. It's a fine sword but even as big as I am, I found the greatsword unwieldy. I had given up on growing into it despite having seen him use it one-handed. Sarevok had been obscenely strong and presumably still was.
"Stripped of much of its power—that's to be expected, I suppose. I'm surprised the blade didn't shatter when I died. The enchantments were tied to the taint in my blood." He sheathed it then began fiddling with the belt I gave him. Once he had the hang to his liking, he looked down at me. "I had thought never to see it again. You kept it. Why? A trophy, perhaps?"
I shrugged, uncomfortable under his burning gaze. I'm a packrat with a love for weapons; there's nothing to explain.
"What of my armor?" he asked. "Is that in your magic bag as well?" He was not happy with the chain and I didn't blame him but until we could get to an armor smith, I could do no better. I shook my head.
"It wasn't salvageable, after—"
"After Minsc and Keeta hacked you to bits," Imoen said. I gave her a look. Sarevok gave me a look. He donned his borrowed gear in silence.
"Gods," I said after the slaughter was done. We'd killed and we'd killed but there were no bodies. "Those weren't even real creatures. What was the point of all this?" I gestured around the empty room, which had teemed with doppelgangers, ogres, sahuagin and drow—mindless shadows who had attacked for no reason and with no warning.
"The challenge comes from your own mind," Sarevok said.
"I doubt that," I said. Surely my mind was not so disorganized and vicious. The guardian spirit had said this was a place for retribution. "Well, anyway, this portal. Tell me how it works. It can take me anywhere I wish to go? How do I command it?"
"It will take you to where you need to be."
"Where I need to be? How does it know that? I don't even know that."
"If you understood Alaundo's prophecies," he growled, "Perhaps you would."
My lips turned down in an involuntary grimace. I had grown up in Candlekeep, Alaundo's great library, but I was certainly no scholar. At Gorion's direction, my long-suffering tutor had forced me to read through the prophecies several times and had quizzed me on them, to our mutual frustration. At the time, it had seemed a bizarre punishment for an unnamed crime. I had also heard endless, often quite heated, discussions on their interpretation from the monks at the keep. I got pretty good at blocking it all out. As far as I'm concerned, any information that is given in the form of a poem is suspect. Highly suspect.
"But the portal will return us to Faerûn," I said.
"Yes, if that is where you need to be. In fact—"
I didn't like the sound of that. I opened my mouth to say so, but Sarevok whipped around to face the shadows beside me.
"Come out of there, creature," he growled. "Show yourself."
There was a flicker and a squeak and the creature emerged—some kind of imp, by the look of it. I drew my dagger. You've got to be quick to kill an imp. The evil little things are nothing but trouble and imps are like rats: if you see one, chances are there are twenty you don't see. My cocoon plane was no doubt infested with them.
"No harm! No harm! Do not hurt Cespenar, master!"
I hesitated. An imp that spoke Common was new in my experience. Was this some wizard's abandoned familiar? It fluttered up and down, lifted by bat-like wings and then threw itself at my feet. When I tried to step back, it wrapped its spindly arms around my left boot.
"Hey! Cut that out," I said. "I'm not your master." I couldn't shake it loose.
"Begone, fiend!" Keldorn strode towards me, Carsomyr in hand. A shudder ran all through the little creature's body. It shrieked but did not let go.
"Hold, paladin," Sarevok said. "Hear it out."
I could not understand the imp's babbling so finally I grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and gave it a little shake. It went limp. For a moment, I thought I had killed the pathetic thing. I raised it to my eye level. It dangled from my hand like a dead cat.
"Master, master," it whimpered. "Don't punish Cespenar. Cespenar came as soon as your call was heard. Cespenar is here to serve the Great One."
"Who's the Great One?" I asked.
"The Great One! The Great One! Bhaal! Cespenar serves the master. Cespenar is good servant, oh yes!"
"Bhaal's dead." Before I could drop the imp, it wrapped its barbed tail around my wrist. The barbs are poisonous and I didn't have my gauntlets on. "If you sting me, I'll break your neck and you can join Him." It whimpered but tightened its grip.
"Bhaal's power lives in you, Great One. Cespenar heard your call."
"I am not a god and I did not call you. Let go of me." I shook the imp loose. It dropped to my feet and grabbed my boot again. Pitiful as it was, I was still tempted to kick it.
"What can you do for us?" Sarevok asked, cutting through its moans and protests. It raised its face hopefully.
"There is much I can do for the Great One. Cespenar gathers shiny things for the Great One. Cespenar makes things all nice and tidy. Cespenar knows things, oh yes. Cespenar is a great help."
Keldorn gave me a shake of the head, but he had sheathed his sword so apparently he didn't consider the imp an immediate threat. Imoen took a step forward.
"What kind of things do you gather?" she asked. "Anything—valuable?"
"Useful things! Wondrous things!"
"The only wondrous thing I want is dinner," I said under my breath. There's nothing like slaying an imaginary host of monsters to stir up an appetite.
"Yes, Great One! Right away!" And in a blink, it vanished.
"Oh, hells," I said. "What have I done?" I was speaking of the imp but I eyed Sarevok uneasily as well.