"What the Hell?" Buffy exclaimed, looking around.
"I fear you may be more accurate than you would wish," Sorkatani said. "I have been in the Hells before, briefly, and this place has something of the same smell about it." She pointed at the hideous statue that rose in the center of the great chamber. It was in the shape of three demonic beings, humanoid but with goat legs and long horns, standing back to back and supporting a massive brazier between their shoulders. "I have seen a statue like that before, and a symbol that matched that one over there." She pointed at where an emblem portraying a golden skull, surrounded by a river of tears, was mounted on the wall. "It was in a temple of Bhaal."
"Where we fought Sarevok," Imoen added. Her mouth twisted as she looked at a massive set of double doors, around which were set five sculpted and bejeweled eyes; the eyes seemed to be watching them. "This place is too darn creepy. I want to get out of here."
"You can add my vote to that," said Dawn. "The question is, which is the way out? Through those doors, or down one of those flights of stairs?"
"I can't see down leading anywhere good," Buffy said. "Let's see what's behind door number one."
They couldn't open it. As soon as they tried beams of force shot forth from the eyes and drove them back. Imoen tried to dispel the beams but had no success. Then a sepulchral voice boomed out "You shall not pass without the Tears of Bhaal."
"I suspect this is another one of the quests Spike terms 'Forest of Trees'," Sorkatani said, with a sigh.
"As long as we don't have to chop down the Life Tree with a herring," Dawn said. "That would take centuries. Millennia, even."
"So, anyone see any 'Tears of Bhaal' anywhere around here?" Buffy asked, and the two thieves scampered off to investigate likely possibilities.
"The ones in that sign on the wall are just painted on," Imoen reported. "They don't come off."
"Nothing in the bowl the statue's holding," Dawn added, "except – eww! – bloodstains." She jumped down from the statue, took a cloth from her pocket, spat on it and began to rub her hands clean.
"Unless there's someplace else to look we'll have to head off down the stairs after all," said Buffy.
"Indeed," Sorkatani agreed, and then her eyes narrowed and she stared in Dawn's direction. "If that blood has come off on Dawn's hands," she said, "then it must be relatively fresh. Someone else has been here, and recently."
"And if they made a blood offering," Imoen added, "they were Evil. I know this will sound crazy but I think it was… Irenicus."
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"He betrayed me," Bodhi snarled. "I gave up everything for him… and for what? He would have allowed me to be slain rather than give up even a tithe of his power. And he knew that I was a devil, and that for me to perish in a plane linked to the Hells would mean my eternal death, and still he was willing to sacrifice me. My own brother. I… I…" She shook her head.
The Erinyes who had been instructing Bodhi in Contract Law raised her eyebrows. "And yet you live," she said.
"I managed to teleport away in the nick of time," Bodhi said. "It was not easy. I have, as yet, little experience with my new powers and my attempts to flee to my former lair in Athkatla were unsuccessful. Only when I thought to try to return here was I able to escape."
"To travel to the Prime you would have needed to Planeshift," the Erinyes tutor explained. "That is more difficult than teleportation within a plane, and the chambers into which you were summoned appear to be warded against planar travel. Luckily they are a mere sub-division of this plane or you would have been unable to free yourself."
"And I would have died there," Bodhi said, bitterness evident in her tone, "through the selfishness of my own brother."
"You have my sympathy," said the tutor, "but I will not deny that this, in some ways, makes things easier. We do not want any in our number who might have… divided loyalties."
"You don't have to worry about that any longer," Bodhi said, the bitter tone still there. "The Elves cast me out because of my loyalty to my brother… but now he has proven himself unworthy of that devotion. My best friend Tanova is lost to me forever. There is nothing to stand in the way of my pledging my eternal loyalty to the Erinyes and their overlords."
"That is good to hear," said the tutor. "You show a lot of promise. The commander of one of our most elite units has shown an interest in taking you into her service. If you continue to do well in your lessons, I will be able to give Hezebel a very favorable report."
Bodhi drew in a deep breath. "I thank you. I fear, though, that I am not in a fit state of mind to resume my studies immediately. Would it be permissible for me to spend some time doing something more… physical, to work off my anger, before I return to the books?"
The tutor laughed. "It would indeed. What would be most productive? Close combat training would serve little purpose. You are more skilled with sword or knife than all but a handful of the unit commanders and your bare-handed skills exceed even theirs. Archery, perhaps? No, a more pressing need would be flying lessons. Your present capabilities could be matched by a farmyard chicken."
"Flying lessons? Totally awesome," Bodhi said, smiling. "I'm learning to fly, But I ain't got wings…"
"But you do have wings," the tutor pointed out.
"It is a song that I heard during my brief visit to Earth," Bodhi explained.
"I'm learning to fly
But I ain't got wings
Is the hardest thing…"
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"Well, I guess we have to go down," Buffy said. "We've checked out the whole of this level and there's a total absence of Tears of Bhaal. There's nothing to mark any one of those stairways out from the others so we might as well start with the one on the left, 'kay?"
"And continue clockwise if that one does not lead to what we seek," Sorkatani agreed.
"Willow and Tara would have said to go around counter-clockwise," Dawn remarked, "because, widdershins."
"I don't think it'll make any difference," Buffy said. "I'll bet we have to go down them all. Okay, counter-clockwise it is." She headed for the stairwell to their right, the Hammer of Thunderbolts ready in her hand, and Sorkatani was only a step behind. Their younger sisters followed. Dawn held her crossbow, cocked and ready, and Imoen had a bow with an arrow nocked; she was low on offensive spells after the battle in Suldanessellar.
"It's a little odd that 'clockwise' means the same here as back on Earth," Buffy mused, as they descended. "There must have been a fifty-fifty chance that clocks would run the other way around."
"Sundials," Dawn said. "They have to run clockwise, in the northern hemisphere, and when you start making clocks it only makes sense to have them go the same way as sundials."
"That makes a whole lot of sense," Buffy said. "I'm impressed. My little sister's not just a pretty face."
"It had not occurred to me before," said Sorkatani, "but there are many strange parallels between your world and ours. That you divide days into twenty-four hours, twelve of day and twelve of night, each made up of sixty minutes, just as we do. You measure things in feet and inches, and miles, and pounds, and all are as close to ours as we can determine without measuring instruments from your world."
"Yeah, it is kinda weird, when you think about it," Buffy said, "but we knew people from our world had come here before. The… Mulan?"
"Mulhorandi," Sorkatani corrected her.
"Right. They were, like, Egyptians and Sumerians, and I don't think they used feet and inches the same as ours, but I guess there must have been other people from Earth too. Gods, even. Like, Tara said Mielikki wanted to know the latest news about Finland."
"That would…" Sorkatani began, but broke off as they reached the bottom of the staircase and she saw the armored figure standing in their path.
"So, Perfect Warrior, we meet again," the man said.
Dawn couldn't help but snigger. It was such a cheesy Bond villain line. Then she saw the expressions on Sorkatani's face, and Imoen's, and the momentary levity was gone.
"How fitting that our reunion should be in this place of… retribution," the man in armor continued. He was… huge. Bigger than Minsc, maybe even bigger than that part-ogre guy Tazok who had been keeping Tara prisoner, six foot eight at least. The great-sword he held seemed no larger than a bastard sword against his towering bulk. His face was obscured by a horned helm, made to resemble a demonic face, with his eyes peering out through a fanged maw.
"Sarevok?" Sorkatani put her left thumb behind the guard of Celestial Fury and readied it for one of her iaijutsu draw and strike moves. "What are you doing here? You are dead."
"It is I," Sarevok confirmed, "or an echo, perhaps. My essence joined that of our dead father after you slew me, after all… but, in the end, all the children of Bhaal end up here. You have finally joined us, to claim your heritage as I had attempted, but you arrive in weak and pathetic pieces. My death was far more final than yours."
"I'm not dead," Sorkatani said. "Irenicus had stolen my soul, and with it my Bhaal essence, and we have slain him. He must have been brought here and I, and my companions, seem to have been dragged along in his wake."
"And therefore your essence has not joined with that of our dead father," said Sarevok. "You are still alive… but, as this is Bhaal's realm, his blood holds sway here."
"Holds sway? What do you mean?"
"The mage stole most of your soul, but not all," Sarevok said. "You are tainted by the touch of Bhaal and tethered to him like a helpless calf. You are not dead but, at this moment, are not truly alive. Only by destroying the thief, and reclaiming your soul, can you return to your previous existence."
"I'm guessing Irenicus is behind those big doors," Buffy said.
"Correct," Sarevok confirmed, "and to pass them you must obtain the five Tears of Bhaal." His gaze focused on Buffy. "I do not recognize your diminutive companion, sister. She was not amongst your companions at Candlekeep and Baldur's Gate. Nor was the child who stands behind the midget."
"Hey!" Buffy protested. "Less of the shortness quips."
"That's the guy who killed Gorion, right?" Dawn asked Imoen. The young mage nodded confirmation.
"Your previous allies are no longer with you, I see," Sarevok went on, "save for the annoying little thief from Candlekeep. I know the Drow woman showed the disloyalty typical of her race and deserted you before our battle. Where are the others? The Rashemi witch and her moronic barbarian bodyguard? The tree-hugging half-elf and her stammering husband? They, too, have abandoned you, I take it?"
"Viconia left only temporarily, because she believed I was making a mistake when I agreed to Tamoko's appeal to spare your life if at all possible," Sorkatani told him. "She felt that my tendency to show mercy was a mistake that would imperil our lives. She has rejoined my company since then. Minsc and Jaheira have been at my side all the time but, for some reason, they were not transported to this place. Dynaheir and Khalid were murdered by Irenicus."
Sarevok lowered his head slightly. "I am sor…" he began, and then chopped himself off short. "It should have been me who killed them, not someone who has no right to the power of Bhaal," he growled.
Sorkatani took her hand away from her katana. "Why are you here, Sarevok?"
"To be an obstacle in your path," Sarevok replied. There was an unmistakable note of bitterness in his voice. "I was certain that I was to be Bhaal's successor. I was wrong. It might be you, it might be one of several other powerful Bhaalspawn, or it might even be the pathetic impostor who lurks behind the doors above. You must confront him. In order to pass the doors, and reach him, you must obtain the five Tears of Bhaal. I have one."
"I'm guessing that the 'obstacle in your path' bit means you're not going to give it to her," Buffy said.
"The tiny one is correct," Sarevok said. "You do not deserve it. The Drow was right. Mercy is a weakness and it has made you a pathetic, sniveling, worm. To gain the Tear you would have to wrest it from my dead hands and that is beyond you. I will crush you as easily as I spitted Gorion on my blade, and with as much relish."
Imoen stepped forward, her eyes blazing. "Shut up!" she hissed. "Gorion was worth ten of you." She brought her bow up to the aim and began to draw back the string.
"Calm yourself, Imoen," Sorkatani said. "There is no point in giving in to anger. We slew Sarevok once already. Let that be enough. I promised Tamoko I would spare his life, if I could, but there was no opportunity and I was forced to slay him. Now I have a second chance."
"But we need that Tear of Bhaal thing, right?" Dawn pointed out. "So, if he won't give it to us, aren't we going to have to kill him? No way can I pickpocket it when he's looking right at me and waving a humungous sword around."
Sorkatani shook her head. "We can take it without killing," she said. "Sarevok, I challenge you to fight me bare-handed."
"What?" Sarevok took a pace backward. "Are you mad, Sorkatani? You would stand no chance against me. I might as well fight the midget."
"Hey, enough of the midget cracks, already!" Buffy protested. "I'm only an inch shorter than Tani."
"Two inches," said Sorkatani.
"An inch and a half," Dawn said, "and I'm not just splitting the difference. I'm pretty sure that's accurate."
"I would agree with Dawn," said Imoen. "An inch and a half."
"You may be right," said Sorkatani. "And, Sarevok, you could not prevail against Buffy despite her small stature. She is stronger, faster, and more skilled than anyone I have ever met."
Sarevok snorted. "Ridiculous!" he said.
"Believe it or not, it is the truth," said Sorkatani, "and believe this also. You would stand no chance against me with weapons. The sword I bear now is Celestial Fury, blade of legends, and you no longer possess the Sword of Chaos. Even when you did it was no match for Celestial Fury, despite it being enhanced by the power of Bhaal, and for us to fight with swords would give me an overwhelming advantage. Bare-handed my advantage would not be so great and it will be easier for me to spare your life."
Sarevok snorted again. "You are deluded, Sorkatani. And I do not understand why you would not wish to slay me. I killed your foster-father. My minions slew many of your friends at Candlekeep. I tried to start a war that would have killed thousands. You should be seething with rage at the very sight of me. It would seem that you lack the spirit to be the true successor to Bhaal."
"I never wanted to be Bhaal's successor," Sorkatani said. "And I will not be controlled by hatred."
"Yeah, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering, and it's, like, the path to the dark side," Dawn added.
"That may well be the intended result of this encounter," Sorkatani said, "which would make attacking Sarevok in a fury even more unwise." She turned back to Sarevok. "Well? Dare you take me on without weapons?"
"Dare? Foolish girl, I relish the chance to crush you with my bare hands," Sarevok growled. He laid his sword down, removed his helm, and then began to unbuckle his armor.
Sorkatani passed Celestial Fury and Malakar to Buffy, took off her helm, pulled her dragon-scale hauberk over her head, and laid it out flat on the ground with the helmet on top. She took off her gauntlets, seemed to think for a moment, and then removed her boots. Sarevok was still in the process of taking off his breast-plate and greaves and so she began to run through a slow and graceful warm-up routine.
Buffy watched as Sorkatani performed eight sets of motions and then came to a halt. 'I didn't teach you that," Buffy remarked. "I don't think it's even T'ai Chi. Qigong, maybe?"
"I thought Qigong was a character in 'The Phantom Menace'," Dawn commented. Buffy didn't dignify her remark with a reply.
"It is called 'Eight Pieces of Silk'," Sorkatani said. "I learnt it from my mother and, since Gorion's amnesia spell was broken, I have regained the memory."
"I'm guessing she taught you some more… practical applications, too," Buffy said.
"Indeed, as you shall see," Sorkatani confirmed.
By this time Sarevok had shed his armor. With the helm gone he looked younger than Buffy would have guessed from his voice, college freshman or sophomore age maybe, and fairly good-looking. Then he stripped off his tunic, and stood clad only in his breeches and hose, and Buffy revised her opinion from 'fairly good-looking' to 'why are the best-looking guys always evil, taken, or gay?' His muscles rippled as he rolled his shoulders, worked his wrists, and then bent to touch his toes.
"This guy knows what he's doing," Buffy warned Sorkatani. "He's more than just a brawler. He used to date Yoshimo's sister, right? I'd bet she taught him some moves."
"That is my thought also," Sorkatani agreed. "I will be ready." She moved away from the others, faced Sarevok, and bowed to him.
Sarevok's eyebrows climbed and his eyes widened. For a moment he seemed too taken aback to react but then he returned her bow. He straightened up and adopted what, at first glance, appeared to be a standard boxer's stance with his left hand and foot leading. Buffy noted, however, that his feet were a little too far apart and his weight was more to the front than would be normal in boxing. She suspected he would open the fight with a kick and she hoped Sorkatani would be ready for it.
Buffy's analysis was correct. As Sorkatani approached Sarevok pivoted and his right leg drove out in a perfectly-executed stamping side-kick. No doubt his intention was to surprise Sorkatani by attacking before she came into range of his fists.
It didn't work. Sorkatani slipped past his striking foot, brought her right hand up under his heel, and turned in to drive her left elbow into his thigh muscle with vicious force. Her left hand went up to deflect his right fist as he lashed out at her, sending it harmlessly over her head, and she completed the move by pushing his foot to the side as she released it and danced away.
Sarevok was thrown off balance but he managed to stay upright. He brought his right leg down quickly but it gave way under him and he stumbled. Again he didn't fall but he grimaced and reached down to rub the muscle where Sorkatani had hit. Then she advanced again and he shot out a left jab to fend her off. She caught the arm, ducked under it and wrenched the arm around in the process, and then brought the heel of her hand up in a powerful blow to the side of his elbow. Sarevok grunted in pain as the joint bent sideways. He tried to retaliate with a punch from his other hand but Sorkatani simply released her grip and stepped back out of range.
She resumed her attack almost at once, this time meeting his fist with a power-block, and stepped in close to drive a knee into the muscle of Sarevok's left thigh. He stumbled again and she delivered a lightning-fast volley of punches to his stomach. He retaliated but Sorkatani brushed aside his punches with ease and then brought up her right hand in a rising palm-heel strike to his jaw. The force of the impact lifted Sarevok from his feet and hurled him backward. As he landed his right leg gave way under him and he crashed to the ground.
Sorkatani followed up immediately and, as he tried to rise, kicked him on the left shoulder muscle. He lashed out with his right and managed to force her to back off for a moment. He used the brief respite to clamber to his feet, with some difficulty, and stood to meet Sorkatani's next attack. This time he managed to catch her right wrist but she twisted out of the hold and retaliated with a chop across his bicep and a fist to the floating ribs. His attempted block with his left was simply brushed aside and, as he tried to shift his stance to strike again with his right, his legs gave way under him and he went down.
"Enough!" Sarevok cried, as Sorkatani closed in for another attack. "I yield." Sorkatani stopped and stood still. "You have injured my limbs enough that I cannot fight you with any hope of success," Sarevok continued, "and I see no point in further futile resistance when there is nothing at stake save for my pride."
Sorkatani lowered her hands. "In what circumstances would you have considered it correct to fight on, after you recognized that you could not win?" she asked.
Sarevok frowned. "If I was covering a retreat," he replied, "and needed to delay a superior foe so that others could escape."
"As Gorion gave his life so that I could escape from you," Sorkatani said. "You are learning wisdom at last." She extended a hand and, after hesitating for a moment, Sarevok took it and was helped to his feet.
"And you have learned combat skills beyond anything I could have predicted," said Sarevok.
"Partly learned, from Buffy, and partly remembered," Sorkatani replied. "Give me the Tear."
"You have earned it," Sarevok conceded. He limped over to where he had left his armor and fished an object out of a pouch. A gemstone the size and shape of a goose egg. He handed it to Sorkatani and then began, somewhat painfully, to don his armor.
"If we're not killing Sorry Wok maybe we should give him a healing potion or two," Buffy said. "You must have given him a couple of awesome Charley Horses and it'll be ages before his legs are back to normal."
"Charley Horses?" Sorkatani queried, as she pulled on her boots.
"Uh, thigh contusions," Buffy explained. "The muscle gets kinda squished against the bone and starts bleeding inside. The bruising looks totally yucky."
"I shall refrain from removing my breeches to examine the sites of the injuries," Sarevok said, "but indeed that would describe how it feels."
Sorkatani picked up her dragon-scale hauberk. "I agree with Buffy. You may have some of our Cure Light Wounds potions."
Imoen extracted several vials from her backpack. "I'm not as forgiving as they are," she said, "but if Sorkatani says so, you can have these. At least it will save me having to carry them around."
"I will accept them, begrudgingly given or not," said Sarevok, "for I am in pain. Yet I wonder if it is worth it. I was summoned here to be part of your trials. When they are completed, and you either pass or fail, I suspect I will melt back into oblivion."
"That is… regrettable," Sorkatani said, "but I can see no way to avoid it. We have no other option but to continue onward."
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
Shar coalesced together three of her avatars. The one studying philosophy, the one scrying upon Buffy and Sorkatani, and the one who had been observing Egeria's swordplay lessons all merged into a single being. The temperature of the Palace of Loss dropped by several degrees and the lighting, kept subdued at all times, dimmed even further.
"Shar? What is wrong?" Eilistraee asked.
"Some mortals for whom I have a particular fondness are in dire peril," Shar replied. "Sorkatani Gorion's Ward, her sister Imoen, Buffy Summers, and her sister Dawn."
The sword practice stopped. Yoshimo, Solaufein, and Egeria sheathed their weapons and moved closer to listen.
Eilistraee's eyes widened. "They avenged the murders of Evelintra and Solaufein," she said. "I, too, would be saddened if harm came to them. Yet they are extremely formidable. What peril can they face that it has you so worried?"
"They have been transported to a miniature version of Bhaal's realm," Shar explained. "Bhaal had prepared a series of trials for the last few of his progeny to survive. This should not have come into effect yet, for there are still some dozens of the Bhaalspawn living, but the divine energy Irenicus had absorbed from the Life Tree must have been sufficient to make him seem to be a Bhaalspawn approaching the power level necessary to Ascend."
"Trials?" Eilistraee queried.
"Tests of power and of morals," Shar expanded. "Bhaal's first priority was, of course, to ensure his own return but, if that did not work out as planned, he wanted his successor to be… worthy of him. Of course his definition of worthy would not resemble ours."
A fleeting smile appeared on Eilistraee's face at Shar's use of 'ours' but her frown returned quickly. "He would judge Evil to be the prime qualification," she said, "and the trials will be rigged against any who are aligned toward Good."
"Indeed so," Shar confirmed, "and Irenicus has completed his trials successfully." She raised an eyebrow. "One of the trials tested his willingness to sacrifice others in pursuit of his own ends – and the one he was asked to sacrifice was Bodhi."
"Bodhi?" Yoshimo's lips drew back from his teeth. "Is she not dead?"
"She died, yes," Shar said, "but evaded her intended fate. She has become an Erinyes devil. And she, too, was sucked into Bhaal's trial arena upon the death of her brother. And he faced a trial where he had to choose between sacrificing some of his power, or sacrificing her."
"And he chose to sacrifice his own sister?" Yoshimo grimaced. "I knew that he had no honor but I would not have thought even he could sink so low."
"Bodhi escaped, however, and fled back to the Hells," Shar went on, "and so we can ignore her for now. It is Irenicus who concerns me. Once Sorkatani and Buffy have passed through the trials they will have to face Irenicus. Certainly they are great warriors, and I would not fear for them in a normal conflict, but Imoen and Dawn are… more vulnerable. And, alas, Irenicus was slain too quickly. He died before he could cast any spells other than the defensive ones triggered by his Contingency. And, consequently, he has his full repertoire available to him in Bhaal's realm."
Yoshimo's eyes widened. "Rapture of the Father," he hissed.
"Indeed," said Shar. "It is not as irresistibly lethal as they feared but it still poses a dire threat – and they used up their strongest magical protections." She pursed her lips. "The very efficiency of their attack upon Irenicus has increased their present peril."
"We must help them!" Yoshimo declared.
"Indeed we must," Shar agreed, "but I am at a loss for a way to do so. The wards of the pocket plane are woven into its very structure. I could break through them but, in doing so, I would shatter the plane itself and our mortal friends would be cast adrift in the Hells. It seems that Bhaal wanted to ensure that no other god could interfere in his plans."
Egeria stood up straight and rested her hands on the hilts of her swords. "No god, perhaps," she said, "but I carry a part of the Bhaal essence. The wards will not keep me out."
"I am dead," said Yoshimo, "and I should be able to pass them also, if Egeria will carry me."
"And me," said Solaufein.
"If you die in the Hells you will be forever destroyed," Shar warned them.
"For Sorkatani, I will take that risk," said Yoshimo.
"And, for Qilafae, so will I," said Solaufein.
Shar smiled. Yoshimo was struck by the difference between this and the first time he had seen her smile. Then it had seemed almost as if she was attempting to replicate an expression she had had described to her, but had never experienced for herself, but this time the smile was warm and genuine. "I am proud of you, my friends," she said. "I will, of course, enhance you with spells. But your mission should not be to protect Sorkatani, or Buffy; your priority must be Dawn."
"Because Dhaunae is the weakest and most vulnerable?" Solaufein queried.
"Not just that," Shar said. "I cannot explain further without contravening my responsibility as Goddess of Secrets. I can say only that Dawn is important and it is especially vital that she must not be slain, nor even seriously wounded, in that plane linked to the Hells. And, if she is wounded, she must be healed without delay."
"I can do that," said Egeria.
"Which of them has the Ring of Gaxx?" Yoshimo asked.
Shar peered into her scrying crystal. "Buffy, at the moment," she said. "It would be better for it to be worn by Dawn. A good thought, friend Yoshimo." Her gaze sharpened. "They have passed the first two tests with ease, and taken no harm in so doing, but now they are about to enter the area in which Irenicus would have sacrificed Bodhi. I suspect Dawn and Imoen will be the intended sacrifices this time. Of course there is no chance that Buffy and Sorkatani will make the same choice as Irenicus but I fear that they will incur some penalty for doing the right thing. Something designed to put them at a disadvantage against a Bhaalspawn who made the evil choice. I see no reason why this should proceed as Bhaal planned."
Eilistraee nodded. "I agree. If we are joining this sava game… we shall cheat." She began to cast enhancing spells on Solaufein and Shar did the same to Yoshimo.
"Vith'ol!" Shar exclaimed, as she saw something in the scrying crystal. "Bhaal's trap has activated. Egeria, transport yourself and the others to Dawn at once."
- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -
"A choice of two doors," Buffy said. "Betcha anything that there's something nasty behind one of them."
"I suspect that there will be something nasty behind both," Sorkatani said. "Imoen, Dawn, check them for traps." The two thieves started to move forward and then halted as a winged devil, nine feet tall and scaly, appeared in front of them.
"Bhaalspawn," the devil addressed Sorkatani, "know you that there is a Tear of Bhaal in this place before you, yet there are two paths that lead to it. Two doors, two paths, but both lead to your goal. You have made many choices on the journey that was your life. Many paths have you taken, and always they have had an effect upon those around you… even when that was not your intention. Such is the fate of those born with a Destiny… the consequences of their actions ripple about them through all that is reality. Perhaps the fate of others concerns you little… perhaps it consumes your soul. This too is a choice; an action taken, a ripple set into the pond of reality."
"As I have heard Giles sing, If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice," Sorkatani quoted. "I doubt that you are here to debate philosophy. What must I do to obtain the Tear, devil?"
"Simply go through one of the doors," the devil answered. "One will cause you a loss. Some… impairment. A slight loss of your edge. The other will cause you a loss of a different kind. One who may, perhaps, be precious to you." Its reptilian eyes turned toward Buffy. "And your companion, who may not be a Bhaalspawn but who matches or exceeds one in power, shall be given the same choice."
The Blade of Roses seemed to leap into Buffy's hand. "So who've you got behind those doors?" she asked. "Willow? Xander, Minsc, Viconia? Giles?"
"Attacking me will gain you nothing," the devil warned. "The Trials must be completed. Those with the power must be tested. And the potential sacrifices must be those… closest to you." With those words the devil vanished.
So did Imoen and Dawn.
"Remember, Child of Bhaal, and you who also bears the name of Slayer," the devil's voice went on, now sounding as if it was coming from behind the doors, "a choice must be made… and you must live with the consequences of that choice. Take the door to my left and sacrifice for the innocent. Go to my right and save yourselves."
Sorkatani didn't hesitate even for a second but took a stride toward the right-hand door. Buffy caught her by the arm and brought her to a halt.
"Wait, Tani," Buffy said. "How do we know which way he's facing? He said 'my left' but you're just assuming that means our right. We don't want to get this wrong."
"You are right," Sorkatani said. "Devil, speak plainly. Tell us which door is which in terms related to points of reference that we can see."
"Wait!" a voice called from beyond the door. "Don't touch anything yet, Jabbressen. We will rescue your sisters in – Hai-yah! – just a minute."
Sorkatani's eyes widened. "I know that voice," she gasped out. "Yoshimo!"
"Well, if this place could bring back Sorry Wok, it could do the same with Yoshi," Buffy said. "I hope we're not supposed to fight him."
"The geas…" Sorkatani began, and then shook her head. "His death will have broken that, and he said he is rescuing Imoen and Dawn."
"He said 'we'," Buffy pointed out, "so there must be someone else with him."
Almost simultaneously with her speaking a shadowed part of the corridor wall seemed to come alive. Both Slayers raised their swords but lowered them as they saw the beings that stepped out of the darkness. Yoshimo, carrying Dawn over his shoulders. A male Drow, carrying Imoen. And seven feet of leather-clad winged woman who held the head of the scaly devil by one horn.
"Egeria!" Sorkatani exclaimed. "How are you here? We do not have the power to summon you."
"If you're here for a training session I have to say it's maybe not a good time," Buffy said, and then she recognized the Drow. "Solaufein!"
"Qilafae," Solaufein responded. He lowered Imoen to the ground and moved to meet Buffy as she almost hurled herself upon him. She held him tight, and kissed him passionately, and then pulled her head away.
"Are Dawn and Imoen all right?" Buffy asked, looking around at where the two girls lay motionless on the floor.
"They are merely held immobile," Solaufein answered. "No harm has come to them."
"It will wear off soon," Egeria said. "I could dispel it now but I'd prefer to keep my spells back for when the need is greater."
"Sensible," Buffy said, and went back to kissing Solaufein. Sorkatani and Yoshimo restricted themselves to holding hands and gazing into each other's eyes.
"Hey, Buffy, get a room!"
Buffy unwrapped her leg from around Solaufein's, disengaged from the kiss, and turned to see that Dawn was getting to her feet. "So, what happened?" she asked.
"Got zapped out of here, found myself playing a compulsory game of Statues, with that scaly freak leering over me," Dawn related. "And then the Three Musketeers popped out of the shadows and took the devil apart."
Imoen stood up. "It is as you say," she said, "but tell me… what do you mean by 'get a room'?"
"It means, go somewhere private if you're making with the smoochies," Dawn explained, and then had to further explain the meaning of 'smoochies'."
"I believe you require this gem," Egeria said, tossing the devil's head aside and holding out a Tear of Bhaal.
"Thank you," Sorkatani said, as she took it. "How did you come to be here? Did Shar send you?"
"She lamented that she could not intervene herself," Egeria said, "and we volunteered to come in her stead. I have a trace of the Bhaal essence and Yoshimo and Solaufein are dead. We could enter here where our mistresses could not."
"Where I come from we have a saying, 'Never volunteer'," Buffy said, "but I'm glad you did. So that's three tears down, two to go."
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The first test had been straightforward, simply to defeat Sarevok; Sorkatani wondered, briefly, what fallen foe might have been resurrected to oppose Irenicus. Centeol the Spider Queen, perhaps? One of the imprisoned mages from Spellhold? One of the Elves of Suldanessellar? Or someone unknown to her? It was unlikely that she'd ever find out the answer and she dismissed the question from her mind.
The second test had been easy but with a sneaky little catch. The devil supervising the test had presented Sorkatani with a sword, the legendary blade Blackrazor, and told her that she had to use it to get past the next Tear's djinn guardian. The natural assumption would have been that she was supposed to use the sword to slay the djinn. Of course that was exactly what the dead God of Murder would have wanted his potential successor to assume and Sorkatani hadn't fallen for it. The non-violent solution, it turned out, was to trade the sword for the Tear.
Next there had been the trap designed to force Sorkatani, and Buffy, either to sacrifice the lives of their sisters or to accept some unspecified, but no doubt significant, impairment of their combat abilities. The arrival of Egeria, Yoshimo, and Solaufein had enabled the Slayers to bypass that one and avoid the consequences. So far, so good. But now… this was going to be brutal.
"You can take your cloak of flayed nymphs and shove it where the sun doesn't shine," Sorkatani told the devil. Her left thumb eased Celestial Fury forward in its scabbard. "It is an evil thing and I would not touch it with a ten-foot barge-pole."
"She must have picked those expressions up from Spike," Dawn explained to a slightly perplexed Imoen.
The devil had no eyebrows, only bony ridges on its forehead, but if it had eyebrows it would have raised them. "Yet you wear armor made from the skins of dragons," it pointed out. "Is your attitude not hypocritical?"
"I will not debate morality with a devil," said Sorkatani, "and I will not accept that vile cloak."
"You choose, then, to face the Trial of Fear with only your own power and bravery," said the devil. "So be it." It glanced at Egeria and sneered. "And do not think that your new ally can bend the rules, as she did before, for we have taken measures to prevent that. If she wishes to participate she will have to overcome the dangers with courage and skill alone." With that the devil vanished.
"That sounds like they've done something to stop you teleporting," Imoen deduced.
Egeria's brows furrowed. "Indeed there seem to be wards against teleportation in place," she confirmed, "and I can detect no shadows in the area that holds the Tear. And if I fly," she added, grimacing, "I will be exposed to the rays from all the Beholders at once. My magic resistance will be overwhelmed."
Buffy pursed her lips. "Immy, you think a Resist Fear spell will work?"
Imoen shook her head. "There is a Dead Magic zone between us and the corridor of fear," she said. "Any spells I cast on us will be dispelled the moment we enter. We would need an item with the spell built in, like the Helm of Kiel the Legion Killer that was Khalid's, or that abominable cloak. You didn't recover the helm, did you, Sorkatani?"
Sorkatani shook her head. "We found this helm," she tapped the one on her head, "and Minsc's Eyes of Truth, and a few other odd things, but nothing that was Khalid's. Irenicus must have sold them off."
"Bodhi, more likely," Buffy said. "Irenicus never seemed that interested in money. Well, without anything that will let us walk through the Valley of Fear, we'll have to do this the hard way."
"Maybe not," Dawn said. "In the other trials the bad option was the one that involved killing things. It might be the same here. Maybe we could… negotiate with the Beholders. The one we met in the Sahuagin city was a decent guy, remember?"
"Yeah, that one was," Buffy agreed, "but the ones here seem more like… psycho killers. They might even be survivors from the Unseeing Eye's lair, or the bunch we beat up in the Underdark, in which case there's nothing they'd like better than to turn us into stone and then smash us to gravel. But I guess it doesn't cost anything to give talking a try."
Shouted appeals to the Beholders for a truce were answered with growled threats and curses, both in the Common Tongue and in an incomprehensible language which was presumably their native speech, accompanied by a lethal barrage of spell-rays from their eyestalks.
"So much for that plan," Buffy said. "Either they've been told they don't get out of here until we're dead, or else the bits we didn't understand translate as 'Hello, my name is Inigo Beholder. You killed my father, prepare to die'."
"Quite probably both," said Sorkatani. "I wonder what is keeping them from coming out of the corridor to attack us here. It cannot be another Dead Magic zone or their eyestalk spells would not have come near us."
"Threats of instant death, I would guess," Solaufein suggested. "In my experience the Eye Tyrants can be deterred by little else. Except, perhaps, for a geas."
All the others, even Egeria, winced at that. Solaufein, who had not been told about the betrayal and the events that had led to Yoshimo's death, saw the suddenly grim faces and his eyebrows rose. "Did I say something wrong?"
"It's a… sensitive topic," Buffy said. "Anyway, the whys don't matter. Break out the Cloak of Mirroring, Immy, we're going to have to do this the hard way."
"I think it should be me who faces the Beholders," Sorkatani said. "I am the one who is being tested."
"I guess you're right," Buffy agreed. "They only dredged up Sorry Wok from the Dead Old Enemies locker. If they'd wanted to test me too… I don't even want to think about it."
"Glory," Dawn muttered, shuddering.
"Glory?" Solaufein queried.
"A Hell Goddess," Dawn explained, "exiled on Earth in a human body. She had this crazy idea that she could get back home if she… sacrificed me."
Solaufein exchanged looks with Yoshimo and Egeria. All three of them were beginning to realize why Shar had been so insistent that protecting Dawn was to be their top priority whilst she was in an annex of the Hells.
"She was super-strong and pretty much indestructible," Buffy added. "We stopped her but it was a close thing… and I died. I think we could take her, with the weapons we've got now and Eggy backing us up, but it would be a whole lot of no fun. Let's hope she's not the last trial."
"I think that is highly improbable," Sorkatani said. "It would be… the wrong sort of trial. There is no point in speculation when we have nothing to go on." She had put on the Cloak of Mirroring by this time and now she drew her primary katana. She didn't bother with Malakar, as there would be no need for the parrying sword against Beholders, but held Celestial Fury in a two-handed grip. "We will find out the answer after I have defeated these foes."
She moved off into the corridor that held the Beholders. The others followed, cautiously, and took up positions where they could sneak glances along the corridor without too much risk of being hit by stray blasts from the eyestalk rays. Then they watched the carnage.
Sorkatani had discarded finesse in favor of speed and power. Celestial Fury flashed through the air so fast that it was nothing but a blur to everyone except for Buffy and Egeria. The others could trace the course of the blades only by the sprays of blood and the Beholder corpses plummeting to the ground. A smaller Beholder-kin, a Gauth, was sliced into two halves that fell to each side of Sorkatani as she charged forward. The next swing of the sword opened a wound all along the side of a full-size Beholder and the creature's bluish blood spurted forth so copiously that it seemed almost to be providing a propulsive force as it pirouetted away, crashed into the wall, bounced off and crashed to the floor. Another Beholder fell, and another, and another. The swarm of Beholders dwindled in number and, for the first time, the spectators could get an unobscured view of those at the rear.
At the very back was one bigger than all the rest. Its chitinous armor was cracked and scarred and, as Sorkatani felled one of those in front of it and brought it into clear sight, the watchers could see that a scar ran right across its central eye. The pupil had been obliterated, the eyestalks above were truncated stumps, and it was obvious that the monster was completely blind.
Dawn gulped. "Oh, vith!" she exclaimed. "I think that's…"
"The Unseeing Eye," Buffy confirmed. "They did raid my Dead Old Enemies Locker after all. Still, we might not have the Rift Device any more, but Celestial Fury should be able…" She broke off as she saw the area around the Unseeing Eye suddenly fill with the acrid white vapors of Abi-Dazim's Horrid Wilting. "Oh, crap, the cloak won't defend against that."
The caustic vapor didn't stop Sorkatani but it did slow her down. Buffy had personal experience of the spell's effects herself, from when they had fought the Rune Mages in Imnesvale, and she knew how painful and disorienting it was to have eyes, nose, and throat all shriveling up and feeling as if they were on fire. Sorkatani's next sword stroke went slightly astray and didn't kill its target outright. The Beholder was badly wounded, and stunned by Celestial Fury's thunder and lightning power, but not disabled permanently. Sorkatani didn't pause to finish it off but made straight for the one beyond it. Only her target, the wounded one, and the Unseeing Eye remained. The fight was almost won.
And then the ground under Sorkatani's feet opened and became a pitch-black circular hole. The air around her swirled and became a miniature, localized, twister. The whirlwind seemed to suck her downward, into the hole, and she disappeared from view. Then the ground slammed shut above her.
Buffy gasped in horror. She hadn't seen that spell in action before but she'd been warned about it, and had talked with the mage Vithal who had been a victim, and she recognized the signs. One of the most feared spells in the repertoire of high-powered mages and liches.
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Song lyrics quoted in this chapter are from Learning to Fly, by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Freewill, by Rush.
Glossary of Drow terms:
Jabbressen = Female commanders
Vith = fuck; vith'ol = fuck it.
Sava = a Drow board game resembling chess but incorporating throws of eight-sided dice that may allow special moves that break the normal rules.