This is the conclusion to this exploratory piece. A big thanks to everyone reading; I hope you enjoyed it.
INTO THE VOID – PART II
Rain floated, somewhere between dreams and reverie. In the darkness. In her nightmare.
"So, I am to be your plaything, am I?" Rain asked wearily, so deeply tired and listless that it was hard to keep her heavy head up and her back straight, her chin lifted where she gazed up at Bodhi, crouching above her on a jutting platform of stone. "You think to have us run this maze of yours, and then hunt us for sport, to feed."
Rain laughed bitterly; a low, distant sound that echoed oddly in her sharp elven ears, strangely hollow. It reverberated off the walls in this stale, cavernous room that Rain now found herself in, coming back to her in ghostly, ringing replies. Her blue eyes hardened, becoming dangerous chips of ice. She put the last of her fading strength into her cold, cold voice, mustering a fierce denial.
"I think not, Bodhi," she said grimly. "We will escape this place and come for you both. And when we do, you will regret what you have done to Imoen and I." Rain bared her teeth in a feral half-smile, issuing her challenge. "Face us if you dare. But I warn you, we will cut you down as easily as we have all the others of your kind."
Her threat, on any other day, would have held true force; true power. The potent strength of her blood.
But not now. Not here. Her warning was as empty as Rain's now-soulless, vacant body, and Bodhi knew it.
The vampire tipped back her head and laughed in pure, unadulterated delight. It belled off the stone walls, filling the chamber with her bright, lustful mirth.
Inwardly, Rain cringed, hearing the faint echoes of Imoen's lost soul in that joyous, blood-curdling laughter. It chilled her to the very marrow of her bones.
Fingers tightened reflexively in Rain's shoulder, digging into her skin; Kivan's hand, keeping her upright where she knelt in the grimy dust of the floor, in the ruined scraps of bloodied white silk that still clung to her weak, exhausted frame. She hadn't yet moved from where she had been tossed to the ground by Yoshimo, thrown away like a useless, broken child's toy that no one else wanted. Behind her, Kivan tensed, radiating fury. She couldn't feel him anymore – neither him nor her other elven kin, Xan and Aerie – but the ranger's desperate, scorching rage was palpable.
Bodhi, smiling, fixed her dark, highly amused gaze on Rain again. "Now, now, Child of Bhaal," she chastised Rain sternly, her eyes still dancing with silent laughter. "You must show more respect to your betters. You should be happy that I am giving you this chance to flee, to run the mad gauntlet of a madman's maze." She cocked her head to one side, her eyes suddenly turning sharp and greedy, voracious as she considered Rain. "Or," she said musingly, "I could just finish our little game right here and now, and slake my thirst at last. Hmm, perhaps that would be better."
Kivan snarled, his hand trembling angrily on Rain's shoulder. "Curse you, vampire," he hissed above Rain's head, heated and fierce. "Curse you to all the Hells!"
This time, Bodhi did not smile. She brought the full force of her powerful, unpleasant gaze upon Kivan, and spoke her cold, final words.
"You are wrong, you see," she told Kivan flatly. "It is Rain who is now cursed. Rain and Imoen, both. They will die in my place. Die in my brother's place!" Her shrill, triumphant words rang clear in the room, shredding apart the musty, heavy air. All at once, the vampire stood with swift, lethal grace, holding herself tall and proud and mighty, up high on her platform. "Run, little mouse," she told Rain coldly. "Run, and fear my hunt!"
And just as quickly, Bodhi vanished. Swirled up into herself like a wisp of smoke, and disappeared into the stealthy, encroaching darkness.
Her parting broke the awful, stunned hold that had transfixed Rain's companions. Imoen sighed – a long, dry gust of air, like the rustling of dead leaves – and Rain slumped, her shoulders sagging and her head bowing in defeat. She was so tired. So drained. Her body felt faraway and brittle, as though she now inhabited a mere shell of herself; residing as a wraith, a faint shadow, rather than the bright, living flame that she had once been. Rain closed her eyes, searching. Tried to reach deep, to find her lost spark, to summon her strength.
They were gone.
Only her will remained, now. And at this very moment, it was sorely diminished indeed.
Kivan's voice, soft and hoarse, filtered through her dimmed awareness. A warm, calloused hand, with strong, gentle fingers, cupped her cheek. With an effort, she opened her eyes again, and found him down on one knee before her, his dark, sorrowing gaze now on the same level as hers. He looked into her eyes a long moment, reading her deeply. Searching for something, something that might no longer be there.
Rain said not a word, letting him. Then he sighed heavily, somehow reassured, and scooted forward on his knees, wrapping her in a tight, protective embrace. He hugged her fiercely, pouring all of his sharp relief into her. "Oh, Rain, mellonamin," he whispered into her ear, rough and strangled. "I thought I had lost you." His wild elation of earlier, from when she had first awakened from the ritual, alive, was gone, but in its place, his affection was still sweet and raw, and edged with the fresh horror of just what Irenicus had done to her.
Stolen her soul. Taken it for his own.
"We have," intoned a resigned, but strangely matter-of-fact voice above her head. It was Xan, speaking aloud what he clearly thought was obvious. "Do not delude yourself," he said heavily to Kivan. "She is surely lost, just as Bodhi said." There was a short, uncomfortable pause in which Kivan stiffened briefly, his arms tensing around her. "They both are," Xan added sadly, referring to Imoen.
Kivan swallowed back a sharp retort, which Rain felt as a swift, indrawn breath at her ear. He released her, then, and sat back on his heels to regard Xan very levelly. "You are wrong," he said firmly. "While they draw breath, there is hope. I am not going to give up, and neither are you."
Xan simply sighed and shook his head, the look in his dark eyes hopeless. He rested his lost, mournful gaze on Rain's pale face, watching her. "Her eyes are already glazing over," he pointed out, not unkindly. "She may have survived the ritual in body, but her spirit has been destroyed. She is not entirely dead, but neither is she truly living." He dropped his eyes from hers, lowering them to the cold, hard floor. "It is merely another form of undeath," he murmured, and Rain felt herself go very, very still.
She saw it, then, as he did: she was doomed, with no hope of reprieve. She was lost to him, lost to them all.
And if she did not escape this maze, he would be right.
"We keep moving," Rain told Xan quietly, trying not to hear how weak and faltering her voice was. Kivan nodded approvingly, his face very grim. "We will get out, and we will find Irenicus and Bodhi. We will take back our souls and live again."
At that, Rain shifted her eyes to Imoen, meeting her sister's empty gaze with painful anguish. Imoen's eyes were wide and haunted, her skin ashen.
"I am sorry, Im," Rain whispered, feeling the enormous, crushing weight of her failure. "I should have come sooner."
Imoen started, as though torn from a trance, then shook her head slowly. "No," she said in a dull, lethargic tone, looking as hollow and listless as Rain felt. "I knew you would not come in time. Irenicus told me. He said that we both had to pay the price. Their price."
Whatever that meant, Imoen did not explain. Rain's heart clenched into a tight, miserable fist. Utterly despairing, despising herself for letting down her dear friend, her sister, Rain struggled to her feet and gratefully took Kivan's hand, the one he held out for her. Then, turning away from him, she took stumbling, wavering steps on her bare feet, heading purposefully for her sister. She held out her arms in silent, hurting apology, pleading for forgiveness.
"Im…?" she asked very softly, her voice the merest whisper in the dusty air.
Imoen looked at her, uncertain and confused. Then her face crumpled. "Rain?" she choked out. Suddenly, she was hurling herself forward, and Rain almost staggered beneath Imoen's thin, gaunt weight, her sister throwing herself into Rain's welcoming embrace. They clung to each other tightly, seeking solace.
"It is time to go." Jaheira's voice, worried and urgent, broke into Rain's hurried reunion with her sister. They stepped apart, looking to her expectantly. "Find us a room with a door we can bar," she said to Kivan swiftly. "Rain needs to dress, and they both need healing."
Kivan nodded, agreeing with her. But his jet eyes were soft with concern, and he did not move away immediately. Instead, he looked to Rain. "Can you walk?" he asked her gently, his brow furrowing deeply as he gazed at her.
She took a tired, unsteady step towards him. Her vision began to distort and swim, and Rain realised, belatedly, that she had spent the last of her strength on Imoen, on going to her.
A sick, giddy feeling came over her, making her skin break out in a sudden icy sweat.
Something terrible slithered through her consciousness; something slimy and poisonous and terrifyingly black.
Rain gasped, swaying on her feet. She began to reel dizzily, to fall.
Then Kivan was sweeping her up, his arm slipping beneath her knees, and he bore her to a set of wide, steep steps and carried her up them, with no effort at all. Grimly, he jerked his head at Anomen, signalling for the priest to scout instead.
"This will not do," Kivan told Rain, softly. "I will not have you collapsing on your feet."
Rain sighed, giving over to him, and laid her head on his cloaked shoulder. But before she closed her eyes, she tried to warn him.
"I brought something back with me," she breathed, her voice shadowed with that cold, unspeakable horror. "Something awful. Be careful, mellonamin. At the first sign of danger, of anything wrong, put me down."
Kivan looked at her sharply, not understanding.
But then again, neither did she.
"Have faith in me," he whispered instead, firming his grip on her shoulders and knees. He brought her to the top of the steps and did not set her down. "I will never let you fall."
Her reverie changed, turning jumbled and chaotic.
She had a flash of Bodhi's pale, vicious face looming in the darkness, come at last to feed.
And then Rain was changing, changing, morphing into something else as a great scarlet tide of pure, seething hatred overcame her, sweeping her up and up and up into the most destructive, rampaging fury that Rain had ever experienced. Completely enraged, in a berserk wrath, she lunged with a shrieking cry for her nemesis, trying to rip out Bodhi's gleaming throat. She struck and struck, until the vampire backed away in confusion and turned tail, fleeing into the darkness.
She whirled, still caught up in her rage. Looking for another enemy to tear from limb to limb.
A shadow darted at the fringe of her crimson sight, luring her sideways. She turned, following it. Green cloth – a ragged woollen cloak – snapped and fluttered in the air from the swiftness of the figure's smooth, dancing passage. He moved, backwards, down a darkened corridor, slipping away from her. Drawing her away, down that long, empty passage.
The Slayer growled in delight, finding new prey to toy with.
But Rain, carried helplessly along with it, watched in abject horror as the creature's claws flashed out to shred that maddening, fluttering cloak, the wool parting as easily as a knife sliding through butter. She had a glimpse of Kivan's horrified face as he spun away, and then he was throwing up his arms across his head to protect himself, to save himself from her slashing claws.
He did not fight her. Did not draw the bow that was slung, uselessly, across his back.
And Rain screamed and screamed inside her monstrous body, fighting and bucking against the Slayer's ruthless hold.
With a mighty wrench of her will, she threw herself forwards, using the Slayer's own momentum to drive the creature past Kivan, so fast that he was slammed backwards, into the wall.
And Rain was running and running, tearing down that corridor into the black, bitter depths of Spellhold.
Away from Kivan. Away from her friends.
With a start, Rain woke, coming back to herself in a sudden panic. Fitfully, her heart thudding in her breast, she tried to throw off the rest of the unconscious, nightmare stupor that had gripped her, and listened intently, a sharp, deep intuition telling her that she was no longer alone. Something was in these corridors with her. Or someone. The darkness was as heavy as before, unrelieved, and it stank now with blood and sickness, cold and dank.
On the floor, still pressed up against the solid wall, Rain shivered helplessly, her tremors coming in violent convulsions. She slowly became aware the blood was her own. It seeped from the fine cuts, newly-formed, in her icy skin, and more thickly from a nasty gash in her side, where she had taken a blow only yesterday. Wincing, she moved her stiff, numbed fingers, her arms still tightly wrapped around her drawn-up knees, and touched the wound gingerly. The puckered skin, previously healed, had cracked open again. Probably as a result of her monstrous transformation.
She squeezed her eyes shut fiercely, shaking and hurting. Misery pounded at her like a hammer, throbbing through every inch of her aching, abused body. Each strike drove home her enormous despair, her deep humiliation at what she had become. At what she had done. Her throat burned, scraped raw from her retching, and her stomach was a sick, twisting knot.
The unseen presence was drawing closer, stealthy. They were taking no chances at all. Despite straining her sensitive ears, not a single sound came to her; not a rustle, a creak of leather, or the soft, light padding of smooth, stalking feet. That made her blood go cold, even as her heart gave an involuntary, stricken leap. Swiftly, Rain cast out her senses, trying to feel who was coming. But there was nothing, nothing save her own ears, and the limited intuition that remained to her.
She was blinded.
Clenching her teeth, Rain huddled more closely into the wall, her arms crossed protectively over her breasts. Like this, bare and exposed, she was defenceless. She had no swords, no knives. She wasn't even sure if she could summon a simple warding spell, though she would try, and defend herself as best she could.
Or, she could flee. She tensed her sore muscles as she waited, trying to gather herself for a fast, fluid roll that would take her away from her attacker, and let her spring up to her heels.
And then what?
She couldn't remember how many turns she had taken in the long corridors. Nor how far she had run. All she could think of, when she tried to recall it, was the last scarlet wall she had stumbled into, rearing as that shifting, haze of red. Though she could likely follow her own claw marks, she realised bitterly, if they had, indeed, scratched as deeply into the stone as she suspected.
Yes, came a slippery, well-satisfied voice in her mind, smug with its own success. Our claws are sharp, little one. Little Rain.
Instantly, she recoiled from it, trying to shrink away, and the thing – the Slayer – laughed at her ironically, amused.
Do you not understand yet? it asked her, a touch of curiosity in its tone. You are the monster in the dark. You are the creature that comes in the midst of the night for the frightened and unwary, tearing them apart. It grinned at her again. Whoever is coming for you now, they will kill you on the spot. If I were you, I would embrace me again, and save yourself.
Rain spat a silent curse at it, bidding it to be quiet.
In retaliation, the Slayer snapped at her, angered, but it unexpectedly fell silent. Perhaps it was waiting to see what would happen, lurking in the shadows of her mind for the next opportunity to strike.
Grimly, Rain attuned her senses outwards again, focusing.
A draft of very cold, musty air puffed over the bare flesh of her shoulders and arms. It tickled her feet and ears, stirring her spill of russet hair. She held her breath. That draft, that lazy swirl in the darkness, had come from around the nearest corner; she could feel it. Her stalker was very close, only a few yards away. And she could still hear nothing.
There was another slight, disturbed movement of the air. The hunter rounded the corner. Then there was a startled gasp, a choked off cry, and Kivan was diving for her, throwing himself to the floor at her side. Shuddering, Rain pulled her arms tighter, trying to cover herself. The pitch blackness of the passageway was no veil to his night eyes; he would see her as clearly as she would see him.
"Rain?" came his thick, rasping voice, as though his throat was stoppered, clogged. "Rain?"
She bit off her own uncertain sound; a broken sob, perhaps, struggling to break free of her chest. She heard a loud, rattling clatter as he dropped his longbow and arrow, and then the hasty rasp of leather on metal, as he threw his quiver to the ground. Another soft swirl of the air, and his cloak was settling warmly over her frozen body, draping her with its coarse, comforting folds. She shook with relief, her nakedness covered at last.
"Rain?" he asked again, hesitant. She felt his hand hovering above her head, indecisive. "Is it…is it you?"
She tried to find her tongue, which seemed useless all of a sudden. "Y…yes," she finally forced out, in a shivering, stumbling tremor.
Kivan inhaled sharply; a quick hitch of his breath. His hand lowered then, trembling, and she felt his own vast relief as he laid his fingers on her hair and began to stroke her gently, communicating his deep worry and care. His other palm moved to her side, where, even now, the blood from her re-opened wound was soaking into his cloak.
"You're bleeding," he said softly, crouching over her. He pressed down gently on the wool, feeling her gashed skin beneath the wet folds. "It looks bad."
She stirred, relaxing her arms a little. "It is my wound from yesterday," she told him tiredly, feeling sluggish and slow. "It came open again. And I have other cuts, from today." From my time as the Slayer.
"I will bring you bandages," he said after a short pause, "and a salve for the smaller cuts." There was a sharp, ripping tear of linen, likely from his own sleeve, and he gently laid the rolled-up cloth on his cloak, within reach of her hand. "For now, though," he murmured, "take this and keep it pressed to the wound."
She nodded wearily, a tiny movement, and carefully slipped one arm out from beneath his cloak, fumbling for the cloth. Then, cautiously, she pulled it back in and held it firmly to her side, staunching the blood. "I will wash your cloak for you," she offered in quiet apology, "when there is time."
"There is no need," Kivan said just as softly, and she knew he meant it.
He bent his head over her for a time, and she was aware that he was still examining her closely, looking for more evidence of her hurts. "I will have to bring you more clothes," he said then, and she felt a faint blush rise to her cold cheeks. "Yours were ruined when you…changed."
That last word was said grimly, soberly. She closed her eyes in shame. He fell silent, and she heard the little snick of the cap on his water flask coming off. Then another ragged tear of linen. Water trickled from the flask into his hand. He leaned over her again, and dabbed at her face gently, wiping the cool, wet cloth over her lips, brow and neck. She sighed, and uncurled a little more, lowering her knees beneath his heavy cloak. Her mouth still tasted of bile.
"You need a new sword-belt," Kivan told her, musing quietly as he worked. To keep her occupied, Rain thought. "I did recover your swords." She sensed his sudden smile in the darkness. "It is lucky for us that we found that strange contraption that makes new boots," he said fondly, shaking his head at the memory. "I never thought I would be using mithril tokens to get you another pair of shoes!"
His attempt at humour was endearing, and it made her smile. But it also reminded Rain of the gravity of her situation. Her brief glint of amusement faded away.
Very seriously now, she rolled onto her back to look up at him, careful to keep his cloak covering her bare flesh. In her elven sight, his rugged face was dim, his skin giving off a very faint phosphorescence; evidence of his heat. His watchful eyes were deep and black. One of his shirt sleeves was missing, only tattered threads remaining where he had ripped the linen right from the seam.
"Kivan," she said softly, and his name caught in her suddenly too-tight throat. She swallowed thickly, trying to speak past it. "You should go," she bade him in a broken whisper, warning him once again. "I do not know when it will come back."
He went terribly still, crouching on his heels. He stared down at her. His head tilted, then, slightly to one side, as he considered her a long moment, gazing at her quietly. "And what do you think…it…is?" he asked after a pause, very carefully.
Rain met his eyes soberly, not glancing away. "It calls itself the Slayer," she murmured. "It woke during Irenicus' ritual. Exactly where it came from, or why, I do not know. But it is here regardless."
Kivan's mouth twitched; the only sign of his great unease. He watched her again, his brow creasing as he turned something over in his mind; something deeply painful and unsettling, judging by the look in his eyes. When he next spoke, his low tone was very soft, very hoarse. "It was you, wasn't it," he whispered, his voice flecked with both trepidation and awe. "It was you who saved me. You made that thing rush past me, down the corridor. Otherwise, it would have had me, and I would not be here with you now."
When he put it that way…
Rain's insides clenched up with sudden, anguished grief, her heart twisting into an unbearable knot. To think what might have happened, if she had not finally exerted her will over the Slayer…
"Yes," she said very simply, and it was enough.
Kivan's breath gusted out, his head sagging in relief. Oddly, then, he began to laugh. It was a small sound, husky and light, but it lifted Rain's broken spirit in a way that nothing else could. He looked down at her, a strange spark in his dark eyes, and smiled at her wryly.
"You choose rather unusual moments to test my loyalty, mellonamin," he observed. He shook his head, ruefully, and gently brushed back a lock of hair from her brow. "Stay here," he told her softly. "I will bring back the things you need."
He left her in the darkness, but not before pulling his own hunting knife from its sheath and laying it beside her, and his sword, too, unbuckling it from around his narrow waist and giving it to her. He pushed his water flask closer to her head, making sure she could reach it, and then slipped away with his longbow and quiver, an arrow nocked to the bowstring as he scouted down the passageway behind Rain. Listening very closely, Rain again heard nothing, his footsteps as soundless as before. He was merely a light breath of air in the murk; a shadow within the shadows.
Soon, he returned. He seemed slightly reassured as he gazed down at Rain, but his eyes strayed to the blades on the floor next to her.
"I sense nothing nearby," he told her softly, "but keep them close." He nodded at the weapons. "I will not be long."
This time, the ranger did not hide his passing, bounding into a steady, hurried lope that quickly took him far from her. He disappeared around the corner in the corridor.
Rain waited until the soft sound of his boots slapping on the stone faded to an inaudible thud. When she was truly alone, wrapped in the dark, she dredged up the strength to rise, and struggled awkwardly to her bruised, battered knees. As soon as her purpling flesh touched the hard flags of the floor, she bit back a sharp yelp, trying to push past the stabbing agony in her kneecaps. She clamped her hand to her side again, over the make-shift bandage.
With one hand, she shrugged into Kivan's thick cloak, pulling it tightly around her shoulders. She eyed the water flask. Lifting it to her lips, she swirled cold, welcome liquid around her mouth, rinsing it thoroughly, and then spat the water out. She rinsed her mouth again. On the next mouthful, she swallowed the water, letting it slide, stinging, down her throat. She drank until the taste of bile was washed away.
That brought her eyes to the pool of vomit on the floor, lighter splashes against the grey stone. Her stomach lurched. The dank air reeked of her sickness, spilling over her in an unpleasant, nauseous wave. Slowly, her fingers trembling with cold, Rain twisted the cap back on the flask and slipped the loop of leather cord attached to it over her wrist. She reached for Kivan's blades, carefully layering the scabbarded sword over the long, unsheathed knife, hilt to hilt, so the naked blade would not cut her. Then, with a stubborn determination all her own, Rain gritted her teeth and began to crawl, dragging the blades with her as she headed for the sharp turn in the passageway, in the direction she had originally come. She bit her lip painfully, drawing blood. Her knees were on fire. The knife screeched as she pulled it over the stone, and dimly, Rain hoped that Kivan would forgive her for abusing his favourite hunting blade.
Finally, she reached the corner and gained the next corridor, putting a merciful distance between herself and the rank smell choking the passage behind her. Bruised, beaten, she dropped the blades and flask, and wriggled backwards until her spine touched the wall. There, she sat, shivering, and pulled her knees up to her chest. She was so cold. Kivan's cloak had slipped from one shoulder, its ragged folds in disarray, and Rain wrapped it about her arms and knees again, swathing herself in its muffling warmth. Fully enveloped, her lean frame dwarfed by the cloak, she burrowed into it thankfully and waited.
The slow minutes passed.
On a long, weary sigh, Rain bent her neck and buried her face in the green wool draped over her knees. Somehow, she breathed more freely here. The distinct, smoky aftertaste of charred firewood filled her nostrils, and, savouring it, she drew in its strong scent through her mouth. The wood-smoke was ingrained so deeply in the fibres of the cloak that it would never disappear entirely, not even with repeated washing and scrubbing. Rain found she liked it. He often smelled that way, of scorched embers, burning wood and damp leaves, and the residue in his forest cloak was strangely comforting.
She breathed in, deeply, and then out again. Something else tickled at her nose. Frowning a little, her slender red brows drawing together, Rain tried to identify it.
A warm hint of musk rose from the cloak. It was embedded so well, braided so completely with the smoke, that the two dusky scents merged as one, imbuing the wool. With a small jerk of surprise, Rain realised what the musk was: it was him; Kivan's unique scent. His essence surrounded her, touching her skin.
She flushed deeply, her pale cheeks colouring. She lifted her head at once.
Do not think about it, she reprimanded herself harshly, her inner voice scathing. This is not the time.
And then, as she shifted uncomfortably, she became aware of the icy drafts moving over her thighs and back, raising a host of tiny, prickling bumps on her cold skin.
Rain stilled, looking down at the cloak.
A flash of memory came to her; a vision of the Slayer's claws ripping up these very same folds, snatching at the already-tattered wool. New slits had opened, further fraying the green fabric.
Rain hugged her free arm tightly to herself, horrified. She lowered her head again, overcome by a powerful wash of pain, misery and loathing.
I nearly killed him. I nearly killed the one I love.
Immediately, the Slayer reared up in her mind, coating her with its oily, oozing thoughts. So you did, it told her, very amused. So you did. He will fear you now, after what you did to him.
The Slayer coiled suddenly, going very taut, like a hissing snake about to strike. It bared its fangs at her, showing its wicked teeth.
They will all hate you, it told her, hitting Rain's heart where it hurt the most. They will all despise you, you mewling, weakling Child of Bhaal!
Shuddering, Rain clapped her hands to her pointed ears, through the cloak, as though she could drown the awful voice out. The saturated cloth from Kivan's shirt stuck to her gash, remaining in place. "Shut up!" she snapped, violently repelling the thing with everything she had. "Get out of my head!"
But the Slayer only laughed at her, unaffected.
And Rain knew then, with a cold, hard twist to her gut, that the Slayer might very well be correct.
The others, she thought bleakly. I still have to face the others. And they may not be nearly as understanding as Kivan.
She was, after all, a monster. Twinned with the dreadful, savage presence in her head. She should not be surprised if some of her companions were sorely tempted to walk away from her, after the horror they had witnessed. Anomen, perhaps. Rain tried to hold hard to her faith, her trust in her friends, but it was hard, very hard. She feared what she would find when she eventually went back.
But face this I must, she told herself. I will learn to fight this thing inside me.
I will learn, or I will die.
That very grim, dark thought crystallised into a hard, determined resolve in her mind. She had told Kivan that she would keep fighting, and fight she would. So, in the darkness, Rain wrapped herself more tightly in his cloak, and lifted her chin, not allowing herself to be beaten down. She rested her head against the cold wall.
She did not have much longer to wait.
His footsteps drifted to her, echoing more loudly as he pounded down the long, empty corridors to her, returning swiftly. Rain turned her head, watching for him.
When he reappeared, rounding the next corner in the passageway, he slowed and then stopped, his worried gaze falling upon her where she sat back against the wall. His brow furrowed slightly, and the look in his dark eyes was both hesitant and expectant; an unusual combination, as though Kivan was not quite sure how to approach her. He seemed troubled, his mood more sombre than it had been before.
For her part, Rain met his eyes tiredly but evenly, her head still resting against the wall. Patiently, she kept her expression open to him, allowing him to read her through the shadows.
After a moment, Kivan sighed heavily. He seemed to shrug off whatever was bothering him, and his eyes gentled on her, softening. He stepped out again, and now his strides were loose and relaxed, assured. Kivan came to her, gazing down at her face, and crouched on his heels before her. His shadow dragon scale was very dark in the dim passageway, black on black. His remaining linen sleeve drew her eyes, and then his other arm, hard and muscled with a very taut, wiry strength. Fine white scars scored his faintly glimmering skin.
"We need to fix your shirt," Rain murmured, a little distracted now that he was so close to her. Her lips curved in a very slight smile.
Kivan's eyes warmed in the darkness, a hint of amusement in them. He set down a small bundle on the floor, the one he had been carrying. Then, he reached up a hand and, with a perfectly innocent expression, ripped off the other sleeve from its seams, leaving Rain to stare at him in wide-eyed bemusement as he set about destroying more of his shirt. When his arms were completely bare, leaving only the linen beneath his scale armour, Kivan arched a brow at her, sardonic, as though challenging her to comment.
"It's fixed," he said, rather blandly.
Rain snorted with laughter, surprising herself; she hadn't been sure if she could ever laugh again. Not after what she had been through. She shook her head, not sure if she was rebuking him or applauding him. "You're mad," she said in a perplexed, wondering tone, but there was no sting in her words at all. Only gentle humour.
"Then I fit in rather well with this place," Kivan retorted, his voice too smooth, too even. His stare turned fixed and flat, the light rapidly emptying from his eyes. When he next spoke, very softly, his tone was weighted with a very grim significance. "Mad enough to come after you, mellonamin," he observed, watching her gravely.
Instantly, Rain dropped her eyes from his, cut by his blunt reminder. She stared at his cloak over her knees and swallowed hard, hurt and deeply ashamed again.
She had been right, then. His mood had changed. She had no sense of the Spirit whatsoever, but she didn't need it to sense the angry ambivalence in him, in the brittle edge to his words. Kivan seemed to be struggling with something, bitter, sad and frustrated all at once. Suddenly, Rain didn't know what to say to him. What could she say, after the terrible thing she had become?
There was a brief, uncomfortable pause. Her cheeks flamed with colour.
Then his breath hissed out, and his hand was suddenly at the side of her head, cupping her sharp, sensitive ear with rare, intimate familiarity. Startled, Rain flinched, but did not pull back from him.
For a moment, Kivan simply touched her, muffling the sound in her ear. Then he gently brushed his rough, calloused thumb over her skin in parting, making Rain jerk her eyes back up to him. He dropped his hand to his side again.
"Forgive me," he whispered to her, hoarsely. His unguarded eyes were very deep, earnest and sincere. "I am not angry with you, Rain," he told her quietly. "It is the others. They are…" He trailed off, biting back whatever he had been about to say. His frustration rose clear this time, sharpened with his annoyance. Kivan sighed, then, and looked at her, saddened and regretful. "They are confused," he said with that raw honesty of his. "Fearful. I have done what I can, but…" He let his words fade into a heavy silence.
Rain looked at him steadily, appreciating his candour. She had expected this reaction, of course, and her resolve stayed firm. "But you need me to go back and reassure them myself," she finished for him, very gently.
Kivan gave her a faint, barely-there smile; one that was both pleased and resigned. She thought she sensed pride in him. "Yes," he said.
She nodded slowly, musing. "Then that is what I will do."
His smile widened, becoming a thing of true warmth. He inclined his dark head to her, supporting her.
Kivan, as Rain knew, respected strength. Strength of the mind, strength of the heart. She had both. His expression cleared, and he nodded to the bundle on the floor.
"First," he said, "we need to take care of you, Rain. There is no need to rush back just yet."
The small bundle, as it turned out, was one of Rain's spare tunics, a soft blue, that had been carefully wrapped around other items to contain them. Aerie had prepared her things for her, so Kivan told her.
"There are dressings inside," he said softly, glancing at the tunic. "And I have this for you, as well."
Lifting the flap on the leather pouch at his belt, he reached into it and produced a little brown jar with a cork stopper, a jar that Rain recognised. It was Kivan's salve; the powerful herbal concoction that he brewed himself, letting it thicken and then cool into a smooth paste. The salve rivalled Jaheira's own ointment in terms of its healing strength. It would do very well on Rain's cuts.
She nodded her thanks, grateful for it.
Kivan gently set the jar on the floor beside the bundle, and brought his eyes back to Rain's. "I will let you dress now," he said to her, quietly. "Call me when you are ready. I will help you bandage that wound in your side."
He did not wait for an answer, but rose smoothly from his crouch, retreating back down the corridor to the next turn. Rain watched him go, his longbow slung across his back. When he slipped around the corner, leaving her in the shadows, Rain sighed, tired and aching, and slowly unbent her knees again, stretching out her stiff legs beneath Kivan's cloak. Her back protested as she leaned forward to inspect the bundle, pulling it closer to her.
Unwrapped, the tunic revealed a rolled-up pair of fawn breeches, her own, and a set of her smallclothes. There was her brush, the ivory handle smooth and yellowed with age, and the dressings that Kivan had mentioned. There was also a small bottle made of a tough, blue-lacquered glass. That one Rain also recognised. The bottle was Jaheira's, containing a sweet, and very potent alcohol made from fermented berries. It was what Jaheira gave to her patients when they had suffered a nasty shock, perhaps from a nearly-fatal blow.
Rain felt her throat close up, moved by Jaheira's small kindness. There might be some hope for her, after all.
She reached for the lacquered bottle, first, and took a small, fortifying sip, letting the alcohol fill her mouth. She swallowed it, trying not to cough as the liquor burned all the way down to her stomach. Another sip, and Rain put aside the bottle for the time being, taking up Kivan's salve instead.
It was not easy, searching out all her small hurts beneath the cloak, trying to keep the warm wool over her shoulders. She smeared the cool paste over her cuts and scratches, rubbing it into her skin. The gash in her side, though, was another matter. Rain gingerly felt at the bloodied cloth with her fingers, probing gently. The wound still seemed to be bleeding, though more slowly. Carefully, she peeled away the cloth, gritting her teeth on a sharp wince, and dabbed more of the salve onto the cut. She stoppered the jar again and took a thick cotton pad from her unfolded tunic.
With the same care as before, Rain pressed the clean dressing to her side, holding it in place until the pad seemed to stick. Then, awkwardly, she pulled on her smallclothes and breeches, and slipped the tunic over her head. She had no boots, as yet, so she draped the cloak over her legs, warming her feet. Rain picked up the brush and slowly ran the bristles through the length of her dishevelled hair. Each time the dressing pulled at her gash, Rain steeled herself, sucking in a quick, steadying breath. When she was finished, she called out in the darkness, softly.
He came back immediately, kneeling at her injured side. He did not say a word. Keeping his eyes averted from hers, his mouth fixed in a grave, careful line, he gently lifted the hem of her tunic, exposing the dressing. Blood was already staining the white pad. He looked at it a moment, his jaw set, and then reached for another dressing, laying the pad atop the first.
Again, he said nothing. His jaw clenched tighter. His arm was rigid, his hand firm on the dressing. Looking at his tense, down-turned face, Rain was suddenly confused. Conflict seemed to roil in him, so thick that it rolled off him in waves, not concealed by the dimness of the passageway. Kivan swallowed, his expression very grim. He moved his free hand to hers, then, and guided her fingers to the dressing, closing them over the thick pads. Then he pulled his hands away.
Rain's breath gusted out; the breath she hadn't realised that she had been holding. She began to tremble, affected in some deep part of herself by what had just happened. It was so simple, that touch, but it seemed loaded with something more, something her dazed mind was having trouble deciphering. Or, she could be misinterpreting it entirely. Either way, her confusion deepened. Kivan remained silent as a stone, giving away nothing, and Rain dropped her eyes from his impassive face. She held herself very still as he carefully wound the bandage around her middle, binding the dressing tightly until it was fixed in place. The silence stretched between them, heavy and tense.
Kivan's agile fingers neatly tied off the bandage, and Rain's tunic fell back into place. She glanced up at him, almost afraid of what she would find.
His black, unblinking eyes were fixed on hers, gazing at her steadily. She could not read him. His mouth was still firm, but as she stared back, his lips seemed to soften slightly, so subtly that Rain wasn't sure if she was imagining it. They regarded one another mutely, and the quiet drew out. The only sound was their soft breaths in the shadows, faint and uneven.
Kivan's gaze slowly slid from hers. He lowered his eyes, not rushing, to the pale, delicate line of her nose. Then down to her lips. He rested them there, very briefly. Then his dark lashes swept down, swiftly veiling his eyes from her sight, and his expression shuttered.
The moment passed.
He drew back from her quickly, an uncomfortable movement that was not quite a recoil. Rain went stiff and cold, unsure. Without looking at her, Kivan pulled his longbow over his head and leaned it against the wall, and shrugged out of his quiver. That, too, he set aside, and then sat down beside her with a small sigh, his chest heaving beneath the ebony links of his shadow dragon scale. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes, leaning against the wall.
The darkness between them turned thick again, any words they might have said left unspoken. Kivan was an unmoving, tense presence beside her, so still and pale that he might have been cut from marble.
Thoroughly bewildered, her emotions tangled up in a tight, constricting knot, Rain said nothing at all, having absolutely no idea what to say to him. She contemplated Jaheira's glass bottle blankly, and let the silence draw out. Then she grimaced. Reaching for the bottle, she made herself more comfortable against the wall, and swallowed down more of the sweet, heady liquid, sipping it slowly. A fiery heat pooled in her belly, soothing her with its warm buzz.
Kivan did not move, not outwardly. Eventually, however, some of the tension began to ebb from him, his rigid body relaxing slightly. His breathing slowed, becoming long, deep and even. He could almost have been dozing. But Rain knew better. A heavy, bleak melancholy was settling on him, visible in the deepening crease between his jet brows, in the flat, mournful curve of his mouth. He worked his throat, as though he were finally about to speak, but did not. He kept his eyes tightly closed, his thoughts silent and inward.
Rain stayed still and quiet, sensing what this was about. In the shock of Irenicus' ritual, her own near-death and barbaric transformation, she had temporarily pushed aside Aphril's terrible words to him, though she had not forgotten. Now that she had been tended to, and there was nothing left for Kivan to do, his grief was crushing him again, swamping him, black and bitter, until his shoulders slumped beneath its unbearable weight. Sorrow bracketed lines around his mouth, furrowing his tattooed brow.
She did not know how to express her own deep sorrow, her genuine pain at his choking despair. She did not know if words could ever be enough. What did you say to someone who had been told that everything he believed in – everything he hoped for, longed for – had been a lie? Was it a delusion he had clung to, despite telling Rain himself, long ago, that an elven soul could be utterly destroyed when one died of prolonged torture, their suffering body ravaged and desecrated? It had struck Rain, even back then, that Kivan displayed a wilful kind of blindness, though she understood it completely. She would never know if he had ever suspected the awful truth – that Deheriana's soul was forever lost to him, never reaching Arvanaith – for Rain would never ask him. She had no desire to inflict more pain on him, more cruelty.
But there was something she could do, no matter how inadequate it felt. She set down the glass bottle between them, bridging the gap, and looked to him.
"I'm sorry," she said softly, very gently.
Kivan said nothing right away, but she knew he was listening. He tilted his head to her, very slightly. When she lapsed into silence again, the shadows thick around them, he finally stirred himself and opened his eyes. He stared up at the stone ceiling, blank and unfocused.
"How do you do it?" he asked in a hoarse, despairing whisper, still not looking at her. He sounded weary and heartsick, lost. "How do you keep doing it, Rain? Surviving." He turned his face to her now, and his eyes were haunted. "How do you keep living through things that you were not meant to survive? The bounty hunters," he went on, listing her narrow escapes, "and our scores upon scores of battles." He paused, his rugged features sober. "All the assassins who have come after you, and Sarevok himself. Irenicus."
That last name was said very bitterly, full of a black, seething rage. Kivan fisted his hands, clenching and unclenching them, and then relaxed them with a visible effort. He shifted his eyes back to her and sighed heavily, the fight going out of him.
"You are a survivor, Rain," he said quietly, holding her gaze. His voice was touched with a very soft wonder. "You have been through the same horrors as Deheriana, the same beatings and tortures. But still you are with me, still alive."
His quiet, awed words broke down, faltering. In the darkness, he suddenly reached for her hand, taking her fingers within his own. Gently, he laced his fingers through hers, clasping her firmly, and Rain swallowed past a suddenly tight throat. Her heart gave a painful leap in her chest, speeding up.
"I need you to live, Rain," he whispered, sorrowing and dry. "You are all I have left."
Some things were easier to say in the darkness, and Rain suspected this was one of those times.
She choked up, unable to speak. Making herself nod, she closed her eyes, stemming the prick of sudden, unshed tears, and sought his shoulder. She laid her head down on him and let his warm, comforting presence fold around her.
They were silent for a long while, her hand in his. From time to time, they took sips of the fermented berry liquor, sharing it between them. When, with a sigh, Rain stirred, knowing she could not put off her return any longer, Kivan helped her stand, gripping her elbow when her bruised knees threatened to buckle. She righted herself, resting one hand on the wall for support.
Kivan sheathed his hunting knife and buckled his sword into place. He swirled his cloak around his shoulders. They gathered up her brush and his water flask, and Jaheira's diminishing bottle, and began to walk back, Kivan slipping his bow over his head again.
They walked quietly and companionably, Kivan keeping a close eye on both the distant shadows and Rain, ensuring she was well. It was not until they neared the end of the maze of corridors, and mellow candlelight beckoned, that he abruptly turned to face her, his eyes very grim.
"Have courage, mellonamin," he said softly, looking into her eyes. "Keep your head up and your shoulders straight. Show them that you are you, and that this shadow will pass."
Strong words, they were, and they did as he had intended. Rain lifted her chin, steadfast, and stepped out of the darkness, into the flood of light. She blinked, clearing her sensitive eyes, and met the cautious, troubled stares still directed at her, her companions still seemingly frozen in place.
Then the awful, strained hush was broken; broken by a bitter voice that was thick with loathing.
It was not Anomen, as Rain had feared.
It was Xan.
"You are a monster," he hissed, his dark seer's eyes stabbing at her accusingly. He took a single step forward, the movement suffused with a blatant, deliberate threat. Gripping his moonblade furiously, so tightly that his slender knuckles were a stark white, Xan shook his head, casting her off.
"Never in my life did I think I would see something so horrible, so terrible, Rain," he said coldly. Each word he uttered was a very precise knife, cutting her cruelly. "Truly, you are a Child of Bhaal indeed. Now, I have the grave misfortune to know exactly what that means." He narrowed his eyes on her determinedly, using his hard, callous anger as a brutal shield against her. "Better that you should have died on Irenicus' table," he said in a harsh rush. "Better that you should have thrown yourself from Candlekeep's cliffs, when you first learned the foul truth of your birth!"
There was a chorus of startled, dismayed gasps, ringing sharply in the room.
But for Rain, the sheer horror of Xan's words thundering loudly in her ears, the sudden, indignant protests of her friends sounded hollow and empty, as empty as her soulless heart. She bowed her head and closed her eyes.
"But I did not," she breathed, "and it is done."
Yes, came that new, monstrous voice of hers, smiling its self-satisfied smile. It is done.