Umm...yeah. It's been five years, the details of which I'm not going to bore anyone with. I've regretted letting this one slide, and since it's been five years, I decided to pull it and repost, doing some edits that needed to be made (like misspelling Jaheira's name for the first seven chapters in the first version .) and a few tweaks to content. No real changes to the plot, but hopefully by the time I get back to the point where I let it drop – which shouldn't be too terribly long, since I'm planning on reposting a new chapter every couple of days until I get it done – I'll be back in the groove enough to move forward and finish this monster. At least the SoA part. The ToB storyline is another monster entirely, but I have the final chapter of the saga written, and re-reading that was one of the things that pushed me to come back to this.
Those of you new to the story: welcome. Those of you who read the first incarnation: welcome back. I welcome reviews, constructive criticism, nitpicking on typos (because no matter how many times I review it, there's always something that I miss), or whatever.
Let's get this thing going again, shall we?
They returned to the Copper Coronet shortly before sunset, having decided to wait until daylight to enter the lair of the vampire cult.
Decided. Jessime shook her head. After Aran Linvail had revealed this "last" task required of them, the disgust of her companions had been obvious, and Jess' suggestion that nighttime would not be the best time to invade a hive of undead had been met with either blank stares, shrugs of acquiescence or, in Jaheira's case, a sarcastic retort concerning their leader's keen grasp of the obvious.
Except I'm not their leader anymore, Jess thought. Not really. They don't trust me – any of them. It was painfully obvious in their demeanor: Aerie's lips pressed into a thin, disapproving line, Minsc's scowl, even Anomen looked troubled when he glanced at her. Only Yoshimo was his usual, inscrutable self – small comfort. Jaheira wouldn't even look at her, and this hurt the worst; the druid, who had been with her longer than any of them, knew what Imoen meant to her. She knew Imoen, had traveled with her, fought beside her and, along with her husband, Khalid, had trained both Imoen and Jessime in the skills needed to survive in the quest to bring Gorion's murderer to justice. How could Jaheira not understand Jess' need to do whatever she had to do to get Imoen back?
Dammit, Khalid, why did you have to die? She cut that thought off as soon as it formed; Khalid had died because of Jess. Because of who – of what – she was. A child of Bhaal. A mortal with divine blood in her veins and untapped power at her core. The dark mage Irenicus, seeking the key to that power, had captured Jess and her companions just outside of Baldur's Gate and brought them here, to his dungeons in Athkatla. The tortures he had subjected them to in their captivity had apparently had some purpose, but Jess suspected that the twisted bastard had enjoyed their pain for its own sake, as well.
They had escaped: she, Imoen, Jaheira and Minsc, only because of a timely attack by the guild of the Shadow Thieves, but they had been forced to leave two of their number below, with uncounted nameless corpses. Dynaheir, the sorceress who had been Minsc's companion, had been killed in front of him, and Khalid -
Dammit! Her right hand tightened reflexively on the hilt of the scimitar at her side, remembering the sound of Jaheira's anguished cry, the sight of her old friend's mangled body. He had been beyond resurrection, and Imoen's hesitantly volunteered information that the atrocities committed upon him had occurred after his death had given scant comfort.
Jess missed him sorely. Besides his considerable skill with blade and bow, he had been someone she could talk to, confide in, and ask for advice. Jaheira – Jess shook her head ruefully – Jaheira, even before, had not been one to invite confidences. Her sharp wit – and sharp tongue – combined with her impatience with the bumblings of an inexperienced fighter, had constantly driven Jess to push herself harder – out of anger, more often than not. Khalid encouraged, Jaheira criticized, but between them, they had created the balance that had helped Jess to grow into the formidable fighter that she had become. Now Khalid was gone – and so was the balance.
Grieving for her husband, Jaheira's sharp edges had become sharper; the one time that Jess had tried to offer her sympathy, to tell the druid that she shared the pain of Khalid's death, she had been soundly rebuffed. She had not tried again; the wall that had sprung up between the two women remained untouched, leaving each to grieve alone.
Khalid kept us together – Khalid and Imoen. The warrior's self-deprecating gentle humor and Imoen's unfailing cheerfulness had kept the two strong-willed women from clashing too strongly or too often. Now both were gone, Khalid dead, and Imoen –
Her hand gripped the scimitar more tightly than before. Don't think about it, she told herself fiercely. If she dwelt too long on the thought of her oldest friend, her sister in all but blood, captured by the Cowled Wizards and spirited away to a magical prison for "rehabilitation", she knew that she would be out the door and headed for the cemetery, darkness be damned.
Delays. Always more delays. It had been a month since Imoen had been taken by the Cowled Wizards, along with Irenicus, for the use of "unauthorized" magic. Never mind that Imoen had been defending herself against the wizard who had tortured her and murdered her friends. There had been no opportunity to appeal or fight; one second they were there, the next gone, and no idea where. Spellhold was the name of the prison; that Jess had discovered fairly quickly, but its location was kept hidden. There were those who knew – or claimed to – but all demanded a price. The Cowled Wizards themselves had offered a deal, but to fulfill it would have meant betraying an innocent man to death or worse. The wizards had claimed that Valygar was a murderer, but Jess had suspected them of lying even before she had crossed paths with the man and found him to be good and principled, though even more haunted by his past than she was by her own.
Bodhi had been worse; the evil that radiated from her in almost palpable waves had made Jess reject her offer before even hearing what it was. No good could possibly have come from that alliance, although Jess was honest enough with herself to admit that if it had been the only possible path to Imoen, she'd have taken it.
And I wonder what my stalwart companions would have said about that? she wondered bitterly. The Shadow Thieves had been the least of the evils she faced; they had been the best, if not the ideal choice, but Jaheira, Aerie, Minsc and Anomen all acted as though she had made a deal with Bhaal himself, and even Yoshi had been reticent without explaining why. None of them had offered any alternatives, however, so they had set out to meet Aran Linvail's demands, first in gold, then in deeds.
The delay had been unavoidable, but it still made Jess want to scream with frustration. The dreams drove her; Imoen's voice in the dreams haunted her. Too late. You will arrive too late. Too late to save her life? Her sanity? Or too late to prevent her joyful innocence from being obliterated entirely? And did it matter which, really? Regardless of what she was too late to stop, Jess would lose the one person who knew who she was and didn't care, the one person who still looked at her with complete trust, the one person she could speak to freely, without fear of judgment.
No. She could not, would not, let it happen. Hold on, Im. I'm coming, I swear.
"Are you going to sit down, or do you plan on standing in the doorway talking to yourself all night?" She opened her eyes. Jaheira stood beside her, watching her warily. It was an expression that had become all too familiar in the past few days, since the last battle against the Harpers.
Jess had initially hoped that Jaheira's choice to stand with her against the Order had signaled the beginning of a mending of the breach between them; she had been willing to defy them in the face of a death warrant, insisting that Jessime was no danger, despite the taint in her blood.
Had it been a mistake to follow her when she left? She had gone, she said, to take the brunt of the Harpers' wrath upon herself, hoping they would leave Jess and the others alone once they had dealt with their "traitor". But would they really have killed her? Jess had been unwilling to risk it, and at the time, her fears had seemed justified. When they had fought their way through the opulent Harper compound in Athkatla, facing not Harpers but mercenaries, they had found Jaheira imprisoned in a room on the upper floor. She had seemed glad to see Jess at the time, and more than ready to sever all ties with the Harpers, but then Dermin, her old mentor had confronted them, forcing a fight to the death. Killing an old friend had left Jaheira torn and questioning her own judgment, and Jess had repeatedly caught the druid watching her speculatively, wondering, no doubt, if she had been wrong after all, and the Harpers right in deeming Jess too dangerous to walk free.
But Jess had done nothing wrong! Each time she had fought the Harpers, she had been defending either herself or her friends. The suspicious, measuring glances hurt, all the more so because they came from someone that she had thought knew her better. She looked past Jaheira now to where the others had settled at their customary table; they were all watching her, their expressions all mirroring Jaheira's. Do they think I'm getting ready to start hacking my way through the tavern? She was in no mood for the scrutiny. "Neither," she replied shortly, spinning on her heel and striding to the bar. Eyes followed her progress, and not only those of her companions; taller than most men in the tavern save Minsc and still fully armored, she was an eyecatching figure. While not a great beauty, she was not unattractive; her eyes, a startlingly light shade of green, were her most striking feature. Just now, however, the cold anger in them and the stony expression on her face made her anything but alluring, and several prospective suitors decided – prudently – to seek safer game.
"Winter mead," she ordered curtly, slapping the appropriate coins onto the bar. The bartender complied, passing her a glass of the concentrated spirits made by freezing the water out of regular mead. She drained the glass in three swallows and signaled for another. It was potent stuff; she figured that three, consumed quickly, would leave her enough time to get upstairs to her room on her own and then smooth her way into a – hopefully – dreamless sleep. Please, dear gods, let it be dreamless.
She had to rest; it had been three days since she had last slept, only to be jolted awake again by the dream. She had not dared close her eyes since, but kept pushing herself, hoping to become exhausted enough that she would simply drop unconscious. The dreams after leaving Candlekeep had been bad; the dreams of Imoen and Irenicus had been worse, but this was the only dream that had been able to drive her completely from her bed.
She watched Gorion die, then Imoen, then Khalid and Dynahier, then Jaheira and Minsc, then everyone else that she had ever known and cared about. Standing among the bodies, she realized that the sword she held was covered with their blood, that she was the one who had killed them.
She closed her eyes against the memory and raised the second glass to her lips, aware that Jaheira had followed her to the bar and was observing her disapprovingly. Deciding to ignore her, she drained half the glass, praying for oblivion. Maybe four would be better…
The druid watched her drink. Why doesn't she just leave? But she knew the answer to that: revenge. Jaheira was determined to avenge Khalid's death, which meant finding Irenicus. For now, they shared a path; when that path ended, Jaheira would go her own way, as would the others. Can't happen soon enough, Jess told herself, willing it to be true, willing herself to believe it. Alone was bad, but better to be truly alone than to be alone in the midst of a group. Better to be alone than with people who looked at her like they expected her to grow fangs and start biting heads off babies at any minute. She raised the glass again.
"Hangovers rarely improve fighting skill," Jaheira observed tartly before she could swallow. Jess lowered the glass and turned her head, assuming the bland expression that she knew from experience irritated the druid.
"You don't say? Fascinating. I'll let you know tomorrow if it applies to me. Bye, now." She raised the glass again, but Jaheira had more to say – no great surprise.
"If you're not going to be concerned for yourself, at least think of the people you will endanger by your impairment: the people fighting with you, and Imoen-"
Jess had not been aware that her grip on the glass had been tightening until the glass shattered in her hand, bathing it in the amber liquid that remained. Feeling strangely detached, she opened her hand and shook away the remaining glass, absently noting the contrast between the coolness of the alcohol on her bare skin and the burn as it flowed over the bloody gash that had been opened in her palm.
"For heaven's sake, Jess!" Jaheira exclaimed. "Let me see." She reached for the bleeding hand, but the exasperation in her voice drove away the detachment. The hurt and fear that Jess could now only barely remember living without came rushing in to take its place, fused into anger, and finally boiled over. She snatched her right hand out of Jaheira's grasp, pushing the druid away with her left.
"I don't need your help!" she snarled. "Why don't you find another hobby and badger someone else for a while?" Something – hurt? Couldn't be. – flashed across Jaheira's face before being replaced with stony indifference. Jess turned back to the bar as the druid snapped "Suit yourself," before stalking away. From the corner of her eye, Jess saw her ascend the stairs, saw the flash of yellow robes that meant that Aerie was following her up. As quickly as the anger had come, it evaporated, leaving her old friends, hurt and fear, in their accustomed places. The druid was right – as bloody usual; she had no business getting drunk the night before a major battle. She just wanted to sleep without dreaming.
She obtained a halfway clean rag from the bartender and was wrapping it around her injured hand when footsteps sounded behind her.
"My lady?" Anomen's voice, hesitant.
She closed her eyes. Sleep. I just want to sleep; is that too much to ask? She turned, determined not to allow herself to lash out again.
The young knight regarded her with concern. The trials of the past few weeks had done away with much of his brash arrogance. The loss of his sister and the realization of how perilously close he had come to cold blooded murder in the name of revenge had instilled in him a self-doubt that was maturing rapidly into humility. Gratitude to her, for counsel that had turned him from the path of vengeance, had developed into a courtly infatuation that unsettled her as much as it amused the rest of the group. "My lady, you look exhausted; you should get some sleep before tomorrow."
That's what I was trying to do! She wanted to scream at him. Instead she forced herself to give what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I am tired; haven't slept well the past few nights." Try not at all. "I was just heading to bed." She turned, but Anomen laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"A dirty rag is a poor treatment for an open wound; if you will allow me?" Without waiting for an answer, he took her hand in his, removed the makeshift bandage and murmured the words of a healing spell. Her hand grew warm for an instant, then the pain in her palm vanished.
He released her hand, and she turned it over to examine the unmarked skin of the palm. "Thank you, Anomen."
"I am ever at your service, my lady." The look in his brown eyes as he bowed to her made her heart skip a beat, but he turned and went back to the table without another word. Thank the gods. Those eyes raised too many questions that she was not prepared to deal with. Simple friendship appeared to be beyond her capabilities at this point; she didn't want to think of the butchery she'd make of a romance.
Jaheira. She should apologize before she went to bed. Try to, anyway, if the druid would even speak to her. As she reached the top of the stairs, she could hear Jaheira's voice from behind the door to her room. "- had enough!"
Jess paused. Apparently, she was speaking to Aerie; maybe this wasn't the best time. No, best get it over with, accept the tongue lashing; the gods knew it wouldn't be the first time. She stepped up to the door, raised her hand to knock, and hesitated again. Aerie's voice was an indistinct murmur, but Jaheira's voice carried clearly through the wood of the door. No great surprise there; once a Harper, always a Harper, I guess.
"She doesn't need me, she says! She would have been dead a week after leaving Candlekeep if it weren't for Khalid and me!"
Well, she couldn't argue with that, Jess thought ruefully. A week might be a bit generous, come to think of it. She started to smile despite herself at the memory of her ineptitude, but Jaheira's next words erased the smile as a strong wind would snuff a candle.
"Gorion died because of her! I lost Khalid because of her! I've been banished from the Harpers because of her, killed the man who brought me into the Harpers because of her! I've lost everything that mattered to me to fulfill a promise to a friend and for what? For a Bhaalspawn who spits in the faces of the dead by embracing the very taint that caused their deaths!"
Jess backed away from the closed door, mind spinning, ears roaring. She leaned against the opposite wall, feeling as though the wind had been knocked out of her, feeling one hot tear coursing its way down her cheek, then another. Aerie's voice was speaking now, the words muffled, and Jess definitely did not want to linger to hear Jaheira's response. She moved blindly toward her room, fortunately separated from Jaheira's by the avariel's quarters, and managed to unlock it, get inside and close the door with a minimum of noise. Once inside, she leaned back against the door, sliding down it until she was sitting on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest as the tears started to flow in earnest.
Bhaalspawn. Child of murder. Sower of chaos. Destined for evil. That was what she was, and she'd been a fool to think that she could evade what was written in her blood. How many dead because of her? How many lives damaged beyond repair? The dream was simply her mind telling her what Jaheira already knew: what she touched, she destroyed. She should never have let anyone get close to her, and she could never let it happen again. She knew what she had to do.
Forcing the tears away, she stood, looking around the room that had been hers for most of the last month. It was cluttered with her possessions, most of which she would no longer have use for. She moved purposefully through the room, selecting the few items that she would need from the clutter and stuffing them into a small knapsack. This finished, she hesitated. She should just slip away, but she owed them some explanation, Jaheira in particular.
Moving to the small table, she pulled parchment, ink and quill from a small case, sat down, and began to write. It took longer than she wanted; she was not used to writing letters, but at last she pushed her chair back and stood, using the ink bottle to keep the paper from slipping off the table. Shouldering the pack, she opened her door a crack, confirming that the hall was empty before slipping out. A side door was located at the end of the hall, well away from the stairs down into the tavern. She reached it in half a dozen stealthy strides, eased it open and stepped out into the deepening night without looking back.