Chapter 46. It's Her, Imoen!
The rest of the group's journey to Nashkel was uneventful. Once or twice a couple of hobgoblins tried to ambush them, but Edwin let out a few magic missiles, laughing, and the monsters retreated with astounding speed.
"We are really getting stronger," Ala said thoughtfully.
"Ha! You doubted that? You truly doubted the greatness of Edwin Odesseiron?" Edwin seemed drunk with his newfound powers. Ala thought she was secretly afraid of him in these moments, just a little. "Nothing can stand in my way! Hobgoblins? Ha! Gibberlings? Fear me!"
"What about bandits?"
Edwin looked at her as if he doubted her sanity.
"I didn't tell you we were going to stop the Chill and Black Talon bands, did I?" Ala asked.
"What, all of them?"
"Every single one in seventeen hundred?"
"Seventeen hundred? I don't believe you," Ala said flatly. "There can't be that many of them."
"All right. Two hundred. Happier?"
The girl sighed.
"We need to reach Nashkel and make sure Dynaheir gets better," she said eventually. "Then we'll see."
Dynaheir remained unconscious nearly all the time. Minsc did not leave her side, carrying the stretchers with Khalid, Jaheira, Ala and Imoen in turns. Edwin refused even to approach the sick woman. Jaheira, who was limping herself, was getting more and more worried.
"We do not have enough gold to heal her in the temple," she said to Ala in a low voice, as Nashkel appeared on the horizon. "And I fear she may never recover on her own."
"Maybe we shall sell some of our things. Or perhaps Edwin has some money. I do not know, Jae... I just don't know..."
Dynaheir groaned and opened her eyes.
"Bhaalspawn..." she whispered.
Ala and Jaheira exchanged looks.
"What do you know, witch?" Edwin demanded sharply. "Who are you talking about?"
Dynaheir looked at him and smiled. A slender hand rose from the stretchers--and pointed at Imoen.
"She is hallucinating," Edwin muttered with disgust. "The girl is no more a Bhaalspawn than her deranged sidekick, or a squeaky hamster of his."
"I knew her mother," Dynaheir whispered.
Imoen was looking at Dynaheir with huge eyes.
"Stop," Ala said and did not recognize her own voice. "Dynaheir, do you hear me? I am Ala, Gorion's ward. Bhaal is my father."
Dynaheir looked into her eyes. And smiled.
"So there's two of you," she croaked. "How fitting."
"What is she talking about?" Imoen whispered. "What is she talking about?"
"Ala, Imoen, we have to talk," Jaheira said with a sudden tremor. "Now."
Ala raised her head in disbelief.
"You knew. You knew Imoen was one, as well. You knew, damn you!"
Jaheira slowly nodded.
Khalid stepped forward.
"Ala, understand that we tried to p-protect you. You already knew, but did it make you any happier? Would you like to lay this b-burden on your sister?"
"No," Ala kept blinking. "No..."
"I knew," suddenly said Imoen. "I knew. Gorion would never... he would have never taken in a normal girl... he needed special. And he took me, because I was special--only I was not special enough, just one of the Children, not a favored Child..."
Jaheira stared at her.
"Imoen, do not say these things..."
"I'm sorry," Imoen started to cry. "I-I don't know what's happening to me."
"Thou art a Child of Bhaal," Dynaheir whispered. "Thine mark will not fade."
Ala put her face into her hands. It can't be, it just can't be... Not Imoen, too!
Xan knew, too, she realized. Or did he? No, he only talked to Ala, paid attention to Ala, comforted Ala, tried to become Ala's friend. He taught Imoen, but she never saw that wary, concerned look in his eyes: they were indifferent at best.
And they sent Xan off to die... For what? To be able to ambush hundreds of bandits? They, who were captured by xvarts, nearly killed by gnolls?
"We will head to Baldur's Gate," Ala said and marvelled at how calm her voice sounded. "I want answers, and bandits do not know them. We must go to the city. We will find the men behind the iron shortage. Gorion's murderer, too--birds of a feather flock together. And Xan. We should have never let him go."
Jaheira and Khalid exchanged looks.
"This is likely the best c-course of action," Khalid nodded. "Other Harpers will help us in the city."
"Come, then. There is a long way ahead."
They left Minsc and Dynaheir at the temple. Dynaheir tried to protest, but stopped when she tried to stand up on her own and fell. Imoen collected the party's jewelry(even Edwin grudgingly took off one of his rings), and it was just enough for the payment.
"We saved your witch, Minsc," Ala said at the parting. "Perhaps we will meet again. But maybe it's best that we don't."
"Minsc remembers little Ala's kindness. If little Ala calls, Minsc and Boo will come and KICK THE BOOT TO THE BLACK HEART OF EVIL!"
Ala smiled, blinking away a tear.
"All right, Minsc. All right."
Nobody talked much during the dinner in the Nashkel tavern. Khalid and Jaheira retired early. Imoen muttered something and went outside without even finishing the salad.
"So the pink one is your sister," Edwin drawled. "Now that there is two of you, I would expect to find your dead bodies before the spring is out. Without powerful friends you will not last."
"What do you suggest?" Ala asked.
"It is high time you were somewhere else. Thay, like I said before, offers great opportunities. Your sister is pretty, and wealthy Red Mages value exotic beauty."
"Do you expect Imoen to become somebody's toy?"
Edwin looked at her coolly.
"Calling things by their names is childish," he shrugged. "Your sister will become a powerful mage under a powerful patron. And you..."
"What--me? I am not pretty?"
Edwin smiled a little.
"You want to find the answers. Thay will provide them. My superiors only want to talk to you."
"Superiors? Who? A Tharchion?"
"For example," Edwin stretched out a hand with long white fingers and touched Ala's jaw. The girl shuddered at the caress. "You will like it."
Ala got up.
"No. Excuse me, I need to talk to my sister."
Imoen was sitting near the river. The sunset painted her hair dusk red, and her face seemed to be shining, until Ala noticed traces of tears on her sister's cheeks.
"What is it, Im?" Ala asked. "You think we'll love you less now that we know the truth?"
"No," Imoen sniffed. "But I feel Gorion betrayed me. And he didn't, did he? He didn't. He only wanted to protect me, and you. But it does not work this way, I guess."
"No, it doesn't," Ala sat next to her. "But we are still friends?"
"Gorion loved us," Ala said in a low voice. "And died. We are Bhaalspawn, Children of Murder... we must kill. I don't want to, not really. But that man, that horrible beast who killed Gorion--I have no qualms about killing him. You?"
"If-if it's really him..." Imoen paused.
Imoen was silent. Finally she raised her head, and Ala gulped when she saw a weak golden light in her sister's eyes.
Then Imoen smiled.
Chapter 47. Iron Throne
Xan stopped in the darkness, clutching Stai's hand. The stairs to Sarevok's chambers were narrow, and the mages were walking with their backs to the wall, barely daring to breathe. Invisibility covered them, and they joined hands, afraid to lose each other to the darkness.
"There," Stai whispered. "Stop."
They heard voices.
Sarevok was pacing across the room. Xan heard a woman's voice(Tamoko, he understood), then an older man joined the conversation.
"This is irresponsible, Sarevok," the old man was saying. "Your sister is on the loose--this is not something you can forget about!"
"I will deal with her in my own time, Winski," Sarevok's booming voice was cool, but it was the coolness of a hungry tiger, ready to strike. "I am more concerned about the Chill's actions. They let two Amnish caravans reach the city. We lost months of careful preparation, Winski! The war of sacrifice may never begin!"
"I could never understand why you want this war, Sarevok," Tamoko said quietly. "Taint the iron, stop the caravans and the messengers, make the Dukes and the Council of Six angry... but what of people of the Sword Coast? Of Amn? Why must they die?"
"Because I tell them to. Godhood matters more than mortal lives, Tamoko. You are a mortal, and you are denied understanding. When I ascend, I will open your eyes."
"No, Sarevok. You will shut them."
The door opened, and Tamoko exited, looking unhappy. She passed the mages; Xan felt her breath but was too afraid to speak, to catch Sarevok's attention.
"In two days I will go to the Undercity," Sarevok said thoughtfully. "We must continue the rituals. If we do not find Gorion's ward by then, we may sacrifice another of the Children."
"Viekang?" Winski asked. "He is a frightened idiot."
"No matter. Sacrifices must continue. And so must your scrying, Winski. Use the blade to get to Gorion's ward, or next time I will sacrifice YOU."
A Child of Bhaal is behind this, Xan realized. Sarevok is Ala's brother--and a villain of no small caliber. A war of sacrifice! A grand way to ascension, indeed.
Xan heard Sarevok's footsteps, and the door opened again. The man was huge: his helmet almost touched the ceiling, and the stairs could barely contain his frame. Stai clutched his hand painfully. Don't let him notice us, Xan prayed. But he will go past us and feel us in the darkness, and even invisibility will not help... he will destroy Stai and me... Seldarine...
Sarevok stepped on Xan's stair in the darkness, and Xan became one with the wall. Slim and slender, Xan felt he was too big, huge, and Sarevok would notice, would strike him down...
Sarevok went past, and Xan felt Stai's hand relaxing in his.
"I love you," she whispered.
"We are alive," he whispered back. "Come, upstairs."
An old man stood at the window with his back to them. Winski, Xan understood.
Stai snapped her fingers, and the invisibility around her dissolved. Winski never heard anything: Stai's second spell released a small cloud of white dust in the air, and Winski collapsed at the floor.
"Sweet dreams," Stai waved to the old man. "Now, Xan, your moonblade!"
Xan looked around. A small table near the wall caught his attention, and for a moment he felt as if somebody was calling him from there. Xan made a step, another...
"There you are!" a high-pitched voice screeched, and Xan felt the invisibility spell lifting. "The elven wizard! Got a lady friend, did you? And how is little Imoen?"
Xan sharply turned around.
Three newcomers were in a room. Two of them he knew: Xzar and Montaron, both looking as healthy as ever. The third one, a tall blonde in plate mail, was new.
Stai was looking at them all with very round eyes. Apparently, Xzar's manner of speech was exotic to her. Xan grinned inwardly and realized he was feeling better. The blade was near.
"We killed Tranzig," Xzar continued excitedly, "But there are so many bandits, we decided not to kill them all. Monty was so smart to suggest it!"
"And you decided to head to Baldur's Gate?" Stai smiled. Xan never liked that smile.
"We did! And guess whom we saw down the stairs? Big Sarevok, entering the cellar!"
"Is Sarevok the leader of the Iron Throne?" Stai asked.
"What? No! His stepfather, Reiltar, does the big business. But Sarevok, oh, he is song!" Xzar giggled. "Imagine, he's a Bhaalspawn, like Ala! And he wants to rule the world, like Rabbits! Now, Rabbits ordered us to kill Ala, first, but now Rabbits know about Imoen, so we got new orders!"
"Orders?" Stai raised an eyebrow.
"Imoen?" Xan stepped forward.
"Why, yes! Monty made me describe everything to my master, and master knows about the pink-head Imoen, so Imoen and Ala are both Children of Bhaal." Xzar sighed. "It's so confusing, isn't it? Aaaanyway, the seers said that Sarevok will meet Ala in two days, under dirt and stone."
"He said nothing about the Undercity, did he?" Xan asked.
"Underpants? Overcity? Ah, Undercity..." Xzar scratched his head. "You know, he just might. Anyway, we were here for company, but now we are gone! Oh, and we need to kill you. Sorry."
"This is how it was meant to be," the blonde nodded solemnly. "You abandoned your companions, left them to die a horrible death, and their revenge is just."
Xan sighed. The blonde woman will never know she was just a puppet in Zhents' hands. Or will she?
"Where's your halfling companion?" Stai asked sharply. "Where is he?"
Something pushed Stai from the back. A sudden hit brought her on her knees. Stai screamed, and Montaron appeared out of nowhere behind her back, a blade in his hands.
"Har!" he shouted. "To the grave with ye!"
Xan felt his heart stopping. But there was no blood on the blade...
"Protection from magical weapons," Stai whispered, rising from the floor. "From little runts like you. And now you will know what the power really is!"
Two lightning bolts left her hands. Another moment, and a fireball followed them.
Xan stepped back, raising his hands to help his lover, but there was no need. Montaron's armor was in tatters, the blonde was clutching her chest, and Xzar was nowhere in sight. A scream went from the stairs: "Montyyyyy!" Then everything was quiet.
Xan blinked: the blonde and Montaron were gone, too. Only Winski still slept on the floor, apparently comfortable. Stai raised her arm, preparing another fireball, but Xan stopped her with a gesture.
"You frightened them," he said. "They ran. That's enough."
"They are going to meet in the Undercity," Stai said, rubbing her forehead. "In two days. And Ala's friend is a Bhaalspawn, too?"
"Apparently," Xan approached the small table. He opened it and nearly went to his knees: the blade was there. Dim, barely blue, but it was his again. He sheathed it and approached his lover.
"Come. We have done all we could. Now we must find the girls."
Ala tossed and turned in her bedroll, unable to find sleep. The party passed Beregost last night; another night, and they will enter the city of Baldur's Gate.
Cyric, she thought. Cyric and my sister. Did Imoen see his in her dreams, too?
"She did not."
Ala opened her eyes. The starless sky stretched above her again, and endless fields of snow lay underneath. Black and white.
"I am afraid I must part with you soon, my dear," Cyric smiled, and Ala felt goose bumps on her back. "You are indeed one of the Chosen, and you may influence the Bhaalspawn wars greatly. But recently, another path started to form. And I fear--though, of course, I fear nothing--that you may take this path."
"What path? Is this about Imoen?"
"Yes--and no. It is about you and those who travel with you. You see, dear Ala, there was a mage long ago. Joneleth."
"Joneleth," Ala whispered--and remembered.
Queen Ellesime. Terrible pain--and terrible punishment.
"Indeed," Cyric inclined his head. "This Joneleth had friends and followers; few, but still. His most devoted student, Stai, searched for him. Him and his sister, Bodhi. She never found him, but she found someone else. You. Her friend's daughter."
"Yes, Alianna, your mother, was an elf. Surprised? So, Stai decided to aid you--in exchange for your Bhaalspawn essence. You see, if Joneleth Irenicus received it, he would restore himself. He would become an evil demigod, but he would be alive--and so, perhaps, would his sister, Bodhi."
"But he will kill, maim and destroy, right?" Ala asked.
"Ala, dear, you are impeccable. Yes, he will--and so will you, if your essences remain. Cities will burn, armies will hunt you and be slaughtered--all because you do not want to die. Whether you are good or evil does not matter. Chaos shall be sown in your footsteps."
"I don't want this. I never wanted this."
"And Stai knows it. She sent her lover, Xan, to watch over you. Now they are in Baldur's Gate together. If you head there, there is a chance you will meet. You want to go there regardless, don't you?"
"What's your interest in this?" Ala looked into Cyric's eyes. It frightened her, but she kept looking.
"Simplest. I want Joneleth Irenicus as my ally among the gods," Cyric answered. "He will never take my place--he will be an elven god of revenge, destruction or whatever it is elves are afraid of. But he will be on my side. With your essence. Yes, he will kill here, on Toril, but it will end as soon as he ascends. And when he ascends, who cares if another evil entity joins the pantheon? Anyone could be in his place. I need allies here, Ala, need very badly. You are a fascinating girl... but only a mortal girl."
"You are saying that I will be able to live a normal life? After I submit to this... Irenicus?"
"And Imoen? And we will be unharmed?"
"And again correct. I am a Prince of Lies, but, alas, you read from the Tome of Truth," Cyric gave her a charming smile. "I cannot lie to you. Then again, I can be lying right now. You decide."
"One more question," Ala began. "Why did you send mercenaries after me?"
"Because I could not decide whether to let you live or not, silly girl."
"What awaits me in Baldur's Gate? Will you tell me?"
"Gorion's killer. A man who wants to start a war over the iron crisis. Your brother," Cyric smiled enigmatically. "That's three enemies already, Ala, but I am sure you will do wonderfully."
"These men... who are they?"
"No, no. This, my dear girl, you will discover on your own." Cyric smiled the last time. "Go, Ala. Fight for your heritage--or lead a normal life. You decide."
Chapter 48. Bandits
The sun was high over Larswood. Ala took off her cloak with a sigh.
"I am all sweaty," she muttered with disgust. "I'd give up my heritage for a bath."
"You tossed and turned last night," Edwin said. He was marching next to her, Jaheira's spare quarterstaff in his hand. "Bad dreams?"
"Sort of. Edwin... can you keep secrets? Not just from Jaheira and others--from everyone in Thay?"
"Do you expect a Red Wizard to betray his own?" Edwin sneered. "And here I thought you made a few steps up the evolutionary ladder. Obviously I was mistaken."
"No," Ala shrugged. "I thought that now that you gave me your word, I was safe with you, so I wanted to tell you something personal. Forget it."
"No, no," Edwin stopped. "Continue. What is it?"
Ala looked into his eyes.
"I see Cyric in my dreams. The reigning god of murder."
"Why should I believe you?"
"Why would I lie? My father is Bhaal," Ala smiled mirthlessly. "Cyric's interest is obvious."
"What does he want, then? (Do not tell me he is here to aid your ascension, because he is not. I know.)"
"First he kept asking me questions, until he decided I was no threat to him," Ala began. "And he is right. I have no interest in Bhaal's heritage, and my gift--reading the minds of others--is unruly and sporadic."
Ala sighed. "And yesterday he asked if I wanted to abandon Bhaal's heritage altogether. He says there is a way."
"Hmph. But you are not going to follow his advice, are you?"
"Why shouldn't I, Edwin?" Ala raised an eyebrow. "Am I a bad rogue on my own, without my heritage? Or maybe you think it's a good life, being hunted?"
Edwin did not have time to answer. Next to him Imoen screamed. Jaheira turned, a ready staff in her hands--and stopped dead.
The forest was thick with bandits. Badly dressed, armed, stenchy, they were coming out from behind every tree, and Ala felt a trickle of cold sweat on her neck.
A huge ogre stopped in a few steps from them. "Tazok", read crude letters on his plate mail. Ala whistled quietly. Was that blood?
"These," he growled. "To my tent. Sarevok will pay for her," he pointed at Ala, "handsomely."
"Sarevok? For her?" Edwin stepped forward. "What about me? I am a Red Wizard of Thay!"
"There are too many of them," Jaheira said quietly.
"That m-much is obvious, dear," Khalid sighed.
"What do we do?" Imoen whispered. "Run?"
"Surrender," Ala and Jaheira said together and looked at each other in surprise.
"Down with your weapons," the ogre grunted. "And go. Quickly. The slowest'll get his leg chopped off."
"Damn," Ala whispered. "And we were so close..."
The tent was a large brown dome covered with cloth and fur. To Ala's surprise, the smell inside was barely noticeable, and the tent itself was clean. She understood the reason when they were brought behind the improvised bars. A very pretty and very pale girl sat there, rocking a pale black-haired man on her knees. Another man--no, an elf, Ala corrected herself, quietly lay in the corner. At first Ala thought he was asleep, but then she noticed he was covered with blood.
What will happen to us? Ala sighed.
"Hey, sis, why did we let Minsc and Dynaheir go?" Imoen smiled ruefully. "Boo would know what to do."
"Indeed," Ala sat down next to the new girl. "My name is Ala. This is my sister, Imoen. This is Edwin, and these are our friends, Khalid and Jaheira."
"You're married?" the girl asked suddenly.
"Yes," Jaheira answered, surprised. "Why?"
"We wanted to get married, too," the girl said quietly. "Me and Eldoth. But my father is a Duke, so we ran away to Amn in the caravan... and ended up here. Eldoth? Can you hear me?"
The man in her arms groaned.
"He is wounded," the girl continued. "I am Skie Silvershield."
"That Skie?" Ala asked. "A dwarf Kagain in Beregost asked us to find you."
"And now we did," Edwin muttered. "Told you, rescue missions are no good."
"Who is that man in the corner?" Jaheira interrupted.
"Kivan," Skie whispered. "They killed his wife and tortured him. I'm afraid we are next."
"They will never torture you as long as they hope for a ransom," Jaheira said tiredly. She sat next to the wounded elf. "Kivan? Can you hear me?"
"No, he can't," said a new voice.
Ala turned. A tall hooded man entered the tent. He was unarmed, but judging by how Edwin tensed, a newcomer was a mage of no small ability.
"My name is Winski," he continued. "I want to talk to you."
"Talk," Ala said. Her voice trembled, and she hastily shut her mouth.
"Not here," Winski shook his head. "Once you escaped my teleport spell, Ala. But not today."
"What about us?" Skie Silvershield asked. "There are five of them and three of us."
Winski looked at the wounded elf. Then his eyes rested on Edwin and Imoen, Khalid and Jaheira. Finally he turned to look at Skie.
"You will come with me, young lady," he said impassively. "And so will the others. Sarevok will be happy to see you."
"Sarevok?" Skie asked, her voice rising incredulously. "Sarevok Anchev? The stepson of Reiltar Anchev, head of the Iron Throne? Is he in league with these bandits?"
"Yes and yes and yes." Winski paused. "And now that you know that, young lady, you have two ways out of here. Dead or a prisoner--or his future wife. A daughter of a Duke will be very beneficial for his career. As for you lot," he raised his arms, "you will follow me, as well."
Skie cried something, but Ala could no longer hear what. The wizard started chanting, and the familiar white mist filled the room. Ala reached for her sword, for Edwin's hand... but everything was becoming immaterial, she was falling into darkness...
Chapter 49. The War of Sacrifice
Xan sighed. He and Stai were standing on the roof of the Iron Throne building, unnoticed and unseen. Stai blocked the door, put an invisibility spell over the small spot they were standing on, and now was peering intently into the scrying ball. A lock of Winski's hair lay next to her.
"I cannot see," she whispered. "Winski teleported into the woods, then almost instantly returned, but not alone. A powerful teleportation spell... five or seven Rogue stones... but where are they now?"
"In the city?" Xan asked quickly.
"Not quite. Around the city, close to this building... but not in the city. Over the city? Underneath the city?" Stai looked at him questioningly.
"Wait. Two days are about to pass..." Xan bit his lip. "The Undercity? Sarevok talked about it, remember?"
"And I cannot scry there... why?"
Xan and Stai looked at each other.
"Sarevok is a Bhaalspawn..."
"Bhaal's temple!" they finished together.
"Can we teleport there?" Xan frowned. "Bhaal's temple... Ala and Imoen--they may die at any moment!"
"Imoen is safe," Stai answered briskly, searching her pockets. "My last Rogue stone. Do you think we should head there right now?"
"Then we shall," Stai closed her eyes. "But... I don't know, Xan. I feel it is about to be over--all this. Like my control over what's happening is slipping, like it's never been there in the first place. How can I strip Ala of her divinity, if I do not even know where my master is?"
"Do you even know how to strip a Bhaalspawn of her divine essence?" Xan raised an eyebrow.
"I told you, not yet. But I knew it was possible, I knew I could do it! Master Joneleth... if he was here, he would know and explain. I planned to find him first, to bring Ala to him--then we could do the exchange. Ala's divine half would go to him, and she would be free. Now, without him, with her at Sarevok's hands--I do not know what to do."
"Concentrate," Xan took her hand. "Concentrate, or we are all doomed. Is there a way to make an exchange in the distance? So that your master wakes up restored?"
"Not without divine interference, no," Stai smiled ruefully. "Then again, it does not matter now. We must simply go and rescue Ala. My friend's daughter should not die."
Ala awoke on the altar. Her arms and legs were free, but when she tried to rise, her muscles froze, as if an evil hand was holding her. Ala looked around: she was in a huge hall, semi-dark and dry. It reminded her of the interior of the Friendly Arm Inn, though this empty place, pregnant with danger, was not friendly at all.
And I am alone, Ala thought. Imoen, Jaheira... Where are they? Are they alive?
"My little sister," a booming voice said. "Welcome."
Ala turned her head. And bit her tongue, hard.
Her nightmare was standing in front of her. A tall man in crude spiky armor.. and eyes. Golden eyes.
He doesn't do breathing exercises, Ala thought. He just allows the beast to take hold.
"I heard you stopped my operation in Nashkel," the man continued. "Your journey to the Gate was a lucky coincidence. I was planning to meet you soon, myself."
"You killed Gorion..." Ala whispered.
"And many others, girl. Do you know who I am?"
"Indeed. You have Harpers traveling with you. Gorion was a Harper. Now Harpers undermine my preparations here in the city. So do the Zhentarim. And so do you."
"And you want to kill us all?" Ala gulped: her throat was dry as paper. "I'd rather you started with Zhents, then."
"Silence. You consorted with a Wychlaran and a wizard of Thay."
"Dynaheir is ill," Ala answered tiredly. "By the time she recovers, you will be done with me. And Edwin is in your power."
"The wizard escaped," Sarevok said dryly. "He deserted you before, did he not?"
"Why are you even talking to me?" Ala looked at the man who was her brother. "You want to kill me, don't you?"
"And you are not afraid?"
Ala opened her mouth and suddenly realized Sarevok was right. She feared bandits, xvarts, her dreams, Gorion's death, her heritage, spiders--but she was not afraid now. Did Cyric's promise hold so much power over her? "Gorion's killer. A man who wants to start a war over the iron crisis. Your brother." Well, she met all three now.
Ala lay back on the stone slab, smiled, shook her head and closed her eyes.
"There she is!" Xzar whispered. "See, Monty? There!"
They were standing on a heap of rubble. A small crack in the temple's wall did not give them much of a view, but they saw both Sarevok and Ala.
"Shut yer yep, wizard," Montaron grumbled. "He's here."
"What are you going to do?" Branwen whispered. "Surely what Sarevok is doing is dishonorable..."
"Yeah, yeah, heard that. Bhaalspawn lass on the altar, her companions waitin' for 'em deaths in 'em back rooms. We're here to watch, understand?.." Montaron suddenly stopped and nudged Xzar, hard. "Who're they?"
A small group of people entered the labyrinth of underground catacombs and were heading for the temple entrance.
"Harpers," Branwen whispered. "See the golden pins?"
"What are they doing here?" Xzar whispered.
"Maybe it be has to do with yer papers, eh?" Montaron chuckled. "I gathered all diaries and letters from Sarevok's room as ye were runnin'."
"I told you to keep them!" Xzar hissed.
"Heh, I did. Only I paid a girl to make copies, and sent 'em to Harpers' Hold. Good, eh?"
"And now Harpers are marching towards the temple to stop the foul rituals," Branwen whispered excitedly. "Did you mention the temple, too?"
"Nae. Suspected without me papers, methinks."
The armed procession reached the temple's gates.
"I think we must go inside," Branwen said quietly and froze. From the entrance to the catacombs, another group was approaching. A tall bald man, a hamster on his shoulder, and a skinny woman with a cane. A young man in red robes walked behind them.
"Wychlaran whore," Xzar whispered. "We met her in Nashkel! But... what is he doing with her? This is a Red Wizard!"
"Kill 'em all," Montaron growled but didn't move. "And they be headin' inside, too?"
The men and the woman passed to the entrance. A hamster squeaked, and all was quiet.
"Maybe we should follow..." Branwen started again and gulped. A bright light shone from the stony ceiling, and two disheveled elves appeared on the path. One of them was wearing purple robes.
"The enchanter!" Xzar whispered. "Mommy, mommy, panic! Rabbits!"
"That's it," Branwen took a deep breath. "Follow me, comrades."
Something was wrong. Ala opened one eye.
Sarevok stood with his back to her, facing the door. Ala heard indistinct voices.
"Jaheira!" she cried out. "Khalid, Jaheira, I am here! Imoen!"
"Jaheira and Khalid are not here," answered a cold voice. "Yet you are here, Bhaalspawn. Both of you. Where is your sister, Imoen?"
"Sarevok has taken her prisoner," answered Ala, feeling there was something terribly wrong. "Khalid and Jaheira, too."
"I am Dermin, Jaheira's old mentor," the voice continued. "We are here to eradicate you, Sarevok Anchev. For your plans to start a war, for the murder of our brother Gorion. And you, Ala, his sister and accomplice, will follow your brother to the Abyss."
"I am not his accomplice!"
"No matter," Sarevok's voice rumbled. "You will go nowhere, neither of you. Semaj, Angelo, bring forth the prisoners! We will end this fast."
"WHO IS HURTING LITTLE ALA? GO FOR THE SPIKES, BOO, GO!"
"What are you doing, you insufferable monkey? I did not teleport you from Nashkel for your weasel to lick my hood... oww! Let go of my ear, you freak!"
Ala could not see him, could not see anyone behind Sarevok's back--only the ceiling and a small part of the grand hall, but somehow it did not matter. Her friends were here.
"Edwin!" Ala shouted, not trying to conceal her delight. "Minsc! I am here!"
"We heard this already," replied Edwin's annoyed voice. "Now what?"
Ala heard the rustle of the robes, and a familiar voice broke the silence:
"Dermin! It is I, Jaheira!"
"Jaheira, my darling, finally!" the cold voice became softer. "Tell me true: did Gorion's wards assist Sarevok Anchev in his affairs? We received some documents, and suffice is to say that Anchev will hang as soon as he is brought to justice. Tainting the ore, financing the bandits--he sowed death, and now he shall reap it."
"Ala and Imoen were never on his side!" Jaheira replied indignantly. "Sarevok killed Gorion, who was like father to then. We labored against him, until we were captured by his lackey, Tazok."
"Mommy!" someone shouted excitedly. "So many Rabbits! It's like traveling back to the future!"
Ala closed her eyes tiredly. Now Xzar. Great. Everyone is here. Except Xan, but I am sure he'll show up sooner or later.
"If there is to be a battle, perhaps you will let me go, brother?" she asked. "So that I will die like a warrior with a blade in my hands?"
Sarevok looked at her. Ala turned her head: there were indistinct figures near the exit, and other figures near the other wall: her companions, bound.
"We must talk," Ala whispered. "Sarevok, we must talk."
"This is a dead end," she heard Edwin's voice. "A stalemate. Zhents, Harpers, Thay and Rasheman, bad Bhaalspawn and very bad Bhaalspawn--and no way out. At least, none that I see."
"No," somebody sighed, and Ala recognized Xan. When did he appear? Was she dreaming? "We're all doomed."
Doomed, Ala thought. Doomed. And Sarevok is still standing next to me, and I do not see what he has in his hand...
Then a clear melodic voice said:
"My name is Stai. I think we can handle this."
Chapter 50. Resolution
Stai stepped forward. A light gesture, and Ala felt the invisible bonds releasing her.
"If we are going to fight, we can as well wait another fifteen minutes, can we?" Stai continued. "If you, good men and women, want to defeat Sarevok Anchev, do so. But first, I want to fulfill a promise I gave my best friend, Alianna. She was Ala's mother."
"My mother?" Ala sat on the floor. Sarevok mutely stared at her.
"Sarevok, you want to kill a rival," Stai said. "But I am going to relieve Ala and her sister, Imoen, from their divine essence. Then Ala will stop being a Bhaalspawn. Will this suffice?"
Sarevok stepped forward.
"What are you talking about, woman?"
"I am talking about..." Stai stopped dead. "Wait. Xan, don't you feel it? Don't you see it? Netherese artifacts!"
"Here?" Xan raised an eyebrow. "How?"
"We searched this temple through and through," Sarevok said derisively. "There are none."
"I have a Deck of Many Things," Ala winced: the wretched thing kept sinking into her ribs. "Is it Netherese?"
A tall blonde woman Ala did not know stepped forward.
"We found a Netherese tome of summoning," the woman said. "Here."
"Branwen, shut yer yep!" Montaron hissed, and the hiss became an echo.
Ala slowly stood up. Now she saw them all: figures near the walls, grey and small. Their voices echoed a little across the temple, as if they were high in the mountains.
"But these artifacts..." Stai muttered, "these are enough to turn the world upside-down."
"Stop," Sarevok ordered. "Bring the prisoners to me. Come and put the things to the altar. And if every single one of you raises arms against me in this temple..."
"I understand," Stai raised her hands and turned to the silent Harpers. "These are dangerous artifacts, and these are two innocent girls. I am going to help Imoen and Ala. Will you allow me to do this?"
"I'd like to look," Xzar giggled. "Monty, do you?"
"We will watch," Dermin said slowly. "If there is a way to free the world of the Bhaalspawn taint, the Harpers want to see it."
"Not all of them," Stai shook her head. "But I can help Ala, at least."
"What do you mean, 'help Ala'?" demanded Edwin. "She is a child of Bhaal! Are you going to take her immortal and immoral soul out, or what?"
"Will I... be normal again?" Imoen whispered. Winski, who was holding her ropes, involuntary shuddered.
"Come here, please," Stai said. "All of you."
There was movement. Ala stood up, shakily, and immediately found herself in a circle of faces: Jaheira, Khalid, Imoen, Edwin, Minsc, Jaheira, Xan, Xzar, Montaron, Stai, the blonde, Dermin and his four Harpers, Sarevok's servants: Winski, Semaj, Angelo and a very pale Tamoko...
"Where are the other prisoners?" Ala asked. "Skie Silvershield, Kivan, Eldoth?"
"In a chamber underneath the temple," Tamoko answered without parting her lips. "They will live."
"Everyone will live," Xan sighed. "The question is: how long?"
"In every generation, a dark force and a light force is born," Stai said. "The Bhaalspawn are on the dark side. To counter this, we must bring forth a guardian of light. I will summon a servant of gods. A solar."
"To fight on your side?" Xzar giggled. "No go. Solars never interfere."
"No," Stai shook her head. "To ask her a favor."
"A solar," Sarevok smirked. "I should like to look into his face."
"Her face or his face," Stai shrugged. "Do I begin?"
A whisper ran across the room. Stai took a deep breath, opened the tome of summoning in her hands and started chanting.
"Impressive, isn't it?" a familiar sneering voice said. "(Of course, if you can call this pathetic display of carnival monkey tricks 'impressive'). A pity I did not acquire this tome sooner."
Ala turned around. Edwin was standing next to her with a hand on her shoulder.
"Why did you come back?" she whispered.
"I still owe you a year of service," Edwin answered coolly. "Besides, a Red Wizard never runs when he sees an opportunity."
"Am I an opportunity? Even without my heritage?"
"You?" Edwin raised an eyebrow. "You are an idiot."
Ala opened her mouth, but at the same moment Stai finished her chanting.
"Well?" Sarevok demanded. "Is this all you are capable of?"
"I am here, the child of Seldarine," a loud, clear voice called. "What is it you want from me?"
A woman stood at the entrance. No, Ala corrected herself, not a real woman. A solar was taller, so tall that her head touched the entrance arch, and her skin was light blue.
"Greetings, Solar," Stai bowed. A tome in her hands was slowly turning to dust, and Ala realized they would never be able to summon a celestial being again. "We require your judgement."
"You already know the matter at hand," Stai stepped forward. "This man, Sarevok, is a Bhaalspawn. He is planning a war--a war that will become the prelude to the inevitable Bhaalspawn wars. My friend's daughter, Ala, and her sister, Imoen, do not wish to be a part of this. Yet my mentor, Joneleth Irenicus, who was stripped of his very own link with the Weave most unfairly, would take their place gladly. We wish to make the exchange."
"I see," the Solar's voice rang. "And what of you, Imoen? Will you agree to this exchange?"
"I... yes," Imoen gulped. "Yes."
"And of you, Ala? Would you willingly revoke your heritage?"
"Yes," answered Ala without hesitation.
"Is there a single person who would oppose this? You, Sarevok?"
Sarevok chuckled amusedly. "I would get a strong contender instead of two week girls. I am all for it. We children of Bhaal matter. Other voices are irrelevant."
"Your word is counted," said the Solar seriously. "Now, for the word of Joneleth Irenicus."
"He is not here," Xan whispered.
"Then our talk is done," the light around the Solar started to diminish. "I will go."
"Wait!" Stai almost screamed. "Here, the Deck of Many Things..." she was going through the cards as in high fever, "here..."
She drew a card triumphantly. "Vizier! I drew it! Connect Joneleth Irenicus through the card and see if he is willing!"
Solar shifted, and it seemed to Ala that the Solar's eyes widened. Yes, Ala thought. We mortals are capable of many things.
"The gods will decide," the Solar said at last. "Wait."
The blue light blinked and was gone. The Solar disappeared.
"The card is gone," Stai whispered. "The Deck is gone, too. What is happening?"
Winski approached Sarevok and whispered something.
"What? The Grand Dukes? Sending troops in here? Hunting me? And all because of some papers and letters, and my old diary?" Sarevok laughed. "Winski, you are paranoid. Even if there is truth in your words, this is my temple, and these are my sisters. I will not leave until their fate is sealed."
"And what of our fates?" Jaheira said. "Do we remain and fight Gorion's murderer, or do we let him escape?"
"D-darling, wait," Khalid put an arm around her. "Don't you see that something is happening, something we cannot even comprehend..."
The Solar reappeared. This time she was not alone. Next to her stood a familiar figure, dressed in black and red.
"Cyric!" Ala breathed.
"I would rather you called me 'My Prince'," Cyric's vision called mockingly. "But an adoring tone will do."
"The gods said 'no'," the Solar declared in the same clear, emotionless tone. "But you can affect their judgement."
Stai stared. "How?"
"Joneleth's punishment is just," the Solar continued. "But I can bring you to him, through the card. You shall be able to aid him--or destroy him. The gods will give him a beginning of the spirit: he will begin to feel and remember. You can straighten him--or break him forever."
"And this is forgiveness?" Stai asked bitterly. "After years of punishment--more punishment?"
"This is mercy. You decide."
Stai buried her face in her hands.
"Now, for you, Bhaalspawn," the Solar turned to Ala. "You may continue on your path. Fight your brother, Sarevok, fight your siblings, win the war--and then the power of Bhaal will be yours to command."
"If you want it," Cyric added with a sly smile.
"Or give up the essence in favor of your brother, Sarevok. Surrender your divinity and walk out unharmed."
Ala felt her throat going dry.
"Me--give it to Sarevok?!" she croaked.
Sarevok looked surprised, himself.
"What will happen if I agree?" Ala asked in a small voice. "Will Stai's mentor learn forgiveness? What will happen to Sarevok? How will the Bhaalspawn wars start?"
"Your story ends here. This is what you sacrifice: knowledge, answers, importance. You become a mere mortal, if skilled and courageous."
"And Imoen? What of her?"
"Your sister was never important in the large picture of things. The gods will release her--if you make the right choice."
"But which choice is the right one?" Ala muttered.
"Yours," Edwin whispered, clutching her shoulder. "If you stop being a fool."
Ala closed her eyes.
I can lead armies... and people will die in my name. I, the favored child, a future goddess...
But even in a small group of adventurers, I was never the leader.
I will fight and win, and win, and win again...
But hobgoblins captured me. Gnolls nearly killed me. Little xvarts captured me. Bandits captured me.
I will lord over hearts and minds...
But Xzar and Montaron betrayed me, Jaheira lied to me, and Xan never listened to me...
I can never give my divinity to Sarevok...
But he will kill me and take it anyway...
What shall I do?
Stai, Xan, Imoen, Jaheira, Khalid, Sarevok--everyone was looking at her.
So many people... What are they doing here?
And what am I to do?
Ala took a deep breath.
"I agree," she said. "I give up my Bhaal's essence. Do what you will."
"Excellent!" Cyric clapped his hands. "Now, can I take her divinity or not?"
Sarevok's, Imoen's and Ala's voices merged into one.
"Told you I wanted power," Cyric laughed. "I could not get Joneleth Irenicus as my ally, so I chose a bargain, instead: your power was to be my power. Solar said 'Sarevok', because she hoped you would never give your essence to him."
"You lied to me!" burst Sarevok.
"I think we can work together," Cyric said thoughtfully. "If you do not seek my realm of influence, that is. You know, there was a vacancy for a God of Bad Temper..."
"Enough," the Solar interfered. "Bhaalspawn, you made your choice. For you, and for your sister. Now the act must be carried out... prepare yourselves!"
"Goodbye, Ala," Cyric called out. "It was nice knowing you!"
"Idiot," Edwin groaned nearby.
"Thank you, sis," Imoen whispered. "Thank you ever so."
Ala took a deep breath, and the world went white.
The last thing she felt was a mask slipping off her face.
The roof of the Iron Throne building was small. Too small to contain everyone who was standing in the temple minutes ago.
"Sarevok," said Xan weakly. He was holding Stai in his hands, and a light-blue card was throbbing in the sorceress's palm. "Where is he?"
"And Tamoko, and Angelo, and Semaj, and Winski," Dermin nodded. "It seems the Bhaalspawn asked his new ally to give him a chance elsewhere. Tethyr, perhaps?"
"We must head to the basement, Dermin," Jaheira said quietly. "Now that the reign of the Iron Throne is over, the prisoners will need our aid. And we must send the messengers to the Dukes."
"And we must away to the Zhentil Keep," Xzar sighed. "Too bad. And I so hoped to kill someone!"
"I'll kill ye, wizard, be glad," Montaron grumbled. "Come." He nodded to Branwen: "Are ye comin' or what?"
To everyone's surprise, Branwen smiled, nodded and followed them.
"We must go, too," Xan rose and offered Stai his hand. "I only hope that Stai's master is not truly doomed."
"He is not," Stai smiled weakly. "I know. Goodbye, Ala."
"Goodbye," Ala called. "And thank you. I wanted to ask you about my mother, but..."
Stai shook her head.
A card in Stai's hand flashed. Xan stepped very close to the sorceress, there was another flash, and they were gone.
"Must be love," Imoen sighed dreamily. "Jaheira... can I go with you? Tend to the wounded and everything? That elf, Kivan, was nice."
"Do you want to stay with the Harpers?" Dermin asked seriously.
"I do," Imoen nodded. "If only you take Ala, too..."
"There is no need," Ala said sharply.
"No need?" Dynaheir asked. The woman looked much healthier now, but there was a glint in her eyes Ala did not like. "Thou wishest to travel to Rasheman?"
"No, Dynaheir," Ala smiled. "I think--if Edwin returned for YOU to help me... then maybe I'll travel to Thay for him. Just so his standing among the Red Wizards isn't completely ruined."
"You will travel with me to Thay?" Edwin asked. He sounded surprised and pleased at the same time.
"I will," Ala nodded. "It is a pity that we will never see other Bhaalspawn, though. And Stai, and her mysterious mentor. And Cyric, and Solar... Who won? Who will win?"
"We may never know," said Edwin and took her hand. "You know, you do not look any different now that you are a Bhaalspawn no longer. I wonder what my master will say if I bring home my own rogue?"
"With special skills?" Ala grinned. "Well... good bye, everyone."
She already turned to go, when a huge hand caught her.
"Little Ala will not go now!" Minsc's voice boomed. "We must celebrate! Boo says Ala and Imoen are free of evil, and the city is free of Sarevok and evil mages, so it is time to wash our boots in good wine and dance on the tables, so the earth shakes under our feet!"
"Minsc..." Dynaheir sighed. "Thou art incorrigible..."
"We must s-say goodbyes," Khalid nodded. "Me and Jaheira will be sorry to see you go."
"But we wish you well," Jaheira added. "Gorion's murderer is alive, and it galls me, but the Sword Coast is now free of his taint. I will drink to this tonight."
"And to the end of this crazy crusade," Edwin muttered. "(I cannot believe we are heading to Thay. What shall I do with her there? Then again, I missed a good chess partner. Those monkeys could never appreciate my skills. And Tharchion's treasury looks so inviting...)"
"Best of luck to you, young lady," Dermin inclined his head. "You are a Bhaalspawn no longer. Use your life well."
"Celebrations all around!" Imoen laughed. "Sis, you won't desert me so easily!"
"Then..." Ala smiled. "Then let's drink to new adventures!"